Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Travel/ Issues: Across the Dead Sea

IS THAT stained glass that I see before me? Or is it the Dead Sea at first glance? Are the dusky shadows playing tricks on me? It's almost impossible to tell at about 6 p.m. in November 2011.

The water shimmers. The sky, on fire, takes its cues from the sea. Luminous oranges, reds, purples, and indigos play over its stillness. The dome of the sunburnt sky kisses the waters, which glance back at the clouds with light.

That was a lyrical, charged half-hour I’ll never forget.

On a five-day Indian media familiarization trip hosted by the Jordan Tourism Board, there were some facts I knew about the Dead Sea. That it is 423 metres below sea level, the deepest known hypersaline lake. From Jordan, it laps at the shores of Israel and the West Bank across the brilliant stillness. 

This water body, 57 km by 18 km, lies in the Jordan Rift Valley. Its main tributary is the river Jordan. The water in the Dead Sea is ten times saltier than sea water (I know that from a gulp I swallowed by accident while trying to stay afloat). The relaxing bromine in its air is 20 times more concentrated than anywhere else, while the air around is eight per cent richer in oxygen than at sea level.

Its mineral-rich waters and rich, black mud have attracted visitors since time immemorial, including Herod the Great and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. German and Austrian citizens today can avail of Dead Sea therapies, courtesy their health insurance plans!

But – here’s a worrying thought – the water level in the Dead Sea is dropping by 30 cm annually. That’s because Jordan and Israel utilize its waters for industry, agriculture and domestic use.  Scientists fear that the lake may be dry by 2050.

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While sunset-gazing at the exquisitely-appointed Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea, I had other matters on my mind last November. Scenes from the Arab Spring surged to the fore. A grotesque image of Gaddafi’s death in Libya… closely followed by Hosni Mubarak’s end in Egypt… the ebb and flow of unabating civil strife in Iraq.

I rejoiced in the historic and natural beauties of Jordan. But inevitably against the backdrop of the ongoing anti-Assad turbulence in Syria. Lurking in the backdrop was the fragile peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. Today, I worry about the stalled peace process between them, initiated by King Abdullah II of Jordan just months ago.  

How many blockades of relief ships will it take before Palestinians are allowed to live with dignity? How many more homes will be bulldozed before the cries of innocent Palestinian children caught in the crossfire are heeded?

I remind myself that Jordan’s political neighbours are: Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and the West Bank.

                         Itaf (to my left in black) with me and Jenny from Peru at FOJO in Sweden, 1999.

Consciously, with deep sadness, my mind flits to my friend Itaf Yousef across the Dead Sea. A Palestinian journalist, we met during the ‘Women in Journalism’ seminar at FOJO at Kalmar (Sweden) in the fall of 1999. We were in touch erratically since then. But she has fallen silent for the past decade.

I have no clue if Itaf still lives in Ramallah. Or if she is still alive. Or if her two sons ~ they must be 20-plus now ~ are doing well. All I know is that I admire the sheer courage and tenacity of her life on the West Bank.  

My thoughts surge back to her last email in 2000. Itaf wrote about taking her two sons – then 9 and 11 – to Ramallah town, north of Jerusalem, on a day that began ordinarily enough. Her neighbour’s son, their classmate, came along too. One boy needed a haircut. Another needed to swap his library books. The third needed football boots. Everyday chores, did you say?

Mission accomplished, Itaf set out on the drive back home. En route, a Jewish settler from the barricaded houses around took a random shot at the vehicle. The result? Her neighbour’s son had to be rushed to hospital with a hole in his stomach. I just wanted to share a normal day in our lives, she wrote.

More recently, I came across Rafeef Ziadah, a Canadian spoken word artist of Palestinian origin. I feel strongly enough to share her voice and her thoughts here through her poem, 'Shades of Anger.' 

As I thought of Itaf, looking over the Dead Sea  last November, I heard another voice in real time. After I’d put down my camera, our gentle, caring Jordanian guide Abdul spoke softly, almost in a whisper. “When I look across the water, I see occupied Palestine,’ he says. He still has family on the West Bank.

In a trice, he transports me back to an inter-house debate at our school in Jaipur when I was 13. I don’t remember the exact topic, but I guess it was about the state of our world.

I recall saying, “I don’t like the world we’re living in. I wish we had a world without countries or borders, passports or visas… I wish children my age from Palestine and Tibet could come home and live with me. I think we could be friends and play together, and create the world we want…. I could share my room, my school, my city, and my country with them... I really would....”

I was startled when the judges for the debate (padres from a Jesuit school in Jaipur), gave me the best speaker prize. And said they were surprised to find such radical thoughts in one so young. I didn’t know what ‘radical’ meant then. I had to later look it up in a dictionary!!!

Even today, I haven’t moved too far away from my worldview at 13. I can’t imagine the pain of being a person without a country. Can you?

1 comment:

  1. Thoroughly enjoying Didi:) Its u said i want to travel through your eyes:)--som