Today I plan to spend the day writing. My writing has fallen several days behind the present, partly because of my compulsion to detail and partly due to spending excessive amounts of time researching things like coffee. In a way I’ve come to dread eventful days because they can take days to write, during which even more events typically happen. The whole process feels sisyphean at times. It’s alright though because today I’m going to do some catch-up. Upon entering the ADT offices I bypass Akram’s office and head straight to my desk in the back. What I find waiting for me wrecks everything I had planned in my head.
Two young boys are sitting by my desk, swinging their legs back and forth and staring into space. We lock eyes and hit a total social impasse. Neither party know who the other is or why they’re here nor has any means of communicating. I wave kinda and bide my time by pretending to be looking for something in the room. Akram suddenly appears and saves the day. “Hey buddy!” he says, patting my shoulder, “These are my sons, Shaheen and Nizar.” Shaheen is twelve years old, and looks like he came straight out of Leave it to Beaver, with the combed-back hair, the button-up shirt and the final flickers of pre-pubescent innocence in his eyes. His skin is a bit more olive-toned than Jerry Mathers’ though. Nizar is eight. He still has his chubby baby face and Michelin Man fingers. He also still has that characteristic of toddlers where it seems like they can scan your soul just by looking at you. Akram ushers them out of the room and I sit down at the desk to get that writing done.
I sit there for a few minutes with my cheek squished against my closed fist. I’ve got “Today I” written but I’m struggling with the next step. I glance up and see Nizar doing the aforementioned soul-scanning on me. I smile at him and he silently walks out of the room. I know he’ll be back. I’m novel, I know their dad, and I’m at peak “cool” age for a young boy. Whether or not I actually am cool is a completely separate issue, so I google “what to do with young boys”. The results are amazingly useless. They include making lemonade icecubes, playing with “rice trays,” board game boxes filled with uncooked rice(?), and crafting homemade maracas. They seem like activities that allow moms to be amused in the presence of boys rather than amuse boys. I hear approaching pitter-patter, so I look around for some last second inspiration. The only things around me are office supplies, but nothing that … Ahah!
Shaheen and Nizar come up to my desk and stare at me The Shining-style. I have three pieces of printer paper laid before me on the desk. “Do you know how to make paper airplanes?” They don’t respond but they take seats across from me. I pull up a “how to make paper airplanes” website. This works perfectly. The visual instructions are just difficult enough to follow that the boys make a lot of mistakes but I don’t, which allows for a lot of wordless communication. When one of them does a fold incorrectly I can tap their hand, wag my finger and demonstrate the correct procedure. I tend to narrate these movements in English, knowing full well that they don’t understand me, but it comes out on its own.
Our first airplanes are constructed. Having once spent more than decade as a young boy I know how to get them on one’s side, and that’s by letting them break the rules. While there is probably no rule specifically prohibiting people from tossing paper airplanes off the front balcony of this office building, it feels like something that a reasonable adult would tell you to stop doing if they saw it. I lead the boys over to the balcony, playing up the transgressive element with histrionic tip-toeing and by putting my finger to my lips. The balcony looks out over a line of dense traffic so, not being a psycho who would risk causing an accident to win some brownie points with a couple of children, I get the three of us to throw our airplanes parallel to the building and into the narrow parking lot directly below us. Even though I designed this exercise to amuse the boys, I can’t help but feel the thrill myself when one of the airplanes bonks into an expensive car or whizzes right past some lady’s head. All three of us are hooked. We rush back to the office and whip up another set of paper airplanes. We throw them over and over again until they litter the parking lot. I start to worry that the boys will tire of this soon but their enthusiasm shows no sign of waning. Too bad, mine kind of is. Kids are supposed to have shorter attention spans than adults, but I think that must be relative to the object of attention and whether it appeals more to kids or to adults. They may not have the attention span to write 15,680 words worth of blog posts, but they’ve got me beat with throwing paper airplanes.
Per usual, it’s Akram to the rescue. He appears in the doorway with a workman behind him. The workman holds one of our battered airplanes in his hand. “He caught you,” Akram says, grinning through his cigarette. This is the ideal. Akram isn’t angry but he’s terminated the airplaning. The problem is what I do with the boys now. After Akram leaves they stay behind and look at me expectantly. Some sort of imprinting has taken place and I’ve become their de facto babysitter for the rest of the day. I don’t have the slightest clue what to do with them.
I come under the auspice of an unlikely savior: the fidget spinner. I’ve been peripherally aware of these things for a few months. I didn’t know what they were but I didn’t care enough to find out. Now I see their incredible power. In case you’re not in the know, a fidget spinner is a toy for children and self-infantilizing adults. They’re triangular in shape and about 3 inches wide. There’s a circle of plastic in the center of the fidget spinner that you hold between your thumb and one of your fingers. Three congruent blades protrude from this circle like on a fan. The only function of the fidget spinner is that you can flick these blades and they’ll spin around and make a buzzing sound. For whatever reason this taps into a of glitch of the developing mind. Kids, at least these two kids, derive seemingly endless amusement from it. It’s odd that, despite the fact that we’ve had the technology to make these things for at least two hundred and fifty years, they’ve only caught on recently. My guess is that it’s because they derive their appeal from an environment that’s both mentally hyper-stimulating and physically stultifying for children and, again, self-infantilizing adults. Shaheen, Nizar and I spend the next hour or so just flicking these things and putting them on our faces and elbows. It's fun at first, but soon it's way more boring than the paper airplanes, but it’s too late to return to that.
While playing with the fidget spinners I discover that Shaheen is highly intelligent. He’s twelve, but his English is already good enough that we can communicate almost everything we want to to each other. He can even read some English. Shaheen and Nizar teach me Arabic words like “afwan” for “you’re welcome”, “na’am” for “yes”, “la” for “no”, “biss” for “cat”, “kalb” for “dog” (if these look wrong to you it may be because you are familiar with a different dialect of Arabic, or maybe these kids were messing with me). It’s surprisingly fun to get schooled by children, even, if not especially, when they laugh at my mispronunciations. They teach more Arabic than anyone else, including Arabic for Dummies.
Akram calls us into the office and we eat an enormous lunch of mansaf together. This does a number on everyone’s insulin systems, Nizar falls asleep in his chair and I’m left with fluttering eyelids for the rest of the day, everyone except for Shaheen that is. Shaheen gets on my laptop and goes to a gaming website. In a panic I snatch it away from him and clear my search history before returning it to him. Shaheen is really enthusiastic about the internet games. He shouts and sings and bounces up and down in his chair whenever he beats a level. I sit across from him downloading the photos I’ve taken onto Mahmoud’s computer while exerting great effort to stay awake.
Shaheen invites me over to play with him. The game he’s playing is extremely easy for me and not for him, which wins me even more cool guy points. Nizar wanders somnambulistically into the room. I offer for him to play with us but he elects instead to resume flicking his fidget spinner.
It’s getting close to 6:30, and as much as I like these kids I also need to get some work done and it looks as though that’s only going to happen at home. I tell Akram I’m leaving and then go to say goodbye to his kids. I really do like them, and just waving to them or shaking their hands would be too cold and inexpressive. However, as I’ve said, I’m from New England, so no one ever taught me how to express any emotions other than acquiescence or indignation, so when I go to either hug, pat the heads of, or pat the shoulders of these kids I end up doing a botched synthesis of all of the above. I don’t really know how to describe it. As I head for the door I just hope that Shaheen and Nizar thought that was some American custom and not the random mishap of an awkward young adult.
Mahmoud made two suggestions for things I could write about. The first was mansaf and the second was how he is a crazy driver. Mansaf deserves its own miscellaneous note, so here I’m going to restrict myself to the latter topic. While it’s true that if Mahmoud were a driver in the United States he would be regarded as a dangerous maniac and likely end up doing jail time, in Amman he’s not even one standard deviation from of the norm. For example, once when I was in the car with Mahmoud he cut diagonally across three lanes of moving traffic without signalling in order to make an illegal u-turn on a red light while there was oncoming traffic in the lane he was making the u-turn into. But again, he’s in good company in Amman. People rarely signal here and I’ve yet to discern any pattern concerning the times that they do. None of the cars I’ve ridden in have had seatbelt buckles in their backseats, and I’m the only person I’ve seen who’s made use of the ones in the front seats. And extreme driving antics like Mahmoud’s are common. One time I saw a man driving with two children sitting in his lap. When Mahmoud drove me back from the airport the first night we passed a truck driving in the space between the leftmost lane and the traffic barrier. Ironically, the one thing I think is safer about traffic in Amman than in the states is crossing the street. In the States you depend on the driver to stop at the crosswalk. If you have a drunk or distracted driver you can easily get mowed down. In Amman, however, the onus is on the pedestrian to pay attention to the traffic. The pedestrian’s assumption is that the car is not going to stop, so even if the driver is drunk or distracted and doesn’t see you it doesn’t matter because you're looking and reacting.
I did some research to see whether crossing the street is safer in the United States or Jordan. The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, which is funded by the US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, reported that there were 70,000 pedestrian injuries in the United States in 2015. The Jordan Ministry of Transported reported that a pedestrian accident occurred in Jordan every 2.28 hours in 2014. If you multiply that out that’s 3842 pedestrian accidents in 2014. If you divide those two numbers by their countries’ respective populations in their respective years you get ~0.0002 for the US and ~0.0004 for Jordan. Now this isn’t quite precise both because the years are different and because these are just raw numbers that don’t say what factors produced them. Nonetheless, because the number is approximately twice as much for Jordan, I think this refutes my above hypothesis that street crossing is safer in Jordan than in the States. In fact, now I feel a little silly for even thinking that.
Today ADT enters into full-on renovation mode. The teams of workmen for the lights, the windows and the bathroom have arrived. My job is to document their work and put together a powerpoint to present at the grand opening (before such luminaries as my bosses, crucial donors for both the Polus Center and ADT and a royal/descendant of Muhammad). Mahmoud hands me a camera and tells me to go into the new center and photograph the workmen. I can’t imagine anything more obnoxious than some foreigner hipster snapping a camera in my face while I’m performing manual labour, but one skill I’ve been cultivating in Amman is not worrying so much about being impudent. I head in there and get unrepentantly up in the grills of these guys.
