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.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Where the Hajj Takes Us -- Washington Post on-line

The Washington has published my recent essay called "Where the Hajj Takes Us." I wrote this for Common Ground News Service ... and I'm inclined to think my piece would have been better received there. Wow, readers can be awful -- just read the comments (which I have NOT included with the text, below). Would that people could distinguish between the rogue and cruel criminal and the ordinary, benign majority. So many of us simply do the best we can and often that's not good enough. I count myself in that company.

I am interested in your response to my thoughts on this pilgrimage. And if you also post your views at the Post, I would be most grateful!

This is how to post at the Washington Post:

Post a Comment

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Here is my essay:

Where the hajj takes us

By Anisa Mehdi
journalist, interfaith educator

AMMAN, Jordan - Here in Jordan, American domestic news, such as the horror of Fort Hood, has not been crowding the headlines. Instead, the focus is on political leaders' assurances that there will be enough containers of butane gas to heat homes for the winter, sustainable water sources, and expanding Israeli settlements in Jerusalem. Even as these concerns fill the headlines, the Eid al-Adha, the celebration marking the end of the hajj pilgrimage, is a source of hope.

Eid al-Adha means "Feast of the Sacrifice." Scriptural stories say God asked the Prophet Abraham to prove his faithfulness by sacrificing his son. Satan appeared along the path to the altar, decrying God as cruel and false for demanding such a ghastly act. Abraham threw stones at Satan to drive him away. At the denouement, God was satisfied, sparing Abraham's son and giving the grateful father a ram to sacrifice instead.

Up to 10,000 Jordanian pilgrims will perform the hajj this year - joining about the same number of American pilgrims and more than two million others from around the world. Miraculously, with all these people gathering in one place, grappling with crowds, stress, heat, hunger and confusion, Mecca does not become rife with violence, riots, shootings or hostility during the hajj. In more than 1,400 years as a Muslim rite, the greatest danger of pilgrimage remains disease.

How is it that under such trying circumstances, strangers from the far reaches of the planet, belonging to different ethnicities, nationalities and languages, are able to sustain generally good relations with one another during the trying rituals of the hajj?

That is not just the challenge of the hajj, but of Islam itself. The great jihad - or struggle - each Muslim faces in his or her lifetime is how to be the finest person possible. Hajj is a proving ground for the best behavior, practice and expression of humanity.

Usually, it's easy to see how people separate themselves from one another. Many of us labor to differentiate ourselves from others - sometimes claiming superiority or dominance merely by dint of birthright. In Jordan, for example, Muslims and Christians coexist, gently appreciating what they see as the other's mildly misguided beliefs. There are Jordanians of Bedouin stock, and Jordanians from the north or the south, each with their own mansaf and kunafeh, tasty local dishes. There are 1948 Palestinian-Jordanians and 1967 Palestinian-Jordanians, each with historical gratitudes and gripes.

At the hajj, which I have had the privilege to film and report for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Geographic Television, those distinctions begin to melt. On the ninth day of the month of hajj, as dusk settles over the Plain of Arafat where the Prophet Muhammad made his farewell speech to Muslims toward the end of his life, many pilgrims, drying their eyes, understand that at essence we are born, we love, and we die; that our identity is ultimately tied to the way we live our lives, not to the nation or tribe to which we were born.

Hajj is as much about the individual as it is profoundly about community and the communion of humanity. God says in the Qur'an, "O humankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye man know one another. Lo! The noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct" (49:13).

The great lesson of the hajj is this: more important than where we come from is where we are going.

Anisa Mehdi and is a journalist and interfaith educator. She is a Fulbright Scholar in Amman this year, working with documentary filmmakers and broadcasting professionals. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Letter XV: First screening

23 November 2009

Today opened the big conference for the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities (HCD). Le Royal Hotel is shaped like the chimney tower of a submarine emerging from the sea. It is huge! Everything looked ready to go. I’d gone yesterday to check video and audio levels. We checked them again this morning.

The folks running the HCD ( are talented and determined. Prince Ra’ad, who has championed the rights of the disabled for decades, is stalwart, steadfast, and virally optimistic. He is related to the royal family here by dint of the heritage of 20th century Hashemite cousins plucked from the Hijaz (western Arabia) and plunked down in Iraq and Jordan as monarchs by our friends the British (1921). The Iraqi coup d’etat of 1958, known as the 14 July Revolution established the Republic of Iraq and ended any dreams of regal life in Iraq. Prince Ra’ad came to Jordan as has lived an impassioned and inspiring life devoted to the rights of people with disabiliites. Dr. Amal Nahas, executive director, is fluent in Arabic, English, sign language, and probably French. She’s a graceful intellect and hard working. It is a joy to be with both of them in the editorial process of filmmaking.

