Sunday, June 22, 2008

Home Again!

I'm back in DC, after a day of relatively painless travel. I'll write more soon on my last few days there (political dissidents! London Philharmonic orchestra! Iraqi refugees!), but for now, it is very, very good to be in my own bed again.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Internet: Coming Soon to a Middle Eastern City Near Me

Finally found a place with a decent enough connection to upload some Petra photos - you can find the previous post here. All of them can be enlarged by clicking once on each image, which will open them in a new tab or window. I ought to have more up shortly. Enjoy!

Dining in Jordan

Jordan is, for our purposes, a new state. Its borders don't follow any historical or ethnic borders in the region, having been drawn up by the French and the British at the end of World War I. Over half of the population is Palestinian, ie people who fled from the area west of the Jordan River in 1948 and in 1967. A Jordanian identity has coalesced in the country, fueled by campaigns such as the current one, "Jordan First," whose slogan and logo are on flags, walls, signs, and pamphlets in every part of the country, but there wasn't ever a Jordan as such before the twentieth century to create a cultural tradition here.

That means that there really isn't a Jordanian cuisine. Sure, there's Bedouin food (who make up a large portion of Jordan's population, whether settled or still nomadic), but that's not really a distinct cuisine so much as a few standard Arab dishes prepared traditionally. The best Arab food here is Lebanese, which is amusing because many Lebanese people will insist that they aren't really Arab. Nonetheless, their style of food is probably the best and most well-known coming out of the Levant. There are numerous mundane kebab and falafel shops, just as you'll see anywhere in the Middle East, but nothing really distinguishes them from any other country. The upshot is that you don't come to Jordan looking for its fine cuisine. Luckily, that gap has been filled.

Right now, I'm sitting in the food court of Mecca Mall (the name never fails to crack me up), with a Mango clothing store to my left and a KFC to my right. Sure, you can talk about the globalization and Americanization aspect of things, but I think it's significant that brands that I never see anymore in America (Hardee's is still around?) seem to be doing quite well here. KFC and Popeye's Chicken have their own delivery vehicles, which blows my mind. There's this one popular street of cafes where people will often go at night, but the biggest cafes are Popeye's and Hardee's - people stay there all night, smoking and drinking tea and coffee. Starbucks is ubiquitous, of course (I'm actually at one now, for the fast internet), and I even saw a Bennigan's the other day, down the street from the embassy. There's even a faux 50s diner across the way from us here in the mall. It's surreal, it's sad, and it's somewhat comforting that American businesses are doing so well here. It's gotta help out our economy somehow, right? Right?

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Umm Qais, or How I Came to Love My American Passport

Yesterday, Joe and I rented a car and headed to the far north of Jordan. We got to Umm Qais, a set of Roman ruins overlooking the Sea of Galilee, about an hour before sundown. This meant that we could explore the ruins for a little bit before heading to the restaurant at the top of the hill to watch the sun set over the Galilee and the Jordan river valley. Of course, those of you up on your Middle East geography will realize that being in Jordan next to the Sea of Galilee means that you're also right next door to the Golan Heights - ie, Syrian territory captured by Israel in the 1967 war and controlled by them ever since.

So, picture this if you will: a nice dinner of standard Arab fare, a fine glass of white wine, a beautiful sunset over Biblical settings, Roman ruins on a mountaintop, Jordanian families crawling all over the ruins and taking cute photos, Jordanian military watchposts just beyond the ruins, a small village in the valley below the mountain, Jordanian checkpoints on every road in and out of the village, barbed wire fences just beyond, Israeli pillboxes and watchposts all over the bare mountain just across the valley, and Israeli military jeeps busily humming across the first mountain in the chain that makes up the Golan Heights.

Welcome to the Middle East.

On our way back to Amman this morning via the Jordan River valley, we came through no fewer than 6 Jordanian checkpoints, some no more than 100 feet apart. With the American passport and rudimentary Arabic, we were more or less waved through them all, which is handy, at least. I now know that I will never forget the word for checkpoint, having it so thoroughly reinforced this morning.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Syria: Not on This List, Unfortunately

Title: "Top Tourist Spots Americans Can't Visit."

Actually, my friend George has visited at least two of these, but then again he went to Iraq in 2004 for his summer vacation, and Afghanistan in 2006. He's a singular sort of person.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Syrian Border Police Are Douchebags, or How I Was Banned From Entering Syria

Gather around, and ye shall hear the tale of how hannah and Joe spent 13 hours on the road yesterday, in the process being refused entry to Syria twice, yelling at consular officials in the Syrian embassy in Amman, getting lost in the morasse of Jordanian bureaucracy, off-roading through the desert, and visiting an emergency room in Amman.

