Talking is easier in open Jordan
STROLLING THE CROWDED streets of Amman brings home just how isolated Israel is from the rest of the Middle East.
The Hashemite capital, 90 minutes away from the Jewish state, feels like another world. People, brands, banks and restaurants hail from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf States. The interconnectedness between Jordan and it neighbours seems strange to an Israeli visitor. It takes a while to realise that this is, in fact, normal. It is the Israelis who live — though not without legitimate reason — in a garrison-like enclave cut off from their neighbours.
Israeli-Jordanian relations have been warm since the 1994 peace treaty. But since al-Qaida killed 60 people in a terrorist attack in Amman in 2005, fears of terror remain. Official Israeli advice describes the threat in Jordan as “very high” and strongly advises its nationals to stay away.
Military checkpoints line the highway between the Israeli border and Amman. “They don’t stop foreigners at these checkpoints, only Arabs. It’s all for your safety,” Israelis are told. But when Israelis do get stopped by police, the encounter tends to end amicably and quickly with effusive smiles and wishes for a good day.
As a journalist invited to Amman with a delegation from Ben Gurion University to cover a conference on the regional water crisis led by Israelis and Palestinians, I quickly realised that dialogue — when no one has home-field advantage — is softer and more open.
Maybe the preoccupation with water forges a camaraderie around the distinct possibility that without change, the residents of this troubled region may well die jointly of dehydration.
“Blaming each other will get us nowhere,” Nader el-Khateeb, Palestinian director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, says. “We’ve been fighting over water for 50 years and we’ve got nowhere. If we continue, the land will not be suitable for living.”
After dinner one evening in the lavish Kan Zaman restaurant, a Palestinian woman tells a story of how, during a party she was holding at her Bethlehem home, an Israeli Border Police officer showed up and shot dead her barking dog.
“I hated that soldier — I hated them all — with all my heart,” the woman rages. Then, unexpectedly, her tone changes and she orders her Israeli colleagues coffee, plies them with desserts and invites them out for drinks along with the other Palestinians.
Amman’s nightlife is relaxed. Men walk arm-in-arm. Lingerie shops with risqué displays of mostly naked mannequins sit adjacent to shops selling vast varieties of Muslim headscarves.
Vendors sell key chains adorned with Jordanian, Iraqi and Palestinian flags — and an item inscribed in English, Hebrew and Arabic, which turns out to be a replica of a 1927 coin issued in British Mandate Palestine.
Maybe being in this open and fluid part of the Middle East makes talking easier. It certainly brings home the suffocating confines of the insular Israeli bubble.