Battling Litter in Jordan’s Open Spaces
On the outskirts of Amman, a doctor spends his weekends picking up trash
This story was produced in partnership with FUTUREPERFECT.
As soon as spring begins in Jordan, which is to say around March when temperatures reach well above 20 degrees, so too begins the picnic season. In Jordan, picnics and weekends are synonymous. On Fridays and Saturdays, people are often drawn to the outdoors and, when possible, to a stretch of green. Such stretches are hard to come by in a country that is primarily covered in rock and desert. According to the Jordanian Department of Agriculture, only about 1 percent of the 97,000 square kilometers that make up Jordan is wooded. The worldwide average is around 15 percent, and Germany’s forests cover one-third of its surface. With that in mind, it seems almost absurd for the Facebook group “Cleaning Jordan” to host an excursion to the woods. It is really more of a thicket; pine trees, shrubs and olive trees thrive defiantly in the barren, stony soil under the burning sun about 15 kilometers north of Amman. Ramzi Tabbalat, who planned this excursion, explains: The greenery was planted in the late 1960’s by then-Prime Minister Wasfi At-Tall, who also served a few years as ambassador to Germany and was assassinated in 1971.
Photo by Dana Ritzmann
A small group of school busses depart on a Friday morning at 8:00 a.m. and takes the volunteers outside of the city, past the shopping centers, workshops, fancy villas, and the occasional flock of sheep. The forest appears at the end of a street that wraps around one of the many mountains. From there, you have a vast view of the landscape that is dotted with olive groves and farm houses. The busses are parked at a large clearing, right next to three large dumpsters — next to which lie plastic bottles, remnants of old bags, cardboard boxes, diapers, coffee cups, etc. Waste from hundreds of weekend picnics. Strewn across the park, half-burrowed in the ground, carelessly left behind. Grill trays, potato chip bags, aluminum foil, and tea bags … the list goes on. The entire ground to the right of the glade is literally buried in garbage.
“People just leave their stuff on the ground, throw all their garbage into the woods,” Ramzi Tabbalat laments. Why is that — not just here in the woods, but also in Amman, in every neighborhood, on every meadow, in every corner of the country? Tabbalat shrugs his shoulders. “It is a cultural thing,” he explains. “I guarantee you that every square inch of their homes is spick and span, but because this is not their property, they don’t seem to care,” says Tabbalat.
This mindset still does not fully explain why citizens just leave trash everywhere. “Jordanians are — and I hate to say this — simply lazy,” says Tabbalat, who himself hails from Amman and otherwise does not speak ill of his landsmen. With the exception of one other vice that also does not sit well with him, because he is a heart specialist: their smoking habits. During the week, Tabbalat works at his practice as a cardiologist administering EKGs and ultrasounds, inserting stents and pacemakers. “Jordanians develop lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure or even vascular or heart disease ten years earlier than the population of western countries,” explains the man in his mid-fifties. According to Tabbalat, this phenomenon is due to unhealthy lifestyles, little exercise … and smoking. He says it used to be taboo for young people to smoke in front of their parents, or for women or girls to even hold a cigarette. “These days I often see entire families sitting around hookahs, and even the kids are taking a hit of that poison,” the physician lambastes. And while one “only” inhales tobacco from a cigarette, the water pipe also contains other chemicals for flavor.
Photo by Dana Ritzmann
The sweet scent can be recognized from quite a distance, even on this walk in the woods. The Hubbly-Bubbly, as the water pipes are known in Jordan, are part and parcel of every picnic. When the party is over, the ornate device is returned to the trunk of the car — unlike the cola cans, plastic packages and napkins, which are left to be picked up by the wind, get stuck between rocks, or are simply stomped into the ground. The garbage usually remains for years. “During our clean-ups, we have found things that were 20 years old,” Tabbalat explains. He and his team have even contemplated opening a garbage museum to exhibit their most exotic findings. This time around, the most unique thing they found amongst the mountains of trash was a little turtle.
And even as Dr. Tabbalat is telling us about the number of trash bags that were filled during this clean-up — 298 in two hours — a boy around the age of nine walks past and drops a soda bottle onto the ground without breaking his stride. Tabbalat asks the boy to pick up the bottle. At the same time, he wonders how it is possible that a boy joins his parents and the rest of the group for a forest clean-up, only to litter again right then and there.
That is the very reason he continues the initiative he started exactly three years ago on Facebook. “Cleaning Jordan” brings together people who like to hike and are interested in preserving the environment, regardless of whether they are from Jordan or abroad. Between 30 and 50 participants, often including entire families, meet regularly to not only clean up, but also to picnic and hike through nature to enjoy the breathtaking views, fresh air and beautiful landscapes. They always carry enough garbage bags to make sure they leave no trace. The further one strolls into the woods, the cleaner it gets; be it in Amman or in Ajloun, the largest forest in Jordan, where the tours usually start. Just a few items are scattered on the ground here and there. With a sarcastic smile Tabbalat explains that this, too, can be explained by his countrymen’s laziness.
Most of the weekenders — and this can be easily observed — drive their cars directly to their destinations, either to the nearest undeveloped strip near their neighborhood or to King Hussein Park, which was built a few years ago to serve as a green lung of sorts along the edge of the sandstone facades and asphalt roads of Amman. Sometimes, they go to the woods on the edge of town or in the northern part of the country. That is where they spread out the picnic blanket, set up the grill and prepare the hookah. Coffee served and food laid out. The weekend can begin.
Translated by Kerstin Trimble.