A week in the Middle East

(Editor's note: The Monitor's Middle East editor Jim Norton shares his observations during a one-week tour of Jordan and Israel. )

Café Paradiso, Jerusalem

I meet Nicole Gaouette, another of the Monitor's staff correspondents in the Middle East, for some sandwiches and tea. The roast beef and pesto sandwich is fantastic, and but for the Hebrew that drifts through the room - and the security guard out front - it's easy to imagine myself back in Cambridge, Mass.

Then the phone rings: Israel's first astronaut, flying on the US space shuttle Columbia, has been perished during the spacecraft's disastrous reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

It's a tragic moment for Israel and the United States. My next mission is to read up on astronaut Ilan Ramon, his mission, and his special place in Israeli society and help Nicole work on the story for Monday's edition of the Monitor. And I've only been in town for about an hour.

Crossing the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge

Getting from Amman to Jerusalem is my agenda today. Over breakfast at the hotel, Cameron and fellow correspondent Scott Peterson seem to view the trip over the bi-national bridge with a slightly unnerving level of familiarity and schadenfreude. Scott even takes the special trouble to mention the possibility of a body-cavity search.

I assume he is being humorous. It is not entirely possible to tell.

By the time I arrive at the Jordanian side of the bridge, I am sufficiently rattled that I lose my primary wallet. My decoy wallet - the one with a negligible stack of local currency that I purchased specifically for this trip - rests safely in my pants pocket, as the wallet containing my press pass, credit cards and driver's license toodles merrily back to Amman.

Stumbling into the Jordanian side of the compound, I am slightly dazed. Porters offer their services. Arab men in uniform stroll around, looking for malcontents. Signs are mostly in Arabic, with some English hints printed next to select bits of the compound.

I suddenly have a vivid understanding of how it must feel to be a recent immigrant to the United States. My language skills are useless, I stand out like a flaming badger, and my life's progress - represented here by my small, easily misplaced passport - is, literally, in the hands of total strangers.

Fortunately, everyone is perfectly nice, and I'm shunted from my cab to a passport-control office to a bus that carries me and a small cadre of fellow travelers over to the Israeli side of the bridge.

The difference between the Israel and Jordanian sides is like night and day. Security - embodied by M-16s, rolling luggage belts and metal scanners - is rigorous. My every possession is scrutinized.

In Jordan, cabbies, soldiers, shopkeepers, and the everpresent hovering clouds of waiters and porters are male. In Israel, the women are standing right behind the desks, sporting extremely professional attitudes and packing heat.

Something about my shambolic nature piques the curiosity of Israeli security, and I'm taken aside into an extremely well-lit room with plain white walls, and a somewhat impatient - but clearly quite serious - Israeli security officer.

"Who do you work for? Why are you visiting Israel? Why did you get your passport the day before you traveled? Can you really turn them around in 24 hours? Who are you staying with? Why do you have a book on Islam and these buttons featuring the Al-Aqsa mosque [a mosque in Jerusalem that symbolizes the intifada] in your bag?"

I cheerfully answer the questions as fast as they come, positively glowing with innocent intent. Then:

"If you work for a newspaper, do you have a press pass?"

Of course. It's right here in my... it's here... under these souvenirs... behind these books... here in this backpack... it's. In. It's in my wallet.

My wallet is not in my bag. My wallet is probably entering downtown Amman even as we speak.

Inexplicably, this doesn't phase my questioner. He shrugs, and I'm free to go. Reprieved! The young women who stamp my passport out are very nice, and one of them even talks to me about wanting to be a journalist. "It's my dream," she says. I'm far more encouraging than I probably should be, and I make my merry way through the rest of the security maze - only to end up on a 40-minute taxi ride to Jerusalem's Damascus Gate, a bewildering knot of pedestrian and automobile traffic.

But eventually, I settle in Jerusalem. The wallet is in an Amman hotel, quietly awaiting my return. And I look forward to whatever may come next.

As long it doesn't involve a bright white room.

The Taxicabs of Amman

The simple act of cabbing it in Amman can be an eye-opening experience. Many taxis play (or blast) Radio Sawa, the US-sponsored station that mixes Western pop hits with America-friendly news bulletins relevant to the Arab world. There is something distinctly surreal about listening to Bobby McFerrin croon "Don't Worry, Be Happy" while watching people herd goats.

