Nomads bound to pillars: the life of telecom tower guards in Al-Ruwaished

Nomads bound to pillars: the life of telecom tower guards in Al-Ruwaished

April 22, 2019

اقرأها بالعربية

Scattered along the desert road leading to Al-Ruwaished are telecommunications towers belonging to Jordan-based companies.

A person crossing the barren and empty road in the northern desert would notice that in the periphery of nearly every tower there are signs of life: tents, water hoses, goat stables, children playing, and men and women occupying themselves with their daily tasks.

These are the guardians of the towers, and locals of the area. They are hired by private security companies, which are contracted by the country’s three telecommunications companies in order to protect their towers from vandalism and copper cable theft.

They have brought their families into the middle of the desert to live in a state of  semi-isolation in exchange for a monthly salary that ranges between 200 to 250 dinars.

Among them is Ali Al-Ghayath (30 years old), who got his job four years ago when he learned through acquaintances that the previous guard of this tower was considering quitting work, and had been looking for a replacement.

He immediately arrived at the tower, which is located in a part of the desert covered by black volcanic rocks. He pitched a tent in which he lives with his fiftysomething mother, Um Abdallah, his sister Fatma (18 years old), and his brother, Hammad (11 years old).

Ali, who left school in the third grade, receives 250 dinars as his monthly salary, without social security or vacations.  

And since his contract with the company stipulates that he bear the cost for any theft the tower is exposed to, he is required to provide for its protection all day.  

The responsibility is burdensome, “and the salary is not enough,” says Ali, who confirms that, despite this, he does not think about leaving the place.  

This is because Ali, whose father has Syrian ancestry, belongs to a group of people whose nationality is undefined. They are known as “al-bidoun” (lit. “the without,” meaning they have no citizenship).

There are not many work opportunities in Al-Ruwaished for a young man without citizenship, and who has not completed his elementary education.

Ali Al-Ghayath in front of home and the tower her guards.

Al-Ruwaished district, which administratively belongs to Al-Mafraq governorate, is located in the far east of the kingdom, 270 kilometers from the capital of Amman, extending for nearly 22,000 kilometers.

The Department of Statistics estimates the number of the district’s residents at the end of 2018 to be nearly 8,000 people. They are distributed between nine residential areas: Al-Ruwaished, Manshiat Al-Ghayath, Salihiya Al-Na’im, Al-Rouda, western Al-Risha, Al-Ruqban, Al-Ithna, Al-Fida, eastern Al-Risha, Al-Karameh, Al-Mashaqiq, and Rouda Al-Ruwaished.

The district occupies second place in the ranking of the poorest districts, according to the latest official numbers provided on the district in 2010.[1] The percentage of the poor among its residents reached 69.6%.

The district, since the first survey on poverty conducted in 2002, has been alternating between the first and second place rankings [in terms of poverty] alongside Wadi Araba, in Aqaba governorate.  

Al-Ruwaished shares borders with three neighboring countries: Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria. Historically, before the borders were drawn between these countries, this region was an open pasture for the area’s tribes. This is according to the former director of the Administration of Lands and Spaces, engineer Nidal Al-Siqarat.

After the borders were drawn, the tribes continued to pass through them searching for water and grass under bilateral agreements between the border countries. These agreements arranged points and times for crossing, and mechanisms of entry and departure for those tribes, their livestock, and their property.  

Texts that regulate shepherds’ crossing of the borders can be found in agreements, some of which date back to the time of the Emirate [of Transjordan], and some extend to the mid 1980s.[2]  

Ali’s father, a sheepherder, crossed over from Syria into Jordan in this way. He decided, in 1978, to settle down in Jordan. So, he married and bore his sons and daughters in the desert, none of whom hold Jordanian citizenship today. This is despite the fact that, according to Ali, his father tried for 20 years to attain it.

Now, the sole identity paper Ali owns is a birth certificate, by which he receives the salary the company sends to him by check at a money exchange shop in Al-Ruwaished.

This is Ali’s first stable job. When he left school, he started helping his father with shepherding. He says that he hated the job and that he did not develop any skills through it.  

