Friday, October 31, 2008

When Renee Goes

Yesterday my good friend Renee left Jordan—bound for an exciting new job in Abu Dhabi. (Just in case you aren’t sure—I certainly wouldn’t have been two years ago!—Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates.) Fortune magazine has decreed that Abu Dhabi is the richest city in the world. It will certainly be richer now that Renee is moving there.

Renee left KA in that most desirable of ways—very happy and beloved, but exhilarated at the prospect of an exciting new job. She has been the Director of Admissions at KA since the verrrrry beginning, and now is heading up another start-up school, a branch of NYU in Abu Dhabi, set to open in 2010.

Renee is one of those people you meet and like immediately. She has a sly sense of humor, projects an effortlessly beautiful aura, and works diligently. I met her on my initial visit to Jordan in February, 2007, and liked her from the start. She reminds me of my sister too—unassuming, sharp, and again, effortlessly beautiful, both inside and out.

Renee has the distinction of being the first non-Jordanian to re-locate here to get this place started. When she arrived in May, 2006, the school’s buildings were not yet finished, and she lived and worked out of the Hyatt in Amman for months.

Partly why there haven’t been any blog entries in the last week is that I indulged in a number of good-bye parties to give her a proper send-off. Like most people, I don’t like good-byes. Teachers are conditioned to bid farewells in June—over the years we have worked our way through whatever kind of therapy we need towards this annual emotional Armageddon, and I have learned to handle those partings since I know they come as often as the fall foliage leaves. In Junes you say good-bye to people who have touched your life. It has become as simple (ha!) as that for me over the last 20 years.

But I’m not conditioned to bid adieu to a friend in October—that’s not fair! I’m not ready! I’m entitled to seven more months of shared laughter, shared frustration, shared inspiration, and shared hope.

Renee was a special friend—we have New York in common. It turns out that Renee lived for about eight years just two short blocks north on Central Park West where I spent most weekends from 1996-2006. No way! We always laughed that we must have passed each other on the subway platform or on one of the paths in Central Park! Renee asked me last October to join the Admissions Committee, and we spent many afternoons debating with the committee about who should earn acceptance to KA. Renee would be sitting in her office, introducing me to a student, and we developed a special “code” through using our eyebrows to communicate our reactions to certain students.

Renee has earned a special place in the history of this school. Other people envisioned the mission of the school, other people bought the property, other people designed the buildings, other people scanned resumes for adults to come here, but Renee did what this whole place was imagined for—she brought us our students. And there is nothing more powerful and fulfilling and lasting than what she has done as she combed the deserts of Jordan in the last two years to give us our “clay.” Here they are, dozens of friendly kids from the Arab world, not yet highly trained in scholarly pursuits but daring to go and try. I found kids who welcomed me into their homes, kids who greeted me each day as if we had been apart for weeks, kids who inspire me, kids who I hope to know forever and a day. My friend Renee did that for us.

The last day Renee was on campus, naturally I was a little blue, and out of nowhere I get a text on my mobile phone (remember, that’s what we call those cell phones here in the Middle East) that I had three pieces of mail. Three pieces of mail??! I don’t know if I have had three pieces of mail this entire autumn???!!

I go to the mail boxes in Lubna’s office, and she is bursting to see what I got. I have a package and two cards in the mail. With people’s handwriting on them!! Yipee!!

I have mail from Dawn, Mary, and Tracy. As I am rifling through the cards, missing mail like a fat kid misses cake, and opening the package it hits me—I got mail today from three treasured, long-time friends. I have known Dawn since 7th grade at Gamble Junior High, rivals and friends since French class with Mr. Hall, and super-fans in the Jean Michaels fan club at West High. We have been friends since we were 13!

And then there is Mary, the leader of the pack of comrades at Gaston Day School, ally, co-balcony person, cohort, and co-theater lover. We have been friends since I was 22! Ummm...FYI…Mary has always been much older!

And Tracy—the senior earth mother of the Denison Singers my freshman year at college when we went on the European tour and we forged a friendship based on chocolate and the Alps and love.

On a day when I was already missing a friend I have known under two years, wondering whether the friendship might last the strains of the distance of the desert, came a shower (hey, here 3 pieces of mail is a veritable shower!) of mail reminding me of the beauties and possibilities of life-long friends. If I add up the years I have known Tracy, Dawn and Mare—it comes to a total of 80 years! And these friendships—here comes the cliché of clichés—are like a fine wine, aging gracefully and more lovely with the passing years.

Tracy had already warned me on the phone that a package was on the way. She relayed to me that when she took the package to the post office she was shocked by how much it cost to send it to me in Jordan (by the way, that should still not deter any future package-senders!). She laughed and wondered whether I was worth the exorbitant cost of the shipping! She said the shipping cost so much more than the contents.

So in the box, nestled in tons of newspapers is a mug. Just a mug. But not just any old mug. She sent, I hope she forgives me for sharing this, a mug with the Wizard of Oz scarecrow on it, and her note reminded me that Dorothy knew she would miss him most of all. Dear Tracy relayed that as we “get older I realize how precious good friends have become.”

What a good day for a shower from old friends.

