Today’s plan was to make from Amman through to Irbid, Jordan’s second biggest city, some 100 km away. Irbid lies on an elevated plateau in the northwest of the corner of the country, a short 25 km from the Syrian border.
100 km is about a 6 to 7 hour ride by the time you throw in a few coffee breaks, lunch and a long philosophical chat with a lady Arabic belly dancer, who has beckoned to you from behind the drapes of a first floor window, under which you consult your map.
You never know...
I’d intended to exit Amman in the northwest corner of the city, and take Highway 35 running due north direct to Irbid via Jarash, Jarash being a former 2nd century Roman provincial capital, very much on the tourist list in Jordan.
I was curious to see it, but I do find that just looking at 'bricks and stones' bores me rather quickly. I get more speed out of sitting in an ancient church, for example, and doing exacty what thousands have done before me, in exactly the same spot.
I had a leisurely breakfast in Amman, and didn’t actually climb onto the bike until 11 am, there being no great rush for an experienced cyclist like myself.
I set off up the hill from the Cliff Hotel, in the centre of the old town, in a roughly northwest direction, my Amman city map being too small to be of any use.
No problem, I’d just nose my way forward.
After puffing my way up the first hill and winding road, more hills and winding roads just kept coming, for twenty kilometres. Half the time I got off and wheeled the bike, and my schedule was looking decidedly dodgy before I’d even left the city.
Take it from me, there a lot of hills in Amman. The sun beat down, and I was directionless. So much for pride in one's current and previous achievements.
Two hours later I found myself stranded on a freeway cloverleaf at the north eastern edge of the city, and confronted by a big sign pointing to ‘Al Zarqa’. I’d obviously taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Judging by the map, Al Zarqa looked to be a sizable city, some 20 km further on, but more east than I wanted to go. Oh well, add on a few kilometres to Irbid (10, 20 or more?), and so be it. I wasn’t about to double back into the hills of Amman and find out where I’d gone wrong.
A flexible cyclist is a happy cyclist.
When I finally got out onto the highway, and clear space, I switched on the Ipod, put my head down, pumped the pedals, and listened to Leon Russell over and over. Repeating songs ad infitum seems to go with the act of cycling, I find...
Don’t leave me here alone!
Don’t leave me layin’ here,
What would they do in 2,000 years?
I turned off the highway and made my way up a small side street, looking for a well earned Pepsi, and as I pulled up at a small corner store, my front tyre went straight down. Pssssssst!
I hadn’t even dismounted. Right on time…
‘Thank you, Lord, for deflating-eth my tyre now, and not 7 kilometres back up the road on the highway with all the big trucks making my life miserable-eth. Over and out, cheers!’
A positive cyclist is a happy cyclist.
These tyres were looking decidedly dodgy…
I’d bought them in Indonesia almost a year ago when I’d been out in the wilds of Sumatra doing a loop around Riau Province. They were Chinese made, and extremely cheap, but I figured they’d last for a 4 week Indo ride, which they did.
Two months ago, before I set out for the Middle East, I’d meant to replace them with some hi-tech puncture-resistant Space Shuttle brand or other in Thailand, but like the fool I am, I’d balked at the price in the bike shop in Bangkok.
Now I was paying. I’d already had two flat tyres down south of Amman on my way to Palestine.
Rule number 4 for cyclists: Always equip your bicycle with expensive, hi-tech, puncture-resistant tyres.
Oh, well, let’s get a drink…
I walked into the corner store, greeted the large bald man behind the counter (‘A-salam-mel-ai-ee-coom!’) and grabbed a big bottle of water and a can of Pepsi from the refrigerator.
When I plonked them on the counter and began to take out my money, the large man began waving his hands in the air. “No pay, no pay, welcome to Jordan!” he said.
No matter how much I protested, he wouldn’t take the money.
“Shukran, shukran! Thank you, thank you!” I said, and he gave me a wide grin. Hell, what’s with these people? The kindness to strangers in Jordan is almost disturbing.
I stood outside the door in the shade and took a large gulp of Pepsi, letting the carbonated bubbles work their magic on the inside of my dry throat. Before I could take a second draught, the large bald man came scurrying out with a plastic drink box, and motioned for me to sit.
“Shukran, shukran!” I said, and sat down, feeling very much wanted.
Free drinks, free seat. You can’t complain.
