Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Moving on from Amman

I'm sitting in the old, converted stone building of my hostel in Jerusalem, temporary home to tons of disheveled and bearded travelers through the Holy Land.  A brief note will follow--

After I finished and presented my culminating research project for my program (an examination of the role of the student government at the University of Jordan in the context of regional revolution and national reform) our program went on a last excursion to East Jordan, did some final things, talked about re-entry into American, and then adjourned.

The next morning several of my friends and I flew to Beirut for three days.  Lebanon was incredible, especially after Jordan.  So green, so clean, everything so new (a result of fairly recent destruction of the city), everything so liberal.  With my hostel we toured a bit around Eastern Lebanon, saw the cedars, the ruins at Baalbak, Hezballah supporters and copious army checkpoints.

This morning we flew out of Beirut at 845, landed in Amman, hired a taxi to the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge and crossed the border into Israel/Palestine.  After hours of lines, questions, and various forms of semi-public transportation my group and I, now only 4, were walking through the winding Muslim quarter of the Old City to find our hostel with a rooftop view of the Temple Mount.  Jerusalem is amazing.  So old, so (to the naive visitor, perhaps this perception will change) integrated.  We walked by Eastern Orthodox priests, families of Hasidic Jews, and Arabs.  We saw the Western Wall, the Armenian and Jewish quarters, etc.  Tomorrow we're seeing the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, Holocaust Museum, and all the other Jerusalem sights.  The next day, maybe into the West Bank to see Bethlehem, Ramallah, and perhaps Al Lud, the town where my host-family in Amman is from.

After three nights here, we head back to Amman to catch a flight to Cairo and meet the rest of our friends for six nights in a rented apartment in the very safe and convenient neighborhood of Zamalek.  I will write more from there.

The Middle East is pretty cool, I would say.  

Monday, May 2, 2011

[Insert Osama/Obama Wordplay Here]

I got up this morning and Mohammed called out, 'Mabruk, man!' Congratulations.  He told me the news that is dominating headlines and conversation today.  But the question I'm getting from people back home (and people here as well, to be fair) is what people in Jordan are saying.

I'm gonna make this short.

From what I can understand, Jordanians haven't really decided what they should think yet.  By 'what they should think' I mean what they should think as Jordanians, as Arabs, as Muslims, as Palestinians, as people living in a part of the world that America didn't pay much attention to before September 11th.  On one hand, al Qaeda has done a lot of damage here.  The 2005 Amman Hotel Bombings in which 60-some people were killed and scores injured was orchestrated by al Qaeda.  Most of the casualties were Jordanian.  Only 4 of the people killed were American.  Jordan has a lot of reason to fear and hate al Qaeda as well.  On the other hand, most Jordanians disagree with the US government's position on a lot of things.  'I love the American people but I do not love the American government' is a phrase I have heard many times.  A powerful terrorist is dead, but it was the Americans that killed him.  That puts many Jordanians (and probably many Arabs) in a difficult position to respond.

My host brother Mohammed is who I've spoken the most about this with, and he seems to have a similar position to mine. Osama bin Laden is dead, but his ideology is not, Mohammed explains.  My other brother Omar chimes in: 'The prophet would not have approved of bin Laden's actions.  You aren't allowed to kill children, women, or sheikhs under any circumstances. But killing him doesn't solve the problem.'  The way forward lies through education and government action to dismantle this false picture of Islam that bin Laden has represented.  'The religious traditionalists lose power because of his death--this a good thing,' Mohammed says.  He tells me that overall in the Arab world the reaction is positive--it is only minorities that claim bin Laden as a martyr.

I agreed with my brothers on the takeaway points:  bin Laden's death is a step forward, maybe not one worthy of celebration, but still a step forward.  But there is a lot more to do.  The US needs to open further channels of communication with the Arab world, and not just with governments (whether popular ly elected or not).  The Arab governments need to do the same.  I have little doubt that Osama bin Laden and his actions are a main reason why I am here in Jordan right now, but it was America's negative perception of Islam and the Middle East that sprung from 9/11 that is the real thing that brought me here.

In terms of political consequences, I see two immediate and important results.  This is really good for Obama and his reelection, especially sine national security is an area where the Dems are usually seen as weaker.  However, Hamas' response is really bad.  They condemned the killing of bin Laden, describing him as a holy warrior. By taking this stance that breaks from the official position of I think any other Arab government, they are really harming the Fatah-Hamas split and the peace process with Israel.  By so directly siding with bin Laden, Hamas has does none nothing but aligned itself with more extremist, radical and minority views.

