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The Salon of the Diwan (Credit:http://www.pbase.com/khaled_im/diwan_bisharat)

I’m writing about this not because its particularly earth shattering, but because it’s the last experience I had in Amman and it was cool enough to write about.

It was  yesterday when I hopped out of the Asia hotel with “Rock” in Downtown Amman. My flight for Waco would be leaving at 2 am and I planned on spending 12 or so hours waiting in the airport (only because I had to check out of the Asia before noon.).

I arrived in Amman after those few days in Israel and still had no idea where I would stay. The only plan I had was to get to Queen Alia Airport somehow. But, I found the Asia hotel by chance and stayed there for night. This makeshift mode of travel had made the experience much more rich and interesting. I always tended to meet interesting people and hear more of their stories. This is partially because I depended on the locals around me for information and help.

The manager of the hotel was there as usual talking to an older guy I had talked to earlier that morning. Both had worked as contractors in Iraq for a few years. When I had passed through earlier, the manager introduced me to the other guy saying “I worked with this Fucker in Iraq” in a light Jordanian accent. Both discussed the politics of Iraq and Afghanistan with me as well as the world as a whole, with a few conspiracy theories thrown in.

The older guy had been in charge a logistical team of 300 in Iraq. His men accompanied American soldiers, who did not know Arabic or the local culture, and helped them choose the correct targets, interact with the local population, give better insight into where and how to set ambushes, and generally get around more easily. When he had this job, he spent enough time at the pentagon and American embassies to have been in the states a great deal. His English was very good, and I guessed that he got his ability to swear in English from our soldiers and marines.

As I began to check out, I started talking to the older guy again about how best to get to the airport (I planned on taking a taxi to the bus terminal and then taking the 3JD shuttle bus from there). “Fuck no” he said, and offered to walk me to a nearby bus stop where I could get to the bus terminal for a quarter of a JD, so I tagged along. As he helped me pick up my bag he began talking about his family. “I come from one of the oldest and most well known families in Amman” he said “the Bisharat family. We have established a Diwan near where I am taking you. It is open to everyone, travelers, family, anyone.”

I had no idea what a Diwan was so I asked him about it. He replied “a diwan is a gathering place, both of family and of guests. Here you can have coffee, tea, and enjoy company”.

I certainly wasn’t looking forward to spending 12 hours in Queen Alia airport, and this would be a nice way to delay that experience so I followed further and talked to him some more about the old city of Amman, and the travelers within it. We agreed a lot about a few things. Traveling on the cheap is in many ways the best way to get to know a city, because it requires you to be in contact with the guy on the street. You need to find the best places to get a cheap bite to eat just like most of the Jordanians in this area need to do. As the old guy said “In this way you meet everyone, the good people, and the shitheads too, you get to know them equally”.

I’d met plenty of shitheads in Jordan.  But most of these were just cabbies looking to rip me off or shopkeepers who could tell I didn’t have half a piaster to my name. Generally, the man on the street in Jordan either doesn’t particularly care about what you’re up to either way, or is genuinely kind and helpful.

I’ve only ever met one guy who said that he hated America, but he still walked me to a shop I was looking for, and engaged in conversation with me. The old guy had a similar way about him. He saw Americans as gullible, and introverted. They, he says, tend to live their lives within the same town they were born in and can never see beyond what they do on American television.

“Of course, there are plenty of Jordanians who do the same thing”  I said. I’ve met and talked to plenty of Jordanians over the summer and while some were well traveled, most spent most of their lives in the town they were born in.

“But, we do not want to control the world” he said, and I left the topic there.

The old guy did appreciate one group of Americans in particular, the Marines.

“I worked with the Marines. For every other American it is ‘I, I, I’ there is no sense of…” he waved his hands a bit inviting a phrase to come to him. I offered “being part of a whole?” He nodded quickly and continued “The Marines had duty, and didn’t give a shit about themselves, they were the only Americans I know who didn’t give a fuck about this” he gestured to the air immediately around him, his personal space “and just did what they had to do with courage”.

We got to the stairs of the Diwan. The entrance was a block or so from the King Abdullah mosque, and just down the street from the Palace Hostel, which I stayed at with some of the excavation crew for our first weekend off.

