Sunday, November 30, 2008

“Give me lamb any day!”

I try not to use this blog as a bully pulpit from which I vent about all that is wrong or frustrating in the world. Well, wait—I guess I do that sometimes. What I mean to say is, I try not to use the blog as an emotional launch pad, always telling you when I miss something or someone. Oh, wait—I guess color me guilty occasionally about that too. But I hope you don’t think I whine too much. That part I hope is true.

I will indulge in a little bit of whining, or I should say, pining, today.

Last Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, I missed America a lot. I know it is not my first time to be away from the emotional and gastronomic comforts of Cincinnati on Thanksgiving, but I missed home this week. It felt very acute on Thursday.

Last year, my first year at KA, I spent Thanksgiving in Budapest, Hungary with my divine Denison-era friend Sharon, and my new KA friend, the exquisite Elizabeth. (See last year’s blog entry, “Enjoying The Bridges In Our Lives” if you want a repeat of that episode). This year Elizabeth is in medical school in Chicago, so maybe my pining for her, coupled with a yearning for the American-ness and presence of Thanksgiving, and an ever-present sigh wishing Sharon lived closer created a great big wistful hankering on Thanksgiving Day.

The school didn’t do anything to help our Arab brethren understand what an American Thanksgiving is. There was no explanation of it, and obviously no parades or pageants. But the Dining Hall did prepare a pretty good rendition of a Thanksgiving meal. There was an excellent squash soup (where do they get squash? As ubiquitous as it is in the USA, I can’t find it here) and they had roasted some turkeys.

But it just wasn’t quite right from the get-go. You just wandered in to dinner, like always, since our sit-down meals together are only at lunchtime. So people kinda came and went. There was not an official “start” to the meal. And then when I was in line, I heard complaining from a contingent of Saudi boys. They didn’t like the turkey. They couldn’t believe we had to have this. “Who cares about turkey? I think it tastes strange,” one boy opined, and then another said, “Give me lamb any day!”

Okay—it is time to do more than pine. It is time to whine! I just smiled at them, but in my head I was replying: Listen, I eat your food all the time, and while I like it, there isn’t a lot of variety, you hear? And this is what we eat in AMERICA on this day, and we like it—in fact some of us crave it, you got it? I’m sure in my head I added a “buster” for good measure and explosive punctuation too.

So I take my plate of turkey and sweet potatoes and stuffing (did someone actually suggest to put pickles in the stuffing?? I know stuffing is almost by law supposed to be eccentric, but must it have pickles? And must it be served in little rondelets? Harumph!) and sit down, pulling in closer that cloak of feeling-sorry-for-oneself.

It didn’t send me off the deep end—it just made me miss the gathering at one time, the time-honored traditions, and the comforts and conveniences of American meals.

My colleagues Wendy and Tiffany had sensed that we may need another stab at creating a more-typical Thanksgiving meal, so last week they announced that there would be a potluck for any dorm faculty on Friday evening. They were going to get some turkeys (by the way, very expensive here—about $12 a pound for turkey!!!) and roast them, and they wanted to organize a pot luck so that the essentials were covered, and we could gather in fine American form at a certain time and enjoy the repast.

I decided on two side dishes: one traditional and one a little avante-garde-y. I found corn on the cob at the grocery store (about twice as expensive as buying it in frugal Cincinnati) and while Squanto was not here to help show me how to cook it, there was a feeling of reaching back to the first Thanksgiving meal as I boiled the corn. I decided on a carrot dish with an Indian (the other kind!) glaze of oranges, cumin and cinnamon.

We gathered at Wendy’s house about 6:00 and I walked in—and there it was—that wave of stimuli that excite the olfactory cells—the smell of roasting turkey and all those glorious trimmings. We were in a home—and it just smells better in a home than in a dining hall, and we were gathered around a table cum banquet plank. Someone had made mashed potatoes, and someone had made sweet potato casserole, and someone had made a stuffing our of your dreams (or at least mine) with that traditional sage smell that you think your grandmother had patented.

I can barely keep from grabbing little bits of food (Rehema actually sent me to stand in the corner since little pieces of steaming turkey kept leaping off the platter as Sean carved it and they leapt into my mouth) and I feel like a 10 year old at my grandmother’s house just waiting to dig in.

Just at the moment when I was about to grab a spoon, Wendy asked that we all gather round and hold hands. Oh, yes, of course—the part where we express thanksgiving! I almost forgot that part of the holiday in my rush to get at these food-postcards of yore! There are about 20 of us, and we gather around the heaving table, and Lucy, a new colleague, reads us a piece she has written about her last Thanksgiving in Chile, and her gratitude at being with all of us at KA. She asks us to go around the circle and express some thanks publicly.

It was a memorable moment as each of us shared something—we hadn’t been prepped for this assignment—and it held us in reverence and awe. Some mentioned family, some mentioned this community as a family, and I mentioned my thanksgiving for the capacity to wonder. And even as we finished the circle, we held hands a few seconds longer, simply drinking in the beauty and camaraderie of this moment. I think many of us had missed home a bit more than usual in the last day, and this bonding, both the physical, and the bringing-of-food, had calmed us and comforted us.

Over the next several hours we relaxed, stuffed ourselves, laughed, and let go of some of the aches. I told Wendy that her gravy was spectacular, and that her blueberry crumble dessert tasted like, well, like America.

The following day I was talking with my great friend Fatina, a Jordanian who has lived much of her adult life in Saudi Arabia. I was telling her how great Tiffany’s stuffing was. I told her that the sage in her stuffing was a sensory memory for me—the smell and taste that embodies the holiday season of November and December.

Just like any good historian (which she is!) Fatina explained to me the Arab folklore about sage. While sage in English comes from the Latin word for “to save,” or “to heal,” I learned that in Arabic it has Mary’s name in the word. The Virgin Mary, I inquire?? Fatina explained that Arabs believe that during childbirth Mary chewed on sage, to ease the physical pain. Moreover, the legend goes that Mary chewed sage as she and Joseph fled Herod to Egypt, and that to Mary, no other plant would give such shelter from the storms of life. Fatina, ever the font of wisdom, said that the legend continues that Mary said to the sage: “From now until eternity, you will be the favorite flower of mankind. I give you the power to heal man and save him from death and troubles as you have for me.”

How interesting that in the western world, where the majority are Christians, we don’t know this story about the herb sage. Maybe that is why the Puritans craved the herb; maybe the legendary powers of shelter and healing were taken into consideration as Puritans prepared their meals, pined for home, and struggled to survive and thrive in a New World.

Thus, to paraphrase that Saudi lad: give me sage any day.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

“Just Enough Jesus”

Today my mother, Mary Martha Griley Leistler, would have turned 70 years old. That is three score and ten years old.

When I was a little boy, my mother would tell me that God promised us in the Bible a lifespan of “threescore years and ten.” She was a marvelous storyteller, and even when she was explaining simple, or complex, life lessons, they were always wrapped up in a memorable way of story telling. So I have this memory as a child of my mother, rather wistfully, leaning on that promise in Psalm 90:10, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten.”

