It’s been a very long two days, and I have so much to write about, more than ever before. The past two days have been filled with long, important meetings with all kinds of people from all walks of life. However, I’ll focus on the two most interesting ones: the British Embassy on Monday and yesterday evening with the Sheikh of Ghor Safi, a little village just south of the Dead Sea. For a village as small as Safi, which specializes in Potash production, bananas, and concrete blocks, Sheikh Suliman is more of a friend and elder to his people, and although it was a little intense, the meeting was a lot of fun.

I’ve been learning a lot of Arabic over the past few days, usually picking the most oft-used phrases out of Philip’s conversations with Ahmad and his older brother, Majid. My “Arabic For Dummies” book that I brought with me from America is turning out to be useless, as it specializes in foohsa, or “classical” Arabic which isn’t much use in Jordan where so many words and pronunciations are different. Philip has bought me a new book, this one with a computer CD, but I’m afraid it isn’t going to be much different! But everyone is very patient with my rudimentary skills and Philip reminds me to just take it easy and not try to learn everything at once. The words I use most often are moomtez, musboot, and shukran, which mean excellent, right (as in, I agree), and thank you. My mother and my old manager back at DoIT would be amused to learn that I quickly picked up the word for “like” in Arabic as well, yanni although Philip tells me that when he hears people use it (including himself) he wants to smack something. I’ll try not to let my use of the word “like” in English flow over into my Arabic.

Anyway, onto the meetings. The wife of a high-level member of the embassy got in touch with Philip recently, looking to get the British embassy into a recycling program. We met with the managers of the various sections of embassy management, from the housing for the employees, to the on-site restaurant/club, all the way up to the interior manager of the embassy itself. The meeting went really well, and the manager of the club in particular was very interested in setting up a recycling plan as soon as possible. Philip believes it may be possible to bring in 15-20 JD’s a day from the Club all by itself, before even adding in the embassy at a later date. However, so many of the Bellehdia (trash collectors) make a living from pilfering aluminum and plastic out of the cans that Philip requested a secure area for storage between weekly pickups.

I spent most of yesterday morning trying to figure out how to wire up Philip’s house for Internet. It seems the problem with Jordanian contractors is that it’s difficult for them to plan things out before implementing them (much to Philip’s aggravation) and so we have little documentation of how wiring systems and piping were laid out while Philip was in Ayn Al Bash (the location of Entity Green’s school) and back in America early in August. So far, between Ahmad, Philip, and myself, we’ve made 4-5 separate trips to Orange Telecom’s offices to figure out how we’re going to get a DSL internet line to the house (satellite and cable internet are nonexistent in Jordan).

Salt layers on the shores of the Dead SeaIn the afternoon, Philip announced that he was taking me to Ghor Safi to meet with the Sheikh to set up a recycling program of the massive amounts of plastic used in the banana fields to prevent water loss, and then thrown away each season. From Amman, the trip took about two hours, but as the road was literally about 100 meters from the shores of the Dead Sea almost the entire trip, I had no problem keeping myself occupied watching the thick, oily waves lap against the stained white shore. My book on Jordan, which I had brought with me, says that the Sea is not only Dead, but also dying – it’s losing about a meter of water each year through massive evaporation as the planet heats up. The sand and rocks along the shoreline were a testament of this fact – even 100 meters away, I could clearly see the salt crystals built up along the edge. To my left, massive, jagged stone walls that looked like they could topple over at any minute leaned over our truck, each stone worn smooth from where the Dead Sea had been a million years before. On the far side of the sea, Philip and I looked through the salty haze to the sunset, and the slopes of Israel. The other side had an eerie, dull-yet-picturesque glow to it. I didn’t see any buildings or habitation on that side – but the hazy was too thick to be for sure, even though it was only 6 in the evening.

We arrived on the outskirts of Ghor Safi to Entity Green’s concrete block-mixing facility, where we were met by Mohammad and Entity Green’s paid guard, Ibrahim. Since the facility isn’t yet in production yet, Ibrahim watches over it and lives on the grounds to make sure that no one breaks in. My first step out of the air conditioned truck was a gasping one – the massive increase in air pressure from being 400 meters below sea level was enough to make me dizzy, and the heat (about 40 degrees Celsius, or 120 degrees Fahrenheit) was intense. Flies buzzed about us constantly, and about 30 would settle about the cracks in Ibrahim’s sandals whenever he stopped moving. His expression remained blank and resolute throughout our brief stop at the facility, and within another few minutes, Mohammad gestured for me to join him in his small car and our little convoy went deeper into Safi to his home.

This was the first time I had ever stepped foot into a truly Arab home. I made sure to go last so I could watch what Majid, Philip, and Wajih did. We all took off our shoes (the others were all wearing shoes without laces, which I’m beginning to realize I should get some myself very soon as opposed to my hiking boots, which were the only things I brought). We immediately were shown to a large room to the left, with plush carpeting and thick upholstered cushions on the floor, arranged along the walls. Mohammad was chatting with Majid, and the two vanished into other parts of the house, leaving Philip and Wajih to converse with me in English. The temperature seemed to be little different in here than in the outside, but at least there were no flies. Mohammad and Majid soon reappeared, the former with thick red Chai tea for all of us, which he brought to each one of us in turn. “Shukran,” we murmured.

