A Tale of Two Countries
In Jordan… a scorched desert. An unending expanse of hot sand. A serpentine road and a lone traveller.
I slip into easy reverie. Of frozen times and unchanging fate. So much of dull, vapid continuity of desolation lulls me, and I catch a few winks. When I’m awake again, I see the same unmoved portrait.
A life of a nation can be measured through the frames it provides. A monotonous span of nothingness speaks not very much of what its citizens have built for themselves… now or through the ages.
Bedouins with geopolitic-inspired USAID may live in concrete homes and use modern amenities in the Kingdom of Jordan, but most still depend on donkeys and camels to earn a livelihood. Some may have become guides and taxi drivers, but their outlook and much of life in every other aspect is the same as a century back or more.
There is little that one can see by way of progress. Remove the tarmac and the car, and I could have been in the old Middle East. The searing arid-land, the limitless sky and the tribes. There is hardly a trace of modern engineering, of industry or agriculture. The scrap of service sector that exists – is concentrated in Amman. For most of the rest, it is the sameness that is most stark.
I exhort the driver-cum-guide for clues about what keeps them occupied besides tourism. He tries to assuage my concerns by mumbling something about industries churning out Dead Sea products and those related with chemicals. But doesn’t say more. Having cut through the North to the South of the country on the highway, my eyes are mute witnesses to the reason for his lapse into silence. He, really, has not much more to add.
As people, Jordanians are easy going and chuffed with life. They are warm, hospitable and have a great sense of humour. A shopkeeper may fleece you, but will add a small gift as he hands over your wares. A guide would expect a generous tip, but still pay for a small treat at a roadside eatery.
Take a turn from the dreary deserts of Jordan, and you drive straight into Israel.
The contrast cannot be more stunning. In Tel Aviv, the physical landscape alters dramatically. This is not a set of a theatre that is transformed as actors swap costumes. The change is real, palpable, but unbelievable.
Suddenly, a wooded area comes into vision. Pine trees shoot up into the clear blue sky. Sand changes into grassed plains. The dense green cover in the city gives respite as it gulps down a few Celsius.
Israel was once a part of the same desert that I left behind a few kilometers away. Jewish exiles, who had come in search of their Promised Land, changed the territory within a generation.
Israel is a testimony of human endeavour…of zeal and acumen. It is also the story of a cosseted life amidst a swarm of Arabs.
While I don’t want to be stoned about the politics of it all and legitimacies of claims on the Holy Land, I wish to write only as a tourist and present the mise-en-scène of real life. Of things that I saw and that held my attention.
Israel feels like Europe in the middle of an unending barrenness. The topography, the infrastructure, the flowing fields, the self sufficiency obtained through industry and the impregnable security.
Every task is done with seriousness. Possibly fanaticism.
And sometimes the fanaticism can overwhelm. Every second house, building, office, public and private space proudly displays the Israeli flag or, in fact, several of them. Maybe, an overt assertion is a mark of a deep hidden insecurity.
Jews have been phenomenal achievers throughout history. 18% of all Nobel laureates are believed to hail from this community. In the most influential corridors of power and on global policy rolls, you will find a Jewish stamp.
Drip and sprinkle irrigation introduced by the Jews revolutionised the way agriculture can be done in areas with acute water shortage. The idea is not to water the fields; it is to provide a life sustaining drip close to the roots.
Israelis produce all of the food that they eat and more – an unrivalled achievement in the Arab world. People start working at a very young age. I could see most employees at hotels were just teenagers.
And yes, Jews take their religion very seriously. On Sabbath, even guests at five star hotels have to eat cold and uncooked food! Unthinkable anywhere else.
The kibbutz is another successful experiment at self sufficiency and community living.
All high school graduates must serve in the armed forces. A reason why the citizens are such patriotic zealots. Possibly, it is a matter of survival for them.
Israelis are also at the forefront when it comes to technology and production of defence equipment.
It would be unfair to say that the people are not friendly. They are. They can be very helpful and even go out of the way to assist you. A Jewish co-passenger helped us through the automatic mono rail ticketing and even drove us in her car from the station to our hotel.
Yet, there is suspended aggression. Tension hangs heavy in the air. Most of the Jews, especially those dressed in the orthodox fashion with monotone black suits, hats and curled side-locks, come across as morose. Too serious for a smile. Too wary of some sunshine.
I witnessed a Palestinian protest on the streets of Jerusalem, but no violence that is so often beamed on our television sets. That may be restricted to Gaza and the settlement area. At least I didn’t see it in any of areas that I visited. Palestinians, with work permits, and Israelis of Arab descent move and work freely.
However, coming back to where I started. What did the frames that these two countries provide tell me?
The intriguing question about what makes a nation. Is it development? Or is it Gross National Happiness?
Israel wins hand down on the first count and Jordan on the second.
But the Egyptian goddess of Ma`at, representing the perfect balance, continues to elude both… as much as most of us on Earth.
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