When my mother turned 50 years old, my father and sister and I had a party for her at one of our favorite eateries, LaRosa’s—not a surprise party, mind you—my mother loved looking forward to parties too much to reduce the party to just those few hours of revelry. And my father welcomed everyone to the celebration of MM’s demi-centennial. He quipped, “I thought of inviting all of Mary Martha’s doctors but there wouldn’t have been room for anyone else!”

In the thirty months since my mother physically left us, it has always been apparent that she would never really leave us. There are so many family stories, so many turns at which I seek and feel her guidance and her inspiration.

In my childhood she came up with a travel game that served us well to kill time and keep we(e) children entertained. We never really had a name for the game, but the idea was to try and stump my mother. She challenged us, as we drove through the fields of Indiana and Illinois on our way to Aunt Helen’s house, to give her any idea, and she could instantly turn it into a Devotion, a meditation on Christian living. Now—it may not seem like a rousing game—I mean is this as exciting as License Plate Bingo???—but again, you had to know my mother to understand how everything about her was exciting, or different, or over-the-top. Concrete images—a mailbox, a dead deer on the side of the road, a leftover wrapper from a Snicker’s bar—no problem! You would yell out your topic, and in a matter of seconds she would say, “Oh that’s a good one," and proceed to offer a 5 minute “instant” devotional about God’s plan for our lives, or our journey with the Lord. As we got older, we offered up more abstract ideas, and again, her brain could instantly transform whatever seemingly random thought into a beautiful, touching meditation on the fruits of the spirit. Our lives were a constant devotion.

Well, last week, I found myself offering up a variation on this game while my friends Nancy, Tessa and Tristan and I were sitting on the balcony of our bungalow by the Red Sea. We had just realized that Christmas vacation was coming soon, and we had an impromptu sing-a-long of Christmas songs. Naturally, since I have this odd competitive streak (again, if you know my mother, you know I come by this naturally) and I wanted to challenge my friends to try and stump them with obscure Christmas carols. They had not heard of “Bring a torch, Jeanette Isabella!” (Tristan kept asking, “Who is this woman, Jeanette Isabella, and where has she been??”) nor had they heard of the medieval advent hymn, “Adam Lay a-Bounden” (Thank you WO for that one—I will always win the contest with that one—some people may not know ‘Lo, How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming’ well, but please—“Adam Lay a-Bounden”—anyone, anyone, anyone???

I told my friends that I was thinking of my mother especially this week coming up on her birthday, and I confided the odd childhood devotional game. Nancy especially loved it. She is an ordained minister, and she said she just loved coming up with sermon titles. That was her favorite thing. So we had a little contest. Let's create some interesting sermon titles! Nancy laughed when she thought a great Immaculate Conception sermon title would be, “I just can’t believe a word you are saying, Mary!” I channeled my mother’s instincts and came up with: "Just Enough Jesus." I explained that Christians want a nice, protected life, and don’t want harm, but they don’t really want all the work that comes with being a super-committed Christian—they want just enough Jesus to make the journey easier.

I laughed and thought MM would like that title.

All week that concept of ‘making the journey easier’ reverberated in my head. My mother endured MS for over 45 years. It was never an easy journey. But it is not her arduous life struggles that linger with me now—it is the radiance of her smile, her focus on individual people, her faith that every soul contains a spark from God. Interestingly, last week as I was at Mt. Sinai in Egypt, I remembered the Judaic belief in neshamah—the belief that all the sparks belonging to all the Jews who would ever live were present at Mt. Sinai. It was a heady experience pondering that when one of these sparks is born, it seeks to return to God.

When my family speaks of my mother, it is never with a morbid fixation on her death. I know that death makes many people uncomfortable, but for my family, in reminding ourselves of MM, it is always uplifting. There is such thanks within us that her spark and her soul touched our family. Her influence permeates our actions, our impulses, our struggles. Whenever my father sits at his diner, the imperious Mayor of the Imperial Diner, he is carrying on her work of visiting, and one might even say ministering, to friends and acquaintances. Whenever my sister, who imagines herself as introverted, helms a project at church or her children’s school, she is seeking to be extroverted and meaningful as my mother strove to be. Whenever my brother-in-law gives of his salary, he is remembering her goal of sharing and missions; whenever he laughs that marvelous laugh, he is reminding all of us how MM’s humor and laugh could wipe away hurts and fears. Whenever niece Emma and nephew Jack have something hard to accomplish in school, they are reminded that ‘Momma’ was a hard worker, and very smart—and “don’t we want to be like her?” Whenever I teach a class, I try and emulate her star-power exuberance.

The other day a student asked me how I was people to think so fast and respond to complex essay topics almost instantly. I debated telling them about the devotional game in the car, because surely that has aided me far more than I ever imagined.

My mother planted in me the idea that God had a particular plan for each of us. It is sometimes difficult to discern what the plan is, but my mother believed education was at the heart of it all. Education is at best, provocative and unpredictable. We must go where challenges await us. We must awaken ourselves to be provoked. We must catch the next assignment.

It was only a matter of months after my mother’s death that the article in the New Yorker about KA landed in my lap—literally, from my friends Peter and Anne. In the thirty months since May, 2006, I have often wondered if I would have come to Jordan had my mother lived. I might easily have not even considered it since it is so far from home. But in the 16 months I have been here, sauntering through the Holy Land, I know she would have approved of this challenge. She would have been the first to say that growth and education takes unexpected twists and turns. Take that risk! We think life is going one way, and then ideas and opportunities can grow in the most fantastically unexpected directions.

This idea of a Divine plan, in one word, of course, is providence. I remember in 1989, around Thanksgiving, I was doing a great deal of soul-searching. I hated the history Phd program I had enthusiastically entered at Brown just a few months earlire, and I didn’t know what the direction of my life should be. In a lovely twist of irony, Brown is in the city of Providence. I got to thinking.

I was meant to be a secondary teacher. And I guess I was meant to come to Jordan.

As an innovator, as a pioneer, my mother would have loved everything about this project!

I suppose one could grouse that Mary Martha did not get her “threescore years and ten.” But while she may have physically left us, there are so many ways in which she continues to shape us, encourage us, and help us. Her impact will last far beyond threescore years and ten. God has kept His promise.

Last year, in my Thanksgiving blog entry, I mentioned that sometime in my childhood my mother changed her greeting to people on this day to wish them a “Happy Thanks-living.” Just like any good network show, let me offer a bit of a “repeat” from last year’s blog entry on Thanksgiving: “Of course as a child I thought it was just weird. But as an adult, now more cognizant of her 49 year battle with MS, I plainly see how she embodied an appreciation, a thanks, simply for living, and loving.”

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Postcard from Sharm el-Sheikh

As I hurriedly packed last week just minutes before leaving for the airport for my weekend getaway on the Egyptian Red Sea coast, I knew immediately what bag I would use for the trip—the sleek, blue, oval weekend bag emblazoned with the “All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir” logo (I am a very proud alum of this organization!). I had won that bag as a prize this past August when I went to Alumni Day at the State Fair, and they had a contest to see which alum had come the furthest to spend the day on the fairgrounds in Columbus, Ohio. My friend Tony had said to me when they first asked, “Wait a minute or two, and then raise your hand.” So someone had proudly announced, “Colorado.” And then one person crowed, “I’m from California!” Tony nodded to me, and I (meekly or cheekily—you decide) raised my hand, and said, “Jordan!” Heads turned, and someone said, “The country?” “Yes, I live in Jordan.” The president of the Alumni Board cheered, “You win—come up here and get your prize!”

