Sunday, June 5, 2011

Ahalan from Jordan

The first time I felt like I was in the Middle East in the past three months was when I was in Jordan last week. The LIFE program took the group on a four-day study tour in North Jordan and Amman. We stayed in an eco-village, met with diverse people and organizations in Amman, and ate pounds and pounds of fresh hummus.  While I didn’t go in with many expectations of what Jordan would look like, it was a lot more beautiful and interesting than I had imagined.

Nurit and Alex at a nice over-look. You can kind of make out the Sea of Galilee.

Amman reminded me of a tamer, Islamic India.  We stayed in a pretty busy part of town, on a street lined with stores selling men’s suits. The city as a whole is a sprawling and unplanned, with clear divisions of wealth. While we stayed in a more moderate part of town filled with street food and barbers, book stands and junk markets, just a quick drive away lay the King’s palace, other such fancy houses, and even a Starbucks. The city was a lot more liberal than I had expected, with fun restaurants and bars.

A busy street scene.

A man selling goats from his truck. 

Before leaving for the trip, our program gave us as a strict safety protocol. The Israelis in our group were not allowed to say they were from Israel, we were not allowed to speak Hebrew in the streets, and we were assigned a security guard upon crossing the Israel-Jordan border. While I learned that Israeli-Jordanian relations are a lot more tense and fragile than the peace agreement implies, I felt much safer in the streets than I imagined. Yes, the women got stares (and maybe India has de-sensitized me to this), but I never felt unsafe. We walked home late one night and the streets felt quiet and calm. I found myself wishing that we did introduce ourselves as an Israeli group. Because while there is still a tremendous amount of hatred and tension, there is even more ignorance and mis-information. The two sides are never in a position to meet each other face-to-face, and see “the enemy” in a human form. One of the most poignant things I heard all week was from a Palestinian refugee who was raised in Kuwait and then Jordan. He said that he grew up thinking that Israelis were non-human, that if you cut them they wouldn’t bleed blood. He then met them, became friends with them, and later did business with them. He now runs a well-know bookstore and coffee shop, famous for their non-discriminating employment policies.

As for a few highlights:

1.We stayed in an eco-village in Northern Jordan run by Friends of the Earth Middle East.  We spent the night in adorable little log cabins and got a tour of the nature reserve by Abdel, one of the managers of the organization, whose passion for the land and knowledge of it was inspiring. As ignorant as it sounds, it was humbling and eye-opening to meet people who I always labeled as very different from myself, interested in the same things: ecology, green living, and the importance of preserved natural space. An Egyptian guy was interning with them during the same time as our short stay there, and after speaking with him, I think he is one of the most interesting people I have met all year. When asked about the recent events in his country, he spoke of it in the first person, “We should have stayed in Tahrir Square longer.” He was there on the ground, protesting with his comrades. Something he said to me also struck a chord. When asked about how Egyptians feel about Israelis he offered insight that I had never though about before. He said that for Arabs, it doesn’t make sense that there are non-Arabs in the area; they Israelis are seen as encroaching onto Arab territory. While some families have been here for generations, it made me think. Putting religious reasons aside, does it make sense that Westerners flock to this little piece of land surrounded by Arab countries? Would it be the equivalent of carving a small space in between Canada and the US for Africans?

A view from the Friends of the Middle East Eco-Park

2. We met with some other really interesting organizations like the Jordan Breast Cancer Foundation, JHAS (the Jordan Health Aid Society), and the United Religious Initiative, all of which offered a new insight into the Jordanian social sector and civil society. My favorite, JHAS, is an organization that provides medical services for Iraqi refugees. We got a tour or their clinic and were invited to a dinner at the director of JHAS’s home, Yaroup, who transformed his backyard into a going away party for a friend. We ate well and “schmoozed” with some of Jordan’s elite working with refugee issues (for which there are many in because Jordan is known for its liberal border policies). That night we got a ride home from a JHAS employee who was on a break from working in Libya. I tried to pick his brain without being too obnoxious.

3. As mentioned, we met with some exceptional individuals who despite the risk of speaking with a group coming from Israel, were warm and accommodating. I think Arabs are known for their hospitality, and we for sure were greeted with it. We were almost always offered coffee or tea everywhere we went and were received with friendly attitudes; people who went out of their way to be helpful. From the hostel receptionist who gave us tips to getting to Petra, to our tour guide (he is assigned to us by the Jordanian government), Mohanned, who took us to see fun parts of Amman even on his day off.

4. PETRA. A couple of us stayed on two more nights to see one of the seven wonders of the worlds. We spent the whole day hiking the old city, famous for being carved out of sandstone. The place is beautiful, and you are free to jump and climb around on the rocks and ancient caves as much as you want. My favorites were the Johnny-Depp-Look-a-Like Bedouins who try to get you to pay for rides on their donkeys or camels. They’ve developed jokes over time that they know will please the tourists. So when you ask what a donkey’s name is, it is usually always “Shakira” or “Jackass.”

Do we look like Indiana Jones?

One of our Bedouin friends and his steed.

Our hike's destination-- the monastery.

I left Jordan not only with an acquired taste for dark Arabic coffee, but also with a more developed understanding of the Middle East. I know the politics and conflicts at play are far more complex than the tip of the iceberg I learned about in my four days there, but I am for sure walking away with a fresh perspective. Including one valuable learned lesson: do not ask the border police who the picture on their wall is. Not only is King Abdullah widely liked by his people, but his picture is found everywhere, and criticizing the King can be considered treason. Also, after insulting their King, do not try to shake their hands, they may be good Muslim men and have just washed for prayer. I’m just glad I got out of their without being arrested…

1 comment:

  1. OH my gosh Kut. That last paragraph made me miss you so much because I can see you saying that as you type it and then the WHOLE scene going down.
    God love you lol