Monday, November 23, 2009

the people of jordan and syria

Usually when moving through a place, we only get a superficial feel for the people that live there. We notice their eating rituals, their food, how they interact with or understand us, what they wear, etc. In Jordan, it was entirely different. It is almost as if they entire country is filled with hopeless romantics, sweethearts who just want to charm you because they love to make you happy.

We met our first Jordanian just moments into the country, our cab driver from the Border with Israel to Petra. After a few minutes of jovial small talk, he launched into a story that I’ll never forget:

Driving in his cab one day he met an American guy who was writing a guidebook. He needed info on Saudi Arabia, but was unable to enter the country as they are pretty much closed to non-muslim tourists. Our driver, Hassan, told the American, Paul, that he was planning a trip to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) and would help him get the information he needed for the book. Paul was overjoyed and met with him later to give him money for expenses and some cameras.

Hassan set off on his journey as planned and went to the first place Paul asked for information on and Hassan took some pictures of the place. On the way to the next place, they came to a Saudi police checkpoint and had all of their bags checked, and the authorities immediately began badgering Hassan about the pictures he had taken. He told them the truth, they were for an American guy who was writing a guidebook. Less than five minutes later a caravan of SUVs pulled up and the equivalent of the Saudi CIA came in and began questioning him more. He repeated his story to no avail. The Saudis accused him of being an American spy.

After less than an hour of questioning Hassan was put into a prison, from which he didn’t escape for 70 days, 30 of which were in solitary confinement. We just couldn’t believe this. We kept asking him why they would do this, what purpose there was for the Saudis and he kept repeating - this is the Saudis, they don’t care about reasons or law, they are a nation of goat herders who have been given billions of dollars and now they abuse their power.

This story was just endlessly interesting to us, and Hassan was quite gracious in sharing his story. It made me re-evaluate my conflation of Arabs as similar in culture as well as realize how open and amicable Jordanians can be. This was only the beginning.

Another Jordanian we met, Achmad, we ran into at a contemporary arts center. We talked about the state of art today and he told us he was a sculptor and offered to show us his studio. Flattered, we immediately accepted. We got into his terribly broken-down Ford truck which he uses to quarry the stones the carves from, and drove to his place. He showed us all around his studio, explaining his process, the significance of his materials, and his politics. His sculptures a reminiscent of a more ephemeral Rodin, or even a late Picasso, or a sculpture version of the work of Ecuadorian painter Guayasamin.

We came to find out that he is deeply involved in the peace process with Israel, and he has been commissioned to make a statue for the outside of the Peres Center for Peace in Israel. He is also the Royal sculptor, he makes the gift that the King gives to visiting leaders. As we chat, he says that he just MUST make a sculpture for us while we’re here, so we sit down with a vodka lemon juice that he just poured for all three of us, and watched him work. He cut into the stone with a variety of tools, and the sand stone just fell apart in his hands. The stone itself is from near Petra and is therefore imbued with the most wonderful warm hues.

After he was all done, he insisted on driving us back to our place, where he came inside and sat with us and hosts for over an hour - which leads me to another story. When we had a little extra time between Petra and our planned trip to Jerusalem, we thought we’d take a little excursion to Syria. Now, Syria is a strange place and we knew we’d have a bit of a challenge getting in there. They don’t allow anyone with an Israeli stamp on their passport to get inside. We knew this (and also that Iran, Saudi Arabia and others have the same policy), so we had Israel stamp on a separate sheet of paper. With only hope in our hearts, we set off for the Syrian border with the plan to get to Damascus.

At the border, they saw through our trick (by seeing that we entered Jordan at the border with Israel), and turned us away. Our cab continued on to Damascus without us and we were stuck at the Syrian border with no way back to Amman. We asked some of the guards there how we could get back to Amman and the guard asked the first cab that passed if he would take us there for 15 bucks. They guy agreed and we found ourselves sharing a cab with a Syrian woman and her two babies Zain, 2 and Zeynep, 4.

In the car we kept mostly quiet, being respectful in a North American way, and we finally reached her house and her husband came out to greet her. This gregarious man invited everyone - including the taxi driver - into his house for coffee. None of them spoke any English, so we mostly just smiled and thanked him for his hospitality. As we were about the leave with the driver to go to a hotel, he asked us using a combination of sign language and a few English words, to stay for dinner. We obliged, knowing in our guidebook that it was common to be taken in when traveling in Arab countries.

They cooked a gigantic feast for us while we played with the kids. They loaded the table with chicken and soup and rice and bread and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers with lemon. We filled our bellies till they were about to burst and we finally refused to eat any more. After this, they poured us insanely full glasses of vodka with just a splash of juice. Wow. OK. So we sipped our drinks obligingly and laughed together at the terrible TV show and the children’s antics.

After our time was seeming to wind down, we began readying ourselves to get to a hotel. Our hosts insisted that we stayed saying, ‘hotel, no, this hotel here.’ So he kicked his kids out of their room and into their bed, and put our things in there. We ended up staying in their home for two nights, and there wasn’t a moment where we didn’t marvel at their hospitality. We had been rejected by the Syrian government, but taken in by its people.

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