Friday, June 09, 2006

Egypt..and my plans

Long draught in posts. Reason...I've been trying to finish up things in Jordan, bureaucratic/detail junk, as well as the more important closure with friends. This includes many great meals. In general, I'm very excited to go home and see friends and family, but I am sad to leave Jordan and the Middle East. Irbid, Jordan has really become like a second home, and I will always remember how good the people have been to me.

Brief update on my schedule. Well, I am currently tooling around Egypt with Anne, and that has been amazing! One thing it has not been, however, is relaxing. I swear, we get up early, go to bed late, all in one of the most intense cities in the world. But gosh, I love Cairo so much, and as Anne can tell you, being here pretty much puts a constant pep in my step. Anne has really liked Cairo too, which is wonderful, as people definetely either love or hate the place. Yeah, we've seen so much here, from the extreme poverty of Garbage City to the high society of Zamalek, and everything in between. And we've covered about every nook and cranny of Islamic Cairo. We also spent a couple of days in Upper Egypt, but with temperatures upwards of 117 degrees, that didn't last too long! Tomorrow we're off to the Red Sea for some much needed relaxation. This trip has been amazing, both the location and the company (of course!), but it's been all madness and no calm!

Anyways, I'll be back in Jordan on Tuesday, where I will spend a week of further preparation and goodbyes. For the following three weeks, I will be in an Arabic program in Fes, Morocco (yes mom, be jealous!), the artistic and cultural capital of Morocco. While I will both be sad from leaving Jordan and excited to come home, this time should be great. Following that, I'm off to another country, France, to visit the greatest dude who all signs point to him Dutch, but he really isn't, alive, Samuel Shrofs. Gosh, I can't wait to see him and France. That puts me home about the beginning of August! Whew! I certainly hope to see all of you then.

Well, when I'm back in Jordan, I will post some pics from our crazy adventure in Egypt. As some of you can probably picture Anne and I running around here, it's been quite the scene! I miss you all, and I will see you soon.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Saddam Hussein!!!

Like all Americans, I grew up hearing endless stories of the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s cruelty, his gassing of the Kurds, his invasion of Kuwait, and of course, his elaborate torturing methods. I imagined that the only authentic supporters of the regime were those who benefited directly from it. However, while living and studying during this current academic year in Jordan, I have been stunned at the extent of the implicit, even explicit, support of this brutal dictator. Undoubtedly, the American public, as well, is surprised to learn of the relatively wide backing of the larger Arab public towards Saddam. While some of this support is rightly attributed not to Saddam himself or his former regime, but instead to the widespread anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there are, in fact, concrete explanations for Saddam’s standing in Jordan and the larger Arab world. I will attempt to explain this phenomenon from the Jordanian perspective, as well as assess its implications.

I have witnessed Jordanian approval, if not admiration, of Saddam Hussein in numerous conversations within a variety of communities, ranging from Ba’athist Christians, pious and secular Sunni Jordanians, Palestinian refugees in Jordan, and even a Kurdish woman. This is quite the spectrum! Even in the words of those who maintain that they hate Saddam, there are hints of respect. The reasoning, I believe is threefold.

First of all, because of the intense communal tensions between the various religious and ethnic groups in Iraq, many people are convinced that only a strong leader can hold that country together. Their view, of course, is validated by the U.S.’s inability to maintain any sort of security. Yes Saddam was repressive, even cruel at times (Jordanians often claim that much of this has been propagated and exaggerated by the Western media). However, this strong-hand was necessary in order to preserve his regime and more importantly, the stability of Iraq. Whatever crimes may have been committed were unfortunate, but a necessary price for security, safety, and unity.

