Even in a time of great political and social instability, it is great to see Christians and Muslims helping each other protect their own faith values. This photo shows Christians protecting Muslims during Friday prayer. If only we could all be a little more like these folks.
Fridays in the Middle East are the days that everything shuts down, and everyone goes to a local mosque. It is almost eerie to be in a city of millions where traffic is constantly seconds away from grid lock, and suddenly finding the streets completely empty just because it is Friday. It’s kind of like going out on Christmas day in America, except temperatures are generally hot, and it happens once a week.
In Amman, my friend Steve lives just a couple of blocks from the public market, which is open only on Fridays. It sets up in the middle of a normally busy street, because there are a lot of stalls and people rolling through this thing. There is very little planning involved with regard to the layout of the market stalls; they are quite literally thrown together. In addition, because of the heat and sun, tarps get thrown up in a disorganized fashion over each stall to protect us all from heat stroke.
In short, the Friday market is a crash course in Jordanian culture. Because of the variety of things being sold, and the variety of people there, you hear strange sounds, smell interesting scents, and run into people coming from every direction. It is sensory overload, but it is truly the people’s market.
The average Jordanian family lives off of about $5,000 per year. This makes public markets and bazaars very common places to congregate for the average person, because the goods sold at these places are affordable to all levels of income. What did we see?
The first thing we were told by our hosts was for girls to stay close to guys, because hands will reach out and pat behinds. Lisa wandered off from me once and learned this lesson, so after that she kept close to me and also folded her hands behind her back to cover her hind quarters. Why does this happen? Jordan is a moderate Muslim country (Saudi Arabia being conservative, and Egypt being liberal). Muslim culture is very protective of the dignity of women, which is why you will not see scantily clad women in any advertisement in the Middle East. Abstinence is at the level in Jordan that most right-wing conservatives in America would like to see it. Combine this with the family sense of honor (which means you do not bring shame on the family), and the fact that Jordanians tend not to marry until their 30s, and you get the idea how repressed some folks in their society may become. Adultery and fornication do occur, but these are shameful acts, so they are never spoken of. This is why a man may pat a woman on the rear during market; it is sometimes the only way to deal with his repression. Still, it’s not fun for the woman, and I kept Lisa close after her encounter.
The other thing that surprised me in the market was the clothing being sold. I would say clothing represented at least ¾ of what was being sold. The majority were western style clothes, with some traditional Middle Eastern garb thrown in. You saw it all, though: underwear, socks, t-shirts, pants, dresses, shoes, hats, etc. The shocking thing for me was that I noticed most of the t-shirts were American. Have you ever wondered what happened to that little league t-shirt you donated to Goodwill 15 years ago? I saw it. There were shirts from family reunions in Wyoming that occurred 12 years ago. I saw a lot of charity event t-shirts (like 5Ks or bake sales) from small town America. I even saw shirts with racist American slogans on them, and I just hoped that the people around me couldn’t read English very well as I buried the shirts under piles of other clothes. The oldest one I saw had a date for some festival from 1991, and it looked brand new. It was definitely in the 1990’s style with neon colors and weird geometric shapes on it, but I couldn’t believe it had not aged in 18 years. My favorite shirt I found was one that asked “Got Mullet?” above a picture of a guy with such a hairstyle. It cost only 1 JD (Jordanian Dinar), or about $1.40 to us.
What was also interesting to me was the amount of food being sold in this market. Smells pervaded everywhere, some good, and others pretty bad. We saw people cooking (while under the tarps) standard Middle Eastern stuff, and it was tempting. The sanitation was of question, though, so we passed. The guy I could not take my eyes off of was the man carrying, on his back, a large container of some sort of punch. It looked heavy. Around his waste was a belt with about 6 plastic cups. You could just walk up, hand him a JD, pick the cleanest dirty glass and have a drink. I kept daring Steve to do it, but he told me a story of an American friend who did try it, and immediately felt sick to his stomach. Still, it was interesting to see this “old world” tradition carrying on.
We walked through the market, and had some laughs at some of things we saw. After the events, though, I came to realize this really is no laughing matter. The people who are running the stalls are trying to make a living, and from what I heard, the price to rent space at the market, ramshackle as it is, is very high, which requires them to sell a lot to make any money at all. In addition, prices can’t be too high, because there are dozens of people selling similar goods who will cut their prices below yours to make a sale. Also, most of the people simply can’t pay the high prices for these goods, which is why they come to begin with.
I also noticed about Jordanians that they aren’t interested in being materialistic like Americans. They don’t own clothes they can just relax in, like us. Jordanians will wear their best clothes every single day, even if they only own 1 outfit. All of the people I saw were very well groomed, and took a lot of pride in their appearance. This becomes that much more important when you live in a society that isn’t wealthy. Even though I was wearing nice clothing for the entire trip, I often felt under dressed among people who only made a fraction of what I make in a year.