The situation is developing here, as it is in the US and the rest of the world.  But my host brother's response as a Palestinian-Jordanian who once thought positively about September 11 cannot be ignored. The enduring problem is one of false perceptions that can only be solved through further education and communication between the Arab world and the west.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The East Bank

One of the reasons I haven’t blogged in a while is I was waiting for something to happen—some more developments in the reform movement, more demonstrations, actions of the king.  But there has been nothing.  One of the reasons that the largescale protests quickly lost momentum was the rhetoric that the government used to describe the opposition.  Every protestor was Palestinian, the message was, and if the demonstrations continue, civil war will erupt between Jordanians and Palestinians. 

The most important thing that I didn’t know about Jordan until maybe two weeks before I came was the Palestinian issue.  At least half (more in some estimates) of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian origin.  Jordan controlled the West Bank before 1967, and in the 70s the monarchy essentially fought a civil war in Jordan, in Amman, with the PLO. 

And while various speakers that SIT has had come lecture assure us that the rift is almost gone, there’s still very much a division, or at least bold lines.  My host family is Palestinian.  ‘He killed my people in Gaza,’ said Abu Musa, explaining his hatred of Mubarak.  My host brother has never been to Palestine but if you ask him where he’s from, he won’t say Jordan.

A couple weeks ago my two host brothers, Mohammed and Omar, took me out for a picnic.  We brought a thermos of hot tea from our mother, then picked up bread rolls, falafel, cheese, labaneh, tomato, and drove north out of Amman.  We parked on the side of the highway, and ate our late dinner (it was almost midnight by now) sitting on a bluff overlooking Baqa’a Refugee Camp.  Baqa’a is the largest and poorest of the camps.  As we ate, a few other cars stopped and young men, presumably Palestinian like my brothers, hopped out with picnics, tea, hookah, to join us at the view.  Though they had never met before, my brothers exchanged heartfelt greetings with the others through the dark.  After all, they were all there for same reason: young men who had never seen Palestine, maybe never will see the villages where their families are from, being thankful that they are better off than the people of Baqa’a but fully conscious of their plight.

My program moves into the independent study period this week, where all students have a month to prepare a long research paper on an aspect of ‘Modernization and Social Change’ in Jordan.  I’m researching the perceived role of the student government at the University of Jordan, especially in this context of regional revolution.  As I prepare survey questions to test my hypothesis, I struggle with whether or not to put a question about ‘national origin’ on the survey. Sad as it is to say for reform in Jordan, the opposition movement is almost inseparably linked in the minds of many people with the underrepresented Palestinian majority who so recently fought openly with the government.  The Palestinian question cannot be ignored, in any sphere of Jordanian life.  It is frustrating to see what should be—and perhaps is—a nationalist movement of reform marginalized by being branded as seperationist. 

near the market in baqa'a
A few weeks ago, I went into Baqa’a Camp with Mohammed and two of my friends who are researching Palestinian refugees.  We were visiting a woman Mohammed had met, to sit with her and drink tea with her and bring her food.  But Baqa’a didn’t seem like a refugee camp to me in the way I had pictured such camps.  There was no barbed wire, UN checkpoints, just a lot of poverty.  And the people just seemed like other poorer families that I had met in the Badia.  We didn't talk about politics.
kids at the house we visited


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Jordan follows suit, kind of

Since there are many news stories coming out of the Middle East right now--most of them more worthy of international concern than news from Jordan--it's quite possible that you haven't read about the recent escalation of demonstrations in Amman.
pro-government supporters at diwar dakhliyah around midnight last night
You can read the stories on the New York Times website, BBC, or Al Jazeera.  Long story short:  a number of youth groups united under the banner of 'Youth of the 24th of March' and staged a sit-in last Thursday in a traffic circle and critical intersection in Amman.  The protestors stayed there all night, despite government supporters throwing stones.

The next day, most of the streets leading to Diwar Dakhliyah (or Gamel Abdul Nasser Circle, according to the maps) were shut down, greatly inhibiting movement around the city.  Later that afternoon and evening, over a hundred were injured and two men were reported killed.  Apparently the government has only confirmed one fatality, and the cause of death by heart attack.  Other sources (like my host brother and facebook) insist that he was a protestor beaten to death.  His funeral will happen as soon as the family receives an actual cause of death from the government.

