22 August 2007

if you don't understand something, then it's best to be afraid.

Seven months and I'm not certain I'm any closer to some notion of truth than I was when I stood in the OIA security line hoping no one asked about my Arabic dictionary. But I do understand a little more, albeit only slightly, but I think that's more than most people will ever attempt. I don't like everything about Jordan, but I don't fear it and I don't think it's hopeless to think that the conflict in the Middle East might one day be history and not news.

I'm less idealistic than I was seven months ago, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I have a more balanced view of the conflicts and social problems in the Arab world and a better understanding of my place here. I'm not going to save the region unless someone on the inside thinks my voice is worth hearing. Those people DO exist, contrary to popular belief - King Abdullah being a prominent example - but there aren't enough yet. There are artists and journalists and teachers pushing boundaries, but there are others reinforcing stereotypes and building walls. Just as we Americans insist on our own individuality, so too do the Jordanians I've known. Some are like Amjad, my radical Islam professor, who insist they're not tolerant like others, but most are just trying to live their lives and leave something better for their children.

I may not know what's best for Jordan and its neighbors, but I think, as an outsider, I can see what's not working. Criticize the evils of American sexual liberation and materialism all you want, but I haven't met a single person here who wouldn't drop everything for the opportunity to stand on American soil, even just for a few days. Call me an imperialist, but that makes me proud to say "ana amreekiya" when asked.

So are we better off forbidding all that might be taken to an extreme or trusting people to make their own decisions? I believe I am better off today for the mistakes I've made on my own terms. Sure, I've humiliated myself and regretted some things, but I'm still here and stronger for the lessons. This is where the hippie cultural relativist in me dies - some things are wrong and I believe social oppression is one of them. I hate the men here who have fondled me in the street, asked to watch me have sex, and repeatedly propositioned me, and I hate the aspects of their culture and faith that have taught them that (their) women are objects to be preserved, isolated, and controlled, while infidel women are merely slightly more interactive versions of a blow-up doll.

Stereotypes are true for a reason, and I can count on one hand the number of Jordanian men who have treated me as a person. I'm not certain Ben Hill Griffin Stadium could accommodate all the ones who haven't. If you think that I've "asked for it" by virtue of my dress, actions, or demeanor, then please don't speak to me again. There is very little a person can do (genocide being one exception) that justifies their dehumanization, and I don't think a skirt makes that list.

Although sexual apartheid has dominated my experience in Jordan, there are other problems here, and yes, I believe many of them stem from Islam, but that's not any different than my view of Christianity in the US or Judaism in Israel, so don't even start on the Islamophobia charges. I think all three "faiths" are equally problematic and all the good that can potentially be done in the name of god is far outweighed by the atrocities committed for the same cause. Very little you can say will ever budge me from that view - oppression, the squelching of potentially life-saving knowledge, human rights violations, genocide, and yes, terrorism, are killing us and we're too caught up in what the other side believes to notice. But interestingly enough, I came here believing Christianity was the root of all evil, but I've come to respect the role it played in facilitating the medieval split between church and state that enabled the modern notion of individual liberty that I hold so dear. Don't get me wrong, I won't be converting anytime soon, but Christianity had a place in creating the world I love. Had being the operative word.

So what's the solution?

I'm not purporting to know, but Einstein said that the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So I don't care what you do, just try something different. We'll fail, probably more often than we succeed, but I'd rather go down trying than not. And if you chose not to try, then I believe you lose the right to criticize those who do. So stand up and do something, or stay there content in your silence.

Where does this leave me? I'm more excited than ever about Ethiopia, but I am also excited about coming back in two (maybe three?) years and serving my country (as a civilian!). I've disagreed with my beloved country's policy in the Middle East before, and chances are, I will continue to. That's what I love - I can do that without fear of imprisonment, death, or even employment discrimination. But, I've realized the often-precarious position in which the US finds itself in the Middle East, and I'm confident things are only going to change with the backing (financial, implicit, or blatant) of the world's most powerful nation. And I'm proud to say I want to be a part of that, whether on the grassroots ground as a Peace Corps volunteer living what I believe are the best aspects of American values or as an analyst inside some agency with a reputation based more on its public failures than its private victories. Either one is fine by me, and I imagine I'll experience both before I retire.

So, it seems I'm an "orientalist," a kaffir (infidel), a liberal, an Islamaphobe, and an American. I'll wear all those badges with pride, especially that last one.

A parting thought:

Your class, your caste, your country, your sect, your name, or your tribe
There's people always dying trying to keep them alive.
...The bible's blind, the torah's deaf, the quran is mute -
If you burned them all together you'd get close to the truth.
-c. oberst

15 August 2007

the picture is far too big to look at.