So last Wednesday I quickly packed my prize bag as we headed off to the airport to jet off to Egypt for the weekend. Yeah, I know—those last few words were mostly for show-off purposes—jet off to Egypt for the weekend still sounds thrilling even a year after I first did it.

This was a trip with a dual purpose: (1) relax at the popular tourist resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh and (2) become one of the dozens of pilgrims who journey into the Sinai desert to the monastery dedicated to the memory of St. Catherine and Moses. I had in tow a great group of friends: Tristan, a friend and colleague in his 20s (on the trip as we reminisced about television shows he seriously said to me, “I have never heard of Laverne and Shirley, and later when I asked if he knew of Happy Days, he said he had heard once about Fonzie. Ahhhh…the sadness of being born too far removed from the glorious television shows of the 1970s!) was on a trip with a forty-something teacher (that would be me) and Nancy and Tessa, our two ladies of the sixty-something set (the things they were doing in 1968 were exciting to hear about!)

We touched down at 2:00 p.m. in Sharm el-Sheikh—we had ditched a faculty meeting to make the once-a-day 1:00 p.m. flight at the end of the abbreviated school day—whoop-di-doo! The airport in Sharm el-Sheikh—by the way, the cool visitors all call it just Sharm, so Sharm it will be—is designed to look like a great big Bedouin tent. What a great celebration of their indigenous heritage. We secure a taxi and he whisks us about 10 minutes away to our Jaz Belvedere Resort. Our quick journey showed what visionary developers can do: Sharm is not really anything but scrabby scrubby land and rocks and desert-y sand, but somebody imagined that a great resort-opolis could rise from this nothing. We turn into our gated community, and it reminded me immediately of the glorious Hilton Head resorts in South Carolina.

As we check-in, I hold my breath a little. Not about the rooms and the reservations and the Jerry Seinfeld-esque schtik from last week, but about the “all-inclusive” policy of the Resort. I hadn’t told my travel-mates, in case it wasn’t entirely true, but the desk clerk Muhammad (and by the way—seriously like 85% of the men working at the hotel are named Muhammad!) gave us our bracelets and cordially informed us that the hotel is all-inclusive—all the meals are included! Oh my—you know that sent my little German heart all aflutter! I thought the deal was good for just the lodgings—but to have all the meals included!! Wait—Muhammad told us all the drinks and all the snacks we would want are also included!! Can I move in???!

Checked in, unpacked, and moved quickly to the poolside area for a late lunch. The entire complex is designed so that you are never far removed from a spectacular view of the Red Sea (I will say this once—but why in the world is called it “Red”???? It has among the bluest, most intensely Paul-Newman-like-eye blue color anywhere. OK—enough of that. Who cares! The food is all included!!!). In the hotel lobby, by the pool, walking around the bungalow-type rooms, you feel achingly, bracingly, restoratively near the sand and the sparkling water.

As tour director (my group let me be in charge—lucky for them, it might have gotten nasty had we gone to arm-to-arm combat!) we checked out the spa and fitness center, made some reservations for massages, walked on the tawny, golden beach, and re-convened in the Mamluk bar at 7:00 (by the way, isn’t it nice to name the bar after the Mamluks—it gives us a chance to have a quick history lesson: the Mamluks were a medieval caste of former slave-soldiers who eventually created an Islamic sultanate in Egypt, conquering the French along the way, and ruling for about 300 years.)

Tessa comes back with a red wine in her hand, and Tristan with a beer, and my regal Tessa said, “Well done, John-O! Even the wine and beer are free Rrrrrrrrrreally, well done!”

At dinner—in the twilight on the balcony with our buffet never more than 50 feet away, we took in the 75 degree air and sighed. Nancy said, “It feels like we have been on vacation for days! This is marvelous.” It was delightful. We made plans for our pilgrimage the following day.

I arose a little after the sun did—the sun did it much more spectacularly, and with a bold red sky, I might add—and we met our driver at 8:00. Some of us were a little late—you know how I get about punctuality, but Tessa said in an unabashedly imperious tone: “John-O, of course he will wait. After all he is our driver!” We settle in for a ride that is over two hours as we careen through the wadis and red granite mountain peaks of the Sinai peninsula, working our way inland to the middle of Sinai. Nestled at the foot of Mount Sinai is this Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine, considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world. Founded in 527 by Justinian (wait! I just taught about him last week!) the monastery replaced a chapel built by Empress Helena (Constantine’s mum for those at all interested) in 337 on the site where it is believed that Moses saw the Burning Bush (and of course, we marveled more than once that Moses then moved down the road from us here at KA and died). The monks renamed the monastery in the 9th century after some of the brothers claimed to have found the intact body of the famous saint (she of Alexandria and the infamous torture on a spiked wheel—a very popular saint, by the way) on a nearby mountain.

We arrive at the monastery, and it is crowowowowowowowded. At noon there is a service and pilgrims can line up to kiss the relics of St. Cat’s skull and hand. We go through the gate of the monastery (almost all of the walls are from that long-ago 6th century) and queue up to enter the Basilica of the Transfiguration.

I have to say—I have been wanting to go to St. Catherine’s long before I moved to Jordan. The Metropolitan Museum of Art offered a spectacular exhibition of Byzantine art works around the turn of the 21st century and they had secured some icons and art works on loan for the first time in history from St. Catherine’s. I had stared at the photographs and vowed I must get there. Here I was—in this nearly 1500 year-old chapel, with the incense and the pillars bearing Byzantine icons of saints and the mosaics and the line of pilgrims awaiting the spiritual fulfillment of kissing the relic. I watched from the side, and as each pilgrim received a blessing, they also received a ring to wear—a ring that looked like the spiked wheel upon which Catherine was martyred.

Outside the chapel is an enormous thorny evergreen bush, reputedly a descendant of the original Burning Bush (that’s what they say!)from which Moses heard the Lord speak. It is a species not found anywhere else in Egypt. Of course, the photogs are going crazy with the big bush and the tourist mentality. Around the walls protecting the BB there are crevices, and people traditionally write prayers and hopes on slips of paper and stick them into the crevices. Imagine the centuries of pleas and petitions. I did chuckle as I looked at the scene, and right next to the BB is a sign on the ancient wall—a “No Smoking” sign. No smoking? Not next to the BB!!

The other pilgrims all exited, but we insisted to the little old man guard that we had to see the monastery library. It is considered to be second only in importance to the Vatican in terms of Christian manuscripts. We saw some pages from a 4th century Bible, from a 5th century Bible, and a 7th century document called the “patent from Muhammad” in which the Islamic Prophet secured the protection of this monastery from any forces. There were ancient icons, many from the 8th century, which are quite rare since at that time a faction of the Church considered icons heretical and set out to destroy all those art works.