The lighting guys turn out to be friendly. One of them is a skinny young man, probably in his early twenties. He stands on top of a rickety stool and yanks light bulbs out of the ceiling while tail of yet-installed electric cables dangles out of his back pocket. He talks nonstop to his coworkers, who phase in and out of paying attention to him. His delivery is Shakespearean in that he speaks as though both everyone and no one is listening. The second lighting guy is a young man as well. He kneels on the floor replacing outlets with a pair of plyers and some electrical tape. I notice sparks flying out of the wires he’s handling and I see him wince or quickly draw his hand back periodically. In other words, he’s obviously getting electrocuted. I ask Mahmoud about this and he says, “Don’t worry about it. He is a tough guy. He goes to the gym every day.” Then Mahmoud says something to the electrocuted guy, who looks up and flexes his bicep for me.
The third lighting guy is the other two’s boss. His name is Haitham. Haitham is slightly older than his underlings; he looks to be in his thirties. He wears narrow, dirty glasses and a black t-shirt to go with his shiny black hair and beard. His personality is manic, almost Chesire Cat-like. He’s constantly cracking jokes and smacking people on the shoulder and things like that. It’s a pattern I’ve noticed that people here, especially men at the top of their local social hierarchy, will laugh loudly immediately after telling a joke, thereby signalling to everyone else that it’s time to laugh. It’s almost like the people at talkshows holding up the “LAUGH” or “CLAP” placards. So anyway, Haitham does that (not the placards). At first I found him repulsive, but I’ve since discovered that he’s actually a good guy.
A nice thing about human beings is that we tune out stimuli one it’s normalized to us. The intense discomfort of your balls' touching the pond for the first time goes away almost instantly. So although everyone is weirded out the first few times I take their picture I eventually disappear for them and they resume their normal behavior. But when I leave the light guys and go to see how the bathroom is coming along my pangs of guilt return. The bathroom has literally been reduced to rubble. The two guys inside just look so beaten down and dusty and sad. I take two quick photos when they’re not looking and slither away.
Next I go to photograph the window guys, who are a bunch of nutjobs. The windows they’re replacing (I described them as “walls of opaque aquamarine glass” elsewhere) face indoors. Every floor in this office building has a huge rectangular hole in the middle it of surrounded by short balconies. These holes line up with each other, creating a giant rectangular prism of empty space that extends throughout the whole building. The drop from our balcony to the ground floor is about three stories because the first floor is extra tall. I’m describing this because these insane window guys are standing on top of these balconies, which are no more than eight inches wide, carrying around twenty pound panes of glass. One glass guy is hammering a fixture above him which falls on his face and causes him to lose his balance for a second. He regains it, and does a little dance for his friends to dissipate everyone’s adrenaline, but holy shit. I’m happy to see that Akram is totally uncool with this. He yells at the window guys to get off the balconies. He looks at me and says, “Crazy motherfuckers!” and I nod in agreement.
I rejoin the lighting guys because they’re the least stressful to be around. Haitham and the Shakespearean have torn down a large web of cables from the ceiling that dangles in the air like hanging vines. Down the hallway we can hear the cheerful whistling of the outlet guy, the melody of which is occasionally punctuated by little gaps that must correspond to his being electrocuted. Mahmoud walks in and announces that Haitham and I need to come with him to pick out ceiling lights for the reception room. The three of us go down to the garage and get in his car. Mahmoud drives, I take shotgun and Haitham sits in the back with his hands holding the backs of the front two seats. He knows the words to seemingly every song on the radio and he belts along with all of them. Mahmoud and I sit in silence and listen to Haitham’s performance all the way to the light store.
When we walk in the light store I’m overwhelmed by one of the highest densities of kitsch I’ve ever seen. The place is jam-packed with chandeliers of all shapes and sizes, all made out of plastic painted to look like wood and gold. The designs are either flowery and garish or they are extremely cheap imitations of expensive materials. Half of these plastic chandeliers glitter with the kind of fake gemstones that children make crafts with at summer camp. Along similar lines, one enormous fake-gold chandelier, replete with peeling paint, is coated in white beads, the kind children make keychains out of, to look like pearls. Finding a tasteful piece of lighting here is a bit like finding a good babysitter in the line for the methadone clinic.
Mahmoud picks out a chandelier that just horrifies me. I ask if I can make some suggestions and Mahmoud says yes. Among the cheap glitz I find a little fake-wood ceiling light with cones of off-white plastic hanging out of it. I wouldn’t say it’s beautiful, but unlike everything else in the store it doesn’t announce itself as an aesthetic catastrophe. I point it out to Mahmoud and he nods ambiguously.
Haitham gestures for me to follow him and we go across the street to another light store. This store has an infinitely better selection than the previous one. Haitham locates the single ugliest light in the store, a faux-modern aluminum monstrosity, and becomes fixated on it. I find some lights that I think are simple and elegant and send pictures of them to Mahmoud. Haitham gestures to me again and we return to the first store.
Mahmoud is talking to the cashier. It appears I am too late to get him to buy something from across the street. I ask him what he’s buying. “This!” he says enthusiastically, pointing towards the enormous, bead-covered fake-gold chandelier. My heart sinks. The worst thing he could have gone for.
“Really?” I ask, “You’re getting that?”
“Yes!” says Mahmoud, “You picked it.”
I’m stunned. Then I see that my fake-wood light is hanging next to the enormous chandelier. It’s colors are so subdued compared to its neighbor that my brain ignored it when Mahmoud pointed in its direction. I’m relieved and oddly touched that my pick was chosen.
As the the lights are being packed up the cashier takes notice of me. “You are American!” he says. I nod. “What do you think of Donald Trump?” Failing to think of an intelligent response, I make a wordless adenoidal sound, wave my hands back and forth and shake my head. “America has caused big problems in the Middle East,” he continues, “Like in Iraq. And they are too friendly with Israel.” He goes on to make some anti-Zionist remarks, say, “George Bush ... crazy!” and basically make me apologize for the Iraq War. In truth, I would like to have a conversation with this guy about everything he’s saying, but not here in public with a bunch of our colleagues standing around. After he’s done with his speech he becomes very friendly. He asks me my name. “Samuel!” he says, “Very good name. It means you speak directly with my god.” So you readers keep that in mind.
When we return to the office the window guys are back on the ledges. Although my sadistic side would like to stick around to see if any action happens I’m way behind on my writing, so I go to my desk. Things pretty much wind down from there. Akram comes by my desk and gives me a sub he calls a “dynamite sandwich” along with a beverage he calls a “cocktail”. I sip at it apprehensively, not really wanting to get drunk at the office. It turns out to be a normal fruit smoothie and that they call a cocktail for some reason in Jordan. I have to admit that picking out ceiling lights, doing office work and drinking smoothies is not what I thought “going to the Middle East to help Syrian refugees” would look like. I suppose there are people out on the front lines dragging people out of ditches and dodging bullets and cinematic things like that, but all of their efforts would be for nothing if there weren’t managerial work going on at places like ADT. Even if it may not look it, lives are being saved in this office through phone calls and emails. This is white-collar heroism.
Although I’m not dodging bullets, I’m kind of concerned for my lungs with regards to my time at ADT. Akram, and most of the people who pass through the ADT offices who aren’t Mahmoud or the General, is a chain smoker. I didn’t think that inhaling second-hand smoke would be so noticeable, but I feel it in my throat every day. But Akram’s my boss, there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s made me appreciate the anti-smoking laws in the States. There’s also the dust and the fumes and things that I’ve been inhaling from the new center space. When I get back to the States and people asked what sorts of danger I braved in the war-torn East I’ll relate to them the traumatic horrors of second hand smoke and pulverized drywall.
Today Mahmoud and I are visiting Our Lady of Peace again. The patients we spoke to a week ago are coming back for the next phase of their prosthesis and I’m going to conduct follow-up interviews with them. I couldn’t be less nervous about these interviews than I was a week ago. In addition to having six interviews with refugees under my belt, simply being in Jordan for nine days has made my anxieties about standing out or being privileged so repetitive and boring that they no longer register.
When we reach the prosthetics center Maher and the team are busy preparing the patients' new legs. Work surfaces are littered with plaster casts, plastic foot casings and half-sanded, half-sculpted and half-screwed-in pieces of artificial legs. To add to the frenzy, a huge school group enters the shop room, all dressed in neon green t-shirts. Mahmoud tells me they’re from a middle school in the West Bank who have come here on a service trip. It’s noble in a way, but Amman seems like a long way to go for a service trip when there’s so much to be done in the West Bank itself, thinks the American. They crowd around the same metal shelf that Maher showed me, taking up most of the room. By a cruel coincidence, the patients arrive at the same time that the students are filing out of the room, and so the patients have to wheel themselves past a gallery of ogling teenagers. Only two of the patients, Mohammad and Ahmad, were able to show up today. Moneer, the 28-year-old, couldn’t come due to unspecified “security reasons”. Mohammad and Ahmad enter the fitting room and Mahmoud and I follow to conduct our interviews.
Mohammad is getting measured first, so we interview Ahmad. He seems significantly happier than the last time we saw him. He actually smiles this time, and he is more relaxed, which is probably partly due to my being far more relaxed. Mahmoud and I ask him how life has been at the Ramtha hospital. He says that things are good, that he’s comfortable and he’s been given time to relax. He has friends at Ramtha who he says are “like brothers,” and that he spends most of his time with. He also speaks to his family daily. He’s the youngest of 15 – 8 brothers and 7 sisters. Everyone in his family is safe and uninjured from the war except for himself. In addition to socializing, Ahmad spends the rest of his time at the Ramtha hospital doing physical therapy. His doctor told him that he’s made the best progress of all of the patients. He says he does extra exercises on his own time. Even though his situation is beyond many people’s worst nightmares, Ahmad, at 19, has managed to keep his mood up by focusing on his improvements, however small. Mahmoud and I press him for anything negative, anything that he wants help with, and we get nothing. As you may have noticed, it doesn’t take much to get me to complain about something.