Dubai is perhaps the only city in the Middle East known for something besides violence and terrorism, and it's earned the reputation. With that much money lying around, no one needs to care about anything enough to fight for it. Emiratis walk around with this slow, graceful air about them, like they've never had to hurry for anything in their lives. The men in their pristine white robes, the women covered from head to toe in black. They'll never have to dirty their clothes or actually use their hands or eyes for something - they have people to do that for them. The money is everywhere - the malls really are a tourist attraction. Indoor skiing at Mall of the Emirates (complete with a mock ski lodge serving fondue by digital fireplaces at the bottom), international themed sections at Ibn Batutta Mall (the Middle Eastern Epcot, minus some of the culture and with more shopping), and those are just the ones that have actually been built. One in the works will be 10 million square feet. Given the oppressive heat and humidity in the summer (up to 48C/120F, 80% humidity), the entire town feels like a sauna, so I understand the appeal of enormous air-conditioned malls.

But the city is balancing on several very precarious edges that risk blowing up in everyone's perfectly manicured faces if they're not addressed. Those wealthy Emiratis carousing through the expensive shopping malls make up only a quarter of the population. The rest of composed of other Arabs and SE Asians who drive the cabs, cook the food, and man the cash registers for the wealthy elite. Most of them are on work visas, slaving at long hours to send money home to their families, a situation that I can't imagine can be sustainable for very long. With all of the new hotels and office building being build to attract foreign investment, the wealth disparity will only grow. But at least there's an effort to move past oil - only Abu Dhabi has enough left to keep growing, while Dubai and the other Emirates are transitioning to a business economy, which will probably soften the blow with the oil runs out.

The city is in a constant state of development, with half-finished sky scrapers composing most of the skyline. The highways are a slew of billboards of cheesy developer slogans advertising the next planned housing community or resort: "Your aspiration is our inspiration." "We think outside the box so you don't have to live in one." "Come home to what matters." "We grow around you." It's what Orlando would be if Celebration took over. How they're ever going to fill all those spaces is beyond me - some of the most extravagant hotels could be book solid every night for 20 years and they still won't recoup the building costs. Financial burden aside, the development is wreaking havoc on the natural environment - those nifty little created islands in the shapes of palm trees or the continents of the world are destroying the coastal ecosystems, not to mention the staggering volume of emissions from the energy required to keep the city running. If the wealth disparities or oil supply doesn't break Dubai's spirit, its environmental policies certainly will.

One thing I will say about the city: with modernity comes a new level of respect. Big wide highways where drivers stay in their lanes, trashcans to dispose of bottles, no more piles of trash in the streets, and best of all, men who can walk past a woman without so much as a hiss - it's hard not to love it, especially after Jordan and Egypt.

Greatest thing about Dubai, however: The Gold Souk. It's not really a "souk" in the classic sense of the word, more of a conglomeration of jewelry stores, but it was fabulous nonetheless. Wholesale loose stones, goldsmiths to set them, dirt cheap pearls, and standard jewelry stores, all selling unique (albeit often ugly) items. Extremely well priced, too, especially considering the rest of the city.

Verdict: It's like a train wreck. I want to go back, even though I'm ashamed to like the ostentatious displays of wealth and extravagance. I want to see the city fail, and fail hard. Crash and burn. But if I win the lottery before that, I'm coming back. I can't help it.


11 August 2007

why are you so petrified of silence?

For a city less than 100 miles from Amman, Jerusalem feels like an entirely different world. Trashcans, street cafes where women aren't out of place, and only a handful of piggish excuses for men. But venture out Damascus Gate of the Old City to Palestinian East Jerusalem, and the piles of trash on the street magically reappear. If I could stay here and just teach Arabs to not throw their garbage in the street, I think I could die a fulfilled woman. Honestly!

I've been to Jerusalem before, and those of you who read last summer's blogging know how much I had to say about it then. In sum, I continue to love the city despite my best efforts not to. Although, I must say, the Jewish quarter cheats the Sabbath and shuts down at 3 PM when they're not technically at rest until sundown. I just wanted a bagel!

However, for those who watch/read the news, we did happen upon the aftermath of a shooting, the first act of violence in the city in quite some time now. We missed the actual event, but arrived (along with a herd of journalists and photographers) about 45 minutes later, in time to speculate and try to take pictures with the crowd. An unidentified Palestinian man tried to grab a security guard's gun, shot him, and got himself killed in the ensuing struggle when another security guard intervened. The body sat there for an hour and half before the truck came and got it, which is something to ponder. Apparently, there is a squad of ultra-orthodox Jews who handle all of the "clean-up" of blood and bodies after incidents of violence in Jerusalem. They were filling cups of water from the neighboring shops to wash away as much as they could before the police took down the crime scene tape and the media descended. We stood next to the BBC news crew as they shot their bit for the news. There was something morbidly fascinating about the entire event - I mean, save a funeral, I've never seen a dead body or blood stains in the flesh before. Between this and last summer's war, however, I think I'll stay out of Israel for a bit.

