Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Comments from Others about the Blog

(Lauren) Jill, Chapel Hill 30 July, 2007

Just yesterday I made reference in passing about this blog to a list I'm on, a list comprised mainly of single Episcopalians, age: post baccalaureate on up. Here are some responses:

"The web site is a gift. How much we need some stories from the Middle East that encourage greater understanding. I have taken to watching Iranian films and had to face the fact that I had no images of family life in Iran. So the site makes things less inscrutable."

"I think it is wonderful that you are following your passion, Lauren Jill. It is so important to learn about other cultures and to meet people from other parts of the world. The more we know and understand others the better the chance for peace, I think. Here's to meeting in 2008 and listening to the stories."

Since Lauren Jill provided a web site -- we could read over the year. Love to hear about ... family life in these countries that are foreign to me. We are all God's children and we need to know that ... Lauren, it sounds like a single life -- far different than I ever imagined."

Context: the organization, Solo Flight, has an annual conference Labor Day weekend in the mountains outside Asheville [N.C.]. Interestingly, this year's theme is "On Pilgrimage." Pilgrimage is held in esteem by various religions. And I think that the Tar Heel Travelers are largely on informal pilgrimages.

I decided not to go to this year's Solo Flight conference because my close Cairene friends (a couple with children aged 2 and 4) arrive Aug. 29, stay with me before they move into an unfurnished apartment, and they don't drive. They are here for 9 months while she does a Fulbright and he does post-doc studies (both are on the faculty at Cairo University). I want to be here to help them get set up.

One person on the list asked me about music in Egypt. I will tell her that there is such incredible musical literacy, ability, and activity there. I heard so much music making: people (largely non-professionals) who sang and played with talent and knowledge and skill. And I have also heard this in areas outside Cairo. Music seems to be more a part of their lives than in the States; it includes a broader spectrum of music, including, of course, popular music. It seems to me that somehow the U.S. has gotten away from shared musical consciousness and involvement, something we had a couple of generations ago. And in this country I perceive a split between "professional" and "non-professional" (and I was a professional for years). There, as I think is true in some European countries, music and music-making just "is" and is for anyone who wants to be be involved.

Anyway, my sharing of perceptions of this wonderful blog.

Anyway, peace and adventures be yours. Duktor Nasser sounds great, from my occasional contacts with him.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

My First Time in the Middle East, for the Second Time in My Life


First of all, I’m going to give the disclaimer that I would normally have given had we had a discussion in real life. Disclaimer: I don’t think I possess a mastery of articulation in writing, but I hope anyone reading this will appreciate the effort in trying to capture my experience. This will be my first post on the blog, and I’m actually writing it at over 30,000 ft above sea level.

I’m on a British Airways flight from London’s Heathrow to Amman, Jordan, where I’ll be meeting my family for pretty much the first time in my life. The actual trip itself from Chapel Hill to Amman started off as a disaster. After having planned everything to a T, and made all my travel arrangements, I was standing up an hour before leaving time when all of a sudden the room started to swirl around me and I hit the floor. About 5 hours later, needless to say missing my bus to JFK, I was being diagnosed with a case of Acute Peripheral Vertigo in the emergency room. But! To make a long story short, thanks to an extra $250 and my will power, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, George W. or whoever it is you believe in, here I am now flying over the English Channel. Within 4 hours I will be touching down in Amman.

When I get off this plane, a guy who I’ve never met before is going to give me one of the most adoring embraces I’ve known in my life. His name is Mahmood, and apparently he is my cousin. Trying to explain what that feels like in words is a talent that evades me. He is actually only one of the over 30 cousins I have on my mom’s side alone, and I’m ashamed to say that I don’t know any of them. Honestly, how do you deal with that? With that sense of loss of identity? I’m flying back into the heart of the Middle East, as a Middle Eastern, who can only speak a broken Arabic hybrid of ammiyah and Fusha (compliments of Nasser). I’m flying back to the Middle East, and I feel like I’m going to a foreign country!

I’m so grateful for the ability to make this journey into the land of my origin, but it’s hard not to be frustrated at the past and the power structures that prevented me from making this trip sooner. (For those of you who don’t know, I just recently, after 17 years of living and paying taxes in the US, received my Green Card from the United States Immigration Services, and with that the ability to leave and re-enter the country) I have a general understanding of globalization, boarder security, and the greater context of “terrorism”, but it still doesn’t alleviate me from feeling so small at the edge of it all. If at any point in my immigration process someone had just taken the few minutes to listen to my case, it wouldn’t have to have been 17 yrs before I got the chance to meet my family. And now that I’m finally over that giant hurdle in my life, my heart goes out to the people still trapped in that system.

I’ve come to be very proud of my identity, very proud to be American and Arab, both simultaneously. I’ve always known what it is to be American. Hopefully after this trip I can look into the mirror and have more than just an Arab exterior staring back at me. Hopefully Jordan will fill in that outer Arab shell with a little bit of context.

I don’t know what awaits me in Jordan. On the itinerary aside form the obvious, meeting my family (who says that?), is a trip to Petra, a planned trip to Damascus with Marium and who ever else we can con into going, eating nauseating amounts of Nablus style Kanefe, the same as the previous for shawarma, and picking up a wife (hahhaahaha yeah RIGHT!) Until the next post, this is AnArabiaNight saying Ma’assalaama!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Battle for my Heart


Ok so here are some random thoughts that I was contemplating while sitting at a restaurant on the corniche of the Nile with two of my friends.
I leave Cairo on Thursday to go to Luxor and then leave for Amman on Monday.
Man, Time flies. The summer is over and I feel like I just got here.
What is it about Cairo that makes time fly, memories become a blur and days become seconds?
I reflect on my summer in Amman last year and remember thinking that the summer was short, but it was not as short as this one.

Amman was my first love. It was the place where I first fell in love with sheesha and falafel, learnt how to pack tobacco in a sheesha, bought three...well the list goes on.
Amman was also the place where I met the best of people. Practiced my faltering arabic, got laughed at for speaking Fusa (Modern Standard Arabic) and perfected my bargaining skills. And got the perfect haircut.

I will never forget Amman.

But I never imagined that I would even think about replacing my favorite city in the Middle East from Amman to Cairo.

Cairo was too much to swallow when I first came here.

There was just too much going on. It was hard to think in Cairo.

But there was never a dull moment. Concerts, plays, crazy incidents, demonstrations, elections. You name it, Cairo had it going on. In contrast, as Sam so eloquently shows us in his pictures and blogs, Amman was and is pretty much about the royal family. And Oprah. And Dr. Phil.

Oh yeah. I watched a lot of Oprah and Dr. Phil in Amman.

But I don't think I have watched tv for a day in Cairo. There was no need to. Drama and sex, comedy and action, thriller and romance floats in the air of Cairo.

For example, tonight as we sat in this really nice restaurant, listening to a jazz version of ABBA's dancing queen, in walked a girl in a white satin tutu.
Yes, an actual tutu.
It was a spaghetti strap dress, splungingly designed to show off her new, plastic assets, with net hearts with gold sequins adorning her thin waist and a poof of fluff at her knees. She sashayed in wearing a wreath of white daisies in her hair and makeup that would put Marilyn Manson to shame.
She looked like a plastic version of Cleopatra.
She frolicked over to the table next to us with two overweight men and an older woman in a red t shirt and jeans, who was constantly on her phone.
The conspiracy theories about the white dress and its symbolism started to spin.
My friend and I concluded that she was part of an escort service that catered to Gulfi men who desired women in white and the older woman in red was the queen mother of this business. Thats putting in more eloquent words than what we were saying.
After conspiring for 10 minutes, my friend decided to go and ask. It seemed like the most logical thing to do. She asked what the special occasion was for such a lovely dress and the woman replied that she had just gotten engaged and they were out celebrating.
What? Two men? A woman in a tutu? And one in jeans and a red T?
We thought not. But as ABBA crooned about dancing queens and we discarded theory after theory, I thought:

Man, there's always something on in Cairo. And I think I have a different story for everyday.

