Saturday, May 15, 2004

Jordan and Syria

My plans to put up travel-related stuff every Friday didn't work, as I never truly got the picture thing sorted out. When I get back from Morocco, I plan to look into that further. In the meantime, here's my last e-mail from my 2001 summer in Jordan with excursions into Syria, focusing mainly on Damascus. I was pretty strongly waxing philosophical by this point...

"Scurrying across the surface of the world, populating the cheapest of hotels, lurking at all the museums and monuments, travelling lightly, often alone or in twos which mix and match as paths cross and bond for a time, one finds that unique group of people known as the backpackers, mostly college students from various Western countries and Japan who decide to simply stuff some clothes into a backpack and wander around the world seeing sights while they're still young and free, pinching pennies beyond belief for weeks and months on end as they give themselves memories to last a lifetime. Because we, too, are cheap college students, we see them often sitting around lounges - sometimes they seem practically to just move into a cheap hotel for like a week or so and hang out. Despite this, we actually don't talk to them that much simply because our perspectives on the world tend to diverge. For when I say "on the surface," that is very much the impression I get, glancing at things superficially, seeing with rose-colored glasses and youthful idealism the different societies they skim across as they pass with their 'Lonely Planet' guidebooks from monument to monument in their travels.

"Whether or not our group has really penetrated beyond the surface is, of course, a matter open to debate, for although we have different degrees of fluency in Arabic we remain outsiders most places we go, and while we see far more of the daily life than, say, the German kid on the roof of the hotel we stayed in the first time we were in Damascus, there remain countless niches to Middle Eastern society of which our exclusively urban, largely campus-centered experience can illuminate only a few. And even then, our ideas and expectations for life just differ, mainly in degree, for those with whom we interact, and as the awareness grows that we near the end of our journey, little things like the lack of anything resembling an orderly line anywhere combine with cabin fever to increasingly bug us while we seek out the familiar to which we will soon be returning.

"But the program is not over yet, and just last weekend six of us made our last significant weekend jaunt across the border to Damascus, the ancient Syrian capital and one of the most culturally significant cities in all the world, so old that it was already old in the tales of Genesis, 1000 years or more before its incarnation with Arbila, Gadara, Gerasa, etc. as one of the Roman cities of the Decapolis, and yet again as Damascus, capital of the Umayyads, who ruled as caliphs from 650-750 a territory stretching from Central Asia to Spain, and which later became a capital of both Zengids and Ayyubids during the Crusades, a city which today stretches through quarter after quarter with insanely busy streets and traffic circles crossed by countless pedestrian skybridges similar to the ones over University Avenue in Madison only built with right angles instead of curves.

"Within this city, one finds running the streets that unfortunate type of urban child so memorably sketched by Victor Hugo in the person of Gavroche, the poor or orphaned rascal who begs or peddles for bits of food while somehow retaining the curious innocence of childhood. You find many of them in well-populated areas like bus stations and suqs, either drawn there by their own experience or sent by some cynical Fagan hiding the the shadows We encounted one such kid named Ahmad peddling gum outside a prayer rug shop in what proved one of the more intriguing meetings of the trip: He was perhaps ten years old, and had with him two other children of about half that age, all extending their boxes of gum and saying (in Arabic) '15 lire.' When I gave our standard reply of 'La' (No) followed by a persistance which drew an "emshii" (go away), Ahmad stopped and turned to the other two saying: 'Emshi - what is this?' There followed a silence before he proclaimed: 'ithhibu!' (go) and shoved both into the road. Then he said: 'This is formal Arabic. And in dialect?' The two kids mumbled something and he repeated his question, to which Ben, sitting on a stool outside the shop replied 'yalla.' Ahmad then verified this answer, and again shoved them into the street, indicating they should leave.