I took more pictures, although most of them are of the shooting scene and only a few are of the city. There are old Jerusalem pictures on the site for those interested. Dubai tomorrow!

08 August 2007

make war on who you were before.

The first thing that hits you about Cairo is the smell. A less-than-subtle perfume of unwashed flesh, with undertones of feces and decay. It never really goes away, it just comes in waves depending on where you are. Then, you notice the crowdedness. There are more people in Cairo than all of Jordan, and it shows. The streets are packed with honking cars swerving wildly, while people of all ages dart in and out. Vendors shout prices at passersby while small buses yell their destinations at crowds gathered more or less on the side of the road. For a country where chivalry isn't dead, it was just never conceived, the packed alleys of the market are a pervert's fantasy. Hissing, whispering, and the occasional "welcome to Egypt" whispered huskily into your neck from behind, yet somehow the Egyptian men manage to be more vulgar and less threatening than the Jordanians. Maybe it's because they all leer but never touch, whereas most Jordanians merely stare but sometimes touch. It all combines to make the city a sensory overload - the sights, the smell, the sounds. There's no respite.

I'm not sure how I feel about Cairo yet - I think I could grow to like it, find my place here like we've done in Amman, but that won't come easy. It's a fascinating city, but sometimes in that train wreck sort of way. We saw the pyramids and the Egyptian museum with the mummies, as expected, but one particularly exciting highlight was the camel market at Birqash. For about $3, we took an hour and a half bus ride through abject poverty to a walled area outside of Cairo. It wasn't a place where human women often go, so we were quite a hit with the Egyptian and Sudanese men who gather to sell their camels. It was a slow buying day, so they were all eager to chat and take pictures with us (well, me). I highly recommend you take a morning to go out there if you're ever in Cairo. The pyramids are breathtaking, but everyone knows they will be. Venture (far) off the beaten traffic and wade through camel dung for a while to get a very different view of one of the world's oldest civilizations.

Khan al-Khalili is the famous old market in Cairo, and while it's no Fez medina or even Jerusalem, it has a charm all its own. The spices are a welcome respite from the foul smell elsewhere, and the coppersmiths street had a gorgeous selection of pots, pans, vases, and other goods. Cats are still sacred in Egypt, so the strays are quite adorable and well-fed. We stopped for some grilled corn on the cob from two young boys who took a liking to me and brought us an extra one for free. Then we fed the cobs to a donkey pulling a cart of watermelons because we felt sorry for him. The men hanging out on the street were thoroughly amused.

I took a ton of pictures for the first time in a while, so enjoy.

05 August 2007

if there is truth why can't we find it?

I always wanted to pick up a hitchhiker before I died, but preferably in such a situation that it wouldn't be the last thing I did before I died. Thanks to mother, I can check that off the list. On the drive to Petra, a cop and soldier duo flagged us down. Thinking it was a checkpoint, we produced the obligatory IDs. The cop asked (in English) where we were going. "Petra." (The only destination a rental car with two white women would likely be going.) He asked if he could come with (again in English). Mother didn't notice that it was her native language and resorted to her standard response: smile and nod. So he picked up his plastic bag and hopped in the back. At that point, it's pretty awkward to say, "Actually, what I meant by yes was get the hell out of my car." So, we drove off again and suffered through the pleasantries before I elected to resort to bad Arab radio. Then I almost killed a dog.

At last, we deposited our unwelcome passenger on the side of the road and went into ruins, the third time in as many weeks for me. We met a Bedouin donkey-ride seller who remembered me from the last two weeks, and he ended up taking us up the 900 steps to the monastery, yet another impressive building carved from a mountain. On the way down, we stopped at his mother's shop for tea and watched a Bedouin boy drag a goat around by its hind legs while the rest of the herd devoured a bag of grain. Not really sure what the goat had done wrong, but it was entertaining. When we reached flat ground, my new donkey-driver decided that it was a good time to race the donkeys. At a trot. Those of you with breasts understand what happens when you sit on a bouncing animal, those of you without can probably imagine. As we ran past another shop, the proprietor yelled, "Yes, very nice! Run the donkey more!" I felt pretty, just like two weeks earlier on the bus ride. The men here are just so friendly I can hardly stand it.

Scariest website I've ever seen. It's not satirical. Be sure to check out the "Kidz" section. The "Z" is for zealot.