Today I am getting ready to go to work, and get myself stuck in Friday, American traffic. My mind is wandering to the Fridays I spent in the Middle East, where I awoke to the beautifully sung call to prayer, and I walk out into the streets that are virtually empty, because it is time to relax, reflect, and pray. I can’t help but think of the markets and bazaars which present such a cross-section of wonderful, peaceful, hardworking, and kind people. It is just another slice of life that has changed my own.
What is the question I have received most regarding my trip to the Middle East? “Did you ever feel threatened?” That question generally took on 3 contexts – 1) Did I come across a terrorist or extremist, 2) How did the people feel about me being an American, 3) Did the events we see on the news carry over into Jordan?
Asking if I came across any terrorists is like asking a visitor to America if they came across a white supremacist. We know they are out there, but they are such a small part of the actual population that the chances of coming across one is very small. Coincidentally, who do Jordanians think they will run into if they visit the states? The Mafia. They have the same source of information we do – TV. Jordanians think the shows they watch on satellite TV are a microcosm of America. Based on that, it looks to an outsider like our society is full of crime, and organized crime. It doesn’t help that America is providing them with the perspective they have on our society. How could they think differently if they don’t travel to the US and find out for themselves? No, I did not see a terrorist, an extremist, or even a protester in Jordan. I did meet countless wonderful Jordanians who were just trying to have a nice, peaceful existence, and were very interested in trying to understand me better.
What about being an American in Jordan? Did that work against me? Americans are often shocked at how much military presence we see in other countries. Jordan has quite a military presence. You might get randomly stopped along the road, and asked what you are doing in that area. The trunk of your vehicle will be searched when you enter any parking structures in Amman. This is to avoid any Oklahoma City kinds of bombings. Did I feel singled out? Yes. I felt I was given the royal treatment by all military and security personnel. When they saw my passport, or saw that I was an American, I was expedited or moved to the front of the line. The message was clear – I was a guest in their country, and I was not the problem.
I also think there is a large military presence because Jordan has a problem with unemployment. A normal rate of unemployment is 20% in that country, and it often gets above 30%. In my opinion King Abdullah is doing what he can to keep his people working, and to help them retain their dignity. This is also why we had to see 6 people and get 4 signatures at the post office just to pick up 1 package. On that note, you will not see beggars in the streets. The poor will sell you something, maybe as little as a box of tissue, but they will not beg. They would rather starve than degrade their sense of honor.
Remember also that up until 1999, when King Hussein succumbed to cancer, Queen Noor served along side King Hussein. She was American-born, and made a wonderful ambassador on behalf of us, and to this day is beloved by the Jordanian people. She released an autobiography in 2004, which many Americans would find quite eye opening.
Last is the question of whether events from other parts of the region spilled over into Jordan. At the time we were in Amman, there was a political uprising in Tehran over the recent presidential election. The distance from Amman to Tehran is about the same distance from Seattle to Los Angeles, and in between the two is Iraq. So what about Iraq? The distance from Amman to Baghdad is about the same as the distance from Detroit to New York, with a lot of open, waterless desert in between. In addition, back in 2003, when the US led invasion of Iraq was about to start, those Iraqis who had the means got out. Many of them relocated to Amman, which has always set itself up as a haven for those who are threatened in their own homeland. The Iraqis are grateful to Jordan for being so willing to take on this extra burden, which only caused a strain on the resources of Jordan at the time.
What about the events in the West Bank, which does run up against Jordan? Back in 1967 when Israel won their war against Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine, many Palestinians fled to Amman. Today, around 50% of the residents of Amman are Palestinian. Jordan was the only nation to give Palestinians citizenship after these events. In the 1990’s, Jordan became the second country in the region to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and to recognize Israel as a sovereign nation, at great cost to their relationships with other countries in the region (Egypt was the first to do this in the 1970’s). Because of this delicate balance, Jordan is seen as a friend to both Israel and Palestine, which makes it a target of neither.
I will end by pointing out that I saw a lot of Christians in Amman, and particularly Madaba (33% of its 250,000 people are Christian). Jordan’s 7 million people are only about 6% Christian, but I felt I was running into them everywhere. This is not something you will see portrayed in the news. In addition, I did visit several mosques, and I did talk with Muslims about faith. Never did I feel like I was supposed to convert to Islam or leave behind my Christian beliefs. Instead, I was treated like a brother in the faith. Muslims call Jews and Christians “children of the Book.” The Book being the Torah or Bible, and since we share so many of the same prophets as Islam, we are considered believers if we adhere to the faith as it was given in our holy book. Again, I feel the media portrayal of Muslims is skewed in this regard. Because of this, I encourage people to reach out to Muslims in your own community, and just try to understand them better. I also recommend visiting a Muslim country, where your eyes will be opened to more than you ever imagined.
