Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Christmas Zaniness




Here's my own picture of the Dome of the Rock, shot Christmas Day.


I hope you all had fantastic Christmases!

As I told you, this past weekend I went to Bethlehem. In addition to the enjoyment of spending Christmas with Anne, the awful and constant rain, and the coolness of celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem, it was pretty insane, especially the first day. Here’s what happened: Well, at 10 a.m., I hopped on a bus to (supposedly) take me from Irbid, Jordan to Nazareth, Israel. Arriving at the Jordan-Israel border at about 11, I felt great. I remember specifically thinking that at that rate, I would be in Jerusalem by 2, and I could spend the rest of the day with Anne in Jerusalem. Wonderful! I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Basically, Israel detained me at the border for over 8 hours. Despite my Department of State insurance card, they thought I was a Western activist going to help the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (which might be true in the future, but on this occasion, I was your typical tourist!). I sat, I sat, and I sat, watching tourist after tourist, Jordanian after Jordanian pass through the security. There was a stretch of 3 hours without a single question directed towards me. They claimed they were doing background checks, but I still don’t know what the jack was going on. At least one of the soldiers felt bad for me, and she gave me her meal for the day, so I did eat courtesy of the Israeli Defense Forces. Eventually (and I mean after upwards of 7 hours of waiting), they brought in some special guy for me, which may account for some of the wait. I kept telling him how honored I was that he should come just for me, but he didn’t seem to find the humor. After they escorted me to a separate building, he gave me an extensive search. This was definitely the most intense part of the interrogation, owing only to my own stupidity. I had forgotten to leave behind in Jordan a small Palestinian flag that was in my bag. While waiting, I put it in my sock, out of fear that they’d search my stuff. Gosh, this guy must have had his hands right on that flag, but he never found it. If he would have, I’m certain my Christmas would’ve been in Irbid! I was interviewed by another man about everything from Calvin College, to ‘Marie Vanderwall’ (that was Anne), to my graduate school plans. He even tested my Arabic to determine whether I was lying about that. This other guy just watched me, reading my body-language to see if I was lying. But I passed! It was all ludicrous, although I think I was able to see the humor in it all, rather than being pissed. It helped that the Israelis working there were genuinely nice to me. In the end, I got a 3-month visa- ha, ha, ha Anne!

The fun didn’t end at the border. Nope. By the time they released me, there was no public transportation to the nearest Israeli city, Bet Sheen, and I had to pay a ridiculous taxi fare. At that point, I was in a weird mood, perhaps delirious, and I figured I might as well add to the absurdity of the day. So after failed attempts to hitchhike, as opposed to paying for an ass-expensive hotel, I decided to sleep on a park bench in a Bet Sheen park. For some reason, nothing seemed better to me, and when I initially laid down, I was actually quite thrilled with my lot in life. The idea was brilliant, but not all brilliant ideas turn out so brilliant. Yeah, b/w 10 pm and 3 am, I probably slept a total of an hour or two. I’d constantly wake up shivering, roll over, shift positions to make the coldest part of my body warmer (thus exposing some other part), and pull out my cell phone to check the time. ‘Oh, it’s only been 30 minutes.’ I spent the whole evening wearing socks on my hands and boxers around my face, just to cover every inch. It was MISERABLE! Finally I gave up and just started walking, determined that I would walk around until the bus to Jerusalem came at 7.

In the far distance, I heard music…music means warm indoor places, a rare commodity when it’s 3 a.m., and you can’t stop shivering. It was a karaoke bar, and it was warm, although they didn’t have any warm drinks. Instead, I had to drink a beer, my whole body shaking every time I touched the damn bottle! When I initially entered, some of the folks in the bar were definitely afraid of me (think backpack on a stranger, walking into a public place- their faces actually gave a better appreciation for the extent to which Israelis fear the suicide bomber). I think they eventually came to the conclusion that I was either homeless, lost, or crazy…or all three. I mean, I wandered in shaking, half asleep, my hair everywhere, looking like a deer caught in headlights. But the people were very nice, even giving me hummus for free. There I sat, shivering and eating my free hummus, sitting with drunk Israelis while they sang karaoke in Hebrew. A few of them insisted that I sleep at their place for a couple of hours, on a kibbutz! So, within the period of two weeks, I slept in the house of Bedouins and on a kibbutz. See the attached picture- it actually looked just like bunch o
f small trailer homes or something. Unfortunately, my new friends (the picture is of Aron) spoke almost no English, and I was thus unable to get any sense of how the kibbutz works. All in all, it was a pretty crazy day- not exactly fun, but one to remember!

I could bombard you with more stories, like drinking beer at Ramses’ Burger on Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, listening to Anne make what I’m convinced is the most absurd comparison in the history of human comparison-making (really, if there was a category in the Guinness Book of World Records for ‘worst comparison,’ it would win), or randomly running into someone I went to high school with…but I’ll stop now!

