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!

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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.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

XIII: Food and Fall

30 October 2009

Spinach comes in two kilo bunches here. Massive leaves and long stalks tied with black string and caked with mud. It takes time to pick through and clean it; the lower half ends up in the garbage (a kilo of stems) but there’s spinach for days. We eat it for breakfast (with poached eggs on top as my father used to make), and for dinner, sometimes on its own, sometimes mixed into pasta.

Cooking around here really improved with Peter’s visit and afterward. He’s always creative in the kitchen where I’d just as soon make beans and rice. And day after day, even beans and rice decked with garlic the way Katie makes them so tasty, needs a break.

So we bought piles of apples from the street vendor near the Fulbright House, and made applesauce and hot apple tea. We bought a hand blender at the Duty-Free Shop on the way back from Syria and Katie makes juice from kiwi and pomegranate. We baked banana bread; we stir fry the great vegetables of the Jordan Valley; we roast eggplant and garlic; I made my “famous” Spanish tortilla.

It’s less than a month since Peter went back. We never had our date with arguilla but we did tour the Roman Citadel atop one of Amman’s great hills and heard the call to prayer bouncing through the valleys at dusk; we watched a performance in the Roman amphitheatre, sitting where human bottoms have sat for centuries for entertainment. We ate falafel at Hashem’s – far more famous than my tortilla, and went to the local police station to extend our visas for three more months. This entailed a blood test to prove absence of HIV. The nurse in a hole-in-the-wall clinic pulled blood from me faster than anyone in my life. Not a mark on my arm, either.

Syria came close on Peter’s departure. If “Damascus” raises exotic aromas and images in your imagination they are all right on. Staying in the old city was like a moment out of the Tales of the Arabian Nights. That’s how I remember Baghdad from our 1976 trip: ancient and contemporary; magical and hard-nosed; narrower-than-narrow streets, higher-than-high covered souks, and a sky as high as the history of the city is old. Besides the hand blender, we came home from Syria with a small carpet, a lamp that’s perfect to hang in our cabin in Maine, pistachios and pomegranates.

For the pomegranates are in and they are good. They were squeezing fresh pomegranate juice in the Damascus souks. “POM” brand can come here and bow. We are devouring them like peaches in summer. If Persephone’s pomegranate penalty applied here, Katie and I would be in Jordan several lifetimes.


“Fall” in Amman means falling rain. It rains hard. And people don’t seem to flee the downpour. The water is welcome. Children squeal in the park across the street although the birds quiet down. Folks hang out at the hospital door. Taxis still beep for riders. And almost no one uses an umbrella.

We asked a taxi driver why not one evening, as we flagged one down and got in soaked to the bone. “Umbrellas,” he said in very good English even though he’d never left the country, “look silly on a man. They are not masculine.” Umbrellas are for wimps, in other words. And for women? “They make a woman look even more frail. It’s OK for a woman.”

It was a two-dinar ride with this guy searching for the American Center for Oriental Research, up a hill opposite the University of Jordan. We walked in wet to a reception for the deans of admission for Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard – they and the few local alumnae of those esteemed institutions living here. The deans are recruiting in several Arabic-speaking nations. Several of them made a beeline for Katie.


After we dropped Peter at Alia International Airpot, Emad brought us to his home for tea with his mother and father. It was a sunny day. The tea was sweet. We stumbled through conversation with fractured language and smiles. He wants his mother and his wife to teach us to cook local food. We’ll go to the market, the people’s market, he says, and buy the freshest ingredients. That’s the guy we hire to drive us places.

For a week we lived off the eggplant parmesan Peter made before he left. Tonight I made shrimp scampi with the frozen shrimp that were also his legacy. On Friday, Emad says, if he’s not driving others to Petra, we’ll cook.