Thursday, October 29, 2009

XII: Here and Back Again

October 9, 2009

In the first few hours home I was already consumed with rush, overwhelm, too much to do, not enough time, long and longer to-do lists, and cat spray.

They seemed glad to see me when I stumbled in a 7 am after that glorious red eye flight. Fat and happy they are award-winning beggars; you’d think they hadn’t eaten in days. So I fed them and went to bed.

A few hours later I hear water flowing. It’s not supposed to flow in my bedroom, under my bed.


My favorite cat (but don’t tell the others), Kiki spent a year alone in the Maine woods, August 17, 1998- August 17, 1999, breaking our hearts with his stubborn departure (no amount of entreaty pulled him in from his walkabout before we had to go) and making us deliriously happy with his return. Except that ever since he came back he’s squabbled with the others for territory and the way cats claim it, apparently, is by spraying their urine. Unfortunately they’re all declaring the inside their territory: chair leg by chair leg, curtain by curtain, suitcase by suitcase, pile of clothing by pile of clothing … you get the picture. (Talk about dirty laundry!)

Kiki let loose under my bed. Suddenly my list of to-dos -- returning the VONAGE box, setting up automatic payments for the new mortgage, cancel the phone account at camp, check into college payments, prepare a talk and presentation for Wednesday, figure out where to take Janna for her birthday dinner on Tuesday, wrap her presents, continue writing blogs, and buying mini DV tapes, not to mention calling and seeing a few friends – was immediately re-prioritized. Mission Number One became clean the floor and the bed frame. Which, given the stuff stuffed under the bed, was not a simple venture. Accomplishing this, however, was truly satisfying, smelling all of Murphy’s Oil Soap. So then I took on the cat boxes in the basement.

Sometimes I think it would be lovely to be relieved of these duties and to have my family relieved of these duties; that we could employ others to “do the dirty work.” I think about the many privileged people in the world, many people I know, who don’t scrape paint from their walls or haul furniture up and down the stairs; who don’t rub the copper polish on their pots and vacuum three flights of stairs; people who have neither cats nor cat boxes and neither grow flowers nor need to weed their gardens. And how I wouldn’t, really, want to trade away any of that drudgery forever. There’s immediate gratification; there’s humility; there’s the transformative moment of washing hands and face and changing clothing when it’s done. There’s seeing the miles-long hedge freshly trimmed and saying, “yes, I did that.”

I wouldn’t give that up forever. Only sometimes. Like on mornings when I’ve flown in on the red eye.

Janna turned 18 while I was at Esalen and Peter and Katie at Wadi Mujib. Taking her out to dinner to celebrate was a highlight of my trip to the States. Eighteen! And I remember my water breaking like yesterday. Right there in the Childbirth Center in Englewood, conveniently in the bathroom, where I got into a warm shower to ease the expanding ache in my abdomen, hanging my weight from the shower door as Mary is described in the Qur’an wrapping her arms around the date palm to ease the pangs during the birth of Jesus (Qur’an, Chapter of Mary, XIX, 23-26), and Peter coaching me through the steam: “Groan lower, honey.” Janna was born within an hour and a half of our arrival. A full head of hair on her head that morning now a glistening, bouncing ponytail on the campus of Temple University.

Bill Mueller who used to live in Philly recommended the perfect place: The Rose Tattoo ( in Philadelphia’s museum district is full of green -- plants, vines, an inner courtyard -- and Janna is “missing the green things,” according to her SKYPE ID. We sat on the second floor balcony overlooking an indoor tropical garden. And we talked. Seven hour of talk with my elder daughter that evening: one in the dorm room with her roommate, three at the restaurant and three in the car outside the dorm, neither of us wanting to say goodnight. That’s why to have children.

Wednesday I spoke at Interweave in Chatham, NJ. The talk was called “Women Around the World: Making Change We Can Believe In.” In essence I profiled many of the women I’ve met during my career, ordinary and extraordinary, from Zainah Anwar of Sisters in Islam, Malaysia (, Penda M’Bow of University Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, Fatimeh Mousavinejad of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue in Tehran (, Hafida Benchehida, my translator in Algeria, Dulce Murphy of TRACK II: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy (, Patricia Gruber who runs the Gruber Prizes, (, and Bonnie Monte, Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (, to Mona who waxes my legs in Amman. Everyone has a story.

