Sunday, September 27, 2009

Beirut Part Two: 17-22 September 2009

BEIRUT (17 September – 22 September 2009)


Friday afternoon Abu Jafar took us on a drive through Beirut, focusing on the south Beirut neighborhood of Dahiyeh (pronounced DA-hee). Here is where many people from southern Lebanon moved after Palestinians began attacking Israel from that border and Israel hit back hard. Finally, as history proves, Israel simply invaded, and occupied southern Lebanon for 20 years, draining water from the Litani River and inflicting ongoing hardship and humiliation. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982-codenamed Operation Peace for Galilee-could not have been a more Orwellian, nor a more brutal, chapter of Israeli aggression,” writes Hadas Their, an American-Israeli, in the International Socialist Review, Issue 50, November–December 2006. “Ostensibly, it was an operation meant to rid the Galilee, the region of northern Israel along the border with Lebanon, of the threat of terrorist attacks. Despite the fact that there had been no Palestinian-inflicted Israeli deaths in the Galilee for nearly a year, Peace for Galilee rained destruction on Lebanon. It resulted in thirty to forty thousand Palestinian and Lebanese deaths, with a hundred thousand seriously wounded, and half a million made homeless.”

Many moved to what is now Dahiyeh.

The streets are narrow and there are no rules of the road: no right of way, barely and way at all to get through. Busy shops line both sides of the street. It’s Friday afternoon.

Everyone’s anxious for Eid to be declared (will it be tomorrow, Sunday or Monday?). Posters of Musa Sadr and Nabih Berri smile down from lamp posts and second story walls. People in all kinds of outfits flit from shoe shop to sweets vendor, fruit stands to stacks of bread. There are completely covered women and girls revealing lots more.

Abu Jafar asks another driver for directions to a spot in Dahiyeh known as the garden. The other responds, “We’re all lost here.” After some wandering we come across a fenced-in “island” in the road with a tree in it. That’s the garden. Someone on a moped sees Katie with her camera. “Sahafiyeh?” “La, ziyara, touring” replies Abu Jafar.

I suppose that was a cue for me to tuck away my pen and pad but no one seems to care.

It’s simple curiosity.

Just as I’m writing how amazed I am that there are no fender benders in this impossible-to-navigate-neighborhood there’s a blockage in front of us. Two cars came too close together in an attempt to squeeze by a tow truck parked halfway on the sidewalk. Dust and petrol fill our noses as we wait for them to scrape by. They do.

On to Hearta Hreit. Here’s a part of Dahiyeh where the somewhat better off laid claim. Higher rise apartments, wider streets. Clean clothing hanging from balconies. Fashion and food billboards replace Berri and Sadr. This area was partly a Christian neighborhood until the Civil War, says Abu Jafar. That’s when they left. “And they don’t come here any more,” added Samia, somewhat discouraged by the segregation that, in this albeit reunited country, is evident.

Now we drive through areas bombed by Israel in 2006. There are piles of rubble where many buildings once stood, but in the six months immediately following that summer siege much of the destruction was cleaned up and the area rebuilt. Most of that work was funded and organized by Hezbollah. That’s why the people like the organization – not because of its militancy. Militancy brings on the danger of Israeli attack – this doesn’t raise favor. But the reconstruction, the building of hospitals, clinics, and schools does.

Mountains of the rubble removed in the process of construction are piled along the Mediterranean shore like untended landfills. Apparently the Lebanese government cut a deal with scrap metal merchants to let them sift through the remains like people panning for gold. The piles contain not only the remnants of stoves and refrigerators but toys, sheets, and remnants of family photos.

Hiding behind the newer buildings we see older ones, pock-marked by years of civil war. Abandoned now as un-welcome reminders of a stormy past and all-but-forgotten by today’s generation. Or is it? Is that storm fully finished?

Katie shot a photo of the remains of the Hezbollah headquarters in Dahiyeh. And that’s where we are stopped by someone who is not simply curious. Soldier or policeman, Hezbollah, perhaps, with a walkie-talkie and no visible weapon, he waved us to a stop. He was extremely polite, apologizing, but it’s the rules. This time I slide my notebook into my purse and shove our binoculars under the front seat.

“Don’t give him your camera,” I tell Katie. He asked for it but did not insist. Instead he used his walkie talkie and called for back up.

“Inti min wein?” Where are you from? He asked me.

“Askun fi Amman,” I told him, ever grateful to Eman Malhas for teaching me the “I reside in” verb form. I gave him my Fulbright card, Arabic side forward. I’d had my scarf over my hair to keep it out of my eyes as we drove with the windows down and now pulled it tighter. How very convenient! A “Mehdi,” from Amman, with hijab. He looked at Abu Jafar’s license: Mustafa B-- from Tyre (Lebanese ID’s show where they are from, which gives any one who knows an idea of the person’s religious background and allows a presumption of political allegiance. In this case that played well for us. We were certainly not enemy spies.

Back up came in civilian clothing.
An older man who after a few words with Abu Jafar, smiled at us and said, “No problem. Sorry to disturb you. We are here protecting you from Israel.”

