Monday, February 28, 2011

When you get caught between the dominos and Anne Hathaway…

Wha????? Okay, that title is a riff on the love theme from the 1981 movie Arthur. (substitute the dominos for the moon and Anne Hathaway for New York City!). Wha????? Okay, I am a little tired, yes, I am sleep-deprived and it is not some pitiful jet lag from the two February trips to Boston. No, no. Last night I went to bed at 11:00 p.m. promptly with my alarm clock set for 2:00 a.m. so that I could get up (in the middle of the night in case you aren’t paying close attention) and watch the red carpet doings and the Academy Awards broadcast live from the USA. Yes, I set my alarm, got up, and watched the Oscars all night. I have no one else to blame but myself for my fatigued state today. Actually, I feel great, just a little loopy. You see, the Oscars closed up shop at 6:30 a.m. and of course that is when one would get up and face the new day in Jordan, all ready to go and do God’s work and teach school!!

It was worth it…I loved the Oscar-cast—well, mostly. James Franco was dull as a host, I thought, but Anne Hathaway—good heavens, how gorgeous and funny and like your most attractive best friend. During one of the breaks of the Oscar-cast I realized I needed to get back on the blogisode stick (again, wha?????) and comment about the last month in Jordan. I have made some comments, but those are now a little past the “sell-by” date (is that a reference back to “Yo, Sushi!” from the last blogisode???).

But before I comment on the doings in the Middle East this winter again, I really should share an article my dear friend Sylvia sent me last week. Sylvia forwarded me a column by David Ignatius, who I believe syndicates out of the Washington Post. This was the first article I have read from the American media (at least that I have found) who seems to understand the nuances and differences in Jordan from Tunisia and Egypt. Let me now share that article with you from Mr. Ignatius:

AMMAN, Jordan -- Jordanians are clamoring for reform these days, like everyone else in the Arab world, but what they mean depends partly on which side of the Jordan River their ancestors hail from. Yet both sides look to the Hashemite monarchy for protection, which is one reason it's still standing amid the hurricane that's blowing through the neighborhood.

When Jordanians of Palestinian descent talk about reform, they usually mean freer expression, less bureaucracy and more representation for their community, which makes up about half of Jordan's population. For many East Bankers, in contrast, reform means rolling back privatization (which they identify with corruption), more power for the army and the government, and limits on more Palestinian citizenship and voting.

There have been street protests here over the past several weeks by young reformers. Meanwhile, retired military officers (drawn from the old guard of the East Bank) have protested what they see as improper deals for the business elite and other problems.

In the middle stands King Abdullah II, leaning this way and that as he tries to ride the wave of change. He depends on the entrepreneurial Palestinian business elite for Jordan's economic growth; but he needs the army, dominated by the Bedouin tribes of the East Bank, for security. This balancing act has allowed the Hashemite monarchy to survive for 90 years, through civil wars, assassination attempts and regional mayhem.

Around the royal palace, people speak of "Meds" and "Beds" -- referring to the worldly Mediterranean outlook of the Palestinians and the traditional values of the Bedouin tribes of the East Bank. One young Amman resident complains that people here always ask where someone is from. He muses that he should start a Facebook protest site called "We want to be Jordanians."

Even King Abdullah seems to think that in this moment of Arab revolution, the middle of the road may be a dangerous place to be. He has talked about moving Jordan over the next three years toward a true constitutional monarchy -- with a few real political parties and a prime minister who's elected by parliament, rather than appointed by the palace.

King Abdullah and Queen Rania are the West's idea of what Arab leaders should look like: They're young, smart, attractive and speak perfect English. They campaign for women's rights and broadband Internet connectivity. They frequent conferences such as Davos on a perpetual road show to drum up Western investment for their poor, resource-limited country.

This very success in Western eyes raises eyebrows at home. Queen Rania has become a lightning rod for East Bank critics who think she's too vocal and independent (and too Palestinian, which is her family's ancestry) to be a proper Arab queen. Abdullah, too, is criticized by some as too Western. The royal couple have the vices of their virtues: The more they plug into the global grid, the more they risk unplugging from the local one.

Abdullah's greatest test may be the rumors about corruption that swirl around Amman. The Jordanian capital is a city of courtiers, passing around gossip about the leading personalities here. The Queen's stylish tastes and cover-girl looks add to the intense focus on her.