But in our last meeting – the one to show them the “finished product,” so many new ideas came flowing that I began a quiet deep breathing and inward prayer for serenity. No way were we going to go back into the field to add a section on the need for access to public buildings; we were not going to add a still frame photo of a person in a wheelchair looking longingly up a steep flight of stairs; nor were were going to get footage of a blind person tapping along the street with a white cane. Access was not, in fact, part of the initial brief, I pointed out. And we are already out of time and budget. But how to diplomatically disappoint a prince and a client?

Audio, audio was the answer. We came up with the notion of an audio montage calling for hope and a better future. Bring a few young people into the studio and record them saying “’amal,” (hope), add some echo, and weave it into the audio-over-black introduction. Of course now there’s a sound studio involved and … and … and …

… And at the sound studio I was on my own with a roomful of Jordanian technicians looking at me sideways. I decided to establish dominance immediately and pretended a bit of a hissy fit when no one stopped talking about what they were going to do for me without bothering to listen to me tell them what I wanted. They shut up. Then one, Hani, emerged, as an English-speaker. As he began to translate my concept to the team they murmured in Arabic together about how they could do this and how quickly, given my time and budget deadlines. Voices got louder. There was a complication.

“And how old is your daughter?” I asked Nasser, a shaved-head, somewhat overweight and grumpy looking guy. He looked up at me, astonished. “I didn’t say anything in English about my daughter!”

“I know. But I understood you in Arabic.” (This I said in Arabic, and continued.) “You have to be with her tomorrow morning? I have two daughters, one with me here in Amman, the other in college in the USA. How about you?”

Nasser broke into a grin. A father and his daughters. As sure a way to a man’s heart as through his stomach.

From that moment I had a team. Hani, Nasser and I created a beautiful “Amal … for a better future” audio montage.

Meanwhile back at Moon, sign language was taped and added to the lower left of the screen. Nermeen and I finished the English subtitles. And this morning, Showtime.

The JTV news crew there paid no attention to the remarkable sight of chains of blind individuals, holding on one another’s sleeves, making their way into the conference; they didn’t notice the folks coming through in wheelchairs. They taped the speeches from the front, ignoring the sign language interpreter. But at least, bless them, got plenty of cutaways of the seated audience!

So comes this morning and I’m at the over-the-top Le Royal at 8am as Prince Ra’ad instructed (didn’t want to be late due to security in place for the arriving dignitaries including the Minister of the Interior.

We checked audio and video. We talked with the lighting director. Make it dark. Don’t let it be too loud.

Preliminary speeches are done. It’s announced there will be a short documentary on disabilities. (Not the intro I would have written.) The lights come down – not far enough. And there’s no audio. Not even black on the screen – which is how we started: ten seconds of audio only including our masterwork with Hani and Nasser. The very audio “pow” that the prince himself requested.

And nothing.

Finally Dr. Kalabani fades up from black with the first sound bite – inaudible. Ghadeer, too, inaudible. Wala’s father, nothing. We begin to hear the baby cry and the first whispers of Kalabani saying, “Patients get upset when they first meet me and find out that I can’t hear them well. But when they see that I do understand and can serve them, everything is fine.” And everything was fine from there.

Suffering. Doing all you can and it not being enough to make a flawless performance. End of suffering. Knowing you’ve done all you can and at least it’s over.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


A few images to lighten the reading load ...

Atop the top of the Petra site

At the Orjan Soap House in Ajloun governorate. See Masar el Khalil.

Dead Sea sunset

Petra amphitheatre

Tyre, Lebenon, with Abu Jafar;

At the tomb of Rafiq Hariri, Beirut

Katie atop a pillar of the Temple of Zeus, Jerash, Jordan

Walking the Masar el Khalil in Al Ayoun, Governorate of Ajloun, Jordan

A mosque built at the presumed site of the birth of prophet Elias, on the Masar el Khalil

Katie getting on the school bus

Views from Mount Nebo, Jordan.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Letter XIV: Editing and the Noble Truths

17 November 2009

[At left: Anisa, Catherine Oberg, Dave Goulding and John Schwally on location in France, 2006, videotaping for "Monks and Muslims: Finding Faith in Algeria."]

