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I’ve found my favorite place in Jordan.  Umm Qais.  According to the bible Umm Qais is the location of the city of Gadara, where Jesus performed the miracle of the Gadaran swine by casting the evil out of two demoniacs and into a pair of pigs.  The pigs, subsequently, fled to the Sea of Galilea and drowned themselves in what I suppose was an act of self-sacrifice.

From the edge of the city’s black basalt ruins it is not difficult to imagine the porcine scamper.  The Sea of Galilee appears so close that you are tempted to step off the cliff and into it.  The Yarmuk River has carved out the valley below and the mountainsides slope downwards into the Jordan Rift Valley, ready to tumble you out onto the Golan Heights.  In the far distance the crystallized top of Mt. Hermon peaks above a series of foothills that hedge in the Jordan River.

From where we stand it is impossible to see the fences and military outposts that divide up this land.  We are standing at the political crux where Jordan, Syria, and Israel meet.  Mt. Hermon, hazed blue with atmosphere, marks the boundary between Israel and Lebanon.  From where we stand the land looks like what it is: one vast and continuous valley that stretches north to south through the Levant, beneath the Red Sea, and emerges in East Africa.  The valley has been created over millions of years by a diverging plate boundary that is slowly splitting the African Plate apart.  It is difficult to recall this region’s fragmented politics in front of such a beautiful and awesome geologic event.

We left Umm Qais after nightfall and a few glasses of wine.  Walking down the steps from the Archeological Park we were faced with Israel.  Lights illuminated the hills in a cosmic twinkling swath.  I stopped to wonder what Jordan must look like from the other side of the border.  Israel’s infrastructure is so much larger, so much more modern than the one here.  Jordan must look like emptiness from the other side.

Umm Qais is an important archeological site, but nobody goes there for the ruins.  I think it is the view, with its sense of proximity to the unknown, which attracts people – to see the Sea of Galilee and know that it is within a day’s walk, and then to know too that most people in Jordan will never be able to dip there feet in its waters.  Despite this, still, a sense of peace enfolds the ancient city.

Umm Qais SunsetRoman Theater

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Dead Sea Marathon

I was recently cajoled into taking a practice LSAT with an aspiring-lawyer friend of mine.  The LSAT is broken into three sections that are designed to test your ability to draw logical inferences from problem sets.  The three sections are: Reading Comprehension, Logic Games, and Logical Reasoning.  Many of the questions ask you to find the fault in a specific argument, and as I am an expert at finding fault, I did remarkably well on the test.

Let me assure you now that I have absolutely no intention of becoming a lawyer.  The test simply fit into a larger theme of self-testing that I have discovered in my life in Jordan.  When you have a lot of free time on your hands, and spend most of your time sitting in coffee shops avoiding work, thinking about your untapped potential becomes very important.

Previously this kind of daydreaming would have remained in the realm of fiction, but recently it has begun to solidify into a series of achievable goals and actions.  Included in these is long distance running.  I wrote earlier on the blog about the Dead2Red relay, and the half marathon that the race inspired me to run.  These were the first two goals that I set in my new hobby of running, and I have completed both of them successfully.

I finished the half-marathon in just five minutes over two hours, not a spectacular time, but respectable.  I have two friends who ran the whole marathon and did acquire spectacular times.  Maya ran the race in three hours and twenty-eight minutes, taking second place in the women’s category, and Dennis came in at three hours and fifty minutes.  Needless to say they are real runners.

After the race none of us could walk properly.  I think it took Maya a full five days to recover a steady gait and Dennis spent the first thirty minutes after crossing the finish line on the verge of sickness.  My feet, when taken out of my running shoes, were torn and bloody and have only just now healed to the point where I can run again (in new shoes).

