Thursday, May 10, 2007

Yankee Doodle Jordan

After two days, I've coined an aphorism for Jordan: not a lot to look at but much to experience. Having gone to Arizona a couple of times, I thought I knew desert. But I do not know desert--not at all. And, apparently, my cohort and I have not seen the real desert yet--that will come day after tomorrow when we go to Wadi Rum, owned by the Bedouin, where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. Jordan is the driest, dustiest place I have ever been. My Royal Jordanian flight landed in a sand and dust storm, and the elements have been kickin' it ever since. Jordan is at the northern end of the Great Rift Valley; Kenya is the southern end. And this time of year dust from the Sinai Desert in Egypt courses up and down the long valley. As our tour guide says, "you ladies should see what Cairo is like now." We drink six bottles of water a day, and even then the atmosphere sucks the moisture right out of us. We are a bus-full of women who never have to pee.

My friend Clare and I are doing an Abercrombie and Kent "Taste of Jordan" four-day tour before the start of the International Women's Forum Conference. Five hundred women, from Europe, China, Russia, the Middle East and the U.S., are converging on Amman for Queen Rania's event. Immediately following the IWF Conference, the World Economic Forum is meeting at the Dead Sea; at the same time there will be a convening of Nobel science laureates in Petra to launch the Petra Project, which will guide and finance scientific research in the Middle East. To my mind, there is some significance to the Queen's hosting her event right before her husband King Abdullah II hosts his.

More IWF women are arriving at the Grand Hyatt every day, but so far Clare's and my little group is one of the few to venture forth to tour. There are sixteen of us, all ladies of a certain age, and one amiable husband. The IWF members are extremely accomplished, of course; I'm not so sure about we few "guests" in the bunch. Just to give you an example: one San Francisco woman, with a B.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri and advanced degrees from Stanford Business School and the Harvard Business School Broadcasting Program, has been a broadcast manager for The Washington Post in various places, the president and general manager of KRON TV in the Bay Area, the president and CEO of Chronicle Broadcasting in the Bay Area, the first female president and CEO of Heald Business College; she sits on the boards of the World Affairs Council and the Smithsonian, among others. (Oh, the power of Google!) Another lady, whom Clare and I met at dinner last night and commandeered for our group, is the past president of Trinity University in Vermont, the just-retired deputy director of corrections for Vermont, and a Catholic lay sister. I'll try to write more about others as the days pass.

I'm not sure how I feel about being part of a bus tour; sometimes we seem much like the little flocks of goats or sheep we frequently see by the side of the road. And I've seen enough Roman columns to last me for awhile. But yesterday afternoon at the ruins of the Roman city of Jerash we had one of those serendipitous, magical moments that makes even the dreariest tour itinerary worthwhile. Our Jerash experience did not start auspiciously, as we had to sit through a cringe-worthy re-enactment of a Roman chariot race and gladiatorial combats in the old hippodrome. (At least, the horses seemed well-tended.) Afterwards, we straggled into the amphitheater, our second amphitheater of the day. But here a contingent of Jordanian soldiers, kitted out in what seemed to be British/Arab uniforms from World War I, merrily played bagpipes.

Now one of the few things that all the Muslim scholars I have been reading for the conference share is a disdain for their various cultures' colonial and neo-colonial heritages. The ordinary inhabitant of the Middle East does not seem to be so picky. And indeed our musical soldiers bagpiped into "Amazing Grace." I don't know what it is about amphitheaters--must always be a trace of their religious origins in the air, or somehow over the centuries fervor has seeped into the stone--but this was the third time I have heard "Amazing Grace" in a Graeco-Roman amphitheater in a Muslim country. Two years ago, at Ephesus in Turkey, a Japanese group stepped into the theater while Caro and I were resting on the seats. A young man turned and threw his beautiful tenor voice at . . . us? a first-century audience of a summer afternoon?--as he sang first "Amazing Grace" and then The Lord's Prayer.

Yesterday in Jerash the Jordanians followed that chestnut of a hymn (is it the only one people know anymore?) with "Yankee Doodle Dandy." The Jordanians in the amphitheater looked at our little group and broke into applause. A trio of Lebanese teenagers who had minutes before leapfrogged to the top row of seats threw their arms in the air and began to sway. A crush of young Arabs, clearly a school group, who had just wandered into the stage area, turned into a mean Texas line dance. Mostly the boys, but also a few of the girls, slide-stepped the square. Afterwards, we began talking, as best we could, with the students. I had taken them for high schoolers, but they were university students, a group who had been invited by Queen Rania to Amman for some of the IWF events. They were from all over the Middle East, from universities in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. I chatted with a young woman from Tunis who spoke excellent English. Her head wrapped in a pink headscarf held in place with a butterfly pin, she said that she wanted more than anything to continue her education in the United States. I gave her my business card, and Clare and I promised her that we would help her to do exactly that. Somehow I feel that we will have an opportunity to keep our promise.

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