A Time to Learn

Before I begin, I need to address something. I realize I am only a young college student. I don’t pretend to know everything, or anything for that matter. The things I say are simply what I have seen and experienced. All I will tell you is solely based on my personal experiences.




I have learned that timing, timing is everything.

 
Two weeks ago, I decided I would go to the Holy Land over my long weekend. It was an easy decision; It’s cheap to cross the border and I had some friends who wanted to go. We booked our hostel and prepared for the trip. We decided we’d leave a day early, that way we’d have a little longer to see the sights. The only potentially difficult part of our trip would be crossing the border. We just hoped it wouldn’t be a problem – after all, we were just some college students wanting to see the Holy Land. 
 
Tuesday finally came and my friends and I hopped into a taxi headed for the border. Down, down, down we descended to the Dead Sea until we finally reached the check point where we would pay our exit fees and bus over to the Israeli check point. Now you must understand, we’d been told some serious horror stories about this check point.

“Oh, it took us five hours.” 
“I got interrogated about why I was learning Arabic.” 
“They yelled at me and didn’t want to let me in.” 
“Yeah, it took us four hours to get through.”
 

 I was preparing for the worst. As our bus pulled into the check point, I started reciting my response in my head for why I wanted to visit Jerusalem. My friends and I handed off our luggage at the security and walked to the first counter that checked our passport. Counter after counter we walked,  never once waiting in line, never once having a difficult time. Before we knew it, we were out. Luggage in hand, we stood on the other side of the check point, grinning at each other. “Easy-peasy,” I said and we got into a bus to head to Jerusalem. Good timing, I guess.

 
At the city limits, the bus was stopped and an IDF soldier climbed in to check all of our passports. His name was David and he couldn’t have been older than 18. His AK- 47 looked scarier than he did. We didn’t talk, but I don’t think I’m going to forget David. He was my first glimpse into the reality of every news article I had ever read about Israel. Little did I know, the weekend was going to be moment after moment of a reality I never thought I’d know. It’s all about the timing.

When we arrived to the hostel, I learned that it had free wifi. I immediately pulled out my iPhone to check my email and Facebook. (Fast, free internet is a big deal in the Middle East when you’re used to paying for every moment of internet you use.) This was what greeted me when I opened my inbox:

 
 DEMONSTRATIONS IN PROGRESS: SECURITY ALERT
EMERGENCY MESSAGE FOR U.S. CITIZENS
 

 In a few short hours, Amman went from silent and calm to angry and loud. The government had released the information that they were raising the price of fuel by 53% while we were crossing the border. Our program cancelled school for the next day and those who were planning to travel for the weekend by car were no longer allowed to travel outside the city. My friends and I looked at each other – what remarkable timing.

The next day, we began with a guided tour of the Old City and saw some of the sights. Honestly, it didn’t even feel like real life running around the Old City’s quarters and coming upon the Dome of the Rock and then the Western Wall. Everything was so close to everything else. When the tour was over, we went back and revisited the places we had breezed over with the tour. It was then that the glamour of seeing the sights started to wear off. As I waited in line to see a possible tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a Holy Disneyland. Everything around me was so overrun with tourists that I felt completely separated from what I was seeing. While it is amazing to be able to say I have now seen these famous artifacts and locations, I can’t help but feel that they have simply become attractions for the masses. I found myself missing the simplicity of standing on the bank of the Jordan River from the Jordanian side.

When we got back to the hostel that evening, I checked the news for more information about Jordan. While there were updates about Jordan, there was something far more significant and pertinent on the front page of BBC news. 

 
ISRAELI AIR STRIKE KILLS HAMAS MILITARY CHIEF IN GAZA

And so it began. It turned out that while we had been standing in line in the Holy Disneyworld, Israel and Gaza had begun something huge. Something that was going to greatly effect everything. Emails began pouring in saying things like, “US SECURITY ALERT – ISRAEL.” Suddenly our proposed trip to Bethlehem looked out of the question. We headed to bed with a new plan of spending the next day in Tel Aviv where it was sure to be calm. I fell asleep thinking how unbelievable the timing of all this craziness was. 
 
