Tuesday, October 13, 2009


The world smelled of wet things today; I inhaled the breath of trees, the scent of watered palms, the taste of damp grass, the soapy aroma of cleaned car, the cooling breeze off the Nile. By night the drifting smoke from burning fields clogs the air and I lie in bed, immobile, inhaling the acrid scent through opened windows. The dust of the world filters through my screen and rests on any available surface- a cherrywood dresser, a wicker basket, a cloth mural. Occasionally, I exert a half-hearted attempt to re-settle the dust and send it on a thousand year journey across the sands. More often than not, I watch it pirouette in the beams of sunlight and wonder how long it has danced through human life. Did it swirl through the lives of our hirsute ancestors who rose from the jungles and journeyed across deserts; did it pass before the kohl-lined eyes of ancient pharaohs; did it tumble over seas and dynasties and back again; did it rest on battlefields and broken limbs; did it churn in the debris of bomb-decimated cities; did it spend a wedding night in the trembling hairs of a young bride….how wearisome indeed is such an immortality.
Time is indeed a curious ticker- there are days that pass in a moment, and days that linger into infinity. I never suspected two and a half weeks of vacation could melt away in languid afternoons and ambling nights; but I suddenly found myself on the brink of responsibility, again. I turned back to demand a receipt of my time, and Time obliged- a black night by the pyramids, barefoot atop a surging horse, howling at the top of my lungs to race faster down the sandy tracks and over the short dunes; dusty feet somehow remembering the way through the crowded markets surrounding Khan al Khalili and trudging up a thousand year old minaret to see all of Cairo sprawling into the white-hot sunset; living for the coolness of nights and sleeping through the relentless days; chortling somewhat obscenely in a movie theater at the ribald Egyptian comedy- humor, it seems, is a universal language; bathing in the crystalline waters of the Red Sea, bumping into jelly fish; two drinks happy and riding the subway home. Very well, Time, it was well spent.
I have a sand dollar sitting on my dresser that I pulled from the sea. One side is smooth, the shade of mottled cobalt; the other a lucky star to wish upon, worn by the sea’s caress. I told my mom I found her fortune; even the Red Sea wishes her well. It seems a lifetime ago, when this narrative began, when life seemed simpler, more innocent, less final. And then my mom got cancer two and a half years ago, when I was in Egypt for the first time. It is typical, I suppose, of my egocentricity, to put this event in my own terms, but I will. After all, merely having a blog is a fairly good indication of one’s inflated sense of self. That time, I clung onto what I could grasp- first love, best friends, drowning in travel and new experiences. Alhamdulilah, to the amazement of her doctors and her terminal diagnosis, her cancer disappeared, and life regained its bemused trajectory. Every few months, Mom went in for scans and received astonishing reports-nothing. Last New Year’s, I drank one too many glasses of champagne in celebration of another cancer-free report J By then, it had been over a year, and I toasted to hope.
I returned to Cairo. The day after my return, an e-mail popped into my inbox, “Cancer’s probably back, her scans showed a suspicious lump.” Really, God, I mean, is this really fair? At least you could have had the courtesy to wait until I was home for the summer. I don’t like being a mere voice on the telephone, half way around the world, a disembodied daughter unable to even offer a hug.
We do what we can with what we have. I am always amused that my mother thinks my stubbornness came from my father, when she can deliver the most adamant oratories for her cause. She managed to schedule an earlier surgery than the doctor wished, my school was cancelled so I could spend the wee hours of the morning on Skype, and the males of my family sent me hourly updates on the day of surgery. The cancer was a different form than the original breast cancer, a less virulent variety, and renewed hope sprang anew. In typical Mother fashion, she is now in Las Vegas with Dad, gawking at Sin City while I listen to the mosques draw the sleeping from bed in the stillness before dawn.
I love the dark of folds of this night, when lights extinguish and I fumble in the dark to crawl beneath my sheets. When only blacker shadows of my room’s possessions anchor me to this world, something faint and shining glimmers on the nightstand next to my bed. My precious sand dollar, a tiny chip broken off from an edge, gleams white and solid on its other face, somehow impervious to the rain of dust falling in my room.

Friday, September 25, 2009


I slipped into the door of the Metro, immediately engulfed in the laden air of the car- heat, moisture from breathing and perspiring bodies, unwashed skin, strong perfume, and general air pollution combined into a soupy mélange during the heat of the day. A grey gallabeyia and brown sandals flew along the pavement behind me, a man running past the women’s cars to find the first door on a mixed gender car. With a rattle, the doors slammed shut and the train rolled down the tracks, surprisingly efficient as a means of Cairo transportation. And, at 1 ginea, or Egyptian pound (L.E.), I can’t beat the price. A taxi to downtown costs about 15 gineas.
Sitting down on the bench along the window, I tilted back my head to catch the faintest of breezes sneaking through the aperture. A black shadow sat across from me, garbed in flowing sable robes from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. Only her eyes peeked forth, studying me with curiosity. Colorful veils protected the modesty of most of the other women, neon pink and bright green head scarves highlighting tight, long-sleeved shirts and skinny jeans. Other women wore loose, floor-length black dresses, some decorated with bright embroidery. One or two other women sat unveiled, chatting on their mobiles or staring at the grey apartments whizzing past the windows.
At the Sadat station, I transferred lines, heading to Dokki. With my eyes closed, my mind drifted pleasantly, unaware of the general babble around me…
About a week and a half ago, my door creaked open as a cross breeze blustered through the apartment. An unfamiliar female voice echoed in the hallway, and the telltale wheels of her suitcase rumbled over the tiles. I lifted my head weakly, but then succumbed to the lethargy of my nap and rolled over, unwilling to engage the 5th roommate in conversation. Bright pink, Hawaiian-flowered suitcases filled my dreams.
I met the owner of the suitcase later that evening, a cute brunette opening the door to her spacious chamber ( her room’s about twice as big as mine). The promise she showed in her suitcase taste was reflected in her bright smile and lilting voice. We chatted, and she laughed when I told her I taught classes every day at 8:30 am. “We’ll probably never see each other,” she said, “I am an absolute night owl.” Two days later, AUC closed, and pushed me into her ranks of insomnia and flitting home at 5 in the morning.
Dare I say it? Nay, I shall whisper it, to not destroy the karma of our flat. We get along well. Our discordant lives somehow shift and meld into a harmonious existence. A poli sci major, an English teacher, an anthropology student, a Bohemian currently facing reality as a nursery teacher, and an artist. That is either the opening to a cheesy horror flick or an epic adventure. For our sakes, I hope it is the latter.
…My metro stop was fast approaching, so I lurched from my seat and stepped onto the platform in Dokki, somewhat bemused by the bright, 70’s-style tile walls creating an undeniably unique atmosphere. Trudging up the stairs, I squinted in the blinding, late afternoon Cairo sunlight as I emerged into the happy chaos of Dokki. Dokki is shabbily quaint, not pretentious like Zamalek or Maadi, not as stiflingly crowded as Sayed al-Zeineb, but worn around the edges. Middle to upper middle class. More transportation awaited me. I purchased some water at a kiosk (kishk in Arabic) and hailed a taxi, grinning as one of the archaic black and white dinosaurs putted over to the curb…
There is a castle in Maadi. Not a historic relic from the Crusades, but a modern monstrosity constructed to cater to the ostentatious proclivities of the upper classes. Someday, perhaps I will take a photo of it, but imagine a soaring, Gothic-meets-Shakespeare fortress surrounded by a small moat. Sarah happened to be house-sitting for a friend who lives in the top flat of the building. As we ascended the spiraling staircase, surrounded by iron roses and vines trailing upwards, the word neo-colonialism popped into my mind. But then, we entered the flat, and I was too overwhelmed to really ponder the delicacies of presiding in a castle over the common folk of Egypt. It soared, with enough space to house the General Assembly of the U.N. comfortably, two floors of vast emptiness, echoing marble floors, a grand staircase, a sumptuous kitchen, multiple bedrooms, wall niches and alcoves, indoor balconies, and several whirlpool tubs. “Really, quite homey,” I sighed, sinking into the bean bag chair in front of the big screen tv with satisfaction.
My two male roommates, Cole and Sam, both utter sweethearts, were ‘mildly’ impressed I knew someone who resided in the Castle. “What! You’ve been in there?! And come back alive?” Cole spent his birthday curled up in the cozy arm chair, watching trashy American television and ordering greasy food to the lacy iron-encased door. He spent that evening in the desert by the pyramids, listening to throbbing techo music while sprawled in the grass between Sam and me. Lauren had been invited to a concert by her ‘people’ and invited the three of us along. We shrugged. “Why not?” With the four of us wedged into the backseat of a small sedan (one gets to know one’s roommates very well by the end of the trip), we drove from Maadi to Giza and the labyrinth of streets snaking behind the pyramids. Due to our combined weight, we walked up the final hill rather than bog down the car in sand.
Thank goodness I have never revealed a talent or interest in the entertainment business. I am not one to schmooze or flatter wantonly. We left Lauren to perform her requisite rounds of smiles and feigned interest while the three of us parked ourselves on a grassy hillside lit by glowing lanterns and played word games for the next several hours. It was the first disco I visited that did not serve alcohol and permitted children to arrive at midnight; though perhaps this is why the dance floor crowd was thin. Eventually, we left the neon-lit palm trees and reed cabanas of that club for one 5 minutes down the road. At the entrance lay the stables, and Lauren and I could not help ourselves, cooing at all the pretty horses while Sam and Cole waited somewhat patiently outside. I sense riding in my near future.
Nabil, her manager of sorts, winked at me (of course). “Up there, the pyramids, most amazing sight, you won’t believe it.” I pulled my camera out and trudged up the sandy incline excitedly. Finally! As I crested the shifting hill, I squinted into the mercurial darkness in front of me. Two faint triangles stood dimly against the midnight blue of the surrounding sky, intense pollution granting everything a nebulous nature. “Wow,” Cole muttered at my side. “I don’t know what to say. My jaw hurts from hitting the floor.” We endured another half hour of plastered smiles and shaking hands before the three of us departed. It was after 2 in the morning….
My cab passed from Dokki to Mohendiseen, the buildings sporting colorful electronic signs, the cars bearing fewer signs of age, and the store names appearing in English as well as Arabic. “Sharia Shehab, min fudlik.” And my driver turned down a familiar street, passing by the haunts of older days and lighter times. ‘There’s the internet store, and Etam, where I spent waaay too much money…’
When restlessness struck, I found myself in Zamalek, strolling the streets of a previous life. Not because I am particularly nostalgic, but the only bar in town, Pub 28, still open during Ramadan, happens to be in Zamalek. We tried several other drinking establishments in Zamalek, but, alas, all were shut down but the venerable institution of Pub 28, so we slid into a booth and split a pitcher of Sangria. I suppose some might consider us irreverent of the culture, or might even boldly state that we should be able to give up at least alcohol for Ramadan, as the Muslims give up food, drink, smoking, etc. I say, most of the clientele in Pub 28 was Egyptian, not foreign.
Hamdulilah, I need no longer fret about proper mores during the holy month. Ramadan ended with a palpable sigh of relief around Egypt as the final fast was broken at iftaar on Saturday. Though certainly not fasting, I decided that I wanted to spend the last iftaar in a place where many Egyptians eat to break their fast. I went to McDonald’s. Indeed, my friends and I were the only foreigners in a restaurant full of Egyptians who waited with the acquired patience of Ramadan until the sun finally slipped below the horizon. Thank goodness the McFlurry and perfected French Fry are a universal indulgence….
My cab passed by Club Aldo, and I blinked. “Hina kwayis!” I hopped out, handed him 6 L.E. and called Aya, my new language partner. “Wait me there,” she directed, and I admired the brazen high heels taunting me from the store window. I’ll take my natural height and hobbit-sized feet any day.
What would be a perfect ending to this rambling narrative? How about a new friend, a tall, bubbly, beautiful girl who wants to teach me Arabic if I will teach her English? How about a languid afternoon in Grand Café, lounging in chairs along the Nile, eating and drinking for the novelty of it? Life on the Nile slipping past languorously, billowing sails powering small feluccas, flat barges laden with cargo, two-person row boats casting lines to catch the evening’s meal, not unlike a scene from 5000 years ago. When the light shifts, and the relentless rays transmute into a soft glow, and the sparkling blue of the Nile burns molten orange, and the sky flares with smoldering brilliance, and the reeds along the Nile rustle in a sudden breeze, and the palm fronds sway, you know, for a blinding moment, this is the most beautiful place on Earth.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Unexpected

