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Look Over Jordan


On a clear day at this time of year, the suburbs of Amman are visible from any tall building in Jerusalem. Pink and rosy, they loom on the far horizon in the dry mountain air across the deep hollow of the Dead Sea. Both cities are perched on high plateaus over 2,600 feet above sea level and the distance between them, as the crow—perhaps one should say the hawk—flies, is little more than forty miles. The journey from one to the other takes only an hour and a half—that is, if you’re lucky enough to have the right permits and are traveling in a UN car.

It so happened that a few hours before I set out from Jerusalem for Amman a few weeks ago, a Jewish fanatic had butchered twenty-nine or more Palestinians in a Hebron mosque, caused the death of at least thirty others, and wounded hundreds. In doing so, he had derailed the ongoing peace talks and damaged, perhaps irreparably, the slow course of reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis that was started last year in Oslo and on the White House lawn. The process by which demonized enemies were becoming legitimate adversaries haggling over details of a historical compromise was reversed. The event showed once again how the sinister passion of one man could affect Arab-Israeli affairs. Both sides were bracing themselves for the “counter-massacre,” which was widely held to be inevitable.

Even as we were leaving Jerusalem, wild riots were erupting in the occupied territories. Clouds of tear gas were rising over the rooftops of the Old City. As we drove down toward the Jordan Valley, the barren scenery, with its frozen undulating desert, seemed to reflect the bleak state of politics. When we reached the border at midday the parched ground was either black or white, as in the mind of a fanatic, no muted colors in between.

Barbed wire fences criss-crossed the large expanse of dead soil at the border. Every ten yards or so little red triangles on both sides of the narrow road warned you to beware of mines. Unusually large Israeli flags flew over grim watchtowers and bunkers. The Jordanians don’t recognize this as a border and fly none of their own flags. The actual crossing point is a Bailey bridge, its freshly painted iron bars covered with wooden planks that shake and rattle underfoot. The Israelis still call it by its old name, Allenby Bridge, after the British field marshal who conquered Palestine in 1917. The Jordanians call it, after their king, Hussein Bridge. Cars are not allowed to cross. My luggage was carried only to the middle of the bridge and there it was picked up by a Jordanian porter, who carried it to another UN car waiting on the other side. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the Glienicke Bridge at Berlin, where spies were exchanged during the cold war.

I had half expected the bridge to be closed, as it often is at times of unrest. Instead, we were seen through without much ado. Traffic across the border, scarce as it was, was said to be normal. The controls were quick and perfunctory. The dry, flat scenery on the Jordanian side was a mirror image of the Israeli. Off in the wasteland stood a few grizzled trees ashen from the dust. Jordanian soldiers in green camouflage jackets waved us through several roadblocks and open gates. Wild ravines ran down from the near mountaintops. There was a turn-off and the steep road started climbing through the dust and gravel. The barren coast and bitter waters of the Dead Sea were visible behind us through the haze.

The fertile higher ground is reached much more quickly here than on the other side. As the road climbed in twists and turns, the soil darkened and turned green. We entered a modern super-highway and drove past orchards and pine forests and reached the high mountain plateau. Little villages, reminiscent of those in the West Bank, were set in similar hard-to-till stony fields producing olives, barley, and figs; there were vines and small flocks of sheep. Then, barely half an hour after crossing the river, we reached the brand new outer suburbs of Amman, full of imported tinted glass and Italian marble walls amid other signs of conspicuous affluence: two-or three-car garages, stylish shops, and tall TV antennas shaped like miniature Eiffel towers.


Amman takes its name from the biblical Ammon, a tribe very much in disfavor with the author of Deuteronomy (23:6). He cites God ordering Moses, “Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever.” There is considerable prosperity in Amman today and, by and large, more peacefulness and civilized political stability than just about anywhere else in the region. From little more than a village populated by 15,000 or 20,000 settled Bedouins and Circassians before the Second World War, Amman has since grown to a city of two million, most of them Palestinian. The dominant Western veneer is at odds with the usual image of a Middle Eastern capital. Except in the oldest part, built around a magnificent second century Roman amphitheater, Amman is surprisingly modern and has none of the dust, congestion, squalor, or noise of other Arab capitals. It is certainly neater than any city you might see in Israel. The feel of the place is a blend of England and the Near East. Cyprus, with its minarets next to Olde English Pubs, used to be like that when it was a colony forty years ago. The thirtyeighth anniversary of the “Arabization of the Jordanian Armed Forces” (i.e., the expulsion of the British general who ran them) was celebrated in Amman while I was there, but the ghosts of Glubb Pasha and Alec Kirkbride, both chums of T.E. Lawrence, and the other Brits who virtually ran the place till 1955 still hover.