On to Sabra and Shatilla.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Beirut Part One: September 2009

24 September 2009

BEIRUT (17 September – 22 September 2009)


We’re back home in Amman. Flying in from Beirut we were struck by the absence of color: below us was brown, higher brown and lower brown with the odd stamp of an orchard or black Bedou tent. It was like flying back to black and white Kansas from the dazzling color of Oz. Heat but not warmth rose to us from the desert that dominates the Jordanian landscape. How easy it was to delight in the blue of the Mediterranean Sea that laps the edges of little Lebanon, and embrace the green of the palm trees, banana plantations and citrus groves. Lebanon is beautiful to behold. But excavating its soul is scholars’ work. It’s a treasure of paradise, poverty, and paradox.

We arrived in Beirut on Thursday night, 17 September, on the eve of Eid, the final few days of Ramadan. The flight from Amman was just one hour and of all the coincidences, our new friend Frances Abouzeid was seated right next to us. Frances works for Academy for Educational Development, She's lived in Jordan for several stints of several years. Like me she’s got one Arab parent and one Canadian. Through her father she has Lebanese citizenship; she’s also American. We’d gone with her and a few other “newbees” in Amman to “Wild Jordan” – a restaurant “powered by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature,” and built (at least in part) by USAID, “a gift from the American people.” Fabulous spot, cantelievered off the side of Jabal Amman – with a breathtaking view of the older part of the city and the Citadel across the way ( Frances is as lively as ever, excited to be spending an extended holiday in Lebanon with her husband. We were invited to her home in the mountains but with our limited time we chose to maximize our experience with our friends, the B-'s.

Our welcome by the family B- was loving, gentle and generous. We stayed in an apartment in a privileged community in the hills to the south of Beirut. The apartments have a magnificent view of the sea, the airport, and the city; to the right were the hills dotted with homes that twinkled each with its own story into the night.

Katie and I shared a guest room. My dear friend from home, Samia, her niece Alizar, and a new friend of Alizar’s from American University of Cairo, a 25-year-old of Iraqi heritage who uses Katie instead of her given name, Badriya, shared the bedroom of Sarah and Mohammed’s daughter. Badriyeh left her six-year-old daughter in Cairo with her new fiancĂ© to make this trip.

The apartment reminded me somewhat of our own in terms of layout: there’s a public part and a private part with a door separating the two. In the private section a corridor with bedrooms and bath opening off the hall. In ours the kitchen belongs to the private part. At that apartment the kitchen was its own kingdom, with three entrances: one from the elevator, one from the salons, and one from the dining area. Off the kitchen was the room and lav for the Senegalese helpers that live with them full-time, who cook and clean and primarily care for Samia’s mother who is in an advanced stage of Parkinson’s and unable to move on her own. Her mouth can no longer smile; her eyes struggle to speak, beautiful blue eyes like my mother’s, pale and clear; her skin white and smooth with a glow belying her 84 years. She is loved and cared for as anyone could ever hope to be in the final stages. As Myron Zimmermann, my dear late father-in-law, was cared for by his family, too, if with little less luxury.

Samia’s father is everything she said he was. White-haired, good looking, short of stature and tall of spirit. He’s elegant, sparkling with smarts and humor; full of philosophy; hospitable to a fault. He reminds me of my father in so many ways. Generosity he wears on his sleeve. Just under the cuff hide high expectations of his guests, family and friends in return. I am grateful for the upbringing of my parents: an emphasis on respect, listening to one’s elders, meeting eyes during conversation, engaging in conversation, submitting individual wishes and whims to the perceived needs of the whole. From the moment we met, however, I assumed familial familiarity: I called him Abu Jafar. He’d heard as much about me as I’d heard about him. This was in some way a meeting of friends who’d never met. During four days we moved from friends to dear.

Abu Jafar woke me for suhoor the second morning, Saturday, when my alarm didn’t go off. We shared coffee, labneh, bread and za’atar in near silence, piecing together uncomplicated concepts in a jigsaw of Arabic, French and gestures. Would you like some more? Is it sweet enough for you? Excuse me, I’m going to get my notebook to jot something down and will come right back … Are you off to sleep again? As it turns out that was our last suhoor of Ramadan.

Each member of the family deserves a profile. They are second generation Lebanese from Senegal where Abu Jafar grew up and to where he moved his wife to raise their family: Jafar, Sarah, Samia, and Nejwa. Sarah, the eldest sister, is caretaker to her parents, loving, giving, also to a fault, perhaps, also sublimating her needs to the greater good, kind, fun, retreating to cigarettes on the balcony when retreat is required. Her husband Dr. Mohammad, is one of Lebanon’s top cardiac surgeons; he visits his patients every day, on duty or off. He’s an avid music lover with a collection ranging from Charles Mingus to Gustav Mahler and arrangements of the classic composers by jazz players. He’s got Concierto de Aranjuez and Schehrezade. Noteworthy: he listens (retreats to his music when retreat is required?). When he gets home he often pulls a chair to his CD player, positioned perfectly between the standing speakers, and is his own DJ, playing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. He was happy to share a variety of pieces with me and I was glad to absorb.

Sarah and Mohammad’s daughter, Darin, 11, with her thick curls like Samia’s and Katie’s, that come from an unknown, perhaps Palestinian origin, was adopted in Tyre. She spent time with us at home and went with the other girls on some day trips. She, Alizar, Badriyeh/Kate, and Katie went to the famous Jeita Grotto, caves competing for finalist status in the search for the Seven Natural Wonders of the world. Their son, who I did not meet but heard about from Samia back in New Jersey, is in his twenties, recently married, and lives on the French Riviera in an apartment owned by his parents.

