IT SNOWED the night I got back to New York from Amman, Jordan. The Syrian refugees I’d traveled to meet, their faces and voices, seemed somehow more vivid than the snow, which in any case would melt and turn to ice by morning. On the shelf beside me was the book I’d been reading on the plane home during the past night and day — a collection of medieval Arabic tales, including the story of Al-Khansa, the woman warrior who made war against the tribe of the Banu Mazin that had killed her brother, Sakhr. She had sworn that she would only stop killing the Banu Mazin when a thousand Mazini women, who had also lost their brothers in war, came before her weeping and mourning. The Mazini women, exhausted by the slaughter, came to Al-Khansa and knelt before her, all of them crying for the brothers of their hearts. Al-Khansa felt inspired by their grief and composed these lines:
I won’t forget you,
Sakhr, I won’t forget
you ever. I’d kill
myself if it weren’t
for all these
women weeping for
whom I killed.
It’s only in
murdering those who
killed you, Sakhr,
that I can find
even this moment
of peace. A thousand
of their brothers
to make up
for your death —
for their brothers
were nothing compared
to you, Sakhr —
but their grief is
all that keeps
me from joining
you down in the dirt
and darkness of
The poem like a cool wind passed through her, and she felt pity for the women and had food brought to them and ate with them, and this sharing of salt brought peace between her and the Banu Mazin after seven years of constant war. She returned their weapons, their gold, their mules and goats and camels and horses, everything in fact that she’d seized in her raids. And then she took off her coat of mail forged and hammered by Da’ud, she unstrapped her Indian sword, and lay down her long lance. And as I finished the story of Al-Khansa, I envisioned Jordanian activist and journalist Nahed Hattar’s serious face staring back at me — from YouTube, from Al Jazeera, from a video that shows him lying on his back, head cradled in a man’s arms as he bleeds to death on the bottom step of the Palace of Justice.
The Christian cab driver who’d given me a ride to the hotel just minutes before was a large fellow with thick graying hair swooped back over his ears. Though his fine features were beginning to be swallowed up in fleshiness, his face was still handsome. “I lived in Columbus, Ohio, for five years,” he explained, “with my older brother. I married an American woman but we fought all the time — and so we got divorced. That’s when I came back here and met my second wife: a Romanian woman — they make the best wives of all — mine is beautiful and a good mother — but she’s very strong willed. She wants to leave Amman and go to London. I don’t understand why these guys with their long, ugly beards are allowed to emigrate to the US, but people like me aren’t.”
By “guys,” Ahmad meant Muslim fundamentalists, and by “people like me,” he meant Christians. And, as I’d learned on other trips to the Middle East, a phrase like “long, ugly beards” means far more than style and grooming. Beards often signify conservative Muslim values; of course, long beards are also characteristic of certain Christian patriarchs — nothing is ever simple in these matters. In the charged atmosphere of Jordanian politics, to notice if someone is bearded or clean-shaven can become survival information. Would it surprise anyone in Jordan that Nahed Hattar had been gunned down for his left-wing, anti-ISIL views by a man with a long beard?
As we drove past the low-rise apartment and office buildings that line most of Amman’s major streets, Ahmad expressed deep frustration about being a Christian in Jordan, his complaints both plangent and, to my outsider’s ears, bordering on Islamophobic. But in his own mind he had plenty of cause, given what he characterized as the growing political aggressiveness of the Muslim Brotherhood. “These guys,” he said, “they don’t like Christians and they want to take us backwards. My brother said he’d sponsor me in the US, but I don’t have the money to take my wife and my three daughters. Things haven’t worked out for me here: everybody says that there isn’t any difference between Christian and Muslims, but I’m telling you, when I was working for an American oil company in Jordan, my boss was a guy from Texas who said, ‘Ahmad, I want you to sit next to me at this business banquet.’ And when I said, ‘Boss, shouldn’t you be sitting next to the Turkish boss?,’ he said, ‘I can’t stand that guy. I’m sitting next to you.’ It wasn’t good business, but my boss preferred me to everybody else in the office. He treated me well and we became good friends. But then he left, and a Turkish guy took over, and hated me. He used to say to me, ‘If you come late, Ahmad, I’ll do to you what we did to the Armenians.’ And it wasn’t just once he said it, but every day. I couldn’t take it after a while, and I quit. I’ve got lots of experience in business administration and in managing construction projects. I speak Arabic, English, Italian, Romanian, Greek, and French. But in the last five years, Muslims are only hiring Muslims — it doesn’t matter how many languages you speak or what your experience is; they won’t say it to your face, but if you’re a Christian you’re wasting your time — that’s how it is, and everybody knows it. You see that row of office buildings?”
In the direction of the Belle Vue Hotel tower, he pointed to a set of glass-fronted, Modernist cubes lining the street near the second traffic circle. And despite the shakiness of the economy and widespread unemployment, you could see the Jordanian government’s commitment to infrastructure in the wide, well-maintained roads and the steel and glass architecture.
“There used to be lots and lots of Christmas lights and decorations on these buildings, but now the business owners don’t bother putting them up anymore. The guys with the long beards are against it. They’re the ones who killed Nahed Hattar.”
“Like the Charlie Hebdo guys. Blasphemy.”
On his Facebook page, Hattar had shared a cartoon, which he himself did not draw, that mocked the religious views of Daesh — a derogatory term for ISIL.
As we pulled into the hotel drive, Ahmad turned to me and said, “And so this guy dies — a Christian just like me. I don’t want my daughters to grow up around this kind of thing. The extremists have taken over the schools, and since I want my kids to grow up around other Catholics, I pay to send them to Catholic school. When the education ministry tried to update the textbooks this year by including pictures of women without headscarves and men without beards, and mentioned Christians, the teachers’ union refused to teach from them. Some of the teachers and parents held a demonstration and burned the new books.”
I wondered if Ahmad wasn’t exaggerating, but in a New York Times article that confirmed the book burning, I read how one teacher had fiercely objected to a picture of a clean-shaven man vacuuming his home while on the wall there hangs a crucifix — three slights to tradition in one picture. Verses from the Qur’an and hadith are routinely inserted before lessons, even in physics and mathematics textbooks. An AP article cites a passage in a sixth grade textbook which says that if students “don’t embrace Islam,” they “will face God’s torture” and the “pit of hell.” Eighth graders are told that “jihad is a must for every Muslim.” Dr. Zogan Obeidat, a former ministry of education official who has received death threats for his views, wrote in Al Ghad newspaper, “If ISIS ruled Jordan, they wouldn’t even need to change our textbooks.”
Ahmad shook his head as we sat together in his Hyundai, an immaculately clean, almost elegant little gray car that seemed at that moment a kind of fragile sanctuary. “I would like my kids to grow up in Rome,” he said. “I loved living in Italy — everywhere in Rome, there were so many beautiful things to look at: the buildings, the gardens, everything was so beautiful — not like here. Here I feel stupid and old.”
“Anyone who can speak as many languages as you do would be counted as brilliant in the United States,” I said.
“Thank you,” he smiled. He gave a fatalistic little shrug: “I used to feel intelligent, but after driving a cab all day, too many angry people on the road, too much traffic — I don’t know, all I can do is sit and watch the TV set and feel exhausted. I need to get out of this country, but I don’t know how. My wife has it fixed in her head that the only place she’ll go is London. But I tell her we can’t afford London: five people in a tiny one bedroom apartment? No, it would be a disaster. I tell her that we should go to Romania, because at least there we have family, we could get help in finding work — but she shouts at me that she’ll never go back to Romania, that the only place she’s moving is London. I feel broken by all this.”
