A snow storm shuts the town down and drives me crazy, as do a lot of other things in Jordan and Israel.
This whole week seems to have disappeared into a black hole. There was a massive two-day snow storm in Amman. It shut the whole city down. There don’t seem to be any plows or shovels in this country. The snow was thick on the sidewalks and the roads until today’s and yesterday’s hot weather started melting it. I didn’t leave the hotel for two days. Nobody did. Well, I walked a block or so to another hotel at one point and my feet were wet and freezing. I wish I was able to do a lot of work while trapped in the hotel. I did do some. But there was just this feeling that permeated the place and everyone in it and it’s been such a lazy week. I couldn’t go out and do any interviews’dno offices were open, nothing was open. No stores were open. Even the restaurants in the hotel were closed because the staff and food couldn’t get in. Somehow planes were taking off, but the road to the airport was shut closed. It was more fuel on the fire of my growing frustration with being in the Arab world: the inefficiency, the incompetence, the lack of professionalism. (By the way, this might seem racist or offensive, but it’s what Arabs talk about all the time.) I was telling myself that maybe it’s fine that they can’t deal with a snow storm. I mean there hasn’t been a storm this bad in 10 years, so why waste money on lots of plows and shovels and sand. It’s not Chicago. But it’s hard to imagine any American city just shutting down for a week because of a storm. I guess it does happen. It happened to me once in Chicago. The whole city shut down. No cars were driving. But that was a massive record storm. I don’t know. I just wish they would have plowed the city more.
I went for a walk with a friend yesterday and the drivers were making me so furious. There is no way to walk on the sidewalks, they’re so thick with snow. Anyway, even without storms, the sidewalks are not walkable. They are so poorly constructed, there’s always a big pothole in the middle or the stones are just all in disarray or someone put a gigantic prickly bush that takes up the entire sidewalk (those bushes are on almost every block). So without snow, you often walk in the street. But with snow, there’s nowhere else to walk. So, we’re walking in the street and the snow was beginning to melt, so there was lots of freezing cold pools of water on the side of the road. The drivers came by speeding at such speeds and splashing us full with that cold water. I started waving them down to slow them down just a little bit. They didn’t seem to understand what I was suggesting by raising and lowering my hands, so they would stop the car and stare at me with a puzzled look. At least I got them to slow down. But the whole thing was very funny, I’m just walking down the middle of the street waving my arms up and down and screaming in English to slow down. Of course, many wouldn’t slow down and would splash us horribly and I would scream ‘dYou Fucking Asshole.’d At them. One guy, who got me so good, I screamed about the worst Arabic curse you can. He stopped his car, looked back, paused, and then drove on. A friend who knows this place better than I do said that he was deciding whether or not to kill me and decided it’s not worth attacking an American. It was making me so mad, the whole thing. These drivers are so insanely inconsiderate. Just splashing massive water pools all over us. I was surprised to see so many women in hijabs doing the same. I would think they’d be more considerate.
Speaking of women in hijabs, I was talking to one I know today. She was saying what a hard time she’s having deciding if Osama bin Laden is good or not and if the attacks on the World Trade Center were good or not. She says what he did has caused a crisis for many young Muslims, because they feel forced to decide if they like him or not. A lot of her friends and relatives don’t see the dilemma. Obviously he’s good. He’s great. He showed America that it can be attacked, that it’s not all powerful. That’s good. She agrees with that, she says, but she also thinks it might have been a mistake. A mistake to kill innocents. But more a mistake tactically’dit might have made things worse for Arabs. I was saying that I hate Osama bin Laden. There’s no question that he’s horrible and that he’s a bad muslim. You can’t kill innocent non-combatants. She said that bin Laden has a tape where he discusses the rules of Jihad and says that if Arabs follow the rules they’dll never be able to conquer America. I said so that means you tell Mohammed and the Quran and Allah to screw off because their work is relevant anymore? She didn’t like that. She said that when bin Laden speaks, Arabs are mesmerized. He is incredibly charismatic, charming, a great speaker. She says whenever she sees him speak she is convinced that he’s right about everything. Only later does she start to question him a little bit.