Therefore, when he reached twenty years of age, his father told him: “Go fetch for yourself.” So, he shifted to shepherding for other people. He was entrusted with two flocks of sheep, the number of which reached 500 sheep altogether.  

He had to leave in order to herd the sheep in the deep desert: “I couldn’t go too far in herding the sheep in the wilderness. I was scared of the wild (…) beasts and hyenas. I was young (…) So, I would herd in an area for a month but then I would have to leave because [the flock owner] would tell me: ‘go, your shepherding is no good.’”

Thus, he left shepherding and turned to day labor in tomato and peach farms in Al-Mafraq governorate.

Then, for a period of time, “I worked, pardon me, with chicken manure. They would bring it from chicken farms from Al-Mafraq in sacks and then we would spread it on the tomatoes.”

His mother also worked on those farms. She says that she was happy to move to work in this place: “[Working with] tomatoes exhausted us…we got sick of it, bored… our backs started hurting us.”

In order to demonstrate the [tomato farming] posture, Um Abdullah arches her back and touches her hands to the ground: “You would need to stay like this [in this posture].” Then she resumes her explanation: “But then Allah brought us the guardianship of this tower, and we moved to this black rock.”

The tower Ali Al-Ghayath guards.

At the site, as with other tower locations, there is a caravan provided by the telecommunications companies as a home for the guards. However, according to Ali, the caravan is made from iron, its interior does not exceed 3×3 meters, and it is very cold in winter and very hot in summer. Thus, the family uses it as a storehouse for livestock feed for their few goats, which they had acquired to help with their livelihood.

Meanwhile, the family stays in the tent, which they occupy during the stinging desert cold of winter, and which they heat with firewood.

Ali says that they resort to the caravan only when the tent, which is lined with plastic sheets, is incapacitated by rains and strong winds:

“Once, a sand storm came and knocked down the house, so we sat in [the caravan] until the storm subsided.”

A tent  Al-Ghayath family uses for goats. 

The family uses gas for cooking. To provide for the flame, they use firewood and goat dung as fuel. Um Abdullah says, “We gather firewood from around us and put manure from the livestock over it and [then] we light it.”

As for water, it comes to the family in cisterns drawn from water holes widespread throughout the desert. These were dug by the Ministry of Agriculture so that they would fill with rainwater during the winter.

The local shepherds use them to water their flocks. These holes are one of the water sources that area locals depend upon to partially cover their water needs. According to the Director of the Administration of Water Collection in the Ministry of Agriculture, engineer Ayman Al-Hadid, the number of these holes is 52. These are designed to [collectively] hold 3.5 million cubic meters. In addition, there are six earth dams, which hold 68 million cubic meters. There are also 16 artesian aquifers, but eight of them are shut down, according to Al-Hadid. He adds that there are also two privately owned wells in the region.

The nearest of these to Ali’s family is the Al-Ghussin well.

Um Abdullah says, “We draw from it on the day they operate it, but its water is salty and undrinkable. We draw from it for the livestock and for the washing up.”

Therefore, the family buys drinking water from a filtered water store in Al-Ruwaished. To get there, Ali takes the bus if he encounters it on his walk, but mostly he hitchhikes with passing cars.

As for electricity, there is a generator belonging to the telecommunications company at the site. According to Ali, the company allows them to operate it for a few hours a day. They have therefore decided to use it during night hours, in order to have light.

This means that they cannot use a refrigerator, which is a big problem in the desert summer: “There is no cold water in hot weather, the intense heat… it’s killing us.” But Um Abdullah improvises by putting ice that they get from Al-Ruwaished “in the blankets.”

The tent Al-Ghayath family lives in. 

Um Abdullah, whose husband is married to a second woman and lives with his other family in Al-Ramtha, has four boys and two girls, of whom three are married. She lives with the rest: Ali, Fatima, and Hamid.

Fatima has never entered a school in her life, because the family has always lived in places far from the schools.  

But she says that she learned to discern letters from her brother Hamid’s books, and by using her mother’s phone.  

And she discerns, to a certain degree, the translated subtitles of foreign shows on the television that is turned on at night.  

