Easter, another reason Jordan is not going the way of the rest of the Middle East

Today was Easter Sunday. (Ok, technically it was yesterday – where did the day go!?)

Uniquely, it was Easter in both Eastern and Western rites today (a confusing difference of opinion about the dating of Christianity’s biggest holy day based on which calendar is being used – Gregorian or Julian).  Here in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan the king has declared that all Christians should observe Easter according to the dating used by the Eastern rite.  This certainly makes thing simpler in this Muslim country where there are significant Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox minorities.  Why does it take a Muslim monarch to get Christian sects to agree on something?  (but I digress . . . )

Of course today was a regular work day for the majority of Jordanians, but Christians around the Kingdom worshiped freely and observed the holiest day of Christianity without hindrance.  This, despite the fact that Islam does not recognize the resurrection of Jesus at all.  In fact, Islam teaches that Jesus was never even crucified, hence no resurrection.  Yet, here in a country where 97% of the people are Muslim, Christians are allowed to believe as they wish and maintain their worship and devotional practices without fear of reprisals.

Not so in neighboring Egypt, where Coptic Christians are regularly persecuted and sometimes even killed while attending church services.  Large scale rioting recently broke out in a southern province when a Christian governor was elected.  However, here in Jordan the government reserves a certain number of parliamentary seats for the Christian minority (actually at a higher ratio than the number of Christians in the population – a bone of peaceful contention and debate for some).  A Coptic Christian friend of mine is so happy to be living in Jordan where he and his wife and children have no fear of public persecution.  Their church building is located across from one of the largest mosques in the city (see slideshow below) – something that might be a cause for concern in downtown Cairo, but here in Amman it ensures they receive extra police protection when things are unsettled in Egypt.

I don’t want to make it seem like Jordan is a Utopia of peace in the Middle East and that there is no tension between Muslims and Christians here.  For sure, there are small problems from time to time.  It is rare to find deep bonds of friendship between Muslims and Christians here.  However, in a society where the notion of tribe is still very alive and well, this is no surprise.  Unlike America where family bonds are broken early and people seem to develop a greater affinity for their friends than relatives, here in Jordan the opposite is true.  People live with their families for much longer (and this is viewed as normal and acceptable) and will almost always choose family over friends when making plans and determining allegiances.  This tendency naturally precludes many Muslim-Christian friendships, but it also minimizes the number of friendships outside of the family in general.

That said  there is a mutual respect between the two religions and a recognition of the need of peaceful coexistence.  This was demonstrated to me today as Muslim friends and acquaintances greeted me for Easter, using the traditional Arab greeting for any major holiday (used by all Arabs):

كل عام و انتم بالخير

Which roughly translates “Goodness to all of you every year.”  It is used during the Muslim Eids, Christmas, New Years, Easter, and other major holidays.

Some Muslim friends even went out of their way to call me and greet me and my family with a cheerful “Happy Easter!”

While the rest of the region is boiling with turmoil it is these small glimpses into everyday life here that reassure me that Jordan is not on the same slippery slope.  For sure, there are economic woes and political disquietude and even a lunatic fringe that makes “good” press, but overall there is a commitment to peace and safety for all Jordanians and guests living within the borders of the Kingdom.  Certainly this is in part due to the wisdom of the royal family represented  by His Majesty, the late King Hussein and his son His Majesty King Abdullah II.  They have set the tone for a Jordan that has been given character and heritage by its diverse tribal (Muslim & Christian) roots yet  strengthened by the recognition of the common good.

In my opinion, the peace that the Kingdom of Jordan experiences today is also a remnant of the peace left by the risen Lord who so many centuries ago had a soft spot for the people of this area – choosing to be baptized and baptize, heal, and feed thousands on this side of the river.  The love and peace he exuded can still be felt today.

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Note: If the slideshow is too fast for you to read the captions you can hover over the pictures and a control bar will pop up.  You can then cycle through the images manually.

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Some more springtime pics from Jordan

As I’ve said before, spring is really my favorite time of year hear in Jordan.  A couple of weeks ago my son and I got out of the city to do a little exploring. We were mostly out past Bayyader and Wadi Seer, driving along narrow roads and getting a feel for the lay of the land just west of Amman.  There are beautiful rolling rills and amazing views out towards the plains of Moab and the Ghor.  (although I am not really certain you can see either – it was hazy and overcast in the distance – it just seemed that was the direction we were looking in)  So without further ado, here are some pics to enjoy:

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Why the Kingdom of Jordan will NOT be the next Egypt

Headlines about the Middle East have been full of news and speculation on the protests and potential regime change in Egypt.  What is happening there is a moment that will be remembered in history for years to come.  It is a popular uprising against a regime that has too long looked the other way and allowed corruption to flourish, the economy to languish and the lives of everyday citizens to fade into nothingness.  The protests seem to be a massive grass-roots effort (not needing western politics as a catalyst) to force a change that is long overdue.

