Sunday, March 09, 2008


I can’t even begin to pretend that I’m going to write here regularly, but I actually have time to kill for once so I figure what the hell.

I’m back in the US for a week to so to attend a conference. After a marathon trip of roughly 35 hours, I arrived in Davis, California. Davis is a quintessential American small town. Having lived in Jordan for more than 4 years 7 months and 15 days (but who’s counting) some things about small town America really stand out.

  1. There is grass everywhere. It is green. It is long and it is short, but it is everywhere. You can walk on it and not feel guilty that you might kill it. It is a weed that you can’t kill even if you want to.
  2. There is more color.
  3. You hear song birds everywhere.
  4. Streets have lines on them, and people driving cars pay attention to them.
  5. Streets have lines on them, and people walking pay attention to them.
  6. There are designated “bike” lanes, and all people pay attention to them.
  7. People cross roads at designated “crossing” areas.
  8. People don’t walk on the road, they walk on sidewalks.
  9. Cars wait for people to cross the road. This sometimes leads to total paralyzation of all movement at an intersection, especially when drivers encounter people who are used to darting across the road at any random place, comfortable that 5 inches between the human body and a moving car is room to spare.
  10. I think someone yelled at me for crossing an intersection when the light was red and the “do not walk” sign was flashing.
  11. People wear shorts. Girls wear shorts more often. Girls wear low cut shirts that show large amounts of cleavage. People living here don’t seem to notice this. People who’ve spent a lot of time in countries where most women don’t even show their hair do.
  12. People are generally fatter.
  13. People are so polite I want to kill them.
  14. You can drink the tap water.
  15. There are many bookstores, with an enormous variety of books.
  16. It looks like every other little town across America, with most of the same exact stores. It could be the small town on the east coast I grew up in over 3500 miles away.
  17. Nobody smokes. The only person other than me that I’ve seen smoking was a homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk outside the liquor store. I’m not joking.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Independence from Mecca

Since my last post I've changed jobs and in some ways it feels I've changed lives. Although I'm now heading a single program team that is twice the size of the entire office I used to work in, I'm out in the field a lot more and have a lot more direct contact with local communities. It's very cool.

A lot of our work is in East Amman, which is basically seen as "the other half" of Amman. I've lived in Jordan for more than four years now. I've driven through East Amman a lot, to get a better feel for the entirety of the city, but now I have real contact with this less developed part of the city.

One of the things I've recently found is the new Istiklal, or "Independence" Mall in Nuzha. Malls in Jordan are a relatively new phenomenon. There are only a couple of real malls there, and they are all in the richer West Amman. They cater more to Gulf Arabs who come to Jordan in the summer for relief from the unbelievably oppressive heat of the summer. These malls are full of designer stores with prices that almost no one in the country can possibly afford. They are also some of the few public spaces in Amman where you can go and walk around and sit and do some real people watching. Some people may make their lives there, but for a lot of people from East Amman it is a special occaision to take the family out. During holiday seasons the malls will often not even let in young single men, out of concern that they will harrass the legions of young upper class single women making their weekly shopping pilgrimage.

The Istiklal mall, in poorer East Amman, is different. It has stores where regular people might actually be able to buy things. It looks a lot more like an average American mall than any of the other high class malls of Amman. You don't feel like you should dress up in your best clothes and take a shower to go there. It's just a place to go and shop. It is suprisingly normal for fasion and image-conscious Amman. It still looks incredibly out of place in the run-down neighborhood of Nuzha, but it's a real step towards addressing a market that is hardly ever recognized in Jordan.

On some levels I hate the idea of malls. They totally destroy the small mom-and-pop stores that are often the bedrock of emerging middle classes. But it's a real pain to go to 15 different stores to try and find something decent to wear. A mall let's you scan a few isles, catch a big variety os styles, colors and prices, and do some seriously stratregic shopping. Most of my clothes come from downtown, Jabal Husssein, or the US when i manage to visit there. I definately can't afford to shop at Mecca Mall or Abdoun Mall. I'll still go there for Prime Mega Store, with excellent books and music, but for actual shopping, I think it's going to be Istiklal.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Building Walls

In conflict resolution work you often hear of societal connectors and dividers.