For example or rather examples, take the Egyptian Taliban taxi driver who animatedly talked about his travels in the north of Pakistan while reciting verses of the Quran and took surreptitious glances at my American friends.
Or the little 6 year old boy who held my hand and told me that Muslim girls should cover their hair and maybe it was okay that I didn't cuz people in Pakistan did not.
Or the crazy french hairdresser who told me that I should not get BUNGS (bangs) because I did not like to dress up my HAAR (hair).
Or drinking tea with grave diggers sitting next to graves, smiling and shaking your head at bedouins as they offer you "cigarettes."
And walking down dark alleys in the shady part of town and finding a little store with boys playing video games and marvelling as the man in the store tells you that the wall you are leaning on is from the Mamluk dynasty.

Yes, Egypt is an enigma. She is the Nile, the pyramids and the people asking for baksheesh (tip) for handing you toilet paper in the bathroom.
Yes, she is Days of our lives, Desperate Housewives and Egypts next top model all meshed into one.

And I don't know if Amman will be able to compare anymore.

Perhaps, I'll find out next week when I head to Amman. But for now, I think I have given my heart to the Mother of the World.

So fickle.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Visual Culture of Jordanian Municipal Elections


As the throngs of loyal THT readers are well aware, I like to look at pictures, symbols, and signs – visual culture – and make sort of far flung inferences from them. You may laugh, but my advisor suggests this is the best way to become a real life Robert Langdon

But all hopes of becoming a man who overcame albino assassins, millenia old conspiracies, and clunky prose to get Tom Hanks a mullet aside, upcoming municipal elections in Jordan have graciously provided some interesting material.

White banners with colorful calligraphy convey candidates’ information, stretching across chaotic roads that strike fear into the hearts of some observers.

Some of these banners contain a surprising amount of information. The details spicing up this Salti (unfortunately when I visited this time I wasn't told I would burn in hell) candidates’ banner include his nickname and phone number. (If you'd like more information about Abu Yasser, please call 077 776 7661)

In addition to banners, a number of posters have sprung up, covering walls, street lights, bus shelters, and, really, any available edifice.

Although they are certainly widespread, I’m a little disappointed with the images. They might even be more boring than Bashar al-Assad’s posters.

I suppose on the one hand the uniformity might be a good thing. It protects the integrity of the political poster, preventing its facebook-ization (Look where I’ve been! Look, I have my shirt off! Look, I’m upper middle class and I’m making a symbol with my hands that could be construed as a gang sign!).

More importantly, it ensures that people vote based on qualifications rather than photos. Although I’ll say this right now: I only vote for windsurfers.
The political posters have also exponentially increased the number of mustachioed man pictures I see everyday, which is always a good thing. Though facial hair seems to be a hindrance to attaining public office in the United States (apparently Benjamin Harrison was the last bearded president) , it is obligatory in Jordan.

That's not really true -- that would disenfranchise all those who can't grow facial hair, meaning women and myself.

At any rate, the Jordanian government is doing more than handing out fake mustaches to promote women in municipal government posts. Women - more than 500 of whom expressed their intention in candidacy - will occupy at least 20% of the country's municipal seats, according to Parliament's Municipalities Law which was passed earlier this year.
The Jordanian National Commision for Women (JNCW) is spearheading a campaign to publicize women's candidacies. In 2003, only 5 of 46 women running were elected, with the government appointing nearly one hundred to offset the shortcoming.

Some of the promotional material takes an approach to gender justice that might surprise some westerners. Pamphlets and posters carried slogans like “You (men) trusted women to raise your children, wouldn’t you trust them to serve your country?”, “Women want their position in society not yours (men)”, "women are working with you (men), not against you”. Rather than taking a confrontational approach calling for justice, this campaign makes its calls based on traditional gender roles.

This approach extends to some of the individual campaigns as well. Below, we see Sahar Hindawi's posters at left and right and an unidentified daring photographer in the center. Hindawi is a candidate for representing the Tila' al 'Ali region and her slogan is "Our house (baytna) requires action and not talking."

Correction: Hindawi's poster doesn't say "Our house requires action and not talking." It says, "Our environment requires action and not talking." Beeitna, not baytna. I'm a chowderhead. Not sure how much weight the argument still holds.

We see the use of "house" continue with Bushra Al-Razee Al-Z'abee's banner below, which bears the slogan: "Baytee wa baytik," my house and your house.

The use of "bayt" by both Hindawi and Al-Z'abee alludes to what some would call the traditional role of women - as the executor of hospitality in the domain of the home.

One might look at the slogans of these women or the JNCW as strategic maneuvers that employ the rhetoric of tradition to secure a non-traditional role in the male-dominated government.

But it might also be that these women - like many female office holders in the United States - don't see their traditional roles and governmental roles as necessarily dichotomous, seeing them instead as fluid extensions of their identity.

Recognizing the possible existence of these differing epistemologies is an essential point often missed by those observers worried about "oppressed women" over here.

Thanks for reading, folks.

Monday, July 23, 2007

"Egyptian price"

(Lauren) Jill 23-07-2007

Marium's post of around 18 July made reference to "Egyptian price," that is, at many places there is a different admission fee for Egyptians and for foreigners.

When I was in Egypt last year, I went with a Cairene friend to the wonderful Al-Ahzar Park, and she wanted me to remain mute, "her Turkish aunt who didn't speak Arabic," so we would get in on the locals' fee.

This year when I went to the park by myself, the ticket seller asked, "Foreign or resident?" [I replied, "Guess," quite obviously indicating what I was.] Yes! You've come a long way baby! I, who am the weakest of the weak in Arabic (but slowly getting better).

And I got off the waitlist and into Fall '07 Beginning Arabic I. Alhamdullilah! Repeating it from last year.

I work in the university library and in the last year a gentleman who was over 85 and worked in the Circulation area died. At the time I said to a colleague, "When I'm 85, I'll probably still be taking Beginning Arabic I."

[I know I said I wouldn't post, since I'm not Traveling; I'm back in the Southern part of Heaven. But this tale, which amuses me, does have to do with my recent Travels.]

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Scattered Thoughts II: With a Vengeance


Hello All,

Without further ado here is the second installment of my general reflections on Jordan, a collection of ideas indicative of the level of insight I brought to bear on the Hashemite Kingdom. Please expect more keen observations from my new home in Cairo where my exposure is infinitely greater. But hopefully there's some worthwhile ideas here.

1. I came to the Middle East with the expectation that I would not touch many people. An odd idea, but my limited understanding of Arab society led me to imagine rigid and formal interaction among the people, worlds away from the hugs and kisses of Chile or the Merengue dancing of the Dominican Republic. To a certain extent, I was right. Gender norms prescribe that I not initiate handshakes with women and hugging, at least in public, is frowned upon. But what I did not expect was the way in which men interact. In the taxis, the drivers were constantly touching me, slapping my knee to make a point or touching my hand to express affection. The latter bit, hand holding, is what most surprises me. Men here are constantly walking arm in arm, a confusing sight for an outsider like myself (more thoughts on "the Gay" in the future, al-Gay in Arabic). But it's just a common platonic gesture.

My favorite story about this involves a friend, Mike, who had asked a heavily armed soldier to help him find the local radio station. Without missing a beat, the officer took him by the hand such that the AK-47 was now securely under Mike's arm, and tenderly walked him a block or two in the right direction. How sweet!

