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Jordan-April, 2007


April 10, 2007: Arrival in Amman

Blinking, I arrived in Amman. Another adventure though I feel I have accumulated years of them in the past ten months. Indeed, the bags under my eyes would agree.

My brother had passed through Amman some years ago, recollecting, “Amman is really white and hilly, right?”  You bet. Like all great cities – Rome and Kampala included – Amman was built on seven hills, though it seems the sprawl has adopted many more.  All the stones are white, whether in buildings or lining the empty lots.  An abundance of simple dice with black window pips fall ramshackle throughout the city, at once impenetrable and beckoning with the yelps of children playing football in dusty driveways.


It feels strange to be in a city again where I can easily procure cappuccinos, dry cleaning, and fast food, all on the block where my small furnished studio resides.  I have a television, which I am not too pleased about, although it does provide a gateway back to the American life I recall, the one with reruns of Nash Bridges, Oprah, and Steven Seagal movies.  Signs are mixed in Arabic and English, with significantly more of the latter than I had imagined.

I am tired and excited, again unsure of what my new home will bring.  I can feel I’ve changed and I know not how. I have work tomorrow and I know not what it will be.  I’m ready to be home and I cannot wait to explore again.  Another adventure starts today.

April 11, 2007: First Day at Work

I’m working at Partners-Jordan, a Jordanian NGO connected with Partners for Democratic Change International.  Partners-Jordan focuses on promoting conflict management, change management, and good governance throughout the country.  They provide mediation trainings for children, work with other NGOs on effective communication techniques, and educate people under 35 on political processes and civil society.

It will take a few days to determine my role here, though it seems that assisting the strategic planning process will be a large part.  And with deep breath, I dive into another brand new situation.

April 13, 2007

Today is Friday, “Yom al-Jum’ah,” the start of the weekend and the day when Muslims go to pray.  It is late morning now, quiet outside except for the call to prayer that blared over the rooftops earlier.  Stores won’t open until this afternoon, if at all, and for non-Muslims like myself it is a chance to experience the city alone, quietly.  I’m going out for a walk through the city later for lunch and observations. In Morocco and Egypt, at least, there is something wholly different about Fridays, that the spirit of the day pervades interactions, from the market to driving.  In Arabic, the name for Friday roughly means “Gathering Day”, taking the same root as university (jama’a).  To me, it brings to mind the goal of the Jewish day of rest, Shabbat, and the focus on community emphasized on that day.

I’ll finish one more cup of instant coffee and then explore the city of white stones.

April 14, 2007: Mediation Training… in Arabic

I sat in on a conflict management workshop for children today in a city called Irbid, about 80 km north of Amman, through the rolling desert.  I recognized a number of the activities despite the language barrier – my Arabic is still struggling greatly – and noticed there were no vastly different reactions.  This educational program is sponsored by USAID, a piece of information not lost on certain thirteen-year-old boys who scratched out the small insignia on the materials.

I was struck by the striking similarity between so many of these faces and my Jewish cousins and friends back home… At a basic, visceral level, the perceived gulf between me and these children around me seems so sad, so terrible.  It makes me wonder, what if, what if?

April 16, 2007

Almost everyone here thinks I’m Arab, at least until I speak my broken Arabic.  My face and coloring are similar to a significant population of Arabs, who have darker skin and red hair.  Each taxi ride, I am asked where I’m from, and when it’s not Syria or Cairo, the driver assumes my family is from those places.

April 17, 2007: Government and Politics

A Jordanian told me today that, before major royal events like weddings, the number of policemen on the roads giving tickets doubles.  “It’s so obvious,” she says, “And yet we have no choice.”  His Majesty and the royal family, as generous and good-hearted as they are, still run a country on their own.  The Parliament is more than just a rubber-stamp, but not by much. Government by the Family for the People.

On another note, work here is interesting. I will have the opportunity to focus on the management side of NGO work through the strategic planning process.  It will involve eliciting input from stakeholders within and outside the organization, as well as exploring new, creative programs for the organization. It will be fascinating to see this aspect of non-profit work.

April 18, 2007: Virginia Tech

The news coming from the States today and yesterday has been horrible.  The shootings at Virginia Tech were terrible, as I need not say.  I get shivers just thinking about it.

I’ve noticed two interesting reactions to the news, one from U.S. media and one from Jordanians whom I know.  Feeling an outsider to each, I have something of a third party perspective on the reactions and they have been fascinating.

The reactions from a number of Jordanians I’ve spoken with seem to be similar: it is a horrible situation, of course; yet look what happens in Iraq every day.  With over one million Iraqi refugees in a country of 5.5 million, Jordan clearly feels the impact of the war in Iraq.  And their reaction speaks leagues: Americans don’t seem to have a clear idea of what carnage is like, of what the daily devastation is like.  Just today there were four bombs in Baghdad, one of which killed at least 116 and wounded 145.  One-hundred sixteen people with one bomb, just like that.  And furthermore, the Jordanians suggest, today’s devastation is due to America’s invasion; violence knows no boundaries.

