Monday, March 31, 2008

“Dancing on the Earth,” Part II

If you are caught up in your blog reading, you will know that for the previous two weeks I hosted my first guests in Jordan. During their stay, I took Anne and Martha up to the northern reaches of Jordan (to Um Qais) down south into the desert (Petra) to the Dead Sea and criss-crossed the streets of Amman—all while trying to hold down the full-time job of teaching!

If traveling is an art (and I would not want to argue that) then Anne and Martha are like Dutch masters. Memorable food and exquisite places always cast a spell on the traveler, but after nearly a dozen trips with Anne, it is often the more quotidian, the seemingly ordinary, moments that are the most transcendent that memory does not dim.

Last week at Um Qais, as we stared down into the valley of the Sea of Galilee, I grabbed a slip of paper, and surreptitiously jotted down some observations Anne had made over the previous 90 minutes. Here are some of those gems:

--As we walked down the 2000 year-old Roman road, Anne reflected, “seeing these rocks, and walking on these ancient stones remind me that there were people here. It isn’t just that these are ruins, but seeing the stones in place, and knowing that Romans put them in place remind me that people really lived here.”

--About thirty feet further down that same road Anne called to me, “John, come back and look at this. Don’t miss this.” Anne was pointing to a stone and staring in wonder: an ant was carrying a load that must have been about 75 times his weight. “They’re just amazing, aren’t they?”

--We were strolling around the Archaeological Museum and Anne discovered that one could touch the ancient statuary in this museum. Oh my—Anne was in heaven (for those of you who may not know the story, Anne and I do love to touch ancient souvenirs—we are particularly proud that one time in the British Museum, near a lazy guard, we touched the famed Rosetta Stone!). She put her hands into the handles of a Roman sarcophagus and sighed, “My hands are right where those ancient hands were that placed this into a tomb. I feel the grooves. These were real people!”

--Wherever Anne walks she thrills to see the native plant life. If I had a dime for every time she has said something like, “Oh my. That’s lantana!” or “I am sure that is a cousin to a ficus”—well I could treat my advisees to a stay at the Dead Sea probably. But as we passed this one plant, she calmly noted, “oh, that’s the plant that Eyeore ate.”

--As we walked back toward the car as the sun set, Anne saw several children walking nearby, and practicing her best Arabic, smiled and greeted them with “Marhaba!” They enthusiastically returned the greetings and there was a mini-summit between America and the Middle East.

And those are just a few examples, some scattered moments of the kind of “dancing” one enjoys when traveling the earth with Anne.

Here is a thumbnail sketch of the rest of their visit.

The Science Department had planned this school day for science projects focusing on solar and wind energy—and faculty who did not volunteer did not have to help out. Normally, this kind of science exploration might have piqued my interest (who are we kidding?!) but the consuming science fair allowed me a chance to spend the day in Amman showing A&M around. Remember that Amman has about 2 million people in it, and almost no street signs or addresses at all…I did alright driving to the heart of old Amman. We were trying to find this art gallery, and nipped into a handicrafts store to ask for directions. Anne and Martha discovered the stores’ treasures, and when we left I am sure the shopkeepers did a little jig. We found the art gallery and walked through seeing some contemporary art from Jordan. After that we braved the tight, twisty alleys of the oldest part of downtown looking for the “candy store.” It is not really a candy store, although I call it thusly—it sells DVDs for about $1.50 a pop. I like to go there. It is like visiting a 21st century candy store. I think Anne bought 45 DVDs. Alert the Chamber of Commerce! Shopkeepers and restaurateurs are dying to thank her for visiting Jordan! We ended the day in a café run by the Nature Conservancy called “Wild Jordan,” where everything is organic and, you know, that kind of organic-y, health-y, of-course-it-has-omega3-the-good-fat-in-it food. Wild Jordan also boasts one of the best views in all Amman.

Today Anne taught an English class while Tessa was busy with a conference on campus. Anne brought a poetry packet for the students, and taught a great short story by Sandy Cisneros. I did not get to observe the class, but Yasmin, one of my students rushed up to me at lunch and gushed, “Oh, my—your friend was a-ma-zing! Class was a-ma-zing.” No surprise—anyone who sees the alumni line up to greet Anne at any event would nod in agreement.

This conference on campus was a big deal. It was a group of boarding school heads from around the world—they call themselves the “G20” and KA hosted the annual conference. KA staff and friends hosted a number of panel discussions and seminars on life in the Middle East, and A&M availed themselves to go and take mini-classes on literature, photography, archaeology and history in the Arab world. For some of us this heady combo of teaching, travel, learning and eating is about as close to paradise as we get!

A&M spent the day in Amman with my good friend Sam, a driver at KA. I talked to them in the afternoon, checking when they would return to campus, and they enjoyed Sam’s ebullience so much, they thought just might stay forever. Sam brought them back in the late afternoon, and we ventured forth on a late afternoon field trip with my dear KA friend Rehema and her visiting-from-NYC-friend Chris. I drove us about 45 minutes to Mukawir, the ruins of biblical Herod’s summer palace, the scene of the famed “Dance of the Seven Veils” by Salome and the beheading of John the Baptist. The hike up is a nice, rugged walk, and I timed it right that we enjoyed the sun setting over the nearby Dead Sea. You stand up there—embraced by the stark beauty of the surrounding hills, alone and cut off from the rest of the world. It is gorgeous and harrowing at the same time.


A&M enjoyed a reprise of a day with Sam, this time visiting the Baptism Site of Jesus, and continuing on to Ajloun, a castle built a thousand years ago by Saladin’s forces to protect the region from those barbaric, Crusading Franks. That night Anne treated a group of my friends to a lovely dinner at an Italian place in Amman called Romero’s.

A&M spent the day with me in my classes, bidding my students good-bye since they would be leaving on Saturday. The warmth of that camaraderie was another of those moments to remember. After school we set off down the Desert Highway bound for Petra, the last of the superstar sites to enjoy for A&M in Jordan. We checked into the fancy-schmancy Movenpick resort and after sunset went to an evening introduction in Petra, “Petra at Night.” Bedouins usher you down the candlelit kilometer-long siq and then you enjoy stories, music, and tea, under the stars. As we headed down this ancient pathway, I felt like I had been transported into a beautiful Christmas-card setting: the mountains and unbelievably bright stars seemed to presage the angels’ greetings we read about.