I chose the title of this blog entry from a song I adore, and a song I wrote about last year exactly at this time. If you remember the story, Barry Manilow set an old Johnny Mercer lyric to music and created, in my mind, an instant classic.

When October Goes…

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smokey roofs
I watch the planes go by

The children running home
Beneath a twilight sky
Oh, for the fun of them
When I was one of them

And when October goes
The same old dream appears
And you are in my arms
To share the happy years

I turn my head away
To hide the helpless tears
Oh how I hate to see October go

I should be over it now I know
It doesn't matter much
How old I grow
I hate to see October go

But as I see October go, and see Renee go, I also have the chance to wish my sister a very happy birthday—a sister that is a non-pareil as a sibling and a friend.

As I sat there holding Tracy’s incredibly expensive-to-ship mug, it reminded me of a moment from the old TV show, The Wonder Years. Kevin, our adolescent wunderkind, had received a Christmas present from his dream-girlfriend, Winny. He opens the box and spies a four-leaf clover. More valuable than gold, these friends, like four-leaf clovers, are the best luck and presents in the world.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Let Go My Ego!

A student of mine was looking at her notes from World Religions class a few days ago and saying the words of the Christian Lord’s Prayer. In a studied manner, the student uttered the words “deliver us from ego” rather than “deliver us from evil.” As I corrected her, I also thought that her prayer was pretty good! And of course, it reminded me of a few things…

For one thing, if you were watching TV commercials in the 1970s you would remember siblings fighting as something popped up from the toaster and they screamed, “Leggo my Eggo!” Toaster waffles had just been introduced and now a catch-phrase was born—especially for siblings looking for ways to pick fights with other siblings. “Leggo my Eggo!”

Let go my ego!

As a teacher you don’t have to work too hard to let go of your ego—that process is usually facilitated by a bratty adolescent who either wants to put your in your place, or is just having a bad day (maybe both, but my friend Anne always assures me, “even when it is meant against you, they don’t really mean it, even when they mean it.”)

You may think you just delivered the most scintillating lecture on the rise of Athenian democracy, or guided a provocative discussion on Plato’s concept of the philosopher-king, but at the end of the period, as you are mentally patting yourself on the back for your scholarly calisthenics, someone asks, “ Do we really have to have class tomorrow?” or “Are you serious that if I didn’t do the Journal Sheet I will get a zero?” or you hear the cloistered comment, “He really seems to like the Greeks. Whatever.”

And yet, this is one of the most fascinating things about teaching secondary school—navigating through the egos of teen-agers, parents, colleagues, and administrators. Maybe any business or administrative or service organization is like this, but it can keep you humble in some interesting ways.

I constantly enjoy remembering that there is still so much to learn—about many things. I know that these year’s blog entries aren’t as full of the wonder and the naivete that last year so naturally provided—I know my way around many Jordanian customs, roads, menus, or quirky habits (ahhh, let’s remember they are only quirky to those who are foreigners perhaps!) now. But last week I had an interesting experience reminding me that there is still much to learn. I had gone over to a Jordanian colleague’s house to fetch her for a dinner engagement with our departing friend Renee. This colleague has a playful young son who simply enjoys being a boy. My friend and I were talking, and out of the corner of my eye I saw her son, and I thought he was sneaking up to me. Now Halloween is coming up, and last year many of the KA families got an exciting introduction to the ghosts and goblins and trick-or-treat feel of American Halloween. Out of the corner of my eye I thought he was coming over as a ghost to spook me. I like to play around with a good scare, so I skulked down a little, wheeled around, and said in a good Halloween voice: “Hey, who’s there???” When I turned, I indeed saw her young son in a white, well, something, to me, it looked like a ghost costume, and my friend calmly said, “Oh, he’s praying.” Silence. How soon would this moment pass?! Fortunately, thankfully, neither my friend nor the son acted horrified and offended that I mistook his prayers for a Halloween-esque prank. But oh, oh, what a long moment of, whoops, there goes the ego again! Hey, there is still so much to learn about daily life, what you wear for prayers, and that not every pre-teen is aiming for a Halloween trick in the month of October.

I had to deal with someone’s bruised ego this week, but it was more than just a bruised ego. One of the most wonderful students I know was very sullen last weekend, and finally I got the story that he had been in the dining hall, and a teacher was justifiably angry that many trays had been left at the tables after dinner. The teacher wanted some help, solicited the aid of this particular student, and the student translated an Arab proverb that means something like, “if you want to do something well, do it yourself.”

At the end of a long day a teacher’s nerves can get strained, to say the least. But the teacher probably took this comment as insolence and a cavalier attitude towards helping out. As adults will do, he made the cutting remark, “that is the most disrespectful thing I have heard yet in Jordan.” We adults often exhale and make comments like that, it’s true, and it is often from an exhausting day of watching and monitoring and guiding and shaping. We often make those comments and then we go on with our plans and lessons and leisure.

But this student took that comment to heart and wondered if he was worthy to stay at KA. He reasoned that it was a disrespectful comment, and that he was so bad that he had shamed himself and his family. We had an interesting discussion about class and history and inter-cultural translations and hurt feelings. Eventually I asked the teacher over—a good friend, by the way, and a committed educator—and we talked about the power of words: the power of that young man’s recitation of a familiar Arab proverb, and the power of misinterpretation. I hope the hurt egos are healing.