He stared off through the windshield as if searching for some inner reserves that no longer existed. “What am I going to do?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I hope you get to Romania or London. Good luck to you.” I paid my fare and included a huge tip — it was all I could think to do. He drove off down Islamic College Street — as if he needed yet another reminder of his status as a Christian. In front of the hotel the statues of two grazing oryx antelopes, an endangered species — one of them bending down to nibble at the concrete, the other with its head up, ears pricked as if listening for danger — seemed like an apt metaphor for the fragility of Jordanian society. Muslims and Christians, native Jordanians of Bedouin heritage and the Palestinians who had come during the Nakba and the Six-Day War, the Iraqi and now the Syrian refugees — it wouldn’t take much to plunge the country into chaos. Meanwhile, I could hear Ahmad’s Romanian wife yelling at him for not taking them to London.
In another tale, Harun al-Rashid is bored so he calls on his vizier to distract him. The vizier tells him that there is a man in the prison who has only one eye, one leg, and one hand, but that he is a marvelous storyteller. The Prince of the Faithful replies: “If he amuses me, then I shall reward him as he deserves.” And so the prisoner is brought out of the dungeon, washed and perfumed, and dressed in a beautiful and costly robe.
“Prince of the Faithful,” says the man, “should I tell you something that I heard, or something that I myself have seen?”
“Something that you have seen, as it is always best to hear what really happened. That way leads most surely to wisdom.”
“Then I will tell you how I lost my eye, my leg, and my hand. Know that I was the son of a king. My older brother hated me because my father preferred me above all his other sons, and intended to give me his kingdom when Allah called him. My brother began to tell lies about me to my father: he said that I wanted to kill my father and take over the kingdom.
“And so my father banished me from the palace, and turned me out in the wilderness with only the clothes on my back. I fled to the mountains, afraid my brother might pursue me, but when I finally reached them, I was already dying of thirst and hunger. But as I wandered, looking for something to eat and drink, I came across a stone door built into the mountainside, and in front of it a statue of a bronze warrior with a great ax. I tried to open the door, but when I took hold of the brass ring set into the stone, the warrior swung his ax and chopped off my hand.
“I thought I would die, when out of the air came a beautiful red bird that brought in its beak a magic salve which took away all my pain. I was so desperate that I again approached the door, and again, the warrior attacked me and chopped off my leg. And again the bird gave me the magic salve. I made a crutch out of a fallen tree limb, but this time I cried out to the warrior, ‘What do you want in order to open the door for me?’ And he cried back, ‘I want your eyes, so that I can find my way through the world.’
“And when I looked at him, I saw that he had no eyes. But his hearing was so keen that it was impossible to move even a step without him knowing it. I thought to myself, By Allah, I will die here unless I find food and drink. And so I said, ‘Guardian of the Mountain, I need one eye or else I will wander through the world as blind as you are, and my hearing is not as keen as the wolf’s, as yours is. Have pity on me, for Allah’s sake, and accept the gift of one eye.’
“He agreed and reached out his hand, but I was careful to anoint my eye with the salve, so that when he plucked it out, I felt no pain. He put my eye into one of the empty sockets in his head, and when he saw what he had done to me, he was filled with remorse.
“‘Oh son of Allah, forgive me,’ he cried out. ‘This is the first time that I have seen what my ax has done to its victims. To redress the suffering I’ve caused you, I’ll throw back the door to the mountain, and inside you will find a vast treasure.’ And he took hold of the brass ring and pulled the door open.
“Smoke poured from the interior, I heard laughter and singing, and as I limped into the vast cavern, ahead of me sparkled gold and rubies without number, pearls the size of a man’s fists, and a lavish banquet where I ate and drank my fill, feasting for three days and nights, while djinn came and went, fulfilling my every wish. I asked the most powerful djinn to bring me a wife, which he did, and my joy was complete since she was kind, wise, and more beautiful than the rising moon.
“But one day, she woke to tell me that she was sick. And I ordered my djinn to cure her, but he said, ‘Master, there is no one who can cure what Allah has decreed.’ And so she died. And all my pleasures turned to dust. I left the cavern and wandered city to city, begging as I went, saying to one and all, ‘When I saw, I was blind. When I walked, I was lame. When I took what the world gave me, I could not hold what I was given.’
“And so I came to your city, great Prince, and was so hungry, I stole bread, and was arrested by the guard, and put into your prison. Have mercy on me, and God will bless you all the days of your life.”
And Harun al-Rashid said, “That is a marvel that you have told me, and surely the strangest tale I have ever heard.” And he made this man one of his most trusted courtiers, and he lived happily until He who takes all took him.
In the front seat next to our driver is Rania, a young woman from Saudi Arabia who works for the UN in Amman. “When I was a student,” she tells me, “the other women students and I had to enter our university through a special entrance meant for women only. We had separate classrooms for women only where we would take off our niqabs and hijabs, and where our professor would be broadcast to us on a screen. We could see him, but he couldn’t see us. Our teachers were all men, of course, and were often in the same room with the male students. But the camera focused on our professor at his lectern so the male students and female students never saw each other. We wore headphones and each of us had a microphone. When the time for questions came, we pressed a key on our computer keyboards to let our professor know we had a question.”
The use of technology — the enlisting of modern, secular science to impose traditional roles on men and women — makes me curious. “Rania, do you still feel at home in Saudi Arabia after living in Jordan?” Yesterday when I went to the University of Jordan, there were lots of women professors and students, and the men and women all sit together in the same classroom.
“When I’m in Riyadh,” she says, “I like to see my parents and my brothers and sisters. But because women aren’t allowed to drive, it’s difficult to have your own life. I want to stay in Amman, at least for now, because the kind of work I do here with Syrian refugees would be impossible there. So I like to visit, but I’m more myself here.”
“How do you feel about those restrictions?”
“I don’t really think of them that way. You in the West always talk about restrictions, but we think in terms of obligations: when I’m back home, my obligation is to my society and to my work and to my religion — not to myself.”
“But you just said that you feel more yourself in Jordan.”
“But that’s because I’m here in Jordan. Each of us has a role to play, and if we understand our role rightly, then we will know how to fulfill that role in a way that will be right for us. So yes, I’m more myself here, but that’s because I’m here, not home in Saudi Arabia. What’s right for here wouldn’t be right there.” She turns half way around in her seat and gives me an amused smile, her white hijab glimmering in the sun. I want to object that her logic is circular, but I can see that for her it isn’t. And so I smile back at her amusement at what she sees as my linear reasoning, and for a moment our differences vanish and we laugh together.
I’d gone into the jewelry store next to my hotel to see about buying a present for my wife and daughter. The owner is dressed casually in a close-fitting brown sweater and Calvin Klein jeans, his brown slip-ons polished to a high gloss. The jewelry is tastefully arranged in vitrines of various shapes and sizes, and he takes care not to overcrowd the separate pieces. “Welcome, my friend — I’ve been sitting all day like a spider in his web, and you’re the only customer I’ve had all day. Sit down and have some tea.”
He emerges from the back room with small glass teacups, the steaming tea so heavily sugared that its sweetness is a kind of bitterness. I place my hand on my heart and nod my thanks before sitting down beside him. Across from us, the counter display shows off antique jewelry of “Traditional Bedouin Design” — at least that’s what the beautifully calligraphed placard says that hangs next to a pair of crossed janbiyas, daggers with golden hilts and upturned blades.