Something unexpected happened the other day. No, I’m not pregnant, Mother. Not yet, anyways. I found this revelation to be pregnant with another variety of news- swine flu. If you wish to be politically correct, you may call it the H1N1 virus. I will stick to the Arabic translation of the malady, which is influenza al-khanazeer- flu of the pigs. Perhaps the reason why it is so feared in the Middle East, given that pork is a wholly vilified meat. Which is sad, because pork is a succulent, juicy, yummy…I digress.
Yes, the swine flu is the root of my current and future indolence. The Ministry of Education, in an attempt to curb outbreaks of swine in Egypt, took the iniative to bar any educational institution in Egypt from operating until October 4th. This includes my venerable and hallowed halls of learning, AUC. No, there have been no reported cases at AUC this fall, but, of course, what are a few fewer weeks of education for burgeoning young minds? To be honest, as residents of Egypt, we would never know if the swine flu had infected every last village and household of Egypt, as the government has an unfortunate tendency to keep information from the populace. I have heard rumors from “every hospital in Cairo is overwhelmed with swine flu patients” to “there have been few reported incidents” to “because Egypt never actually eradicated the bird flu, they fear that the two might mutate and form some worldwide epidemic.” Meh. All I can do is sit in my happy little flat in Maadi and bemoan my unexpected vacation.
What?!? Laura, protesting vacation? Well, yes. For one, money is usually required to jet off to exotic locales. Money which is sadly absent from my bank account. Two, immediacy of the announcement did not allow me ANY time to plan. Third, I will now have to make up the missed lessons on my free days from campus. Sarah and I are trying to wrangle some free beach lodging out of a friend who has a chalet on the North Coast (i.e. the Med). Enshalla.
I started writing this desultory little missive as dawn pierced the pall of Cairo’s pollution with a hint of orange, and the acrid scent of burning garbage wafted through the streets, merely contributing, of course, to that pollution. Now, the garbage collectors have extinguished their nightly fires, and only the occasional, smouldering dumpster remains. Eid Mubarek. Happy Eid! Yes, Ramadan is, alhamdulilah, done done done. For my debaucherous Western ways, this means that I can eat and drink in public again and, more importantly, the bars and clubs in Cairo will, once again, open. As the Dixie Chicks rather aptly put it, “some days you gotta dance.”
You will learn more about my life at AUC (if it ever returns) in future blogs, but I was sitting in my office on Wednesday, blearily reading my textbook for Applied Linguistics when, through my open door, an abrupt increase in the chatter of voices incited mild curiosity. To be fair, an ant crawling in the hallway would probably have been sufficient distraction. Regardless, I arose, peeked around the doorframe and saw all of my professors and a number of my peers standing around, discussing swine flu and school closing in loud voices. “Tom, what’s happening?” I asked the director of my program, the Intensive English Program. I have never seen Tom look unharried; indeed, he seems to rush through the halls of AUC in a state of perpetual mild panic. Given the disorganization of AUC, however, this is not very surprising.
“I think school’s cancelled for the next two weeks.” “Whoa, what?” and the administrator for my Fellowship, Maida, bopped out of her office, 5 feet of charmingly accented English and pink accessories. “Yes, it is true,” she affirmed. “So this means, what?” I asked Tom, who, for once, did not seem to be in a hurry to return to his office and certain mayhem. Sometimes avoidance of looming disaster is best. “Do we have to make up the days we lost?” “I don’t know,” he said in a tired voice, “classes on Saturdays, Tuesdays. We do have to make up the time, of course, this is an American university.”
Tom eventually left to confront the barrage of confusion from students and staff. I called Sarah. “Hey, guess what? School’s cancelled until October 4th.” My Fellowship requires that I teach a class to incoming freshmen every day. I was priviledged enough to received the 8:30 am teaching slot, meaning I leave Maadi on the 7:30 bus, meaning sleep is a pleasant fantasy most days. I taught Wednesday morning, blissfully mindless of the impending suspension of school. Unfortunately, it also meant my 15 bright-eyed and 17 year-old Egyptian students had no warning, either. I couldn’t show them how to do their next internet assignment or how to draft an outline or write a citations page. I e-mailed them all, of course, and most have responded back…”Ms. Laura, I have received your e-mail , This my topic, swine flu. Best…”
But I am finding it is very difficult to teach a class about oral presentations and listening comprehension when my only method of communication is via typed words on a computer. We shall see. From a remarked dearth of any free time, to an unwanted plethora of it…that balance I was trying to seek is slow in coming. Well, I am off to shower (Cairo’s hot and induces a somewhat appalling amount sweat) and then wring out my laundry (my machine, though ‘automatic’ in theory, doesn’t actually drain, meaning I open the door to a deluge of water, which I squeegee down the drain, and then squeeze out my clothes) and then visit the castle that Sarah is currently inhabiting. Yes, the two floor flat she is house-sitting (it’s occupants have the means to jet away when school is cancelled) contains a grand staircase, iron trellises, marble floors, carved wall niches for cherub-like statues, indoor (and outdoor) balconies, enough space to comfortably host the U.N. general assembly, and an air of the generally outlandish that characterizes the wealthy of Maadi. The building has a moat. Adieu for now, my dears!