I am in the middle of an odd power-war of egos myself. This is the kind of thing that email does not help, and only exacerbates and enervates. When my father was in town I asked if it was appropriate to request one of the drivers (my friend Sam, actually) to take my dad around Amman one day during mid-term exams. Well, my request turned into the kind of email volley that just gets more and more ridiculous with the mock-formalities and the accusations and the proclamations. I was accused of “insisting and demanding” and the ‘how dare yous’ mounted. No matter how well you try, someone will always find a reason to dislike you, but in these emails (and oh the sneer of the typed “cc” just adds to the situation!) I wanted to show where the person was wrong, the motives were lost in translation, and then the impulse is either to prove the person wrong, or just let it go. Just let it go…I’m working on that!

I suppose this is also the time to relay the news that Ishtar is no more. Ishtar, the name given to my 2009 Ford Focus by a clever junior world historian, got wrecked the other day. Since no one got hurt, I suppose I can relay the news of Ishtar’s demise with a sense of humor.

I shared the lease of said 2009 Ford Focus with a young colleague (hear the emphasis on the word young?). I got a call during lunch the other day that she had wrecked the car. After I ascertained the report that she was physically fine I asked about the accident. She had had the accident on campus before leaving school grounds. She had gotten something in her eye, and she ended up in this cavernous ditch on the other side of the road, even taking out two light poles before she ended up nearly flipped over.

Whatcha gonna do???

The police determined the car was totaled, and now I am waiting to find out about the car situation. Fortunately, thankfully, we are fully insured by the school—but as of now, all those plans of souping (souping? I swear I have never used that I-guess-1950s-anachronistic verb!) around Jordan are on hold.

Two other semi-related classroom stories I find different kind of funny on the continuum of funny. A student came to me the other day—a student I had interviewed as a prospective student—and proudly exclaimed, “My teacher called me smart today!” I wondered if it had been a stellar mid-term exam, or an exceptionally insightful comment, so I inquired as to the context. “Well, she looked kind of funny at me, but said, ‘You Bashar are such a smart-aleck!” Another moment lost in translation…I put my arm around him and deflated that balloon as I explained the comment, and tried to explain the ‘funny’ look he had gotten.

Faisal, one of the sharpest and most charming students I know, about 10 days ago, asked in class, “Are we having a mid-term exam in this class?” The class looked ready to laugh, and I looked ready to smile, when we all realized he was serious. For the previous 8 days I had mentioned the upcoming mid-term exam every single day; the announcement and explanation had been written on weekly assignment sheets, and it was written on one of the boards in the classroom—how could he not know?? But he didn’t. I’m not sure where that falls on the continuum of funny, but it must have a place somewhere.

Oh, lord, deliver me! Deliver me!

Monday, October 20, 2008

“She woulda been on cloud nine!”

Toward the end of my father’s big visit to Jordan, I asked him what my mother might have thought of this trip, and he smiled, speculating, “She woulda been on cloud nine the whole time!” He didn’t really need to explain why his Mary Martha would have been so ebullient—I mean if you know our family lore, she was famous for emphasizing any time any trip was in question: “I’ll go!” But my dad went on, “the only thing I think is that she would have wanted more time everywhere”—“let me sit here a little longer in this history class; let me linger a little more at the baptism site; let me ponder a little more about re-tracing the steps of Moses or those Old Testament Moabites; let me hold the hand of my new Jordanian friend a little longer; let me try one more Arab sweet; let me process one more time through that Roman arch; let me ask one more person about growing up in Palestine; let me hear the call to prayer one more time; let me talk to one more faculty member about being a pioneer at this school; let me thank one more student for their refreshing vigor; let me contemplate a little deeper about the possibilities for peace in this Holy Land”—I can almost hear the entreaties she would have offered up.

My father has been home in the United States for six days now, and I am sure he has regaled the denizens of the Imperial Diner with the stories of his sauntering in the Holy Land, but I imagine that the most revealing, most illuminating parts of his trip don’t translate well for mass consumption. I mean, it is fun to talk of the camels, and the lunatic drivers, and the mystery meat, and yes, they do have stores that sell things, even P&G products—but I think one memorable element of his trip, and elusive to relay, was his visit to my classroom seeing the KA students in action.

My dad visited about 10 classes during his sojourn (remember he did have those marvelous field trips with the marvelous Dr. Hamati) and his visit came during a potentially-controversial section of the AP World History syllabus. In these 7 class days before the mid-term exam I taught the major religions of the world—one religion a day, touching on doctrine, but also discussing the impact on the world, and how the religion has acted as an engine for change in world history. I am reading a stupendous book at the moment, a book called Ark of the Liberties, written by our headmaster’s son, Ted Widmer. In the book Ted discusses the history of the United States and how in many moments of our nation’s founding they leaned on a millennial approach to the coming together of the United States. The author reflected that “Religion has never been far away from… governments” and I used this generic comment as a guiding principle in exploring Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and then dabbling in the secular “religions” of Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism. That is a hefty amount for seven classes!

