Thursday, December 31, 2009

Letter XVIII: The Winds Above

December 31, 2009

Clouds are pushing south, white nimbus shadowed with gray on the bottom side, baby blue sky high beyond like a Vazquez painting. They migrate over Amman almost with a purpose. Are they heading for Mecca, to bless the city with rain again as happened at this year’s hajj? Are they heading to the Wadi Rum, where we go next week for Bedouin food, hospitality and camel riding? Are the clouds only reminding us they are free and we are not? That they can be dry or wet as they please and we accept the consequences? At least here in Jordan rain is welcomed with literally open arms. People don’t rush to shelter. Kids happily stomp in puddles, their mothers smiling while water runs off their headscarves.

There go the clouds and there goes the year. There goes another decade. And what a year. I can barely remember anything before coming to Amman. Let’s see: a great start to the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 47th season; passing-the-baton board meetings at the Esalen Institute; a crash course on Final Cut Pro and producing a DVD of the Columbia High School Cougar Marching Band 2008 program; finishing the promo film for Music for All Seasons, finishing the short on the Masar el Khalil in Palestine racing through visa applications and paperwork, the Fulbright orientation and news of Michael Jackson’s death, Greg Shaw’s wedding in Elk, California, then more dizzying deadlines and blind shopping for anything we might need but might not find here. Of course there’s everything here, from reasonably priced Canon printer/scanner/copiers to the best cucumbers bar none.

Right now Katie and I are thrilled to have Peter and Janna with us, filling our apartment with laughter, depth, more clicking keyboards, and stuff. We are hosting a party tonight to celebrate the coming of 2010 with Jordanian and American friends. Next week, when Katie’s midterms are done, we rent a car and drive south.

Happy New Year to all of you and thanks for sticking with me on this wonder filled ride.

To What Are They Committed? Written on December 25, 2009

AMMAN -- The headline in the Jordan Times read, “Status quo will not hold, warn Middle East experts.” In smaller typeface it read, “Russia, EU, UN must get more involved in peace; Israelis told security by force is dangerous illusion.” It was Tuesday, December 22, 2009. One day earlier, at the Holiday Inn on the Dead Sea, the Valdai International Discussion Club of the Russian Federation opened its one-and-a-half day conference “Middle East - 2020: Is The Comprehensive Settlement Possible?

Unlike the Reuters reporter whose piece was picked up by the Jordan Times, I only attended the first day of the conference, but it was enough to see that the status quo is all that remains of decades of Camp David’s and other accords, resolutions and road maps.

That’s because rhetoric ruled the day at the Dead Sea. I listened in disbelief to conversations among people who really could make an impact in this region spewing age-old righteous and mean-spirited speeches at one another rather than engaging in authentic, risky, humble explorations of what they could initiate to alleviate the suffering and fear of the people -- "their people -- who are counting on them.

In spite of stated Russian intentions to step up as an influential broker in the Middle East arena it is clear that only fresh ideas put forth by a fresh cast of characters will put

life into this deadlock, and the people who will transform the situation are yet too young. Russian hopes will be predictably dashed upon the uncompromising battlements of today’s Palestinian and Israeli representatives who show neither sign nor commitment to paving any significant new path. Rather, they relish the status quo of no-go and will dare nothing.

Because it would be daring to honor the thousands of lives lost in Gaza, Lebanon, Deir Yassin, Maalot, the 1996 bombing at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, and myriad other tragic events stealing souls over the decades, by taking steps to make sure their deaths were not in vain. There was no bold, authentic I don’t-care-if-they-think-I’m-crazy-but-you-need-to-stop-posturing-and-start-talking-turkey statement exploding in the conference room like a truth bomb. There was “you’re wrong and here’s why.” Not much more.

As the manager of the Holiday Inn (where the event took place) pointed out, “We really need results. Last year this time the Gaza war decimated not only lives there on the other side of the Dead Sea, but also devastated livelihoods here. There are real consequences to these meetings.”

As if scripted by Hollywood, Bollywood, or DeadSeaWood, conversation about comprehensive settlement warped into all-too-predictable accusations and finger pointing. Former Russian Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov made it clear that the United States was mucking up the works by dominating the international scene; Palestinian-Israeli peace would only be possible with new players at a table with a different host. Former Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Quria, in a white shirt with unbuttoned collar and gray jacket, hopelessly recalled the failure of previous pacts. All previous agreements had been abrogated by Israel, he said, which used accords only to stall for time in which to appropriate Palestinian property. Israeli General Jacob Amidror, stung by Palestinian accusations, asserted that the only reason the West Bank wasn’t aflame like Gaza was thanks to the presence of Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and that Russia shouldn’t call for international intervention in this region when it didn’t welcome international forces in Georgia in 2007.

On nuclear proliferation, Efraim Inbar of Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies ruled out all hope for diplomacy in curbing Iran’s nuclear development, concluding, “all we are left with are military strikes.” On the other hand, Russians did not believe Iran had “made a political decision to build nuclear weapons” but rather wanted to follow “a Japanese model of technological development.” Palestinians wondered why Iran was even being discussed, since it does not currently have nuclear weapons, while Israel already does.

Until participants in the process are willing to detach themselves from winning and commit themselves to solving they will not make progress. Solving will take loss on both sides. It will take surrender and sorrow; it will involve anger, apology and humility. It will take greater courage, imagination, and vulnerability than seen at Oslo, Annapolis and Madrid. Solving requires a greater commitment to quality of life for residents of the region than to being right about what went wrong in 1948, 1967, 1992, and yesterday.

Time is the great enemy of the status quo. Algerian Sufi-statesman Emir Abd el-Kader died 79 years before his efforts to liberate his nation from French occupation finally triumphed in 1962. The Italian government under Mussolini executed Libyan freedom fighter Omar Mukhtar in 1931 but 20 years later, with support from the United Nations, Libya declared its independence (“Lion of the Desert,” the movie about Mukhtar’s life directed by Moustafa Akkad was banned in Italy). Ahmadou Bamba, who led the Senegalese in non-violent resistance to French occupation and suffered 15 years in exile, died 33 years before Senegal loosed itself of colonial rule in 1960. In each case, time turned the status quo.

It is tragic that today’s people in power are willing to risk everything for war but not for peace. Time will bring new players. Given the large percentage of people under the age of 25 in this region, there is hope. The status quo will surrender when new teams arrive at an altered playing field. Still aren't we all disappointed that the time isn’t now?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

30 December 2009: Some Do's and Don't's for Peace

My friend and colleague Michael Lame and I usually don't see eye-to-eye. In fact we've made a small business of not agreeing with one another: we give lectures together called, "Disagreeing on Everything: An Arab and A Jew Discuss the Middle East.." We even have an agent booking us! Check out the debate series at Wolfman Productions. Of course that's on hold while I'm in Jordan but you can bet I'll have a lot more to say when I get back.

Meantime, I direct your attention to this article Michael just published on his website, "Rethink the Middle East.Com." (The cute nickname for the organization is, "Rethink ME." Michael's got some very good ideas. But don't tell our agent I said so ...

Pretty soon I'll post my own, dismal reflections on the peace process based on attending a Russian think tank meeting at the Dead Sea last week.

Here is a taste of Michael Lame's piece called "2010 in the Middle East Part 2"

What Not to Do

Let’s start with what not to do, or rather, what not to say:

1) Stop talking about 242 and 338. They are out of date and out of juice.

2) Stop talking about the Road Map. It’s a map that neither side wanted and neither

side has followed.

3) Stop talking about land for peace. The Palestinians need more than land in order

to build a state. The Israelis need more than a peace treaty in order to sleep soundly at night.

4) Stop talking about a commitment to a Palestinian state, but don’t stop working

towards it. It’s still unclear if that circle can be squared. To be so publicly committed to such an iffy proposition is not wise foreign policy...

What productive actions could the U.S. take in 2010?


An unconscionably large number of Palestinians have no citizenship or passports. The United States should explore constructive ways to address this problem without waiting for it to be dealt with in final status negotiations. After all, no one knows if or when such negotiations will take place or prove productive. The Palestinian refugees and their descendants should no longer be held hostage to the “peace process”.

The United States could create a taskforce – completely separate from the Mitchell team – to work towards ending that condition of statelessness...

The West Bank

The settlement freeze issue was so mucked up by the administration this year that it’s probably best not to make it a focal point of its efforts in 2010.

Instead, insist (and verify) that the Israelis significantly accelerate the pace of reducing the number of roadblocks and checkpoints and take other measurable, substantive actions to ease personal travel and commercial transportation in the West Bank ...

Keep reading at Rethink the Middle East.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Letter XVII: Lulled into living

On 18 October 2009 I wrote (but didn’t share):

When I first came here everything had to happen post haste: get an apartment, get a phone, open a bank account, start projects, learn Arabic, get back in touch with people I’d known here before, even long ago.

Now it is six weeks into the adventure. We’ve been to Lebanon. I’ve been back to the States. This weekend we go to Syria. We have our apartment. We both have phones. The bankcard works as a debit at the supermarket and at other bank ATMs with no extra fees, the Arabic teacher comes twice a week. And I’ve got projects underway.

But I haven’t tracked down Kifah Fakhouri, director of the National Conservatory of Music still, who was featured in “Classical Caravan” of 1989. I haven’t brought a copy of the film to the Queen Noor al Hussein Foundation, headquartered just a few blocks from our apartment – but not so close as to hear the ducks spat. I’ve not reconnected with Basma or Thair, contacts from the State Department tour of ‘07 and Whetstone Productions training program of 2008 respectively.

I’m lulled into living as if there were plenty of time for all to be completed.

And on 20 December 2009 I begin by writing:

Even as I exult in the slower pace of life I notice that the To-Do list is longer than the Things-Done list. I never wrote you about Damascus except to say it was magic and mystery, befitting imagination. Or Petra. Or Eid al Adha and how it was and was not meaningful to have the Eid and Thanksgiving occur together. Or to point you to Salam al Marayati’s powerful piece, Fort Hood: A Defining Moment for Muslim Americans,” November 13, 2009. Salam heads the Muslim Public Affairs Council, MPAC, and is one of the brightest and best thinkers we’ve got. He reminds me a bit of my dad. Keep an ear out for him.

Two months from that earlier musing I have found more people who know Kifah Fakhouri and I have still not reached out.

I have reconnected with Basma thanks to her setting up an event at Jordan University’s “American Corner” – a screening of “Inside Mecca” in early December where I lunched with professors from the American Studies and En

glish Literature departments who taught me something about both subjects. I never took an English lit class after high school! All the literature I studied was in Spanish. So here I am in Jordan, learning from native Arabic speakers something about Faulkner and Hemingway.

And there are extra fees attached to using our bankcard at other banks. They just don’t list the fees on the receipt; they show up on the statements, instead.

Petra was and Petra is a movie set extraordinaire. Standing atop the ledge of the Urn Tomb, where I stood with a group of Princeton Symphony musicians and my crew in 1988, and looking out over the valley, I saw either total fantasy or a revival of what Nabatean commerce may have resembled several thousand years ago. Did you know that Petra is the site of the first Neolithic human settlements? That people settled here about 2000 years before Stone Age settlements in Europe?

They’re literally “digging” into that now at Petra and a new area should be open to the public by the end of 2010.

It looks like I’ll be among the first videographers to capture it, too.

Katie and I went with Dr. Fadi Haddad, who we met at Thanksgiving and who is a founding member of the Royal Society of Photography. He got permission to drive into the site through the back entrance, through the village to which the inhabitants of Petra were transferred in the 1990s – to give them a better quality of life, and to keep the site protected from cooking, goats, unregulated commerce (sales and begging), and for greater antiquity preservation. The people still work Petra and come down the long, winding back road every day, adults and children, ready to lead tourists on their burros, horses and camels, to sell handmade jewelry and make (and sell) hot tea. We had a divine cup of tea at the farthest lookout point, on beyond the Dyer (Monastery) that’s the famous 900 steps climb from the floor of the Petra site to the top of the rose colored rock. From that promontory, on a clear day, you can see the Negev – according to the sign. It was not that clear when Katie and I climbed. But the tea was hot and sweet and we could squeeze our eyes and at least imagine the Wadi Rum off in the distance. Back home that night we watched “Lawrence of Arabia.”

So what to do about the pace and lack thereof? Write shorter. Edit faster. Make more phone calls. Ease up.

“There are no answers, only choices,” was a line from George Clooney’s “Solaris.” A weak movie with a memorable line and that handsome face.

Or how about Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s comment to the Valdai International Discussion Club, that “setting unambitious goals is a waste of time”?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

XVI: Amman Thanksgiving, 26 November 2009

It’s Thanksgiving Day. Katie and I spend the morning peeling and chopping apples, hand mixing butter, brown sugar and maple syrup (yes, we brought it from Maine), and finally baking the apple crumble. It’s our contribution to Thanksgiving dinner, hosted by the Zureikat family here in Amman.

Of note: in the years I spent as a working-outside-the-home-mom I didn’t bake cookies with my kids. Birthday cakes, yes, the odd banana bread, yes, too. But I didn’t/wouldn’t make time for the “traditional” mom/child pastime. Now I really enjoy it. We cook and converse. No apron-string hanging, rather inventive, interactive cuisine-ing, and talk about God and ethics and culture and school. I’m glad I did the baking bit in this order.

Now back to the main narrative:

All my life I’ve been host family for Thanksgiving, except for once, in 1998, the year my father died. That year we went to my sister-in-law’s home in Maine. Last year, when her father, my father-in-law died, she came to us.

But all those other years Thanksgiving Day started at 7 or 8 in the morning, with my mom in the kitchen with her apron, stuffing the biggest bird we could find (20 or so pounds) and getting it in early for a long, slow roast. We'd primp the house and set the table with our best dishes -- the ones she inherited from my grandmother when she died. There would be cranberry relish, cranberry jello with fruit in it, white and sweet potatoes, asparagus casserole, pumpkin pies. Ummm.

The best college holiday was always the Thanksgiving break. I remember hitching rides Wednesday night from Wellesley neighbors who lived on Long Island and waking tired but eager Thursday morning for the ritual. For years we had the same core guest group: my father’s Iraqi friends from the University of California at Berkeley (all of whom went on to strong careers in engineering and medicine), their families (they married Iraqi women and spent some time back in the homeland as their scholarships required but returned to settle in the USA). There was Mr. Musa, an Iraqi Jewish bachelor or widower who lived not-too-far from us in Flushing, Queens. There was Danny Bank, my big band baritone sax playing flute teacher, , and Linda Pezzano, my dad’s former assistant who went on to market Trivial Pursuit. We were all delighted when those two had a bit of a fling. Linda, may God rest her soul, died a decade ago after losing the battle with cervical cancer

When we three girls got to the stage of growing up that meant we could move out, I began hosting wherever I lived. I hosted Columbia Journalism School out-of-towner-classmates back at the Flushing house in 1981. I hosted in Brighton, Massachusetts, when I was a news writer for WBZ-TV and dad and Laila came up from NYC. We used paper plates. When Peter and I lived in an apartment in North Bergen, NJ, we crated our spices and wine glasses a la supplies trekked to the home of those two pious sisters in northern Denmark for “Babette’s Feast” ( to Flushing and served up a sumptuous dinner to a couple of dozen including Linda and Danny. Since we moved to Maplewood, we host annually, serving a brined bird that has a glorious mixture of brown sugar, Dijon mustard and bourbon rubbed under the skin and bubbled into the gravy. Janna and Katie make the cranberry relishes and help peel the pearl onions, and my mother and her husband are among the honored guests. Other regulars are British, Palestinian, and Nebraskan neighbors.

This year, while Peter and Janna carry on the Maplewood tradition, Katie and I were invited to celebrate Thanksgiving with Jordanian friends.

Hala Zureikat is director of Jordan Television. Her friends are a dazzling assortment of talent: a surgeon who lived in Baghdad and photographed daily life there in the 1970s, the renowned journalist Daoud Kuttab (, educators, and an Iraq relief volunteer. The women of the group are close friends, getting together when then can for Bible study. The husbands get together when the wives ask them to -- or invite them to a meal.

Conversation flows easily from Arabic to French to English; from regional politics to international affairs; to the best way to roast a turkey. (From left to right, the chef, Hala's kitchen assistant and Hala herself.)

Any body worrying that Katie and I didn’t have a real Thanksgiving can relax. The food was fabulous. The turkey was as moist and flavorful as could be. And side dishes including hommos, tabbouleh, rice, kousa mashi (stuffed zucchini) and spicy greens and beet salad are surprisingly good complements.

(That's Dr. Fadi Haddad carving turkey and Hala's daughter Dahlia passing a plate. Katie standing in the foreground.)

Our apple crumble was served alongside an exquisite homemade cheesecake and a multi-layered chocolate cake. We enjoyed a Bible quiz on the Christmas story (this quiz asserts that – contrary to popular carols -- we don’t know exactly how many kings came to pay tribute to the baby Jesus).

Before heading home at midnight, Katie and I were invited to go to Petra for the day with Dr. Fadi, a surgeon and photographer, that coming Saturday. Notes and photos on that adventure to come.

Thanks to the technology known as SKYPE, we spent a few minutes at our Maplewood table, too, Katie and I on Peter’s computer screen at the head of the table greeting my folks and the beloved cast of Roebuck’s, Riecke’s and Marshood’s.

Just two nights ago now the Fulbright House hosted a Seasons Greetings party replete with turkey, trimmings and pumpkin pie ordered from the American Embassy. Scholars and Fellows brought vegetables, salads and desserts.

Peter and Janna will be with us at the end of the year and we will be feasting with them. There are Butterballs in the frozen food section at Safe Way and I may just store one away for New Year's Eve.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"Inside Mecca" at the Royal Film Commission

On Tuesday, 8 December 2009, the acclaimed National Geographic Special "Inside Mecca" will be screened at the Royal Film Commission in Amman, Jordan. Producer/Director Anisa Mehdi, who currently lives in Jordan as a Fulbright Scholar, will attend and share her experiences with the audience afterward.

Photo shows Anisa on location with videojournalist and team member Hossam Abouelmagd.


The screening was packed, standing room only. Some 40+ people were turned away at the door. The US deputy chief of mission and his wife came too so "men in black" arrived early to sweep the space.

It's satisfying to have made a film that stands the test of time (well, six years at least), and still educates and inspires people. Long, strong legs, as they say in the industry, and a big heart.