Next we interview Mohammad. He still has his teenager spunk. Today he’s wearing a backwards Miami baseball hat. He also reports satisfaction with life at the Ramtha Hospital. When we press him for his living conditions, he tells us he’s living in a large room with three to five other men. But he says it’s comfortable. He spends times with friends he made before the war; he likes to go outside and smoke with them. He is also in daily contact with his family. He has three brothers and three sisters, and one of his sisters just had a baby girl. However, Mohammad’s father was killed a year and a half ago. He says his physical therapy is going well. He is also praying regularly, which is the “best thing for [him]”. When I reach the end of my questions and struggle to think of new ones Mohammad grabs the opportunity and speeds outside to smoke a cigarette. Interview over, I guess.
Mohammad and Ahmad depart. I’m much happier with these interviews than their predecessors. Our Lady of Peace feels familiar now as well. And although I can’t communicate much with the staff here beyond nods and smiles, there’s still something nice about it. Not that nice though, because when Mahmoud tells me he’s leaving to get everyone lunch I immediately insist that I come with him. We’re going with Majed, the trainee that I’ve spent the least time with. Majed is a young, scrawny Syrian man with a permanent cocksure smile on his face. His movements are almost stoner-esque. We follow him out to his car, past the line of students repainting the chapel. Majed’s brother is sitting in the passenger seat of the car. Whereas Majed is scrawny, his brother is emaciated. I go to shake his hand, and he lifts a limp half-fist that I awkwardly grab a hold of and move up and down. I realize that Majed’s brother suffers from a serious medical problem. Majed gets a wheelchair out of his trunk and brings it over to the passenger door. He lifts his brother into the chair and wheels him over to the prosthetics center. I wonder what it would be like to do that with my sister.
Majed returns in a few minutes and we drive off to buy lunch. On the way, Mahmoud suggests that we interview Majed like we did Husom and Khalid. Majed agrees to it, so I pull out my notebook. Majed is 27 years old. Before the war, he was working in Lebanon, mostly at restaurants making shawarma and khabbab, which are the middle eastern equivalents of burgers and hotdogs. Once the war began, he returned to Hummus, his hometown in Syria. I ask him if the food hummus comes from Hummus and he just laughs and gives me a high five. After some research (days later) I discover that there is no town or village in Syria called Hummus. The closest thing phonetically is the Homs governorate or the Homs district inside of the governorate. Given that Homs is the largest governorate in Syria, that it borders Lebanon and given its phonetic affinity to “hummus,” that’s probably where Majed is from. Incidentally, it is quite possible that hummus comes from the geographical region that is now the Homs governorate.
Regardless, after the war began Majed traveled home to be with his family. He is one of eight brothers. Soon after he returned the brother I met was injured in the war, leaving him in the condition I saw him in. Majed’s family lived in Syria for three more months, but life there became increasingly intolerable, they left for Jordan together. While his brother was receiving treatment at a Jordanian hospital, Majed heard about ADT, so he signed on as a trainee. Today, Majed is continuing his work with ADT and caring for his brother. His family is spread out now. His father is in Lebanon, and he has brothers in Turkey and Syria as well as Jordan. Majed wants to return to Syria one day to work professionally in prosthetics and orthotics.
We reach the restaurant we’re buying lunch from. It’s a shawarma restaurant. Behind the counter stands a three foot high conical mass of seasoned chicken meat, slowly rotating past a vertical heated surface and oozing juices. An unfortunate, sweaty employee stands by it, continually carving off thin slices. To his right another man collects these slices and places them inside of pita wraps with some cheese and throws the wraps on a grill. Watching them reminds me the time I worked at a hotdog stand in New York City, grilling buns over a similar grill in 100+ degree heat. I am deeply grateful that my current job is writing.
Mahmoud places the order and they set out eleven styrofoam box. Along with the shawarma wraps, the boxes are filled with pickled vegetables, cumin covered french fries and their homemade mayonnaise. The boxes are stuffed into four bulging bags. “This is good shawarma,” Mahmoud tells me, “It’s perfect,” as he takes a few preemptive french fries from a bag.
We get back to Our Lady of Peace and distribute the shawarma. Mahmoud settles down to eat at Maher’s smoking spot and I join him. The shawarma, being loaded with meat, cheese and lots of grease, is indeed perfect. Mahmoud reaches into his bag and pulls out a fat, green pickled pepper. He holds it before me. “Be careful, very spicy”. I’ve heard this warning before, but Mahmoud really seems to mean it this time. I leave my own pepper to the side, not wanting to damage my palate before enjoying the shawarma. I save one piece of shawarma before going for the pepper, in case I need something to dampen the heat. Mahmoud calls the trainees over as I’m about to eat the pepper. They’re highly interested and amused. Khalid eggs me on while Banya waves her finger and urges me to not eat it. I pop the whole thing in my mouth, which is good because it’s filled with juices that would have spilled all over me if I’d bit it partway. Now, I like spicy food, and I have a pretty high tolerance for spiciness, but that’s not the only flavour going on in this pepper. If you’ve ever been swimming in the Atlantic and been hit by a wave or something, causing you to get a big, unwelcome mouthful of seawater, then that will give you an idea of what this pepper tastes like if you just add to that a good dumping of cayenne. It’s disgusting, which my face must have betrayed because Mahmoud and the OLP staff burst out laughing. It seems I’ve made a rite of passage, however, and Khalid gives me an approving nod. Mahmoud offers me his pepper and I kindly refuse.
Mahmoud and I depart from the prosthetics center. We drive to a part of Amman that’s new for me to meet up with Akram and the General. We arrive at an apartment building with a flatbed full of busted furniture parked in front of it. Akram and the General arrive and they and Mahmoud speak to a couple of men hanging out by the truck. I hope that this isn’t the furniture they’re getting for the new center. We all head inside the building and cram ourselves, six adult men in total, into a pretty small elevator and ride it up one floor. Down the hallway we enter into an apartment that’s been converted into some of electronics storage facility or mausoleum. The whole space if flooded with partially dissected printers, computers and televisions. What’s truly astounding is that nothing is labeled, so who knows how they find anything. We gather inside of the one small clearing of empty floor. Akram and the General negotiate with the two men in Arabic while Mahmoud and I stare vacantly at a pile of transistors. Akram turns to me and fills me in. We’re here to buy computers for the Salaam center. The people here buy the computers that the US embassy and the UN ditch once the latest models are available, so you can get good computers here for a cheap price. Fortunately, this means that we’re not here to buy the busted furniture.
After the negotiations are complete, Akram, the General, Mahmoud and I drive back to ADT. As we step out of the elevator, there’s an odd sight to our left. Two workmen are jamming a pair of bathroom doors, complete with male and female stick figures, into the adjacent elevator. It looks like a geometrically impossible task to me, but they persist in the face of this adversity. This is the beginning of the renovations for the new center, which will come to dominate all of our activity at ADT for the following week.
Akram beckons us over into the new center to be. We open the door and walk into a thick cloud of white dust. Down the hallway there’s an ominous booming sound. We turn a corner and see a man with a sledgehammer smashing a huge hole in the bathroom wall. He’s pummeling at the center of an outline for a handicap-accessible threshold that’s been penciled onto the wall. I wonder how he’ll get at those straight edges and ninety-degree angles with a sledgehammer. The air is saturated with pulverized drywall, but no one seems bothered by it except me. Akram watches the sledgehammering eagerly as my ability to hold my breath is pushed to the limit. Finally, we leave the site and I retreat to my desk to get some writing and breathing done.
After an hour or so of writing, Akram shows up with Kinder chocolates that he drops on my desk. He plops down in the chair across from me and speaks to me about his plans for the new center, his philosophy on management, and maybe some of his philosophy on women too. Then he tells me that tomorrow night he will be meeting with Prince Ali bin Hussein. Prince Hassan is the brother of King Abdullah II. As a members of the Hashemite Dynasty, Ali and Abdullah alike are purportedly descendents, specifically 41st descendents, of the prophet Muhammad. In short, Prince Ali bin Hussein is a big deal. Akram also reveals to me that the prince will be attending the grand opening of the new center on August 22nd. I never thought I’d get to meet a descendent of Muhammad before this moment, but isn’t life full of surprises.
Today I show up to the office earlier than usual. Well, I show up half an hour earlier than usual, so at 9 AM. As I wait in front of the elevator, a white haired man in a nice plaid shirt and khakis approaches me. I recognize him as one of the people Akram and I showed around the new center space but I don’t know what his name is or what he does. “Come with me,” he says, “You can wait in my office.” He doesn’t seem dangerous so I accept. We go up to the third floor and enter his office, which is cluttered like Akram’s, but with more typical office stuff like piles of paperwork rather than horse statues. We sit down and his attendant brings us coffee. The white haired man reminisces to me about Jordan’s climate. Apparently, a few decades ago, it was colder and wetter in Jordan, so they would get snow in the winter and lots of rain in the summer. He talks about vacations he’s taken and a bit about pigeon hunting. He’s very pleasant, the coffee is good and I’ve given up on understanding what’s going on, so I’m happy to listen to his soothing, uneventful stories. There’s a knock at the door and a blond, middle-aged man enters the office. He introduces himself, but I can barely make out the sounds of his name, let alone pronounce them. He doesn’t speak English, so when the white haired man leaves the office we’re left with nothing but the universal language of awkward silence. To my relief the white haired man quickly returns and with Akram in tow. Akram knows all these guys, he warmly greets my unpronounceable acquaintance, and he acts as though it’s totally normal that I’m in this other guy’s office. I later find out that this other guy’s name is Abu Ashraf and that he is the manager of the office building.