I ask to see some earrings and a bracelet inlaid with carnelian stones, and we quickly settle on a price. When I praise his English, he shrugs: “I grew up in the US in Seattle. I only came back here after I finished college. I’ve been back here now for 18 years. We’re Muslims, you see, and we wanted to come back to Jordan to raise our kids.”
His name is Mahmoud and — unlike Ahmad, my beleaguered taxi driver — he’s optimistic about the future, in favor of the King and the present government. “My heritage is Bedouin, and it’s traditional for the Bedouin to support King and Army.” And although Mahmoud doesn’t say it, I can tell by his confident manner that he thinks of his heritage as the backbone of Jordanian society — if there is such a thing in a country that is over half Palestinian, and is overrun by a million and a half Syrian refugees. When I mention Hattar, he says, “Christians and Muslims get along just fine in Jordan. You’ve seen the Christmas decorations in the hotel lobby, yes?” And despite Ahmad’s despair, I had noticed the mural of the Christ child in the manger, and the dough-faced wisemen standing around ogling the little Christ who peers back with a distracted air, as if he were looking off into the future and doesn’t much like what he sees.
“Hattar was foolish. But to kill someone for posting a cartoon? That was mad — but exactly what you’d expect from these takfiris.” Takfiri, which means apostate, is what Jordanians call ISIL members — perverters of Islam.
“Do you think the fact that Hattar grew up a Christian had something to do with it?”
“Maybe, maybe not — he’s what the news channels call a secular Christian, which means that he was raised in a Christian community — but he’s not a believer. To say he’s secular is a roundabout way of calling him an atheist.”
“And isn’t he also a Marxist?”
“Yes and no — he believed in Marxism, but he denounced Marxists as armchair revolutionaries.”
“What else is he?”
“A supporter of Assad.”
“I know what you’re thinking, but there are many Jordanians who support him. To them, Assad is not a murderer, Assad is fighting ISIL, he’s being picked on by the US with your drone strikes and air support. They aren’t happy about fellow Muslims being bombed. Look, most Jordanians” — he shrugged — “most Arabs hated Clinton’s and Obama’s policies in the Middle East. And because of that, I’d say about half of Jordanians wanted Trump to win.”
“But what about Trump’s attitude toward Muslims?”
“Trump didn’t say he was going to get rid of all Muslims, he said he was going to get rid of these extremists with their long dirty beards.” And he added with an arch smile, “There are times when I myself wouldn’t mind seeing all these Syrians deported — especially when the West, except for Germany, has done almost nothing to help solve the problem.” Mahmoud frowned, then sipped his tea. “Have you seen Hattar’s cartoon?” He stood up and typed a few words into his computer’s search box. “Here it is,” he said.
I bent down to the screen and saw a jihadi inside a tent in what I took to be Paradise. The man’s nose was huge and bulbous as an antique bicycle horn, and he was smoking a cigarette in bed, his bare feet sticking out from under the covers, while two naked women at his side await his pleasure. These are his houris, his eternally youthful wives who, according to hadith, don’t defecate, urinate, menstruate, or get pregnant. In fact, their flesh is so pure that you can see through them to the very marrow of their bones, which are also transparent, like crystal — not like the women the cartoonist has drawn. Allah, who should never be depicted, wears a golden crown, his long white beard, bushy white eyebrows, and gargantuan face making him look like a fairy-tale giant as he pulls the tent flap aside.
The cartoon is entitled the “God of Daesh” and the captioning reads:
Allah: “May your evening be joyous, Abu Saleh, do you need anything?”
Jihadist: “Yes Lord, bring me the glass of wine from over there and tell Jibril [the Angel Gabriel] to bring me some cashews. After that send me an eternal servant to clean the floor and take the empty plates with you.”
Jihadist continues: “Don’t forget to put a door on the tent so that you knock before you enter next time, your Gloriousness.”
I said, “I heard there were hundreds of death threats on Twitter.”
“Yes. The guy who killed him was one of these al-Qaeda sympathizers who went to Iraq during the war — when he came back, he was supposedly ‘rehabilitated.’ He became a part-time imam and started preaching in two mosques. A lot of people think that the government put him up to it: but Jordanians like to read conspiracies into everything.” Mahmoud shook his head. “I feel sorry for Hattar. I didn’t agree with him on everything, but he was a respectable man, he showed a lot of courage in presenting his views. But he went too far — he knew the mood of these guys and yet he did it anyway. On the other hand, his family did ask the police for protection, and the prime minister refused. That was a mistake, obviously.”
“Did you find the cartoon offensive?”
“Well, as a Muslim, I do find it offensive” — he shrugged and shook his head — “a little bit, I guess.” Mahmoud pursed his lips. “Well, actually no, it wasn’t so much offensive as I just thought it was kind of silly. Like a 14-year-old boy trying to gross out his parents. That kind of silly.”
Mahmoud again types something into the search box, and suddenly there Hattar is: balding, his large eyes owlish behind black glasses, wearing a striped shirt and jacket, nothing in his appearance suggesting that he’s been imprisoned by the government 16 times since 1979, or that his commentary is so controversial that it’s outlawed in Jordan. The day bright and calm, his brothers and sons surround him as Hattar approaches the steps leading up to the Palace of Justice. The guards stand around flatfooted as a man dressed in a robe and with a long, tangled beard comes up to Hattar, and at point blank range shoots him three times, once in the head, twice in the chest. He collapses on his back on the concrete, a young man kneels down and cradles Hattar as blood soaks through his shirt and suit and pours out across the flagstones and pools around the man’s shoes, while a woman behind them screams.
The police guarding the Palace of Justice do nothing but gawk while Hattar’s brother chases and tackles his brother’s murderer — ironically enough, by grabbing him by his beard.
Mahmoud offers me more tea and shrugs: “The Hattars are a well-respected family. One of his relatives is the woman who works in the store when I’m not here.” When I’d passed by yesterday on my way to interview some Syrian refugees, I’d seen her, a young woman in slacks, her pixie haircut peroxided blonde as she balanced on a ladder and fussed over a ceiling display light.
And there was my friend, Ruba Hattar, a cousin of Nahed. A tall, slender, self-possessed young woman whose quiet intelligence is both tough-minded and tactful, she works for the US Embassy in the cultural affairs department and had arranged for me to meet with students and professors at various universities. In what I took to be a quiet sign of mourning, rather than her own profile picture she had posted a picture of Nahed’s hands. One hand curls into a half-clenched fist, while the one underneath rests at ease on a pack of Marlboros, some notebooks, a manuscript in progress, and a book — nicotine, paper, and words, the writer’s quintessential tools.
In 1998, King Hussein’s security officers tortured Hattar so badly that he needed surgery to remove a long section of his intestine. When Hussein died a year later, Hattar pointed out in a column that not everyone in Jordan was going to mourn the King’s passing. And now Hussein’s son, King Abdullah II, who likes to cast himself as a social moderate, had sanctioned Hattar’s arrest for “inciting sectarian strife” and “insulting religion.”
For the last 19 years since his torture, Hattar had needed to take medication and eat a special diet. But during his month-long term, he was denied these necessities, and so he ended up in the hospital twice. It was only when his family protested to the Red Cross and Amnesty International that he was allowed treatment. But as soon as the doctors left, the guards tore out his IVs, refused to remove the needles in his arms, cuffed his hands and feet, and placed him in a hospital prison cell. As a joke, they wrote a sign that they placed at the foot of his bed so he would have to see it: This man is a dangerous criminal. But on Ruba’s Facebook page, his hands are the soft hands of an intellectual, nearly hairless, the nails cut neatly to the quick.