We left Amman at 7 AM to catch a servees, a sort of long-distance taxi, to Damascus. If there were no border, the two cities are only about two or three hours apart. Unfortunately, there's the border, which is staffed by "border police" who delight in screwing with Americans trying to enter Syria. We had acquired our visas in DC, because any Americans trying at the Jordanian border or at the embassy here are assumed to have been to Israel and thus are refused. We had been assured by the consul in DC that we would have no problems leaving Jordan using our diplomatic passports and entering Syria on our tourist passports. When we got to the border, they noticed that we didn't have an exit from Jordan in our tourist passports, and asked what was up. Out came the other passports, and the fun began. We argued with the officer and a few of his bosses for an hour, while others ostensibly made numerous calls to their bosses in Damascus, before we were finally refused by someone unnervingly called the "station chief." At least we got some coffee out of the head goomba there before we left, as well as some cheap Lebanese wine at the duty-free store in no man's land.

We had to explain the entire situation to the Jordanian officials at the other side, and while they're used to Americans getting turned around, they seemed a little more confused by diplomats with visas being refused. After some finagling, they canceled our exit from Jordan (conveniently not refunding the departure tax) and we headed on our way. We returned to the Syrian embassy in Amman to deal with a consular official there affectionately known as the Visa Nazi to all American expats in the city. She started yelling at us about having two passports each and causing her problems, then she gets on the phone and comes back a new person. Very sweetly, she tells us to go to an office on the other side of Amman to have the Jordanian government transfer our entry visa into Jordan into our tourist passports, at which point we would have no problems entering Syria, she guarantees us.

With that process done, it was then about 2 PM. We grabbed lunch and then headed back to the border again, this time via a different route, hoping that we would have luck going through another border crossing where they wouldn't remember us. Unfortunately, Joe got violently ill on the road. When we changed cars at the intermediary city, he was feeling a little better, so we pressed on, but his situation quickly got a lot worse on the second leg. He was too busy feeling horrible and I was too unfamiliar with the terrain to notice that we finally arrived at the exact same border crossing as we had in the morning, so this round of negotiations fell to me. Same officer, same smug chuckles, same refusal reason. A Lebanese family standing beside me suggested that I just bribe the officer, but I didn't really feel like explaining that I couldn't offer the bribe, as an American diplomat, and anyway that they probably wouldn't let us in anyway. Then the police wouldn't give us our passports back until we'd secured transportation back to Amman, because the driver for this leg had to press on to Damascus and couldn't take us back. By this time Joe really started feeling bad, and the word "hospital" was first mentioned. I found a driver to take us to Amman in his air-conditioned car (which helped allay the nausea), so we finally got our passports back after the Syrians finished their cigarette break, and we headed back to the Jordanian side. The driver bought a few cartons of cigarettes and told me to say that some were mine if I was asked, which was fine by me, because all I wanted was to get back to Amman. After the same exit cancellation process on the Jordanian side, we were off.

I wanted our driver to take us directly to the hospital Joe requested, but he said no, his route only took him to this particular circle in central Amman. I offered him five extra dinars (more than covering the 1 JD cab ride between his usual stop and the hospital), and he still tried to hold out for ten. After some cursing and appeals to any shred of humanity in him, he finally agreed to take us directly to the hospital. Evidently his definition of "directly" isn't the same as mine, because he stopped at his house in a city along the road back to Amman to drop off the cigarettes he'd bought. This includes the four cartons sitting by my feet, the four or five hidden in the bumpers of the car, the three or four cartons hidden in drawers under the seats of the car, and the several individual packs hidden in the console, glove box, and door pockets. I'm not making this up. After some pleading, he finally hurries back to the road, and we made it to Amman fairly quickly, given that the road was blocked at one point by a wrecked eighteen-wheeler, thus requiring us to drive through the sandy scrub beside the highway for about a half mile to avoid the wreck. We weren't at the hospital long, just to get some meds for Joe and some directions for care and treatment, and we finally arrived back at his apartment at 8.30 PM.