The road back to Amman from Jerash is a cornucopia of sights that might look ordinary to Jordanians, but are a far cry from a flat Midwestern landscape. A boy gathers firewood on a steep, scrub-covered hill. Little caves - hollowed out, looking eerily like tombs - stare down from the rising landscape. A single stooped man in a red and white keffiyeh walks the land with his cane. Everywhere, people are out on the land - hawking small bananas, watching over roadside pottery stands, pacing through fields of construction-related debris, or just sitting by the side of the road, killing time or hoping for a lift.

Back on the streets of Amman, ambiguity about America (and Americans) is a distinct theme. One cabbie talks happily about how his brother moved to Boston to work as a Pizza Hut manager, saying that he himself hopes to move to the US in order to learn "perfect" English. But without qualification, he adds that he won't leave Jordan - he loves his parents too much. Besides, he says, his work - which includes a graveyard room service gig at the Intercontinental Hotel - is too good to drop.

Another cabbie slips in a tape with "The Gambler" on it after Cameron and I hop into the car. The beefy, bearded man stares meaningfully at Cameron for a moment before asking: "Do you know who this is? It's Kenny..."

"...Rogers," I supply.

"Yes, Kenny Rogers!" During another pop song, he sings along, passionately addressing the "I love you" chorus to Cameron, who somehow fails to respond in kind.

But at the end of the trip, he charges us 2 Jordanian dinars, which is double the typical fare. If he'd truly loved Cameron, he would've cut us a deal.

The Ruins of Jerash

Cameron and I meet for breakfast at the hotel, before heading off to the ancient ruined city of Jerash, one of Jordan's most popular tourist attractions.

Known in Roman times as Gerasa, the city once boasted 15,000 inhabitants and thrived from 333 BC until the beginning of the 3rd century AD.

Nabil is busy, so Cameron and I take a bus up to the ruins. Instead of Nabil's usual fee of 25 Jordanian dinars (about $35), we each pay 375 fils - about 50 cents. The discrepancy between the tourist and local economies becomes jaw-droppingly clear, and I begin to understand why locals can rarely afford any of the food and services made so readily available to Western travelers like myself.

The bus's final destination is the modern city of Jerash, where the local people who overwhemingly fill it are headed. While it lacks the privacy and comfort of Nabil's splendid car, the ride is is relatively smooth, and it drops us off within a minute's walk of Hadrian's arch, a massive stone gate erected in 129 AD to commemorate the visit of the emperor.

The ruins are spectacular. We walk along a long stone road, flanked by massive corinthian columns and rutted by the passage of ancient chariots. Chipped mosaics and intricate stonework attest to an imperial reach that once stretched from Rome to the Near East; it's easy to imagine the empty streets flooded with merchants and citizens.

Arches and crumbling stone gates sprout tufts of green and brown vegetation as nature slowly erases the massive traces of an obsolete empire.

Few tourists interrupt our wanderings as we explore the remnants of temples and plazas. Jerash is largely empty of foreign visitors, and the few postcard hawkers we encounter are dispirited, lobbing one or two desultory pitches before retreating. The shadow of war has made Jordan unpopular among tourists. It's difficult to know precisely how many families typically earn a living at the ruins when they are flush with Western visitors, but few could be doing so today.

Still, the trip is awe-inspiring, even if it seems to me that the site's many holes and tufts of tall grass would be perfect hiding hiding places of venomous, journalist-biting serpents. Cameron skillfully heightens my tension level by referring to a passing police vehicle as "the local snake patrol."

Amman Airport

Nabil Khatib, a driver who often works for Cameron and his wife and colleague Nicole in Jordan, meets me at the airport. It's the first time in my life I've been met by someone holding up a sign with my name on it, and in a new country, after 16 hours of travel, it's a welcome sight.

We chat about the weather (it's a pleasant 65 degrees F) and Boston's bonechilling winter soon comes up. "Ah, but Boston is nothing like Chicago, or Detroit, or Madison, Wisconsin," says Nabil.

Madison? That's my hometown. Nabil, a retired airline pilot, often flew into Chicago and would drive up to Madison to visit his son at college. We soon start talking about our favorite places to eat.