As the conversation resumed in rapid Arabic, I focused on picking up words that I knew and learning communicative gestures between Philip and Mohammad. As far as I could tell, they were setting up the meeting with the Sheikh and after twenty minutes or so, we piled into the truck again and headed into the dark night into central Safi. Majid had to drive very slowly, as no one seems to use sidewalks in Jordan, preferring to wander and play in the streets. He tapped his horn repeatedly as we passed swarms of children running around, and older teenagers looking bored in the dim light of storefronts. It was around 8PM or so at this time, when we arrived in front of a particularly busy store, where a tall, dark-skinned man with close-cropped hair in a long flowing robe greeted us loudly and with a firm handshake. This was Sheikh Suliman.

We followed the Sheikh up a dark staircase into his apartment, where we once again took off our shoes before entering the meeting room, which was similar to Mohammad’s in size and appearance, except this one had a whirring ceiling fan and the upholstery was chintz, with roses. We all spread out about the room, me of course sitting next to Philip so I might have a chance at figuring out what the hell people were talking about. As the Sheikh entered the room last, he was followed by a large, solemn looking young black man who sat in a corner of the room, watching us. The fan creaked noisily and seemed to do very little except push waves of the boiling hot air around the room. I could feel each one of them hitting me and I heartily wished that it wasn’t so expected of everyone to wear long pants at all times.

The solemn man in the corner disappeared for a moment as the Sheikh, Wajih, and Philip made small talk, and he reappeared minutes later with a tray of china and Guhuwa (coffee). Wajih watched me carefully as the two cups circled around the room, each person drinking one, then extending it back to the server with a small shake (“no more, thanks”). “It’s very hot,” he warned me. “It’s just coffee,” I retorted, and put the china to my lips after raising it to the Sheikh. The tablespoon of liquid entered my lips and I felt as if I had been branded by hot irons. I can’t really tell you how it was, as I’m pretty sure it vaporized most of my taste buds before they had time to register anything. Philip chuckled as I gasped and handed the empty cup back to the server with a shake, saying “dah’iman” (may it always be thus).

The meeting began slowly, but made rapid headway as Philip and the Sheikh spoke. Early in the meeting I made the mistake of wanting to get involved in someway, and when the Sheikh, laughing, guestured to his own robe and then Philip’s t-shirt, I saw my chance. “Camis XXL!” laughed Philip, and I chimed in happily with “Anna Taweel!” which means, “I’m tall!” the room instantly fell silent as everyone looked at me. I stared hard down into the roses printed on the cushions and after a few moments, Philip started talking again. I decided that keeping silent would be the best thing to do. Although they obviously were following along without difficulty, Wajih, Majid, and Mohammad said almost nothing as well. Wajih only spoke, it seemed, to translate some particularly difficult or regional Arabic for Philip. These 20-second lapses into English were my only glimpses into what was being spoken about and I treasured them as it gave me something else to do besides look interested-but-solemn. The Sheikh held a ring of pink prayer beads in his hand and fingered them absently as he spoke loudly about his interest in recycling and building new buildings around the village. He seemed to be telling a lot of jokes, which he would direct to Philip and Majid, the latter of whom was sitting to the Sheikh’s right, and as he would tell them, he would accent them by slapping or patting Majid’s knee demonstratively. Majid seemed to accept this as a matter of course, and nodded placidly whenever this happened. Occasionally the Sheikh would lapse into thoughtful silences, where he would lower his head, narrow his eyes, and stare straight ahead. Unfortunately, I was sitting directly across the room from him and it seemed like his intense, dark gaze was focused directly through my forehead, causing me to continue my intense visual inspection of the cushions.

As the first hour past, the solemn assistant vanished, and then reappeared again with more cups, and a pot of what I now instantly recognized as Chai. Gratefully, I accepted one (in this heat, I didn’t care what temperature a beverage was as long as it was liquid) and then another a few moments later. The server would instantly leap up to refill any glass that became empty until he was told “dah’iman” by the drinker. While we were all enjoying our tea and the conversation was a lull, the Sheikh turned to me and said something. Philip said, “He wants to know what you’re doing in Jordan, dude,” and I replied “al-Compuhterat?” and made the motions of turning a screwdriver. Everyone laughed and the conversation obviously turned to me, Wajih and Philip gesturing at me and with laughter punctuating the room. “What’s going on, man,” I muttered to Philip out of the corner of my mouth, and he grinned broadly and said “We’re selling you into slavery, dude.” which made Wajih laugh loudly and translate to the Sheikh, who asked me what my name was. “Ismee Zach!” I responded proudly, and he looked to Philip and Wajih in amused pleasure and made a guesture of eating, smacking his lips and rubbing his stomach. “Zekki Zekki!” he said, and after I looked nervously at Wajih, wondering if this meant I was going to be eaten for dinner, he saw my expression and said “Don’t worry about it, zekki means delicious or tasty.” I felt much more comfortable about this, and after a few more moments of everyone pointing at me and talking, the conversation turned back to recycling and building (I knew this because the Arabic word for “recycling” is “recycling”).