"At that point I was intrigued, and asked his name, which he told me; when I asked if he was the leader (qa'id) of this group, he stood up and said to me, Ben, and the two smaller kids 'Anna mudeer!' Then he turned to the other kids, asked them to listen, and said to me, 'Are you English?' 'American,' I replied at which he threw his arm out and ordered the other two back, saying Americans were often dangerous. He then turned to me and said, 'You aren't, though.' Then one of the kids asked me if I wanted gum again, and when I declined began leaning onto my lap waving it in my face. This provoked a storm of dialect of Ahmad which seemed to involve a prohibition as he was waving his arm between us and saying something involving a negation, before, after a final no sending them off into the street. After this he proclaimed that they were just kids and still learning, and he was a big boy and teaching them. During and ensuing conversation we found that Ahmad had a family somewhere in Damascus, and that he also knew some English from school. Later I talked to
, who hails from Damascus, and learned that Syria makes sure all the kids get educated regardless of circumstances, and that a very serious or talented student could easily have acquired the knowledge of English and formal Arabic Ahmad demonstrated.

"The kind of future he will have, however, probably isn't much better than most of the other street children simply because of the roadblocks and poor economy of a lot of society. As he gets older, he may turn into one of the young adolescent street dogs-in-training who started harassing us in Dara'a, en route to a future in the 'informal sector' of the economy as a street vendor or professional beggar, unless perhaps he can peddle his mandatory military service into some sort of future. With luck, he'll be able to enjoy a soccer game, standing in the stone bleachers cheering in a crowd watched by riot police with helmets and plastic shields and going crazy, holding people up in the air and lighting newspapers on fire when his team scores the winning goal.

"The job market, however, is another matter entirely, and there things are likely to only get worse in the future, as like all developing nations, both Jordan and Syria have extremely high percentages of young people as a result of improved health care pushing child mortality downward while families still often have 10+ children. Some of these will be lucky enough to go to college and study English like most of our Yarmouk friends do, and like most college students will come into contact with whole new ranges of ideas and lifestyles.
stuff deleted This is the opposite of many people's ideas in college; her friend name deleted takes the opposite track and has increasingly begun dressing, not just in hijab, but in gloves and everything as an assertion of cultural identity rather than the Western fashions most young Jordanians take for granted.

"Politics is also uncertain. While we were in Damascus there were illegal anti-Israeli protests in Amman, smaller than expected, but still enough to provoke the government into a crackdown. During the past week several newspaper editors have had to resign under pressure for articles critical of Jordanian policy, the king issued a decree about expressing opinions contrary to Jordanian security interests, and one of our friends from the West Bank said the campus area is filled with undercover security people watching for signs of potentially illegal activity. They all hurry to add, of course, that this is better than in Syria where people are required by law to have at least one poster of Bashar al-Assad somewhere, and where Waddah assures us that the government is ultimately behind the low-level calls for reform that came out yesterday. There's also the ever-present Israel/Palestine issue; here almost everyone we talk to supports the peace process and thinks it can ultimately yield results, but considers Sharon an unindicted war criminal and talks up the movement in Europe to have him follow Milosevic to the Hague to stand trial. The shooting of the Israeli businessman in Amman yesterday has mainly gotten surprised reactions from Jordanians in our social area; people wonder why any Israeli would want to live there, and while they are far from big fans of Israel, they deeply question this new Lebanon-based 'Nobles of Jordan' group that has claimed responsibility. Some were making fun of the groups statement that they were 'liberating Jordan from the Zionist oppressors' - 'By killing some hapless* merchant?' they say skeptically.

"What the future holds for all of this is uncertain. Adults here definitely work incredible hours; you see the same owner in the fruit stand at 9 p.m. that you do at 9 a.m. The merchants in the suq are clearly in their shop all day; when we were gossipping with some in Aleppo while waiting for the girls to finish in a jewelry store, they complained a lot about how hot the day was and how little business they were getting; they had been out in the heat of Syria for maybe 12 hours, worked six days a week, and really didn't make that much money. Even as cheap college students, the amount of money we dump by eating out every day at maybe $1 a meal is a huge boost to our establishments of choice.