All day I have hearing about how one year ago we heard the news of Lehman Brothers collapsing, and sending the world economic market into turmoil. What is strange about that was last year when this news broke, I awoke in Lisbon, Portugal, several hours before the American public heard it, and had a brief moment of extreme panic. For a split second I imagined Tom Hanks in “The Terminal,” as he watched his country collapse into anarchy, and he could do nothing about it. I thought I might be stuck in Europe, kind of like people who were stuck all over the US and abroad right after 9/11. The moment wore off quickly, but I was keenly aware that the America I returned to was not going to be the same as the one I left.
The interesting thing about that situation is also how interconnected I saw the world economy. Immediately after the announcement of the Lehman Brothers collapse, several banks in Europe began to teeter and fall. I watched this happen via Euronews, and I knew I wouldn’t get this much info by being in the states. It was a bit shocking, and very eye opening.
I also can’t help but think of other events that have occurred while I was away from home. In 2005, after spending a week in Alaska, and falling in love with nature as though for the first time, I was in the airport waiting for my flight. It was midnight, but still light outside, and the televisions were broadcasting the bombings which had occurred in London. What was odd to me then was how far removed I felt from that. It should have brought to mind my memories of 9/11, but instead it felt so distant, because I was still dealing with the enormity of Alaska, and my new, renewed struggles with environmentalism.
This last summer, the day after we returned from Petra, which is a life changing experience, we were all sitting in my friend’s apartment in Amman, Jordan. It was then we heard the news of Michael Jackson passing away. That was quite a blow. I can’t say I was a fan of his in the last 15 years of his life, but Thriller was the first record album I ever bought, and I have a hard time imagining my childhood without his music somewhere in the background. It was interesting, and a little strange that we kept passing the billboards posted around Amman announcing his comeback tour. I wanted to get a photo, but the crazy traffic of Amman wouldn’t allow it. Still, this also gave me the perspective of how the world saw the “King of Pop.” The remainder of the world focused almost entirely on his music, dance, and videos, and really didn’t care about his personal life. In addition, his influence in other parts of the world is still just as large as back in the 1980’s in the US.
I keep wondering if I should quit traveling in order to prevent these crazy world events from occurring, as if my being abroad has somehow caused the stars to align in such a fashion to actually cause these events. I know that is preposterous, but we manage to make our brains think that somehow we could cause events like this, or that maybe if we wear a certain jersey and keep our rituals, our favorite team will beat their rival. I know these events are independent of my travels, but I can’t help but wonder what will happen next when I do travel. Still, while I am abroad, I get to find new perspectives, and hopefully a renewed appreciation for the events themselves, along with how varying people see the events. Perspective is everything.
This last summer Lisa and I visited the countries of Jordan & Egypt. Included in both of these countries are several “Holy” sites to the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. For example, we were able to see the site where Jesus was baptized by John. We also stood on Mt. Nebo where it is believed Moses was given a glimpse of the Promised Land before dying. We visited Machaerus, where King Herod built a citadel/temple, and where he took the Head of John the Baptist. The question that has come up often after visiting these sites is “did you feel anything?”
Let me start by saying that the majority of the holy sites we visited are now tourist attractions. In other words, you have buses coming in and out, and in many cases you also have heavier security because of the religious significance of these sites. Still, there is room for God to speak or for people to get emotional when visiting a site, and I have witnessed this. If I am honest, however, I must say that I did not feel any heightened emotions, energy, chills, and I didn’t hear a voice or see anything special at these sites. Don’t get me wrong, I was excited to visit places where I knew Jesus had been, and I knew something significant occurred, but nothing special happened while I was there.
When we were in Egypt, we had the opportunity to spend a day going around Cairo with an American who had lived in Cairo for 15 years. She decided to take us to a place you will not find in any guidebooks. In the shadow of the Mokattam mountains is the Zabbaleen Village, or what we call Garbage City. You can imagine my apprehension in going to a place by that name, but we decided to trust our guide, and at the very least we would have something to tell people when we returned home.
Garbage City is exactly that. Since Egypt has few landfills, and the Cairo metro area has a population of around 20 million, there is a lot of garbage. The villagers take their pickup trucks or donkey carts out to gather the trash, then they pile the bags of garbage impossibly high on their vehicles, and bring them back to the village to distribute. The villagers take the trash into their homes, where the first floor is set aside for sifting, and the remaining floors for living. Recyclable material is sold, and the remainder is burned or fed to their swine (and due to the swine flu outbreak, Egypt required these villagers to slaughter their swine, which has put a strain on the people). In addition, the roads in this village are not paved, they are very narrow, and there is stray garbage throughout. The smell is terrible, so we did not roll our windows down, and disease is very common in these parts due to lack of sanitation.