2. Returning to the subject of women, I have been curious to investigate the stereotype of veiled women as being docile, an idea easily done away with after meeting any of the incredible women I have been fortunate enough to work and study with over the past few years. But there is nuance and complexity to the gender roles among Arab-Muslims, and so I offer one brief account. Walking around the markets of one of the Palestinian refugee camps, you see plenty of women, shopping for fruit, meats, and other household items. In addition to these domestic purchases, I also noticed a number of women, some wearing the niqab and others the hijab, browsing for slightly more adult items, namely lingerie. On the main thoroughfare, it was a trip to see women in full veil holding up a frilly pink bra in sight of the entire crowd of people. Certainly a challenge to many notions of sexual repression.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to snap a photo of the lingerie shoppers, but here's a snippet from the world of cutting-edge hijabi fashion.

3. The dome of the mosque, the quintessential design in Islamic architecture, provides an oasis of color in Amman, a much needed respite from the harsh monotone of Jordan’s cityscape. While there are plenty of Carolina blue domes to be found, my personal favorite is just down the block, a deep, inviting purple with two horizontal midnight blue stripes. Just gorgeous. And at night all the minarets are lit up in green, the color of the prophet Muhammad. Where there are no street lamps, the minarets can light the way.

Coincidentally, the very same color illuminates our local ATM at night. Fitting since it charges no withdrawal fee.

4. The call to prayer. There is nothing quite like it in all the world. When the imam begins to recite Allahu Akbar, people turn off the radio, cell phones are silenced, and, impossibly, taxi driver honk a little less. The entire city slows down just a bit as reverence for the prayer is observed. It is a constant reminder of the powerful religiosity in the lives of so many people here. And even though its message is not directed towards me, I cannot ignore its beauty. Five times a day, a stirring reminder of exactly where I am.

Other photos...

Market in a refugee camp.

Roman Columns.

Thanks for reading.

Resorting to the Canadians


Canada came to our rescue the other day.

Yup. Canada. Who wud've thought?

But I guess the situation called for those peace loving, culture sponging, not such a big army (the Canadian army?) country.

The Friday market is an event in Cairo that takes place in the City of the Dead, which is a mini "city" inside Cairo. But this is a city that consists of five cemeteries. Cemeteries that existed for centuries before the overpopulation of Cairo. They were virtually left alone, with no inhabitants except for grave diggers and tomb makers. I mean come on, they were and still are graveyards.
But since Cairo decided to become the mother of 18 million people, she has finally had enough. She opened her gates to the hallowed areas of graves and tombs and said, "Move."

And people did.

To this date 5 million of Cairo's inhabitants live in the cemeteries. Alive and kicking.
But the city is not just home to dead people and living people. It is also the infamous location of the Friday Market. A place where you can find toilet seats, bathtubs (all stolen of course-from where, I don't know and I didn't ask), snakes (yup, real slimy snakes), dogs, turtles, fish, clothes and food. Big, bustling, rowdy and sweaty, that market was a crazy mess. And full of men.
Lots and lots of men.
As a journalist, the City of the Dead is probably an ideal location for a story. I mean who wouldn't want to read, see and learn about this completely fascinating city? So one of the stories I have to complete on the fulbright program is on the City of the Dead and the life that lives within it.
So I went, with another friend who is a videographer, armed with two cameras, a video camera and an audio recorder. And two male translators.

We ended up at the dog market. I have never seen a place that is so frighteningly insecure. Dogs on leashes, dogs without leashes, puppies in cages, men yelling, women selling silver chains and leashes and oh my God, is that a rotweiler without a leash?

By God it is.

In a market that was mostly full of local Egyptians, the arrival of one girl that could be Egyptian but was possibly foreign, one white, blonde hair blue eyed girl with a video camera and two clean cut Egyptian boys, was not a regular event.
We managed to talk to a man who sold dogs and let us in his little chained off area, in which a rabid dog was tied up to a steel railing. It did not look happy.
We started to shoot. And then we were surrounded. Some men walked into the blocked off area, suffocating us with questions, "Where are you from? Who are you?" and "Honey! Honey! "

We spoke to a man who volunteered to be interviewed and I started shooting the market from the closed off space ignoring the men as they blew kisses in our direction, motioned for us to take pictures of them, asked if us, the two honey-ies, were married.

"You cannot shoot here! You are American!" yelled a boisterous man in Arabic. My friend who doesn't speak much Arabic did not understand him and kept on shooting. He then pushed his face into one of our translator's face and demanded that we stop shooting. His friend tried to calm him down and said, pointing to me,"

"Hiya Muslimah" (she is Muslim)

He gave me a nod and said, "Hiya. Mashi."
He basically gave me permission to continue because of my religion.
I don't think I've ever had to use my religion before to get a story. Its a weird feeling.

"Her! She cannot work here," he then said, pointing to my friend, "she is American."

My friend turned around and said, "No. I am Canadian."

His demeanour softened.

Canadian eh? Canada, Very good.

He then proceeded to sit down on the chair and give us an interview about his dogs and the dogs that he sold.
He is a delightful man, when you aren't American.

The point of this story?
Since I've been in Egypt, the anti-American sentiment has been strong. Very strong. But always kept under fake smiles and whispered words. No one has ever blatantly spewed hate about America in our faces (not including the shop keepers that always chide me for living there and not living in Pakistan).
Moreover, being a journalist, and an American one at that, has always caused trouble.

For example our driver, who is our guide in the city of the dead always retorts back at us when we ask questions about drugs, gangs and theives that are rumoured to live in the city.

"you have that in America too," he says, sneering, "America is the biggest country with so many drugs."

Everything turns around and makes a 180 degree turn when you state your American-ness. You then become a journalist who is not out to explore the greatness of Cairo, its uniqueness and its beauty. You become the evil reporter who is out to spread a vicious and uncivilized image of Egypt and Egyptians.

Yes, it is not easy being an American journalist in Cairo.
And for once I guess its okay to be Canadian.
Even if they dont have an army, eh?

There's symbolism here somewhere


Iraq beat Vietnam yesterday. No, not over which will be the more frequently used foreign policy caveat over for the next fifty years. I think that's already been decided. Prepare for "Iraq Syndrome" to become the darling phrase of punditry, friends.

No, the victory of Iraq over Vietnam was in football and it vaulted Iraq's side into the semi-finals of the Asia Cup, prompting widespread jubilation in the streets of Baghdad.

I watched the bedlam from my neighborhood barber shop - dare I say saloon? - where occasionally I get my hair butchered and, more frequently, I shoot the bull with the neighborhood guys.

A fan circulated fresh air in the room as Muhammad, my Iraqi friend and sometime barber, and I watched the wild celebration. There was plenty of dancing, many Iraqi flags, a few bare chested young men, and even a few a guns. Most seemed to be in the hands of the Iraqi police, though at one point a television reporter armed who, armed with a microphone, had been going rolled-down-car-window to rolled-down-car-window conducting interviews (which, even in such a delirious situation, unfailingly began with "salaam 'aleikum" and "wa 'aleikum asalaam") dove out of the picture as a joyous man pulled a gun from his glove compartment and fired a few rounds into the air.

It seems that more than a few Iraqis endeavored to test gravity last night and, sadly, the intrepid scientists proved Newton's theory right again, with at least two deaths stemming from bullets being fired into the air and, in turn, coming back down.

But this post isn't some attempt to argue that a milennium of authoritarianism has poisoned Iraqi culture to the point that America is not at fault for the problems of the Iraq War. That would, of course, be a topic for Mr. Friedman.

And besides, it would be foolish to act like Americans don't like to shoot their guns up in the air, or other places, every so often either. Rather, this is about unity, even if only for a fleeting moment.

