Umm Qais

August 3, 2008

Yesterday, Jacqui took her class on a field trip up north to Umm Qais to see the ruins of Gadara (pretty much the only thing to be found in Umm Qais). None of them, despite many having lived their entire lives in Jordan, had ever been there before. A funny thing about Jordanians is that they live in a country with multitudes of ruins, parks, and gorgeous landscapes, but never go to see them (I guess that’s not actually so surprising–most New Yorkers never bother to visit their city’s landmarks). Jacqui wanted to take me along, but for reasons involving personal politics between her and her boss (who apparently decided that I was a “security concern”), I wasn’t allowed to come on the bus with them.

Fortunately for me, Waleed (whose name I’ve apparently been mis-transliterating as “Walid”) and Hilda wanted to come to Umm Qais as well, and we arranged for them to take me along. They had gone to the Dead Sea on Friday, and Waleed had camped out there, so I had to wait for him to get back to Amman, pick up Hilda and come by the apartment.

Just before leaving, I pocketed my passport on a whim, thinking I might need it for something (it being my only official form of identification) but not knowing what. It turned out to be a good decision, since where we were headed was near the Israeli border, and peppered with army checkpoints. Waleed has Kuwaiti license plates on his car, and on the way up, somewhere near Irbid we were stopped and the car searched. They didn’t ask for my ID then, but they would later, on the way back. Somewhere between Amman and Jerash, Hilda pointed out to me a Palestinian refugee camp.

Jacqui’s bus had left at ten, and I was expecting to be about an hour behind them, but Waleed and Hilda, laid-back as ever, didn’t show up until about 12:30, and it was nearly 3:00 when we arrived at Umm Qais, by which time Jacqui and her class were getting ready to leave (Jacqui had wanted to stay longer, but her students were complaining about the heat). I just had a moment to say hello to Jacqui’s class and to her friend and colleague Shadi, before they were gone and Hilda, Waleed and I were left on our own.

There is a restaurant at the ruins at Umm Qais called Cafe Romero; it’s a gorgeous half-indoor half-outdoor cafe built right into the ancient Roman architecture. We stopped there, but none of us were terribly hungry, so we had a drink and some watermelon. If you ever go to Umm Qais, you must stop at Cafe Romero if only to use the restrooms–hands down the nicest public restroom I have ever seen, and the only one I’d ever call “beautiful.”

The ruins at Umm Qais are hauntingly beautiful in that ancient way. It occurred to me when we arrived there that they were the oldest buildings I had ever seen, by a long shot. I wondered why I was not gaping in awe at such magnificence, until I realized that I had been gaping in awe for two straight days and was perhaps gaped out–or rather, the ruins were no more new and exciting to me than anything else I had seen in Jordan.

Umm Qais lies in the heights overlooking the Yarmouk river valley; looking north from the patio of Cafe Romero, one can make out in the distance Lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights. The three of us didn’t stay long, on account of the heat, just long enough to take a few pictures and look around. On our way back to Waleed’s jeep, we stopped to chat (or rather, they stopped to chat, since we’re talking about a chat in Arabic) with two local boys who were selling cold drinks, coffee, tea, and cactus fruit near the parking lot. Waleed urged me to try the cactus fruit, which he said reminded him of his childhood in Egypt; it tasted sort of like a cross between a pear and a honeydew melon, very succulent but riddled with seeds too dense to chew but too numerous to spit out (one simply swallows them). We sat a while, and I listened with the fascination of ignorance as the two youths and the two artists shot the shit. Waleed asked me if I wanted to go swimming; I said “sure, why not?”

Next thing I knew, we were packing back into the car, this time with one of the boys sharing the back seat with me. I wondered if we were giving him a ride somewhere, but quickly realized that I had it backwards; he was to be our guide to wherever the hell we were going.

We drove a while–I had no idea to what or where–and eventually came to a checkpoint. The soldiers were stone-faced in greeting us, but lightened up considerably when Waleed revealed that he was Egyptian and not in fact Kuwaiti (apparently Jordanians take more kindly to Egyptians than to those suspicious “gulfis”). They checked all of our IDs except the boy’s, who didn’t have one, and for whom, as a local, an explanation sufficed. We went on and came to another checkpoint; this time Waleed and Hilda spent a long time in what seemed like a polite argument with the soldiers. Hilda explained to me that we were very close to the Israeli border, and that most people would not be allowed to go where we were going, but that they had let us go after Hilda and Waleed explained that we were artists. Talk about smooth talking.

Our first stop was no swimming hole, in fact, but a cliff overlooking the Yarmouk river valley. Here I got to see, up close, the river bordering Jordan and Israel, with the Golan Heights just across from me, and just beyond them to the right, Lake Tiberias. Somewhere in the distance was Lebanon, and in the other distance, Syria. So this was what everyone was fighting about.