Jafar, only son and eldest child, is tall, dignified, and another top surgeon in Lebanon. He’s a bone specialist. His wife, Laila (her hair red the way mine is absent of white), is charming, pretty, and loves their place in the heart of Beirut. Both (all of them really) excellent English to the great fortune of Katie and me. Although this means we are going to have to struggle extra hard to speak Arabic! They float from French to Arabic to English to Wolof as if they were speaking one language. Remarkable, really, and inspiring.

The family is Shiite: forthright, bold and proud. It seems a cultural rather than religious identification without explanation, conviction, or politics, but with an edgy concern for justice and equality for the large Shiite population of Lebanon (approx 41% of six million people).

Here’s where I wander into paradox: the city, you’ll read in my next letter, is rebuilt and bustling. People seem to mix easily downtown; church spires and minarets crown the skyline; the bells and calls to prayer come antiphonally.

Yet you also see signs of artillery on buildings just behind the new construction. You hear people talk about “Muslim” sections and “Christian” sections of town. “They don’t come here …” One remembers stories of a 15-year civil war, 1975-1990, taking some 200,000 lives. There are ongoing Israeli incursions and bombings. How did a town this nice, filled with such fun and loving people, tear itself and each other apart such a short while ago? In Pretoria I could feel the animosity left by apartheid a decade after it was officially ended; you could cut racism in the air with a knife. I didn’t feel that here.

There’s much more to learn. Next time. After all, Lebanon is within reach, a place to return to.

Meantime, here are some websites with background.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Amman Five: 17 September 2009

Today we depart on our first, and I believe well-deserved, vacation. We fly to Lebanon. Why do I say “well-deserved”? After all, we haven’t had a hard time here. We’re not suffering. Our transition has been smooth and relatively effortless. People are good to us. We have plenty to eat and are beginning to vary our meals from mezza to rice and beans to rice and stir-fried vegetables. We enjoy tea and baklawa in the evenings after we’ve done our remaining chores or homework. We’ve begun playing flute duets together.

I say well deserved because I am finding that transition is taxing. It’s a hidden tax on the soul and emotions that I was lucky enough to get in touch with last night at the mosque.

I went to the other mosque for isha and taraweeh prayers last night. I knew it was my last chance for that this Ramadan so tucked in my hair and took a left out of the door. I followed two young women into the entrance they chose – downstairs in the back. The upstairs looked promising: large, arched windows, warmly lit. The building is bigger and more weighty looking a mosque that the one I went to last time. More classically mosque-like – ‘though with none of the ornamentation of Iraq’s mosques nor that of Al Andalus or Morocco. After all, these are neighbhorhood masjids where just the folks come and pray.

The girls quickly disappeared into the space. There were chairs on the left of the first room, and on the left of the second room. Apparently a second room (which is the first room you enter) was added because of need. That’s a good sign. Shelves in the back had Qur’ans. There were about 20 women there when I got there, early. To me it seemed I didn’t have a clue. A woman approached me and kindly led me back out – I thought she was bringing me to another spot within the mosque to pray – how thoughtful, but she was bringing me to see if I’d buy another kind of outfit to put on for prayer. I said I thought mine was fine, gesturing with just a bit of pride to how well I’d done my scarf. And she agreed it was “helwa,” pretty. So I said maybe I’d get something from her next time and she was fine with that.

Back inside looking for my clues, I found a seat in the inner room and watched women come in for a while. I got one of those Qur’ans and set about reading what I could. The Fatiha is easy to find. It’s the first sura. Then I looked for Al Ikhlas. A shorter one toward the end. I found it just by reading the Arabic. A small triumph. Then I started reading a list I found toward the back and realized it was the chapter index and I read “Younes” and “Yousef” and “Maryam” and “Imran” and “Nisaa’” and others, feeling like a first grader getting “run, Spot, run” all on her own. Small victories for a clueless American.

Yet not entirely clueless, it dawned on me as I sounded out the names of the suras. I’ve been to Mecca, I’ve made umrah four times, I’ve reported Hajj twice, I’ve stood and cried at Arafat, I’ve tawwaf-ed. I have my Islamic credentials … I’m just an inconsistent Muslim who needs to learn the local customs, here, where everyone who’s looking is just as close to God as anyone looking in Mecca.

No one approached me or seemed to notice I was there. They, too, were focused. The call came and we lined up. I was between a woman voluminously covered in what looked like a top and skirt made from sheets and one in a black abaya. So far so good.

But after the first four rakats a woman behind me tapped at my back and in her obvious complaint (tone of voice, facial expression, finger pointing) I deduced she said this is a place for Muslims and she didn’t like my feet. She kept gesturing to her socks. I was barefoot. I pointed to other barefoot women – like the one so abundantly covered next to me -- but the lady behind was not deterred. I communicated as best I could that I was from the USA and there didn’t seem to be a problem with the way I was dressed back there but next time I would wear socks here. You simply can’t prepare for life’s quirks. I fully anticipated some nice women tucking in errant strands of hair – God forbid God see my hair! But this was a new one.

Then the miracle.

