Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Lilt of Jet Lag

I knew I was in trouble with the nefarious Jet Lag when, on my first night home in the United States, I awoke at 2:00 a.m. ready to go. My body was nagging at me—“come on, it’s 9:00 a.m.” in Jordan, but as you would imagine, there was nothing much going on in the eastern time zone at home. I had gone to bed about 11:00 and figured after the 30 hours of traveling I would enjoy one of those great nights of slumber. Nah. Didn’t happen. So you know, you turn on the television, and yes, at 2:00 a.m. that is when the most execrable shows cram the airwaves. You look through a magazine or two, pick up a boring book (you don’t want a great book at 2:00—the plan, the hope is that you will soon be slumbering again) make some notes about the next day’s plans, and wait. You wait for the sleep. But with jet lag, it rarely rewards you with more hours of sleep…

I have a great capacity to function on little sleep. It comes from years of teaching school, directing plays, and trying to cram a couple days worth of activities and work into one solid, overheated day. On the third day of my body rousing me between 2:00 and 4:00 I began to realize this jet lag might take a little while to conquer. On that third day I hadn’t yet seen a movie, so my dear friend Sylvia and I went out to a movie. I decided to choose a cheap movie—not just because frugality is a quality I embrace—but in case I fell asleep, I might as well nap in a $3 movie instead of the high-end, first-run Tom-and-Julia flick. I stoke myself with a little caffeine and Sylvia and I arrive for the 7:45 movie. I remember just as the “Don’t Talk” PSA blared, I put my head on Sylvia’s shoulder, she sang a lullaby in German, and the next thing I knew my phone was going off in the theater. My friend Kevin had called, and wrecked this great sleep—I think it was about 2/3 of the way through the movie. As I whispered apologies to the patrons near me, I asked Sylvia how long I had slept. “Oh, since the previews. I didn’t have the heart to waken you!” Interestingly enough—the movie during which I got some shut-eye: Gone, Baby, Gone.

Over the next few nights as the middle-of-the-night blackness became my wake-up siren, I started doing some more constructive things. I actually came up with the best gift ideas for Christmas (yes, I know, good thing, since the day quickly approached!). I remember saying to my sister, “I had the best idea for a gift last night for you.” She said, “Yeah, but how was the idea in the morning?” Some times those “fabulous” ideas look a little wan in the light of day, but for my dad, my sister, my brother-in-law, I got the best ideas during that little incubating awake-time.

Since I didn’t want to sacrifice any awake-time not visiting, or eating or talking (only not seeing movies since I knew what would happen…) I still stayed up until normal bed times, and then would see how late the slumber fairies would allow me rest time. By Christmas Eve, I had begun to sleep until 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. But since I didn’t want to bother my father downstairs, I confined my early morning business to the upstairs. On one of those dark risings I saw that my mother’s bible was in my room, and I started to look through it. My mother had one of those bibles chock-full of papers—notes from long-ago sermons, church bulletins from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, letters from dear church friends, offering envelopes weathered with age—a veritable filing cabinet of church and spiritual business of our lives. I had looked through my mother’s bible before—we are a family that genuinely enjoys looking through ancient paper trails, if you have seen our house, you know we cannot bear to throw anything away—everything it seems has some sentimental value!

As with any loved one who has died, there was now a special poignance in seeing my mother’s handwriting, and in the 1970s and 80s, this was a time before the MS ravaged her beautiful, elegant penmanship. This time as I read through the notes, I realized that these notes could make a powerful spiritual gift—how she heard and notated the sermons would make a wonderful devotional book for our family, and decided to choose one of the notes to frame as a Christmas gift for my sister. I decided that in the next 11 months I would take all of these notes and type them up, so we could have a record, perhaps, enough for a year-round calendar, and would finish them up by November 27, 2008, the occasion of the 70th anniversary of my mother’s birth.

See, it was good to be up in the middle of the night with nothing to do!

On Christmas Eve, I went to three Christmas Eve services. Yes, three. I am nothing if not excessive! Niece Emma and Nephew Jack appeared as an angel and a shepherd, respectively, in the service at the Catholic church where they attend school. That was at 4:00 p.m. and was very fun to see an old-fashioned Christmas pageant with scores of children as camels, angels, shepherds, wise men, etc. I also noticed something really interesting. The boy playing Joseph was wearing a hatta, that middle-eastern scarf thing that now I recognize from my months in Jordan. Each hatta is of a certain color, and the color tells you something of the political alignment of the wearer—blue and white is for an Israeli, red and white for a Jordanian, black and white for a Palestinian (who knew? You learn so much moving abroad!). The boy playing Joseph was wearing a black and white hatta, which caught my eye, since the original Joseph was from Palestine. I told my sister, and she wondered if the intelligent costumer might actually have known that point.

Anyway, on to the next service. At 7:00 we attended the Christmas Eve service at our family’s church, and as we have done every single year since 1974, I played the piano and my sister sang. Of course every year we lament the fact that we have never taken pictures, for wouldn’t it be interesting to see a line-up of pictures every year since 1974, when as precocious children we mounted the pulpit to deliver musical Christmas wishes.

At 9:45 Sylvia came by to get me to go downtown to an old, old German protestant church that had cried out for singers to help with a midnight service. Their choir had shrunk in years, and they wanted singers who could sing in German to help augment their group. Last year was the first year they made the public plea, via the newspaper, and even though it is in a sketchy part of town, about 50 singers showed up, strangers all, to help out this church in their midnight service.

Maybe this night I will sleep until morning!!

What a futile wish! About 4:30 a.m. I awoke, not just excited to see what Santa had brought me, but interested to fill some time until I could go downstairs.

I got out my mother’s bible again to check out the Christmas story. But not the story from Luke! As much as I love that story (and my favorite rendering is when Linus recites the passage in "It’s Christmas Charlie Brown," beginning with “Lights, please,” and ending with the gentle, “So that’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”) I had just been in church three times in the last 12 hours and in each service we tread over the familiar ground of Luke!!!

So I paged back to Matthew, the first gospel. I hadn’t thought of this for many a year. Well, the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel isn’t made of the sentimental stuff in the typical Christmas programs. It opens with a much starker scene. There are no shepherds. There is no host of angels praising God and singing. Instead, one angel dashes onto the scene with a desperate message: They are seeking to kill the child.

Herod, that corrupt puppet of Rome, had dispatched armed men to kill all the baby boys of Bethlehem, since he had heard that there was a new baby King, and he wanted to protect his shaky claim to the title, “King.” As a result of the angel’s message, the baby is snatched from his bed, held tight in his mother’s arms as she runs for her life. The baby’s eyes must have seen the fear in his mother’s eyes, in his father’s actions.

Imagine the child, growing up as a refugee, away from his father’s clan home. Imagine the day he asks why there are no cousins or aunts or uncles around. Perhaps his mother can say nothing, but only looks down and away, silently trying to control her breathing. Perhaps his father simply leaves the room. Perhaps, finally, they answer his question, weaving dread and terror into the story of the family’s purpose, the family’s hope, the family’s faith. Jesus must have asked. Jesus must have remembered the pained answers.

New situations in life certainly create new perspectives. I have imbibed the Christmas story since my birth. But as I read this story from Matthew in December 2007, nearing dawn on Christmas morning the other night, I enjoyed new insights into this story—insights I daresay I would not have understood before this year. When Jesus is grabbed from his bed as his family flees, I understood anew the plight of Palestinians, the people who proudly wear that black and white hatta. Indeed, Jesus has metaphorical company on every continent, in every century. Fleeing with him are Cherokee and Lakota, Dinka and Tutsi, Baptists and Mennonites, Serbs and Bosnians and Croatians, Katrina and Tsunami victims, Jews and Palestinians. As I read this story, I understood that God comes into creation to be with us, the name Emmanuel. And with us, Jesus, Emmanuel, runs for his life. Of course it is not only genocide that hunts us. Disease, drunken drivers, depression all snatch away our joy, holding lives that insist on fraying and unraveling, day-by-day.

The cries of the dispossessed ring through this story—but there are hints of hope and promise. In that early morning light, I am hoping to learn the deep and impatient wisdom of the darker Christmas story. Matthew’s story links Jesus with all the children who do, and do not, escape disaster—in Bethlehem, in Auschwitz, Rwanda, in Darfur, and throughout history in every human family.

This jet lag hasn’t been all torment—there have been moments of learning and epiphany, that most prized present of all.

Wishing you a blessed Christmas season!

I have enjoyed my 11 days in Cincinnati, and tomorrow I leave for New York before jetting back to Jordan. I may not be back at blog duty until I am ensconced, once again, in Jordan. So I wish you a Happy New Year, and look forward to more blog entries in 2008.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Life as a Berlin Ballad

The first part of this entry is excerpted from my Christmas-card letter I wrote the other day, December 18. I suppose it may seem a shade towards tacky to steal from myself, but hey, I was busy out there Christmas shopping today, and who knows when those cards are all going to get mailed! Anyway, we will now join the Christmas card letter already in progress:

The sun is shining,
the grass is green;
The orange and palm trees sway,
There's never been such a day
[except] In Beverly Hills, L.A.

Thus begins the somewhat obscure verse to the immortal “White Christmas” anthem written by Irving Berlin in 1942. In that year Berlin was Christmas-ing in California, writing songs for movies, far away from his beloved New York. This verse holds a special resonance for me this year—indeed, I would only have to change a word or two to reflect my new situation! Let’s change the “orange and palm trees,” to “olive trees,” and move Beverly Hills to Jordan and the picture is quite accurate! As I look outside the window right now at KA, we have the perpetually blue skies (a title of another Irving Berlin number by the way—Blue skies, nothin’ but blue skies, from now on…) I have come to expect in my five months in Jordan, and it is about 60 degrees out there in this corner of the Middle East. In spite of the lovely day, I concur with Irving Berlin’s next line: I am longing to be up north… and of course, in the next measure the world heaves a nostalgic, sentimental sigh as Bing Crosby’s baritone plaintively muses,

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,
Just like the ones I used to know…

When Berlin penned this ditty 65 years ago, many people were serving in the armed forces overseas for the second American Christmas of World War II. I can only imagine the millions of lumps in throats as people yearned to be back home, yearned to see their loved ones, and dreamt of those Christmas pasts of bountiful blessings. I understand that feeling better this Christmas than maybe ever before.

