Khalifeh picked me up from the airport in Amman. His extraordinary hospitality echoed that shown to me in Алматы, in Assilah, and in Нарын. He didn’t allow me to pay for anything when I was with him, and we spent two entire days together. Accepting his generosity and the hospitality extended by his many friends was again difficult and slightly awkward for me as I attempted to navigate manners in an unfamiliar cultural context.
It began with our slow drive from the airport to the city (he unconcernedly cruised at around half the speed of the cars to our left). Our conversation continued a theme for interactions as a “citizen diplomat” – the politics of winning are often directly contrary to the good of the community. In this case, Khalifeh lost the mayoral race in large part due to the sister city relationship he pioneered with Gainesville. His opponents weaponized the extraordinary collaboration between Palestinians, Jordanians and Israeli citizens to share access and distribution of water as a normalization of the relationship with Israel. I witnessed firsthand the ramifications of this politicization of something that was once beneficial to everyone. Deir-Alla and the communities around it are strapped for water, with many forced to illegally tap into waterways illegally.
We continued our chat in the famous restaurant Hashem, visited by the Brent and the King of Jordan (with the former being the more important patron, of course). Khalifeh told me his dream of creating opportunities for students in Deir Alla to learn English from native speakers, halted entirely at the onset of the Arab Spring when the native speakers left Jordan en masse and never returned. I introduced him to the FLEX program. Khalifeh sheltered me from the haggling nonsense (or culture, call it what you want) by having me hang back when he paid for things, this way likely avoiding scams, as well. We moved to the unexpectedly colourful (Amman is all one colour – eggshell white) and beautiful Zajal Cafe to set out goals for the next day in Deir Alla. I felt quite in above my head, small, and powerless. I’m not employed by Gainesville, or Florida, or the USA – I am a teacher, and I am most comfortable delivering singing and art lessons. But we try anyways, because that’s all we can do. We set out a five level system for sister school developments while Khalifeh blew Argilah (Shisha) smoke in my general direction and I discreetly timed my sips of minted lemonade to avoid breathing it in as best I could. I hope Oak Hall will be involved or interested, as it will be quite the missed opportunity for the students in both schools – Oak Hall for cultural exchange and real time understanding of this misunderstood part of the world, and Deir Alla students mainly for English.
We drove up to the Citadel instead of walking, further cementing my relentless weight gain in the Middle East. With crazily generous hosts and wonderful food consisting almost entirely of calorie dense chick peas, I have by this point likely put on three kilos or so despite the long walks in the heat. I feel rather squishy as I write this. The eclectic mix of layers of history – Ayyubid, Umayyad, Byzantine/Roman, Prehistoric – reminded me of Byblos/Jbeil. Khalifeh was decidedly uninterested in the site, despite never having visited (I suppose his having never visited previously predicts disinterest), so I wandered around by myself, drawing, as he watched videos on his phone inside the ruins of an Umayyad Palace.
Khalifeh took me to his friend Ahmad’s house, despite the fact that I speak effectively no Arabic. I was lazy in Lebanon (as I was in Morocco), especially as just about everyone spoke English. I can nearly read quickly now (with the usual guessing at vowels, because why bother to write vowels?). Ahmad and his father extended their hospitality to me nonetheless, and I busied myself in the awkward downtime by drawing. Thank God I can draw. It’s such a great awkwardness killer, and everyone loves watching me draw them. Silently. When they weren’t speaking in Arabic together, or when I wasn’t drawing while Khalifeh was on the phone, they posed some truly difficult questions for me. After the endless “Where are you from? But your eyes, your face. What is your nationality? Your parents? Ah, China ____ (Insert comment about China)”, this was refreshing. Real questions. Unfortunately, the nature of the questions made me feel quite frustrated and small. They asked me about Trump. About the US policies in Jordan and the Levant. About the treatment of muslims in the USA and in China. Instead of answering these questions with quick generalizations, which I’m sure they expected, I pieced through them analytically. I essentially gave them long, meandering versions of “It’s complicated.”. They talked about the difference in US Treatment of the Middle East as compared to my experience in Central Asia. Ahmad’s father said “The one good thing about the last few years is that the United States policy is now clear and consistent, at least.” I drew him, a bit bobble-headed, trying to capture his kind face. He was alternately critical of the depiction – “the face is not entirely correct” and appreciative – he wanted to keep it.
After another massive meal, Khalifeh dropped me at the ho(s)tel. I listened as the Dutch guest and Jordanian receptionist engaged in a hilariously stereotypical conversation with “I need to tell you about my life changing experience in Thailand with music and being connected to other people spiritually, like telepathy, I don’t know if you believe in reincarnation…” “Money is awful and stupid and…” “I once worked with Ubuntu, which did you know that means “together” in African…” “I really believe in the Chinese philosophy of Taoism…” “…because the Eastern cultures are so peaceful, not violent like…” The Dutch girl was working on her theatre startup and learning Arabic badly – capable of saying a few standard phrases and vocabulary words, somewhere a few days higher than my current level – with plenty of excuses. You simply can’t make these people up.
With only a few pages left in my sketchbook, and filling it at the rate of approximately seven pages a day, I did a quick morning tourism before meeting Khalifeh the next day. I didn’t find a nice sketchbook, however, though in hindsight I probably should have just bought one anyways. The morning was otherwise dominated by my stress from the continued difficulty of buying things online. My card was refused by the system, then the system arbitrarily switched the dates of my arrival and departure such that I would return a day before I left, then the live chat did not function, then the phone line was busy for thirty minutes… until finally Khalifeh helped me solve the issue by having his phone automatically redial indefinitely until we got someone (on the 12th call). He took me with him to his nutritionist and tailor (who I sketched and offered me coffee as his guest), and I happily enjoyed sharing in normal errands. These mundane things are the stuff that cultural exchanges are made of – not ancient sites of dead cultures filled with international tourists treating the sites as their personal instagram opportunity.
