As a graduate of sociology and social work programs, I have been trained to appreciate and proactively seek context. The everyday spaces we occupy and our social interactions therein are often loaded with cultural, political, and historical significance.
The sociological imagination, as Mills reminds us, requires a “vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society.” In keeping with this spirit of disciplined curiosity about the world, I usually try to contextualize my experience of places that I visit and spend time in by learning about their histories.
But even social scientists occasionally take off their analytical thinking hats. Once in a while, a place is just a beautiful location that you take in with your senses. Smell and sight and sound and touch taking primacy over the secondary information of books and tour guides. Sometimes, you simply breathe a place in and exhale it out.
Last weekend was one of those times for me. I visited an ancient castle with a group of students from the Arabic language institute in which I study. A couple of big buses shepherded us from the bustling traffic of Amman to the rolling hills of Ajloun. I had no idea how far Ajloun was from the city. I had a vague understanding that we would travel north to get there. I simply sat on the bus, looked out the window, chatted idly with a friend, and watched the world pass by.
As we approached Ajloun, the dusty beige and grey of Amman gave way to bursts of greenery. Olive trees lined in rows. Mountains covered in sheets of verdant foliage. For the first time since my arrival in Jordan, I looked onto a horizon that did not include clusters of off-white buildings stacked upon one another. I saw a blue sky and puffy white clouds and those wonderful waves of green.
The castle was lovely, too. Buff stone walls containing dark interiors with squares of light seeping in from outside. The Jordanian flag standing proudly atop an arch that has managed to survive over 800 years of peace and turmoil, both natural and manmade. I can’t say much about the castle otherwise. The tour guide mentioned many names and historical eras that I couldn’t keep track of, not with the chatter of our large tourist group and the constant switching from Arabic to English and the restlessness of my limbs from the bus ride over.
The names washed over me. The Crusaders. King Saladin. The Mongols. The Bible and Mount Gilead and Elijah and Bethlehem. Oh, and Ibn Batuta , the explorer that every second year Arabic student knows about, and who has a big mall named after him in Dubai.
This is all to say; I understood that Ajloun and its castle had a historical context, and a rich one at that. I knew that many people had walked the land I was standing on. They fought and battled and sought conquest and found divinity. But I didn’t really understand that context, not at all. In that moment, I could not wrap my mind around the social trajectory of Ajloun. I relied more on my sensory experience of the place. And it was still magical and beautiful.
This is not to say; let’s do away with history and context. It’s simply a reminder that sometimes we cannot always immediately grasp the roots beneath the trees we see in front of us. And that’s okay. Sometimes, breathing and being present is more than enough.
[Originally published on Andrea in Amman blog, September 2016]