Time was flying and piles of mail diminished but piles of split wood remained in the back yard; boxes got shipped at the post office, and a new suitcase packed for Jordan. B&H was closed for Succoth so I never bought my Mini DV tapes. I couldn’t make more copies of “Eyes With Pride: A Tribute to the Columbia High School Marching Band” because I didn’t bring my external hard drive where the movie resides so I scrounged up slightly earlier versions to give to the people who’s DVDs didn’t work (don’t worry! The only difference is the credits!). I did see a few friends and that was heavenly and I saw “Hamlet” at The Shakespeare Theatre. If you didn’t see it you missed the most intimate, exquisite and achingly human portrayal of that pouty teenager and his conniving, scared, confused family to hit the east coast, ever.

Heading back to the opportunity to think and create. Wanting to make here a place where that's possible too, when I'm back again. Lots to meditate upon during the long flight home.

Monday, October 26, 2009

XI: Two Views: Big Sur/Wadi Mujib

October 5, 2009, San Francisco Airport


The man announcing United Airlines’ flight to Portland has let everyone on the concourse in San Francisco know that “Every, every, every, every seat is taken” on the plane and there will be no upgrades, no seat changes. His voice was cheery and unequivocal.

That’s the third flight from Gate 74 with the same situation proclaimed while I sit here waiting for my flight back to Newark from San Francisco. I was at Esalen for a few days for the board meeting and donor weekend.

What a wonderful time, as always.

I remembered being there with my mother two-and-a-half years ago and what fun we had strolling the green and flowering campus, sitting in the hot tubs, and, of course, soaking in a most stimulating conversation about the phenomenon of religious “fundamentalism” and how, in the spirit of forgiveness, a reunion of the “Abrahamic Family” might contribute to reconciliation. We were there, conference convener Joseph Montville said, “ first and foremost to learn what reprsentatives of each member of the Abrahamic family needs to hear in order to think it possible for an Abrahamic reunion based on trust.”

My mom and I were also there for a brimming-with-laughter time of togetherness, celebrating her birthday and our ever-deepening bond.

I’ve shared Esalen with Peter and the girls; Barbara Thornton came and now she and her Peter come on her own. Other friends hear about Esalen more than they may want to. Just surrender yourself to stimulation and delight.

Bob Herbert finally did. My friend, the New York Times columnist, came this 2009 donor weekend and shared the stage with Robert Reich (former Secretary of Labor, Bill Clinton administration) and wowing the assembly with insight and wit. We sat late into the night on Friday, the two Bobs, a few trustees and some guests, prying into our political awakenings. Bob Reich says we come into our age of political awareness sometime between 15 and 22. The vibe of the time at that age marks us for life. We at the table were fortunate enough to “come of age” during the late 60s and early 70s when hope reigned.

Fast forwarding back to SFO, I find that flights to LA are overbooked due to big college football games. While they asked for volunteers to give up their seats I realized that I could do that … if they need seats for my flight. They’d give me a free round-trip in the 48 contiguous ... they’d put me up in a hotel overnight, which would mean sleeping in a BED instead of drifting in and out of consciousness in 14E – a middle seat, and it would mean getting back to Maplewood sometime tomorrow. Since no one but the cats were waiting for me I could make that choice. When they did ask for volunteers for my flight I went right forward.

Now I’m waiting to hear if they need me. Seems rising prices aren’t slowing traffic. My flight from Amman to JFK was full, full, full. The flight from JFK to San Francisco was, too, if I can remember back that far. That was last Wednesday; yes, I remember now. I had an aisle seat and there was a couple with Oriental features in Window and Middle. We all rested as best we could.

I checked my growing list of things to get done during my three-and-a-half-days home and I don’t have any killer deadlines Monday in Maplewood. My fingers are crossed for a good night’s sleep. No rooster. No roommate. No reservations.

But no.

I am ushered onto the flight with everyone else in economy. The cats will be pleased.

October 5, 2009, Amman, Jordan


Wadi Mujib was like nothing (even I) had seen before. It's like Glen Canyon before it was dammed up to make Lake Powell (Arizona). Just extraordinary. We could look at doing it with the whole family in the Spring/Early Summer (they close Oct 31) or you and Kate can try before then, but you will need Emad’s help (see below).

