Reporting Live from Jordan -- It's Michael

When Michael Leyden from EIU's College of Education and Larry Schafer of Syracuse University moved to Amman for three months this summer to write science curricula for the Hashemite Kingdom, they scribbled their thoughts under the pseudonyms, Michael Jordan and Lawrence of Arabia. These anecdotes were plucked from weekly letters ("dear folks") that "Michael Jordan" wrote to his family and friends.

dear folks --

Amman is underfoot after a $2,600 ticket carried me 6,400 miles and eight time zones in 19 hours. Larry arrived yesterday and was awake at 1 a.m. to greet me. Our apartment is furnished with house boy who visits each afternoon to ply dust and dish rags and our position with the Ministry of Education as "Adjunct-Visiting-Know-It-Alls" furnishes us a "driver" to carry us hither and yon.

We are living in the "burbs" almost off the city map's NW corner. Across the street is the University of Jordan which is obviously called the U. of J. and not J. U.


culture

Just what DAY is it, anyway? That is the hardest cultural transition -- the calendar. With Friday being the Holy Day holiday you go to work two more times and wake up to find it is only Monday. Strange.

This is a world with a 28 letter alphabet that looks like graffiti and they read their pages from right to left. Furthermore, a book's "back cover" is its front cover. In a meeting today a woman was taking notes in Arabic from right to left and seconds later would record English comments from left to right. Intriguing.


post offices

Since it costs three dollars a minute to call home and these letters will have to quench communication thirsts, it is important to examine the postal system that lets me reach out and touch someone. Posting a letter is an arduous task. Post offices are scarce and when found have a physical appearance that -- ahh -- takes one's breath away. A street side mailbox is rare and also has a "look" which does not invite anyone to entrust their poetry to its hollows. In two months we have never seen a mailman and in this culture that is the right term: mailman. This is a male-dominated society where there seems to be little interest in mail. It is impossible to mail a letter or make a telephone call to the West Bank. Well -- it is expensively possible -- bouncing the words off a satellite to a Turkish switching station. People give letters to friends visiting the West Bank so they can buy Israeli stamps and mail them. Israel reciprocates with this communication blockade. Larry sent a postcard to a friend in ZIONSVILLE, Indiana, and it surely turned some heads in the mail room. Had hoped to e-mail all of you at the speed of light with Internet but it doesn't exist here for political rather than technological reasons, so these letters will be faxed to Andrew (son) and he will relay copies by a variety of ponies to points diverse. Any postcards you receive will travel over land and water at the speed of camel and xebec.


jordan

Jor-DAN is a Third World country and this admission is not embarassing to the natives. Afterall, King Hussein's Washington visits aren't to pay Clinton's legal bills. He is there to move money eastward. The Hashemite Kingdom (Hashem was the great-grandfather of the Prophet Mohammed) is the size of Indiana, and its curious geographical silhouette resulted from an afternoon in the 1920's when Winston Churchill's pen ran amok. Lines were simply drawn and when the ink dried families were parted and cultures dissolved.

Natural resources are lean -- no oil -- and stretched beyond basic infrastructure needs. Jordan supports an army and has a world embassy system which must be maintained. Such debits drain the assets needed for other basic things like schools. This is a young land atop sand that has hosted the beginnings of civilization. In 1923 it became the Emirate of Transjordan when Hashemite leader, Emir Abdullah succeeded in his struggle for independence. There was a name change in 1946: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. After ruling for 38 years Abdullah was assassinated and following a short term of governance by his son, Tal al; his grandson, King Hussein, assumed reign. He was 17. That was 42 years ago. Americans have seen more of the King this summer than we have. Well, not really. Pictures of The King -- no, not Elvis - are everywhere. All currency bears a likeness of their Sean Connerly look-alike. Hussein's image is omnipresent: classrooms and hallways and lobbies and atria and offices and stairwells and billboards and buses and cabs and airports and tvee and . . . Like their King, Jordanians are a smiling, handsome lot who greet you with, "Wellll-cum to Jor DAN." And you sense they really mean it. Everyone has an uncle or sister or friend living in the USA.. Or maybe they have visited my homeland or want to visit there. Hopping into a cab and mumbling "Ali Ibn Abi Taleb Street," brought the comment: "Englash? Londone?"

Larry replied, "No. The U.S.A.."

"OHH," the cabbie gasped and with a huge grin replied: "THE-EE UNITED STATES! Wellll-cum to Jor DAN."