The structure was built in the 1920s and stood out from the buildings around it, though I had never particularly noticed it before. It was two stories tall, and had a façade of white hewn stones. One balcony with a wrought iron partition overlooked the busy street and the many shops below.  After walking up a flight of stairs, we entered a hallway flanked by four rooms. This led to a main salon, which was surrounded by other rooms and chambers. These included a large office, where I put my bags, a kitchen, eating area, and the opening that led to the outside balcony.

His family, he said, had plenty of ties with the royal families of the region. His grandfather was a Turkish Pasha, he introduced me to another older man who happened to be the father of the guy I was with. The older man’s father was Mamdough Bisharat, but more on him later. He was speaking to a middle aged woman at the time but he inquired about whether or not I take sugar with my coffee and promptly began making me a cup of Turkish coffee. This family history, like any family history in the Arab world could be, was confusing. Photos of every Jordanian monarch as well as a few who ruled Iraq were put up all over the place with some member of the Old man’s family in it. Stories of cousins and uncles who had their chance at the throne taken from them were told as I looked through the old photos in the main salon.

Before we moved to the next room, he finally asked me my name, I told him and asked for his, “Rock” he said (a nickname given to him by the Americans he worked with).  Rock waved towards the salon at the middle-aged woman “she was married to this man” and pointed to a photo of another son of King Hussein.

“I” Rock said ”was married to the heiress of the B.F. Goodrich company. You know of it?” My jaw dropped slightly, but I nodded. Rock was married to her for a few years and had a child with her before their divorce. His son from that marriage was now 40 years old.“It was difficult being married to her” he said “everywhere we went, every party, she was known but I was not.” He lit a cigarette and offered me one, I accepted “I couldn’t put up with that shit anymore so I left her”.

I asked a few more questions about the history of the area and why this Diwan was set up. The Diwan was purchased some years ago by the duke Mamdough Bisharat, who was Rock’s grandfather. Mamdough Bisharat was granted the title of “duke of Mukheibeh” by King Hussein years ago on account of his philanthropic work. The Diwan represents an effort of his to preserve a piece of old Amman. Every other building in the area was built after the 1940s, and many of those have been totally gutted and renovated. The duke meant for this to remain as a counterbalance to the push of modernity.

By this time, the son of the Duke of Mukheibeh brought coffee in crystal ware on a serving dish. I thanked him in Arabic. He then sat across from us in the Salon and gazed out past the balcony.

The Diwan was furnished with items from childhood homes of Bisharat members all over the country. Radios, desks, ottomans, cabinets and telephones from the 1920s dotted the salon and surrounding rooms. Rock pointed to a few in particular which he grew up using. One in particular was an ornate shoe shining stand, which looked like it had some Victorian illustrations on the side of it. “Here, niggers love these” he commented.

I asked Rock about whether or not he brought guests here often. He did for a few reasons. You might be able to tell that Rock was the kind of guy who longed for the good old days. “Back then, love was stronger, anger was harder. Women today are like plastic, back then they were juicy.” The Diwan represents the Amman he grew up in, while it is completely within urban sprawl, its architecture and the warmth of the interior makes it a small oasis.It makes for a great place to visit to take a break from the rat race just outside the door.

The Reading Room and Amman Outside

As cosmopolitan as the items in the Diwan were for their time and place, the Basharat family had seen some very interesting times. Another major structure owned by the Basharat family is a small, well, fortress outside of Amman between the city and Queen Alia airport. The family operated a farm out of this complex, which could house over a hundred or so fighting men and farmers aside from extended members of the family. At that time the complex was surrounded by Bedouin tribes and bandits who would attack frequently. These attacks happened as recently as 50 years ago. As he was describing all this I was picturing a mix of a spaghetti western and the Seven Samurai. Rock affirmed my mental image by saying: “a fucking western. Like cowboys and Indians. Life was hard”.

For someone who barely knows anything about the history of Amman, this was a nice way to get a better perspective on the city. I sat with Rock across from his Dad for a while longer before thanking them very much for their hospitality, going into the old office for my bags and heading out into a street full of jackhammers pedestrians and taxis.

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The excavation ended last week. In the days leading up to the end of the project, me and a couple friends were planning to stay in Jerusalem for a few days before our flights from Amman to America.  So, I’ve been in Jerusalem for the past few days.