We ate a swanky restaurant about a thousand meters higher than the well-below-sea-level Deir Alla, much cooler than the 47 degree weather below. I was able to interview Khalifeh, unlike Anzhelika and Yerbol, though the timing of the music suddenly jumping twenty decibels was quite unfortunate. Khalifeh then took me of a tour down the main street of Deir Alla, essentially the only street, flanked by desiccated farmlands, greenhouses, and tin and cheap plaster shops on both sides. The tomb financed by the King was a massive surprise, as incongruous as Taipei 101. I understood the importance of water here. Of Khalifeh’s hopes to find a market for Deir Alla’s medjoul dates (which were tasty) and for the equally tasty (and organic, a massive market in Gainesville) fruits and vegetables in Gainesville. I hope I can connect them with Falafel King!
I sat down with the town calligrapher Saad and his brother Ibrahim, the director of education. They had already contacted and secured enthusiastic support from the department of education and the two school principals. Saad demonstrated his craft with my chisel pen and gifted me with a hollowed out Ostrich Egg to paint myself. We chatted about our plans and hopes for both cities, but particularly for Deir Alla. English is their main goal, and we wrote down a detailed plan of action to bring schools together that I hope can be put into place in Gainesville when I return.
The difficult questions continued that evening in the higher altitude town of Salt. Khalifeh’s cousin Shoukat asked about how the USA treats its poor, interested as the director of poverty services, homelessness, and alms distribution in Qalqilya. The English teacher teaching in Kuwait, a Jordanian, asked about the Chinese language and I gave him a long response about successful propaganda equating Mandarin with Chinese and the terrifying newness of the modern conception of “Chinese” as a cohesive nation. This teacher returned to Jordan to escape the heat, hilariously. His name was Mohammad. So was Showkat’s son. And Khalifeh’s relative with the glorious beard, who had come with Khalifeh simply to provide him with company for the long ride back to Deir Alla from Amman. The difficult questions continued as we talked about the pass rate of the national exam in Jordan and the examination systems in the United States. While explaining the AP (if you don’t pass it doesn’t matter, you still go on to the next class), the SAT (on only two subjects, and easily gamed), the college admissions process, and social promotion, I heard myself sounding ridiculous, and learned a lot about the system at a macroscopic level via my attempt to explain it. Exhausted, we arrived back at Amman at nearly one in the morning.
This post is certainly long enough already, so I will write very little about Petra. Briefly, my remaining time in Jordan consisted of dodging scams – a mystery fee of twenty dinars at my hotel in Amman that I refused to pay, the quoted cost of dinner at my hotel in Wade Musa increasing from 9.5JD to 10JD to 11JD from check-in to confirmation of dinner to being served (I paid 10, and it was ridiculously massive, if overly salted and not terribly good), the waiter “forgetting” that hummous was listed on the menu as costing 2.5JD, not 3.5JD, then “accidentally” giving me fifteen cents in change rather than fifty, and the unmentioned 10JD exit tax at the border with Israel. I managed to avoid some scams by accepting them in advance – an expensive Uber to the bus station and an expensive hotel.
I had to buy a journal first thing on arriving in Petra and thereby had to walk up the hill to the awful town of Wadi Musa. I eventually selected from the slim pickings – I may have to dissect this sketchbook later to extricate the drawings, as the binding is terrible. Petra itself was absolutely astonishing despite the extreme buildup hype, and nearly empty at night. A group of Indians I’d later see at immigration while waiting four hours at the Israeli border while being occasionally interrogated (more on that in the next post) sat by me as I drew Al-Khazneh and proudly proclaimed what I was doing “art”. I was alone for my hour and a half long hike around the north side of Petra up to the High Place of Sacrifice. I stayed until 8pm on the first day and re-entered right at 6am the second day, at opening, hiking swiftly past the tour groups and quickly becoming alone once again, arriving first out of those who had come in the main entrance to Ad-Deir.
At the onset of the 200 meter staircase climb at the end, I was asked to bring a small but very heavy bag up “to Turkwai, below the tree, up.”, who ended up being at the top of the climb and didn’t say a single thank you but rather asked me to help her set up her shop, then asked me to buy something, then on seeing the fruit I’d brought said “I like your grapes, I want.” The spot I chose to draw from quickly was revealed by the scorching sun, so I had to make up a lot of the perspective after I retreated to the shade. The bedouins shouted “Sugoi ne” instead of “Japan” at me, and I actually quite enjoyed it, pretending they were referring to my drawings. In general I managed to avoid much of the tout feeling as they were all interested in my drawings and had real conversations with me after a perfunctory “Do you want a donkey/camel/horse/carriage?” asked as a matter of course and only once. The kids in particular enjoyed my drawings and requested some.
Back at the hotel after the scammy lunch, I endured a conversation with a woman who spoke incessantly about “What countries have you done? I’ve done…” I enjoyed the excellent museum, full of far too much information to impart to my students, but I’ll certainly try and go overtime with my lectures… again. A docent in a hejab asked me to draw her similarly hejabi friend, then asked to have the paper. I acquiesced to drawing, despite the pressure, as I need the practice. But the desire to take, to have, the painful self-interest I see at museums with the Chinese and Arab tourists posing for selfies in front of artwork, millimeters away, without every looking at the artwork – it’s so depressing. Everything is a photo op, and it seems artists, while rare, are becoming a free drawing op.