Over the weekend some new sidebars accompanied the main articles about the situation in Egypt.  Many of these speculated about the potential for the Kingdom of Jordan to be the next Middle Eastern nation to be engulfed in widespread popular protest after Tunis, Yemen, and Egypt.  Friday’s post-prayer anti-government street rally and a protest near the Prime Minister’s residence fed fuel to the fire of this speculation.  And today headlines announced that His Majesty King Abdullah II had disbanded the cabinet and appointed a new Prime Minister.  Some articles characterized this move as “caving to public pressure” and painted a picture of huge street protests in Jordan forcing the King to the action.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  There have not been huge, widespread protests here in Jordan.  To my knowledge there were two significant rallies as I mentioned before.  I live in Amman currently and many people I have asked about the Friday rally near the mosque downtown weren’t even aware that it had happened.  If you were not in the neighborhood or on the street where these were occurring, you wouldn’t have been aware they were even taking place.

I saw some video posted of the anti-government rally.  There were a lot of flags being waved and there was a truck with big loudspeakers and some chanting.  But the crowd was peaceful and orderly.  There was a much bigger stir here in Amman during the month-long protests against the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza in January 2009.  I attended one of those demonstrations and that ended up in stone throwing and tear-gas being shot.  The recent protests here in Amman didn’t come anywhere close to that.

Were these small protests enough to force HM King Abdullah II to do something about his government?  I find it hard to believe.   The King has demonstrated his low tolerance for government corruption and ineffectiveness before when he disbanded the entire lower house of parliament a few years ago.   There has been a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the the economy and politics here in Jordan over the last several months (since Parliamentary elections) and years.  Consumer prices have been on the rise and some people view politicians as affluent and out of touch with the people.  (Of course that could be just about any country in the world right?)  So is today’s government house-cleaning in response to a couple of weekend protests?  Is it because of what happened in North Africa?  Or is this a wise move that has been in the planning for a while?

Who knows.

But in the end I don’t believe Jordan will be the next Egypt, and here’s why:

  1. The economy is bad – but not that bad.  Inflation in Jordan was around 0% in 2009 and just over 5% in 2010 compared to 18% and 10% in Egypt in those same years.  Consumers have certainly felt the 5% pinch this past year especially in key areas such as fuel and staples like flour and sugar.  These increases have hit the poor hard, but life in Jordan is still much better than life in Egypt as attested to by the vast number of Egyptian guest workers who come here for little pay rather than sit unemployed in Egypt.
  2. The population of Jordan is only 6.4 million.  The entire population of the Kingdom is around 1/3 the size of the greater Cairo metropolitan area.  The population density of Cairo is over 44,000 people per square mile compared to Amman’s relaxed 4,300 people per square mile.  (For reference NYC is only 27,000 people per square mile).  When it comes to the development of and controlling of civil unrest what is Cairo going to do?   When you have that many dissatisfied people in that small of an area the potential for unrest is huge.  Amman is just not the same.
  3. Related to #2 above.  Everybody is related to everybody or knows everybody else in Jordan.  Everyone is interconnected.  Tribal affiliations still mean something.  Less than 100 years ago most of the population was made up of bedouin tribes for whom family and honor meant something.  These values still exist today and fuel the protection of the common good of the kingdom.
  4. The King is well-loved.  And so is his father.   There is an Arabic saying, “If you know the son, you know the father.”  Despite grumblings about the economy and the job-performance of elected or appointed officials people still love and respect HM King Abdullah II and HM the late King Hussein.  This ruling family has held the Kingdom of Jordan together for well over half a century – not by force and oppression nor by turning a blind eye.  They have ruled with wisdom and concern for their people.  Although not elected, from what I have seen, they have the respect and allegiance of their people.  Hosni Mubarak on the other hand has been re-elected by sham elections for 30 years.  He might well have been called king rather than president.  A “king” who ended up a petty tyrant perhaps in the eyes of his people.  Much different than the wise and respected Kings who have ruled Jordan.
  5. Despite #4, of course there  has been opposition to the government over the years.  In recent years certain Islamic groups have been particularly outspoken.  In fact these groups have been instrumental in the recent protests.  They are not satisfied with HM King Abdullah’s new Prime Minister, either, citing him as the reason they lost many parliamentary seats in the 2007 elections.  They forget however that those were the first elections after the 2005 hotel bombings.  In any event, the current opposition leaders have made it clear in a public statement that they are not seeking regime change in Jordan, but rather political reform.  Which leads me to my last point . . .
  6. Jordan is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  This means that HM King Abdullah II traces his lineage to the prophet Muhammad himself.   Islamic groups here have stated that they recognize the Hashemite’s right to rule.  I have to imagine that it would take quite a lot for Muslims to seek to overthrow a King who is descended from Muhammad.  They may take exception to his appointees, but I think it will be quite some time before we see widespread violent protesting in the streets of Amman.

Of course this is just my layman’s outsider point-of-view.  I could be totally off base, but I doubt it.   Throw a few hundred flags and a PA system in the street these days and you’ll have the western media hearing “regime change” in every slogan.

Check out the Festival of Alternative Arts!

Special Note: Tonight (Tuesday, January 25th) there is a debate on life in Gaza being held as part of the Festival.  It will be held from 5 PM to 7 PM at the Al-Balad Theater on the route down from Rainbow street in  Jabal Amman to the balad.  More info here. Unfortunately I can’t make it because of work.  Hopefully someone else can!
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I recently had the privilege of attending a film screening of Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff’s “Aisheen: Still Alive in Gaza“.  The documentary observes several slices of life in Gaza after the devastating January 2009 Israeli offensive that left 13 Israelis and over 1300 Palestinians dead.  The film provided little commentary on the events, but simply showed people in their everyday contexts trying to put their lives back together after a month of bombardment and destruction.  I am preparing another post on my thought on the film, but wanted to point out that it is part of a larger event now being held here in Jordan.

From December 2010 through February 2011, the Swedish Embassy in conjunction with many local partners (including the Royal Film Commission who sponsored the film screening) is hosting the “Festival of Alternative Arts” here in Jordan.  The purpose of the festival is,

to showcase and discuss graffiti and other urban alternative art expressions. It aims at contributing to broadening the concept of art as a diverse form of expression, but also hopes to attract and stimulate an interest in urban art – in its different representations – among the large young population in Jordan.

Don't sit at home - attend a festival event!

The centerpiece of the festival is the photo exhibit “Gaza Grafitti” opening at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts on January 26th (tomorrow) and running through February 15th, 2011.  The exhibit is the work of Swedish photographer Mia Grondahl and is comprised of 60 photographs of grafitti art in Gaza over of seven year period (2002-2009).  I am personally very interested in seeing this exhibit as I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 in Gaza.  At that time I was also fascinated by all of the graffiti I saw.  Some of it obviously slogans of one sort or another, but also actual artwork.  The art that I saw in the late 90s took the form of paintings of scenes in some cases, but also amazing Arabic calligraphy.    As in parts of the West Bank where Palestinian artists have used the “security” wall as a canvas, graffiti has served as both an artistic and political release valve for an oppressed people.  I am interested to see what Grondahl observed and recorded during her times in Gaza.

I will probably go see the exhibit sometime in February.  If you are here and Jordan and want to go together drop me a line.

The Festival of Alternative Arts includes a number of other events in addition to the “Gaza Graffiti” exhibit.  A complete list can be found on their Facebook events page.

Some of the ones I found most intriguing are:

Dream Hiding Places at The Children’s Museum until January 31, 2011.  20 Palestinian children will be participating in a graffiti art workshop facilitated by a local graffiti artist.  The artwork produced will be on display at the museum.

Images/Suwar in Zarqa until January 30th.  28 Iraqi youths, refugees living in Jordan, tell their stories through use of the performing and media arts.  The location in Zarqa is not clear from the FB page.  Anyone have any idea?

Refugee Camp Graffiti Art Project on display at Nabad Gallery from February 27th to March 1st.  Workshops will be held with youth in three Palestinian refugee camps here in Jordan.  They will be given cameras to photograph the graffiti they see every day.  Then they will develop their own art.  The results will be displayed in Baqa’a camp and the Nabad Gallery.

If you happen to be in Jordan reading this, I hope you take a moment to attend one of these or other events associated with the festival.  If you’re not in Jordan – just see what you’re missing!  I’ll  try to post on anything I get to attend.

PS – I found out about this event through my new favorite resource – Jordan Events on Facebook.  For those of you who are Facebook users in Jordan it’s a great way to find out what’s going on around the Kingdom!

Who Answers Prayers for Rain?

In some place the standing water seem like a small lake - paddle anyone?

It’s been raining for the last 3 days here in Amman.  It is winter, which, for Amman, means rain. But three days in a row is a bit unusual, especially with another day of the wet stuff forecasted for tomorrow.  Usually it’s just a few hour of rain every couple of weeks during the winter here. Or maybe a full day, but this weekend has been particularly wet. Which means that streets have turned into streams, stairways into waterfalls, and pedestrians have the extra task of dodging spray from cars besides just the actual vehicles themselves.

Notice the foam from chemicals and polluted runoff

Amman’s drain/sewer system was apparently not  designed for rain, so scenes such a the following are common when it rains, even just a little bit.

(Please note: these three pics were snapped back in Oct of last year.  Believe it or not I didn’t seem to have my camera on me at all over the last 3 days.  Strange.  But really, whenever it rains hard in Amman it usually looks like this.)

Pedestrians beware!

The last few days it has not only been rainy, but cold and windy and completely overcast – the exact opposite of stereotypical Middle Eastern weather.  Just the kind of weather that would get us complaining back in the States.  But you know, what?  I have never heard a Jordanian complain about the rain.  Ever.

Even people who you would think should complain just a little bit.  Case in point: our Egg McAmmani guy.  He is one of dozens (probably hundreds) of pushcart sandwich vendors around the city.  They typically have fantastic sesame-seed breads which they fill with your preference of roasted eggs, tomatoes, zataar, salt, hot sauce, cheese, and/or falafil.  We go for eggs, tomatoe, zataar and salt (with hot sauce if I’m not sharing with my wife).  We’ve never been able to get a straight answer on what it’s called in Arabic – people usually look at us funny when we ask and say, “It’s a sandweesh!”  Or if pressed further that might say it is a “ka3ak” the name of the sesame seed bread the sandwich is made on.  We call it an Egg McAmmani and it is one of our favorite breakfast treats at roughly 75 cents.

The "sandweesh" guy is on the left, while a cabby makes his own on the right. The cigarette ash no doubt adds a little something.

Anyways this guy should not be happy about a 3-day, cold, driving rain.  It’s gotta be bad for the sandweesh business.  Not to mention shivering in the cold under a drippy tree all day.  But this morning He greeted me with his usual smile and and said he  would work come sun or rain.  He did have an umbrella over his cart (which ironically, in arabic has a name derived from the word for sun as that is it’s more typical protective function), but despite the smile he looked cold.  When I asked him about the rain he said it was from Allah and gave thanks for it. This is normal here.  Everyone – Muslim and Christian alike thank God for the rain.  What is often seen as an annoyance or “ruiner of plans” in the parts of America that I have lived in, is seen here as a blessing and source of life.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus mentions by way of proverb that “God sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.”  I think there is a tendency back home for people to take that to mean that bad things (like rain) happen to both good people and bad people.  It’s much clearer after living in the Middle East that the true message of this ancient desert proverb is that God gives life to everyone, both good or bad.

Growing up, I can’t remember how many times I’d hear people pray/hope against rain because of some special event.  Here it is the exact opposite.  People of both Muslim and Christian background pray for rain.  If there is very little rain during the winter months Muslim Imam’s will even call special prayer meetings to beseech Allah for rain.  Christian churches will do the same. Last winter was one of those years.  There was all sorts of news about the drought and how reservoirs were far below their normal capacities.  Prayers were offered and eventually the rain came.

This winter has been different – the rain has been plentiful.  No special prayer meetings have been called (to my knowledge) but people are genuinely thankful that it’s been a wet winter.

However, the whole topic raises a question for me.  When both Muslims and Christians pray for rain and it does rain – whose prayers are being answered?  Some would say that both Christians and Muslims pray to the same God so, obviously, both are being answered.  Others would disagree with this and see believers in both camps as praying to different god’s and that it is likely that it is one group’s prayers over and against the other’s that is being answered.  Still other people would disparage the whole idea of any deity answering prayers for rain.  What do you think?

When Cars Collide in Amman Jordan

We’ve only had our car for four months but I kinda expected this to happen sooner.  I was in a fender bender yesterday.  Don’t worry – the only thing that was hurt was my pride.  And a couple of bumpers and a radiator.  Unfortunately it was my radiator.

Yup, my radiator . . .   I rear-ended a taxi.

I was coming up to an intersection and the guy in front of me was going to go through it but then changed his mind at the last minute and slammed on his brakes.  His tires screeched on pavement and his car rocked forward and back.  I stomped on my brakes, but to no avail.  Our bumpers kissed.  But it was a rather forceful kiss.

We both jumped out of our cars to inspect the damage, and I expect it’s a good thing that only one of us was Arab.  He was angry and yelling and waving his arms.  One appropriate cultural response would have been  for me to return in kind.  I’ve seen this scene repeated before – fender benders are quite common in this city of steep hills, hairpin curves, traffic circles and a culture of offensive (rather than defensive) driving.  Typically both parties yell and gesticulate wildly as their faces get red and fisticuffs seem imminent.  Then bystanders pull the angry parties apart, face is saved, the police can be called ,insurance companies contacted. By the end the two parties usually are invoking the peace of God upon each other and making invitations to coffee.  (No joke – I know a family who’s son was hit by a car and put in the hospital.  The driver responsible is now a dear family friend of the victim).

I decided not to put my cultural observations to work and instead opted to be silent, look gravely at the damage to my car, and fiddle with my cell phone.  The yelling and flapping of arms in my peripheral vision subsided and the man took out his cell phone too.  He looked grumpy as he punched in some numbers.  From his appearance he may have actually been Circassian rather than Arab.  I hoped that he was calling the police or his insurance company instead of his cousins.

A motorcycle cop drove off the set of CHiPs and pulled up along our mess.  He instructed us to pull around the corner and to the side of the road.  The anxious looking Philippina  in the back of the cab used this as a good time to beat a hasty retreat.  I hoped I hadn’t cost the guy his fare up to that point.  The Officer surveyed the damage and asked me to pop the hood.  He looked at the radiator as it leaked hot liquid on the pavement like a dog that hadn’t found a hydrant in time.

“Do you want a police report?”  The guy had sunglasses like Frank Poncharello.

Without looking at each other or missing a beat both me and the cabbie said, “Yes.”

[note: all the exchanges here happened in Arabic – I didn’t bother to play my “I foreigner me no speak arabee” card, not sure if that was good or bad]

For inquiring minds – in Arabic a police report is called a “croaka.”  It’s easy to remember because they give you the green part of the quadruplicate form.  Green – frogs – ribbit – croaka!  But don’t confuse it with “Kurkaw” which sounds similar and can also be green (a turtle).

Ponch left and a few people began to congregate.  Two teenagers wanted to know where I was from and what my job was and if I wanted their brother to fix the damage to my car.  I made small talk with them to avoid talking to the cabbie who was on his phone talking angrily with someone.  I was still hoping it wasn’t his cousins.  The two guys asked, “Don’t you know how to stop quickly?”  I stopped talking to them.

An affable pair of middle aged gentlemen walked up. They seemed to be friends.  They asked if the police were on their way.  We indicated that one had been and left, Lord willing to fetch another to make out the police report.  They asked what happened.  I told them that I thought the cabbie was going through the intersection but he stopped quickly and I hit him.  They chuckled and said, “This is simple – it happens all the time in Amman.  Do you both have insurance?  Then. No problem.  Besides he should have kept going.  He shouldn’t have stopped.”  The cabbie glowered at the two men and I nodded and fiddled with my cell phone.

As it turns out these two had also had a fender bender on the other side of the intersection and were also waiting for the police to return to make out a police report.  They had apparently dispensed with all the posturing and grumpiness and decided to be friendly with each other.  Can’t say the same for me and the cabbie.

The officer finally showed up to make the report.  He wished peace upon us and praised God for our health.  He snapped some digital pictures and looked under the hood of my car.   As he asked us what happened he warned us not to lie as there was a camera at the intersection.  I retold my simple story, the cabbie said that of course he was stopping for a red light and I should have known that.  The officer beckoned us towards his van.  The middle row of seats had been taken out and in it’s place was a small table.  He quietly and efficiently wrote up his report, complete with a nicely drawn diagram of the scene of the accident.  He asked for phone numbers and addresses.  We both simply told the name of our neighborhoods and that sufficed.  He asked for 5 JD from me to cover the cost of the report, gave us both our green copies and once more praised God for our health.

I was kind of waiting for the point when he was going to issue me a traffic citation, but it never came.  I inquired about locating a tow truck (winch as they are called here) and he directed me to inquire at the police station a couple of hundred meters away.  Rather dubious I approached the guy out front with the sub-machine gun and the riot helmet and told him of my inquiry.  He praised God for my health and directed me to an office inside the building.  The policeman inside called a tow truck for me and instructed the officer outside with the big gun to direct the the tow truck guy when he arrived.

About 10 minutes later the winch arrived.  It was a bright yellow truck.  It had a big Mercedes cab with a flat-bed that sloped down a bit at the back.  The tow arm was big and red with a rather large industrial-strength fish hook hanging on a sturdy cable. The driver’s name was “Jimmy”.  Not really – but close enough.

We were at the police station about 200 meters from my car.  Jimmy asked if it was still operable.  In Arabic the idiom is actually, “Does it walk?”  I replied that in fact it did still walk, but water was falling from the radiator onto the ground.  “No matter,” came Jimmy’s reply, “Bring it here.”

I drove the car up to Jimmy’s rather formidable flat bed.  It was definitely designed to handle vehicles larger than mine.  I started to get out but he motioned me to stay.  He flipped a few levers that released some legs and jacked up the front end of his truck to stabilize it.  He pulled down some ramps and aligned them with my car tires.  He motioned to me and told me to drive up the ramps.  Now, I’ve driven my cars in pretty stupid places in my day, but as I slowly edged my already damaged car up the metal ramps onto the flat bed I thought for sure this was going to end poorly.

It did not.  Maybe I have a future in towing or repo if English teaching dries up.

I was going to get out again but Jimmy told me to stay in.  He attached some chains and told me to do something I didn’t understand,  but guessed that he wanted me to put it in neutral.  This seemed to work as he nudged my car farther up onto the flat bed and told me to turn off the car and put on the parking brake.

I got into the cab not sure what to expect. My experiences in tow trucks have always been . . . well . . . interesting.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure you know what I mean.  My most memorable ride was sandwiched between a tow truck driver and my pregnant wife on a 80-mile tow in the middle of the night in the dead of winter in the middle of nowhere on the way home for Christmas one year.  But that’s another story.  Jimmy’s cab was actually pretty clean for a tow truck.  The green and gold brocade fringe was first thing to catch my attention.  Green along the bottom of the dash board hanging by our knees.  Gold up above hanging down from an instrument panel above the window.  It sort of obstructed the view of the road, but only if you were tall.  Arabic dance music blared from a micro-DVD player and screen mounted on the dash.  There was a woman shaking her hips and singing as only Arab divas can.

The ride to the service center was uneventful.  I found out that Jimmy had started doing this as a second job 3-years ago.  In his day job he works for an insurance company.  I found that  rather amusing but didn’t say so.  He was married with 5 kids and really in need of the extra income.

The sun was dipping below the horizon as we dropped the car at the service center in an industrial district on the outskirts of town.  It was after hours on Friday.  Nothing around was open and no taxis in sight.  The nearest main road would be a 20-minute walk so on a whim I asked Jimmy where he was heading.  He asked where I lived and I told him the neighborhood but that I just wanted to go somewhere I could find a taxi.

Jimmy:  Do you have money for a taxi?

Me: Yes?

Jimmy:  Really?  I didn’t just take all your money?  [for the tow charge of 30 JD]

Me: No, I still have money in my pocket.

Jimmy: Ok, but if you don’t have money I will take you to your house.  It’s on my head.

Me:  Thank you – you’re a very good man, but I just take me to a place I can find a taxi.

A little way down the road Jimmy pulled over and offered to buy me something to drink – a pepsi or a juice.  We drank our orange juice and bantered about our kids as we drove back towards Amman.  About half-way to my neighborhood I told Jimmy I didn’t want to trouble him and that he could drop me off anywhere.  He said he would take me to Jabal Amman where he lives (and closer to my neighborhood) and find me a taxi there.  If not he would take me to the main road running into my neighborhood.  It was on his head.  I thanked him very much and he invited me to his house for coffee.  I declined the coffee which resulted in him giving me his card and telling me to call him to come for coffee at his house anytime.

In the end Jimmy the tow truck driver got out of his truck and waved down a cab for me on one of Jabal Amman’s busiest circles.  I could have done this myself, but he felt it was his responsibility.

