Jordan’s Independence Day rolls around every May 25, celebrating when British command over this land once called Transjordan ended back in 1946. So, last weekend in Amman, the streets dressed up in banners and flags and fireworks blazed in evening skies. Jordan’s party pretty much mirrors America’s July Fourth: less fun on the waterfront, but plenty of music and speeches and barbecues and picnics. Jordanians love their picnics. Who needs a holiday? Picnickers set up camp for any reason anywhere.
The picnic spot du jour is midway between the airport and the city, where you can fire up the grill and watch work crews install the ginormous Aqaba-to-Amman waterline, see the new airport highway go down, or gaze at the Ikea growing out of a tomato field. Lay down a blanket along any busy road, let the kids play catch while 18-wheelers whizz by. Light up your shisha on an inner-city traffic island. Just as Cole Porter presaged: anything goes.
I’ve been a resident tourist for the past ten months, visiting my new home’s most popular attractions. I experienced trash-rage. It was easy to blame the landscape of bottles, cigarette butts and ubiquitous plastic bags on careless foreigners. Then I had an epiphany: it’s unfair to pin-the-trash-on-the-tourists. Locals are the largest litterbugs.
A windswept forest of slender evergreens stands on a hillside just south of Amman. We drive past twice every Saturday, taking my daughter to and from her volunteer gig at the Humane Center for Animal Welfare. The shelter’s located at the top of that hill.
This forest is hopping on Friday nights. Cars thread between the tree trunks and park across the slopes. Dozens of small campfires twinkle prettily beneath the pine canopy. Possibly a hundred people spread under the trees, enjoying cool evenings. Kids kick soccer balls, others play musical instruments. Everyone eats. Big fat fun. But come Saturday, the place is a landfill. And this is just one of many, many picnic sites across town.
Used paper plates, soiled tissues, spilled food, shisha dregs spread over the packed dirt landscape. Some people stuff their waste into the flimsy bags that carried their dinner, and then leave the bags behind. Wild animals forage before dawn. They shred the bags, garbage explodes across the hillside.
It’s gut-wrenching, particularly if you are a camel or goat who grazes nearby.
Margaret Ledger, the Humane Center’s founder, says working animals are regularly brought to her veterinarians for emergency operations on twisted intestines and stomach blockages caused by trash they’ve eaten. The Center has a strong educational aspect. Large glass jars are displayed so schoolchildren can see what animals consume while grazing on the hills. Plastic bottles, plastic wrap, plastic spoons and plastic toys: Margaret’s vets are actually “plastic” surgeons.
On the day I took these pictures, there was an elderly man slowly moving through the forest picking up garbage. Margaret says laborers are employed by Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) to do an occasional clean-up. In this eclectic city of poor and rich, where some nannies have drivers and some drivers have their own maids, this strikes me as the city’s effort to democratize privilege and laziness. Allow everyone to (momentarily) live like Paris Hilton. Why clean up your mess? Surely someone else can do that dirty work for you.
These filthy habits are not sustainable.
GAM could provide ample waste bins in popular gathering places. Add “No Littering” signage. Threaten (and enforce) fines for dropping garbage and have the revenue go back to the animal shelter to cover life-saving medical treatment for the poor beasts that eat the trash. Or pay the clean-up laborers a better wage; give them equipment so they can perform a more thorough job. Or channel the money into a ban on plastic bags. But do something – this slovenly behavior is destroying the natural environment and the animals living here.
I watched the old clean-up man slowly pick through the picnic site. He was having limited success. Small pieces of garbage remain, get embedded in the sandy soil. Over the course of a summer season, these grounds will be fouled beyond the tidying skills of a couple lone workmen. Does no one else view this as paramount pigginess? If people can’t be incited to clean up the very spaces they flock to for outdoor entertainment, what chance do larger programs of recycling and conservation have?
But for now, life is a picnic for everyone in Amman, where you can eat, drink and be messy.
Images by Laurie Balbo