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Jordan and Jerusalem for Christmas

Last week there was this conference in Jerusalem that would allow me to scam the university for the cost of an airplane ticket (this was arranged just before the current crisis.)  I decided to make it interesting by including a visit to Jordan.  So I set out to explore with my trusty traveling companion, The Nerd of the Desert.  (I tried on "Irving of Arabia" for myself but it didn’t stick – I guess I’m just not the type to carry a nickname.)  What follows is a description of a few of our many adventures, in no particular order.

Amman —  Back in Amman. Dinner with an unnamed figure in the American diplomatic corps.  I’ll call him Bob.  One can easily see the effects of a lifetime in diplomatic service:  he knows a ton of rude jokes that Syrians tell about Egyptians and vice versa.  Learning that we planned to be in Jerusalem for Christmas Eve, one of the other dinner guests tried to persuade the Nerd that it would be amusing to start a fight in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ("that guy over there says this belongs to his group"). 

As part of the trip I gave lectures at a couple of Jordanian universities.  First stop, Al Bayt.  Location:  the middle of nowhere.  40 kilometers North (I think) from Amman in the middle of the desert there is this compound of sand-colored concrete buildings.  We’re driving in an embassy vehicle; I try to open a window and am informed that’s impossible because the vehicle is armored.  The driver’s jacket also does not fit terribly well — a bit tight across the chest.  I will be spending the day in this vehicle with three women from the Embassy: a translator, an escort, and . . . I’m still not sure.  A keeper?  Someone trained to jump in at a moment’s notice with "I’m sorry, the American guest is suffering from jet lag and sunstroke and appears to have temporarily lost control of his faculties"?  On the way I am informed that Al Bayt is a public university, that the student body is almost entirely Jordanian (as opposed to the private schools, which are full of Gulfies — I did not make up that word), and — oh, yes! — religious and highly conservative.  None of the embassy types have ever been there, and they seem to feel that it is something like a visit to the moon. No problem, it sounds like the perfect audience for my talk on "Religion and Law," an extended argument in favor of complete secularization of civil legal codes in a democratic state; sure to be a hit.  We arrive and are ushered into a meeting with the Dean of the Law School. . . who is also the Dean of Shari’a Studies.  That’s my first warning.  He scowls a lot and is clearly suspicious.  I begin to think there might be a problem when he asks me whether I am aware of the theory that French law is inspired by the writings of the Imam Malik. 

Walking from the meeting to the lecture room I do some very fast improvised re-writing in my head; made sure to include the words "ijtahad," "hadith," and "Hanafi."  Favorite question:  "if there was Shari’a in the West, would the current crisis in the financial system have been avoided?"  (Answer:  "yes, because there would have been no financial system."  I have got to work on my diplomatic skills.)  The translator was brilliant, although we had to discuss the translation of terms like "precommitment."  For that matter, I have absolutely no actual proof that what she said in Arabic had any particular relation to what I was saying in English, but it all seemed to go fine.  Afterwards over juice and cookies the Dean is much nicer, although he asks me an odd question:  "in what ways are you authorized to cooperate with us?"  I suspect a translation issue.  As we are leaving we notice a huge brightly colored statue of a dinosaur in the courtyard.  No one can explain it.

Second lecture at Philadelphia University.  This one is private and expensive, meaning that the audience is mostly from the Gulf — I am starting to be able to distinguish the styles of keffiyahs.  Much less interesting than Al-Bayt, but noteworthy for the expensive cars with Saudi plates in the parking lots. Also, the whole thing is vertical.  Amman is like that, too; the whole city is built on the sides of steep hills that must do a number of brakes and transmissions.  Nablus is the only city I have seen in Israel with the same kind of topography..

Wadi Rum. This is among the most magnificent place I have ever seen.  In the summer the heat is brutal, but in mid-winter there is a constant cold wind.  The sky is more shades of blue than I knew existed and the rock formations are breathtaking.  But the really cool part was that we experienced all this on camels.  A three-day camel trek with our Bedouin guide Saleh – a retired veteran of the Jordanian Desert Police Camel Corps who made his living chasing smugglers on the Saudi and Syrian borders.  A heck of a nice guy, but not given to excessive concern for comfort.  Sleeping at night in a tourist encampment maintained by local Bedouins; charred chicken, infinite supplies of sweet tea, oud music around the fire.  And wildly inadequate blankets – I have been colder, but not at altitudes below 6,000 feet.

Okay, here’s the thing about camel trekking; for those unaccustomed to the practice it can be hard on the, um, "lower back" (This was more a problem for me than the Nerd, who took to it right away.)  Lawrence’s famous feat of crossing 120 kilometers in three days is even more impressive to me now. But once you get the hang of it, there is no substitute – the alternative was being driven around in SUV’s, which misses the whole point.  First lesson:  the desert has to be experience up close (this was not my first desert trip by any means, but it was all new to the NotD.  Many other valuable lessons, as well.  For example, sometimes the fact that you can climb up something does not guarantee your ability to get back down. Petra. We were set up with a female Bedouin guide named Chanan. As she proudly explained, she is the only woman in the business in Petra.  I don’t know about the other guides, but this one was the real thing; she showed us the village where her family lived, but said she preferred to live outside.  Except when it gets cold in the winter; then she moves into a cave. 

Never mind walking through the siq for the famous view of the Treasury; we did that the first day, but for the second day, Chanan’s idea of a good time was to take us up the old Nabotean road over the mountains.  I think she was trying to prove something, actually, but we sure showed her!  Tough Americans that we are, by the end of the day we had pushed her so hard that at one point she actually removed the heavy wool coat she was wearing over her oversized sweatshirt along with her headdress.  I should probably mention that by that point we were panting and sweating like sea lions.  I should probably also mention that Chanan is about 4 feet tall and did the whole day’s hike wearing pink plastic bedroom slippers.   But still, I think we made some kind of a statement here.  The place was crawling with Israeli tourists. Crossing to Israel. The famous Allenby Bridge.  Not like it used to be; the trucks still have to pass through the part with the Russian teenagers manning machine guns and the surly reservists ("the worst reserve duty in the world" as a friend of mine describes it), but the tourists and other foot traffic are diverted to a separate building that looks like  a small airport terminal.  All very unthreatening and clean.  The desks are manned – er, personned – by young women, presumably to increase the unthreatening quality of the experience, but there are plenty of young men with rifles hanging around.  Sailed right through on the strength of my Hebrew.  Well, we sailed through at first, anyway.  We reached the very last step and they decided to send us back.  Then they told us to sit on a bench.  It all felt very Alice’s Restaurant, there was me, the NotD, and a couple of very agitated looking Israeli Arabs.  After a while they sent us back to go through the security lines again.  We ended up spending more than three hours in that station.  The reasons are not entirely clear, but reconstructing events later with Israeli friends in Jerusalem gave us some hints: 

Let’s see.  After we got sent back into line the first time, I decided to help out the nice Tunisian family ahead of us by translating from French to Hebrew.  Israelis’ reaction:  "You spoke French??  Are you insane?"  It didn’t help when I mentioned that I also had used the occasion to try out my minimal Arabic.  Then there was the fact that we were visiting for only two days.  I actually had a good reason for that one — the aforementioned conference — but I had misplaced the conference brochure.  And the fact that the conference was scheduled for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (so much for cultural sensitivity and inclusiveness in the Israeli academy) seemed to make the whole story less rather than more persuasive. 

Anyway, somewhere at this point we got transferred to the "V.I.P. line" — which doesn’t mean what it sounds like.  It’s the line for Israeli Arabs seeking to confirm their citizenship papers.  Also, it turns out that I have a bad attitude — at one point I got an entire desk of three IDF soldier girls to break into a chorus of "Heveinu  Shalom Aleichem" in a truly inspired moment of sarcasm, followed immediately by "why are you so nervous?" (mitazbein — doesn’t translate quite right, more like "why are you irritated?")  I think that was the point at which the Nerd started looking around with a "who is this guy?  I’ve never seen him before" expression, but he was trapped. 

Eventually they let us go, I think on the theory that no one that stupid could actually be a terrorist or "innocent" (what they call people who helpfully carry packages to someone’s aged grandmother who lives in the basement of the Knesset building).  Crossing the othe way was painless, but the Israelis charged us $50 each to get out of the country.  Worth it. Jerusalem. Driving up to the Hebrew U. campus for the first time in several years was a little startling.  The Nerd took one look and proclaimed it the greatest example of Brutalist Architecture he had ever seen.  The campus is a giant underground compound covering the entire hilltop from which buildings stick up like chimneys. (An Israeli from Tel Aviv insisted that the design showed the bunker mentality of Jerusalemites.)  The whole thing looks exactly like a giant version of an Israeli air raid shelter with air vents.  The inside is almost as charming as the exterior. 

Met Natan Sharansky, whom I think of as a walking argument for the proposition that Something Went Wrong.  At the end of the panel I raised a question about the rule of law in response to which he dismissed me as "just a lawyer."  I insisted that was not true — "I also play the piano."  (I was tired — this was the evening of the day we crossed the bridge.)  On the way out he stopped to shake my hand and tell me that he approves of my playing the piano.  Once again I am confirmed in my belief that in Jerusalem surrealism is the norm.  Wanna drive a Dadaist crasy?  Stick him in Jerusalem and tell him to do something absurd.  It would be like watching a panicked turkey looking for a corner to hide in. 

Also on the panel was Nazmi Al-Jubeh from Bir Zeit.  He makes an interesting point.  Israel has never defined its national borders (the claim has been that Arab states must recognize Israel’s right to exist, but Israel does not have to define the boundaries of its existence).  Al-Jubeh makes the point that the same is true of "Jerusalem"; when the Israeli representatives at Annapolis said that "Jerusalem is non-negotiable" they never defined the boundaries of the city.  It’s not a trivial question:  at this point my impression is that the Israeli definition of the city includes the string of settlements stretching most of the way across the Jordan River Valley.  Al-Jubeh also points out that after 40 years, the Israelis governments of Jerusalem have never gotten around to zoning the Arab parts of the city.

Visited the Old City and East Jerusalem.  The Israelis have constructed enormous 4- and 6-lane roads — with huge pedestrian sidewalks and terraces and10-foot high retaining walls cut into the hillsides — that are squeezing East Jerusalem out of existence where they haven’t involved the outright destruction of blocks of houses and shops and the outdoor market by the Jaffa Gate.  Getting from anywhere to anywhere on foot is nearly impossible, and as for the herds of goats that used to traverse the olive groves on the side of Mt. Scopus, forget about it.  Meanwhile main streets are torn up for a new light rail project.  Hummus at Lina’s – is it better than Abu Shukri’s?  I reluctantly concede the possibility, but it appears that Abu’s has gone downhill.  By this point the Nerd is mumbling things like "where the hell am I going to find this olive oil in  Chicago?"  Dinner provided by the university is kosher and halavi, and hence inedible. Our last night in Amman is New Year’s Eve.  Let me tell you something about secular Jordanians:  they know how to party.  The celebration in the hotel restaurant went until 5:00 a.m.

Home again.  I miss my camel.

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