Connectors are relationships, institutions, networks and other things that allow or promote interaction between different groups. These might be national unions, sports clubs, mixed neighborhoods, and anything else that lets people connect.

Dividers are things that do the opposite. They might be ethnically or racially seperated institutions, like clubs or schools, structural issues as political access and marginalization, or divided neighborhoods, for example.

In peace work you try to strengthen and expand the connectors, and reduce or eliminate the dividers. Walls are, without exception, dividers.

During the Irish civil war, especially during the time of "The Troubles", youth from the Catholic and Protestant communities of Belfast would often riot against each other. Someone had the brilliant idea of building "peace walls" to seperate the communities, and stop the youth from provoking each other or attacking the other community. The walls failed to stop the violence, and only deepened the animosity and isolation of these two communities from each other.

A few years ago Israel applied the same logic the the Occupied Territories, building a "security wall", ostensibly to stop suicide bombers, but much more for the purposes of defining the acceptable borders of Israel. The result has been ever greater isolation of Palestinians and Israelis, with some Palestinian villages and towns completely surrounded by a 14 meter high wall of concrete.

Now the US, in its wisdom, is applying the wall logic in Iraq, surrounding the Sunni majority district of al-Adhamiya in Bagdad with a large concrete wall, for "the protection" of the residents of this city. As Reuters reports, "Many residents in Adhamiya, a Sunni Arab area surrounded on three sides by Shi'ite communities, had complained bitterly that the concrete barriers of the 5-km (3-mile) wall would isolate them from other communities and sharpen sectarian tensions."

Despite the vicious sectarian killing that's going on in Iraq, Iraqis, by-and-large, still see themselves and act like a mixed society. In Baghdad some Shia and Sunni families are even "swapping" houses as various neighborhoods are cleansed by militias and militants. The residents of al-Adhamiya rightly refused to be penned in with concrete, and many Shia joined them in denouncing the wall. Now the Maliki government has ordered construction of the wall halted, leading some Sunni residents of al-Adhamiya to rethink their belief that Maliki and his government are intent on oppressing them, as the New York Times reports.
This is a good sign that the connectors in Iraq still outweigh the dividers, and most Iraqis don't want any more dividers. Unfortunately the US doesn't necessarily agree. Aljazeera reports that, "the new U.S. ambassador to Baghdad defended the thinking behind the Adhamiya wall.
Ryan Crocker said the U.S. would "obviously... respect the wishes of the government and the prime minister" regarding the Adhamiya wall, but added that building the barrier made "sound security sense".
US officials have stopped short of saying that construction of the wall will be permanently halted, and there are another 10 communities in Baghad that are slated to also become, "gated communties."

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Which way you gonna go?

The Middle East, and maybe the world, suffers from a kind of schizophrenia. This picture below epitomizes two major visions driving people in the region.

On the left side you have icons of modern Arab pop culture, such as Amr Diab, Tamer Hosny and Nancy Ajram. On the right you have Nasrallah and the symbols of Hizbollah. The thing is that these symbols and icons are often not contradictory, in that people frequently incorporate both into their beliefs and identity.

In many ways these icons are polar opposites. The pop music and video industry trades in images of a life most people can never live, of fast cars, big houses, sexy women and stylish men. The videos and stars are often accused of corrupting the minds of the society, much like the Christian right in the US says. The Nasrallah and Hizbollah images trade in the culture of resistance, pride and violence. It probably respresents a reality that people here experience much more directly, because even those who don't live under occupation, feel profoundly and directly affected by it. Christians in Lebanon will praise Nasrallah. Secular Sunni women in Syria will have Hizbollah key chains clipped on their purses.

It is much like the modern form of hijab, or the head scarf, that predominates much of the Middle East. So many girls who cover their heads, then also wear as much make-up as Tammy Fae Baker with pants, shirts or skirts as tight as you could imagine. They are doing the absolute minimum society expects of "good girls", while wearing as little or as tight as they can get away with. They want to live and look like Nancy Ajram, but still be respected by Nasrallah.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

A day in Syria

There is no doubt that Syria is still a police state. Joshua Landis has a good post today on how the government treats Kurds in Syria, and you can find numerous reports of other ways the government abuses the human rights of its citizens. But be that as it may, there are forces inside the government who are trying to find ways to allow more room for its citizens to organize and open up more to the outside world. It was never Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and nor is it Hafez al-Asad's Syria.

