As the vehicle slows to a stop in traffic on the interstate and the baby cries in the back, I can’t help but wonder if the traffic jam we are encountering was caused by the wreck of the Republican clown car. It was not our intention to arrive in South Carolina on the day of the Presidential primary, it just worked out that way. The great American spectacle unfolds and we are driving through the middle of it as we meander south in the camper van. The TPP is approved, the largest US military budget ever is passed, more and more NATO military assets are moved closer to Russia, the blown up financial system is ready to pop but HEY everybody look at Donald Trump!
When I was in junior high school I used to watch professional wrestling on tv. Then one day, my older brother informed me that wrestling wasn’t real. It was acting. The wrestlers are characters in a story who are following a script. The outcome is pre-determined. I have thought the same thing about US politics since the 1990s. This year’s presidential performers are sure putting on a show…
This week’s travel story is from the Middle East a couple years ago. Not surprisingly, it has some connection to the ongoing presidential extravaganza.
Amman, Jordan; February 2013
The Jihad Cafe
The first one I went to was in Turkey but I have probably been to a hundred since then. I go almost every day. They are everywhere in the Islamic world. Comparable culturally to sports bars in the United States, smoking cafés are ground zero for male bonding and intense conversation. Muslims don’t drink alcohol so tea and coffee are the only beverages but a variety of tobacco smoking options are also available. I don’t speak Arabic or Turkish, of course, so I don’t understand the conversations going on around me. But I like to sit in the smoky atmosphere and listen to the flow of foreign words as I sip tea or coffee. As a general rule, I don’t enjoy tobacco products, but this whole shisha thing is kind of fun. I’m not an addict yet but I am becoming an aficionado of cultural immersion. If I want to understand their ways, I have to participate in their rituals. We drink beer and argue about sports and politics in the U.S. while they smoke shishas and discuss Islam and jihad in the Middle East. It really is the same bowl of potatoes.
So, here I am again, at another café drinking tea and absorbing the scene. I have a balcony seat today. I am overlooking a busy street in downtown Amman, Jordan. Meanwhile, just inside this glass door there are dozens of crowded smoky tables effervescing with animated conversation. I am searching for a sliver of peace in between the chaos of the outside and the chaos of the inside. The server comes out the glass door bringing a bucket of hot coals and the loud conversations from inside come roaring out to the balcony. I am trying the mint flavored tobacco today. The server uses some tongs to put hot coals in the basin of the shisha. I inhale deeply as the tobacco lights up. I know it’s not good for me but still, the burning sensation on my lungs feels good. It has some kind of mystical power. The server turns and goes back inside and closes the balcony doors. I exhale a rather large cloud of smoke towards the sky above. It feels as if a sensory volcano is erupting inside of me. And then, all of a sudden, something remarkable happens. I overhear a conversation taking place just inside the glass door of the balcony. Somebody is talking in English. And the subject they are discussing is jihad…
Amman, Jordan is the original Philadelphia that the Philadelphia in the U.S. was named after. The City of Brotherly Love in Jordan should now, however, probably change it’s motto to the city of Refugees. Located at a crossroads of several war zones, Amman and its environs are home to one of the highest concentrations of war refugees on the entire planet earth. There are Palestinian refugees and Iraqi refugees and Syrian refugees. They crowd the cafés; fill up the buses and occupy space in the overflowing streets. There are now more refugees than official citizens but the country keeps welcoming more. Give us your tired and your poor and your hungry and your war torn. We have no more space or resources but we will accept them anyway.
I arrive in the afternoon but the bus does not stop at a Central bus station. Instead, I am somewhat unceremoniously dropped off on the side of a busy highway underneath an underpass. There are, however, a bunch of taxis there so it’s not a problem. The taxi takes me to a cheap hotel on Faisal Street somewhere near the center of all the action in downtown. The ancient Roman theater is around the corner on the main road and the Citadel is straight up the hill that rises behind me. But those are the tourist attractions. For now, at least, I’m more interested in the everyday attractions. I hope there are some good restaurants and cafés.
I check into a room and then head out walking in the crowded streets. With lots of people per square inch, the human population here is dense and intense. I have to be careful to avoid collisions. It feels like there is not enough space on the sidewalk. The people seem nice and polite but I would not describe them as overly friendly. It seems big cities cause humans to grow shells. I cut through some alleyways and find myself on Basman Street. Lots of vehicle traffic here; exhaust fumes and honking horns pollute my consciousness. Where am I going? What am I doing? I don’t know. The sights and sounds of the chaotic street turn me round and round. As usual, I don’t understand Arabic so that adds to my confusion. Nevertheless, I like to imagine that I am finely tuned to the energy of my surroundings. This is the Arab street. I am immersed in the quintessential Arab universe and I’m trying to understand what it is all about. It feels tumultuous… it feels anxious… it feels like something is about to happen… Is it a powder keg waiting to explode or a power source of infinite potential ready to build and create a beautiful new world?
The ubiquitous smoking cafés are, indeed, ubiquitous. There seems to be several on each and every block. Usually they are on the second floor with balconies overlooking the street. But the entrances are not well marked. I’m about due for my afternoon coffee and a smoke so I scan the neighborhood for a place that looks welcoming. I see a nice balcony up above on Hashemi Street. Now, if I can only find the way in. There is a sign around the corner in the alley pointing towards an unmarked doorway in a big old building. The stairway behind the door is dingy, dark and not very inviting. Is this really the entrance? I climbed two flights of stairs to find masterfully crafted double wooden doors with a sign in Arabic script. The doors are closed. Should I push them open? Why not?
The doors push open and I walk myself into an amazing scene. It is loud. No music is playing but foreign words crash about randomly in the atmosphere. There are about thirty tables scattered around a very large open room. The floor is carpeted, the walls are paneled and the air is thick with smoke. Most of the tables are occupied with groups of Arab men of all ages. The men are drinking tea or coffee and smoking cigarettes or shishas. Most significantly, however, they are talking intensely. I can see many hand gestures and vivid facial expressions. There are boisterous laughs and loud guffaws. There are raised voices and threatening looks between people but no fights. I can’t help but wonder what they are so excited about. If only I understood Arabic.
“Can I help you,” says the bearded Arab man who approaches me.
“Coffee and shisha?” I say, “can I get one here?”
“Yes,” he says, “take seat. I bring you.”
I point towards the glass doors across the room. “Balcony?” I say, “can I sit there?”
“Yes,” he says, “terrace. Sit there. I bring you.”
My walk across the smoky room is so ripe with dramatic possibility, I’m wishing there was an overhead camera to capture the scene. Hey everybody; there’s a stranger in the room. The tall gangly white dude with crazy long hair saunters casually through a room of animated Arabs. Will they welcome him? Or shun him for intruding upon their private space? Will they assault him? Will they harass him? Allah only knows what those Muslims will do. Actually, they barely notice me at all. A few look up and glance in my direction and a couple give me a silent nod. But for the most part, everyone is so busily engaged in tumultuous conversation that my unusual presence does not even register. Truthfully, I suffer a few pangs of envy. I long for intellectual banter and intense conversation in my own life. I don’t speak Arabic so it’s not really possible here. It sure would be nice though. I used to find that sort of thing at the local bars in the States. But now that most of the bars back home have added televisions, conversation has sort of disappeared. If only there was some way to bring conversation back. I notice that this café in Amman has no television. It’s amazing the difference a propaganda box can make.
I reach the other side of the crowded smoky room and push open the glass doors. Out on the balcony, there are four tables with two chairs at each table. All the chairs and tables are empty. It’s kind of misty and grey outside and also a bit cool. It is not exactly the best afternoon for sitting on a terrace. Oh well, it’s not raining now and there is a fine view of the busy street. I choose a chair near the door and make myself comfortable.
I don’t close the door because I want to make sure the server sees me. While I wait for him, I listen to the cacophony of sound coming forth from inside. It’s amazing, fantastic and incredible. I can hardly describe it. I don’t understand the meaning of the words but the chaos of language sounds like a symphony. There are shouts and there is laughter. There is enthusiasm and there is anger. I don’t understand how but I do feel the power. It sure is beautiful to be a human on this great planet earth.
The server comes out with my coffee and a shisha. He sets the coffee on the table and the shisha on the floor next to me. He offers me a choice of tobaccos and I choose the mint flavor. He packs the pipe with the tobacco and promises to return shortly with flame. When he goes back inside, he shuts the glass doors behind him and the scene changes completely. The door is solid and tight. It shuts down sound. And when the noise from the inside goes silent, the chaotic sounds of the street reach my ears. I look over the balcony and see a traffic jam and a people swarm. The road is backed up with cars and the sidewalks are crawling with humans. Horns honk, people shout, engines rev and more people shout. Not quite as harmonious as the music from within but a pretty impressive display of human noise-making ability nonetheless. I sit back in my chair and take my first sip of coffee. Not bad, not bad at all. I wanted to learn about the way Middle Eastern People live, this little balcony is smack dab in the middle of it all.
The server returns with a bucket of hot coals. As the door opens, the loud Arabic conversation from inside roars its way back out to the balcony. The server uses some tongs to put hot coals in the basin of my shisha. I inhale deeply as the tobacco lights up. It has some kind of mystical power. The server turns and goes back inside and closes the balcony doors. I exhale a rather large cloud of smoke towards the sky above. A sensory volcano is erupts inside of me. And then, all of a sudden, something remarkable happens. The closed door muffles most of the sound from inside but I can overhear a conversation taking place just on the other side of the glass door of the balcony. Somebody is talking in English. And the subject they are discussing is jihad…
“I don’t care what al-Zarqawi said, killing civilians is not jihad; it is terrorism. It can never be justified under Islamic law.”
“They kill our citizens so we kill theirs. It is only fair.”
“What you talk about is not fairness. It is vengeance. It is the way of the weak.”
“It is a tactic that works very well. Foolish infidels are easily manipulated with fear. Slaughter a few in a spectacular action and they all start behaving stupidly.”
“What you call a tactic, I call a violation of sacred law. Jihad means the “defense” of Islam. It does not mean the “offense’ of Islam. You are called upon by Allah to wage jihad against all those who are attacking the Muslim community. Kill the soldiers, yes. Kill the occupiers, yes. Kill the Presidents and the Generals who command their wars. But do not kill innocent civilians. That only lowers you to the level of the Crusader.”
“I’m sorry, my brother, but you seem to misunderstand a fundamental fact about our enemies. The crusader countries are democracies. They choose their leaders and pay taxes to support their attacks on Muslim People. Therefore, they are all guilty. They are all enemies of Islam and they are all righteous targets of jihad.”
“I’m sorry, my friend, but it is you who are mistaken. This Democracy you speak of is but the propaganda of their rulers. The typical citizen has no say in what they do. Many Westerners are friends of Islam. Many Westerners mean us no harm. Such people are not righteous targets. To kill your friends is not jihad, it is stupidity.”
“Sometimes innocents have to be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good.”
“And what greater good is that my brother?”
“The triumph of Islam; the establishment of the Caliphate; and the full implementation of shariah law.”
“So you would violate Islam by killing innocents in order to establish Islam. I think Allah would not approve.”
At this point, my thoughts are interrupted. The server returns again with my second cup of coffee and a glass of water. When he opens the glass doors, a flood of Arabic words pour out into the air. The English conversation I was so intently listening to somehow disappears amid the chaos of sounds. When the server leaves again, closing the door and all the interior commotion behind him, the English conversation does not return. Where did it go? Where did it come from in the first place? I put my ear close to the glass in an attempt to recover the signal but I have no luck. The rumble beyond the window pane is muffled, anxious, tumultuous Arabic. There is no English being spoken. Perhaps it was all my imagination.
I finish my coffee at a relaxing pace and write a little bit in my journal. When I exit my seat, open the glass balcony door and walk back through the smoky room, it is almost an hour later. Nevertheless, I look around in an attempt to identify the English speakers from before. For reasons I can’t explain, I’m imagining an older and wiser Mohammed, with a thick grey beard dressed in traditional clothes and a young whipper-snapper Abdula, of military age dressed like a westerner. I especially focus my attention on the tables closest to the balcony door. But I see no one who matches my internal image and no one that seems to be speaking English. Instead, there are five or six people at each table and they all seem to be expressing themselves vociferously at the same time. The language they speak is definitely Arabic. I wonder what they are discussing. Soccer perhaps… Or local gossip? Or the sudden rise in vegetable prices? Or jihad? No matter; no one is interested in talking to me. I am a non-entity at this social function. I find the server, pay my bill, and descend the dingy staircase back to the busy crowded streets of Amman.