After subsisting for two days on my Turkey goodbye-presents (fantastic olives from Berna and a bag of not-altogether-delicious cookie approximations from Yagmur), I decided last night that it was time to go in search of food. Stepping out the front door of the hotel, I noticed three things all but immediately:
1. Everyone was wearing those medical masks you’d see in Asia around SARS time, because
2. the air was thick with yellow dust. I later asked the hotel manager about this and was told that “people are very angry. In twenty years, first time this happen.” http://www.jordantimes.com/?news=30299
3. Presumably unrelated: It was about 8:00 pm when I went outside, and all the shops were closed. A good 90% of them, anyway. Really, nobody ever needs anything after dark? How bizarre.
I did manage to find one shop which had yet to close its doors, and bought yogurt and bread. I thought one pita bread would probably cut it, so I held up a single finger and pointed to the stack the wizened bread man was shoveling into a plastic bag. He proceeded to put about thirty pitas into a bag, give his work a critical eye, then add another thirty. “Ok, one dinar.” Whoa. And here I was thinking that Jordan was expensive. I ended up getting five and paying around ten cents.
Jabar and I got to talking in the afternoon. “Why do you go to Israel?” he asked. “Stay in Jordan, I have many friend in the schools, in the government, you do private lesson, make so much money. Jordan is better.”
“Not Israel, exactly,” I felt compelled to clarify. “I have a job in Nablus.”
Jabar looked stunned for a moment and peered at me over his mustache (it is an epic mustache). “Why you hate Israel? I am a Jew! My family, Jews! I come here from Israel!”
Ohhhh man. Was I about to get thrown out of his hotel? My name scrawled by one of his government friends on some secret WEST BANK: NO list? “I don’t hate Israel! I don’t hate anybody! I told you I want to learn Arabic, right? I wouldn’t be able to do that in Israel...”
“No!” he boomed at me. “I see it in your eyes! You hate Israel and my people!”
There was an absolutely deafening silence, and then:
“AHAHAHAHA! HOHO! You think I am a Jew! You believe me! Hohoho!”
Ahh, Jabar, you joker. As it turns out, he’s a Palestinian refugee, now effectively exiled from his homeland and refused a visa by the Israeli border guards, in contact with his (as-yet) undisplaced friends only through luckier acquaintances who have the privilege of traveling from the West Bank to Amman and back on business. I should maybe have guessed: above the door hangs a massive picture of a keffiyah-wearing Palestinian, hauling a boat towards an empty shore. On the boat is crammed a city, unmistakeably Jerusalem. “We want peace,” Jabar said, pranks forgotten now. “Only peace, but it will never happen. We will have war forever.”
Jamal, one of said luckier acquaintances, ex-limo driver in the Bronx (“I never wanted to drive a limo... now I drive a bulldozer and I am much happier”), was similarly pessimistic about the situation. Although he lives in Nablus and reassured me that things there have been very stable and safe since the last intifada, he made it clear that- obviously- there’s no love lost between his people and the Israeli army. When I asked about the impeding end of the settlement freeze in the West Bank, he only laughed. “Netanyahu say there will be agreement before the freeze ends. We fight more than twenty-five years and he say we agree in three days? Impossible! There is plan already, thousands of new building!” Buildings he presumably daydreams about razing with his bulldozer.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not the only topic of discussion we covered on Lonely Planet’s no-go list. Not being particularly religious myself, it’s not a subject I generally find it particularly difficult to avoid, but Jabar seemed desperately keen to instruct me in the differences between Christianity and Islam, especially after he asked my own faith (“Uhhhh,” I replied, ever so convincingly, “ummmm, Protestant?” I don’t like to lie, but people in the Middle East and Africa often meet a claim of atheism or agnosticism with disbelief at best and disrespect at worst). An impromptu yet elaborate puppet show was laid out on the table- Jabar’s lighter was the Old Testament, his L&M cigarettes the New Testament, and Jamal’s Winstons the Qur’an; an ashtray became Jesus (no symbolism intended, I assume, since Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet too- just not THE prophet), while a teacup played Muhammad and a length of rubber tubing he kept whacking me on the knee with for emphasis got the lead role of God. He didn’t try to convert me- really- but did imply rather strongly that it was probably for the best unless I like fire a whole lot.
He said that only a few of his eight daughters are good Muslims- wearing the hijab, abstaining from alcohol, fasting at Ramadan- but he doesn’t try to enforce anything with the rest. “I do not want to make them do this,” he said. “After they truly believe Islam, they will want to for their selves.”