Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wrapping Up

The end of the summer came quickly, and I didnt get my act together soon enough to put a blog post up. So I am back in comfortable suburban Maryland, my summer in Amman over. A quick recap to my last few days, though:

Wednesday, I had a visitor from west of the Jordan River. My friend Lani, a classmate at Harvard, headed over to Amman after spending her summer doing thesis research in the West Bank. She is camping in my apartment for a few days while she waits for her flight home - and now that I am gone, she gets to upgrade from the sofa to my empty bed.

Thursday was my final exam at Qasid. Though I'm not taking the summer classes for credit, I still wanted to go out on a high note with the test. I wont know my final score for a while, but I felt pretty good about my performance. I didnt know a few isolated words here and there, but no major surprises. I said goodbye to my teachers and a few Qasid administrators, and headed for the last time to the Madina Riyadiyah gym.

Lani and I spent the day Friday in downtown Amman. She was only in town for a few days, so I decided to head into wust al-balad to show her the city's main sights. There's not a whole lot to do in downtown, but I figured it might give her a more authentic  impression of the city than she would get from my apartment in ritzy Abdoun. We swung past the Roman theater, the Citadel, and bought baklava from Habibeh's downtown. All in all, we spent about three hours downtown... and in the process, saw just about everything there is to see. My final day in the city was pretty similar to my first - started at the same place, saw the same sights, and am still getting lost on the downtown's winding streets. Lani and I spent the rest of the evening relaxing at home with the AC cranked up on high, before I was picked up and taken to the airport.

So, twenty-four hours later, I'm back in Maryland unpacking and getting ready to head to the Cape. A couple of tylenol PM's on the plane from Frankfurt seem to have helped my jet-lag considerably; I feel like I could be mostly adjusted by as soon as tomorrow morning. As for now, though, I'm pretty pooped. I'm especially looking forward to, for the first time in nine weeks, sleeping in a bed that is long enough to fit my entire body!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Endorsement/Kiss of Death

I’ve written in support of the so-called Ground Zero Mosque before. The project has since been approved by the local zoning board, and defended by President Obama. Despite this progress, the center’s backers just got what is sure to be an unwelcome surprise today in the form of an endorsement from Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a founder of Hamas.

I can think of very few worse groups to have on your side, and I can think of very few worse ways to phrase one’s support. Particularly damaging:
"Mahmoud Al Zahar said Muslims "have to build everywhere" so that followers can pray"
For pundits and talking heads worrying about an Islamic “takeover” of America, this is a rhetorical godsend. I can hear the talking points now: "Muslims have to build everywhere? Can't you see? They want to take over everywhere, and spread shari'a everywhere!" This is very bad news for the already-embattled project.  

Damaging though this endorsement is, in my view, it doesn’t change the underlying dynamics of the case. The Islamic center is still an issue of religious freedom in a country that is built on this very concept. It is unfortunate that Mr. Zahar chose to speak out on the issue, as support from a terrorist group like his is sure to harm both the center’s prospects as well as those who bucked the tide of public opinion to support the project. Our political leaders have previously condemned or simply ignored other terrorists when they spoke out on American political issues, as they did with Osama bin Laden’s input in our 2004 presidential elections. Perhaps, as Senator Chuck Schumer suggested in the article, we can hope to ignore these comments as well.   

A Taste of Ramadan

We’re now almost a week into Ramadan. Restaurants are closed, but traffic is lighter, the gym is empty (since no one can drink during daytime workouts), and no one is smoking – all in all, it’s a nice experience.

While I’m certainly on the outside looking in on Ramadan traditions, I got my own little taste of Ramadan yesterday. The day began normally, with class until noon. After class, I got an unexpected email from Feryal Hijazi, my Arabic professor at Harvard. She told me that she would be stopping by Qasid later and would love to see me if I were around. I was of course happy to wait, but this plan kept me at school several hours longer than I had planned that morning. Thus, I had brought no lunch with me and, after a trip to the gym, I was starving. The only place open and selling food was a dessert shop across the street from our building; lunch thus consisted of a half-kilogram of baklava, surreptitiously shared with another student in an empty classroom back at Qasid.