There’s a wonderful device in the Star Trek series called the universal translator ( It can translate into your language almost any language being spoken by an arriving alien; and it allows that newcomer to understand you, too. Fortunately we don’t have those, and we’re forced to learn one another’s languages; squeezing us into awkward moments (especially as adults) when sometimes we are reduced to gestures and baby talk. I’m getting good at the awkward moments here in Jordan. Even as I understand more and more of what’s said around me, my ability to respond is limited.

However, there’s a different level of communication pulsing in the edit room. A variation on Gene Roddenberry’s universal translator functions among the screens and the footage and the scripts. The universal edit room translator deciphers tones of voice, body language, and intent to listen. I’ve been studying this language since 1982 and by now I am fluent in understanding the battle of ego and control, the struggle to claim leadership of the creative process, the winner of the I-have-the-best-idea contest. (As if creating a worthy and inspiring piece is a win/lose prospect between team members, rather than a competition among all of us to dazzle all of them.) However, I find I’m still not fluent in making myself dominant if there are swarthy competitors in the edit or in the field – even when my role is boss-lady (I think the nice words for that are “producer” and “director”).

Ideal teams do exist. I’ve had the privilege of working with top professionals who all pull their weight, listen, share ideas and move ahead with the project’s best interest in mind and heart. Like an oiled, finely tuned machine. Like my beloved BMW 320i after Pete Murad, the former racecar driver-turned-mechanic, put his magic touch on the engine. Moving through curves at higher-than-suggested speeds as if the road was one with the wheels. My team here in Jordan 21 years ago fit that bill. Joe Conlan brusquely waving me out of the way so he could get his microphones set in the Royal Cultural Center; Mike Budd braving oncoming cars in Amman’s busy balad (downtown) for shots of the Husseini Mosque. Lou Presti gallantly holding the sungun aloft during an interview with an ambassador in Cairo, as it faded to darkness in the dusking room and we all kept on going ... My team in Kuala Lumpur, Kwa Ndabele, and Austin to introduce the pilgrims of “Inside Mecca.” ( Dave Goulding recording the ritual slaughter of two large sheep, up close and personal, hot and aromatic … Plus my remarkable Mecca teams: taping through the nights (no overtime), losing and finding their subjects, wondering if food might materialize in the next few hours. Yasir Khan fighting off the aggressive bacteria cocktails that pervade the pilgrimage; Taghi Amirani taping in a helicopter with no safety belts; Hossam Abouel Magd forging into the slaughterhouse at Mina where 800,000 animals may be sacrifice, and emerging spattered with blood. I’m awed, too, by the miraculous work of my first Hajj coverage crew in 1998. Our batteries died in Mina and Dawud-my-crew-chief-from Sudan rigged up the camera to the car to keep our interviews going through the night; like “Crocodile Dundee” he memorized guards at many-a-gate charged with forbidding passage to all – except us ( And the idyllic France shoot of 2006 on the Monks project -- incredibly long days with Catherine, Dave, and John Schwally, but fabulous food and vistas throughout.

But equally there are dysfunctional crews, led by “directors” who fancy themselves the sole creative brain in the neighborhood, directors who cover their inexperience with self-importance, who hide their insecurity in arrogance; one who commands that a team member not even speak with another lest it compromise his artistic supremacy. I worked with one of those in 2001-2002 on the Frontline “Muslims” project (

I jot down notes in the field and edit room regularly. This is dated 2 November 2009: “One of the four noble truths is that suffering comes from trying to edit shots by camera people who don’t know how to edit. Suffering is a product of missing cutaways.”

(Doesn’t Judy Garland famously lament the cutaways that got away?)

Suffering is also a product of long pans and tilts with no motivation. And camera batteries dying just when the most profound statement comes from the person you’re interviewing. Or maybe the microphone wasn’t turned on, as in the heart-wrenching interview with Abdul Karim Soroush in Tehran in 1999 (

And suffering comes when I don’t establish myself as the Alpha person, but pretend at democracy. I’m not a control freak but I demand to be shown what I want to see so I may choose whether to use it or not. Suffering is working with editors instead of editing oneself – except for working with someone like Catherine Oberg ( who has the shot I want in place before I even name it; she kindly allows me to show I’m needed by letting me suggest the fine tuning of the audio tracks.

So what’s this big preamble about? Suffering in an edit room in Jordan. (And don't get me wrong: I lead a very easy, blessed and wonderful life. My "suffering" doesn't compare to people who really suffer.)

