Monday, December 20, 2010

Year End 2010

Well my friends. It's the end of 2010. I've been home for just about six months and I see I've not filled in for you what it's been like being back. It's hard to describe re-entry. At first all seemed utterly easy: hearth and home were as if I'd not left (except that Peter had redone our bedroom ceiling and walls - that was a treat!), the neighborhood looked the same,everyone speaksks English. It was the Fourth of July weekend when we landed and so we were ushered into a celebration of America, guests, fireworks, parades. I hurried off to Esalen for a board meeting. I flew to Chicago with mymom and sisters to celebrate birthdays and shop. I took the hedge back from months of overgrowth. And we went to our cabin in Maine for relaxation, kayaking and music-making.

Then I began to notice a gap, a vacuum, a space. From time to time I forgot where things were here -- streets, friends' homes, grocery stores. I watched the sidewalks for huge cracks and the curbs for deep dropoffs like our streets in Amman. Bread costs too much and there's nothing coming piping hot out of an oven, steaming, flat smothered in oil and zaatar. Cucumbers are large and bland. Stuffed rolled grape leaves are expensive.
Hommos here thinks it's Israeli.

I find that understanding all the words around me can be disturbingly banal.

Half and half in my coffee is padding out the lean I'd acquired in Jordan. No access to Petra jars my soul. No views of the great Hercules atop Amman's Citadel saddens my eyes. There is no Hashem restaurant a cab ride away for fabulous falafel and onions, clamor and tea. Beirut, Damascus, Bethlehem and Cairo aren't just a few hours away. I miss last year's world.

Most of the great lessons I learned last year were about living. Too many deadlines deaden. Drink sweet tea seated. Watch the sunset. Talk with friends using both ears. Time is shorter. And longer. And there's nothing you can do about it anyway.

So I've not rushed back into the fray. My last speaking event in Amman was the world premiere of my 1989 film shot in Jordan for NJN, "Classical Caravan," at the home of US Deputy Chief of Mission Lawrence Mandel. Beginning September here I spoke in the fall at Illinois College, Colorado State, the Air Force Academy, Colorado College, Maplewood and South Orange Middle Schools. Representing my family I presented the 2010 M.T. Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award to Helen Thomas. But there's been no big project consuming my time. No overlapping deadlines to fret about. I am able to attempt long form writing and produce shorter pieces for air or Op-Ed pages.

I've been a busy board member at Esalen, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey and Masar Ibrahim el Khalil, promoting, raising money, encouraging people to participate in seminars, come see the plays, and walk. Maestro Istvan Jaray returned me to the principal flute chair in the Livingston Symphony Orchestra and there's great music for me to perfect. Muffins are becoming my specialty bake item -- especially made with leftover cranberry relishes from Thanksgiving Dinner. I just finished reading Isabel Allende's Island Beneath the Sea and I expect I'll go ahead and read everything else she's written. And do, in some way, what she does. This is a process of reinvention: what's my next phase?

Sit, drink tea, and figure it out.

I love watching Janna mature at Wellesley College. She's an activist in environmental affairs and justice. Passionate and logical in her arguments. Katie's marching band season was successful. She was named best "high woodwind" for her flute-playing. And she lucky duck, is going to Jordan for Christmas and the New Year. She's charged with bringing back zaatar and Ajloun olive oil.

Marriage is working out fine lo! these 25 years later with ten months apart. I didn't know how comfortably I'd fall back into sharing authority with the other adult or how I'd readjust to balancing independence with partnership. It's better than I could have imagined. We're both eager to dust the physical contours of our home, clear out stuff, rearrange, polish. We listen to records. I'm watching (American) football -- we are Patriots fans -- and enjoying it for the first time in my life. I'm not feeling pent up even if the view is not Herculean. I look out the window of my office on the third floor of our home and remember watching my daughters walk up that street when they were eight, nine, ten ... now seventeen years old. And there's only a year and a half left for me as a mom with a child at home. After that there's plenty of time, insha Allah, to roll out the next phase.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. May joy and success be abundant in 2011.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Disagreeing in Colorado October 6-7

Michael Lame and I got rave reviews for our presentation at Illinois College in Jacksonville. Karen Dean, head of the Habtoor Leadership Center, was especially inspired by our exhortations to the students to think as an active, time-intensive exercise.