To each of you, have a fantastic New Year's! To those going to Mandy Lord and soon-to-be Matt Lord's wedding, I will miss you badly! To Matt and Mandy Lord, it breaks my heart that I can't make it. Know that I'm really pround of you guys, and I love you.



Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Merry Christmas from Jordan!

I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas before I leave for a few days. I hope that you each have a special Christmas, and that you can all enjoy your families, churches, and presents!

Tomorrow, I am travelling to the West Bank to eventually spend Christmas in Bethlehem, which is about the best alternative to being home with my family. Sometimes I laugh out loud at how far Christmas seems. When I walk outside, it's 70 degrees, there are virtually no signs of Christmas anywhere, and life is entirely normal. Despite the numerous people who still have no idea Christmas is in less than 5 days, I have had a few awkward, yet charming attempts to make me feel 'at home.' A few friends have told me, "Happy Christmas." Another asked me if Friday was 'Good Friday.' My favorite however, was the jumbled greeting, "You merry Christmas." Well, no sir, as much as I enjoy this holiday, I don't intend to betroth it! But thanks for the effort! In actuality, as some of us foreigners were discussing, it's much easier to be away from family in a place where Christmas barely exists (it is an official holiday, however; and, of course, in Christian communities it's a big deal, although Easter is much more celebrated), as opposed to say, sitting alone in an apartment in Dallas. Plus, I get to spend the holiday with Anne in Palestine, which will be wonderful. And I'll say what's up to the Church of the Nativity for you!

Anyways, enough about me. You are truly in my heart this Christmas season. Merry Christmas to each of you!

Love,
Robin

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Some good ole' political sciences

As I may have told you already, my landlord, Malek, is running for Jordanian parliament next year. Admittedly a political science geek, I am always eager to engage him about the Jordanian political system. The differences between ours are fascinating, and it makes you realize the length of time it took for our own system to develop and the numerous adjustments that have been made to improve it. Of course, there are many aspects that could and probably should change (in my opinion, ending the electoral college and granting proportional representation, to name a couple), but we’ve got it down pretty good; then again, it’s 200 years in the making. For Jordan, elections are far less significant, as the King retains ultimate authority. In fact, they can seem to be mere exercises for the elected to place members of their own tribe in government jobs. In some ways, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (more on them later) is the only real ‘challenge’ to the government, as they offer the only alternative to the pro-government folks.

The Lower House of Jordan’s parliament (the Upper House is appointed by the king) consists of 110 members. In previous elections, all of these parliamentarians were elected according to their district. Jordan is made up of 12 districts and a specified number of representatives were elected from each district, depending on its size. Thus, Amman was allotted the most seats, followed by Irbid and Zarqa. In essence, these elections consisted of large families/tribes putting out a candidate from their tribe, causing the parliament to be comprised of members of various families/tribes. Jordan, by the way, seems to be one of the most tribal societies not in the third world. In a sense, therefore, this system was representative, as each community placed representatives from their most powerful tribes in the government. However, the candidate’s qualities, what he/she had to offer the local community and Jordan as a whole, had very little to no bearing on the overall election process. It basically meant that the most prominent and largest tribes placed their members in the Jordanian government, furthering their own interests. It also served to keep the parliament, a group which deals almost exclusively with domestic affairs (although their decisions carry some clout in foreign policy), extremely loyal to the government. With no national candidates to campaign on a broader platform, the representatives were essentially, as Malek calls them, “sons of the Kingdom.” In fact, with the notable exception of the Muslim Brotherhood, political parties are banned in Jordan.

The only group to provide any challenge to this tribalistic structure of representation is the Muslim Brotherhood, although they currently hold a mere 23 of the 110 seats. The Brotherhood, which is fairly moderate in Jordan, nevertheless, tends to oppose support of the US and Israel. As in most pro-US countries in the Middle East, they are extremely popular, especially in the poorer areas of society, but also in many of the professional associations. Of course, they are able to advertise themselves in mosques around Jordan, which is probably the ultimate way to campaign (perhaps in a manner similar to the Evangelical Right in the US). Unlike in other pro-US states, however, the government of Jordan holds a large degree of popular support, certainly amongst these Jordanian tribes, the “sons of the Kingdom.” If there were completely free elections, the Brotherhood wouldn’t win in a landslide, like in Egypt. They probably would not win at all. But in the past, despite this election system, the Brotherhood has achieved some election success, even holding the positions of 3 ministers in a few governments.