We are by now nearly done with a short film for Jordan’s Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities,, and The HCD is about to launch its first national conference and wants a film to set the tone. I was asked to direct.

The field and edit room universal translators are functioning within normal parameters. Even expanded bandwidth.

The field was delightful. As almost always. It’s one of the special treats of this line of work: we go to places we wouldn’t go and meet people we wouldn’t know otherwise. In October we drove two and a half hours south of Amman to Ma’an, within reach of Petra, to the South Society for Special Education, where persons who are blind, deaf, unable to walk, but otherwise fully functioning get therapies and training to integrate into the mainstream. Persons with mental disabilities also get training and education. Centers like these exist throughout the Kingdom but certainly aren’t enough to satisfy existing needs. I can’t imagine we handle everyone’s needs in the USA either, but at least there’s awareness is greater there. The HCD wants to raise Jordanian awareness and is pushing for inclusiveness, access, and facilities. We met a doctor who wears a hearing aid and can’t seem to get a job in a private hospital so he works in a government clinic. (I hope he’ll at least get a wife out of this film – he’s an intelligent and attractive man.) We met a handful of blind students at Jordan University. The young woman we focus on in the film is a senior majoring in English literature. Imagine printing out all your study materials in Braille! These are courageous, stubborn, worthy people and I’d never have met them were it not for reporting. Our seven-minute short invites viewers into their lives for just a moment, and urges attention to their reasonable needs.

[For American citizens reading this you’ll be glad to know (I hope) that the efforts of the HCD are underwritten in part by your tax dollars, through USAID, It’s what’s called “humanitarian assistance.”]

Most of the overlong, over-budget edit days are amiable and productive. One day was an entirely different story. A young producer who works free-lance at Moon Productions ( was seconded to me to translate while the company owner, who is working directly with me on this project, had other appointments. The young man (I’m being nice – he’s in his 30s and has covered three wars) was (I’ll be nice again) trying to impress me with his capabilities. So every time I asked for something – to see a shot, to hear a bite, to try a cut – he had a better idea. We got to see and try all of his. He could tell the editor what to do. Some of his ideas worked. Some did not. But when I wanted to see if my ideas worked I was begging, cajoling, whining. My disability is language. In the 15 minutes it took for him to tell me why his idea was better we could have checked out and nixed or used a dozen of my picks. In 10 hours we cut four minutes. And the first two had been done the day before, in a fraction of the time. By the end of the day, the “young man” was looking for some of his Iraq war footage to add to our piece on disabled persons in Jordan. I finally said, “Look for those shots on your own time. Right now we are going to use the footage we have.”

Enter the owner, looking dashing, back from some client meeting or other. “How did it go?” he asked. And, for the second time in my career I lost it in the edit room. I said I was not pleased with the process or the outcome because I had been stymied at every turn by the owner’s rep. We were late. We were behind. We were off story. He turned up the volume with, “I’m sorry we ruined your piece! We’ll start all over tomorrow from the beginning.”

“I’m not doing this all over again tomorrow!”

“Why not?”

“I will not spend another 10 hours of wasted time. We will work with what we have.”

“But we ruined your piece!”

“You should have been here.”

“I will be here tomorrow and strictly translate for you. We will add nothing.”

“You are hired to be part of a team, not to be a parrot.”

“We ruined your piece!”

The dialogue was far more interesting than I can recreate – which is why I shy away from fiction. I reenacted it for Katie and for my mom by phone later in the day and they were in stitches. But I didn’t write it down. So you’re stuck with my dulled memory.

It went on for an hour.

The next day boss-man was my soul mate on the job. But later he got into it with our project consultant over some changes requested by the client. Same routine: repeated sarcastic mea culpas and veiled you know nothing’s. I finally grew up, interceded, got blown out of the ring a couple of times, but persisted in quieting them, taking responsibility for all that went wrong (sharing the credit for successes), and gave some important coaching to boss-man: I see a lot of me in you. (He’s half my age?) Talent and temper. Your talent is strong. But your temper can undo you. If you want to succeed and grow professionally you need to control your temper.

“I guess I was pretty harsh.”


“I should call her and apologize.”


The apology sounded like more of “you’re an idiot,” but my Arabic leaves a lot to be desired. In response to my wide-eyed look when he hung up the phone he said, “that’s how we apologize here.”

We’ve been here nearly three months. And all that seemed so familiar and easy to adjust to is now opening into layers of complexity. What I don’t know I don’t know is what I’m after now. Turn on the universal translator.