A friendly kidnapping by a lovely Jordanian cop who speaks Hebrew and the only gay/hipster cafe in Amman.
The funniest thing that happened to me this week happened on Friday. I was sitting in my hotel room in Amman working on a very important article that was due that day. I needed to finish it before 7 pm local time and it was around Noon and I was nervous. I had a lot more to do than seemed possible in 7 hours. I had done so many interviews that week that I was a bit overwhelmed by the material and was sorting through, trying to figure out which quotes to use. Anyway, around Noon, this guy calls me, I’dll name him Faisel. He’s a Jordanian policeman, stationed at one of the bridge borders between Israel and Jordan and I met him ten days before when I crossed. He speaks Hebrew and was excited to meet someone else who does and told me he’d like to meet up when he’s off work and talk Hebrew with me. We exchanged numbers and vaguely agreed to get together. He called me several times in the previous ten days. I wanted to meet up’dget a chance to learn what it’s like to be a Jordanian cop’dbut I was so busy on this article, I kept blowing him off (This is also why I haven’t been posting to the site, I’dve been so busy writing all day and then I just don’t feel like writing anything else at night). He lives 45 minutes outside of Amman and I just didn’t have time to go there. I guess at one point I said something about Friday or maybe he just got sick of me blowing him off. Either way, he called me on Friday at noon and told me that he was on a bus to Amman to meet me and he’d be there soon. I panicked, but then figured I need to eat lunch some time, so why not take a 45-minute break and have lunch with the guy. Half an hour later, he called me and said he was in the lobby of the hotel. I went down, we shook hands, it was nice, and we left the hotel and started walking down the street. I asked him if he had a favorite place in Amman. He said, no, we’re not eating here, my mom will make you lunch. Oh, I said, I didn’t realize your mom lives in Amman. He said she doesn’t. She lives in his village, 45 minutes away. I didn’t know what to do. I have this damn article but I didn’t feel like I could just tell this cop to get back on the bus and go home. So, I followed him to some street corner, soon enough a bus came by and we got on.
We sat on the crowded bus. There were guys in Kefiyas, older guys, younger guys. (Public Jordan is so male, there are almost never women around). Faisel and I are yacking away in Hebrew. I keep asking him, like every five minutes, isn’t this dangerous, to be talking Hebrew. He said no. Jordanians love Jews. They love Israelis. I can assure you that this is not true. I don’t know what he’s thinking about. He seemed to really believe it. But take it from me: Jordanians do not love Jews and do not love Israelis. But what can I do. I gave myself to fate and continued talking with him in Hebrew. His Hebrew is worse than mine, which means we could get to know about each others’d families and work and stuff but couldn’t get into anything deep. I sat there, talking with him, and composing an email to my editor in my mind explaining why the article is a complete failure. I was constantly figuring out the time’dOK, 45 minutes down, 45 minutes up. That’s an hour and a half. Figure another hour and a half for lunch, so I’dll be back by 4. This is a stupid thing to do. It’s Friday in Jordan, which is the weekend, and Faisel was in no rush. We got off the bus in his town. When we got out of the bus, a cab driver stopped us and asked if I’dm American. He said he’s in an English class and his teacher asked him to look up the words donnative and connatative. I kept telling him those aren’t words. They don’t exist. But he insists they are (maybe they are, I don’t know). He gives me his phone number and asks me to call him when I look the words up. Then Faisel and I start walking’dI assume we’re walking to his house’dbut no, we’re walking to some archaeological ruins that I’dve seen before. Beautiful Roman and Byzantine mosaics. They’re amazing, but I told him like five times that I’dve already seen them. He grew up here and had never visited himself. So, we just keep going to mosaic after mosaic, ancient Church after ancient Roman Bath. Faisel is an incredibly nice guy. He was very enthusiastic about seeing these ruins. There weren’t any signs or any guides, so we just tried to explain’din broken Hebrew’to each other what we imagined these ancient sites were all about. It was a true Modern Jackass moment.