First of all, the unity of humanity. The streets of Baghdad seemed a little like Franklin Street - except without the tree climbing, fire-jumping, or "f*** J.J. Reddick" chants (I thought that one was universal).

But more apparent was the the unity - perhaps transient - of the Iraqi people. In a discourse increasingly dominated by sectarian appelations of Sunni, Shi'a, or Kurd, the resounding phrase of nearly every interview was "al-sha'ab al-'araqee," the Iraqi people. Another interviewee referred to the celebration's demonstration that Iraqis represented fundamentally "al-usra al-waheeda," a united family. Muhammad added that the celebrations were occurring in a mixed portion of Baghdad.

The green, black, and red of the Iraqi flag was everywhere, waved as a banner and worn as capes or cloaks.

Young men made up most of the revelers, though a number of giddy muhajibat participated as well as what looked like a few worried, arms-crossed-across-chests mothers.

As they transitioned to a montage of national team highlights interspersed - like any good nationalist material - with idyllic video of mountains and forests (and if you think Americans are innocent of this, perhaps "from the mountains..." refreshes your memory) they showed a nifty goal. Afterward, the goal scorer lifted up his jersey (in what, after careful consideration, probably wasn't homage to Brandi Chastain), revealing an undershirt bearing the message of "karama lena," dignity for us.

I'm not sure what this all adds up to. I think sometimes people can go too far in their analyses of sport and world events, treating the relationship as a novelty when sport, as a part of the world and life, sometimes does correspond and, indeed, should correspond with current events issues.

But as I watched the continued footage of the celebrations, of people acting in a, well, undignified manner (I think I have authority to say this as someone who may or may not have acted in an undignified manner on Franklin Street), two things struck me.

One, I suppose an element of human dignity is having the freedom to act undignified.

And two, amidst this brief respite from the horrors of occupation, civil war, staticide, or whatever you want to call it, one of the common sayings of the celebrants, the offhand addition to nearly any prediction or hope whether for a peaceful future or simply an Iraqi victory over South Korea in the semis : "in sha allah," god willing.

Friday, July 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities


I’m still trying to process it all: military checkpoints, M-16s pointed at me, metal detectors, bustling Arab shopping districts, bulletproof glass, confrontational Americans, tombs of prophets, bullet holes in a mosque, frighteningly empty streets, and an armed military convoy accompanying my bus back to Jerusalem. I experienced all of these yesterday on my journey to Hebron in the West Bank, Palestine.

We decided to go to Hebron on a whim yesterday morning, and although I had my reservations about visiting one of the flashpoints in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hebron has been relatively calm over the past several years. Plus, it houses the tombs of the patriarchs, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah are buried.

Traveling to Hebron was relatively painless. East Jerusalem to Bethlehem, one bus transfer, and in less than two hours, we had arrived in the Palestinian section of Hebron. Immediately, without being asked, we were all handed lemonade concoctions (which tasted more like lemon-flavored sugar water than lemonade), exchanged mobile numbers with several of the men selling sweets and juices on the street, and were invited to one man’s house for dinner. Arab hospitality at its finest. As we wandered through the narrow streets in the market of the old city of Hebron, we were constantly asked in both Arabic and English where we were from. When answering, “America,” everyone replied with a warm and enthusiastic, “Welcome to Hebron!” It was the beginning of what could have been an extraordinary day.

However, as we continued walking through the old city, the city began to quiet. Shops had their doors shut, or were abandoned, perhaps. Within 500 meters, the city we had witnessed on our arrival – vibrant, warm, and inviting – began to drift away. The lively sounds of merchants became distant, the children following us on foot and on bicycle turned around, and the aroma of falafel faded away. We turned a sharp corner and were faced with an Israeli military checkpoint. After passing through the metal detectors, showing our passports, and having our bags inspected, we had arrived at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

We walked up to the entrance of the mosque and shrines, but the military asked us to wait 30 minutes because we were not allowed in the mosque during prayer. As we waited at the small mini-mart opposite the mosque, with military guard towers and checkpoints surrounding us, I had time to contemplate the landscape.

* * *

Now, I can certainly understand the need for such heavy military security in an area like Hebron. After all, this was the city where Arabs massacred 67 Jews in 1929 – and the city where an extremist Jewish settler gunned down 29 Palestinian Muslims while they were praying in 1994 (the evidence of this can still be seen in the form of bullet holes in the mosque). Of all places in the West Bank, tensions here between Jewish settlers and Palestinians are the highest. In most places, settlements are built on a hill, away from Palestinian villages. But here in Hebron, in addition to the settlements on hills around the city, there are several small Jewish settlements in the city itself.

These special circumstances have resulted in a series of rules that restrict where Palestinians and Israeli settlers can travel in Hebron. These restrictions manifest themselves in curfews, in the mandatory and permanent closure of Palestinian shops in the now Israeli-controlled area, checkpoints every few hundred meters, concrete barriers and razor-wire separating the two areas, and armed guard towers on the border overlooking the happenings in the Israeli area.

* * *

In the Tomb of the Patriarchs itself, there is a Muslim entrance and a Jewish entrance. The tombs of Isaac and Rebekah rest in the Muslim area, and the tombs of Jacob and Leah can be found in the Jewish area. The tombs of Abraham and Sarah can be seen from both the Jewish and Muslim side; however, bulletproof glass can be seen between the two viewing areas.

As Christians, we had the luxury of being able to enter both the Muslim and Jewish areas. Other than the clear division of the shrines, and the metal detectors, and the bulletproof glass, and the bullet holes, and the brief military exercise we saw outside the Jewish entrance (Israeli soldiers with their guns drawn, crouched around the corners of the building, and waving other soldiers on indicating that the area was clear), there was nothing abnormal about the worship inside both areas. Muslim and Jewish pilgrims wept at the site of the tombs, Jews were studying the Torah, and Muslims were reading the Qur’an.

After visiting both sides and paying our respects to the prophets, it was around 7:00 p.m., and we decided that it was time to return to Jerusalem. However, because we had not yet walked through the Israeli/Jewish area of Hebron, we decided we would take a stroll there before returning to the Arab area to the bus stop.

During our visit, we had picked up a 14-16 year-old Palestinian boy who had acted as somewhat of a guide, and when we walked through another checkpoint to get to the Israeli-controlled area, the soldier asked for our passports. After briefly glimpsing at them, he asked the boy if he was with us. When we said, “No,” the boy answered the solder in Hebrew, and walked through the checkpoint with us. When I asked the boy if he was allowed to be with us, he answered me in Arabic: “I am forbidden here.” This, of course, made me a little uneasy in such a heavily armed military zone in such a tense area of the West Bank.

The streets in this area were deserted, and it felt like we were walking in a ghost town. Only a few Israelis were walking on the empty road, abandoned stores that used to be owned by Palestinians lined the street on both sides, and military cameras and soldiers monitored our movements.

We approached the next checkpoint a few hundred meters away at the same time as a group of American Jewish students who are volunteering this summer restoring Jewish gravesites. When we were asked for our passports, our Palestinian friend couldn’t produce one. The Americans started shouting at the Israeli soldiers: “Call the police! He’s a local! He knows he’s not supposed to be here! The only reason he would be here is for violence!”

The Israeli soldiers were very professional in their interactions with the boy. He gave them his ID card, but as they interrogated him, the Americans were quite rude to us. They mocked our reasons for visiting Israel and Hebron, and even snarled to my friend who is ethnically Greek, “You don’t look American,” implying in a derogatory way that he might be Palestinian. After we asked them what an American actually looks like – noting that there are dozens of large ethnic groups in the United States – and after the soldiers essentially told them to leave, they continued walking.