We sensed he really meant it.


amman

Amman is a white stone city with an immense geographical expanse that is home to perhaps 1.3 million Jordanians and/or Palestinians. It was originally built on seven hills or Jabals, but huge population increases caused by childbirth and refugees has sent it sprawling over more than a dozen Jabals that would be called mountains in Coles County. Maybe 500,000 new citizens appeared after Persian War II -- our Desert Storm, not the Iran-Iraq War.

Whoever owns the quarry from which the creme-colored limestone is hewed is one rich bedouin. All buildings are rock with their stone architecture isomorphic and angular -- right angular -- such that the sight of arcs, ever so slight, attracts the eye. This remarkable sameness of exteriors belies unique gorgeous interiors of marble and granite. Iron lattice work often graces the windows more as a cultural choice not a security measure. Many homes and commercial shells are half constructed and not a worker in sight. Simultaneously holes are feverishly being dug to host new unfinished buildings. There shouldn't be an unemployment problem with all of this construction but there is -- almost 19% this month.

In Jabal Amman; downtown, there are traces of the work from long ago architects and this is also half done but these structures have been razed by time since they are the Roman Ruins -- temples, churches, a 5,000 seat amphitheater.

Boy, those Italians contractors seem to have specialized in "ruins." They are all over the globe. Imagine what their empire would have been like had they ever been able to keep their erections straight. To honor this Roman / Italian heritage we dined at Pizza Hut. Few people own a "single detached house" as homes are a series of "flats" like this one. We are midway up a long, steep mount that Larry has christened Jabel Curriculum because it's going to be an uphill battle to change their elementary school science books.

How safe is Amman ? Worry not. It is very safe for two reasons. If three kids are walking toward you in big-city America, one may have a gun in his hand. In Amman, kids approach you often have prayer beads in hand. Secondly, it's safe because no one ever says it isn't. The 20 minute newscast never mentions anything about Amman. It is all national and international political news. Period. Fires, muggings, robberies probably occur but if you don't hear about them did they happen? Ignorance is bliss. Though the Jordan Times is a thin 12 page report it is packed with news -- national and international political news. There are a few ads but no siren report; ball scores nor new arrivals. Whine about the American media but the alternative is a controlled press and when the government rules the journalistic roost they make the hen house smell antiseptic.


traffic

Visitors to Amman will never forget its traffic -- even after hypnosis. King Hussein has saved many a Dinar ($$) by not painting white lines on many streets. Without these meridians there is an over- use of horns -- beep-beep -- but it is not a malicious honking that you get in NYC. It's a "beep--beep--I'm--here-- and--you--are--there--and--I'll--look-- out--for--you--beep--beep--if--you-- look--out--for--me" kind of a beep- beep. Oh, yes "--and--have--a--nice-- day--beep--beep."

Everyone is smiling and no one uses their fingers to point out another driver's error.

There are few controlled intersections so it is pedestrian vs. motorist on these wide streets. It is strange that Jordan hasn't produced more Olympic sprint champions. Allied with its speeding vehicles, Amman is a town noted for its 15 inch sidewalk curbs which give pedestrians a sense of security: "beep-beep." These curbs provide a ricochet wall like the ones from which people love to bounce while driving bumper cars at the county fair. For those who like to spot "new license plates," this your mecca:

When a speeding white Mercedes ("beep- beep") from Romania sent me lunging for the curb, a voice out of the sky echoed: "ToTo, we're not in Kansas anymore."


tvee

Three tvee stations sign on about 4 p.m. and are off by midnight with few English language shows in between. The flagship is JTV -Jordan Television. However, STV from Damascus has better versions of MTV videos, albeit seen through a blizzard of electronic snow.

Right now we are watching an English show having a French voice-over with Arabic subtitles. Someone with sensitive ears and lip-read-eyes could become tri- lingual in an hour. Anyone claiming American tvee is the pits, needs to see sitcoms and adventure series that weren't good enough to play in Peoria. We have. The good news is that they are on only a few hours a day.

So much for the video, now what about audio? After a dozen weeks of listening to the incessant wail and terribly loud, monotonous droning voices combining with unimaginable instruments to produce non-danceable Middle East music, my ears crave a little American Rap. Naaaw . . . . not yet.


weather

Hate to be a whiner but in the middle of July my body needs a Panther sweatshirt. For the first time in six weeks there were things - "how you say in Englash?" - "clouds" in the sky. With the breezes accompanying them they made it a week to hang out in sweatshirt and jeans. Most nites require two blankets on the bed. Winds blow from the west since our latitude is similar to the USA - so the air comes from the White Sea - the Mediterranean. No one said this would be an easy assignment. Winter brings snow to desert Amman - 3300 ft above sea level. A few years ago they received 19" in one storm. With all that snow and all these hills all those motorists were paralyzed and the town shut down for a couple of silent nights. No beep-beep.