Secondly, support of Saddam is justified given the close political relationship between Saddam Hussein and the beloved former King Hussein of Jordan (unrelated). Many Americans may recall King Hussein’s refusal to join the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam in 1990. Throughout the Saddam regime, Jordanians enjoyed large subsidies on Iraqi oil, and like all Arabs, they studied in Iraq for free. The pocketbook often guides political attitudes, and since the toppling of Saddam’s regime, Jordanians no longer receive free education or oil subsidies, causing a huge strain on the economy.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, although Saddam was a harsh dictator, he is the only modern Arab leader to stand up to the United States and Israel. The Arab people are desperate for a hero, for a leader to rescue them from the traps of loss after loss, humiliation after humiliation, suffering after suffering. Although this is most acutely expressed with respect to Palestine, Arabs generally feel that they are subject to the whimsical decisions of the West, Israel, and their ‘puppet governments’ in the Arab world. Saddam had what Arabs tend to respect more than Westerners, power and force. He was strong, and he resisted the West. The Middle East is a region without hope, and Saddam offered hope. Although he undoubtedly failed as a politician, undertaking reckless wars (Iran-Iraq War, invasion of Kuwait) that ultimately destroyed himself and his country, many Arabs view him symbolically. He bombed Tel Aviv. He said no to the United States. Yeah, he gassed his own people. Yes, he is sitting in an American prison. But much like Gemal Abdul Nasser in Egypt forty years before, Saddam offered hope that the Arab world could be united against its enemies, that it could liberate Palestine. This is especially true for the Palestinians living in Jordan, which make up over one half of the population. For that ‘hero’ to now be in the hands of the U.S., while Iraq is meanwhile in the midst of a civil war, is a major emotional blow.

Many Jordanians are torn between the various ideologies pulling at them: their Islamic belief system, Arab nationalism, and tribal loyalties (the backbone of the monarchy). Most of these ideologies, however, rarely surface politically. Pragmatism rules, and in the end, this is perhaps the ultimate maintainer of the Jordanian government. There remains a decent condition of life, economically, socially, and politically, and the monarchy is relatively concerned for its citizenry and building consensus. Equally important is the strong government suppression of opposition and the subsequent risk attached to political activity. Motivation must be extremely high to oppose the monarchy in any manner. The current King Abdullah II’s critical assistance in the Iraq invasion, overthrow of Saddam, and current occupation clearly angers many Jordanians, and some are willing to act on those beliefs, including men such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of the Iraqi insurgency and plotter of the November 9th attacks in Amman. Others, however, maintain that they support the government’s stance on the Iraq War because of the benefits that a relationship with the U.S. brings to Jordan.

In the politics of today’s post-9/11 “with us or against us” world, the Jordanian monarchy has been placed in the difficult position of either turning its back on an alliance with the United States, one that provides important assistance, or collaborating with policies that the vast majority of its population despises. The Iraq War and our unwavering support for Israel’s controversial policies have radicalized both Jordanian society and the larger Arab world. While both the individual Jordanian and larger Jordanian society are a complicated mix of ideology and interests, Jordanian admiration for Saddam Hussein is only likely to increase with the daily violence in Iraq, strange as that may seem.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Oman

Oman was amazing! Instead of describing the place and its people in another lengthy post, I decided to post some pictures with brief explanations. In general, although I was only able to spend about 5 days in Oman, I was able to get a pretty good feel of the place. And I loved it! Okay, I had some major technical problems (AHH!) placing the pictures in any sort a coherent way. Sorry. So, they are numbered with corresponding comments below.

First, a link to a map of Oman. http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/middle_east_and_asia/oman.gif As I describe places, feel free to check out the locations on the map. Notice Oman’s natural importance as a port, which has historically led to a population that is very accustomed to interacting with different people from all over the world. That certainly continues today.









1-4.
The cornice in Muscat, the capital of Oman. Coming from Jordan, the organization of the place was truly stunning to me. There are clean roads, traffic rules, and legitimate art (with water!) in the center of the roundabouts. What?! Unlike many of the other gulf states, which have become crazy (and often awkwardly) modern places, Oman has done a uniquely superb job of combining the benefits of oil wealth with the preservation of its traditional culture. Way to go Sultan Qaboos!

5-6.
One of the most interesting aspects of Oman, especially Muscat, was the number of foreign workers. Coming from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and especially Pakistan and India, foreign workers actually make up about 20% of Oman’s total population. In Muscat, it felt much higher. We spent some time talking with these folks, hearing about their lives and, of course, eating their food! In fact, just about every meal we ate was at an Indian or Pakistani restaurant, often full of Omanis customers. The degree of mixing and intercommunal tolerance was quite impressive, at least on the surface, as Omanis eat at Indian restaurants, buy Bangladeshi-made clothes, and sleep in Pakistani-run hotels. The large and absolutely beautiful Muscat market is a small picture of this mixing, lined with shop after shop of Indian saris, next to shops of the traditional black Omani dresses. Nothing makes me happier than experiencing these diverse cultural expressions living in harmony with one another! We were able to share tea with Pakistanis from Kashmir, sit in a park with Christian Sri Lankans, and eat dinner in the home of native Omanis.