We also slowly walked away, but continued to look back at our Palestinian friend to make sure that he was going to be alright. The soldiers searched him, told him to go home, and released him.

We continued our trek up the eerily empty street, looking for a way to make it back to the bus station where we were dropped off in the Arab section. After asking several soldiers, it became clear that in order to make it back to the bus station, we would have to return the way we came – a long walk back down the abandoned street and past many more checkpoints. At this point, after our stressful day in Hebron, all we wanted to do was to get back to Jerusalem – a place whose problems we welcomed compared to those we had just witnessed. The soldiers told us how we could take an Israeli bus back to Jerusalem, and so we waited for the bus to arrive at the stop across the street.

As we stepped onto the bus and found our seats, we thought that the day’s tensions had ended. However, the military convoy that accompanied our bus through the Arab areas of Hebron served as another unpleasant reminder of the harsh realities that people living there face every day. After stopping at several settlements to pick up travelers, we finally made it back to Jerusalem.

Even as I write this, I am still trying to digest all that happened. The importance of the religious site to different groups, the security, the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ separation, the antagonism by fellow Americans, the stark contrast between the two areas of the city. All of these are parts of the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And this visit to Hebron reiterated just how complicated and difficult this conflict will be to solve. We can talk all we want about a political solution to the conflict, but even as optimistic as I tend to be, after a day in Hebron, real peace seems so far away.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Adventures In Globalism

Beat this, Garza!

That's right. The Pyramids, a BMW, a horsecart, KFC, and the world's most international of hand-gestures. Tom Friedman, the world is truly flat.


P.S. A serious update post is long overdue. I'm aware. It'll happen soon, with significantly more advanced sentence structure, to boot.

A Tale of Two Brown Countries


I am brown. Skin color wise. A native of Pakistan my skin has always been olive brown and is now turning to a crisp mocha (I've tried most sunblocks in town. Nothing seems to work).

My skin gets me places in Egypt. It saves me from harassment that other foreign girls go through. People tend to assume I'm one of them and in this part of the world, thats a blessing.

But once they find out I'm Pakistani the love for my color, heritage, religion seems to dig deeper.
"Pakistan? Osama?" *big grin*

Yes, yes apparently the lord king of the infamous new age hasheeshis is no longer Saudi. He is now an urdu speaking, bhangra dancing, indian head bobbing Pakistani.

Yes, being from Pakistan gives everyone around me a good laugh.

But in this blog I rant not about my association with a psycho crazy guy, or rave about the fact that, "you are Pakistani? For you egyptian price!" but talk about the Middle East and Pakistan.

No, we are not part of the Middle East.

But lately, if birds of a feather want to flock together, we might as well start doing the Dabke too.

The Lal Masjid or Red Mosque crisis in Islamabad shocked the world, astounded Pakistanis and in the Egypt, my arabic professor joked about how he studied in a school near the Red Mosque. Joking, of course (he has a warped sense of humor).

My point is: The more crazier or shocking Pakistani politics become, the more some Middle Easterners tend to relate to us.

I might be completely wrong. It might just be because the Arab world can finally point at someone else and say, "Ha, Wala, you are worse of than us," or "Join the psycho Islamists club." Or it might be that most Arabs are just really interested in world politics. Mumkin. (Possible)

My view on the Red Mosque crisis is intricate, delicate and extremely complex. To completely understand it, or for me to even begin talking about it, one must understand three points: who and where these "Islamists" came from, the fact that a man can be desperate enough to wear a bhurka and heels to escape from police and the need of a dictator to "win" the upcoming "elections".

Its a touchy subject.

But in Cairo, as I look into the rearview mirror of a cab, driving 100 km an hour, staring into the eyes of a taxi cab driver as he asks me about the situation in Pakistan, there is a connection and there is an understanding.
It is the "real Ahlan wa Sahlan (Hello and Welcome)," one that states, "hey I understand your problems and I know where you're coming from."
And as I reply to his question about mosques being blown up with women and children inside, presidents vying for affection from world leaders and tragedy over religion, gender and oppression, he tsks with sympathy and I think:

We aren't so different. And it has nothing to do with my skin.

Its when we sit and discuss how the Muslim Brotherhood isn't very different from the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan that I feel "accepted" in this culture that isn't very different from mine.

And hey, if the mutual unstability of two countries gets me the Egyptian price and Egyptian love, I'm willing to be Pakistani and stay Pakistani. Otherwise it seems to be a sinking nation, one that won't gain fame for its awesome food and amazing people, but with its association with the people next door.

Not the world's biggest democracy. The other neighbours.

Pakistan gains notoriety due to its infamous connection with crazy "madrassahs", dictators, poverty, oppression of women and bombings of mosques. And it doesnt seem like we are going to be off the axis of evil list, part two, anytime soon.

It makes me sad. And it makes me worry about its future. But in Cairo, it makes me more Egyptian and it makes me more Arab.

And I plan to learn the Dabke as soon as I can. Although Egyptians don't really Dabke. Oh well.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Driving me crazy


Traffic in the Middle East can sometimes be disorderly. After all, one would need four arms to light one's cigarette and keep one's hands simultaneously at 10 and 2. Lord knows that those man-eating Basra badgers are probably the only creatures up to the task.

Of course, this is a stark contrast with the always law-abiding, uber-aware drivers in the good old U.S. of A.

All sarcasm aside, zeroing in on the disregard for traffic laws seems to be one of the patent comments visitors make about the region. You've probably received an email from someone commenting on this.

Admittedly, yours truly may have engaged in such emails in a past life.

And to be sure, it bears some truth. And, yes, it can be a useful device to symbolize one's acclimation to life here (Example: "On the first day, I could barely cross the street. Now I ghost ride across Midan Tahrir. And this is much like my understanding of this place. Whereas before I was tenative, now I ghost ride." You get the point.)

But is it time to retire this motif as hackneyed tripe? Has it jumped the shark? Is it - much like using a veil pun in the title of a book about Muslim women - initially clever but now just annoying? Might it even be more pernicious, a modern day manifestation of Orientalist travel literature that imagined "labyrinthine markets" to symbolize some Eastern incapacity for logic or reason?

Two articles in Slate and the New York Times, respectively, used this theme in the past few days. They utilized it to get at larger issues, Mr Slackman of the NYT to meditate on the ups and downs of Cairene life and Mr Cook of Slate to illuminate informal norms of conduct in the region (though Mr Cook deserves some derision for complaining about crazy driving in posh Zamalek).

So, my criticisms: definitely a bit overblown. But can't we dig a little deeper on the symbolism front, gentlemen?

Monday, July 16, 2007

منحبك يا بشار


Last Friday, I made something of an impulsive decision to go to Damascus. You can do it quite easily here, as it's only 3 hours away. I woke up early and after brief negotiations with a white-bearded driver, I was on my way to the Sham, as they say, in an aging piece of Detroit muscle (Japanese cars just aren't strong enough, my driver explained).

For me, Damascus represented a respite from the newness of Amman, a trip to a city fabled due to its history, alluring due to its rather stringent visa requirements, and apparently dangerous given it's status as a John Bolton (who, unbeknownst to most of the world, received a shout out in Kanye West's Diamonds from Sierra Leone - I'll give you a hint: it rhymed with "international masshole") characterized rogue state (though right now it's probably the safest place one could go in the Middle East).

Plus, as the legions of loyal THT readers are well aware, I'm interested in public representations of autocratic leaders. In the wake of the recent election (more information available from Maryam here and from Joshua Landis here), ubiquitous posters of Bashar al-Assad provided numerous opportunities for visual analysis and poking fun. I was so enthralled with the possibilities (or perhaps just bored at the border) that I took this picture of Bashar al Assad and his father, Hafez.