She asked me if it’s true that Americans hates Muslims. I said that most Americans don’t know or care about Muslims. We don’t think about them in any way. That probably these days most Americans would express negative opinions about Muslims, but that’s temporary, not a deep hatred or anything. She’s convinced’dlike almost everyone here’that America and Americans are at war with Islam, want to destroy Islam. I said that America is very pragmatic and doesn’t go in for holy wars against entire religions. That right now we’re freaked out by what bin Laden did and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But we’re not desperate to kill all Muslims or destroy their religion. I said that Muslims don’t forget anything. The Crusades are completely alive in every day life here. So is every war they’dve fought, every slight, every attack on their dignity. I’ve never heard the word dignity come up so often as it does in the Arab world. All the time. So do the Crusades. I’d say they come up at least five times a week. I told her we don’t have any memory in the US. We don’t hold grudges in the way that Arabs do. I said that when I was a kid we hated Russia and Russians and saw them as enemies and then one day they were our friends. No big deal. Same with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, but in reverse. She said that she and most Arabs think that Americans are obsessed with Arabs, think about them and Islam all the time. I said that most Americans probably do think negative things when they think of Arabs, but they don’t think of Arabs all that often. And probably more Americans like Arabs than you’d think. Or at least don’t hate them. I don’t actually know if I’m right on this. I wonder what average Americans do think about Arabs. I told her about the slur towel-head and she got very excited and laughed a lot and asked me to write it down.
She was trying to show me that she’s actually quite moderate in her views. Like, she said, she doesn’t think she would ever kill an Israeli. Maybe if she lived in Palestine she would. But she won’t know. She wouldn’t kill anyone, she thinks. But she’s not sure. We had a conversation a few weeks ago about honor killings. These are no uncommon here. A father or a brother will kill a young woman because she had sex with a man out of marriage. It can happen if she’s single or married. A lot of times, the woman didn’t have sex, there was just some rumor or they were seen walking with a man. My friend says that she is overall against honor killings. That she’s pretty sure she wouldn’t kill her sister if she had sex. But she would be extremely upset. But what upsets her more is that men can kill women and get off with easy and short sentences or no sentences at all, but if a woman, a mother or sister, kills a wayward brother or son they go to jail for a very long time. She says it’s her feminist perspective.
I’ve been meaning to write about my last trip to Israel. I took notes and everything, but I just haven’t taken the time to write. I had the worst cab ride in my entire life from Tel Aviv to the border with Jordan. I woke up early in the morning and wanted to get to Jordan as soon as possible, knowing it’s an endless trip. So, I called a cab and asked them to send someone who knows the way to the border. The cab pulled up and I was praying it would be some young guy who would drive fast and know the way. Out comes, very slowly, this enormous old man with dirty clothes, just dusty and grimy. He slowly walks to the back of the cab and opens the trunk, where he has this big box of chocolate wafer cookies. He pulls two out and gives me one and says: eat it. The trunk was so dirty’djust piles of garbage in back. It made me upset to put my suitcase there. I sat down in the car and we started driving so slowly. He took a long, roundabout way to get to the highway’dI’ve only spent a couple weeks in Tel Aviv and I knew his way was completely wrong. I also became expert in how he drove. If he stopped at a light or a stop sign, it would take forever for him to get the car to go fast again. He’d go in first gear for a long time, then make it to second and then third, each one taking forever. It would take several minutes to get up to a cruising speed. But he also slowed way down if he had to do anything else. Like if he fiddled with the radio (he constantly fiddled with the radio) or if he wanted to talk to me. And he was constantly talking to me. It was driving me insane. I wanted to get to the damn border and get over to Jordan and he was so damn slow all the time. He also was constantly talking to me. It was unbearable. His Hebrew was slurry and I couldn’t follow it. He had this way of talking. He’d say: So, In America they’re now really scared all the time, hunh? And I’d say, well, we were for a while. Now people aren’t that scared. And he’d say: No, they are scared. They are very scared. They know what it’s like in Israel now. Now they understand. When he talked, he’d lean over his enormous fat body and sort of push his shoulder into mine. It was horrible. And it never ended. The drive just took so long. So endlessly long. I got to the point where I couldn’t respond to him in any way. Even the slightest grunt and he’d talk and talk and slow the car way down and rub my shoulder with his and turn to look at me and tell me what America is like. God damn was it horrible. I sat there and every time he opened his mouth, I shuddered, I felt this pain in my stomach. I was thinking the whole time’dI’d like to get out and find another cab. I finally took out my iPod and just was incredibly rude and listened to music and stared out the window.