The barefoot woman next to me smiled gently and said “Don’t worry about her. I like to pray barefoot, too. You’re new here, aren’t you?” “Yes, I’m from the USA and this is my first time here. I’ve lived in Amman two weeks and I don’t speak much Arabic yet.” It was easy to forget how amazing it is to find an English-speaker in Jordan. “I guess she is offended because my feet show under my trousers.” “Yes,” the reply. “That’s why I wear all this. It coveres my feet in prostration. But don’t mind her.” It dawned on me. “How do you speak such effortless English?” “I lived in the States for 14 years.” “Where?” “In the Chicago area.”

It was time to pray again. Unbidden the tears that teased me this morning in Alain’s office when I told him I was writing every day here for the first time since I was 11 years old, came welling. At first it was an expression of shame and sadness about the feet, but shortly my tears were in overwhelming gratitude for the blessing: of all the women in the masjid – and by then there were easily over 100, possibly 200 – I stood next to the one who’d lived in Chicago and was there to assist me.

She disappeared briefly after the next to rakat and came back with a box of tissues. “Tafaddali.” Here. I guess I hadn’t kept my sobs quite quiet enough. A short while later she disappeared again and returned with a long white skirt elastic at the waist. “Put this on an pull it low. That’s how I wear mine.”

A gentle hand on either wing of the flustered bird

Further tears during taraweeh brought me in touch with how much stress has been under the surface, how much I’ve been dominating my uncertainty and shyness, how lonely it can be when Katie’s at school; and I wondered how Katie is holding up deep inside.

It all seems easy: the comforts, the English-speakers, the Internet, the supermarket. At the same time it is all new. Some new struggle every day, small ones, but constant. Adventure, yes. Fun, yes. Character building? Yes.

But alhamdulillah, the chemical relief of shedding tears is real.

Katie and I talked about all this when I got back from the mosque two hours after I’d left. We sat (this time at the kitchen table) for our evening baklawa and tea. We need a vacation, we agreed. We need the warmth of a familiar friend, someone we know deeply who links us to the other lives we lived somewhere, some time in a parallel universe. We need Samia.

And today we’re getting on the plane to Beirut to spend five days with her and her family.

The bird, now steady, flies into the unknown, to land on branches known.

Amman Four: 16 September 2009

This is how far I’ve come: I no longer set my alarm clock. I trust the rooster (whom I no longer call Cheney) to wake me for early breakfast. If I’m too groggy to get up when he crows I am certainly ready by the time the muezzen makes his first invitation.

One morning when I didn’t hear the rooster (or roosters – sometimes it sounds like there are either two of them or the one has an independent echo … sometimes the one is solo) I was concerned for his well-being. Had someone committed the act I’d been eager (in jest) to accomplish? Later that day I heard him again with relief.

All in16 short days.

It’s amazing to think we’ve been in our apartment for 16 days. It seems like forever and no time at all.

Our picked-up-off-the-street top of a rubber tree plant seems to be recovering in its new pot. The flowers we bought last week are beginning to bud.


This morning I met George David and Nada Doumani of the Royal Film Commission. Delightful conversation about their facility and projects and then a dreaming of the feature films that ought to be made: of Arab heros, the civilization of Al Andalus, the tragedy of 1492. George really liked the ideas about Granada. Now I’m thinking a three-part epic series: Gibraltar, 1492, and Leo the African. Nada knows Amin Maalouf and thinks he’d be happy to see his book made into a movie.

We made no agreements, no promises but to meet again. I hope to bring Peter and Katie to the film screenings they will host 28-29 September. There’s an Irish film festival 5-7 October. Maybe Peter and Kate will be interested in that, as well.

I also met with Chari Rassass, a colleague of Mark Tremblay’s at ABT. She’s working on the health system renovation project supported by USAID. A good human being through and through. Fasting in solidarity this Ramadan. Frustrated with “the good life” she sees in Jordan and a perceived lack of appreciation for the improvements brought about by this project – especially when compared to her recent experience in Yemen where there is, apparently, dire need. Yemen has about four times the population and about half the aid that Jordan gets. See:, and We may brainstorm together with her team looking for new ideas for integrating their work here in supporting families to have the number of children best for them.

Everywhere I turn I see a story to tell. From the big foreign aid debacles to the boys on the street selling bamboo. It's nice to know that the occupational norms of a journalist remain alive within.

Amman Three: 13 September 2009

I could not have imagined, 20 years ago, when I was in Amman producing and directing my first big documentary film (that actually made air) that so many years hence I'd be watching it in my own apartment in that same city with my 15-year old, preparing to go the next day to commence coaching documentary filmmaking to Jordanian television professionals. I could not have imagined doing what I plan to do, as well, which is to drop in at the Noor Al Hussein Foundation -- nearby here in Shmeisani -- and give them a copy of the film lo these many years later. And to find Kifah Fakhouri, director of the National Conservatory of Music and hand deliver a DVD copy to him.