Later that evening, we had plans to break the fast with our teacher from Qasid at a restaurant by the University of Jordan. I hopped into a taxi with a few other kids and headed for Bab al-Yemen, a dirt-cheap and delicious place just north of the university. Many kids in my class are fasting, as is my devout teacher, so our wait for our food was particularly tantalizing for them. Waiters piled food on the table as the sun set, and when the minarets sounded the evening call to prayer, the hungry folk dove into their meals at every table in the restaurant.

The evening wasn’t all that different from a typical meal out, I guess. I personally am not fasting; I decided long ago that my twin loves of sleep and food would be destroyed by waking up before sunrise each day to eat in preparation for a long day without any food. So this wasn’t really an iftar, or breaking of the fast, for me. It was just another meal in the evening. But it was the first time I had interacted with my teacher outside of the classroom, and we all got to know each other a little bit better. It was my first trip to a Jordanian restaurant with a fluent Arabic speaker, which made me feel considerably more welcome and less awkward. As we walked back to the bus, our teacher stopped by a mosque to pray. While she only invited the women in our group to join her inside, I spent a few quiet minutes in the middle of the courtyard – a very peaceful little break in the middle of a long day.

As for the meeting with my Feryal, she invited me and another Harvard student to her house for iftar on Tuesday night. Feryal taught us the Arabic unit on Ramadan last fall, complete with vocabulary words for all of the different treats and sweets that accompany Ramadan celebrations. She promised to make them all for us to try – though, after yesterday’s lunch, I will be fine without any baklava for quite some time. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Christian Hajj

I took another day trip with Susan today, to the nearby town of Madaba. The town itself has a large, healthy Christian minority, but we took two side excursions in addition: to Mount Nebo, the site of Moses's death, and to Bethany-upon-the-Jordan, the site of Christ's baptism. Susan joked that, because of the religious significance of these two places, we were embarking on Christian Hajj.

I'm not particularly religious, so I of course came to the sites with a very different perspective from the many tourists at the sites who were no doubt devout Christians. I mentioned afterwards to Susan that neither place was particularly impressive (especially compared to our trip last week), but both were very interesting to see. 

The view from Mount Nebo
Mount Nebo was the first stop. Mentioned in the Bible, it is reputed to be the place from where Moses glimpsed the Promised Land, and also where he died. There are ruins of a church dating from the 4th century, but they were under restoration and so were off limits. The view of the Promised Land was also a disappointment - haze blocked all but the closest sites, marking my third haze-obscured panoramic view in Jordan. Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan was also sad. The area has only been open since the late 1990s, after the Jordanian-Israeli peace agreement allowed the land mines to be cleared from the area. We took a guided tour of the area, saw the ruins of a church marking the reputed exact spot of the baptism, and had an opportunity to head down to the river's edge. But decades of environmental degradation and poor management of water resources had taken their toll. The once-mighty Jordan was reduced to a stagnant green trickle of a river, and the baptism site itself was bone dry. I warily stuck a finger into the river, and watched in horror as those in my group washed their hair and faces with the putrid water. 

So while neither site was impressive or awe-inspiring, both were quite thought-provoking. I'm always skeptical of archaeological sites that claim direct ties with biblical history - and the more certain the claimed connection, the greater my suspicion. I simply don't believe that modern archaeology can to discover with any certainty the locations of events that, even if they happened, wouldn't have left any archaeological evidence. Can we pinpoint with certainty the location where Jesus removed his robe before baptism? Our guide certainly thought he could, based on the ruins of the church that post-dated the baptism by centuries. Mount Nebo's claim to be the place where Moses stood, looked, and died rests on the ruins of the 4th century church - itself built hundreds of years after the event would have taken place. I'm not convinced that 4th century Christian clergy did the proper due diligence to make sure they were building on the right mountain. Mount Nebo is surrounded by other peaks, a few of them higher - might they have been wrong?

