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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Bridge to Modern Life

Faith holds together Jordan’s last Christian villages

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.

The Hijazine, one of the two tribes whose descendants inhabit Smakieh, originate from the Hijaz, a region in present-day western Saudi Arabia. According to Ayman Hijazine, a teacher in Smakieh who has written a book on the history of the local tribes, the Hijazine first settled in Petra, where they lived harmoniously with another tribe, the Akasheh.

Around the 17th century, the two tribes migrated north to the Kerak plateau. Some say they moved to find better farmland, others argue they abandoned their villages in the south as a result of frequent raids by nomadic tribes from Saudi Arabia. Still others maintain that word about other Christians living in the region attracted the newcomers.

The Kerak plateau remained a wild frontier up until the beginning of the 20th century; the Ottoman Empire did not even incorporate it until 1893. Settled tribes contended with nomadic ones, who raided their farms or extorted tribute from them. Disputes and conflicts among tribes were commonplace, and tribes often counted the number of their ranks in guns.

In the early 19th century, the Christian tribes created an alliance with the settled Muslim tribes on the plateau. Together, they defended the region from invading nomads.

The quality of life on the plateau, however, left much to be desired. Inhabitants had little, if any, access to education. The reach of the church was also limited.

Conditions began to improve in the 1870’s, when the Latin patriarchate established a mission in Kerak. At the time, one of the local tribes, the ‘Azizat, entered the Latin church after refusing to follow an Orthodox priest from the Halaseh tribe.

In 1889, the Hijazine and the Akasheh settled in present-day Smakieh. By 1905, residents started building houses. According to church records, construction of the village’s first church began in 1909 and was completed in 1912. The transformation of the tribal frontier had begun.

On the east side of the village, Smakieh’s original houses still stand on a parched hillside. Abandoned and mostly in ruins, they remain easily recognizable, even beautiful. Made of patterned blocks of limestone and basalt, they are tiny, one-room affairs. At one time, whole families shared the cramped quarters with their livestock.

New multi-story residences, however, far outnumber the original houses. Families built the buildings in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when they gained greater access to bank loans. Most residents now live in one of these structures.

In contrast, the abandoned part of Hmoud appears larger than the new, inhabited area. Similar to many rural villages in Jordan, Hmoud has experienced slow but steady depopulation in recent decades. Younger generations leave to pursue higher education or careers as professionals. Many have moved to Amman and its Christian suburb, Fuheis, or gone abroad. The village is now only home to between 30 and 50 households, most of which are composed of elderly people.

“It is evacuated,” says Mjalle Bawlsah, a resident of Smakieh. Mr. Bawlsah, whose family belongs to the Akasheh tribe, believes that in time Smakieh will have come to terms with a similar fate. According to him, only a handful of the 20 or 30 Bawlsah families still live in Smakieh. Most have moved to Fuheis.

By the same token, he and many others from the area do not see Hmoud’s decline as a failure.

“The biggest Christian tribe in Jordan is from Hmoud,” says Father Imad ‘Aleimat, the Latin priest from the nearby town of Ader.

Indeed, members of the Halaseh tribe, which founded Hmoud, now hold prominent positions in the public and private sectors and are widely considered among the most influential Christians in Jordan. The village may have emptied, but its former residents thrive elsewhere in the country and the world.

There is no town like Smakieh in Jordan, in the world,” proclaims Za’al Hijazine, the principal of the Latin Catholic school in Smakieh.

“I have five engineers — boys and girls — out of nine.” He grins proudly as he lists their accomplishments: one works as an agricultural engineer for the army, another teaches in Amman, a third is an engineer in Abu Dhabi. The other children are in high school and college. His wife teaches in Smakieh’s public schools.

“All scientific knowledge has come to us through the church,” says Mr. Hijazine. “We, as Christians, want to be the best in the area.”

For years, he says, people from Smakieh have left to pursue higher education, a choice the local church has always encouraged. “They came back bringing new ideas and information with them,” continues the educator. “They tried to make us understand or to explain to us how the rest of the world was working and changing. So everything came to us either through the church or through the people who came back.”

The local church has played a central role in transforming life on the Kerak plateau and ensuring its residents had the education and values to thrive in the modern world. Since the early 20th century, residents have enrolled their children in local Latin Catholic schools, where they received a well-rounded education. The schools have always included the study of foreign language as an integral component of the curriculum, which has helped younger generations succeed in the global job market.

In the early days, priests helped the tribes establish permanent settlements. And nuns taught women to read and write and encouraged them to pursue education.

Father Tarek Abu Hanna, Smakieh’s Latin parish priest, points out that the church not only ran the school, but helped families in other material ways. For example, the school provided meals to the children during the day. Indeed, Teresa Ghasan says that as a child, the only time she ate well was at school.

When you have education, you can find a job,” says Father Imad ‘Aleimat. “If you don’t have education, you stay a farmer.”

However, these days, few in the Kerak plateau earn a living as farmers. In recent years, the amount of rainfall in the region has decreased sharply, severely damaging local agriculture. Most of the once fertile croplands now languish, dry and barren.

Za’al Hijazine, a local resident, used to cultivate wheat on his land. Today, desert sands have supplanted most of his former fields. On a small portion of his property he has planted an olive grove. The rest sits empty.

“The people change their jobs,” says Mjalle Bawlsah. “They are not farmers. They are teachers; they are soldiers. They grow trees because they don’t need barley for their animals anymore. They don’t need wheat to make bread; they buy it from the farmer’s market.”

The farms still in operation rely heavily on migrant labor. Most of the farmhands are Bedouin, whom residents in Smakieh say are Muslims from Palestine. Desperately poor, the Bedouin often live in the villages’ abandoned houses or in makeshift tents made from plastic, cardboard and other discarded materials. Many came to the Kerak plateau after inhabitants in other parts of Jordan ran them out of town.

Bedouin, for instance, farm Mr. Bawlsah’s 12 acres of land. Depending on the circumstances, they either pay him rent for the use of his land or offer him a portion of the harvest.

“We used to have sheep, but we sold them,” says Mr. Bawlash. “Nowadays, we buy milk from the Bedouins and make jameed [a traditional dish of dried, fermented goat’s milk].”

“When I was a young boy and I would go to Smakieh, everybody was involved in agriculture,” says Talal Akasheh, a local representative in Jordan’s parliament. “Back then, there were no other jobs and everyone depended on farming. Of course, in those days, it seemed to rain more. There were also fewer families and they could support themselves more easily with agriculture and animal husbandry. Now, even those who plant have other jobs. They plant to supplement, it’s not a complete way of life as it used to be.”

With agriculture drying up, residents now have fewer job opportunities than ever.

“They used to weave rugs, but they stopped,” says Mr. Akasheh. “There is an industrial zone, but it’s not attracting companies effectively.”

As a representative, he advocates for economic revitalization of the Kerak plateau. The solutions he suggests include developing local production of artisanal food and handicrafts. He has also sought to attract the developers of a planned teaching hospital to the region.

Yet, big ideas such as his may accomplish little in terms of reversing population trends. When asked if they wanted to stay in the region, Ghasan Hijazine’s grandchildren simply laughed. Their parents laughed, too. Mr. Bawlsah’s daughter responded to the same question with an astonished, “no.”

Residents all say the most compelling reason to remain in Smakieh and Hmoud is the church.

“The church gives us the strength to stand firmly in Smakieh,” says Ghasan Hijazine.

“Our schools help the people to stay,” says Father ‘Aleimat. “If we didn’t have our schools, all the Christians in Kerak would be in Amman.”

“I think it’s more important than before,” says Mr. Bawlsah. As a young person, he went to church mainly to pray. Young people today, he says, go to learn and broaden their horizons.

Many residents stress the church’s important social function. Smakieh’s Latin parish, for instance, organized regular youth groups and sporting activities. The church offers space for small children to gather and play — something always in short supply in Jordan’s villages and cities. And of course, the priest performs weddings and funerals, arbitrates disputes and counsels families.

“What is excellent is that it’s a Christian area,” says Za’al Hijazine. “Maybe it’s the only place in Jordan that is fully Christian, and has been for some time.”

In Jordan, Christians and Muslims generally coexist peacefully. In the Kerak plateau, relations among Christians of various denominations and Muslims are particularly warm — in part because most residents share similar tribal ancestries.

“We’ve celebrated, we’ve married, we’ve died together,” says Father ‘Adil Mdanat, the Orthodox priest in Ader. “Even the Muslims call me ‘Father.’

“Our life here is very, very good,” he adds. “Our future is good. People are leaving from here because of their dreams and their work.”

Contributors Nicholas Seeley and Tanya Habjouqa cover events in the Middle East.

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