JoLt 1998 – The Middle East

JoLt’98 – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Egypt

At dusk, in a gentle breeze and to the sound of the flapping sails of a felucca, a group of twenty four teenagers drifted silently down the Nile. The stillness was broken by the clear steady beat of a drum followed by laughter when one of the group started to sing. They were tired but happy, confident and excited. It had not always been like this…

A month earlier fourteen British teenagers nervously greeted an equally apprehensive group of ten Jordanian teenagers. They were a remarkable group: Some were in wheelchairs; some used crutches or walking sticks; some were deaf or visually impaired; others were physically able but had, in their short lives, experienced severe neglect, repeated rejection and emotional, physical and sexual abuse. They greeted each other shyly in Arabic, English and sign language. A small bubbly Jordanian girl, with osteogenesis imperfecta who has had numerous fractures of her legs confining her to a wheelchair, acts as interpreter for an even smaller and even frailer wheelchair user with cerebral palsy and a shy visually impaired English girl. A completely bald Jordanian boy flits between both groups smiling, shaking hands and saying ‘Hello’, ‘Marhaba’. He was born with alopecia ( baldness) and lives in the SOS village in Amman having been abandoned at birth. A tall English girl bent double with stiffness and pain, moves slowly and painfully to shake hands with two Jordanian leaders. She smiles and laughs trying to greet people in the few words of Arabic that we had learnt. Two girls with cerebral palsy, one using crutches and one using walking sticks, cautiously approach two Arab boys, one deaf and one with a speech impairment. Fizzy drinks help to break the ice.

The twenty four teenagers are accompanied by six leaders (including a doctor) and an assistant leader who is deaf. She had been a Jolt teenager herself on the very first ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ in 1984. They were at the start of their journey which would take them 3000 miles overland, using almost every conceivable form of transport, through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel to Egypt.

Part bombed and bullet marked buildings in war ravaged Beirut; disabled workers decorating porcelain plates, repairing Persian carpets and making wheelchairs; tasting Lebanese food in a small day centre which functioned both as a nursery and a lunch club for the local elderly population; swimming at dusk in Tripoli -some for the very first time; para-gliding among the renowned Cedars of Lebanon in the gently undulating hills, the wind lifting our shutes only a few feet off the ground before we fell, laughing and bruised, in a bedraggled heap; dancing, singing, playing basketball and football and making friends with Syrian teenagers; climbing through the majestic citadel of Aleppo; watching and celebrating with Syrians as France beat Brazil in the World Cup; exploring the amazing deserted Roman ruins of Palmyra ‘the Bride of the Desert’; sharing ‘mensaf’ provided by a local blind farmer in the cool balmy shade of his olive grove; Turkish baths in Damascus where in the steam room a harsh rub with a rough cloth was followed by a wash down with a mass of thick fibres and fragrant basil soap before a thorough massage.

The hospitality of new found friends in Lebanon and Syria was overwhelming and it was with sad hearts that we said our farewells. But more adventures and experiences awaited us in Jordan: Planting a small JoLt garden of conifers in the Badia Research and Development Centre in the northern Jordanian desert; seeing the look of glee and fear of the wheelchair bound Jordanian girl with brittle bones as she was lifted into the cockpit of an F5 fighter loaded with missiles; sharing an evening meal of Jordanian Mensaf with the Hajaneh, the elite Bedouin desert patrol, dressed in full ceremonial uniform of fawn tunics topped with bright red leather straps and ceremonial swords; sitting cross-legged on handmade carpets and drinking the bitter cardamom flavoured coffee that is given to all visitors by the Bedouin.

In the shady lush garden of one of the beautiful Royal Palaces of Amman we sip tea and eat savoury and sweet delicacies having been set at ease by Prince Rhad and his son who were standing in for Their Majesties King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan. We learn with heavy hearts that His Majesty had not been well and had been flown out to the United States for treatment.

The next day our ‘Sunday Best’ was exchanged for swimwear and a float in the Dead Sea, 380m below Sea level. With feet and arms in the air there was much laughter until a drop of water stung eyes or small cuts and wounds. We ended that day high above the Dead Sea camping at the top of a mountain in Dana National Park.

At the Brooke Animal Hospital located opposite the main entrance to Petra, we watch as a sick horse is drip fed intravenously before visiting the magical Pink City of Petra, carved in the red sandstone of a wadi. Three horse drawn carriages ferry the youngsters with the greatest disabilities to the Treasury at the end of a narrow passage between the rocks known as the Souk. The rest walk or ride.

Two helicopters of the King’s Flight, sent courtesy of King Hussein, transport us from Petra to our Bedouin camp in the heart of Wadi Ram. We soar above the vast, eerie, arid mountains of the Jordanian desert before dropping down into Wadi Rum where we sleep in Bedouin tents in the desert and learn to ride the camels provided by the Hajaneh. The heat of the day is followed by the pitch darkness and tranquillity of night fall which is only interrupted by the haunting sound of a bagpipe as we learn the traditional Bedouin songs and dances.