Ruba, who is also a poet, had read with me and others the night before in a coffee shop. Unlike many Jordanian poets who chant their work in a highly theatrical manner, Ruba reads with a quiet, unforced intensity. Halfway through her poem, I could see her eyes go glassy. Her voice choked up a moment, but then she recovered her composure and read to the end in a firm, understated way. When I asked her for a paraphrase in English, she bowed her head and said, “The poem uses the metaphor of a garden to talk about how Jordan is being torn apart.”
A poor fisherman goes down to the sea and hurls in his net time and time again, but he catches nothing all day long, leaving him with no fish to sell in the market, let alone to eat. This goes on for three days until he feels as if he’ll die of hunger. But on the fourth day, he feels a heavy weight dragging his net down as he hauls it in, and at the bottom of it is an ancient lamp. He takes out the lamp, and thinking to sell it to a junk man in the market, he rubs it with his sleeve. And as he rubs, a plume of smoke arises from the lamp’s spout and a fierce-looking djinn materializes, his head so large it blacks out the sun.
“Well, my friend,” says the djinn, “I’ve been at the bottom of the sea now for a thousand years. I’d like to reward you. Ask me for something and I’ll grant it to you.”
The fisherman cowers in terror and prostates himself before the djinn, but the djinn takes him by the hand and raises him to his feet. “Your Greatness,” says the fisherman, “I’d like a net full of fish.”
The djinn laughs and says, “Very good — in a moment you’ll have more fish than 10 men can carry. But first I’m going to kill you: this is what I promised myself when I was shut in the lamp by a sorcerer a thousand years ago.” And so the djinn lifts his sword and cuts off the poor man’s head even as his net fills up with every kind of fish that swims in the sea.
“We came to Jordan when I was 16. My father was ill, but because of the war, he couldn’t get treatment.” Maysara sipped his Coke as Rania translated. I’d been told not to ask political questions since it could potentially endanger him, and he himself insisted on no photographs. His story felt depressingly familiar — doctors and medical supplies co-opted by the war, his father could stay in Syria and die for lack of treatment or leave the country for Amman in the vague hope that the Jordanian medical system might save his life.
“The doctors took out one of his kidneys … but he died anyway. By this time, the war had gotten much worse, so we decided to stay. We came to one of the camps and stayed there for a month. But we hated it so much that we left as soon as we could find a place to stay in Salt.” (Salt is a small city built on the rocky slopes outside of Amman.) “There was nothing to do so I slept a lot. I felt like life was empty. You woke up and you stood around and you went to bed. That was it day after day. The ones who came before me, they wanted to know why I was so restless, but I couldn’t stand it. I guess they got used to it, but me — I couldn’t see any future there. And so I ran away to Amman — I had no papers, so it was illegal, but I didn’t care. I had to leave.” His razor-cut black beard and swept-back black hair, his black vest and blue sweater, his faded blue jeans, made him look a little like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. But there was nothing melancholy about Maysara, nothing pensive or wounded — despite his father’s death and being a refugee, he was resolutely optimistic, but in a smart, hard-headed way. He harbored no illusions about returning to Syria because the Syria he’d known had been destroyed.
“My sister is still in Azraq Camp,” he said, “going to school, but all the rest of us are here in Salt.” He lit a cigarette, and sat back in his chair.
“I’d just finished my school back in Syria, and I wanted to go to college, but all the records of my school work were blown up. I’d like to go back to school, but without the records I’d have to start all over again. My family needs me to work. I’m the main support of my mother, my brother, and my three sisters. My brother had a job in construction, and he even went to school here to get a construction certificate. But the job he was working on ended, and he’s been without a job for several months now.”
“Do you hear anything from your relatives back in Syria?”
“Nothing, not a word. We’ve heard nothing for three months from any of our relatives.”
“Where are they?”
“Did you leave Syria because of what happened in Daraa?” Maysara didn’t answer, and he seemed to go inward for a moment. He shrugged, and nodded — then looked down at the cafe table. The jukebox behind us played a loop and sample version of rai, its high-pitched wail and thump joyous and unhinged, a contrast to the blankness on Maysara’s face. The mirrors behind him reflected his hunched shoulders. He was a small, well-knit man, energetic, with a quick smile. Given his tough demeanor, and his athletic swagger — he held a black belt in Tae Kwon Do — it was easy to envision him marching in the streets of Daraa with other kids his age when Assad’s Ba’ath party headquarters were set on fire. In fact, his hometown was a major catalyst in the revolt. When Daraa children were arrested for writing on walls “Down with the regime” and were then tortured by Assad’s security police by having their fingernails yanked out, Daraa became a symbol of outrage over the dictator’s ruthlessness — outrage that would explode into civil war. And of course Daraa has paid for being the city where the war began. It has been barrel-bombed so heavily that most of the buildings have had their walls knocked down so that you can see into the rooms as if looking into old doll houses — except that everything is covered in dust and smells of smoke.
I could see that Maysara was growing withdrawn, so I changed the subject. “How are you making it now?”
Maysara said with a slight smile, “Do you like sweets?”
I shrugged. “Of course. Who doesn’t like sweets? Last night, I went to Habibi and had kanafeh.” Habibi is the most famous sweet shop in Jordan, and kanafeh, a sweet cheese pastry cooked over a circular gas grill, is a favorite everywhere in the Middle East.
“I work in a sweet shop making sweets.”
“How did you get that job?”
“I started off selling shoes in a shoe store when I was 16. In those days, I didn’t have a work permit, and the boss paid me about half of what he’d need to pay a Jordanian. So I looked around for another job, and found one baking sweets, but when I told my other boss I was quitting, he accused me of stealing from him, and said he’d go to the police if I left him and say I was a thief without a work permit.”
“So what did you do?”
“It made me angry that he would say that, and so I decided to risk leaving him. When he reported me, I told the police that he’d threatened me — and when they investigated, they found that he’d made the same threat to three other Syrian refugees who’d worked there before me. A lot of Jordanians accuse us Syrians of taking jobs away from them. But the fact is, there are certain jobs Jordanians won’t do, and so people from Syria, Egypt, and Asia do them. And in jobs that Jordanians will do, we can do it better for less.” And it was true: I read how Syrian ceramic tile-layers do excellent work for $2 per square foot — about half the price of Jordanian contractors. “In fact, at the sweet shop where I’m working now the guy assigned to teach me how to make sweets got jealous of me because I was such a quick learner. And the boss said, ‘Maysara, you’re the best worker I have.’ And another sweet shop offered me more money, so I went to work for them. But after a month the boss came to me and said, ‘Maysara, that other guy left and we want you back’ — so now I’m back working at the shop I started at.”
“What are your sisters doing?”
“The ones in Salt are going to school. But the one in Azraq Camp is engaged to be married to one of our relatives who also lives in Azraq.”
“Will she stay in school after she’s married?”
“No, she says she wants to leave school.”
“And what about you? What would you like to study when you go back to school?”
“I want to be a translator. To make up for the three years that I don’t have records for, I can take a test. So I’m thinking of doing that soon.”
“What’s a typical day like for you?”