I won't belabor the rights issue here, not because it isn't important, but because others have done so much more effectively. I'm just going to talk about what I saw while I was there. So again, yes it is a police state, and yes there is torture, and yes they host and support groups like Hamas, Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad. But the country is much more diverse than the simple stereotypes most people already know from the news, and Syrians themselves deserve a much better exposition of what their country is really like.

Syria is in many ways much like any other country. It has regular people who are just trying to make a living and raise a family. Although the political opening that many Syrians hoped for when Bashar Asad took power from his father never materialized, there has been more promising developments on the economic front. The economic liberalization has largely benefited a few elite families, there is no doubt that others are doing better too, as evidenced by the large number of designer stores, sharp restaurants and the gleaming new Four Seasons hotel.

There is no end to the historical and cultural places you can visit, and just wandering the streets of Old Damascus, Baramka, Abu Rummaneh, Sha'lan and al-Maliki is pleasent enough in itself. Here's a video of a busy corner in Abu Rummaneh to give you a sense of the place. I hope to figure out how to embed these videos soon, but until then you'll have to just follow the link if you want to watch.

Some of the more interesting things I stumbled upon was a institute for teaching arts at the Ministry of Culture. The ministry building is actually really nice, done in a somewhat artistic style! I saw a couple people wandering around inside, so I walked in and started looking at the architecture. I heard bits and pieces of piano music coming from one of the window, and as I got closer started to hear voices. It seemed like there were a lot of people inside so I figured I’d go see if anything was happening.

Sure enough, when I got to the entrance the place was full of people. I tried to ask the guard what was going on, but he assumed I was talking something other than Arabic, so he asked a guy standing there to find out what I wanted. The guy started speaking in somewhat broken English, and then baby Arabic. I was like, just speak normally, but he clearly wanted to practice his English so I entertained him for a while.

Anyway, turns out this was some kind of advanced arts institute, and the fourth year students were giving the final performance of the year, a play by a Russian playwrite called the Qirmizi Island? The guy's name was too long to remember. Anyway, a couple of the second and third year students befriended me and so I joined them to watch their friends perform. The play was decent, about a theatre troupe trying to put on a play in the Soviet Union, and the fear and power of the censor at the Ministry of Oversight, or something. It was pretty good and I saw it as in part a veiled critique of the Syrian government itself, which was suprising to me.

That's all I've got time for today. I'll send some other updates as soon as I can.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Coming to Syria

Syria has changed in the past 15 years. Last time I was here was 1993, and there is a noticeable difference, at least on a superficial level. As I’m here for only a few days, and most of that will be work related, my impressions will have to be superficial, but you can really feel a difference here.

The change is most apparent at the border. When I used to come the customs people were rough, rude and generally unhelpful. They fit perfectly the stereotype of what you would expect from employees of a police state. This time people smiled, joked and talked. In some offices they have music videos playing, with Nancy Ajram, Haifa, and Elisa singing and shaking as you change money or buy the ever present stamps that let you do whatever official business you have to do. No wonder these customs guys are happier.

What is with the magical stamp business in Arab countries anyway? For any official document you want processed you have to go to a little kiosk to buy stamps. Stamps are the oil on which Arab bureaucracy seems to run. Anyway it couldn’t have taken more than 20 minutes to get through the border this time, whereas in the past it seemed to take hours.

Both the Jordanian and Syrian side of the border now also have beautiful duty free shops! I don’t even think there was a duty free store in Syria before. Maybe there was, but it was so insignificant that I forgot it completely. But now it is like a huge department store, with the latest tvs, phones, appliances, designer clothes and watches. It seems that consumer society has crept into the Syrian state too. This seems to hold true somewhat for Damascus too. I think all they used to have is old Soviet-bloc style consumer goods and stores. It seems there’s a lot more variety and better quality cars and goods in Syria these days. Bashar’s economic reforms seem to be having at least some effect.