Looking out at this scene, I recalled a song we had sung in the Young Judea camp I had attended for two pre-adolescent summers:

Shiri li, Kinneret, shir mizmor yasham
Shiri li, Kinneret, shir li Ha Golan.

I don’t recall when the song was written, but I’d be willing to bet that it was not before 1967.

I took pictures there, among the many pictures I took yesterday, but I just realized that I don’t have the right cord to plug my camera into my computer, so you’re going to have to wait until I get one for pictures. In the meantime, here’s one from Hilda’s camera:

On the border

We left the cliff and drove on through more checkpoints to stop at a small town whose name I don’t remember. The air smelled of flatulence, indicating the presence of sulfur springs. This was the “swimming” Waleed had mentioned earlier, but by this point I wasn’t interested. We walked down a staircase past a small group of men, and I followed Hilda through an archway before quickly realizing that I had just walked into a section of the complex that was restricted to women. I apologized to the two muhajabaat sitting there and backed out, to find that Waleed and our guide had disappeared, and that I was left alone with the group of strange men. They addressed me, and I, in halting Arabic, apologized for my faux pas and explained that I was American. One of the men said (I think) that he was Syrian, and for a moment I wondered if I was in trouble. They began to walk up the staircase back to where our car was parked, and indicated for me to follow them. I walked with them, and they kept talking to me. One of them mentioned Bush, and I answered “Bush, hua shaitan!” I knew that was a safe answer, besides which it’s hardly a lie. He went on to extol Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and again to curse Bush I and Bush II–so n.b. to any Bush fans who may read this: if you go to Jordan, keep it to yourself. One of the men said to me: “you’re afraid; why?” I answered in Arablish (more “-lish” than “Arab”) that I wasn’t afraid, just worried because I couldn’t find my friend. They could tell that was a lie, so one of them said to me that they were in the Jordanian army and showed me his Army ID card with a picture of him in uniform. I relaxed a little. They asked me what I was doing in Jordan, and I said that I had come to teach English and learn Arabic, which they thought was great. They had somewhere else to be, apparently, so they said goodbye and left. Hilda emerged from the ladies’ room and told me that she didn’t like this place and was getting suspicious of our guide’s intentions. She asked me where Waleed was and I said I didn’t know. She tried to call him but her phone got no service. We were just about to get really worried when Waleed and our young friend emerged around a corner, Waleed soaking wet. He said the water was too hot for him, but I should try it. I said no thank you but that I needed to use the bathroom. Our guide (I never caught the kid’s name) led me back where they had come from to a courtyard where a group of men were congregated and pointed me in the direction of the most decrepit restroom I had ever seen–and I’ve seen some pretty bad ones. As I left, a young boy said hello to me, and I answered. I couldn’t understand anything he said for the thickness of his accent, so when he said “ahlan wa sahlan,” I had to stare at him dumbly until someone said “welcome.”

Those were some real “dumb American” moments.

We left the sulfur springs and drove on. At one point we went through six checkpoints in the span of what could have been as many city blocks. Understandably so, for the road we were driving on ran parallel to the valley separating Jordan and Israel. On the heights across the valley, I could see Israeli watchtowers. Being so close to the border, and to so many armed men, I was a bit wary. Not of the Jordanian soldiers, who were friendly and laid-back and who I knew wouldn’t lay a hand on me, but of the Israeli snipers and artillery that I knew were hidden up in the mountains across the border (Israel’s carte blanche from the U.S. means that they have little compunction when it comes to accidentally killing an American or two). What if they had seen us taking pictures and gotten suspicious? I wasn’t really afraid, since Israel and Jordan have been at peace for years now, and the scenario was a little farfetched, but still, you never know.

We drove our little friend back to Umm Qais and set off back to Amman. By this time, I was flat-out exhausted from several nights’ poor sleep, and was somewhat skeptical of the plans that we apparently had for the evening to go out drinking with Jacqui and some former dean at NYIT. I also hadn’t eaten much.

For such a small country, Jordan is hard to get around. You ask directions, follow them, see a sign, follow it, and have to ask directions again. By the time we stopped to eat in Irbid, it was dark. We picked up falafel sandwiches at a little hole in the wall, and I was worried that the vegetables would make me sick (you know, from the water), but when I expressed this concern to Hilda, she said not to worry about it, so I didn’t, and I haven’t gotten sick yet. Inshallah I won’t get sick at all. The sandwich was delicious, incidentally.

I dozed off on the way back to Amman, and by the time we reached Jacqui’s, it was around 11. Apparently we had gotten lost several times. We ditched the plan to meet Jacqui at whatever hangout she was hanging out in, since we were all tired and wanted to go to bed. Waleed found his bed here too uncomfortable, so he would spend the night at a motel nearby.

I came upstairs, fell into bed and slept twelve hours.


One Response to “Umm Qais”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    What a great adventure. I can’t wait to see more photos, this one is great.

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