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Boundaries of Belonging: Traversing Jordan's Borders and Beyond

Updated: Jan 25


Leah Yeager
Leah Yeger

After a short Q&A, I'm out of the security queue. With my passport stamped and a one-month tourist visa in hand, I step into Queen Alia Airport - just one of the many borders I will encounter during my time in Jordan. As I walk through the exit doors, I'm enveloped by a sea of bustling people: families reuniting, suited businessmen, and twenty-something year old travelers (easily identifiable by their Trespass rucksacks). My eyes search for an unmarked white taxi, the kind my new roommate, with whom I've only spoken to twice over WhatsApp, assured me would be waiting. A man with a welcoming smile gesture towards a lone ticket booth standing on the concrete expanse surrounding the airport. Without a second thought, I follow, relieved to find a procession of white logo-less taxis awaiting passengers.


Now settled in the car, we navigate toward the destination I've marked on my Google Maps – which I naively thought wouldn’t function as well as it does. Surprisingly, despite my limited Arabic, I comprehend my taxi driver's inquiry: "Min Wain?" I tell him I'm from England and, almost instinctively, pose the same question to him. He responds, "I'm from Palestine."


At my local grocery store on Rainbow Street, the man behind the counter looks up from his newspaper. Same question, same response. In the bustling souks of downtown, where I purchase a well-worn backgammon board, the response echoes. Over a steaming falafel wrap adorned with bright pink pickles, I'm met with the same words: "I am from Palestine." Jerusalem, Akko, Nazareth, Jenin, Nablus, Hebron, Gaza. When a woman tending one of the few bars scattered across the city shares her Palestinian heritage, my face lights up - Beit Sahour. I mention living there during my internship, anticipating shared excitement. However, her expression doesn't match mine. Nonetheless, I continue, ignorantly asking about her last visit. She responds with a hard-hitting truth: that she has never and can’t ever go, putting down the glass of Amstel walking away.


In my initial Arabic lesson, our teacher divides us into teams for a lightly competitive game of matching Arabic letters and sounds. He dubs my group "Mansaf" and the other "Maqluba." A room of blank stares. He explains Mansaf, a traditional Jordanian dish, and Maqluba, a Palestinian dish prevalent in Jordan. "It's my favorite," he quips, "so perhaps team Maqluba might have the upper hand..." Maqluba translates to "upside down" in Arabic, he tells us with a smile, promising that we'll understand the name when we see the dish.


On another evening at Al-Quds, a restaurant named after Jerusalem, I try maqluba for the first time. The waiter beckonsus to the kitchen, where the chef artfully flips a circular pan upside down onto a plate. The dish resembles a masterpiece: chicken, potato, and cauliflower encircled by a wreath of yellow rice and scattered nuts. "The flavors of Palestine," he declares, his hand resting proudly on his chest.

***


North of Amman it’s much colder. The higher we get the stronger the wind blasts through the small crack in the window of the rental car that will not close fully. Unsurprising, considering its 20-dinar daily expense. We wind up the steep hill leaving shawarma shops and small homes behind. Our destination? A 12th-century castle gracing a hilltop in the Mount Ajloun district, known as Jabal 'Auf after the 12th-century Bedouin tribe that once controlled the region. I confess, ancient landmarks aren't always my primary fascination. Instead, I'm captivated by the towns, perhaps even cities, scattered across the mountainous terrain ahead of us. As we step out of the car, four men beckon us into a small shack decorated with red and black stitched fabric. They invite us to share tea, and we huddle together as the eldest man ignites a stove. A massive teapot, nearly half my size, takes center stage - its silver surface intricately engraved from top to bottom. The tea is sweet and rich with the taste of sage, or Maramiya, as one of the men informs me in Arabic. As younger men offer cigarettes, the familiar question surfaces again: Min Wain? We respond with a roster of European countries. They introduce themselves as Bedouins, gesturing to the cities nestled in the mountains, repeatedly uttering"Palestine." While their exact message is challenging to discern, the shift in tone is evident. "Palestine is over there," one says. They shake their heads, and their perspective becomes somewhat clearer, though the language barrier prevents me from asking more questions. To my little prior knowledge, Bedouins are traditionally nomadic or semi-nomadic and it's possible that some Bedouin communities now living in Ajloun have historical ties to Palestine that might predate more recent events like Palestinian displacement due to the Nakba (1948) and the Naksa (1967). Even so It’s unlikely these communities would even be able to return to the places they might have ties to.


***

Following a weekend spent under the stars in the Wadi Rum dessert, we are halfway on our journey back to the city. We find a spot to park up on the side of the road, a stretch of road that's been our companion through the red mountains and the sun's gradual descent over the expansive canvas of luminous blue. Outside the air is thick and still, the smell of salt overpowering. The shoreline is an impressive petal-like pattern of turquoise and white. There is a family tucked away in one of the crevasses, one boy floating on top of the water as if performing a magic trick. As my friend descends the rocky mountainside and perches on the edge, even from a distance, his sigh is palpable, his head bowed. Like over half of the Jordanian population, my friend is Palestinian. His parents were forced out of their hometown in 1948, the Nakba, which translates as ‘the disaster’, where millions of Palestinians were violently uprooted from their land. Some stayed and were forced to live under the regime of a settler state, others fled to what is now the West Bank and have lived under occupation for 75 years. Others, such as my friend’s parents went to neighbouring countries like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The mirroring mountains across the Dead Sea, a sea both Jordan and Palestine share, is the closest he has gotten to seeing where he is from. He has attempted numerous times to obtain a visa. to visit the land where his parents grew up, where his extended family resides. Yet, the visa is perpetually denied, a visa to his own homeland. I've asked him before how locals typically react when he reveals his Palestinian identity. He shares that they recognize he's not entirely "from" Palestine due to his accent, yet he's not exactly Jordanian either, as his family's roots lie elsewhere. He just gives a little shrug and a smile, like he's telling me, "I'm a refugee, and nothing is straightforward."


***

The next trip I am taking is to one of Jordan's northernmost corners, Um Qais. Renowned for its Roman ruins, but also a view of its neighboring countries. I sit at a terraced restaurant, surrounded by long tables of families and tourists having lunch. I sip on a glass of Arak, a taste I'm trying to acquire despite its potent aniseed flavor that still makes me wince. Standing before me, the Golan Heights, almost volcanic in appearance, descending to the left into the waters of Lake Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee, and the occupied West Bank below. It's a surreal thought—a vast expanse of what appears to be untouched nature, yet borders etched arbitrarily within it, creating barriers that people can't easily traverse.


After completing my meal, and the challenging Arak, I venture to another viewpoint. To the right of the Golan Heights, as the information board enlightens me, lies Jabal Shaikh, marking the outset of Damascus in Syria. Gazing upon the physical border between Jordan and Syria, I recall my friend Amal's stories. She used to drive from her northern Jordanian city of Irbid to Damascus every weekend, enjoying her favorite ice cream and shopping with her mother—a reality that predates the Syrian war. I can't help but contemplate the many Palestinian and Syrian refugees living in Jordan who were forced to leave their homelands, countries that, to me, now seem almost close enough to touch. The question persists—what does it feel like to glimpse your home yet remain barred from it?




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