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We’re back – and we got out of Chicago just in time -- before the garbage really started piling up. I’m sure you’ve heard about the garbage strike there. Don't you just hate garbage strikes? They can make for a vacation that really stinks! Speaking of service, check out this amazing customer service sign I saw while waiting for my cousin Dennis to get his car washed.
Before we left Chicago, my cousin-in-law Sheridan gave Amber Airplane a wedding book. Just what she needs: more wedding publications. We said our goodbyes and cousin Dennis drove us to ORD (O'Hare -- that's the airport in Chicago). Last month I wrote about Chili's as a great place in ORD to grab a quick bite to eat. Well, if you don't have time to sit down, I recommend grabbing a sandwich from Corner Bakery. They are good! They also have incredible brownies (but they are pricey).
Our flight back to L.A. was bumpy most of the time. That meant the seat belt sign was on nearly the entire flight and my legs hurt from squeezing them so hard. Did you know you could get fined $1,000 for standing up when the seat belt sign is on? It's true! Not only will you get whacked, but the FAA could also fine the flight attendant. That's why they are always so adamant about making sure you have your seat belt on “when the seat belt sign is illuminated.”
We arrived back home in California, and friends and family came over to congratulate us on our engagement. Some sent or brought gifts. My sister Carol sent us an orange tree. That's right: an orange tree. We love oranges, but unfortunately we don't have a backyard where we can plant it. My cousin Nicole gave us some cookies. It's amazing: The first thing the ladies do when they see Amber Airplane is look at the ring. They peered at it so closely, I would've been busted if I had bought a cubic zirconium. You’re probably not surprised that not one of my guy friends asked to see the ring.
We made it back in time to cast our votes in the historic recall election. For those of you not from California, this is what the ballot looked like.
My funny story for the week goes is this: Like a good Catholic boy, I was in church this week. Actually, twice. The second time was yesterday to pray for my mom on her third anniversary into heaven. But the first time was my weekly duty. When I’m in L.A. I help out at my church as an usher as much as I can. This week the head usher gave me the pole position. That's usher talk for collecting money from the front section. Translated, that means I am practically on the altar in front of everyone. Keep in mind, the church I go to holds 1,000 parishioners. This week, for some crazy reason I felt more than the usual eyeballs on me. I realize not too many people pay attention to the ushers, but I knew I was getting some crazy looks. Sure enough, about five minutes after I returned to my seat I felt a little breeze down there. Yes, down there -- and sure enough, my zipper was all the waaaaay down. Oh God! The one day I forgot to wear underwear! Just kidding -- I had boxers on. But still it was embarrassing.
Since we didn't do much this week but catch up on bills, we will hand this week's “Where's Johnny Jet” to my brother Frank, as he takes us on his tour of Jordan. What a fascinating trip he had. Take it away...
My Journey to Islam
When Johnny asked me to go to the Middle East my first thought was that I needed a will. Next, I thought I should go because it would make a good story. Finally, I decided, “I had better think about this some more.” My friends asked if I was going to “find Bin Laden” – the guy who declared : “Kill Americans wherever you find them.”
I wondered what I would miss if I didn’t go – as well as what I would miss if I went and didn’t come back.
I began to research; reading and listening - as much as I could handle on the subject –which was surprisingly more than I thought I would enjoy. I figured if I wanted to have a better than 51% chance of making it back alive… I had better learn more about a world that I would be climbing into via a plane and aboard a tour bus with a bunch of Americans to travel in the hot bed of the Islamic world, a world separated from Iraq and Syria and Saudi Arabia by, well, at times, only a few miles…
I visited the Westport Library, bookstores, the Internet, and discovered my new personal favorite travel starting place- Lonely Planet travel guides (an excellent entry point, intelligently written and broadly scoped). You can also check out Frommer's Jordan . The best background information on the history of the Middle East conflict came from listening to the 4 cd series on “ The Crisis Of Islam” narrated by the author, Bernard Lewis and loaned to me by my friend Rebekah. It is freshly written (April 2003), detailed, and captivating. Lewis thoroughly explains the origins of Islamic fundamentalism and Arab distaste for American and western meddling. And his voice carried this listener through the two thousand year history full of wars, betrayal and empire.
