Short Trips Around Small Countries: Jordan II

I recall two trips to Jordan in 1995.  The first trip I had an appointment in Amman with a Jordanian researcher who had requested to meet me.  I went from Jerusalem in a taxi driven by an Arab driver. This was suggested as a good idea since he could drive directly by the shortest route across the West Bank past Jericho (which was in the Palestine Authority) to the Jordanian border.  Israeli taxi drivers were afraid to take this route.  We crossed thru the area in record time and got to the PA-Israeli border post that one had to pass thru before crossing the official border between Israel and Jordan.

But, the Israeli border guards at the PA border post had not yet opened the gate.  So I went and chatted to them in English, and then the taxi driver suggested a short trip around, he said come, I’ll show you Arafat’s Villa, and we drove up the road to see a huge mansion.  So that was where all the aid money went.  Finally they opened the gate and let us thru.  After going thru the Jordanian border at the Allenby Bridge with my official US passport I had to hire a taxi to take me to Amman.

There was a lot of competition, and I chose a grizzled old man because it looked like he rarely got a fare. We were making good time to get to Amman for my meeting, with no a/c, but then disaster, we were held up in traffic for an hour.  It turned out that a truck had tipped over with its load all over the road.  I arrived 1.5 hrs late at the hotel in Amman, and there was a note saying that the Jordanian scientist could not wait any longer for me.

The following morning, there were two of us Americans who had arrived on day early for the meeting.  So the Jordanian authority that was sponsoring the meeting told us they would give us a car and a driver and we could go where ever we liked.  So we agreed we wanted to go to Jerash, the ruins of the largest Roman city in the region.  Our car turned out to be a big black Mercedes, and the driver spoke English, so we were whisked away north out of Amman.  Indeed the ruins at Jerash were amazing, the city was huge.  There was a large open piazza, and a long street with columns all along.  We spent a few hours there and had lunch in a nearby cafe.

Then we proceeded further north, in fact to the end of the road on the mountainous heights, to a Roman ruin at the village of Umm Qais.  There we sat on the veranda of a cafe and sipped tea with a magnificent view overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  I must admit this was an unusual situation for an American Jew and soon-to-be Israeli, overlooking the whole of northern Israel from the heights of Jordan, close to the convergence of the Israeli, Syrian and Jordanian borders.

We returned to Amman. It had been called Philadelphia by the Greeks.  It had been one of the ten Roman cities in the region, the Decapolis.  Little is left now of that ancient city, a large Roman theater still used for public events, and a citadel.  Not that much to see.  The next day our meetings started at the Center for Science and Technology on the campus of the University of Jordan in Amman.

A day or two later I was called out of a meeting of the JEG to meet the scientist who I had missed several days earlier.  It turned out that he was a biochemist who had been trained in the US and was now a Professor at a Jordanian University.   After introductions, I asked him why he had specifically asked to meet me.  He explained that he had been asked to join our program, but he was of Palestinian origin, and he had misgivings about it, and he wanted me to explain to him why it would be in his interest.  Then followed one of the most fascinating conversations I have ever had.  This was no extremist, this was an American-educated scientist who needed reassurance about this program and perhaps more generally.

I told him that unless he wanted his son and my grandson in Israel to be fighting each other in the next generation, there had to be a stop to the conflict, and this could only come about by acceptance of the other as well as modernization and development in his country, Jordan.  I thought that it was an amazing gesture of the US to help bring the two sides together and help foster Jordanian science and development.  There was no secret that Israeli science was way ahead of Jordanian levels, he obviously was aware of this.  So what was needed to improve the situation was technical development in Jordan and in the rest of the Arab world and not a return to continuing to fight the old wars.  He listened to me intently and asked questions and then went away.  Some days later I was informed that he had decided to join our program.

My contribution to the program was to suggest focus on isolating genes from plants adapted to growing in arid zones and transferring them to other plants that were not so adapted naturally.  In this way Jordan could use its large area of arid land that was so far infertile to increase its yield of food and other crops.  I also proposed establishing a plant biotechnology center in the Arava Valley between Israel and Jordan that would be used by scientists on both sides, with US help, to carry out this research.  It could be sustained by eco-tourism of the Arava Valley.  I am very pleased to say that some years later such an Institute was established.