The next day we got a late start, but arrived in Tel Aviv around 1 pm. We proceeded to get lost for a few hours, but eventually ended up on the beach. It was beautiful. The sun was beginning to set and there were only a few people spread out on this long beach. After we had exhausted the sunlight, we headed into Old Jaffa for dinner. Old Jaffa is said to be the port that Jonah set sail from before his fateful experience with the whale. As we walked towards Jaffa, we heard a deep, loud boom. We looked at each other wondering what that had been, but shrugged and walked on. We found an adorable cafe and proceeded to have a fantastic dinner. After dinner, we headed back to Jerusalem. Once we arrived back, we all decided we wanted to find a bar to hang out in. There we met two IDF officers who introduced themselves to us. They were delightful company and I was so glad to put personalities to this faceless force. During the conversation, my friend curiously asked them, “Do you think this fighting with Gaza will escalate much?” The IDF soldiers hesitated a moment and then said, “Oh yes, for sure. I mean, they fired on Tel Aviv tonight after all.” It was our moment to hesitate. “They did what?” “Fired on Tel Aviv.” Under my breath I said, “I knew I heard a boom.” Our timing was impeccable.
 
GAZA CRISIS: TEL AVIV TARGETED BY MISSILES 
 
The news was everywhere. Tel Aviv had been targeted, one hitting towards the south of the city and another off the shore into the sea. My mum had already sent me an anxious email by the time I got back to the hostel. I quickly responded telling her I was fine and that I was safely in Jerusalem now. No worries anymore, right? 

The next morning we headed to Yad Vashem (the holocaust museum in Jerusalem) on the tram. At the stop before we were to reach Yad Vashem, a young Israeli man came over and told us, “We have to leave. This is the last stop. They found an unidentified object ahead so the tram will go no further.” With this new knowledge, we set out on foot the rest of the way to Yad Vashem. Ahead we could see there was police tape marking off the area all around the next tram stop. We skirted the area as we headed down to the museum. Great timing.
 
A few hours into Yad Vashem, I was ready to head back to finish up sight-seeing in Jerusalem. It was a bit heavy for me to look at for too long. The rest of my group was not ready, so I decided I would head back by myself. I walked back to the tram and took it to the Damascus Gate. When I arrived, the area around the gate was crawling with IDF troops. I could barely get around them to find my way to the gate. As I weaved my way through, I was struck with how many girls I saw. Now, if you know me, you know that I’m not a military person. But watching these girls, I have never wanted to be part of the military more. I felt so weak just looking at them. I realized that living in a nation where women are not considered strong had made me crave the power that I saw in these Israeli girls. I was tired of feeling vulnerable.
 
Once I was inside the Damascus Gate, I realized that I was in the middle of the Arab quarter. An American girl all alone in the Arab quarter is probably not a very good idea. But fortunately, I was a girl on a mission. I rushed past the men calling out and staring at me. I just kept walking and turning down narrow alleys as I recognized graffiti after graffiti. I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to go, but I loved the feeling of being free. I was walking alone by myself in one of the most ancient cities in the world, in a country seized by war. But I was able to be alone and I wasn’t lost. I felt powerful and in control despite my circumstances. And I loved it. I think I needed that moment – it was good timing.
 
Later that evening, my friends and I went to the Mount of Olives, and more specifically, the Garden of Gethsemane and Basilica of the Agony. In the Basilica of the Agony, mass was in process. It was beautiful to listen to in the majestic church. As some of my friends sat in the pews listening, I headed back outside. As I left the noise of the ongoing mass, I was greeted and overwhelmed with the sound of the call to prayer. The reality of what I was listening to struck me deeply. The clash of religions, cultures, and people there in Jerusalem is so complicated. As I sat on the stairs leading to the Basilica of the Agony, I was overwhelmed with the agony this clash has brought to the region. You so badly want there to be peace, and there is none to be had. I sat and waited for my friends to come out. It wasn’t more than a minute after they joined me that a foreign noise filled the night sky.