Afraid of terrorism? Me? For centuries man has killed each other in the name of a superior God. Of course I was afraid. And that is where we begin…with fear.
The journey, part one
6/3/03 I walk into the world of the Royal Jordanian Airlines looking for my group of 12 brave souls. I enter the airport and stand in the doorway where I wonder what I am doing amongst all these Middle Eastern looking people, many of whom are wearing traditional garb. I knew it was too late to turn back, but find myself wondering why I was too late - when I hear “Francis?” And I turn to look. No one.
“Francis?” I catch the voice and look down and see seated on the heater a man with a big smile and an Australian bush hat. “ Arthur.” “I’m waiting for 2 more and I’m a little concerned…”
“Am I am I too late?” I ask. I hope.
“No. Not yet. Almost”.
We shake hands and I join him on the heater and talk about Jordan and his four times a year visits and the his experience working for the Jordanian Board of Tourism and his law degree and his father and his grandfather whom were both judges. I learn he speaks many languages and how he never practiced law and most importantly, the words I was hoping to hear… that Jordan is very safe. But quickly adds: “an oasis surrounded by wolves!” “AlQaida” has ruined lots of the fun.” Yes, all of the fun, I am sure.
“Go ahead and check in and find the rest, you’ll know who they are… you can’t miss them. They will be the Americans sitting together…!”
I don’t see any Americans but I find a place to sit at a lonely table to the side of the packed gate area. I try not to look too new at this travel assignment, and try not to appear too American. I can’t help but notice that almost all are Middle Easterners and many are in traditional Middle Eastern garb, a small percentage of the woman are hooded. I look to see if any resemble the flying death crew from the doomed 9/11 attacks. I notice that the women never look at me even when I waive and smile to the eyes of their curious children.
Suddenly, the airline crew parades in and heads directly toward the plane. Two crisply dressed male pilots and four young, attractive women with tailored red skirts and jackets and red hats. They are all smiling and walking toward the plane entrance ramp. They have a sense of energy and pride and walk as though they are the talent from a Broadway show. I board and go directly to seat 17f, a window seat next to my new friend, Bernie Foster, unknown to me then that I would be spending the next 7 days eating every meal with him and riding 1,875 miles all over a largely deserted and magnificent country. I introduce myself and we talk about his 2 radio stations and 2 newspapers and how he and his daughter Monica are on their first journey to the Middle East as well. We take off on time, are served two meals dinner (meatballs and canned vegetables, roll, a delicious chocolate cake) and breakfast (pancakes, canned fruit cup and an upstate NY banana/strawberry yogurt).
The plane is huge. An Airbus 340-200, 2,4,2 seats across. We experience a still, smooth flight. The flight crew is impeccable and hospitable. We arrive at 4:00pm 6/4/03 in Amman, almost 9 hours later.
At the airport, we effortlessly pass through customs and I emerge into Texas-style heat. Desert heat. Real heat. The kind of heat that makes your sweat dry before you notice that you are sweating. We find our luggage and are approached by a dozen or so smiling, red-jacketed baggage handlers offering to help with our luggage. They are persistent but friendly and are easily brushed off. A gentleman from the Jordanian Board of Tourism greets us at the baggage claim and introduces himself, he looks like a tall, and young Omar Sharif, smiling and happy that we are here and tells us that we are welcome to the friendly country of Jordan. In the excitement, I forget his name. We are escorted to a bus, a tourist bus half the size of an American coach, and I notice that is has curtains to shade against the incredible heat. The driver, Abdul, will be our driver for the next 7 days. He smiled then and would continue to smile as he drove. And he squinted a lot. He never wore sunglasses, while I almost never took mine off. I look behind the bus. There is a camouflaged armored vehicle packed with 4 soldiers. I can see weapons. I secretly hope that they are there for us - to protect us. We drive away. The armored vehicle…stays at the airport. I feel alone and vulnerable.
I discover I am with a group of journalists, travel writers and 3 ministers. I also notice that I am only one of two on the trip that is not of African-American decent. Except for Bernie and his daughter Monica, Arthur and the lovely Cynthia (the next Oprah Winfrey I will assure you.) no one has ever met the other and we exchange greetings, immediately I recognize that I am amongst a very talented group of people.
