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A Bridge to Modern Life

Faith holds together Jordan’s last Christian villages

text by Nicholas Seeley with photographs by Tanya Habjouqa

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In the cramped living room of his house in the Jordanian village of Smakieh, 90-year-old Ghasan Hijazine sits among a small army of children, grandchildren and extended family, reminiscing about his childhood.

In those days, he says, people lived in byut sha’ar (literally “houses of hair” in Arabic), or tents made of camel hair, which were pitched on the dusty, wind-beaten hillsides surrounding the village.

“People lived off farming. If they grew something, they ate it. If not, they didn’t eat,” says the elderly man, who apparently does not remember that period with much affection.

Mr. Hijazine bears the scars of a troubled past: He has no hands and only one leg. He lost his limbs laying mines on the Israeli border in the 1960’s. His ice-blue eyes, however, are still bright and full of laughter.

The Hijazine clan is Christian, as are all residents of Smakieh and the nearby village of Hmoud. The two villages represent the last entirely Christian settlements in Jordan. Located on the Kerak plateau, one of Jordan’s poorest areas, neither area has enjoyed a golden age.

Life was hard, continues Mr. Hijazine. People were poor and often cold and hungry. They eked a meager existence from farming small plots of land and keeping livestock.

“I didn’t have a childhood,” adds his wife, Teresa.

Every few months, a priest from Kerak — the regional hub — would visit Smakieh. He would live, eat and pray with the people in their tents. The priest also served as their doctor and educator.

Those days, however, have long passed.

The Hijazines now live in a modern house of cinderblock and plaster. They also expect all their grandchildren to leave the village to attend university when the time comes.

Though Mrs. Hijazine dresses in a somewhat traditional manner, wearing a black headscarf over long, thick braids, she embraces modern- day conveniences, cooking time-honored recipes with a gas stove.

As do most Jordanians, the Christians of the Kerak area express pride about their tribal past. But nostalgia for the old days is hard to find on the Kerak plateau. For generations, these villagers have struggled to achieve a better life, a fight that often has meant leaving behind tribal customs. Now, young and old have their eyes fixed firmly on the future. They want to talk about the Internet, not about camels and sheep; about college degrees, not tents and traditions.

The only vital thread weaving together their present and past, and one they speak about eagerly, is their Christian faith. According to these villagers, the church — Greek Orthodox and Latin and Melkite Greek Catholic — has held the community together and served as a bridge to modern society.

Locals tell different stories about how Christian tribes came to settle the Kerak plateau. The Halaseh, the tribe that settled Hmoud, originates from Egypt. Most believe they came to Kerak about 500 or 600 years ago and married into a local Christian tribe.

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Tags: Christianity Jordan Christian-Muslim relations Village life Farming/Agriculture