When I explained my obsession to the Syrians with whom I shared the car, they laughed, both because they thought that I was another mildly insane American (not to be confused with Dr. Evil-ish insane Brits) and because they knew that if I were excited by such a small example of nationalist shirk, I might briefly lose consciousness given the persistence of Bashar's face throughout Damascus.

Indeed, Bashar seemed to follow me everywhere in Damascus, a constant reminder of significant differences between the Jordanian and Syrian political climate.
For example, at this fast food stand, in addition to high cholestorol you get a taste of resistance. From left, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who, by the way, has an occasionally updated blog), Syrian president al-Assad, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. It is interesting to note that though you might find some pictures of Ahmadinejad or Nasrallah if you looked very hard in Amman, you will never ever ever see King Abdullah in the same picture. Before we see Ahmadinejad and Abdullah smiling arm and arm above the local falafel stand, I'd expect a subpar major league baseball owner to become president of the United States - no, that happened. Ah, here it is - I would expect to see Abdullah renounce his love for Star Trek before I'd expect to see him sharing a picture with Nasrallah.

And this isn't just about using every possible opportunity to publicize Abdullah's love for Star Trek. It's reflective of the larger regional political dynamics, part of what Vali Nasr calls the Shia Revival, what King Abdullah himself called the Shia Crescent, the emerging Shia power bloc extending through Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

The religious appellation is perhaps misleading. As an outspoken Arab many of us know and love pointed out to me, the placement of Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah (both Shia) with Bashar al-Assad (who is Alawite, a Shia minority group) is more a political phenomenon than a religious one. Though their faiths correspond, it is more about placing Bashar al-Assad on the "resisting Western hegemony and aggression" plane than anything else. The long standing secularism of Bashar's Ba'ath party - founded by a Christian and a Sunni Muslim in Damascus - further underscores this point.

Nevertheless, as the respective resistance of Western hegemony has increased the popularity of men like Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad in the region, the separation has corresponded to religious fault lines, worrying secular Sunni autocrats like Jordan's King Abdullah, like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Witness their initial reluctance to condemn the hostilities in the Lebanon War last summer, witness American acquiescence over Egyptian efforts to develop nuclear technology.

Indeed, the icons on this fast food stall reveal a widening philosophical gap among regional leaders. To collaborate with Western governments (while being careful to avoid alienating the populace) or resist them (at least rhetorically)?

And, more importantly, behind the rhetoric, behind the summits, behind the furious editorials, what of the people? If the election posters told the whole story, Syrians are pretty content.

This poster says "N'am," yes. Actually, it says "n'am, n'am, n'am...." You get the point. All in the form of the Syrian flag. Though if it were to be completely accurate to the Syrian elections it would include two or three no's in there.
All those yeses, however, surely can't compete with the poster below, which reads "Thalath fee qaloobna: Allah, Soorea, wa Al-Assad," Three in our hearts: God, Syria, and Al-Assad.
And here, perhaps, is the greatest honor Al-Assad can achieve. Again, we see old friend Nasrallah and Daddy Hafez to the right, but this time Egyptian pop sensation Tamer Hosny and international icon David Beckham join him on the left. Given the success of Mr. Hosny's latest single and his recently released film, I think Mr. Al-Assad is the lucky one here.
Despite these apparent displays of affection, I'm not going to lie, I'm a little disappointed with Bashar. Granted, not everyone can have the dress-up wardrobe of King Abdullah, but give me some personality, ya Bashar! All I can gather from most of these is that you like double windsor knots, conservative suits, and stern expressions. At least Nasrallah smiles!
To be fair, he has a tough act to follow. His father, who ruled Syrian from 1970 to 2000 still finds ways to remind Syrians of his rule. Isn't this everyone's dream valentine?
But Bashar does find ways to innovate. In the image below, we see Bashar going post-modern on us. The image of Bashar is superimposed on an image that contains posters of Bashar within it. Very mimetic. Interestingly, the background image - of Damascus University - features a Syrian flag next to a Palestinian flag, a flourish of symbolism that you would never see in Amman. After all, since Palestinians constitute a much larger percentage of the populace in Jordan, they also constitute a larger threat to the creation of a single, inclusive national identity, making the co-opting of Palestinian symbols into the larger Jordanian narrative that much more necessary for the Hashemite regime.
Below, we see Bashar's ray-banned silhouette on a car windshield in the Old City. It would be cool on its own, not the least because it looks very similar to a Borat shirt that I have. Nice. But what makes it ten times cooler is the Batman sign right above it. Seriously, check it out. Naturally, this raised some real possibilities in my head - can we get some sort of Bashar-signal working for when he's really needed, putting the image of Bashar into the night skies whenever justice is threatened, wherever foes need vanquishing, or, at least, when they run out of guava juice at the neighborhood smoothie stand? It could even be called the Baath signal.
For all of this symbolism, pageantry, and nation creation, it is misleading to suggest that Syria is Bashar and Bashar is Syria (which the phrase above Bashar's silhouette - Syria of al-Assad - promotes). Most people I spoke with displayed the images not so much out of devotion as what seemed to be fatalism, resigned to the sometimes absurdist nature of life.

Indeed, the heritage of Damascus boasts a vibrancy and richness that predates the Assad family's rise to prominence. The Umayyad Mosque, where I spent an afternoon lazing about, was the centerpiece of the early 8th century caliphate, whose domain extended from Spain in the West to Afghanistan in the East.
Indeed, for much of history, what is now Syria existed as part of entirely different socio-polities, with trade items from China and India passing through Roman and Greek administered centers of commerce. Borders, national identity, and Bashar al-Assad were entirely foreign concepts.

The boxes of identity that exist now - Muslim, Arab, Syrian, rogue state - either didn't exist or were a little more fluid back then. And they still are - at least more than we give them credit for. For example, the Umayyad Mosque contains a shrine with the head of John the Baptist, venerated in Christianity and Islam. The remains of the great warrior Saladin - who, as a Kurd, would probably be persecuted in Syria today - rest outside.

The evidence of these alternative forms of identity and existence are displayed extensively at the sprawling Syrian National Museum, alongside, well, more modern inventions.
As I sat in an alcove inside, I gazed at a map of various archaeological sites and cities of antiquity. The modern borders of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq had been superimposed. Sort of like the posters of Bashar are super-imposed onto the lives of regular people. And the absolute novelty of this idea of nation-states struck me.

Far away from these nationalist posters and maps, hospitality filled kitchens and friendly conversations underscored for me the reality of cultural flows and intersections, transcending the simplification and constructed-ness of national identities.

Any Jordanian will tell you that mansaf - a meal of meat, yogurt, and rice eaten with one's hands - is the Jordanian national dish. I even spoke with a virulent Jordanian nationalist at one point who claimed that it was one of the foundational elements of true Jordanian-ness. I couldn't help but laugh as I ate a very similar, very delicious dish in a Damascus apartment.

Even the trappings of nationalism that I so adore - which are often the basis for divisiveness - evince a certain degree of similarity. Several weeks ago I noted the picture of King Abdullah on the Ministry of Agriculture. In full military regalia, he dutifully waters a sapling.
As I wandered around Damascus University at one point, I noticed an eerily similar image at the Syrian Ministry of Agriculture, featuring Bashar, hoe in hand, participating in the national agricultural effort. He's even got his sleeves rolled up.
The Arabic reads "All of us are with you." And in this case, it rings true, not in the sense that we should all grab our farm implements. Moreso that for better or worse, we are all living in a world of nationalism, nation-states, and their inherent absurdities.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A month in Cairo, May-June 2007

(Lauren) Jill

Introduction: I am a librarian at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and as a Part Time Studies student took Arabic I in Fall 2006 under the wonderful instruction of Dr. Nasser Isleem. I hope to repeat Arabic I in Fall 2007, if there is room for me in class.