But my father was amazed, first of all, that schools would even tackle the subject of religions. Granted, since there is a paucity here of Hindus, Buddhists, Confucianists, Daoists and Legalists, these topics were much more sociological and non-confrontational than those emotionally-laden monotheistic religions. My dad was so interested and excited to hear about these religions, and not just the nuts and bolts of what they believed, but seeing art images, and creating the context of how these spiritualities affected our world.

Naturally, when it came time for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this was a test for all of us. How would I approach these three conjoined-at-the-hip-and-still-so-tense Abrahamic faiths? How would the students respond? How does a believer of one faith sum up the nuts and bolts of centuries of doctrinal disputes? How does an outsider approach the faith of another group? The impact of that religion? Do we mention any of the bad moments in history? Can we get past any historical analysis that is not just “the will of God”???

Since the relation to Judaism is a touchy subject, I wanted to create a historical timeline, introducing the students to the words, “apogee” and “nadir.” We reminded ourselves of the covenant the Hebrews made with their God, YHWH, and looked at the 10th century BCE apogee of the Hebrew kingdom when Jerusalem was a major capital, and the power extended far and wide. I then jumped several centuries to what I called the nadir, the lowest point for the Hebrews, when Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar dispersed the Jews, mostly to the East, in what has been termed, “the diaspora.” In this approach we encountered the stirring triumphs of the Hebrews, and also the low point, the historical justification why something like Israel needed to be created millennia later, in an attempt to restore that 10th century BCE high point of Solomon’s empire.

My students treated the subject like historians—looking at the evidence, trying to understand the timeline, and making sense of causes and effects. There wasn’t a single nasty comment, and my father mentioned how thrilling it was to watch the students apply their evaluative and reflective skills to something that could have been simply badly stereotyped.

As we discussed Christianity, I compared the various “social action” messages of Jesus’ sermons to the image of Jesus Christ as vengeful warrior in the book of Revelation. I explained how that narrative of the apocalypse has shaped many moments in Christian history, and why some Christians have looked for the anti-Christ in anything they feared or didn’t understand. We looked at some of the actual words, such as when those last vials are poured out over the earth in the last days, the Tigris and Euphrates would dry up, or the “whores of Babylon” would be silenced—hey, references to what we have been studying. My father was mesmerized at how little my students really knew about Christian doctrine and history, but how they eagerly sought to understand this information. He mentioned about a dozen times how stupefied a student was when he said, “You mean Jesus was a Jew?!” I worried a little about what he thought turning a historian’s eye on something that has been our spiritual bedrock since infancy, but as we left class, he said, “That was really interesting—you handled those tough topics very well.” You never mind hearing praise from your father.

I skipped the doctrinal elements of Islam in class—remember the statistic that 94% of Jordan is Muslim—so we could focus on the impact and extent of Islam, the relationship of Islam to the state, and how and why Islam spread so quickly. I wasn’t worried—but I also wanted to do historical justice, analyze thoughtfully and sensitively, and relay what historians write about these topics. I underscored to the class that as we speculated why Islam spread so quickly throughout not only Arabia, but many parts of the remnants of the southern part of the Roman Empire, we would not say, “it is God’s will” as historical evidence. No one got miffed.

I offered 8 points that, as an outsider, could account for the easy acceptance and spread of Islam. The first point was the clarity of the message. I could almost hear an exhale of relief that I started with something that to them was so obvious, and positive. And I wasn’t just trying to talk of terrorism—the Arab fear that every westerner begins and ends with terrorism when exploring Islam.

It was an exciting class. My students debated some of my points and my priorities. They tried to qualify some comments about the relationship of Islam to slavery, and women’s rights. But mostly, they dug in and worked like the good historians they are becoming. My father had been watching this one student every day, and on more than occasion, said, “That Jude Dajani is something. If I were doing a group project, I would want her on my team. She is something special.” Not anything about Jude not being American, or anything else “foreign,” just astute observations about a thrilling student.

As we walked around campus one afternoon he wondered, “Do you think anyone taught like this when I was in school? I mean we never studied any of these things, and history was just about battles and dates. Do you think anyone was doing this exciting work back then?” He then launched into his observations about the students’ friendliness, and willingness to work and become more effective students—the very things I have been telling him for the last year.

On one of our last nights the headmaster and his wife invited us over to dinner with a few of my best teacher friends. My father mentioned to Eric that everywhere he went on campus someone was cleaning something—“they really do their job well,” he emphasized. He also told Eric that they should update the website and get some better photographers since he didn’t think the magazine articles he had seen, and the website, did the place justice.

As we finished our meal—a pre-Thanksgiving roasted turkey meal—we settled into talking and reflecting. Eric often calls on guests to offer impromptu speeches, and so my father obliged and spoke of coming all the way here to check on his son’s safety. “In these two weeks, I have never felt unsafe,” and thanked our hosts for their hospitality. I mentioned that in February, 2007, I had sat at this very table—Eric and I sat again in the same exact spots as that first moment—discussing how I might broach the subject of moving to Jordan to my family back home. How fitting to sit there at the table, after a satisfying day of classroom teaching, after a satisfying 12-day visit with my father, basking in the glow of what KA has meant to all of us over these months. I sat there with Linda, my French friend, Tessa, my South African friend, and Randa, my Jordanian friend, and with my father, my rock of Gibraltar, and there I was, on a cloud not far away at all from where my mother would have held court.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

“Nice talking to you, Fadel!”