In the vacant allotment across the road, a group of about a dozen young boys had gathered for an impending soccer match, and I settled in to watch. Like boys anywhere, they squabbled and gesticulated madly until the teams were sorted and the all-important rules agreed upon, the bigger boys, naturally, holding sway.
“Hello, what is your name? What is your country?” called one of the boys. He was dressed, like the others, in a grubby tee-shirt, short pants and bare feet, and was grinning from ear to ear. All the boys had stopped to look.
“Mr Fee-liks, from Ors-tray-lee-ar!” I shouted back, which got a rousing shout of approval, and a few thumbs up.
I felt even more wanted.
The game commenced.
The gravel-dry pitch lurched dangerously down towards the right, and the goals at each end, perhaps 30 metres apart, were marked by old truck tyres. This was no big stadium match, but the intensity after kick-off was approaching a Barcelona v Real Madrid El Classico, complete with an international audience of, in this case, one.
I shouted encouragement. This boy’s business, like boy’s business the world over, was serious stuff.
Clouds of dust swirled into the air, and pairs of crazy feet skidded to and fro in singular pursuit of the ball, and glory. 1-0 to the team kicking uphill to the left.
I cheered and clapped. The boys waved back.
This suburb was no doubt at the lower economic end of Zarqa, and there wasn’t a green thing to be seen. The sandstone coloured brick houses, two and three story square boxes split by tight lanes, were roughly hewn and coated in yellow dust. Graffiti ran along the walls. Most of it was in Arabic, but some I recognised.
‘Free Palestine!’ and ‘We will return!’ were painted in large black Arabic letters across the bricks at one end of the yard, as was the ubiquitous ‘LOVE’, in English, under which was drawn an arrowed heart, bordered by a map of Palestine.
One had to assume this was a Palestinian area.
Over by the down pipes beside one of the lanes, I also spotted the word ‘Drogpa’, which I assumed referred to the renowned Ivory Coast striker who plays for Chelsea, one of the top English Premier League clubs. Football is never far from the popular mind in Jordan.
Gusts of hot wind pushed plastic bags down the road, and I sucked on my drink.
This store was busy.
Kids, large and small, wandered in at short intervals, alone and in small groups, always surprised at the odd man sitting on the plastic box beside the door. They stopped a metre or two away, smiling shyly, not quite sure how to proceed, but drawn in by the curiosity that had appeared out of nowhere onto home turf.
“Ah-salam-mee-lie-ee-cum!” I would say, which would magically break the ice.
We would shake hands and exchange names, and after working out that I was from Australia, and that I was riding a bicycle around Jordan, they went away laughing and talking excitedly amongst themselves, laden with ice creams, sweets and a most strange and unexpected encounter at the corner shop.
These kids were gems.
I finished the Pepsi and moved on to the water.
“Why do Western governments support Israel, Felix?” asked Ahmed. Ahmed was about 40, spoke good English, and had come to sit beside me on his own plastic box, drinking a can of orange Punch, a popular local brand.
He was a lieutenant in the Jordanian army, and this part of Zarqa, he told me, was entirely Palestinian. His own family had fled from Palestine in 1948, escaping what was the beginning of a long and brutal Israeli land-grab that continues through to today. They had settled in Jordan, where he was born, and like two million other refugees, had started from scratch, re-building communities where they could.
That’s if you believed the stories, of course, and the stories I was hearing all over Jordan were common to all Palestinians, and invariably consistent.
“That’s a big question, Ahmed,” I replied, grasping for something politic to say. I felt awkward, and sitting there on my box, exposed.
“Can’t the West see what the Israelis are doing to us?” he went on.
“I don’t really know, Ahmed,” I said, looking down at the ground, trying to gather my thoughts.
Since I'd been in Jordan, the Palestinians had gotten under my skin, and I really didn't want to just real off the usual platitudes.
As a Westerner, I already felt uneasy about the politics, and Dumbo the Elephant could see that they were at the pointy end of a very big political stick. As a race of people they'd had been cut adrift, by and large, by the rest of the world community, the Arab states included. No matter where you looked, the 'politics of Palestine' were so murky and convoluted that you didn't hold out much hope.
In talking to the Palestinians, you couldn't help but note a deep and real suffering, and it demanded respect. In the face of all that I'd seen, the smooth hand of easy platitudes would be an insult.
“I guess it’s historical as much as political, and I guess the media doesn’t help,” I said. “Arabs across the board, and in particular, Palestinians, don’t exactly get a good showing in the West.”