Some details of our amazing day:

You get totally wet as you're walking in the river and up small waterfalls; through slow and swift currents, in water that is just warm enough to keep you from getting cold; soft with carbonates and grey to lime green in color. Green malachite like you see in jewelry stores is deposited on some of the river rocks. You can barely see the sky hundreds of feet above, as the canyon is so narrow -- sometimes only 20-30 feet across. The canyon is carved beautifully, just like the pictures.

Thank God that Emad, our wonderful taxi driver, went with us. He decided to go because he likes the trip a lot, he loves the out-of-doors and used to be quite an athlete, but without him, we never would have gotten Katie in there. The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature changed the rules without telling anyone and made the mandatory age 18! Emad was a friend (of course) of one of the rangers and arranged to have Kate stand away at the last minute while I signed for her. Then we took the required life jackets and (at Emad’s quiet urging) silently and quickly moved onto the access bridge, around the corner of a cliff, down the access ladder, into the water and up the canyon. By that time we were far enough away to credibly ignore the whistling of the other ranger who hadn’t had a chance to examine Kate and assess her age! Emad is truly a friend and a terrific resource.

Two-and-a-half-hours later we returned, tired but totally excited. Kate had handled everything with ease. Floating back down was a wonderful relaxing treat after the strenuous climbing against the rapids and waterfalls. There were lots of ropes and ladders in the rocks to make it doable. Kate said it was one of the best things she has ever done.

We’re now home and being lazy/tired; our clothes are drying out. Kate is finishing her religion project for school. We’re cooking okra with tomato sauce, some flavored rice, and the last of the spinach sautéed in garlic and oil.

I don’t have the energy to work much today but it looks like staff and clients are generally leaving me alone for the moment.

It’s great thinking of you all out there at Esalen, even if you’re in meetings. Say “hi” to everyone for me. Thank Kat Steele for the email on permaculture in Jordan. Great stuff.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

X: Jerash and the Internet, September 26-29, 2009

The Iron Age, Raad Hammouri told us, can also be called the Age of the Kingdoms. He’s probably not the only one to say so, but hearing it in the shadow of the Triumphal Arch at Jerash makes it stick. I learned Spanish history more thoroughly living in Seville, and recall the visceral power of the Declaration of Independence as I gazed at it in the National Archives. What kind of learner to they call that?

The Iron Age always seemed so long ago. Longer ago than kingdoms.

Pharonic Kingdoms, Hammurabi, Alexander the Great Greek, the Roman Empire. The latter two at least (then the Byzantines, then Omayyad, then Ottoman, British) left monumental marks on this landscape. Glorious gateways and the colonnaded street; two amphitheatres with magical acoustics (one of which was featured in the opening scene of my 1989 film “Classical Caravan.” See blog ___). Byzantine also shows through with mosaics a la Madaba on unearthed church floors.

Raad gives fabulous tour. I’d been hoping to find someone I to whom I could deliver family and friends when they come to give a deep appreciation for Jordan and its history. Here he is. I don’t know his charges because we got him with car and driver on a barter agreement through Siyaha: I’ll go back with my camera and videotape dazzling tour guide bites promoting Jordan tourism on the Internet. So look out, friends, when you come here you’ll have to work out your own arrangements but I found the guide.

There’s a fun, hokey and educational event twice a day at the Hippodrome here: men dressed as Centurions demonstrating military tactics straight out of Lord of the Rings – whoops, it’s the other way around! Gladiators fight to the near-death, then the audience is asked to deliver the sentence: thumbs to the side, he stays on Earth, thumbs down, he descends to Hades.

Whoops, again! Jerash reached its peak as a Roman city, not Greek. It would be Vulcan, not Hades, right? Except that the people of Gerash (sic) preferred their Greek occupiers to the Romans who were apparently arrogant and cruel. The Greeks beguiled its conquered citizens with art and culture not raw force, as Raad suggested was the Roman way. Generalities, yes, but useful. The people called Jupiter’s Temple that of Zeus and so it is called still today. The temple meant for Diana is instead known as Aphrodite’s.