AIR SIRENS
 
Tourists began to look at their tour guides with panicked faces. People began rushing around. My heart dropped into my stomach. And yet, the Israelis simply walked on. Immediately, I thought back to David, the young man who had looked at my passport as I had entered Jerusalem. Was he going to be in danger? What about our new IDF friends from the bar? What about the girls who had seemed so powerful hours ago? Faced with something as huge and terrifying as rockets, suddenly every single one of them seemed as weak as me. As my friends and I set off to get back to our hostel through the Old City, I realized every people, every culture, every country has their own weaknesses. Jordan is not alone; I am not alone. As we walked back through the streets of the Old City, gun fire played like a chorus in the background.

One particular shop owner came out to greet us as we passed. He was grinning and laughing as he said, “The rockets!! Gaza is firing! Everyone is scared.” I couldn’t understand why he was so happy. This was his home. And then, it hit me. He was proud of Gaza finally making a strong move against Israel, even if it meant the city he was in was at risk. His attitude stated more than anything he could have ever said. I found out later the gunfire was from Palestinians celebrating all throughout Jerusalem. Suddenly I thought about all the Gazans dying less than an hour from me. I thought about the mothers crying for their children. I thought about the hate that saturates the air in this nation. I thought about the reality of a conflict that had driven people to cheer their city getting hit with rockets, the reality that I was suddenly in the middle of. My heart ached and continues to ache.

There is so much pain on both sides. I think too often we get caught up on one side of the conflict. I understand that, I really do. But seeing the faces of both sides makes everything so real. I have noticed in myself that, when I feel very passionately about a subject, I often forget about the credibility of the other side. This trip was very important for me. I saw both sides in a tangible way, and really, it’s devastating. I imagined each of these people growing up. From childhood they are taught a certain way of thinking and living, just like I have been. We, they, just don’t understand each other. And there is much more to learn. No matter what we think about each side, we can agree that this endless violence needs to stop. Needs to stop.

You’ll be glad to learn that on Saturday I arrived back safely across the border. Jordan has calmed down a bit, so getting into the country was not a problem. Although, there are still protests scheduled through out this week. But, to say the least, my weekend was perfectly timed despite terrible timing. I know that doesn’t really make sense, but I really was safe while still being in the thick of it. I feel heavy with the weight of what I have seen and learned, but I know it is crucial to wrestle with this knowledge. We should not be comfortable with what is going on.  Our world is so sadly diseased.

While I was in Old Jaffa, I purchased a pocket watch. At the time, I thought it was just a cool accessory to own. But now, I find it so much more significant. It reminds me of this moment in my life where timing was everything. It reminds me every day how time can not be taken for granted. It’s ticking, it’s flying, and it waits for no one. Every second, minute, and hour is a gift. How much time have I wasted on hate and not love? I don’t want to waste another moment. It’s time to start seeing clearly. 

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Amman: Crazy Taxi 2.0

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, 
that a single man in possession of a good taxi, 
must be in want of a customer.”
 
 

When I was 12 years old, my brother and I played a certain computer game all the time. Its name was Crazy Taxi. The premise is that you, as a taxi driver, must pick up customers and take them to their destination before the time runs out. The longer you take, the less money you get, as you have less time to pick up more customers. Due to this factor, the game is a lot less about driving and a lot more about money. I am willing to bet my next cab fare that Crazy Taxi was made by someone who had visited or lived in Jordan.

To better explain, I will share the profiles of Jordanian cab drivers. There are five types:


1. The Cheater-Cheater-Pumpkin-Eater
Unfortunately, this type is fairly frequent. They usually do one of three things: A. They act like they have no idea where you’re trying to go, and tell you they’ll “try and figure it out.” B. They refuse to start the meter. Or C. They turn off the meter as soon as you arrive at your destination and try to tell you the ride was worth 5 dinar. It wasn’t.

