Life in the Jordan Valley

For the last two weeks, I’ve been living with a family in a rural part of the Jordan Valley.  Rural, of course, is relative.  We are 2 mini-busses from Amman, but that’s still only about 1.5 hours travel time at the most.  Jordan is a small country and crowded, so rural doesn’t look like what Americans expect.  Basically, where I live was once a small, coherent settlement of two main tribes separated by large fields.  However, the poor tribe was moved by the government from their land in order to build a large new mosque.  They were relocated to the upper hills of my village.  That, plus constantly increasing population, slow immigration from Palestine, and migrant workers means my village is now part of the long stretch of humanity clinging to the borders of the arable Jordan River’s East Bank.  The borders between villages now seem like random lines on a map—the residential areas have spread into each other like suburbs in the U.S.

My village is about 200 m below sea level (and still above the level of the Dead Sea, which is shrinking by about 1m/year and is currently about 408 m below), and we face directly west to Palestine/Israel.  We have beautiful sunsets thanks to the dense air, but it is muggy and stagnant this low.  It’s also hot.  I believe most of this week it’s 40 deg Celsius, which is about 104 Fahrenheit.  Amman is at an altitude of 1000m above sea level, so it tends to be cooler during the summer, right now it’s in the low 90s.  When I take the bus from Amman, there is a point where we drop over the edge of the valley (keep in mind, the Jordan Valley is the northern tip of the Great Rift, so there is a pretty steep drop off—the continent is being pulled apart here—like a wide and shallower Grand Canyon sometimes) and you can feel the heat press in on you like a stagnant blanket.  It feels equally refreshing on the return trip to ascend that drop and suddenly feel cool breezes on your face.  My timing was not good, no one spends the summer in the Valley (called the Ghor here), they spend winter here, which is mild and nice compared to the chill of Amman.  When I tell people in Amman that I’m going to the Ghor, they look horrified and beg me to stay in Amman!  🙂

I can’t begin to imagine how many people live here, there are houses crowded into nooks and crannies.  Moreover, not only has population increased through natural growth (they love the kids here) but also through immigration.  Most of the commercial farms (and many of the family farms) use cheap Egyptian laborers who live in shacks in the fields.  Also, a smattering of wealthy Amman residents have purchased or built vacation properties down here.  The program I’m studying didn’t compile population statistics, but they did provide data that the local unemployment rate is 78%!  Many of the families are supported (as is the one I live with) by a son (or rarely a daughter) in the Army, though some work as farm labor (or profit from farm holdings), or even breed cattle (I haven’t seen any of this, but that’s what the people here tell me).

Being back is great, other than the heat.  My family got an air conditioner (which is really more like a humidifier—a fan pulls air through a wet sponge to cool it) which is a life-saver.  Even so, most afternoons are only good for sleeping or sitting quietly.  Just the heat of my laptop becomes too much for my poor body to support.  It’s also hard to eat, so we tend to drink a lot of water and sugary Tang-like juices.  Meals are finished with cold melon, usually water melon, which is incredibly refreshing.  We generally eat a breakfast of bread, oil and spices, maybe eggs or hummous or some other protein, and one of my granola bars (the kids love ‘em) around 9 am.  I try to work while my hostess cleans and the kids run around like crazy.  As the day heats up, we get lazier and spend more time in front of the TV and A/C napping or (me) cross-stitching.  Lunch is the big meal, around 2 or 3.  It’s usually meat and sauce over rice and bread, salad veggies (sliced tomatoes and cucumbers most commonly) and maybe yoghurt.  This is what we follow with melon and occasionally ice cream if the local store has any.  The house is so hot that by 6pm we lounge on the porch to get the evening cooling breezes.  We eat a dinner meal after sunset, usually around 9pm.  This is usually smaller and often fried potatoes, squash, eggplant, etc.  Then we collapse on thin mattresses on the roof to sleep.  It is lovely to sleep on the roof in spite of the mosquitoes (nothing compared to Minnesota), but the sun comes up early and by 6:30 I am usually awake and heading for a shady spot.  It’s actually good for me as I do tend to be a morning person and I can get some work done before the kids get up and bug me.

The kids have gotten bigger, the baby is now a full-fledged toddler, but still adores me.  The mom, Fatima, is pregnant with her fifth, she’s 32.  I got to meet her whole family last week.  Her brother came back from Army service in Afghanistan (where he got a nice certificate from the US Army which we all had to inspect) and her parents were heading to Saudi Arabia for a mini-pilgrimage called the Omrah the next day.  It was a big party event with everyone coming in and out.  Lots of fun but incredibly hot!  Fatima is one of 3 girls and 10 boys.  All but one of the sons is married and they all live in the same complex as their parents, like extra little apartments/houses build one on top of the other in a maze of connecting walls and halls.  Fatima’s mother voiced the common feeling that “boys are better than girls” because your sons stay around you and take care of you while your daughters marry and leave you.  Generally they think my family is nuts to have only had one kid, and the fact that I live far from my mom is equally perplexing for them.

I have to say, I enjoy the time I spend here with them all, but I also really value my alone time and enjoy getting back to Amman where I can work in solitude!

The other big difference is the pace of life here in the village.  In Amman, many people follow a more western pace, with 8-5 workdays and such.  Here, however, we are still moving at the pace of rural life.  Which means up early to work before the heat of the day, lots of rest during the day, naps, etc., and the evenings filled with visits—either the neighbors come to us or we go to them!  It’s good for me, because I am using my Arabic and able to meet lots of people to learn about their water consumption.  It’s not so good for productivity because I can’t just sit at my computer for more than a couple of hours.  The kids and the adults get antsy if I’m not hanging out with them.

I guess that’s all I wanted to say about the valley and the family right now.  All is well.

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The Last Drop

A very good friend of mine here in Jordan organized this incredible video about water in Jordan by 10th grade girls.

THE LAST DROP

It was an amazing project to watch, and it is incredible to think about all the talented and well-meaning people there are out there making a difference!

Makes me feel like there’s hope for real change.