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Gilead is a real place, and it's quite nice to visit
The fictional theocracy in The Handmaid's Tale is named after a Jordanian region with biblical significance.
Gilead is a pretty evocative name in American politics. Margaret Atwood used it as the name of a fictional Christian theocracy in the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which was adapted as a TV series in 2017, as the United States was going through serious social and political debates. Gilead and its aesthetics became a synonym for the sort of misogynist fascism many liberals believe America is moving towards.
The word has a different meaning for Jordanians: it’s just another part of their country. “Gilead,” or جلعاد Jala’ad, is the land between the Golan Heights and the “plains of Moab,” modern-day Karak. More specifically, it can refer to the hills just south of the Zarqa (Iabbok) River, now on the edge of Amman’s urban sprawl.
Those hills are beautiful, especially in the winter wet season and the spring, when they become green. The area hosts places such as Gilead Farms, the Gilead Wedding Hall, the Gilead Resort, and the Gilead Cultural Center. There’s even a popular summer excursion for Christian kids called Camp Gilead, which would have a totally different connotation in America.
For most Abrahamic believers in the world, the Holy Land is the Bible made real. For people who grew up in the Holy Land, it’s a place where people grow up, work, play, cultivate, fall in love, get in fights, and do politics. The holiness becomes a point of hometown pride: God sent prophets and saints to do their work in our little corner of the world.
It’s not unusual to see Biblical names on all kinds of Jordanian institutions and businesses, even gas stations. Names from the Greco-Roman tradition, like Gadara and Saltus, often get thrown in as well. They’re a reminder that Jordan is old and important. Even the little backwoods truck-stop towns have been world-famous for thousands of years.
The Bible’s actual account of Jordan is complicated. Yes, the Jordan Valley is holy, but east of it was a place of hostility for Bnei Israel and their prophets. Still, some of the important actions of sacrifice and redemption happened amidst that hostility.
From the east bank, Moses could look at the Promised Land that he was forbidden from entering. (Not to hammer the point too hard, but the children of Palestinian refugees have the same experience today.) Not only that, but peoples of Moab and Amman were hostile to Moses, which left them cursed for generations.
Yet the later King David is a descendant of Ruth the Moabite, a moral exemplar for Jews and a saint in some Christian traditions. Then again, the famous Amman landmark of Citadel Hill was “the forefront of the hottest battle” where David sent Uriah to die. Beth Arbel, modern-day Irbid, is only mentioned in the Bible as the example of a horrible calamity.
A Catholic theater troupe recently reenacted the martyrdom of John the Baptist at the Jordanian castle where it happened. (I wrote about the performance for a local Jordanian paper.) One one hand, the violent death of a prophet is quite a tragic piece of history for Jordan to bear. On the other hand, Jordanians can be proud that an act of self-sacrifice in their country has inspired Christians and Muslims for two thousand years.
Gilead, too, is both “polluted with blood” and a place of redemption. The Prophet Jacob made peace with his vengeful uncle Laban there. Later on in the Bible, the “balm of Gilead” (possibly the Ajluni balsam tree or the “balsam of Mecca”) was mentioned for its healing properties.
That balm used to be the most famous thing about Gilead in American culture. A famous African-American spiritual song used the “balm of Gilead” as a metaphor for Jesus. Martin Luther King Jr. used to sing it with his wife Coretta Scott King for comfort, and Nina Simone had a beautiful rendition.
The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on Gilead’s role in the life of Jacob. The fictional Christian extremists, who call themselves the Sons of Jacob, use Jacob’s relationship with the concubine Bilhah to justify enslaving women. (Funny enough, a modern Jewish movement also uses biblical concubinage to justify polyamory.) For them, Gilead is the ancient model for Christian families to submit to.
Atwood has made it clear that The Handmaid’s Tale is not “not ‘antireligion.’ It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether.” To drive the point home, the Sons of Jacob violently persecute mainstream Christian denominations, much like the Islamic State focused its worst brutality against the mass of Muslims who did not accept its claims to religious authority.
In other words, it’s a matter of interpretation.
For the people who live there now, Gilead is not a blank slate for literary metaphors. It’s just their home, one with some history to be proud of. You can visit, if you’d like. I recommend stopping at the Iskandarani Café for musakhan on the way.
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