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Alas that my tummy offers protestations, and I can offer it no succor. But yoga will not be done for at least 20 minutes, and so I await, captive in my room. It is nighttime here in Cairo, a still sweaty coolness from the scorching heat of day. The dry branches outside my window rustle in the faintest of breezes, and a downstairs neighbor shouts at someone in Arabic. A car, most likely passing through the nearby meedan (roundabout), rumbles past without a honk. Light from the bare bulb saturates my room, illuminating my large (alhamdulilah!) wardrobe, spacious bed, and drying rack of clothes in the corner. Remarkable to think that I have only been here about two weeks. My room has an intimate feel to it, a familiar sort of twinge that makes me feel rather like I am returning home, instead of entering a new life.
But perhaps that is merely indicative of my entire experience, thus far. Certainly, there have been novel moments, but, overall, I feel as if I have (forgive my watery analogies, but I am, after all, in the land of the Nile) stepped into a boat on a reedy bank, and felt it glide smoothly into the river’s current, melding into the world I left, years ago. There may be new companions on this journey, but many are still the same; new scenery sliding past, but the essence of this place is immutable. Cairo never changes. Certainly, buildings rise and crumble, people arrive and depart, headscarves come in and out of fashion, regimes ascend and fall, but Cairo sits quietly on her haunches, bemused at human efforts to alter a city that has, truly, witnessed it all.
Today I had no classes or meeting on campus; I walked. I walked from my door, down the winding staircase, underneath the arches at the entryway, into the quiet street shaded by towering acacias leaning indolently over the pavement. The Nubian bowab of the neighbor’s building is, as usual, snoring softly in his chair, slumped over a plastic arm as cars rumble past and feet patter by. I turn left onto street 250 and encounter the parade of lumbering SUVs, Mercedes, taxis, and BMWs. To the unassuming eye, Maadi appears affluent, high-class, occasionally supercilious…there is more to Maadi than diplomatic residences, gated villas, imported cars, pasty foreigners, and wealthy Egyptians.
I walk through miidan Victoria, skirting the honking and exhaust-choking vehicles merging and weaving through the circle and emerge unscathed, alhamdulilah, onto the far side. A sidewalk of sorts exists here, although alarming depressions/chasms, sudden mounds of sand, low-hung signs, and iron posts appearing sporadically along the way render it somewhat perilous as a pedestrian route. So I just walk in the road, like everyone else. I follow the brick on my left, a fortification of Victoria College, a place I have yet to penetrate, although their large outdoor baseball and football fields are often used by AUCians in need of energy release. The Grand Mall of Maadi is in front of me, though I pass it, ignoring the taxis in front of it that assume I must need their services. Surely a foreigner does not wish to walk anywhere. Surely not. As I leave the ‘orderly’ quarter of Maadi, with its swept sidewalks and overpriced Costa coffees, I enter the other part of Maadi. Although still clearly paved, the road somehow manages to also convey the impression of a dirt pathway, rutted and bumpy. I often see foreigners in my neighborhood, and unveiled Egyptian females are a common occurrence. Other than my roommate, who showed me the way, I have yet to find another foreigner endeavouring through the alleyways and congested streets of hadayiq al-Maadi; doubtless there are other audacious souls like me, but we are not usual, this is certain.
I come to the Al-Arab bus station, less station and more chaos than, perhaps, that to which you are accustomed. It begins inside a dirt lot enclosed behind a crumbling brick wall, though the mini buses spew into the street as well, shouting at riders as men hang out the doors and narrowly avoid hitting you as they careen down roads not meant to hold 7 lanes of traffic. I cross more traffic lanes, glaring at drivers through my sunglasses as they attempt to cut in front of me. Tiny mahaals, or stores, line both sides of the wide road, offering car repairs and home goods and sheesha smoking (alas, only for men; women are, to put it mildly, not very welcome); a few fruit and vegetable vendors line up beneath the scant shade of the trees, their produce selections succulent and fresh from the gardens and farms along the Nile.
I continue down the road, taking the left fork into a narrower, cobblestone street. Tail swishing belatedly after flies, a donkey turns to stare at me, warm, brown liquid patience filling his doleful eyes and resigned face. Little children shriek and play in the street, running in and out of dark doorways and underneath the feet of passerby, brown hair flying and bare feet covered in dirt. A few women in full niqabs, or black coverings, appear, but most women are garbed in colourful, long dresses and bright headscarves. The odour of an open sewer briefly assaults my nose, and I step carefully around a pile of muck that a street worker has pulled from an uncovered man hole.
I love the way the buildings seem to lean into each other, dusty brown walls and crumbling bricks somehow managing to climb aloft several stories. Doorways, though, are perhaps the most fascinating element of any area; some are carefully wrought iron barriers, some intricately carved wooden apertures, some plain and peeling wood, and still others brightly painted with Arabic script scrawled across them.
Sunshine suddenly fills the road, and the blessed shade of the crowded houses retreats, and I feel several degrees hotter already. Off to my left, down a wide road, shouting and movement catch my eye. A market! And a local one. Where I live, there is one man who sells produce in a tidy stall, tripling and quadrupling the prices for the foreigners. Here, in this corner of Maadi, tidiness is in short supply. Shopkeepers hawk their wares behind carts still attached to the donkey, rickety tables scorching beneath the hot sun, and canvas awnings stretched across the road as it narrows. Chickens squawk from atop a pile of crates, and rather adorable bunnies sit demurely in the shade, sadly aware of their fate. Swarms of flies descend on the piles of dead fish while their owner futilely waves them away; shirts and blankets and pots and pans and everything in between overflows into the walkway; and the produce…gleaming mounds of red tomatoes, supple cucumbers and fresh peppers, strings of garlic and purple eggplant; sweet pears and ruby dates, shiny apples and heavenly figs, bunches of yellow bananas and large melons all vie for my attention as I step over the muddy slop in the road and the squashed fruit.
How I wish it were not Ramadan, and I could sate my thirst with freshly squeezed juice or cold water. Alas, I sweat without hope of replenishment. For a little while, I am lost in the crowd, swept amongst the brimming shopping bags and the pungent odors of fresh fruits and rotting garbage and tangy spices and unwashed bodies, the children darting through the crowd to deliver packages and shoppers carefully picking out each piece of produce. I stop, eventually, and turn around, hot enough for one day. One my stroll back, I stop and collect my own shopping bags-tomatoes and cucumbers, lemons, grapes and the most sensual fruit in the world, luscious figs. I kilo each of tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, and figs and four lemons = less than 4 dollars. I manage to only lose myself once on the long walk home, dirty and sweaty and quite unlike the carefully manicured denizens of my neighborhood that drive past in air-conditioned luxury.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

And back again...

It is becoming an unfortunate habit of mine. I sat in the London/Heathrow airport with the latest Cosmo spread across the counter, a fresh plate of sushi from Pret a Manger half-eaten next to me. Three months ago, I passed through the same terminal, endured the same layover, and occupied my time in the same manner. I was leaving Jordan, then, leaving a country and an experience both illuminating and educating, disheartening and humbling. People always return from their study abroad forays gushing about how much they learned, how much they changed, how much they absorbed. Well, sure, I learned, I changed, I absorbed. But this was elastic; imagine me as a rubber band, springing from Cairo to Minneapolis to Amman to Chaska...I did not realize, until I arrived safely, abeit without my luggage, upon Minnesota turf how enervated I was of bouncing between selves and worlds. Struggling between two extremes, I needed a fulcrum, a focal point around which to balance.

So, I spend this year seeking, not stability, because, as I recently learned, that is too extravagant a concept for a girl like me, but balance. A way to reconcile my somewhat disparate selves into a self that satisfies me. Can I be the girl who hops in a cab to Syria on a whim, who enjoys vodka and sodas over happy hour, who works in a scrapbooking store, who tells her mom (almost :) everything? Yani, henshoof, as they say here in Misr. We will see.

So, how did I get here? As in, Maadi, Egypt, somewhere off Medan Victoria, sitting on my large double bed, my fan and window cooling my flushed face, the static of tv channels droning outside, the coniferous tree rustling softly outside my window, the voices of my roommates blending mellifluously in a deep male baritone and gentle female tenor. Here. Well, physically, it was a day's travel from Chaska, MN to Chicago, and then to London, and then to the morass of humanity that is Cairo, the descent of the airplane through the visible pall of pollution onto the tarmac. But, metaphysically? I am working on my master's at the American University in Cairo, studying Teaching English as a Foreign Language. I have abandoned, at least temporarily, any thought of working for the government. Most jobs that would satisfy my NSEP requirement also, only somewhat unfortunately, also require me to be in the States during the application process. Which leads me here, to AUC, pursuing an equally intriguing career path of college-level English teaching. An opportunity to gain a master's, adventure, learn, and experience, funded mainly by my Fellowship from AUC? I was loathe to pass it up.

Life is funny, a bit ribald as well, but funny in the way it twines together separate fates and weaves a tapestry of purposeful chance and unintended consequence. Take, for instance, last fall, a little over a year ago, I was waiting in the Amman airport for a flight to Greece when I happened upon two brothers. One would depart from my life in 20 minutes' time; the other would remain firmly interwoven with mine, so firmly, in fact, that I am now pursuing a long-distance (and we know how cynical I am about love, right? Well, if you don't, I am, quite) relationship with someone living in Washinton state. The second time I met him, he found me slumped in a chair in a Starbucks in Bremerton, WA, snoring (in what I hope was a sexy rumbling; oh, who am I kidding, anyone who's heard me snore is unlikely to describe it as remotely attractive), likely drooling and sprawling. In my defense, I had slept very little and traveled very much in the past 36 hours, but, regardless, he still claimed me, and still looks at me with a little awe and a lot of love. And that, I suppose, makes all the difference.

Alright, I am going to shower and sleep. It is, after all, only 4 am here. Thanks to Ramadan, however, no one else feels slumber a necessary activity either!

Sunday, May 17, 2009


You know it is time to go home when every picture, poster and decoration no longer resides on the wall. Egyptian quilt? Crumpled in a heap on the ground...Poster of Arabic phrases? Somewhere behind my nightstand....Photo of the King and Queen? Facedown next to the bed. I can take a hint, Jordan.

When the new white shirts you brought over from America have transmuted into a tawny tan (despite repeated washings) not unlike the desert around me, you know it’s time to go home.

When your roommates no longer talk to you, and your best friend is leaving Thursday, you know home is calling.

When the thickness of dust on your nightstand is impervious to attempts at cleansing, it is time to get on that plane.

When you can respond to vulgar catcalls with equally uncouth Arabic insults, you know it is time to go home.

When you have been to Syria (and Petra) more times in that last year than you have ever visited your nation’s capital, it is time to return to Uncle Sam.

When you actually begin to enjoy 8 hour waits on Syrian borders, and form lasting friendships with people you meet there, you need to return to the USA, land of no border waits.

When you have utterly exhausted two pairs of shoes, it’s time to go back to America, land of big-feeted women, and buy some new ones.

When the bank account is dipping despairingly towards zero, it’s time to head home to free room and board.

When your scarf collection is threatening to overwhelm the large space to which you have relegated it, flee for home!

When you have completed the Rogue State tour, and wonder, given the salient state of Arab Nation visas in your passports, if the Americans will even permit you re-entry, it is time to grovel (or flirt) to American border control.

When your English conversations begin to include an appalling amount of Arabic phrases (Yani, I want to, bes, insha’allah…) it is time to return to the English-speaking hemisphere.

When your adventures of the past 9 months move from incredible, to incredulous, to incorrigible, it is time for Minnesota.

When you know you’re coming back, in 3 months, to Cairo, and going to grad school at AUC for two years, it’s not really leaving. In the words of Fadi, the Bedouin, “I don’t say good-byes. See you later.”

But, most importantly, when you miss your loved ones, it is time to go to home.