Well, the election laws have changed, (according to Malek) largely at the behest of certain members of the current parliament, the Brotherhood, the Jordanian populace, and (to our credit) the US. For this upcoming election, there will remain 110 parliamentarians, although 40 will now come from a general election. 70 seats will represent the various districts as before, but these other 40 will be elected in national elections. At first thought, this may not seem significant; but it certainly has the potential to shake things up a bit. With these 40 seats, no tribe is large enough to attract enough ‘tribal votes’ to win; these candidates must actually rely on some campaigning. So, who has enough political clout to win in national elections? Hmmm, the Muslim Brotherhood of course! Suddenly, their power in the government goes from 23 seats to probably double that or more (out of 110), which would force the Jordanian government to take them much more seriously. Malek admitted that this new law is also quite beneficial for him as a candidate. Under the new system, his name recognition, as well as the respect people have for him, almost assures him victory in the national, tribe-free, elections. It’s funny though (or perhaps discouraging)…when I ask him if he will win, he NEVER says anything about his qualifications or his political ideas, other than the fact that he’s pro-monarchy. Only, “I know people all over this country, and they love me.” Malek is a self-declared “son of the Kingdom,” firmly backing the king, someone who has even gone on official visits to Israel- he’s hardly a radical. He told me that if it seems that the Brotherhood will take too many seats, the government will “do something” to make that impossible, implying they’d fix votes. I guess this is only one small step towards democracy.

Jordan’s political situation must, of course, be viewed within a larger context. The US continues to face the same fundamental tension of hoping to promote democracy and political reform, yet fearing the consequences of opening up the system. Within the societies of many of our closest Middle Eastern allies (especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and now Iraq), Islamic parties might win; in some of those cases, they certainly would. In general, this might not constitute a problem. However, given the current prevalence of anti-US sentiment in many of these societies due to the extreme unpopularity of recent US actions, such as the war in Iraq and our unwavering support for the far right government in Israel, perhaps this fear is now legitimate. On the one hand, I do believe that all societies should have the right to choose their rulers. This is an end, a good in and of itself, greater than the end of maintaining regimes which support the US. In addition, the policy of encouraging (even if only tacit encouragement) our allies to suppress these Islamic parties, to reject democracy, seems a bit short-sighted. Unfortunately, these tensions are unlikely to soon disappear and merely suppressing the opposition will not ultimately work. On the other hand, the idea of an Islamic government coming to power in, say Egypt, is legitimately disconcerting. What if they withdrew from the peace treaty with Israel, for example? This could lead to renewed warfare, further refugee problems, and a far more volatile region. Then again, for how long can we avoid the problems?! The following quote from an excellent Middle East textbook by William Cleveland describes the direction the US has tended to take thus far: “By constructing a policy framework that viewed all Islamic movements within the narrow context of US security interests and antiterrorist measures, the US distanced itself from the genuine popular movements within the Islamic states and created barriers to its ability to work with the forces that might well shape global Islam…it was reduced to ignoring its stated preference for institutionalizing democracy and to shoring up authoritarian rulers who accepted US hegemony in the Middle East but whose domestic policies threatened to promote popular upheavals against them and their superpower ally.”

In general, I think we must encourage political reform, even if in small steps. The reform in Jordan is a small step, but a good one. It will be interesting to see the election’s results and effects, especially in terms of the Brotherhood. One thing, however, seems certain: Malek will win, and he is not afraid to predict it!

A Quick One

Hi everyone. How are you all? I hope you are all preparing for a wonderful Christmas. I’m trying to make it Bethlehem, the source of the real event of Christmas and the location of Anne! Well, I’m living alone for the month (the wife’s in Japan), which I’ve enjoyed thus far, although I’m certainly not used to being alone, ever. But I keep busy enough that loneliness isn’t a problem. And I finished all of my grad school applications, which is an enormous load off! Anyways, this post will be short, just to let you know I’m doing well, attach a few pictures, and give you an explanation for the following post, which is much longer.

Explanations of the pictures:




This first picture was taken at a shop here in Irbid. Reference the picture of the Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest Islamic mosque, on Anne’s blog,(http://www.anniev.blogspot.com/). The real thing’s a little more beautiful, huh? Here is Jordan, you constantly see references to Palestine, especially Jerusalem. Undoubtedly the owner of this shop is of Palestinian descent and would be indescribably envious of Anne’s little touristic jaunt.







This second picture is a shoutout to my Catholic friends. It was taken in front of a church in Madaba.







Finally, this is large billboard in Irbid advertising Thursday's Iraqi elections. There are quite a few signs like this, which are encouraging Iraqis living in Jordan to vote.

















Now, two precursors to the post: 1. Please remember that many of my posts, especially the political ones, are a. my opinions, or b. things I’m still learning about, or c. both. By no means am I an expert, so keep that in mind. Case in point, I said that Abu Zarqawi (bin Laden’s number two man, responsible for the Amman bombings, currently leading the Iraqi insurgency) is a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, thus contributing to Jordanian-Jordanians perceptions that the only problems in this country are from outside. Well, in fact, Abu Zarqawi is Jordanian through and through. His family has now disowned him.

2. IF YOU’RE NOT INTERESTED IN POLITICAL SCIENCE (and I mean the dense stuff), STOP READING NOW!!!! Okay, I’ve probably eliminated everyone but Justin, Scotter, and Dr. Holt!