As we left the library, we had the monastery to ourselves—well, not entirely true, we could smell the lunch for the coupla dozen Greek Orthodox monks on site. But the tourist crush was gone, and we could take our time walking through the garden, dense with olive and apricot trees, through the cemetery and back to our driver (guess his name—you probably guessed it was Muhammad! By the way, one of my students told me that a common term/name for a ‘waiter’ in Arabic is ‘hammad,’ since that would most likely be his name anyway!).

We made an important decision. We needed to return to St. Catherine’s. As much as we had hoped to ascend Mt. Sinai, this was not the day. The weather was perfect, but Nancy’s knee is not. It is a nearly 4,000 step climb to the summit of Mt. Sinai, to visit where Moses spent 40 days and nights before receiving the Ten Commandments (the real Moses, not just Charlton Heston in the simulated Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza!). We made a plan to return. One can spend the night at the monastery (those crazy capitalist monks charge $30 for lodging and dinner and breakfast—even cheaper than our great deal at the Jaz Belvedere!) and then most pilgrims climb the mountain at 2:00 a.m. so that you are there for dawn. We will come back in March to complete the pilgrimage.

We speed back to Sharm, and relax for the rest of the weekend, enjoying every bit of the exceptional service, locale, sand, beach chairs, and gorgeous flowers of our hotel. As we wait in the cool Sharm airport, I whip out a bag of sandwiches—all procured from the snack bar at the hotel. Free sandwiches for everyone!

Just the right pick-me-up vacation to get through final exam period this week and next!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Life in a Seinfeld episode…

I have long been a fan of Seinfeld—but beyond the quirky comedic take on the “nothings” of life, the beginning and end of this snarky, New York-y show, act as great bookends for important transitions in my life. When the show debuted (I started from the second episode) back in 1989-90 I was a graduate student at Brown University. When the show came to a “hail-and-farewell” finale in the spring of 1998, I had just assumed the duties as head of the History Department at Hackley School.

From time to time incidents, or conversations, in my life seem to have mirrored episodes, or would-be episodes, of this great navel-gazing show. I remember a lunch at a faculty table circa 1997 when I sat down, noticed a colleague’s inventive sandwich, and quickly went to make one just like the colleague had. I sat back down, and a colleague said pointedly to me, “Lisa was right—you are a food copy-er.” What????? “Whaddya mean, Lisa said—I was a food copy-er????” It didn’t sound flattering, but just because I had repeated a turkey melt sandwich that someone else had, I got labeled a Food Copy-er. And why was Lisa saying this about me???? I commented that we had just stepped through the looking glass and definitely joined a bizarre-o world not unlike Jerry and the gang on the Upper West Side.

Well, the other day, the convoluted plotlines of life not only imitated the structure of a Seinfeld episode—but I actually found myself quoting lines from an episode—and not in an homage kind of way.

First of all, we have a day off this week from school (I think the calendar planners thought this week was American Thanksgiving since we have Thursday off from school, but not next Thursday!) so I planned a little get-away. I corralled three friends, and we wanted to go to the Red Sea resort town, a chi-chi place called Sharm El-Sheikh, or to the cool kids, just “Sharm.” Now I have to get the airline tickets, check on visas, and get a hotel.

American travel websites treat the Middle East vacation spots like step-children, so package deals are hard to come by—so I start looking at the trip in pieces to take care of each stage. I secure the airline tickets, and the travel agent suggests a hotel (“Five Stars,” he says, “Very nice—you’re welcome.” I decide to check on-line for reviews of this suggestion, and discover some of the most ghastly reviews imaginable! One comment was just, “Don’t go to this hotel—whatever you do!” Several dozen other reviews ordered similar salvos. I decided I would take care of the hotel myself.

I have learned that finding hotels in Egypt is a tricky thing—everyone here says, “You can’t trust them—they give everything 5 stars. It means nothing! Be very, very careful. Service can be terrible…” and the diatribe continues. So I go to expedia, and I know where I want us to stay—right in the middle of this beach on this bay. I find a hotel with the word “dreams” in the middle of it…ahhh…perfect. As I try and book the hotel on-line I am trying to get two rooms—Nancy wants a single, but Tristan and Tessa and I will share a suite together. The on-line Big Brother won’t allow me to do a 1 and 3 rooming, so I opt to call the telephone support line. I get a lovely voice on the line, “Hello, this is Carmen. I would like to be your friend and be of service. What is your name?” I tell my new best friend Carmen my name, and give her all my information. She makes the reservation—I just need to check with the other three since it is slightly more expensive than our agreement—and Carmen gives me record locators and all that to complete the reservation.

I check with the fellow travelers—yes, all are agreed about the “Dreams” resort. I call back, and of course, no one has heard of Carmen. Then I give the record locators, and the agent, a new woman named Raya, she says there are no rooms available. I kindly tell her I already have a booking, a reservation made with the lovely Carmen. Raya informs me there are no rooms, and indeed there have not been available rooms for days. I pointedly tell her I have a reservation! The reservation keeps the rooms for me. She says, “Yes, we have the reservation but no rooms.”

And here is when I started quoting from the Seinfeld episode: “The reservation reserves the room. That’s why I made a reservation. That’s what a reservation is for!” Raya replied she knew what reservations were for, and I quoted the script verbatim: “I don’t think you do! Otherwise I would have the rooms! See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to *hold* the reservation and that's really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.” I couldn’t believe all this 1991 dialogue was pouring out of my mouth!

Raya said she had to speak to her supervisor—just like in the TV show! Raya eventually returned to the line, with the immortal line, just like in the quasi-reality of TV: “I'm sorry, my supervisor says there's nothing we can do.”

Ha! Okay, I went back to the drawing board, found another hotel, and we are staying at the Jaz Belvedere…

But this crazy-twisted-doublespeak continued this week, stretching out this moment. Tessa had a crisis when told she couldn’t enter Egypt without a special visa. She went to the website, and the website certainly made it look like that was poppycock. Tessa had Lubna phone the Egyptian and South African embassies, and they said, yes, she would need a special visa. Tessa got on the line, mentioned the website, and oh, well, I guess if you are going to Sharm, well, I guess, everything is fine.

I am nominated, appointed, dubbed, whatever it is to head a Food Committee since someone felt I had the special skills to speak to the Jordanians about food issues. “John, you will be diplomatic and hold them accountable.” Oh sure—choose the man with about 60 good Arabic words at his disposal!

Then there is a hubbub over a 10th grade history class and some of the readings in class about the rise of Islam. But are the problems real problems or pseudo-problems, and are we teaching theology, or critical thinking skills in history? I meet with people to discuss concerns, and much of the issue is truly over semantics and communication skills and faulty translation in the Arabic to English back to Arabic and back to a form of English. What about what sacred texts say and the divergence of how reality operates? Can we look at prophets and holiness critically, and how do we approach issues of faith along with the frailties of the human condition.

Suddenly, it is not just funny moments and clever quips about “nothing.”

Out of nowhere, I get an invitation from the head of the Mathematics department to have coffee that afternoon at his apartment. My first thought is, Okay, what’s wrong? Have I offended you? The math department? Your family? Your wife? Maybe people actually are disturbed over how a non-Muslim (not me, another American—a very sensible, sensitive young teacher) is presenting the history of the region as a less-chauvinistic view of this part of the world.

No, Yasser just wanted to have coffee. He just wanted to get to know me better.

So, just like how many episodes of Seinfeld end in a coffee shop, the fade-out that afternoon was over some laughter and conversation over coffee.

And the credits rolled…

Friday, November 14, 2008

Just Drink the Kool-aid!

Monday was probably the most interesting day this past week.

Monday for me is a day with two long teaching blocks (70 minutes each) and a whole slew of weekly meetings, from Curriculum Committee, Student Life, Admissions Committee, and just about anything else it seems.

I had looked forward all day to an evening of uninterrupted, I don’t know exactly what, but I didn’t have boarding duty, I didn’t have Arabic class—I had no commitments that evening. So maybe I would go to the gym, watch Jon Stewart, maybe even write some long overdue emails or follow through on some phone calls.

time? In a boarding school? Let’s get serious!

Right about the time that “uninterrupted time” was going to kick in, Greg, my former Hackley student and now Teaching Fellow protégé, came around the corner with two of his students. “These guys need to talk to you,” Greg said. He turned to his young scholars, “What do you want to ask him, guys? Why do we need to study history?”

I even had my magazines in my hand, gym clothes on, as I quickly answered, “It is all about learning to think, and effective reading and writing.” Greg said to me, “I’ll let you talk to them for awhile.” I could see the look of utter disdain on their junior-in-high-school faces.

I wasn’t going to the gym anytime soon. These two young men, rather bruised by a fair-but-tough test from Greg, couldn’t believe Greg cared so much about writing. “Who cares how you write—it’s a history class for God’s sakes,” announced one of the young men. “All you need are a few facts and that’s it! What is the big deal???” he asked incredulously.

Okay, come on in my apartment guys. Let’s talk.

For the next 45 minutes or so, I tried to explain to them about my understanding of the study of history. I tried to be cute at first, talking about Clio, the Greek muse of History, and how we build a house to Clio for our fellow lodgers. They didn’t buy cute. They wanted to know what any of this would ever mean to them, and why Greg couldn’t just give them a few facts and call it a day.

Interesting to note—because you may be wondering—these are both Americans, by the way.

When it was clear they didn’t believe in an esoteric pursuit of knowledge, I went for the jugular—you know, most of the jobs you want require reading and writing. And then there is college—you can’t get by on a ‘few facts’ in the kind of colleges you crave. What about that? It was almost funny, because they acted as if I did not have twenty years of experience, and that recent-Ivy-League-graduate Greg and I were just in league with the Devil.

I was very honest about my philosophy of education: if one only learns facts for a test, then you are learning/teaching only to a narrative of conclusions. Conclusions are pretty much a dead end—here is what happened, and that's it. But if you work towards a different end, you are learning/teaching to a narrative of inquiry. Inquiry is what unlocks all the mysteries of life—how you understand something, how you solve problems. College education is somewhat interested in conclusions, but they are deeply interested in inquiry. That is how the world has evolved is through inquiry.

While these two young men were getting madder at me by the minute, a strange phenomenon was playing out in the background, an almost musical counterpoint to the sturm und drang on the couch. Study Hall hours had begun, and a number of guys kept coming by to check with me about their writing.

The coming up next day my AP World History students had the “opportunity” to write an essay for practice. If they did a credible job on this document-based-question I would drop their lowest quiz grade. I warned them that this DBQ was a tough one, and they hadn’t written a whole DBQ yet, but I told them it was worth the practice.

The funny thing was, so many of the boys were working on this optional, extra-credit writing puzzle. The questioned explored, “What was the role technology played in the development of Eurasian Empires in the Classical Age.” The DBQ had seven documents, things like maps, to a photograph of a Roman aqueduct, to an account from an Indian trader, to a Chinese merchant, to a photograph of a golden belt buckle from a nomadic tribe.

When I give extra credit, I rarely have students complete it—it’s just not worth the effort, I think they think.

But Monday night, a steady stream of boys came by to check on their interpretation of a document, or to test their thesis. All of this while the soundtrack of “I just think it’s all a stupid waste of time” played out in my living room.

In between the essay help, I continued my diatribe with the Yankee doubters. I told them of my class with Dr. Eisenbeis at Denison: “When I went to college I thought most of what I would do is spout facts. I was in one class, a class where 50% of my grade was based on class participation, and there were no facts to spout. I went to the professor and didn't know what to do. The course was a philosophy course about thinking, believing and understanding. There were really no facts at all, but it was about how we react to religion and faith and deeply held personal opinions. The crutch of facts was just gone. It took me a few weeks, many weeks, to see what I even had to do, but eventually I did, and it has made me a better thinker ever since. But I still love the beauty of precise facts, so I became a historian so I can write well and use sterling facts that win my arguments.”

I spoke rather strongly to them that they could either start to embrace these things now, or put it off until college, and maybe they will have faculty caring enough to help them over this hurdle. It is a hurdle that every young scholar faces: how to go from being a successful middle school student (i.e. a student of conclusions) to a successful adult student (i.e. a student of inquiry).

Tarek, one of my AP students, came by with a thesis statement—without a doubt the best thing he had produced all year. He showed it to me—“I’ve worked on this for the last half hour.” Tarek had spent 30 minutes crafting a thesis statement. I wouldn’t have thought I would say those 9 words a few months ago. And it was good. Very good. I sent him off to work on the rest of the essay.

I told the arms-folded nay-sayers: "Look, I don't know your political affiliation, but one of Barack Obama's campaign phrases hits me as a teacher as so important--he speaks of ‘the urgency of now.’ He wants us to realize the vital importance of working on change now, not in a year or a generation, but now. That is why I teach the way I do--the urgency of now. It would be so much easier on me if I just had nice little fact tests--but once you know what colleges demand, and more importantly, how crucial it is to read and write effectively, I would be dishonest, and doing a disservice to just make it easier on me. Therefore, I teach to a narrative of inquiry, and I believe in ‘the urgency of now.’” Even though they didn’t seem very moved, the steady stream of AP students continued—earnestly, even urgently, working on these essays. It was obvious that a number of students had decided to drink the kool-aid.

‘Just Drink the Kool-aid!’ is a phrase that we tossed off very easily this summer at the AP conference I attended. If you remember, that phrase refers back to the bizarre mass suicide of over 900 people at Jonestown, Guyana, thirty years ago this weekend. Jim Jones, the leader, had convinced his followers to drink this Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide, and they gave up their lives. Later the media made this horrible tragedy more manageable by lightening the mood and calling it “kool-aid.” But that is certainly an odd phrase to pop out when making a parallel to education (!).The AP teachers stressed though, you have to have everyone on board to be successful at this AP game. Students, parents, and teachers just have to do what you gotta do to make this AP course, or education work. But here is a good parallel—Jim Jones promised his followers that if they just drank the kool-aid they would all find victory and self-determination.

Many of those AP students had break-throughs this week in their writing. They struggled on a tough essay, but there was a new attitude I sensed—not one of onerous homework assignments, but, dare I say it—an attitude of victory and self-determination.

I hope those other two young men figure it out someday. Why fight your own improvement? Why distance yourself from more effective communication and understanding? Why not just drink the kool-aid?