We drove through a part of Israel I’ve never been to before. It’s in the north, but not all the way north. Sort of around Nazareth. It’s so green and lush, it really looks like the US Midwest in the Spring. There is flat land with big farms (I couldn’t tell what they were growing) and hills overgrown with beautiful green grass and trees. It’s lovely. I was looking at it and thinking how this is among the greatest sources of Zionist pride: we turned arid land into this thriving greenery. This is central to the Zionist explanation of history. It’s also an implied (or sometimes explicit) condemnation of the Arabs, one of the greatest sources of evidence that even though they lived here, they don’t deserve the land like we do. Israelis transformed the place’took away the malarial swamps and miserable land and turned it into lush green. Those Arabs didn’t do that. They just accepted the crappy land and didn’t bring it to life. So they don’t deserve it like Israelis do. Then there’s the Palestinian side to all this irrigation stuff. That Israel reserves the bulk of its water for Jewish areas and leaves Palestinian areas with insufficient water is one of the greatest sources of anger. It’s an issue that gets at the heart of the different ways the two sides see everything. The very thing that makes Israelis feel proud and that proves their right to the land is at the same time the very thing that proves to Palestinians that Israelis are cruel and horrible and will use force in any way to improve their own situation and ruin the lives of Palestinians.
It was raining as we were driving around and there were all of these Chinese guys riding bikes on the side of the road’dclimbing these big hills, in the pouring rain. That’s another big change. Originally, the Zionist pioneers insisted that only Jews can work the land. One of the central ideas of Zionism was to transform bookish Eastern European Jews into manly agriculturalists. But after a few decades of that, no Jews wanted to work the land. So they hired Arabs. But since the first intifada, they’dve been shipping in foreign workers. Now there are a lot of Chinese working these farms. The farms seem very well developed, sophisticated.
Crossing the border is, as always, so striking. The Israeli side’das said is green and well developed. At first, when I got on the Jordanian side, I saw that it, too, was green and I started thinking maybe it’s not Zionism that turned the country green. Not if Jordan is as green as Israel. But I realized that the Jordanian green was not well-developed agriculture. It was more scrubby and weedy. I didn’t see any active farms (though I know there are plenty of them). It also felt like such a step into the third world from the first. One of the first thing I saw were two kids riding a horse and then a donkey not too much farther down the road. We passed through these villages of horrible one-story cement block architecture, with everyone out on the streets. Nothing like the big, nice homes with air conditioning on the Israeli side.
There are all these Americans with NGOs here in Amman. We call them tree-huggers. We see them at bars or hanging out at the hotel. And I’ve noticed that the reporters and NGO types never ever mix. It’s odd, in a way. We’re all here in Amman. All kind of bored. Why not get to know each other. But the perspective is so different. Most of the reporters are actually for the war. Or they don’t think about the war as something to be for or against, but find the earnest tree-huggers to be embarrassing. We were at a bar the other night and a friend asked if we wanted to join a table of French activists. We walked over and never exchanged a single word with them. Just stood there, the reporters talking to each other, the NGOs talking to each other. There is one woman from an NGO who all the reporters know. She hangs out with us and keeps her mouth shut about activist things. But she’s it. There is no other cross-over.
I get all these emails from friends in the US about how upset they are about the upcoming war. How it feels like it can take over their lives. I find that odd. Here the war is obviously on peoples’d minds. But not that much. It doesn’t feel overwhelming or omnipresent. Life is just going on more or less normally (snow storms excepted). The reporters, me included, just can’t wait for this thing to get going. It seems inevitable, so let’s get on with it. I feel so ready for it. I’m sick and tired of waiting around. There are stories to do now, but they feel sort of small-scale and not that interesting. The hotel I’m in, where a lot of the reporters are, feels like this foggy place that sucks in your soul. It just saps everything. So many reporters come to town and just sit around and don’t do anything. It’s all because we’re waiting for the main event. Maybe we’re conserving energy for it. I know reporter who came expecting to stay a day and then zip into Baghdad with the visas they already have. Then they get to this hotel and they’re here another week doing absolutely nothing. At dinner the other night, one guy asked us to go around and say how much time we’dve wasted in Amman. The table equaled several years of wasted time. I would guess that each day American reporters are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just waiting here, doing nothing. I find that on purely personal reasons, I get so annoyed every time the French slow the war down a bit or there’s some big protest. I feel like’dif it’s coming, let’s get it going. I mean, doesn’t Chirac know that I’m hoping to be in NY by June and every week he delays the war means I won’t get back home for another week. I want at least a few months in post-war Baghdad. It’s so inconsiderate. Also, as I’ve written before, I honestly can’t understand the obviously anti-war feeling that most of my friends have back home. I see these celebrities on TV or these rallies and everyone seems so confident the war is a bad idea. I just don’t understand how that can be. Don’t they know Iraqis are desperate for this war. Can’t wait for it themselves.