Friday I depart, which means frantic packing is currently ensuing. Perhaps someday I shall regal you with tales of weekends of Aqaba and Rogue State Tours and nights in Little Petra and interminable border waits in Syria. Mumkin. But now, back to condensing 9 months of Life into two suitcases and a carry-on.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Road Well Traveled

I was 100 miles from nowhere. I stood where once Lawrence of Arabia had stood, on the precipice of Al-Azraq Castle, gazing out over the flat desert plains unfolding before my eyes in an endless, tawny carpet. Balancing between the unknown and the known, the familiar and the occult. At my back lay the road to Amman; before me, the winding road to Iraq. The black basalt beneath my feet shimmered in the glare of the sun, and I stepped carefully off the shallow ledge onto firm, if unfamiliar, ground.

A few sun-wearied tourists staggered through the castle grounds, incredulous that such a place could exist in a land unhindered by civilization. I was on the road less traveled. Ducking under the low lintel of a doorway, I entered a ruinous room flooded by sunlight and the dust of centuries. My gaze fell on a black staircase climbing into the azure blue of the open sky above. A staircase to nowhere…

It was 6 am in Petra- Wadi Musa, to be exact. I had spent the previous day clambering among the red rock ruins of the ancient city…the slow descent through the cool, shadowy siq, the soaring walls rippling with shadow and color and sunlight; the first glimpse of the Treasury, and Shahreena’s bewonderment; leaping over boulders to clamber up the steps of the Roman Theatre; traipsing down the winding road into the heart of Petra, surrounded by the weathered pillars and tombs of ancients; exploring into a seldom-visited valley peppered with esoteric pillars and red-veined rock; swaying on donkey-back up to the Monastery, and walking slowly down, bargaining for Bedouin jewelry on the way back; using a restroom in a 2000 year old tomb; trudging back up the siq, wearily, Shahreena dragging with similar fatigue at my side; and a blessed shower back at the hotel.

So, 6 a.m. Shahreena rolls over, looks at me through the dim light of early morn filtering past the faded curtains. “Do you wanna do Wadi Rum today?” I stumbled from bed into the bathroom, flicked on the light, and peered in the mirror. Spontaneity does little for my beauty. A tooth brushing later, and some water splashed on the face, we race down the winding, creaky, and somewhat incongruous staircase, out the lobby, and into a deserted Wadi Musa morning. Only buses roll past, and I peer blearily at the Arabic scrawled across their front.... “Wadi Musa!” Shahreena shouted, and we watch as the only bus that day passes us. But then, sensing our foreign natures, the driver stops, shouts at us, and finds us room among the other sunburned, tired foreigners.

11 a.m. Sweaty, enervated, but victorious, perched on a ledge overlooking Lawrence’s Spring in the vastness of Wadi Rum, hundreds of feet above the red, sandy floor. There is a reason few Bedouins leave the desert; there is a reason why a clear, brilliant day lifts the soul to soar in the heavens among the eagles overhead. There is a captivating magic to the desert, to the tractless sands shifting beneath the jeep, to the wandering camel herds browsing over the sparse vegetation; to the rocky mountains clawing from the sand to unattainable heights; to the smoothness of a red sand dune (although there is not much magic in climbing up it; that involves a lot of cursing, sweating, and a collapse at the top); to the inscrutability of Nabatean runes scrawled on a cave wall; to the whispering silence of sifting sands during the glaring heat of midday; to the natural wonder of a rock bridge carved from the inexorable forces of nature; to the simple pleasure of water, each drop more precious than diamonds under a beating sun.

The thrum of Arab drums and shouting of voices accompanied us through the gates of Jerash, under the triumphant arches and past the hippodrome. In every crevice, along every hillside, crowding in every doorway, the grey Roman ruins blossomed in a riot of springtime color-yellow wildflowers vied for superiority beside vermillion blossoms and deep purple blooms. We gazed, wide-eyed, at the impossible beauty of the desert in spring. I felt small, standing in the shadow of a great Roman pillar, awed by its ability to endure, and the stubborn power of nature to persevere, year after year, and drape the city of Jerash in glory once more.

Their vividness astonished me, as I stood pondering the frescoes on the ceiling above. First brought to life in 800 A.D., they told a story, millennia old, of the first Muslim Caliphs, the Ummayads. They spoke of dancing women, camels, great hunts, pleasures in the baths, singing bears…Al Amra Palace, once a hunting lodge in the Eastern Deserts of Jordan, offers a glimpse into the humanity of early Islam, its frescoes proving what Muslim scholars hesitate to confirm. Concubines and companionship, wealth and wine, dancing and debauchery...it seems the rulers of the world have always enjoyed what propriety forbids.

It is night, in Amman, and, for a few hours, our travels are over. A real meal is simmering on the stove, courtesy of Shahreena (since we all know I would never prepare such a thing. Cooking!? What is this?). Our usual, the potato chip lunch, needs supplementing. One good meal a day, one of potato chips, and whatever breakfast we find available. Such is the price of impulsive and far-flung travel. A small price, when a true friend like Shahreena is by your side, laughing as you hop from one adventure to the next. One Bollywood movie later, and lots of Malaysian curry filling a potato chip-wearied stomach, I curl up in bed, still giddy from the laughter of the evening.

“Americans? Please, take a seat.” The Syrian border guard eyed us suspiciously and waved me towards the familiar set of chairs at the side of the border crossing hall. “How long?” Shahreena asked in her funny Egyptian Arabic. “Maybe one hour, or two, or three, or four…” Or five. We watched as the other people in our taxi, all Arabs, breezed through customs and piled into the car to Damascus. We sat, with our luggage piled around us, and waited, a large bag of snacks at hand to alleviate the frustrations of Syrian bureaucracy. The Swiss, the British, the Iraqis, the Brazilians, all airily sailed through the visa process. We waited. I pulled out an Arabic children’s book, about a kidnapped dolphin, and read it under the bemused eye of Arabs passing through the checkpoint. We waited. After hour three, I rose to ask the official, behind the desk, about the visas. “No word yet from Damascus.” I fluttered my eyelashes, but only slightly, and pondered undoing a button from my shirt. But, really, what’s the point? We waited. After hour four, I asked again. “No news.” “Could you call them? Mumkin?” I pleaded. “I don’t have their number,” he confessed to me. “I am waiting for a call. Perhaps you could try an officer in the station across the hall.” I defiantly munched the last of my potato chips, scarfed down the rest of my Snickers, just for good measure, and looked up hopefully every time the phone rang. We waited. “Americans!” At hour five, we started from our seats, paid the laughably paltry 16 dollar visa fee (most countries pay 50 dollars), and endeavored to find transportation to Damascus. After approaching a few taxi drivers, we found two empty seats, sunk into them, and headed to the one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth.

The poor lighting of the bathroom obfuscated much of the drabness of the décor. But something, something moved in the water of the toilet. Hmmmmm…I peered in a little closer and found a rather large cockroach happily swimming his way to me. Flush. Ok, so the Sultan Hotel was not quite fit for a sultan. Perhaps continual habitation has its drawbacks. A stroll through the Hamadiya souq, a thoroughly satisfying 3 dollar meal, and a window shopping tour of Damascus’ mercantile delights later, we were satisfied. I deposited Shahreena at her hotel and spent an enjoyable evening in ex-pat company with several of my American friends living in Damascus.

It came, slowly, roiling over the desert sands with tempestuous arrogance. I glanced up, my finger on the trigger of my camera, capturing the stark beauty of Palmyra. The cheerful blueness of the sky slowly bleached into a dull, ominous shade devoid of any real definition. Flat on my back only moments earlier, staring at the still grand heights of the Roman pillar colonnade, I had noticed nothing. When I had crossed the threshold into the sacred temple of Baal, still colossal after thousands of years, the sun still beat mercilessly against me. “Is that a…sandstorm?” Shahreena asked, at my side, staring at the cloud seething on the horizon. “Go. Fast.” And so we raced through more of Palmyra, laughing nervously as the storm rolled towards us, our awe of ruins somewhat tempered by the knowledge that a vast storm swirling with millions of particles of stinging sand would be imminently upon us. “I want to go, there.” I pointed to a somewhat distant temple, one of the most famous in Palmyra. Standing behind it, photographing it in the dim lighting, I felt the first blast of the storm claw at my skin. I closed my eyes and hugged my camera to me as the first wave passed over. Suddenly, I was inside the storm, and an eerie, glowing light suffused the temple. Cool. During a lull in the sand barrage, I raced towards Shahreena, who had, sensible girl that she is, headed towards the exit whilst I headed further into the desert. We met, and laughed, slightly red-eyed due to the, well, sand...Then the rain came. And we abandoned Palmyra for the dryness of our car, rented out for the day. Safe inside, the storm intensified, battering the desert with gusts of rain and heaving winds and muddy torrents.

I shivered. High in the mountains, surrounded by the lush fields of Syria’s interior, I regretted my obstinacy against packing a jacket. All was fog and dampness, rain and mud, and the stone fortress of the Crac des Chevaliers lay obscured beneath a cloak of opaque whiteness. Instead, we gorged ourselves on our one real meal, and trudged back to the hotel in the fading light of day.

All was forgiven by morn. The fairy tale contours of the castle revealed itself from the hotel windows, a magical structure of turrets and towers, high walls and soaring balustrades. A walk down a country lane, past a cow and herd of sheep, past a tractor parked by the road, past the Arab tourists blaring pop music from their bus, we arrived at the gates. And slipped down the flagstones of the interior, surmounted the surrounding walls, climbed the Princess’ tower, descended down spiraling staircases into darkness, laughed as we discovered the moat (a moat!), and fended off roving bands of school children utterly fascinated by the two foreigners (I once again became a minor celebrity). I have read of the echoing halls of castles, reverberating with the sound of banquets, the bustling corridors, filled with the pitter patter of servants, courtiers, and knights, the inner courtyards bursting with gardens, the outer walls defending the fortress…But it took the Crac, in its remarkable intact state, to visualize the pageantry of the past, an era remembered only by the cold, grey stone walls, silent sentinels.