Akram, Abu Ashraf, the unpronounceable man and I head to the ADT offices. Mahmoud and the General are already in Akram’s office along with two other men I don’t recognize, making this the biggest meeting I’ve ever witnessed in the room. Then I remember what’s going on. Today ADT is registering the new center so that work can be started on it. Once all the important guys have gathered they get up to go to some government office to do the registration. I’m tasked with holding down the fort while they’re gone.
So I post up at my desk. I write my blog and read Wikipedia articles on the Syrian conflict. Maybe I also read some other stuff online that isn’t directly related to ADT’s activities. I hear a knock at the door. I get up to answer it and see a disabled man limping into the office. One of his arms is longer than the other, his posture is badly warped and one of his legs is paralyzed. He comes up to me in ragged clothes with a look of permanent pain on his face and one hand outstretched. I know he’s asking for money, but I pretend to not understand and direct him back through the door. I recognize the irony in refusing a disable person at ADT, but I’m not willing to risk setting a precedent with this guy or anyone he might talk to. I’ve done a fair bit of work with the homeless and the disabled for my age, and I’ve come to believe that one is not always morally obligated to help them. It takes thought and preparation to do them real good, and in this case I had neither.
A few hours later Akram and Mahmoud return. Presumably everyone else went to their respective offices. Akram practically falls into the chair across from me and looks at me vacantly. “How did it go?” I ask him and he says, “Good, good…” as if he were describing a doctor’s appointment. Akram looks like he’s on the verge of passing out. He explains that he only had four hours of sleep last night. However, some of Akram’s energy returns once a beautiful woman floats into the office. Akram’s eyes light up as she approaches us. They have a short exchange in Arabic and Akram kisses her hand. Then she turns to me and Akram tells me that she is Dr. Nieveen.
I’ve heard a lot about Dr. Nieveen. She is a psychologist who works at the Salaam Center School, an elementary school for Syrian refugees. There, children who have been displaced by the war are provided with psychological diagnoses, trauma support and education. Dr. Nieveen has an intensely pretty face surrounded by dyed blonde hair. Her features are long and slender, and her overall impression is elf-like. After we go over the niceties of “great to finally meet you” and so on, she talks about the work being done at the Salaam Center. As part of their art therapy program, a hygiene specialist is coming in to teach the kids how to make their own organic soap. That way the kids can gain some hands-on skills, some self-efficacy, and information about hygiene. Dr. Nieveen goes on to describe the various reinforcement systems they implement at the Salaam Center, their methods for diagnosing trauma and the kinds of treatment they employ. Being a psychology dilettante, I’m tempted to just geek out and ask her a million questions, but my socially reinforced super-ego employs a behavioral schema to repress these desires. Dr. Nieveen and Akram plan for me to visit the Salaam Center on Tuesday the 25th.
After Dr. Nieveen leaves Akram lies down on a couch and begins to drift off. He mumbles, “What do you think of Dr. Nieveen?” to me, which, by the way, is a pretty loaded question. I obviously can’t say “I think this person you’ve chosen to work with is a cheap charlatan”. But it’s a social nicety, so I lay out a few compliments (which are genuine). Akram kind of says something in response, but his eyelids are fluttering and I don’t think my answer fully landed. Akram snaps out of his hypnagogia for just long enough to yell a command at Mahmoud, who hurries over to lay a blanket across Akram. Mahmoud and I tiptoe out of the room.
With Akram asleep, Mahmoud and I are free to pilfer the snack drawer. We take some leftover basbousa and two containers of the Jordanian equivalent of raman. “Very spicy,” Mahmoud warns me, “be careful”. Once the pasta is heated up we take the food back to our desks. As we eat (the pasta really is quite spicy) Mahmoud pulls up some music videos to jam out to. He’s an interesting DJ. In addition to some Middle Eastern music I don’t recognize, he plays “Dance Me to the End of Love” by Leonard Cohen, “Careless Whisper” by George Michael and something by Enrique Iglesias. “Mahmoud turn that shit off!” let’s us know that Akram is awake again. We toss our wrappers into the nearest trash bin. Akram steps from his office and, bleary eyed, says, “Yella,” gesturing towards the door. We pack up our things and go.
Cockroaches have made a few appearances in my apartment. These awful things live up to their reputation for being difficult to kill. Even after hammering one with a broom (I don’t want that on my shoe) upwards of five times it was still twitching as I threw it into the toilet. This isn’t my first encounter with cockroaches. Once I lived in an apartment in Brooklyn with a rampant cockroach infestation. My roommate at the time was the uncleanest person I have ever met, leaving literal trails of slime in his wake, along with dirty dishes and piles of rotten unrefrigerated produce. This lead to the classic scenario of flicking the lights on and witnessing a spit-second orgy of movement that leaves behind an ostensibly bugless kitchen. I think cities say a lot about about human beings in that when we engineer an ecosystem it attracts the likes of rats and cockroaches rather than flowers or colorful birds. The cockroaches in Amman may be a blessing of sorts because they’ve compelled me to be fastidious with my dishes, which is a generally good habit. I haven’t seen them in a while so this strategy seems to be working. If they return I’ll have to buy some Raid, or at least a heavier broom.
These days were less eventful than Monday through Wednesday. They were largely spent writing and talking to Akram. We spent a lot of time showing various people the space for the new center. I found a trash bin in the bathroom there that was filled with empty bottles of hot sauce.
One of the best parts of my time in Jordan has been my regular conversations with Akram. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a good way to integrate them into the narrative I’m writing, because they’re often quite long and filled with politically sensitive information. I like to ask Akram lots of questions about his leadership style because he’s so effective. He’s been incredibly generous in answering all of them in depth. The best part is that after he explains his principles I get to watch them being applied right in front of me. A few examples of the nuggets he’s handed to me: call and email someone if you want something from them, never depend on anyone more than 80% and form relationships with the lower-tier workmen, and not just their managers, if you want quality work done for your money. If I were to try to communicate everything he’s shared with me, I’d end up writing one of those awful business/self-help manuals. It’s made me think that probably everything in those books is true, but that the real meaning behind it is lost unless it’s rendered in three dimensions
Today we’re not going to Our Lady of Peace, which is a bit of a relief. When I arrive at the office Akram get ups from his chair and says, “Yella!” which means “let’s go” in Arabic. He has something to show me. We go out the door and around a few corners to another office space in the building. Walls of opaque aquamarine glass surround it. We walk through the glass door into a big gutted office suite. The whole place is empty except for some wires dangling out of a few holes in the ceilings. It’s dim because no lights are installed, so all we have is sunlight that’s had to bounce through a few rooms to get to us. A layer of fake plastic woodgrain peels and ripples off of the dusty floor. “This is going to be our new rehabilitation center,” Akram says, beaming.
Michael told me about this place. It is going to house a new wing of ADT that will train in and conduct physical- and psychotherapy. It will have its grand opening on August 22nd, which is both exciting and daunting to imagine. Akram gives me the grand tour. He shows me the empty room by the entrance where reception will be. He shows me the empty room where the offices will. He shows me the bathrooms whose walls will be knocked down to install a new handicap accessible one. He shows me the empty room where female patients will receive physical therapy. He shows me the empty rooms where trainees will listen to lectures. In the back, he shows me the empty room where one-on-one therapy sessions will take place. Finally, he shows me the huge empty room in the center of it all with big windows facing out towards the street. This will be the communal therapy room. Akram describes it being filled with therapy machines, paintings by the patients, and a great big ADT sign across the windows so that everyone on the street can see. He also talks about installing some sort of kinetic painting-displayer contraption he’s thought up, but I don’t quite follow that part. It is exciting to hear Akram describe all of this, to project his imagination onto this blank canvass. As we walk out I ask Akram when the work is going to start on the new center. “As soon as we get the money for it,” he says. Amen.
I am conducting another interview today. This one is with a refugee who has been with ADT and Polus for some time, about 4 years. His name is Sami Farraj. He is a victim of conflict, an amputee and a prolific painter via the art therapy program. He is precisely the type of person that I have been sent here to interview.
This time, instead of us going to Our Lady of Peace, Sami is going to come to the ADT office and we’re all going to have lunch together. But first, Mahmoud and I have to buy some art supplies for Sami to take back to the Zaatari refugee camp where he lives. Mahmoud and I get in the car and drive across Amman. We hit heavy traffic traffic, so Mahmoud turns on the radio to pass the time. The melody and the singing style of the music is Arabian in the stereotypical sense, with those fast, polyrhythmic lines that return to the note they started from, but the beat is four-on-the-floor, somewhere between techno and marching music. The song is very dramatic, with a call-and-response between the lead tenor and a huge male chorus. I ask Mahmoud what they’re singing about. The refrain translates to something like “victory to the Jordanian army”. Apparently there are whole stations devoted to this kind of thing, where the songs are about national pride or how glorious the king is. This sets off a whole bunch of my Jeffersonian red flags, of course, but then I consider the values that American radio espouses.
Our time to the art supply store is not a very interesting event. We go there, point at the supplies we want and then wait for what feels like an usually long period of time for them to get bagged up. Fortunately, the art supply store is also a toy store, so Mahmoud and I amuse ourselves by playing with a dart board they have on display. When that gets dull, I wander around the aisles and notice how all of the dolls and action figures are white. Then that gets dull so I just dangle a slinky in front of my face for a minute or two, which amuses Mahmoud more than it does myself. Finally, the supplies are ready, so we get the hell out of there.
Once we’re back at the office and we’ve organized the paint supplies, Mahmoud heads out to buy the lunch food while I stay with Akram to talk about the imminent interview. I ask Akram about my biggest hangup with the interviewing: how to ask people to talk about the violence that’s been inflicted them in a unpresumptuous manner. Akram talks to me about building trust with the patients and developing relationships with them where you start to feel like family to each other. This all sounds nice in theory, but how to actually do it is beyond me. Fortunately, I’m about to see it with my own eyes.
