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‘I have no wish to go to the moon’

Jul 03,2016 - Last updated at Jul 03,2016

The Gun Smoke Still Lingers… memories through India, Jordan and beyond

Ann O’Neill

UK: Gilgamesh Publishing, 2015

Pp. 182


Perhaps because she spent a happy and exciting part of her childhood in India, Ann O’Neill seems to have contracted a life-long case of wanderlust, without ever losing her English identity. That is the impression one gets from reading her memoir, “The Gun Smoke Still Lingers”, whose title refers to a family-related memory, and not violence in the countries where she visited and worked. In fact, references to war and politics are brief in the book. The focus is on the positive side of human beings and nature’s beauty.

Teaching, which became a near life-long profession for O’Neill, was actually something she embarked on as a way to see new places. She worked as a private tutor to children whose families lived in Turkey, Malaya and Switzerland, in addition to a short stint at a private school in England, before a life-changing assignment came along in 1961. Via the British Foreign Office, HRM Queen Zain engaged her as a governess for HRH Princess Basma, who was then 10 years old. Later, O’Neill served as the Princess’ guardian when she attended boarding school in England. O’Neill remembers the princess as “a very fine student and most conscientious”, and they have remained friends. Princess Basma wrote the foreword to this book, crediting O’Neill with helping her “to discover the joys of reading”. (p. xv)

Later, after years spent in England, during which time she married and suffered from the premature death of her husband, O’Neill felt the need to go abroad once again. After a disastrous experience in Iran, she returned to Jordan in 1972, where she has stayed ever since. Over the years, besides giving private lessons to scores of students, Jordanian as well as foreigners resident in the country, she developed her photography hobby into an art, and also worked for Jordan Television, Radio Jordan, the Jordan Phosphate Mines Company and others.

But for O’Neill, staying in Amman is a relative term, since she jumped at every chance to travel, making repeated trips to her beloved India, but also to South Korea, Egypt, Iraq, Oman, Cyprus, Bangladesh, Italy, Palestine and Kashmir, among other places. So in addition to this being a memoir of family and of life in Jordan, it is a wide-ranging travelogue embellished by O’Neill’s fine photos. What makes her travel accounts especially fascinating is her all-consuming interest in all aspects of life. She has a keen eye for detail, and equal attention is devoted to nature, especially flora, historical monuments, handicrafts and the daily lives of people of all sorts in the countries she visited. Wherever she went, she was determined to go off the beaten track. In her words, “I have found great joy in all kinds of places, but landscape the world over has been my inspiration and a great driving forces”. (p. 178)

Living in Amman, she made constant forays out of the city, often to the hills to the north, in search of wildflowers and other subjects for her photos. She recounts hilarious stories of venturing to out-of-the-way places, sometimes staying in hotels not worthy of the name, but always she found something to enjoy. Her love for Jordan is, however, laced with concern. “It is very sad to see so many private houses being demolished to make room for blocks of flats or business premises… What concerns me more is the increasing loss of Jordanian ‘essence’—that is, the flavour of local shops run by local people with close and friendly relations to their customers.” (p. 107-8)

Reading this book, one is struck by two qualities that pervade O’Neill’s narrative and make her the person she is. One is that her lifetime, begun in colonial times, spanned the global transition to independence, and on to the world we know today. This gives her a unique perspective. Second is that O’Neill is a truly self-made woman who, without higher education or a degree, turned herself into a productive teacher. Through constant activity, driving curiosity and determination, she developed a number of other skills and areas of expertise as well.

In closing, O’Neill sums up her positive outlook: “My life has been full of adventures and I have been greatly blessed by my family, my friends and, not least, by the people whose hands touched mine where I have lived and travelled. I have no wish to go to the moon. This earth of ours, so stunningly beautiful, so kind and gracious, so generous in its gifts, I can never see enough of it.” (p. 178) 

“The Gun Smoke Still Lingers” is available at the Suweifiyeh Bookstore.



Sally Bland

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