7-8.
Wadi Asshab, the “Grand Canyon of Oman.”

9-11.
The Sultan Qaboos Mosque, the national mosque of Oman. In general, the mosques in Oman are extremely beautiful, often reflecting the architecture of Shi’a mosques in nearby Iran. The majority of Omanis are neither Sunni nor Shi’a, but a minority sect in Islam called Ibadism.

12-13.
The wildlife in Oman is incredible! Aside from seeing beautiful birds, a constant supply of the always fascinating camels, ghazelles, and numerous lizards, I witnessed one of the most impressive natural phenomenon of my life. There is a beach near the city of Sur named Ra’as Al-Jinz that is a prominent landing spot for giant sea turtles, and during the summer, literally hundreds of turtles come to this beach to lay their eggs. Although we weren’t there to witness this, I can’t complain too much, as we were able to observe all sides of the turtle egg-laying process. We watched turtles wash onto the shore, crawl up the beach, and use their flippers to dig holes to lay their eggs. At another spot on the beach, we saw over 50 baby turtles popping out of the sand, literally appearing from everywhere, like insects. They had just hatched from their eggs below the sand, and they were beginning their highly precarious journey to maturity which very few will reach. Even if they escape the dangers of foxes and crabs to reach the ocean, the vast majority with be eaten or drown in the sea. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, we witnessed a giant turtle (who presumably had just laid her eggs) slowly creep from the beach back to the ocean. This absolutely enormous turtle would use its flippers to crawl three or four steps, stop and take a (loud) breather, and then continue to push forward until it finally reached its destination. It’s difficult to describe the whole scene, but it was fantastic!

14-16.
The Indian Ocean. Never been there before.

17-20.
A castle in Nizma, a city at the foot of the Hajar Mountains which was once the capital of Oman and remains at the center of the Ibadi faith.

21-23.
The Hajar Mountains, a mountain range that dramatically reaches up from the Indian Ocean to 10,000 feet. We had a great time climbing around…that’s me in the background of the first picture. Scattered throughout these mountains, and all over Oman in general, are towers dating from the Portuguese era in the 16-17th Century.

24.
Men in Oman are different! This was a sign for the bathrooms.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the pictures. Happy belated Easter to everyone (it's Easter today in Jordan)! By the way, I'd be interested in your opinions of my last post, about homosexuality in the Middle East. I thought I'd get more of a response.

Monday, April 10, 2006

My very humble impressions of homosexuality in Jordan

As promised...homosexuality in Jordan. I hope I made sense. Feel free to comment, as I would love to have some sort of a discussion. Next post...either Oman (I leave the day after tomorrow!) or local opinion of Saddan Hussein. Keep checking! By the way, I'm doing much better, especially after a refreshing trip to Madaba. The Bedouin hospitality always does a sould well! Anyways, the post...

The issue of homosexuality in the Middle East is certainly not discussed openly, leaving one to assume that it remains irrelevant. However, during my 7 months here in Irbid, Jordan, I‘ve had a small glimpse into this odd world of same sex relationships. In fact, it is probably inappropriate to label it as a ‘world of same sex relationships’ per se, as in fact, I’m talking about something entirely different. Instead, I am referring to seemingly straight men engaging in homosexual acts with other seemingly straight men. Strange? Perhaps, but there are real explanations.

First of all, I should say that I am only writing about men. When I had an American friend of mine who is living here read this post, he accused me of being a chauvinist and denying women’s sexuality! Ouch. I’m not trying to do that, but I just have no idea about women and this issue! Furthermore, I would still maintain that IN GENERAL, men are more sexually motivated than women. That may be culturally encouraged, of course, but it seems to be true. Okay, on to the real issue.

