Wednesday, January 7, 2009

River Jordan is deep and wide

I'm in Amman.

When I was growing up, a sentence like that coming out of my mouth would have been science fiction. When we said yarden, we were merely referring to one of two TV stations broadcasting from the nondescript kingdom to our east. When Israel only had one TV channel, all black and white, Jordan had two channels in color. And static. And a daily newscast in Hebrew that sounded like the anchors were reading the text phonetically in Arabic orthography without understanding a word.

And now I'm in Jordan for the third time. The first time was in 2000, when I was piggybacking on an "educational" excursion with my friend Benny Hary and his Emory University students. 

My second time was just seven months ago, and it was much more independent. My friend Dan and I crossed the border up north, took buses and cabs all the way south, crossed the border back to Israel in Aqaba/Eilat, and drove a rental car back to Tel Aviv.

(I'm not counting the two layovers I had at Queen Alya International Airport on my way to and from Cairo last January, though even that was exciting).

This time I'm here solo. I volunteered to conduct some site visits at three centers that teach Arabic to speakers of foreign languages (mostly from the US), to assess their usefulness for my students in Lancaster. 

I was going to cross the border by land again, but given the lack of popularity of Israel and Israelis these days, I caved in to my mother's pleas and booked a last-minute flight.

My hotel, it turns out, is the next-door neighbor of the Egyptian Embassy, and across the street is the Palestinian Embassy. I myself purchased a kaffiyye, not so much to "protect" myself (people see I'm a whitey no matter what I wear), but more to show solidarity and to be involved in my own little way while I'm here.

Jordan is not the most glorious country in the Middle East. It doesn't have the political power that Egypt has, nor is it as culturally significant as Egypt or Lebanon. It's not part of any kind of "axis of evil", like Syria is supposed to be. It's not rich and ultra-modernized like the Gulf states, or vast and mysterious as its eastern neighbor Saudi Arabia.

Say "Amman", and most American school children would have no idea what you're talking about. Mention its historical name, Philadelphia, and you'll be talking about its much younger counterpart across the river from Camden, NJ.

Amman doesn't make much sense to me. Or at least it doesn't for now. It's mostly gray/beige with flowing traffic and friendly people. Modern street signs with house numbers
 are prominent, but even cab drivers often fail to find your destination if all you have is so-and-so street, house number X. Tell them whose pharmacy it's next to, or what's the name of the nearest mosque, and you're slightly more likely to get there, and not be too late.

Amman is not a place even I would just come to as a tourist per se. We stop here on our way from the archaeological site in Jarash to the impressive findings in Petra. We fly Royal Jordanian from Ben-Gurion Airport to destinations east, or sometimes southwest. But I'm glad I'm having the chance to be here for four days. 

It's hard for me not to romanticize my very being here. The place I could formerly only see on television. The capital of a country that had been so near and so unapproachable. The place where people like the ones I see in Jerusalem and Jaffa and Nazareth and the Negev and (until recently) in Bethlehem and Ramallah live. 

I had lunch today at a place called Books@Café. Everyone spoke English there, including the waitress, who I guess was Thai or Filipina. Two Arab-looking young men sat at the table in front of me. The one facing me had a Palestinian kaffiyye on, the same kind I had bought yesterday, and spoke English in what to me sounded like a slight German accent. The gentleman at the other side of the table spoke English as well, with a more pronounced Arabic accent. They both interjected words, phrases, even full sentences in Arabic, but their conversation was primarily in English. The first guy (80% gay, my gaydar says) is conducting research on identity. He wants to learn whether Pales
tinians living in Jordan feel more Jordanian or more Palestinian, or equally both, and why. I feel like I've heard this discussion a million times, but maybe it's just because I've read a handful of sociolinguistic studies on Jordanian youth by Enam Al-Wer at the University of Essex. He has questionnaires. The other guy fills one out. I wanted to go to their table and ask them why they were speaking English. I felt as if I could do it and be accepted with the friendliness I had been experiencing since I got here.

Eventually I chickened out. My excuse was an excruciating headache. I had no pain relievers on me and just wanted to eat and get back to my hotel room, where I'd self-medicate. But I was satisfied that I was even considering interacting with these two people. In a way, I envy Jordan. I'm sort of an Arab wannabe. And frankly, I wouldn't wanna be a Palestinian refugee in a camp in Nablus or Gaza. I have the utmost sympathy for them (and shitloads of guilt), but if I could choose, why not be a Jordanian? I'd enjoy the same climate, have similar cultural experiences, but unlike the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – or even in Israel – I'd be a full-fledged citizen, with pride and a sense of belonging.

Okay, I don't want to go overboard with the longing and the romanticizing. There are still quite a few cons that may in fact outweigh the pros, but I'll save those to myself for the time being.


  1. I know the guys you are talking about from Books@ the reason they are speaking in english is that the guy with the German Accent is actually German (originally tunisian) but was born and grew up in Germany.


הארץ Haaretz

العربية.نت | آخر الأخبار Al-Arabiya