Example: A few weeks ago, I was on my way to meet some friends at the Citadel to take pictures. I left with plenty of time to get there; however, I hadn’t anticipated not being able to get a taxi. After about 40 minutes, an old man in a taxi picked me up. Now, it must be noted that I had tripled-checked with a friend on how to say the location. I felt ready. Of course, when I tell him, the driver goes “What? Where you want go? Straight??” I repeat again the location. He looks at me like I’m crazy and continues to say, in English, “Straight!!” I end up calling my host dad to have him tell the man where I want to go.

Faced with another Arab’s voice, my driver smiles and starts heading in the correct direction. I’m feeling pretty confident about life. The meter’s running, the driver is talking to himself, and I’m heading to the Citadel. Life is good. And then we arrive. I look at the meter. 2.4 Dinar. No problem. I pull out 3 Dinar and wait for him to give me my change. He starts yelling at me about how Americans are wealthy and how I don’t need the change. I tell him, “Bidii frata!!” (I want change!) He continues yelling at me until I finally give up and get out of the taxi. Once I get out, I realize he’s taken me to the wrong place and I will have to get in another taxi. I flag one down and tell him where I want to go. The driver says “Ok, 5 dinar.” Sigh. Cheater-Cheater-Pumpkin-Eaters.

2. The Creepy McCreeperson
The Creepy McCreeperson is the most feared in all the land. They are commonly known to be owners of large rounded rearview mirrors for “all the better to see you with, my dear.” This is also the type that either wishes to marry you off to a son, or marry you himself. Usually they’re good for a “You’re very beautiful” or two as well. This doesn’t sound too bad until they ask you the follow-up question of, “Are you a virgin?” It is not unusual to have the front seat offered to you by the McCreeperson, which is a big no-no. One must proceed with extreme caution when a cabbie is showing any of these signs.

Example: I have been extraordinarily fortunate in Amman by being able to travel most the time with my roommate, Saba. There is, indeed, strength in numbers. However, I have gotten used to the constant stares of the driver from the rearview mirror. There is nothing quite as unsettling as having a man watch you for an entire car ride, especially when you’d prefer he was staring at the road. The best way to handle the Creepy McCreeperson is to put on your “stank” face and ignore any and every of his comments. If you must respond, just tell him you’re already married or engaged.

3. The Calm and Silent
This type is my personal favourite. The Calm and Silent waits patiently for you to tell him where you’d like to go and then he turns on the meter. He watches the road ahead and there is a peaceful silence in the car, only disrupted if he decides he’d like to listen to some music. He doesn’t care why you’re learning Arabic or why you’re in Jordan. He just wants the exact money you owe him once you arrive at your destination. Much appreciated, sir.

Example: This is actually the type that is majority of my taxi rides. I love it and always keep my fingers crossed that I’ll get one every time.

4. The Chummy Chatter
Oh, The Chummy Chatter. You’re always in for a good time with this kind. This taxi driver usually has a lot of “important” information he wants to share with you. He’s usually an extremely effervescent personality type and positively thrilled you’re in his car. He most likely will share with you about his glorious past career before he decided to become a cabbie. He wants to know everything about you and most likely, by the end of the car ride, you’ll either have his card or be invited over for a meal. Quite possibly both.

Example: A week or so ago, I got into a cab. It looked like any other yellow taxi from the outside. How was I to know what would be inside? As soon as I sat down, the driver shouted out, “WELCOME TO JORDAN!!” followed by “WELCOME ALSO TO MY CAR!” A little taken aback, I responded, “Thanks?” Once I told him where I wanted to go, he took right off while asking me if I was learning Arabic. I explained that I was, indeed, and was headed to class right now. He smiled and told me I was very beautiful. I quickly became worried this man was heading into Creepy McCreeperson territory. 