As all of you readers are aware, I moved to Jordan five months ago, and my compatriots and I are about to complete the first semester at KA. Since I started this blog in late July, I have henpeck-typed some 140 pages of my impressions—ruminations on the various and sundry experiences—from the gastronomic, travel, political, frustrating, joyous, challenging, humbling, and triumphant aspects that have opened up in my life since journeying to Jordan in July (hard not to relish that alliterative phrase!). I have this sentence rumbling around in my head from one of Bing Crosby’s Christmas specials, a delicious staple of my childhood December viewing. Bing once said: “Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it ‘white’.”

As I wrote this last Tuesday in the Christmas letter: Tomorrow I will be celebrating my blessings as I board a plane in Amman, Jordan, and fly to Chicago and transfer there for a flight to Cincinnati. And there I will get the best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.

Here it is now December 22, and I have been home a little more than 48 hours. Of course it wasn’t an easy trip! These things aren’t meant to be smooth. We need obstacles and time for reflection and introspection! There was a delay of four hours they announced a day before the trip which meant I wouldn’t make my connecting flight in Chicago—but they promised me a hotel room gratis!

I arrived at the airport at noon for my flight at 3:30—they had warned me I needed oodles of time to rejigger my flights. I obeyed, and of course there was no line that far in advance, and it took about 60 seconds to zap the new documents out—but, let’s not be upset it didn’t really warrant oodles of time. I wrote postcards in a coffee shop—oh, my, postcards I had bought in August. When we left Amman, about 90 minutes into the flight, the captain came on and said we needed to go back to Amman, “to fix a little something.” Oh, now doesn’t that inspire confidence?! Eventually we learned the plane was leaking fuel—I think it was sensible to turn back when we still had 11 hours to fly.

They promised us a quick half-hour turnaround, and a meal in the waiting area at the airport. Why promise those things??? Neither proved reliable information, so when we headed out, we were about six hours behind that four-hour delay. I quickly saw the convenience and shower possibility of that Chicago hotel room evaporate.

We landed in Chicago at 2:15 a.m. Chicago time. Then began the lines: the line for immigration, for baggage, for customs, for information on connecting flights. My first moments back in the United States reminded me that there are lines and bureaucratic struggles in the United States too! We always joke about those tedious things in Jordan as simply endemic to Jordan, or we comment things like, “well it is an emerging economy, you know!” It was a 45 minute line to get a voucher for breakfast!

But, it just didn’t matter—the waiting, the pushing, the security checks (there were six in Amman and four in Chicago). I had fulfilled the pulse of the Berlin hope—I had come back “up North.”

Thirty hours after I left my apartment at KA, my dad met me at the Cincinnati airport. I got the best greeting you could imagine: “You’re skinny!” (It’s funny—people say this to me when they haven’t seen me for awhile. I rarely lose much weight, but maybe I am remembered as, what, more “solid” in their memories??)

The next few hours were fun as I padded my feet on wall-to-wall-carpeting again, and had cold milk, and a BLT, felt the weight of a quarter again in my palm, brushed my teeth from tap water, and drove a car. Ahhhh. Pretty good stuff.

We headed over to my niece and nephew’s school to pick them up—they didn’t know I would be in yet, so I got to surprise them. Jack’s jaw dropped, and he went silent, and Emma’s eyes widened and screamed out, “King!” Cashmere sweaters are nice, but that’s the real pay-off!

We spent the afternoon playing hide-and-go-seek, eating gingerbread cookies, wondering what Santa might bring. At one point as we hid from Emma (Jack and I always hide/count together—it’s a team project us boys), Jack whispered to me, “King, I missed you more than anybody else did!” How sweet can a 5 year old get???

As the violet hour of dusk approached, we headed off to the Cincinnati Zoo for the Festival of Lights. In the mini-van I asked if we could eschew the DVD player and listen to Christmas carols instead. Emma responded: “Oh sure, why not? You’ve gotten everything else you’ve wanted today!” Oh yes, the bloom is off the rose! The warm welcome was nice while it lasted!

Today as I shopped around the west side of Cincinnati, the mercury rose to 60 degrees. Wait—it felt like Amman just the other day…

Guess what was on TV last night as I began addressing the Christmas cards? I kid you not—the movie White Christmas—one of those movies I can watch over and over again, and I tear up every time when the old army guys show up for the General toward the end of the movie. And while addressing cards to friends in Dobbs Ferry, Atlanta, Charlotte, San Diego, Boston, Columbus, et cetera, I was reminded of another Berlin ballad to savor:

When I'm tired, and I can’t sleep,
I count my blessings instead of sleep.
So I fall asleep, counting my blessings.

Thanks Irving for the reminder…

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Teach Your Children Well, Part II

Four weeks ago, you may recall, His Majesty visited KA and offered us a crash course in Middle Eastern Diplomacy. Just after that enlightening visit, a student of mine, energetic and insightful Jadallah, said to me, “You know Jimmy Carter’s family is like some of our best friends. My dad is really like best friends with his son Chip Carter—do you want him to come to class?”

So yesterday Chip Carter visited KA, and riveted the student body with tales of work he has done with the Carter Center, his thoughts on U.S. presidential candidates, musings on life as a famous kid, and his passion for solving the stalemate over Palestine. Just like when His Majesty came and spoke, the students truly engaged with the speaker, and both men clearly relished the chance to talk with our young people.

And for those who know me, what a great chance for me to pick someone’s brain and ask him all kinds of questions, ranging from what fun things one does in the White House, to invasive press coverage, from what it is like to have your dad win the Nobel Peace Prize to discussions about Chip’s work with the fairly recent elections in Liberia and his upcoming work with Barack Obama.

What a nice guy.

He has spent the last month staying with Jadallah’s family in Amman, and yesterday he joined us for lunch at school and talking with him could not have been easier. He went up to faculty members and just introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Chip, how is everything here going?” and then you find yourself talking about BBQ in Atlanta, or how nice Diane Sawyer is, or how his dad Jimmy went from being a farmer to Governor. I shared with him my memories of his father’s election and inauguration (although in the back of my mind I can hear my father saying, “I still haven’t met anyone who voted for Jimmy Carter,” to which I always replied: “That’s because you don’t talk with Democrats!”).

Chip is a shaggy-haired guy with an earring (“I put this earring with the peace sign on when George Bush got re-elected, John,” he told me.), a winning smile and a weather-beaten face. Jadallah introduced him to the school as “a friend who has been to all 50 U.S. states at least three times and 92 countries around the world.”

His message is common sense, but he articulated it well to our students: “If we can simply learn to be just, can extend human rights, we will have a better world.” But it was not just platitude talk—it was plain talk about what the Carter Center headquartered in Atlanta does: “we wage peace in the world, especially trying to eradicate health risks.” He made even disease talk sound cool and thrilling as he explained about this certain guinea worm disease had plagued 24 countries, and through their diligence and work, had reduced that to 2 countries.

But it was his passion about the Palestinian cause that especially moved the audience.
“My father wrote a book this last year about the Palestinian cause and the intolerance he has observed toward Palestinians. It’s not just about land, but also about a loss of jobs, and that loss of money means a loss of self-respect for the Palestinians. To many of us around the world, in fact the majority of the world, people equate the plight of the Palestinians with that of the Jews after WWII—without national or individual rights, forced from their homeland, and still suffering from the oppression of a military power after more than a generation,” Carter noted. “They have been denied the right to self-determination. At least 12,000 Palestinians a year are induced, or forced, to leave their ancestral homes and move east, either into Jordan or to join the many wandering refugees in other countries,” he continued.

As I have been learning this autumn, time and again, the cycle of distrust and violence roils, and efforts for peace are frustrated.

Later, I went back to Chip’s father’s 2007 book, Peace Not Apartheid, and here are two choice quotations I have been mulling over:

“There are two interrelated obstacles to permanent peace in the Middle East: (1) Some Israelis believe they have the right to confiscate and colonize Arab land and try to justify the sustained subjugation and persecution of increasingly hopeless and aggravated Palestinians; and (2) Some Palestinians react by honoring suicide bombers as martyrs to be rewarded in heaven and consider the killing of Israelis as victories. In turn, Israel responds with retribution and oppression, and militant Palestinians refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Israel and vow to destroy the nation.”

"The only rational response is to revitalize the moribund peace process. Here are the key elements to the “roadmap”: (1) the security of Israel must be guaranteed (b) the internal debate within Israel must be resolved in order to define Israel’s permanent legal boundary, going back to the internationally approved UN Resolution 242, which Israel has time and again confirmed abstractly in international meetings, but has never agreed to a time table for reality and (c) the sovereignty of all Middle Eastern nations and sanctity of international borders must be honored."

Chip made impassioned points that it is time for a new leader in the United States to have the courage to do what President Reagan did in Berlin in the 1980s, to stand before the Berlin Wall and implore, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Carter explained that in the Palestinian areas there are walls just like the Berlin Wall, and a President must be audacious enough to demand that the wall around these nouveau-concentration camps come down.

The students rewarded him with a huge round of applause, and Chip reminded them that as future leaders of the world, they must spend their political capital on “those who don’t have as much as you.”

Clearly smitten with Chip’s charisma, one student asked, “Why don’t you run for President?” Chip’s face beamed with a devilish grin: “Oh, I have done too many bad things and fun things ever to be elected!” But he then explained how he would spend the month of January, 2008 working on the Barack Obama campaign (“this is the man for our time,” said Chip) before coming back to Jordan in February.

Aferwards Chip visited my class, and there were a handful of students who had a free period who wanted to come and hear him talk more.

Hmmm…on the last day of school before our winter break, in the last class before freedom, some students eagerly wanted to come and listen to someone talk about politics???

We are making progress…

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Settling and Unsettling

I just came back from a delightful Saturday brunch here on campus at KA. At boarding schools the weekend brunches are more than just feeding times, of course, but very much about social interaction and discourse—long, lingering, lazy meals without the dread of the usual bells and responsibilities. This morning I spent some time with some teachers, and then went and joined Hasan and Hamzah for chatting practice.

As we discussed our respective plans for the upcoming winter break (lots of sleeping, mansaf and soccer for them!) Hasan said, “Mr. John, I have been thinking about class, and about what we are doing, and about Howard Zinn and Kevin Carter.” (Zinn and Carter are two men we studied in the longago first two weeks of the school year, two men who approach the world from diametrically opposed views, and offer us two worldview-poles from which to survey the vast historical landscape. Carter killed himself due to the ugliness and despair he saw as unconquerable in the world, while Zinn (famously in my classes) has “insist[ed] on hope.” As we sat there with our omelettes and juice, we discussed suicide bombers, radical fundamentalism, and how Hasan views these issues through the lenses of Carter and Zinn. In many ways, it was just another reminder of how exciting and interesting it is as I settle in to life in this school in Jordan.

