Most of Jordan is desert. The Wadi Rum area is actually quite famous and has been used as the setting for many movies, including Star Wars and Martian. This was really the first time I have traveled in a desert area and I thoroughly enjoyed the stark scenery.
There are also a lot of interesting mathematical patterns in the desert. The ripples in the sand, the patterns of dried hard pan and shapes of the shifting dunes all have relatively simple mathematical models.
I was very fortunate to be able to spend time with some Bedouins who shared some basic understanding of life in the desert. One thing I learned is that you will be more comfortable if you are well covered, although it seems counterintuitive. Basically you don't want anything exposed to the sun. You might think that wearing long pants, sleeves and head covering would be stifling, but because the desert is so dry your perspiration evaporates immediately. If you do it right you can be quite comfortable. Of course you want to stay hydrated and be in shade whenever you can. Bedouins drink a lot of tea and often travel at night if there is a moon, and stay under a tent during the day. The tents can be surprisingly comfortable and cool. Bedouins are also known for their friendliness and hospitality to strangers.
One fact about Jordan that I find very compelling is the huge number of refugees it has absorbed. Because of its location and the many ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Jordan is now home to some 3 million refugees, which is almost a third of the total population of the country. In fact in 2016 Jordan had the largest per capita number of refugees in the world. The majority of refugees are from neighboring Syria, Iraq and Palestinian Territories.
For comparison, the United States used to take in the largest number of refugees per year of any country in the world, about 30,000 per year. But that situation changed dramatically under the Trump administration. In 2017 the number of refugees taken in by the US decreased more than any other country in the world - at a time when the number of refugees world-wide is at its highest in history - about 26 million.
Recent changes aside, while the US has taken in a total of about 3 million refugees since 1980 this is still only about the same number as in Jordan where the population is much smaller. Put another way, about 1% of the US population consists of refugees while in Jordan it is about 30%. There is no comparison. Obviously hosting that many refugees puts a huge strain on a country both economically and socially. Both the US and Jordan have about 3 million refugees, but the US has a GDP of about $20,000 billion as opposed to Jordan's GDP of $40 billion. The cost of resettlement of refugees is actually a significant portion of the Jordanian national budget, and it is unsustainable. While there have been promises of international support, in 2018 Jordan received only 7% of the funding promised from western countries to help alleviate the costs of resettlement.
A related question is how does Jordan manage to do it? People I spoke to, while acknowledging the social stress of hosting so many refugees, also took pride in what the country is doing. There has been a lot of leadership here from the King Abdullah and Queen Rania who have campaigned extensively at home and abroad for more support for refugees. The Queen referred to the refugee crisis as, "a crisis about human dignity and decency, and one that reflects the future of our interconnected world."
People I spoke to in Jordan had a hard time understanding why the US does not do more to help refugees, and I had no good answers. It was awkward to stand on the front lines of a global crisis bearing witness to such selfless humanitarianism, as a representative of a much better resourced country that has clearly backed away from its humanitarian commitment.
The flag of Jordan has a star with seven points. Heptagrams have some unique mathematical properties, so from my perspective that would be sufficient to want to have one on your flag. But there are cultural reasons why 7 is an important number for Jordanians (and Muslims in general).
Al Fatihah, which literally means “the opening” is the name
of the first seven verses of the Quran. This section is
recited in almost all daily prayers as well as on other
occasions. It is said that these seven verses contain
the central themes of the Quran. The star on the Jordanian
flag has a point for each of the seven verses of the Al Fatihah,
indicating the importance of Islam in the lives of Jordanians. This is why 7 is an important number for all Muslims and shows up in unexpected places.
The coins in Jordanian currency are all 7-sided polygons, also in reference to Al Fatihah. I am not aware of any other country that uses polygonal coins, particularly heptagons. You can imagine how thrilled I was to walk around with a pocket full of heptagons.
Amongst the many interesting mathematical features of heptagons is the fact that it is the smallest number of sides that permits two distinct star shapes (technically a 7-2 and a 7-3). You can see several layers of these in this sketch.
Jordan has a very deep and rich history dating back thousands of years. In addition to being at the cross roads of critical trade routes, Jordan also has important religious sites from biblical times. The arid climate has helped to preserve many important archaeological artifacts and ruins.
Some of the earliest inhabitants were the Nebataeans who carved the famous city of Petra out of the sandstone mountains. I spent two days walking through these ruins. It was well over 100 degrees but the interiors of the buildings remain quite cool and comfortable.