Four hours we walked and learned. One more tidbit: somewhere in Europe archaeologists have discovered a kind of wood crane used in those days to hoist sections of columns atop one another. We also found that our Katie can be quite the goddess statuette. Dianaphrodite, watch your back!

By Sunday we all came back to Earth. Katie off to school and Peter and I to figure out how he can get work done remotely. First, we found he couldn’t get wireless connection. The only way to get to the Internet was to plug the Ethernet cable right into his computer. Happily it turned out that the modem we have is superfluous: the wireless Internet signal lives in our apartment. Period. One hurdle jumped, we find the VONAGE box didn’t work. So phone calls would either be on very expensive international mobiles or through SKYPE, which has been entirely reliable. Except when Internet is down. Which happens, it seems, a little bit every day. Peter managed to run his office and even win a job from here.

Then the big social event of the month: we hosted a dinner party. I wanted people in our new life to meet Peter and vice versa. Alain McNamara, Kathy Sullivan and daughter Dunya came; Hala Zureikat, Naif, and daughters came. The adults had a fine time, as did the girls. We wisely ordered mixed grill and shish taouk from the Great Amman Restaurant near the Sheraton, which was dee-licious! Our guests kindly brought appetizers and dessert. No one really wanted to leave by 10pm but it was a school night and reason prevailed.

Suddenly we were facing my departure to the USA for the Esalen board meeting and donor weekend ( I’d be returning via New Jersey, where I’d get to be home for a few days, feed cats, celebrate Janna’s 18th birthday, give a talk at Interweave, and see “Hamlet” at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey ( Peter and Katie get Amman to themselves.

All that seemed so far away last June at Fulbright Orientation. The march of time is relentless. Be it counted in days or centuries, time’s dominion defeats all the others.

Amman and a Two-Parent Home

September 25, 2009

Amman’s sepia-brown welcome was quickly warmed by Peter’s arrival. I was especially excited for him to be, finally, in an Arabic-speaking country, abundant with geological formations to fill his studied eyes. And Katie and I had plans up our sleeves.

The best thing for a new arrival coming east is to keep awake as long as possible as an investment in a solid night’s sleep. We’d prepared a stir-fry with rice for dinner and then set out for Abdoun Circle, to Gerard’s for pistachio ice cream. Fancy Katie and me showing off our city, our new suspension bridge connecting Fourth Circle to Abdoun, comfortably giving our destination to the taxi driver in Arabic, and pushing our way, like the locals, through to the counter to order our cones. Then sitting outdoors and milking the moment.

We gave Peter the morning off. Katie was at school by the time he woke. And yes, he heard the roosters. During the next few days Peter took himself on a walk into the “bird zoo,” the “ha-DEE-ka at-to-YOOR” and discovered that the offending creatures were none other than Rhode Island Reds. Imagine coming this far across the planet only to be annoyed by foul from your own birth state!

For the view we brought him to Wild Jordan for dinner; for enrichment we brought Dr. Younes to dinner, too. In one swoop we managed to bring a newcomer and an old timer to a place in Amman neither had been before. The frozen limon bi na’na’ was again exquisite. Dr. Younes’ family had lived in the Rainbow Street area when he was little and we were going to walk and find his old homestead after dinner. But as we looked up the hill from the restaurant entrance he said, “There it is!” Small town. A security person at Wild Jordan said he thought the Hariri family from Lebanon had bought up most of that cliffside and its homes. Small region.

Friday. Emad came with his car for us at 10am and off we went to Madaba, the ancient town famed for its mosaic floors ( Roman (with columns and colonnades) then Byzantine (with some mosaics rumored to border on pornographic) then Christian (with the extraordinary 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem and its surroundings at St. George’s Church). Abandoned for centuries and then rediscovered by Christian pilgrims en route Mount Nebo and the monastery honoring Moses. They reestablished residency in Madaba and archaeological explorations have continued since. There’s much yet to uncover here as in so many parts of Jordan.

We noticed that although signs said, “TOUR GUIDES: Please Do Not Step Inside the Chains Guarding the Mosaic Map” in English, there were none in Arabic. And you can be sure plenty of people (there was a group of Egyptian Christian tourists there) climbed right over the ropes ringing the mosaic and stood right on the Holy Sepulcher and Damascus Gate to get their photos taken. Maybe the tour guides themselves did not transgress.