After another twenty minutes or so, I felt an uncomfortable sensation that made me realize that perhaps I shouldn’t have drank so much tea, so quickly. I waited for a lull in the conversation and said quietly and hopefully, “fee Hammam?” which of course means, “where is the bathroom?” The Sheikh leapt up instantly, as did Mohammad, who spoke rapidly to Suliman, requesting that he not worry himself about it and that he would show me. Wajih and Philip exchanged glances, which I didn’t interpret at the time, and Wajih said, “Be sure to put on your shoes when you leave the room, and take them back off before you come back in.”

I quickly found out why when I entered the bathroom, for there was my first “Arab Toilet” which is, as they say, literally a hole in the floor. The room was clean, and smelled of Jasmine flowers, but even so – I was extremely glad that all I needed to do was get rid of the tea from my system and nothing more. It took two or three minutes for me to figure out how to crouch in such a way that I wouldn’t get my pants dirty. I was rapidly learning why a robe was such a useful thing to wear when you lived in this environment. A small jug and a water tap sat next to the toilet, which I assumed meant I was to rinse some water down the hole. As I turned the tap in the sink outside afterwards, what looked like a small gray leaf shot out of the drain, and as it slowed I realized it was a small pink and grey lizard or gecko, living in the drainpipe. The poor little guy was just sitting around and probably didn’t a have a clue as to what was going on around him. Now he was just frantically trying to run up the walls of the sink, peddling his little legs against the slippery surface and not making any progress. “You and me both, little guy,” I muttered to myself as I reentered the room, kicking off my unlaced shoes.

As the meeting seemed to be coming to a conclusion, the server reappeared yet again, this time bearing a massive plate, about the size of a trash can lid, filled with a heaping portion of rice, limes, and chicken wings and legs, as well as khhubiz (flat bread). The Sheikh grandly invited us to dig in, which we all did. This was my first time eating at the “community plate,” and I was scared to death about showing the soles of my feet or eating with my left hand, both of which are major no-no’s in Arab culture. As I sat on my left hand to prevent myself from accidentally using it and munching my chickpeas and rice, mixed with the chicken, I knew I had to eat the latter very slowly to make sure I didn’t accidentally get a bone in my mouth – picking one’s teeth at a community dinner was something that my “Arabic For Dummies” book had told me was another cultural faux pas. Of course, as soon as I thought of this, luck would have it that such a bone got jammed into my gums right away. Majid stared at me inscrutably from the Sheikh’s right, and I wondered if I should ask to be excused. “Philip!” I whispered in anguish. “There’s a bone stuck in my teeth! What should I do?!” He paused in his chewing and smiled indulgently at me. “Well then, you should probably dig that out of your mouth then, dude,” and then resumed eating. I drew the bone out and dropped it onto the plate, and no one gave me a second glance. I don’t think that foosah book is going to be good for anything.

As the dinner drew to a close, the Sheikh gestured at me repeatedly. “Eat more!” he commanded, pointing to the only slightly less-heaping tray in the middle of the round table. “Eat!” I wasn’t sure how serious he was about this, so I made valiant attempts to shovel in another lime slice or two before falling backwards onto my cushion. As the main course was cleared away, our server placed a tray filled with apples, grapes, and peaches in front of us, which everyone tucked into. Already stuffed, I had a couple of grapes. Most of the other men went out onto the porch to have a cigarette, leaving only the Sheikh, Philip, and myself in the room. I tentatively tried again to improve my Arabic with the Sheikh. “Antaa Sudani?” I said hesitantly, recalling that the word “Sudani” had come up several times during dinner and I assumed it meant “the nationality of Sudan.” The Sheikh frowned and said, “Anna Arabiiya!” and Philip looked at me disbelieving and said, “Dude, did you just call him a peanut?” Philip consulted with the Sheikh, made sure he wasn’t angry (he was just amused) – apparently, the word sudan is peanut, but sudani was, as I had guessed, a person from Sudan. Even so, I once again resolved to shut myself up to prevent further such verbal slip-ups. However, as we were leaving, I did say “Shukran ashar’a moomtez,” thanking him for the excellent dinner, and he smiled widely and said, “Hamdillah, ma shallam!” which I think means, Thanks Be To God, Go With Blessings! Or something close to that. I was busy thanking God that I hadn’t screwed up my last chance to give the Sheikh the impression that I had half a brain in my head.

Although it was almost midnight by that point, it was still over 110 degrees Fahrenheit outside, and pressing my forehead against the window of the car as we headed home offered little relief until the air conditioning began to kick in. My last sight, before slipping away into sleep, were the twinkling lights of Israel, blinking and shining a ghostly blue in the darkness, far away across the sea.