We walk out of the desert and come to where the Earth rises and falls beneath our footsteps in long, regular wales, like corduroy—fields of plowed sand. The hills of Wadi Rum fade in iron-colored light. Dusk is falling. It grows colder by the minute. A path leads through the thickening dark to tents that glow yellowly from within, like belled medusas adrift in a sunless sea. We tether our two cargo mules to large stones. We approach the first tent.
“Sala’am aleukum,” calls Hamoudi Enwaje’ al Bedul, my guide.
The tent, which had been noisy with voices, falls silent. A man throws back the flap, and after an exchange in Arabic that lasts no longer than 30 seconds, he waves us in. Fifteen people sit inside atop foam mattresses. A sad-faced woman layered in sweaters—blue tribal tattoos dot each of her wrinkled cheeks, dot her chin—loads more sticks into a small woodstove. She beckons us to sit near the heat, in a circle of staring, wild-haired children. She pours us glasses of syrupy tea. She serves us a platter of fresh tomatoes, pickled green tomatoes, fried broccoli.
“There is no meat,” the man apologizes. “Here, we only dream of chicken.” Everyone in the tent laughs.
They are tomato pickers. They are Bedouins from Syria.
Officially, there are 550,000 Syrian war refugees in Jordan. But most people know better. The true number might be twice that. Tens of thousands of refugees languish inside two gigantic UN camps. Others drift into urban slums where they beg at potholed intersections. And many more, like the 104 people encamped outside Al Quweirah, rent out their muscles at desert farms. Many Jordanians complain bitterly about these guests. Unemployment is ruinously high in Jordan, where the local poor can’t find work. The small country has been staggered over the years by throngs of Iraqi refugees, by long-homeless Palestinians, by émigrés fleeing troubled Egypt. Syrians are just the latest neighbors to arrive in exodus. They are a breaking wave of war-displaced people that ripples back millennia, to the conquests of Babylon, to the wanderers led by Moses through the wilderness.
Our host, a small, friendly, energetic man, tells this story:
Bashar al-Assad, the chinless opthamologist who presides over the abattoir called Syria, sent tanks against his own people the summer of 2011, following the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring. Shells ripped into bakeries, plowed into parks, drilled into apartment blocks. Soldiers shot every sheep and cow in sight. Wheat crops were torched. “We burned our family papers, our shoes, to survive the winter,” the man says. “There was no bread. We tried grass to try to stop our hunger.” Then one night he and his family—he sweeps an arm around the tent—grabbed their chance. They slipped through the siege lines and crossed into Jordan. The snow on the mountain passes reached their knees. They carried the smallest children.
“War, war, war. Syria goodbye.” He slaps his palms together, cleaning off imagined dust. “It’s finished!”
All of the tomato pickers came from the same Syrian province, from villages near the ancient city of Hamāh. Poor, star-crossed Hamāh! In 1982, the country’s then dictator—Al-Bashar’s father—leveled the city during a previous uprising. (The CIA is believed to have supported the toppling of Syria’s first elected president in 1949, initiating an unforeseen chain of coups that led to the Al-Bashar regime.) Hamāh fell to Tamerlane in 1400. It fell to Crusaders in the 1108 and before that to Muslim armies in the seventh century. Almost 3,000 years ago, an Assyrian conqueror named Sargon II captured Hamāh and flayed alive its king.
About 120,000 people have died in the current civil war. I ask the man if he has lost any family members. He nods. A brother. A son. Shot by government troops in Hamāh. The woman gets up and leaves the tent. She doesn’t come back. We all sit quietly for a moment under her beautiful handiwork: fine embroideries called sarma, which she has pinned to the inside walls of the canvas. She lugged these gold and white remnants of home with her across the Jordanian frontier.
In the icy morning Hamoudi and I heft our saddlebags onto the mules. The animals have gorged overnight on too-ripe tomatoes. The fields around the camp are garish with them. Hamoudi, a tribal man, a Bedouin, gives the woman, who has reappeared to brew tea, the jacket off his back. He gives her our cheese.
“It’s cheese,” he assures her when she stares at the foil-wrapped wedges in her calloused palms. She raises the cheese to her forehead. “Praise God,” she says.
We walk on.
“Solvatur ambulando,” Diogenes proclaimed: “It is resolved by walking.” But do you actually believe that grief can be walked away? It is like these goddamned tomatoes. Given the hands that picked them for $11 a day, you would think they would be inedible—too bitter to swallow. Toxic with pain. But they aren’t. They are good tomatoes. They taste just fine.