Sunday, August 24, 2008

Jordan: Observations in Conclusion

A hazy sheen lingered between the sun and the freshly washed window of the taxi. The sun rose into the mist and dust, creating a blurry outline as trees and highway rushed past. It seemed odd to be saying good-bye to a country as the sun was rising.
The King’s Highway once again stretched before us, once again sparsely populated. Seemingly the only creatures moving at 6:00am were dogs, picking through the trash by the road in a small, motley pack. The taxi driver was silent, a rare occurrence in the world of talkative Arabs.
Jordan’s movement toward development can be seen in the buildings as we head out of Amman. Japanese civil engineers may not be able to straighten all of the city’s winding roads or disjointed intersections, but Amman is a city to be reckoned with. Its streets are wide and the city is clean in comparison with capitals such as Cairo and even Rome. The amount of construction in the city is impressive, especially in comparison with other third-world countries where unfinished buildings often seem to be more common than on-going construction. Current construction includes what will eventually be the largest mall in Jordan.
Jordanian patriotism is also something to be reckoned with. Driving through Amman, ever overpass is lined with a row of Jordanian flags waving in the breeze. Passing through narrow roads in the countryside, twisting roads in the cities, or the flat, smooth road of the King’s Highway, posters and billboards with pictures of the King are far from unusual. To surround such pictures with more Jordanian flags seems to be quite common. Jordanians hold their King in high affection, and that affection must be contagious – even foreign residents feel a sense of Jordanian patriotism. Everyone, according to my Iraqi host, has at least one CD of traditional Jordanian music in their car.
It is easy to understand why so many foreigners, both Arab and non-Arab, choose to make Amman their home. According to some, Jordan is seen as the most stable country in the region – which can certainly be understood when taking the current turbulence in areas such as Iraq and Lebanon into consideration. However, there are clearly reasons beyond that. Jordanians are open, friendly people. They are quick to smile and generous with hospitality – traits that seem to permeate the Middle East. Amman can be noisy and crowded, but its crowds and noise are of a lesser intensity than that of, for example, Cairo, and the pollution is certainly less.
Beyond the obvious differences in the city itself, there are other clear differences between Amman and Cairo. One of these is the style of dress. In Amman, the percentage of young women who have adopted a more Western style of dress seems to be much higher than in Cairo. While in Cairo young women have found ingenious ways to be highly fashionably and still subscribe to the traditional Muslim modesty, Amman’s younger generation seems, at least at first glance, to be moving in a different direction.
As the Jordanian countryside flashes outside my window at 80 km/h in the glow of the rising sun, I know I will be back.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Music, dance, and shisha

Before the lights of the King's Highway stretched before us in two perfectly parallel lines winding through Jordan's hills, before 120km/h winds rushed through open car windows to meet with blaring hip-hop and R&B, before loud, tipsy Arabs stuck their heads out the windows, and long before finally canceling plans to visit Syria and 2am showers, the night was filled with heaps of food, live music, and lots of dancing.

Harat Jdoudna (which loosely means 'neighborhood of my ancestors') is a restaurant serving traditional Jordanian food in a beautiful outdoor setting. Tables can be found in the ivy-covered and tree-shaded courtyard and courtyard terraces of an old house whose walls and floors contain stones and columns 'scavenged' from the Roman highway which once ran through the town of Madaba barely 200 metres from where the restaurant stands today.

Arriving at the restaurant around 8:30pm, the tables are nearly empty. The courtyard is quiet. The tables are set. There is a constant breeze, and the air is warm and humid but not hot and sticky. Ivy creeps up walls built of local stone. Grape vines entwine themselves around the long branches of sturdy fig trees, creating a green canopy offering both shade and atmosphere. The courtyard is calm. Prepared. Waiting.

Tables slowly fill, and by 9:30 not an empty seat can be seen. Drinks arrive along with shisha, a traditional Arab water-pipe (also known as 'hooka'), and soon clouds of strawberry and fruit flavored smoke swirl up from more than a dozen places in the courtyard, mixing occasionally with cigar and the ever-present cigarette smoke. A middle-aged Arab man takes a seat at a keyboard set up at one end of the courtyard, and music soon fills the air, setting the tone for the evening.

Around 10:00 the food begins to arrive. Within moments, the long, bare wooden table is covered in literally dozens of dishes - salads, dips, and foods of all kinds. Waiters appear with baskets of bread which disappear as quickly as they're brought. Hommus, mushrooms cooked with rosemary and olive oil, rocket salad, traditional Jordanian salads, fried and grilled goat cheese, eggplant dishes, stuffed mushrooms, and a dozen other types of food are passed around and heaped onto plates. The noise level doesn't dim for a moment, however - talk and laughter continue unabated along with the music and shisha smoke.