What I saw at these sites was similar to other biblical/archaeological sites I've seen across the Middle East. These sites are advertised as the "exact spots" of biblical events with great certainty, while the evidence supporting these claims is rarely elaborated. I climbed Mount Sinai in Egypt, which possesses deep religious significance for all Abrahamic faiths. Yet this mountain's claim to be "the" Mount Sinai is tentative at best. The location has moved throughout the centuries, different religious sects disagree on which mountain is the biblical Sinai, and modern scholars dispute the mountain's claim for many reasons.  Yet this didnt stop the Egyptian tourism industry from hyping the peak's religious significance - I even saw a bush that was supposedly descended from the famous Burning Bush of the Bible.  In Israel, there are many sites that claim to be the ruins of biblical places or of the ancient Jewish kingdoms. The certainty with which these claims were made just made me more suspicious of their authenticity. 

The (once) Mighty Jordan River
In both places, archaeology was being exploited for different goals. In Egypt, the government valued the tourist revenue from pilgrims flocking to see "the" place where Moses received the Ten Commandments. In Israel, much archaeology is undertaken with the clearly political goal of emphasizing the ancient Jewish presence in the region, and thus the Israeli claim to the land today. 

I think this is sad. It cheapens archaeology, by requiring that its findings fit into pre-prescribed conclusions, and harms its credibility by forcing archaeologists, like my guide today, to make unsupportable claims about a site's significance. In my view, it also cheapens, rather than strengthens, Israel's right to exist; Israel should exist for many compelling, important, and currently relevant reasons, not simply because there was an ancient Jewish civilization on the same site. And, I believe, this type of biblical archaeology cheapens faith. Religious people don't need their faith buttressed by dubious archaeological evidence - their reasons for belief go far deeper than stones, pillars, and ruins. But when archaeologists come forward with weak claims of direct biblical significance for their finds, it creates the impression that religious belief is resting on these unimpressive foundations. 

Ignoring my skepticism and the lackluster beauty of the two sites, I still had a nice time. We saw some nice countryside, as well as cool mosaics in Madaba, which was a neat little town. I managed to haggle our taxi ride down to 20JD from a start of 50JD, a minor personal triumph. And, to celebrate her last night in Amman, Susan agreed to take me out for margaritas and Mexican food at the Intercontinental Hotel. Hard to argue that any day that ends like that is a bad one. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ramadan Begins!

It is official - a new moon was sighted tonight, marking the start of the month of Ramadan. Though science has long possessed the astronomical technology to accurately predict the start of new lunar cycles, traditionalists in the Islamic world rely on a less-sophisticated method: looking at the sky. The UAE's official moon-sighting committee saw the new moon tonight, as did similar organizations across the Middle East. Ramadan will thus start tomorrow, just as it says in my daily planner which was printed over a year ago.

However, were I without internet or sky access, I would still have likely guessed that Ramadan was indeed beginning due to the noise and hoopla that has been going on outside for hours. Noise is nothing new in my neighborhood, of course - even fireworks go off randomly at all hours of the day and night. But tonight seems much more intense. The music has been blasting all night - my neighbors are playing traditional Ramadan songs such as Hey Soul Sister, Viva la Vida, Tik Tok, and Bad Romance. Windows must stay open or it gets too hot to sleep.... it could be a long night.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Jerash Report, and Photos

Yesterday's trip to the ruins at Umm Qais and Jerash was great. Unbelievably hot, but great. Susan and I improvised most of our transportation, with a patchwork of minibuses and taxis, but everything turned out safe and relatively quick. Despite quirky internet, I was able to upload my pics here. Some highlights of the trip:

  • Scrapping our plans to travel by fancy motorcoach once they sent us to the wrong station at 7:30 AM, opting instead for the cheaper, more informal minibus network. 
  • Arriving at Umm Qais remarkably painlessly, and having the deserted site to ourselves for about half an hour.
  • Scrambling through Roman theaters, Byzantine churches, and an Ottoman village built from the stone of the two older civilizations.
  • Gazing out at the Golan Heights and Sea of Galilee, wishing that our itinerary included a swim.
  • Chatting with an old man at the bus stop who, after living for 15 years in Germany, spoke great Arabic and great German, but no English. I found my German vocabulary from years of voice lessons to be a little bit useful.
  • Hitching a ride from Irbid to Jerash with a friendly off-duty Jordanian military officer, saving us an hour's wait while the bus filled up. The air conditioning in his car was most welcome.
  • The all-you-can-eat buffet at a restaurant just outside of Jerash, featuring traditional hummus and mansaf, as well as less-traditional pasta with meatballs and marinara sauce.
  • A surprisingly empty Jerash - tour groups came and went, but we had plenty of time for pictures at empty monuments.
  • Overhearing the Jordanian Bagpipe Ensemble practicing in one of the site's theaters.
  • Watching a local guide move a stone pillar with a metal spoon - apparently, an earthquake set the standing pillars off-balance and made them incredibly easy to wobble back and forth.
  • Testing the acoustics at the empty North Theater, performing for a crowd of zero.
  • Consuming three ice cream cones, as well as water in one day than I went through during all of Petra
  • Communicating smoothly for the entire trip. My spoken Arabic isn't great by any stretch of the imagination, don't get me wrong. But I got directions, chatted with drivers, bargained for souvenirs, and even defended myself against an attempted scamming taxi driver, all in Arabic comprehensible enough to be understood. Baby steps... 
I'm now looking at less than two weeks left in Jordan. It's been a great run, but the little annoyances are quickly adding up. Ramadan starts in the middle of the week, so I am looking forward to that new experience - I'll write more once I have exciting news. 

Friday, August 6, 2010

Heading North

Susan and I are taking a road trip tomorrow. It's wicked hot in Amman and, with two weeks left before I head home, I'm running out of time to get out and see the country.

We'll be heading to Jerash and Umm Qais for a day trip. Both were once important Roman cities, and Jerash supposedly has some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world. We passed Jerash on our way to Ajloun earlier this summer... but I think it deserves more than a drive-by viewing. Umm Qais is smaller and more remote, but this also means that it isnt going to be teeming with tourists like Jerash most likely will be.

Public transport to Umm Qais is a bit iffy, so I will hope that my remedial speaking skills hold up under pressure. I'll also do my best for some nice photos, but with my camera, I wouldn't cross my fingers...

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Now for a bit of self-congratulatory news...

Last December, I wrote a review of Christopher Davidson's Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond as a final project for a class at Harvard. A little while later, I submitted it to the Middle East Policy Council, which publishes the Middle East Policy Journal. They liked it and agreed to print it in their next issue (and also sent me an unexpected $100 check).

The print version has been out for some time, I believe, but the Summer issue of the journal was just posted on a brand new MEPC website. The review was written in December, so a little bit of the content has become dated by August. But I am now officially a published author!

Those of you with any interest in the region can read the review here. Everyone else can feel free to ignore, for the moment, the fact that book reviews are at the bottom of the publishing world's totem pole!

License Plate Tag

When my siblings and I were young, my parents devised an interesting way to keep us occupied on long car trips. Each child got a checklist with the names of the fifty US states, as well as DC and a few Canadian provinces. The first child to see and check off license plates from all of the listed locations won - as did my parents, who experienced a more bearable trip.

Yesterday, while walking around the neighborhood, I saw an Omani license plate on a late-model black Mercedes sedan. While I hadn't officially been keeping track, that sighting completed my checklist for all license plates in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman). I'm sure I'm way ahead of my siblings on this scorecard.

I was warned by the woman who owns my apartment that summer in Amman was "Saudi Season" - traffic becomes unbearable as GCC nationals pour into Jordan to escape the oppressive Gulf summers. She was indeed correct. It seems there are just as many foreign cars on the road as Jordanian ones, and what's worse, they are usually large SUV's fueled by cheap (and local) Gulf
petroleum. I've had several taxi drivers complain that the GCC cars are driven by maniacs, who "think they own the road" and "dont understand basic traffic laws." I could probably say the same about Massachusetts drivers, but I certainly agree with these guys. Traffic has multiplied recently and trips have become slower and longer, just as a terrible heat wave has made these waits in cars more uncomfortable. Saudis may be escaping the Gulf heat by coming to Amman, but they are dooming me to experience far more of the Jordanian heat than I would like!

Beyond the GCC, I'm doing quite well with license plates too - I've checked off every Arab country east of Egypt, with the exception of Yemen. I've also gotten three different provinces in Iraq and four different emirates in the UAE. So far, I haven't seen any Gulf license plates on an old or beat-up car, though... I may see an Israeli license plate in Amman before I see a poor-looking car from the GCC!