Day. From. Hell. I mean, the story's great. I wish I could have taken some photos of the Syrian border crossing and the immigration building, because it was plastered with photos of the current leader, Basher al-Assad, and slightly smaller ones of his father, Hafiz. I'd like to say that I've stepped foot in a country with an honest-to-god cult of personality, but it's not clear that I did. I mean, I never legally entered Syria, and while I may have been inside the country by about 50 feet, I also technically never left Jordan (since our departures were cancelled both times). Nonetheless, it was an expensive story. I don't want to think how much it actually cost to drive back and forth (and back and forth). While it's not certain that I've been banned from entering Syria in the future, I'd be surprised if they couldn't manage to send my name and passport numbers to all of the border crossings and airports in Syria - it's clear that someone in Damascus is convinced that Joe and I are spies. Even if I had new passport numbers, I'd imagine that I'm forever blacklisted as a diplomat, and so I probably can't enter even if I have a new passport and have left the Foreign Service. It's a real shame; I really did want to visit Damascus, probably more so than any other city in the Middle East.

Needless to say, today has been very low key, involving lots of sleep and not doing anything. I certainly got a full day of immersive experience yesterday, albeit not in ways that the Arabic department at FSI envisioned!

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Bedouin and Donkeys and Ruins, Oh My!

NOTE: I'm writing out this post while I have the chance, but my internet connection isn't fast enough to upload photos yet. I'll add these as soon as I can. Sorry everyone!

It's been a whirlwind lately - I can't believe I've only been here five days. On Thursday Joe and I went to Madaba, a town just outside of Amman that's famous for its mosaics and its proximity to Mt. Nebo. In case I haven't explained who Joe is, he's a good friend of mine from work who is also going to Saudi Arabia, just a different town. He has a twisted sense of humor and lots of experience in the region, because he lived in Amman for about 3 years. Here he is overlooking the Dead Sea.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Madaba. We saw Mt. Nebo (too hazy to see the Promised Land, and it's pretty desertified anyway - I would have passed on it and asked God for the Land behind door 2). I managed to wheedle my way for free in to the ruins of a big mosaic in Madaba, with my mad Arabic skills and stunning charm (or the guy was just lazy). Some rudimentary Arabic later, he just walks out onto the floor and invites me down off the scaffolding to show me some of the details of the artwork. Archaeology is more of a suggestion than a discipline here....

I also got to see Madaba's most famous mosaic, one from the 6th century showing a map of religious sites in the Levant. It's the first known map of Christian Jerusalem, and I studied it in my Jerusalem class in 2006. History nerds, be alert! (My foot is included for perspective. It's amusing how in the books no one mentions that the map is actually pretty small.)

We stayed the night there and then the next day drove down to Petra on the Kings' Highway, a twisting snake of an ancient road that follows the top of the mountains in west Jordan. Well, except for where it doesn't follow the mountains and has to cross Wadi Mujib. Traffic was kind of heavy at one point.

One of Joe's friends, a Fulbright student here in Jordan, has been living in a village outside of Petra since January, and she arranged a homestay for us there. This is a Bedouin village, populated by the group of Bedouins who used to live in the caves in Petra but were forced out by the Jordanian government to make it into a more efficient tourist trap. The amusing part is that we had to tell the family we stayed with that Joe and I were a married couple in order for them not to freak out. This led to a number of near-mistakes when talking about my "brother" Mark and Joe's "friend" Maria, but I think we managed to avoid any horrid offenses. Unfortunately, Joe and I divorced each other the next day, largely because of the noises he makes when he sleeps (which sound suspiciously like several donkeys tied up about ten feet away from the open window to the guest bedroom).

This is a photo of us with one of the children who seemed to be connected to our family, although I missed out on the exact relationship. No one there locks their doors, and people just breeze in and out to say hello. I think I OD'd on sweet tea while I was there.

We also met a New Zealander who married a Bedouin man 30 years ago and has lived in the caves and the village ever since. She recently published a book about it, which Joe and I picked up, even at the inflated price of twenty Jordanian dinars (about $28). She told us a lot of stories about how life has changed in Petra and Wadi Musa (the town nearby, now saturated with fat American tourists and European backpackers) since they were forced into the village outside Petra in 1985. Plus, seriously, a hippy New Zealander in a conservative Bedouin village? You can't make this up.

After our divorce and leaving the Bedouin family's house, I struck out for Petra while Joe went his own way - he's seen it several times already. Petra was amazing - what else can you say? Here's two obligatory photos of the Treasury, the building at the entrance of the city that everyone recognizes. [Update one week later: he tells me now that he wishes he'd gone with me, because evidently, due to my unexpected detour, I only saw about 10% of what the average tourist sees. Sucker!]