During the Washington interview for this consultancy, the delegates from the Ministry of Education insisted, "You must come. Jordan is an archeological museum. You must see it." Let's.


amman west -- the dead sea

Hate to be a whiner - but - for the past couple of hours it was darn hot down at the lowest spot on earth: the Dead Sea. In Arabic it is Bahr Lut -- the Sea of Lot, but that is a misnomer since there is not a lot to see along the sea that is 45 miles long and x 4-10 miles wide. You see, everything at the sea is dead.

The map says it's -1,286 ft below sea level and the sign at the Dead Sea Hotel reads -1,332 ft. Either way, it's hot. Amman is +3,300 ft so the temperature differential between here and there is amazing. There are so many more air particles "Down here" that a barometer reads over four inches higher than in Amman. When those particles are warm and colliding with your body -- perspiration flows.

Am bringing home some Dead Sea water whose salinity is beyond belief: 33% vs. 3.5% for ocean water. That's 12 oz of salt in a liter! Many of the salts are from the bitter potassium family so people don't frolic in this pond. No diving -- no submerging - nothing that would endanger the peepers. Jeepers, it's VERY painful since a small wave splashed - "How you say in Englash?" - 'Aqua-saline' - in both eyes. The cure is to blink them closed for several minutes to force tears which slowly diluted the sea so that eye could see. Ironically, it's hard to swim in the Dead Sea because bodies floats so high out of the water that the fluid mechanics of propulsion aren't fluid at all.

So just lie on your back and float -- absolutely no paddling necessary. Just lie on your back to keep the 'Aqua-saline' from your peepers.


amman south

"75 years ago today (June 9th) the Great Arab Revolt resuscitated Arab Nationalism" and this holiday gives us a rare two day weekend to travel 150 miles south and explore the famed archeological sight of Petra. You do not need a course in Petrology to know that Petra means "rock." Petra was home for maybe 25,000 sand-jockeys and is comprised of major structures and there's an amphitheater large enough for an NFL franchise. These cliff dwellers were the original "Hole In The Wall Gang" with their largest hall measuring 100 ft x 130 ft and 30 ft high. All of its walls and edges are square. The doorway designs were elaborately whittled from the unforgiving rock. One mis-chip and the threshold was scarred forever. The 19th century bedou inhabitants (bedou- in) thought it contained the Pharaoh's treasure (it didn't) but they called it el- Khazneh ("the treasury" ) just the same. Who were they -- where did they go? They were the Nabataean Arabs who ruled the area for over 400 years between 500 BC to 500 AD.

Most impressive was an aqueduct system snaking water in ceramic pipes down the canyon and gushing through concession stand spigots at the amphitheater whose turnstiles could spin 7,000 times before the SRO signs were lit. Petra's owners left neither a written record nor video-tapes so conjecture about their life and times abounds.


aquaba - the red sea

Families argue about vacation sites: Mom wants the desert climate - Dad wants the mountains' serenity - and kids want to swim. "Such a deal I make for you: Aquaba." It's desert. It's mountains. It's shore. The mountains attest to its Arabic name - Aquaba or "obstacle." Those trudging from Egypt to Mecca got this far, saw the angry terrain and lamented: "Oh, aquaba." Similarly, wagon trains en route to Sutter's Mill in California, their golden Mecca; got to the Badlands and exclaimed: "Oh Shhhhh -- ucks!

Jordan was landlocked until a 1965 treaty with Saudi Arabia move its border 17 km south to kiss the water and opened the spigot for world trade via the Red Sea.

Across the inlet is Eilat, Israel, but politics being what politics is, it is easier to part the Red Sea than stroll over to Eilat.


amman north

Spent a scenic day in Irbid; the Syrian border and the Golan Heights where lots of people with machine guns hang around checking Passports. Qumm Qeis (ice) is a fortress whose Roman landlords left their architectural fingerprints all over the place: marble Ionic columns; sculptures and unoccupied basaltic caskets. However there were other owners through time - fickle as they were, who came and went at whim -- or perhaps, sword. Try these words on your computer spell-check:

One time owners, all. America's bicentennial pales in light of such history. We proceeded north to a little town of Al Hammah near Lake Tiberias better known as the Sea of Galilee. The tropical Jordan Valley - with its palm trees and associated flora has divided Eastern and Western Civilizations through time because its longitude slices the lush from the arid climates -- cultures that cut up bananas for their corn flakes or those who dice dates for same.