The Nabataeans were displaced by the Greeks and then the Romans. There are substantial remains from this period in the sites of Philadelphia, in Amman, and Jerash further north.
It is an amazing feeling to step along abandoned avenues from ancient civilizations. We don't really have anything comparable in the US. Below is a photo of yours truly lost in reflection walking along the cardo maximus of a Roman city.
This summer I had the opportunity to travel to Jordan, a country about which I know very little. Here are some basic, introductory facts.
If you picture a large desert kingdom then you are halfway there. The northern part of the country is arable with substantial spring rains, and there is a chain of mountains along the western portion of the country There are some substantial urban centers, including the capital, Amman, but for the most part Jordan is desert. Unlike many Middle Eastern countries, Jordan does not have any oil resources. Despite this Jordan has one of the freest and most robust economies in the Arab world.
Politically, Jordan is located in a pretty tough neighborhood. To the west is Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. To the south is Saudi Arabia, east is Iraq, and to the north, Syria. Because of its location Jordan has had to play a diplomatic balancing act to stay out of the many regional tussles. Jordan has avoided armed conflict for over 50 years and is one of only two Arab countries to recognize Israel. Most Jordanians I met credit their current monarch: King Abdullah II, and his father before him, King Hussein, with maintaining the country's peace and prosperity
Jordan has about 10 million inhabitants and the majority are Sunni Muslim. Jordan is one of the most progressive muslim countries in the world, ranking number one amongst Arab countries in the Human Freedom index. It is one of very few Arab or African states in which homosexuality is not a crime. Queen Rania is a prominent social and political figure; she eschews traditional head covering and is known for championing progressive causes.
In my last post I wrote about the critical role that water plays in village life. Of course water is just as important in urban areas, however access to clean drinking water is not as straightforward as drilling a borehole. Many african cities simply do not have sufficient infrastructure to provide clean water. (I don't mean to single out just african cities, Flint Michigan comes to mind as a poignant example of how pervasive the problem is).
One solution is bottled water. But along with bottled water comes plastic. The same overburdened infrastructures are in no position to effectively manage the surfeit of plastic garbage. When I traveled in Ghana I saw plastic waste everywhere: in the millet fields, caught in the acacia trees, blowing through the marketplace (where single use plastic bags are rampant), choking the drainage ditches, and eventually making their way to the canal that runs through central Accra and drains into the ocean.
In addition to single use plastic bags, plastic water "sachets" are a major culprit. These are plastic bags that hold about half a liter of drinking water. They sell for pennies on every street corner and they are transported more efficiently than bottles. You simply bite off the corner of the bag and drink the water. Then you are left holding an empty plastic bag with nowhere to recycle it. So guess where it goes.
To me this is a perfect metaphor for how technological innovations often come wrapped in their own toxic dilemma. I believe every human has a right to clean water. I understand that in many instances the best way to provide this water is to transport it in plastic. And yet walking through Accra or Kumasi where litter is ubiquitous and the air smells of burning plastic, one has to wonder if our human thirst has been quenched, or simply exploited.
Fresh water is a major focus of daily life in the village. Access to clean drinking water is directly related to reduction in poverty. World-wide over 2 billion people are affected by water scarcity. In 2010 the United Nations recognized a human right to drinking water. This is an important step because there is often a conflict between human need versus commercial or agricultural water consumption.
The village I stayed in was fortunate in that they have several pumps, or boreholes, that provide fresh water throughout the year. There were two pumps in my location and they were almost always in use. In sub-saharan Africa the work of acquiring and transporting water falls largely to women and girls.
An experience I highly recommend is to try hauling your own water for a couple of days. To get the full effect you should fill a couple buckets from a hose and then carry them around the block. Try limiting yourself to those two buckets for everything. I managed to get my consumption down to 5 gallons per day, which is what the UN considers minimal. That included drinking, cooking, cleaning, and one bucket bath per day. 5 gallons weighs about 40 pounds which is about as much as you would want to carry in one trip.
By comparison, the average American consumes 80 gallons per day. That's a big difference. If you had to carry 80 gallons it would weigh 640 pounds. You would not be hauling that by hand. If you flush a toilet 3 times in a day, you have already exceeded the 5 gallon limit. If you take a shower for more than two minutes you have exceeded the 5 gallon limit. You can start to understand the stark differences in water consumption and why simple transportation of water is such a big deal in an african village.
