What I had thought would be two days in the desert turned out to be eight days in the outback near al-Azraq village and the Saudi Arabian border. It was eventful and would end in much soul searching and eventually fleeing for the borders of Amman.
The drive from Zarqa to Azraq (on the route to Iraq and Saudi) takes you past WW2 prisoner-of-war-style refugee camps, endless army bases and bedouin goat-hair tents. But it took us several hours to even get out of Zarqa. This was largely due to Samir’s PPP (piss poor preparation) and our second instalment of the Samir School of Arabic. This module was entitled ‘Language in Action: By Force’ and saw Duncan and myself being thrown out of the car with a handful of dinars and hastily learned arabic phrases to buy Samir cigarettes, lighters, water, bread and engine oil. But I will never forget the pharmacists confused face as I asked her for 850g of diabetes medicine (saying the english numbers with an arabic accent) and a bottle of alcohol (for any wounds silly).
‘I don’t see why the tourists go to so much effort finding crusader castles in the desert when there are perfectly modern ones right beside the road,’ said Samir as we passed an american airforce base. Before cheerfully telling us the history of the local tank battalion, made up of hebrew speaking bedouin. Apparently their complete annihilation of the Israelis in 1968 is still a point of banter between him and his Israeli mates. Such was the in-car entertainment.
With no signposts, endless road turnings and an obviously deteriorating memory, it took Samir a few false starts before finding the correct bedouin camp to turn left at. The farm is a 500 metre long, 250 metre wide plot of land for growing alfalfa. Alfalfa is a protein rich plant that when dried and made into bails is sold to livestock owners to bulk up their animals. And it grows quick, up to 75cm in three weeks and sells for a lot of dollar.
The farm is managed by the lonesome Yousef, a bedouin with more limbs than teeth. A simple man, who sleeps under the stars with his guard puppy called Theeb (wolf) and has a penchant for riddles. As soon as I began addressing him as ‘sheikh’ we totes became bessies and he would rattle away at me in the bedouin dialect. I mostly had no idea what he was on about but have picked up the knack of nodding at sufficient intervals to get by.
Our project for the stay was to plot out the land on which we would then help construct a pioneeringingly cheap and efficient overhead irrigation system. Obviously sufficiently qualified for such a role, Duncan and I jumped into doing whatever we could to help. The first few days were slow as we waited for the required parts to be delivered by Samir’s elusive, but well-moustached farming partner, Abu-Fayed. We erected our UN refugee tent, shoveled sand and cement, and constructed a rocky path between the caravan, tent and makeshift shower (a hand held hose).
We brought out our inner-surveyors in attempting to accurately measure land that was 250m by 250m with a flimsy 30m tape measure in gusty wind. Putting markers every 50 metres and then sighting them through binoculars to get a straight line. Then came the real fun, digging holes 1m by 1m by 1m, in which would go upright poles holding cables that would carry the irrigation pipes. Nope, me neither. ‘I like to live between crazy and ingenious’ laughed Samir, as he sat in his car after having just bent the pole by towing it from the wrong angle. We then lovingly set about digging out two of the holes into which we had just put the poles with anchoring rocks and sand.
Unforgettable starry nights, the milky way like a dash of white paint across the sky whilst either smoking shisha, learning short arabic songs, or playing the tabla drum and clapping along tunelessly. This was only slightly marred by the thunderous sound of fighter-bomber jets taking off from near by bases on their way to patrol the Syrian and Iraqi borders.
We could tell Samir’s idea for this project wasn’t entirely going to plan. Over the days we came to know him much better. This one time air-steward, mile-high club member, Phd holder, multiple factory owner, boat captain, Jordanian air force pilot, friend of King Abdullah and Jordan’s only licensed seller of Israeli weaponry. Not to mention his A level in embellished life stories, which I’m sure made his Irish father and Scottish daughter very proud.
Throughout our time with Samir, we have met his family and experienced hospitality that went beyond what we expected. We put in the work, had fun, learnt much useful dialectal arabic, cooked and cleaned without a fuss.
There are no fixed rules for WWOOFing. But when, after a day digging in 40 degree heat, being told that we are selfish jokers, with no initiative, and that we sum up the dishonest nature of the West, we felt it was time to leave.
It’s painfully tense leaving someone on bad terms. Especially when they then turn the world on its head and insist on driving you all the way to Amman, stopping off for a complimentary double whiskey on the way. Still, win win.
It’s been a useful and eye-opening introduction to slim slice of Jordanian culture. No doubt Amman will be completely different. And I am already intensely excited about learning arabic with an american accent.