30 April 2004
The sun was high above us in a cloudless blue sky. To our backs, across the plain and up into the arid mountains, was Amman. The capital of the Hashemite Kingdom is a peaceful city. That peace was put in jeopardy recently by a group of Al-Qaeda operatives intent on detonating massive chemical bombs at strategic targets throughout town. One of their targets was the U.S. embassy. It has been reported that had they been successful, as many as 80,000 people would have been killed. Most likely I would have been one of them.
Four hundred miles east of Amman, along Iraqi Highway 10, is the historically unruly city of Fallujah, currently under siege by the United States Marine Corps. Fifty miles east of Fallujah is Baghdad, a city of checkpoints and date palms, improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers. It is currently under the guard of the American First Cavalry Division.
Out in front of us, just beyond the small wilderness that owes its green color to the nearby river, was Jericho. In the heart of Palestine, this is an area currently under guard/siege by the Israeli Defense Forces. “Cursed before the Lord is the man who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho,” says the book of Joshua. “At the cost of his firstborn son will he lay its foundations, at the cost of his youngest will he set up its gates.” Events of the past 50 years have given that ancient passage some prescience.
Fifteen miles beyond Jericho, at the top of the desert road that the Good Samaritan traveled, is Jerusalem. A place where so many prophets met violent, untimely deaths, Jerusalem today is a city of checkpoints and olive trees, automatic rifles and suicide bombers.
But from where we were standing, we could not see Amman or Baghdad, Jericho or Jerusalem. The steep banks on either side of the river, and the dense green trees that stood on top blocked our view of them all. We could not see the Israeli soldiers just inland to the west, nor the Jordanians posted just to the east. The dry, dusty desert that immediately surrounded the entire area was completely out of sight. All we could see was the sunshine and blue sky, the stands of green trees above and the swaying blades of tall grass rising out of the water, brushing gently against the shore. We were deaf to any explosions or shouts, any clanking armored convoys or roaring Apache helicopters. All we could hear was the wind through the river grass and the loud rush of water as one by one we came to the surface. Declarations of joy followed each impromptu baptism. “This is so awesome!”
The five of us splashed around and swam upstream and repeatedly submerged ourselves into the surprisingly swift current. It was like being at a religious water park. This, after all, was where Jesus Christ himself got baptized. Everyone in our party was energetic and invigorated, all smiles and full of laughter. The coolness of the Jordan was refreshing, as was the breeze coming down the channel. Together they provided sweet relief from the noonday sun.
We were tucked into the deepest crease on earth, snug inside the crevice that separates west from east. At that point in the river, the Jordan is not wide. Just four people holding hands could form a bridge between Israel and Islam. At this international friction point, where these two troubled worlds collide, the swift, cool waters of the Jordan carried away our thoughts of those troubles. We were carefree and living completely in the moment. No one was in a hurry to get back on dry land.