But it was more than just another brunch. This last week had been an important litmus test for me in terms of my teaching, the students’ receptivity, sensitivity, and willingness to absorb and apply historical information. You see, in the last two weeks we tackled religion. Oh sure, we have explored religions in the ancient world since mid-September, relishing in the polytheistic arts of the Ancient Near East. But in the last two weeks we tackled the biggies—the Big Four. We discussed Hinduism and Buddhism one week. And then this week we discussed Christianity and Islam. It is natural to wield statistics as one embarks on these oft-treacherous seas: approximately 6% of the world is Buddhist, 13% of the world is Hindu, 21% is Muslim, and 33% is Christian. But then again—I didn’t want to wave the statistics around and make it into the competition that it can become. This was going to be tricky—as we entered the Common Era in our study of history (formerly known as A.D. Anno Domini, a worthy attempt to put everybody on a level playing field of sorts) we really couldn’t ignore these religions or squander an opportunity to really dig down deep and understand them, both theologically and how they have affected history.

So first we spent time on the nature of what religion really is. Think about it—how do you define it? Wow—talk about a challenge. I had some definitions from the last 200 years that we assessed, and all felt clumsy or sentimental, or hollow. We decided that religion was first of all a personal experience and a sacred experience, and a search for meaning and purpose in life. This enabled us to see how that covered everyone from the builders of Stonehenge to the Egyptians and the Greeks and Romans. But of course, as the one who gets to push the envelope, I reminded them that religion has two faces—a personal face and a public face. We discussed in class how when the transition comes that whole societies seek collective meaning and purpose, the path can lead to a union of religion and politics. Now—that is part and parcel of any good United States history class! You give ‘em The Crucible to read and in no time they are shouting along with Thomas Jefferson in 1790: “there needs to be a wall of separation between religion and politics!” That’s not hard at all. But that was a turning point in 1790 and not the norm at all.

But in this area of the world, and in many, many other corners of our world, that is not such a simple equation. Oh, just a nice tangent that kind of fits in, well sorta. Sarah, a very intuitive student, commented about the notion of the SPQR “logo” ancient Rome adopted (it means “The Senate and the People of Rome”) that this—well, here in her words, “SPQR is like a math equation for the Romans. The Romans were Greek wannabes, and this connection of the Senate and the Roman people was like a math equation, and like the Greeks, the Romans thought math was like a harmony.” After we checked that everyone understood this, we discussed how she came up with this kind of insight. Of course, that is exactly the kind of synthesis a teacher hungers for, and anyway, I thought of that example just now, because while to me a separation of church and state makes good sense, but to many in this world, that union is actually embraced as a kind of “harmony,” like the SPQR that Sarah understood.

So anyway, we discussed how we would approach the four religions. We discussed the differences between studying a religion and studying about a religion. I said we needed to imagine what the followers of the religions understood and professed. I emphasized I was not trying to convert anyone (actually in this part of the world that is often a truly punishable offense) or get anyone to quit a religion. But clearly, these religions must be studied if we are to understand the contemporary world at all! So we needed to understand theological tenets, and how these religions expanded and affected cultures.

Most religions involve how gods intervene in daily lives. Most religions involve miracles. These can be anything from Hindu bodily reincarnation, to a reborn Buddhist soul, to a burning bush to Moses, to Jesus’ resurrection, to Gabriel’s revelations to Muhammad. Of course, when you study your own religion, these miracles are a major part of that faith, that special, sincere strength it requires to transform your life and sanctify your time and space. We discussed how historians cannot really study miracles—historians look for proof of events and come up with theories and speculations. But what we can study are the manifestations and effects of religions beliefs on people’s behaviors.

Hinduism and Buddhism were not very “thorny” to study—simply because we don’t many here. There are several teachers who come from a Hindu or Buddhist background, but that isn’t too touchy. But in light of the British teacher in the Sudan who recently escaped who-knows-what with the teddy bear incident, I was very careful about my words, the texts I chose, but also trying to be a responsible world history teacher.

It was interesting discussing the theology of Christianity, since it became a good give-and-take about the commonalities of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I used a model op-ed writer Thomas Friedman devised in which he took those three religions and refracted them through a lens like the company “Microsoft Word”—he said that Judaism was like “Abraham 1.0,” Christianity was like “Abraham 2.0,” and Islam was like “Abraham 3.0,” It made for a good model and an engaging discussion.

Hasan, the brunch partner from earlier today, didn’t agree with me when I said that Muhammad was “enlightened.” He said firmly that “Allah revealed” these things to Muhammad, and enlightenment wasn’t enough. Now we got to talk about word choice, and the power of those choices. I said that I deliberately chose the word “enlightened,” because I had used the same verb in discussing all of the Big Four (plus Judaism as well). I wanted us to see similarities and not just cultivate zeal about one faith.

That afternoon I went over to the clinic on campus where my friend Zeina’s office is (by the way, Zeina’s mother had made some pastrami for her family and sent along a care package for me!! Yippeee!!). On my way out, I saw some magazines there, you know the way every doctor’s office in the world has, and on top was a November issue of The Economist that caught my eye. The cover read, “The New Wars of Religion.” Like any other desperate, self-respecting teacher would, I grabbed the magazine under my blazer and left the clinic.

It was a long article—18 pages in all—and if I assign more than 8 pages a week to my students, the hue and cry is alarming. So I chose the best pages of the article, and the next day in class, I had a sentence from the article on the board: “Faith will unsettle politics everywhere this century.” We discussed the warning of this concise 7-word sentence. I told them about an article in 1999 in the very same magazine that ran a mock-obituary of God. The Economist had decided at the end of the 20th century that the power of religion had ceased to be important in modern politics. Now, in the fall of 2007, in this 18-page article the writer decided that they were wrong.

Even in my more difficult class, this article yielded fabulous discussion, and we looked in the article for evidence, and we weighed the evidence, and kept coming back to the fact that our historical study is not just fun stories about a dusty past—they were talking in the article about the new evangelism of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, and that there are warning signs about inter- and intra-faith conflict around the world, and we kept coming back to those 7 words—it will unsettle politics everywhere (gulp) this century. One student, Samiha, asked, “So what can we do about it?” Well there just so happened to be a man on campus last week, a man from Boston, who works for an NGO called “Empower Peace,” and we invited him to come to our class, and we talked about ways that these KA students might do to somehow turn that statement around. I just sat and watched as Assad (the guy from Empower Peace) fielded questions and discussed meaningful ways teenagers can maybe lay the groundwork for a more settled world. Assad and Empower Peace had come to KA this week to host a video-conference (this last Thursday) in which 9 of our students offered presentations and answered questions from 500 United States students watching from 30 schools in the US (at the same time! I know! Isn’t that exciting??!)

So—the two weeks of theological and sociological exploration were good. No angry phone calls. Interesting discussions and busting of some stereotypes. They will have a test tomorrow. We’ll see where in the layers of ITCH this finds us!

A capstone of the week was an invitation to Randa’s house (a Jordanian Christian administrator here at KA) for a Christmas party last night. She served a dish like a sweetened cream-of-wheat she said was traditional at Christmas--in honor of St. Barbara who did something with wheat fields. But the emphasis on wheat reminded me how in the Middle Ages it was common to decorate for Christmas with wrapped sheaves of wheat--this was a harbinger of the wheat that becomes bread that becomes an element in communion, a reminder of Jesus' life and death. Somehow that made remember how The Cloisters in New York decorates with wheat and made me think of Christmas parties in New York.

Of course Christmas parties in December are usually the norm for me, but in a world in which I am in the minority, it was very special to be in someone’s home, celebrating a holiday I have known forever, with new friends, settling in to this life, more conscious than usual of the nature of settling and unsettling.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Postcard from Cairo

Do you know about the curse of the mummy? Legend has it that anyone who dared to open an Egyptian tomb would suffer the wrath of the mummy. All of this hullabaloo began when a certain Lord Caernarvon, the Brit who funded the discovery of King Tut’s Tomb, died shortly after its discovery in the 1920s. The path to his death began in the spring of 1923 when he was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito. During a morning shaving routine the Lord further aggravated the mosquito bite. It soon became infected and Lord Caernarvon found himself ill. A doctor rushed to the scene, but the medical attention arrived too late and Lord Caernarvon died. At that exact moment the lights in Cairo mysteriously went out.

Once Caernarvon expired the media went wild with stories of his death. They claimed King Tut wanted vengeance and cursed those who had entered the tomb. Not only did the death of Caernarvon whip people into a frenzy but other stories began to surface as well. Oh my.

Well, the quartet of travelers from KA last weekend might believe a little in the curse of that adolescent king. Let me tell you about the end of the trip to Egypt…

We left our lovely resort at the exact time our hotel said in order to be at the airport two full hours in advance, but the intense traffic dogged us and our one hour drive became two hours. On the way, one of our friends got sick, and since traffic was at a standstill, took advantage of the snail’s pace and just opened the car door to, well, you know. Okay, back to the clockwatching part of the story. As we four ran from the taxi into the terminal, we saw no flights departing to Amman. We asked the attendants, and they informed us, “Oh, you are at the wrong airport.” Yikes! We had one hour until the plane took off, and after we realized our driver, who had definitely deposited us at the wrong place, had left, we scrambled to get to the right place. Watching the minutes fly by, we snagged a driver, and arrived at the correct place at 9:25. Bags flying and limbs slicing the air, we ran to the counter. They refused to let us board! Two of our four pleaded in Arabic that it wasn’t our fault—we had confirmed tickets and just carry-on bags, and couldn’twejustgetonboardsowecouldgotoschoolthenextdayorwhoknowswhatmighthappentous.

Our sick friend vomited over by the Starbuck’s. I just sat and watched. And wondered what the taxi driver’s error was going to cost us.

Oh, the curse? Well, my weak-in-the-gills friend had purloined a little piece of the pyramids the day before while we romped around the ancient-wonder-of-the-world. A curse? As we calmed down and plotted what to do…we wondered…

So that is nearly the end of the story. Somehow it seemed exciting to relay the events of the weekend in a fractured, quasi-Quentin Tarentino-esque style.

To cut to the chase—we got back to Amman. It didn’t cost all that much.

So how was the weekend?

Exciting. Thrilling. Or should I wax alliteratively? It was Pharaonically Phabulous!

