Spinning Gaza … yet again.

(soorry in advance for the typos – I just had to get this out.  If I had waited any longer, it wouldn’t have been published, so please bear with me.)

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With the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt the Arab Spring is in full-bloom!

Yet some are none to pleased about this turn of events.

But, please . . . please do not give in and believe easily all of the spin and negative rhetoric that is being pushed by the other side right now.  Yes, you know who I mean by “the other” side.  I try to remain somewhat neutral when I can, but the situation in Gaza is one of the biggest injustices of the past decade.  Plain and simple.  Below is a list of some of the spin I am picking up in the media over the past week or so re. Palestine along with my version of the “truth.”  Of course these statements of truth reflect my own personal bias.  However, I fully admit to it.  Unlike some…..

Spin: Hamas siezed Gaza in 2007.  Truth: Hamas was elected in democratic elections which had been strongly advocated for by both Israel and the USA.  Anyone with an ounce of understanding about Palestine could have seen that one coming.  The ruling  Fatah party did, and strongly cautioned that Palestine was not ready for elections.  American politicians either didn’t believe it or didn’t care and pushed hard for elections.  Once Hamas was elected (due to strong public works initiatives, anti-Fatah corruption stance, and strong rhetoric against Israel) the US cut off diplomatic ties.  IMO, this was one of the biggest foreign policy debacles of the past decade.  Was Hamas being elected the best possible outcome from the elections?  Absolutely not.  Were the elections possibly rigged?  I seriously doubt it.  Should the US taken this as a serious wake-up call and need for a change in directions in Middle East foreign policy?  Yes.  The first thing they should have done was appoint Jimmy Carter as Ambassador (or Special Envoy) to Palestine and kept the channels of communication wide open.

Spin: An open border with Egypt will allow guns and Iranian weapons experts into Gaza.  Truth: Both are most likely already there.  The result of a completely blockaded border around Gaza (read: open-air prison) has been the development of a system of tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border and “illegal” trade in everything from cement to cigarettes, guns to chewing gum.  And probably a few Iranian weapons experts made it in too.  Israel and the old Mubarak regime in Egypt were constantly griping about the tunnels and trying to shut them down – but the fact of the matter was they were Gaza’s lifelines in a very desperate time.  Ask yourself what you would do as a normal law-abiding citizen if your town was completely blockaded by sovereign power.  Would you politely request your  duly elected government to stop their misguided approach to international politics in hopes that someday a shipment of flour might make it to your local supermarket – or would you line up at the end of the tunnel where all of the “illegal” flour was coming into the country?  Now that the border with Egypt is open, everyday commodities needed for health and life will flow through the open borders and the tunnels will only be used for truly illegal things.  Now the Palestinian authorities can join with Egyptians in shutting down the tunnels.  As for the Iranian weapons experts – don’t get too worked up.  If they have been helping up to this point they haven’t been that good.  Palestinian military tech is woefully inaccurate.  Also Iran has co-opted the Palestinian cause and ultimately Palestinians have no natural affinity for Iran.  Which brings me to . . .

Spin: The open border with Egypt will increase Iranian support of PalestineTruth: American foreign policy already pushed Palestine towards Iranian support.  It’s about time somebody else starts speaking up for the underdog.  This is simple playground rules.  When someone is being bullied they look for help.  When they are getting beat up real bad on a regular basis, they will look for help from anyone bigger and stronger than they are.  They will especially look for help from someone who is enemies with the one that is beating them up in the first place.  Even if the one being picked on isn’t really friends with those people.  When your back is against the wall and your being threatened sometimes you throw in with some unsavory types. Especially when all the cool kids are just hanging around watching and not wanting to get their knuckles dirty.  Or if it’s the cool kids’ friend that is doing the bullying.  With America refusing diplomatic relations with the duly elected government of Palestine, US foreign policy pushed Palestine into the arms of Iran making the situation much worse than it ever was before.  Will Iran have freer access to Gaza now. Perhaps.  But to what end?  The truly cool kids on the playground are the ones who stand up for the underdogs even when it is their own BFF that is beating them up.

Spin: Obama was out of line and endangering our relations with Israel, not to mention Israel’s security by suggesting a return to 1967 borders.  Truth: George W. Bush said the same thing a few years ago.  If you don’t believe it – check out this letter from W. to Ariel Sharon.  Bush used a term that probably makes more sense – “the 1949 armistice lines” but in effect both he and Obama said the same thing.  Bush even advocated for a two-state solution in his letter.  So what is all the fuss about?  What are Republicans griping about?  American politicians need to stop posturing over Israel-Palestine and stop cowering in fear of AIPAC lobbying money being pulled out from underneath them and actually stand up for what’s right and just in the region. Besides Obama was clear in his speech that the ’67 (or ’49) borders were the basis  for final border negotiations with the idea of mutually agreed upon land swaps.  This has been part of every American backed plan for peace in the Middle East for the past several years.  Why is Obama taking heat for it.  Obama went on to speak very strongly against any Palestinian backing of terrorist operations or denying Israel’s right to exist.