On our way to the campus we stopped to see Abraham Lincoln's tomb in Springfield. I was deeply moved to be there. Why? We know Mr. Lincoln is not there. But the symbolism is. His life, courage, trials all there on the walls. I didn't know one of his sons died while he was in the White House. I didn't know his favorite literary references were the King James Bible and Shakespeare. He should become mine. Lincoln reminded me of the profound privilege it is to be an American. A privilege we must protect from intolerance and warmongers.

This Wednesday we're at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Then on Thursday I address the Air Force Academy and Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Stop by if you're in the neighborhood!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Speaking at Illinois College: Khalaf Al Habtoor Lecture Series

On September 29 my colleague Michael Lame and I will be debating "Attaining Peace in the Middle East" at Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL.

Scroll down to see the announcement.
On October 6 we'll be at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

On the 7th I'll address the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Check out Wolfman Productions or contact me directly if you're interested in arranging an event.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stories about Quran Burning Reveal Shortcomings of U.S. Media's Coverage of Islam

On September 14 Poynter on Line pegged my NPR piece as follows:

"One refreshing take that did address tough questions came from essayist Anisa Mehdi on NPR. Mehdi reminds those who would support burning the Quran that it contains verses that acknowledge and praise Jesus and Mary. Likewise, she reminds Muslims overseas who might commit acts of violence as a result of the act that they, too, should review Muslim principles that favor self-discipline and Quranic verses that warn against lawlessness."

Thanks to Cate Malek, Development Coordinator of the Masar Ibrahim el Khalil/Abraham's Path ( for bringing this shout out to my attention.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Before Burning Quran, Know What's In It!

September 9, 2010

Read my essay on

"Before Burning Quran, Know What's In It"

And on Facebook

Please comment and "recommend"

Friday, August 20, 2010

"A Christian response to the Islamic community center near Ground Zero

Hi, friends, I'm back from vacation in Maine and will be writing you a "letter" soon. In the meantime here's a sensible and heartfelt essay reprinted from the Common Ground News Service,
A Christian response to the Islamic community centre near Ground Zero
Julie Clawson
Austin, Texas - Last week New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg stood with representatives of local faith groups and declared that "there is no neighbourhood in this city that is off-limits to God's love and mercy." Personally, as a Christian who fully supports the proposed Muslim community centre near Ground Zero, Park51 (previously known as Cordoba House), his words echoed my heartfelt sentiments.

Yet there are many Christian Americans who have spoken out against this centre, claiming that it is inappropriate and offensive, and that its proximity to Ground Zero would allow Muslims to mock the events of 9/11. Since speaking out in support of the centre, I've even had other Christians accuse me of supporting the work of Satan and turning my back not only on my faith, but on everything the United States stands for.

I'll be the first to admit that, like people of all faiths, Christians sometimes fail to follow the path of love and mercy Jesus modelled for us. We substitute our political leanings or our cultural fears in place of the command to love our neighbour.

It can be difficult to remember that the God we claim to worship is much bigger than ourselves. We do not hold a monopoly on God's love and there are no places where we should not be at the forefront of extending it, working for reconciliation and healing.

Yet, in the continued confusion and misunderstandings sparked by the events of 9/11, I all too often encounter a culture of fear and revenge. Some Christians unfortunately say that the terrorists' actions represent the heart of Islam. They project their fear and hatred onto all Muslims, blaming them for those events and asserting that they desire the destruction of Christianity and America's freedoms.

Ironically, many of these same people are the first to argue when so-called Christians commit heinous acts that they do not act on behalf of all Christians. They go so far as to say they aren't actually Christians, much less representative of the religion, as we saw recently when members of Michigan's Hutaree Militia were arrested for planning to slaughter law enforcement workers.

But this same distinction is rarely extended to our Muslim brothers and sisters.