He’s in the air right now.

About eight hours ago my father’s plane took off from Amman—he is due to land in about four hours at JFK in New York and then he will change planes to Cincinnati.

It still strains credulity that my father made the trip—after all he hasn’t left the United States since 1953. Then he was with the US Air Force and he crossed the Atlantic with his mates in a ship that took 17 days. His entire travel time today—even with the requisite two hour arrival, and the layover in New York, is under 20 hours!

I mean this is a man who doesn’t like to go across town for dinner!

But this sphinx-like man with the heart of gold, ability to talk to anyone and the gentlest/firmest grip I know came, to Jordan and did what he does best: went out to dinner and talked to people in his leisurely, caring way. I think he was a hit.

The other day I dashed off a blog entry offering a thumbnail sketch of what we were doing, and what he was thinking about (could you tell the driving in Jordan bothered him???!) but of course an itinerary is never very interesting. As in any trip, it is the little moments that are the most telling, most revealing, most memorable. My father jotted down things on old envelopes throughout his trip, and yesterday I started to jot down some of the moments that resonated with me.

On October 2, right after my father arrived, we were walking out of the airport, and then leaving Queen Alia International Airport, and my dad exclaimed, “why this could be Orlando!” If you know my father well, once he makes a proclamation, one is likely to hear it again. So several times I heard him tell people here in Jordan: "you know when you come out of the airport and see the landscaping and palm trees, it looks like you could be in Orlando, Florida." Like clockwork this morning, as we drove into the airport area, he echoed his sentiments again.

On Friday, October 3, his first whole day of waking up and living in the Middle East, we visited the great Roman city, Jerash. We went with my fun fun colleague Nancy to take in the Roman centurion show and chariot race (the brochure says that an actor from the classic movie Ben-Hur, as well as a consultant from Gladiator helped them create the show). We had come through the monumental arch built for a one-time visit to Jerash by first-century Roman emperor Hadrian and I left my dad for a few minutes while I went to purchase tickets with Nancy. I come back around and my dad had sat down beside a Jordanian guard, and they were talking away, like someone my father had just met in his office (his office by the way is his corner booth in the Imperial Diner). My dad sees me, gets up, shakes hands, and says, “Nice talking to you, Fadel!” I got a chuckle out of that one. My father thinks my mother was the more personable in the family, but he is no slouch in the making friends department.

Last week we went out to dinner in Amman—to a new place, Tony Roma’s Ribs. Ohmigosh…this place would make you feel you were in a mall in Anywhere, USA with great ribs and just that, you know, feel of a TGIFriday’s. We went with dear friends Rehema and Lubna. During the meal Rehema ate like we hadn’t seen good suburban food in months (ummm…we hadn’t) and kept the order up with the great ribs, baked potatoes, spinach dip and chocolate chip cookie with ice cream. We asked my dad to join in the ecstasy over the middle-brow dessert and he quipped, “I know when to quit.” Rehema and I just looked at each other and laughed, and one of us said, “We don’t know when to quit” and the other said, “we should get t-shirts that read, “We Don’t Know When To Quit!” True to form—we kept on eating. As we left that evening, Lubna whispered in my ear, “I see why you like to go home so much and see your family.”

My father usually joined me for most of the classes while he was here, enjoying the interactions and energy of the students. But one afternoon while I was repeating a lesson, I absolved him of class attendance, and I watched him ambling across the patio toward the Dining Hall, taking the arm of Lubna, and just chatting away. On another occasion I had a study session for a mid-term exam in the Dining Hall, and my father held court with several young faculty at another table. When I asked him what they had talked about over the course of that 90 minutes, he simply said, “well, I think we solved most of the problems in the world.”

When we visited Mukawir, that now-desolate site of the ruins of Herod’s summer palace, and pilgrimage spot for John the Baptist fans, I reminded my father that right after I graduated from college I had taken Grandpa (his father) to Vancouver to visit WWII friends of my grandfather’s. Everywhere we went I wheeled this man around. I remarked to my father as we trekked up that precipitous hill that my grandfather was only two years older at the time than my dad is right now, and here he is making this arduous climb in Jordan. A few days later as we worked our way through Petra (always interesting—always exhausting) he turned to me and said, “I guess these two new hips I have are working out okay.” He asked how far into Petra my friend Anne had gone in March, and wanted to go just a little bit further. The next day my father made a few phone calls to the US, to his brother and a few friends, just to make sure they knew he had wandered through one of the anointed seven wonders of the world. He is not a man of frequent boasts, but that afternoon he enjoyed the jealousy from those friends.

The other night, on our way back from the church I attend in Amman, we passed by Nancy’s apartment, heard her marvelous laugh, and we peeked in the window. She and Rehema had enjoyed a repast, invited us in, and there we sat like old friends, laughing into the night sky as the sun fell and the moon shone. Seeing my dad with my friends, seeing him share stories and exude comfort, well, it’s just as good as it can be.