Thanks for Matt for letting me join for an ad hoc posting, since I’m not presently a Tar Heel Traveler. I imagine I’ll just do this one posting, ask Matt to take me off the group, and then just make comments to others’ postings. Ah—perhaps I’ll be able to return to Egypt in a year and the blog will still be going. (Matt, sorry this is longer than you requested, but it will be my only posting.) And the 1st time I’ve posted to a blog!

I was in Cairo 26 May-22 June, 2007 at ILI (International Language Institute) for a 4 week course in ameeya (Colloquial Egyptian Arabic). This was my 3rd trip to Egypt, which I have become enamored with (and in particular with its people, on the whole). This follows on a “fascination” I’ve had with the Middle East since I was a child.

Matt is currently studying at ILI, which is an excellent school. My teacher (Amir) was excellent, as well as the staff, administration, and cafeteria folk, too. (Matt, I’ll eventually make a comment to your second 6 July posting re environs and something peripheral to chess.) ILI is in Mohandiseen, on the west side of the Nile, in the ‘burbs, and certainly part of the vast city of Cairo, “Mother of the World.” (I understand there’s another ILI in Heliopolis, another area of Cairo.) The setting certainly has one constantly with Egyptians and with the need for much taxi transport.

Altho I am such a slow learner, especially with vocabulary (those of you who know me know how true this is—but I can do it! I can learn this fascinating language), I was constantly in conversations with Egyptians, in far-flung parts of the city. Without wanting to generalize, I found the people to be so warm, so helpful, so welcoming, so interesting. I also had the good fortune to be a guest in some homes.

I also saw incredible poverty and homelessness, and some cruelty to some dogs which I can’t even take in.

I went on 2 outings organized by ILI. One to the Giza Plateau and Sakkara, where I could confirm with the guide that “Yes, over there is something that was discovered just 2-3 months ago,” since I’m up on all that current stuff. Such places weren’t mentioned on the tour, but it was so great for me to see the sites of these new discoveries. I went into Khufu’s pyramid (the 1st and largest), so now I’ve been in all 3.

The other ILI outing I went on was a day trip to Alexandria (which I had not been to). Among the highlights were the stupendous, beautiful Alexandria Library built in 2002; being deep in the Roman catacombs and the electricity repeatedly going out; the Mediterranean.

Otherwise I went off by myself. Again to the rather new Al-Azhar Park, in Islamic Cairo (of course), which I highly recommend to anyone. To Old Cairo, which was very moving to me: the old churches, the oldest mosque on the continent; I didn’t make it to Ben Ezra Synagogue before it closed. Because of getting into one of many conversations, “hanging out” with people in front of a bookstore—also interacting with Egyptian women and with Americans.

Twice to the headquarters of the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), of which I’m a member. Met the head of the library and others at ARCE, and was able to go to the last lecture of the season, which was about excavations near Wadi El Natrum—the whole excavation crew coming in with the presenter; in the crew a new grad student at Duke.

To a service at the Episcopal/Anglo Cathedral, whose complex now is primarily a refugee home for Sudanese and other refugees. There are many refugees in Egypt. I had hung around after the English language service, so a service in Arabic began and I went to that (at least to the first 1 1/2+ hour)—a lot of music. Among other services held there is one in the language of the majority of Sudanese living there.

Once I was getting a meal across the street from AUC and I thought, “Maybe I’ll run into Mariam.” That would have been nice.

Oh, and so much wonderful music. I can’t begin to describe what all I heard (and saw). One was a free weekly Sufi ... event. Not only were the dervishes/dancers amazing, the musicians were superb.

from Matt: "a forum to share our reflections and insights [without being overly critical of the government]” Mine: I continue to love Egypt and Egyptians, who [collectively] have such warmth, humor, and hospitality, often in context of situations of considerable difficulty. With 1 exception, the people with whom I spoke make a differentiation between “Americans” and “the American government,” so I heard nothing ill spoken about the American people (except a few comments about a few Westerners who were inappropriately dressed).

It was so great for me to be in 1 place for a month. One can hardly imagine 2 places more different: Cairo and Chapel Hill, and I love them both. I’m not a fan of large cities, but I love Cairo. I hope I will have continued opportunities for this “always a Westerner” better to understand the culture.

7 Wonders of the World


First, my apologies for not being a big contributer to the blog. It's hard to compete with the intellect here! I know I promised many of you a post on feminism and women's empowerment in Jordan, and it's in the works. Check back soon.

In the mean time, I want to share some pictures and stories about nationalism. Sam is probably better suited to write on this topic, but it's not hard for anyone to see it in Jordan. Flags in every taxi, on the sides of buildings, pictures of the His Majesty, and national songs playing on the radio.

As a global representation of this pride, the Jordanians had recently been pushing everyone to vote for Petra as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. My traveling companions and I had the (good/bad?) fortune of being in Petra on the day in which the voting ended. Things looked a little different than they had the last time I was there...

It looked like Indian Jones 4 filming was underway. Beyond the treasury, however, things were like always. Camel rides for tourists, over-priced water, and little bedouin children offering to take you for a ride on their donkey (or sell you "interesting artifacts"....)

Again, I'm not expert in nationalism or national expression. The Jordanians seem to have it down, though. With such a love for their country- even by the very large Palestinian population of this country- it is understandable how important it would be for them to gain international recognition of their history. Before the voting ended, there would be a constant barrage a questions "Did you vote for Petra yet?". The University of Jordan even opened up a voting center near the main gate, so people had no excuse not to vote.

Though the voting has ended, there's no stopping that persistent question "Did you vote for Petra"?
I'm not about to complain about answering that questions 10x a day though, it's about time Jordan got it's day on an international stage.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The many faces of King Abdullah, part deux


In an earlier post, I compiled some pictures of King Abdullah posted in Amman. No luck finding one of frogman King Abdullah just yet but, loyal readers, rest assured that I'm hunting, like a frog for flies (that is to say: not really making a conscious effort but taking what comes my way).

Hopefully these selections from around town will suffice for now.

Hashemite majesty King Abdullah. Pictured with the Hashemite male lineage. From left, Sherif Hussein, Sherif of Mecca, King of the Hijaz until 1924, and, very briefly, self proclaimed Caliph of the Muslim world; Abdullah I, Amir of Transjordan 1921-1946, King of Transjordan 1946-1951; Talal, King of Transjordan 1951-1952; and Hussein, King of Jordan 1952-1999.

Note the hierarchical set up of the picture and how Sherif Hussein and Abdullah I sort of fade into the blue on the left. This isn't a picture of these people so much as a picture of the (imagined) arrangement of power and its relationship with collective memory, with Abdullah II undoubtedly the most prominent and yet still visibly linked to the past.

Straight Cash
King Abdullah. Though most Jordanians no doubt respect the wan visage on display here, nothing will get you a frown quicker in Jordan than trying to get change for one of these babies.
Family Picture King Abdullah, looking very young on the far right. Abdullah was probably thinking something like "Lousy family pictures. I hope they know that I'm missing Star Trek for this!"
Harley Davidson King Abdullah. Apparently Cody Chestnutt isn't the only one who looks good in leather.

And now for something completely different: I give you mullet-een!
Thanks for reading, folks.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Coming of Age


They were faces in my eyes.

Flashes of brown and black as I snapped away.

Click. Shout. Click. Voice breaking. Click. Sob.

Members of the Bedouins, nomadic tribes in the Sinai, were holding a press conference in a tiny office in Cairo a few days before they were holding a major demonstration, generally called a strike here, in Al-Arish, a city in the Sinai.

