Windows open as Spring begins and the outdoor and indoor begin to speak with one another. Today the streets are empty and barren as a full curfew has been announced for 48 hours. Suddenly the streets seem unnecessarily wide, with their monotone cracked tarmac stretching across a pointless gap. The streets are dull and the usual sandy white buildings take on the image of mausoleums without the colourful explosion of commerce bursting from their ground floors. All that I found yesterday, on a walk through town, was a sea of shutters with their ubiquitous faded paint, displaying all sorts of products or shops or messages telling people not to park in front of them. It is that perfect moment between spring and summer, where the sun still shines but the trees and grass have not yet turned yellow. All is quiet, the air is clear and fresh and the birds have reclaimed their natural ownership of the trees and skies in the absence daily sounds of the city. If you whistle from the rooftop you own voice comes back to you from various walls in the neighbourhood. It reverberates like the mosque, one of the few sounds that breaks up the day, with each call to prayer. The echoes give the impression that the prayer is not single voice but a huge discussion emanating from every street. This city has never known such quiet and perhaps never well again, for now it is in statis.
The silence is only disturbed by the irregular convoys of police cars and army trucks, proclaiming their existence as they speed through the empty streets. At these moments one is reminded that this peaceful atmosphere has been one enforced, for an unspecified length of time. You always know when it’s 6PM because of the wail of the air raid siren echoing through your home, where suddenly a simple walk through the streets becomes an illegal act, bringing with it a year in prison. You can get out in a couple days if you know the right person, someone says. One day I am sat in the garden of a friend, eating eskadenia fruit and green almonds from the trees above, he has started putting more and more time into his family’s garden since the lockdown started and is busy planting some herbs and circling them in small round pebbles. I sit with another friend, who explains the panic that followed the installation of this system of sirens a few years ago when people started to fear a war was on the horizon. Luckily it never reached Jordan and the sirens sat unused, until now. Huge armoured trucks sit on street corners, and this moment has all the markings of war, yet it is not, even if every country has been talking about fighting the virus, the battle, the invisible enemy. On Saturday and Sunday mornings you here the forlorn bells of the church, and at its five daily intervals you hear the prayers of the mosque, but both are closed. Yet the siren wails louder than either of them ever could, sounding in succession from one neighbourhood to the next. My friend puts his fingers in his ears, on an otherwise peaceful spring evening.
After the first session of total lockdown had passed, we went out to buy vegetables, we go to the shop up the road where a woman works with her two daughters, they are known as the ‘vegetable sisters’. Despite the fact there are plenty of vegetables being harvested in the countryside, the lockdown caused a jam in the supply chain. So, we sit outside the shop, on the pavement by old boxes containing dusty potatoes and liquidated tomatoes. The sisters tell each member of the gradually growing crowd that the truck will be coming soon. Any time now. And eventually, after an hour, there is a restless crowd on both sides of the street. They are restless because it is 6PM in fifteen minutes, when the curfew starts. Police drive by telling everyone to go home, but people shrug off the command, they are too many and didn’t wait this long for nothing.
Finally the truck swings round the corner, loaded with Styrofoam cases of potatoes, aubergine, tomatoes, onions and cabbage. People rush to the truck, as one of the sisters stands atop the vegetable mountain taking orders, debating prices and counting money from five different people simultaneously. Within a few minutes we have taken as much as we can carry and are heading back home. At the mini-market across the road they are doing better than ever, and paradoxically have had more days off than in the last 10 years combined, for they can open only on certain days now. However, it is only the markets and pharmacies that are weathering this storm, as most shops stay shut. I miss Abu Yousef’s restaurant, where we used to go and eat hummus and fuul, and wonder when and if they will open again. At first it is one week, then two, then it is a month and a half and still the city is closed. Unlike countries in Europe, there is no financial provision for these people being offered by the government. Many shops will not reopen, and they’re iron shutters will remain rolled down gathering dust in the intermittent sandstorms that pass every now and then. A plane flies overhead, a rare sight now.
It is Ramadan now. For many this is usually a celebration, spent visiting every family, breaking fast at various houses around town. But though the cases are getting less, the government are scared Ramadan will cause a second wave as people travel all over the country. And so, the roads between cities remain shut, the curfew beginning just before Iftar. This is the case across most countries in the region, and for the first time in hundreds of years the prayer tells people not to come to the mosque, which stayed open even through wars in many places. That being said, the once dead streets are busier than ever during the day, with only the overnight lockdown and full day lockdown on Fridays. People visit all the stops, preparing for Iftar in each evening. A friend says he liked it better during lockdown, the streets are packed with cars. One day we meet a group of three Tunisian women in the minimarket, they came here from Tunis for an entrepreneurial program, planning to leave after 10 days, that was about a month ago. They got trapped in Madaba when the lockdown was declared and the airport closed the following day. The next evening, or I should say the next day, because the process starts in the morning, they cook us perhaps the biggest meal I’ve ever had. Homemade bread dipped in honey and oil, tajine, stews, soup, Tunisian couscous, salads, dates stuffed with nuts or coconut. In spite of the lockdown there are eight of us all here together, the now quiet yard filled with conversation. Every day their embassy called to check on them, and sends each of them a box each of food supplies. During the dinner someone said, Arab countries look after their people in an emergency even if they don’t the rest of the time.
The rain has all but stopped for the year, since the lockdown started it has gone from spring to summer. Just the other day I heard someone hoping for one last rainfall to water their garden. The pressure had been building for days and the air was thick and muggy. The last heavy rain had lasted days and had caused part of the wall of the 120 year old house we lived in to collapse, revealing a huge fissure beneath the house where the owners had once dug a well searching for more water after the original had dried up. Thick roots run between the bricks 5 metres down from a small plant growing out a crack in the roof, which has probably been growing for years, hidden between the stones.
A construction crew could not come from Amman, the capital, until the roads were reopened, so now we were all living in the bookshop where we work. On a rare walk, I find the city is also awaiting its builders. The landscape is covered in half-finished construction projects, empty shells with small wooden pegs still sit in between the stone block facades, holding them in place til the cement is added. How many of these will the construction workers return to, I wonder, and how many will remain abandoned?
One day when the pressure was too much for the electric air to handle, the heavens opened. A hailstorm battered our house, baked by the sun only a few hours before. I sit outside, listening to it hit the thick Bedouin fabric covering our balcony, children gleefully fun for cover and flies become unwelcome guests sheltering from the rain, buzzing around above my head.
This will be my last post, there is not so much to say now. Things are returning to normal for now, and today I’ll be taking a flight home arranged by the British embassy. The mosque still sounds at 4AM and the air raid siren is now stretched to 7PM. The birds still sing at 5AM in the huge old palm tree outside. On my way to the airport the lush green hills are have turned yellow as the long grasses and flowers prepare to spread their seeds on the wind. We take a route of back roads to avoid the police checkpoints, for Friday is still on full lockdown.
The airport was empty, where you are usually led through a maze of perfume shops and discount whisky stands, now you are greeted with empty shelves covered red tape and the McDonalds arch dimly illuminated under a sheet of plastic. It was silent but for a few birds and made me wonder if this is what airports will be like when we finally run out of jet fuel. On the plane everyone wears masks which we can’t take off. We each sit 6 seats apart and people give each other funny looks. I hope this isn’t the straw that breaks the camel’s back, that people don’t become completely scared of each other, we’ll see. The silence of the airport is broken as the engine of our plane forces us into the cloudless sky.