However, he then passed me a laminated newspaper clipping that looked like a very young him in a futball uniform. “Is this you?” I asked him. He responded, “You’re very lucky. My name is Omar, and you are being driven by the most famous man in Jordan!” I think college futball fame might have gone to his head a little bit, but I was glad he seemed so confident in himself. “I am very lucky indeed,” I said with a smile. He then said, “You know, after I stopped playing sports, I gave up many things. I gave up smoking, drinking, and hookah. But, girls, girls I will never give up.” And then we arrived at the university.

Oooookay. Thanks, Omar. “Masalama!!”

5. The Chivalrous Cabbie in Shining Armour
This is the most precious and rare of taxi drivers. The diamond in the rough. They are the kindest and sweetest of men who simply want to make sure you safely get to your destination. I imagine them as the one’s with wives and daughters they dearly care about. Most often, they ask you only necessary questions and make sure you know where you are headed. They never try to rip you off, and you never feel pressured by them. Of course, because they are so kind, I usually end up tipping them significantly.

Example: This past weekend, my roommate and I went out to dinner. We were not really sure about the location of the restaurant but figured we’d be able to find it no problem once we were in the right area. The taxi driver kindly and patiently took us to the area and when we began directing him he listened closely. Unfortunately, we were going the wrong direction, but he realized it before we did. He kept asking “Are you sure this is the way you want to go?” In the end, he helped us find the restaurant we needed and even told us he was a Christian. We tipped him a lot. I’m still beating myself up that I didn’t get his number for future cab rides. 

There you have it. The Crazy Taxis of Amman. No worries, I’m releasing the computer game next year. 

The Entertainment Industry, Jordan, and Me

I am an American.
I am a girl.
Therefore, I am “easy.”
The past few weeks I have begun interviewing Jordanians for a documentary I am making. This documentary will address common misconceptions (among other things) that Americans have about the Middle East. In the process, I have learned many eye-opening things. Most interesting has been the Jordanian perception of Americans. Multiple people told me that the American girl is considered “easy.” When pressed, they explained that it was because of the entertainment industry in America. It has led the general Middle Eastern population to believe that American women will let men do whatever they want to them.
In my last interview, I decided to push the conversation further with the man who once again gave me that now expected answer. I asked, “So is there nothing American girls can do to fix this perception?” He explained in detail that they should be careful to cover up and that more importantly they should be serious at all times with taxis and strangers. “American girls are far too friendly for their own safety,” he said. I sat back and swallowed that. I usually pride myself on my friendliness, and being reminded that it is a negative thing here in the Middle East is difficult to comprehend.

After the interview, I took some time to let what he had said sink in. From what it sounds like, there is nothing I can actively do to make this perception of American women stop. I can try and help prevent the symptoms of this perception, but I am powerless to stop it. And that is a scary thought.

For awhile now I have planned to pursue acting (possibly in the entertainment industry). Because of this, I have often considered how I would conduct myself if I ever got to be in films. I had more or less decided on my “line” because of my faith. I didn’t want a bad reputation, even though it was only me acting. But now, with this new information, I cannot even consider acting in a role that makes a girl look easy. Suddenly it’s so much bigger than myself. I had no idea how Hollywood’s actions were making every day life difficult for American girls in foreign countries. But it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

Lady Gaga and Katy Perry represent some of our female musicians. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis represent some of our actresses. The popular American show The Voice has its own Arab version over here. This means at one point Christina Aguilera was a representation of our TV shows. All of a sudden, the men who whistle and cat-call me don’t confuse me anymore. I am in a category with these larger-than-life stars. To these men, I am easy.

Last night, me and three friends went to Abdoun. Abdoun is the ritzy neighborhood of West Amman. The area is filled with Western restaurants and even has the nicest mall in the country. It is not uncommon to see women showing some of their legs or even a shoulder. When I first started walking around, I felt at ease. I felt like, for once, I could put my guard down. But then, it wasn’t two minutes later, a man driving by yelled out his window, “Hello, Beautiful!! Welcome to Jordan!”