I wish I could offer an apology on behalf of those who hold such misinformed beliefs - for those Christians that fail to follow in the way of Jesus and who instead oppose the rights of Muslims to worship freely in our country. But I don't speak for them. I can only live my life and use my voice to represent a different side of Christianity, one that truly believes God's love and mercy extends everywhere.

And I can hope with Bloomberg that the building of this community centre will achieve its goal of working for reconciliation and "help repudiate the false and repugnant idea that the attacks of 9/11 are in any way consistent with Islam."

When people of diverse faiths come together as they did last week in New York in support of the community centre, we can start dismantling such false assumptions and collectively take a stand for the truth.

To that end I am grateful for the families of those that lost loved ones on 9/11 who are speaking out on behalf of Muslims and in support of Park51. These include the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, who promote dialogue, non-violence and international cooperation, and have specifically spoken out in support of the centre. Out of their own tremendous grief they desire to protect Muslims from the kind of grief that comes from being condemned and ostracised. Instead of fearing some manufactured threat to freedom, they extend that precious freedom willingly to all.

That is Christian love in action.

Sadly, some Christians have not collectively responded well to this community centre or to Muslims since 9/11. I don't want to hide that fact, even as I lament its reality. Some of us have strayed from the core of our faith that is rooted in love and freedom.

I pray we can take to heart Bloomberg's recent words: "Muslims are as much a part of our city and our country as the people of any faith. And they are as welcome to worship in lower Manhattan as any other group." We should transform our collective response into one that demonstrates those very values by supporting religious liberty for all.


* Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 10 August 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

Thursday, July 29, 2010



[Please see Pilgrimages Part I]

Au contraire, our approach to Jesus’ baptism site in Jordan three months later, was a simple test of audacity and a smile.

We’d spent the bulk of the day at play. First we visited the mosaic artist Samaher Khameis at her workshop in Madaba. I feature Samaher in my short film on Madaba’s Institute of Mosaic Art and Restoration. It’s fascinating to see how this intricate art form in process and to imagine men and women tooling over tiny pieces of stone millennia ago. What a legacy – what stories! – they’ve left behind. (Once the invoices for that project are honored – and that’s another story -- I will put up the piece for you to see.)

Of course we made the mini-pilgrimage to St. George's Church to show Janna the map and went again to gape at the mosaics in Hippolyta’s Hall (pictured) at the Virgin Mary Church.

Then we drove the long, narrow and winding roads south out of Madaba to Hammamat Ma’in – to the natural hot springs of Jordan that rush from the cliffs of the mountainside above the Dead Sea.

Like the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, Jordan has three waters coming together: salt, fresh creek (as in Wadi Mujib), and hot: Ma’in. At Hammamat Ma’in the main waterfall ranges in temperature from 40° to 60° C (104-140° F).

Imagine the power of that water pounding down on your shoulders: hot, heavy, relentless; healing, soothing, invigorating.

We wore swimsuits with tee shirts and shorts over top. Nearby were women in long dresses with headscarves, smiling and laughing in the spray. There was one man, French, we thought, in a Speedo.

They say King Herod frequented the healing springs at Ma'in (when these waters were known as Baaras) and built a villa at nearby Mukawer. According to tradition, it was at that villa that Salome danced and John the Baptist was beheaded (Matthew 14: 1-12).

Speaking of John the Baptist … to the point of this letter.

We left the Hammamat via the other route: by the Dead Sea. Winding down the muscular mountains with a broad view of both our side of the Dead Sea and theirs. Every time I take in that view I am in wonder: it all looks so peaceful, unified; the land around a lake. Then I remember the contested ownership, the lines, imaginary and real cutting through towns, cultures, salt water, and the trickle called “the Jordan River.”

“Let’s go to the Baptism Site,” suggested Katie, as we turned north with the Dead Sea on our left and the mountains that hide Ma’in on our right.

“Lesh la? Why not!”

The signs are everywhere. Tourism – adventure and spiritual – is business for Jordan and the signage is good. So are the roads.

We drove past our favorite Dead Sea swimming spot, Amman Beach, and all the big hotels. Then we turned left toward the world’s widest partition and drove through the no man’s holy land to a simple entrance arch where three men were enjoying tea and an early evening chat.