It was a clearer view from Mount Nebo than the one I saw in 1976. Then it was so foggy I had to wonder what Moses really might have seen from this vantage point; perhaps the Promised Land was only the eastern slope of the mountain, falling off to the Jordan Valley. But this time the view proved longer. Although we couldn’t see them, signs indicated Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and Ramallah lay before us.

Our big surprise for Peter was the Dead Sea this afternoon. I think he’d guessed it already: bring your bathing suit; we’ll pack a picnic. “Dead Sea” signs dotted the road. Amman Beach was as picturesque as we’d remembered. And this time we had saved three JDs each for the mud rub.

It was a dream to bring Peter, my geologist husband, to see these vistas. Driving down, down, down to the Dead Sea … the verticals of limestone, the fall-offs of sandstone. The look of giant muscular protrusions just like Sinai, just like the California coast.

This Friday the Dead Sea. Next Friday the hot tubs at Esalen. Last Friday the swimming pool overlooking Beirut. Who is leading my life? (Ponder the pun.)

And tender, unexpected awareness of self presents in baby steps. These are not the POW BANG transformational experiences of the est Training or the Six Day Course., but the kind that comes with years of practice. Practicing life, as in practicing the flute. You return to Bach’s Sonata in B Minor and find a nuance brand new after 30 years of study. As Peter slept next to me, I wrote in my journal: “What will it be like sharing authority again? Even a two-person committee can be complicated.” I’ve been in charge for nearly a month; now my partner is here and the consultative process is naturally reinstated – especially about Katie’s activities and making dinner. Such a simple process to date in Amman, now will involve spices and sautéing. Also sharing the space. I love the utterly clutter-free place I’ve maintained. But immediately his computer commandeered the dining room table. Well, where else was he to work? I showed him his own closet – in the guest room. We have separate closets at home, but both in our bedroom. “It is logical,” I wrote, “and yet strange. A little cold. But better for me and sensible.” I like my under filled closets. My age and for the first time I can remember having abundant closet space.

How blessed I am that closet space is something to think about. And to have someone to think about sharing it with. And authority.

Monday, October 12, 2009

BEIRUT PART THREE: September 18. Sabra & Shatilla

Twenty-seven years ago, from 16-18 September, Phalange forces massacred some 3000 Palestinians in this encampment-cum-ghetto. This Friday afternoon it’s all a-bustle. We drive at snail’s pace through an open-air market. Shoes and cobblers on one side, eggplant and lemons on the other. Behind an olive oil stand we see a mural with a giant photograph, the caption lamenting the murder of innocents in the 1982 massacre: “What is The Guilt She Committed to be Murdered?” The poster advertises a photo exhibition. Here we were welcome to use our cameras and a vegetable vendor encourages us to invited to come and see. We declined in the interest of continuing our tour, the time, our various stages of exhaustion. But I wish we’d gone in. It would have been informative and moving, I am sure.

The healthy hubbub here today belies another reality, one of poverty, despair and grief. Twenty-seven years is not long enough to forget the horror of the massacre. They were, in fact, terrorist attacks, although that’s not what we called them in the newsroom back then.

In 1982, news of the horrific slaughter trickled out for days, weeks, from eyewitnesses and news agencies. The atrocity was committed by militiamen, identified with Lebanon’s Christian factions -- but God knows true Christians like true Muslims would not engage in such despicable behavior. The Israeli Army, which held military control of the area at the time, was said to have stood by, watching, allowing. Orders to let the rampage rage apparently came from above. Nineteen years later Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister was facing a war crimes indictment from a Belgian Court ( Now its 2009 and I am here for the briefest of moments, reflecting on what’s the same and what has changed.

I was a rookie at Boston’s “Eyewitness News” in 1982 when reports of the killings began to hit the wires. They set the 80s standard for bloody and cruel in regional conflict. The 90s brought us Bosnia and Rwanda. At the time the Israelis were opening their gambit for the occupation of southern Lebanon. Beseiging Beirut was part of the strategy. At first we thought the Israelis were the perpetrators. Then came word that the atrocities were committed by Lebanese -- Phalangists high on hashish and enabled by their Israeli allies, knifed, slashed and shot civilians for more than two days. Untold numbers of families were devastated and traumatized.

