Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jordan Late-Blogging: A School, a Camel and the King

Posted By on Thu, Dec 3, 2009 at 4:01 PM

I have failed as a blogger. Blogging is supposed to take place in “real-time,” or something akin to it. Due to the fact that my down time in Jordan was spent nursing a nasty ear and sinus infection, I wasn’t able to blog as much as I would have wanted as our journey was unfolding. And once I returned to Idaho—well, you know what it’s like when you come back from vacation. Back to the grind. So now the editor (and by “now” I mean almost a week ago) has asked me to wrap up this project with some parting observations and conclusions—a fair request, I reckon.

There’s at least one other experience on our trip that simply cannot go without commentary: our visit to an all schools girl created for Palestinian refugees and run by the United Nations Relief & Work Agency (UNRWA) in Amman.

That Monday morning, our van pulled into the schoolyard and immediately drew the curiosity and attention of hundreds of uniformed young girls who began peering into the van. The crowd grew and as we stepped down from the vehicle. We were engulfed by a delightful and spontaneous welcoming party of young girls, many of whom were not the slightest bit shy in asking our names and asking us to photograph them. As a group, we were quickly scattered as clusters of girls would swarm around each of us and in their limited English would ask us questions, pose for the camera, and then quickly ask to view the digital images we’d captured. As I finally made it to the entrance, I looked across the yard to a cement wall, upon which someone had spray painted the slogan, “No Child Left Behind.”

Once we entered, we were escorted to a 10th grade civics class. The plan was for us to see how Project Citizen truly worked in practice. The approximately 30 adolescent girls were notably more reserved in greeting us than their younger counterparts in the schoolyard.

After some brief introductions, the students began their presentations. They would speak to a series of slides that they had prepared, outlining the evolution of the Project Citizen project they had pursued over the course of several months.

I won’t go into the details other than to explain that the project they chose to develop had to do with keeping the school clean and hygienic. This was the problem they had identified and settled on as being the most pressing within their school environment. As mundane as that may sound (at least it did to me), the presentation was powerful in revealing what a sweeping and transformative change the project had on school spirit, pride, and the overall learning environment. For many of the girls, who spoke to us in both Arabic and English, you got the sense that the Project Citizen had been an empowering, and even life-changing experience. They had learned a process for identifying and solving a problem—tools that they can apply to all areas of their lives.

At the same time, the thing that I shall always remember about the hour or so we spent in that classroom was how incredibly poised, confident, thoughtful, and assertive these young women were. They fielded our questions with enthusiasm and often penetrating insights. They exuded pride, in their work and in their transformed school. It’s been almost fifteen years since I worked as a high school teacher, but I certainly couldn’t remember a group of students being so thoughtful, confident, ambitious, and engaged (which may say something about my skills as a teacher, no doubt). But my seasoned teacher companions seemed equally impressed.

There wasn’t a girl in that class who didn’t want to share her thoughts with us. I wondered if it was the all girls school environment that made these young women so confident and assertive. Or was it something in the way they were schooled? To what extent had Project Citizen given them a boost of confidence? And how utterly ridiculous were our stereotypes of the voiceless and oppressed Muslim woman.

These girls were leaders. They shared their personal and professional ambitions: law, medicine, politics, journalism, engineering, education. They wanted us and American students to know, as one girl put it, that they are not helpless Third World students who can’t solve their own problems. And they may have had strong opinions about Palestinian statehood or the political “no man’s land” that they find themselves in, but none of this was expressed with any sense of stridence nor was there a trace of self-pity.

One of the questions that drew the most hands was the question, “Where do human rights come from?” Answers ranged from the United States, to war and the act of people having had their homes taken, to Islam.

After the presentations, each of us posed for photos with the students and teachers. They engaged us in conversation. They asked about our families, our work, our faith. At least one of our teachers was the target of some friendly proselytizing. When asked how many times a day he prayed, he cleverly answered “six,” knowing full well that Muslims observe five formal prayers each day. The girls were amused by the deliberate one-upmanship.

They asked for our email addresses, we exchanged many thank-yous and goodbyes, and then it was back to the schoolyard. This time, our exit was even more chaotic, as we were leaving just as the transition from the morning to the afternoon shift was taking place. More photos, endless responses to the question “What’s your name?” (“Ismi Brian”—the one Arabic phrase I’d mastered), and “How are you?” Many of us signed autographs. For the first time in my life, I signed someone’s hand. This must be what it’s like to “be in the band.” One of the members of our delegation, upon boarding the bus and escaping the throngs, looked out on the crowd and said, “Don’t to forget to vote for me on Election Day.” With children continuing to surround our van, it took no less than 20 minutes to move approximately 150 yards and make our way out of the neighborhood’s narrow streets.