Long distance running, it seems, requires more than just leg muscles.  It is a full body workout.  Keeping your arms pumping for over two hours takes a lot of effort, and the constant expansion and contraction of your abdominals wreaks havoc on your innards.  By the time you are done with the race you have to lie down for thirty minutes while you allow your kidneys to realign and your stomach to slip away from your spleen.  I won’t elaborate on what this process does to your bowels, but suffice it to say that it is unpleasant.

Besides the physical exertion of the race, there are the often-sited mental challenges of keeping your body moving despite all reason.  Before a race everybody is nervous.  Nervousness often results in an urgent need to pee, and the moment our busses stopped at the starting point a wave of men spread out from the road and faced into the desert and away from the wind.  Imagine throwing a rock into a milling circle of ants and watching the effects spread out in concentric rings.

Once the race begins the nervousness dies down, but quickly the mind begins to wander.  What do you think about while running?  I was thinking about how I shouldn’t have eaten that oatmeal before the race.  As you continue to run the reasons for running begin to cycle through your head.  There aren’t very many, so this is a fairly quick and repetitive process.  Eventually you settle on a new reason—I’m going to beat that woman ahead of me.

In my case, that woman is invariably a middle-aged mother of four, but who’s counting?  As I caught up to her in the last half of the race we struck up a conversation.  She is a Canadian national living with her husband and children in Kuwait.  I am an American living in Amman on a government grant.  This is all conversation that I would typically despise in any normal situation, but I suppose exchanging one tedium for another is an expectable response to…tedium.

I passed her as we hit the hills in the last leg of the race.  The Dead Sea Marathon is deceptive in that way, it’s all downhill until the last seven kilometers where the elevation changes course.  I recently retraced the route on a bicycle and was surprised at how gradual the ascent was, not at all how I remembered it.  As I recall this stint in the race was a grueling uphill climb where I was ready to explode my various annoyances at the slightest prompt.  I’m fairly sure this was a common experience judging by the one young lady who kept shouting at people in either Arabic or choked and intelligible English (I’m fairly certain it was the later).

Climbing the hills became exceptionally difficult when I discovered that the finishing line was a full two kilometers beyond where I thought.  As I passed the hotel where I expected salvation and cheering spectators, a single volunteer handed me a Gatorade and pointed down the road.  That Gatorade was enough to keep me going.  It filled me with a delicious sweetness that lent hope to the prizes and medals that would come with crossing the finish line.

After what seemed like an intolerably long time for only two kilometers, I reached the finish line.  I summoned the reserved strength in my legs and sprinted the last one hundred meters.  I’m not sure why.  It didn’t do much for my time and at my speed it wasn’t a very impressive feat for the spectators.  I think I just wanted to make sure that I depleted the last of the strength in my legs, so that I could say that I had tried my hardest.

After a Marathon there is invariably a sense of depression underlying the artificial festivities that the event organizers have put together.  The depression stems from the empty place left by the accomplishment recently achieved.  I think that secretly every Marathon runner wants to reach a point where he or she can’t finish the race, where they can be assured of exhausting their potential as a runner.

There’s that word again: potential.  It’s not a word that I have much affection for, mostly because of the context I have most often heard it in.  You’re not reaching your full potential, John.  Well, if I didn’t have to walk a single time during the race, I guess that’s true.  Dennis, Maya, and I will have to find another marathon to run, where I can run the entire forty-two kilometers.  Now, after reading this story, you might ask, where’s the logic in that?

5:00am at the Start Line

5:00am at the Start Line

Over the past few months there has been a lot of speculation amongst the Fulbrighters in Jordan about the difficulties of transitioning from their Arabic language studies to full-blown research.  Some researchers suggested interning with their host institutions while others had advocated for a strict regimen of library carousels and coffee shop reading.  I considered both of these options for a while, but ultimately settled on a third: vacation.