During his Friday sermon, my host father went to unprecedented lengths of intensity in criticism of the government. He called for the dissolution of the Parliament and support for the protestors.  He did, however, state that he disagrees with the choice of location for the protests.  Because the circle is at such a crucial intersection, action around it completely shuts down traffic in much of the city, only exacerbated by police response.  Thus, staging a demonstration in this location seems to directly incite conflict and clashes with the government as people get fed up with traffic disturbances.
police cars parked inside the circle, blocking traffic
Last night when I returned from a friend's house, my taxi driver decided that the best way home (it was the most direct) would be through the newly-opened Diwar Dakhliyah.  It took us thirty minutes to go a quarter mile, and when we entered the circle, now filled with police and government supporters celebrating the 'victory', the driver put in a CD of Jordanian nationalistic music and turned the volume up all the way.  As we came slowly around the circle I was able to take these pictures.

So now--I'm safe, and will continue to be.  My program is taking extra precautions.  I plan on carrying a copy of my passport with me at all times, just in case.  From what I have heard, the Parliament may be dissolved in next few weeks or months.  This does not mean what it would mean in America.  It happened fairly recently in Jordan, and there was no subsequent state of anarchy or anything.  But keep reading the news.
the pedestrian area inside the circle
scary riot cops

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tintin in Oman

While traveling abroad in unconventional places and sometimes finding myself in absurd situations, I have gained a reputation for frequently referencing a series of comic books about a traveling reporter that was apparently unique to my childhood.  The Tintin series bore even more resemblance to my life during the spring break excursion to Oman (see Land of Black Gold and Red Sea Sharks), a comparison cemented when some of my friends bought me an oversized "Tin Tin in Oman" t shirt in the Matrah souq.

I perhaps found myself bringing up Tintin's adventures because I simply had no other frame of reference for Oman.  Oman is just so different from Jordan (once you get over the confusing similar spelling of Amman) and comparisons between the two are about as useful as comparing Jordan to America.

In Oman, there is one date you need to know.  In 1970, Sultan Qaboos gained power, quelled a civil war, began pumping oil, and in the last forty years built a country out of the desert.  And in most places, it feels like just that.  The capital city of Musqat is sprawling, wide open, the new white buildings divided by wide, immaculate streets and strips of manicured grass.  Gilded mosques rise between endless banks, hotels, and fast food franchises.  Where our hotel was, the port suburb of Matrah, the scene was little changed.  Huge cruise ships and the Sultan's yacht filled the harbor surrounded by incredible mountains, (but you could make out the castle-prison for political prisoners in the hills) and on our last night the western tourists streamed into the covered souq to buy overpriced antique sextants. Oman was very much a gulf state.

But the northern tip of Oman, controlling entrance to the Arab (or Persian, depending on the map) Gulf, is only a few miles from Iran. And you could tell.  All the food we ate was Indian, Pakistani, Bengali.  You could ask for Omani food, but wouldnt get a straight answer.  Many of the men walking the streets of Matrah or planting flowers in front of the new opera house were south Asian, not Arab.  My Arabic was next to useless.  You could pick out the Omanis because the men all wore the national dress--white dish-dash with a colorful fez or a turban.  It's actually illegal to wear these things if you're not certified Omani (or a western tourist, of course).  This boundary of appearance made it very easy to tell who was Omani and who was just another foreigner and would speak some English, sell you a simosa and that's it.

We did the few touristy things you can do in Oman, besides just being in the Gulf, looking at the water.  We went to the Grand Mosque.  Impressive to be sure, very resplendent, but built in 2001.  Compare that to the Aya Sophia in Istanbul, and it's like comparing Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas to Nero's Palace under Rome.   We went to a turtle reserve on the coast, which was actually really cool. Saw a sea turtle laying eggs in a huge hole in the sand, then saw some baby sea turtles run towards the ocean. Went to a wadi, a valley in the middle of the huge desert cut down thousands of feet of canyon to where there's now a river, estuary, palm trees, and pools to swim in.

