Sunday, June 3, 2012

An American in the Middle East

I spent my last night in Amman, Jordan by enjoying a $55 bottle of South African wine on top of Le Royal hotel, where the white stone walls light up in various colors and the neon minarets twinkle in the distance. Then we had $2 schawarma for dinner, the perfect ending to an intense week in a, somewhat, foreign land.

I was expecting to be judged, as an American or as a woman who shows her hair or as a non-Muslim. I'm opinionated and loud and I like to drive. But it turns out, that's ok here, in the right circles.

I met Adam's parents and they welcomed me with famed Jordanian hospitality. His mother told me stories of being 19 and going to Kuwait to work so her brothers could go to school. She raised her children there during the first Gulf war. His father told me how oil refineries work and how he kept Iraqi guards from stealing his car during the occupation. They fed me until I burst with stuffed white zucchinis called "cousa" and spinach "pies". 

From the top of Mount Nebo I saw the promised land as identified by Moses. It was so hot there I can understand why the land by the sea appealed. I was told that at certain times, the tides on the Red Sea make it easier to pass, so perhaps Moses didn't part the Sea so much as he knew when it parted naturally. 

I met a Canadian women whose family fled Palestine many years ago. Her life took an interesting path that has resulted in her involvement in the film industry in Jordan where she tries to get Palestinian refugees jobs on set. She taught me about being a clown and how she outgrew her tutu. I met a French woman who married a German/Lebanese and they are raising kittens in a lovely flat with a shared outdoor pool. They had to lock the gates to their apartment complex, not because of a security concern but to keep conservative Muslims from using it as a shortcut and gawk at them in swimsuits on the way to prayer. 

I wore my bikini at the Dead Sea and covered myself in mud and floated in the salty warm water. Then we splashed down the water slide in one of the three pools staggered on the shore above. Then we drove 3 hours from the lowest place on earth, 400 meters below sea level, up to 810 meters above sea level where the Nabateans built a city long before Christ was born, called Al Batra, or Petra. There we hiked up 800 steps to Al Dier, the Monestary at the "end of the world". The last time Adam had been there he rode in a blackhawk helicopter with a film crane to help shoot Transformers 2. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade filmed outside the Treasury, the most famous part of Petra. Jordanians pay 1 JD ($1.4) and foreigners pay 50 JD ($70) to get in. The entire city is carved from large sandstone formations that glow red in the morning sun. It is truly a wonder of the ancient world and worth any effort to see, by helicopter if possible.

I regularly saw women covered in what we call "burqas", but that is just the name for the head covering. I saw men in the "dish dashi" that is common for men of the gulf, and I call a "white dress". But I saw just as many people in "Western" attire and women dressed to attract attention.  I learned that Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine identify with each other and often dislike their oil rich neighbors in the gulf. The Sunni/Shia divide is much like the Catholic/Protestant wars. The Shia believe that Gabriel made a mistake going to Mohamed and should have blessed his cousin Ali. Let's hope they make peace with their differences sooner than the Christian sects did. "Inshallah" is a common Arabic phrase, which translates to "God Willing", but also often means "Ain't gonna happen". 

Amman was once called Philadelphia and men hug and kiss and call each other "habibi", which means "my love". There is no gas grid, so having a gas stove means you buy butane tanks from the delivery truck. Since you don't know when it is coming, it plays a song, like the ice cream trucks we have in the US.  Water is limited, so it is delivered weekly and stored in tanks for use during the week. People complain of corruption, some of the stories sound familiar, like bridges that are not needed, others a bit silly, like speed bumps on the side roads so people will take the toll road. There is a TV channel dedicated to showing weddings, fireworks and all. 

Ramadan is a month of fasting and no one I spoke to had anything good to say about it. Mostly they hate it because everyone uses it as an excuse to be grumpy and lazy. The presumed intention is to learn what it is like to be poor and hungry, thus humbling you and helping you appreciate what you have. But just as Christmas isn't really about Jesus anymore, Ramadan is really about the feasts at sunset instead of the insight found in deprivation. Thankfully I missed that time of year.

Traffic in Jordan is heavenly for anyone who has ever driven in Malaysia, Beijing or Mumbai. But it is not for the faint of heart. If you think New York cab drivers are aggressive and pedestrians should cross at lights, just know that they are being responsible in comparison to the madness that comes with large drive circles and and lax traffic law enforcement. Lanes? Why yes, I'll take both, thank you.

All the luxury hotels have barricades, bomb residue tests, and metal detectors. Yet you will never hear about a school shooting. Theft and petty violence is rare. I felt as safe as in any Western city, perhaps more so. The US embassy is protected like a fort, "NO PHOTOS" is the welcome sign. I am sure there are anti-American groups here, but I did not encounter any negativity other than towards George W Bush and, really, who can blame them? 

America provides almost $500 million in aid to Jordan annually. I visited many sites with plaques thanking the American generosity. This makes me proud and sad all at once. I know that small town post offices are closing and US teachers fight for their wages. Is it right that we are peddling our influence here at the cost of our own values at home? 

There is so much I did not see, from Jerash in the north to Aqaba on the Red Sea. Clearly I will have to return someday and continue my exploration of this culturally rich and complicated region. I hear Lebanon is amazing!