Dress Rehearsal

Dress Rehearsal

Vacation, I’ve decided, is an integral part of my work here and it is one that I need to fully experience in order to commit to my project.  In a previous post I had written about the documentary film I am making about the Jordan River.  That film has changed form/genre slightly, it is now being shot as a narrative from the perspective of a tourist vacationing in the Holy Land for the first time.  There are several conceptual and logistical benefits to filming from this perspective, but most important is that I can now justify getting into character.
So, my first foray into research was to don a straw fedora, pull on a pair of khakis, and loop a camera around my neck.  It took a bit of work to settle into this strange new costume, but once I had I was able to round up a group of friends and head out into the sunset.  We arrived at the Dead Sea just in time to snap a few quick shots of the departing sun as it disappeared behind the mountains to the east.  Then, in total darkness, we had to find a place to set up camp.

The Midnight Chef

The Midnight Chef

Unfortunately, the only reference The Lonely Planet makes to camping is in consideration of a few one-star hotels in Amman.  So, after hunting around in the dark with three flashlights between the four of us, we settled on a patch of ground that looked flatter and less rocky than its surroundings.  For future reference, I can tell you that it is just up the drainage ditch and to the right of the discarded tire.
After a celebratory dinner of barbequed lamb steak and chicken kebabs we hunkered down for the night.  Upon waking we exited our tents and discovered that we had picked a site with a completely undisturbed view of the Dead Sea.  It was laid out before us as if it were the welcome mat to our campsite.  Little did we know that the Bedouin camp on the ledge above us had an equally undisturbed view of our own little group!

The next day passed uneventfully.  We drove down the Dead Sea Highway and walked up a mountain to see Lot’s Cave.  Suspiciously the walkway was marked “Closed for Restoration”, but the pleasant guard showed us the way to the top anyways.  After an evening of mud bathing at the public beach we settled into the same campsite as the night before and waited for the dawn.
At dawn we packed up our tents and headed north.  About thirty minutes after passing the Dead Sea resorts we realized that we had missed the turn off for Jesus’ baptism site fifteen minutes back… Oh well.  We continued up north in the direction of Pella and Um Quais in the hopes of finding a mythical pine forest that we had heard about from fellow travelers.

Forest of the north

Forest of the north

Spring is a beautiful time to travel in Jordan, especially to the North.  Grass is growing, shepherds are everywhere, and the wild flowers are blooming.  We did find the pine forest, set inside a small canyon where a stream flows in wetter months.  Perhaps it was simply my vegetation-starved Ammani attitude, but I was sure we had stumbled upon Fern Gully.
After hiking about for a bit we returned to our car and headed back to a mountain field we had passed by earlier in the day.  We had just enough time to collect all of our firewood, set up camp, and begin cooking dinner before the sun went down.  We even had time to play a quick set of badminton with the rackets and birdie we bought from a roadside stall.  After cards and chess by firelight we once again retired to our tents for our last night of camping in the Jordanian countryside.
Little did we know that we had set up camp on military land!  At one in the morning our small contingent was visited in the night by a patrol of six soldiers in full military uniform.  We were quickly ousted from our settlement in a mad dash to collect all of our equipment and scramble down the hillside to our car.  It was a long drive back to Amman that night, in the dark and along mountain roads, but at least we reached the city by the next morning – which was our plan all along.

Sunset over Israel

Sunset over Israel

Moustache Madness

If you read my post on the Dead2Red relay race, you know that I had been preparing to run a half-marathon. Well, I did run it, and I think I did fairly well too, but you will have to wait until I have fully recovered before hearing more about that. What you did not know is that, in a pact of solidarity with fellow racerunners, I shaved 90% of my beard for the race and ran sporting a moustache. So, let me know what you think of the new getup by voting in the two polls below!

Me and my stache

Me and my stache

Kivank Tatlitug as Mohannad

Super Mario as Himself

Mona Lisa as Salvatore Dali

Freddie Mercury as Himself

Dead2Red

I’ve heard about dreams where people find themselves doing repetitive tasks endlessly. Dreams where you might be falling in an infinite void, digging yourself into a deepening hole, or writing “I will not misbehave in class” in font that gets smaller and smaller, never filling the blackboard. I can’t decide which of these my recent twenty-four hour run from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea was most like.