OK, again because my time has run out on this blog, I really have to limit myself to some remaining snapshots. Following are just a few of the wonderful (and occasionally surprising) memories that I’ve brought back from Jordan.

• An extended conversation with Fadi (our tour guide for the week) that I had on one leg of the van ride, during which he talked about his children (who go to private school and are fluent in three languages), the burden of buying private medical insurance, the pros and cons of being a Christian tour guide in a Muslim country (Church groups from abroad often express a preference for a Christian guide but occasionally he’s been discriminated against by Muslim tour operators).
• Riding a camel through Wadi Rum and being handed the reins of our five-camel caravan about 10 minutes into the adventure, so that the camel herder would be freed up to talk on his cell phone. Wadi Rum seems as remote and desolate as the Owyhee Canyonlands—so how does he get cell service? And who is he texting?
• The friendly doctor in Amman who came to our hotel at 10:30 at night, just 15 minutes after being called, checked me out, talked me up, wrote me some scripts, and charged me all of $36.
• A conversation with Fayez, our driver, at the Bedouin camp where we ate after riding camels through Wadi Rum. Fayez has the most amazing moustache I’ve ever seen and a heart of gold. He and I bonded a bit (despite the language differences), if only because I learned that he too had married a woman from Latin America (his wife is from Cuba, mine from Ecuador). While originally from Jerusalem, it was clear that Fayez did not identify as a Palestinian. As he said, “My business is here.” What family he has left in the occupied territories he cannot visit, although his wife (who has a Cuban passport) can. We shared a good laugh as he puffed on his shisha (aka hookah or water pipe) and shouted Spanish vulgarities at the Bedouin waiter.
• The four visits that I made in 24 hours to the Hammam (Middle Eastern variant of the steam bath) at the Dead Sea Marriot where we were staying. Sweating and breathing in a steamy menthol infusion never felt so good.
• The “Cuban Music” band playing at our Dead Sea hotel. Two Jordanian guys playing acoustic guitar and a female singer with a set of bonga drums playing and singing over instrumental tracks of Marc Anthony and Celia Cruz.
• The food: everywhere we went, the food was outstanding. Unfortunately, due to my illness, my taste buds couldn’t fully appreciate the richness of flavor until our last day. And I’m left wondering why we can’t produce hummus in the U.S. that’s as smooth as butter.
• Floating in the Dead Sea. The sensation of buoyancy in the super-saline body of water is surreal.
• My encounter with the King of Jordan.

OK, encounter might be a bit of an overstatement, but I did get to see him up close and personal. After returning from a stroll/final shopping excursion through the streets of Aqaba, I returned to our hotel to find dozens of heavily armed soldiers, tanks, and other military apparatus seemingly braced for an imminent royal visit. I had learned that King Abdullah II would be visiting the hotel that day, but hours after we had planned to depart. I had to sweet talk my way past three soldiers just to get back into the hotel (which was fortunate, given that I had foolishly ventured out without any ID). It was clear they were jittery. When I entered the front door, there were no less than 100 people—hotel staff—standing with rapt attention and giddy with anticipation. I couldn’t help but acknowledge the grand welcome with a wave of my own, which didn’t seem to amuse anyone. I went straight to the front desk and asked if, in fact, the King’s arrival was imminent. They said it was.

I made a mad dash to my room, grabbed my camera, and just as I got back down, he was arriving. I asked someone who looked like Secret Service if I could take a picture, as it seemed like no one else was. He said no. I moved to the other side of the grand lobby and decided I would disobey the Secret Service. Surrounded by his entourage and members of the press, the King was difficult to photograph, particularly because I lacked a powerful zoom lens. He was quickly whisked off to the elevator. I had an even better opportunity to catch a glimpse just moments later, when the King came back down the staircase near where I was standing. Again, my camera failed me but it was quite the thrill to be just a few yards from the man whose visage I’d become well familiar with, as it is plastered all over buildings and monuments throughout the country.

The King, it should be noted, was wearing slacks and sport coat, no tie, and no keffiyeh. And he was all smiles as he greeted the hotel staff with a gentle “Salaam!”

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