"Do you know the restaurant where they make the chicken wings?" he asks.

"BW-3?" I reply.

"Yes! That's it!" he says.

Everyone says it's a small world, but this strains credibility.

Air France Flt. 325
Boston to Paris, Paris to Amman

I'm flying out to Amman on Air France, an experience that bears repeating. French is a lovely language for mundane flight-related information; to these unsophisticated ears, an announcement about upcoming turbulence sounds like an invitation to spend a romantic summer on the Riviera. And then the plane shudders like a broken milkshake machine.

And the airplane food - so often an oxymoron on American carriers - is fantastic, offering a mind-blowing choice between veal sauteed with wild mushrooms and provencale-style tilapia.

I plan to save the menu as a souvenir. And order the tilapia.

On the Paris to Amman leg of my journey, I sit next to Khalil Gulzar, a young insurance consultant from Toronto. He wears an untrimmed beard combined with a neat pinstriped dress shirt and slacks, a full-color English-language pamphlet about the hajj tucked into his breast pocket. Khalil is on his way to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj in Mecca, a pilgrimage all Muslims are required to make at least once in a lifetime, money permitting.

We quickly start chatting; without little prompting, he tells me about his understanding of Islam, which he emphatically describes as a religion of peace. What about the Sept. 11 hijackers, who killed in the name of his religion?

"The people who [committed Sept. 11] who had Muslim names are not even Muslims," he says. "Killing of innocent people is against Islam. Killing yourself - suicide - is not permissible. So either way, it's against the beliefs of Islam."

Khalil, who moved to Canada from Pakistan seven years ago, speaks highly of Toronto's multiculturalism, and of the relative tolerance of Canadian and US cultures. But for him and his friends, he says, the mood has shifted since the attacks. He has friends with professional degrees who can't get jobs because of their Muslim names, he says. And because intolerance and the unlawful detention of Muslims is rising, he adds, many skilled professionals are returning from the US and Canada to their home countries.

"I believe the US and Canada are very good societies and that the general public are very good people. But now that [the US] has broken its own laws, Muslims are fleeing back to their own countries. These are doctors, engineers, architects - people who helped build the society."

But Khalil is most worried about young Americans, whom he sees as particularly vulnerable to anti-Muslim sentiment. Education about Islam's true beliefs, he says, is needed to teach non-Muslim American young people to exercise tolerance.

"The young generation have heard so much about the bad side [of Islam]," he says. "We need to educate society again."

Conservation soon turns to Iraq, and the possibility of war. "It's just to get control of the oil fields," he says. "They couldn't find any weapons of mass destruction. And even if they produced some for their own defense, that's their right, like Canada or the US."

At the end of our talk, he excuses himself to pray, bowing his head to tray table in front of him. I turn my eyes up toward the flight's movie screen just in time to catch Goldie Hawn trying on a particularly form-fitting sweater. It seems likely that I'll see more such contradictions before my trip is over.

Logan International Airport, Boston

It's a long way from Boston to Jerusalem.

For the past year, I've served as The Christian Science Monitor's Middle East editor, working with reporters stationed halfway around the world.

Most of the time, assisted by e-mail, international long distance, and thick stacks of patience, we're able to understand one another.

But it's hard not to be conscious of the distance between my desk and the crowded streets of Cairo. Or the Israeli settlements that dot the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Or the palaces of Iraq.

And from the US, it's easy to forget that just beyond the suicide bombings, Israeli incursions, Al Qaeda operatives and rumors of war, there's an entire population that keeps waking up every morning and trying their best to lead a normal life.

Tonight, I'm heading to Amman, Jordan to bring some cash and gear out to the Monitor's Middle East correspondent, Cameron Barr.

I'll be spending a week traveling through Jordan, Israel and the Occupied Territories, tagging along with Monitor correspondents as they follow the news. I'll also gamely attempt to keep my wits about in one of the world's most politically and culturally complicated regions.

As an amateur historian and longtime observer of the region, I'm comfortable talking about Mideast politics and policy. But having read about the fear that so often prevails in the West Bank and the streets of Jerusalem, the idea of actually strolling through either has me on edge.

But our reporters do it every day. And I'll be doing it this week. I hope you'll join me for the trip.

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