We arrived late on Thursday, after hearing gasps all day of, “you’re going to Egypt for the weekend? Cool!” and more than a few, “How stupid to go to Egypt for a weekend—you need at least a week.” Yeah, but how often can you hop on a plane, and in just a 60-minute flight later land in one of those fabled cities like Cairo???

It was an hour drive to our resort, the Swiss chain of Movenpick (say it like you say the poet’s name of Goethe—say it again, stretch out the umlaut-ed vowel a little more…) and it was gorgeous. Yes, on the way there we passed the pyramids illuminated at night, and giddily discussed that twelve hours later…

So after loading up on the breakfast buffet (a big reason why I chose this hotel for the package deal!) we took a bus to the pyramids. It can be a little bit of a shock to visit the Giza plateau and realize that the sandy mound that’s home to the pyramids is actually plonked in the middle of a congested city suburb. Heck, actually all of Cairo is a congested city suburb. But there they were!

The sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the (Ancient) World, the Pyramids of Giza still live up to more than 4000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow almost alien constructions—they seem to rise up out of the desert and confront us with their fascinating history. The ancient Athenian historian Herodotus visited this site 2500 years ago, and he gazed in awe at them too, wondering how the Hollywood-like scene of slaves built these mausoleums.

As we know, the Egyptians harbored intense desires to be one with the cosmos, and these tombs allowed the pharaohs’ spirits to rise up and connect the worlds mortal and divine. The pharaoh was the son of the gods and also their intermediary. Set between the earth and the sky, these symbols of power allowed the Egyptians to honor in life, and worship in death, the powers of the rulers. In the old days, before the vandals and grave-robbers and thrill-seekers and souvenir junkies arrived (which, from all accounts, has been for, oh, about 2500 years!) the pyramids would have been polished white and capped in gold. Can you imagine such a sight in the desert sun?

So we arrive, and we look for the best camels to ride. Yes, even after my legendary donkey ride at Petra, I did need to join the tourist brigade and ride a camel at the pyramids. Fortunately for all of us, our friend Zeina (she of the Kenya trip as well!) is an expert at negotiating, and she almost made the camel guys wince at the price she was willing to pay for our camels. I whisper in the ear of my camel, “I hope you are elderly—I like slow, dull rides, Mr. Camel.” After we indulged in the ritual of pictures, and “Look, look—I’m on a camel in Egypt, guys!” talk, we took our ride. Much easier than that donkey. And there was no racing up 800 steps either.

About 100 yards away from the pyramids, away from the parking lots and bus lanes and postcard hawkers, there actually is a great desert scene—really like the kind in Lawrence of Arabia, and we rode out there and back. As we get out there, my camel driver, named Abdullah, asked me about Zeina. “What is her problem? Why does she like money more than happiness?” He told me it was okay to give him a big tip and not tell Zeina. Somewhere in the middle of this pastoral (can you use the word pastoral in a desert??) moment my camel driver yelled over at Zeina that it cost extra to get us off the camel. Thus started an absurd fight (while we were all on our respective camels) over the cost of the camel ride, and how the camels needed to be fed, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Zeina won the fight. We would come to find on this trip to Egypt, that nothing happens there without some fight over money. It might be the cost of a cup of tea, or a taxi ride, or of course, wondering about tickets back to Amman.

There is a small pyramid nearby (there are 9 at this site in all) and you are allowed to climb on it—so here we go—when in Cairo…

It was on this little child-like adventure (although taller and more historically significant than any jungle-gym known to me previously) that our friend Tristan picked up a stone on the pyramid, and said, “Don’t these look like hieroglyphics on this stone? You don’t think…? Well, it will make a nice souvenir.” Could that be the source of the curse???

On this exquisite sunny day we lingered down by the sphinx, and then took leave of the pyramids. The other highlight of that day was our evening with the Hamati family. Prior to this evening we hadn’t even met these Hamatis, but there is a Hamati at KA—a gregarious 9th grade girl with a devilish smile and quick wit. When her father found out we were going to Cairo, he called me and said, “My son and daughter are in medical school in Cairo. They will take care of you.” And they did.

They whisked us off to a dinner on a boat on the Nile, and even though we had just met them, their laughter and ebullience proved contagious and delightful. After dinner they wanted to take us to classic, old Cairo, a neighborhood that smacked of a Warner Brothers picture of the 1930s and 1940s, a place Hollywood would have called “The Casbah,” or something. Indeed, the proprietor looked just like actor Sydney Greenstreet, that corpulent, hammy actor who owned a rival club in the film Casablanca. This place, known as El Fishaway is where Egyptians go and watch the world go by, sip coffee, and smoke those not-just-in-the-movies shisha pipes. There is something so alluring in seeing the wide-eyed tourists and the Cairenes mingling together. The Hamatis hired one of the best-known Egyptian singers to entertain us there. On the phone I described the singer to my friend Anne as “an Egyptian Mel Torme-type.” He was funny, charismatic, and certainly crowd-pleasing. We got back to the resort late that night.

We had only two imperatives on this trip: see the pyramids, and see the King Tut stuff.

On Saturday, we headed to the Egyptian Museum, the great warehouse of a museum stuffed with thousands of items from the ancient tombs. The must-sees in this museum are all the “masterpieces” known to us from every art history textbook, but seeing them in this musty old museum is a treat beyond just any old museum trip. The Egyptian Museum is a throw-back in many ways, well, actually it is a museum from 1907 that never has been modernized, so really a relic itself. It has those old-fashioned wooden and glass cases with typed index cards for information—nothing at all “cutting edge,” and the place looks like you would see Indiana Jones cruise by at any moment.

I know this sounds lame, but I almost got emotional seeing all the iconic pieces of Egyptian art (Khafre, Seated Scribe, Rahotep and Nofret—just to name a few). I had these great flashbacks of teaching this art over the last 7 years and thinking of all the great art history students I enjoyed at Hackley, and running from room to room (much the way Jill and I did at the Uffizzi way back in 1985, our first time being real art history mavens) pointing and staring and drinking in the cool beauties of the Egyptian artifacts.

Then we got to the King Tut stuff—it is spectacular. There are hundreds and hundreds of items—from fishing gear to musical instruments to walking sticks to chariots to thrones and then the grand-daddy room of them all: the sarcophagi and death mask. Yes, you have seen it in pictures forever. Yes, it is stupendous, and looks new and breathtaking. Yes, the gold and semi-precious stones are spectacular. I know I already used the word spectacular—but it is worth repeating the word. Linda, another of our group, almost started to cry—she had sketched the King Tut death mask as a child of 9, and she couldn’t believe she got to see it in person!

We walked out of the museum hovering around Cloud 9. The rest of the day would be gravy: a boat ride, a visit to the bazaar and a mosque, and some time in the spa before heading to the airport at 7:00.

Yes, well, you know that the story doesn’t end as smoothly.

Cut to the airport. After the smirking airline staff dismissed us, we called the Movenpick (don’t say the vowel as delicately this time) to inform them of the pickle in which their driver had landed us. Shouldn’t they provide us with a room for the night? It had been their designated time and their designated driver; thus it was their mistake. A repeat of a scene just 30 minutes before: pleading in Arabic, Tristan sick in the corner, and me sitting and wondering about the costs (yes, if you know my family, I come by this habit honestly…). We couldn’t see the smirks over the telephone, but we know they wore their haughtiness proudly. No dice.

So we chose a hotel near the airport. We checked in about midnight, called some people at school and told them we were stuck in Cairo, and would return to regular life soon.
Once we checked in, we decided to relax and enjoy the extra day in Cairo.

The following day—no more sickness, we figured out the plane situation, the Hamatis met us again, time poolside, a visit to a mall modeled on the pyramids, and a smooth flight back.

We beat the curse.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

That Darn Itch—the Stephanie-Robinson-Copyrighted “Itch”

Last month I proclaimed far and wide that my eager scholars had graduated from the “Scratch” phase of our rigorous boot camp, also known as my History class, and I wondered what to call the next phase of development in scaling the Mt. Olympus of Academe. Stephanie, a friend from Denison Singers days, and a new, integral part of my correspondence life, offered the following suggestion as a comment to that posting:

“Hmmm....I'm gonna go with ITCH as a graduation from you have them itching for knowlege...their skin is crawling in anticipation of learning new things. It's still a bit uncomfortable, but thrilling too. How's that?”

Stephanie—how prescient! I think itch is perfect.

This week my classes and I had to have a pow-wow, or pep talk (given the time I spent on it, I should at least capitalize that—Pep Talk), following weak showings on a test last week on ancient Greece. Oh, these tests should have been the best of our experience together! In the two weeks we studied Athens, the students were engaged, focused, excited, mesmerized—all the great verbs that the Athenians inspire anyway as we explore what Homer was hoping to cultivate in the young men of Greece. Studying Greece never fails to move me—indeed, it is why most of us teach! Homer hoped to use epics about the Trojan War as a “lab report” explaining how the Greeks triumphed over jealousy, pettiness, and mediocrity to emerge as determined, thoughtful, young men striving for excellence. I introduced what has often been called “the Homeric Ideal”—the template of how to assiduously prepare yourself for life, coupled with a savviness of how to take advantage of opportunities in life. We discussed why every single western civilization textbook says things like, “Greece is the cornerstone of western imagination.” We looked beyond the bravura of that statement: What does this even mean? Why is Homer still read in college? How can we take these abstract pieces of advice and convert them into concrete achievements?

In the last few years for me, studying the funerary practices of the ancient Greeks have served as interesting examples of not only how to mourn a death, but how to best live life. In ancient Greece, families went to cemeteries and poured oil, a libation, into kraters that rested on the remains of the deceased. The krater had no bottom to it, so the oil seeped into the earth, and the Greeks felt this act of pouring oil helped connect them with their loved ones. There was less “fear” in the Greek world about death I think, but still a desire to mourn a loss, and a desire to create some kind of bond from the living to the dead. As time went on, mourning practices changed, and Greeks erected statues of young men that rested on top of the graves. The statue was a kouros, an idealized young man, and the thought was that as you saw this young man, you considered the potential of youth, and the excitement of what every youth might achieve. What an interesting idea to visit a cemetery and as one mourned the loss of a loved one, one mourned the loss of that person’s potential. Instinctively, that should rally us to consider our own potential, and take note of how much we have plumbed our own potential. The Greeks didn’t miss a trick—they created another interesting visual image in the cemeteries: they ringed this potentially sad place with cypress trees, a tree that had come to symbolize hope. Thus, as the Greeks mourned the losses of family and friends, they are yet reminded of the concept of potential, and filled with a sense of hope.

