by Dr Jehad Al-Omari
Many British readers will remember the great storm that hit England in October 1987 for the destruction and havoc it left behind, not to mention weather forecaster Michael Fish’s faux pas. For me, apart from this, I remember it for a different reason. I was living in Guildford (Surrey) then and I was scheduled to go to nearby Farnham Castle’s Centre for International Briefing, where I worked, for an important photographic shoot. The crew had already arrived the day before and it was my turn the next day. As a result of the storm, the only road linking Guildford to Farnham was blocked by fallen trees and it was not possible to get there by car. After many calls to British Rail I was finally advised to take the train to Aldershot and then back to Farnham which took nearly two hours in total.
I arrived at the Castle to find its director, Richard Hobbs, nearly in tears. I asked him why and he told me that one of the two great cedars in the Castle’s front lawn had fallen as a result of the storm. He explained that these two cedars were the only two left from a collection of cedars that British monks had brought back with them after their visit to Lebanon and the Holy Land many centuries earlier. Richard was a devout Christian and truly attached to everything related to the castle given it had been the seat of the Bishop of Winchester before it was turned into a training centre.
Not long after this incident, I was drinking coffee with Richard by the grand piano in the main castle hall and I asked him whether, as a devout Christian, he had ever made it to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. I knew that Richard had travelled across much of the Middle East and Africa as an oil industry executive. Richard told me that following the occupation of the city of Jerusalem in 1967 by the Israelis he had promised his best Palestinian friend that he would never visit the city while it remained under occupation. There and then I also promised him that, come what may, I would also never visit Jerusalem while it was under occupation. A few years later, Richard died peacefully in his sleep and as a memorial to this great man hundreds of daffodils were planted under the remaining cedar tree to make the map of Africa, his first love.
Farnham Castle. The remaining cedar and the map of Africa is bottom right
Years before I moved to Britain and as a child of 6 years old, I woke up one morning in my home town of Irbid in northern Jordan to discover that my maternal grandparents, along with my mother and one of my uncles, were leaving to visit Jerusalem, and onwards from there to visit my newly married aunt and two maternal great uncles in the city of Nablus. I remember crying my heart out because I was not allowed to accompany them. But I was eventually pacified by the promise that I would accompany them the next time. A few months later, the so called ‘Six Days War’ of 1967 took place and Israel occupied the West Bank of Jordan to put an end to my childish dream and to start the second Palestinian diaspora. Indeed, the sight of my great uncles and aunt returning from Nablus as refugees has remained in my memory since then. Until that moment as a child I did not know what the word “refugees” meant nor did I know terms such as “sound barrier”, “shelters “, “blackened windows” or “shrapnel “. For many years after that, I had a recurring dream of sitting on my grandfather’s lap while travelling to Jerusalem in an old Mercedes taxi and I would glimpse the city walls and the gleaming Dome of the Rock. But all of a sudden I would see a group of fully-armed Israeli soldiers marching towards us and I would wake up without ever making it into the old city.*
My two maternal great uncles and my aunt were among the few lucky refugees. They had land and homes to return to as they were eastern Jordanians, but the majority of refugees were not so lucky. Refugee camps had to be hurriedly set up for them. They had to face months, then years living in tents. Many believed that it wouldn’t be long before they would be allowed to return to their homes; they still had the keys to their houses and many worried about the cattle and possessions they had left behind. Today, fifty-six years later, the majority still live in refugee camps in the most miserable conditions imaginable and still surviving on handouts while waiting to taste the fruits of the 1993 Oslo Agreement. This was supposed to bring peace and prosperity but brought nothing but disappointment in the intentions of the Israelis and the willingness of the international community to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Today, with a peace treaty between Jordan and Israel since 1994, there is no legal barrier preventing me from going to visit Jerusalem and fulfilling my childhood dream except for that promise I made Richard after our talk in 1987. As a Jordanian and living in Jordan, the peace treaty has hardly had a positive impact on my life. We have not benefited from it in any way, shape or form and, more importantly, the region remains as destabilized and fragmented as ever. Iraq is in the worst shape that it has ever been since the British occupation in the First World War; Syria is today at its weakest since independence; Lebanon is to all intents and purposes bankrupt, and the Egyptian Pound is continuing its free fall to God knows what. Meanwhile, Jordan is just surviving next to an Israel which has recently elected its most right-wing government in history. Nothing but the grace of God is preventing the region from a downward spiral to Hell and if it happens, it will go on for decades.
People in the West often think that holy Jehad (my name) and martyrdom are everyday thoughts and realities, and that we live in a fanatical Middle East. That this is what inspires us as Muslims, for we are promised paradise when we die, and that such thoughts are prevalent especially amongst the poor and down-trodden. Nothing could be further from the truth. For every suicide bomber or young man wielding a knife at passing civilians there are hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who bite the bullet everyday of their lives when they are humiliated at Israeli-manned checkpoints that have turned the West Bank into a series of open-air prisons. There are farmers who can’t reach their fields while those who can find their crops destroyed by marauding and fanatical Israeli settlers. These are only some of the images that the Western Press is reluctant to publicize and when they do, they only do it to divert attention from their blatant bias in favour of Israel.
As a Jordanian, and if we had real peace in the region, I could drive from Amman to Jerusalem and be there in forty-five minutes. If I left early enough in the morning from Amman, I could have my breakfast in Jerusalem, lunch in Haifa or Acre, travel by train from Jaffa after lunch to be in Beirut by early evening to find myself in down-town Beirut dining with friends, and return the next morning to Amman via Damascus taking the Express Train from Damascus around mid-day. The physical distances between these great and ancient cities are so small and almost negligible but the politics of the region as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Balfour Treaty during the First World War has made these distances insurmountable and have turned simple dreams into nightmares.
It is said that an ordinary thief can steal your watch, wallet, laptop, jewellery or car but Israel is no ordinary thief. Apart from stealing land, history, shrines and even Arabic cuisine, they have also stolen our dreams and our future. We continue to be held hostage to the whims of its ultra-right-wing parties, all supported by faraway American billionaires living their own dreams and fantasies, religious or otherwise.
And with all of that we, the Arabs, are called the fanatics.
*I wrote about this in June 2021 - I Dreamed of Jerusalem (only-connect.co.uk)