The whole mosaic experience added another hour to the day. Panic. OK. I’dll make it work. Then we get in a cab’dnow we’re going to his village, I’dm thinking. No. We’re going to this ancient church with an amazing view of Israel. It’s a fifteen minute cab ride and we’re talking Hebrew the whole time. The cab driver, at some point, asks Faisel in Arabic what language we’re speaking. Isn’t that Hebrew? Faisel says no, it’s not, we’re talking Ukrainian. The cab driver was very impressed that Faisel speaks Ukrainian. We get to the church and now I see that Faisel is nervous about the Hebrew thing. I don’t know what makes the church different from the bus, but Faisel now will only whisper to me in Hebrew and keeps guiding me away from the two large groups of Arab tourists. The church is cool. It’s on a big mountain and you can see across the valley that separates Jordan and Israel. You can see the lights of Jerusalem and Jericho. The valley between is mostly undeveloped and that yellow/brown earth that seems so biblical. Again, I’dve been here before but Faisel hadn’t. He pointed to a spot a half mile away on an adjacent mountain and told me he was just there the other day. He took a girl, he says. I jokingly said, oh it’s a great place to make out. He said, I didn’t make out. We didn’t kiss. I thought I had offended his Muslim sensibilities. Then he said, I fucked her. He said it very seriously. There was none of the joking male banter about it. I did not understand that moment.
As we’re leaving the church, two men approach us. One is an officer in the police force, he has a fancy uniform on. The other guy is in plain clothes and is clearly Mukhabarat, secret police. They gesture Faisel to come over to them and I stand a few feet away, sort of awkwardly watching them talk. It all seems very serious, everyone has severe looks on their faces. They demand that Faisel take out his ID card. But finally, they wave him off and we walk away. Faisel says the plain clothes guy wasn’t Mukhabarat, he was worse: military intellilgence. I ask if they heard us speaking Hebrew. Faisel says no, that’s not it. They just don’t like to see Jordanians and Americans be friends. It makes them nervous. Faisel told me that if anyone else stops us, I should say that I know Faisel’s brother in the US and that’s how I got Faisel’s number. If they found out that we met while he was doing his job on the border it would be very bad news for him. (He told me he’s hoping to stay in the police force for another 7 years, which will be 16 in total, so he can retire. That way, he’dll get a $300 a month pension for the rest of his life. I couldn’t believe 16 years is worth only $300 a month, but he seems really excited about it. (I know a computer programmer in Amman who makes $450 a month and can’t believe what a good salary he has.) We stood outside the church for a long time. Faisel didn’t realize there wouldn’t be any cabs there. We were waiting for so long. Finally, we call that cab driver who asked me the definition of those strange words. It takes him another 20 minutes to get there and then it’s another 15 minutes to Faisel’s house which is in a village outside of town.
Faisel lives with his mom and dad and 11 brothers and sisters. He’s the third oldest at 28. The living room is live most Jordanian living rooms (have I written this before?): it looks like a furniture store. A big room with a bunch of sofas along every wall, so that a big crowd can sit there and look at each other. And, like every time I visit a Muslim house, all the men sit in the living room and the women stay in the kitchen. I never saw his sisters or mother, though I would see hands passing along food through a door. We sat on those sofas, Faisel and me and a few of his brothers and cousins. I had that experience you always have in the house of a family that doesn’t speak English in some foreign country. There’s an initial flurry of hand gestures and Faisel translating Hebrew to Arabic as we quickly talk about the weather and stuff. And then we just sit there, awkwardly, occasionally looking at each other and smiling enthusiastically. One of Faisel’s brothers did not believe that I don’t speak Arabic or couldn’t take the idea in (Faisel says he’s stupid) and so he kept talking to me in Arabic and Faisel and I eventually gave up trying to convince him I don’t know what he’s saying, so I would just listen and smile and nod and try to laugh when he starts laughing. Then Faisel’s father sat down. He’s surprisingly old, with a big kefiyya. He sat next to me and, through Faisel, asked me if I could bring