A tearful border crossing

My oldest daughter, Suzanne, turns forty this year and she has just lived out a dream she has had for most of her life.

SuzieYasmin2When Suzanne was 5, our family lived with my in-laws, her grandparents, in Amman Jordan. My husband, Saleh, worked on a UN project there for a while and it was a rather stable time in the Middle East. Our youngest daughter, Sanna, was born while we were there.

At her grandparents’ house, Suzanne became great mates with one particular cousin, Yasmin, whose mother was also a foreigner. The girls communicated in a strange mixture of Arabic, English and Turkish.

Back to Australia and 20 years went by during which Suzanne vividly remembered her days in Amman and her friendship with Yasmin in particular. Letters between Saleh and his family often exchanged photos of the girls growing up on opposite sides of the world.

When Suzanne married, the couple started to plan a visit to Jordan but hopes were dashed when Saleh told them that his parents were very upset that Suzanne had not married a Muslim. It was OK for their son to marry someone, i.e. me, outside the faith, but not for a girl!

SannaJordan2Over the last 15 years many things changed as both girls were busy having their own families. Although born in Jordan, Sanna was too young to remember it, so Saleh took her with him on a most successful family visit. 9/11 happened while they were there. Not long after that both of Saleh’s parent died. Then more recently, Saleh also passed away after a slow decline with Alzheimer’s.

I work as an academic and last year I had a paper accepted for a prestigious conference in Israel. I told Suzanne that I would take the opportunity to pop across the border and visit the family in Jordan whom I had not seen for years.

Suzanne immediately declared that she wanted to come with me. The younger generation in Jordan are now more open and Suzanne had begun to connect up with some of them on Facebook.

Then she also wanted to bring her oldest boy (8), incidentally named Jordan. Next it was suggested that the second boy, Cooper (7), come as well. So, there we were at Sydney airport, the four of us saying goodbye to the youngest boy, Hunter, who was only 3 and who stayed home with his Dad.

2099Arriving in Tel Aviv early in the morning we dumped our bags at the conference hotel. Our first wish was to catch a train to Haifa where Saleh was born and we had an exciting day walking around the ruins at Acre where we spoke to some friendly Palestinian families who still live there. Then after the conference we caught a taxi to the Jordan River and crossed the border at the Allenby Bridge. The Jordanian immigration officials were greatly amused by my red-headed grandson named Jordan and helped us contact Yasmin who gave us directions to her place.

2621When the girls met it was as though they had never been apart. The boys quickly broke the ice with the rest of the family and, although few speak English, we all got along just fine. Saleh’s youngest brother, Noor, had often walked Suzanne to school when she was 5 and he became our designated driver. We visited the families of all 8 of Saleh’s brothers and sisters. We also had wonderful outings to Petra and the Dead Sea with many of them. Suzanne made a list of all 50 odd of her cousins there and the large hoard of their children.

DSCF2270All too soon, Noor had to drive us back down to the Jordan-Israel border for our return flight back from Tel Aviv. It was an emotional goodbye having had only 10 days to catch up for 35 years. However plans are now being made to return once Hunter is old enough and we can save up enough for the flights. Meanwhile, we all keep in touch on Facebook.

All too soon, Noor had to drive us back down to the Jordan-Israel border for our return flight back from Tel Aviv. It was an emotional goodbye having had only 10 days to catch up for 35 years. However plans are now being made to return once Hunter is old enough and we can save up enough for the flights. Meanwhile, we all keep in touch on Facebook.

From Kibbutz to Palestinian Refugee Camp

The exchange of one Israeli soldier for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners is pause for thought and the subject of commentary even here down under

I have experienced the Israel-Palestine situation from several different perspectives and learnt from experience that trying to provide a balanced view of the issues there is no way to win friends.  It is a topic on which almost everyone has strong deeply-held views and a problem for which so many of us pray for a just and peaceful resolution which now seems as far away as ever. My rather unusual Israel-Palestine story spans almost the existence of the modern State of Israel. All I can do is to tell it.

I remember back to my days in a Presbyterian Sunday School in the early 1950s. This taught me a lot of the history and geography of the “Holy Land” and I still have my copy of the King James Bible with colourful maps of the area in the back. 1956 was a big year in Australia. Television began and the Olympics were held in Melbourne. International events raised tensions between some of the athletes, Russia had just invaded Hungary and Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. At the closing ceremony of the Olympics all the athletes marched together for the first time as a demonstration of unity. TV and the Olympics brought to us down under a much more vivid awareness of the far-away world’s problems.