Yesterday morning I was talking to a couple guys staying at the hostel I’m staying at who were planning on going to Hebron in the West Bank for the day. They would be leaving that hour and asked if I’d like to come along (safety in numbers). After a few minutes of debating with myself about exactly how stupid it would be to go, I decided to go for it.

Hebron, the second most holy city of the Jewish faith, has been a major point of friction between Palestinians and Israeli settlers for years. Hebron, within the west bank and overseen by the Palestinian authority, has major Jewish settlements within it, which are generally condemned as illegal and President Obama confronted the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about freezing any further construction of settlements like this in the West Bank. It would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to get a better perspective on one of the most important issues in the region today. I picked up my passport, a notebook, a full canteen, around 50 shekels and tagged along with two people I barely knew into one of the most dangerous parts of the middle east.

We left our hostel, walked through the old city to damascus gate and caught a bus to Bethlehem just across the street.Once in Bethlehem, we had passed through the Israeli separation wall and were within the jurisdiction of the Palestinian authority. we made a quick stop at the birth place of Jesus and several of the churches in the area before getting on a bus to Hebron. Once in Hebron, things got very, very strange.

The main souks (marketplaces) in downtown Hebron have had a history of violence and bitterness between Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents. The souk alleyways between buildings are, in part, free for Palestinians to wander about, but immediately above these souks on the second to third floors of the souk structures, are Israeli settlements.

We walked through the souks for a while. Many shops had been closed down and welded shut by the israelis, especially near checkpoints which led into the Jewish settlements. While we walked towards one of the checkpoints several palestinian shopkeepers were pulled us aside to describe the times their shops had been shut down, or burned and the abuse they often received from settlers and the Israeli army.

Some more background information might be useful here. Israeli settlers are allowed to pack heat, a lot of heat. It is no rare sight to see a guy with a kippah, dressed in a nice pair of slacks and collared shirt driving his wife and young children around Hebron with an M-16 or AR-15 nestled on his lap. When settlers walk through the souks, they are, as far as I know, also allowed to carry weapons with them (or at least it has happened on several occasions), if only because there is virtually no alleyway or street on the border of the Jewish settlement that does not have a guard post or sniper tower covering it.

While walking around the souks, one of the guys I was with who had visited Hebron a couple years ago described the Israeli security and checkpoints as being completely unyielding to Palestinian entry. We arrived at Hebron not believing that it would be anywhere near possible to enter the settlements. There were many relics of riots, and demonstrations all over the souks, from the welded doors, to barricades of barbed wire and wrought iron fences blocking entry to abandoned marketplaces. If you’ve seen the movie “Children of Men” you’ll have a good idea of the kind of scene we found ourselves in. Immediately above our heads were chain link fences hanging horizontally like a protective membrane between the Palestinian shops and the Israeili settlers’ windows and balconies. On the roofs were guard posts, sand bags and more razor wire overlooking the entire scene.

We had heard a few stories about how settlers would throw trash or sewage out there windows onto the souk below on particularly bad days. There were still pieces of furniture, bits of trash, and vegetables suspended above our heads in the chain link fence. We decided to try our luck at getting to one of the Mosques which was blocked by two checkpoints. We got past the first with no real problem but were not let into the second. So, we wandered around another souk which was populated only by some dust, welded doors and a pack of wild dogs. After a while we started noticing lots of star of davids and a few Israeli guys in the distance and we realized that we were now inside the part of the city reserved for israeli settlers.

Israeli security in the West bank is very fluid and does not seem to stay the same for a long period of time. Certain major roads which pass between areas in the west bank which have Jewish settlements are often reserved for only settlers unless the palestinians have permits which allow their passage. These roads can be completely shut off with no notice prohibiting any kind of palestinian movement between towns. Getting from one area to the adjacent one as a palestinian in areas which still have Israeli security requires a few leaps through several hoops.

Security on the day we arrived was lax, which seems a bit crazy to say considering the heavy army presence wherever we went, but we had few problems going wherever we wanted and there were Palestinians being allowed into the same areas we were in. Though it was obvious that few palestinians wanted to be in the areas which were predominantly occupied by settlers.

We stumbled upon the tomb of Jesse, the father of King David, which was completely surrounded by israeli army barracks. We had to speak to a couple of army officers before we were allowed inside. We had to walk through a narrow path defined by a corrugated steel wall and a barbed wire fence which snaked around the barracks and stations which led to the tomb.