Spin: Per Benjamin Netanyahu they 1967 (1949) borders are indefensible.  Truth: It is decades of illegal Israeli settlement activity that have made that border indefensible.  Anyone who has spent any time in the West Bank know that it has not been a contiguous Palestinian territory for a very long time.  It is riddled with Israeli settlements like a hunk of Swiss cheese and sliced up by Israeli roads that Palestinians are forbidden to drive on or build near.  The long-standing policy of Israeli’s constructing settlements and roads on Palestinian land has disrupted the natural growth and development of Palestinian society.  It has also acted as an Israeli insurance policy to be cashed in on the day final status negotiations begin in earnest.  With all of the territory and population represented by Israeli settlements in the West Bank, surely Israel would have the right to protect those interests.  They couldn’t ask those citizens to leave their homes and property could they?  (Kindly note the dripping sarcasm).  The 4th Geneva convention clearly states that it is illegal for an occupying power to transfer citizens to settlements within the militarily occupied country.  It would be like Americans setting up American-only cities in Afghanistan or Iraq.  Crazy.  It would never happen.  Yet we’ve let Israel do it for over 40 years.  And now Israel is crying, “How will we protect our citizens if we go back to the 1967 borders?”  Well, maybe you shouldn’t have continued to steal Palestinian land to build your illegal settlements?  For those who think I am being to harsh I saw it with my own eyes back in the 90s.  A Palestinian farmer whose family had owned land since Ottoman times, routinely had land stolen by settlers.  They would come out at night with automatic weapons and extend their fence 10 more meters into his property.  The year we visited him they also burnt his wheat harvest.  Which brings me to the last spin . . .

Spin: Palestinians are not true partners for peace.  Truth: Neither are the Israelis. Anyone who honestly looks at the 100+ years of history (I’m going back to the beginning of the “modern” zionist movements) cannot see either side as being 100% committed to lasting peace.  Both sides have committed great atrocities.  Both sides have advocated and politicked mostly for themselves.  Both sides have sought the upper hand.  But, honestly . . . Israel has had the upper hand for quite some time.  They have been almost completely in control of the territory since 1967.  They have continually tightened the noose around Palestine’s neck.  The discomfort this caused led to two intifadas, but, really – if the Palestinians had enough resources, don’t you think there would have been an outright war by now?

So, yes the Arab Spring is in full bloom … but I fear a scorching Middle Eastern summer is due to hit anytime soon and all the flowers that have sprung up around the region will soon wither and die.

The problem is both Israeli and Arab cultures highly value honor, despise shame, and espouse revenge.  Both are eye for and eye and tooth for a tooth cultures.  Many eyes have been blackened, many teeth knocked out, much blood spilled by both sides.  The need for revenge does not die easily in the Middle East (on either side).  It festers for years and years.  Politicians will continue to say what they want.  Pundits will spin these speeches.  People will take sides on Facebook.  And people (both Israeli and Palestinian) who we don’t know, will never meet, and honestly probably don’t really care about will continue to suffer and die until both sides have the courage to lay down all of their perceived rights and follow the advice of an old Middle Eastern prophet, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . .”

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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.

(inter)National Novel Writing Month in the Middle East

Click for the NaNoWriMo Website

If you know me well, then you know that since 2005 I have been involved with National Novel Writing Month.  What’s that?  Basically it’s a creative outlet for people who love to write that started out as a crazy dare among a few friends to write a novel in a month and in less than 12 years has turned into a world-wide phenomenon.  Last over 165,000 people participated – this year, just over 200,000! Can you imagine any event going from 8 to 200,000 participants in just over a decade?  In my opinion NaNoWriMo (as it is abbreviated) is such an important example of how the right combination of technology, human interaction, and creativity can start a self-sustaining movement.

So how does it all work? It’s simple, really.  The challenge is to write 50,000 words in a month.  This is the equivalent of a 175 page novel, or perhaps more accurately – a novella (think Fahrenheit 451).  Each participant signs up on the NaNoWriMo website and waits for November 1st to roll around and then starts typing.  Along the way writers update their word count on the website (on the honor system).  The site keeps track of word count for each person.  As I am writing this post I am at 28,000 words or so – about 3,000 words behind if I want to finish the challenge.  Here’s my current word count:

Click for my NaNo profile

At the end of the month writers can upload their novel for official validation.  Their file is promptly deleted and no one ever reads it.   If they have passed the 50,000 word mark they get a spiffy winner’s certificate.