The rest of the evening was filled with similar occurrences. Jordanian men honking, staring, and yelling at me usually makes me feel like a piece of meat. Later in the evening, my friends and I were trying to get a taxi. We decided to cross the street and walk up a bit in hopes that an empty taxi would pass by. We ended up standing under a street light next to the road. Men were every where I looked. The SUV parked to our left had two men staring at us and honking. The cars passing by would yell out in Arabic as they blew us kisses. The men walking by to our right were staring us up and down.

I felt gross. I felt overwhelmed. I felt trapped. Then it dawned on me – I felt easy.

Living in this country has done much more than teach me about Jordan. It has taught me about how America as a government, as a culture, as a super power is perceived. And it has taught me about myself. I may not be able to change the world or even how American girls are viewed, but I can represent my faith, my culture, and myself to the best of my abilities. We must realize that we are ambassadors all the time, no matter what our pursuits.

Thank you, Hollywood, for teaching me that my actions are so much bigger than myself. And thank you, Jordan, for opening my eyes to so many life lessons.

Hide and Seek

Walking alone at night is terrifying to me. It’s scary even when I’m at home and have to walk the five yards to my car in the driveway. So, it’s really scary when I am walking down a dark road to find a taxi in Jordan. The other night I walked alone to find a taxi. The sun sets in Amman around six and it was only a little after that time that I set out to meet some friends for dinner. I held my bag tightly as I walked down the car-lined road to the main street. A light above me flickered on eerily. Ahead I noticed a group of four young men laughing and walking towards the street. I found myself thinking “Okay, four of them and one of me. Slow down your pace a little, Grace.” I did not want to have to deal with their stares or cat-calls. It’d already been far too long a day for that.


Unfortunately, as I got nearer to the street, the group stopped. They were waiting for a taxi, just like I needed to be. Standing right next to them was not an option and it’d be extremely rude to go up the street further. If I did, I would steal a taxi from them. After running through the possibilities, I decided crossing the street was my best option. I would be away from the men and there was always the possibility there may be more taxis that way.

Once I reached the street, the group of boys saw me. My stomach clenched and I stared straight ahead as I heard them saying, “Hellooooo!” As quickly as possible I crossed the street, not even giving them a sign that I had heard them. When I was safely on the other side, I started walking up the street a bit and stuck out my arm to hail a taxi. As I did so, I watched the group of boys begin to cross the street. I knew I wasn’t in danger, but I definitely didn’t want to deal with any more men that day. I had already been cat-called for a half hour earlier in the day while trying to find a taxi. I sighed and kept my arm out, praying that a taxi would swoop in and save the day. No such luck.

As the boys came closer, I decided I would make eye contact this time just so they could register my don’t-mess-with-me face. As my eyes flickered towards them, I realized one of the boys was coming specifically towards me with his arm out. Confusion. Then, recognition. It was Samuel, my host “dad”‘s younger brother. Suddenly, what I had done registered. I felt so small and ridiculous. I tried to make up for my inexcusable rudeness by grinning and saying “Oh hi, Sam!! I didn’t see you!” He smiled good-naturedly and headed off with his friends. I could not believe what had just happened. I had completely ignored a friend because I was scared. My fear of the unknown had imprisoned me. I was walking around blindly to keep myself safe, but in reality, being blind just makes you miss out on seeing. How many other times in my life have I chosen not to see?

I have found that sometimes it is easier not to look. Sometimes it’s easier to just pretend like nothing is happening. To pretend that it doesn’t involve you if you can’t see it. It’s like when you play hide and seek with little kids. They think just because they are covering their eyes, you can’t see them. But you do. The problems and people around us still see us clearly, whether or not we’re looking. I have seen and am continuing to see such problems in the world, even here in Jordan. There are stigmas and racism that lay heavy on my heart. It has shown me that the time for turning a blind eye is over. It’s time to face these issues, even if there is little I can do about it. I cannot allow my fear prevent me from fully living my life.