The view from Umm Kais
Country watching from Jordan
In a huge farmhouse two hours north of Amman three generations of Palestinian Jordanians sit cross-legged on cushions, crouch in the doorway and perch on plastic chairs. Steaming tea accompanied with glass cups is served on trays with sugary snacks. A baby is passed around to hold, photographs are taken.
Behind us, huge doors open out onto a black sky. The smell of fresh, country air is a relief after the heaviness of Amman and we sit together on the terrace. Beside us a road forms the border between the River Jordan and us. Lowering himself onto the steps to smoke, our host Mohammed points across the water to a trail of lights, part of Palestine. “We used to own some of that land,” he tells us. Now the family can just look at it across the water.
It isn’t just the view from here that is incredible, or the fact that Mohammed’s family has shown two strangers so much kindness. It is how far I have travelled in one day and what I have packed into it. One minute I am bobbing up and down in the Dead Sea in Jordan with my toes in front of me and Jerusalem in the distance. The next I am two hours north in a village with Mohammed and his family, staring at his old home in Israel from his new home in Jordan. Country watching is becoming a regular pursuit.
With our new hobby in mind, Mohammed explains that if we travel even further north we could see three countries at once. The ultimate form of country-spotting in Jordan takes place in a small village called Umm Kais in the northwest corner of the country. Unrolling down the Western side of the region is the Jordan Valley and if the Dead Sea lies at the base of the northern segment, far below sea level, Umm Kais is positioned at the tip, high above.
In the reign of Augustus it was famous for its cosmopolitan feel; a grand meeting point where scholars, poets, philosophers and writers came and hobnobbed. Today, at the top of the hill, protruding from the brown-green grass and rubble-lain hills, Roman columns stand proudly in central view. Only now there is no roof above them or actors moving between them, just a scattering of tourists in search of a story.
On a sticky summer evening just two days after we enjoyed a welcome reception from Mohammed’s family we are at the viewpoint in Umm Kais. Thick stone bricks form a wall and observation spot from where we can look out across the ruins and beyond.
Reaching the top just in time for the sunset, positioning ourselves on a stone wall, we watch the sun fall over the Golan Heights in Syria, the Sea of Galilee, Israel and the Palestinian Territories to the South.
In the Middle East there is no dusk. Just as there is little differentiation between the seasons, when the sun sets it does so quickly, without warning. You have to be quick to catch it as it disappears beyond the horizon, sinking, leaving behind remnants of pink trails; a reminder of the heat, Rothko’s sunset.
Peering into neighbouring countries is now commonplace and I have a better idea of Jordan’s dynamics and how what must somehow define it surrounds it. At about the same size as Portugal or Austria it is squashed between Saudi Arabia to the east and south, Syria to the north, Iraq to the east, and Israel and the occupied West Bank to the West.
Somehow staring from here feels like an imposition or snatching a glance into something you are not supposed to see. The countries around contain ongoing struggles and they are not easy for everyone to move between. From here we could see the Golan heights that were seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. We could see the lake where Jesus walked on water. And we could see the ongoing struggle between Israel and Palestine.