On the first day of his visit, and on every subsequent day, as we came through security (actually we call it “Public Safety” at KA—it just sounds better) I told the officers that my guest was “Abu John.” That is a loving way to say, “John’s Papa.” Every time we came through the gate, the men and women of Public Safety would greet me, and smile and shout, “Welcome Abu John!” That was about the extent of my father’s astute grasp of Arabic—but he got great mileage out of it.

The other day my father decided we needed to check the oil in my new car. I could have been 16 in our drive-way in Cincinnati, or any place I have ever lived where my father, for his own peace of mind, checks under the hood and makes sure the car I am driving is doing well.

There were a couple of lovely moments just this morning, as his visit came to an end. We had packed up the car with his suitcases about seven, before breakfast. I would drive him over to the airport at 10, after my first classes. I had to stop over and make a few copies before class, so I sent him off to the Dining Hall—I knew he would be fine. Food and conversation are his calling cards. As I rounded the corner, I saw that my dear student Hamzeh had come up to him, and they walked into the DH together—busily chatting. I heard my dad say, “Anza, how are you today?” He is a good man—not a natural Arabic speaker, but a friendly man. There they were, two of my favorite people together.

I then joined them for breakfast when a young man came up and said to my father, “I am sorry sir, but I borrowed a pen the other day from you, and forgot to return it. I am sorry and thank you. I hope you enjoyed your visit.” My father leaned over and said, “do you think that would happen just any place??”

As we drove to the airport my father said, “you have a great circle of loving friends. We are lucky, aren’t we?” He might have been referring to nearly any moment of his trip, but it might have been our carefree evening last night at Haret Jdoudna, our favorite go-to restaurant nearby. The title of the restaurant means, “the courtyard of my grandfather,” and you sit in a beautiful courtyard, enjoying the delights of Arab food, and you revel in your friends. We went with three of my best friends—Randa, Tessa, and Rehema. We shared stories, ate the spicy cubes of beef with all the roasted eggplant, tomato and onion side dishes. It was a clear evening, with a sense of joy of what my dad had seen and heard and experienced in the last two weeks.

He’ll be landing in about three hours, and I have an evening of boarding duty before me. I will put down some thoughts on how he responded to my classes in the next few days.

I can only imagine what the Mayor of the Imperial Diner will be telling his flock tomorrow morning…

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Good Doctor

This is the 11th day since my father left the comforts of Cincinnati, Ohio to make the journey to Jordan. In the days he has been here we have mixed the tourism with the daily life of a teacher at a new prep school in the Middle School. Two days in the last week my father spent the entire school day away from KA—in the company of a wonderful man, the good doctor, Dr. Hamati.

In the 1970s Neil Simon wrote a series of comedy sketches that became more profound than they had the right to be. Simon called his play, The Good Doctor. Two days in the last week my father spent time in the company of Dr. Hamati, and their time became more profound than perhaps it had the right to be. It was the meeting of cultures, but also the symbiosis of brilliant fathers and loving husbands.

When I first came to Jordan I wondered if I would get to know any of the families as closely as I had over the years at my schools in Gastonia, Charlotte, or Tarrytown. I hardly knew anything about Arab family, or Arab life, and would I be too much of an outsider, would I be included in family celebrations as I had over the years with families like the Jacksons, the Coyles, the Enszers, the Eldridges, Khosrowshahis, and so many other treasured families.

Well—in the last week my dad has enjoyed invitations from the good doctor, and dinner with another family who owns a pizza place, and last night with Hamzah’s family in Karak. In each case the family was so enthusiastic to meet my father, break bread, and visit as if we were really just long-lost brothers.

Here is a brief break-down of what we have done in the last week:

Thursday: Baptism site, dinner at Chili Ways
Friday: tour the Roman town of Jerash, the Islamic castle Ajloun, visit to the DVD “candy store,” late lunch Bruscheta in Amman, pot-luck dinner on campus
Saturday: first meal in the dining hall, trip to Mukawir, church
Sunday: school day; trip to the barber shop in Madaba; duty night
Monday: school day and dinner at Tony Roma’s in Amman
Tuesday: touring with Dr. Hamati; reception at the Korean ambassador’s house in Amman
Wednesday: spa day with Dr. Hamati and a speaker at school in the evening
Thursday: school day and dinner with Fadi’s family in Amman
Friday: drive to Karak and then expedition to Petra and finally, dinner, with Hamzah’s family

Before we go to spend the afternoon and evening in Amman I thought I would interview the old man about his trip:

Q: Besides harboring “the worst drivers in the world,” what other observations do you have about Jordan so far?
I heard the first cuss word on my trip just yesterday—the first one in over a week—and it was Petra and from an American. Their greeting in Jordan is always, “So how do you like Jordan?” Men like to smoke. People like coffee. They certainly like to eat. Skies are always blue—very few clouds. There is usually a breeze coming in from the west. You need sunglasses here—because we don’t have brown eyes (most people here have really brown eyes and Dr. Hamati wonders if that is a self-filtering system). Many wear people like we wear, and some wear their traditional clothing of the long robes and headwear. Teen-agers are teen-agers: they like to get together, be together, yell, run, and dress individually. There is a Jordanian boy, a Muslim, wearing a “Fat Albert” t-shirt. Hairstyles vary here—men and women. Coca-cola and Pepsi-cola are bottled water are very popular here.