I looked back to my entry on empathy (March 2) and would like to test that theory. “Caring” means you recognize another’s life as a possible reality for your own. Is that actually possible? I don’t know. But there seems to be a gulf between many Americans’ understanding of reality in Iraq (or most of the Arab world) and many Arabs’ understanding of reality in the United States.  What does that mean? Breaks in communication, general lack of trust; all the usual signs of inter-communal strife.  The reactions I have heard are not quite as sharp as Malcolm X’s reaction to President Kennedy’s assassination – “chickens coming home to roost” – but they certainly stem from similar feelings and ideas.

What causes a community to react to an acknowledged tragedy with mute sympathy and a blanket of cynicism that borders on complete contempt? It seems to me one of many natural signs of divided communities.  These attitudes exist in many divided societies throughout history.  The question that I want to answer, though, is how to promote movement in the other direction: how to heal the relationship, how to build trust so motives are no longer questioned?

The reaction within the United States has been fascinating to watch as well.  After the complete horror about the events, the immediate move is to analyze the gunman.  Headlines blare, “Madman was a suicidal stalker,” almost begging to be printed in slanted lettering across a poster advertising a 1920s horror flick.  Already, less than 48 hours later, his plays, journals, and poetry are being poured over, looking for early signs and clues of how to detect the next “madman.”

Now, I think it’s important to understand motives and what happened to make a young boy into a student who would do this.  But as soon as we call him a madman, as soon as we dub him a psychologically disturbed stalker, we lose the point.  Once someone is subhuman, inhuman, it absolves our own role in the tragedy.  In addition to horror, those who knew the boy say they saw “signs” but could not believe a person could do such a thing.

Isn’t this exactly what happens between America and the Middle East? Dehumanization of the Other to a point when they simply cannot be treated as a person but rather must be detected and annihilated.

And yet, this student was human. He was a person, a student who wrote poetry. He had a family. And he did a horrible deed.  Just as Rwandans were capable of horrific deeds; just as Germans; just as Russians; the list goes on. And on.  And it goes on precisely because those deeds are perfectly within the human capacity.  If whole societies can do it, individuals can too.  Our treatment is to diminish his humanity because it provides us a safety net: we need not worry about it because he was simply inhuman.

The tendency toward dehumanization occurs on the other end of the spectrum as well. When we discuss Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or a host of other exceptional people, we most commonly use the word “saint” to describe them.  Saint, of course, implies inhuman in the same way madman does: it attributes the person’s deeds, good or evil, to a non-human, the Divine or the Devil.  That person is so extremely good or bad that she is not, in fact, a person.

In calling Gandhi a saint, we rob his life of its magnificence, that a single, human being was able to act in such a way.  More importantly, though, doing so absolves us of the responsibility to live up to that idea.  I mentioned this earlier (January 19) in discussing our moral responsibility to address poverty.  By terming a good deed an impossibility for humans, we clear ourselves of responsibility to strive for it.  Similarly, with this tragedy, we call it inhuman and so we don’t need to understand how one of our fellow humans, a student and a poet, could undertake such a task.

This is not to say that people do not have psychological problems.  More and more it seems that this student did, in fact, need more help than he was given.  But I am more interested in our society’s reaction to the events.  I believe these reactions are indicative of the lengths we go to get rid of personal responsibility, both in addressing our capability for ugliness and our potential for greatness, both as individuals and as nations.

April 21, 2007

I went out tonight with a colleague of mine and some of her friends, a nice night at a local bar. There are bars here that serve alcohol that are accessible, especially in West Amman which is more middle- and upper-class.  In the bar, few women covered their hair and drinks were clearly plentiful.  Keeping with my vow to stay sober throughout the entire three-month placement, I took only tea and argila as did the Muslims; our Christian companions had wine.

My colleague’s friends generally were from split backgrounds: Jordanian-Irish; Palestinian-British; Egyptian-Jordanian.  When asked, I explained I was American from German and Russian roots.  I found it interesting that they assumed my parents were born in Germany or Russia, not that it went back generations.  And yet, I also played into that, noting my background as though I could not be simply American.  When in the States would I describe that background? Rarely, if ever.  Perhaps it is a product of an American immigrant population; perhaps we simply have fewer ties to communities, nations, or tribes.

April 23, 2007

I’m still tired. Still not sleeping well at night, still not as enthusiastic and energetic as I would like.  Still cannot rid myself of my accumulated bags under my eyes. I have four cups of coffee every day in an effort to break free, to blink and really see the sunlight again.  I’m worn out from travel, from new places, from this self-imposed solitude.  I placed my chips on my work, hoping its eventual development will jolt me into being more present, being more purposeful.  I am trying not to look longingly westward, to the States, to familiarity, to family.

April 25, 2007: The Ice Cream Truck!

Floating into my window, a song pricks my ears. I’ve never heard these particular notes but I know that tinny, repetitious tune.  It must exist across cultures, across languages, across oceans. My adrenaline pumps, my heart leaps, my soul rejoices as I jolt from my desk. I know what that sweet song represents: the ice cream truck!