"The German guy on the Damascus hotel roof kept talking about how much better Syria was than Germany because everywhere you look people are happy, don't have any cares in the world, and live a laid-back life just accepting whatever comes. He decided to travel the world after his parents agreed to pay his way to some specialized medical school. He'd been travelling for two and a half months, and admittedly is more relaxed about lifestyle than we were. As
name deleted commented, the clothes he spilled something on in Homs will be dirty until we're back home because 'They can't get clean here!' For myself, I have one pair of pants with actual Dead Sea mud on them and another of which the famed red dust of Petra might become a permanent feature, and it's starting to drive me nuts. But whether the German student's lower expectations translate into a closer bonding with the culture is highly questionable.

"In the movie of Lawrence of Arabia, the plot is driven by the ultimate goal of capturing Damascus, the very city where we were staying. There is one scene I've always remembered where Prince Faysal, later King Faysal whom our hotel in Aleppo was named after, said to Lawrence: 'I think you are one of these desert-loving English. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert.' Scraping aside all the possible theoretical criticisms possible here, this statement applies to a lot of these travellers' impressions from the idealistic side just as the resort-hugging tourist types can be blown away by a dose of basic cultural respect.

"But perhaps there is a third way between these extremes, a way which combines the impressions and experiences of us as students, the backpackers, the vacationers of Petra and Aqaba, and the many people we've met along a single great continuum. For in Damascus, at either end of the suq, you find a great momunent. At one is the vast Damascus Citadel, closed for renovation, boasting in front a large statue of Saladin atop a horse. At the other, more famous and made eternal by its sacredness, is THE Umayyad Mosque, filled with life from the flocks of pigeons who land in the courtyard to the people from all over the world who come to see and inhale the air of this monument to the faith of Islam from its first century. In one wing is a shrine where Shi'ites go to mourn at the resting place of the head of the martyred Imam Hussein. In the main hall, between two of the three towering minarets, in a building decorated outside with beautiful multicolored nature scenes such as Europe would not see for centuries, is a shrine in which a while and gold skeleton supporting an enclosure of green glass protects the final resting place of the head of John the Baptist, on the approach to which sit a number of old men who may be like the blind men in the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo who have the Quran memorized and to whom local people go with problems. At the call to prayer, the front wall lined is lined with men, while the back is lined with women, performing the prayers required at that particular time of day, facing the niches in the wall which point in the direction of Mecca.

"While we were there, too, surrounded by this really open mix of centuries-old sacred ritual, scurrying pigeons, and foreign sight-seers of different mentalities were two rows totaling maybe 40 people on either side of a small rectangular box about six feet long and three feet high covered in a green cloth inscribed with Quranic inscriptions. Standing directly before the white minbar where the imam stands to deliver the Friday sermon, they performed prayers different than the afternoon prayers of the main body of worshippers. Like many who were not sure what this was we curiously watched from a distance, thinking this might be Imam Hussein's shrine or something. Then, after several minutes, the party solemnly stood, lifted up the coffin, and bore it away, lovingly carrying the earthly remains of a loved one from where they had achieved their honor of being prayed over in this mosque and its bright, human surroundings before being carried into the cold night of the grave. And then, in a moment of reflective silence, you think back, back to near the very beginning of the trip, in the museum section of Umm Qais, where some ancient Hellenistic notable had left his words of wisdom on his casket, translated on the wall for all to see: 'To you I say passersby: As you are, I once was; as I am, you will be. Use life as a mortal.'

"This is the link among all which I have seen and experienced in Jordan - the mystery of how we live in a world which we will one day leave, and how we seek to live full lives for ourselves and our community. We can neither solve the great questions of the world, nor should we let them and them alone rule our destiny. Ours is but to live, to seek, to experience, and to learn, to love, to enjoy, to sorrow, and in-shaa Allah, ultimately fulfill the higher destinies of our own existence. The larger problems of the world will unfold as they will, and, as the old Arab proverb says,''Ind atwal al-ayam nihiya,' 'Even the longest day has an end.' And so does the longest e-mail; even as this trip winds to an end I must return to figuring out how to spend my remaining three days and figure out the logistics of my return, so, in respect and friendship, I hope you have enjoyed these words, crafted as usual with the values of QU and the knowledge of UW together with my own observations and experiences on the world as I have found it."

*I'm convinced this word was a subconscious substitution of some sort on my part, though the general tone fits what I remember of the conversation.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home