In the 1960s the film Exodus was a great hit, particularly for us teenage girls, with Paul Newman in his prime. There was great admiration for the way survivors of the Holocaust succeeded against all odds to “make the desert blossom as a rose”.  So it was quite popular here when Israel triumphed in the 6-day war of 1967 and expanded its borders. I was teaching in a country girls boarding school at the time and I vividly remember a school assembly when our religious Head Mistress warned us all that Armageddon was nigh.

So intrigued was I that, the following year, as now a post-grad student, I went on a 6 week trip to Israel over our summer break. Straight off the plane at Lod I caught a bus to Galilee which I remember well – the first time I’d been jetlagged and was somewhere no-one spoke English.  I spent an inspiring 4 days at a Youth Hostel on the lake just south of Capernaum then celebrated Christmas with friends at a Hospice just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. After that I worked for 5 weeks as a volunteer on Kibbutz Nirim in the Negev just east of Gaza. There was a sand strip around the Kibbutz that was raked each night and checked each morning for footprints. If some were found, we could not go out to work in the fields until they were scanned for mines. I came back to Australia captivated by the whole country and full of admiration for Israel and the Kibbutz way of life.

Not long afterwards I was given a copy of the book “Peace in the Holy Land” by Glubb Pasha, a British Officer who had advised the Jordanian army for many years. This book gives a very detailed history of that part of the world, demonstrating how intricate and diverse are its past realities that evokes such passion. Different people use these to justify their claims of ownership of the small strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. This book, together with an overland trip for 6 months through Africa from Capetown to Morocco in 1972 began to broaden my views.

After backpacking around Europe and I ended up in Munich in 1973 where I joined a very multi-cultural youth group called Die Arche. Many of guys in the club came from Arabic countries and, even though this was just after the Olympic when Israeli athletes had been attacked, they were well accepted and helped the rest of us learn enough German to get by. I was particularly impressed by one, Saleh, who produced and starred in the annual Christmas pantomime. Saleh was Palestinian, born in Haifa, in 1948  he fled with parents and young sister eastward to his grandmother’s village and then to Jordan where he subsequently grew up in the Wahidat refugee camp in Amman. However, despite our budding romance, when the Munich winter froze my bones, I decided to head south back to an Israeli Kibbutz, this time Zikim on the beach just north of Gaza.

Once again I loved the life although the mood was now more sombre following the losses of the Sinai and Golon Heights in the Yom Kippur war. With the full approval the Kibbutzniks, I continued to correspond with Saleh and headed back to Munich in the summer of 1974. We were married later that year, purchased a Merk and drove to Amman (a hair-raising story of its own),

We arrived at the family home in Wahidat not long after the Jordanian authorities had expelled the PLO.  The houses were riddled with bullet holes and all had a place under the floor to hide from police and army raids. Fortunately, by this time, these were rare but it was pretty rough with only intermittent flows of water and electricity and poor drainage. Most Palestinian homes had a picture of Nasser on the wall, a symbol of new Arab nationalism. Most of Saleh’s family were away working in Libya or in the Gulf but gradually they returned and things improved. Despite his experience in the hospitality industry in Munich, Saleh could not get well-paid work and with a child on the way we decided to move to Australia.  The nearest Australian Embassy was in Beirut and getting Saleh’s visa meant a couple of trips there just as the civil war broke out (more hair-raising stories).

Despite an initial shock at the unintelligible Aussie English, Saleh adjusted pretty well to life in Australia, getting a diploma and a good job in hospitality.  In 1981, with our third child on the way we went back to Jordan for 2 years. Utilities in Wahidat had improved remarkably.  The construction, health and education services provided by the UN have done wonders there.  Our oldest daughter went to school and, as the wife of a refugee, I took the new baby to the local post-natal clinic where I was given good treatment including packages of dried milk (ironically donated by the Australian government). At that time relations between Jordan and Israel had improved to the extent that it had become relatively easy to cross the border.  Hopes for peace were high and we were visited by family relatives who had remained in Israel in 1948 and had not met since.  The second year there I taught Maths at an American School mixing with lots of diplomats and expats who were also optimistic on the future.

Saleh worked there on an innovative UN project to set up a hotel-college in Amman to train locals in tourism skills on the job. We went back 10 years later and were dismayed to find the collage in ruins.  The Intifada and reactions to it have had disastrous effects in the tourism industries of both Israel and Jordan. This may not seem much among all the destruction and setbacks of the last few decades but it is one of the images that symbolise the sadness and despair of those who seek peace.