“Marhaba (Hello). We’d like to visit the Baptism Site.”

“Yes, but we closed at 5pm,” said Emad, gatekeeper of the moment. It was 5:40.

After discussing the schedule (8am – 5pm) and the entrance fees (seven JOD per person) I smiled and asked, “Can we see it anyway?”

“I’ll ask.”

Within a few minutes we arranged with Emad that we’d pay our entrance with all the dinars we had (16) and that we’d drive him to his home afterward (on the road to Amman) and he escorted us to and through the site, Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan.

According to, excavations on the site -- on the east bank of the Jordan River -- only began here in 1996, following Jordan's peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Land mines dotted the infamous and disputed border along the ever-shrinking river.

It took two years to make it safe. Since ‘96 more than 20 churches, caves and baptismal pools dating back to the Roman and Byzantine periods have been uncovered.

You still feel the tension as you approach the Jordan. After guiding us on cool wooded paths to the pools that scholars agree may be where Jesus Christ was baptized by the Prophet John, Emad told us, “I cannot go any farther. The Jordanian soldier will take you from here.”

And a military man stepped forward, gesturing us toward a simple gazebo-like structure with stairs down to the Jordan trickle and the Israeli flag in clear view.

The Jordan side of the river has a wood platform with steps at either end for visitors to descend, just a few at a time, and dip their toes into the 10-foot-wide-water about which so many anthems and spirituals are sung. On the Israeli side, a skipping stone’s throw away, a 20-foot-long concrete slab with steps the length of the slab so many pilgrims may access the water at once. Each country's flag flies high. There is no sign of Palestine.

I was glad we were alone there, that no noise disturbed our reflections but the call of the rula bird -- a brave little lime green bird with turquoise scruff. (Do you know its English name?)

It was strange being so close and so far from “the other side.” No guards but our Bedouin soldier. A peaceful stream between “sides.” A place so heralded, lauded, prayed for and fought for. Just my daughters and me. And the soldier. And Emad waiting for his ride home.

Home is always the destination of the pilgrim.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

15 July 2010 -- Just to let you know ..

Hi! We hear Amman is sweltering in a heat wave. We've got the same conditions in New Jersey PLUS humidity!

On Friday, 2 July, Katie and I landed safely at JFK Airport in New York City. Peter and Janna met us with open arms and brought us to our beautiful home in Maplewood, New Jersey.

We are glad to be here and we also miss our home and friends in Amman!

This is just a brief note to say we're fine. There is much more to come.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Letter XXXIII: Full Moons

1 July 2010

“The next time I see a full moon,” I wrote on August 6, 2009, “will be in Jordan."

Peter, the girls, and I were on the beach in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. We’d booked two rooms at the Atlantic Inn for the night en route our summer home, still four hours north and inland. It was a spectacular sight floating over the Atlantic horizon and above the dunes and grasses of the Maine coast. It was quiet except for the rhythm of the waves and my heartbeat. What was ahead? Interesting that the full of August 6 was also a lunar eclipse – but we didn’t know or see it.

Eleven full moons were ahead:

(1) A Ramadan full, September 4, midway through the fasting month; just three days after we’d moved into our apartment. We broke our fast that evening with Dr. Younes Assad who became
friend, physician and grandfather these ten months. He took us to the Oriental Cafe on the road to Sweileh, overlooking a great valley with Amman in the eastern distance. In the valley between is the Baka Palestinian refugee city. We enjoyed a refreshing Mint-Lemonade with our iftar. Remind me to make one for you in Maplewood ...

(2) An Esalen full on 4 October when I was in Big Sur for the board meeting, and Katie and Peter were forging Wadi Mujib ...

(3) A Sisters moon in November at the reception for Directors of Admission for Wellesley, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, and Barnard at ACOR (American Center of Oriental Research) in Amman ...

(4) December’s first full was on the second, the day I delivered “Inside Mecca” with Arabic subtitles to Alain at Fulbright to give to Basma at the US Embassy (she has since become one of my best friends) to be ready for the screening of the film at the University of Jordan on the sixth ...