Despite the fact that she is at a marriageable age, according to what is conventionally accepted in her social circles, she says that she is waiting for her brother to get married in order for his wife to take her place in serving the family: “I feed the sheep. My mother has no energy. It’s just me who feeds them, [as well as] washing dishes, cooking and housework.”

Young Hamid seems more fortunate, as he studies at a school in Manshiat Al-Ghayath, and lives with his married sister there.  

He comes to the family tent by the tower during his days off. But he says that he hates school vehemently because the teachers always beat the students.  

His mother says that the family forces him to stay in school. But Hamid affirms that he is strongly determined to leave.

As for what he will do after that, he says that he will wait to grow up, and then: “I will roam with the livestock (…) I will acquire sheep and I will graze them near to where people live.”

At the time of the meeting, there was a plastic storehouse in front of the tent on which wild herbs were spread out to dry.

Fatima said that they had gathered the grasses from the area to feed the goats. They take them out to graze for a few hours every day, not far from the place.  

The family always ensures that, as family members move, someone remains at the tower: “It’s a responsibility. We can’t leave the tower.”

All of those with whom we met informed us that at least one of the family members must remain at the site, even after the end of the official work hours specified by the Labor Law.  

This means that, technically, the task of guarding the towers is a duty that falls on the entire family; it is a mission towards which they all put in effort.

Consequently, their movement is limited. So Ali’s family, for example, visit their relatives in Manshiat Al-Ghayath, as Um Abdullah says, “every two or three months.”

Even doctor visits, Um Abdullah says, are affected: “I have a pain in my ear. I clean it and then I get drops (…) when I want to go to Al-Mafraq, I ride the bus and my children stay here.”

Hamid, Ali Al-Ghayath’s younger brother.

What is important, according to those we met, is that there be “presence” in the place, meaning that someone be there. This is what made a man of Jasem Al-Ghayath’s age (89 years old) get this job.  

Jasem has worked as a guard for seven years, or since he was 82 years old.

Jasem and his wife have ten children, of whom seven are married. Their child Zeinab (29 years old) lives with them with her daughter Hala (3 years old), as well as their son, Mohammed (26 years old).

There is also Shafa’ (18 years old) who studies in a high school in Al-Ruwaished, and lives with her brother in Salahia Al-Na’im, which is 33 kilometers away from the tower. She only visits during her days off.  

At the location Jasem guards, there are two towers: one that he was contracted to guard, and another that belongs to a second telecommunications company. He is not responsible for guarding the latter, but his proximity to it forces the work of guarding it on him, without compensation.

He recounts that, a year ago, a “Diana” truck carrying three men appeared. They introduced themselves as engineers from the telecommunications company who had come to fix a malfunction at the tower. They began to cut the cables and put them on the truck.  

Zeinab says that the misgivings that made them suspect the men were the truck’s license plate, and also that no one from the security company contacted them prior to the technicians’ arrival: “We called the tower people in Amman. They said: ‘arrest them and hand them over to the police.’”

So they notified the police, who detained them near Al-Ruwaished. Zeinab says that the telecommunications company then asked them what they wanted as a reward: “My brother asked for an internet cable. They gave him fifty dinars.”

Jasem Al-Ghayath with his granddaughter Hala.

Jasem receives assistance from the Ministry of Social Development worth 76 dinars, and gets a salary from his job of 200 dinars.  

Like Ali, he heard about the job from the guard who came before him. He made an agreement with the company verbally: “There is no contract (…) when [the company] says go, you’re gone.”

7iber’s previous report indicated that the reason for the deterioration in the guards’ salaries, who are hired by security and protection companies, can be attributed to the fact that the number of these companies is much higher than the market’s demand. This pushes them “to put forward job offers at very low prices, and this damages the workers’ interests.”

According to Ali Al-Zboun, the director of one of these companies, a job offer to guard a location can reach 260 dinars.   

This explains why some companies pay salaries lower than the minimum wage, and why their associates are not provided with social security.

The tower that Jasem guards is located in an area of the desert that has a different nature from that of the black rock area in which Ali’s family lives.  

There are dunes of soft sand formed by sandstorms that pass through the place where he had pitched his tent:

“Every gust of wind comes to us as a cloud on the ground. If you extend your hand, you won’t see it.”