How can any teacher not love digging into the Greeks with all those wonderful concepts just begging to be explored???

As you read Stephanie’s explanation of this stage of ITCH—it was so accurate! They loved hearing the back story of Aeschulus’ trilogy, The Oresteia, and you could hear a pin drop as I explained the parade route of the joyous Pan-Athenaic Procession, the annual event galvanizing all of Athens. (Strange though, it took me a while to explain what a parade was, or a procession, no one seemed to know a good Arabic word for parade. Could it be that they do not have parades in the Arab world? The best I way I could convey it was to discuss the daily parades at Walt Disney World—then they understood the excitement and festive quality of the procession!). This Athenian celebration began in the cemetery (remember what you see there) and heads by the schools of Athens (where we learn about the Homeric ideal) darts through the agora (the marketplace, the source of the income flowing through Athens) and than takes the arduous path up to the Acropolis, to the Parthenon crowning all of Athens. If you remember your history, the Parthenon had been built on the rubble of the Persian sacking of Athens, and so represented the phoenix rising triumphantly once again.

It is exhilarating teaching the Greeks—staring at the panels from the Parthenon, wondering about how they sought to convey all that is strong and fragile about the (clichéd phrase, I know) the human condition. And along the way, a number of them offered wonderful insights. Hamzah, he of the “Coupla Guys” entry, after we read about “The Cave,” emphasized, “Mr. John, it is our responsibility to teach others, right? It is our responsibility to teach them about the Greeks!” And Sarah explained why the Athenians loved entering the Parthenon so much: “They see themselves up there in the frieze. It is like where they would normally see the gods. But it is the Athenians up in the sacred part of the temple.” Sarah echoed a comment that Darren Sinatro brilliantly suggested last year in AP Art History about the Athenians. These were heady days in class. As we read about the hubris of the Athenians, and the eventual end of the “Golden Age,” there were gasps in class, shocked faces—looks of disbelief that we were finishing the Athenians. It was as if we were all watching a gripping movie, and wanted to avert our eyes from the inevitable denouement. The last art work we studied, the Laocoon, prompted one boy to say, “They are so tortured. It looks like they are ashamed of being human.”

And then came the tests. Oh, this should have been the pinnacle of four months of work! Just days before the test we had a five-day weekend (the trip to Budapest for me). Okay, am I still naïve enough to think that my young scholars might study during that break??? I knew we were headed for trouble at the study session the night before the test, when it was obvious that few students had studied at all. I had questions like, “I didn’t understand anything last week—do I have to take the test?” “Is Athens in India?” “Could you just tell me what I absolutely have to know?” As Stephanie predicted, it had been thrilling to compare ourselves to Athenians with all the hopeful rhetoric, but it is still uncomfortable to go back and actually untangle the Trojan War, Persian War, and the Peloponnesian War. That classroom dynamic gets a little musty when facing a notebook and realizing you have to do work to make sense of all this hoopla. Yeah, yeah, “cornerstone of western imagination” my eye…

The morning of the test, a usually-aware young man asked me, “Do we have a test today?” After I reminded him that I had written it on the board, on an assignment sheet, mentioned it in class, yes, indeed he would be tested today. Oh, preparation—that elusive muse!

So the tests were ho-hum. I had 1 A, 1 A-, 6 B+, 4 B-, 4 C-, 12 D, 6 D- and 4 F grades.

In the Pep Talk, I mentioned that we had let down the Greeks. “The most curious people in history, maybe, and we let them down,” I trumpeted. Some of the answers are worth sharing. According to one, the physical geography of Greece helps us understand the Greeks because: “they liked math.” That was my favorite. But many other answers offered stale stuff like, “The Greeks tried to be all that they could be.” It is a nice slogan for the Army, but hardly an analysis or evaluation of Greek civilization!

My favorite anecdote of the last week comes just after I showed a section of world history some art from the Gupta Golden Age in India (last week we attempted to compare four golden ages—can we do it? We compared the Golden Ages of Athens, Rome, the Gupta, and the Han in China). Now this art from the Gupta often showcases the beauties of the female form. The poses are sensuous, never vulgar, but definitely provocative—in celebration of the female form. I showed several images to a class of 9 boys and 2 girls (what was I thinking?!!!!) and we had lots of giggles. I abruptly ended the slide show, and went back to discussing how the Gupta loved mathematics and developed numerous (get it?) innovations in mathematics. Math seems much tamer to discuss than the swaying breasts and hips of the Gupta women.

So in the next class I did not even bring mention the art, and so we are reveling in the Gupta development of pi and decimals, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, when a young man says, ”But Mr. John, aren’t we going to see some art? You always show us art.” “Well, Malik, I showed some to the earlier class and they giggled, so I decided we would skip the art.” Of course the class wanted to know what the art was like, and I said, “Let’s just say—the Guptas really liked female bodies.” Malik quickly replied, “But Mr. John, I like female bodies too.”

Oh well. So here we are in the land of ITCH.

As we learn to absorb material, wonder about consequences, speculate about causes and effects, battle over words and meaning, and seek a better understanding of our place in the world, I will try and enjoy the glories of Itch. I’ll let you know where the GPS takes us.

This afternoon I am going away for the weekend. To Egypt! A quartet of us decided that we needed a little break from Itch, and booked a weekend get-a-way to Cairo. It is only an hour flight from Amman, and in the next 48 hours I will get to see the Pyramids, and the recently unwrapped body of King Tut. I gotta say, this is making me giddy that Egypt can be a weekend adventure.

I’ll send you a postcard on Sunday.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Teach your children well

I don’t know what kind of media attention the Annapolis Conference is receiving back in the United States, but this monumental meeting right now of leaders from the Middle East and other nations interested in peace in my-neck-of-the-woods certainly comes at a great time for me in my learning about the Middle East. These thorny issues never seem to be well-explained in the US (although Op-Ed titan Thomas Friedman does a magnificent job) and I have enjoyed looking at shards of evidence, hearing people’s personal stories, and endeavoring to draw conclusions about what peace might look like. As I mentioned early last week, just before Thanksgiving, King Abdullah II of Jordan came to KA to teach us and help us understand some of the issues that contribute to the cycle of distrust and violence in this region. As I said, he is not just a well-educated man, but a presiding monarch who lives “between Iraq and a hard place,” meeting with world leaders helping them to understand the dynamics of the Middle East.

I didn’t know he was coming to lecture, so I hastily grabbed whatever scraps of paper I had in my suit pocket to take notes as he pointed to a power-point map and helped us evaluate the priorities as he sees them. He was blunt: “If there is no geographic state of Palestine, there will be no peace in the Middle East.” He also underscored that time is of the essence: “We need the United States to make this work, and we need them now; before there is a change of president in 2008—it must happen now. Right now there is a President who wants to burnish his legacy. If we wait, who knows how long until we become a priority again.”

But His Majesty is not a polemic, whiny politician singing a one-note rag—he carefully explained why he ranks the issue of Palestine so high: “Here are the problems in order of importance to solve: Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq. Yes, I know Americans think it is Iraq first and maybe Iran next, but no—if we solve the Palestinian issue first, other issues will fall into place, and other issues will neutralize and fade away. What I hope to do at the Annapolis conference is help countries connect the dots—the peace process is about Palestine. The west needs to see these dots and how they connect.” –editorial comment: what great teaching!!

And then he explained point by point, how and why these issues could be solved if you follow the sequence of priorities. Instead of just staring at the vastness of the Arab map and feeling lost in a morass of suicide bombings, he gave us a framework, guided us to comprehend how one success could lead to another success. As I mentioned last week, the students and faculty were riveted in the lecture hall as he debated which moves in the real-life chess game might actually lead to the goal of peaceful resolution.

HM candidly observed: “Iran is a rogue state, in my opinion, and has too much say in the Mediterranean. Hamas is headquartered in Damascus [Syria], and every move they make has a phone call to Iran. Here is how it can work—we need the issue of Palestine settled so Hamas calms down, so Syria calms down, so Iran is back in its place. Syria is full of conspiracy theorists. I was speaking to the President this morning, and said to him, ‘it is always about some dark agenda for you.’ They [the Syrians] have to see how the process can benefit all of us. Essentially, it would bring us peace. At Annapolis I have to remind the US of Syria’s role in this, and how it is difficult to work with Syria. They [the Syrians] need to be reminded of Arab brotherhood and not just stew in their suspicions. Other problems can be solved if Palestine is solved. Right now Palestine is cantonized, like swiss cheese—Israel can imagine solutions, so they say, but now they must agree to a timetable. It must be in 2008. If Israel does not agree to the timeline, I question whether they want to be ‘in the neighborhood.’ If they agree, there could be peace in this turbulent Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia. What is the future they want? We are willing to have peace.” He further cautioned, “If the US attacks Iran, it will be a disaster. Iran is like an octopus, and the way to get at the octopus is to attack and maim the tentacles and remove them one by one.”

Students asked excellent questions about how negotiations and compromises work at the
peace table. HM explained that there are consolation prizes and hopes that mediators will offer the right kinds of “diplomatic carrots.” Another student asked if Iran wants peace. “What do you think?” asked the expert teacher. Several believed the answer is no—they reasoned that peace would take away their influence with Hamas and their power in Damascus. So interesting trying to see how each piece fits into the puzzle. It was clear that with the number of players in this project, getting everyone to envision, desire, and seek peace at the same time is excruciatingly difficult. Everyday as I look in the English-language newspaper, The Jordan Times, and see photos of the King meeting with world leaders, explaining how these volatile dots might actually connect into a picture of harmony, you keep stockpiling hopes in the diplomatic process.

A student asked, “okay—so Palestine is created—what next? What does Jordan have to deal with?” The King answered: “We get to deal with the logistics of peace—new borders, refugee emigration, and our historical role in Jerusalem. I am willing to deal with these logistics!” As he closed his “class” with us, he urged us to consider that “failed dialogue would sustain the tensions in the region. I hope it [the Annapolis Conference] will be a peace process and a time trust-building. The meeting would lead to an establishment of a Palestinian state on Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza, and a fixed time frame. Regardless of the outcome, it will be a historic event.”

November marked the 90th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration—one of the most gosh-darned announcements in modern history. In 1917 the British government called for the establishment of a “Jewish national home” within Palestine, which implied the idea of two states. Indeed it seems that Britain promised both Arabs and Zionists the same piece of prime real estate. When the United Nations passed its resolution in 1947, it called explicitly for the establishment of two states. As I look at the history, neither side ever has liked the idea, and there has been fighting and recriminations ever since.

History, unfortunately, has not favored success when it comes to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The road to peace is littered with numerous failed plans that have left in their wake a sea of bitter cynicism, and a resignation that this is a road that will forever stretch beyond the horizon. As I have done a little on-line surfing recently, that is certainly what many of the talking heads I encounter are saying. I have listened, over the years, to people who are pro-Israel, and I have listened, for the past four months, to people who are pro-Palestinian. If you set aside the political rhetoric, however, you’ll find that their desires are not so different.

Herein lies the seed of hope for peace, or perhaps just a seed of hope for hope.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

An Auden Acolyte

Sixty-nine years ago today Mary Martha Griley Leistler leapt upon the world’s stage for the first time. She was born on a snowy Sunday morning, in Cincinnati, just a couple of days after Thanksgiving in 1938. Not surprisingly, the celebrations of my mother’s birthday and the spirit of Thanksgiving have always been intertwined for my family. As an adult I have only been absent from Thanksgiving in Cincinnati a handful of times ever: in 1984, 1989, 1994, and now 2007. Sigh. Thanksgiving, and those days around my mother’s birthday, always marked my first visit home since I had gone off in August to teach somewhere in the world.

Naturally this year a bouquet of memories sweetened the day away from home. It is funny how memories work: they don’t follow chronology necessarily, and they wash over your brain in a haphazard, yet utterly exhilarating way. I recall the year my mother saw in her Frisch’s, her coffee shop away from home, a sign noting, “CLOSED FOR THANKSGIVING.” My mother asked to have the sign after the holiday—for years she put it up at home, declaring that she was closed for the holiday! Ever since I was a child we had a rule in our house—you can’t talk about Christmas until after Mommy’s birthday had passed on November 27. Oh, and I remember the recent Thanksgiving weekend that I took my mother to the dentist, and as I wheeled her in, she announced to all in the waiting room: “Yes, this is my son Johnny. He finally came home after being gone for five years.” As her short-term memory became more of an option, my mother still reveled in being a drama queen!

There was the Thanksgiving in the mid-1970s when my mother invited the entire Griley clan for the feast. I remember the day well—in part because she invited my cousin’s fiancé, a woman named Kathi—I had the biggest crush on this cousin-to-be, and she was coming to my house! I also remember vividly the main course of that Thanksgiving meal—a roasted ham that still tantalizes my memory some 30 years later. As some of you may know, my dad and Uncle Jack are kind of poultry-phobes, so my mother decided to have a ham instead, and she went to a local bakery and asked them to roast the ham, and it came encased in the most fragrant rye-bread coating you could imagine.

As much as I love the food memories of Thanksgiving—what a wonderful way to connect to dear ones through the comfort-foods of our blessings (and I could go on about Aunt Dot’s yams, or Aunt Joy’s succotash, but I will not digress!) I more deeply appreciate collecting all the memories of Thanksgivings and Mary Martha as a chance for me to reflect on the power of my mother’s influence on me, and the thanks I send up at simply knowing her. For those of you who knew her—she had a way of putting her own personal spin on everything. For example, sometime in my childhood she decided that a better way of observing the holiday was to wish everyone a “Happy Thanks-living.” Of course as a child I thought it was just weird. But as an adult, now more cognizant of her 49 year battle with MS, I plainly see how she embodied an appreciation, a thanks, simply for living, and loving.

Her name was a dual name: Mary Martha. She couldn’t stand just being called Mary, although she loved it when my father called her “Mare.” Her name is a combination of the sisters in the New Testament we meet in the book of Luke:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to Bethany where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me! “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
--Luke 10:38-42

Mary and Martha both loved Jesus. These sisters of Lazarus are known for their hospitality, but they go about their goals of serving very differently. Martha wished to please, to serve, to do the right thing, but tried too hard sometimes. She tended to feel sorry for herself when her efforts were not recognized. Martha’s frustration was so intense that she finally asked Jesus to settle the matter. He gently corrected her attitude and showed Martha that her priorities, though good, were misplaced. On the other hand, Mary’s approach to social occasions shows her to be a quiet responder—Mary had learned when to listen, and when to act. Mary had learned from Martha that the busyness of serving God can be a barrier to knowing him personally. Mary understood that one should not be so busy planning and running things that we neglect precious time with loved ones. My mother’s personality and priorities reflected the duality of these sisters—indeed the lesson of the Biblical Mary and Martha continues to challenge us to have a Mary heart in a Martha world.

Of the many legacies I enjoy from my mother, perhaps the greatest gift she leaves me is her desire never to squander a teachable moment. As a young boy, perhaps 7, I recall her coming home from her annual trip downtown to have her diamond rings cleaned. I commented on how beautiful her ring was. She clearly loved them too, and she showed them off to me saying that this diamond ring was more than just a pretty ring—she taught me that it was a symbol of the love Mommy and Daddy shared. She told me that diamonds were chosen since they were such a hard stone, and they could stand up to anything—just like the love Mommy and Daddy enjoyed. She said plainly, life is hard too, but love as strong and brilliant as a diamond would always stand up to that. She then took off her ring, and had me stare at it, and taught me the word, “facets.” She taught me: a radiant diamond has many facets, like our lives, and we must cultivate our many facets, our many gifts. Ever since that tender age, that diamond ring has meant more than just cost or status or bling.

Although I rarely saw her perform on stage, she loved the theater, and in college had starred in two classic plays, Our Town and Death of a Salesman. These plays certainly informed so much of how she embraced life, for her character Linda Loman demanded in Death of a Salesman, “attention must be paid,” to the poor forgotten salesman. I don’t think she ever forgot those words, and she always wanted to pay attention, especially to the ones most forgot. In Our Town you have the story of Emily who comes back to earth and finds that people don’t look at each other enough. “Why don’t they tell each other they loved other,” Emily urged. We have talked for years in our family about the “Our Town” moments we enjoy. Just as MM never squandered a teachable moment, she never missed a chance to remind us what Emily learned in Our Town.

On that May evening when my father called to relay the news that my mother had passed away, I was on the way to one of my plays I had directed. There were scenes in this play from the myths that Ovid wrote in ancient Rome. My favorite was the last scene, wherein a man and wife begged the gods not to outlive their own capacity to love. In the weeks preceding the performance I had enjoyed this scene anyway, for it reminded me of the love between my parents. In the play, this man and wife stood hand in hand begging the gods not to allow them to outlive their own capacity to love. As I drove to school that night, it was such a natural thing to honor her life by watching this play of mine. She was the one who infused my life to enjoy adventure and excitement, instilled in me a love of imagination and wonder, and taught me that love was the mightiest bulwark. As I watched those two beg the gods, “let me not outlive my own capacity to love,” I knew that I had witnessed the best example I will ever know of a man and wife who never outgrew their own capacity to love.

At my mother’s funeral in 2006 we marveled that on earth she had freely lived her life in the service of God, and now she would eternally bask in the presence of God. How fitting that I can celebrate the lessons of her life every year as Thanksgiving rolls around. Just as the pilgrims celebrated their survival, their thanks-living, we can also offer thanks for the miracles around us.

In December, 2004 my mother again entered the hospital, and again doctors offered a grave prognosis for a return home. A couple weeks later one of the doctors confided, “frankly this is a miracle she has done so well.” My father calmly said, “You should know something about us. We expect miracles.”

A woman as charismatic as Mary Martha deserves a major holiday for remembrance. It is almost as if the poet W.H. Auden had her in mind as he once wrote, “All our thinks should be thanks.”

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Enjoying The Bridges In Our Lives

Certainly in Europe and the Middle East, the two places in which I have spent the most time outside of the United States, one cannot help but marinate in the past. When I studied abroad as a junior in college in Salzburg, Austria, I lived that semester in a house that, at one time, had boasted of a mistress of Napoleon as its mistress. The night I moved in, Renate gave me a tour of Linzer Bundestrasse 3, and at the end of a hall, stated plainly, “in former times down that way was the other wing of the house, but the bombs in the war took care of that.” All that history entails—pain, struggle, rebounding, catharsis, monument—is all over the place here, there, and everywhere.

I spent Thanksgiving vacation in Budapest, Hungary—a city that has weathered its share of storied historical episodes, and found myself, once again, enjoying the metaphors of seeing history and life all around me. Oh, I gotta tell you of a poster I saw in the Budapest airport: "After 400 years of the Romans, 150 years of the Ottomans and 45 years of the Soviets, you will be the first who is welcome to stay longer. So enjoy an extra night on Eurotel!"

I went to Budapest with Elizabeth, an indispensable friend I have made in the last four months, to visit my friend Sharon and her family, an indispensable friend for over 20 years. Budapest might not be the first place one thinks of for Thanksgiving! (What? No parade down the grand Andrassy Ut like in New York?? What? No canned pumpkin available to make pies?? What? No family to bore with travelogues??) But if Thanksgiving is a time for reflection, for gastronomic pornography, for escaping the routine of regular life, for reveling in the fellowship of a treasured circle, Budapest fit the bill quite nicely.

Budapest is a spectacular city—actually, as purists will tell you, it is two cities combined in the last 150 years—Buda and Pest, that gleam as jewels on the Danube. There are a number of commanding bridges that provide crossing points over the mighty Danube; my favorite of the many bridges is the Szécheny Bridge, with these great impressive lions—the kind you used to see at the beginning of an M-G-M film—standing tall and proud.

Within an hour of our arrival in town Elizabeth and I had gobbled our first pastries, and headed off toward the thermal baths, famed since the Turks discovered the ancient burbling hot waters circulating under the earth. In the next few days we took in the opera (Sharon’s husband got us seats in a box—very see and be seen—for Madame Butterfly) and we went on a tour of the Art Museum (on Jazz Night, no less!) and tackled many of the historical museums and monuments in town. I enjoyed seeing the alphabet I know and love in signs everywhere, and felt a pang of homesickness at seeing cleavage and bacon cheeseburgers advertised in billboards (umm…just to be clear: the cleavage and the bacon cheeseburgers were not on the same billboard). I got to ramble around a city that actually had an urban plan, and thrilled to see Greco-Roman architecture again.

Sharon had had plans to prepare a Thanksgiving feast for embassy folks on Saturday. However, Elizabeth and I needed to be back in Jordan by Saturday night to show up for school today, so we had to miss her Turkey feast. Sharon felt so bad that we would miss the actual Thanksgiving dinner that she decided to surprise us with an unexpected treat on Thanksgiving morning. She had hired a masseuse to come to her house and give each of us an hour-long massage! What a great idea—maybe a new tradition born this Thanksgiving morn!! It was heavenly, and not nearly as caloric as a Thanksgiving feast.