At first glance I liken the Dead2Red to digging the hole. That hole is going somewhere, right? And eventually it’s too deep to climb back out of, so you might as well just keep digging until you reach the other side. This is what I thought after my first 10 km run, when I sat back down in the car completely exhausted, watching the next runner take off, and realized that I hadn’t even completed half of my mileage.

We each had to run 24 km, which is about 15 mi, but somehow those numbers aren’t as small as they first appear. Actually, they’re quite large. They’re a little over a half-marathon. That doesn’t quite do the race justice either; a half-marathon is only half a marathon. But how long is a marathon? Running a marathon is about equal to running the length of Manhattan twice, or doing fifteen laps across the golden gate bridge. A Marathon is so long that it is about a mile longer than running the distance between the town of Marathon and Athens!

It was at the start of my second run of the night that I realized why marathon runners don’t take a break in the middle of a race. Apparently their muscles are much smarter than they are, and refuse to move after having rested for too long. I imagine from the perspective of a muscle, doing that kind of run, taking a break, and then running again is like dieing, discovering the garden of Eden, living a few happy moments under the apple tree, and then being dragged back to earth by a good doctor’s resuscitations. Eventually the muscles do work again, though, and you start throwing that dirt over your shoulder once again.

We ran through the afternoon, into the night, through the next morning, and arrived at the finish line just before the next afternoon. The night runs were our void. I hesitate to say that a full moon was out, since the picturesque is almost too much to believe, but it is the truth. By the time night had fallen we had cleared the agricultural towns that plough the fertile land south of the Dead Sea and entered the dessert. The entire time we ran we were accompanied on our left by Jordan and on our right by Israel. A man at a coffee stand had pleasantly told us not to wander too far off in the dessert because of landmines, which gave our bathroom breaks an even greater sense of urgency.

Running along a border, accompanied by only the moon and the spectral sense of a region in conflict is daunting enough, and then there was the car. We had rented a large ten-person van and commissioned a driver to follow the runner at a steady speed for the duration of the race. The van’s headlights lit the way while the low grumble of the engine, driven at only 6 mi/hr, pursued us down the course. The van was there for support – carrying food, water, and friends – but you can’t escape a sense of malevolence when the only change in scenery is the shifting pitch of a car engine and the retreat and advance of headlights playing across your path. Perhaps the night runs were more like falling through a void while being pursued by a winged beast. Can you fall any faster?

As the sun rose the next morning our team began to accept the fact that we were ‘dead last’. Our entire strategy for the race was based on the assumption that this expression is true, that those in the front lines are killed (or kill themselves) first. Running longer distances at slower paces, we had hoped that eventually we would pass teams as their legs gave out under the demands of strenuous running. The other teams in the race had taken the completely opposite track; they sprinted the entire time while switching runners up to every half-kilometer. As we realized that a team of thirteen-year-old girls was not just beating us, but also several places ahead of us, we decided to kick it into gear. Unfortunately our legs didn’t have much more strength left to kick by the time we decided to adopt our opponents’ strategy. Running distances that began at three km, then two, then one we none-the-less began making remarkable recoveries in time. Of course, the shorter distances we ran the more times we had to get out of the car, stretch, and take off again. We kept on filling that blackboard and hoping that we wouldn’t run out of chalk before we finished.

We did finish. Dead last. In under 24 hours (Official Time: 22hr 26′ 35″). The Skwinshyes finished in 18h 54′ 44″ and first place came in at 14h 57′ 32″. The last leg of the race ran parallel to the Red Sea and I was lucky that my turn to run landed on it. Looking back now, at myself approaching the finish line with the Red Sea on the right and the Dead Sea far behind me, I have to wonder if the race’s name is as straightforward as it first appears. Perhaps Dead2Red is an allusion to that doctor pulling us back from death so that our blood can continue to flow—and flow freely it did. So much so that this Friday I will be running back to the Dead Sea, from Amman, for my first half-marathon.