Inside the tent, Jasem gestured towards a line in the tent fabric about half a meter off the ground. He said that the winds gather sand in dunes; their height reaches that line, and they press on the sides of the tent from the outside. Gradually, the fabric shreds due to their weight.

Jasem says that he is not happy in this place. He is surrounded by all of this dirt, which he breathes in all day, and which often forces him to visit the hospital to access a nebulizer.

“And the scorpions [are as common as] ants.” His daughter Zeinab confirms this: “We sleep and wake up in the morning to find scorpions under the bed.” She adds that there are snakes as well. One of them attacked last summer, and her brother killed it with a stick.

Jasem Al-Ghayath in front of his tent.

Jasem sits inside the tent all day. Behind him, on a shelf, there is a row of coffee pots. He says that he loves collecting them.

He spends his days drinking coffee as well as rolling and smoking “Al-Hisha” cigarettes.

When we met him, his wife was visiting her daughter in Al-Mafraq. Meanwhile, he was spreading out before him black nylon bags in which he stores his many medications. He says that he misses his wife a lot when she is away:

“We grew older and we hurt at night. I don’t sleep. From 3 a.m. until now I stay up (…) My wife has insomnia. When she is here, she stays up all night to cover me.”

Jasem owns a small house in Al-Ruwaished, which he rudimentarily built in the 1980s without pillars:

“It’s a very small house that even a hyena wouldn’t occupy. It’s a bunch of blocks packed in together and a corrugated iron roof on top.”

He is not opposed to living in a tent, as he does not tolerate staying in cement houses in the first place.

When he was in Al-Ruwaished, he always stayed in a tent pitched by the side of his house:

“The tent is spacious; it’s an open house. People come, you light the fire, you make coffee. The neighbors come and you go to your neighbors.”

What bothers him is that he is isolated from people:

“I’m tied to the tower. I swear, my good man, I’m tied to the tower (…) unless it’s a serious situation. The girls and their mother stay here when we go to Al-Ruwaished. But when their mother is away, I can’t leave them.”

Jasem Al-Ghayath in his tent.

This is the opposite of the life that he wants, and to which he has adapted throughout his life. His eyes glitter as he recalls what he says were the best days of his life, during the 1960s and 1970s, when he would move with his sheep across the open borders:

“You wandered wherever you wanted and nobody told you where to go.”

During those years, he was single. He married for the first time at the end of the 1950s, and had a daughter and a son. His daughter was ten months old and his son was one month old when their mother died after a sudden illness.  

The two had been breast-fed by her: “That day, there was no teat, no milk, nothing. From where could we feed them? So, we would smash rice and sprinkle it with sugar to feed them.”

The little one lived for two months after his mother’s death. But the older girl died at fifteen years of age — also after a sudden illness.

After his first marriage, Jasem remained single for 20 years. He roamed in the desert, carrying little with him, from one country to another. He remembers that this flexibility in crossing borders continued until the 1980s.

These were days in which “a person did not worry and kept roaming, and taking care of girls (…) thinking about this life, and thinking: when did I become responsible for a family?”

“Poverty is all bad,” says Jasem, as his daughters are the reason that he retains this job:

“I am forced to stay here. I need to feed my daughters (…) but at this old age, with all this dust around me, as you can see, how can I not work? I swear, I cannot quit for one night.”

He says that his sons “do their best,” but that they all have families. Their salaries are pledged to the banks in exchange for loans to build their houses.

It’s the girls, says Fayiz Al-Rawili (37 years old), that forbid him from “turning to crime.” Fayiz is another tower guard. He got his job six years ago, and lives on the site with his wife Ajayib (29 years old) and his daughters Safaa (7 years old), Wafaa (6 years old) and Marwa (2 years old).

Fayiz Al-Rawili with his family.

Like Ali, Fayiz does not have a nationality. His father was born in 1941 in Jordan to his grandfather, who was a sheepherder, and who had crossed the border to Jordan when the borders were open. He says that his father tried more than once to obtain citizenship, but did not succeed.

According to Fayiz, his oldest brother, who was the only adult among his siblings, requested citizenship in 1994. His father did not, as he had despaired due to repeated rejections.