It stood like a question against the city of Aleppo, a half-ruined tower at the edge of the citadel. Surrounding the fortress sprawled the modern city, a sea of rooftops, minarets, open parks, and the occasional church steeple. Each of these had an identifiable purpose, or at least a place, in the fabric of humanity. But around me lay the rubble of history, fallen pillars, collapsed walls, toppled domes, a lost story. The Citadel was an archaeologist’s dream, and nightmare. Largely unexcavated, but highly trafficked. But I was not interested in contemplating lessons of the past. “Ready for our one meal today?” I asked Shahreena as we wove our way down from the Citadel, through the massive doors, over the ramp, and into the square beyond. “Mmmm…food,” she murmured, and I suspected our bus snack of potato chips had been forgotten. Several large European tourist groups crowded past, eying the Arab masses celebrating Syrian Independence somewhat furtively. Settling into the little café off the square, ordering in smooth Arabic, I knew I was definitely on the road less traveled.

It was huge. The world’s oldest free-standing minaret, dating back from the 9th century, stood proudly erect in the courtyard of the Ummayed mosque in Aleppo. We ducked into the interior of the mosque to find the shrine of Yehiya, our bare feet whispering over the smooth carpet, passing beneath the arched forms of looming white pillars. Garbed in a shapeless grey robe, courtesy of the doorman of the mosque, I watched the activity in front of me for several moments, wondering why I felt suddenly…wrong. “Where are all the women!?” I hissed to Shahreena, who turned to me, rather chagrined, and mouthed, “Oops.” We escaped, unscathed, from the observation of men’s prayer time, rushed onto the warm, intricately patterned marble of the courtyard, and exited the mosque, gaining shoes but losing the hobbit robes.

“Pay. Now.” The hotel proprietor barked at us. I glanced at Shahreena and shrugged. So much for Arab hospitality. We each handed him an equivalent of 10 US dollars and flooded into the late afternoon Damascus sunshine. A morning in Aleppo, a drowsy 4 hour bus ride through the fertile fields of Syria, and arrival in Al-Sham, the original name for the intoxicating city. I towed Shahreena through the winding alleyways of the ancient souq, past stores selling feather boas and ribbon, kitchen utensils and crockery, sexy negligee and bright headscarves. We giggled our way, with the occasional photo and purchasing stop (my scarf collection was sorely lacking in camel hair and silk additions. Cheap, though, Mum, don’t worry), to the Ummayed mosque of Damascus, stunning in its size, age, and sheer grandeur. I sent Shahreena to visit the graves of the Muslim saints while I lingered in the white courtyard, seated on the floor in my requisite hobbit uniform. The gilded mosaics of the Treasury glinted at me as I smiled, leaning back against one of the pillars. In Jordan, in Palmyra, at the Crac, in Aleppo, I saw time without meaning, cities and civilizations abandoned, grand purposes forsaken, forgotten but by the click of a tourist’s camera. But here, here, women and men still washed at the fountain as they had a thousand years ago, children shrieked and raced across the smooth floor, the devout still offered prayers in the direction of Mecca.

My conversion wasn’t nearly as cool, or as divinely inspired, as Paul, St. Paul, from the Bible. In Damascus, on a street called Straight, Saul turned to Paul, and regained his sight, and his devotion. Replace the donkeys with cars, remodel a few of the buildings, and you find me, two thousand years later, watching night settle over Damascus, hearing the honking of cars and the bubble of sheesha pipes, the flurry of life down the street and the clang of shop doors as they close for the day. Here, on a road very much traveled, I find it. Life. Neither extraordinary or revolutionary, just life, unbroken, unharried. There is no severing of the ancient with the modern, just a seamless blending of the two, a continuity of the centuries, millennia, really. And I flow flawlessly into its gentle current.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Greeting from Syria. Ahlan wa sahlan, as they say here. My adventure-dearth has happily been interrupted with a spate of satiating exploring in Petra, Wadi Rum, the Eastern Deserts of Jordan, Jerash, the border with Syria, Damascus, Palmyra, Crac de Chevaliers, and, here, Aleppo. A blog shall soon follow, replete with roiling sandstorms, thundering storm clouds, 6 am bus chasing, rock climbing, donkey riding, and lots of laughter.

However, this is not the reason I am writing. Well, perhaps it is, partly. I feel rather enveloped in a bubble of happiness. Syria is bliss. No, I write because, through various veins of communication, I have heard some chatter about my previous blog entry, and some clarification is necessary. I like to write, as has been clearly manifested by the length certain entries. Writing is both catharasis (I know that's spelled wrong, but they don't exactly have spell checker in Aleppo) and practice. It records my life the way I want to tell it, through the refraction of my conscience. Sometimes, that means certain events occured in a different order than they are actually recorded, or, perhaps, it means I take the liberty of poetic license. As a suffering English major of 5 years, I have that right. This blog is not an photograph of my life, but rather an impressionist's drawing of it. Some parts are missing, some are exaggerated, some are painted with the reflection of distance, and some are reality. That weekend in the desert, with the Bedouins, true, every part of it. But that was something tangible to recreate. When a distinct lack of adventure arrives, I become frighteningly creative.

So there is my statement. Not a defense, because there is nothing to defend. A blog, which you are likely reading from halfway around the world, and updated perhaps weekly, should never be a true reflection of character, moral fiber, or personality. Entertaining, and a recording of a few thoughts and events, certainly. But more than that...

Alright, my travel buddy is ready to trek back to our hotel through the darkened streets of Aleppo. I think a stop for chocolate might be efficacious.

Maa salama!

Or ice cream...There's a ice cream store across the street. Mmmmm....

Thursday, April 09, 2009


There is a beautiful stillness to the air. In the minutes before twilight, nothing moves, and the serenity of the desert at dusk steals over the land. Muted lighting casts the tawny buildings in rose-colored softness; the green olive trees turn almost silver as the fading light brushes their leaves; the budding spring flowers turn towards the departing light, almost wistfully; the shadows of the gardens below deepen, and the trailing vines snake almost menacing along the low wall.

And, then, I hear it. Sunset. The mosque next door begins to chant, building in volume as the “Allah Akbars” add up. Doors slam in the flats downstairs, and men shuffle towards the mosque to perform the 4th prayer of the day. The scent of cooking is suddenly discernable on the air, drifting up from the neighbors below. A game of football commences in a nearby driveway, and the thump of the ball and the cries of children weave smoothly into the melody of the mosque.

Twilight. A balance of light and dark, day and night, suspended between an end and a beginning. Absent of sunshine and darkness, stuck somewhere in between. Emptiness.

This concept of emptiness is interesting, because it falls at a time of year when life is flourishing-reservoirs are overflowing with water, spring flowers are pushing stubbornly through the brittle ground, trees are sprouting green shoots of life. But, in a sense, it is devoid of meaning…In a few weeks, the flowers will wither and die, the leaves shrivel and brown in the relentless sunshine; in a few months, the reservoirs will be drained. A feeble gesture, it seems, this attempt at reconciliation, at renewing promises. I endure, each day, for those moments when life sparks verily, and the commonplace duplicity is replaced by the genuine. When emptiness is a refuge, not a void, when life’s twilights are a balance between truth and lies, mirth and sorrow.

Souq Hour, on a Friday. Waking up to the muted light of cloudy sunshine, scrambling eggs on the stove, walking for an hour to Dahayat Al-Rashid and meeting Jessica Jane, cabbing downtown to the chaos of Friday market in Abdali, walking amid the tables of second-hand shoes and overstocked clothes, ducking between the racks of children’s pants and women’s lingerie, dodging families with small children and Filipino maids searching for bargains, finding one in a pair of boots for yourself, encountering Sarah, your Arab friend, on the other side of a stack of purses, discovering a genuine University of Minnesota cheerleader's top amid the racks of tank tops, quite curious as to how it ended up in Amman, extricating yourself from its chaos to amble, with Jess and Sarah, Downtown, past the mosque of Al-Hussein, past the gold and silver sellers, past the embroidered gowns and patterned scarves, past the juice and tea sellers, past the pirated DVD stores and Petra souvenirs, into the calmness of Jafra, where a salad accompanies weary chatter.

Sheep Hour, on a Thursday. Looking out the window of your flat to espy the incongruity of a herd of sheep frolicking in the empty lot-turned-verdant-meadow next door, walking downstairs and amongst the furry beasts, laughing as the little lambs bleat and bound in short leaps over the uneven ground, smiling as their mothers maaaaaa as you approach, trotting away on spindly legs, gulping as the tautly muscled and horned ram stares at you, cooing as you cuddle the softness of the lamb you captured (see pic: left) , taking a photo of Jessica with the lamb she wanted to catch but could not (and so enlisted the aid of the shepherd, all too willing to aid the foreign women romping among the sheep like nymphs from a fairy tale).

Happy Hour, on a Wednesday. Sipping vodka and sodas in La Calle, whispering secrets across the table, tottering out of the bar, arm in arm, pausing at the top stair of descent, gazing in undiminshed awe at the Roman ruins of the Citadel soaring over the city, sloshing through the ‘sewage’ water from Jebel Amman to Downtown, laughing all the way…

Language Hour, on a Tuesday. Sitting on the steps of the Language Center, as usual, while conservatively veiled Heba joins you, drinking in the sun in your short-sleeved tee-shirt, tilting back your loose hair to catch streaming rays of golden sunlight, chatting with your friends as they pass you by, teaching Heba the phrase “leg waxing” in English, listening to your voice grow in confidence as the Arabic flows, incredulously, from your lips, sketching in your notebook as you attempt to explicate the meaning of traffic cone in Arabic. You succeed.