“I’m up at six for breakfast, I leave the house for work, I work from eight until six. I work six days a week. Then after work for two hours I go to a gym and practice Tae Kwon Do. I also teach the kids since they don’t have any coaches. Then I go back home for dinner at eight or so, I study for an hour from a book called Travel for Your Brain that tests you with logic and math problems, I talk with my sisters and mother and brother, and then I do social media until I go to bed at 12:30.”
“Do you know how to do Tai Chi?”
“Sure, I’ve seen it.”
“That’s what I do — you show me some moves, I’ll show you some.”
Maysara laughs and Rania looks nervous. But we stand up and go outside in front of the cafe. I show Maysara a few moves of my Tai Chi Yang style long form: Cloud Hands, Carding Horse’s Tail, and Needle at the Bottom of the Sea. He shows me some Tae Kwon Do moves, and by the end both of us are laughing at my attempt to do a tiger claw strike before I stumble through a spin kick.
“You’re an old guy,” he says. “I don’t teach old guys.”
“Yeah, I don’t blame you. But what would you say if I asked you to let me come and work with you in the sweet shop?”
“Like I said, I don’t teach old guys — it takes them too long to learn.”
He smiles and laughs and shakes his head, but I can see he likes the idea so I say: “Look, I only want to learn from the best.”
He shrugs, nods, and says, “Okay. Tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. Come to the shop and we’ll work together.” We shake hands on it. Then we get back into the van and the UN driver drops him off — the sweet shop has a brilliant ruby-colored sign like an old movie marquee that translates as Jewel Sweets.
“Do you have a cellphone?” he asks, “In case something happens.”
“No, I haven’t put a chip in my phone yet. But don’t worry. I’ll be there,” I say. “You know, back in the old days before cellphones, this is how people — old people — did things. They made an agreement and they showed up. I’ll be there at 10:00 a.m.” We bump fists, we put our hands on our hearts and nod goodbye, and he crosses the street to go back to work.
The next morning, I arrived early and peered in through the window. The shop, a long, two-story, narrow rectangle with a steel stairway to the factory upstairs, was already busy with customers. On the shelves were stacks of inlaid wooden boxes, some shaped like rectangles, others like hexagons with star and triangle patterns on the lids, and lined inside with various kinds of sweets: barazek, round sesame cookies; Ajwa, bite-sized tea cakes; ghraeba, a tiny donut; cashew fingers, little cylinders of semolina with cashews inside; various kinds of baklava, such as asieh, kolwishkor, mabroumeh; aush bulbul, a little bird’s nest of phyllo dough with pistachios nestled inside; and other delicacies, all arranged in mosaic patterns that harmonized with the geometric design of the box. You could see the same kind of design principles at work in the decoration in the Husseini Mosque in downtown Amman: the principle of using decorative motifs to dissolve the boxes’ surfaces into infinitely repeating patterns reminded me of architectural elements in the Mosque’s courtyard. For all Amman’s secular-seeming glass and steel architecture, the influence of Islam permeated everything — right down to a deep-fried pastry I would learn to make, Zainab’s finger, named after one of the Prophet’s daughters.
Maysara took me upstairs to the factory and introduced me to his six Syrian refugee co-workers. One of them was a boy of 11, a slight kid with big glasses and long, skinny arms who was everybody’s “gofer.” He was the brother of their boss, Sayid, a burly man in his late 20s who had been working in this shop since he was 18. Sayid spoke some English, and he translated for me as we worked. There was a tall, melancholy, mostly silent, but very handsome young man who specialized in cakes. He wore a baker’s cap at a rakish angle, which is the only excess I could detect in him. He didn’t participate in the banter like Maysara and the others, but he smiled from time to time when a joke landed. And there were two boys in their middle teens who hung on the older ones’ words and did as they were told with unquestioning alacrity. There was no real hierarchy among them, except for the familial sort of older to younger brother. All of them had been hired by the boss because they were good workers, relations, or friends of relations — and because they worked for less than a Jordanian.
When I asked Sayid about work permits, he nodded and said, “Maysara got his work permit through the shop, so no one can threaten to have him deported or force him to return to one of the camps.” The United States and European Union had bargained with the Jordanian government to hand out up to 200,000 permits — not so much for the sake of the refugees, but to give the refugees a reason to stay in the Middle East rather than trying to immigrate to the West. In exchange, Jordan got reduced tariffs, access to low-interest loans, and a host of other financial incentives. When I asked one UN official if the Western democracies weren’t simply buying off their own consciences, she said, “I think that’s a little too cynical. Jordan has been incredibly generous in allowing Syrians into their country, and the government sees this as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to secure much needed capital for all kinds of infrastructure — infrastructure that will benefit Jordan after the war ends and the Syrians go home.”
But given the intractability of the war, the much ballyhooed number that many refugees are displaced for an average of 17 years might come true in Maysara’s case. He had handed me a rolling pin, a plastic apron, and gloves, and as I rolled out a lump of dough into a uniform circle about a fingernail’s width deep, I asked Maysara and the others what their plans were when the war ended.
Maysara said, “I like it here in Jordan for the moment, but I don’t want to go back to Syria. I don’t feel stable in Jordan, though, and I was thinking about going to the US. But there are problems with race in America, so I’d like to go to Canada instead.”
I looked at Sayid, who said, “I have two children and a wife. This is my home now. Once the war ends, I’ll go back to visit but I have no plans to live there again.”
Sayid looked at me tentatively and asked what I thought of Donald Trump. When I told them, they looked a little taken aback, since criticizing the King of Jordan is against the law. But I quickly changed the subject and said, “So Maysara, what’s next?”
Maysara took his knife and cut a strip of dough from the round I’d made. Then he showed me how to roll it into a cylinder, and then pinch it between my thumb and forefinger to lengthen it, smoothing and evening it out as I went. He took the knife and measured off lengths of the blade and cut the cylinder into blade-length sections. We stacked these like logs on a steel tray and put them in the refrigerator. Later, they’d be filled with cream and pistachios and browned for a few minutes in the oven.
Then he took thin strings of phyllo dough from the plastic packages and showed me how to make birds’ nests. Taking several strings of phyllo, you carefully wind them into a little nest that can hold various fillings: pistachios and cashews, cream and dates. Next, Maysara showed me how to cut off rounds of dough in thumb-sized lengths to be made into a cookie crusted with sesame seeds called barazek.
As we worked, I couldn’t help but think of the Syrian refugees I’d met the day before in a bread factory: one of them had been a sales manager at a car dealership, and held a degree in business administration, but now he was in charge of the ovens; another, who had a degree in accounting, was running the huge flour mixers to help support his brother who had actually made it to Hamburg — but the route had been torturous: Syria to Lebanon to Jordan to Egypt to Jordan to Turkey to Greece to Serbia to Hungary to Austria and finally to Germany. He’d traveled in cars, buses, and boats, but he’d also walked hundreds of miles on foot. Another was majoring in mathematics and had finished his second year of calculus when the war interrupted his studies, so that now he was monitoring the long conveyor belt used to cool the bread as it plopped down out of the oven onto the belt. All of them were professionals or college students back in Syria, and now they were working factory jobs for substantially less money than a Jordanian. But none of them complained or said a word against their fate. At least they had a steady job and a work permit.
