20 October 2004
Running due north of the Dead Sea, past the Jesus baptismal site, almost all the way up to the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights is the Jordan Valley Highway. Nearly 70 miles long, it takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to make this pleasant drive.
Unlike the rest of the land around here, the Jordan Valley is pretty green. How green is my valley? Very. The combination of latitude and being the lowest point on earth, the climate down there is tropical. Consequently it is a great place to grow bananas. I never associated bananas with the Middle East, but on both sides of the river, one can see banana trees everywhere. Banana trees and date palms. The big banana leaves and long palm fronds look quite pretty, especially in contrast to the barren desert mountains rising up on either side. There isn’t a disfiguring factory to be seen, but rather low-rising Quonset hut greenhouses made of dusty sheet plastic that farmers use to try to grow things that require just the little push that nature can’t give on its own.
In addition to the flora, there is some interesting fauna in the Jordan Valley. Camels make great use of the highway. To warn the driver, there are “Camel X-Ing” signs posted along the route. Camels are cute creatures. They mosey on down the road, flapping their gums, taking everything in with their big dark eyes. A car speeding by them or a sudden explosion across the river on the West Bank doesn’t seem to faze them. They just keep on shufflin’ and flappin’, bobbin’ their heads slowly as they go.
You see an occasional donkey along the highway. They are most always skinny and worn looking. Often times I’ve seen them with a rope tied around one back leg and one front leg. Their owner does this so he can leave them unattended without fear of them running away. A sorrier sight is hard to find than a bound up donkey making his way along the valley.
Among the animals, the goat reigns supreme. There are so many of them, always traveling in little dirty shaggy herds. They respond to the voice of their shepherd, usually a dark, skinny guy dressed in filthy linen. While I have no hard data to confirm this observation, I do believe there are more goats than people in Jordan. Certainly there are more goats than people in the Jordan Valley.
One passes through a few little towns along this road. These are rather depressing looking villages made up of drab two-story concrete-with-exposed-rebar buildings and populated by old, beaten pick-up trucks and weathered billboards advertising Pepsi and mobile phones. (Everyone in Jordan, even the most down and out Bedouin, has a mobile phone.) The locals are poor and religious. Most all of the women wear the hijab (head scarf) and many of the men wear long dishdashas (man dresses) and carry prayer beads in their hands. There are short-haired little kids on simple bicycles and swarthy, denim-wearing teenagers who gawk at the sight of a passing Western female motorist. The mosque, with its four loudspeakers protruding from the minaret, is the prominent feature of Main Street. Five times a day they call the faithful to prayer. That’s about the only time the streets are empty. The rest of the time, the towns are filled with people just hanging out. Arabs like to hang out, kind of like the folks in Baltimore’s west side or in uptown Manhattan’s Washington Heights who sit on their stoops all day, checking people out, fighting, laughing, and gossiping. The streets of these Arab villages are narrow and people freely move back and fourth between them while carrying on conversations. Passing automobiles are regarded as mere nuisances, ignored or waved away like flies. The honking of a horn only seems to draw more people into the street.
Besides the towns, travel is slowed down along the Jordan Valley Highway by a series of army checkpoints one must go through. Because the road is a stone’s throw from the West Bank and Israel, they have to be careful. The soldiers who draw this duty usually look bored out of their minds. They have little corrugated aluminum shelters they can stand under to escape the glaring sun. There is always one guy in a brown uniform and ball cap standing with a hand-held STOP sign in the middle of the road. The rest of his similarly clad squad are either lounging in the shade or drowsily slouching over their Humvee-mounted machine guns, resting their arms and chin on the weapon’s stock or feed tray. Their appearance is sometimes a bit slovenly and their demeanor is often lackadaisical. Quite a difference from their Israeli counterparts just a few hundred meters away. “Where are you from?” they ask as I roll down my window. “America,” I reply. “Very good,” they say with a raise of their hand, “Welcome to Jordan.” The fact that I’m already in Jordan doesn’t matter. “Welcome to Jordan,” is the standard line. (It is worth noting that in five trips to Israel, no official there has ever said, “Welcome” to me.)
At the northern end of the Jordan Valley, just off the road to the right, are the ruins of the ancient town of Pella. From Pella, you can see old Beit Shean on the Israeli side of the river. Both of these cities were part of the chain of Roman towns known as the Decapolis. Both are “Jesus Slept Here” locations. The history of both places goes way back before Christ and the Romans, though. In Pella, where I was a couple of days ago, I stood in the ruins of a Canaanite temple dedicated to the god, Baal. It was old Joshua who knocked that building down.
Unlike the Nile, the Tigris, or the Euphrates, the Jordan is a very modest river. It’s more of a stream actually. Before the creation of the modern states of Israel and Jordan, I’m sure people walked without a care back and forth across little footbridges. But one can’t walk from Pella to Beit Shean anymore. Jordanian customs and immigration, a secure bus ride over the border, and Israeli customs and immigration, make it a two hour affair to span a river maybe 20 feet wide.
Thankfully it was Pella I wanted to see that day, not Beit Shean. After surveying a lot of old stuff, I began my journey back to Amman at sunset. It’s Ramadan now, and hungry Muslims who’ve been fasting all day head for home so they can stuff their faces. In the towns, the streets were empty. At the checkpoints, even the guy who normally stands there with the STOP sign was seated cross-legged on the side of the road with his buddies, chowing down on their “iftar” meal of bread, rice, lamb, and vegetables. I slowed down anyway and rolled down my window, turning down Bruce Springsteen’s “Promised Land” as I did so. The guys wiped their faces with their sleeves and motioned for me to join them. “No thank you my friend!” I shouted to them in Arabic. It was getting dark and I didn’t want to run into any camel, goat herd, or shackled donkey that might wander into my path. Someday I hope to look over Jordan and see a band of angels coming to carry me home. Just not anytime soon.