(5) December was a blue moon month. It’s second full was New Year’s Eve. We celebrated with Peter and Janna here and a party for our local friends ...

(6) Under January 30th’s full moon we took my niece Maeve Chandler to the airport after her ten day visit with us. She's on the left enjoying photos taken in the Soldiers Tomb in Wadi Firasa, Petra, with Katie and my first cousin once-removed, Nadia Mehdi, who also visited us in January from London ...

(7) In late February I was in Jericho – I know I didn’t tell you; I was saving that story as I saved the Jerusalem story, which is still an unfinished narrative. In Jericho, staff of the Abraham Path Initiative was meeting with its new Executive Director, Dr. Yunus Sola. I was honored to attend as both a board member and media strategist. In fact I departed Jericho and crossed back that barbed, desolate no-one’s-land late at night under that full moon. I was the only non-Palestinian at the border there so they let me ride the bus with the locals back home to Jordan. Usually we are segregated. You'll hear more in the upcoming "Pilgrimage: Part Two" ...

(8) The March full was at Petra with my dear friend Alyce Faye Cleese ...

(9) On April 28 I gave a talk at Amman’s SAE – a training center for broadcasting and filmmaking ...

(10) Katie played Juliet, Lady Capulet, and Tybalt in the Modern American School’s drama club presentation on May 27. Need I say she was the most skillful actor on the stage and but for another boy who was a complete stage-hog, she stole the show ...

(11) June 26 we saw the full moon in Umm Sayhun, the Bedouin village above Petra where we had dinner, once again, on Ismail’s roof. This time it was Katie, Mark Tremblay and I. Mark was back on business. We went first to Karak Castle and then a farewell pilgrimage to Petra.

The next time I see a full moon I expect to be in Maplewood, New Jersey. Perhaps I’ll pack up from a day at the pool and grill some eggplant and then cook sweet sage tea – Bedouin whiskey -- in our backyard fireplace until the cheap metal pot turns black.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Odds and Ends: 30 June 2010

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


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


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

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

What does our currency say about us?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


June 29, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 5

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

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

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

March 6

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

March 7

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

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

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


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

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Letter XXXI: Christmas, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She lived on Palestine Street in Baghdad.

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


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

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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Letter XXX: Pavings

14 June 2010

They paved our street the weekend I rented a car.

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

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

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

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

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

But there was really only one possible response.

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

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

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

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

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

And someone else will offer water.

More on the waters of Ma'in next.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Letter XXIX: It's Contentious

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The audience loved it.

Oren did not agree, "alas."

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

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

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

Friday, June 11, 2010

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

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

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

Friday, May 28, 2010

Letter XXVIII: Preview of "Wellesley" Summer 2010 -- Little Petra

We went to Beidha, nicknamed "Little Petra" in early April. It is Nabatean, like it's big sister namesake. The canyon leading in is shorter in ength and height. The sandstone wadi more narrow. The site is contained, impressive, and far less traveled. But in its day, this was a place for feasting.

Inside the wall-cut rooms are carved benches. You can imagine firelight, laughter, and reverence.

My complete piece on our visit to Little Petra will appear in Wellesley, the alumnae magazine of my alma mater, Summer 2010. And I don't plan on scooping myself, so here is just a preview:

And so, eight months into this ten-month-meditation, we are at Beidha, a site nicknamed “Little Petra,” about 10 miles from the famed Nabatean capital in south central Jordan. Here, too, the Nabateans carved tombs, cisterns and waterways into pink sandstone; here they carved grand dining rooms and on one ceiling survives the only example of intricate Nabatean painting, with colorful leaves, fruits and figures…

... On Fridays Beidha is a favorite family spot for Jordanians from the south, and we fell in with some folks walking through Little Petra’s canyon to a narrow staircase carved at the end of the gorge. Except for the mother, who was probably my age but looked more worn, it was a youthful assembly. Sisters, brothers, their spouses and three babies. The girls wore traditional garb: long dresses and scarves covering their hair. The boys were in slacks and sandals. Everyone wore smiles -- including the babies who were handed from walker to walker up the narrow, uneven stairs. I got to hold one of them, too. It was completely natural to turn around and reach up for the little boy when his dad faced a three-foot drop. Dad didn’t think twice about turning his son over to “a stranger.” Nor did I think twice when an older son who was helping the girls get down some of the steeper spots, extended his hand to me as well.