My page-a-day calendar on Monday had this quotation: “The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.”

Friday, November 7, 2008

“The right kind of tears"

Oh—I wish you could have been here!

Tuesday night, and all night into Wednesday just past dawn, I wish you could have joined me for the election night returns. It was, as one of my students call things that in the 1980s would have been deemed “awesome,” epic.

I went to the American Embassy party—it was fine and festive. I walked in and there was a huge arch of red, white, and blue balloons. Each table was decked out with balloon donkeys and balloon elephants for the two parties. There were banks of computer screens available to check how the polls and the returns were shaping up. TV screens hung from the ceiling. Hundreds of people there to see how history would take us. The strangest part of the party was a “mock debate” between two people posing as Senators McCain and Obama. Did they really think we wanted to watch imposters mouthing the rhetoric that has over-stimulated us over the last 20 months? Oh well. Then we had a speech from the Ambassador to Jordan (a KA parent) and then a video conference with some scholars and former ambassadors. Frankly, I high-tailed it over to the buffet for the free food—word on the street was that they had mini-hamburgers. The word on the street was mistaken! It was a fine buffet of Arab foods, and as I walked around I noticed more Jordanians than Americans—a little strange since it was a night for the American elections.

I got back to campus after midnight, and I was set to stay up all night. The night wasn’t really going to get interesting until after 2 AM when the eastern-standard time zone polls closed. Several of us hunkered down for the beginning of the calling of the states. It was, of course, slow going for awhile, and then around 4 AM my time, my home state of Ohio was declared as an Obama victory. I still didn’t know what to make of the race, and I looked anxiously toward 5 AM when I was to open up the Dining Hall and see who showed up at this ungodly hour. Would any teen-ager actually show up so early of his or her own volition???

I went over in the dark at 5, and before long, streams of students in their pjs were coming in. I turned on the TV with the 10X8 foot screen, and soon more and more of them were coming in. The pace quickened and there was pulsing energy in the room about when the announcement might be made of Obama’s victory—then all of a sudden, there was this CNN count-down and it came. Just like that. The announcement came that Barack Obama had clinched 270 of the electoral votes.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the flood of emotions in the room at that time. There were about 8 American adults in the room and about 85 KA students. There were 93 of us in this room riveted to the announcement that history had just been made.
And the reactions had nothing to do with policies or ideologies. There was a palpable feeling of joy in the room.

This blog entry is also not about partisan policy or ideology or which “side” won, because at that moment that I watched the election returns here in Jordan with (seriously!) the dawn coming up behind our fancy big-screen TV, it was clear: America had won.

America has won. And from out of nowhere, in the midst of these adolescents cheering this new President’s victory, the adults all dissolved in tears. I think Wendy started it. But then it wasn’t but a second before Tristan, then me, then Nancy, then Peter—oh my, we found these tears rushing down our cheeks.

What were we feeling exactly? Yes, each of us had voted for this candidate, but again, this had little to do with the policy/ideology side of an election. It was so much more. It was about history, about hopes, about missing and loving the United States, it was about a lifetime of watching election returns, about solving problems—I have never felt anything quite like this. For the next hour, maybe more, the urgency of Lee Greenwood’s classic song, “Proud to be an American” soared through my brain.

We waited, as did the rest of the waking world, for the John McCain concession speech, and the emergence of President-elect Obama. The adults in the room ranged from ages 23 to over 60. Earlier that day I had wondered how I would stay awake. I had shot out of bed at 4:20 a.m. so excited I could barely stand it. All day I had been yawning anyway, but I knew I couldn’t miss a moment of this day. I had gone to the gym to read some magazines on the treadmill. One of the magazines was from the pile my father had left from his Jordanian sojourn, a magazine about the National Park Service. I thumbed through it on the treadmill, and came to an article about a new, upcoming park site for the home of Washingtonian Carter Woodson.

Woodson is one of those people who have fallen through the cracks of history. He lived from 1875-1850 and is the first notable chronicler of African-Americans. He never married—too consumed by the study of history, a friend of his once said. He received a Phd from Harvard in 1913, only the second African-American to do so, following only W.E.B. DuBois. And yes, he had been the son of slaves. Woodson worked tirelessly for decades to promote the teaching of “Negro history.” But few people—black or white—cared much. Woodson wrote around 1920: “With most people the race question has been settled. The Negro has been assigned the lowest drudgery as the sphere in which the masses must toil to make a living. Insasmuch as the traducers of the race have “settled” the matter in this fashion, they naturally oppose any effort to change this status.” But by documenting history, and teaching history, Woodson believed he could initiate change.

Here I was watching that beautiful family emerge, and “unsettle” the race question. As the cheering thousands in Chicago’s Grant Park viewed it first-hand—we all witnessed the unfolding of a new age. Martin Luther King Jr. had promised America, “A change is coming,” and now it is here. Wendy turned to me and said, “I am so proud to be an American.” One of the other adults said, “I need to go back to my apartment and just have a good cry. But thank goodness, it’s the right kind of tears.”

All 93 of us were silent as we hung onto every word of Obama’s speech, hearing the echoes of Lincoln and King in the cadences. At the end of the speech our students were on their feet cheering. What were they cheering? I think it was as simple, as un-ideological, as the audacity of possibility. I had a long talk with one Jordanian friend who said, “I envy your country as you get to make history again and again.” Jazi, this kind librarian here called me during the day and said, “Congratulations Mr. John on your hope!” Another friend said, “the America the world loves came back last night—an America that has the capacity to achieve the impossible.”

We witnessed the accession of a black man to serve as President. He will live in the White House and work in the U.S. Capitol building—two venerable structures built, at least in part, by slave labor. The first African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, and 389 years later, on November 4, 2008, Virginia, the old capitol of the Confederacy, offered its vote Barck Obama.

After classes on Wednesday, as any good political junkie would do, I watched more television news. I saw the spontaneous, peaceful celebrations in Harlem, Los Angeles, and Howard University (here they traveled the same streets that in 1968 many left burning) rejoicing. But it certainly was not contained to the shores of the United States. One of my most astute and perceptive students, Raja, said to me, “Mr. John the students are acting like it’s our President. He’s talking to Americans.” Yes, that is correct, but look at what this says—there is a country out there where tens of millions of white Christians, voting freely, selected as their leader a black man of modest origins, the son of a Muslim. This place, this America, exists. We should not put limitations on possibility or on hope. Even if this is only a fleeting feeling, it allows us to dream, to wonder, to stake a claim.

One great guy, Fawzi, called out, “Mr. John, I want a hug!” I don’t know why he did, but hey, it was that kind of morning. Wendy leaned over to me as we picked up breakfast dishes, “I loved when I looked over and saw you crying. Who knew we would feel like this?” It wasn’t hard—you saw the shots of Jesse Jackson and Colin Powell, their faces relieved, overwhelmed, stunned and thankful.

It is, I suppose, in part a matter of temperament, whether one shouts or weeps at happy transformative moments. But I also think it’s a matter of knowing what has come before. The emotional, historical baggage. Our tired young people joyfully shouting at the TV screen never knew the universe whose passing was marked by Obama’s victory and Jackson’s tears.