Ahmed nodded. “Do Westerners think we are terrorists?” he asked. “Or are we just barbarians?” There was a playful humour in the question, but, I also felt, an underlying seriousness, and I turned to look at him. Perhaps, I wondered, deep inside the dark cave of my root programming, I believed that.
One of my favourite cartoon characters is Hassan, the mad, scimitar welding, camel riding Arab, arch foe of Daffy Duck. He is a bearded, barbarous, towel-headed chap, and in the days before we knew the word, total jihad.
The late, great Chuck Jones, arguably the father of modern animation, drew both characters for Warner Brothers in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
In the Warner cartoon, Hassan is the keeper of Ali Baba’s treasure, a rather large stash of stolen gold and jewels sequestered deep inside a secret cave. A magic stone guards the cave, and only the right words will dislodge it.
Daffy, being a desperately egotistical chap, is trying to steal the treasure.
The subtext of the cartoon, of course, is that the treasure is ‘stolen goods’ anyway, so you can forgive Daffy this acquisitive foible, nobody being totally clean in this war (as Ed Hoffman, head of the CIA’s Middle East Division, played by Russel Crowe, reminds us in the recent Hollywood film ‘Body of Lies’.).
After much sweaty endeavour, Daffy finally gets into the cave, and starts heaving the loot out into the open, ready for escape. Hassan appears with sword in hand, and screams, ‘Hassan chop!’ and you must admit, Hassan bears all the hallmarks of a terrorist.
Now, whether Hassan is actually a Palestinian, Syrian, Saudi, Libyan, Kuwati, or even a Bedouin, was a no-issue finer point lost on my schoolboy mind.
Hell, these Arabs were barbarians, and the Zionists were probably right to kill them!
“It’s all mine!” shouts Daffy, spread-eagled atop the treasure.
“Hassan chop!” screams Hassan again, waving his sword around, and on it goes.
You had to laugh.
There’s no question in my mind that there’s a little bit of Daffy Duck in us all, the Zionists included, and I did wonder, sitting there on my box, just how much Daffy has driven Western foreign policy over the last 60 years.
It was a disturbing thought.
It also struck me that Daffy Duck would have been an incisive way for the clergy to teach young Catholic schoolboys about the insideous, self-serving workings of the devilish mind, viz.;
Scene: Whitefriars College in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne, sometime in the 1970s.
The priest strides into the classroom to begin ‘religious instruction’. “Here,” he announces boldly, to the bored class of 40 schoolboys, “is a picture of the devil!”
He holds up a full colour photo of Daffy Duck.
My fuckin’ mind would have collapsed.
“Well, Ahmed, when I was a young I was taught that the Jews were good, and the Arabs were bad,” I said. “And Palestinians are Arabs, therefore…” My voice trailed off. After all that mental activity, I couldn’t think of anything more intelligent to say.
Ahmed looked up, and smiled a sad smile. I guess I'd just told him what he already knew. He stood up and patted me on the shoulder. "I get you another drink, Felix, you look like needing one," he said, laughing. "Punch or Pepsi?"
"Punch," I said, and was left alone for a few minutes to contemplate my sins.
I must say, that one of the funny things I've noted about sins, is that once drawn out, they are invariably wrapped in shame.
We were still sitting at the shop come 4 o’clock.
The soccer game had finished (I’d lost track of the score), and Ahmed got a call from his wife. “She wondering where I am,” he said. I made a gesture of What can you do?.
“Same thing in the West, Ahmed,” I said, and he laughed.
“I think it too late for you cycle to Irbid today, Felix,” he said “but you can stay at the Gaza Hotel. It just up the hill, and cheap.”
“I think I might do that,” I said. It had been an interesting day, and I really didn’t need any more stimulation.
“Thank you for talking, Felix, and welcome to Jordan,” he said, as we shook hands and parted. “Don’t forget us.”
“My pleasure, and I won’t, ah-salam,” I replied, and stood watching him walk across the vacant lot, disappearing into one of the alleyways between the houses, never, I guessed, to be seen again.
I said my goodbyes to the large bald man in the shop, and wheeled the bike up the hill, past the mosque, and checked into the hotel.
After I fixed my tyre, I headed down to the souk for some food. An hour later I was back in my room, and I switched on the tube.
Al Jazeera was doing a piece on illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, and some Palestinian boys were throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in protest. The soldiers were grappling with a few boys, and then shoving them head first into the dark interior of the waiting armoured vans, never, I guessed, to be seen again.
Tomorrow I’d head to Irbid.