Cultural confusion/Cultural imperialism – April 11, 2019

first published in Mondoweiss

In late March and early April 2019 I traveled to Jordan and the West Bank (Palestine) with two colleagues, first to attend the Lancet Palestine Health Alliance conference in Amman and then to explore and better understand the lives of refugees and the workings of UNRWA, with a focus on the status of refugee health.

Thursday March 21, 2019

Getting ready for a trip to Jordan I am immediately struck by the fact that Google Maps actually will tell me the distance between Queen Alia Airport and the funky Caravan Hotel or how long it takes to get to UNRWA headquarters or Petra. And the weather app on my smart phone pops up for Amman, no problem. These first world advantages are not available in the occupied Palestinian territory. There is nothing quite like being chronically invisible.

As I fly to Amman via Dubai, I am struck by the diversity of the Emirates Airline staff, it is clearly one of their positive hallmarks. And the sea of passengers from India, the United Arab Emirates, Africa, white NGO types doing good in Uganda, with squirming mostly brown-eyed children, and packages of home cooked curries and flat bread, and the variety of ways that men can wrap a keffiyeh, a pinch in the front, a loose drape, a more formal presentation. Subtle meaningful fashion statements, I suspect. Unlike my previous flights to Ben Gurion Airport, there is no one praying in the airline aisles or arguing with stewardesses; the tension is markedly less.

After the endless 14 hours from Seattle to Dubai, facing a three-hour layover I look for a place to sit and a good cup of coffee in the glittering airport lined with fake palm trees and promises of the razzle dazzle of Dubai.

Tranzact Bombastic Burgers fits the bill. The menu sports entrees like “Mac and cheese benedict,” “Brisket bao,” “Trash the nachos,” and “Eggy Bun,” odd combinations of Americana drifting off into some other foodie world. I settle for a falafel burger to get me in the mood, leaving the world of hamburgers and drifting into the land of chick peas and garlic sauce. And a bitter, smooth cup of cappuccino. Back in the land of good coffee. Hallelujah.

I find and expect to see and hear English everywhere, a form of cultural/linguistic dominance. I suspect that it takes leaving the good old USA to be aware of our prevailing imperialist status in the world. The language is followed by eye catching advertising featuring our multinational corporations.

Arriving in Jordan the customs officials sip small cups of coffee. The smells of Turkish coffee warm my tired little soul. Ahh cardamom. I am bracing for the expected (Israeli) attack dog inquisition, but nothing happens and the visa goes uneventfully after the required digital click of my face, recording my likeness for security forces everyone. Through my exhausted haze, I want to yell into the camera, I’m over here guys, in Jordan. On the east side of the Jordan River!!! It’s me! Alice. This reminds me that getting into Israel is not a normal experience.

The suitcase retrieval is painfully slow. Passengers clutch duty free items like a large box of Krispy Cremes. (Really? This is the best we can offer from American civilization?) Direct from the very advanced first world to your coronary arteries and bulging gut. Personally, I would take knafeh anytime. But the final blow to my psyche is the large IKEA store lit up as we finally drive out of the airport, heading into the city which is clearly a modern jungle, with impressive first world highways and harp string bridges. The contradictory adventure begins.

Play day in Petra
Friday March 22, 2019

Despite the barest minimum of sleep, today is our only “day off” and we hire a lovely Jordanian Palestinian driver to take us to the astounding ruins of Petra, three hours south of Amman. So what do I learn about Jordan today? We drive on modern highways, lined by miles of high voltage wires and military installations and potash mines and a railroad track dating to the Ottoman Empire. Mostly there is a lot of desert, rocky, sandy, dusty, with colors ranging from tawny cream to orange, purple to black. Hopeful patches of green grass and hardy shrubs pop up due to recent rains and as we head south everything gets greener, eventually leading to stands of respectably tall evergreens. Clusters of Bedouin follow their black, brown, and white sheep and goats at the same time a wind farm stretches across the hills. The motor vehicles are newish, mostly well kept, and the general flavor is definitely modern with a touch of Lawrence of Arabia.

According to our driver, many Jordanians are happy to be here, pleased with their 21st century open-minded kings and do-gooder queens, relieved to have avoided ISIS and the major conflicts afflicting the region, happy with the USAID projects that have uplifted the country’s infrastructure and health care, content with the strong security presence “keeping us safe.” Later our guide in Petra attributes Jordan’s success partly to the fact that Jordan and Israel share a 550 km border, thus the U.S. and the many other international donors do not want Jordan to topple. That would be a threat to Israel, with its worst enemies nipping at its proverbial toes. I sense that while there is a pride in openness and modern thinking, there is also a commitment to big traditional families, devout Islamic practices, covered women, and the occasional second wife.

We stop to visit Wadi Musa (Arabic for Valley of Moses), a small building containing a nondescript rock and a pure water spring, the spot where Moses is reported to have whacked a rock and released life giving water. This reminds me once again that the Torah’s real estate concept re: the Jewish people or Israelites goes way beyond the Jordan River. Like to the Euphrates, which I am sure the Iraqis would not be happy to hear.

And then there is Petra. This essay is not a travelogue, but let me just say that as a geological formation, as a monument to the effects of earthquakes, floods, wind and human ingenuity and creativity, it is a humbling and extraordinary place both on a physical and spiritual kind of level, with a massive dash of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. The pounding hoof beats of donkeys, horses and camels on cobblestone and sand only adds to the charm and sense of potential danger. Especially after two frisky donkeys literally run one of my colleagues over, leaving her rolling in the dust, appalled but intact.

What I notice most, however, is the lack of checkpoints, the absence of young men and women with imposing guns and military paraphernalia, the absence of Jewish settlements on the tops of all the hills and the lack of anxious, hunted, angry looking young Palestinian men. There is this sense of calm, I can breathe without all the tension and apprehension that normally accompanies me on a trip to the Middle East. This is most noticeable in its absence and in the impact on the people from all over the world rubbing shoulders, climbing up camels, clicking photos, and just staring at the extraordinary carvings by men and mother-nature that is famous in this magical breath-taking place.

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