I turn around and see a young Syrian boy getting wheeled into Akram’s office by an older man. The boy is Sami Farraj. Sami is fourteen, so his shoulders are beginning to broaden out, but he still has a young face. His eyes have that youthful glimmer, especially in contrast to his short, pitch black hair. Akram is suddenly transformed by Sami’s presence. His energy level goes from four to eight as his demeanor goes from thoughtful mentor to fun uncle. He exclaims something joyfully to Sami as he goes over to him gives him a high ten and then tickles his belly. I’m sure he would have given him a nuggie if that were an established practice in Jordan. Sami laughs and makes some return jabs at Akram. I, with my New England upbringing, feel utterly incapable of meeting this level of social energy while sober. The best I can do is smile and shake hands with Sami and the older man. Akram points out that we’re both named Sam (roughly speaking) so we get to have a little moment with that.
After everyone’s seated Mahmoud shows up just in time with the food. He unpacks it on the table between the couches. Meanwhile, Akram whispers a series of jokes to Sami that, judging by their faces, have to do with farts or something like that. I’m unsure whether I’m supposed to help unpack the food or not, but soon Akram lets me know. “Sam, get off your fucking ass and help Mahmoud!” he tells me, and then translates this for a giggling Sami. There’s an incredible amount and variety of food. There’s a big aluminum tray of orange rice, another one of grilled chicken and french fries, a container of hummus, a stack of pita loaves, a bunch of little containers of yogurt and of tomato sauce and a Fort Knox-style pile of these gooey, blondie-like sweets called basbousa. I have been living off of a steady economy diet of eggs and weetabix in my apartment, so this is my first proper introduction to Jordanian food.
It’s something I’d learned before, but it’s worth relearning: the incredible bonding power of communal meals. By communal I don’t just mean that people eat together. I mean the kind of meal where everyone starts with an empty plate and the table is covered with dishes that get passed around and asked for and traded with each other. These kinds of meals give rise to countless little interactions and negotiations that get immediately reinforced by the food. It’s perfect operant conditioning for social bonding. Everyone’s laughing and enjoying each other at our table and and, for a nice change, I don’t feel like it matters that I don’t speak Arabic. All of the relevant communications take place through hand gestures and eye bulges since everyone’s mouth is full. I feel like I get what Akram was talking about before. This does, at some immediate level, feel like a family, even though I still don’t know the old guy’s name.
The food is fantastic too. I don’t know how to describe flavours, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it. They don’t let you have an empty plate here either. After my fourth piece of chicken Akram, seeing my chicken-less plate, shouts, “Why don’t you eat chicken! What is wrong with you!” as he tosses more pieces onto my plate. Even Sami gets on my case when I’ve finished my rice, prompting Akram to shovel more of that on as well. It takes a few firm refusals before they stop giving me more.
Once we’re done eating and everyone is in a digestive euphoria, it’s time to kill the mood with a depressing interview. In all seriousness, this interview goes the best of all of them so far. The bonding we’ve just done works wonders to mitigate the awkwardness of the whole process. We reuse the strategy of asking for a fluid story from before the war to today, which again makes it feel more like a natural conversation.
Sami grew up in Ihnken, a village in the governorate of Daraa (Daraa is both a city and a “governorate”, which is similar to a state), with his parents and his older brother. They had a family farm and his father was also a trader. He lived a normal life in Ihnken, going to school and playing football with his friends. Then the war started, and the Syrian Armed Forces entered the village, burning houses and hunting down the young men. Sami and his brother fled to Jasem, a nearby village where his uncle lived. Sami stayed there for a time with his uncle, his uncle’s wife, his uncle’s three children and his grandmother. For a while Sami even went to the school in Jasem. But one day, after Sami had come home home from school, an airplane flew over and dropped a bomb on his uncle’s house. Two of Sami’s cousins were killed by the explosion and Sami’s legs were badly injured. He had to be transported to a nearby hospital set up in an abandoned school. There, in what used to be a classroom, his legs were amputated: left above knee, right below knee. Sami traveled across the Jordanian border to the Ramtha hospital with his grandmother and his cousin to get corrective surgery on his stumps. After the surgery he returned to Jasem. One day he began feeling shooting pains in his stumps. Because of his pain, and because there was no telling when the Syrian Armed Forces would return, he and his brother traveled across the border again.
Sami and his brother ended up in the Zaatari camp. It was there that he encountered ADT. They moved him to their Al Bader Center. There they provided for Sami to get two further surgeries for his painful stumps and began the physical and psychological therapy to prepare him for prosthesis. Through the psychological treatment, Sami discovered his love of painting. He has produced many paintings since then. Many of them are dark depictions of violence and trauma, but some of them depict family, love and even hope. Sami says that working with the colors of the paints gave him the first feeling since his injury that his life was worth living.
After completing his first round of therapy Sami got fitted for prosthesis at Our Lady of Peace. His prosthetics only need the cosmetic covering applied before he can start wearing them regularly. Of course, because he is young, Sami will have to get refitted several times. In the meantime, Sami continues to find his joy in painting. He also loves the theater, and he has performed in several productions at a theater in the Zaatari camp. His dream is to become a lawyer, a painter or a theater artist.
We wrap up the interview It’s time for Sami to return to the Zaatari camp. The older man offers for us to have lunch with them in the camp sometime. We politely accept the offer, even though taking him up on it would be illegal. The older man and Mahmoud go ahead of us to retrieve the van while Akram and I take Sami down to the street to meet them. I push Sami in his wheelchair while Akram continues to crack jokes to him. Once we reach the ground floor and Sami starts wheeling himself it’s clear that my assistance was not necessary. Sami wheels himself up to a curb, leans back, and propels himself over it. As he’s speeding over to the car, Akram shouts something at him and Sami does a 360 in his chair while keeping his forward momentum. Akram looks back and winks at me. Sami pulls up the passenger door of the car and yanks himself into the seat. Mahmoud packs his wheelchair in the backseat and then we all wave goodbye to each other as they merge into traffic.
Akram and I talk for a while about building relationships with patients. He talks about inviting Sami to have dinner with his family so that he could demonstrate to Sami that he treats him the same as his own children. Akram also tells me that when he first met him Sami would only stare down at his stumps and cry. It’s staggering to imagine the progress he’s made from then to now, when he can laugh and paint and make tricks with his wheelchair.
My biggest challenge since coming to Amman other than interviewing the patients has been finding a social group outside of work. I love Mahmoud and Akram, but they have families and friends of their own, so I need to find some group that I can explore Amman with in the evenings. There are a number of difficulties there. The first is that my Arabic sucks, and that’s unlikely to change to any socially lubricating degree by August 28th. The second is that I came to Amman by myself. Going to a bar or a club alone is uncomfortable enough in English-speaking environments. I’d like to find some American or British expats that I can hang out with. It’d be nice to compare notes on my experience with someone and I’d also like a break from being the sore-thumb everywhere I go. I’ve made a few attempts to find a group. I heard there were some Bard students doing an exchange program in Amman. I contacted them and they told me that their program had just ended that day and that they were flying back to the states. I found some websites that try to connect expats, but everyone on them was middle aged. This hasn’t been a pressing issue so far because ADT only recognizes a one day weekend, but it was still depressing spending last Friday with just my books and my music. I have a few more strategies to meet people that I haven’t tried yet. If they don’t work, I guess I’ll try on the enthusiastic-American schtick at a local club. Or maybe I’ll just hang out with the middle-aged people.
Today I have my first meeting with refugees. My job is to write narratives about patients who pass through ADT and the first step is to sit down with them and conduct interviews. My Arabic doesn’t go much further than hello and thank you, so Mahmoud is going to be my interpreter. At 9:30 AM I meet Mahmoud in the parking lot of my building and we drive to Our Lady of Peace again. They have three new patients at OLP getting fitted for prosthetics. I’m going to interview them in between their measurements. Mahmoud hands me a piece of paper with their names, ages and injuries: Ahmah, 19, left below the knee amputation and right above the knee amputation – Moneer, 28, right below the knee amputation – Mohammad, 16, left below the knee amputation.
I feel queasy about this. Here I am, this well-fed, well-clothed, well-educated American in his Warby Parker glasses going up to these people and prodding them for their “narratives” which means getting them to describe their most brutal traumas to me. I’m afraid of being some kind of trauma tourist – someone who walks away with some fantastic stories for dinner parties and job interviews while people lose their legs, their families, their lives.
I am unable to articulate these anxieties to Mahmoud, so instead I tell him I’m not sure what questions to ask the patients. He gives me some suggestions like “where are you staying?” and “do you want to stay in Jordan or return to Syria?” and “do you have any advice for other refugees?” Then Mahmoud smiles at me and says, “Don’t worry about it. It’s easy.” I try my best to smile back and seem assured.
We arrive at Our Lady of Peace and walk straight to the prosthetics center. Maher is there with three trainees circled around him. Their names are Husom, Khalid and Majed. They are all refugees themselves. Maher is smoothing out a rough cast for a prosthetic foot with a small tool that works like a cheese grater, sloughing off the top layer of plaster into a trashcan. There are two women who work in the prosthetic center as well, named Sajedah and Bayan. They come over and watch Maher every now and then when they’re not doing their usual clerical work. All of them are wearing white button-up work shirts. The atmosphere among the trainees is laid back. Khalid in particular likes to make jokes, which I don’t understand of course, but Sajedah and Bayan seem to find them funny. Maher stays laser-focused on the cast, his hands steady. At one point Bayan brings out a bag of cashews for everyone to snack on. Husom peels some cashews and tosses them into Maher’s mouth. Maher remains focused.
After the cast has been smoothed out Sajedah brings out a latex sheath filled with wet plaster. Maher applies this plastic to the foot with a palette knife. He gives the foot a sturdy bottom and sculpts in curved surfaces with defined edges. When he’s done it looks a little cubist.
As I’m watching Maher work I detect some movement behind me. I glance back and see some figures in wheelchairs coming down the hallway. My stomach tenses. I go back to watching Maher and pretend not to have noticed. But then Mahmoud taps me on the shoulder and tells me that the patients have arrived. I’m relieved when Maher and the trainees speed out of the room to meet them and block my way. I remain in the shop room, pacing around, pretending to inspect the equipment. I hear the sounds of shuffling feet and clinging metal from the hallway. I try to collect myself, breath and so on.
