Exeter, Devon UK • Feb 27, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home InternationalBeyond Exeter Studying abroad in the shadow of war

Studying abroad in the shadow of war

Harold Long writes about his experience of spending a term abroad in Jordan and the atmosphere in the country regarding the Israel-Hamas war.
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Image: Argenberg via Wikimedia Commons

I hadn’t gone to the open mic at Corners Pub, a bar close to Amman’s second circle, expecting to perform anything. But when one singer called Maha took to the stage and asked if anyone could play the Fairouz song “Ya Sahar El-Leyali,” one of a handful of Arabic songs that I knew off by heart, I changed my mind. I raised my hand, climbed on stage and sat at the piano, to the bemusement of the audience who were skeptical that this random white guy would be able to produce an ad-hoc rendition of a Lebanese classic. Fortunately, I proved the doubters wrong, and Maha’s performance turned out to be one of the night’s best, with the entire audience of 60 to 70 people singing along. I felt blessed to have been presented, quite by accident, with the opportunity to be a part of this joyful moment.

Corners Pub hasn’t run another event like the one I participated in that Saturday. Exactly one week later, the news was dominated by one thing: Hamas’ October 7th attack on Israel, in which it is now believed 1200 people were killed, including over 750 civilians. The tension that day was palpable. While some in Jordan interpreted the initial news as the start of a turn of the tide after 75 years of continued oppression by Israel, most were fearful of Israel’s impending retaliation which, based on historical precedent, was unlikely to discriminate between Hamas militants and ordinary Gazan civilians. This bleak prediction soon came true.

As the death toll in Gaza climbed from one thousand to ten thousand in just one month, the mood in the kingdom turned to despair and anger. One after another, events like the open mic at Corners Pub were cancelled. Few were in the mood for singing and dancing, which many felt to be inappropriate in light of the suffering of Gaza’s population of 2 million some 90 miles away. Weekly gigs at the bar Maestro, a show by comedian Mo Ammar and the final weekend of the European film festival were all cancelled. Nightclubs struggled to fill their dance floors, and even Christmas festivities were agreed by Jordan’s churches to be scaled back in solidarity with Gaza.

As the death toll in Gaza climbed from one thousand to ten thousand in just one month, the mood in the kingdom turned to despair and anger.

The only events that ran in this period were those specifically aimed at raising awareness of the plight of Gazans and of the Palestinian cause. These included free film screenings at the Rainbow Theatre and an art exhibition at the National Gallery displaying the work of a number of Gazan artists. On my visit to the exhibition, I encountered a hauntingly beautiful painting of a child sitting alone on a battlefield with a faraway stare. Another visitor informed me that its artist, Khaled Issa, had been killed in Gaza just two days prior.

It is estimated that well over half of Jordan’s population are Palestinian and in Amman the proportion is much higher.  In fact, I only know a handful of people there who have no family connection to Palestine. Many are refugees or their descendants. For them, following the news is not a matter of simply staying informed of events happening in another country. The assault on Gaza was the latest tragic chapter in a very long story that involved them, their people and their homeland. 

I was living with a Palestinian couple in their late 60s. Up until the 6th of October, the TV had mostly showed old Egyptian series and reruns of Britain’s Got Talent. As of October the 7th, the living room was subjected exclusively to 24/7 updates of the latest bombings and massacres as Israel meted out its vengeance. For the first weeks of the bombing campaign, my hosts scarcely left the television set. 

The rest of the city was similarly transfixed by Al-Jazeera’s coverage of eviscerated tower blocks, bombed-out mosques and churches and entire families wiped from the civil register, to such an extent that the streets felt noticeably empty. One month into the “war”, I visited a friend who owns a vintage clothes store. He told me I was the third customer he had had all day.

Of course, not all of the streets were empty. Protesters gathered outside the embassies of Israel and its steadfast ally, the US, on a nearly daily basis. I was invited to one of the larger protests in downtown Amman by a friend. On my way there, I was unnerved when my taxi driver asked if I’d brought an onion to protect me from tear gas. Fortunately, though there was a massive police presence, proceedings remained peaceful. Holding tightly on to the arm of my friend, so as not to be swept away by the flow of angry demonstrators, I was struck by the rage directed not just at Israel and America, but also the inaction of their own government, criticism of which is highly restricted. 

A particularly charged period was the aftermath of the “explosion” at al-Ahli hospital, as it was described in Western media. In Jordan no one was in any doubt that it was an Israeli airstrike that had caused the deaths of hundreds of Gazans sheltering inside. The following day all my teachers wore black and were noticeably emotional. We left home early to avoid the enormous march that was predicted to bring the entire city to a standstill.

In Jordan no one was in any doubt that it was an Israeli airstrike that had caused the deaths of hundreds of Gazans sheltering inside the hospital

The matter of the alleged bombing of al-Ahli hospital was particularly personal to the congregation of the Church of the Redeemer in Amman, whose donations help fund the Anglican-run hospital. The priest Father Haddad gave weekly updates on the state of the hospital and its equipment and, in the days following the incident, shared with disappointment the statement issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury who was felt to be ignoring Palestinian Christians. The sermons of Reverend Haddad, while calling for peace, were no less strident in their condemnation of what he denounced as the “genocide” of Gazans and castigated in strong terms the countries which were enabling it.

As it happened, I was a citizen of one of those countries. I lost count of the number of times that people told me how angry they were with Britain, not just for its current policy of blanket support for Israel’s actions but also for the historical role Britain played in instigating the problem a century ago with the 1917 Balfour declaration. Never once did I face any animosity towards me because of my nationality. Everyone I spoke to emphasised the necessity of separating between ordinary citizens and their governments, be they Western or Arab. Indeed, people often expressed their appreciation for the hundreds of thousands of people marching in solidarity with Palestinians in the streets of London. 

Though I arrived in Jordan already clear about my views on the 100-year-long injustice faced by Palestinians, living in such close proximity to what the International Court of Justice now says might constitute a genocide made it far more immediate. Streets that look much the same as the one I lived on were being reduced to rubble just on my doorstep. My friends could be the ones dying had their grandparents fled West instead of East in 1948. The experiences and frank conversations I had there have given me not only a deeper understanding of the conflict but also deeper shame in my government for ignoring its historic responsibility in righting a wrong that Britain helped to create.

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