Kidnapping Hour(s), on a Monday. Loitering in the Raghdan bus station for an hour, Jessica and Rebecca, several inches shorter, on either side, watching humanity amble past, seeing black abayas brush colorful skirts and tight jeans, glancing boldly into the midnight eyes of a woman obfuscated behind a face veil, sighing in relief as Heba finally arrives, on Arab time, and escorts you to her home, a cool, half-constructed house overlooking the environs of East Amman, eating chicken and rice and salad until you nearly burst, and then eating more because that’s what you do in the Arab world, sipping the delicacy of Pepsi after the meal, sitting with her mother and sister for hours, chattering in rapid-fire Arabic and actually contributing to the conversation, stuttering as you find yourself the sole defender of the Jewish religion, wondering why you are the defender of the Jewish religion, realizing that you enjoy being the incendiary element in a conversation, indicating a desire to leave in the early afternoon, sipping tea several hours later, helping Heba write a 5-paragraph essay on the ideal vacation, thinking that Heba has likely never gone on the ideal vacation unless a pilgrimage to Mecca is your idea of an idyllic respite, piling into a cab, 7 hours after arriving, and listening to the splatter of rain on the windshield, grateful that rain, to your knowledge, doesn’t speak Arabic.

Teaching Hour, on a Sunday. Walking to school through the morning coolness, grimacing as the second carload of men shouts lewdities, blissfully ignorant due to country music serenading from my earbuds classes have ended at the language center, and you linger in the restaurant, Saveen, nearby, talking between mouthfuls of egg and hummus with your classmates, walking from the university to Khalda, down Sharia Medina Al-Munowarra, over to Sharia Gardens, up the giant hill, and down again, entering the gates of Zaha Center, nodding to the guards, trudging past the bright red buildings and yellow-shaded window sills, passing into the library, a clamor of children rushes in, fighting for the seats closest to you, calling for quiet, you begin the lesson, showing them the bribe of chocolate to the best student, calming their recalcitrance down with a smile, dismissing them with fondness, contemplating the walk home, and catching a cab.

Saturday. It is neither sleep nor wakefulness, but a dreamy state of drifting. It is too late to go home, and too early for beauty...

The curtains of the sunroom fall back, soundlessly, and the crepuscular light fades into darkness. A thousand memories meld into a mingling of color, laughter, fear, frustration, ecstasy, betrayal, triumph, exhaustion, and Arabic. My moment of luminescence fades, and my twilight turns to night. I settle in on the loveseat contentedly. Soon, the dark will dissipate, and mingle with the recrudescence of morning. A new kind of twilight is born, a new balance is created, a new clarity is realized….

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Their footsteps gave them away, though my eyes were closed to the sheltering sunlight. A person pattered by, nimbly and swiftly. Rebecca. Another followed after, slower, heavier, less certain in her direction. Jessica. They disappeared into the apartment, their chatter receding into blessed silence. Only the occasional car horn, the rumble of an engine, the jingle of the gas man’s truck, the voice of the mosque, the shriek of a child disturbed my serenity. I turned over, bare leg stretched out luxuriantly on my mattress.

I heard their voices before their footfalls, a rise and fall of cadence twittering about the events of the last two nights. Their events, not mine. Wrapping my blankets around me, I stood up and relinquished to them their balcony and gossip. I paused next to the kitchen counter, inhaling the redolence of my fresh lilies blooming in spring glory. With a contented sigh, I settle into the familiarity of the loveseat, permanent residence of my ailing laptop, and lean over to sip my Diet Pepsi. Grrrrrrr. Empty. With a more frustrated sigh, I push aside my disgruntlement and admire the shade of my skin, smoothing transitioning between pasty winter white to sun-brushed bronze. Insha’allah.

With God’s will. This simple Arabic phrase, the most oft-repeated in the Arabic world, making the impossible suddenly possible. I hope you get better, insha’allah. I will see you again, insha’allah. It is amazing, really, the faith behind these words. They grant the gift of hope, of possibility, of reality. Were they to be suddenly, inexorably, effaced from the Arabic language, I cannot imagine the chaos this would induce. Business transactions, prayer sessions, friendships, conversations would be suddenly bereft of the assurance of faith, of the comfort of knowing that all rests in God’s capable hands. Faith, yes. But also inculpable cultures, societies based on the belief that, ultimately, God is responsible for Everything. Only through God is anything possible.

Sound familiar? Is that not the basic tenet of most major religions, the ultimate faith in God? The simple act of prayer is an act of insha’allah, of placing our needs, our concerns, our hopes and our joys on the will of God. Here is what I wish, God, and, if you will it, then make it so. Christians are so good at prayer, yet many of them utterly fail to see the connection between this action and that of their Muslim brethren. Faith in the same God, acts of worship to praise and petition Him...

Religion. By my own will or not, I seem to find myself recently enmeshed in religion experiences. Life in the Middle East is an encompassing journey of religion, an ensconcing envelopment in the practices of Islam, and, to a lesser extent, Judaism and Christianity. I hear, and see, Islam every day. My local mosque assures that I know, 5 times a day, when I should be praying in the direction of Mecca. Many cab drivers leave the Quran blaring from the radio when I step inside. Every veiled woman is a testament to the fundamentals of Islam, to the decree that women should be modest and unadorned, and, by nature of the veil’s controversy, every unveiled woman is a testament to her own form of faith, be it towards the religion of Islam or another.

But visit any of the sites of the Holy Land, and you will soon learn that Islam is not omnipotent. Christians and Jews have as much, or more, history in this region as the Muslims, and they will not go quietly. Attend a church service in Amman, and you will find Christians both devout and fervent. Pass by the Western Wall of Jerusalem on a Friday night, and the flocks of bearded, black robed Jews will overwhelm you.
But, religion is not the problem. No, don’t laugh. It is Man. Man created these apocryphal divisions between us, Man suddenly decided he could not live harmoniously beside another decent human being. Religion does not advocate slaughter of another people merely because of their religion. I am not going to go into the basis of jihad, but nowhere in the Quran does God tell Muslims to murder. And nowhere in the Torah does God tell Jews to commit genocide merely on the basis of differences in creed. The Bible is devoid of any reference to wage war against you neighbor because he is unlike you.

Man is reasonable; faith is unreasonable. Perhaps this is where the tension lies, between the void of reason and faith, and the struggle to connect the act of miracles with the reality of life. Yet, without this faith, without religion, where is Man? Alone, with the weight of the universe crushing down upon him. Religion begets responsibility. We have an interceder between us and the expanse of time and space, something that recognizes us, something that cares about us, something that gives us direction.

And so, we believe. We have faith in that which we cannot see, touch, or hear.

Faith comes in many forms. For the non-religious, faith is found in more prosaic objects-money, love, sex, friendship, humanity…But these things are imperfect. They will always betray you. Only a God, designed in perfection, will never leave you. And this, perhaps, is why humanity has always chosen the divine over the mortal, the unseen over the tangible, the imagined over reality.

And so I understand the mindset of the Christian worshippers of Thursday night, of their fervid devotion to God and their love of Jesus. And their sermon, well, it was good. Not just good in an oratorical sense, but good in a sense of purity, of ethical mores. In instructed parents on child-raising practices, and listed 6 values-honesty, integrity, respect, self-confidence, charity…And, afterwards, when we gathered in the apartment downstairs to share a meal, I felt at home. Everyone was kind, smiling, generous, laughing, attempted various levels of English with me. But, perhaps what touched me most was the last speaker of the night, a burly old man with a red-checked Jordanian headscarf atop his head. He lumbered up to the lectern, and I internally rolled my eyes. He exuded the conservative, dare I say backwards, attitude that I detest in Arab men, be they Christian or Arab.

So, when he opened his mouth and spoke, I blinked, and wondered if my internal translator was malfunctioning. Today is Mother’s Day in the Middle East. Happy Mother’s Day! The occasion was celebrated that evening; all of the women (including me, hence the lilies in the kitchen) received flowers. But, this man, he spoke about recognizing mothers every day of the year, not just one. About their essential role in life, about the respect they deserve, about how hard they work, about how many of them are career woman and mothers…My friend, Reem, squeezed my hand and smiled, her face suffused with the beauty of faith.

Just as, a bit over a month ago, Mother, too, smiled at me while she stood before the altar of the Crucifixion in Jerusalem…

Yes, this blog appears to be about faith, and its tribulations and its elations, and what is more fitting than a trip to the holiest city in the world?

So, to Jerusalem we go, via cab, bus and foot. Cab from Amman to the Allenby Bridge crossing; thwarted at that border; a cab to the Sheikh Hussein border crossing, an hour north; cabs and various buses and interminable waits to finally cross into Israel; a cab (as all of the buses were not running due to the Jewish Sabbath) to Jerusalem, to the heart of the old city; by foot through the Jaffa Gate, down David Street, up stairs into a narrow side alley and, finally, to the Lutheran Guesthouse.

Jerusalem is more of a hassle than anything else. It is a breathtaking city, steeped in history, religion, and culture, but every moment spent inside it is an exercise in patience and discord. This is not to say that neither I, nor mother, did not enjoy ourselves, for we did, immensely. I took Mother on walking tour of the old city that eve, down David street, past the Western Wall, out a gate, and around the outside of the city, enjoying spectacular views of East Jerusalem, the Mt. of Olives, the City of David, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. However, Mom was hungry, and my route was circuitous, as always, so we had to retrace our steps (not quite as awe-inspiring, the second time) and wander back through the old city.

Teenage Arab hoodlums harassed us, or, more specifically, me (apparently, the shape of my rear side is of particular fascination to Arabs, as the Iraqis, Jordanians, Egyptians and Palestinians have all made various comments regarding its general contours and what they wish to do to it), as we traipsed back over the worn flagstones of Jerusalem. Finally, we espied the familiar glow of David Street, with relief, and made our way to the Armenian Tavern, which I had visited on a previous trip. Warm, pleasurably powerful showers later, we slept.

The echoing halls of the Lutheran Guesthouse gave way to the smooth, millennia-old stones of the Via Delarosa. Using my ‘innate’ sense of direction, we found it without toooooo much wandering, and began the walk of Jesus. It was a pleasant spring day, lit by cerulean skies scattered with puffy clouds, a warm breeze carrying with it the whiff of incense, the chatter of tour groups, the mutterings of Arabic, the call of the mosques, and the ringing of church bells. We were among the few independents in Jerusalem tourism traffic. Even without the war in Gaza, most people fear travel in the Middle East. With the war, almost everyone followed obediently behind a tour guide as he explained each of the twelve stations of the cross.