Another thing I quickly noticed is that the omnipresent pictures of Hafez al-Asad, Syria’s former president, have for the most part not been replaced by pictures of the current president, Bashar. Arab states are also known for displaying pictures of the leader in every office official building. Syria used to take this practice to an extreme. The man’s pictures were everywhere. It was oppressive. I swear. You really felt you were in a “big brother” type police state when you entered. The leader was everywhere, glowering down at you, watching you, even knowing what you thought. Bashar’s pictures are there, as are some of Hafez’s. But it’s nothing compared to how Hafez was EVERYWHERE. Bashar is there now too, but not even as much as King Abdullah's picture is in Jordan. Bashar clearly is trying to downplay the leader-worship thing.

In the center of the city another thing you quickly notice is the enormous Four Season’s hotel. Syria used to have a couple of nice hotels, but they were run like a Soviet bureaucracy too. The facilities were less then impressive and the staff also rude and unhelpful. Not that I’m staying at the Four Seasons! My employer doesn’t pay for that kind of spoiling. The neighboring streets also seem to have changed. There are numerous little stylish restaurants and cafes to go to, filled with legions of sharp and well-dressed youth of Syria’s middle class. I'm sitting in a pretty cool little cafe, with Green Day playing while I work on wireless internet. I don’t remember there being many such places before.

So again, these changes may be pretty superficial, and part of it may be because I’ve changed. When I came here before I was a student, and would go stay in flea-bag hotels and visit the historic sites I had read about during my studies. I’ve done the five-dollar a night transient worker hotel thing and I’m just not there anymore. I like to have clean sheets and don’t want to get dysentery from eating from street carts anymore. It’s really not so much fun.

But I think it’s more that some things have changed in Syria. For sure some things have not changed, and I’ll post more about that later. But at least on some levels it seems more open and modern then when I last came, and felt the ever present eyes of the state watching me. I don't doubt they're still there watching, but they take breaks to watch Haifa every once in a while.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


Ha ha!! I looked at my old posts and saw I had all kinds of comments I never read. I thought, "wow, people started looking at my posts, I've got fans I didn't respond to!" Turns out most of them are spam advertisements.

That never seemed to happen before, so I have to wonder if it's because I've written some posts that are mildly critical of the US and Israel. Such harrasment by their most ardent supporters comes with the territory, which is why I'm suspicious. It's no fun dealing with Middle East political issues sometimes. You feel like you have to watch every word you say for how it will be parsed by some asshole who happens to be offended and then used against you to destroy your reputation and job prospects at some future date. And then there's the routine harrasment of hate mail. They try to chase critics from the feild so they can monopolize the discussion.

So I've now restricted comments to only registered members until I can figure out how to moderate comments.

I'm back

For some reason I'm reinspired to start writing again. Maybe it's because I no longer have a car 24/7. It's amazing how much difference walking around a city can make. I used to basically drive my car to work in the morning, sit at my desk almost all day and drive home. That doesn't leave a hell of a lot to write about.
It's kind of good to be out of the car, it somehow puts me more into the flow of life around me. I talk to a lot more people and notice a lot more things happening around the city. Just the other day I rode in a taxi with a guy who was reading and memorizing Quran as he drove! We got into an interesting conversation about religion, with him trying to convince me to be a more committed Muslim and me trying to convince him to get his head out of the clouds and lighten up. I haven't had one of these conversations in a long time. I got tired of them a long time ago and generally have tried to avoid them as often as possible. But this guy was interesting, and at least I could see him thinking about what I said, which is more than most of these kinds of guys do.
He was a total stereotype of a modern "Islamist". Up until 5 years ago he didn't even pray. Now he reads Quran as he drives, prays every prayer in the mosque and spends the first three hours of the day memorizing Quran in the mosque. I guess that's admirable on some level, but I know the type. They're looking for answers, they get cornored by these religious fundamentalist types who give them all the answers they're looking for and draw people into a brainless cult-like group of people who do nothing but think about religion all day. He should spend that three hours a day with his kids instead. When we were arguing about the difference between "people of the book", basically Christians and Jews, and "deniers" or kuffar, he called his friend to help him remember why people of the book are considered kuffar. I told him he shouldn't rely on his friends for answers but use his brain instead. That didn't go over so well.
Anyway, it's been about six months since I've posted anything here. There's lots of reasons for that, not least of which is I just got way too busy. Another is that I didn't really like my own blog. It was too dry and there is better analysis on the web anyway, so why would anyone want to read it. So now I'm just going to write about what I see around me more, without trying to think to much about it, because oftentimes thinking is just way over rated.