In terms of sexual expression, this culture is quite repressive (keep in mind that I am speaking of Irbid, which much more conservative than Amman), and I think two crucial factors provide the basis for this sexual repression. First, the norm for men is to marry as late as 35, when they are sufficiently stable financially to provide for a family. According to the Jordanian Department of Statistics, the average age for a Jordanian man’s marriage is 29.3 (both Will and I think this is too low), more than two years older than the average American man. Therefore, this late age of marriage means that unless they are engaging in pre-marital sex, men are waiting an extremely long time to have sex. Because celibacy is so important for women, usually, men aren’t engaging in ANY sexual activity, even kissing. Regardless of what any religion says, this is a period of fighting your own biology!

Second, unlike those in the United States who choose to remain celibate until marriage, celibacy here is not really a choice, but is culturally mandated. This cultural pressure is not merely limited to parental disapproval or something like this, but it permeates the entire culture. Of course, men can engage in physical activity with women, but it certainly requires searching and high amounts of risk, thus dissuading the majority of horny men from partaking. The combination of these two factors are brutal for men’s sexuality (and for women, too), as you have a large number of men unable to satisfy their desires, not necessarily by choice. Of course, there are also many men, perhaps the majority, who are committed religiously to this still celibacy. Regardless, the fact remains that many men are 'forced' into sexual purity.

While the obvious parallel is with Christians in the United States who wait until marriage to have sex, I must reinforce the many differences. First, oftentimes these American men may not be having sex, but at least they are enjoying some sort of sexuality, even kissing. Here, for the majority of men, nothing. Second, for the many Middle Easterners who are only marginally pious, their waiting until marriage to engage in any sexual activity is not a matter of major religious significance. It is culturally forced upon them. They cannot share the ‘us against mainstream culture’ pride that many Christians in the US have. Finally, there is a fairly obvious trend amongst Christians in the US to marry early, which I think is directly related to the desire to have sex (no one take that personally!). Once again, people here are waiting until 30 to have sex.

So that’s the situation. Men are men everywhere, and this sexuality must come out somewhere. Prostitution is available, but there is also a surprisingly normal activity amongst young men whereby they engage in sexual acts with each other. Opportunities for same-sex sexuality are increased by the close physical relationships that already exist between members of the same sex. I cannot be entirely certain of its pervasiveness, either culturally or in terms of numbers; but it is definitely present throughout the Middle East. I have a gay American friend here in Jordan who has engaged in various forms of homosexuality with a number of men, men who are not gay in a strictly-defined sense. These are men who may have a girlfriend, men who hope to get married. These are men who know that it is highly unlikely that they will be able to express themselves sexually with women in the near future, and they have decided that this simpler alternative must suffice.

Perhaps this phenomenon merely reflects a society that better understands the broad range of human sexuality, a society that consciously or secretly has decided that the labels of ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ are insufficient at best. That would be cool. Perhaps, as foreigners, we attract that population that is either gay, or at least desperate for anything. Regardless, it does produce some strange results. Last week, for example, I went over to the home of a new ‘friend,’ only for him to come on to me quite aggressively. A few months ago on the bus (granted it was a seedy, late night bus), Will and I saw two men fondling each other from under a coat.

Although this type of stuff seems highly antithetical to an extremely religious culture, especially considering Islam’s strong condemnation of homosexuality, I guess it is a cultural concession to an otherwise overwhelming problem. In the past, of course, men married much earlier. It would be interesting to hear the perspective of religious scholars, who condemn ‘homosexuality’ in the strongest language. Perhaps they would merely deny its existence. Certainly they view this strange cultural phenomenon of non-gay men engaging in gay activities with disdain. Whether it is considered better than the alternative of women potentially losing their chastity, voluntarily or by rape, I am not certain. I am sure, however, that it will remain a relatively secret issue.