All morning and into the afternoon we worked. When the time for prayer came, everybody washed their hands and knelt on their rugs. We took a late afternoon break for roast chicken, and then it was time to bake the kanafeh: Maysara and I took two large round trays over to the gas ring, and while Maysara lit the burners, I held the tray. Then he took it from me and placed it on the ring, turning the tray all the while with a pair of metal tongs. After a few minutes, we put another layer of flour on top of the melted cheese, let it cook for a while until the top was brown, then placed another tray on top. We let it cook for a little longer and then we lifted up both trays and flipped them over. The underside was a dark golden brown, and the melted cheese smelled sweet. We took four ladlefuls of sugar water and poured them over the kanafeh and sprinkled ground up cashews and pistachios on top. The tray was ready to take downstairs to the waiting customers.
When it was time to go, Sayid said, “Tom, you will come back again and we can teach you more. It takes about four years to master the art of making sweets.” He patted my arm, and they all gathered around me to shake hands as I gave each of them a little hug. I flagged down a taxi as they waved to me from the upstairs window, the sweet shop sign glowing a bright ruby in the sun: Jewel Sweets.
In the gallery surrounding the professors’ long oval seminar table, one of the students who sat above us, a young woman in a hijab, asks me toward the end of the class, “Sir, you said that writing poetry frees you from your political convictions to explore what you call political emotions: but do you really think that you, as a writer, can truly escape your ideological formation as an American?”
When I try to answer, insisting that I’m not simply a robot of various discourses, and that writing poetry is, for me, deeply pleasurable because of the strange twists and turns the imagination takes in the process of writing, one of the professors argues that taking pleasure in the process is fine for me, but what about the good of society as a whole. Don’t I owe something to my fellow citizens? Another student wants to know why I would want to be freed from my political convictions. Isn’t that self-indulgent?
We go back and forth like this, and I have the image of myself and the students balanced on a sheer cliff face, all of us trying to climb a little higher. Suddenly, I’m aware of how precarious our hand- and footholds are. In the United States, there’s a net underneath you, no matter how torn and unreliable it might seem. But in the Middle East, even in a relatively liberal country like Jordan, what happens if you fall? Do you plunge to your death like Nahed Hattar?
As we talk, we keep discovering minute footholds and finger-width seams that traverse the cliff face. There’s a sense of exhilaration in the room, despite the fact that the department head has begun to noticeably frown. He’s impatient for class to end so that we can go to lunch. Ruba tells me later that the professor wields an almost god-like authority in the classroom, and that most teachers don’t encourage this kind of informal exchange. But the students have been emboldened to ask questions, and so I keep on answering as best I can. It’s as if my presence has enabled the students to smash the usual decorums — not because of anything I say or am, but because I come from outside.
The head of the department decides enough is enough: he’s hungry and it’s time to go. He ends our session abruptly, but not before one young man protests, “Next time it would be good to leave more time so that everyone has a chance to ask their question.”
At lunch it so happens that I sit at a different table from the department head. The young professor who sits next to me looks a little wary, but then he begins to tell me how he taught the Qur’an and Greek mythology together. “Several of my students’ parents were greatly upset — Greek myths are false, they would say, and the Qur’an is true. Some couldn’t get over the fact that the Qur’an is not meant to be literature but a sacred text. I kept suggesting that they could have an aesthetic appreciation for the Qur’an also — but that disturbed some of the parents so much that I began to worry about what would happen if social media turned against me … I had to walk a very fine line — given how things are these days, I’m not sure I’d teach this course again. And I would never teach this kind of course in the university where I worked in Saudi Arabia. That would simply be impossible.”
Jafar, the vizier of Harun al-Rashid, is out hunting one morning when his dogs begin to chase after a white-footed gazelle. The gazelle leaps away and easily outraces the dogs, but just as it’s about to disappear into the desert, it slows down and turns and waits for the dogs to catch up. This happens so many times that the dogs grow too tired to keep in the chase and so one by one they lie down and pant in the shade of a boulder.
The gazelle approaches Jafar, but rather than shooting the animal, Jafar lifts his hand in greeting. The gazelle stands there staring at Jafar, and Jafar thinks he can discern the light of human understanding shining in the gazelle’s pupils, and so he says, “By Allah, are you a gazelle, or a creature of the world of the djinn, or a human being trapped in a beast’s hide? Speak to me if you can speak the language of men.”
When the gazelle opens its mouth as if to reply, rather than human words, Jafar hears the first notes of a song sung by the most beautiful voice he’s ever heard. But one of Jafar’s party who has been racing to catch up spots the gazelle at a standstill and, notching an arrow, he shoots the gazelle in the chest. With a look of outrage and disgust at how it has been betrayed, the gazelle’s eyes lock on Jafar’s eyes; and as it collapses on its knees just before it dies, it says accusingly, “Blood on you, Defender of the Faithful. Blood on you.”
In the old part of the city, next to the Husseini Mosque, the sidewalks under the shopping arcades are crowded with men and women selling anything they can: their merchandise is displayed on an old bedsheet or a blanket or simply laid out on the sidewalk. On one blanket, I see sunglasses, a white extension cord, a box of costume jewelry, various pronged chargers, a purple plastic hairbrush with some old hair still caught in the bristles, water-stained magazines, plastic cups, an ornate jar with a domed top, a money belt, a camera, a baby bottle with a madly smiling yellow bear on top, a toilet bowl float, a hand-held showerhead, a string of Christmas lights, a child’s fanny pack with three Disney princesses looking alluring, an electric toothbrush, a jar of “Hair Treatment Cream,” and blue nail polish.
I bow my head to the merchant and put my hand on my heart: “Salam alaikum.”
“Al-salam … British?” he asks. “Canadian?” The merchant introduces himself as Amar, and picks up the domed jar and offers it to me. He’s so skinny that his jeans are falling off him, but his gestures have a shy, courtly formality about them.
“New York,” I say.
He points to himself and says, “Amman.” He sweeps his arm to right and left to indicate everything surrounding us in the old part of the city, al-Balad: the hundreds of storefront shops in the soukh behind the twin minarets of the old Husseini mosque, and the arcades branching off of one another into the food and clothing market. He nods and says, “Welcome.”
In a storefront next door, a headless female dummy’s torso is suspended on a rope strung between a streetlamp and the shop roof. Dressed in a harem girl’s outfit covered in glittery red sequins, one strap slipped down over the shoulder to reveal a nipple-less breast, she sways back and forth in the light breeze from the little iron hook that’s been screwed into her sawed off neck.
All down the sidewalk one blanket after another is strewn with the same kind of merchandise as Amar’s. I’m reminded of the lawyer turned bookseller whom I met after a poetry reading at a cultural center. He’d salvaged much of his stock from a university library that was throwing out thousands of books to make space for new textbooks. Rather than display them on a blanket on the sidewalk, he placed them on the trunk, the hood, and the top of his old Mercedes. Every inch of the interior, except for the driver’s seat, was crammed with books. “I was in corporate law,” he said in perfect English, “a suit. I got tired of it and I decided to do this: I love books and I love to read. So I decided to make my car into a traveling bookstore. Now I go to rich and poor neighborhoods and sell my books. I try to get the younger kids hooked on books by starting them off with comics. My mission is to spread the love of reading. It used to be that when the police saw me setting up shop on the sidewalk in more expensive neighborhoods, they’d ask me where my license was because the sidewalk and the street belong to the government, and since they belong to the government, technically I’m required to have a license. But because my car is my private property, and I’m displaying my books on my car, now the police can’t stop me.”
In a miniature watercolor, an ifrit named Arghan Div carries in his claws a chest of armor. Ifrits are a sub-group of the family of the djinn, and are said to be enormous winged creatures made of fire. Arghan Div’s flaming eyes are slightly crossed, his orange skin is spotted all over like a leopard’s, and two grotesque white fangs jut from the sides of his jaws. He’s up to his chest in jostling waves, and holds the chest high above his head to keep the armor inside from getting wet as he hauls it to a waiting boat. He seems to be doing this at the behest of Hamza, the uncle of the Prophet, who sits on a throne on shore.