That’s it.

It’s basically a solitary challenge to pound out a rough draft (of perhaps questionable quality) of a book in a month.

So why has the challenge become so wildly popular that even here in the Middle East there are almost 400 writers who have signed up and some of  whom are furiously writing the month of November away (already typing over 2,000,000 words, BTW)?

 

Click for the Word Count Scoreboard

  • First, I think for some people it taps into a deep creative well.  Some people have always dreamed of writing a novel.  For those, this is that chance.
  • Second, people love audacious challenges.  Writing a novel in a month just sounds ridiculous.  So ridiculous, in fact, that a lot of people think, “Yeah!  Why not?”
  • Third, NaNoWriMo as an organization has made smart use of technology.  The year they started the website their participation numbers exploded and have steadily grown since.  The website is a treasure trove of forums where writers from all over the world exchange a wealth of ideas.  There are forum threads committed to specific genres, particular topics, age groupings, geographic areas, and of course just plain goofing off.  It is here on the forums that many people make connections and feel like their participation in the challenge is part of something so much bigger than just themselves.
  • Fourth, NaNoWriMo turns out to be a great way to meet people.  Everyone who signs up has the opportunity to join a local Region.  Back in 2005 I joined the USA::Illinois::Naperville region.  Even though it had Naperville in the title it served as the region for the western suburbs of Chicago.  In those days we might have had just over 100 writers involved, now that region boasts over 1000 participants.  On the local level volunteer leaders called “Municipal Liaisons” organize, advertise, encourage, and advise the local WriMos (as the writers are called).  This includes setting up Write-Ins where people come together – not to discuss writing or critique each others writing, but to write furiously in the same room with other aspiring authors who are trying to reach the same 50,000 word goal.

NaNoWriMo and the Middle East

Click to see the Elsewhere::Middle East regional forum

When I first moved to Jordan there was no local chapter here.  There was something in Egypt and Israel, but nothing in Jordan or anywhere else in the Middle East.  I had to join a region entitled “Elsewhere.”  This was the catch all for places in the world that had no local volunteers to organize thing.  Then last year an “Elsewhere::Middle East” region popped up under the leadership of an American ex-pat in Bahrain.  She returned to the States and somehow the mantle of leadership moved on to me.  I actually had the honor of being featured on the NaNoWriMo blog recently on Municipal Liaison (ML) Appreciation Day – you can read the interview here.  So now I have the pleasure of interacting with nearly 400 writers in over 15 different countries.  (Truth be told 400 are signed up and affiliated with our region but only around 175 are actually writingbut still – that’s pretty good).

I think something like NaNoWriMo is exactly what the Middle East in general and Jordan in particular needs.  As I’ve interacted with people in our NaNoWriMo region,  I’ve noticed a good mix of ex-pats and locals.  Maybe more ex-pats than locals right now, but I see that changing in the future.  Of course, here, like everywhere else in the world, NaNoWriMo attracts very intelligent and creative people.  People with a talent to write and tell stories, but also to think outside of the box.  This, in my outsider’s perspective, is something that seems rare in this part of the world where cultural values say that tradition and sameness are important.  But actually I am beginning to wonder if creative people are rare, or they just seem rare because there haven’t been many outlets for them to express their creativity.

At a recent Write-In one of the Jordanian WriMos said. “Actually, this is a new kind of thing for Jordan.  A new way of thinking.”  We had been talking about family and friend’s reactions to people participating in the event.  Most were perplexed.  “You’re writing a novel?  Why?  Will it be published?  It’s just for your OWN enjoyment?”  In this collectivist culture, where tribal affiliation still means so much, an individualized competition with little public accolade is hard to understand.  Of course, although people didn’t seem to think it  a very worthwhile endeavor,  apparently they all had their opinions about what should be written into the book.  Another clue to me that there is some creative energy boiling just under the surface.

So what do you think?  Is writing 50,000 words in a month as a means of creative expression cool or crazy?  Middle Easterners, what do you think about it?  Is this a counter-cultural idea or just one that needs some more exploration?

Springtime in Jordan

Springtime is gorgeous in Jordan.  By and large the rains have stopped, the temperature is moderate, the hills and valleys are alive with color, and droves of city-folk flock to the countryside for picnics (or riHleh or mushwar as they are called here).

But, as they say a picture is worth 1,000 words . . . so here goes . . .

(This is a test of the new wordpress slideshow feature – hopefully it works.)

Of course this is less about testing the slideshow and more about showing people a bit of Jordan.  I realized awhile back that we are the only ex-pats in our circle of friends that haven’t had visitors from back home since arriving here in Jordan.  Most have averaged 3 or 4 in the last couple of years.

So here is a little bit of what you’re missing, and a not so subtle hint for you to start planning for next year’s Spring Break here in Jordan.  Of course, we would be happy to receive you and show you around this country we love at any time of the year.  Mushwar weather permitting of course! (There are around 20 pics in the slideshow and they cycle through in a minute or so)

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Thinking about the World’s Largest Open-air Prison on Martin Luther King Day

A cold rain drizzles on the street outside the cafe where I’m sipping tea on this Martin Luther King Day. Of course, this holiday goes unnoticed here in Amman,

President Obama marks MLK Day at VermontAve. Baptist Church in Washington D.C. (NY Times Photo)

Jordan – it is a uniquely American recognition of the life and work of one of the world’s great civil rights and peace activists. MLK’s life’s work and ultimately his sacrifice in death paved the way for the positive changes in the circumstances of African Americans in the US over the last 40-50 years; and indeed race relations in general. While no one would deny that there is still much room for improvement, 46 years after King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington an African American serves in Washington as President of the United States. Yesterday President Obama spoke at Vermont Avenue Baptist church and invoked the memory of MLK’s hard work and influence .

Obama quoted a bit from a sermon King had preached at the same church almost a half century earlier, which itself was a quote from a poem:

Truth forever on the scaffold
Wrong forever on the throne…
And behind the dim unknown stands God
Within the shadows keeping watch above his own.

With this verse, I couldn’t help but think of another anniversary that was marked today. A year ago today, Israel’s deadly offensive into Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) ended. The result? Shattered homes and lives.

Gazans among the rubble of destroyed homes (AFP Image)

1,385 Palestinans dead (762 non-combatants – 318 children)
13 Israelis dead (3 non-combatants – 0 children)

3,500 residential buildings destroyed in Gaza
20,000 Palestinians left homeless
(stats from B’Tselem the Israeli Center for Human Rights)

Israeli attacks over Gaza (Getty Image)

A bombed out medical center - note the destroyed mobile medical clinic in the background

Gaza school recieving incoming Israeli fire during conflict; children back at school after the conflict (AFP image)

Gazan on a destroyed building (AFP photo)

Gazan climbs down from destroyed building (AFP photo)

A year later, the devastation still persists. A group of 8 NGO’s (Amnesty International UK, CARE International UK, Christian Aid, CAFOD,
Medecins du Monde UK, Oxfam, Save the Children UK and Trocaire) recently released a report detailing the current abysmal situation in Gaza (T h e G a z a S t r i p : A H uma n i t a r i a n Imp l o s i o n). None of Gaza’s 1.5 million residents are allowed in or out of the territory and a strict blockade has prohibited the import of goods and supplies, including building materials, food, and much needed medicines. 95% of Gaza’s industry remains non-functional because of lack of power and supplies. Electricity is only available sporadically (8-12 hours per day). The Gaza power plant which at one time could produce 140mW off power now is only capable of 60mW. The Deep Poverty Line for Gaza is $2.3 per day – 70% of the population now lives on the equivalent of $1.2 per day. 80% of the population relies on outside Humanitarian aid which has been restricted from 200 trucks per day to 45 (500-600 are estimated to adequately meet current need). Millions of liters of sewage remain untreated daily and runs openly into the sea. The healthcare situation is horrendous with a lack of supplies and electricity and cases of easily preventable disease are on the rise. Doctors report a growing mental health crisis as Gazans cope with loss of life, livelihood, and the daily anxiety of trying to survive. 56% of the population are children who will bear the brunt of this mass imprisonment and humanitarian debacle for decades to come.

Gazan girl in damaged building (AFP photo)

The chief reason cited for this nearly complete blockade (imprisonment?) of Gaza by Israel is security, namely the on-going Qassem rocket attacks on Southern Israel by militant groups in Gaza. In four years these have resulted in 11 Israeli deaths. In the same time period over 2500 Gazans have been killed in retaliatory attacks. One of the objectives of Operation Cast Lead was to end this largely ineffective rocket attacks. A year later they still occur as a beleaguered populace lashes out against the decades old military occupation.

A network of smuggler’s tunnels that would put Hogan’s Heroes to shame has developed over the years beneath the Gaza-Egypt border. Everything from medecine to food to cement to guns are reportedly moved through this network. To Gazans these tunnels are a life line. Egypt recently began building a security wall which will apparently extend 20 meters deep in hopes of cutting off this activity. The project also includes pipelines which will flood any remaining tunnels with sea water with unknown consequences for the natural aquifer and already limited fresh water supply in the area.

