This is part one of a review of my recent overland-trip from Tel Aviv-Jaffa to Amman and back.
The travel from Tel Aviv-Jaffa to Amman via Allenby- or King Hussein Bridge plainly demonstrates the role of physical borders in this region, and shows the high security mechanisms and areas that have been set up around them. Although the two states signed a peace treaty (see article in Le Monde diplomatique) almost 20 years ago, and despite the friendly tone of the text, both sides seem to be uncomfortable with the situation and make the passing of the border a tedious procedure. Even if I was lucky with transportation when going from Israel to Jordan´s capital, it took me six hours for the little more than 100 km. Endless waiting time, control points, ridiculous questions, and payment procedures stretch a distance usually covered in an hour, to a one day trip.
First stage of the journey is to get from Tel Aviv-Jaffa to Jerusalem. While there is a railway connection, a bus ride is both cheaper and quicker, bringing people to the `holy city´ within about 50 minutes. Arriving in Jerusalem there are occasional security checks when leaving the bus and entering the central bus-station. Buses themselves are also checked before entering the station. Since mini-buses to the border to Jordan are departing from Damascus gate, one has to go down Yafo (Jaffa) street from the central bus station. The easiest way to do so is by taking the relatively new light rail. The route of the newly built light rail was highly disputed (see Haaretz´ article) among pro-Palestinian voices, as it cuts through Arab areas by connecting Jewish settlements in occupied eastern areas to West Jerusalem, and thereby creating another fact on the ground. However, the line is built and it is both a convenient way of getting around in Jerusalem and, fulfilling it’s intended role to give the city a `modern´ image, while it is still regarded by many as backward and boring city, marked by religious fanatics.
From the area north of Damascus gate shared mini bus-taxis run services down to the Jordan border near Jericho. Along the way, one passes Ma´ale Adumim, one of the biggest Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The settlement that can actually be called a city, is home to more than 30.000 people and cuts deep into the West Bank east of Jerusalem. As most of the settlements it is built on a hilltop, dominating the surrounding land. On the way down to the border the road also passes scattered Bedouin places, where Arab people try to make a living out of the barren landscape. On a side note, bedouins from the Negev desert, the southern part of Israel, are in the news these days, because the Israeli government wants to relocate them and tear down their houses, as it ironically considers their settlements illegal.
While there are no checks on the way down towards the Jordan valley (there is a 1200 m difference in altitude from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea), there is a tough check 2-3 km before the Israeli side of the border. Men and women from the IDF, people one would rather not want to mess with, grimly check individuals and cars in a very careful manner before they are allowed to continue their journey to the actual border. Reaching the border late on a Friday, border authorities were already in Shabbat-mode. But whereas processing of documents as well as security checks went smoothly, the next step of the journey took a while. Together with only one other traveller, I was waiting for the big bus that takes people from the Israeli to the Jordanian side of the border (a 4 km drive) for about two hours.
It turned out my company was a US-journalist, who went to the West Bank to interview Munib al-Masri, residing near Nablus and considered the richest Palestinian. She was on her way back to Amman, giving me the pleasure of sharing her story with me. Although travelling in this part of the world can be pretty boring and uncomfortable, sometimes fate brings unexpected enjoyment. Shauna, told me how she came to know this man and how it was like to visit him in his West Bank villa.
Munib al-Masir and his Palladian Villa
Al-Masri, presented in this Al-Jazeera documentary, is the owner of countless multinational companies and made his fortune mainly in oil and gas. He built himself a villa in the hills of the Northern West Bank in the style of Palladio. The self-declared peace worker (3-sat story in German) has shaken hands with the most well known and influential people in the world, as Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and of course Yasser Arafat, among many others. Curiously, he and his Palladian villa and extensive gardens share their hilltop with the Jewish settlement of Har Braka just a little south of Nablus.
This story shortened the waiting time for the bus that then carried us via the bridge across what is left of the river Jordan towards the Hashemite Kingdom. At the first Jordanian control point, first my passport was taken away from me and checked, then I was asked to follow an officer into the house, while my colleague could stay on the bus. About 5-6 men in uniform were sitting around a table, drinking coffee and the chief officer, sitting behind a huge desk, asked me a couple of questions. As almost every Jordanian one meets, he finally said “welcome to Jordan”, so that the stop was only a matter of minutes. We continued our journey to the actual Jordanian border station, only interrupted by the bus driver, who realised I was taking pictures. He insistently said it was not allowed to take pictures here, as a good researcher, however, I felt the obligation to still do so, albeit in a more secret way. Reaching the Jordanian border station, the same deserted atmosphere as at the Israeli side waited for us. There were hardly officers to deal with our passports and visas, but we finally managed getting everything we needed to enter Jordan. We left the still somewhat fertile Jordan river area climbing up the arid slopes towards the Jordanian capital. Tanks to my colleague, the journalist, and al-Masri´s driver, waiting for her, we were in Amman in no time.
The lesson I learned from this first part of the trip was that travelling on a Friday afternoon is quite relaxed in terms of security and other checks but not so much in terms of waiting time. On the other hand was I fortunate to meet someone who had a fascinating story to tell and who furthermore gave me a free ride, what more than compensated for the seemingly endless hours of waiting. Hence, for about two hours, the narratives of me and my research in Tel Aviv- Jaffa and Amman, a journalist from Texas living in Jordan, and the story of the richest man in Palestine folded together at the Israeli/Jordanian border, making a bench in the waiting area a true borderland.
I would like to thank Shauna Zajak for her company, the intriguing story of Munib al-Masri, the ride to Amman, and for directing me to interesting people in Jordan!
For an impression of the scenery along the trip, see the pictures below.
12:25 … Tel Aviv – View towards Old Jaffa
13:32 … Jerusalem Chords Bridge – Western city entrance
14:05 … Leaving Jerusalem
14:08 … Separation wall – East Jerusalem
14:09 … Ma´ale Adumim
14:16 … Road down towards the Dead Sea
14:21 … Bedouin dwellings
14:34 Main road – Jericho/Dead Sea junction
14:39 … Turnoff towards Allenby/King Hussein Bridge
14:41 … First Israeli checkpoint
14:52 … Israeli border station
15:03 … “Land art” near Israeli border station
15:03 – 16:50 … Waiting area – Israeli border station
16:51… Leaving the Israeli side
16:42 … High security corridor in the border zone
16:53 … Military vehicle in border zone
16:54 … Allenby/King Hussein Bridge
16:57 … First Jordanian check point
17:08 … Left overs of Jordan River
17:10 … Second Jordanian check point
17:23 … Leaving the border area
17:34 … Jordanian plateau towards Amman
17:49 … West Amman
17:52 … Housing development in West Amman
18:09 … On Zahran street near 3rd cricle
18:25 … Downtown Amman
© All rights reserved – Sigi Atteneder, 2013