Gen. Ali Habashaneh, a retired brigade commander and one of the leaders of the retired officers movement, said in an interview that because of deals made under privatization, Jordan's debt over the past 10 years has grown from $5 billion to nearly $15 billion. He charged that some of these deals, especially big real estate ventures, were improper. As for Queen Rania, he complained that she had been pushing for more women in the bureaucracy, including even the intelligence service. "The constant local media appearances make people think she is a partner," he complained. To the Bedouins, that's unacceptable.

Abdullah tried to address the jumble of complaints in a speech Sunday: "Many issues are being raised. Some are true, some are exaggerated, and others are untrue. There is talk about corruption, there is wasta and favoritism, there is talk about failed institutions, about privatization, whether it been a success or a failure." He said he had instructed a new Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate charges, and he's thinking of adding a new panel to oversee the investigators.

Jordan has its problems, and King Abdullah could use a little more of the common touch of his father, King Hussein. He wants to get out ahead of his problems before they get any worse. But he also needs to stay in the political middle, balancing the old guard and the new reformers, and that's a tricky straddle.

What I like about Ignatius’ article is that he does not just jump on the narrative of the domino theory that I have seen in the other American commentators’ assessments. The domino theory is just too easy and does not account for how Jordan really is. Anyway, the other day the U.S. Embassy did warn Americans that it might be wise not to go downtown on Friday at the conclusion of the Friday noontime prayers. Well, my great friend Joan, an intrepid sexagenarian, decided she wanted to see what the big deal might be last Friday. She took a public bus down to the King Hussein Mosque area and waited for the prayers to end. As she waited, she watched the police form protective lines. She said to me later, “Well dahlin," (as she says in her Rhode Island accent), “the men came out of the mosque and it was hardly impressive! The men dispersed, the police waved at them, I saw no weapons, no demonstrations—wait, I did see some reporters and photographers trying to stage a scene for a photo op! It was really a non-event.”

Obviously none of us knows what lies on the horizon, but we don’t feel unsafe here, we don’t feel quite the inevitability that the American press is reporting. What I do know is that there was a traffic tie-up yesterday in Amman for a car show, essentially a big parade, in support of His Majesty. I know that whenever I have heard His Majesty speak, his voice is reasoned and often humorous, didactic rather than dictatorial; at times he seems to be speaking directly to a young audience, befitting his oft-articulated concern with Arab youth and educational opportunity. King Abdullah reminds us his audience directly that Jordan has often held the line against Muslim extremists who have hijacked Islam, the Palestinian plight, and international discourse.

Okay, that about does it for now. I will enjoy my little reverie as I hum away the tune from Arthur.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Postcards from Boston

Well…I can see that my return is met with stony silence. Well, you see, I have been traveling quite a bit this month, and somehow the blogisodes just didn’t get accomplished. In this shortest month of the year, I have been in Jordan a short time, in the classroom a short time. In fact, I have been absent from the classroom 8 school days this month since I have flown to Boston twice. Wouldn’t it have been nice if someone had just said, “Gee, in honor of all your hard work, just stay over in the USA in between those two job-related trips!” No—no one in the right authority suggested that!

So where have I been? Why have I been so incommunicado? Why when so much is going on in the world and in my school world have I been so silent?

Yes, I have been traveling. Strangely enough, the flight itineraries were both exactly the same! Two flights from Amman on BMI (British Midland International) and two flights from London Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic to Boston and two flights back and two flights back. The best news of the month is that Jet Lag, the phantom terrorist of international travel did not totally vanquish me.

The first trip was as a recruiter at a job fair in Boston. We went to Boston for five days; I came back for six days and then left again to Boston for six days with a delegation of students bound for Harvard Model Congress. Lots of packing and lots of time for grading in the air and lots of time to enjoy the in-flight entertainment on Virgin Atlantic (they have about 50 movies available and about 40 television shows—I might have just kept on flying with all the options up there!). Both trips were exciting and successful and I am happy to have my feet on the ground for a few weeks now.

The first trip came about rather suddenly when a month ago our headmaster asked me to join him and the Dean of Faculty to interview at the job fair in Boston. I have never done that before at a job fair, but I love interviewing people and so enjoyed the invitation. I had no idea how steady the work is, and there is virtually no time away from the job fair. Oh well, all in the name of school improvement!