And so to echo the poem in MLK’s sermon from so long ago . . .

Truth forever on the scaffold
Wrong forever on the throne…
And behind the dim unknown stands God
Within the shadows keeping watch above his own.

The stark truth of the situation in Gaza is readily available to anyone who cares to find out, from any High School student with an internet connection to the halls of power in the the most affluent and influential nations in the world. Wrong remains on the thrones in both Israel and Palestine, and indeed around the world, as those who govern turn blind eyes and issue anemic policy statements and position papers. The future of Gaza seems not just a dim unknown, but shrouded in deepest night. Some scientists figure that the environmental toll alone will take decades to reverse – the entire area might be condemned as uninhabitable if American EPA standards were enforced.

And yet God himself is in the shadows keeping watch above his own. When, oh when, will justice roll down for Gaza? Justice will never be fully meted out by walls, rockets, guns, or the strong arm of man. It will only come at the merciful hands of the Almighty and in His time. When will the day of justice come for the weak and widowed and orphaned of Gaza? Not a day too soon. But on that day woe to any who has the blood of injustice on their hands. Those stains can be invisible in the normal light of day but will be shockingly revealed when the light of Him who watches from the shadows is fully revealed.

Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 on the day he deliveredthe "I Have a Dream" speech

I do not mean to say that the situation is fully hopeless on the human level. I firmly believe that one of the greatest gifts that God bestowed upon humanity is that of freedom. By it’s nature this freedom is a bit of a two-edged sword. It gives us the capacity for both great good and great evil. Both Israelis and Palestinians can still work towards peace and security and freedom. As the NGO report says, “The current situation in Gaza is man-made, completely avoidable
and, with the necessary political will, can also be reversed.” Or perhaps as MLK said more eloquently:

“Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

These words were spoken with conviction in the hours of dark night for the African American community, yet today a black man is President of the United States of America. What will the situation in Gaza be 50 years from now? From a human perspective the same or much worse than today. But if frail yet arrogant humanity would get out of the way of God’s mercy and justice then perhaps much, much better. In another part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech he recognized whites who had

“come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We can not walk alone.”

This truth resonates today as much as it did in 1963, but it applies not just to blacks and whites, but to Israelis and Palestinians and indeed, all peoples of the world.

We cannot walk alone, nor can we simply expect to lay down centuries of hatred and walk arm in arm singing kumbaya. No, we must walk together humbly in fear of God for the shadow we perceive around him is of our own making and will one day be laid bare. On that day we will be ashamed of the sufferings we have imposed on each other in the name of what we supposed to be right and dear and true.

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.

Working on the perfect . . . tan?

With Summer going full-tilt here in Jordan, my entire family has gone a skin tone or two darker in just a few short weeks (will have to post pics soon, I know).  It’s not that we are laying around the pool, or sunbathing on the roof (likely frowned upon in our neighborhood), no it’s more like standing in the bright Middle Eastern sun for a couple of hours each day waiting for taxis, or just houghing it from point A to point B.  Even Victoria and Noah, the fairer pair of our clan, have gotten a bit darker. Of course with Noah a good portion is probably dirt!

And despite all the warnings about skin cancer and such, I must say I am a little happier to be a little darker.  Even with today’s health conscious American society, it seems we still deep down inside like the glow of a “healthy” tan. We’veevendeveloped sunless tanning creams to chemically alter our skin tone without the cancer risk.

Enter here a recent article I read about a similar phenomenon here in the Middle East.  Cosmetic companies have been (for years apparently) selling creams and lotions that promise to provide that just-right skin tone along with a healthy glow.  But thet aren’t hawking sunless tanning creams, in fact it’s just the opposite.  Apparently skin-lightening creams are all the rage in this neck of the woods.  Yeah – that’s right skin lighteners!

I had never heard of such a thing – what about you?  If you google skin lightening (or whitening) cream you will find all sorts of links to different products in a matter of seconds.  These creams are the source of no little controversy as some say that the companies are marketing a product that encourages racism.  Others say this is simply an example of the corporate world scratching where there’s an itch (and profitable market).  These folks say that fair skinned people often wish to be darker and darker skinned folks often want to be lighter and cosmetic companies are simply playing to particular markets.

What do you think?  Are skin lighteners promoting some sort of racism?  Is there anything wrong with an olive-toned Middle Eastern woman wanting to be a couple of shades lighter?  What about all of the professional tanners back stateside?  Are the two situations analagous?  Let me know what you think!