Me running with the looming beast

Me running with the looming beast

** Check out Blog in Photos to see more pictures from the race!

Jordan River Project

Considering the Jordan River as both an actor in and audience to the history of the communities that reside along its course, this project, through film, will create a narrative linking the river’s unique geographic phenomena with the peoples who are sustained by its waters.  The film will begin by exploring the river’s transformative power as it links its fresh-water source (the Sea of Galilea) to its high-saline destination (the Dead Sea).  Researching the way in which this transformation from water to salt appears in religious texts, the film will document the important legacies that the river has left in the cultures and traditions of the region.
In addition to its exploration of the impact that the river has had on the region, the project will also describe the impact of the region on the river.  In recent history the length of the River Jordan has been divided by national boundaries.  This intersection has lead to several conflicts and subsequent mediations concerning water conservation policy.  The ineffectiveness of these policies has been felt most strongly by Jordan and Palestine, who receive the tail end of the river’s bounty.  In interviews with residents of the river’s banks, the project will investigate the relationship between the river, agricultural landscape, and relative prosperity within the Jordan River Valley.
In its role as a mechanism of ancient history and beneficiary of modern measures, the Jordan River is an important artifact in the Levant.  Preserving its constitution is vital to the continued health of the region both ecologically and culturally.  This project seeks to understand the complicated conflicts over the river’s water and to promote continued interest in the river’s dwindling resources.

Please feel free to leave any coments comments about my new proposal, I would love the feed back!

Here is Noor

“wayn Noor?  wayn Noor?”  These are the first words in Arabic that I heard upon arrival in Amman.  I had no idea what they meant.  Eventually I would learn that I was about to embark on an epic adventure of mistaken identity and that this question would continue to follow me throughout my stay.

Noor, as it turns out, is the title role in a wildly popular Turkish soap opera that bares the same name.  The show follows the lives of Noor and her husband, Mohannad, as they negotiate between their Islamic faith and the increasing liberalism of a modern and affluent Turkey.  The show is breaking taboos all over the Middle East as it upholds secular liberties: there are scenes of drinking, sex outside of marriage, and even abortion.  It goes without saying that these topics would cause a stir in many countries of the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia (my lovely childhood home) where the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh issued a fatwa against the program and branded it “subversive” and “anti-islamic”.  Nevertheless, nearly 4 million Saudi Arabian viewers tune into the series daily to catch a glimpse of Noor and Mohannad.

What is the reason behind the Noor craze, you may ask?  Well, there are several differing views.  One is that the show’s liberalism is indicative of an increasing (yet repressed) trend towards a more moderate Islam.  The show has reportedly encouraged women to question their traditional role in an Islamic society and to demand a more equal relationship with their husbands; modeled on the marriage between Noor and Mohannad.

Me and Mohannad

Me and Mohannad (Lebanon)

Me and my fan club (Syria)

Me and my fan club (Syria)

Mohannad, of course, is the perfect husband.  He is handsome, considerate, and supports Noor in her role as a successful fashion designer.  Apparently he enjoys long walks on the beach and candle-lit dinners, too.  He is also the reason that Noor’s name is tagged to my back whenever I go out in Amman.  Mohannad and I apparently have a lot in common; fair skin, light-colored eyes, blond shiny locks, and a winning smile.  On numerous occasions I have been stopped for the sake of a photo and autograph.  While in Syria in December I was mobbed by a group of about thirty children when I went to see the tomb of John the Baptist.  I was forced to spend the remainder of the trip in disguise, with a hat pulled low over my forehead and a pair of large aviators hiding my eyes.  I even rid myself of the scraggly beard that also adorns the face of Mohannad.

So, what do you think?  Do I really looks so much like Mohannad that I should pursue a career as his doppelganger?  Let me know by casting your vote below!

For for information on Noor check out some of the links below:

msnbc.com

cbc.com