There was no such thing as a DVD in 1988 when I came to Jordan with my New Jersey Network crew to follow the journey and concertizing of the Chamber Symphony of Princeton here and in Egypt. In two weeks I'll go to Jerash with my husband and daughter, a mere 21 years after the last visit. And not a day older, either! In a few months all of us, including Janna who's a freshman at Temple, will go to Petra and walk the canyon and hike the remnants of that community. Silly, isn’t it, to say “I could not have imagined.” Because we really can’t. We can envision, we can intend. Maybe that’s the difference between intention and foresight or prediction: the exact particulars. But sometimes, when I really, really mean it, my intention produces the results I want. For example, getting access to the control room in Mecca’s haram to videotape Fidelma and Ismail in tawwaf and sayee; having my crew show up at Mina the first time I covered Hajj, with Abdul; landing the arts reporting job at NJN. My being here, too, is all part of my intention and master plan to travel, to live elsewhere, to teach, lecture and empower others to tell their stories well. But my plan rarely involves the level of detail that determines a specific country, to name a city, to detail a moment in time. But I’m encouraged that maybe my intention to close this Fulbright year with two new (paying) clients who’ll travel me business class (yes, I do think at that level of detail) will, in fact, come to be.

The bird, springing from my fingers to the tree across the street.

“Classical Caravan” the 1989 NJN documentary was the evening’s entertainment for Katie and me. We only watched the Jordan part. Katie wanted to continue “talking” with her friend in Barcelona, now that we can since we have wireless Internet access in our apartment. Now that we have Internet the disadvantages spring up like weeds: the computer’s gravitational pull is even stronger. I can be with others in cyberspace instead of here, where I came to experience another, real, not virtual, world. Still, it is nice to click and tap and suddenly see Peter and Janna on the screen before us, holding one or another of our beloved cats in the dining room at home.

We won’t bring the computers to Lebanon with us.

Thursday we leave for Beirut to be with Samia and her family for the Eid. The prospect is thrilling. Not only to see Samia who’s asked me for years to come to Lebanon, but to go somewhere I’ve never been before! After reporting so much about Lebanon from Boston back in the 1980s, back in the days of the Arabic Hour television program: I was news anchor and editor, also editor of Indian (continent) movies we took on for extra income. I’d ride my bike out to West Roxbury after working the overnight shift at WBZ-TV and cut tape and get tutored on the politics of Lebanon – factions and dissatisfactions, sects and social segmentation, war, destruction, rampages, kidnappings … all woven with stories of Beirut being the Paris of the Middle East and a glorious city. People still say Beirut is the jewel of Arab cities and the Lebanese like Europeans. I want to see the rebuilt, renewed city. I want to see the scars. I want to drink a cup of coffee while the sun is out!

The rubber tree plant we scavenged from a back street near our hotel two weeks ago has produced two new leaves and seems to be rooting itself in its pot. Flowers are coming on the thistle-like stems of the plants we bought and potted last week.

I made a red lentil soup for dinner, with potatos, carrots, onions and lots of almost whole garlic. I added fresh thyme, which I mistook for mint in the grocery store. Wilted spinach on the side. The pickles we love from Food City (ruba’a kilo – quarter kilo, please) and our new, favorite white cheese. Such a clean refrigerator! Only in it what we’re eating today or tomorrow plus bottles of water and bottles of boiled and reboiled water. We’ll see if a faucet filter does the trick. Meantime, thank goodness for the electric kettle Mr. Jalil funded for me.

Other milestones this week? I applied for a bank account at Jordan-Kuwait bank. We went to the Dead Sea! Taking the shuttle from the Marriot Hotel (16JD RT) and the driver agreed to drop us off at Amman Beach (rather than the very pricey Marriott Dead Sea) and for only 12JD each had the day’s access to the saltiest sea and to beautiful fresh water swimming pools. Fabulous treat for both of us. Additional milestones: I got out the external hard drive with footage from Maine, 2005, my short film, and started the edit process. I slept through this morning’s rooster call and heard only the muethen.

I went to a mosque.

Although Katie and I landed here on 28 August, it took me until 10 September to go into a mosque or masjid, as it is in Arabic. The minarets of three mosques are in sight of our apartment. We hear the muethen call all prayers -- in fact, first he only calls to remind or rather invite us to come and pray, and then he calls those assembled to pray. We hear it all. The roosters and ducks in the park across the street hear the calls, too, and they join in acclamation. At first their squawking annoyed me. Now I prefer to believe they are simply praising God, too.

When the duhur, noon, call came last Thursday I put on my headscarf and walked down our four flights. My landlord smiled when he saw me. "I'm going to the mosque," I told him. He said there were two close by. I should check out both. I turned right to the masjid two streets away and asked there in my broken Arabic where to pray. A man said "one moment." He went into the main section of the mosque and never returned. I peeked into the men's section and saw him there, beginning his meditation. Undaunted I asked another man who was coming up the steps. "Ana Muslima min Amrika. Wein mumkin salat?" The man himself seemed uninterested in my situation but his son looked at me with an expression I'm beginning to recognize here: "Ask me! I can speak some English!" "Tatakellam ingleezi?" I asked. "Yes." "I'm Muslim from America. And I want to pray." "There is a place downstairs here for women," he said politely. "I will show you. What is your name?" "Anisa," I said. "Wa inta?" I asked. "I am Omar." And he brought me to the door, made sure it was unlocked, nodded at me, and walked back to his father and the main prayer room.

I went in. It was cool. Nice, thick carpet of a gentle gray-green with coordinating borders every meter or so, suggesting lines for prayer and facing quibla – the direction of the Ka’aba. The door opened and another man poked in his head. He pointed out the shoe rack and gestured to a door on the other side of the room where I might wash. "Hamam," he offered. Indeed it was. Clean, with two sinks and a three-person seating station for washing our feet. It was pleasant, even big for only one. I wondered what it would be like with a crowd.