We arrive at the hotel InterContinental Amman in 20 minutes. I see a traditional Bedouin greeting hotel guests with tea amid his tiny array of pillows and hookahs. I pass by him and proceed to my group, get my key and look around. The lobby is modern, spacious, and impeccable. Suddenly I feel happy and safe. And I am glad that two machine gun toting guards are standing by the door. Everyone is smiling, except them. They decline a photo opportunity.
“ Dinner at 8:00pm”, Arthur tells us and we are off to our 5 star accommodations.
We meet in the lobby and are treated to a table above the pool where we all sit at a huge table and enjoy plate upon plate of traditional Middle Eastern foods… all fresh and delicious. The service is decidedly un-American in that our every need is catered. Dishes appear and disappear. Dish after dish arrives from unseen kitchens served deftly by mustached white saronged waiters who without exception always approach and serve our plates from the left shoulder. The food was hot when it should be hot and cold when it should be cold and crisp when it should be crisp and when we are full, the table is cleaned. Tables occupied by 4-5 Arab adults, surround us, some in western clothes, the rest in full formal white headdresses and black twice loop belts around the top of the head. We eat lamb, chicken, sausages, mint sprigs, humus, taboule, falafel, and more. Vincent Goldfin orders Ubbly bubbly – a hookah filled with apple tobacco and we watch him smoke, and watch others around us smoke and smile and laugh.
Then some of us go to explore the massive hotel to discover two pools open until 5:00am - one indoors and one out, a club room on the 7th floor where we watch MTV videos, some in Arabic some definitively American. All with sexy, scantily clad women just like American TV. Not what I expected – I don’t see conservatism here on this TV.
Some of us decided to work out at the gym hoping that our stomachs would be in full retreat from the dinnertime growth. The place is huge, fully equipped, and empty.
On the morning of 6/5/03 after a buffet breakfast in the InterContinental Hotel we boarded the bus. I should say now that I was almost always the last to board, carefully watching the cars in the vicinity and keeping a close look for anything that looked like an Arabic college-aged kid with a bulky vest full of explosives and heading for our bus. That image pretty much continued to haunt me as the words or encouragement from my family and friends echoed around the sleepy chambers of my head. “You are going where? The Middle East? Are you nuts?” You must be crazy!” Do you want to get killed? What’s the matter with you” After hearing that for all of my life, it was nothing particularly new.
So I just kept my eyes peeled and watched my driver, our tour guide, and the cars creeping up alongside the tour bus. I also looked at that military pair that were always outside this hotel. I searched their eyes for signs of anything. Nothing. No fear, no contempt for the Americans. No boredom, no sense of urgency or complacency. They were just there.
Our tour guide, whom we now meet after we are seated in what would become our seats for the remainder of our trip, not by any other reason other than human nature to stay in our assigned seats, was the amazing Ali Abu Shakar. 34 years old, tall, hazel eyed and possessing a deep, honest voice. Ali is truly impressive. He would sit in the passenger seat for hours on end, holding a microphone and, between telling jokes, he was relentlessly unraveling the mysteries behind the culture, the religion, the historic sites, politics and the general direction of where we were to be going next. He would also encourage us to stay awake, to participate; he would teach us pieces of Arabic, explain road signs, test our memories and in general, become everything that our favorite high school, grade school, college professor and best friend travel companion never had the energy to do. “I can’t imagine a better guide” said Allan Porter --Nick Nolte look alike, travel writer, lawyer, real estate tycoon (sounds like me, right?) and one of the Disciples on board the bus to the Holy Land. “There was nothing more that he could have done to make this tour more interesting, I am going to miss him”, another piece of praise from Cynthia Pace - Writer-political and personal coach.
