Jordanians say that 65% of the Old Testament took place in their territory. Moses led his people to Mount Nebo and died in sight of the promised land. Turned away by the kingdom of Edom, he conquered Moab, leaving two and a half of his twelve tribes on the land.
This has been a nation of refugees for thousands of years. Jordan's population, 500,000 at independence in 1946, is now 8 million plus another 4 million exiles, the world's highest ratio of displaced peoples. First Palestinians arrived from the Israeli conflicts in 1948, 1967 and 1973. Lebanon's 15-year civil war drove many into Jordan, and both Palestinians and Iraqis fled there amid the Gulf wars of 1990 and 2003.
The Asraq Refugee Camp In Jordan (Photo: Charles Ommanney/ Getty Images)
Today, the Syrian horror has forced another diaspora onto Jordanian land.
The refugee camps — tents and improvised shacks of sticks and plastic sheeting — are visible miles from the Syrian border. The first clues are the debris fields of litter, discarded water bottles, then rotten trash and excrement. There are thousands of cars, clapped out Peugeots and Japanese pickup trucks circled in gypsy caravans. They have no fuel but make decent shelter.
UNHCR and NGOs are keeping starvation and epidemic at bay. But last week the first chilly rains of winter turned the camps into mud, bringing more misery for a traumatised population of frightened families, feral children, surprising levels of drug use and the stunned fury of those who have lost nearly everything. Revenge must be foremost in the minds of many. The Holy Land is fertile ground for extremism.
The local Jordanians are angry too. Their country has long been a calm oasis in a brutal neighborhood; the shock absorber of the Levant. But dependent on overseas aid and with its land slowly turning to desert, Jordan's famous hospitality is strained to breaking point. Tourism is down 70% to 90% from its peak, hoteliers say. Incomes have been static for 15 years even as richer foreign refugees have pushed prices ever higher. Official unemployment is 12%; in reality it is much higher. It is no wonder that the young seek new lives in any country willing to accept them.
The older, poorer, or less qualified are stuck here, and bitter. People like Fatih, our guide. His views are probably representative, for no other local we met disputed his narrative. Wherever he looks, he sees corruption. He expertly recites the injustices of the British and French legacy of the transJordan mandates. The US is reviled for dividing the Arabs; everyone knows that 9/11 was a CIA plot, probably in cahoots with Mossad. But Fatih has equally harsh words for the Gulf states (exploiters), the Lebanese (arrogant), Iranians (fanatics), Egyptians (treacherous), Iraqis (corrupt) and Syrians (savages, although he admires their sweet desserts). The only person praised is Turkey's Erdogan ('a strong leader').
A telling moment came last Saturday when reports arrived of a Russian jet crash in the Sinai. Obviously a conspiracy, we were told, and divine retribution for the hundreds of Syrian Sunni civilians killed by Russian jet strikes the week before.
What about ISIS, we asked? Here the conversation took a new turn. Fatih is sympathetic. Not to ISIS brutality of course, but to its cause: the world revolution that surely is nigh. Things have been so bad for so long that the Daesh ideology of justice appeals widely: a disciplined, honorable caliph free of all vice. Fatih is getting excited now. The Jordanian woman accompanying us, a doctor, squirms but remains silent.
It is little matter that ISIS itself extorts those few brave truck drivers willing to cross into Iraq and Syria with fresh produce. They are charged US$700 per crossing, in greenbacks naturally, a ransom almost as valuable as the entire load of tomatoes and watermelons they carry. With a relatively open media, Jordanians are also aware of the methodical rapes, floggings, amputations and other atrocities over their borders, but they are hardened to such realities now. Life under their Hashemite kingdom seems unpromising anyway, so all alternatives seem worthy of consideration. Fatih reckons ISIS should be treated as a serious stakeholder in a grand regional peace negotiation.
We feel guilty about receding from this mayhem, first by mule and then by coach. There are many heroes on the ground here: foreign medics, the refugee teachers who run the makeshift schools, and most of all those silently suffering a conflict that has run for four years. Drenched by rain, the adults look up despondently as we withdraw. Their kids run alongside us, waving.
Everyone here says the situation is untenable. Things must change, but no-one can say if they will change for the better.