This moment of triumph marks the end of such a long period of pain, of indignity and injustice for African-Americans. The election brought the return of a country we thought we’d lost for so long that it was almost forgotten under the accumulated scar tissue of accommodation and acceptance.

For me, this will be the enduring memory of election night 2008: One generation released its emotion. The next looked up confusedly, eager to please and yet unable to comprehend just what the tears were about.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

…conceived in Liberty…

All day my thoughts keep returning to my years in second and third grade.

If you know the history of my childhood, you may remember that I was hit by a car in the second grade, out of school for nearly six months, and lay in a body cast for a season. However, my mother was not about to let me fritter away all that time just lying around and watching television. No! We had to have projects! We had to cultivate interests! So with my public-school-tutor’s help, we created all kinds of ways to read and write the time away while encased in plaster.

My mother asked me in the hospital: “Who would you like to write a biography about?”Keep in mind—I was just beginning to write in cursive, so now when I ponder her query, I think it almost outlandish. But I responded that I would like to write about Abraham Lincoln.

When I returned home to 2460 after six weeks in the hospital, I found my room decked out in all kinds of Lincoln memorabilia so as to stimulate my biographical musings. There was the Lincoln bedspread, the Lincoln portrait on the wall, the Lincoln bust on my nightstand, the Lincoln bookends, and of course, Lincoln Logs on the floor waiting patiently for when I could lounge around effortlessly again. And then there were the picture books, the children’s books—all eager to be devoured so that a junior historian could get to work.

I am remembering the second and third grade today, not just because the anniversary of the accident (just to remind and clarify—I was walking across the street on a walk light on that sleety November morn!) is this week. No, it is in the second and third grade that I have my earliest consciousness of loving history, specifically, the history of the United States, and loving thinking and talking and reading and writing about politics.

When I finally came back to school, I had a book report to offer. So I offered my own biography of Lincoln as my report, and while these were probably meant to be fairly brief reports, I stayed up in front of the class talking about Abraham Lincoln much, much, much longer than was allotted for my time. (Things don’t change—I need bells and whistles and bombs to go off so I stop teaching now, too!). That spring my mother and grandmother took me on pilgrimages to see all the Lincoln sights in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect trip! My poor sister Elizabeth couldn’t imagine a more perfect torture.

What I thrilled to in those days was that phrase in the constitution—“in order to form a more perfect union.” I loved that, and I consumed every book I could find on American history. I memorized the presidents forwards and backwards—seriously, I am that weird, forwards and backwards.

But in the third grade, things got even more exciting for me! I wrote to President Nixon (guess who had that idea? My mother wouldn’t let me rest!) and got a great souvenir book from the White House in the mail. Then there was a presidential election—nothing could be more thrilling! I ran around Westwood Elementary School asking who my peers would vote for—like, you know, if we were 18 and old enough to vote. This one guy, Frank, actually asked me why I cared! I told him—you have to care—it matters! It is what Americans get to do! I did my own tally, and hours before the rest of America learned that Richard Nixon had trounced George McGovern, I knew from those who knew what was going on that he would still be our President.

It was in the third grade that my mother gave me a book of plays, plays about American history. I marvel at the fact that I ever gave other careers a passing thought, since it should have been clear the map destiny had for me in the glovebox. History! Drama! I spent the winters in the indoor playroom at Westwood School casting and directing these plays. Couldn’t have been happier!

Wait—there was something even more monumental around the corner in the spring of the 3rd grade. It turns out that my grandmother was an acquaintance of Charlie Taft, a prominent Cincinnati attorney and politician and, here comes the motherlode—the son of a President! Did I want him to come to my school and talk?!! I would have given up a Lincoln bookend for such a treat!

So on this auspicious day, Mr. Taft came to talk to my class about being a child in the White House in the early part of the 20th century. My mother had contacted the press—she could get someone to do almost anything—and there was a story about a boy who loved history meeting a man who walked through history.

So this morning I woke up about 4:15 a.m. Jordan time—too excited to stay in bed any longer. This political junkie needed to start the day watching the news programs from yesterday in the United States. Election Day! The day we do what America gets to do. Just in case you are wondering—everyone here, it seems, is riveted by what will go on today in America. They ask about it, ask about voting, and muse about the candidates.

In a couple of hours I will go to the American embassy in Amman for a party to watch news reports. (Do you think they will spring for some good food?) Then I will come back about midnight and there is a posse of guys in the dorm who want to watch the returns all night. Then at 5:00 A.M. those who are interested will get up and go to the Dining Hall and eat an early breakfast and watch the reports on a huuuuuuuuuge screen TV. Don’t you just love it!

My mother had been a political scientist in college, and I guess, some of this interest (obsession?) is just genetic. But it is also about growing older and studying America more and appreciating the institutions, the struggles, the changes, the obligations of being American. I remember a comment that my wonderful friend Doris Jackson, the rock, said to our students in our course together on the Civil Rights: “Voting isn’t just a privilege. It isn’t just a right. It is an obligation. You must vote, for people died for that ability to cast their own vote. People died.” Doris does not want us to take our democracy for granted.

As an adult I came back to Abraham Lincoln. I had put him aside for about 15 years pursuing other joys in history. But then I came back as an adult, fascinated, not by the boyhood stories, but by his will, his determination, his melancholy, his ethics, his values, his savvy, his frustrations, his anger, his vision. He is one of my favorite writers, too. I mean look at these phrases: “the mystic chords of memory,” and “better angels of our nature,” and “the father of waters flows unvexed to the sea.”

The myth about the Gettysburg Address is that he wrote it on the back of an envelope on the train, but evidence shows that he had been slaving over it for days, finishing it in the guest room, just a short while before its delivery. He had been very low in the polls at the time, and I imagine he hoped to stave off failure. Let’s remember that this battle had been the bloodiest confrontation in American history, with 51,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or missing after only three days of intense battle. What could he say?

Gary Wills wrote a marvelous book in the last couple decades about the Gettysburg Address, and he explains what happened after Lincoln stopped talking after that very short, 272-word speech: “The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one they brought there with them. They walked off, from those curving graves on the hillside, under a changed sky, into a different America.”

Today I think back to drawing Lincoln’s beard with crayon, building dioramas and models of his boyhood cabin with Elmer’s glue and toothpicks. I made stovepipe hats out of construction paper. I memorized the Gettysburg Address.

My new friend Nancy confided that she almost resisted accepting the offer to teach at KA. She said, “I couldn’t believe I wouldn’t be in the United States for this election. I almost turned down this adventure so I could be at home and take it all in.” Instead, Nancy is doing what teachers do—explaining the twisty-turvy Electoral College, teasing out the ideologies of candidates, and talking to non-Americans about what we get to do. We get the chance to see the impact of the United States and our election from thousands of miles away.

Just a little while I called my friend Christy in New York. She, too, got up early today. She said, “Doesn’t it just feel like Christmas? All that excitement and nervousness?”

Today Americans get to do a spectacular thing. And tomorrow, under a “changed sky, a different America” we will write a new chapter in our history.