It is also important to remember that clean water is a finite resource on our planet, and a resource that is particularly threatened by climate change. We don't think about it much in Ithaca, but when you live in an area with no precipitation for 9 - 10 months of the year, it is always in your mind.
In the U.S. we laud "farm to table" as a sort of elite social movement, but in african villages it is a way of life. The village I stayed in, Pelugru, is up in the northern part of Ghana and is fairly remote. They only get three months of rain during the year, so all their crops and food have to be adapted to that climate. Of course that's precisely what people in that area have been doing for hundreds of years, so they are pretty good at it. Most meals consist of a starch and a meat soup or stew. During the rainy season there are also vegetables like okra, tomatoes and peppers. Starches include plantains, cassava, millet and taro roots (believed to be one of the very earliest cultivated crops), all of which grow locally and store well (for the 9 months of dry season). And the meat comes from pretty much anything that moves: chickens, guinea fowl, goats, sheep, pigs, cows and donkeys. These are all animals that can fend for themselves and graze on what's available, so of course all their meat is organic, "free range" and "grass fed." In the U.S. we pay a premium for that, but in africa that is just what is sustainable.
In addition people make their own cooking oil, from ground nuts and palm nuts. They also make their own alcohol: pito is fermented millet and there is also palm wine further south. Villagers even make their own charcoal by burying smoldering wood under dirt.
I don't want to romanticize village life, it is not an easy existence, particularly during the dry season. But it is interesting to me that over centuries people have developed an agriculture that is well suited for their climate and sustainable. It is equally interesting to me that in the U.S. we are only just discovering the benefits of such a lifestyle.
This summer I went on a trip to Ghana to visit my son who is in the Peace Corps (teaching math!). I myself was a math teacher in the Peace Corps, many years ago in Central Africa, so this trip provided plenty of opportunity for reflection and remembering.
Ghana is located in West Africa. In a way it is the "center" of the world, the longitude is close to zero (meaning it is on the great meridien) and the latitude is about 5° north. Ghana is anglophone, but it surrounded by French speaking countries: Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Togo. Of course English is only one of many languages spoken in Ghana. There are 11 main languages with about 80 dialects total. Most people you meet speak multiple languages.
The Ashanti Kingdom in Ghana dates back more than a thousand years and was one of the most powerful kingdoms in Africa. In modern times, Ghana was one of the first of the colonized african countries to gain independence, back in 1957. A majority of Ghanaians identify as Christian, but there is also a large Muslim population. Every town I passed through had at least one mosque.
The climate in Ghana is tropical in the south, where there are two rainy seasons per year. However in the northern part of the country (where I spent most of my time) there is only one rainy season and then it is dry for 9 months of the year, more like savannah. In December through February a dry dusty wind known as the harmattan blows from the sahara desert.
The capital of Ghana is Accra, located on the coast. That is where my journey begins.
In Rabat we had a presentation on Language and Cultural Identity by Dr. Anass Lenon. This is a topic that fascinates me and it plays out in a very unique and interesting way in Morocco.
There are two national languages in Morocco: standard Arabic and Amazigh. or Berber. These are the languages you will see on highway signs, for instance. The Berbers were there first, more than 10,000 years ago. Digest that time span, that's a hundred centuries ago. They have a unique alphabet, it looks old. In modern Morocco about 30-40% of the population still speak Amazigh.
Arabic came with the Arab expansion around 1000 AD. It is of course the language associated with Islam - the Koran is written in Arabic. Students learn classical Arabic in school, along with French and other languages. Arabic is used for official communication by the king and government in general, and of course it is used in mosques. Two thirds of the population speak Arabic.
And then of course there is French. The language of the colonizers (1912 - 1956), French is a sort of prestige language, associated with a good education and formality. Most universities in Morocco use French as their lingua franca.
What is fascinating is that none of these languages: Amazigh, Arabic or French, is the common language spoken on the streets. This is the domain of Darijah, a spoken language that has no natural script. Darijah is a combination of all three: Amazigh, Arabic and French. It is not intelligible to speakers of pure Arabic or French.
Thus a typical Moroccan speaks at least 3 languages, and I'm not even counting Spanish or English, which are also prevalent. Think about what that does for your identity and breadth of cultural affiliation. The truth is that this sort of linguistic glut is common in post colonial Africa, where national boundaries were imposed over linguistic divisions. South Africa has eleven national languages, for example. I think it is part of why Moroccans are so hospitable: their common language is intrinsically a mixture of cultures spanning thousands of years.