Curiosity Helps Cross Some Cultural Divides

I knew at once they belonged to me. I could tell by all the heads of white and gray hair bobbing so conspicuously in a sea of black. In Amman's cramped and chaotic airport, the casual dress of these people - their sweatshirts and tennis shoes - stood out against the head scarves and dark eyes of the Jordanians milling about, eager to touch returning friends and family.

I was the tour director for 34 Americans from all over the United States. They came from Alaska, Alabama, Virginia, Oklahoma, - from nearly every state in the Union - and they came to visit the ancient Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, wedged in the center of one of the world's most troubled regions.

It was their first time in Jordan. As soon as the peace treaty with Israel was signed, these intrepid travelers signed up for the adventure. Now, they told me, they were no longer afraid to visit this Arab country, clearly one of the benefits of the long-awaited peace between the two former enemies. So, when one of the more progressive tour companies asked me to be their tour director, I accepted eagerly, happy to share the wonders and generosity of the Middle East as a first-generation Arab- American.

After the group passed through customs and immigration, I had my first real look at them. There was a peculiar looseness about them that I thought of as so American - at least in contrast to the arriving Germans and Italians with their more tailored continental flair.

I briefed my group quickly on some of the basics of our itinerary (Amman, Petra, Jerash), water potability (it isn't), crime (almost nonexistent), touched briefly on Islam, and started to talk about Arab culture and society. But they were already staring at several fully veiled women. In what became the signature of our time together, one of the men cut in: ''Why do they wear those things? What are they called?''

He wasn't hostile. His question didn't carry tones of disapproval. It was a frank inquiry, reassuring in its directness. My orientation was clearly playing second fiddle to what they were seeing around them.

''Is it hot under that?'' a woman in the group asked next. These two questions set the tone for our trip. These tourists were full of curiosity, open-minded, and not willing to let any moment go unexplored. During our two weeks together, I was forever being caught off balance by their unquenchable need to know. But I was relieved that they would see this part of the world with their own eyes. They weren't going to rely on the news media for their impressions.

''Can we see them bake bread?''

''What's growing there?''

''Where does that water come from?''

In the middle of Jerash, one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the Middle East, I was waxing eloquent about Emperor Hadrian's relationship to this principal Decapolis city. Suddenly, several squeals of delight cut me short as the group pointed with joy at a herd of sheep and goats crossing behind me. Cameras clicked, smiles broke out on every face. Forgotten for the moment was the long, elegant, colonnaded street. Sheep mattered more than history, and the burning question of the day was why the Bedouin used children instead of dogs to watch their flocks.

I didn't know. ''Good question,'' I said. ''I'll find out the answer,'' I mumbled sheepishly. ''Now, the temple of Artemis is located here and....''

''What are they cooking, over there on that fire?'' someone asked, pointing to the shebab (young guys) brewing tea as the late-afternoon sun set. ''Tea,'' I replied, and kept quiet. They were discovering much more on their own.

Throughout our cross-country trip, I was busy providing our local guide with a crash course in dealing with Americans. He had never worked with groups from the States before and made a major miscalculation. He assumed that because he was the official local tour guide, the group would automatically do as he asked, listen to him when he spoke. After all, people of other nationalities did.

I cringed when he took the microphone on the bus and said, ''Quiet please. Quiet. I must have your attention!''

Thirty-four pairs of eyes looked at me, eyebrows raised. They either stared stonily at him or looked out the window, tuning him out. It took me the better part of the week to get him to realize that Americans have to want to listen to you. They have to be won over. Titles, rank, position are no guarantee of attention.

''They have no respect,'' the guide said.

''They are irreverent,'' I answered, knowing I'd have to explain that later.

''What is 'won over'?'' he persisted.

I had my job cut out now.

Eventually, he got it. When the folks saw that he understood and realized he was making an effort, they immediately accepted him and forgave him.

''He's a good kid. He's really trying,'' they'd say, forgetting how close they had come to throwing him off the bus.

Petra was the high point of our trip. Imagine walking through the twisting, mile-long path leading up to the Khazneh - the stunning, rose-colored Nabatean treasury. Imagine towering cliffs on either side of the path, loose, pebbled sand underfoot, and walking with a woman in her 90s! Helen had made the trip alone for just this moment. I held her hand, eager to see the look on her face when she caught her first glimpse of the building, shimmering in the early-morning light. She was thrilled. She told me she was grateful that she had this opportunity.

It took two hours to walk back with her and some of the others. The walk normally takes only 40 minutes. I wouldn't have traded it to walk with someone younger who might have lost in appreciation what they made up for in speed.

But it was at the Shaumari wild animal preserve, near the Ottoman desert castles, where American goodwill intersected with Arab smiles and hospitality.

While one half of the group went in search of the beasts, the other half watched as a group of lovely, uniformed, 13- or 14-year-old Jordanian schoolgirls played on rusty swings and a single, dilapidated seesaw. Without benefit of video games, cell phones - all the ''cool'' appurtenances some American teens seem to need to enjoy themselves - these kids were having a wonderful time laughing, running, and playing the play of innocents. They stopped when they saw us watching. Gradually, they approached us, full of good cheer, eager to practice their few words of English.

''Hello. How are you?'' they managed between wide-eyed smiles and giggles. Then they saw Helen's halo of puffy white hair. These dark-haired beauties were amazed by so much white! Their eyes asked permission to touch, and she, at her most grandmotherly, eagerly gave it. The image of the wonder on their faces as they touched, smoothed, and framed her hair with their hands will not be soon forgotten.

Again the group clicked away; the girls embraced their new-found grandmother; and for a moment there were no Americans. Or Arabs.

Only people discovering each other.

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