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 …

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