Sheena and I fly together to London, and there we learn that our next flight is cancelled since the snow dance over Boston had just enjoyed another encore. Luckily, we weren’t stranded, just delayed 7-8 hours. As soon as we figured out our flight status, Sheena grabbed my hand and said, with a devilish look in her eye, “We are going to “Yo Sushi!” I knew that Sheena is a fiend about sushi, but here I saw her in her natural habitat. “Yo Sushi!” is a strange restaurant—part automat, part diner, part sensory experience, part dim sum meal, and partly like a scene in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times. You sit at a diner-like counter in “Yo Sushi” and the little plates move right in front of you on a giant conveyer belt around the whole restaurant. It felt a little like being in Oz too, I think. Anyway, each plate is color-coded to a certain price, and there is soup, and sushi bites and chicken sate, and it all rolls grandly right in front of you—all you have to do is reach out and grab the plate! There is a sticker on the side timed so you know the “sell by/eat by” time for the freshness. This transfixed me and I just loved watching. I also loved watching Sheena stack up her plates. This woman can do a sushi room! I don’t know how long we stayed there but I felt like a child enjoying the “It’s a small world” ride at Walt Disney World. Food going by on a conveyer belt. Just take it. It all seemed magical!!

We arrived much later in Boston than we had planned, and sadly that evening was to be our little window of free time on this trip. However, we got to the hotel at 11:00 p.m. When I arrived I discovered that my bags had not arrived yet. Gulp. One of the things Sheena had emphasized about this job fair is that it is very professional and formal with men in suits all the time. I hadn’t traveled in a suit and I hoped my bag would catch up in time. I didn’t really want to conduct interviews in my oh-so-casual-and-comfortable travel Yo Sushi wear. As we drive to the hotel in Cambridge, the winter scene is unbelievable. The snow is piled up in drifts at least four feet high and the Charles River looks frozen solid. By the way, the bags would take over 48 hours to arrive…so much for trying to look professional and formal!

The way this job fair works is kinda like a 1930s dance contest. The ballroom opens at a specific time, and then the candidates have a specific time to try and secure as many interview times as possible. The recruiters make a banner announcing what openings are at the school, and the candidates whiz by (maybe they should be on roller skates??!) and look for their discipline/craft and sign up for 30 minute interviews—as many as they can (is there a prize?). It was indeed thrilling being in this ballroom. There were about 130 international schools—seriously from A to Z—from Argentina to Zambia, and about 450 candidates hoping for one of the thousand jobs available in these far-flung locales. Somehow, well, in my mind at least, it seemed like what the Miss Universe Pageant might be like, as Miss Brussels mingled with Miss Pakistan and Miss Korea and Miss Ghana. Oh, and Miss Jordan. (In a very pageant-like way, people kept saying, “Thank God I’m not from Egypt,” just like you might look at Miss Egypt and feel sorry for her hump!). Somehow this whole recruiting thing brought out all the old salesman like qualities in me when I went and peddled school candy or seeds or Christmas cards—what else did I sell as little boy?

After the dance contest is over, you start with the receptions so you can schmooze with the candidates and see who is interesting over cocktail hors d’oeuvres and drinks. I stood near the gorditas, a great appetizer which is an almond stuffed fig wrapped in bacon. Just wrap it bacon and honey, it’ll go.

Then the interviews began. Oh my. I have been interviewing people in some capacity for maybe 20 years. But I have never interviewed people for everything from art to theology (sorry, we have no Z courses available at our school!). Previously I had scanned resumes like a demon, well, actually similar to Sheena scanning the sushi at Yo Sushi! I looked at dozens of resumes, and as each person came for an interview I tried to be as well-prepared as possible for the interview.

I learned that at this job fair it was well known that many people left the job fair with a contract in hand, signed, and finito, the job search completed! I am one who often wants to mull a person over, but in this environment—again like the 1930s dance contests, speed is of the essence here!! So Sheena and I double-up with some interviews, and on some I fly solo. John, our headmaster, is across town at another job fair, madly going through stacks of resumes and interviewing as well. Each day he dashes over in a cab through the Boston Winter Wonderland to join in for a second interview on people we had liked. Hey, you know I just thought of a good idea for this job fair—maybe we can combine the job fair and “Yo, Sushi!” I could sit at a diner counter and the candidates could roll through on a conveyer belt. That’s how it felt actually!

