Patti McGill Peterson Center for International and Intercultural Studies
My name is Casey O'Brien, and I'm a senior from Charlotte, Vermont. A year ago, I applied for and received a travel enrichment grant for research I conducted during the Spring semester of 2010. The proposal originally had me conducting work solely in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, where I was to create a photographic study of cultural integration in Jordan, with an eye toward architectural expressions of cultural dominance and marginality. I planned to create two series of photographs-one examining colonial relations in ancient Jordan, and one exploring the colonial relationship that exists between the modern Jordanian Kingdom and the marginal Iraqi and Palestinian populations in the country.
The majority of the work was to be carried out over an eight-day span, during which I would travel the Kingdom, documenting monuments and exemplary architecture in Jerash, Gadara, Umm Quais and Petra. The more extensive, contemporary part of the project-the portion dealing with the realities of daily life for the Iraqi and Palestinian populations-was something I expected to be able to work on throughout the semester, given that both populations are clustered in the capitol city of Amman, where I lived. I expected this portion of the work to be both the most fruitful and the most challenging, as I'd be exploring fairly sensitive topics in a setting and social dynamic I had little to no experience with.
Upon my arrival in the Hashemite Kingdom, both of the proposed halves of my research took new forms. In the realm of the contemporary, it appeared I had underestimated the complexity of my project. There exists no truly distinct ‘Iraqi' or ‘Palestinian' architectures within Jordan; perhaps it is because the large majority of the population is, in fact, first or second generation refugees that no real delineation can be made through architectural styles or motifs. Regardless, Amman is a city of contrast, and it was upon these contrasts that I focused my lens in an effort to understand the divisions they might represent within Jordanian society.
The other end of my proposal presented a different issue entirely: there was simply too much interesting material in the region to limit myself to Jordan. I was fortunate enough to travel Jordan in its entirety, and found Petra, Mount Nebo, Ajloun, Jerash and Madaba to be particular highlights. From there, I traveled to Syria and Lebanon. In Syria, I spent a bit of time in Damascus (دمشق), a city that has been inhabited for upward of 4,000 years, and ruled by the Ummayads, Abbasid, Mamluks and Ottomans, and has the visual heritage to prove it. The other Syrian highlight was Palmyra (تدمر)-a relatively unspoiled trading city in central Syria, which has cycled through numerous hands (built by Solomon, taken over by the Seleucids, then Romans, Palmyrians, the Ummayad Caliphs, the Burid Emirs, Tughtekin, the Emir of Homs, and finally the Ottomans) and states of repair and disrepair. The ruins of the city clearly demonstrated the millennia of flux it bore witness to, and yet as rich in stories and steeped in history as Palmyra was, no place compared to Byblos (جبيل) in Lebanon. Byblos is believed to have been founded around 5,000 BC as the first city in Phoenicia, which makes it the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and yet another place that shows the architectural evidence of innumerable changes in ownership.
Despite a number of unexpected changes in the nature of my research, it was both successful and rewarding. For that, I owe a great deal of thanks to St. Lawrence University and everyone else who's supported me in this endeavor.