Q: What about the trip to Jordan has been what you expected it to be?

Many surprises though but what has been what I expected is, well, I am in awe about the antiquities here. Two hundred years is nothing here—we are talking centuries and BC here and Dr. Hamati took me to a watering well the other day, and it dates back to before the time of Christ. How can sheep live on land where there isn’t anything growing? If I was Moses walking around out there for 40 years, I doubt I’d make it over 1 or 2 mountains, and don’t think I would have made it to the Promised Land. The Baptismal Site looked like a piece of rye bread—the color of the water, and the flies were biting. It was not very appealing. But more than I expected—without doubt, the friendliness of the people. People want to hold a door open for you, they like to greet you and shake hands, they want to host you for dinner—they want to make sure you are enjoying yourself and seeing their special attractions.

Q: What did you learn about Jordan from Dr. Hamati?
I think Jordanians are achievers—they strive for excellence. In his family they strive for excellence and everyone in his family has achieved very well. Many of the families are large, and in our talk I got a sense of how they take care of each other. You won’t find nursing homes here—family takes care of family. Dr. Hamati said if you succeed, you are expected to help others.

Q: From the 16 hours together over the course of two days, what conversation topics are likely to be the most memorable for you?
In addition to being a physician and surgeon, he is a retired army general. When I go with Dr. Hamati he pays for everything, or we don’t pay! He does tip. He is thoughtful beyond measure. He has cared for his family and for others. When I am with him and there is a security screen, walk around it. People know Dr. Hamati. We talked about medicine, religion, politics, sports, travel, family, how much he loves his wife and how dedicated to her he remains. When he was called out to discuss a surgery he made sure I was taken care of. He drove me to Madaba to show me things, to Mt. Nebo, to the Dead Sea, to Amman—this man went beyond hospitality to welcome me to Jordan.

Q: What about your trip would most surprise the regulars at the Imperial, your hang-out, in Cincinnati?
No foul language! Remarkable to go this long without it! When people are disgusted here they may gesture. They seem to have patience, except when they get behind a steering wheel. They don’t like to replace lights when they burn out and they don’t like to use turn signals! I never saw speed bumps on a highway until I came here.

Q: What about the tourist sites like Petra and the mosaics?

I had always connected mosaics with what I had seen in the 1950s in Italy, but maybe these people taught them how to do it. The sides of the roads are littered with water bottles, plastic bags, papers, drinking cups, coke cans, and fast-food carry-out. People picnic under any tree they see, daytime or nighttime. There will be a grill on the side of the road and a family visiting and eating. Few roadside signs to help you on your way. I miss I-75! Few stop signs, and if they are there, they don’t obey them anyhow!

Q: Any other observations or reflections at this stage of the visit?No parking meters, and people park wherever they want, facing either direction, against the curb, feet away from the curb, parallel, on an angle, on a bend—anywhere you can pull over! People walk on the street, not on the sidewalk, walk right across the street. Children and adults.

Q: any observations not involving cars or walking??
They like to eat and make sure you are happy with the food.
Last night at Hamzah’s house they made sure that we were as happy and helped as much as possible.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Finding My Way Back To Then

When you go out driving, it is important to know how to find your way back. As a new leaser of a new Ford Focus (don’t laugh! It’s not a shuttle bus or a taxi! These are real wheels!) I am reminded how important, how difficult, and how rewarding it is to find your way back.

Picture it: last week I planned to drive into Amman for my first time with an oratorio singing group. The conductor had given me explicit directions. (Now I must have an aside here about what “explicit” and “directions” means in Jordan—it means someone gave you a general idea. Street signs only started going up in Amman last year, so no one actually knows the street names, and everyone just says you pull over and ask for help. This is a city of over 2 million people! Moreover—nearly every building is the same color and every street really looks like the other!) I was to go into the 3rd circle, take a right, take the second right, and then up the hill on the left I would see the YWCA, the place where the rehearsals take place.

I get into my car, as cocky as a 17 year-old off to discover new terrain, popped a CD into the stereo (a great cast recording of a show entitled [title of show] about a group of thirtysomethings trying to write a Broadway musical and head off for Amman). It is about a 20-25 minute drive to where Amman goes off in a million directions. The easiest thing about directions in byzantinely-designed Amman—and the closest thing to any reference of a grid pattern—is that in one section of Amman there are these 8 circles that go from the outer edge to inner Amman. I go past the 7th circle, 6th circle—counting since they are not marked, I have 15 minutes to go before rehearsal begins.

I am following the directions to a tee—and then I make that 2nd right, and hmmm…there is not really a hill, and I don’t just “see the YWCA.” I drive down a ways and then decide to start all over again—I probably just miss it. I tick off the directions again—I see a number of hospitals, pharmacies, and florist shops. I stop someone and ask if they know where the YWCA might be. “I’m sorry, what is this WCA you are talking about” was the nice answer I got. I vroooom back to 3rd circle and try one last time. I am now 30 minutes late and cannot find my way.