Mahmoud comes in to get me to come speak with the refugees. I frantically ask him for last minute suggestions but he just waves his hand and tells me not to worry about it again. We turn the corner and enter the fitting room. Inside everyone is clustered around a patient sitting on an elevated table. He is a young man, but his hair has already turned grey. He has a tired, sullen face. His hands are covered in burn scars, his posture is slumped and his right leg is gone below the knee, leaving a scar-covered stump. This is the moment where I realize that I can’t do this. I have no right to be here. I can’t speak Arabic, I understand nothing about the Syrian Civil War, I have no credentials in anything. All I have is a high school diploma and a friend whose dad runs a humanitarian organization. For me to try to participate in this man’s suffering is an obscenity.
I turn to talk to Mahmoud but, to my horror, he’s left the room. All of the prosthetics staff are busy preparing the man’s leg for measurement, so my one comfort is that no one in the room is paying the least attention to me. But then of course Mahmoud returns and tells me to come out into the hallway and speak to the other two refugees. What’s good about this situation, or maybe what’s bad about this situation, is that whether or not I feel ready to do this it’s going to happen.
We walk into the hallway. Two young men are sitting there in wheelchairs with their physical therapist standing behind them. Mahmoud says something in Arabic and they look up at me. I shake their hands and say “as-salamu alaykum.” Then I sit down next to them and try to explain why I’m here, which is difficult now that I’ve been questioning my right to be here, and I ramble on for long enough that Mahmoud has to interrupt me and remind to speak concisely so that he can translate. I don’t know what Mahmoud says to them next, but I doubt it’s a literal translation of the nervous word salad I just put forward. Then it’s time for me to conduct my interview.
The first patient I talk to is Mohammad. He tells me he’s 18, but his file says he’s 16. Despite his circumstances, he has plenty of teenage boy energy. He laughs at my awkwardness as he spins a toothpick around with his teeth. He has a Hendrix-style mound of black curly hair on top of his head and the awkward, teenage beginnings of a mustache. This is the file on his injury:
“Diagnosis: below the knee amputation. Victim of blast injury resulting traumatic left below knee amputation and right open tibia fibula fractures with multiple shrapnel. Surgery was done on 21st of March on the left lower limb and external fixator applied on the right lower limb. At the moment the stump is in a good shape, daily physiotherapy sessions and figure eight bandaging being applied. Ready for prosthesis.”
His left leg is gone below the knee except for a small stump that he swings back and forth. The other leg is whole, but it has this white metal scaffolding called an “external fixator” sticking out of it. Maher later tells me that his amputation was very poorly done, and that it took many correcting surgeries to get him ready for prosthesis.
I learn that Mohammad was living in Daraa when the war started. Daraa is a city in the southmost part of Syria. It is the site of some important protests in 2011. The first defections from the Syrian Armed Forces took place in Daraa, which lead to the formation of the Free Syrian Army. Mohammad doesn’t go into detail about what he was doing before the conflict, or how he got injured. All he says is that he was sitting with his friend in Daraa when a rocket exploded nearby. His friend was killed and Mohammad’s legs were badly injured. He received first aid in Daraa before being transported to the nearby village of Tell Shihab where he received his amputation at a Doctors Without Borders clinic. Then he was transported to Ramtha, a city in Jordan on the northern border. A government hospital is in Ramtha where he’s currently being housed and treated by Doctors Without Borders. He tells me that once his prosthetic treatment is complete and he can walk again he wants to return to Syria to “keep fighting.”
My interview is halting and awkward. After Mohammad responds and it’s time to ask another question my mind goes blank and I often have to ask Mahmoud for suggestions. However, I no longer feel the urge to sprint for the door and catch the nearest cab to Queen Alia International Airport.
Next I interview Ahmad, who is outwardly much sadder and more nervous than Mohammad is. He is slumped over next to me. His sad eyes never seem to focus on anything but constantly drift about the surroundings. And his voice is very soft. However, he has a pair of sunglasses perched on top of his hair. Ahmad is 19. This is the file on his injury:
“Diagnosis: left below the knee amputation, right above the knee amputation. He is a victim of blast injury on the 4th of April 2017 resulting lower limb amputation and left upper limb 1st degree burn. Surgery was done on the 11th April 2017 and the stumps were left exposed since 12th June and stitch removal on the 14th of June of both lower limb stumps. At the moment he is on physiotherapy of muscle strengthening and figure eight bandaging on the stumps. Ready for prosthesis”
Both of Ahmad’s legs have been amputated. He was injured by a landmine planted by ISIS. His story, at the level of detail that I gathered, is identical to Mohammad’s. He was injured in Daraa, amputated in Tell Shihab and now lives and receives treatment at the Ramtha hospital. Like Mohammad, he also wants to return to Syria once his prosthetic treatment is completed and “fight the bad people.”
Sajedah comes into the hallway to retrieve Mohammad for fitting. He wheels himself into the fitting room. Shortly after the first man I saw comes out and wheels himself into Mohammad’s place. His name is Moneer. He is 28 years old. He looks tired and even angry, but not at anyone in particular – at least not anyone here. His hair is gray and he wears small, oval glasses. Splotches of burn scars go up and down his arm, which are big and muscular. This is the file on his injury:
“Diagnosis: Below the knee amputation, right lower limb. This is a 28 year old patient who got a blast injury in Syria and admitted on 8th May 2017, thus right below knee amputation was done. Stitches were removed on June 13th and the stump has been exposed since then. Muscle strengthening physiotherapy and figure eight bandaging has been applied. Ready for prosthesis.”
Moneer is a landmine victim like Ahmad. And he went through the same process of going from Daraa to Tell Shihab to Ramtha. He also wants to return to Syria and fight.
It’s clear that my questions aren’t going deep enough, because I’ve ended up with three iterations of the same story. I can’t think of anymore questions, though, so I decide to end the interviews. I shake Ahmad, Moneer and the physical therapist’s hand, thank them and turn to leave. The interviews, though far from perfect, went better than I had expected. Still I am relieved that they are over, and that I can have some time to process everything.
But Mahmoud directs us back into the fitting room to watch Mohammad get measured. Maher is kneeling by Mohammad’s stump with the trainees watching him and handing him tools. Maher takes a latex sheath and puts it over the stump. Then the sheath is wrapped in a cellophane-like material that Maher draws marks on with a blue sharpie. While this is happening, Mahmoud recommends that I interview a trainee. He brings Husom over. Husom is middle-aged, but he has a youthful face. His hair is short, but he has an enormous brown beard. I’m at a bit of a loss for questions, so I look around me. Despite the tragedy of the circumstances, the whole team is calm and businesslike. Khalid, the jokester, takes over for Maher and adopts his laser-focus while applying a layer of plaster to the cellophane. I turn to Husom and ask him, “Is it difficult for you to work with amputees and be around this amount of suffering?” He looks at me blankly for a moment and then replies, “Depends on the patient. Sometimes the amputation is good and makes the prosthesis easy. Other times the amputation is not good and it takes more work.” I tap my fingers against my chest, “No I mean is it emotionally difficult for you.” Husom thinks for a moment and then says, “It is at first but then … with time it is easier.” And that’s that I suppose. I later ask Maher the same thing and get the exact same answer. Although these people are acting out of deep emotions like duty and empathy, there doesn’t seem to be any value in getting emotional in the field. In fact, that would only get in the way. My own feelings of guilt prevented me from being a confident, thorough interviewer. I hope that time will come and subdue my own feelings as well.
It’s time to leave. I wave to all the trainees as I walk out. Maher stands in a back corner, smoking a cigarette and staring out the window.
Mahmoud and I return to the ADT offices and find Akram there, smoking on one of his couches and watching CNN intently. We he sees us he smacks the cushion beside him and tells me to come sit with him. We go over each interview one by one. As we do, Akram points out countless details that I missed that, in retrospect, seem obvious. “Did you ask him how many family members he has?” “No, I guess I should have” “And what was he doing with his friend before the rocket came?” “I don’t know, I didn’t ask” “What was his job before the war? Was he a student?” “I don’t know.” Akram smiles at me knowingly and raises his eyebrows. “When you write a story, you need to have every detail,” he says, poking the air with his index finger, “If I’m reading a book and I think the author is skipping something – that he’s cheating – I throw it away!” Akram pantomimes throwing a book, my book I guess, across the room.
Mahmoud enters the office with Husom and Khalid in tow. Mahmoud brought them here to be interviewed. At first I don’t at all feel up to more interviews, but Akram takes the lead this time. Instead of asking them a series of atomic questions, he asks each of them to tell their stories in a fluid manner, from the time before the war broke out in Syria to today. Husom goes first.
Husom is 36. He is from Golan Heights, a highly contested area of the Levant which is currently occupied by both Israel and Syria. Husom comes from the Syrian part. There he lived and worked on a family farm. He went to university to study engineering and english literature (Shakespeare is his favorite author). He graduated in 2010, one year before the war. By the time he was seeking his professional certification for engineering the war had broken out and made it impossible for him to move around the country safely. For a short time he stayed in Golan Heights, but soon the Syrian Armed Forces showed up there. The army ransacked and then burned down the houses in Husom’s village. Knowing that he would be killed if he were to stay, Husom fled to Daraa. But soon the Syrian Armed Forces reached Daraa as well, so Husom headed for the Jordanian border. Once inside Jordan, he stayed with his uncle’s family. Many of his family members were still in Syria. One day he heard that his brother had been killed by the Syrian Armed Forces. Around this time, a cousin of his told him about Asian Development Training, so he contacted the offices and got an offer to train with them. He moved in with his sister in Amman and began his training with ADT. That was three years ago. Now his sister has emigrated to Canada, so he lives alone in Amman. He is being trained and prosthetics, orthotics and psychology. He wants to continue this work and be a prosthetics and orthotics technician. Ideally, he would like to do this in Syria, but he realizes that may be impossible.