Of course, I could procure ice cream in the market downstairs any time. But there is something magical about buying sweets from a stranger in a broken-down van with no windows. It means hot summer afternoons and sticky fingers, overtired and overjoyed. Assured energy after playing wiffle ball or kick-the-can, after racing downhill in Radio Flyer wagons, after dirty shirts and skinned knees. Precisely what I need to stave off gathering homesickness: the ice cream truck!

As I throw on flip-flops and a shirt, I glance out the window to find the source. I cannot see that beautiful beast but the song gets louder. I have to hurry before it passes me by. Oh, how I love the ice cream truck!

Imagining Arab editions of Neapolitan Sandwiches and Push-Ups, I race downstairs and through my apartment building’s lobby, my thoughts blindly on the ice cream truck!  Over my shoulder I toss a hurried Marhaba! (“Hello!”) to greet those seated; if I pause any longer the three dirty dinars clutched tightly in my hand will melt faster than a chocolate-and-nuts-covered Drumstick at high noon. The ice cream truck! I burst out the door, grin and eyes wide with childhood memories of syrupy Rainbow Rockets and succulent Choco Tacos. My sole concern, my sole objective: the ice cream truck!

Perfect for a hot afternoon like today. As far as I am concerned, only hot dogs at baseball games are on equal footing with the folkloric ice cream truck!  And here is my chance to taste an exquisite reminder of America and childhood, a jolt of much-needed energy and cool deliciousness: the ice cream truck!

The tune, that hypnotic hymn, is louder, stronger in my ears now; my radar senses its source travelling toward me from the south-west.  I taste my anticipation, delicious like a Fat Boy.  I rush to get a view of my blissful beloved, my melodious messenger, my saccharine sweetheart.  Up there, beyond the taxis and dumpsters, through the waves of heat emanating from the black pavement, I glimpse that splendid source: an old, dirty truck. It must be the ice cream truck!

Here I must pause briefly.  I have had many disappointments in my life that I remember, some quite acutely.  Not getting the best role in my third-grade play.  Being rejected by that really cute sophomore when I was fifteen.  Even this past fall, when I was told that I was ten days too old to compete for a Rhodes Scholarship.  Disappointments happen all the time; we all have some so poignant that we remember exactly where we stood, exactly who was with us, all the painful details at the second we found out.  We remember these disappointments for the rest of our lives.

Here is what I will always remember: the sun beating down. No clouds in the sky.  Two old women, covered with hijabs across the street, one peering at me with deep, confused eyes.  A pebble wedged in my right flip-flop. The smell of the falafel shop beside me.  These are the details at the moment of disappointment so unexpected, so harsh, so bitterly ironic.

I turn my head to get a better view, squinting in the afternoon sun.  Now the truck is closer and I am finally afforded an unobstructed view.

My jaw and stomach drop in concert. The source of the iconic song was a truck indeed, albeit one delivering different goods. There, lying in the flatbed of the dented vehicle: forty tanks of propane gas.

Propane tanks.  Seriously? Seriously.

The only thing that might have brought more disappointment would be a tune broadcast by the mortician. Propane. The bane of my existence. Dirty. Hazardous. Used for heating, for cooking; in diametric opposition to the sweet refreshment of my beloved.

I cannot believe it. Blink, Jared, your saviour will appear in this apparition’s stead!

It did not.

I cannot fully express the bitterness, the utter resentment. Oh Fraudulence, thou knoweth no name like Propane!

Crestfallen, I slump back into the building, trudging slowly up the stairs to my apartment. I cannot bring myself to admit defeat and buy ice cream from its freezer prisons in the store below.  I think I have some water – bland, colorless, tasteless – maybe I should just have some tepid water. Maybe I should just close the curtains and sleep through this depression. That impostor’s song still comes through my windows, no longer saccharine music; only discordant mockery, maliciously ensuring the sham remains sharp in my mind. Tonight I will dejectedly dream of my unattainable phantom, my ice cream Nessie in the desert Loch Ness that is Amman.

It will be many days before I cook on my gas range. Guilt by association.

April 26, 2007

Partners-Jordan has been meeting with two other organizations, the State University of New York (SUNY) Legislative Strengthening Program, and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to discuss co-sponsoring a networking event for civil society organizations and Members of Parliament.  The issue we are trying to address is a gap between CSOs and MPs: the former feels voiceless in the legislative process; the latter distrustful of foreign-funded initiatives.  What is the best way to address it? By enhancing the direct line of communication between them.

Interest-wise, the event would satisfy many.  It provides NGOs a chance to explain their goals and, ideally, spur larger, national initiatives with the backing of Parliament.   They also get the rare opportunity to network among themselves, and multi-organizational initiatives could yield significant results in Jordan.  Finally, MPs can voice their concerns directly to the organizations, and be seen by their constituencies as responsive to those issues in civil society.  It’s all very interesting, as is watching the development of this collaboration between Partners-Jordan, NDI, SUNY, and Parliament.