Well, I failed. I couldn’t find my way to the YWCA—and no rehearsal. I had gone over that terrain three times, asked four different people, and came up a little bewildered. New destinations are exciting, but really only when you find your way there.

I decide that my trek into Amman should not be vain, so I go back to know where I know—that 7th circle intersection that gives me confidence in driving around Amman. I decide that I should make my way to a couple places I frequent and take a risk. I decide I gotta find my way there.

So back in 7th circle I go in search of the church I attend. I have been in cabs to this place for a year now, but drivers never go the same way, and I have only a vague idea as to how to find my way. As I said, this is a difficult town with long, marhabainshallahwallayallaabdullah street names, so I need to create my own landmarks. Okay, I think I can make it there by way of fast-food restaurants. Okay, I start east, seeing the KFC standing proudly on Zahran street. I decide to take the tunnel by the Colonel’s face that turns northward. Wait—good! There is the Burger King and the Popeye’s that seem familiar. In a little bit I see the PizzaPizza place where Zeina and I once had lunch. This is all looking familiar. There is a sign, an actual sign in comforting English that veers off to the right that goes to the traffic circle near the church. Okay, take that exit, and yes, there is the new Tony Roma’s Rib place I have seen from the cab. I come upon the Orange Mobile Phone company, and know that I am on the right road. Up the hill and around to the left, and there is the fence of the school! The Amman International Church meets in the Baptist School, and there it is! I found my way!

I make a U-Turn, quite satisfied that this goal was met—now I want to find one more place before I head back. There is a classy Italian restaurant, Romero’s, that we choose for special events. They make a risotto there that rivals the one I had in Rome in 2001 with my Hackley travel gang. It’s hidden on a side street, but I think I can find it—there is the hotel that is a nice landmark, and there is the Intercontinental diagonal—yes, there it is! I found it—I may have missed the YWCA, but I found my way to the church and Romero’s. I think I can make it.

Obviously driving and directions are on my mind these days since I have that freedom and burden of figuring out the automobile side of life in Jordan. And since my father arrived in Jordan for a two-week visit this past Thursday he has been obsessed with the driving habits of Jordanians. In fact his first impressions of Jordan all seem to revolve around his pronouncement: “these must be the worst drivers I have ever seen!” Indeed, as he has observed, they cut in front of you, double and triple park, never use turn signals, and make a driving experience an unpredictable melee.

We have taken care of most of the biblical sites so far on the trip—going to the baptism site of Jesus at the Jordan river, Mt. Nebo where Moses expired, and today a challenging hike up to Mukawir, the summer palace of Herod where Salome performed her infamous dance of the seven veils and then asked for the head of John the Baptist on a silver salver. As we were making the hike in the noonday sun, I wondered, should I have brought my 77-year old father on this hike?? It had 129 steep stone steps downward, then a flat bridge, then you walked up, up, up to this towering hilltop with the ruins of the summer palace. It has a commanding view of the Dead Sea Valley, and is perhaps the quietest place in all of Jordan. Of course, he did the yeoman’s work in stride—in fact, I said, ”why not just pretend we are doing roofing work today?” He smiled at me in a knowing way, not needing to utter the words, “If it was roofing we were doing, you wouldn’t be anywhere near the place!” My dad can say more with a look than almost anyone!

Today is my birthday, and it is the first time in exactly twenty years that my dad is with me on my birthday. It was in 1988 that he and my mother drove down to see me in Belmont, North Carolina for my 25th birthday. Twenty years. Who knew then that I would spend the next twenty years of birthdays in Providence, Charlotte, New York and Amman.

This morning I awoke to find a birthday card from my dad waiting for me in the bathroom. He put into a few words how wonderful it is to spend a birthday together again. His mind wandered “back over the years and other birthdays—I’m thankful for them all.” Of course it is pretty moving to spend the day together, and find my way back to other birthdays—the party in the backyard with laughing children on the new jungle gym; the 3rd grade party at my grandmother’s house with my classmates putting on a show with the costumes my mother had collected; the surprise 16th party with all my new exciting high school friends; the birthday in 1985 when my Denison clique found a gelato place in Columbus, Ohio to soothe my sweet tooth for the Italian ice I had discovered during my semester abroad; the birthday with my mother and father in Belmont, North Carolina, a time so innocent and sweet.

It is an irresistible invitation to take a drive down memory lane, a chance to savor the brilliant colors of past chapters. With so many demands on our time, the urgent tasks require our attention while we sometimes neglect those golden yesterdays that shaped us. My father—the fearless, loving man who has been the rock of our family for my whole life—exudes wisdom and experience. He is the embodiment of the Emersonian proverb, “patience and fortitude conquer all things” and with him nearby on this birthday it is easy to find my way back to my childhood, my adolescence, my early adult years, all shaping and burnishing these (gulp) middle ages. As we visit, I hearken back to shows in the backyard on the picnic table, lessons in Miss Wilson’s class, Sundays at church with the family in the third pew on the right, failures at learning how to do car repairs, advice and life lessons on pain and hurt, and examples of how to savor the joys that act as the arms of love in life.

Spending this time with my Norman-Rockwell solid father helps me find my way back to then—and that trip is always a sweet reward.