Today was the great work-out at Petra, the unique 2000-year-old rock-carved city. Carved entirely into the rose-red cliffs, the remains of the once lost Nabataean city of Petra includes temples, Roman theaters, monasteries, houses and roads. I remembered my trip last August—the unrelenting heat and sun and that notorious donkey ride—and enjoyed the current spring weather immensely. Anne and Martha were agog at the natural beauties of the rocks, the audacity of the Nabataean sculptors, and kept saying, “this is so much more than I thought.” Their reactions reminded me of some of the Europeans who re-discovered Petra in the early 19th century: “We do not know with what to compare it on earth. Perhaps there is no other place like it on earth.” Ever the lover of poetry, Anne recited these famous lines about Petra: “…a rose red city, half as old as time.” (couplet by John William Burgon)

That night we descended upon our favorite (and, well, only) Madaba haunt, Haret Jdoudna for a farewell dinner. On the way home I had an induction for Martha into my personal Travel Hall of Fame (hey, those who scoff at this institution probably cannot get in! Watch it! And for those of you wondering, I do have a personal Travel Hall of Shame as well. I just don’t invite those inductees to a dinner.) I discovered in those two weeks that Martha is more than a dear friend of a friend. She is smart, funny, kind, charming, knows about movies and cabaret singers, deeply loves talking to teachers and students, and possesses that elusive quality that guarantees your entrance to the H. of F. on easy pass—she enriches my days.

On the way to the airport A&M noted how many wildflowers had popped up during their two weeks in Jordan, and how seeing goats and sheep in the back of a pick-up truck no longer was very surprising. Loving Jordan was no longer surprising. Indeed, they remarked that they had come to Jordan to see me, but in the process of visiting KA these two weeks, they enjoyed how great a destination Jordan itself was.

The guests left for the United States happy and satisfied.

Later that day I got a text from my wonderful KA friend Elizabeth: “I miss Anne. Tell her to come back! She was so wonderful.”


Saturday, March 29, 2008

“Dancing on the earth”

I am sorry I have been MIA for awhile—the longest duration of time cyber-silent from my blogger reporter/observer post since my safari in Kenya last October (it is always fun to remind everyone I went on safari in Kenya last autumn!). I have had guests in town for the last two weeks.

Guests! My first guests to visit me in Jordan! Receiving guests is one of the surest signs of creating a home somewhere; with these people coming to see you, transferring memories and emotions and loved ones from one place of residence to another, it makes you so conscious of what is around you. From modes of transportation to housing to outdoor temperatures to errands to the hoi polloi of daily life, opening and sharing your home does make you feel established.

While I was in New York at New Years’, my treasured friend Anne and her delightful buddy Martha decided to visit me in Jordan during the Spring Break of Hackley School. We went on-line and booked tickets, shocking me with the low fares in March (almost half of what I pay at the times of year I criss-cross from Jordan to the heartland of the United States!) Since January I have been planning what I would do with my first guests in Jordan. It wasn’t spring break for me, so the questions whizzed ‘round my head: How can I steal time away from school? How will I get my grades and comments done? What all can we see? Where would they feel comfortable visiting in their first time to the Middle East? Anne’s husband Peter asked that we not leave the boundaries of Jordan, so there would be no quick trips to Cairo or Istanbul, but I figured we would fill enough of Jordanian delights to pack in the two weeks of their visit.

As I look back on these last two weeks, it was indeed a pleasure. It was also exhausting! While Anne and I have traveled together multiple times in the last 10 years, I have never had to teach school, attend meetings, secure boarding duties, interview prospective students and teachers, all the while attempting a full-scale vacation journey. You see, Anne is not a part-time traveler, or an accidental tourist. She is an explorer, savor-er, do-er, try-er, shopper, and travel reveler to the nth degree. I thought I would give you an idea of what we accomplished in their first week in Jordan.

My colleague and friend Fatina drove me to the airport to collect Anne and Martha and welcome them to Jordan. As they emerged into the welcoming area, as other families greeted one another, Anne and Martha waved enthusiastically. “Hello! We made it!” As Anne hugged me, and took the first of her plethora of pictures, she also stuck her hand in her black travel-jacket, looked at something, and deposited a packet of Gulden’s mustard in my hand. “You might need this,” she said. In a nutshell, that is what traveling with Anne is like—you never know when a packet of mustard will come in handy, I suppose, and generous Anne will keep it and give it to you to save for that needy moment. Anne only wears this black jacket when traveling, and we guessed the packet got nipped at the airport last June when we bought sandwiches to eat in JFK waiting for our plane to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Of course, it doesn’t matter—it is just a fun game to figure out when and where such things like arcane, archaic mustard packets might have made it into Anne’s pocket.

That night there was a reception at the headmaster’s house for a visiting official from Columbia University, and this provided a wonderful chance for many at KA to meet Anne and Martha. Later that night I borrowed Tessa’s car, Freeda, and for the first time in my eight months in Jordan, I drove down the road to Madaba to our go-to restaurant, Harat Jdoudna. I drove! I felt fully like a 17-year old figuring out the road all by himself.

The following morning I let them sleep late, and then from 10:30-11:30 I gave them a campus tour, enjoying the meet and greet atmosphere of showing off my friends. I was not the only one with guests in tow—a veritable torrent of guests had descended on the campus. Evidently many took advantage of spring breaks in the USA, and at least six different colleagues had families or best friends wandering around, enjoying the calm of the Madaba countryside, marveling at the emerald fields just outside the campus walls, and spying the new wildflowers. After lunch A&M attended an English Department meeting (actually we call it CRLA—which stands for “Communication, Rhetoric, Langauge Arts,” a combo of English and Arabic departments). After they visited a class of mine, Tessa took them to see the Byantine- era mosaics in Madaba. We were invited to a little party colleague Chris had for her visiting family, and we ended the day with a leisurely dinner and the ever-popular (and ubiquitous) Middle Eastern Mixed Grill with Eric.