On the bus we roll through Amman and begin to learn about this strange land. “Jordan is secure and peaceful. Yet for the last two years tourism has been decimated. Once the strongest pillar in our economy it is replaced by mining for Potash and phosphate primarily from the Dead Sea in the south. This is used for fertilizer. #3 is agriculture, #4 pharmaceutical products – 5 factories in Jordan produce medical products, then lesser important is stone mining. Human resource is becoming more important as 95% of the people in Jordan are educated and this is attracting foreign investment”
In the North, olive, figs are grown in the mountains toward Syria (the border is seventy miles away from Amman). 60 % of Jordan is desert. 6-7 Palestinian refugee camps in this area since 1940 to the Gulf war- Jordan opens its boarder and welcomes Palestinians without passports. Some stay here for good. ½ the population of Jordan is originally from Palestine. For most Palestinians living in the refugee camp, they accept their position as temporary and want desperately to go home. Many could integrate into the fabric of Jordan but refuse on principal…”
Ali grows passionate when he speaks. Dramatic pauses punctuate and his deep voice falls, rises and falls, masterfully inserting exclamation points and drifting pauses and stops, which effectively make us, feel his point.
I look out the window and see landscape that hasn’t changed since Moses walked these lands … It is getting hot on the bus now, I want to draw the curtain. We drift and wind through roads lined with cement houses, empty of décor yet simple and clean. Bedouin tents occasionally appear- almost anywhere- between concrete houses, in the middle of a desert plain – wherever there is flat ground. Sheep and goats meander in between houses, on almost any semi-fertile patch of open land. The herder is always nearby, seen or unseen. The mood is relaxed. The sun rises higher into the sky and I adjust the vents above my seat directing more cool air onto me. I wear long pants as I read that short pants are unappreciated and distinctly American. I also had a long sleeve shirt on, afraid of the desert sun. Still afraid of many things that I have not yet seen.
“Archeological discoveries and those not yet discovered bring many to Jordan.” Ali booms to life. “They say EVERY TIME you swing a pick, you uncover another thousand years” Jordan is full of History, in fact, it is the source of humanity….it is…where time started….”
Another Ali pause and smile.
“Jordan is where the oldest settlement has been found. With some debate, it dates from 500,000 to 2.5 million years ago and we believe it to be the oldest group of human remains ever found on earth. Yes, Lucy was found in Africa and is older. Lucy dates just over 3.2 million years. But she was found alone. No settlement was found near her. Archaeological finds from Jericho near the Jordan River in Palestinian Territories and near Petra date 9000 BC and show humans lived in stone homes, domesticated animals and farmed.”
“Religious pilgrimage brought and continues to bring people here. This is the land of the prophets. From Adam to Mohammed. The ALL came from here. All from the west bank of the River Jordan.
“Many people come here for natural treatments. The Dead Sea can cure skin diseases - cured by the hot springs and the minerals - rashes, arthritis, eczema, fungus…” he pauses and smiles and peeks to see who is becoming nauseous.
“Jordan summer is cooler that other gulf states so the Saudis and others come for summer holidays. Look over there and you can see Gilead’s Mountain – biblically significant… more on that later….” Another smile and a hand wave gesturing that we should forget about that for now. “We have plenty of time to discuss everything that needs to be covered.”
I am fascinated with the landscape, excited just to be where I am. I look at the scrolling images through the draped windows of this comfortable little tour bus. A few of us take notes. Everyone looks content and interested. I couldn’t be happier.
He then went into an detailed and fascinating review of ancient history telling us about Jordan and its significance to the Copper Age around 4500 –3000 BC where irrigation systems were first developed and smelting tools of copper developed. This was all almost new for me, even though I had read something about it in middle school.
“We have remains in Khirbat Finan of the Bronze Age, (3000 – 2100 BC) with more settlements in Amman. The discovery of mixing tin and copper to create bronze which made harder material for weaponry and crafts, revolutionized the ancient world. During the 3 stages of the Bronze Age different events occurred with tribes moving and gaining and losing strength and influence. With the decline of the Egyptians, the Israelites found opportunities and expanded their influence. Then around 12th century bc iron ages – Moses time. Amman has had many names; from Philadelphia back to Amman, Alexander the Great took interest in Amman. 64 BC Pompey conquered the Greeks here, 342 ad Byzantine – 636 Ad“
“Look to the right!”
We are passing over Jacob’s River.