But we also went to Nizwa University, a new school in the interior region attempting to bring higher education to students for cheaper, without the cost or danger or distance of university in big-city Musqat. There, our tour guide watched American movies to learn the accent, but spent his time walking around the Souq with friends.  The Cultural Week that the university was setting up for looked more dedicated and upscale than any club fair in Claremont. Here, the sway of the oil money and waters of the Gulf were losing ground to a more liberal, more educated and diverse culture, one entirely Omani.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Oman was leaving, flying north over the lights of Doha and the lack of lights of the Arabian desert, that coming back into the relatively dirty, poor, crowded Amman felt like rolling through the gates of Marlinspike, (yet another Tintin reference) coming home.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

'for a while there it was chaos' (but not really)

A trip in which we paid too much for lunch, found out that no buses were running back to Amman in the late afternoon and thus found us squished into a taxi for a long ride back, paying too much again, was still uncolored by these incidents.  The beauty of Ajloun and the surrounding country can hardly be described.  And neither can running goat-herding paths on the first trails I'd set foot on in Jordan, dropping down into valleys and then coming up again to look over empty, green hills.

Thus, photos:

spices, nuts, honey, etc on the highway from Jerash to Ajloun
13th century Muslim crusader castle, few tourists, few forbidden areas (not europe)
the 360 view made the importance of this outpost obvious 
the nature reserve was incredible, and mostly deserted as well
ian and ben strayed from the path, despite the signs

the castle lit up for sunset

after over-charging, the driver consented to take a photo (albeit blurry) of us

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Beginning

The word 'Badia' used to describe the desertous periods in Jordan comes from the verb meaning 'to begin.'  And indeed, the land there is very primordial.  Supposedly the inhabitants of the Badia--the Bedouin--are not much different all across the desert, north into Iraq, down into Saudi Arabia, this is where the Arab culture began.

But surprisingly the main difference I noticed between life in Amman and the life I observed in the five days I spent in the northern Badia was cultural, not technological as the not only the name might in imply, but also indeed as I had assumed, despite and perhaps because of the SIT orientation.

I lived in a village called Difyanah, near the city of Mafraq.  My house was less than three miles from the Syrian border.  Unlike most periods of time during my SIT program, these days had no schedule.  I was dropped off at the house of my host-family and was supposed to live, just live, for a few days.
my house (top floor unfinished)
And the living was the main difference.  I was struck by the quiet and the solitude.  Perhaps this was a function of me being an English-speaking, male guest in a conservative culture, but I think otherwise.  I watched my host father, a retired army officer, spend long moments walking around the house and grounds in sweats, just looking.  When I walked out on the road north, towards the Syrian border, I saw single men in traditional dress, herding sheep and goat just as they had for generations.  My younger brother, Yazin, spent most of his free time in an abandoned building on our property, waiting to sell candy and popcorn to the neighborhood kids for a few piaster. I sat with him, most days, and when we had exhausted our meager phrases of Arabic communication, we did just sit.

looking north out the road towards Syria
 And inside, life was different too. I was told that I had a teenage host sister, but I never saw her.  I saw my host mother all of two times.  I was never invited past the entry room and adjoining couch room, the main room of the house as far as guests are concerned.  I spent a lot of time in my couch room, reclining on the pillows that lined the room, drinking tea and reading The Brothers Karamazov (thanks, Dad), wondering if I should be doing more in my role as guest or in my days in the Badia, but this is, I guess, mainly what they do. 
our couch room
 When I left the house with my host brother Laith, a 21 year old studying to be a teacher, it was usually (always) to other people's couch rooms.  When we had guests, it was the same thing.  Large groups of shebab (men in their 20s) reclined in various poses around the room, talking, playing cards (cheating relentlessly), chain smoking, but mostly chilling on cell phones.

Technology is everywhere here, but in a different way.  Almost everyone has a TV in the couch room, but if it was on it was usually tuned to news or a soccer video game, never the Turkish soap operas popular in Amman.  On their cellphones, no one was making plans or calling friends, and definitely not girlfriends.  Instead, they were sharing videos, songs and mostly just playing games.  It was different. 

It was kind of like vacation. Spent time reading, walking in lieu of running, being brought endless tea, and thinking about coming home. 

But it was perhaps the most uncomfortable vacation.  I was alone.  My reading was done in short increments before I felt too awkward sitting there and stood up for a minute, maybe walked into the other room.  If I walked through the town, everyone wanted to talk to me or just look.  When I hung out with the shebab, I was either struggling through an Arabic explanation of US foreign policy in the Middle East or saying nothing, trying to follow the conversation. 

I was happy to come back to Amman, happy to spend the next day decompressing at the Dead Sea with my program, but I was happier that I spent the five days in the desert.  Surrounded by technology but not using it, surrounded by yet a new, more socially conservative culture. But with time, quiet, and space to think.  And a different perspective on the world I came back to.
the sun setting over the palestine across the dead sea