him a girl from America to marry. He said his wife is too old to please him. I thought it was a big joke and I was laughing and saying, sure, I’dll bring you one. What do you like? He was very serious and said he wants a virgin. I said I’dm from New York and it might be hard to find one. This did not go over. No one laughed. Then Faisel said his father wants a 13 or 14 year old. I have no idea if this was all a joke or not. Nobody was laughing or smiling at that point. Finally the hands through the door pass a huge platter of mansaf, the Jordanian national dish, which is basically a huge pile of rice covered in whatever they have: green peans or Okra or, in this case, chicken. The chicken had clearly been killed a few minutes earlier and wasn’t completely de-feathered. It’s one big platter with a lot of spoons and everyone digs in and eats right next to each other. Faisel’s father was next to me and he’s a particularly sloppy and noisy chewer. I have to say: this was the most disgusting eating experience of my life. The rice was OK but it was bathed in some congealed white stuff that might be cheese or might be chicken fat or might be something else. It had a very odd texture and was really unpleasant. The chicken was so disgusting I can’t bear thinking of it. On my first chew, I literally gagged, I almost vomited. I’dve never had chicken that tasted so horrible. Even though it’s fresh, it tasted rotten, putrid. I reached over for some tissues (Jordanians don’t use napkins, they use tissues. Every home, every restaurant, everywhere there is a big box of Kleenex.) I pretended to blow my nose and spit out the chicken. This is when Faisel told me to eat more, and started ripping up chicken meat and chicken marrow and dumping it on the rice in my section of the plate. I kept saying how delicious it all is, but that I’dm really very full. But, wow, thank you, it’s so good. I spent most of the time in this house experiencing it as an observer. I was basically writing this entry in my mind and simultaneously congratulating myself for being in some small Jordanian village eating mansaf and condemning myself for being such a damn fake since I really wanted to get the hell out of there. By the time the food was served it was 5:30. The article is due no later than 8. I told Faisel that I had to turn the article in at 8, I had to get going. He said, you have plenty of time. That’s 2 and a half hours away. I said I have to do a lot of work before the article is turned in. I felt like I was lying to him, like I was just trying to flee, which would have been true if it just didn’t happen to also be true that I did have a major article due that evening. Faisel finally says it’s OK for me to go, but then tells me his family doesn’t have a car and we have to figure out how to get me to the town nearby so I can catch a bus back to Amman. This leads to a lot of hurried discussion, which takes another 15 minutes or so. Then Faisel’s father sees some car headlights through the window and Faisel runs outside and flags the car down. It’s a cousin’deveryone in the village is a cousin’dand the guy agrees to drive me to the bus station.
There is a bus waiting for me and I get on. I have never seen someone drive a bus like this. The driver is literally sitting sideways, so the road is to his left, talking to two friends sitting next to him while he drives incredibly slowly. He has to turn his head to see the road and he doesn’t turn his head very often. I try to ask the driver if maybe I could get out and take a cab. He doesn’t speak English, but one of the other passengers does and the guy tells me why take a cab for $12 when the bus only costs fifty cents. I say I’dm in a big rush and I want to take a cab and please tell them to stop the bus so I can get out. This leads to some hurried negotiation in Arabic, the conclusion to which is that I can pay 5 dinars, about $7 and the bus will go directly to Amman without stopping for any passengers. The driver says he will drive much faster than any cabbie. I agree, and instantly the driver turns around and we drive so quickly, so maniacally, that I start thinking I should ask to pay a little extra to go more slowly. We get to Amman in 23 minutes. The bus goes directly to my hotel’dfar off the route’dand drops me off. Everyone on board is thrilled by this whole arrangement because they were all going to Amman and were glad to cut the trip in half. I felt so cool, getting off this bus into my hotel. I got back, quickly read what I had written so far, made a few changes, and decided it was good enough and sent it in.