The modern city is built in stone, as in Jerusalem; the basic town plan was probably prepared by the same people. The best limestone for building purposes was imported from Hebron in the Occupied West Bank. As in Jerusalem the sunlit mountain air has an extraordinary quality, luminous and clear. The industrial quarters are located on the eastern edge, and the predominant western winds drive the pollution into the desert. There are very few trees and relatively few gardens, the result, apparently, of a growing water shortage. In a city built on fifteen or sixteen continuous hills or jebels—among them Jebel Amman, Jebel Hussein, and Al Qusour, a hill taken up almost in its entirety by the royal compound—the streets and sidewalks are wide and well-kept, and seem to be scrubbed clean daily. The new suburbs appear to be dreary because of the sameness of the solidly built family houses. Mail is delivered to post office boxes there since most of the streets have no name and if they do few people know them.

Well-maintained cars cruise on the broad avenues from one traffic circle to the next. Public monuments display inscriptions in beautiful script hailing Industry, or God, King, Country, in that order. The avenues drop into deep ravines before they rise to climb another hill under a soaring overpass or go under it in a tiled tunnel. They are lined with handsome apartment buildings, covered in bright limestone as in Jerusalem, but better maintained, and tall glass-and-concrete office blocks. Many international and Arab banks and corporations opened branch offices here after the destruction of Beirut in civil war. The universities and hospitals in Jordan are said to be the best in the Arab Middle East today.

The look of Amman and the economic achievements of modern Jordan seem surprising in view of the scant resources of a country with little natural wealth which has been crippled over the years by war and civil strife and the influx of hundreds of thousands of destitute Palestinian refugees. Only 6 percent of the land can be cultivated. For years the country was glibly dismissed as a mere extension of the desert, a backdrop to a Lawrence of Arabia movie, a post-colonial kingdom whose days were numbered. A comparison of conditions in Jordan with conditions in the West Bank, which until 1967 was under Jordanian rule, is illuminating. A professor at Amman University recalled for me that for a good meal or a man’s suit or a book one would have driven to East Jerusalem before 1967—“Amman at that time offered so little.” It is a reflection on the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank that in almost every respect—urban culture, transport, sanitation, town planning, social institutions, cultural amenities, medical services, and education—the West Bank today lags at least twenty-five years behind Jordan. “We are ahead of them in the physical quality of our lives,” the professor says. “They are ahead of us in their dedication to democracy.”

Jordan’s elections last year to a multiparty parliament were generally judged by local and foreign observers as free and fair. But Jordan remains an authoritarian state, a patriarchal system in which parliament is regularly scolded by the king. “There is a constitution,” a Jordanian political scientist told me. “But the king can change it by making two telephone calls, if he wishes.” His power, which in the past depended on an army of loyal Bedouin soldiers, an efficient bureaucracy, and a well-organized mukhabarat or secret police, has been considerably augmented in recent years by the widespread support of a population that appreciates the stability and relative freedom he offers them. “Republicanism is a dirty word today in the Arab world, seeing what abolishing monarchies has brought about in Egypt, Libya, or even in Iran,” an Amman intellectual told me. “Not even the Islamicists here favor a Republic.”

The widespread façade of smartness and prosperity obscures continuing economic difficulties. What Jordanian experts call a “crisis”—a crisis particularly in employment and in the balance of payments—began in the mid-Eighties and reached a high point during the Gulf War. When Jordan refused to condemn Iraq, Saudi-Arabia suspended trade and aid, and the country’s profitable business transporting goods to and from Iraq was cut off by allied sanctions. The war also caused the sudden influx of 300,000 Palestinians expelled from Kuwait and 120,000 Iraqi refugees as well. Jordan was the only place that would take them in. But the Gulf War also turned out to be a kind of blessing, causing a large number of gifted and energetic people to return to Jordan (many of whom had built houses for themselves in Amman before the war) and the reinvestment of their capital at home. The projected growth rate this year is 6 percent. Last year it was 9 percent and it was eleven percent in 1992. The returning Palestinians also brought in some 50,000 cars, causing the first serious traffic jams in Amman’s history.

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