His brother obtained citizenship, but Fayiz’s father, his wife, and seven underage children have remained without citizenship since then until now.

Fayiz receives a monthly salary of 250 dinars, also without social security or vacations. He has been working since graduating from high school in 2001 as a sheepherder, a day laborer on farms, and in guarding quarries.

But he was often hindered due to problems with his corneas. Thus, when he learned about this job, he brought his family to the tower. It is located nearly 40 kilometers from Manshiat Al-Ghayath, where they used to live in his father’s house.

He and his wife pitched a tent sewn from blankets bearing the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He said that he acquired them from stores in Al-Za’tari, the owners of which had bought them from Syrian refugees.

During the interview, we sat in the caravan, the supposed guard’s residence. Fayiz had placed some old spongy bedding inside it. He uses it as a “madafa,” or guest room, for those he cannot host in the tent.  

Like the rest, he said that he and his wife and daughters resort to staying in it only when there are very heavy rains, or strong winds that could knock down the tent.

Fayiz says that they repeatedly requested a bathroom, at the very least, but to no avail.  

In the meantime, there are “piles of sand” near the site that they use for relieving themselves.

The tent Al-Rawili family lives in and the tower he guards.

A curtain was drawn against the door opening of the tent, but a song could be heard playing inside. The lyrics were: “My life is beautiful stories and tales, family and friends, a friend in all moments, my life is prettier than the most beautiful of words.”

It was a song from a cartoon series, issuing from the old television set located in the middle of the tent. The three girls seated in front of the television were watching it with rapt attention.  

Meanwhile, their mother Ajayib sat on the torn carpet that covered the dirt floor of the tent, leaning her back against the sacks of goat feed stored indoors in order to preserve them from the rainfall.

She comments that the television is the girls’ only window to the world beyond this place, where they live in isolation.  

Safaa and Wafaa are supposed to be in school, but the nearest one is located in Al-Ruwaished.

“We were forced to delay them because of work. If we put them in school, there would be no work. We don’t think we’ll put them in next year. Nothing will change.”

Safaa was less than two years old when her father moved to live next to the tower. Wafaa and Marwa came into the world inside this tent.

Ajayib doesn’t remember exactly during which month she gave birth to the girls, but she remembers that the birth of Wafaa happened in winter, and Marwa’s in summer.

At the time of Wafaa’s birth, she stayed at her family’s home in Manshiat Al-Ghayath for three days before returning to the tower.

At the time, before the company provided the caravan, there was an even smaller cement room. Later, the company demolished it and installed solar panel units in its place.  

 

Ajayib retreated to that room with her infant to seek shelter from the rains, which fell heavily on that day.  

But the room did not protect them:

“We didn’t sleep that night. The window leaked water on us, and the door as well. We were scared that the room would fill with water, and that we would not react fast enough (…) I would mop [the water] with rags.”

But Marwa was born with hip dysplasia, cleft lips, and a cleft palate. Ajayib says that, in order to lessen the effect of the desert heat,

“I would spray a blanket with water and cover her with it because of her fever; I would soak it in water, drain it, and put it over her.”

Fayiz Al-Rawili’s daughters (right to left): Wafaa, Marwa and Safaa.

When the journey to cure Marwa began, the family’s biggest challenge was to not leave the tower alone. Therefore, Ajayib was the one who took care of the matter of doctor’s visits.

However, Fayiz was once forced to accompany her. This happened last year, when Marwa underwent surgery at Al-Ruwaished hospital, and suffered complications that pushed the hospital to transfer her to Al-Bashir hospital in Amman.

Ajayib says that she rode in the ambulance “and Fayiz stayed on the phone.”

Nevertheless, he then decided to join them. When they returned, they found that their tent had been robbed: “two gas tanks, two blankets, money, shampoo.”

Ajayib says that all she wants is to return to her house in Manshiat Al-Ghayath “and stay with my mother and sisters-in-law and put my daughters in school,” but she does not believe that this will ever be realized.  

“Every year, we say that this year will be different, and it doesn’t change (…) I think that this lifestyle is eternal.”