So I met several couples that I enjoyed immediately. Amy and Clark. Oh—just so nice and interesting and perfect for us. They had interesting hobbies and know the boarding school life well. I think that was one of the reasons I was brought on the trip—I was to be the honest spokesperson about life at KA—I perfected my little spiel of how it is “hard but wonderful” so that no one came under any false pretenses. Remember we are there with schools from everywhere. Vienna—we ain’t! Then we met Diego and Alexa—she is a writer and they have lived in the Middle East before, and I loved their attitudes about school and professional development. And he could be a great counselor besides a Spanish teacher. Then Sarah and Jevon—here was a great young couple, one a math teacher and one a historian. They would all be perfect for us! That evening at the Schmooze Reception I put on my best schmooze persona. Oh, and apologizing for not being in a suit. But still—schmoozing up a storm! And the theme was burgers from around the world!! Oh, please, how great. It didn’t even seem to dawn on me that I hadn’t left the hotel that day!

We made offers to those three couples. We waited. We bit our nails, figuratively speaking. I learned also that the “thank you note” is not a dead art. After almost every interview the candidate would handwrite a note and stick it in our file. Notes on stationery! Well, my, my. The interviews continued. On Saturday I had 17 interviews in a row. With no food break at all!! Thank goodness the breakfast buffet was among the best in my life!!!!!

I enjoyed my interviews with a number of young men and women, eager to teach, eager to go abroad and see what life has to offer beyond our shores. I met this dynamic guy who reminded me of Chuck and Bowman, two of the most outstanding young teachers I have ever known. I met this young woman teaching in inner-city Washington, D.C. who just mesmerized me with her sharpness. I met a guy who studies Chemistry at Yale and was an eagle scout and does technical theater. I wanted all the good ones!! I met this sincere interesting IT guy from the Maldives, and an older man from Maine who wanted to go somewhere new and re-pot himself. Oh, and there was a young woman named Victoria—we decided she may be the most narcissistic person we had ever met! I met prospects for the art position—call central casting—you can guess that they were quirky and a little flaky, but interesting. We put a note up about an intern teaching economics and all of a sudden the frat boys lined up for interviews. These were long days, exhausting days, often 25 half-hour interviews a day days. That is a lot of active listening!!

I didn’t leave the hotel for 72 hours! But I managed a visit each day with a former student. They just had to trudge through the snow of Cambridge to get to the hotel. I visited with three young men, from three separate schools, ranging from the class of 2010 in Jordan, to 2002 from Hackley, to 1994 from Charlotte Latin. One is a freshman at Harvard, one is in Business School, and one teaches at Tufts. They were wonderful visits all. You would think the last thing I would want to do with my hour of free time is sit and “interview” former students. But it was delightful! Ghassan and Dan and Ethan provided me with real joy as I wound up this intense trip to Boston.

So, as the job fair ended on Sunday, we had some affirmatives and some rejections with our offers. We lost Amy and Clark (they saw me and hugged me saying, “you’re awesome, we just want to go to South America”) and Diego and Alexa and Kat, but we signed Matthew and John and Ali and Sarah and Jevon.

As the 1930s dance contest ended, I got back on the plane, knowing there was grading in my future and the repayment of dorm duties, and then I would unpack and pack again.

Perhaps I should just get on the conveyer belt and keep moving!

Sunday, February 6, 2011


For over a week Egypt has occupied the top spot in the headlines of the New York Times. If you breeze by CNN, there are images and reports from Tahrir Square of the uprising and resistance of the Egyptian people against President Hosni Mubarak. It is a deeply troubling (and exciting) moment in history.

The last few days I have been in Boston at an intense job fair interviewing candidates for KA. I will blog about that in a couple of days. I had hoped to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, but alas, this trip offered practically no moments at all away from the work at hand. But if I had gone to the MFA, I would have reveled in the great sculpture of pharaoh Menkaure and his wife, and I would have probably done a little reveling in Egypt’s long history. The better you know Egyptian history, that long history of at least 5,000 years, yes, the better you know Egyptian history, the current situation in Egypt comes as no surprise. The power struggle being played out on the streets of Cairo this week has striking parallels from that time of the pharaohs.