Before you laugh to yourself about the hypocrisy inherent in this model (of which there is plenty), reflect on our own society. I guess all societies must deal with the drones of horny men (and women!) in their own ways! Ours has generally chosen to disregard chastity and sexual purity all together, leading to problems with premarital pregnancies, abortions, AIDS, and a general apathy towards the importance of sex beyond physical pleasure. However strange it may seem, this is one solution, one that certainly avoids many of the pitfalls of our own society.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Eclipses and Robberies

I have only two months left in Jordan. Although it seems like I’ve been here forever, I can hardly believe that it’s almost over! Well, during these next two months, I’m going to try something new for my blog. Every couple of weeks (inshallah), I will write about a specific subject to Jordan and the Middle East, such as marriage or local ideas about Saddam Hussein, for example. The next bi-week topic will be homosexuality, and I’ll post it early next week. I know that Dsome Rof Ayou Pare Enterested Rin that topic. For now, my life...the highlights.

1. There was a total solar eclipse that passed very close to Jordan, and it was awesome! Really, I was very impressed. Perhaps more interesting, however, were the Jordanians' reactions. For example, all of the non-university schools were cancelled out of fear that the children might look at the sun when they walked home from classes. At the time, I just assumed that they were looking for an excuse to cancel school. But, lo and behold, they made up the day on Saturday! There was this crazy perception that the sunlight from the eclipse was somehow more dangerous than sunlight at anytime. At one point, I was glancing at the eclipse and some guy shouted with panic, “Don’t look at the sun!” I asked my Egyptian doorman if he saw the eclipse. Nope. He informed me that he shut himself in his room and locked his door, out of fear of the sun’s rays. What?! Yet despite all this fear and unwarranted concern, no one seemed to be taking advantage of the situation economically. Do you guys remember those “look at the eclipse” glasses in the U.S.? You would think those will be flooding the streets!

2. A terrible two days, days which made it painfully clear that I am not living in my home country. Some of problems included…

- The shower running out of water, while I was in it.

- My bed broke, for some reason. It’s already so shitty, fixing is probably impossible.

- Two nights ago, I had my worst experience in the Middle East. Considering that I’ve now lived here for a total of a year, I guess I can’t complain too much. I was robbed...while I was in the house. Okay, that sounds much worse than the theft actually played out. Rather, it was one of the weirdest and most mysterious situations I can recall in my life. While I was taking a shower, someone (somehow) reached into the window of my room and stole my cell phone, wallet, and a card of cell phone credit from my desk, which is near the window. They must have used a stick or something. Admittedly, I wasn’t the smartest in the whole thing, but I didn’t think that locking my window from the inside was all that necessary. That night, I literally spent 2 hours looking for my phone, and I went to bed convinced that either Will was playing a late April Fool’s joke on me or that I accidentally flushed it down the toilet. The next morning, when I realized that my wallet was gone as well, I knew what happened. Probably the craziest thing is that someone must have been watching me to know that I went to the shower. Otherwise, Will or I would have heard the noise. Uhh. The hassle has been significant, especially cancelling cards and trying to obtain new ones. All told, the thief jacked my cell phone, over $100, my university ID, MI Driver’s Lisence, Jordanian residency card, local bank card, US bank card, and a Visa card. Quite the snag! I have tried to maintain a positive attitude about it all, although it has made me a bit colder to the culture, something which I am already overcoming. Even though crime in Jordan is very, very low, Will and I are learning that we still need to be careful.

So that’s that. Early next week, I’ll give that post about homosexuality. Check! I miss you guys.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The last few weeks, some future plans, and the DESERT

This is going to be real quick, but I'm trying real hard to keep on top of this blog! Everything is fine here in Jordan. I'm continuing to enjoy life, and although there remains constant battles, I feel as if my Arabic has improved, I've learned much about this part of the world, and true cultural and religious bridges have been built. That's all I can ask for! The graduate school picture for next year has become more clear, but I am still waiting to hear from some schools, both about acceptance and the all-important financial aid.

Let's see. Other than the normal schedule of Arabic lectures and private tutoring, research and classes on ME politics, and the social engagements, I am still doing quite a bit of exploring Jordan and the region. Two weekends ago, I had an absolutely wonderful weekend with Anne in Nazareth. Last weekend, some friends and I spent a day exploring the desert castles of Eastern Jordan (see pictures). In the future....next weekend, I will spend the night with a friend in Libb (rural village near Madaba). This will certainly require a post, as staying with him is always fascinating. Although he works a modern job in Amman, he and his family are traditional Bedouins in their outlook on life. Last time I stayed with him, I came home and wrote about 15 pages of observations. Perhaps I will combine some of those notes with some new stuff. I am excited though, as rarely are you given that kind of an opportunity to really connect with someone so different from yourself, especially in their own home. The big event is coming in mid April, when Will, another Fulbrighter, and I are going to Oman for a week. Oman is such a wierd place with unique geography and history. I'll let you know more about it as the time approaches.

