Monday, May 11, 2009

Looking for Lawrence (part 1)

From the town of Madaba, in which King's Academy sits, the road to the south is covered in the contradictions of modern life smashing into tradition. King's is the first coeducational private institution in the Middle East. Walk its campus, with grassy hills, freshly planted trees notched into the landscape, granite walkways and a clock tower situated at the mid point and you could breathe the air of New England on a May day. The students are in western clothes. They banter as kids do -- loudly.

The dining hall is a cacaphony of glasses crashing together, of laughter and voices bouncing off the high A frame ceiling past the lecturne and the wall jacks for microphones and overhead systems. The food is pasta and chicken and the pita is off to the side but present. Yet the language is Arabic far more than English. The school is in its infancy, and despite the trappings of a high income, high society Andover or Choate, the bulk of its students are scholarship and they come from around the country in search of the best and brightest to lead the Kingdom into the second half of the 21st Century. It is the King's Academy quite literally, and the concern for who will guide the country is clearly present and proactively considered.

But a few feet beyond the guarded gate other worlds emerge. Southbound down the main highway the three + hour drive to the ancient city and landscape of Petra are the seemingly endless intersections of ways of life challenged, cherished and churned up. Down the black tarmac of the highway, looking straight ahead, the highway and transportation system in unremarkable save for the utter disregard for the dividing lines for traffic and lanes. Cars wander between and astride them in ways you can't do in the States without incurring the road rage for which we are too well known. Here is it unremarkable and odds are that if you observed the lane system too closely you'd just end up causing the chaos you were trying to avoid.

But at the tarmac's end everything changes. Just past that blacktop life intersects, and does so in ways that can lead you to impressions devoid of understanding or simply missed. Countless herds of goats, tended in the tradition by a lone man and an aged stick, edge the road, slipping onto it at the margin and herded back with a combination of care and casualness that reminds that this has been going on since antiquity. What is odd is the realization, not that there are goats, but that there is something about the road's edge that makes for a more fertile landscape, laced with more vegetation. The ridges of the road attract moisture in some way, and that facilitates green growth and that, in turn, invites the goats. They coexists and the ancient becomes oddly dependent upon the infrastructure. Herds of goats abound. You see them in small grassy areas surrounded by the detritus of car repair warrens with people bent over hoods as the grease monkeys of the States are. They intersect. But they are not, as seems to be too easily missed, a sign of backwardness or poverty. They are tradition, and tradition is at play with the times here. It cannot be seen through Western misunderstanding.

Yet there are oddities everywhere. Over long stretches of the road south you see the narrow black tubing of slow-drip agriculture. Those tubes are linked to well-spaced green cylinders set on steel a few feet above ground. Each of these has a single tube tracing out from the center at bottom and running through the cement footings into the ground. Its ground-water and these tanks, surrounded on all sides by fencing are irrigating. But it is what they are irrigating that is the surprise. Just as we do in the States, beautifying the great ugliness of highways, these cylinders are feeding water to trees and shrubs planted, single-file, along the highway. Behind them is sand and rock and semi-desert. Before them is highway. One day it seems that you will drive the southbound route and tallk pines and shrubs will convey to you the greenness of a lush landscape. Why? Is there a master plan to it, or is it just that someone somewhere sought a way to make the road lovely?

From the corner of your eye you catch a rush of orange. At road's edge a single man is standing atop a crate placing the last set of rich orange carrots atop a great cone of them. Thousands of carrots piling up against the brown landscape. In the distance a tent, set in the traditional rectangle. Even at distance you can see the hues of orange and yellow and gold of fresh fruit. The front of the tent is peeled back on each side, and, for an instant, an aged man sits, cross-legged and still, his Kaffiya on his head, his long dish dash draped, and a cup of tea at his feet, appears. The next day, driving back, he will be again in that spot, seemingly unmoved, awaiting a traveller to purchase fruit.

Heading south, towards Petra, the landscape is more churned and battered. Part of it is nature's will. Part of it man's. There are signs of mining (phosphorous?) and the dust of diggging. Its compliments by the dust devils of nature's handiwork. They together raise dust into the air. The landscape goes green and radically brown and another green tank sits in the distance irrigating against the rush of desert.

Towns go by, all seemingly unfinished. Its as though a massive construction and urbanization program was undertaken, and then, mid-construction, someone said "just kidding," leaving the first floor unfinished and the second as no more than the first layer of cement pilings, the rebar jutting from it in forlorne ascent. Its everywhere. Yet inside some people sit and take tea.

The King is also everywhere. His portait abounds. But it is changing. In Amman it is he and his exquisitely beautiful wife and their children. Here he is in full military garb. Farther south that portrait changes to traditional garb. He is many people to many regions, yet remains remarkably one King. Its an incredible, and vital, balancing act, and everywhere there is a sense that he genuinely does it well.

Off in the distance a single man carries a vast bundle of twigs and sticks gathered from all around. Firewood. Yet in his left hand, balanced to an ear, is a cellphone. The shepherd to the left out the window swats at a stray goat while in mid sentence on his Nokia. There are no women to be seen anywhere.

In the distance a single rail line snakes along with the highway. It travels the entire length of the journey, heading, it seems, towards Aqaba.

Aqaba. From the land.

Lawrence was here.

No comments: