Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Odds and Ends: 30 June 2010

For the past three days fighter jets have been flying over Amman. Sometimes in formation; sometimes solo. Impressive. Loud. Unnerving. They've sliced the sky outside my window on and off throughout the year. But why so many now?


"A renaissance man -- with spurs." That's how someone in Amman described my father.


A visit to the Numismatic Museum of Amman, appropriately located in the Jordan Ahli Bank, opened a view on economic history
I'd not known: each Roman city (off the top of my head I can name Jerash, Um Qays/Gadara, Philadelphia/Amman, Petra, and Bosra) had its own coinage to be used exclusively in that city. Only Roman imperial coins could be used between cities. How's that for keeping a noose on nationhood?

The Nabatean King Aretas IV (9BC-40CE) had his image on one coin and his first wife, Huldu's image on another. But later, when he married Shuqailat, she was minted in profile with him on the same coin.

What does our currency say about us?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


June 29, 2010

I suppose it’s all of life, really, but there are certain pilgrimages we single out. The hajj -- the journey to and from and back to Mecca – is one of them and one way or another you’ve been on that route with me before.

So here are two other small pilgrimages from this year’s great one: PART ONE, Jerusalem; PART TWO, the Baptism Site on the Jordan River.

All pilgrimages include the trial of travel. Adventures along the path are inseparable from the achievement of destination. For Katie and me the physical journey to Jerusalem in March was arduous and revelatory. Everything you’ve heard about checkpoints, blockades, the wall, and humiliating treatment of indigenous and visiting Palestinian population is true. Sometimes those humiliations are graciously extended to anyone perceived to be “one of them,” too.

Crossing the King Hussein Bridge (aka “Allenby”) is a short bus ride across one of the world’s widest partitions. A no-man’s-land of dry, hacked off hummocks and razor-edged barbed wire keeps us officially apart.

It’s a great contrast to the welcoming vista across the Dead Sea, from where on a rare clear day we can see the Jerusalem skyline.

The twenty-something Israeli girl at the immigration counter grilled us for half an hour about where we were going and where we were staying. Where is your husband? Where was he born? Do you fly out to the USA from here? (Is this what they call an interrogation?) After repeating my answer as clearly as I could, surrendering our passports, showing her the phone numbers of my local contacts, I finally asked if she’d prefer we stay somewhere else? Did she prefer we return to Jordan? I bit my tongue on “Do you want me to marry someone else?”

It’s interesting how the repeated questioning works on the brain. I actually began to second-guess myself: what are my real intentions? I begin to sense the torture of torture although I've come no where near, alhamdulillah!

A long line was building behind us, including the kind Palestinian businessman who offered us the spot ahead of him on the cue. See where his random act of kindness got him?

Our intention was to go to Jerusalem, transfer to Bethlehem, stay the night at Mary’s House, and then walk 30 kilometers or so along the Masar Ibrahim el Khalil in Palestine with Hijazi Eid. We’d spend the night in a village along the way, complete our walk and return to the convent. The next day we would spend in Jerusalem and return late to Amman.

We intended to see, sniff, taste, and inquire just a bit about life “over there.”

Details of the trip fill pages in my nightly journal. From Bethlehem we drove the “Palestinian by-pass” road that steers the indigenous population away from Jerusalem, to a pathway up a hill just south of Awarta to begin our walk. We clambered over the remains of Bronze Age settlement s (3200-1200 BC) and in the distance saw the burgeoning Zionist settlements of today.

I know everyone has lots to read and I’m grateful you’re with me as much as you are, so I’ll just share a few lines from my notes on our walk through Duma to Wadi Kelt:

March 5

Forget breaking bread together. Women make beds together on their knees! Habib’s mother brought in the mattresses and blankets. The same thin mattresses that we’ve seen everywhere from Wadi Rum to Rasun village in Ajloun, Jordan. We’re in Duma, which means, “rest.” Habib, our host, has two home compounds. This one is for his mother and wife #2, with four daughters. Wife #1 is apparently in another town with three daughters. A wonderful grain and chicken soup for dinner soothed some of the ache of 12-14 miles up and over the hills. No wonder people fight over this landscape.

It looks like there’s enough room for everyone here: an Arab village, an Israeli settlement. Neither intrudes too much, as long as the buildings are flat and low. Even the water problem can be addressed, says Hijazi. “But they don’t want us here.”

Hijazi says the Israelis may build the wall through here, splitting the magnificent view and the people from one another, also the animals from their migratory routes. We saw gazelle!

March 6

Habib traded in Katie’s totally worn-out sneakers for a pair of his daughter’s Velcro-close solid sole sneakers. By the end of the walk the backs of her heels were “compromised” and the soles of the shoes, too. But nothing stopped us until lunch. Saw Canaanite tombs, caves and caverns.

March 7

At the checkpoint en route Jerusalem. We took the public bus with the occupied population. I would say “locals” but Israelis are “locals” too. Katie and I both had scarves over our hair because we planned to go to the Dome of the Rock to pray. As cars with Israeli licenses whizzed by, however, our bus was stopped and all of us stepped off. Katie and I were last on line to be inspected. The soldiers went through everyone’s everything. Except when it came to us. Katie “never felt so happy or so guilty to have an American passport.” I kept a stony face when I took off my sunglasses to look the IDF teenager in the eyes. As I stepped back onto the bus, the IDF guy broke into the song that was blasting on the radio: “That’s the power of love!”

The Dome of the Rock is more beautiful than I remembered. After walking around and taking some photos we went in. We prayed four rakats in gratitude then looked around and saw the place was filling up. Noon prayer was coming. Both of us wanted to stay. We prayed, together, with hundreds of others and a baby boy who would rather have been nursing. Katie, who had practiced saying The Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an,” read it in Arabic from one of the many available inside.

Then we wandered the narrow, kitch-filled streets. At some juncture the “Palestine” and “Dome of the Rock” key chains and post cards transformed into menorahs and Israeli flags, with Mother Mary and Via Dolorosa souvenirs coming in second. Looking around we were the only ones with scarves; too much leg and cleavage for my taste. But behind the counters Arabic was spoken.


All pilgrimages include the trial of travel. Adventures along the path are inseparable from the achievement of destination. The destination on this journey to Jerusalem turned out to be our return home to Amman: wiser, somber, enlightened, and grateful.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Letter XXXI: Christmas, 2009

I know it's late, but I found this and I thought I’d share it with you:

Knowing we’d be out with Iraqis I put on make up. It seemed heavy looking in my own mirror, but when we arrived at the Tigris Restaurant in Abdoun I saw immediately how underdone I was.

The Thai silk suit I bought at the Inn in Elk at Greg Shaw’s wedding is my best party suit here: three pieces that actually work together. I wore all my gold bangles and my fine Bedouin silver necklace. Lipstick. Hair brushed back. It was the best I could do. But next to the Iraqi women, I was simply an inconsequential American.

My gosh they are beautiful. Just like the Iranians: exquisitely presented with huge almond eyes, arching brows, hair black as night and wedding perfect; dark haired women with men shedding theirs. Black dresses or skirts with beaded jackets. No trousers. Legs exposed to just above the knee with sleek high heels that they walk in as comfortably as if they were Birkenstocks; they danced with that ease, too.

Our hostess, Fadia, is a bundle of light and joy and more. She the mother of Katie’s best friend here in Amman. They are refugees from Iraq but not bereft of wealth. The party lounge atop the Tigris restaurant in Amman’s cushy Abdoun neighborhood was exuberant with Iraqis celebrating Christmas.

The singer was well known to all of them and they sang along gleefully with his top hits, clapping, tocando palmas, as if we were in Sevilla. When our table of 20 got up to dance Katie were on the floor: arms up, hands curling and floating like the Arabs, like the Spaniards, like snakes, ballerinas, and flowers. It was lots of fun.

Then there was talking with Fadia. She has no one left in Iraq. Her mother is in Detroit, two siblings in California, a sister-in-law in Sweden. Only her husband’s parents remain in northern Iraq, and he works there, coming to Jordan to visit his family several times a year.

She lived on Palestine Street in Baghdad.

“Why did you leave Iraq?” I asked. “Was it because of the Americans?”


“I’m so sorry!” I couldn’t help the tears. All these people, happy tonight, partying, dancing, raising their arms, their glasses, their eyes: all of them self-imposed exile. It’s too dangerous to return. They may never see their homeland again ... because of my country. Are they deep down sad and covering it with the party? Or are they just like everyone else in the throes of holidays? Delighted to distance themselves from the daily grind and let out the inner exultant.

“Tell me about it sometime,” I asked her. “Tell me everything.” She nodded. Then we got up and danced.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Letter XXX: Pavings

14 June 2010

They paved our street the weekend I rented a car.

Pave Day One was hot, hot, hot. The road crew went back and forth with the street sweeping truck and two guys trailed alongside, in the heat of the day and the heat of the motor, breathing in the exhaust, brushing and shoveling dust and debris at curbside.

Scoop lift heave-into-truck bed, scoop lift heave-into-truck bed, scoop lift heave …

The same motions I make shoveling snow from my sidewalk in Maplewood, New Jersey, working up a sweat on a cold, sunny day. In Amman it was hot. And he didn’t flag. No work ethic issue in this situation. My arms ached just watching.

As the car rental agent and I concluded our paperwork (they deliver the rental car curbside) the road crew was taking a break in the shade of the shade of the tree to the left of our apartment building. One of them asked for “shwayat ma’ee” – would I bring them some water?

I played dumb American while I thought it over and walked away.

But there was really only one possible response.

I filled two liter bottles in our kitchen and returned to the street with them. “Ahalan wa sahlan,” “Welcome,” I said.

Utter relief filled their eyes; tears came to mine. Gratitude with no obsequious overtones; authentic humility. Polite shared smiles and with “assalaamu ‘alaykum” I left.

Pave Day Two the street was loud early in the morning. My rental was the only car parked on the street and the asphalt truck was laying its smelly thickness on the other side. By 7:00 am I was downstairs ready to re-park. My team smiled to the car go and equally glad, I think, to say “good morning.”

We went to Madaba and the Ma'in Hot Springs that day. By the time we were back in the evening, the job was done. The new layer of tar raised the road a good six inches. Now the height of the curb is only eight inches. It’s easier to step on to and less dangerous to open your door. But what will happen next winter in the rains? Foot-high curbs kept the sudden road rivers channeled in the streets. There will be lots of soaked cuffs and jilbabs next January.

The next time they come through to pave the curb may be close enough to the road to park on.

And someone else will offer water.

More on the waters of Ma'in next.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Letter XXIX: It's Contentious

It's contentious. But somebody's got to raise it.

How appropriate that it's raised by contentious, curmudgeonly Helen Thomas.

What are we going to do about different populations competing for the same real estate?

Years and years ago my father, the late Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi, made an offer – a gimmick of course – to pay to relocate Jews from occupied Palestine to the United States. This would give people traumatized by the Holocaust a safe place to live and would allow exiled, traumatized Palestinians to return home. The point is important to make and to reiterate -- even if nowadays it is entirely impractical. The people of Palestine are not responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust and should not be made to pay for those sins. Helen Thomas knows that.

On May 27, 2010, she resurrected the specter of the terrible wrong done to the innocent people of Palestine in 1948. Maybe she was planning to retire, once and for all, and she knew after so many years in the media, that going out to sugary accolades would not be remembered so much as going out to fiery condemnation. Maybe it was a moment of freed speech after posing all those years of contained, prepared questions.

Helen Thomas has earned the right to share her views. In her 2002 memoir Thanks For The Memories, Mr. President, she writes, “After all those years of telling it like it is, now I can tell it how I want it to be.” Many people far younger and with far less experience than Ms. Thomas promote their views with impunity across the airwaves, on the Internet, and in newspaper columns. If we as a nation agreed with her view we would not be offended. Only when we disagree do we demand penance. For example, less than 100 years ago, how contentious was it to recognize women’s right to vote in this country?

In his 1988 book Terrorism: Why America is the Target Mohammad T. Mehdi wrote, “Terrorism is a violent act against civilians for a political goal of which we disapprove.” If we approve of the political goal, then the violence would be considered necessary. Consider American reaction to the Israeli assault on the Mavi Marmara.

Stephen Colbert suggests as much in his June 9 Colbert Report. In an interview with Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Colbert says, "I just want to say that I repudiate what Helen said. She's a friend but I repudiate everything she said. Go back to Poland, go back to Germany -- that's ridiculous. Israel is for Israelis. If anything the Palestinians should go back to where they came from."

The audience loved it.

Oren did not agree, "alas."

Helen Thomas did not say anything anti-Semitic. She spoke anti-occupation. She spoke pro-justice. And she spoke shorthand – a reporter’s specialty.

Unfortunately, in 21st century America, “anti-Zionist” still plays as “anti-Jewish.” Disengaging these two distinct terms will go a long way in supporting good reporting and possibly even a just solution to this wrenching dilemma.

Thank goodness for contentious Colbert -- who can get away with it. While Helen Thomas goes out ablaze.

Friday, June 11, 2010

As promised, the link to a preview of my film on the Trappist monks of Algeria

At the Cannes Film Festival this year a feature film called "Des Hommes et de Dieux," "Of Men and Gods," won the Gran Prix.

Since 2004 I've been working on a documentary film on the same subject. Check out the preview of my film, a work-in-progress. I look forward to your feedback.