“This is where Jacob wrestled with the angle and change his name to Israel—which means walk by night, sleep by day”. We look at a small river winding through dusty, naked hills. Historically and biblically significant, I look throughout the bus, one of the ministers is moved, holding her quivering lips and shaking her head slowly and the bus doesn’t slow down but continues around its turn to the next part of our tour…” We will get more on that river later and we will stop and talk about it.”
“Let’s get up through the years. In 1187 Saladin thwarted the advance of the Crusaders. In 1516 Turks took over the Ottoman Empire for 500 years. The 1st and 2nd World Wars see the Ottoman Empire falling apart and Great Britain and France parting up the ancient empires.
“In1916 Jordan Revolts- Lawrence of Arabia helps liberate the lands with Arab help, then, in betrayal, hands it over to the British.”
“We are now in Jerash!” The bus comes to a dusty stop and we unload. We are at the gate of an ancient city, surrounded by desert on the backside, and concrete housing on the other sides. It is massive and strangely empty of tourists.
We emerge from the bus into the dry, cloudless, and sunny sauna of Jerash. Ali moves us to a shady tree and gives us the preliminary history of the Roman city, which we evidently are about to explore thoroughly. “Romans ordered the cities to look alike, they all had to have a theater, main street, temples, fountains, plazas, forum and more similarities. Jerash was the biggest outside of Rome during the 2nd century. 7 exist in Jordan, 2 in Syria and 1 in Israel.” Ali fills us with information as we look with awe at the ruins of this once thriving decapolis.
We listen, but are edgy to get on with the walking tour, despite the heat. Chock full of historical facts and concern about the heat, we start our walking tour.
Jerash accepted Christianity and a church was built. It is a world heritage site, and the second most visited in Jordan, outside of Petra. And not only did they have everything a city could need, they had a nice Chariot Race track called a Hippodome!” Hmmm… I know where I would find my Dad if he lived back in those days….
The size of the ancient ruined city strikes me. It is sprawling, and incredibly intact. We walk and admire the limestone structures built as Ali said “at the command of Romans, but with the hands of slaves”. The Decapolis was a federation under Roman leadership, all had their own army and mayor but took orders for Rome linking trade and security with Roman roads.
We enter the Church “you will notice all churches face east, all Moscs face south, and all temples face west” Look- this is where Jesus turned the water to wine!”
Another incredible temple looms above somehow resisting time, gravity, centuries of wars and looters who take stones to build houses “and now tourism. This is the temple Atimus dedicated to hunting and rain” Temples were eventually supplemented or replaced by churches. Comfortable and familiar with their journey to the existing temples, the official cleverly placed churches close by the existing Temple, often within 10 meters.
From the entrance, the main steps to the temple “look” like 28 steps.
“People would bring things to the temples, a goat, money, they would always have something in their hand … so they were encouraged to walk the distance and to climb the stairs to get into the Temple. Look, there is a landing every 7 steps so that from a distance, the steps look like 28, not 49. It’s a lot easy to get someone to climb 28 than 49 …”
Very manipulative I thought.
During the Byzantine period Roman went through plenty of change – for 300 years Romans in the Arab world practiced Christianity secretly – and gradually stopped going to Temples. Constantinople sent a messenger to report to Rome and eventually sent his mother to Jerusalem to investigate. She too converted to Christianity and told her son that he must convert or lose the Roman Empire. It was then that the Roman Capital moved from Rome to Constantinople or Byzantium or today’s Istanbul. In 324 Ad Constantinople declared Christianity to be the formal religion of Rome, marking the end of the Roman Times and the beginning of the Byszantine era.”
On the way down the ancient road, an old man is selling postcards to expected tourists. We are the expected tourists, the only ones that I have seen all day. I ask Monica, Bernie’s daughter, to pose with him for a picture. He smiles, and instructs her to sit on his lap, she shakes her head no and snuggles in alongside him.
History lesson over, we depart from the Roman/Byzantine ruins hot and ready for beer. We stop in the outdoor restaurant and hear about each other from each other, about who we are and why we are in Jordan. Bernie tells about his radio stations and his newspapers, and Vincent Goldfin speaks about his magazine and Journalist work. Greg, who can’t help but be funny tells us only a few words, but as we find out along the way, the little he does say is always a treat. Cynthia talks and we just listen. I could photograph her all day, anytime.