I’m not too happy that I was in a fender bender, but I’m sure glad I met Jimmy.

Christmas Lights and Nativity Scene near Amman Jordan (Fuheis)

Merry Christmas!  Or as they say here in Jordan:

كل عام و انت بالخير

Kul 3aam uw inta bilxayr!

An exact translation is a bit tricky (like most sociolinquistically significant phrases), but the the basic gist is: goodness/wellness to you all year.  This is a standard greeting for almost any holiday – Muslim or Christian.   It is used at Christmas and New Years and for the Muslim Eids.  A Muslim friend of mine actually called me today, just to greet me b/c he knew I was celebrating Christmas.  This is the phrase he used.   There doesn’t seem to be a direct equivalent of Merry/Happy Christmas in Arabic.  Actually, many Arabs just say Merry Christmas in English, especially if they know you are a  foreigner.

(In case you are wondering Christmas in Arabis is “Eid Al-Miilaad” which not surprisingly means “festival/feast of the birth.” The use of the definite article differentiates this from Eid Miilaad which means birthday.  Basically, Jesus’ birthday is THE birthday, and rightfully so.)

Many westerners would be surprised by the outward signs of Christmas that can be glimpsed here in Amman.  Christians hang Christmas lights and put up trees.  There are Christmas stores where you can buy decorations.  The stationary guy down the street from us who mostly sells dafaatir (Notebooks) and pens totally transforms his shop into Christmas central for 2 months out of the year.  He happens to be Christian, but Muslim run shops and businesses get into the Christmas spirit as well.  It is not unusual to see many stationary and book stores selling Christmas decorations.  Others decorate their stores with a tree or ornaments  or lights.  Even the mall has some trees and some stores play Christmas music.

From an outsiders perspective it seems like the Muslim majority here is more than happy to let the Christian minority (maybe 5% of the population) have their celebration.  And as in America – the commercial aspect of Christmas is very appealing to retailers – even Muslim ones.  I think the government schools get one day off for Christmas – which isn’t much, but at least it’s something.  Private schools can have a more generous holiday and those of more Christian or at least Westen persuasion seem to have a few days t a week off.  (Side question: I wonder if Muslims enjoy the same cultural leeway in America?  I mean what if retailers started hanging up Eid decorations and playing Islamic music?  Or if the American gov’t decided to give all schools a day off for Eid al-Fitr?  Freedom is a funny thing. . . especially when it comes to the practice of religion – isn’t it?)

But I digress . . .

A couple of days ago we had the pleasure of looking at Christmas lights in a little town called Fuheis (pronounced Foo-highs <but with an s sound, not z>).  It’s located just north of Amman and it’s claim to fame is having the largest Christmas tree and Nativity scene in the Middle East.  It is one of two predominately Christian towns in Jordan (the other being Madaba).  According to Wikipedia the population of Fuheis is 60% Greek Orthodox and the remainder is divided between Muslim and Catholic.

Every year the residents of Fuheis put on a Christmas festival featuring a variety of activities, but everyone knows the main attractions are the lights, tree, and nativity.  It was nice to drive through the town the other day and look at houses and streets decked out in Christmas lights.  It almost, almost, felt a bit like home.  I must add that it was a comparatively modest and perhaps reasonable amount of Christmas lights compared to what Americans would typically be accustomed too.  I doubt you could spot Fuheis’ lights from orbit like you could some American subdivision’s.

One interesting side-note: The nativity scene was sponsored in part by USAID.  Yup – that’s right US gov’t $$ being spent on a Nativity Scene at Christmastime!  I laughed out loud and took a picture of the sign.  Could you imagine the uproar if federal money was used to sponsor a Nativity Scene on American soil?

Actually that’s one of the refreshing things I noticed about Christmas here in Jordan.  It’s actually Christmas.  You don’t have to wish people a Happy Holiday.  Christmas is what it is here – the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth.  Maybe it’s because Christianity is in the majority back home so everyone has to walk on eggshells and make sure no one is offended.  Here it seems much more pragmatic.  If you’re Christian you celebrate Christmas and that’s what everyone calls it because that’s what it is

There’s probably a lot more I could write about this – but it’s Christmas Eve, and even though I have all my shopping and wrapping done, there’s still a couple of things that need to get done before I go to sleep.  So without further ado – here’s a gallery of our pics of the Christmas Lights and Nativity Scene in Fuheis.