If you could imagine an outcast group of people, the Zabbaleen Village is it. These people have been marginalized by their fellow people and the Egyptian government because of the way they live, and because they are largely descended from foreigners who moved to the area decades ago to try to make a better living for themselves.
Back in the 1960’s the Coptic Church in Cairo began to take interest in the Zabbaleen Village. The Copts saw the conditions they lived in, the lack of education and health care, and decided they needed to try to make an impact. They found a people very open to the message the Copts brought. As the villagers accepted this message, it became necessary to get a larger church built to house the worshippers. The problem was that the government has to approve any church building, and they were not willing to give their approval to this project. How could the people gather for worship?
The answer came from the mountain itself. If a building could not be built, why not dig an open air church out of the mountain? Since Cairo only has 1 to 2 days of rainfall per year, this solution made more and more sense. Carving and digging were done without protest from the government. All blasting was done during Ramadan when the noise would coincide with the celebrations of the Muslims.
Today the Zabbaleen Village has the largest church in the Middle East, with seating for 20,000 people, and all of it carved out of stone. It is visited by Christians from all over the world, who hold conferences and retreats within the village. Artists have volunteered their time to carve Biblical images into the cliff sides, and make this church that much more striking. I heard this story as I stood in this huge open-air cathedral, and I have to tell you despite the 90+ degree temperatures I got chills. We also witnessed another group of Christians who had come to visit the church as they sang hymns and praise songs in another language in appreciation to what had gone on here. I could have spent the whole say sitting in this church and soaking in the peace that flooded over me. It was surreal, and I never saw it coming.
Since I returned to the states I get asked which holy site meant the most to me. I go through this story with those who ask each time, and I get puzzled looks. The site isn’t holy because of something the patriarchs, prophets, or Jesus necessarily did here. It is holy because God is still there, making a difference in the lives of the people, and playing in the trash.
When I was a child, I remember telling my mom that I was an endangered species, because there was nobody else on earth like me. I was the only one of my kind. I had no idea what I was talking about back then, but I can’t help but see the truth in that statement as it applies to all of us today.
Lisa and I visited Egypt this last summer, and we were able to spend time at the Pyramids of Giza, the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. While we were attending the light and sound show held at the pyramids each evening, the narrator was reviewing many of the events the pyramids had been witness to, and I was in awe. Great historical figures like Moses, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon have all stood at Giza and taken in the site of the pyramids. It was amazing to me how these structures stood as a connection between so many events and people, and I am now one of those people.
Since returning home, I have gone through the events and memories of my week in Egypt, and I have been stunned by what sticks out to me now. I have thought about the pyramids, and how for thousands of years these structures have held their ground. The thing is, nothing else in and around Cairo is the same, not even the Nile, which has changed course several times, been affected by the Aswan Dam, and now has all sorts of pollutants floating in its waters. The changes in Egypt continue each and every day, too. The Egypt I saw was simply a snap shot in the history of the country that can never be revisited, and it was completely different than Napoleon’s impression, and Caesar’s experiences.
What is it that has made our experiences so different? The people. I noticed when I filed through my memories that it was always the people that made the event memorable, wonderful, or unforgettable. The images I conjure up are those of kids driving donkey carts on freeways. I watched them navigate traffic through the window of my homicidal taxi ride. I also remember the restaurant cooks getting just as big a kick out of us Americans as we were getting out of them while they prepared our meals. I envision the bazaar merchants who are so proud of their talents in artisan crafts just trying to make a modest living doing what they love. There was also the grocery bagger who delicately and happily carried our many bags of groceries to our car for a twenty cent tip. I can’t help but think of the young couple we saw in the park who were developing in their little romance. Since PDA is not socially acceptable in most Muslim countries, it was not long before an elder came along and boisterously broke up the two lovers. Even though I don’t speak Arabic, I understood every word that passed between these three.
My greatest memories revolve around the two things most prevalent to me. The first was our amazing tour guide who took us to many of the sites. On our way to the sites, she talked openly about Islam, without being dogmatic. She taught me more about her Muslim faith in two days than all of my books and college courses combined have shown me. She answered all of our questions with patience and grace, as well. Last were the strangers who constantly approached us on the streets or in the parks and would ask us in their best broken English where we were from. Upon telling them, they would profusely shake our hands and exclaim, “Welcome to my country! I am so glad you are here!”
It seems when we travel in todays world, we often look for the sites we want to visit along the way. I love visiting historical sites as much as anybody, and I learn so much from them. Still, I find more and more in my travels that the best, and most endangered things to see in each place involve the people, the culture, and diversity. These add color, depth, substance, and the best memories to every destination.