Besides the exquisite trip with Anne (I hate to be repetitive, but a truly indispensable friend) in the summer of 2006, I had been to Budapest once before, in 1987. These were still in the dark days of the communist hold on Eastern Europe, and in my memory Budapest shriveled a bit—a city of such wasted potential, drab and shabby. How exhilarating to visit in 2006 and see the vibrant city Budapest has re-discovered. We visited two historical sites that commemorate the shameful and tragic periods in Hungary’s recent past. One is a park about 30 minutes outside of bustling Budapest, a place where local historians gathered the statues that had once stood in city parks and squares touting the benefits of socialism and the chauvinism of the Soviet state. In the early 1990s, instead of junking these lying dinosaurs, city officials moved them here to bear witness to the artistic propaganda of the postwar era. There were maybe 30 statues in this park, and there were examples from the late 1940s to the late 1980s reflecting the values of the Moscow-mandated Hungarian thanks for the Soviet liberation.

Of course, it was seen as liberation by many in 1945. The Soviets did reach Budapest, and freed the Hungarians from the gruesome domination of the Nazis. For the next 5 decades the Soviets tightened that iron ring on the Hungarians. It was eerie to walk around the park and see these hulking reminders of what Hungarians had seen everyday before.

Another new museum is known as “The House of Terror”—one of the most creatively designed museums I have ever experienced. The H of T is a museum now, but it was once the party headquarters for the Nazis and then the Communist secret police. The museum helps us understand and empathize with the victims of such terror, and also reminds us of the shameful acts of terrorist dictatorships. In a stunning piece of education this museum reminds us that we must acknowledge the past.

But of all the things in Budapest, I most enjoyed staring at the bridges. I have a thing for bridges. I absolutely loved giving tours in New York of the Brooklyn Bridge—marveling at the engineering feats, as well as the design of incorporating schemes of old and new in the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. In another flashback, I have a beautiful memory of standing with my friend Mary (dare I use the word indispensable again? Have you met her? Then you have to!) in London, savoring a moment on Westminster Bridge.

My mother cultivated in me an appreciation for bridges—for the poetic, metaphorical, emblematic quality of bridges. As she did with so many things, she made even a simple bridge an encounter with Wonder and Serenity. A bridge to her was always more than a means of physical transport, it was a reminder of worlds we hoped to reconcile, problems we needed to cross, sorrows we hoped to leave, and triumphs yet undiscovered. It might be of Sighs, or over Troubled Waters, but my mother always saw the beauty in views from bridges both in spiritual and metaphysical terms.

While in the Terror Museum, I saw a wall-size photograph of Nazi-ravaged Budapest in 1945—all the bridges utterly destroyed and submerged in the Danube. Can you imagine the hopelessness of the citizens that spring? Or can you imagine the hopelessness for the next 5 decades as they limped along as a mere satellite in the Soviet orbit? But of course, bridges can be re-built, lives can be re-vivified, and palpable change can re-invent. A dismal present does not dictate what bridge you next cross, or what bridge you next build.

Thanksgiving should be a time of reflection—and of course this Thanksgiving invites a large helping of that dish on my plate. I had no idea last Thanksgiving at this time I would be here this fall. As many of you know well, the last three years I have trod a somewhat treacherous road, but here I am on a bridge savoring new views, new perspectives. Who knew this bridge was being built for me?!

A couple of weeks ago I taught a lesson (the Arab students actually call them “lessons” and not “classes” as American students do—frankly, I like the more didactic semantics of “lesson,” don’t you?) on Chinese art. The Chinese adored depictions of roads and bridges, especially embracing the ambiguities and mysteries of the roads and the bridges—purposely obscuring the ends of these paths! It is unsettling not seeing the precise end of any road or bridge, but charge ahead we must, confident that we are prepared to meet the other end of the journey.

As Elizabeth and I walked along the Danube (even my company for Thanksgiving is a remarkable bridge—from the fine-wine-Denison-friend Sharon to the not-even-ripe-new-friend Elizabeth), we noticed that one of the major bridges in Budapest is under major reconstruction. They have torn out the guts of the bridge, and are practically re-building it. How interesting to look upon this significant work, seeing how skillful the engineers must be in making this bridge passable and safe.

We marinate in our own tangy history to be sure, but we are not prisoners of one road, one situation, one quagmire. We can take a hop and a skip over a familiar bridge, or re-build an old bridge, or dare to engineer a new bridge, looking back at the genesis, excited by an unknown terminus.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Just a coupla guys…

There has been no shortage of people who have impressed me in my nearly four months here at KA, but there are a coupla guys who stand out as particularly enriching. These two guys couldn’t be more different in background or socioeconomic status, but both have endeared themselves to me in individual, as well as interconnected ways. They have figured into other blog entries in various ways, but in this week leading to Thanksgiving, it is time to offer gratitude for how they have shaped my experience here.

One of these guys is a young man named Hamzah. I met him on that first day when all these children streamed into the dorms, and we adults just hoped to survive orientation week! I had names I could barely pronounce, and I just hoped some of the magic of my previous classrooms would find its way to this to-me-far-flung-corner of the world.

We have sit-down meals at KA a la boarding school-old school: family style meals in which students perform first waiter and second waiter functions, and teachers act as heads of the table, serving the plates and facilitating conversation. I lucked out with that first rotation of students at my table (Table #1 I’ll have you know!)—such fun, curious, talkative, warm students. I was intrigued though by the quietest member of the table—he didn’t share much in the gregarious talking, but boy did he know how to eat! This slight, lean, serious-looking boy couldn’t believe there was as much food as he wanted, and enjoyed the bounty of the table. At the end of that first day of orientation, he came up to me before that first lights-out, and said to me in a soft and serious voice, “My father wants you to know that I will do my best at King’s Academy.” He shook my hand, and, walked, again I use the word seriously, off to his room. This was Hamzah.

Over the course of the next few days, several of the veterans (and by veterans, I mean those who valiantly worked here last year interviewing prospective students, working through financial aid forms, preparing for the opening, etc.) would pass by student activities and say to me, “Have you met Hamzah? He’s something. He almost didn’t make it in here.” I heard variations on this story so many times, and it always prompted sighs and knowing looks from the speakers, almost willing him to succeed here in this environment. You see, Hamzah comes from a town about 90 minutes away and from a less-privileged family than some of our royal scholars. (Yes, I know, probably every single reader of this blog comes from a less-privileged family than some of our royal scholars, but read between the lines.) The admissions committee had met this boy, been smitten by a kind of slow-burn charisma in his serious and purposeful manner, but they worried that any child from such an un-cosmopolitan town could perform to the high levels we expected, and in English to boot. Evidently his English was weak—but they decided to take a chance.

I mentioned Hamzah early on in the blog—if you remember, the first night the King came to school, for the opening convocation, there was that beaming boy who handed His Majesty the KA tie—that was Hamzah. There was something so moving in that simple exchange, a kind of star quality, if you will, on the faces of both of them.

About six weeks ago our Chairman of the Board met with me for a catch-up, and among several topics, he asked, “Tell me about a student that has amazed you here at KA.” Teachers love those questions! Someone wants to know about these little wonders with whom we spend our days?! For those of you out there who are kind and endure the running commentaries about our class-progeny, imagine what it is like when someone really wants to know! Well, I spoke of Hamzah. I spoke about the way in which he comes into class, shakes my hand, opens his notebook, and is ready to go—even without the candy or other forms of bribery. Class isn’t easy for him—he is working hard to make sense of colloquialisms I might use he hasn’t yet encountered, but he is as steady as a surgeon in working to connect the historical dots, his eye contact unfailing.

In the first week our Dean of Students introduced a demerit system called MOPs (an acronym for Missed Obligation Points) and teachers could slap them on you for almost any infraction—tardiness, slovenliness, you name it. The Dean also said that anyone who went MOP-less for the semester would be invited to a special dinner. In those heady first days, wait—heady? Have I forgotten all the comments from the “Scratch” Period (not as far back as the Pleistocene Age!)?? In those days of herding cats, teachers were giddy with the MOP bopping. At dinner in the first week of school Hamzah looked a shade disappointed one night at dinner, and I asked what the problem was. He lowered his head, and I noticed a tear, yes, a lone tear, streaming down his face. He said he had gotten 1 MOP for being 5 minutes late to soccer practice. A second or so later he balled his fist and gently hit the table and uttered, “I wanted to go to that dinner.” Of course you wanna wipe that MOP off the slate for such a kid, but, thems the rules. I spoke to him and said we would go out and have our own dinner sometime.

As the school year has ripened, so has the intellectual prowess of Hamzah. He thrills to learn new words in class (especially as we explored Creation myths, he loved how many of them involve some kind of dismembering—he must have said that word dozens and dozens of times at night) and loves the Latin and German phrases I think any sensible scholar should know (his favorite? Sic Transit Gloria Mundi—“thus passes away the glories of the world”). He will come up to me at breakfast and ask things like, “What kind of breakfast would Homer have had in ancient Greece?” He has never missed an assignment, and if you look at his work, the responses have improved dramatically.

But he is more than just a good boy doing his homework. He is a soccer hero—in a recent game, he scored the only goal for our side. However, many of his teammates were visibly less than thrilled that a “scholarship kid” created such a fuss…ahh, jealousy—it knows no borders!

Our conversations are more than about ancient civilizations too. We talk about our families, and talk about our friends, and our goals. He has not had the exposure to many of the western entertainment things as many others, has never been on an airplane, or gone to a McDonald’s. I make a point of going to his room every evening to chat, and while at first all I saw was this serious side, he also has a silly side, a fun-loving side in which he promises to “dismember” me (and then he whispers in my ear: “Kidding—I love you!"). He has a spritely elfin quality, and never fails to make me smile. Indeed watching a smile pan out across his face is nothing short of magnificent.

Today we welcomed the King back to KA. He comes about once a month, and this afternoon at the visit, Hamzah was on stage to officially greet His Majesty, and read a poem his father had written as an ode to this monarch they adore. Hamzah memorized his welcome greeting, voice projecting to the back of the hall, and recited the poem with such dignity.

Here these two guys were together, again. The coupla guys who come from such divergent backgrounds, and the coupla guys who have compelled me the most in my time here.

In early September I caught a front-page news story (our front page, probably not yours) about the King, and in the photo he was wearing the very KA tie that Hamzah had presented to him on behalf of the school. It caught my eye, and made me smile. But over these weeks and weeks, I have endeavored to follow his schedule, read the stories, and see what this guy does. I gotta say, there is a humility, an earnestness, and a beaming smile about this man that inspires trust, and hope.

