Preparing for Jordan

I hadn’t thought of visiting Jordan until I saw a post on Jerash by Harinda Bama. Then I realized that right there in the middle of the middle east, a place so full of history, where the remnants of the European wars of a hundred years ago are still being fought, in the middle of a beautiful and once peaceful land, there is a part which is easy for tourists to visit.

There were over 4 million tourists to Jordan two years ago, and that number might have gone up to 7 million this year if it were not for COVID-19. I suppose only a small fraction of travelers blog, but that number still produces a lot of stories and opinions. I started by reading some of what wordpress has on offer: Amman’s street art, Kerak, Raqmu, also known as Petra, Wadi Musa and Little Petra, Jerash and the Cats of Amman.

This was definitely a place I wanted to visit. The Family was also interested. So I looked deeper. The first book I took up was a translation of the travel diaries of Johann ludwig Burckhardt, the man who rediscovered Raqmu (Petra) in 1812. The translation of “Travels in Syria and the Holy Land” that I had contained a very long and interesting foreword by William Martin Leake. I found this really interesting, not only for the description of the geography (it helped to keep a map with contour lines open on my laptop as I read) but also for the interesting tidbits about how accurately the Greeks and Romans had mapped this land. Raqmu need not have been lost at all.

There is quite a bit of European writing on Jordan. The most well known is “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by Thomas Edward Lawrence. From today’s perspective one can see the broad line between Lawrence of Arabia and to the present wars in West Asia. The book is a little too verbose for my taste, but I found it interesting to skim through, pausing at bits here and there. Gertrude Bell‘s book “The Desert and the Sown” was an easier read, from a slightly earlier time, and left me with the same unsettling feeling of imperial powers meddling in local politics. As a travel book, it too has its positive points. One could add a dash of whipped cream by adding Agatha Christie’s “Appointment with Death”, not one of her best Hercule Poirot books, but one in which the murder occurs in Raqmu.

Most of the British books from the early part of the 20th century CE are imperial and racist by today’s standards, and totally ignore the post-Roman history of the area. They deal with the Ottoman Empire as a vile occupying power (an Indian finds this ironic). It was only when I started in on the next phase of reading, guide books, that I began to appreciate the modern history of the area. After some thought I chose the Blue Guide and Lonely Planet. I like Blue Guides for their detailed explanations of cultural artifacts, especially in and around Europe. Byzantine power supplanted Rome in this part of the world, until it was checked by the Umayyads and, later, Abbasids. After the brief Crusader incursion, Ayyubids and Mamluks held this land until the coming of the Ottomans. Each of these periods has left its artifacts across the land. This was a good point from which to expand my reading. I was feeling a little rushed last week, since our plan would have taken us to Raqmu today.

Now, under the new social distancing conventions, I remain in my flat. Airlines have cancelled flights, and the world has broken up into little islands. It gives me more time to read about this tiny country. I hope that when this calamity has gone, The Family and I are still able to take this cancelled trip.

Reading Jordanian literature

The beautiful piece of Arabic calligraphy that you see as the featured image is by Tanya Fedorova. Traditional Arabic calligraphy is very different from the Chinese, but to my untrained eye, this piece incorporates aspects of both. I liked it for this reason.

I was this leaf once
falling slowly

I was the tiger thinking it is free
while in a fenced garden

I was the woodworm gnawing
at the cradle and the scepter

I was the dirt disintegrating
in a pot of Geranium
The hand that used to water it
no longer there

— Song of Myself
by Amjad Nasser

I find that my ability to understand the world I live in is very constrained because I can read so few of the many languages that people write in. I was trying to prepare for a trip to Jordan by reading about it, and most of the searches yielded books by Europeans and Jordan emigrés. This coulldn’t be all, I thought. After all, Arabic literature is vast and vital. It turns out that little is translated into English. I was not able to find a translation of Columns of Foam (1987), a book by the Jordanian writer Elias Farkouh, although it has been named as one of the hundred best Arabic novels of the last century by the Arab Writers’ Union. Eventually I traced some of his stories in the magazine Banipal, based in London, which publishes translations of works from Arabic to English.

To this day my conviction is that writing in support of a cause should never be an excuse for lowering the standard of a literary work. It is the way you deal with the cause, rather, that makes your writing different. … For me language is not simply a means of conveying ideas, it is itself the idea, the end of writing, and it embodies memory — the memory of a culture, and the memory of the writer himself. … More and more people are asking me — writers and readers as well as critics — whether I am producing generic short stories or mere texts. It is obviously because I abide less and less by the technical rules of short story composition. But I believe a real artist must be pushing at the edges of generic convention — and constantly experimenting with his compositional techniques in order to do so.

— Elias Farkouh in an interview with Masress

Once I found magazines about Arab literature written in English, it was easy to get small pieces by writers who use Arabic as their main language. I was really fascinated by interviews. Everyone who uses language eventually talks of the craft: how to use language to achieve their ends. This same discussion is common in every language that I know, and it is interesting to see what is common and how much is dependent on the language and the culture it is immersed in.

This rose is made of mud
This glitter is made of coal
This child,
this scoundrel,
this good man,
this acrobat are
made of clay
–From Adam’s Kingdom
by Amjad Nasser

Dribs and drabs of Arabic poetry are also easy to come by. It is not hard to find a few pieces in translation from the works of Amjad Nasser; I quote a couple of pieces here. The more recent work of the Bedouin poet, Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya, is easy to come by, perhaps because he has appeared on Emirati TV shows in recent times. The translations don’t read so well. His work is said to be like hip-hop, meant to be heard or read aloud. This description probably means that the sounds and cadence are important, so translations are bound to suffer. Examples of the work of Ibrahim Nasrallah can also be found easily. It is not easy to find translations of their books. There are collections of Arabic literature in bilingual versions published by academic researchers. They seem to be good places to start from if one is interested in the whole of Arabic literature. I was searching more particularly for Jordanian authors before COVID-19 forced me to cancel my trip. I’m still searching.