But there was no crowd. It was I and my prayers that filled that room. I stood with my feet slightly apart imagining the warmth of connecting the sides of my feet to those of the women at Masjid Waris in Irvington, NJ. When the prayer announcement came it was piped into my sanctuary and I felt like the imam was speaking straight to me. I wondered whether someone had told him there was a woman present so he turned on the loudspeaker or whether it was always on, offering prayer sometimes to an empty room. We all prayed: they upstairs and I down. The soft carpet. The mosaics in front. Two shelves with Qur'ans in Arabic which would have been almost impossible to appreciate in my glasses but with contact lenses and no magnifiers it was foolish to even take one off the shelf. Next time, bring reading glasses. I can decipher the Fatiha in Arabic and will do so either here or at the other masjid. Or both.

There was no one to share salaams with afterward. So I shared salaams with the angels on my shoulders and with all of my loved ones. The men who trickled down the stairs glanced at me and away again. Back in front of my apartment building Abu Emad (Mr. Jalil is now Abu Emad and I’m Umm Katie), my landlord, elaborated on the available choices. I told him I was the only one at this prayer. More women go at night he said, for isha and taraweeh prayers. He wondered if Katie would come with me. He said that the mosque I'd gone to was mostly Iraqi. The one down the street to the left is larger, he said, and shemsi: Syrian. Someone else said the one to the right is Sufi. I'll go to that one another day. Mosque hopping? My new sport here in Amman.

That there are mosques for different national communities is a bit of a surprise for me. Polly Anna here thought in a Muslim-majority country everyone would simply be Muslim together. There’s some segregation like that in the States and, when you consider human nature, it makes sense there is some finding-your-own-kind here, as well. I think my kind will be the women, when and where I find them.

This is the last week of Ramadan, our third week in Amman. Every day’s a milestone.

Amman Two: 8 September 2009

Today, a moment in time that I'd like to think was a good omen. I walked out of my fourth floor door and heard what could only be the flapping of wings against a window. A bird trapped in the stairwell? I took a few steps up the last flight and saw nothing but our old stove that they'd left on the landing to the roof instead of taking it away. (The new stove is spanking clean and wonderful!) So I began my descent. Then again whoooosh whooh tap bang tap. I went up again and looked more carefully. There, between the stove and the window, was a dove. It must have been a dove, a grey dove, a smaller version of a pigeon but delicate, with wide wings compared to its body, pointed beak under wide eyes, flapping then resting, flapping then resting, so close to a desire impossible to attain. I set my backpack and purse on the stove and reached for it.

At first it resisted me; I only added to its fright. Then it allowed me to take it, gently, one hand on either side, cupping its wings. The bird's heart was beating furiously. I didn't hold it long, although, in hindsight I wish I had just a moment longer, to connect. Then I lifted it to the open window. It clung to my fingers with its little talons for a moment, getting its bearings I suppose. I waited. Then it took off, lightly, smoothly, perfectly, and flew to a branch of the tree across the street in the Hadikat at Toyuur (the Bird Garden), and lighted there, above the roosters, which, it turns out, are quiet in the afternoon. I watched my dove for a moment then headed back downstairs to walk to the Fulbright House.

I don't know what this omen may point to, a feeling of warmth infused me -- maybe it infuses you, too, when you lend a hand. I felt purpose and belonging.

Yesterday morning I leaned out our fourth floor window to watch Katie wait for the school bus. There, in her uniform: navy blazer, white button down shirt, khaki pants and a tie with the school emblem on it, her perfectly tied Windsor knot. Her hair, all curls, is pulled back in a ponytail. To me she's a picture worth millions. She checked her watch. Was the bus late? Our landlord, Mr. Jalil, strolled out to say "good morning." He was enjoying what I was enjoying too: seeing our little ones off to school. Parents worldwide savor this sight and savor even more seeing that bus bring them back. I used to watch for Katie to walk down Quentin Court in Maplewood, on her way home from elementary school. That was the best view from my third floor office.

On Saturday Mr. Jalil took me to Noor Home -- Amman's almost "Target." "You choose what you want. Call me in one or two hours when you are done. I will pay for the things you put on your list. You can buy other things you want and pay for them yourself." What a deal! At first I wandered this over-stocked, under-sized, two-story store somewhat myopic. (Second floor is in the basement.) I couldn't distinguish stuff from stuff. But then the towels emerged and the electric tea kettles; the shower curtains and silverware. When I came across a wall of slotted spoons I knew I'd found Nirvana. An hour and a half later we carried bags and bags and bags of stuff to his car. Katie was already home. She'd spent the afternoon at Fulbright House with Alain McNamara (the director), researching an assignment on line and printing out an essay for school. When we have our own Internet hook up she'll be able to do this at our place but it's good for her to meet Alain and feel part of the Fulbright family.

We hauled our take upstairs and discovered so much was missing: the fabulous new frying pan, the cutting board, the toilet paper roll holder, more. Fortunately while I was at Noor Home I'd begun chatting with the manager, who is a king of multi-tasking. He handled check out, one person after another, talk on the phone in Arabic, talk to me in English, give change, charge VISAS, put a customer's order on hold and take the next, all with the nicest demeanor. And of course he remembered me and set about to find out which other customer might have walked out with my other bags. But a few minutes later I got a call from Jalil that our other purchases were in the trunk of his car.