What really caught us off guard was how well we were treated by the Israeli soldiers. We were never really bothered except for requests for passports and a couple questions about why the hell we would want to go to Hebron to tour around. Of course we were two Americans and a British guy. Along these lines we got a better idea of how exactly property ownership works in these areas. We came across a small shop within the Israeli zone and decided to buy some water and coke.

While I was paying, I noticed that some kids who just wandered in were yelling “yelleh yelleh!” at one another. I looked around and noticed some koranic verses on the walls and realized that the shop was palestinian owned, or at least operated. Up to that point we all assumed that Palestinians were rarely allowed into this area, let alone allowed to operate shops. But, it turns out that these sorts of shops aren’t uncommon. Later we learned that this does not go both ways. Jews aren’t allowed to own or operate shops outside of the settlements.

After a couple hours of wandering around, talking to Palestinians and Israelis, as well as running into more than a few independent observers from several organizations, we decided to head back on an Egged settler bus to Jerusalem. These busses, I believe, are reserved for settler use since they run from the border of the Palestinian zone, deep into the Jewish settlement and out towards Jerusalem.  While waiting for the bus, we met two Jewish guys, one who hailed from Brooklyn and the other who was from New Jersey. Both of them, while very kind to all of us were a bit confused about why we were there and the reasons for where we had gone in the past (one of use spent time in Syria studying arabic before arriving here, and I was in Jordan for two months). Nevertheless we parted ways with goodwill towards each other.

The egged Bus which we boarded was heavily armored although it wasn’t plainly obvious looking at the outside of it. Once inside, we could see that the thick windows were very bulletproof. The bus left the periphery of the Jewish settlement and drove deeper into what could easily be a nice suburb in the States. There were fountains, walkways, well watered green grass and families pushing their young children around on strollers (one other thing I noticed was that there seemed to be very few unmarried people, and very few elderly people in any part of the settlement. It seemed like the settlements were occupied almost entirely by soldiers, and young families with several children.) It was within this area where security seemed to be the most tight. This part of the settlement was basically a gated community and entry by a palestinian was at least very frowned upon, but more likely it was not allowed. Because we were in the area on Shabbat, the bus was just ending its operation and could only take us towards the highway leading to Jerusalem but would not leave the settlement. We would have to hitchhike to Jerusalem, which did not worry me much. I had always wanted to hitch hike in the middle east. In Jordan it is absolutely commonplace, and I would have done it with little hesitation if I had to.

The situation here though was a bit more complicated. One of us got into a car pretty early and rode off into the sunset towards Jerusalem with little difficulty. It was just me and the other American at this point, waiting around for a ride with about 15 other young settlers with children and a very young looking Israeli soldier keeping an eye on everything. We were on a road perpendicular to the highway, which had much more traffic than where we were standing. I wanted to get on the highway to hitch hike because I figured it would be faster than waiting with this many other people for a kind hearted settler to pick us up. The “Israeli” soldier might have overheard me and started talking to both of us. It turns out he had an unmistakable American accent (I don’t want to go into too much detail about this guy aside from some of the information we got from him). The Israeli army welcomes volunteers from all over the world, providing that they are of Jewish heritage. Young people like this guy can serve for at least two years.

He said that we should probably not hitch hike on the highway since Arabs used it as well as Jews and that this could likely result in us getting kidnapped or at least getting harassed given our proximity to a settlement. So, we stayed and talked to him for a while as we signaled passing cars.

Shabbat, we learned, is often not observed by soldiers simply because they cannot have every friday night off. They serve on a rotating schedule. 14 days in service, and 4 days off. These are timed so that the soldiers can observe Shabbat during their break. (Later, we met some israeli soldiers in Jerusalem who had the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat together in a hotel).

We asked the guy about his Arabic, how much did he know? Only things like “Stop” and “lift up your shirt” he replied.

After a while he asked us what were doing in Hebron, we replied that we were just getting a look at the political situation there. When he found out that we had been in the Palestinian zone he got visibly worried. He spoke a bit generally about the dangers of being in that part of Hebron and the problems that we could have encountered with the Arabs before stunning us with a few choice pieces of information. His unit and seven others had participated in a raid the night before, which resulted in the arrest of 7 Hamas members in the area we were walking just a few hours ago.