Mother and I, we dodged around the tour groups, ducked into little stores as our whims dictated, and ambled at our own pace along the holiest way in Christendom. Some of the station are marked by beautiful chapels and eloquent statues; others, by mere plaques on the city wall bearing a Roman numeral. One was disguised in basement of a tourist store. The site of Jesus’ prison was atmospheric, at least, devoid of tourists and accessible only by descent into a dark cavern lit by flickering candles. I realized, then, what the Via Delarosa was lacking. Faith. Individually, perhaps, it still persists, resilient despite the shopkeepers selling pieces of the cross, the repetitions of the Quran sliding through the air of the street, the brusque push of impatient citizens pushing in front of you. But I have found more faith in the voices of a congregation in Amman, lifted up in praise to the Lord; in the gentle eyes of my Coptic professor, Nabila, in Cairo; in the soft words of my pastor in Chaska; then I have in the streets of Jerusalem.

Religion cannot exist, wholly, in an atmosphere of repression, oppression, hatred, or violence. In the church of the Holy Sepulchre, situated on the Mt. of Calvary and the resting place of His grave, various Christian factions compete for dominance over the site. While we were there, we witnessed several processions, in the space of an hour, past the sites of significance, each conducting their own rituals. I should think that the time and resources devoted to this puerile competition could be better directed at other causes. God himself must suffer from both deafness and asthma, constantly being asphyxiated by the sickeningly sweet scent of incense and the booming, and often off-key, words of the priests and underlings chanting in front of his grave.

The Church itself is cavernous, with niches, balconies, and stairwells, and chapels to explore for hours. Time has softened its stark, dark, imposing interior, blunted the sharp-cut edges of stone blocks, smoothed the tops of altars with the brush of millions of pilgrims. Regardless of religion, the sheer enormity of professed faith encompassed in one building is staggering. The desire of millions of Christian hearts is fulfilled when they cross its mighty threshold.

We embarked on a backwards tour of Jesus’ life. We walked, from the Via Delarosa to the Mt. of Olives, descending into the valley between, clambering among the Roman tombs. In that sunlight gorge, frequented only by the occasional Arab passing on his way to East Jerusalem, it was peaceful, finally, and the beauty of the Holy Land, unmarred by commercialism, strife, and tension, descended.

At the Mt. of Olives we visited the Garden of Gethsemane and a beautifully lugubrious church upon the site. Some of the olive trees, they told us, were witnesses to the betrayal of Jesus. They looked merely old, and tired, weighed down with the contemplation of the ages and the secrets of humanity.

Twas the night, and the voices of the muzzeins resounded through the darkened streets, answered by the clangs of the church bells, then the morning. I took Mother, as usual, on the road less travelled, or, I suppose, the bus less travelled. To Bethlehem we went, via public bus outside the Damascus Gate. It was us and Arabs.

The bus deposited us outside a recent construction of the Jews. The barrier wall, with a gate more fortified than a border between two nations. A banner next to the gate read, with mocking sincerity, “Bethlehem and Jerusalem: love and peace.” We followed behind an Arab woman with her children, and waited patiently while the IDF interrogated her. “Oh, American. Go through.” The border guard barely glanced at our passports.

We passed through the several metal detectors, metal queues, beneath the wall itself, through more metal queues, and into the West Bank. When I had previously visited Jerusalem, in the summer of ’07, the wall had not extended that far, and a mere road checkpoint impeded progress. Now, the steel will of Israel divides Jerusalem and the West Bank.

With their usual avarice, the Arab taxi drivers attempted to charge us exorbitant fees to visit the Church of the Nativity. We bartered them down, slid into a cab, and endured the constant badgering of the driver, who tried to encourage us to visit other sites in the West Bank. We exited at the church, gratefully, although he waited for us. Its interior was, of course, beautiful, ancient, gilded, and ornate; only a small crush of tourists impeded our access to the site of Jesus’ birth, although every single one of them took a photo of themselves touching the silver star marking His emergence into this world.

The modern, Catholic section of the church was still thronging with Sunday worshippers leaving service. I saw faith that day not in the glint of the Star of Jesus but in the welcoming smile of the local priest, the laughter of friends exiting the sanctuary, the scattered Bibles across the pews. Below the church lay another historical site: the location of the inn where Mary and Joseph sought shelter.

Our taxi driver brought us to an olive wood store, but their prices were outrageous, so we left. Rather angry by this time, the driver deposited us at the border crossing, muttering curses beneath his breath, while we fled to the Israeli side. I glanced back, once, just as Lot’s wife had done (happily, I was not doomed to life as a pillar of salt) to gaze over the jumble of buildings of the West Bank. I, too, could do little more than mutter curses under my breath for the situation of the Palestinians and those eponymous people’s treatment of tourists.

Directly behind us was a jovial group of American tourists, demurely herded into a single line, utterly fascinated, and impressed, by the aspect of two American women traveling alone through the dangers of Israel. I politely declined to mention that large groups of tourists generally pose more of a target to terrorists than individuals. We got into our public bus; they piled into their tourist one.

A pleasant walk around the walls of the old city later, Mother and I found us in front of an innocuous door for an Assyrian chapel. Another female tourist, also solo, stood beside us, eyeing it with similar dubiousness. Having asked the front desk where the site of the Last Supper was, they directed us here.

We entered the door, found the interior courtyard deserted, and almost turned away, when the flash of light caught our eye. In a side chapel, an old priest, gray-bearded and black-robed, lit a candle and carried it out of side. Curious, I followed him, haltingly, watching as he lit more candles in front of an altar. When he finished, he turned to me, surprised to find visitors. Smilingly hesitatingly, I said hello, and his face crinkled up in the most wonderful smile, and he beckoned to me, mother, and the other woman. For almost an hour, he gave us a tour of the complex, telling us a story of the patron saint of the chapel (I forget the name, forgive me) in slow but precise English. From there, he led us to a sumptuous chapel of red velvet and gold icons and shining altars where he explained the significance of the site. He is one of the few men in this life that exudes, from every pore, radiant goodness. His pure delight in the sacrifice of Jesus, his eternal love, was evident in every sentence. He was a creation of faith in the purest sense. Muslim extremists, too, are creations of faith, as are Catholic/Protestant terrorists. But this priest understood the message of religion free from its corruption and outside influence.

I left the softly lit chapel, hidden down an anonymous street in Jerusalem, glowing, if not literally, than figuratively. I did not find faith in the hallowed halls of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or on the steps of the Dome of the Rock, or on the prayer crevices of the Western Wall…no, it was found in the testimony of an old priest in a little chapel down a street I will probably never find.

And that, I thought the next morning, after I had made an early morning (while Mom wisely remained in bed) foray to the Dome of the Rock, is the true beauty of Jerusalem.

Oh, my. Time seems to run in a swift river when I write. What was sunlight is now twilight, and the afternoon call to prayer has melded into the call of sunset. The voices of my roommates, still chattering, now come from the sunroom. Faith is such a tenuous thing. It can be won or lost in the work of a moment; it can endure for millennia, or disappear for eternity; it can be proven in the actions of those you love, and disproven just as easily. It is little wonder the Middle East is forever entrenched in war.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Tis that time of month of again…No, not THAT time of month :P It is the time of month when I wake up, hit the snooze on my alarm clock, cuddle into the warmth of my Pooh blanket a little longer, and morosely drag myself from the dregs of mosque-interrupted slumber to a warm shower…and realize that I have not blogged in an egregiously long period of time. I’d apologize, but, then again, I think I’ve already offered remorse for the same sentiments in previous entries. So, you must suffer with my whimsical entries a bit longer.

It is also that time of year…finally. Jess and I were trudging home from school on Sunday, passing through the small park near our home, and noticed white blossoms budding on the branches of a tree tucked behind the walls of a garden. Spring!!!! Although I hesitate to promulgate the word too loudly, for fear of retribution from the fickle gods of Ammani weather, I think spring may have finally arrived. After weeks of bitterly driving winds, battering rain showers, pummeling hail, and the occasional sprinkle of snow, sun broke through the fortress of clouds, and cheery beams of sunshine beckoned us from beneath our layers of blankets and shivering.

I think I may have neglected to mention that we received our heating bill for the last three months. It totaled 380 dinars. So, all of those nights of semi-toasty coziness next to the heater were not quite as blithe as we had expected…We coughed up the money, said good-bye to our savings, and resolved to live in chilly resilience for the rest of the winter. We finally reached the point where we laughed at the absurdity of the situation. Jessica, Rebecca, and I sat in our living room, huddled beneath blankets and jackets, and fingers semi-frozen as we scrawled out our homework, our breath emerging in white puffs that swiftly dissipated in the frozen air. I no longer put my groceries in the fridge; what was the point, when the temp of the apartment was the same as that of the talaaja (fridge, in Arabic).

But, we were strong. Winter is not eternal; I do not live in the land of Narnia, and there is no witch to cast the curse of endless winter over the deserts of Jordan. It’s interesting, however. I feel…different, with the change in weather. Reborn is too dramatic, but perhaps revitalized is more appropriate. My body, in a state of inertia for the past several months, uncurled from its constant state of huddled shivering to realize my world again. There is, in fact, more to life than the distance between the warmth of my bed, the steamy heat of the shower, and the cocoon of blankets on the couch.

Even the small lake pooling on the floor of the living room cannot banish my good humor. Nor did the sparking water heater switch, which we smelled one evening while preparing for bed. “Hey, do you guys smell something….burning?” And so, upon further investigation, we tracked the scent to the hot water switch, which we quickly turned off. When the electrician, our old friend by now, arrived the next day to repair it, he laughed and asked if anything else was in imminent need of breaking. “mumkin il-ousbua3 al-jaii,” I joked. Probably next week. Such is the life.