One of the tall glasses (in a box showing the glasses filled with beer) was cracked so on Sunday (Sunday = Monday in America -- first day of the business week) I brought back the set for replacement; also to exchange the bath mat from pink to blue. And to get a floor mat to brighten the kitchen. Fully half the staff remembered me from yesterday (how many American women come through there every day, anyway!) and I ticked those things off my list. If only I'd remembered to put "cutting board" back on the list"! It was still missing.

Then I walked through an empty lot to another shop. Whoever worked on our apartment left it a mess with drips and clumps of caulking and paint and little by little I'm scraping it off. The paint scraper will make the job easier than using my finger nails. I can't imagine what the men in the Sweifiyeh shop thought when this lady in business attire showed up and described in a multiplicity of languages, mostly gestures, what she wanted. I stopped at this store because there were paint cans on display in the window. Scraper secure, I moved on up the street. Initially I was looking for plugs for my bathroom sinks and tub. A man at Noor Home had told me that to find plugs go down the street and left and left again and then up and right and about 100 meters up would be Abu Ghazali where plugs are sold. The language I used in the plumbing shop was to hold up my old plug. Sadly I hadn't checked the existing ones and once I got home I found the replacements were also too big. But fortunately one fits perfectly the kitchen sink so I installed it there. At yet another shop I bought a watermelon and hailed a cab home.

Busy day, eh? But just one thing at a time. I've almost mastered saying "I live next to Shmeisani Hospital, across from the Prince Hashem Bird Garden" in Arabic. The colors of the dinar notes are familiar now. It's one dinar to get anywhere (approx $1.41) and I am loathe to make the Excel spread sheet that will reveal how much I'm spending every day. On the other hand it might be a happy revelation. After all, there's only one meal to buy -- that's supper. Our suhoor is usually a combination of leftovers and fruit. No coffee to go during the day. Just dollar and a half cab fares two to four times a day.

During these days of settling in I find myself not rushed, frantic, overloaded, multi-tasking. (Remember these days, Anisa. They won't be here forever!) There seems just a single thing to do at any given moment. Shop for supper. Buy necessities for the apartment. Go to the Fulbright House to send my emails. Attend the orientation. Break fast. It's not that there aren't things on my TO DO list: studying up on the Royal Film Commission, formulating a film narrative for the Abraham Path Initiative; editing the short feature I shot in Maine in 2005 about flute players in the woods; reading the piles of materials provided by Fulbright on medical insurance, health care, and security here, setting up on-line banking, getting a local bank account, and so on. But no killer deadlines. Like arranging and packing for our trip to Jordan!

So I can stand at the window in my jammys in the morning and watch Katie wait for the bus. If there's time, I take up my new favorite tool: the paint scraper. It cost three JD. The plugs were a dinar apiece. The three-foot-high flowering vine/bush and nine smaller potted flowers Katie and I bought today were a total of seven JD -- a far greater value than the plugs! The color printer/copier/scanner was 53 JD. Bread, pita, about 10 6" pocket loaves cost .025 JD. And a liter bottle of water the equivalent of $.45. Strange, that, in a land with few water resources. It will take some time to figure out what things cost and how they are valued.

Cleaner and cleaner, now with flowering plants and covers on the ceiling bulbs the apartment feels more and more like home. The breeze is fabulous. I've even taken to writing haiku about the roosters, trying to find ways to forgive them and embrace their song into my daily experience. At 4:40 this morning I wrote:

First, the rooster crows

Waking his friend, the muethen

God gives each his role

Saturday night we had a wonderful evening at the home of my client, Hala Zureikat, director of Jordan Television. I'm calling the organizations I'm serving here as a Fulbrighter "clients" because I'm not affiliated with a university, they are not my students, and I am not their employee. I am here to empower them in achieving the goals they are setting for themselves in broadcasting, production, forward-thinking, etc. I met Hala almost two years ago at a meeting with her and the Embassy PAO (Public Affairs Officer). In 2008 Whetstone Productions provided JTV a documentary film training program. Hala and I really liked each other then and it's even more, now. To have a woman colleague in TV is fun, too.

Hala picked Katie and me up and had her two daughters in the car. They were coming home from Sunday school at the Baptist church not far from our apartment. The girls are 17 and 19 and the three of them didn't stop chattering for the next four hours. They might as well have been in the cages with the roosters! Hala's husband Naif is a two-time Fulbrighter and now is chairman of the biochemistry department at the University of Jordan. You can imagine conversation was stimulating. Food was good, too. I especially liked the fetush salad -- made with a green somewhat a combination of spinach and arugula, tomato, cucumber and lots of lemon juice. She also made kibbee with spices that reminded me of how my father made it. Fasting expands my sense of smell and those spices brought me right back to the kitchen at the house I grew up in on Delaware Avenue in Flushing, New York, with dad pulling a tray of fresh baked kibbee out of the oven. Pine nuts in the center layer.

One of the Fulbright students' dads' knew the late Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi and today he emailed her a photo of my father at his engineering graduation at Farleigh Dickenson University. My father’s friend and right-hand-man Rebhie Rabia is in that photo, too. I asked Sarah to ask her dad if he knew where Rebhie might be these days. It’s years since we heard from him and we suspect he returned to family in Amman.

