Ay-Rabs and Mohammaden

11 JUNE 2004

My parents recently paid me a visit in Jordan.  When I first proposed such a trip—selling it as the adventure of a lifetime--they were reluctant.  Like most everyone else in America, their impression of the Middle East was a homogenous and negative one.  To most of my countrymen, the entire swath of land from Marrakech to Mosul is one giant wall of fire, populated by AK-47 toting, suicide bomb vest wearing, rag-head Islamic fundamentalists.  This impression was crafted by years of carefully selected morning newspaper photos and evening TV broadcasts that depicted every Arab as a rabid nut-job hell-bent (or heaven-bent) on maiming or murdering every decent white Christian out there.  I think it is the editorial policy of certain New York newspapers to ensure that every Arab pictured be carrying a firearm.  (“Note to staff:  If burning of American flag photo is absolutely unavailable, find one with Kalashnikov and ski mask.  Do try hard to get burning flag photo though.”)  Over the past 40 years, the Arab-as-terrorist stereotype has replaced the former one of Arab-as-desert wanderer.  “Where there’s an Arab, there’s a camel,” an old Iraqi man told me when describing the American cinema with which he’d grown up.

Stereotypes are easy to understand.  Up until recently, Americans haven’t had much interaction with Arabs.  Danny Thomas and Jamie Farr were about it.  (Every American knows the Ayatollah Khomeini, but I’d bet good money that nine out of ten of us don’t realize that Iranians aren’t Arabs.)  The Arabic language is seemingly impenetrable, and there is no Falafel Bell or Kentucky Fried Couscous chain at which to regularly dine.  And Islam?  I doubt the average resident of the U.S. has ever even seen a mosque.  I think I’d seen only one in my whole life before deploying to Iraq.  Most Americans probably have no idea that Muslims honor the Virgin Mary or that they believe Jesus was a prophet who will return to lead the army of the righteous at the end of the world or that hundreds of them pray every day before the tomb of John the Baptist inside the Umayyad mosque in Damascus. We just don’t have that much experience with these guys, and, as is human nature, we don’t like what we don’t know.

“Now be honest with me Jimmy,” my mother said a week before they were due to fly out from DIA, “Are you absolutely sure we’ll be safe?”  I could tell by her voice that she was probably imagining bearded madmen with scimitars and Molotov cocktails hunting ravenously for helpless Americans they could abduct and sell into white slavery.  The streets of Amman would certainly be unpaved, populated with leering swarthy thieves, and festooned with wicker baskets containing evil, well-trained monkeys who would pop out and steel your jewelry in an instant. 

But just as reports widely accepted by folks on the East Coast that the sidewalks of Denver were made of wooden planks until the early 1980s were highly exaggerated, the reality of Amman is quite different from the popular conception.

The glass and steel towers of Jordan’s capital city surprised my parents.  As did the clean streets and brand new European cars.  The attractive and highly fashionable women and men wearing DKNY and Armani were a surprise, too.  Where are all the camels?  Where are the Bedouin warriors?  In an effort to keep the modern tourist from becoming completely disappointed, most of the luxury hotels here have their English-speaking bellhops wear the traditional headdress and robe.  It smacks more of a Medieval Times theme approach than anything close to modern reality.

I showed my parents all over the place.  The Roman ruins of Jerash and the Nabatean tombs of Petra.  Lot’s wife, the blue waters of Aqaba, and the sweeping desert of Wadi Rum.  They floated atop the Dead Sea and plunged down under the Jordan River at the place where Jesus did the same 2000 years before.  They had a blast.  In Amman, I drove them past million dollar, mission-style homes and pointed out the fabulous Mecca Mall, a place that puts Park Meadows to shame.  (Sorry, no larcenous monkeys in baskets here.)   Wherever we went, we were greeted with pleasant smiles and very polite “sirs” and “ma’ams”. 

Only in Israel were we tense.  The stern immigration officials, dishonest Russian taxi drivers, and rude soldiers at various checkpoints left us all very disenchanted.  Coming back from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the Israeli soldiers made us wait for nearly a half hour in a line of only five people, while they casually smoked cigarettes and joked amongst themselves, sneering and roughly gesturing “next” when the spirit moved them.  It was the same treatment trying to get back to Jordan.   “Whew!” my dad said with relief as we crossed the river separating the two countries.  “It’s good to be home,” I said with surprising sincerity.

It was late afternoon as we rode back to Amman from the border in a hired car along a scenic, winding mountain road.  Our driver was a quiet, genteel, and extremely considerate Palestinian-born man named Mohammed.  My mother’s face was relaxed and illuminated by the sun that was descending behind the verdant Jordan Valley.  My dad, surveying the land around him and reflecting on the people we’d met during their week-long visit remarked, “I could live here.”

Two down.  290,000,000 to go.