We move toward the bus, which is running and air conditioned. We are closer and more like friends than before. I walk away with a couple thousand years of history, a belly full of beer, a very red neck , a promise to wear shorts tomorrow, and a mental note to bring a hat. Oh. And to put on sunscreen.
On the way back we are silent, in our assigned seats, and tired. Ali comes alive again “This is Jacob’s River” where he wrestled with the 2 angels and changed his name to Isreal.
We stop and photograph the river. Just he Ali promised. Then we get back on the bus and move along.
Marriage and Relationships…
“Ali!” tell us about polygamy!” I couldn’t help myself. The silence created by the question left me wondering about the maintenance of the roads and the bus as we slalomed through yet another Jordan mystery- incredible road reconstruction, and leading me to my next question: “ are we in Iraq?”
“No, we are not in Iraq. We are rebuilding the roads, but since we only have one road through this part of the desert, we don’t shut it down, and since we don’t sue people here, we just drive through the construction!” Kiss a trial lawyer today and thank him or her for making our roads safer. Ali prepared his dissertation on my more interesting question. Didn’t matter. There was no one on the roads but us, anyway, almost.
“Yes, a man can have more than one wife. But I have only known one man who had more than one. The concept was developed out of necessity. Over the years, there have been many wars, and many men have died leaving many women without husbands. No body wants to be alone, so it was deemed better to share a husband than to have none. Also, the first wife must consent to the husband having a second wife. All wives must be treated fairly. If the husband bought one wife a present, he would have to buy the second or third one as well. It is rare today to see multiple wives.
But we do have prearranged marriages. The boyfriend/girlfriend idea does not exist here. Although today, more and more western ideas are coming in to a society, which was once closed. Today we have two cultural themes: Modern Modest and Modern. Modern trends include western movie values: hip hop clothing, violence and the like… some of the young kids are picking this stuff up from the television. Modern Modest rejects the TV values and are irritated by the Modern cultural wave.
Let’s talk about the family unit and then the prearranged marriages. First, in our families today, the grandfather is the head and grandmother keeps the family together. There is a very strong respect for parents. I would never imagine disrespecting my parents, and when I lived in New Jersey I actually got into a fight with one of my American friends after hearing the way he spoke to his mother. Of course, the mother loved me very much!
Here, family name is very important. What a child does reflects upon his family name. Reputation is held in high regard. Social punishment is the rule. If you disrespect your family name, your friends and family will socially abandon you. We must live up to our family name or be shamed. In our families, we recognize commitment and sacrifice. It is the rule rather than the exception.
70 –80 years ago we had forced arranged marriages. Now, 95% of all marriages are pre-arranged. A woman should be a virgin until she is married, and there is a saying “ No one kissed the lips of a young bride but her mother”. We do not believe that women should be used for sex or disrespected.
The average age for marriage is 22 for women and 27 for men. Modern Modest men work for a living. This is something we deem important. We have very little unemployment in Jordan.
Ali then discussed the arranged marriage. “Couples can meet anywhere. But it is the Mother’s job to take the next step. Generally, if a couple is to meet, the Mother of the male suitor will telephone the potential bride’s mother and tell her about her son. The man’s Mother would inquire about girl from all sources and then would go with the man and sometime his sister and sit and talk with the potential bride and her mother. Sometimes the potential bride walks into the meeting room and walks out. Other times the potential groom elbows his Mom to leave so they can go home and end the meeting. The longer everyone stays in the room, the better.
When the meeting is over the son’s Mother will telephone the bride’s Mom and answer questions. If things are going well, and everyone seems happy, the bride’s family begins serious investigation of the groom. They start with all the friends, do a criminal record search, investigate the family background and inquire about its reputation, whether there have been any divorces, etc. This should take 10 day maximum. There is an investigation outside the house, on the job, in the bar, anywhere and everywhere.