Holding a drawn sword up over his shoulder, one of Hamza’s soldiers leads a group of chained, nearly naked prisoners to prostrate themselves before him. Why the ifrit is carrying the chest, whether Hamza has made a deal with the ifrit, or if the ifrit — who is often thought of as a malevolent spirit — is doing this on a sudden whim of good nature, the painting doesn’t explain. But in the spirit of the miniature, in which war, domination, and the supernatural are inextricably woven together, here’s a tale that might be told about the little painting:
“Hamza,” says the ifrit, “you know that I am a fire spirit and that I could burn you up with a touch of my finger. If you want to live, you must tell me a story: if I like your story, I’ll carry your chest of armor to your fleet of ships and let you go in peace. But if I don’t, then I’ll burn you and your ships and your army to a cinder.”
Hamza smiles at the demon and says, “My friend, if you do that, what will you have accomplished? It’s easy for an ifrit to kill a man.”
“All the same, tell me a story.”
“All right, since you demand it. Once there was a prince who was attacked by pirates just as his ship left land. And so the prince jumps overboard and swims back to shore while the pirates chase after him. A woodcutter is out chopping wood, and when he sees the prince, the young man calls to him, ‘Sir, for the love of Allah, can you hide me from the pirates who are trying to kill me? I’ll give you enough gold to fill up not only your house, but all the houses of your neighbors.’
“‘Prince’ says the woodcutter, ‘I would help you even if you had not offered me a single dirham.’ And as the pirates chase after them, the woodcutter leads him back to his hovel, and hides him in a shed. But the pirates, in their rage to find the prince, cut the woodcutter down and leave him bleeding on his own doorstep. They set fire to the woodcutter’s house and are about to throw open the door to the shed, when the prince, utterly terrified now, climbs between two loose boards and runs into the forest, the pirates close behind him.
“But as he runs, he trips over a tree root and plunges down into an underground chamber, which closes after him, so that it seems to the pirates that the forest has swallowed him up whole. There in the chamber is a beautiful woman who has been captured by an ifrit. The prince and the woman fall in love at first sight and sleep with one another. But when the ifrit comes home, he is overwhelmed with jealousy and transforms the prince into an ape and turns him out into the forest to live with the other apes.
“One day, a princess is out riding with her servants in the forest, and the ape comes before her and says in a human voice, ‘Take pity on me, princess. I know I must look like a monster to you, who are so beautiful, but let me join your company and serve you.’ And so the princess, who is astonished by how well-spoken the ape is, allows him to accompany her back to the palace where, because of his manners, he becomes a great favorite with her father, the king.”
“Yes, yes,” interrupts the ifrit, “I know how this one ends. The princess possesses magical powers, and fights a pitched battle with the ifrit who enchanted the prince into the shape of an ape. The ifrit turns into a lion and the princess turns into a net, the ifrit turns into a knife but the princess turns into a spear, the ifrit turns into a club but the princess turns into a great fire and burns the club to cinders. Then she releases the prince from his enchantment, and he’s so handsome she immediately falls in love with him and they are married.”
“But I can assure you, Hamza, that’s not how it ended. What really happened is this: the young man and the woodcutter are both caught and killed by the pirates. Their blood soaks into the earth which gives birth to an ifrit who springs up to take on the murdered men’s shapes, or the shape of Satan, or the shape of a sandstorm that buries not only the pirates but an entire city.”
“In my opinion,” she said, “a value isn’t a value unless you live by it every day. Unless you live by it, it’s only a theory.”
In a corner of the community center, where about a hundred young adult Palestinians were gathered to discuss ethics, I saw chalked on a blackboard 2AL+6H20=2AL(OH)3+3h2 — the chemical notation for what happens when you combine aluminum atoms with water to produce hydrogen.
“So if you claim to be a religious person, but you don’t live according to the rules, then you can’t really said to be religious.” She was dressed in a hijab, and as she talked, her face lit up with the intensity of her convictions.
The older woman who was leading the discussion wrote on the chalkboard theory vs. practice and said, “Does everyone agree?” There was a general nodding of heads. “So let me ask this,” she said, “do you think that religion comes before values, or do our ethics shape religious practice?”
“Religion gives us our values,” said the young woman. “There are so many ways to act that unless you have religion, you’re only guessing between right and wrong.”
The leader turned to me and said, “Maybe our visitor would like to say something about this question?”
Perhaps she assumed I was secular since I was American, nor was she wrong. What came to mind, though, wasn’t so much an answer as a conundrum.
“When my father was dying, I had the choice: to tell him that he was dying, or to keep it from him. I chose to keep it from him. Now, my father was an honest man and believed in telling the truth. But he wasn’t a religious person at all. Does that mean that I betrayed my father’s values?”
The young woman began to nod vigorously and said, “Yes, absolutely: it’s not an easy thing to do, but if you’re a religious person, you must tell the truth.”
From the back of the room a heavyset young man said, “But what about his father? He didn’t want him to have to suffer not only his illness, but the knowledge that he would soon die from it. At least his father could still hope that he’d get better.” And he said to me, “I think you did the right thing. You may have lied, but you lied in the name of a higher value.”
But the young woman shook her head and said in an even more heated voice: “I think that we have to choose between our own personal values and the values of religion. Sometimes they are the same, but when they aren’t, you have to choose the values that God has given us.”
She had been a servant in her master’s house for many years, and one night as she stands at the window looking out into the narrow street, she overhears two beggars talking, both of whom appear blind.
“The master of the house will be going out to a banquet tonight. Yesterday, when we knocked on the door and they gave us money, I could see that the master is very rich. Tonight, when the master is out, we’ll come back and rob his house.”
The servant is surprised to discover that they aren’t blind, but instead of telling her master about their plot, she decides to trick them. “Masters,” she whispers, “I am the housekeeper. And I couldn’t help but overhear what you just said. If you will agree to take me away from this house, I will open the door for you myself so that no suspicion will be aroused among the neighbors.”
The thieves are surprised and are about to run away, but she says in a soothing voice, as she throws back the window and shows them her face, which is as beautiful as the rising moon, “Have no fear. Yesterday when you were here I felt my heart being conquered by you.”
When the thieves see her, they can’t resist her and agree to come back at night at the hour she appoints.
That night they come dressed in black, and each is consumed with love for her. They knock on the door, but she only opens it a crack and whispers to them, “One of you at a time must enter. It will be safer.” And so the first thief, bigger and crueler than the other one, shoves the smaller thief aside and enters the house. She shows him gold and silver and precious jewels, and the thief begins to put it all in a large bag. Suddenly, she takes him by the arm and says, “I hear a noise. One of the servants may have heard us! You must hide in this oil jar!” The thief is frightened and climbs into the jar which she seals shut.
Then she goes to the door and says to the other thief, “Come quickly and help us! There’s too much gold for us to carry by ourselves.” And so the second thief enters the house, but suddenly she cries out, “I hear a noise! Climb into this oil jar and hide! My master must have returned early!” So the thief climbs into the oil jar and she seals it shut also. Then she goes to the kitchen and begins to boil a cauldron of oil. When it’s scalding hot, she goes to each jar and whispers, “It’s safe now. I’ll open the jar and release you.” But instead she pours in the boiling oil and seals up the jars again. A moment later, when her master comes home, she tells him all that has happened and her master, who has long loved her for her goodness and her beauty, says to her, “I want you to be my wife: you have acted with such good judgment that my love for you can no longer be contained.” And the servant, who has long loved him also, allows her master to embrace her while the thieves howl and howl until they are silent.