Anne visited the English class she would teach the following Monday while Tessa would be busy with a conference, and then A&M joined my class as we watched and discussed the last 30 minutes of the great film, The Mission and enjoyed our discussions of 18th century Spain and China. A&M spent time with Lubna, one of the support staff, affectionately dubbed, “Miss Lubs” by Tessa. That afternoon we left with student Hamzah and Tessa to take Hamzah home to his hometown of Karak. I had rented a car, and now had a car at our disposal for the next two weeks! Just a few miles down the road of the Desert Highway, we get a call that Tessa’s long-lost sea shipment had just arrived and they needed her to sign for it. But soon we were in the car, heading the 2 hours to Karak.

Hamzah’s family had invited us to dinner, and they provided us with a premier example of Jordanian hospitality. As we drove up to his house, the family runs outside to greet us, with hugs and kisses (a single on one cheek, a double on the other) and entreaties to come in and rest with some tea. Hamzah’s house is basic, but the pride in this wondrous boy is magnificent, and the delight at these visitors in their midst heartwarming. Hamzah’s mother had made mansaf, Jordan’s comfort food, and while they provided us with plates and utensils, Anne opted to eat the feast in the way Jordanians prefer: digging in with your hands, making a ball of the rice and meat, and getting your hands all good and sticky with the yogurt sauce on top. As is the Bedouin custom, the family left the room so the guests could eat to their hearts’ content. I did ask Hamzah to join us, and he said one family member may join in. The rest of the evening was enhanced by the graciousness and care of the family for our needs and comfort. Before we left, Hamzah's father showed us the word processor the family has, and the screen-saver is a picture of Hamzah and me taken at KA. Certainly one of the sweetest things I have enjoyed as a teacher...

At the end of the evening, Hamzah’s father took us to a hotel up on top of the huge hill of Karak. We stayed at the modest Karak Rest House. Towels and heat, well, let’s just say, sometimes one can do without some things and still have a restful night.

In the morning we had breakfast in the dining room of the Rest House right in the cliff face overlooking the stunning valley. Hamzah joined us later on as we visited the Archaeological Museum enjoying artifacts back from the Stone Age to the contemporary period about Karak. We tromped around the Crusader castle, then had lunch in one of the renovated guild halls of the castle. Oh you might wonder why we were able to take this field trip during the school week—we had a long weekend since the birthday of Muhammad, the Prophet’s Birthday, fell on Thursday, and so we had off Wednesday and Thursday. Never one to be idle we made plans to tour other parts of Jordan!

We drove back towards Amman, and had reservations at one of the luxury resorts at the Dead Sea. The Moevenpick is a smashing property with rooms with balconies, lush flora and fauna, breathtaking views of the mountains and the Dead Sea, and exceptional amenities. It was decidedly upscale, but truth be told, the care of the staff couldn’t compare to the lovely warmth we had the night before with Hamzah’s family.

Relaxing morning—breakfast buffet extraordinaire, then taking to the beach at the sea. As we stood on the edge of the Lowest Point on Earth, slathering the sensuous black mud on ourselves, Anne started a conversation with one of the other vacationers. “Where are you from?” she inquired of the nice man talking with her. “I work in Amman now, but I am from Cincinnati,” said the man who began to look more and more like Al Jolson. “No way! I’m from Cincinnati,” I said. So here we are, on the other side of the world, talking about Skyline Chili and Graeter’s Ice Cream, and how hard it is to figure out Amman without traffic signs. Indeed a small world. The rest of the day was a spa day—it does make one tired relaxing so much!

Today we head up to the north of Jordan. Our destination is Um Qais, a Greco-Roman town over 2000 years old. I have never been there, but since I am now an expert driving in our superb rental car, we fearlessly head north to see what we would find. It was almost a three-hour drive, but through the fields and valleys the scenery provided stark contrast to the desert of the previous two days.

We hike up to the ruins of the town, and lo and behold, there is a great place for lunch. I actually knew the place existed, and it was a spot worth the entire drive—this restaurant, designed to fit into the “ruined” look of the Greco-Roman town, overlooks a spectacular view. We see Syria to the North, we see Lebanon on the western horizon, and directly below us lay the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee. Spectacular.

As dusk approaches we notice many, many Jordanian families pouring into the site, starting picnic suppers, visiting, and most of them jockeying for positions on the old city walls that look down upon Israel and the Sea of Galilee. It was Mother’s Day in Jordan, so obviously a holiday and good day for picnics—but as we watched these families, there was another vibe we detected as they stood on the wall wistfully looking at the breathtaking view. Interestingly, the old World War II-song, “The White Cliffs of Dover” popped into my mind. Now it isn’t as strange as it sounds—we had been playing a CD of old war songs in the car that day, so we had the Vera Lynn elegy in our heads anyway. But as we paused and looked at the faces staring wistfully over at Israel and the famous Sea from biblical times, seemingly just a reach away, they reflected the same bittersweet longing in the words of the song, “there’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow when the world is free.”

In the car I wondered—did we read too much into their longing looks? The following day I asked Fatina about those families, their poses, the hope and despair in their eyes, and she confirmed that the families drove up there specifically to peer into Israel, a land where many families had come, been expelled, and had such difficulty visiting. We hadn’t mistaken their longing. Sunset at Um Qais was one of the most moving moments of the first week with A&M.

I’m afraid I got carried away telling you of the itinerary of the trip; what I really wanted to focus on is the joy of traveling with Anne. Going somewhere with Anne, and now I find with my new friend Martha, is like regaling in a beautiful dance. The rhythm of exploring, the thrill of discovery, the sighs and sweat-soaked fatigue remind me of a marvelous dance. “I danced in the morning when the world was begun, and I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun…” goes the old Shaker hymn. “Dance then wherever you may be…” could very well be the motto of Anne as she travels the world, eating new things, staring at plants, looking at handicrafts, smiling at new faces. The energy one feels while in her presence when traveling reminds me of the psalmist who compelled us to bask in the joy of life, the joy of fellowship, to throw oneself into activities and revel in “dancing on the earth.”

Part II of their trip will soon follow...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

It perches in the soul...

The other day I got an email from a dear friend who cooed, “Oh I just loved the blog entries of the last week. There was so much variety. I loved that it was about politics and travel and your students. Do that variety more often,” she implored.

Of course the nature of a blog is that you write kina how the mood, or the day, strikes you. But I will keep that desire for variety in mind.