One of the greatest thrills of my trips to Egypt in the last few years has been gazing at the famous gold mask of the boy-king Tut. It is every bit as glorious as you might imagine, both serene and monumental and iconic. That mask resides in a room overlooking Tahrir Square, the scene of so much violence in the last week. But when you see that mask, or think about it, it helps to recover the context, the often violent context of Egypt’s past. In 1322 BCE Tut(ankhamun) died unexpectedly and that void ushered in a time not unlike this week in Egypt. Then as now, transitions from one ruler to the next became fraught with danger, as it presented a rare chance for opposition forces inside or outside the country to destabilize the mighty edifice of state power. Tut’s demise caused more than usual disquiet, since there was no obvious heir to the throne, and the late king’s policies proved deeply controversial…ahhh…as I learned in French class from Mr. Hall 30-some years ago: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Then as now, it was the army that stepped in to maintain order. The General of the Army (if you are dying to know the name to add to your rolodex, it is Horemheb—I wonder how Cole Porter might use his name in one of his “list” songs!) assumed the role as Pharaoh without blinking an eye (there is probably a joke in there since the Egyptian eye with that composite view is so striking and familiar). To justify his coup, Pharaoh Horemheb tapped into the Egyptians’ long-standing fear of foreign interference, pointing to those lousy Hittites as potential aggressors if stability and martial law was not maintained. Hmmmm…yes, just like Hosni Mubarak’s supporters justifying their continued hold on power, spreading rumors of those lousy Americans and their potential interference.

In modern Egyptian history every president has risen from the military. Egypt’s two recently appointed vice-presidents are from the armed forces. Thirty-three centuries ago Horemheb nominated another general as his successor. In doing so, he inaugurated a military junta that ruled Egypt with an iron fist for 13 generations.

Not long after this Horemheb character came the legendary Ramses II, the original Ozymandias of Shelley’s poem, who used his friends in the military to impose Egyptian authority across the wider Middle East. In Ramses’ time his influence extended him from the hills of Syria to the plains of Sudan, and Egypt was feared as the superpower in the ancient world. International prestige and military rule are deeply enmeshed in the Egyptian psyche.

Many in the news have called Hosni Mubarak a “modern-day pharaoh” and there are many other examples of how his rule compares to other authoritarian pharaohs. Other kings have posed as national heroes when chroniclers have noted how behind the scenes the leader is hated. Other kings have faced home-grown insurgencies and have responded swiftly and uncompromisingly. There have been few open rebellions over time given the unflinching brutality of the state.

So over the last 5,000 years Egypt’s rulers have grown used to unquestioning obedience from their subjects. In a country with a longer history than most, there is simply no tradition of freedom of speech or public debate. There simply have been only a handful of events like the last week in Egypt. No wonder that Hosni Mubarak and his inner circle seem in denial of the protest and outrage outside their palace gates. As the old joke goes, “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” Ahhhh….I have never gotten to think of that joke/pun in such a literal way: DE-NILE!!!

No wonder, given the reminders around him, that Hosni Mubark has cultivated the personality cult like ancient pharaohs did, and he has grown rich from the sweat of their countrymen’s labor, like ancient pharaohs did. So too is their response to opposition like the ancient pharaohs. For thousands of years, uprisings were met with crackdowns. One particular gruesome one is from 1950 BCE (let’s just think how ooooooooooooold that is: almost 4,000 years ago!!) when the ringleaders of the uprising were burned alive as human torches to light the perimeter of a temple. I don’t need to go through anymore of the list of abuses and tortures, you get the picture.

So here we are in 2011…thousands of years into this fetid history of crackdowns. Today, tanks stand guard at the pyramids, certainly the greatest symbol of authoritarian rule ever erected. Don’t forget that the pyramids were the tallest structures in the world for almost 3,500 years, until the Eiffel Tower is built in 1889 in France. If you look back to the building of the pyramids, the almost-500 years of obsession with this structure and monument, that age came to an end with a political vacuum following the demise of a long-standing ruler. Factionalism and paralysis marinated in Egypt, the economy collapsed, and Egypt plunged into a civil war.

Ahhhh…the cycles of history. Will Egypt’s history repeat itself? Can we overcome the past? May we dare to hope we can?

Here is the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley of the ruler Ozymandias:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.