Khalid goes next. He is 26 years old. He is from Daraa. He came to Amman in 2010, before the war started, to study hotel management at Al-Quds College. Before the war, he would visit his family in Syria twice a week. The last time he was able to do this was in 2012. Soon after, his brother’s family got out of Daraa and came to Jordan. Khalid finished his studies in 2013. In 2015 his mother and his younger brother moved to Jordan too. The same year Khalid joined ADT as a trainee in prosthetics, orthotics and psychology. Today, in addition to his work with ADT, Khalid works in a bakery and at a supermarket. Unlike Husom, he plans to stay in Jordan. He married a Jordanian woman last year and they have a baby coming in one month.
Husom and Khalid also spoke briefly about their training experience. They agreed that this year the atmosphere among the trainees is the best it’s been. They say it feels like a family. I ask them what factors have contributed to the good atmosphere. They say that the number of trainees (6) is good, a smaller number than in previous years. They like that holidays are respected by ADT. They also think Our Lady of Peace is a better facility than the one they were working at before. Later, Akram adds that Maher probably contributes to the improved atmosphere because he is a native Arabic speaker, whereas the previous trainer was an American.
We thank Husom and Khalid and they leave. It’s been a good day, but I really hope that Akram and Mahmoud don’t have anymore interviews for me to do. Fortunately, we just do a short debrief. I walk home to my apartment and head straight for the bed.
“Virtue signaling” has been a popular internet buzzword recently. It signifies a phenomena that’s plagued my generation ever since we developed a political consciousness. It’s common that a given millennial will relentlessly repost articles on Facebook about the suffering of this or that “marginalized group”. This comes in hand with the vocabulary of political correctness, which serves at all times to demonstrate just how much the speaker’s heart bleeds for the less fortunate. Also, to be “woke” is the central moral imperative of social media, which means to be aware of social injustices. Action is less emphasized. It’s equally common for the millennial doing all of these things to refrain from performing any good works save for the occasional protest, which they document for their friends with a deluge of selfies.
This phenomenon is not new. Jesus criticizes it in Matthew 23 when he says,
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
The “hypocrisy” of virtue signalling is that it emphasizes public displays of pity over the difficult, and usually unrecognized work that actually improves the lives of the pitied. It’s easy to recognize the lameness of this behavior, but it raises another, more interesting question: what is the value of pity for moral action? My time in Jordan, working with professional humanitarians, has caused me to question the value of pity.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that moral action has its origin in an intellectual notion of duty, rather than in an emotional source such as pity. This view has often been criticized as cold, as inhuman, but observing the work done at ADT and Our Lady of Peace has made me think that it might be true. I haven’t heard any talk about “those poor refugees,” nor is there head-shaking, sighing or self-flagellation after an amputee wheels himself out of the room. In this environment, the war-wounded are not morally elevated simply because of their suffering. Instead, as I’ve mentioned, the atmosphere is professional or even lighthearted. What could be more depraved, to a virtue-signaller, than to remain calm and professional in the face of another person’s deep suffering?
If there is any emotion involved in moral action, it seems to be pride. Akram compares his work with ADT to his work as a travel agent. In both cases, his goal is to provide excellent service to people and to run the elite company in his field. In other words, he has a certain conception of himself that compels him to pursue excellence. Likewise, Michael seems to be fueled by an inner ambition and a taste for adventure. When I have spoken to him there is, again, no talk of his great sadness over the pain of humanity. Instead, he speaks with excitement about the Polus Center launching new projects, or about traveling to exotic parts of the world. What could be more contemptible, for a virtue signaller, than to derive anything but guilt from your encounters with another person’s deep suffering?
Years ago, I worked for a tiny company that processed housing applications for homeless people in Boston. The man who ran this company had more outward disdain for the homeless than anyone I’ve ever met. He called them stupid, called them losers, and would often say that it was their fault that they were homeless. And yet, he sacrificed his sleep and his social life to make sure that these people had a roof over their heads. His was low-paying, thankless work, but he did it. He didn’t need to idealize the people he was helping in order to help them. What is more evil, to a virtue-signaller, than to ever criticize another despite his deep suffering?
It is possible that pity made an appearance in the lives of people like Akram, Michael and my former boss, and perhaps it got them started on their paths, but I don’t see it playing a sustained role in their behavior. Its usual function, as far as I can see, is to allow the person who feels the pity a sense of moral superiority. The idea is that pity issues from a highly developed moral faculty so, of course, the more pity felt and the more pity expressed the more moral the person. The problem is that expressions of pity are not correlated to moral action. And pity in this form, where it gives rise to nothing but virtue signalling and indolence, is no different from sadism. A video or an article is posted on social media depicting someone’s suffering and people “like” the post, comment on it, and thereby derive pleasure from knowing how moral and woke they are. How is this pleasure different from that of the sadist who relishes in other people’s suffering? It is dressed up in the language of pity.
This form of pity is at least morally worthless and, by my estimation, it probably gets in the way of moral action. We have known this for a long time. Thinkers as disparate as Nietzsche and the prophets of the Old Testament have been skeptics of pity, and above all of virtue-signalling (by different names of course). But this is what education is for. The bad ideas continually resurface across the generations, and so they must, in turn, be continually stomped out.
Today I embark on my first full day in Amman. At 9:30 AM Mahmoud knocks on my door and we walk over to the Asia Development Training offices one building over. We’re going to meet Akram al Ramini, the executive director of ADT and my de facto boss. We go up two floors in the elevator and enter the offices. I walk in and see a model skeleton hanging in the corner of an otherwise standard conference room. Mahmoud and I pass through this room quickly and enter into Akram’s office.
This room is large as well, with a line of big windows looking onto the street below. It can feel small, however, because it is packed with furniture, including a rectangle of puffy red chairs and couches arranged around a glass table, many cabinets, a widescreen television, an enormous desk and countless little odd objects. There’s a three foot high metal horse statue, a large model of the Eiffel Tower, little statues of dancing women, a wooden case of ornate pistols and all manner of mysterious things that I haven’t had the time to memorize. These are all gifts Akram has received from company presidents, mayors and kings from around the world. Then there’s Akram himself, leaning way back in a swivel chair behind the enormous desk and smoking a Marlboro gold through a white cigarette holder. He’s wearing a white dishdasha, an arabian piece of clothing that functions like an open-bottomed cloth jumpsuit. He leans forward when he sees me and waves me over, smilining through his cigarette. “Welcome to Amman!” he says. Akram has an incredible style to his nature. His every movement is fluid yet precise, especially with his hands. His head is shaved like a monk’s but he has black caterpillar eyebrows that twist gravely during the dramatic pauses that frequent his speech. He also has a tiny leather Prada bag that he carries everywhere. “We are a family here,” he tells me after I’ve seated, “You need anything,” his hand glides through the air, “just call me.” He makes a toothy grin and pulses his eyebrows as he taps his cigarette against its ashtray.
Soon another man enters the room. He’s called “The General”. The General doesn’t speak much, but he given the impression of being inwardly powerful. He looks a little older than Akram and Mahmoud and he’s got a stocky build. He wears simple but nice button-ups and khakis and has a pitch black cigar-shaped mustache. The General is clearly important but his specific role is unknown to me. He sits with us and he, Akram and Mahmoud discuss something in Arabic. I nod when it seems appropriate and laugh when everyone laughs. I know it’s weird but I think the alternative would be weirder. Eventually Akram looks at me and says, “Today we’re going to go to the prosthetics center so you can meet the people there and see the facilities.” This is exciting. Michael has repeatedly told me how interesting prosthetics are and I’m going to see it right off the bat. We all get up to head for the cars. Akram winces and clutches his stomach. He’s recently had appendicitis surgery. Apparently that’s why he’s wearing the dishdasha.
Akram and The General go in one car and I go with Mahmoud. Driving with Mahmoud, I get my first good look at Amman in daylight. As I mentioned before, it’s almost entirely beige. The desert ground is beige and every single building is made out of beige sandstone. The beige is only interrupted by advertisements and restaurant signs. Speaking of restaurants, westernization is very prominent in Amman. There are numberless McDonalds, Burger Kings, KFCs, Dairy Queens and Pizza Huts sandwiched between falafel shops and argileh lounges. Even worse is that all of the billboard models and newscasters are either white or done up in makeup and hair coloring to look white. I’m no better though. At one point Mahmoud fools me into believing that he’s never heard of a stoplight before, just as we’re pulling up to a stoplight.
We drive into the parking lot of a church complex called Our Lady of Peace. This is where the prosthetics center is held. Mahmoud walks me in and we take a tour of the school section of the complex. A young Jordanian woman shows us through various rooms filled with tiny desks and taped up crayon drawings. One room has a complete supermarket of toy foods in miniature aisles. These rooms are used to educate children with learning disabilities like autism and deafness. After we’ve seen all the rooms Mahmoud and I thank our guide and head to the prosthetics center.
We walk down a narrow white hallway. Mahmoud points out a stack of empty cardboard boxes and tells me that they once contained equipment sent by the Polus Center. At the end of the hallway, a door opens and a man on crutches emerges to greet us. He is Maher Odeh, and he runs the prosthetic center. Maher emits an aura of nobleness. He has a handsome face with sad eyes and his hair and beard are metallic gray. His legs are paralyzed so he needs the crutches to get around but he can stand without external support. A number of other personnel weave in and out of the prosthetics center with things like tea, questions and clipboards, but they all clearly orbit around Maher.
Mahmoud and Maher have a brief exchange in Arabic and then Maher speaks to me. I’m relieved to discover that he speaks English. He gives me a tour of the prosthetics center. It’s divided into several rooms. There’s a fitting room, a plaster room, a storage room and a big shop room, which Maher and I are in. It has all kinds of machinery: saws, sanders, ovens, vacuums and lots of things I don’t recognize. Maher brings me to a metal shelf holding some prosthetic legs, which is what Our Lady of Peace specializes in. He shows them to me at various stages of construction. The fully constructed one is covered in skin-colored cloth and looks just like a manikin leg. Without the cloth, you can see the different components of the leg, with the artificial foot, the steel pipe providing the central support and the large plastic cavity on the top that the amputee’s stump fits into. Maher shows me how a latex sheath fits around the amputee’s stump for comfort and adhesion and can be screwed through the base of the cavity into the steel pipe to create a stable whole. The legs he shows me aren’t jointed but they are surprisingly light and sturdy.
