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.
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.