The View across the Jordan

الخميس 04 تشرين الأول 2007

Written by Philip Mainwaring

[Editor’s note: This is a fictional short story taken from an extract from the novel, The Time of Ignorance. The story takes place in the fictional village of Zafana. It is set in the 1980’s, a time of considerable social change in the Ghor. This is part 1 of a 3 part series.]

Introduction: Abu Nimr, an aged Palestinian refugee, receives an unexpected windfall in the form of a lottery prize. From the upper storey of the lavish mansion he has built at the centre of his humble village, he peers across the Jordan River through his new field glasses at his former home of Beisan (now the Israeli city of Bet Shan). Recipient of new wealth but dispossessed of home and family, the senile old man finds solace in the enchanted glasses which enable him to gaze into his personal history of the world.

I arrived to find Abu Bassam sitting alone in the majlis tana’abil, peering out over the Ghor. Zafana lacked a coffee-house, so in the afternoons the men gathered at the circle of stones they had set up at the foot of the ancient mound which reared over the village like a slumbering beast. They had also rolled into place some weathered column capitals that had fallen from its eroded slopes. These made the best seats of all since they were stable and perfectly flat on top.

The circle was a place for the men to exchange gossip before congregating at the nearby mosque, and they had given it the ironic title of majlis tana’abil, or “bludgers’ council.” It served as an open-air forum for the landless and the powerless, an assembly which daily put to rights the shortcomings of the headman, or mukhtar, of Zafana; and the town council, or baladiya, of the large town of Maysira situated below the village at the foot of the Jordan Valley slope.

I could see Abu Bassam staring straight ahead as I approached along the road. With his round face and hooded eyes he resembled nothing less than a stone bust of the Buddha. His gaze took in the plain to the west of the village, rolling away in undulating waves of red soil and green seedlings, right up to the cliffs of pillowy limestone that reared above the town. Here, at the Jordan Valley margin, a lone acacia tree stood in the village cemetery where rough cement headstones marked anonymous graves. From there, Abu Bassam had a clear view to his home town of Beisan, now the Israeli city of Bet Shan, nestled on the far side of the Jordan River; then, through the gap formed by the Marj ibn al-’Amr, the faint blue arm of Mount Carmel could be seen in the far distance, stretched out along the Mediterranean coast.

His poker-face sprang to life when he recognised me and he greeted me in his formal way, pulling my shoulders toward him and planting a solid kiss on both cheeks. Taking my place beside him, I brought up the subject of the omnipresent puddle still spreading over the southbound lanes of the highway in Maysira. He informed me, with just a hint of satisfaction, that the town council had attempted to rectify the problem, but that the water had just kept coming back.

‘The baladiya has called in engineers and scientists and they have concluded that the water is coming directly out of the ground. I wonder if it has occurred to the sages who run our municipality that they are spending large amounts of scarce money trying to stop the flow of water in a land where it is in short supply,’ he reflected.

‘What great minds they have. How fortunate that they sit in the baladiya while a poor man like me sits out here on these stones.’

Then, changing track, he announced, ‘I am here all week, sitting in the circle in the afternoons so that people may call to offer their complements. My daughter Amni is to be married!’

‘Mabruk!’ I added my own congratulations.

‘Did you hear of Abu Nimr’s good fortune?’ he asked suddenly.


He raised his forefinger and pointed at the core of the village where several double-storied houses, square and white, were mushrooming over its low, ochre roofline. Change was coming to the village, just as to the town below. Traffic lights had been installed along the busiest section of Maysira’s thoroughfare but the improvements had only served to exacerbate the congestion rather than to ease it. Impatient vehicles were not long restrained at the white lines by the beady, red lights before one of them broke away and plunged the traffic into a tangle of stalled pick-up trucks. Even the dirt track leading to Zafana had been replaced by an asphalt road, accompanied up the hill by a line of poles carrying electricity from the main highway.

‘He won the lottery. A quarter of a million dinars.’

The national lottery was popular in the Ghor. Many families scraped and saved to put enough aside from their meagre earnings to purchase tickets on a regular basis. The prizes at stake were prodigious; enough to lift a landless labourer out of his daily drudgery and deposit him in a life of luxury as a master of a great villa, set among plantations of olives and oranges. Nobody from the local region had ever won the jackpot, but the newspapers carried the names of citizens from elsewhere who did, and the reports were followed assiduously. Omar, the proprietor of the general store in Maysira, employed boys to sell the tickets at the sides of the road on the outskirts of town. They would leap and yell at the passing traffic, swivelling their slim bodies with exaggerated, lewd motions, while flicking the purple wads of paper above their heads.

Such was the impassive nature of his delivery that Abu Bassam might have been reciting a funeral oration. He studied my astonished reaction through narrowed eyes, creased with irony, as if Abu Nimr’s luck was proof to him of the inherent absurdity of the material world.

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