Jordanian software engineer branches out to save kingdom's trees

More attention is paid to ornamental tropical plants than to Jordan's native species, says Abdullah Pharaon

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During the Covid pandemic three years ago, Jordanian software engineer Abdullah Pharaon was on a work Zoom call when it dawned on him he no longer wanted to continue in his job.

“My colleagues were reduced to a grid of faces on the computer. Something about that didn’t feel natural. It also felt very lonely,” he says.

A graduate of US and British universities, Mr Pharaon, 34, was working from Amman for a software company in Ontario, Canada, where he had lived for seven years.

Since he resigned he has been making regular trips to remote areas of Jordan, collecting the fruit of native tree species that also grow in the rest of the Levant.

Jordanian man quits job as engineer to save wild trees

Jordanian man quits job as engineer to save wild trees

At a farm near Amman, he extracts the seeds – some species are harder to process than others – and tries to grow them in small pots.

The goal of his solo effort is to preserve trees that were part of the daily life of people in the area for millennia.

Mr Pharaon says the trees have almost become friends, partly because “they are unique and characteristic of the region”.

When they are mature enough, I wish to plant the seedlings in locations that bear special significance to me
Abdullah Pharaon

He began with oak. Its seed, the acorn, is large and easy to handle, unlike the delicate seeds from the red berries of the eastern strawberry tree, which he added to his collection at a later stage.

His attempts to coax the seeds to sprout and grow are guided by trial and error.

“There is not much literature on how to extract them and germinate them,” he says.

Mr Pharaon is baffled that most plants in Jordan's commercial nurseries are tropical and not suited to the climate.

“Not too much attention has been given to producing seedlings of indigenous species,” he says.

Man-made threats

Forests barely exist in Jordan, a parched country of 10 million people.

Illegal logging and rampant construction have shrunk its already sparse tree cover, while the grazing of farm animals undermines the ability of wild trees to reproduce.

“Herds eat the sprouts and prevent regeneration of the forest,” Mr Pharaon says. “In Jordan, the man-made threat is more prominent than climate change.”

He works on a farm owned by Mamdouh Bisharat, the 85-year-old scion of a landowning family that played a role in the foundation of Jordan as British protectorate in 1921.

Mr Bisharat, a conservationist himself, donated part of one of his farms in 2022 for Mr Pharaon to pursue his project.

Shepherds and their livestock roam near the farm on the road to the airport. If even one goat manages to come near his pots, three seasons of work will be destroyed, Mr Pharaon says.

He has so far managed to grow 700 saplings from the thousands of seeds he planted.

“I keep this area well fenced,” he says.

Most of the seven species he is cultivating “have a story behind them”.

From the bark of stryrax, a small deciduous tree, comes a resin that was used as incense for hundreds of years in churches in Bethlehem. The reddish carob fruit, which looks like a large chilli, has been traditionally made into a molasses, and eaten as a desert with bread and tahini.

“It is a natural alternative to sugar, and chocolate,” Mr Pharaon says.

Extract from the hard seeds in the carob fruit, which are inedible, is used as food stabiliser and in pharmaceuticals.

“I am interested in the overlap between indigenous species that grow on their own, and the economic value or commercial use,” he says.

Some of the carob seedlings he grows came from Petra, the famous Nabataean historical site and nature reserve that has been undermined by rapid construction in the past two decades to accommodate tourists.

He also collects the seeds of an evergreen shrub called rock rose, which produces a “pretty flower”.

The areas where the trees grow seems to be a factor in the viability of their seeds, he says. The most successful carob seedlings he has came from the southern edge of Amman, which borders desert.

For now, Mr Pharaon has no plans beyond growing the saplings to a significant size, unlike the usually small ones sometimes sold by commercial nurseries.

"My goal for the time being is to spend time with the seedlings at all stages of their development and observe them throughout all seasons.

"When they are mature enough, I wish to plant the seedlings in locations that bear special significance to me," he says.

"Growing the trees will not be my life’s work per se. At a later stage, I would like to design activities around seedling production whereby participants can get involved at all stages of the process, from seed collection to planting.

"I have already begun with small groups of volunteers but would like to grow it as I gain more experience."

Updated: November 11, 2023, 7:41 AM