Over the weekend I got caught up with some issues of The Jordan Times of the last week. I had scanned the paper every day, but had not gotten to sit down and read many stories, especially the stories covering His Majesty’s recent visit to the United States.

The King visited New York and Washington ostensibly to remind everyone to keep the goals of the Annapolis Conference firmly in mind. If you remember, Israeli and Palestinian leaders pledged at a U.S. sponsored summit in Annapolis in late November to begin negotiating a possible peace agreement that would finally create a Palestinian state. After an opening 24-hour round of intense negotiations, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert agreed to a framework for talks, with both sides promising to meet every two weeks and hammer out a detailed settlement by the end of 2008. Leaders of 16 Arab League nations attended the summit—indicating broad Arab support for the first major attempt to broker a Mideast peace deal since talks collapsed in 2000.

Of course the sticking points that have always stood in the way of a final deal remain the sticking points: Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the status of Jerusalem, and the rights of Palestinian refugees whose families once had homes in Israel.

Shouldn’t peace talks make people happy? One night I did a little website surfing and discovered that these talks do not make as many enthusiastic as I would have imagined. Indeed, several chat rooms seethed with outright hatred as to what was happening in these talks. Why are so many people unhappy at the prospect of these talks? Could the talks damage already bad relations? As I looked on-line at some of the political blogs, the answer is decidedly yes. Some of the talking heads (do we call bloggers, “typing heads”??) believe that Olmert and Abbas are so beset with problems and scandals that these already weak leaders might bolster extremists on both sides.

However, from my vantage point—a teacher very interested in seeing how Jordan plays a part in all of this—something real is coming out of Annapolis. The United States has pledged to make the two sides accountable for resolving the outstanding issues. Both sides have agreed to the ongoing meetings every two weeks for a year. A peace process is in motion that didn’t exist six months ago. And Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas will have to deal with it.

As I have read Thomas Friedman’s editorials over the last 16 or so years, I have come away with such respect for his ability to frame these complicated issues in a user-friendly clarity. He wrote in The New York Times that “isolating those extremists is crucial. It was fear of spreading Iranian influence that prompted the Arab states to show up in Annapolis.” Friedman went on to say, “Moderates [meaning both Olmert and Abbas] who are not willing to risk political suicide to achieve their ends are never going to defeat extremists who are willing to commit physical suicide.”

As I looked on-line, there were many Arab columnists who condemned Annapolis. One writer said, “By agreeing to attend the Annapolis conference even though all the preconditions they had set were unmet, the Arab leaders caved into the Americans and the Zionists. The Arab foreign ministers simply abandoned two longstanding positions: first that no negotiations could take place until Israel stopped building Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory, and second, that negotiations would have to address the rights of Palestinian refugees to reclaim their ancestral homes in Israel.” The writer saw the rush to attend “the ill-advised” conference was a setback for the cause of Palestinian statehood.

A Palestinian writer believed the point of the conference was to show that they could all come together and sit down in a kind of “normalizing” of relations. It was easy to see the venom coming out of the bloggers’ fingers with comments like, “the conference is simply a success for the Jewish state,” and “Arab countries cannot afford the luxury of refusal, because they know the American master is preparing to attack their worst enemy: Iran.” “Arabs don’t care about Palestinians,” argued an Iranian writer. “They just want to make money doing deals with the Jews.” That writer went on to say, “Egypt was the first to breach the united Arab line against Israel,” and now they have substantial trade with Israel.

Maybe, in this age of instant news, and universal photo ops, each delegate showed up at the conference to show himself in front of the cameras as the hero of compromise and coexistence. Then each delegate can look enlightened and moderate in the eyes of the Americans. But the problem, as I have learned in my eight months here among Palestinian refugees, is what about the Palestinians left to starve, and the ones forever exiled from their homeland?

The fratricide between the two Palestinian factions—Hamas and Fatah—is a huge threat to the Palestinian cause. By showing up at Annapolis, the Arabs were hoping to stand united, and thus rekindle Arab nationalism at the root of the Palestinian movement. I don’t know if it was about appeasing America—from all my conversations and observations and reading of the papers here, the agenda was the salvation of the Palestinian cause.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune—without the words,
And never stops at all…

As I look through the editorials of the last two weeks of The Jordan Times it comes as no surprise that the word ‘hope’ is used at least every other day. With this month’s carnage in Gaza and Jerusalem, the peace process has been given another ugly twist. I saw a feature story on CNN that intrigued me, suggesting the news reports in the United States are all slanted towards Israel, and the news reports in Europe are all slanted towards the Palestinians. This much is clear—Palestinians are physically and ideologically divided, encapsulated by a strangling occupation. Moreover, Israel’s Defense Minister last week threatened Palestinians with a holocaust.

As a historian that use of the word shoah (the Hebrew word for “holocaust”) is jaw-dropping. Israel has never permitted the word holocaust to be applied to any tragedy except that of the attempted annihilation of the Jews in Europe. Immediately after Minister Matan Vilnai threatened the Palestinians, Israel began a series of massacres, killing dozens of Palestinian civilians, as well as resistance fighters defending their beleaguered communities in the Israeli-occupied Gaza strip.

It seems to me that if Israel continues along the path of death and blood it will eliminate any chance of peaceful reconciliation. What was a huge constituency of peace-supporting individuals is steadily shrinking and may soon be invisible.

One columnist, James Zogby, wrote that the “stakes have never been higher,” and comments the importance of this issue outside of the Middle East, and very much so in the United States. Zogby wonders, “How will we effectively use American diplomacy to advance and complete a peace process that brings about the security of Israel and justice for the Palestinians?”

Zogby is singing the tune, and as I look at lesson plans for teaching my 9th graders, it seems clear what a history teacher can do. We can dig into the contextual histories of the societies we study. We can challenge our students to better understand the regions of the world, to embrace thoughtful solutions and reject failed formulas. Zogby refracts the truth so clearly for us: we must “complete a peace process that brings about the security of Israel and justice for the Palestinians.” Security and Justice. Security and Justice are perching there, nuzzling up against hope, right on the precipice of the soul. As more than one editorial in my paper starts, “Hope is still alive.”

Friday, March 14, 2008

“I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille...”