As we talked, some cars passed, others picked up settlers going in the opposite direction. But every once in a while, a fully loaded car would stop and a chinese fire drill style scramble would occur where some settlers in traditional Jewish dress of several different denominations got out and others got in. In this scramble I’d be able to see a few pistols flashing and perhaps an M-16 being adjusted as everyone got into their places and sped off towards the south, past the main city of Hebron.

When I leaned into windows to say “yerushalahim?” I’d often see the driver had a pistol on his lap or hanging out of his glove compartment. I could tell that most of the settlers were not too stoked at having an outsider practically within the settlement. Eventually a guy of Ethiopian descent picked us up and drove us towards the North, leaving Hebron behind us. This guy also had an interesting life story to tell. After the driver said that his parents had come to Israel from Ethiopia, my American friend asked if they were on “that famous plane”. I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but he was referring to operation solomon which occurred in 1991 and transported thousands of Ethiopian Jews from that country which was politically destabilized to Israel.

The driver’s parents, though, had come to Israel as a part of much earlier Israeli operations. He may have been referring to operations Joshua or Moses. But in his parents case, they were in transit for three years before successful arrival in Israel. First, his parents had to get into the Sudan, where Ethiopian jews were on a waiting list to be transported. His parents had few connections so their time in the Sudan was prolonged, bringing the entire ordeal to three years of waiting.

In the end, he dropped us off at the gates of the old city. We thanked him and walked towards our hostel. This was not before we talked to him briefly about our time in Jordan and in Syria. He, like the other settlers, seemed a bit uneasy about the idea of us being in Arab countries and only said “well, maybe we will all be there soon too”.

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Shopping in Mu’tah

I’ve been enlisted to the duty of buying supplies for the crew in the nearest town to our base of operations. Right now, we are all living on the banks of a resevoir in Wadi Al Hasa, near a small bedouin village. The nearest town, Mu’tah, is around 45 minutes away on a long winding sharp incline. There was one small problem with this setup, both of the crew’s vehicles are vans which have manual transmissions. I did not know how to drive stick. So, I had my first stick driving lesson climbing up hundreds and hundreds of meters in a van which had seen better days, sometime long ago. Thankfully there was no fiery crash, and stalling in the middle of an intersection doesn’t really cause much of a fuss in Mu’tah.

Mu'tah from the Van (Credit: Danielle Raad)

The Cop Box in Mu'tah's center (Credit: Danielle Raad)

Aside from that, this duty is a really good way to get to know the culture here. Nearly all the owners of shops I frequent now recognize and shoot the breeze with me. During my last trip to get some clean water for our our base, I sat down with the owner’s son and some of his friends, talked. Jordanians tend to operate on the assumption that everyone smokes, so after declining the offer to smoke cigarettes once, I caved and joined in with them once I was offered a second time. That was my first smoke. I’ve been considering bringing a pack with me wherever I go, since offering them to people I meet might make up for the fact that I only know a few Arabic words.

I get a kilo of Labneh (strained yogurt which is pretty sour) and about 50 eggs at the dairy place every time I visit Mu’tah. And every time, the dairy guy offers me and whoever goes with me a cup, and another cup of a sour, salty yogurt drink which I think is called shenina.

The guys I buy Vegetables and fruits from give me some updates on how the US is doing in the world cup and give me some tips on pronouncing arabic words. The guy who always takes orders has a BA in psychology, and speaks pretty decent english.

My Veggie Stop (Credit: Danielle Raad)

During our my last trip, Me and a couple of the crew gave a ride to an old guy named jebbel who walked up to the window of the van and started talking to us. Its at times like this when you get to know the culture of the place really well. He declined to sit in the spacious back seat because one of the girls was seated there and he didn’t want anyone in the town to think that he was, as he put it, “ehhhhh, you know” with her. So, he crammed into the front with two of us.

Me, Jan, and Jebbel

On that note, a lot of the girls who have gone to Mu’tah have been proposed to on several occassions. In other instances, taxi drivers and strangers have offered camels and other goods to the guys they are with for the girl’s hand in marriage. Most of these are sort of tongue in cheek. I forget who this happened to, but one was offered a thousand camels by a cheeky taxi driver.

So far, i’ve only made this run twice. So, I’m expecting that I’ll be getting a lot more familiar with all the shops in Mu’tah by the time August rolls around.

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