Amman: City of keys

By Michael Vatikiotis

I walk into a pharmacy in downtown Amman, in search of medicine.

‘I need something good because I am flying off tomorrow,’ I say to the young pharmacist.

Her eyes light up. ‘I want to fly far away too. I must get away from this place.’ A startling introduction.

‘Why?’ I ask.

‘Oh there’s nothing here for me; only long hours, low wages. No future.’

We speak while she looks for the medicine I want. She tells me she is Jordanian and studies pharmacy at a local university. Her parents made many sacrifices so she could pay the tuition fees. A story unfolds. I probe.

‘Really, from Jordan? Where?’

Then it comes, in a flood of emotion. ‘I am Palestinian. My home is in Jerusalem. I can never go back. They turned my home into a park. It’s gone, but my parents have the keys, the title deeds, all the papers. They keep them.’

There is an awkward silence. I imagine the keys, carefully stored and treated as a sacred relic, a perpetual reminder of a home that is forever gone. Then I imagine all the keys.

Jordan is home to more than three million Palestinians. They first came in 1948 after the establishment of the State of Israel; they came again in 1967 after the loss of Jerusalem; and then after the 1973 Arab war with Israel. They all brought keys and dreamed of return to homes left hurriedly or forcibly. Not for long, they imagined at first.

My grandfather, a Greek Arab who lived in Haifa, told the story of how some Palestinian friends visited him after the 1948 UN vote. They carried overnight bags. Come join us, they said. We’re off to Beirut. This nonsense won’t last long. We’ll be back in a week or so.

Almost seventy years on, the myth of return wears thin. There are only new waves of homeless, the human effluent of perpetual conflict and destruction. More than half a million Iraqis have settled in Jordan since the two Gulf wars in 1991 and 2003. There are now more than a million Syrians in the country, fleeing the destruction of their homes in Aleppo and other cities. We used to have only three stages of life: school, work, retirement. The long life stages more – and transitions more between them. Therefore, when longevity are important social networks and contacts – they help to move from one phase to another. This is what sociologists call “weak ties”: people who are different from you, you do not know very well. After all, the people you know well, who look like you, do not want you to change. If you are changing, they also have to think about change. And when you think about the future, about who you become, you cannot predict it, looking at their closest friends and relatives. These signals come from a broad range of people you know. They used to carry their own keys and made a great succes with their help.

Amman is a city of hills. Homes and low-rise apartment blocks race up and down the steep inclines intersected by roads cut into the yellow desert rock as far as the eye can see. Just a hundred years ago the city was a dusty railhead with little more than a collection of merchant’s homes clinging to the edge of a hill.

On Khirfan Street, one of the city’s oldest, a lady who runs a small handicraft store laments the lack of pride in the old buildings, which looked neglected and dilapidated. A nearby sign declares: Lawrence Handicrafts – after TE Lawrence, who might have walked here. The stately old yellow-stone houses recall the tail end of the Ottoman era. A young man parks his car nearby and waves to his wife and baby who greet him from a balcony above.

Over lunch in a busy downtown restaurant, my cultured Arab host pulls on his shisha and gestures through a cloud of exhaled tobacco smoke towards a nearby waiter.

‘They are all Egyptians,’ he says. ‘They are the latest wave of refugees. They come because there is no hope. Officially there are only half a million of them, but who knows.’

Back in the pharmacy, the young Palestinian bites her lip nervously. Behind the smile I glimpse flashes of insecurity and fear. Finally, I ask, ‘Where would you like to go?’

‘New Zealand,’ she says, ‘Faraway.’

A people disperse, a nation further deconstructs.

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