“Far out in the desert,
in the midst of the rolling plains,
there is a deserted city all of basalt,
rising black and forbidding from the grey of the plain.” – Archaeologist HC Butler describing Umm al-Jimal
Six miles south of the Syrian border, I sat in a tiny office with three Jordanian women, sipping Arabic coffee. Outside, children were screaming happily at each other and dancing; it was recess at the all-girls school. The women stared at me with kind, open faces; they wondered what my purpose was there. After chatting for ten minutes about curriculum, motivation, poverty in this region, refugees, and resources, I asked the teachers how I could help them.
“You cannot help us,” the head teacher said.
Since I had moved to this country to do just that, my heart sank.
My journey to Jordan started more than a decade ago. After serving two tours in the United States Peace Corps, one in China and one in Micronesia, I decided to get my Master’s degree in teaching English. Having gotten my hands dirty (literally) in the developing world, I knew this was my calling.
After my first semester in graduate school, I joined a group called “Global Majority” a non-profit organization that believed the majority of the world wished to live without violent conflict. We taught non-violent conflict resolution locally in the Monterey Bay area, and also taught graduate level workshops abroad. I participated in “Promoting Peace Through Dialogue” in Amman, Jordan in 2007, and toured through Israel and Palestine after the course.
It must have been the unforgiving desert, the divine sunsets, the amazing people, the coffee, history seeping from every rock, tree, and hill and the tumult of the region that drew me in and wouldn’t let me go; I fell in love with the place. I visited three more times, in 2008, then in 2010 and 2011 while I was living a little closer, in Afghanistan.
After the Syrian Civil war began, I wanted to return to this land even more to help the people in any way that I could. Idealistically, I believed that advancing education in the region would benefit everyone. Since I was a teacher, I thought there was something I could offer.
So, in the tiny office at the all-girls school I sat right where I dreamt I should be.
When the teachers told me there was nothing I could do, it threw me off for a moment. I adjusted and came at it from another angle.
“Ok, what about some English language training?” I asked.
“That is nice, you are welcome here,” the third teacher said.
That was the end of the meeting. We all stood up and left the office.
In the front hall, we embraced and kissed cheeks. Girls zigged and zagged around us; screams and smiles filled the air. It was a dissonant scene compared to what I felt on the inside; the meeting hadn’t gone as planned.
Not knowing what to expect, I prepared for my next stop, an all-boys school across from the ancient ruins at Umm al-Jimal. As we raced the dust devils down the highway, I noticed I was the only unveiled female as far as the eye could see. I regretted not bringing my scarf.
“Umm al-Jimal” or “Mother of camels” is an ancient Nabatean City constructed entirely from basalt. The black stones contrast with the blue sky and orange desert sand so sharply it looks like a mirage. Even when Romans ruled the city, Umm al-Jimal remained an important stop on the Bedouin trade routes. Situated south of modern day Bosra, Syria, and northeast of Amman, Jordan, the path through the area was an intersection of cultures, a well-trodden oasis for the multitude of camel caravans that stopped there to buy and sell goods.
We parked in the lot behind the school.
Unlike the whimsical mood at the girls’ school, the energy on the playground here was gritty. Boys kicked soccer balls at each other and wrestled on the ground. Papers and candy wrappers blew across the blacktop, a kitten bolted through the chaos.
The four English teachers from the school met with me in a deserted science class.
The men smiled in my general direction. They were so excited I couldn’t even introduce myself.
“I’m Khaled and this is Khaled!” The first teacher enthusiastically stated.
“You are both Khaled.” I confirmed.
“Oh and he is Khaled too!” The teachers pointed at another guy in the room, “But he is the science teacher, this is his classroom.” Everyone giggled.
Without me asking, the teachers suggested what I could do for the school.
“You can help us with curriculum integration, teaching methods, working with no electricity, small classrooms, no resources, too much wind, and no chalk, right?” Asked the head teacher.
“Yes, maybe not in that order,” I joked.
One teacher roared with laughter. The others glanced to him and followed his lead. We all laughed until we couldn’t laugh anymore. The meeting ended on that note.
The lead teacher showed me around the school, kittens followed me from class to class, little boys gawked and jumped up and down asking who I was, the librarian showed me the school’s books.
When we had met and seen the school, the headmaster, dressed in traditional Bedouin thobe and head dress told me, “Please come back, we will help you help us. Welcome, mother of camels!”
I laughed, some Arabic words were exchanged, and then the headmaster said, “Sorry, I mean welcome to our town, called the Mother of Camels.”
As I drove away from Um al-Jimal, I felt a huge sense of gratitude.
Maybe I can’t help the people as I envisioned I could.
Maybe I am just a witness to lives lived on the fringes, telling stories, being eyes so that others may see what unfolds thousands of miles away from the western world, just six miles south of a brutal civil war that unravels day by day.
Maybe I am the figurative “mother of camels,” an intersection of culture and beliefs where people exchange ideas and tales, on their way to another place…far out in the desert, in the midst of the rolling plains…