ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

A Fish in the Desert

An ancient village in Jordan strives to maintain its identity in an increasingly technological society.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan boasts significant architectural and historical sites: Mt. Nebo, where the Lord showed the Promised Land to Moses; the second-century Nabataean ruins of Petra, popularized by the movie hero Indiana Jones; the Roman ruins of Jarash; and the historic 12th-century crusader castle at AI Karak.

Situated one-and-a-half hours south of the Jordanian capital of Amman, the tiny village of Smakieh seems unimportant in the shadow of these treasures. Yet Smakieh is unique. Its place in Jordanian life may change, however, as the Middle East peace talks develop.

Two clans, the Hijazine and the Akasheh, live here. This translates into 350 families or 2,000 residents. All of the villagers are Christian, mostly Latin and Melkite-Greek Catholics, a rare occurrence in a nation that is 96 percent Muslim. While the environment may be best described as arid, the faith of the villagers is far from dry. From the Hijazine clan alone, nine men are currently serving the church as priests and 15 women as religious sisters.

The origins of Smakieh are obscure. Its name is derived from the Arabic word for fish, semek. Maybe the first homes formed the town into a fishlike shape. Somehow it does not seem possible that fish were ever caught in this desert region.

Over the years, the area’s Bedouin gradually left their nomadic existence for the settled life of the village. Only in the past 70 years has the wandering from pasture to pasture ceased. But many villagers retain their Bedouin traditions. Older women still plait their hair into two long braids, which are often knotted atop their heads. Mansaf, the national dish of lamb on mounds of rice, nuts and yogurt, is eaten by hand. Even the bread, a rough mixture of locally grown barley and grains, harkens back to the chewy loaves likely used by Jesus and the poor of the Gospel.

Unfortunately this unique village is struggling to maintain its identity in a highly mobile, increasingly technological society. The young, like their peers in much of the Middle East, are migrating to the cities or to the West. They are drawn by the glamour, the hustle and the opportunities of city life. While new highways are constructed in Amman to accommodate thousands of new vehicles, Smakieh’s dirt paths bear only three local cars. Once students taste the excitement of computers, television and VCRs, raising the family sheep and goat herds and tenting family plots no longer appeal.

The problem multiplies when scant opportunities exist even for those most committed to residing in Smakieh. Sufficient water supplies and means of transportation are only two of the many elements needed to sustain traditional village life.

To confront these issues, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission, selected Smakieh as a primary pastoral and humanitarian objective in 1993. We met with Father Boulous Baq’ain, the village’s Melkite-Greek Catholic priest, and Father George Al-Far, his Latin counterpart, and devised a multistage effort.

First the Melkite church was renovated completely – for only $5,000. The Pontifical Mission paid for the flooring, plaster, paint and new electrical fixtures. The parishioners provided the labor and a new set of icons for the iconostasis. While the results were dazzling, Father Boulous’s wife complained that he had been covered with paint for weeks.

Simultaneously, because the children at the school of the Latin parish had no suitable playground to work off their energy, we helped the people prepare a soccer field and basketball courts by clearing a boulder-strewn plot. We are hoping some of these students will introduce Jordan to a future World Cup tournament.

Our second stage addressed the need for a better system of water distribution. Smakieh possesses a highly productive well of water on the outskirts of town. However there was no way to transport this supply to distant farmers and shepherds. After consulting with the village cooperative of priests and elders, a used tanker truck was purchased to shuttle water. After repairs, a 10-cubic-meter tank was constructed to sit atop the flatbed. Our total cost for purchase, taxes, refurbishment, registration and insurance was under $35,000.

The village cooperative can utilize the truck throughout the year and maximize their revenue. During the rains of winter, the residents can haul sand or gravel for construction projects. When the rains end in May, they can restore the tank to active duty. In three months, the return has exceeded their wildest dreams.

All those who use the vehicle benefit – the rates are lower than the commercial rates, thus reducing the operating costs of farmers and shepherds. The truck income has permitted the cooperative to employ a villager as a full-time driver. It has also enabled the cooperative to set aside a budgeted amount for truck repairs and maintenance. Last, but not least, the village cooperative now possesses sufficient reserves to fund future village projects of its own design. One truck has successfully addressed a number of issues.

Finally, our Pontifical Mission is trying to capitalize on the people’s greatest strength, shepherding. Over the years, milk and wool production has gradually diminished. Without some intervention, the quality and quantity of these goods will continue to fall. To reverse this trend, the Pontifical Mission has agreed to assist the shepherds in creating a small breeder farm. Our support will provide the material to construct several small sheds, pens and water storage tanks. We will purchase a small herd of high-bred goats and sheep. From this infusion of “new blood,” villagers will crossbreed existing herds. Additionally, the villagers plan to raise several herds for local sale to sustain their operating expenses. This project’s total cost should not exceed $30,000. Yet, this multipurpose facility will undoubtedly be a fitting climax to our development of Smakieh.

With peace established between Israel and Jordan, changes are expected soon. Economically and socially, we can only guess as to the results. Nevertheless we anticipate continuing pressures on the young to emigrate. Whether we can stem the emigration trend remains questionable. At least now this fish in the desert has hope.

Father Corcoran is Director of our Amman office.

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