Pictures are below. Also take a look at my last post, because I added pictures there as well. Finally, for all you MESPers, there was an article written in the New York Times on Essam Eryan. Remember him? The Muslim Brotherhood guy who spoke to our group in Cairo. The link is http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/25/international/middleeast/25essam.html.

Okay, that's all for now. I hope you are all doing well. Have a great day.


Qasr Hraneh. Although it looks like a castle or fort, in reality, it was probably a trading post or meeting center for the Umayyad Dynasty (based in Damascus- mid 7th-mid 8th Century) to shore up support from the local Bedouin tribes.


Qusayr 'Amra. Built by the Umayyads around 715, it is believed to have been a sort of 'retreat' for the Umayyad rulers, where they could escape the big city life, hunt, and even get in touch with their Bedouin routes. Some scholars have speculated that they also came to the desert in order to learn the Modern Standard Arabic, which at that time, was still spoken by the Bedouin tribes (but not in Damascus). The inside is decorated with all sorts of fascinating frescoes, such as naked women, animals dancing and playing instruments, and angels.


Qasr Azraq. Originally built by the Romans, it's made of Basalt. Although it was used by the Umayyads and Ottomans as well, the castle is most famous because it is where Lawrence of Arabia stayed duting the winter of 1917 during the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 against the Ottoman Empire.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

One of my days



For some reason, I always seem to find my way into unique encounters, wonderfully odd and exceptional situations that I imagine even others living abroad rarely experience (well, other than Jimmy and his crazy drum-playing band!). The other day was a perfect example.

About 15 miles NW of Irbid is both the ancient and the modern village of Umm Qais, an unbelievable place that has become one of my favorite locations in all of Jordan. Near the modern village of Umm Qais is a large hill where the ancient Roman city of Gadara is located, a city within the Decapolis where Jesus cast out demons. The ruins itself are very cool, containing Ottoman homes as well as a large Roman amphitheatre made of black basalt. Most impressive, however, is the view. From this vantage point, your eyes are literally provided with a map of the Middle East. To the east, less than 5 miles away, is Syria. To the far north, but still visible, is southern Lebanon. To the northwest, West Banks villages are within 20 miles. To the west, closer than even Syria, is the Sea of Galilee and Israel, with Mt. Nabor and Nazareth in the far background. Directly in front of you is Jordan’s Yarmouk River gorge. Towering behind the gorge is the Golan Heights. Aside from the breathtaking physical beauty of the rolling hills of Roman olive trees, the huge and imposing plateau of the Golan, and the shining blue Sea of Galilee, the sheer magnitude of the view is astonishing. For someone studying history or political science, it’s a dream! It’s like the 4 corners in the SW US, but instead with all these extremely significant areas of contention. Some of the panoramic views are enhanced further by the Roman and Ottoman ruins surrounding them. When I stand at Umm Qais, I'm always struck with how cool it is that I'm actually in the Middle East!


Will and I were up in this area, taking it all in, attempting to decide if we should hike to Syria (don’t worry mom, we didn’t do it!), and exploring the archaeological sites. Like I said, at Umm Qais, there are Ottoman ruins above or next to many of the Roman ruins, and until about 20 years ago people were still living in these Ottoman homes. However, due to a decision by the Jordanian government to develop the area for tourism, they were actually forced to leave (compensation was provided). Anyways, as we walked around one of these courtyards, a Jordanian man came up to us and introduced himself. He told us that his family had lived in the area we were walking since the 17th century. With tears in his eyes, he pointed to the homes and showed us where he was born and where his grandparents had lived. He told us that he still has a picture of his grandmother beating a rug in front of the place we were standing. Like all of the families living there, his family was evacuated when he was just a kid. It was fascinating to hear his story, but especially the emotion with which he told it. He said that he comes to the site three or four times each year, and it was clear that the visits remain difficult for him. It was almost as if he sought us out, desperate to share that part of himself with someone. Walking away, he was holding his wife’s hand, needing the support.
Without talking to this guy, the sight would have been just another ruin, but it became a story. It reminded me of two things: one, the deep, soulful bond people here have to their land. It’s true with Palestinians wanting to return, and it was true with him. Second, the history in this region runs so deep. On any given piece of land, the number of civilizations, let alone generations, is countless. Certainly at the site of Umm Qais, people lived long before the Romans. In more concrete terms, we stood on ruins of Romans and Ottomans, on former homes where people were born a mere 30 years ago, while in the background stood places of current magnitude like the Golan Heights. Wow!