These pink flowers, whatever they are, were in bloom anywhere there was a hint of water. (This is relevant later on - keep in mind that the bushes are about six to ten feet tall.) Here's another photo, in an attempt to be artsy.

Above all of this is the High Place of Sacrifice, which is a not-too-challenging hike above the wadi. This photo looks down onto the wadi floor where the previous photo was taken. For perspective, click on this photo so it opens up full size in a new window and find the "buildings" carved into the rock face. Those are probably three stories high.

I have been to the mountain top! That valley floor below me is roughly 10 or 20 meters below the level of the buildings in the above photo. Ie, watch your step, because there are no guard rails.

I hiked for about an hour with some Americans that I met on top of that mountain, then I headed out on my own off the beaten path. I was trying to get here...

...but the wadi I was following actually led me here.

I ended up following a goat trail up the side of the ravine, so you can see how high up I was, compared to those flowering bushes at the bottom of the wadi in the last photo. It was beautiful - I even got to see the stereotypical wheeling hawk in the canyon. Gorgeous. On my way into this particular wadi, I ran across a Bedouin woman and her two kids, and she invited me into a little cave to have tea with her. Her Arabic was incomprehensible to me, and her English was really bad (no verbs, just nouns), so communication was rather rough, but it was an experience to remember.

After that, I made my way back to the main part of Petra, to meet up with Joe and head back into Amman. We took the Dead Sea highway back to Amman, and stopped off for dinner at a hotel on the sea to watch the sunset. Before that, however, we had to get from Petra to the highway, which involved driving this road through 4000 feet of elevation change. Be sure to note the sign in the second photo.

Obligatory desert photos, once we'd finally come out of the mountains. My attempts to replicate Liza's awesome photo were an epic failure. In my defense, I'd been hiking all day.

The Dead Sea highway. Not quite the same as the 101, but hey, we're in Jordan, not California.

Me in the Dead Sea - I'm standing on sand bags, because the actual staircase down from the beach ends about five feet above the water level. The Dead Sea is going down by about a half a meter to a meter each year due to the amount of water (about 90% of the natural flow) Israel, Syria, and Jordan pull out of the Jordan River, which is the main source of replenishment for the sea. At the point where I'm standing, I was about 415 meters below sea level - the lowest point on earth!

And, one final photo. It's poor quality, but the sign says it all.

That's it for now - we're off to Damascus tomorrow. I hope you're all well!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Jordan, Day 1

So far, so good! I got in last night after 28 hours of hell and crappy food, immediately showered and then went to sleep. My host, a junior officer at our embassy here, is very nice, and her digs are great - I can only hope that my place in Saudi is as good. Today we met up with the other group that's here from FSI (whom we intend to avoid as much as possible) and our ostensible teacher, although we'll only meet with her for a few hours a week. Basically, this was just to coordinate our schedules and to make sure that we have the barest veneer of oversight from someone at FSI. Once we'd checked in, my group headed out for our first meeting, with an organization here that provides special ed and basic vocational training for special needs children in Amman. One of the people we spoke to there is the director of Jordan's Special Olympics program, and we got to see photos of the school's students who went to the international Special Olympics last year in Beijing. Later in the day, we visited a church that has been providing educational services for Iraqi children living as refugees in Jordan, although the plan has changed somewhat in the past few months to an after-school tutoring program now that Jordanian schools are allowing Iraqis to enroll (a recent change). One of my friends here worked for an NGO in Jordan a few years ago, and he knows all of these great little organizations where we can go and talk about their jobs and activities in Arabic. It's a side of Jordan that I'll bet most Americans never see.

Right now I'm in a cafe overlooking downtown Amman, which is very hilly, and the Roman forum ruins in the center of town. This cafe is a project of a nature conservancy here, built entirely of natural materials from around Jordan and selling nature-y stuff in a cafe and a gift shop. I imagine that we'll be back here often, for the free wireless and good food. Pictures may be slow in coming, but once I have some worth showing, I'll pony up. I think that's it for now - so long from Amman!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Longest Layover Ever

Our plane to Jordan is just now pulling up to the gate in Paris. I got here at 5.45 AM, and it's just now noon local time. We still have another hour before we leave. I have become my cat: I moved all around the terminal this morning finding sleeping spots on the benches where I could be in the sun.

Oh, how I want to sleep in a real bed.