If after 10 day investigation, everything still looks good, then bride’s Mom calls the grooms mother and says everything checked out. Then the groom tells everyone that he is going to be engaged. We call this the Statement of Exclusivity. Then there is a big meeting of all men- from 200 to 2000. Men represent the prospective couple. Except for the a single sentence by the groom, only the actual representatives talk at the beginning of this important meeting. The Groom is offered a cup of coffee and declares “I am not going to drink just yet” and there is silence for 2-5 minutes. During that time anyone who thinks the marriage should not go forward should speak. If no one speaks, he drinks the coffee. The party begins. He also promises to pay 2000 to 10000 Dinars to the wife’s family if there is a divorce without a reason. Now the whole neighborhood knows and he can go and visit his fiancé whenever he would like too. If within a week the engagement is terminated, no reputation is lost. It can be terminated over a phone call. This is the evaluation period and it can last 10 years. A one-year evaluation is good; any longer and things get sticky. Then a marriage date is set.
Marriage outside the faith is not a problem. Mixed ethnicities are also fine. Divorce is very rare. Generally a divorce involves infertility. Ok. We are here!”
The bus rolled through another almost vacant town of scant cement houses and vacant small hotels reminiscent of “pre-hot” south beach Miami. Stucco and windows. And Signs in both Arabic and English. All told the same story: we are hurting, we are barely alive. Help us. Come and stay here and we will get the people to work.
On one side the hills rose sharply to a dusty horizon. On the other, the view was vast- an unending panorama of rounded hilltops and deep crevasses. The sun was high above us still, baking the empty buildings the way a kiln fires pottery. Around the next turn the town fell away and a long lonely stretch of road led to the most magical piece of real estate that I may ever see. Petra.
When the bus gently stopped in front of a single story, stone building, Ali smiled and said “Welcome to what was once a Bedoine Village”. Perhaps all hotels should be like the Soifetel Petra . Although I never got the straight story, apparently the hotel Chain Soifetel, purchase the Bedoine village and relocated its people relocated to modern, superior housing. But their homes remained intact and after being refitted to accommodate demanding international tourists, these unique museum quality abodes, most abutting and odd shaped, quickly oriented us into the archeological adventure that lie ahead.
I bounce off the bus and a neatly uniformed young man hands me a wine glass filled with a chilled, delicious juice that I chug under the inferno sun and then I don’t wait for the bellman to help get my bag to my room. I always feel badly taking work away from bellmen. Since we seem to be the only hotel guests, I feel twice as bad. But its too hot, he’s not here and I can’t wait. I just can’t. So, Instead, I rumble over the huge cobblestone blocks down a winding path between stone buildings, rolling, bouncing and dragging my worn carry-on, which now fights me like a struggling, gaffed yellow fin tuna being dragged down the side of a party boat toward the cooler. I am sweating and breathing hard and wishing that I had worn the taboo shorts. I wonder if I am in New Mexico. I find my room and open the door with an old fashioned key. The room is huge with two windows. I roll my bag past the solid, rough-hewn wooden door and close it with a force that would make Dr. Frankenstein smile. I move to the window. The view and the colors of the hills make me stop and stare. I have only just begun this fantastic journey and already I feel that I have gotten my money’s worth. I have seen a world that most Americans will never see. I have been treated with kindness and generosity. I have eaten well and seem more history is a short time than I have in my lifetime. Yet I am still anxious to go home. I am still wondering if we will make it out alive.
I turn on the air and lie on the bed. In the distance, muffled, I hear, faint at first, then louder, the recorded voice chanting Arabic through an old loudspeaker at high volume. It echoes across the hills, emanating from an ancient PA fixed atop an ancient building. I suddenly recognize it. The eerie prayer. I am alone and isolated in the middle of an empty desert. Again, suddenly, my awareness of my vulnerability descends upon me like bad news. I am 8 thousand miles from home. 70 miles from the Iraqi border. I listen to the voice in the hills and wish I could understand its secret message. Maybe the prayer is not a prayer, but rather… a call to arms. I listen. The voice is calling, demanding, enchanting, urging every able bodied Arab to find the infidels. Notifying all men worthy of Allah’s love that our bus has stopped. Beseeching them to find us, to chain us and to publicly eviscerate us, right there, in the village center, with our hands bound behind our backs and our sweating shirtless bodies hunched over blocks of solid stone. I see Bin Laden smile…
When I awake, I find that I am still alive. And that it is dinnertime.
TO BE CONTINUED.........
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