Then there was a stop at Ajlun - a huge castle with links to the Crusades. As the guide said: "It dates to a time of the European occupation of our area." In "our area" people are pre-occupied with the concept of occupation. Ajlun overlooks the Jordan Valley and on a clear day the Holy Land is right there on the retina.


jerash

Jerash is the jewel of the Roman inscription on Jordan. It was lost in wind, time and quartz for a thousand years until 1806 when a German visitor found the tops a few Ionic columns poking from the sand like the scene from Planet of the Apes when Charleston Heston realizes he's in NY harbor looking at the Statute of Liberty. Even today perhaps only half the city is again exposed to wind, time and quartz. Jerash was a town where maybe 18,000 togas strolled colonnade streets lined with ornate buildings. The main growth of the city occurred with the 63 BC Roman defeat of Pompey and it became a municipality of Syria. In a forerunner to NATO, Jerash joined the Decapolis - a 10 city alliance that defended the eastern trade route from Egypt to Persia and experienced great economic expansion as a result. Citizens and traders could visit the forum; two baths; a hippodrome - and- several temples; fountains; paved streets - and - it had a water and sewer system - and for a night on the town, don't forget their Cinema-3 complex: three amphitheaters. The first was built around 90 AD but the other two didn't stage their debut -- or in this case -- debut their stage, until a hundred years later. Guess their demand for live theater wasn't intense. Apparently they had cable.


politics

For eons mideasterners have fought about such stuff as "my god is better than your god." Well, Jordan has an enormous 4.5% birthrate -- highest in the world -- meaning its population will double in 16 years. Israel is growing fast, too. Long before that population crisis presents itself tempers could erupt in unimagined violence because of the stuff that is more important than deities: water. More precisely, because they lack the world's most important stuff. There's not enough water here to support the present population.

In a rare local story about Amman, today's paper cited an incident where an 11-year-old killed a 12-year-old. It resulted from a soccer game result and there are political implications to be gleaned from it. The predator was teasing the prey about losing the contest and rocks were exchanged. A child died. Surprisingly, it was all due to the fact that Jordan has a very active N.R.A. That's the National Rock Association and they maintain that every citizen has the inalienable right to own a rock - be it igneous, sedimentary; or metamorphic. And everyone does. You see them nightly on the news:

pieces of the earth's crust. Legislators are saying that in urban areas like Gaza, Hebron and Jericho there should be restrictions on those who automatically start tossing rocks before seeing if the situation warrants such an assault. Kids on both sides wear "fanny packs" and with great ritual place 47 stones there to commemorate the 1947 UN agreement to divide Palestine and ultimately created the Jewish state in 1948. The canvas carriers are called Arab-Kosher Paks or A-K 47's. Liberals want these multi- stone assault depositories banned but conservatives say that their civil liberties shall not be taken for granite. They point to David who needed only one shot to kill Goliath. Good point. And then there is the N.R.A. credo which correctly insists, "Rocks don't kill people - people. . ."


go west, young man

While at the Dead Sea we were on the East Bank - a few km from the Allenby Bridge spanning the Jordan River. Once over the river and through the woods you're on the West Bank with Jericho straight ahead - Jerusalem on the right and hang a left to find that little town of Bethlehem. Bridge crossing requires a two day advanced application to get the "papers" that will let you stand in line to get the "permit" that will allows you wait in line at the bridge and be interrogated on why you want to cross the river. They don't accept everyone and always reject any smart aleck who asks, "to Grandmother's house we go?"

Unfortunately there are many grandmothers on both sides of the channel who don't get to see their families, and ironically their tears of sorrow could fill this almost waterless creek. Allenby is only a 90 ft bridge lacking any fancy ironwork structure but it is one whose political framework is towering. Will Xerox "all the crossing protocals" on how to get to the West Bank from the East Bank after arriving on the West Bank of the Embarass River (i.e. Eastern). It's just too long to copy. The gist of the problem lies in the fact that Jordan doesn't think you need any “papers” to visit Jordan (West Bank) -- and Israel thinks you are entering another country. Thus, when you finally get "there" -- you are in two countries at once.


This was a difficult assignment to accept. It meant giving up humidity, thunderstorms, tornadoes and golf games in the midwest for 84 days of perpetually blue, rainless skies, and gentle breezes amid a huge sand trap called the mideast. Still, in my heart, I knew the challenge had to be accepted because there are simply times when am-man has to do what am-man has to do. In my elementary school geography classes this corner of the world was once called Asia Minor, so to turn some heads in your next conversation, just say, "The last time I talked with Michael Jordan, he said he was going to spend a summer in the minors." He sure did, and it was a major experience in his life.