Sunday, 27 February 2011

Christmas Chocolate

A student went around the living room one evening offering everyone something out of a box. Several people accepted a piece, took a bite, and then looking like they’d expected lamb and gotten overcooked mutton fat. I asked the student what was in the box, and she told me that it was special fancy chocolate her brother in Ottawa had sent to their family in Saudi Arabia.

I read “Life Brand Dark Chocolate Cranberry Pistachio Bark,” on the lid and smiled.

“Do you know it?” The student asked me. “It’s supposed to be a very good brand, isn’t it?”

“It’s popular,” I said, trying not to laugh, and accepted a piece. It was strong and bitter and sweet, and the only chocolate I’ve had in a year and a half that tasted like chocolate used to.

Buying half-price drugstore holiday chocolate in the aftermath of Christmas was one of my favourite traditions as an adult in Canada, a bit of sweetness after the long shifts at work, bitter fights, bad behaviour, and drunkenness of a holiday I didn’t believe in and would rather have skipped.

I don’t think I would have had the gall to send it to relatives overseas and tell them it was a Canadian specialty, but in truth it is.

Saturday, 26 February 2011


A windstorm comes out of the desert, bending the few scrawny pine trees parallel to the ground and howling around buildings. One whole end of the college is open to the outside, and the wind rushes in and down corridors, rattling windows and sucking at doors. If doors are left open, and people never seem to learn to close them, they will slam them so hard that the handles fall off, sometimes hard enough that the brittle wood shatters. The narrow stone stairwells become blocked for several stories with lemming-like students, every one in turn trying to force the handle-less door open, finally deciding to double back and find a different route to their lecture, and having to shove their way through a mass of other students all going through the same process. 

The wind carries dust and grit from the desert, and pelts it against everything in reach. It drums against the windows, sands the paint off cars, and coats the cabbages and radishes in the farm plot next door with a layer of sandy brown. The wind buffets struggling pedestrians, tearing at their billowing abayas and thobes and scarves. Everyone who doesn’t wear niqab shields their face from the dust with a scarf or a book.

After a few days of howling wind and blowing sand, I wake up in the night to the sound of raindrops tapping on the windows, and rushing water. It is raining hard somewhere, and torrents of muddy water come gushing out of the desert and into the wadi, water turned the colour of chocolate milk by the soil it carries from far away. I listen to the little river behind the school roaring, the wind howling, and the pine branches rustling, and I remember the crashing waves, and the wind in fir trees, and the unearthly silence of falling snow in my former home, far away across oceans and continents, and I fall back asleep.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Photos from Jerash

I don't know what to write about, so let's have some photos. I must have several hundred just of Jerash, but these are some of my favourites.

I visited the excavated Roman ruins at Jerash several times last year, although we only actually got past the front gate once.

Here's Hadrian's Gate at the entrance to the site, built for the visit of the emperor Hadrian in 130 AD.

Some of the artifacts that have been discovered. The site has been occupied for around five thousand years; it was conquered by Rome in 63 BC, and mostly destroyed by earthquake in 749 AD. The monuments visible have all been dug up and reconstructed; there is scaffolding and a pile of stone blocks behind Hadrian's Gate, as it is still being assembled.

Most employees at historic sites don't mind having their pictures taken.

A man selling trinkets at the entrance to the South Theatre.

This 'gladiator' seemed to be having a good time striking fierce poses with his sword for the pretty foreign students.

The Hippodrome has mock Roman military demonstrations, chariot races, half-nude middle-aged Arab guys very earnestly trying to sword fight to the death, etc.

It's a big site. The air here is always more or less hazy, but you can (hopefully) see that the Cardo (north-oriented paved road bordered by pillars) winds its way all the way up the hill to the left. I was delighted the one time I was able to walk all the way through it, although I was the only one who did.

The little souvenir souq that the Turkish study groups often never leave. I just don't see the interest in it, but then I dislike shopping and knick-knacks in general. To each their own.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Rain at Last

Jordan is mostly a very dry place. It doesn't have any major bodies of water to draw from, so it mostly depends on rainfall, which isn't that plentiful in a country that's mostly desert. What about the Jordan River? I've seen it a number of times, and from the hills it's hard to tell that it is a river, there's so little water in it.

Back in November, the Jordanian government called for people to fast for three days and then gather all over the country to pray salaat al-istisqa, the prayer for rain. There were posters everywhere, and a group prayer was held in the paved yard of my college. The rain did come, I don't recall exctly when, but shortly after the prayer. Some people will say that it was going to rain eventually anyways and praying has no effect, but personally I believe that Allah heard our prayers, forgave us, and send the rain.

Rain in the desert after nearly a year of dust and dryness is a miraculous thing to witness. The water has nowhere to go, so streets and many houses flood; the whole town is shut down and classes are cancelled, very much like the effect a few inches of snow has in a certain pathetically and chronically unprepared city in Canada.

Despite the problems it causes, children stand rapt and watch the raindrops fall, and adults rejoice. I was standing under the eaves of the masjid, sheltering from the rain while waiting for it to open, and a woman joined me. She remarked happily about how lovely the weather was, and I thought for a moment that she was joking. In Canada, pouring down rain is ordinary and dreary, but here it's a miracle that only happens a few times a year.

When it finally rains, it really rains. Water comes rushing down out of the higher desert and fills the wadis that were formally used as footpaths, playgrounds, and garbage disposal with torrents of chocolately brown water. It happens very suddenly, and I wonder every year if anyone got caught in the wadi when the water came crashing down.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Tombs of the Sahaba

The tomb of one of the many Sahaba who died in Jordan during the Amwaas plague outbreak in the year 18 after the Hijrah (639-640 AD). Unfortunately, I have visited a lot of their tombs and can't remember who this one belonged to. All I can make out for sure from the photo is that he was an Ansari (one of the Muslims of Medinah who helped the Muslims from Mecca after their migration to Medinah).

An estimated 25, 000 people died in the plague outbreak, including many of the Sahaba who had liberated balad ash-shams from Roman rule (or conquered it, depending on your perspective). Many people don't know that these Sahaba died of plague, and not in battle.

This tomb is not very fancy, as they go, but most of the ones I have seen are huge affairs of polished marble, golden cages, and embroidered velvet. The bravery, faith, and sacrifices of these men who died so far from home should be remembered, but erecting shrines to them seems like too much to me. It's not in keeping with the Islamic burial practices, in which the corpse is wrapped in a plain white sheet and quickly buried in the ground, to absorb back into the earth from which it was made.

I believe this was the masjid in which the tomb above was located although it may have been a different masjid holding the tombs of other Sahaba. I took the pictures last spring, and only recently had them developed.

I found it lovely, simple, and peaceful, down in the Jordan valley where things are actually green some of the time, although far richer than most of this dusty land.

It bothers me that so much is spent to glorify men dead nearly a millenia and a half, when most people here work so hard and live in poverty and difficult conditions, with little hope of anything better.