I watched the news feeds in WBZ-TV’s narrow screening room. As an associate producer and news writer I was to select footage to run in the broadcast and compose appropriate copy for the anchors to read. Twenty to thirty seconds at a pop to duly inform the Boston public on the subject.

Charlie, one of our reporters, stood by one morning as I reviewed the rushes from the night before. A smart and eager newsman he was curious to know more about the back-story to the gruesome headlines. I told him about Lebanon’s ongoing civil war, some history about the factions, exaggerated stories of religious fragmentation and the real struggle for political equality among citizens who were governmentally identified as religious populations. I talked about the impact of Israel’s presence in the region.

“How do you know so much?” he asked.

“I’ve been studying this part of the world all my life.” Growing up Arab-American in New York City with the nation’s most vocal Palestine advocate for a father bred knowledge as well as courage. Volunteering in Boston with “The Arabic Hour,” a Lilliputian weekly cable program that sought to educate the public and promote mutual understanding, deepened my studies ( Looking back I marvel at the prescience of executive producer Michel Haidar and our team, churning out news, cooking, movies and extended interviews on a shoestring. We were Arab Americans boldly going where few like us had gone before: into the media to make a difference. I am of Iraqi descent; the rest were Lebanese of all religious stripes. They tutored me with statistics and by example. I shared my knowledge with Charlie.

Realization dawned on his face.

“Anisa, you’re not impartial. This is your heritage.” It was an accusation. “How can I count on what you’re saying? You’ve got a definite point of view!” He did not need to add that my “point of view” was clearly out-of-synch with the common wisdom of the day. Everyone knew that Israel’s invasion of Lebanon was justified as self-defense and so was its harsh treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. They were harboring terrorists there. Everyone knew that in the newsroom but me.

I was aghast.

“So, Charlie,” I looked him levelly in the eye. “I guess that means that since you’re a black man I can’t trust your analysis of the Civil Rights movement either.”

He did not like the analogy. “It’s not the same thing,” he demurred. But he was wavering. I know he left our conversation circumspect.

Twenty-seven years later I am at the location of the tragedy, assessing a scene I had the khutzpah to write about from afar. That’s the sad truth about so much reporting: we write what we don’t know. I did the best I could then. Others did, too. In the 27 years since, other Arab Americans and Muslims have begun to enter the news media. Americans are beginning to discern the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yasser Arafat, once a “known terrorist,” died a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The December 2008 Israeli crusade against Gaza tarnished its halo. So did the 2006 attacks on Lebanon. And Charlie maybe now would appreciate how hard I’d studied.

I’ve learned much since then, too.

“Camp” I know now, is not an adequate term for this place. These holding grounds for Palestinians who were exiled from their ancestral homes and the generations born displaced after them are bursting at the seams. They should have been temporary shelters. Sabra, Shatila, and so many more “refugee camps” in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the occupied West Bank, are now densely packed pseudo-welfare communities. Multiple generations live spaces designed for nuclear families. Too many people can’t get out; nor can they get in to where they say they want to be, back home in Palestine. Some of those homes still exist; many live only in memory, in carefully guarded deeds, and treasured front door keys.

Something’s gotta give.

We drove on through the lighter, brighter, rebuilt parts of Beirut: past the dazzling Rafiq Hariri mosque that sits proudly next to an ancient and active church, adjacent to Roman columns poking up from an excavation mid-city – all of which is on the former “green line” that separated East and West Beirut during the Civil War. There’s a monument there now.

Fewer headscarves in this section. More trees and bushes, reminding me of Amman, and taller apartment buildings, surpassing Amman’s. In spite of recent history there’s no anxiety in the air. Signs are in Arabic and English.

And in this next to last day of Ramadan I forgot my hunger. That is until we were on our way back to Doha Hills and see the juma’a (Friday) markets lining the road. Gorgeous Lebanese produce in purple, orange, yellow and green. There are goats, sheep and chickens awaiting their maker on the Eid. Two monkeys in a cage.

One day left of Ramadan and a lifetime of learning, insha Allah.