And whom ever wins, there will be a peaceful transition. Last year, just weeks after I was in Kenya, they had a national election, and for days afterward there was strife and bloodshed in the streets. I can pretty safely bet that won’t happen in the United States this week.

Whichever patriot you support, go stand in line, revel in the proudest moment we have as an American, and make your mark in as Lincoln intoned, “a new birth of freedom.”

My heavens, it is great to be a historian!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Secret Talks

The buzz in the air is certainly an infatuation with politics. But as excited as I am about tomorrow’s U.S. presidential election, let’s take a break from the navel-gazing American politics, and talk about politics somewhere else. How about in my backyard? It is not as uni-dimensional as people think, and I am constantly unraveling the byzantine politics of the Middle East.

Last year at this time I was beginning to piece together so much of the roiling politics of the Middle East. I was especially engaged when HMK (that’s the code for His Majesty, the King) lectured here at KA in November about the vagaries of peace in the Middle East. So much Sisyphean hope attached to the then-upcoming Annapolis talks. Let’s consider what has been happening in the last few months in the Middle Eastern stew.

In early June 2008, in a surprise announcement, Israel and Syria revealed that they had been holding secret peace negotiations to return the Golan Heights to the Arab nation! I don’t know if you had your jaw drop at that disclosure—but it should. For the first time since 2000, Israel and Syria met to discuss the status of this disputed territory—a 460- square mile plateau nestled amid the borders of Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. The Golan Heights is a strategic plateau that Israel captured during the Six Day War in 1967, and Syria has long wanted it back. (Syria acquired this land as part of its independence from France in 1944.) To make this deal happen, Israel wants Syria to end support for Hamas and Hezbollah and to distance itself from Iran.

Without Syria’s military and financial support, Hezbollah couldn’t pose a threat to Israel from its base in Lebanon. In the longer term, peace between S&I would mean a realignment of the Middle East that would leave Iran without any allies in the region. This is exactly what HMK deemed as the important step so that that hot-box-of-crazy Iran would become less relevant. Hmmm…maybe it is time to give the stick a rest and offer Damascus a carrot or two.

I have a new student named Dana who happily offers a dollop of cynicism anytime we mention the idealism of peace in the world (“like you know it’s impossible, Mr. John) But Dana, even if these negotiations fail, let’s remember that this is a Middle Eastern-generated peace work. That has to count for something.

Let’s look at what the practicalities are behind this plan. Okay, territorial surrender, yes. There are about 18,000 Israelis who live there and this area accounts for mucho tourist dollars…it gives Israel complete control of the Sea of Galilee, and that provides Israel with 35% of its drinking water—an important thing in this arid part of the world. Most of the Golan’s 100,000 Arabs fled during the 1967 war, and have not been allowed to return. If you remember my blog entry from last spring’s Mother’s Day, I was at Um Qais with Anne and Martha, and by dusk hundreds of people had gathered to stare longingly into this former motherland.…The area is less than half the size of Rhode Island.

The biggest reason Israel retains the Golan is its strategic military value: from atop Mount Hermon, Israel can look deep into Syrian territory and pre-empt any surprise attacks. Returning the territory would involve many thorny problems, including compensating Israeli settlers and making up for lost commerce—the Golan provides Israel with beef, and wine and orchards.

Okay, let’s take off our rose-colored glasses (but I like the rose-colored glasses so much!!) Were these “secret talks” (umm, are they still considered “secret” if news magazines and bloggers everywhere have learned of them?) just a distraction from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s corruption scandals? Is it just a peace scare? Is it just posturing? Do both sides simply want to be seen as aspiring to peace so that the other side looks rejectionist?

What would both gain? Is Israel scared of Syria’s massive arms program? Syrian President Assad may be worried about the Syrian economy, and to revive it he needs to renew ties with the US and end Syria’s international isolation. If Assad does this, billions of dollars in aid and loans would come his way. Does peace stand a chance?

Last month Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned, having led what many concede as the worst Israeli government in the 60-year history of the country. Olmert inherited the job in 2006 after a stroke incapacitated then-leader Ariel Sharon. There is a cornucopia of examples of corruptions, incompetence and greed—finally his own party forced him to resign. Olmert successor is Tzipi Livni, a 50-year old whose parents had fought with a guerrilla group for a Jewish state in the 1940s. However, she is going to be very interesting to watch because she has, in the past, been an outspoken advocate for a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. Oh, my. Now we are getting even more interesting. What is she really like? How radical is she?

I read on-line some editorials from the press in Tel Aviv; one commented that Livni’s is a victory of image over a victory of substance. (We never have that in U.S. politics!! Hmmm…at least going back to the American advertising coup of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” that has long been how governments earn a place in the US—oh, I promised to not discuss American politics today—sorry!) I asked a good friend here in Jordan what she thought about Livni’s accession. She replied, ”I guess what it looks like to me is that after the incompetence of Olmert, the Israelis are longing for something good—and she seems to be that good. You know there is a word going around the world these days, and that is hope. I think she won on a platform of hope.” According to the government she has six weeks to put together a functioning, coalition government. If she can do a competent job, she may succeed in transforming the hope she radiates into a real plan of action.

There is more good news emanating from the Middle East. A couple weeks ago Syria announced it would open diplomatic relations with Lebanon. Frankly, I didn’t know they had not exchanged ambassadors—see, I learn something almost every day! The two countries were separated when France and Britain carved up the wheezing Ottoman empire after the First World War. When they became independent in the 1940s, they remained tied by the desire of many Syrians to be one country again, and so each dug in its heels, refusing to recognize the sovereignty of the other country. Is this a turning point? Maybe! Yet mutual suspicions run high, and many players would like to see the reconciliation fail. Will there be mature leadership to guide this rapprochement?

Last week at this time Jordan played a historic football game (let’s remember the translation—football outside of the United States means soccer). Jordan played Palestine. It is the first game Palestine has ever played on its own soil. In a funny twist of history and irony, Palestine is probably the only football nation to have a home game, but no state.

If you know me well, or even a little bit, you know I struggle to enjoy sports. I memorize some sports trivia and call my brother-in-law, hoping for a little validation. But when sports and history collide, oh man, I love the action! This summer I read that great book on the 1960 Olympics and practically drooled. Anyway, I digress.

This soccer match is important in that it adds legitimacy to Palestinians in their quest for independence and freedom. It tugs at the heart to hear the stories and the plea for change we can believe in to see the Occupation end. I read that the international football federation pressured Israel to allow Palestinians to build the stadium, train together, and host this game. It is just a game—but it is a start. People talk of sporting sanctions against Israel, about banning Israel from international competition until its occupation of Palestinian lands ends. Look at how sport affected the transformation of South Africa: sporting sanctions helped collapse the apartheid regime and transform the hope into a real plan of action.

When I mentioned to Dana, that cynical adolescent, that one must be infused with the high ideals of change, she rolled her eyes, and offered a withering, “Please!” That’s okay Dana—let’s have a toast to change, to hope, and offer up the words of 19th century poet, John Keats:

And as, in sparkling majesty, a star
Gilds the bright summit of some gloomy cloud;
Brightening the half veiled face of heaven afar:
So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,
Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,
Waving thy silver pinions o'er my head.