A few weeks ago the King announced a state visit to China and took along two of our KA students (you know who I was hoping he would take!) for the week visit to China. I thought it was a wonderful gesture and of course, the students loved traveling in high style with the King!

Today’s visit was different from our other presentations to the King, however. Today he came to make our lecture hall his classroom—he came to teach us! He stood at a podium with some powerpoint maps and briefed the school community on his perspective of the state of Middle Eastern politics, especially leading up to the soon-to-be-convened Annapolis conference in the United States. He never once talked down to his audience, but instead offered a brave analysis as to how the peace process might actually come to fruition. But he certainly explained the trickiness of the diplomatic process as well. It was like watching a master chess player analyze each move, prioritizing the problem spots, and explaining why it all had to be done in a certain order, or this house of cards would tumble as they so often have in the past.

This is not just a talking head! I have watched him this autumn tirelessly meeting with heads of state, congressional delegations, kings, emirs, presidents, trying to lay the groundwork for what might be a turning point in history. This is a man who will go to the peace table and do the negotiating. What a thrilling school day. After his 30 minute explanation, he welcomed questions from our thoroughly engaged students. One teacher leaned over to me and said, “this whole experience gave me such chills.” I will speak more of his points in an entry next week.

I need to close this blog—I am leaving in about 90 minutes for a Thanksgiving holiday with one of the dearest colleagues I have met this fall, Elizabeth, bound for Budapest, Hungary to see Sharon, the goddess from Denison who has been my trusted friend for over 20 years.

So let me conclude this Pre-Thanksgiving entry with a note of wonder about these coupla guys I have encountered in Jordan. One guy is to the manor born, and one guy born to humble Bedouin parents. Last year at this time I didn’t know anything about either of them. One guy envisioned this school, and one is the poster child for all these hopes and ideals embedded in the very stones I tread. And both of these guys have inspired me with such trust and such hope—I know it is so easy to be cynical about a million things, most of all contemporary education and peace in the Middle East! History, unfortunately, has not favored success when it comes to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The road to peace is littered with numerous failed plans that have left in their wake a sea of bitter cynicism, and a resignation that this is a road that will forever stretch beyond the horizon. Our education systems would receive a similar vote of dubious confidence I imagine.

But these coupla guys have given me such a measure of peace in my world, and within these coupla lies the seed of hope for real peace, or perhaps just a seed of hope for hope.

I’ll be thinking of my family and friends this week, and check in with you on Sunday.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Postcard from Riyadh

Last week KA sent me as an emissary of the school to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to meet with prospective families in the capital of this oil-rich, money-rich nation. For these couple of days I relished the privilege of seeing how the business class treats itself, complete with posh hotel room, expense account, and money for tips. It was an enriching trip from start to finish.

When I landed in Riyadh after the two-hour flight, I could not believe the beauty of the Passport Control area and Baggage Claim—wait, have you ever heard anyone say those words before??! But indeed, the entire receiving area boasted marble floors cradling beautiful Islamic floral designs, and gorgeous fountains. This, this was a lovely first impression of Saudi Arabia!

They were very polite as I passed inspection with my visa and passport (although I still did like that on the back of my passport the Saudia Arabian embassy had affixed a sticker bearing the word, “Target.” It might make you uneasy too!). On the passport form it asked you to claim your religion, a query I don’t believe I have ever had before.

By the time I gathered my bag and went out to the hot, desert sun (at least 15 degrees warmer than in Amman) to wait for my colleague Fatina and her husband to pick me up, I had already noticed what would be my overwhelming constant visual in Riyadh—every single woman I saw was dressed all in black, and all the Saudi men were all in white. By the time I had moved out to the pick-up area, this sartorial mandate had become quite obvious to me. Minutes later when Fatina and hubby arrived (as a reminder, Fatina and I are history department colleagues at KA, her husband is an engineer still living and working in Riyadh, and Fatina is a delightful friend, resplendent every day in bright colors—except when she is back in her previous hometown of Riyadh) and they whisked me off to our hotel, the Intercontinental, where we would meet with these families in a few hours.

On the way into the heart of Riyadh, the newness of all the buildings mesmerized me. While not as busy with new construction projects as Dubai, I couldn’t see anything that looked older than 1970. Where were the shabby-chic-cute souks where merchants who looked like Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca hawked their wares of ancient carpets, antique silverware, and, I don’t know, magic potions? Block after block contained the shiny, silvery, sacred mountains to commerce and progress and fiduciary largesse. Fatina pointed to the tallest building in town, maybe 80-90 stories or so, built by the 5th richest person in the world. This metallic rectangle looked like it had an ice cream scoop taken right out of the middle of the building! A couple blocks away sat a building, the august Department of Interior, whose design resembled an alien ship that had landed right on this plot of desert land. It is about a 40 minute drive to the hotel, and one of the things I have noticed in these explorations of the modern Middle East megalopolis—they are trying so hard to show the world how modern they are; nay, not just modern, downright futuristic. Successful cities in contemporary America can hardly claim such architectural audacity! If you know the work of architects Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid—imagine their cool, radical, shape-shifting buildings block after block of each other, interspersed with American fast food franchises and ritzy stores.

A couple of hours later, Fatina and I (accompanied by her husband as chaperone—more on this later) await any prospective families for our info session. I learned from her that KA is not allowed to advertise in any print media to solicit potential families. The Ministry of Virtue and Vice (again, more on that later) has deemed that our school in Jordan will corrupt the youth, especially girls, so the school has to spread the word rather clandestinely. The sign in the hotel lobby lists the travel agency handling our travel affairs so that the name KA does not appear publicly. Fatina will take any women interested in our spiel up to her suite, since we are not allowed to convene men and women together.

A handful of people soon arrive, and I take the men to the meeting room, show the DVD, and begin talking about the school. It seems they are not terribly interested in the curriculum of the school, but very keen to know about the co-educational mores, discipline, and how students are punished. “Girls and boys are forbidden in the opposite gender’s dorms,” I reassured them, and explained that depending on the infraction, there are demerits, suspensions, or expulsions. One father asked me, “Do you beat the children?” and for a moment, I thought he was kidding. I don’t think there is much kidding in Saudi for some reason. No wonder our school seems so radical in this world! I enjoyed talking to the small gathering—who are we kidding? I love talking!

That evening we three went out to dinner, to an Indian restaurant nearby. Simply out of curiosity I asked, “How far away are we by plane from India (not quite sure how far east I had flown today)?” “Oh, about two hours I guess by plane, “said Fatina’s husband. Wow…this is a long way from my Midwestern roots. When we arrived I saw the handiwork of the Ministry of Virtue and Vice. There was a section for single men, and a section for families. Unmarried men and women may not go out to restaurants together. Thank goodness Fatina’s husband was in town, so we comprised a family. You are seated in the family section in a cubicle of your own—everyone is—and then curtains are drawn. No one can see you as you eat, and sadly for the voyeurs amongst us, you cannot see anyone else either. You have a buzzer in your isolation booth and that is how you command the waiter to your table.

By the end of that first evening, I looked back on those first few hours, and I made a mental note—still every single woman I saw, totally all in black, and almost half of them totally covered, eyes included, gloves on hands, protected from the gaze of any man. And again, the men, long white robe (called a thobe) crowned with the towel-like head garb (called a ghudra) topped with the black coil to keep it in place. No individuality expressed in their wardrobe!

It was fun to gather some more information about life in this seemingly contradictory city—a city with such radical, futuristic buildings, conjoined with what seems to me a conservative, repressed, social structure. “Riyadh” means “garden” in Arabic, and long-ago it was an important stop, an “oasis town,” on the fabled desert caravan routes. As we drove around town I was reminded that it is illegal for women to drive a car.

I learned the following day practically nothing was open on Friday in this city of 5 million people until prayers had been completed at 4 P.M. So I worked on my grades for class and went to the fitness center at the hotel. Of course, women do not have a fitness center option, and even in the men’s area it was totally about modesty. The changing rooms and showers were not just private, they were like individual meat lockers, floor to ceiling enclosed and no possible way to intrude on personal space. Almost like you were vacuum-sealed. Anyway, the steam room was great.

We visited the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, and again, I was humbled by my lack of knowledge about the history of the country. It is a shrewdly designed museum, definitely a museum designed to awe the viewer about the history of the Saudis. The museum is divided into areas—pre-Islamic, and then slowly up the escalator, psychologically taking you to the heights of the Islamic presence and grandeur. Let us not forget that the King of Saudi Arabia is the guardian of the two most important mosques in all of the Islamic world (Mecca and Medina for those of you eager to learn). Speaking of the King, according to Fatina, King Abdullah (not the same one as in Jordan) is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having squired the largest royal family currently in power (something like 4 dozen children, borne by oh, well, many wives—who knows how many!! The children range in age from 10 to their 40s). The wives of the King are not as public and busy as Queen Rania in Jordan—no doubt, due to the dictum that women must not be seen, heard, etc. The museum was great—first time in a museum since my farewell visit to the Met in New York in late June—sigh.

How can you go to a contemporary city and not visit a Mall????? A sumptuous commercial palace it was too—and sociologically another stunning opportunity to see Saudi culture in full bloom. Stores close during the time of evening prayers, but one can stroll, heathens all of us, and take in the sights. I could not escape the stark opposites of the men in white, successful hands cupping their generous stomachs, trailed by their black cones of wives and daughters. As stores re-opened, I spied the Food Court—always a welcome sight! At the McDonald’s they followed the rules too—there were two lines for ordering food—one for men and one for “ladies” complete with a partition (laden with ads, natch!) dividing the lines and genders. I was reminded of an editorial I read recently in Time that quoted an old adage: in the West people make love in public and pray in private; in the East, it is the opposite.

I considered it an honor to be asked by the school to represent them as they hoped to spread the word of our brand-new school. I did give up an exciting event however—back in Amman my new friends were all getting decked out at that moment in formal attire to enjoy the Marine Corps ball sponsored by the American Embassy—fancy clothes, communal fellowship, lots of dancing, schmoozing, and who knows…but I got a peek into a very unusual world—obvious money, luxurious hotels, good food, ultra-Jetsons like architectural tableaux, and the medieval social practices of the Saudi Arabians.

That evening I settled onto the hotel bed with all the fancy pillows, grabbed the remote, and after a moment or two of channel surfing, guess what I saw on the TV—Desperate Housewives. Honest! Wow…