A rather unexpected series of adventures have been thrust upon my life this past week; and, no, I am not referring to the continual excitements of the Arabic language- I learned how to say, “I poked out the eyes of everyone around you”- but rather, physical discoveries taking me beyond the confines of Amman. Last Wednesday, I participated in a retreat for my work, Relief International. I think it was officially a “workshop”, although the only working we endured was stabbing balloons with knives. Due to tensions in the workplace, and stress after the war in Gaza, and merely because team-building and stress relief are always useful excuses, the Jebel Nasser office group took a holiday. We gathered, early, last Wednesday, and boarded a chartered bus to the Western border of Jordan (i.e. Israel, but we try to mention the name as seldom as possible).

I was impressed; we were only half an hour late in leaving the center; positively early to Arab Time. One of my favorite people in Jordan, Malak, arrived to join our group. She is the daughter of one of the managers of the center, an entirely brilliant girl who speaks nearly flawless English at the age of 15 and is at the head of her class in school. And, for those of you who are wondering why I was not in school…I skipped. And instead spent 8 hours surrounded by the chatter of Arabic and the beat of the tabla (drum), both produced energetically by my Iraqi colleagues.

Because I was the only native English speaker, the group leaders conducted the entire day in Arabic, and I am pleased to say that I understood the majority of what was said without the aid of a translator. However, if I ever had a vocab question, Malak or Ahmed were only a few feet away. We played trivia games for much of the ride, but occasionally the leaders asked for volunteers to walk up to the mic and perform some task, usually involving humiliation on the participant’s side. Needleless to say, I was ‘volunteered’, and made to repeat “Lorry wara lorry,” (truck behind truck) five times. At least I won a bandana for my efforts.

A little over an hour later, we arrived at the site of the Baptism on the Jordan River. Yes, The Baptism, you know, the one in the Bible, where Jesus is submerged in the Jordan River? It still gets me, sometimes, how close I am to the origins of Western religion/culture/conflict. I live on the edge of the Holy Land, a mere two hours (not including the interminable border waits) from Jerusalem. As my friend Aaron was commenting as we were driving on the road to Madaba, the geography of Jordan is startling similar to that of Israel; or, perhaps, not so startlingly, since they were once the same country. In times long gone, shepherds did not have to fear land mines and machine gun-manned borders. The land simply was, an endless vista of rocky mountains, scrubby outcroppings, salty seas, groves of olive trees, dusty paths, lazy rivers, and humanity, all fluidly mingling on the roads from Damascus to Jerusalem, from ancient Philadelphia (that’s Amman) to Cairo.

But, no. Now the Middle East, my world, is marred by barbed wire fences, guard posts, and the tangibility of tension. “Laura, look, over there,” Doram, the (cute) sports teacher at Jebel Nasser indicated, standing breathlessly close to my ear, “Israel.” And then the moment was ruined when he uttered a curse, in Arabic, and turned away in disgust.

Malak, my little angel (her name means angel in Arabic), hovered near me or her father throughout our excursion, offering soft commentary in her sweet voice. “This forest must be scary at night!” she whispered as we passed beneath the knurled forms of the trees lining the banks of the Jordan river. She was right, though, the flickering shadows reflected off the black swamp water, the twisted arms of the trees thrusting menacingly across the path, the absence of birdsong. “I bet there are ghosts here at night!” I joked with my colleague, Luma, in Arabic, and she shuddered.

Being Arabs, my group took a plethora of photographs, dragging me into the majority of them, pausing at every interesting tree, pool, and stone. Our guide stopped before the site where, they think, Jesus was actually baptized, now a stagnant puddle of algae-ridden significance. “You see,” the guide stated, “the Jordan River has shrunk since the time of Jesus. Now, people are baptized in the actual river, at the point closest to this site.”

So, we trekked through more twisted woods, past natural springs to the Jordan River, a languid stream entirely un-Biblical in proportion. About 15 feet across the river, the Israeli flag fluttered in the breeze, and IDF soldiers watched our group warily. A nervous twitter passed through our group, and their behavior (forgive me) resembled a recusant child stealing a cookie from the jar, knowing she’s wrong, but nonetheless enjoying the occasion. More pictures were taken with the Israeli flag prominent in the background. I performed a few ‘baptisms’ of my more courageous colleagues, and then we headed up the bank to the Greek Orthodox church.

Our invasion of the small nave frightened away the white tourists, whose guide eyed our babbling multitudes with annoyance. I was rather shocked by the enthusiasm of my group, who flowed into every last niche of the church, sitting, photographing, and laughing beneath the stern countenance of Jesus, who watched from a mural on the ceiling.

We hiked back to the bus, thoroughly sweaty and hot by this time, and rode about 15 minutes to a villa near the Dead Sea. Inside the stone walls, we separated, with unspoken familiarity, women into one room, men into the other. Initially, I had followed the men into the living room, but then I realized I was the only female. Oops. I found my female colleagues sprawled across the beds in their private sanctuary, removing their veils and giggling as they relaxed away from the prying eyes of menfolk. Boring. I soon abandoned them and went out the pool, where I soaked my feet and absorbed the warmth of the sun. I laid down on the heated stone, stretching out while keeping my body covered, when Ahmed walked by and muttered, “Bad idea, Laura.” The next day, I was paging through the pictures that had been taken and discovered one of myself, ‘lasciviously’ lying on the ground.

Throughout the afternoon, we played team-building games, ravenously devoured lunch, and relaxed away from the stress of the workplace. A few of the boys (including Doram, very nice body, btw) went swimming, and I watched them enviously as the splashed in the refreshingly pool. However, I knew that is lying in the ground in haram (forbidden) then stripping down for a swim would get me stoned. At the end of the day, we gathered in the living room, blew up balloons, and wrote on them our biggest challenge in life at the current time. The person who could best solve it was given a knife to pop the balloon. Given the severity of certain situations (my family is in danger in Iraq; I am not able to earn any money as a refugee in Jordan), I felt rather imperialistic when I reticently stated my challenge as, “The Arabic language.”

Perspective. View the site of Jesus’ baptism through Muslim eyes, see your challenges in relation to the inequality around you. Realize that weather is ephemeral, not eternal. Realize that true friends are eternal, and not ephemeral. Experience Pink Panty Dropper night without dropping a single panty. Listen to Egyptian Arabic with the (slightly smug) knowledge of having triumphed to Jordanian Arabic…

Hmmmm…some of that I will leave to your fecund imaginations…but one of the adventures upon which I am allowed to espouse is Aaron. Time for a quick trip down memory lane…Remember, in Cairo, I had two Aaron friends? One of whom worked for State Department? Re-enter Aaron, in Amman on business. Tough life, I know. I met him at his luxury Ammani hotel, introduced him to Jafra, the Arab restaurant downtown, and the Jordanian dialect. Being State, he is an unusually perspicacious being, and he adopted a semi-Jordanian accent remarkably swiftly. However, there were moments when his Egyptian shone through, and I had to laugh. I may not have a job, but a least I can speak Arabic in two dialects ;-)

On Monday, we (as in, all of Jordan) celebrated the birthday of Mohammed. Alhamdulilah, as this marked a national holiday from work and school, and an opportunity to travel around Jordan with Aaron. He rented a mid-sized sedan from his hotel, and discovered that translated into a scratched and sputtering Chevy Aveo. No worries. I directed him out of Amman, with a quick detour to my flat to pay the rent. “So, is this a typical Jordanian apartment?” Aaron asked, as we walked up the four flights of stairs (still no elevator). “Yup. Note lake on the floor.” But, he was impressed with the rooftop balcony.

We drove to Madaba, about half an hour outside of Amman, coursing through the valleys and over the hills of Jordan’s topographical variation. “It’s a lot…hillier…than Cairo,” Aaron commented, easing the car adroitly through Middle Eastern congestion. “And cleaner, and…” The list grew.

“Now this is more like Cairo,” Aaron said, as we nudged forward in holiday Madaba traffic, eyeing the disheveled storefronts on either side of the road, the ubiquitous Arab men shouting, the accumulation of rubbish, and the disorderly lanes of traffic. “But they’re actually waiting at the stoplights.” That would be in reference to the lack of traffic adherence in Cairo. Of course, I got us hopelessly lost attempting to find the mosaic church, but, with a few shouts for directions, we found the church and spent a couple hours wandering through the streets, enjoying (on Aaron’s part, anyway; I merely continued to revel in it) the return to the Arab world, and savoring cheap shawerma and Arab hospitality.

With Aaron’s desire for mosaics thoroughly sated, we left town, got slightly lost again, and proceeded to Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land before he died. Having visited twice before, I followed Aaron patiently as he discovered the unremarkable (and perpetually hazy) view, and then suggested we drive down to the Dead Sea. The bright sunshine of the Dead Sea Valley warmed my face, and I lazily stretched in the passenger’s seat, enjoying my holiday away from Amman, while I allowed Aaron to navigate to steep curves and abrupt incline changes of the road. Partaking a second lunch at the Dead Sea Panorama, we raced back to Amman in time for sunset atop the Citadel, a surprisingly poignant visit. With the brilliance of sunset deepening into a fathomless blue, we approached the vestiges of the Zeus temple, a few pillars standing testament to forsaken glory of Rome. As the voice of every mosque in the city drifted up to us, blendingly mellifluously into a single ‘Allah Akbar’, we climbed among the Roman columns, stood among the remains of a Byzantine church, and watched the light fade behind an abandoned mosque. Amman spread before us-north, south, east, and west- and we stood in the center of it all, surrounded by the timeless voice of Islam.

The moment faded, and we left the citadel, picked up one of Aaron’s colleagues, and ate dinner in one of the most sha3bi (hole-in-the-wall) restaurants in Amman, Hashem’s. For 6.5 dinar, we feasted on the greasy delights of falafel, hummus, fries, fool (beans), bread, and tea. From there, I took them to one of swankiest districts of Amman, Sweifeh, where we people-watched. Returning them safely to their hotel, I cabbed home, arriving to a darkened apartment, the roomies already sensibly tucked into bed. Perspective, I smiled softly as the incorporeality of slumber overtook me. The ability to feel the shiver of immortality as the mosques call to pray, the ability to feel insignificant among the relics of the ancients. May I never lose it.