The entertainer fills the evening air with traditional Jordanian music, and conversations are consistently left unfinished as the entire courtyard claps in time to the music and sings along at the top of their voices. A small group of dancers gathered in front of the musician - a bride and groom celebrating their wedding - are joined by more and more people. The other dancers surround the bride as the keyboard mimics the sounds that a dozen instruments probably would have made a century ago. The musician picks up a local string instrument, called an 'oud,' and adds that into the music as the dancers begin a traditional Jordanian dance.

Sometime around 11:00 the main course arrives, just when non-Arabs believe the meal to be over. However, the food is made to wait as seemingly half the people in the courtyard move onto the makeshift dance floor, hips and arms moving in time to the music. Eventually, the dancers return to their food and once again shisha smoke fills the air.

The courtyard doesn't begin to empty until around midnight, and by 12:30 the majority of the guests have left, still humming or singing, full of good food, exhausted and energized at the same time. This is when bills are paid, cars are loaded, and a dozen wrong turns made before headlights find their way to the King's Highway and the perfectly parallel lights stretching into the distance.

It does not take long to realize, this is Jordan.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Today I stood on the mountain where Moses died

I arrived in Jordan late last night, and had no trouble getting my visa (for 10JOD). My Iraqi friend Shahnaz picked me up at the airport with a few friends, and we headed back to her house in Amman.

Clean streets. Bright lights. New cars. Little traffic. A mixture of English and Arabic on the radio. These were my first impressions of Jordan.

After a 9:15 wake-up turned into a 9:45 wake-up, we headed out to pick up another of Shahnaz's friends and then drove off toward a place I had heard of before, but had since quite forgotten - Mount Nebo. According to the Old Testament, Mount Nebo is the place where Moses went to die. And, thus, I stood on the mountain where Moses, bringer of God's law to the Hebrew people, climbed to take his last breaths.

The first church known to be build upon the crest of the mountain was build around 500 A.D., and successive churches have been built on and around the mountain. Franciscan monks have made the sight a memorial to Moses and have excavated incredible examples of early Jordanian Christian mosaics, with inscriptions in both Greek and Palestinian-Aramaic (with the help of Queen Noor, the Jordanian government, and a vast amount of assistance from the Italians). Unfortunately, the church happened to be closed for work while we were there, so we were not able to walk around the ruins of the early church.

From there, we started down a narrow, steep, winding road through the hilly Jordanian countryside toward a place which in English was simply called "Baptismal Place." As we wound our way through the hot desert in the comfortable interior of an air-conditioned Mercedes, before the vast expanse of the Dead Sea came into sight, a thought occurred to me. Looking at the rough, barren landscape around me, coming from the place where Moses died and knowing where we were going next, I realized that I was in a place where Moses had walked probably 3000 years ago. Where Jesus Christ walked 2000 years ago.

After the roads had flattened out and the heat had climbed a few degrees higher, we reached 'Baptismal Place.' We paid our admission and boarded a poorly air-conditioned bus which dropped our small group by a dusty pathway. Our guide soon led us to a view of the Jordan River - a small, greenish waterway that wound through banks of green reeds. A bit farther and the gold-covered dome of some church came into view. Farther still and our guide stopped, for the first time waiting for everyone to catch up. "Here," he said in broken but understandable English, "is where Jesus Christus was baptized by John the Baptist."

And so I stood, looking down at the ruins of stone steps and a hole that had been dug in the earth to show the greenish Jordan; looking at the spot where John the Baptist baptised Jesus Christ 2000 years ago.

In the US, and even in Rome, the places of the Bible are remote in both space and time. Suddenly, I have found myself, physically, right in the middle of Biblical geography.

Of course, the Jordan river is now much smaller that in once was (because of 'dams' in the North or because of the Israeli Occupation, depending on whom you ask) and its waters no longer flow through this spot, necessitating the hole that was dug to show its waters. But, there it is - and in the background, the remains of three successive churches named after John the Baptist and built between 500-600 A.D.

Nearing the end of our walk, we pass the gold dome seen through the trees earlier - it belongs to a 5-year-old Greek Orthodox Church, the most recent monument to John the Baptist. Our guide then leads us down to a platform build over ther edge of the river, with steps built in to allow visitors to touch its waters. Something catches my eye - a crisp, bright, blue and white Israeli flag snapping in the wind, barely 20 yards from where I stand.

"There," our guide points, "is Palestine."

Blogging Egypt

Due to popular demand, I have agreed to create a blog while I'm in Egypt. However, I do not guarantee that I will update regularly, although I will make an attempt to do so.

Comments, thoughts, etc are more than welcome!