Last week at this time a story about KA aired on ABC News. It was actually a piece filmed last October, but I imagine they ran the feature story last week since His Majesty had just spent the week in New York and Washington talking about what seems to be his two favorite topics—the possibility of a Palestinian state, and the possibilities of what his new school here in Madaba-Manja holds for children of this region. We didn’t know the story would air last Friday, or I would have alerted all of you to watch the show! Just after the news my Uncle Jack called my dad, figuring he had just seen his son’s new school on the airwaves. Alas, my father was glued to Katie Couric instead. But through the miracle of the internet, I can provide you the link if you want to see the story:

I found out about the news story with an email from my wonderful Aunt Dot which read in part:
“There we were Friday at 6:30 p.m. watching the ABC national newscast with George Stephanopolis substituting for Charlie Gibson when—flash, there was Deerfield Academy and the King of Jordan when he played in sports in high school there—then, flash to Jordan where we saw Hannah, a student talking about how great King’s Academy was and then a classroom and Suzanne Hannay a Deerfield transplant telling us all about the school and we shouted, “John, John, Where is Johnny?” It was sooooo exciting.” Aunt Dot ended her exciting email with the line, “This has got to be the most exciting experiment you could ever be a part of.”

I am very conscious this week of the “experiment” we are doing here, not just from the media exposure, but reminders from a deluge of visitors from the United States right now (remember, it is Spring Break in the United States) and all these excited friends and family wanting to know about what it is like here now, what the last eight months have been like, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera… questions ranging from the adjustments to the Middle East, the water, the culture, the food, to really interesting queries about how we cultivate more effective study habits, interest them in the world, and mold them into the global citizens the King hopes to send out into the world.

While I was not visibly in the story aired by ABC News, BBC News visited our campus in the last few days, and I got interviewed, and a camera crew came to my classroom to record about 30 minutes of a class discussion. I was alerted that they may come to class, but when the crew of four came in, and started roaming around the room, it did ramp up the energy in class a notch or two.

In the last two weeks my class has been working on a project involving a pretend murder of Philip II of Spain. I created the scenario of the murder scene, planted 10 clues at the murder scene in his palace, and gave the classes a list of potential suspects. They each had to research one of the suspects, explain the relevant biography and the connection to Philip, and then present to the classes about the likelihood of that suspect acting in a conspiracy. Just because I am now so technologically advanced (hush! Quiet down that laughter! I do use Powerpoint now, you know! I am almost caught up to the late 1990s in technology!) I put the project on-line so the students could click on the suspect reports as they devise their conspiracy theories this weekend. In case you are dying to read about the murder, here is the hyperlink:

Two web links in the same blog entry? Is this the same technologically naïve teacher who for years carried around his 6,000 art slides like leaden ballast from a 17th century galleon? Hmmm…

Anyway—back to the camera crew in my room!! I wanted to telescope our discussion about Philip and Spain into a larger arena, so we had some documents to play with, some documents looking at the world-wide silver economy circa 1600-1700 (it is more exciting than you might think—don’t doze off, pay attention Steve!) dealing with how the silver mines of Spanish colonial America affected Japan and China, besides the Spanish empire.

The students are engaging with the documents quite well—one student compared the importance of silver in 1700 to that of oil in today’s world—how’s that for a bright young scholar! But all the time we are discussing how the silver affects these nation-states, the camera guys are closing in on a few people. At one point the camera guy whispers to a student, “Do you mind to make it look like you’re writing something down?” Very interesting! He might have chosen one of the dozen students actually taking some notes in class, but he asked a particularly handsome student to fake taking notes!

It is as if these camera guys have no zoom-lens: they physically go up to students and are right in their faces, or down on their notes, or their book-bags, as we have a discussion about what this silver does to the economies of Spain, Japan, and China. As I asked students to project what might happen next in the kind of events of world history, Rob piped up, “Well my guess is that all these kingdoms forced to pay all these taxes in silver, there may be a shortage someday, and then they may have real economic and social problems, and then I’ll bet a revolution. Maybe many of them!” While Rob offered his prescient prediction for the 18th century (and the next two weeks of lessons), the camera guy came right up to me, and put the camera right by my face, and just stayed there. He was maybe a couple of inches from my left cheek. He must have stayed there for at least five minutes.

Now if you have ever watched me teach, I am not prone to stay in one place for very long. I move about the room—or as one friend said once, “you work the room.” But since the camera was there, and this was my close-up, I kinda just stayed put. It took all my energy to focus on the historical themes, the documents, and the actual lesson, and not just turn to the camera and smile! As I was moving the discussion along, I saw my students watching the cameraman out of the corners of their eyes, but remarkably, they stayed focused and on task. Could you imagine, back in the days of Scratch what this scenario would have been like???

Big surprise: it was a kick to be on camera!

Later I was interviewed by the BBC about how I envisioned the study of History fitting into the mission of the school. As I explained how I hoped to turn them into students who could think like historians, they asked me what that meant. All right, Mr. DeMille—the legendary Hollywood director—I am ready!

As a quick aside—today is Friday, typically “Family Day,” in Jordan. I rarely see Jordanian colleagues on Fridays since they gather with their families and eat and visit. But Reem, one of my colleagues in the Admissions Office, invited a group of us to her home today to host a brunch for the father of the Director of Admissions.

I walked into Reem’s exquisite home, saw the table elegantly set with our buffet, and I realized, “Ahhh…Reem is so much like the delightful friend Cristina in New York. Her home could not have been more tastefully decorated, just like Cristina’s. She could not have offered a more beautiful display of sumptuous treats, just like Cristina. She could not have been a more gracious hostess, just like Cristina.” We walked around Reem’s yard, the spring flowers just beginning to nose their way through the earth, and it was a marvelous close-up of Jordanian hospitality and Jordanian social life. I wish I had brought my camera to capture the magic of this brunch and friendly gathering.

“I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille...”

If you have not seen the glorious 1950 film, Sunset Blvd., you may not recognize those words. As the demented actress Norma Desmond descends into madness, she hopes that her former director, Cecil B. DeMille, is there to capture her every mood. It is one of those great moments in cinematic history, watching this gorgon lose touch with the world.

I hope I am not demented. Don’t think I am. But I am enjoying the close-ups of life this experiment, as Aunt Dot deemed it, has provided. In fact, I may be more connected to the world, with the world, than ever before. While the news reports are indeed fun to watch and savor, it is these experiments in teaching and learning that are transforming my living.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

“beyond confusion”

Teaching in the classroom is always unpredictable. It is always a high-wire act. It is always glorious. Meetings, on the other hand, are stultifying. Duties in the dorm are tedious and pedestrian. Such is the way of life probably in boarding schools around the world.

But back to that classroom thing—it is so much like good piano playing, learning to strike the percussive keys with just the right balance of warmth and power. The history stuff is great, but it is the tuning of the instrument, those dozen or so instruments in the classroom, and the ability to calibrate those instruments that never fails to grab me.

And like great piano playing, classroom teaching takes practice, attention, and finesse. My grandmother, an indomitable woman and gentle spirit, who taught everything from Sunday School to High School over the span of sixty years, once told me about piano playing, “It’s in the touch, John Boy. (It was the era of The Waltons on television with the lead character of ‘John-Boy Walton’—don’t mock my grandmother now!) Anyone can hit the keys. A master has a certain touch!” A decade later, as I strode off to the North Carolina piedmont, the same wise grandmother offered a corollary of advice: “Teaching is like that piano, John Boy—those students need the right touch too.” At the end of her advice she reminded of that powerful Latin salvo: Per Aspera Ad Astra.

A month ago today I predicted that my young scholars at KA had come to the end of the terrain Stephanie had proclaimed as “Itch.” They had reached a plateau, and I looked forward to what might be the next stretch of territory for us to conquer. I had a speculation immediately from one of the great whiz-kids of all time, my former student Adam. Sometime I will have to devote an entire blog entry to the experience of knowing Adam over the last dozen years, but, for now, I will just say that Adam holds a secure place in the pantheon of the greatest students I have met. I could easily ascribe to him the words I used in the beginning of this blog entry—Adam is unpredictable, a high-wire act, and yes, glorious.

Adam offered this comment to the blog entry query a month ago about where the young historians were headed next: “You've reached The Poke. The students are starting to get it, though some need to be nudged a little bit more. In addition, pokes are discrete. An itch is felt continuously, but not as many students are causing you discomfort any more. And once most people have really gotten it, you'll have reached The Tickle, because you'll feel all giddy. And once everybody's gotten it, you'll find The Soothing. And when the year's done, you'll find The Relief.”

As I look back on the last month—a major test covering the years 1000-1500, a major essay involving comparing documents and causes and effects of at least two medieval societies, homeworks, discussions, I have the pleasure to say that Adam has hit the nail on the head. It is as if he knows these guys! In a moment of foreshadowing the place called ‘Poke,’ a father and I had an interesting exchange in late November:

Father: Why Mr. John is Farah not doing better in your class? She enjoys it.
Me: Well, Sir, Farah is what we might call unmotivated. She doesn’t really do her homework.
Father: I think what we need to do then is get a big stick and poke her until she does that homework!

This father’s image is not really far off from a model of good teaching—someone who believes in these teen-agers, leads them on to the next plateau, poking them with a sharp stick called truth.

I have the pleasure to say that this Farah has been an amazement ever since exams in January—she has not missed a single assignment, and except for the aforementioned essay, she has earned a high grade on every assignment. Her zeal, her interest, her insights have been remarkable. Welcome to Poke!

But as Adam wisely noted about the conditions of Poke, it has ups and downs. Recently, Rob had a sentence in his essay comparing Muslim and Christian attitudes toward trade in the early modern period in which he succinctly summed up the major difference: “Muslims supported trade, while Christians reluctantly accepted it.” Then, after class one day I asked Rob about missing homeworks, and we realized he must have been sending them to the wrong email address. He replied, “I never had any idea it could be my fault.”

Qusai used the word, “perdition” in an elegant way in his introduction to his essay on the Black Death, while another student wrote: “As a conclusion, I’m really happy that we didn’t exist at this scary period of time the time of tension, fear, misery and horror.” Okay—clumsy, yes, but this was a student who last time forgot that quoting from sources was an important thing and ended his essay with the finale, “God Bless Women!”

I’ll be honest here—I mean we’re all friends, right? The last week has been kinda hard. We have been working on a project, a murder mystery about Spain’s King Philip II that I designed, and some of the students have been especially laissez-faire about their participation. “I can’t find anything about my suspect Martin Luther,” whined one girl. Really??? “What if I only write a paragraph? What’ll you do?” The numbing “how long do you want this to be?” coupled with “You don’t expect me to actually write a whole page, do you?” It was clear that some still lacked the self-awareness of their own responsibility in this learning enterprise. Alas.

As we reach each plateau, sometimes I forget that there is still work to be done, still balancing to do. I don’t get “low” often, but I was a little low these last few days. How much more “nudging” do I have to do??????

Can’t we just skip to the “Relief” Adam envisions???

As I made out invitations to my little pity-party, a colleague Chris, walked into the Faculty Room, excited about a Robert Frost poem she was about to read to her 9th grade History students. She planned to recite the poem to her class, for memory yet, and explain the
virtues of mastery. I had never heard this poem, and as I read it, immediately I knew I had a
roadmap through Poke! Here is a portion of the poem, “Directive”:

And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail…

Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Those last few words just said it all—Frost’s “directive” is to go and find our own version of salvation, your own “Holy Grail”—whatever it takes to restore ourselves. Look at the last few lines again:

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail…

Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

The last week has been a challenge—hey, not a new challenge, just the unpredictable, high-wire, glorious challenge of Poke. I must remember to find that nexus of memory and hope, a “goblet like the Grail,” and then I will find the soothing comfort that each difficult moment, of course, has the potential to open my eyes and open my heart. All I need to remember is that we can “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Desert Song

“The Biggest Big-Screen TV of them all!” is how my friend Suzanne billed it to the students last week when she suggested we go on a school trip to the desert Wadi Rum for the weekend. “We will lie on the desert sand and star gaze, and it is better than any big-screen TV you have ever seen,” sold Suzanne on the prospect.

Not that it is hard to get me to go anywhere—I am like my mother and her eternal rejoinder, “I’ll go.”

Wadi Rum (along with the planned lunch at the seaside resort of Aqaba) is the last of the major spots in Jordan I had yet to visit. It is legendary for its landscape—not the usual stony plain of limestone that is much of Jordan, but this was the haunt of Lawrence of Arabia, as well as the site of much of the location shoot of the epic movie (never forget—movie locations are maybe even more real than historical locations!) due to its granite, basalt, and sandstone mountains rising majestically from the sandy, desert floor. I had seen photographs, and some colleagues, the more granola-crunchy types, go to Wadi Rum frequently to camp. Unlike my mother who announced to her dying day, “I am a camper,” I am not. Although, I hasten to add—I did camp last October in Kenya!

So 60 of us signed up to go on the trip! I was on duty this weekend anyway, so why not take an overnight trip with the students. There was a moment’s pause—I had not taken an overnight trip with students since the spring break in Greece in 2005, but I looked forward to the seven adults joining in on the camping and hiking fun. The planners had to get a dispensation from the Ministry of Education allowing us to take co-ed students on an overnight trip in Jordan since it is usually not allowed.

It was about a four-hour drive to southern Jordan, and the driver of my bus was stopped three times by the police—maybe they are all just old friends. I had forgotten about long bus rides with students—the Albert Einstein phrase comes to mind, “The pain fades away and the beauty remains.” Hmmm…there was the constant battle over the volume of the music for nearly every song. I guess they thought they could wear me down. Yeah, do they know who they are dealing with??

We arrive at Wadi Rum, and instantly you see that the hype is valid. The rocky landscape has been weathered over the millennia into bulbous domes and weird ridges and textures that look nothing so much like molten candle-wax—you know what they remind me of—remember the Brady Bunch episode where Peter makes a volcano for his science class, and then it goes off when Marcia and her girly friends are over? It looked like that volcano-like structure.

Anyway, it is the sheer bulk of these mountains that awes—and the endless ochre sands. Everywhere you look you see these mountains—some smooth, some scarred and distorted, all seemingly melting and dripping under the burning sun. It has the look of an incredible moonscape, or maybe monumental islands in a dry sea.

We arrive and park the buses in a tourist parking area, and then the camp officials pile you onto roof-less Land Rovers to drag race across the sands to your camp site. It is hot—that kind of hot I had forgotten during the last few months. It is easily 90 degrees, and I get into the back of the Rover with a gaggle of boys—who of course beg the driver to careen across the desert sands and beat everybody. The camp officials keep uttering the same saying one hears regularly, “Welcome to Jordan!”

We get there and throw our gear (Ha! Do I actually have camping gear? A toothbrush and five not-quite finished issues of Entertainment Weekly comprise my gear!) and run out to take advantage of the opportunities galore to scramble around on the rocks and pick your commanding view for the sunset.

The sunset was extraordinary—the evening coolness blissful after the reminder that Jordan is indeed a real desert.

The camps are all run by Bedouins, and this is real camping. No electricity, yet they do make sure you enjoy the Bedouin hospitality—dinner in lovely goat-skin tents, sturdy carpets on the sandy floor, lovely gas lamps, and camel saddles for interesting seating. They offer us dinner—besides the usual dips, spreads, and salads, they have roasted chickens, potatoes and onions, all hauled up out of an underground roaster. The camp staff sang us a welcome song, and a shepherd’s lullaby. I gotta say—these Arabic songs all sound alike to me, but I appreciate the sentiment.

After dinner we set out to lie on the sand, and take in that big-screen Suzanne had promised. The clarity of the desert air helps produce a starry sky of stunning beauty, and the tranquility of the pitch-dark desert night is simply magical. Of course—the night was far from over. Our merry band of teen-agers was not content just to enjoy the stars. There were groups here and there yelping, boys rolling down the sandy hills, girls talking about boys—take out the sand part, and it is exactly like any of the gazillion trips I have chaperoned in the last score of years. I sat down with a giggling group, and they asked me about the party game “spin the bottle.” Good heavens! That travels around the world, too? Then one guy was talking about the Milton-Bradley game, “Monopoly,” practically reciting all the spaces on the board, when a girl interrupts and says, “The Saudi boys are playing ‘Chicken.’” I say, “you guys know about “Monopoly” and ‘Chicken’??” Faris then laughs, and says, “Oh yeah, Mr. John—remember all you need to know about us is that we live in tents and ride camels!” (Usually the stereotype does not hold up so, but the closest camel is maybe only 50 feet away, and we are surrounded by our desert tents!).

At midnight we scurry the students off to their tents, actually overhearing such things like, “I’ll call you in a little bit and we’ll meet.” It is sentences like that make adults decide: we better stay up and guard the tents. Oh that, and when several girls tried to walk over to the boy’s tent to visit, “We just need to borrow their speakers,” was their weak excuse.

Four of us decide to linger at the campfire, and we linger until about 4:00 a.m. But it is actually not such an onerous task—it was fun, first as we mocked one of the drivers’ snores as he buzz-sawed his way through any hopes of silence. One of the boys poked his head out of the tent about 1:00 pleading, “Is that a human sound??? It has to be a camel! I can’t sleep!”

We killed time by playing games like each person speed-adding a word to a sentence, trying to never let the sentence end. It was way more fun than that sentence makes it out to be! We shared odd phrases/sayings in Arabic and in English. I offered this Benjamin Franklin saying: “Hunger is the best pickle,” but I think Mazen won the contest with his translation of an Arabic phrase describing something unexpected as “a fart without an appointment.” Ahhhh…those things are mighty funny around 3:00 in the morning.

We got up around 6:00 as the students got up. After breakfast the camels arrived for our regiment of riders to mount these desert beasts. It was fun watching the students rise into the air as the animals galloped off for a ride. I went and climbed another of the mountains, slathering on the sunscreen since it was already desert hot. By the way, you will notice I haven’t mentioned the bathroom situation—let’s just say the outdoor latrines and showers in Kenya were far more amenable!

The only fissure in an otherwise lovely trip was when we met the students at the end of their hour-long camel trek. It seems one of the camel-keepers had flirted, well, more than flirted, with one of our girls, and proposed marriage, and threatened to steal her away, and some more harassment. His behavior, and subsequent running away as our Jordanian colleagues took control of the situation, necessitated calling the tourist police. As our chaperones found out, our Saudi boys wanted real vengeance—and I mean, they wanted to go and get this guy. The Bedouins responded in their tribal way. One of my colleagues said, “Great, we walked right into a stereotype of Arab men.” Eventually the police arrived, assessed the situation, and offered us several scenarios. Should the family get to beat the boy? Should we press charges and go to court? Should our group get the chance to watch the police beat the young man? There is still so much to learn about other cultures.

The girl is fine today, and while we did not cancel our lunch plans at the seaside resort town of Aqaba, it was a strange ending to the first overnight trip from KA.

The Desert Song was an operetta penned by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein in the late 1920s—and a huge hit as New Yorkers embraced the exotic themes and ersatz-melodies of the faraway desert. As much as I love a musical, the actual alluring cliffs, ochre sands and sleeping under the stars of the real thing was more exciting. These Wadi Rum monuments were the actual pillars T. E. Lawrence depicted in his account of the 1920s Arab Revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I am waiting for more guests to come to Jordan and discover them with me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

“the thing with feathers”

There they are—right there in the paper! See? Our students are posed with His Majesty in a great, big, juicy picture in The Jordan Times from a couple days ago when the King delivered an address at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, in the Garden State itself, in the lovely U. S. of A.

Last week at this time I was helping Hamzah pack his suitcase for his trans-atlantic flight to the USA. His Majesty had asked to take nine of our students for a 10-day trip to New York and Washington, D.C. and Hamzah was one of the nine lucky students (No—I wasn’t asked to be a chaperone! The Royal Court I guess had enough people to shepherd our nontet around two of my favorite cities in the world.). Not only had Hamzah never left the borders of Jordan before, he had never been to an airport, so it is probably not treading into hyperbole too much to say that traveling with the King and Queen, enjoying visits to the UN, the White House, dinner with Michael Bloomberg, and The Lion King has been a trip of a lifetime.

I look forward to their return this weekend to us, and hopefully to the prospect that there might be a Guest Blogger who might share some impressions of the United States for my friends and family here. But while I await news of their trip, I had to type up some of the speech His Majesty delivered at Princeton. By the way, if you want to read a story about his speech, and a picture of him with some of our students, you can visit the Princeton website:

I remember last year at this time, just days after I had accepted the job to come to KA, His Majesty delivered a stirring speech to a joint session of the United States Congress. I remember reading the speech, amazed at the beauty and passion of his prose. It made me quite proud to think I would help bring to fruition his dream of a school that strives to prepare young people to be more responsible global citizens. From the tone of the Princeton website news, it must have been quite an electric feeling sitting in the hall, hearing his words. I imagine our students, all Arabs, commingling with the American college kids, giving proof to the idea that hope is not too far-fetched.

I took the transcript of the King’s speech and edited it for your reading pleasure. This is about 35% of his overall speech. I am sure it is available on-line if you wish to read it in its entirety. As you read these words, please keep in mind the images you may be getting from CNN or other sources of the escalating violence in Gaza, not a long journey from where I sit typing away:

Fifty-seven countries are not at peace with Israel today. Fifty-seven countries out of 193 countries in the world. Fifty-seven countries with a total population greater than Europe and the United States combined. Fifty-seven countries for whose citizens the conflict in Palestine is the issue of their time.

We must, therefore, ask the important question: What are the implications for global stability if this continues?

2008 is a critical year—yes, at long last, this year right now, we are in the best possible position to resolve 60 years of conflict between Israel and Palestine…and demand freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people.

But time is running out and we need the United States of America completely involved to influence the course of discussions. . . .I am here to explain that such a commitment is an opportunity to transform the strategic landscape of the Middle East for years to come.

I know that optimism does not come easily to academia. But I know about the visionary thinking that is the scholar’s gift. Today, I ask you to employ visionary thinking to consider a short- and long-term strategy that will ensure a viable, stable, and prosperous Middle East region and a safe and secure world for all.

I pose these questions for your consideration: Will my region plunge into more chaos and violence, where extremism rules? Or will it be a peaceful, developing region? Will it be a region that rejects Western alliances, perhaps violently, because they have become far too difficult to achieve? Or will it be a region that is a global partner in progress and prosperity with the West? The choice is ours. But we must act and time is running out.

The wellspring of global division, the source of resentment and frustration within the region and far beyond is the denial of justice and peace in Palestine. America is the only world power capable of ensuring that the parties stay on track and on in time in their current negotiations.

But time is running out.

You will all know that historically, success in Middle East peacemaking was achieved when the United States stepped in and drove the negotiations. Division and hatred have eroded understanding and agreement. Every day another child in my region grows up with frustration and hatred in his or her eyes. Every day young people lose hope because they cannot get jobs and they cannot see opportunities.

Speaking here today I am especially aware of the role of scholars and students in making progress happen. Where others see unsolvable problems, you see paths that can lead to answers and successful action. This is the tradition of great scholarship of which you are a part.

I should like to conclude by drawing from the wisdom of the great American after whom this school is named. Woodrow Wilson said: “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together. There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized peace.” This is the challenge, this is the opportunity and we must succeed.

What a writer! There are many passages I liked—but this one produces the biggest lump in my throat—Every day young people lose hope…

I am pretty sure if I went back through the three-score blogs I have pecked out in the last seven months, I think at one time I quoted an Emily Dickinson poem that always has moved me. Here is that poem:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune—without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity, It asked a crumb of me.

Dickinson writes that the bird “sings.” Is this a good or a bad thing? However, the tune is “without words.” So, then is ‘hope’ simply a matter of words, or is it a feeling about the future, a feeling which consists both of desire and expectation? Psychologically, is it true that hope never fails us, that hope is always possible? Even in the storm? In the coldest land?

At the heart of King Abdullah’s speech is his vision of how we can move beyond our divisions to tackle the concrete problems of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. It is a vigorous search for connection—a foundation of a radically hopeful consensus.

The bird—faithful and unabashed—follows and sings to the speaker (“I've heard it”) under the worst, the most threatening of circumstances. Even in those most dire circumstances the bird never asked for even a “crumb” in return for its support.

Think of the potential here—the potential of that storm certainly, and the threat of how it may “abash” that fragile “thing with feathers”—that wrenches us back to the reality of the staggering problems of the world. But there is inherent such potential of a new vision.

Those nine students gathered around His Majesty—there they are. Let’s see what they do with their songs.