At the end of the climb was a small rock plateau with a vista of rugged rocks and the streambed that Peter assures me still rushes with water in mid-to-late spring. There we sat, united in our accomplishment and divided by language.

“Where you from?” It’s a familiar opening gambit, well timed and welcome.

I answered that one in Arabic, since I’m fluent in the openers. “We’re from the USA, from New Jersey. Do you know New Jersey?”

“No.” Smiles, giggles. Next move. “Are you Muslim?”

“Yes.” Ooohs of delight from the girls.

Then Amena, sitting next to me, asked in Arabic, “But if you’re Muslim, where is your scarf?” She tugged at her own, snuggly wrapped around her hair, to emphasize and clarify.

I smiled and tugging the purple Iranian scarf over my shoulders I said, “Here it is.”

Everyone howled with laughter. So far, very good. Only one step to go...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Letter XXVII: Not the Pied Piper

How different would this year have been if I’d gone to see Kifah Fakhoury in September rather than this week? I finally brought my 1989 New Jersey Network documentary film “Classical Caravan” to the director of the National Conservatory of Music. Dr. Kifah is featured in the first half of the film, which follows the concert tour of the Chamber Symphony of Princeton to Jordan and Egypt. Watching it together was a waltz down proverbial memory lane. After all these years he still didn’t have a copy. Now he does.

How different am I now, from the Anisa who marched straight to the Music Conservatory of Seville, Spain, within days of arriving in 1976, telling anyone who would listen, “I’m an accomplished flute player from the US and I want to play here. Please let me show you what I can do.”

I stopped a stranger walking down the street not far from the conservatory – he was carrying a flute case. “Hi, I’m a flute player, too (toco la flauta también. Quiere tocar duetas?) Do you want to play duets?” He demurred, being a beginner, but he brought me to the door of his teacher, another American, who became my favorite duet partner. We gave several concerts that year and Bonnie Walter, who eventually returned to the US and became a dean of students at MIT, performed at our wedding … nearly 25 years ago.

The dean of the Conservatorio Superior de Música de Sevilla listened to me play. He made me principal flute of the conservatory orchestra and put me into the woodwind quintet that toured the country that spring. We played in small towns and villages in Extremadura, Andalucia, and I can’t remember where else. There was terrific music for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn by Hindemith, Ibert I do remember one rickety stage we played on outside the municipal building somewhere rather hot and dusty. The front legs collapsed under us as we were setting up.

Tonight, so many years later, in Amman, Jordan, Katie and I enjoyed a concert of the Amman Symphony at the King Hussein Cultural Center. They played “Night on Bald Mountain,” the “Romeo and Juliet” overture by Tchaikovsky, and Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody #2.” I’ve played principal on all three of those, most recently last year with the Livingston Symphony Orchestra (not “Bald Mountain.” We played that the same fateful night of the Debussy – see Letter XXV. I was on piccolo for that piece. Barbara soloed.) Well Amman’s principal flutist nailed the Scherzo in the Liszt and that’s a tough moment. With only four stands of first violins it was hard for them to generate the sheer bulk of sound we’re accustomed to in the Tchaik and Mussorgsky. But they made up for volume with energy and intention. At intermission Kifah Fakhoury said to me, “you should join us! Ah, but you’re leaving so soon.”

And I wondered: if I’d come to see Dr. Kifah in that first month, would I have been playing with the orchestra tonight? Would there have been weekly rehearsals and an entirely different set of friends? What about my snuggly nights with Katie, eating chocolate and watching episode after episode of “House”? What about nights out with Basma or Nesreen? What about leisurely editing “Mozart in Maine”? And writing to you? What about not being overloaded?

Spain was the year for bold fluting.

Jordan is the year, apparently, for something else.

I’ll know what that is … sometime soon.