After this encounter, I wondered through some of the ruins to find a better view of the sunset and before long, I was far from Umm Qais proper. Suddenly, about 50 feet from me, I heard bells, shouting, and stomping. I looked (I was wearing my glasses, believe it or not, so I could actually see!) and saw a guy riding a horse, and a bunch of sheep. It was a shepherd grazing his sheep on the hill. This is one of the beauties of living here...I feel like in the States, it would be really awkward to interrupt someone doing their work to just chat. But I strolled right up and chatted up with this shepherd for probably half an hour. He was ludicrously happy to talk, and seemed to especially enjoy my line of questioning about the animals and the Bedouin lifestyle. I ended up meeting his father too, who was just up the path. This dude was straight out of a cartoon! First of all, he looked like a dwarf! He was certainly short enough to be one, and he wore this red kifaaya, which made his virtually toothless smile look even bigger. He had the heartiest laugh, and he laughed at everything. In addition, every couple of minutes, he would let out a strange, highly comical cry towards the sheep. I could barely hold in the laughter! I just loved talking to these guys, as it’s such a rare glimpse into a truly different kind of person from what I am accustomed. It turns out that the family is originally from Tiberias, the Israeli city less than a few miles away, on the other side of the lake. They wanted me to come to there place for dinner, but Will (that ass!) was talking to some Iraqi archeologists, so I had to refuse.

Speaking of Iraqi archeologists, (and this is the final of the three random and fabulous encounters of the evening), just as I was feeling giddy about the previous interactions, I caught up with Will, who had invited some folks to have dinner with us. They were Iraqis, recipients of a grant from Japan to work with some Japanese archeologists on a dig at Umm Qais. These are trained, competent folks, but because of Saddam Hussein, there was was little emphasis on archeology in Iraq. Of course, Iraq is quite rich in ancient sites, especially with the Babylonians, and the hope is that if things ever get settled, archeological work will flourish. Iraqis need experience now. Anyways, we sat and chatted at dinner with two of these Iraqi men- Ahmad, who was about 40, and Abather, probably 30. We discussed a wide range of topics, from their archeological experiences, to our Arabic, to the war in Iraq and its aftermath. They were both very frank in their initial happiness at the US intention to dispose Saddam, but also in their disappointment at the aftermath. They said, “I am happy [at the US ousting Saddam], but I want [basic necessities, like electricity].” It was very interesting to get their opinions, which they frequently said are “just ours” as Iraqis and not Arabs in general. (In addition, they were Shi’as.) It was another one of those conversations where I felt such a mixture of emotions, ones that are difficult to describe. For me, probably the strongest were sadness and humility. These men were unbelievably gentle and kind, interested in what Will and I had to say and unwilling to impose their views. They only wanted the best for themselves and their families, but their situation living in Baghdad, both during Saddam and now, was and is one of hardship we truly cannot fathom. One of the men wanted so desperately to come to the United States, and I could see his embarrassment when asking about possibilities like the Fulbright Grant. Gosh, it breaks my heart. Where’s justice in this world? Why have I been provided with everything I could possibly need when others can't even live in peace? Yet, they maintained such kindness and optimism. I could tell that they weren’t excited to return to Iraq, but Ahmad told me, “If you come to Iraq, you are like my family.” Those are such humbling conversations when you realize that your accomplishments are entirely insignificant, that they rest primarily on birth and fortune; but at the same time, you are struck that as members of the same human community and as children of God, our significance, each of us, is truly indescribable!