They spoke of experiences that shot shivers up my spine. Sisters raped, brothers thrown in jail, detained, shot, killed, homeless, tears, raised voices, fists in the air.


A group of us were at this conference, which was sponsored by the Democratic Front, a new political party in Egypt. The Bedouin cause had been adopted by this party, as one of their grievances against the government.

Journalists asked questions, people had tears in their eyes, tempers flared.

The Bedouins, supported by the Democratic Front were going to hold a strike in three days; a strike to protest the government's treatment of their people.

Enough was enough, they declared.

Later on, we found out that we, as journalists, were offered a chance to go cover the strike in the Sinai that weekend.

Bring it on, we thought.

Hold up. This is dangerous. We don't have press passes, we don't know who is driving us there. There will be police. Will it become a riot? Guns? Shooting?

We had discussions about going to this strike with our professor and with each other. Our professor recommended we not go but was leaving the choice up to us.

We were pumped. We were ready. We were journalists.

And we were scared.

I woke up the morning of the strike, preparing to leave with two other reporters, my closest friends on this trip.

I assessed the trip in my mind. We don't know who was taking us across to Al-Arish, which is 45 minutes away from Rafah Crossing - the border with that Egypt shares with Gaza. We don't know where we would be staying that night.

The Bedouins at the conference promised to get us to the strike regardless of how and when. They promised to get us there.


I felt it in the their desire to have us there. To have anyone there.

Can anyone hear me, I thought I heard them say. My sister was raped. My brothers, shot.

Am I worth your time? Am I worth your life?

Wait a minute, I thought. Do I even know you?

I pulled on my socks as I sat on the bed. There is a risk, I heard a voice saying in my head. Is it worth going?

We don't know who is taking us. We might get turned away by the police at the checkpoints. So many ifs and mights. Oh, and the possibility that we might get shot by security.

It’s my birthday on July 4th. Will I ever see the day I turn 23? That’s absurd. I will turn 23 and I will moan about getting older.

The idea of not being alive for my 23rd birthday because there was a minute possibility I wouldn't come back from a Bedouin strike was ludicrous.

Getting shot? Oh, come on.

I was scared, but not fearful for my life.

This might be the Middle East but I was aware that getting shot was so rare, that the possibility of it happening was near to nil.

I want to be a foreign correspondent. That‘s why I am on this trip. And even though I didn't expect to be faced with the prospect of being smuggled into an area of high contention to cover a story on this trip, I imagine that I will be doing it some time in my life.

Might as well start now.

Was I trying to prove that I wasn't scared? No. I was scared.

But there wasn't a moment that I did not feel safe. Once the feeling of security dissipated, I would throw in the towel and say that this job wasn't for me.

Until that morning, I felt safe about going.

I sipped my diet coke, anxiously waiting for our Bedouin driver to call our translator. We waited in silence.

We slept. Two hours went by before he called. He said he was going to meet us and take us to another man who was then going to drive us to the village where the leaders of the strike were at.

Another driver? Wait a minute. This was getting too sketchy. He then changed the route that we were taking.

This didn't sound right.

We knew the Bedouins wanted us there. But we had to trust the people that were taking us. And frankly, we didn't.

We called it off.

Not because we were scared. Not because we feared for our lives.

But because there was no trust. And I didn't feel safe anymore.

Are you worth my life? Only if I trust you.

There was light on my face. A tiny candle shone in front of me as my friends sang happy birthday. Everyone smiled and laughed, jazz rang in my ears, and I was happy.

As I smiled at the candle and thought about what I wanted most in my life. I thought of my niece, my sisters, my brothers, my family, my friends.

My sister was raped, my brothers, shot, I heard the Bedouins say.

Is any story worth dying for? Their story could be my story. Their family could be my family. Family is family wherever you go.

What means the most to you, probably means the most to someone else.

If they want their voice heard through you is it that bad to give it to them? They don't have one of their own.

Would I give my brother my voice?

I blew the candle out.

Happy Birthday.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sweetness and life after death


There are some phrases in Arabic that sound a little silly when translated literally.

Our relentlessly positive tour guide in Wadi Rum last weekend, Muhammad, had a knack for including many of these phrases in one comment.

Muhammad enjoying the wind that was so nice it made him crazy

Interactions would usually go something like:

Ya Muhammad, can you see a lot of stars at night?

Wulla mumkin shoof kul anujoom, helwa katheer. Wulla helwa katheer. Wulla almanthar bajanan. (By god it is possible to see all of the stars, it is very sweet. By god it is very sweet. By god, the view is so good that it makes me crazy. )

For those of you keeping score at home, that's three "by god's," two "very sweet's," and one "so good that it makes me crazy."

Muhammad used these words for nearly everything. I suspected that he might even describe the squat toilet at the Bedouin camp as "so good that it makes him crazy," but I never asked.

Indeed, about the only thing neither "very sweet" nor "so good that it makes one crazy" was Muhammad's description of treatments for camel illnesses or, as the Bedouin say, tiredness. Bedouins in Egypt had told Keegan that they treated tiredness by burying the camel in the ground and feeding it a soup made from foxes. Muhammad didn't subscribe to this method, though he didn't laugh at it either, instead advocating a combination of burying the camel in the ground and using fire. I didn't exactly follow, but it was either that or take it to the camel doctor. If I were Joe Camel, I might opt for the camel doctor.

Of course, one can avoid some of the ambiguities and difficult translations by dispensing with words altogether.

Yesterday I ventured to the mid size city of Salt, the former Ottoman administrative center of the area.

Minarets and church steeples pepper the skyline of Salt.

I was on the trail of school textbooks from the 1950s for some of my thesis research and after several fruitless trips to the public library in Salt ("Hi, I'm looking for school history textbooks from the 1950s." "Here's a history book." Repeat.), they finally sent me to the Museum of School Books half way up a hill overlooking Salt. While waiting for copies to be made of some of the books, I sat with the museum director for several hours underneath a tree outside of the building discussing politics and religion.

Jamal had a magisterial gentleness about him and a level of stress commensurate with a position that seemed to mostly consist of sitting outside and drinking tea (he said I was the first person to visit in about a week). He didn't go so far as to describe it as being "so good it made him crazy" nor did he use these phrases as frequently as Muhammad in general. But the lack of sweetness didn't detract from his message. His wan smile concealed a powerful directness.

As I absolutely butchered Arabic grammar in my attempt to express the similarity of all religions, Jamal smiled and picked a piece of paper off the ground. He proceeded to light it aflame, dropping it onto the ground as the flames engulfed it.

Jamal avoids self immolation...
...and shows my prospects for life after death

By this point, my elaboration on the oneness of humanity had given way to the oneness of an open mouth. In the smoke crazy culture of the Middle East, was this some new method for getting lung cancer? Jamal smiled. "If you don't become a Muslim, this will happen to you after death."

Okay. Point taken. Fire and brimstone, quite literally. My reaction (after closing my mouth and, well, taking a picture) wasn't quite as combative as Kellen Winslow, Jr. but I pushed Jamal a little and he moderated his position slightly, allowing that the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) might be okay in the end too. But really, he wasn't very different than literalists anywhere in the world, more of whom, interestingly, I feel like I've met sitting in the Pit at UNC than in all of my time in the Middle East.

But I've got to give Jamal points for presentation and spontaneity. Degree of difficulty could have been better - I would have appreciated some sort of ring of fire, fire ball, really any sphere involving fire, and GOB's "Final Countdown" music would have been a nice touch.

Although I suppose on the bright side - given Jamal's penchant for direct examples - it's good that I didn't ask about treatments for camel tiredness, at least for the sake of any nearby camels.