If you were a Bedouin who lived on the east bank of the Jordan River before the ’67 War, you either worked for the government or joined the Army and police. But when that war was lost, almost a quarter of a million Palestinians fled to Jordan and the PLO began to use Jordan as a place to conduct raids into Israel. Eventually, King Hussein kicked out the PLO because they threatened to become a state within a state, though many Palestinians stayed.
But the fact that they’ve been in Jordan for 50 years, and are the majority of the population, still hasn’t changed things. Most all of the Army officers are still Bedouin, and most of the government bureaucrats are too. If you’re a soldier, you can shop at special stores with huge discounts, you don’t have to pay taxes, you’re given subsidies. But if you’re a Palestinian, you’re stuck with a 16 percent sales tax, and if you buy a car, you can pay up to a 200 percent tariff on it. (Mudar Zahran, Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2012, pp. 3-12).
In 1983, Palestinians who lived primarily in Jordan were issued yellow cards, while those who lived primarily in the Israeli-occupied West Bank were given green cards. But when King Hussein severed ties with the West Bank in 1988, the government enacted a new law redefining Jordanian/Palestinian citizenship. According to Anis Kassim, an international law expert in Jordan, green-card Palestinians went to bed on July 31, 1988, as Jordanian citizens, but woke up on August 1 as “Palestinian citizens” — but since there is no Palestinian homeland, they became stateless persons. I was told by a UN protection officer that currently sub-sub-officials in the ministry of the interior are revoking Palestinian citizenship on grounds nobody quite understands. But the sub-sub-officials maintain that it’s for the Palestinians own good. They don’t want Israel to get the idea that Jordanian citizenship means the Palestinians have given up their right of return. And if you’re a Syrian Palestinian, no matter if you’re in danger of being murdered by Assad, you’re refused entry to Jordan.
The Bedouin are worried about the Palestinians taking over Jordan and making it their homeland. The Palestinians and the Bedouin are worried about the Syrians taking their jobs. Everyone is worried about Israel. The government and the Army keep the Bedouin loyal by paying their salaries, but the Bedouin are getting nervous and putting more and more pressure on the King to keep giving them a bigger piece of the pie. The more pressure the Palestinians put on the King to stop discrimination, the more the Bedouin push for economic concessions. The oft-quoted Bedouin proverb — “I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, my brother and I and our cousin against our neighbors, all of us against the foreigner” — has been turned on its head by King Abdullah II. By keeping his distance from his own government ministers, whom he replaces at will, he tries to make it seem that he is for everyone and against no one. So even though he is ultimately responsible for the imprisonment, if not the murder, of Nahed Hattar, a year earlier you can see him in a photo op, staunchly linking arms with other world leaders as he marches down the Champs-Élysées in support of Charlie Hebdo. By a similarly perverse logic, his government’s way of being for you if you’re a Palestinian is to discriminate against you as a way to encourage you to want to return to a place where there is no place for you to return to.
The city is carved out of sandstone. You can only approach it through a mile-long slot canyon. Because of the wars that surround Jordan, no one comes to Petra anymore. The tour guides stand around with nothing to do. No one climbs on the camels to have their picture taken. The stray cats that slide in and out of the tables in the little outdoor cafe are skin and bones, barely moving from under your feet when you sit down in the faded plastic chairs. The sandstone pillars that brace what has been dubbed the Treasury — really, a tomb with a huge central chamber carved out of the cliff — look three hundred feet tall. This is the focal point of Petra, an ancient Nabataean city abandoned several hundred years ago, which was known only to local Bedouin tribesmen for centuries. Bedouin used to live among the ruins, but the government decided to develop Petra as a tourist attraction and they were “resettled” — that is, they were forcibly removed to nearby towns. Just a few years ago, as many as 3,000 people a day visited Petra. But the city is nothing but a vast sepulcher. The houses of the living were built out of wood and other perishable materials and vanished centuries ago. Tombs line the narrow gorge that winds its way through the canyon. Carved in relief into each of the tomb facades is a set of ascending steps that lead to a landing. And from that landing is another identical set of stairs, only these descend back to the ground. I was told by a guide that the ascending stairs are the pathway that you climb from the world of the dead into the world of the living, and that the descending stairs lead from the world of the living back to the dead.
As I climbed up the cliffs to the top of the canyon, the winter desert weather was clear and cold, and I could see for miles around — toward Israel, and the wars in Iraq and Syria. The abandoned tombs reminded me of a town I had visited in Syria before the war: Quneitra. In the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel seized the town from Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar al-Assad, and the entire population was expelled. When the Israelis finally withdrew in 1973, they stripped the town clean, right down to the doorknobs, and loaded everything into trucks to sell to Israeli contractors.
On top of the cliff, I could hear a flute playing a little three-note tune: it turned out to be a Bedouin woman who was selling plastic key chains as well as miniature plastic replicas of the Treasury. As she played, she danced a little hopping dance, circling round and round. It certainly didn’t look traditional, as if she were improvising her own dance steps on top of the cliff looking out over the desert and the barren mountains, with the sun diffusing behind a light haze. The notes went up the scale, then down, then got repeated at random over and over. As I listened, I noticed that at the very edge of the cliff, she and her family had built a shed out of scrounged wood and plastic tarps: smoke from a cooking fire wafted up and vanished into the haze as someone behind the tarp made tea.
At one of the readings I participated in, I talked about my visit to Quneitra in 2007, and how Petra seemed like a sister city, though five hundred years distant. Both were abandoned and both persisted despite the violence they’d been subjected to: Israeli machine guns and tanks, and a major earthquake that had caused a deadly drought. And then I read the poem:
Whatever you do, there are rockets falling,
and after the rockets, smoke climbing
up through walls that are exploding.
Trees grow up where there once were people, weeds
take over beds of lettuces and coddled flowers,
uprearing mole hills unpopulate the fields.
The bricked-in hours of the human have all been knocked down.
No one lingers at lipstick counters, no one
stares into a screen to escape the digital mayhem
of heroes hurdling over the heads of monsters.
The old bones on the mountain that stand upright
and shake when winds blow up from the shore,
old bones that shake when the winds roar
now dangle in the void of an unknown dimension.
Forget all this, says Earth to the stars.
Afterward, a young woman came up to me and said that the poem meant more than I could ever know to the people assembled. As we talked, the memory of the mile-long avenue of tombs that I’d seen from the cliff top, their pediments and columns still looking freshly carved, gave way to the image of Maysara dipping a huge ladle into a vat of sugar water and spreading the sweet liquid over the hot kanafeh. I thought of the caves hollowed out of the soft cliff face across from the Roman theater in downtown Amman, of the wide showcase highways that cut through the city’s heart, and of the ancient King’s Highway, a caravan route that had in modern times been a central artery running north to south the entire length of Jordan, but was now a potholed path that went mainly through back country. I thought of the refugees dispersed throughout Amman, of cities like Daraa that had been bombed to rubble. But most of all, I heard the little tune played on the plastic flute, shrill, aimless, not in the least bit beautiful, but strangely right in its piercing atonality. It would be a long time before I could get it out of my head.
Tom Sleigh teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn.