It’s been a couple weeks since I had the time to sit down and write a new entry. We’ve been quite busy on this side of the ocean, what with preparing for and meeting with the regional representative from the U.S. Department of State, then another 60 kilometer bike ride over the weekend, in training for the upcoming Dead to Red relay, and then finally this past Sunday, a visit to Luay’s church in Ashrafieh, a traditional East Orthodox service that worships half in Arabic and half in old Aramaic.

The State Department visit was a week ago today, but we probably spent a good 2 weeks straight preparing for it, which basically involved polishing everything we could get our hands on, making sure our uniforms were looking their best, preparing the finest meal possible for the official and his entourage, and making sure that the grounds were picked over with a fine-toothed comb to remove the cigarette butts which are omnipresent everywhere in the Middle East. All of the teachers, including myself, were instructed to make sure that the students were on their best, most appropriate behavior, and that they realized that this State Department representative didn’t have emigration or visa-related powers, and that to ask him anything about those things would be very rude. I emphasized to my students that it would be the equivalent of walking through someone’s house, with their shoes on, and using their bathroom and then walking all over their house again. This was a military inspection, I reminded them, and since military service was mandatory in Iraq (and in Jordan as well), this got the point across. I heard from Nicholas though that his class wasn’t quite on the same page; they were asking him whether they could get autographs and pictures taken with the representative. I’m only half joking when I say I was surprised that Aaron didn’t have an EGT guard following them around, ready to tackle any student to the ground who attempted to run up to the entourage with a camera in hand.

Rejjub with white cook's uniformThe meeting itself went very smoothly. The representative, Charles Frederick, brought a group of officials from IRD and a couple members of his own team to the grounds in the late morning, and all of us teachers were trying to look as busy as possible, and more importantly, to have our students look busy too. Even though I was (still am) focusing on the theoretical and written aspects of the course with my students, I skipped ahead a couple weeks and had them get out some new computer cases and together we were installing motherboards by the time the group opened my door and poked their heads in. Aaron leaned closed to Mr. Frederick and said a few words about the class (only good things, of course), the man nodded thoughtfully, and then the door was closed again and they moved on. That was about it for my interaction with them. Wamidh was taken to their table during lunch as a model student (being able to speak English probably helped) and talked with the group about his experience as a plumbing student in the previous session. Lunch was in its absolute finest hour that day; a 3-course meal on china plates, and there were layers of decorated lace tablecloths on each table.

From what I heard from Aaron and Jeff later on the ride home, the meeting went quite well. The entourage was interested in what we were doing, and asked a lot of questions about the organization. We’re hoping that, insha’allah, we’ll be able to continue to keep the training center open after the State Department’s grant through IRD expires in September, if they like the work we’re doing here.

Several days later on Friday, I went out for my second bike ride with the Cycling Jordan team. The difference was is that this time I chose to do the advanced bike ride with them, which means that instead of getting ferried from Amman to the farm near the Dead Sea, you bike all the way from the city and meet up with everyone else at the end location. We couldn’t have picked a more beautiful, wet, rainy, and foggy day, and several times we were almost hit by buses barrelling out of the mist, honking angrily like geese and swerving drunkenly around us. Whereas two weeks ago the entire group in the “regular” ride contained about 50 people, this time our small “advanced” group numbered only 9. This made for a much closer bond between all of us, stopping for drinks occasionally and always only going 5-6 kilometers at top speed before meeting up again at the top or bottom of a mountain to make sure we were all still alive.

We saw some amazing vistas from our bicycles, especially on the outskirts of Amman where the buildings began to become sparse, and the rocks and little trees leapt into clearer focus for us. Everything was surrounded by the cloying fog, and the clouds blew eerily around us, creating little patterns of light where the otherwise bright sun broke through to hit the wet pavement. The mountain bikes we were using definitely had some problems on the steep hill climbs, and all of us had to stand on the pedals more than once in order to push ourselves up the ascents. Oftentimes, we would only have a matter of seconds at the apex of a mountain to shift the gears all the way from high into low, and begin speeding downhill again with little icy bullets of rain colliding with our sunglasses. I had a few frightening moments on my bicycle when the brakes seized up on me, sending me skidding to one side, and after examining the tread I realized that the centerline of tread had almost completely worn off. Makseem, a young Russian/Jordanian man who was applying for a job with Cycling Jordan, kindly switched bicycles with me after I discovered that. Ever since I knocked off half a tooth in a freak biking accident on a hill when I was a little kid, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable on hills on a bike, with no stopping power. After the bike trade though, there were no further problems for me.

Many times in mountains we found ourselves mere arm lengths away from a sheer cliff drop of several hundred meters, with nothing but sheep, goats, and donkeys for company. The road was little-traveled by cars and once again I marveled at the attention to detail in the good choices for routes that Cycling Jordan made. The donkeys enjoyed playing tag with us; when one of us would bike past, they would all suddenly kick up their heels and dart away, except for maybe one, who would run along the side of the asphalt, keeping pace with us, tossing its head and loping along with a weird, all-four-hooves-in-the-air skip. One of them decided to cross the road in front of me at a very inopportune moment and was literally half a meter away from being pancaked on the front of a semi that suddenly turned a corner in front of us, roaring up the cliff in the other lane. I think I almost fell off my bike in shock and relief for the poor thing.

The rain stopped after we were out of the mountains, and as we continued our slow but steady descent towards the sea, the sun finally made up its mind through burn through the clouds entirely, and we all peeled off layers of windbreakers and sweatshirts to reveal the track and biking uniforms below. I saw, for the first time at the base of the last cliff, the King Hussein Bridge, which is most well known for being the biggest crossing point between Palestine and Jordan, although of course it’s guarded by Israeli thugs more than any other nationality. Because of the high wind and rain that we had experienced in the high parts, though, we called Sa’ad and found that they had already reached the Marriott by the sea, and were about ready to head back by bus to the farm, and we were quite far behind. So we turned around near the Baptism site and headed back through the banana plantations, just in time for some hoummus and fu’ul at the farm with everyone else.

Luay and I had decided after my original trip with Cycling Jordan that we would have a church-based “cultural exchange” and so since he’d been coming with me to Amman International Christian for the past two weeks, I joined him this past Sunday at his own church, the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch (no holy handgrenades involved). Ashrafieh is a quiet, still neighborhood of tall, leaning apartment buildings and narrow roads, built into the side of its namesake jebel (mountain). Luay described his experiences biking to church a couple times, having to leave 2 hours early – an hour to get to the jebel, and then another to go up the side of it. The weather still hadn’t changed much from the wet wind blowing through the city, so we definitely hadn’t planned a bike trip for this particular occasion.

With the exception of the choir concert last December, I’d never been inside a Roman Catholic church, much less an East Orthodox one. It always intrigues me to see all of the images of Christ and Mary up all over the place as a stark contrast to the huge stained glass windows of the Lutheran churches of my youth. Luay introduced me to the Priest, a stout, bearded man with a thick gray beard and tiny spectacles wearing a long black robe and tight skull cap. When we arrived, there were only a couple people there, but over the next 20 minutes the attendance swelled into over a hundred. As it turned out, there were two special guests – the Bishop of the London Syriac Congregation, and the Bishop from Luay’s own former church in Baghdad. The former delivered the sermon, but the latter mostly stayed quietly off to the side, gray-bearded with a tall, pointed black hat.

I’d never seen a censer before, and it was rather alarming when suddenly two men came from the wings with small boiling pots with pine-smelling smoke flowing out of them. They walked all around the small room several times, swinging their censers and chanting quietly. The first hour of the service was singing in Aramaic, and Luay tried to help me through the song book the best that he could. He doesn’t speak Aramaic himself, but the book had three columns: one for the original Aramaic text, one for the transliteration into Arabic, and then a last one for the actual Arabic translation. I can read Arabic well enough now to be able to slowly follow along with some text when I hear the right sounds, but since all the words were actually Aramaic, it was like I was starting all over in another new language. There was a funeral/remembrance service for a member of the congregation that day, and 3 lace-veiled women in black robes were in the front pew, singing loudly and mournfully in perfect Aramaic without even glancing at the book.

When the Bishop from London stepped forward after the singing, two men pulled a cloak off of him, revealing a brilliant “coat of many colors” and a studded hood that reminded me of photographs of medieval knights. He had a high, clear baritone voice and that was about all I can tell you about his sermon, which although in Arabic was definitely in fuhsa (classical) and not the “Jorabic” that I use in my daily interactions. Luay told me later that he was blessing the deceased man’s life, and the bulk of the sermon was about the presence of faith in our lives. Or something, I’m not entirely sure. At the end of the service, the congregation came forward and, oddly enough, kissed and touched a massive Bible encased in Gold with an ornate carving of the Cruxification on it. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do, so I just patted it gently and then crossed myself (we were doing a LOT of crossing ourselves during the service), which seemed to go over just fine with the watching Arabs. I couldn’t spend much time at the post-service fellowship because I needed to get up to Ein al Basha to teach the afternoon half of the course, but Luay took me to the head of the hall to meet the Bishop of London, who greeted me in perfect English and welcomed me to the church and to Jordan.

That’s been the events of the past week, and things are just getting started here. Practices have increased for Dozan wa Awtar, in preparation for what will hopefully be a trip to Syria in a couple months to perform with other national choirs from around the “3llum Arabeeya” – the Arabic World. It’s actually been cold enough here to even snow for about 30 seconds (the drops of rain actually started to blow in a breeze, so we could tell it had turned to snow), and this weekend is supposed to be the coldest ever. I’m supposed to go out with Pat and some friends from the school to Lot’s Cave in the south, so hopefully it’ll be another good weekend trip!