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 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

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!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

About time...

Yeah, I know this is my first post since…uhh...around New Year’s. Although my long absence from the world of blogging is pathetic, personally, I’ve had an excellent last few months. In the beginning of February, my parents came for a visit. We had a wonderful time, although we were far too ambitious in our attempt to see all of Jordan and half the Middle East, as well as all of my local friends, in a period of a meager two weeks. I swear (and they can attest to this!), every minute of every day was filled with either travels or meeting folks. We visited southern Jordan (like Petra), Anne/Palestine/Jerusalem, and Syria. Despite both the propaganda of Fox News/Bush Administration and the reality of Syrian political problems, that country is so beautiful and culturally rich! Back home in Jordan, during our ‘breaks’ from traveling, because of the strong cultural emphasis on hospitality, my friends were ceaseless in their insisting on having my parents to their homes for meals. All in all, it was a great few weeks, but really exhausting! Making the visit especially enjoyable for me was my parents’ fascination with this part of the world. Everything was exciting for them- the food, the scenery, and especially conversations. My mom told me that they will look upon the last month (them here, then me at home) as one of the best months of their lives. Gosh, that made me happy!

The Pootster and I at Petra!

The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, where lies the heads of John the Baptist and Ali, as well as the body of Saladin. It's actually an incredible place, once the seat of the Islamic Empire.

After my parents left, I spent a week here in Jordan, attempting to cram in as much studying as possible. Then, on to the US! Some of you knew that I was coming home, but for those of you who feel slighted by my not calling, I apologize. The purpose of the visit, however, was to spend time with my grandparents. For the vast majority of my time, I was with them. Some of the highlights of the trip…taking Bill out to breakfast almost every morning, family pictures (oh gosh, that poor, poor photographer), my mom, grandma, and I all sharing a bed, surprising my Grandma June (she chucked what she was holding across the room!), numerous trips to coffee shops with my parents, and a wonderful day with some friends in Northern Indiana. Actually, it was a memorable time for me, and I'm very satisfied with how I spent it. My biggest worry was my grandpa’s health. Although certainly worse, he was not as bad as I had perhaps expected. I know that it meant a lot to him and my grandmas for me to come home to see them. For me, I had a week I will always remember. It’s funny…Here I am traveling all over the world, filling my deepest desires for adventure, cultural experience, and meaning, truly living out a dream; yet nothing in the entire world makes me happier than sitting around doing absolutely nothing with my family.

Finally, this past week, one of my best friends from college was here. Other than his destruction of Roman ruins, I really loved having him! He was actually my first (non-Egyptian) friend other than Anne to see this part of the world, so that was special for me. Although we did some traveling, in general, we hung out in coffee shops, spending endless hours drinking coffee, smoking argeelah, playing backgammon, and talking.

Well, briefly…this next semester will be quite different. First of all, I hope to begin my research, which I've been anticipating for a while. Arabic classes remain somewhat up in the air. After endless pointless meetings which bore little to no fruit, it seems that we may have finally found a way to take courses for free here at Yarmouk. That’s a huge relief! In general, my Arabic has seen a great deal of improvement, but perhaps not what I had hoped. In fact, I have decided to stop obsessing over it. I tend to be far too self-critical about it all, and I need to just relax. I’m trying! Hence, this semester may involve less Arabic. Later this month, I’m heading over to Israel for a MUCH NEEDED trip to meet up with Anne. In April, Will and I are planning a trip to Kuwait.

Okay, I'll admit it. This is what I need!

In addition, Will and I (as well as some local folks) are working on this highly ambitious project to obtain funding to build and/or vastly improve a children's park here in Irbid. Shockingly, this city of over 500,000 people does not have a children’s park of any real substance. In terms of the ‘War on Terrorism,’ these are the kinds of things that people in this part of the world desperately need. At this point, we are attempting to contact both local channels of money as well as US AID. In my mind, money for fighting terrorism here in Jordan, at least long-term, is much better spent (and cheaper!) on children than on tanks and weapons. We’ll see if we can get anything done, but I’m not necessarily optimistic, and it could unfortunately entail a ton of work, much of it bureaucratic. Nevertheless, it's an important way for me to give back to this community.

Kinda blurry, but you get the idea. My parents (check out Tim's hair!) and I with Abu , Um Rami and family. This family, originally from the Gaza Strip has shown truly absurd amounts of generosity to me. They didn't disappoint for my parents!

Thoughts on the cartoons...and a few pics

I know you guys are all probably sick and tired of hearing about them, but I feel like I should say something about all this madness surrounding the cartoons. This short post is certainly insufficient to address the issue, but here is my quick take. Everything has gotten out of hand, for sure. Here in Jordan, it's pretty calm. I mean, ALL of my friends, regardless of how liberal or not liberal they are, are angry. However, they are upset with the reactions as well. On the floor of our university tunnel, there are stickers of the Danish flag so that people can step on them. How funny…and immature! In general, the Muslim world feels attacked by Christianity and the West, and while they can deal with invasions and killings, when you slander the holiest thing to them, the line is crossed. Of course, it is forbidden in Islam to depict any of the prophets, especially in such a demeaning manner. Certain people are already boiling with anger, and this merely pushed them over the top. Muslims see that a journalist gets three years in prison in Austria for denying the Holocaust; yet highly offensive and provocative cartoons on their Prophet can be published with ease (in my opinion, perhaps both should be banned). They understand the hypocrisy and the provocation. They lack awareness, however, of the sanctity of freedom of expression in our Western culture, and they fail to grasp the inability of governments to intervene in press issues. I don't blame the common folks as much as I do the imams (not all are doing this, for sure) that are encouraging the reaction. In addition, keep in mind that in many of the places where the strong rioting occurred, it was probably being facilitated by the governments. Syria, no doubt. It can become a beating stick against political Islam...the governments encourage the riots (or at least permit them), then say, "See, we can't reform. The Islamic element is too dangerous and radical." Yes, the reaction is extremely hypocritical and childish. It's really disappointing, yet predictable. Complicated, for sure. In my mind, it's a situation where both sides have to look in the mirror, and I don't see that happening.

Okay, now some random pictures.

One day, before all this madness of visits, Will and I rented a car and took a 'road trip' East. We, of course, stopped before the Iraqi border! I swear, every 5-10 miles there was a streetside mosque, despite the fact that there was often nothing else around. Perhaps they existed in order that passing drivers could pray at appropriate times. Anyways, this was one of my favorites. You can't necessarily tell all that great from the picture, but it's a fairly wierd structure, especially the minaret.

My mom and I are in there somewhere. This is the long 'suq' leading to the Monastery at Petra. Petra is one of those places where you absolutely must go if in the country, but you expect to be disappointed. Well, it doesn't disappoint. Absolutely breathtaking all the way through!

This is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, in the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex. Al-Aqsa is the second oldest and third holiest mosque in Islam.

Here's poor Will attempting to stuff the even poorer sheep into the trunk of our friend's car. About one hour later, that little guy was sacrificed for 'Aid il Adha,' the biggest Islamic festival of the year. It commemorates Abraham's near sacrifice of Ishmael (not Isaac), and 1/3 of the meat goes to your neighbors, 1/3 to the poor, and 1/3 was used for a barbeque!