I sit down with Maher and he describes the process of fitting a person with prosthetics. First, many of the amputations done in Syria are done in haste by unexperienced medics. This means that amputees often have to go through several subsequent surgeries before they’re ready to be fitted for a prosthetic. Due to a lack of resources and trained personnel, amputees can wait for months before they receive prosthetic treatment and physical therapy. During this time, their muscles and ligaments often atrophy from excessive sitting. This means that once an amputee becomes a patient at a center like Our Lady of Peace they have to go through physical therapy before being fitted. Once the patient is measured and a prosthetic is constructed there is then another round of physical therapy to accustom the patient to the prosthetic. There is also a psychological component to the therapy. Patients often have unrealistic expectations for how soon and how easily they will be able to walk again. This easily leads to discouragement, which hinders the process. This necessitates that the rehabilitation staff talk to the patients about what to expect. Even after a patient is walking, they will likely have to return eventually and get refitted, especially if they’re a child, because their body has changed.
The complexity of getting just one amputee walking is head-spinning. Maher tells me how many for-profit prosthetic clinics cut corners on quality in order to have impressive prices and patient flow to show to donors. It was obvious from everything he’d said that these services can’t be fast, cheap and good. That is why institutions like Our Lady of Peace, which are not for profit and therefore prioritize the patients, are important. Additionally, Our Lady of Peace provides training in prosthetics and orthotics at a time when the demand for treatment in these areas greatly exceeds the number of people and organizations who can meet this demand. According to Maher, the field of prosthetic care is just getting established in Jordan. The courses taught at universities are largely theoretical and don’t give people the practical skills that Maher teaches at Our Lady of Peace. Maher looks a little exhausted after explaining all of this to me.
It’s time to go. Mahmoud and I thank everybody at the center and head back to the car. We drive to another site called Souriyat Without Borders where we reconvene with Akram and the General. Akram and the General have a long conversation with the staff there, but it’s in Arabic so I have nothing to say about it. After this meeting we head back to the ADT offices, debrief, and we’re done for the day.
I stumble back to my apartment building. The jetlag is coming on strong. Just as I’m about to walk in I hear the sound of drums and a strange bagpipe coming from around the corner. I walk over and see the final moments of a wedding taking place. There’s a long procession of cars taking up an entire street. The bride and groom are in the last car and around them dance everyone from little baby nephew to grandma. There are maybe ten young guys with drums just hammering away, plus the guy with the strange bagpipes. I wave to the bride and groom as they drive by as do the other random people who have gathered on the street to watch. The whole scene dissipates almost immediately after the nuptial car disappears around a corner, so I head back to my room to crash out and maybe get some writing done.
They drink this stuff in Amman called Turkish coffee. It tastes, for lack of a better word, exotic compared to American coffee. Its earthiness and bitterness are slightly lighter than those of American coffee and it has an additional smokey flavour from cardamom that is blended in with the coffee grounds. I watched Mahmoud make it once. He started by placing a little metal pitcher of water on a hot plate. Then he put in a spoonful of stevia, which I really wish he wouldn’t do. Next he took out a plastic jar of extremely fine coffee grounds mixed with cardamom and dumped in four heaping spoonfuls. He brought the mixture to a boil, then lifted the pitcher off the heat, let it cool, then put it back on the heat to make it boil again, and then repeated this process. Then the coffee was ready, so he poured it out into the dainty little coffee cups they keep around here. Because the grounds are never strained, when you get to the bottom of your cup there’s a little mound of coffee-sludge waiting for you. The first few times I had turkish coffee I thought you were supposed to drink this, until I noticed that no one around me was subjecting himself to this unpleasantness.
The interesting thing about Turkish coffee is that it’s probably much closer to the original forms of coffee than American coffee is. The earliest known references to coffee are from 15th Century Yemen. Medievals Sufis used coffee to stay awake during long religious rites. It wasn’t until the mid-17th century, after the Pope Clement VIII gave the greenlight on this Muslim beverage, that the first European coffee shops were established in Italy. It was when coffee entered Europe, specifically France by some accounts, that people started straining coffee grounds to avoid the aforementioned coffee-sludge. So drinking Turkish coffee is a nice history lesson for the tastebuds, and another reminder of how important Middle Eastern culture is to world history. I could do without the stevia though.
Yesterday I made the trip from France to Jordan. I hugged Alison, my mother’s friend whose place I stayed at in Montreuil, goodbye and climbed into the taxi. That was at 11:15 AM and my flight was at 2:45 PM, but Alison had recommended that I show up three hours early “in case something goes wrong.” Once the taxi arrived at Charles de Gaulle I paid the cabby, yanked my bulging suitcase out of the trunk and stepped to the curb. I reached for my iPhone to look up my itinerary but it wasn’t in its usual home in my right pocket. I smacked my left pocket and felt the impression of one lonely wallet. I spun around and saw my taxi driving away towards the highway. Leaving my luggage unattended, I ran after the taxi, waving my arms and shouting like a maniac. The taxi didn’t stop or slow down, but passed beneath the robotic arm of the ticket barrier and merged onto the highway. The arm came down in front of me as I watched the taxi with my phone inside of it disappear among the traffic.
My assertive side emerged in this panic situation and I tracked down the nearest timid-looking French guy and commanded him to lend me his phone. I called my sleeping mother to get Alison’s number then I called Alison to get the taxi company’s number and then I called the taxi company. In fifteen minutes the taxi drove back. The cabby handed me my phone and I handed him the last of my euros before heading to baggage check. On the way I called Alison and thanked her for getting me to the airport early.
I scanned my passport at the little touch-screen box by baggage claim. It spit out a boarding-pass-shaped piece of paper with a barcode and the message “WARNING: NOT A BOARDING PASS” printed on it. I waved this thing in front of the faces of a few airport personnel who all told me to just check my baggage and not worry about it, but their faces were concerned. When I finally reached the baggage check attendant and asked her what the implications of the paper were she said it was “difficult to explain in English.” Nevertheless, she checked my bag and told me to proceed to my gate and basically hope for the best. Fortunately, by the time I reached the gate this untranslatable problem must have resolved itself because the attendant at the desk there took my paper and replaced it with an actual boarding pass. From then on everything was smooth and uneventful, until I landed in Jordan.
The Jordanian authorities require entering foreigners to pay forty dinar (Jordanian currency) in order to get their visas and pass through customs. They have two ATMs and two currency exchange booths posted before the visa line to get your dinar. I went up to the closest ATM and popped in my card. A few minutes of waiting and button mashing later it ejected my card and told me to go somewhere else because it was in need of maintenance. I went to the next ATM, which told me that my transaction was “invalid”. Then I went to an exchange booth where my transaction failed again. I experimented, trying to extract different amounts from different machines and stations from different accounts, but nothing worked. Just before I entered into another panic an irishman tapped me on the shoulder and told me he was going to do his “good deed for the day.” He took me to the visa desk and payed for my visa himself. I shook his hand, thanked him and never saw him again. As I passed through customs I wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t show up. Would I have been stuck in the visa vestibule forever? My thoughts were interrupted once I emerged into the arrival area and saw a portly, balding Jordanian man holding a sign reading “Sam Copeland”.
This man was Mahmoud Edais, who was to become my main friend, guide and confidant in Amman. Mahmoud took me to his car and we drove off towards my apartment building. A full moon shone over the desert and the warm, dry night air was intoxicating after being cooped up in an airplane. The highway from the airport lay in the middle of an empty desert expanse, with a greater and greater density of buildings appearing as we approached the center of Amman. All kinds of unfamiliar architecture were lit up in red blue and green neon, with the occasional McDonalds of KFC making unwelcome appearances.
Mahmoud and I went over the usual getting-to-know-you stuff about hometowns and girlfriends and so on. We parked outside my apartment building and Mahmoud showed me around, pointing out where the Asia Development Training offices and the grocery store were. Then Mahmoud taught me how to cross the street, which ranks among the scariest things I’ve ever experienced. There are no crosswalks in Amman, nor do the drivers here seem to be bothered by the idea of pulverizing a pedestrian or two. So one crosses the street in Amman by stepping out into fast, unrelenting traffic and literally dodging cars. The mechanics of the procedure are identical to those of the old arcade game Frogger, where one’s frog avatar has to jump past cars and alligators in order to get from one side of the screen to the other. I survived my training with Mahmoud, and I bought some bottled water and toilet paper as a trophy. After braving the street again, Mahmoud and I went up to my apartment.
My apartment is big and beige, like Amman itself. The walls are spare and beige, as is the floor. However, there is a big couch and an armchair with a coffee table, a refrigerator, a television, a bathroom and the widest bed I have ever slept on. There is a kitchen section built into the living room complete with a sink, some cupboards and an oven. My only real concern with the apartment is this oven, which is connected via tube to a beat up looking tank of gas standing less than a foot away from it. The stove is coated in tin foil for some reason and the igniters make a loud, repetitive popping sound. Needless to say, any concern I once had about ISIS has been replaced by images of oncoming traffic and exploding ovens.
After Mahmoud showed me around my apartment he handed me the key and bid me goodnight. The last thing he said was that if I left the key in the keyhole after locking it “Nobody will be able to get in. Nobody.” I wondered briefly about which individuals had caused him to make that emphasis, but I was too tired to carry it through. I plopped into my wide bed and fell asleep for the first time under a Middle Eastern sky.
This blog is written by Sam Copeland, an intern with the Polus Center and Asia Development Training, about his time in Amman during the summer of 2017. It is meant to be read in a linear manner, so scroll down to the bottom and then go up for the full experience.