At the Food City the guys at check out are beginning to recognize us on our daily visit. Today we came away with only one extra plastic bag. The rest of our groceries made it into the bags we brought to reuse. Soon we’ll remember to bring along our Esalen tote bags and pretend we’re going to Whole Foods.

We're really enjoying the pickles and olives. We try a different white cheese (versions of feta) every time we run out. Dinner’s been simple: cooking rice and beans, spinach and eggs, bread and cheese, tea, juice and baklawa. Hala suggests buying mezza (hommos, baba ghannouge, tabouli, etc.) pre-made from any number of shops in the city. One of the best pastry shops in town she says is on the dewar, the circle, on our corner. It’ll make fresh spinach pies if you ask in the morning. She and Naif have been going there for 20 years.

We've made an excellent choice for living arrangements and now, going on our week anniversary in our new home, I am far more satisfied than in my first letter. Things will go up and down, there's no doubt. Katie and I are a solid team and will be pulling one another through.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Amman One: September 2, 2009

It's the end of another long day in a series of long days. But not the end of the series of long days. Those will end, I hope, when Katie and I really feel landed. Experts say that can take about three months. It’s like getting used to a new job, I guess.

We've landed an apartment and we love the location. This neighborhood is called Shmeisani. The Fulbright House is a few blocks away. There's a garden with roosters, hens and ducks across the street. They seem to sing constantly. They call along with the muethen in the two mosques nearby. They call when it's night and when it's morn. The rooster crows all day long; the ducks seem to prefer dinnertime.

Ours is a four-floor walk-up. We chose it for the breeze, for the view of Amman, for the privacy: there’s no one above us and no one next door. It's got a lovely little sunroom off the main space that is dining room and two living rooms. We chose this place over an adorable two-bedroom garden apartment with a fabulous kitchen and cozy living room. This kitchen is not so well appointed. But we have three bedrooms so when the family comes there will be room for all. There’s plenty of storage space. We have a brand new five burner stove that you have to light with a match every time. The gas tank sits right next to it. The refrigerator sings almost as loudly as the rooster but at least it works. The washing machine works; the drier does not. All the light bulbs hanging from the ceiling are bare. On Saturday Mr. Jalil, our landlord, is taking Katie and me shopping to buy covers for those and for the exposed sconce bulbs, for another frying pan and cooking pot, for a slotted spoon and toilet paper holders for the bathrooms (one and a half). He had a double bed built for me -- instead of two singles pushed together. Katie pushed the two singles in her room together so she has a giant place to sleep, too. For the first time in my life I have a vanity, with a mirror and chair and my make up is laid out to use. Not in a carry case. My make up brushes are in an open container, waiting to be useful. I like all that.

Whoever repainted this place left chips and drops everywhere. The paint in the carpet isn't coming out. But when the man came to clean the windows I insisted he scrape the paint, too. Unfortunately where I didn't point out the paint he didn't scrape it. So I'm going to buy a scraper and shweiyah shweiyah, little by little, I'll clear those surfaces. The dining room table can extend to seat 16! And there are chairs for ten. All the chairs are too low for the height of the table so we'll look like the dwarfs without Snow White when we dine together here. There's a fine food market a few blocks away and Katie and I have shopped for dinner there both of our nights here so far. The guys at the counter don't know what to make of us when we show up with our own bags for the groceries.

I haven't had any "real work" since I got here. Alain McNamara, director of the Bi-National Fulbright Commission in Jordan, says my first job is to get settled in so I'm doing that. Got Katie organized at the Modern American School. We taxied over there the first couple of days. Now the school bus picks her up outside our front door at 7:15 am and brings her back about 2:45 pm. She's taking Chemistry, Algebra II, Ancient World History, English, Arabic, Religion (Islam), IT, and PE/Health. So far she's finding it all really easy. It's nice to know that Maplewood’s Columbia High School has prepared her so well for private school abroad. She's making friends. She's got a desk in her bedroom and books that weigh hundreds of pounds. It seems. We look for cats when we walk together. There aren't as many strays as in Cairo. But there are enough to pull our heartstrings. None look sickly that we've seen. But we resist patting them anyway. I wonder if they think the same about the birds as I do. With a different end in mind.

On Monday night Dr. Younes Assad, the brother of my father’s dear friend Dawud Assad of Edison, NJ, took us out for ice cream at Gerard's in Abdoun Circle. He told us that once Ramadan is over, Abdoun Circle is the exclusive terrain of high school students on Thursday nights. I hope Katie and her friends will go there from time to time. The vanilla ice cream with pistacios was wonderful.

I'm beginning to call the people I know and the people others have recommended I call. After our Fulbright Orientation, September 6-10, I'll begin the real working part of this gig. (You mean I'm not here simply to set up house and see my daughter off to school?) We're having dinner tomorrow evening with a colleague of my “Inside Mecca” cameraman Yasir Khan who's now teaching at American University of Cairo. He'll be coming here this fall to run a training program.

I'm getting tired now. Four am, when we rise to eat our pre-dawn breakfast, comes early. But I will say the days, full as they are, go quickly and the fast is not uncomfortable. Katie says lost of the kids at school are fasting too, as is she. But between the time change and the fasting we are tired.

The weather is beautiful.