The golden Dome of the Rock gleams in the brilliant sunlight as we look out over a valley of knurled twisted olive trees and a Jewish Cemetery at the old city of Jerusalem with its Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Russian Quarters. Inside the dome lies the sacred rock from which Mohammed ascended to Heaven. In the basement of the Church of the Nativity lies the spot where Jesus was born and was placed in the manger. In silence tourists passed through the tiny crypt trying to imagine what it was like for the Mary and Joseph and the four Kings. While outside the church lies the bustling Palestinian town of Bethlehem with car horns blowing and street vendors proclaiming their wares. Later we climb in a snake like procession through the hot sticky market lining the Via Delarosa past the Stations of the Cross where groups of pilgrims pray and sing hymns.

We continue our journey via the Sea of Galilee to the Negev Desert and Haibar Desert Park. We watch from behind the safety of tall glass panels as native wolves, desert cats and snakes are fed. The coolness of the Negev at night did not prepare us for the intense heat on the coast of Eilat.

In the pitch darkness the silence was broken with cries of ‘Are you there ? Are you alright?’ as our convoy of camels zig zags up the hillside on the first leg of our night ascent of Mount Sinai. Then comes the long, hard climb on foot. Each step is a different size and height but armed with determination the disabled youngsters and the partially sighted, blind and hearing impaired make it to the top in time to see the orange ball of the sun as it rises and lights up the sky. In a small hallow the youngest of our group lies exhausted and fast asleep. After an hour, in the rising heat we start our three hour descent only then appreciating how close to sheer drops and danger we had been on our climb in the darkness. At the base of the mountain lies the 16th century Greek Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine. Within the grounds of the monastery lies the biblical ‘Burning Bush’ as well as the coffin of St Catherine rarely seen by tourist but shown to us by a very thin, long bearded British monk the only non-Greek ever to join the Order of St Catherine.

Sitting on the deserted beach after bathing and snorkelling off Sharm el Sheik; at sunrise heading through Suez towards the Land of the Pharaohs and the marvels of Ancient Egypt at the Temples of Karnak and Luxor; watching eleven of the teenagers standing holding hands with outstretched arms to encircle a column really brought home the vastness of the structures; in heat of 40+°C we walk through the Valley of the Kings entering a few of the cooler tombs; refreshed after lunch and a short siesta we visit the boys in the Christian orphanage at Luxor- ranging from three or four years of age to some in their late teens they beam and jostle, pointing to themselves wanting photos taken, then play football with us on the roof terrace. They live in a poor but happy, loving and caring environment as one big family.

The journey on the overnight sleeper from Aswam to Cairo sadly marks the end of our ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ and it was with tears in our eyes that we embrace and say goodbye to our Jordanian team members in the very same lounge at Amman airport were we first met one month earlier. We had so many memories to share and now some common languages and lots of photos to remind of us new found friends and the wonderful month in the Middle East.

Our shared experiences helped to knit us into a close, supportive group. For the first time, many of the youngsters were able to talk about painful, unhappy experiences and gradually come to terms with situations that had previously left them feeling ashamed and worthless. Frustration and real unhappiness at learning to live with physical disabilities were faced as were worries associated with medical problems. Friendship problems arose occasionally but were usually soon resolved. One or two youngsters initially had problems integrating into the group and needed much help as did several young people who had difficulty with coping with their personal hygiene needs.

As a group they were kind and caring, and were sensitive to each other’s needs and of each other’s vulnerabilities. They remained cheerful and good natured under difficult and primitive travelling conditions. Confidence and feelings of self-worth began to develop and they achieved much more than we, or they ever expected. Their own problems became more bearable as they came to understand the problems faced by other members of the group. They gave each other strength and friendship. They have every reason to feel immensely proud of their achievements.

The success of the journey owes much to the teamwork, courage, good humour and personalities of the youngsters and adults who participated. We wish every happiness to the twenty-four young people who contributed so much as well as benefited so much from the journey and we hope that they will continue to be able to turn to us in times of trouble and in times of happiness.

We owe much to His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan who supported our work since the JoLt Trust was founded in 1983. We will miss him as an old and dear friend whose kindness and generosity helped to change the lives of so many. We are indebted to Her Majesty Queen Noor for continuing to be our President and for so generously supporting JoLt 1998.

Without the help of many individuals, companies and charitable trusts, the 1998 “Journey of a Lifetime” would never have been possible. We are greatly indebted to them and to our many friends who have worked so hard for us. We thank you all for your support and for your friendship. Above all we thank you for caring.
Participants: Andrew Brady, Samuel Brothwell, Ausha Bryans, Sarah Chown, Richard Colley, Claire Fletcher, Lee Lawrence, Ewan Manson, Jenny Matheson, Joe Poole, Victoria Prout, Stephanie Read, Robert Wilkinson, Leon Williams, Osama Abu Asi, Obai Abu-Doulah, Rawan Abu Feilat, Zaineh Khader, Hebah Ali Shehadeh, Maher Ahmad, Mays’a Al-How, Sa’adeh Hikmat, Sameh Darweesh, Iyad Shaker.
Leaders: Dorothy Dalton, Claire Walford, Alan Buzza, Grant Close, Shirley Farthing, Lina Khammash Hayek

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