The next day I woke up and was trying to figure out what to do. Should I stay in Amman, drive to Syria or fly to Beirut or maybe Yemen. I sort of abruptly decided that I wanted to go to Israel. So, I packed my bags and then realized I needed to interview this guy I met for a radio story I’dm doing about the death of tourism in Jordan. He’s a Jordanian of Palestinian origin, and he speaks Hebrew pretty well. He used to own a souvenir shop and learned Hebrew talking to the thousands of Israeli tourists who came to Jordan between the peace treaty and the beginning of the intifada. Now there are basically no Israeli tourists in Jordan. (Israelis tell you that absolutely none visit Jordan. Faisel told me that about 50 to 100 Israeli Jews cross the border every day’dalong with a thousand or so Israeli Arabs–most on business. About five or something come a day for tourism. It used to be thousands and thousands every day.) Anyway, I interview this Palestinian guy in Hebrew and then he tells me that he wants to go to Israel to study Hebrew in an Ulpan, an intensive language institute. He’s dying to live in Tel Aviv for a while because every Israeli he’s met is so nice and he’d really like to spend time with them. (I almost don’t believe this myself as I’dm writing it.) He wants me to look into it for him. He’s a sweet guy and I want to help him, but my guess is there is basically zero chance for a Palestinian to get a visa to study Hebrew in Tel Aviv. I spend the long cab ride to the border thinking about this. Thinking about how little exchange there is between Israelis and Arabs. I wouldn’t want to be on a big tour bus filled with Israelis, but I think any individual Israeli who speaks English could get around Jordan without any danger. I just had this experience of speaking Hebrew in a small Arab village, but this is basically unheard of. There is no exchange between the two sides. That night, in a bar in Tel Aviv, I was telling all this to a friend and she was angry at me for going with this cop and visiting his house. She said it’s far too dangerous and I risked my life. I told her she’s wrong. It’s fine. I was totally safe. But there’s no way to convince someone of that. There’s no way to get most Israelis to feel safe enough to get to know an Arab and there’s no way (I think) to get a truly well-meaning Arab the opportunity to get to know Israelis and to learn Hebrew. Of course, most Jordanians, I would guess, don’t want to meet Israelis and wouldn’t be as friendly as this cop or that Palestinian souvenir shopkeeper.
I’dve been meaning to write about something else that happened in Amman last week, which is that I discovered (or a friend discovered and showed me) the one hip caf’d in the whole city. If it were in New York or Tel Aviv, it wouldn’t be a remarkable place. It’s sort of your standard young person’s hipster hangout. Lots of comfortable couches and well-intended but lousy art on the wall. You can get good hot chocolate and these creative pizzas. There’s even an attached bookstore which sells cool English books, like all the beats. There are guys in beatnik goatees and young couples holding hands and kissing. There are even openly gay people. The only openly gay people I saw in my six weeks in Amman. I sat with the owner a while. He’s gay, he told me. A Palestinian guy who lived in New York with his Israeli boyfriend. But the boyfriend died in the World Trade Center and he was so heartbroken he moved back to Amman. He said it sucks being gay in Jordan. There is a scene but it’s very incestuous. There aren’t any bars or clubs, so everyone goes to each others’d houses where they all have sex. But they’re so mistrustful of strangers, that there’s never any new blood. He said that before the intifada, gay Ammanis would go to Tel Aviv, the nearest place with an open gay scene. But now they can’t get visas, so the ones with money fly to Paris or London or Oslo (for some reason) as often as they can. I should have written this the day I was there, because it felt very exciting and wild to meet people who were expressing themselves in their own ways. The owner told me that most of the young people who hang out there have never left Jordan. They are incredibly brave, he says. And this is the only place they can go to hang out.
Last night my friend took me to a bar in Tel Aviv, a mixed gay/straight place, where there were these guys around us making out so severely that even I, who grew up in the Village, was kind of shocked.
I’dm going to watch one of these crappy movies I bought. In downtown Amman (like in so many third world countries) you can by CVDs, which are pirated movies on CD, not DVD. They cost about a dollar and are so terrible. These are the ones where someone brings a video recorder into a movie theatre and films the movie. So, the quality is lousy to begin with and then they compress them to fit on a CD, so the quality gets even worse. I bought 30 of them, because I knew many wouldn’t work. About one in seven doesn’t work at all. And with another quarter the first CD will work (they always come on 2 CDs) and you’dll get halfway through a movie and then the second CD won’t work. Mostly they have the latest action film, like the new James Bond film (which was available in Amman the day the movie opened in the US). But sometimes, mixed in with the action, will be some art movie like Donnie Darko or Holy Smoke. I don’t understand how this business works. The movies were all taped, I think, in the Philippines because they have what I think is Tagalog subtitles and Chinese subtitles and then someone superimposed Arabic subtitles on top of them. All night I’dve been trying to get up to go to Blockbuster, but I’dm too tired, so I’dm going to watch some crap on a CD.