The Promised Land
Amman, Jordan; February 2013
I think they are from Iowa in the United States, but I can’t say for sure. They are middle aged with grey hair, expansive waistlines and Midwestern accents. “I can’t believe we are really here,” says the woman. “This is where it happened. This is where it all began. God told Moses that the lands of Israel belong to the Jews. Look honey. Isn’t it amazing? The map points everything out. All of Israel is before us. Can’t you just imagine God and Moses standing here, on this very spot and God pointing it all out. All this land belongs to your people Moses.”
“That’s why they call it the Promised Land,” says the man, “God promised it to the Jews.”
I am standing about ten feet behind the couple. I am politely waiting for them to finish their turn at the lookout before I step forward to check out the special view. We are on Mount Nebo; another Biblical tourism hotspot. It is the dramatic setting for the closing scene of the Book of Exodus. According to the story, God talked to Moses here and gave him the lands of Israel. Walking around the Mountain, it’s fairly easy to understand the origin of the story. The view is spectacular. All of Israel is literally spread out before me like a single plot of land. I, myself, can almost hear the voice of god talking. “It’s all yours my son, it’s all yours.” No doubt about it, the guy who wrote the story probably sat on this very spot and dreamed the whole thing up. Sure, why not, a complex metaphor, a well designed plot and lots of interesting characters. Put it down on paper and it will be a best seller for years to come.
If you ever find yourself in Amman, Jordan, or anywhere else in Jordan for that matter, you have to try the lamb mensaf. As a general rule, I like to sample a great variety of meals from the many different cultures I visit and when I arrived in Amman I intended to work my way through the full range of culinary possibilities. But I had the lamb mensaf my first night there and I could not bring myself to order anything different for the whole week afterwards. Oh my god… so delicious. I could probably eat it every day for a year. One of these days, I’m going to have learn how to make it myself.
When not eating lamb, I drink coffee and tea and smoke shishas. I move from cafe’ to café and restaurant to restaurant. I wander along the wide streets and meander through the narrow souks of the big city. I don’t see many tourists or Westerners; it’s a very Arab and very crowded place. There are ruins to see in the city; some ancient columns, a citadel and a Roman theatre. I also have a couple of excursions planned. I am going to see Jerash on one day and I want to go to the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo on another day. I’m saving Jerash for the very end though and the Mount Nebo thing is complicated by the lack of public transport there. I don’t really want a tour and hiring a car and driver for a day is a bit pricey. While I hesitate, I have a few days to just hang out here in downtown Amman and learn a little about the proverbial Arab Street.
It’s hard to believe that this city is the Evil One’s hometown. As everyone knows, the Evil One is a fictional character that has appeared in human literature throughout history. Not surprisingly, the international media has appropriated the concept and used it for its own purposes. Western imperial wars are always fought accompanied by a metaphor of goodness. The American and European audience that buys the metaphor needs to see the face of the evil they are defeating. As such, the propaganda machine always provides us with one. Sometimes it’s a cruel dictator and sometimes it’s a terrorist mastermind. For quite a while there, Osama Bin Laden ruled the roost but then he got replaced by Saddam Hussein. Nowadays, Assad of Syria is in the crosshairs. Back in the mid 2000s though, when Saddam was dead and Osama in hiding, a new face of evil took center stage for a while. He was a Jordanian from Amman named al-Zarqawi. If you lived in the states at the time, you have to remember him. For a year or two there, his image was everywhere. It seemed like every day there was another spectacular attack in Iraq and the photo used to accompany the article or story about the attack was a picture of this Jordanian guy. Seriously, they made him seem like super terrorist. There was no way one guy could be responsible for such destruction. He would have to use teleportation or somehow manage to be in six places at once. I can’t help but wonder if he had an exceptionally good publicity agent that used the internet effectively to give him credit for atrocities he didn’t commit. Or if there was some other reason the Powers that Be wanted to single out this one insignificant angry violent Arab and transform him into an international media star.
He’s dead now. They killed him with a drone strike or a hellfire missile or sniper fire or some other modern technique. Or maybe, he blew himself up. I don’t know actually, I guess I could look it up. But it doesn’t matter because his legend lives on and his story lives on and that story is changing the world. At this particular moment, I walk the same narrow streets where he walked. I sit in the same café’s and I smoke the same shishas as he did. His face is a common one. I see his various look-a-likes a few dozen times a day. I wonder if he liked the lamb mensaf. How could he not?
According to the legend, the evil one appears sporadically throughout the history of humans in order to lead the gullible and the foolish to the side of darkness. He speaks a message of hate disguised as a message of hope. His usual audience is the downtrodden, the defeated, the abused, the outcasts and the forgotten. Angry young men driven from their homes into lives of poverty and misery on the streets of big foreign cities and in the camps of concentrated humans are drawn to the Evil One’s fiery speeches. The Evil One offers them a different life, a glorious life and maybe even a glorious death. He offers them belonging and a cause to believe in. He offers them paradise… or, in the alternative… the Promised Land. It’s an alluring concept; fertile fields for farming, flowering fruit trees, grazing animals, flowing water… a land of milk and honey. It’s a perfect place to raise a family and live in accordance with God’s law. All you have to do in order to get your gift of the Promised Land is massacre the invading, occupying, unbelieving infidels and traitors who are living there now. God wants you to do it. Allah says so.
In the case of the Jordanian guy, Mr. Z, he founded an organization called Al Qaeda in Iraq. The original purpose of that organization was to establish a new homeland somewhere in the Middle East where true Muslims could live according to God’s law. All infidels and traitors would be expelled or killed but true believers would come from around the world to be a part of the new real Islamic Caliphate. Mr. Z’s organization later changed its name to Isis and has now evolved into the Islamic State. Mr. Z. is dead but his legend and his dream lives on. The Islamic State has now acquired the land they were “promised.” But they violated an awful lot of Islamic Law in order to do so. The Evil One would argue that the ends justify the means because that is what the Evil One always argues. But the truth is, the means and the ends are one.
Anyway, that’s me philosophizing as I walk the streets of Amman and move in and out of the smoky cafes. No one bothers me or harasses me. Everyone treats me with politeness and kindness. But I have no substantial conversations. I don’t interview subjects. It’s is nothing more than random thoughts stimulated by my surroundings.
When I return to my hotel in the evening, the guy at reception informs me that a German guy has checked in who wants to go to the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo. If we share a car and a driver, it will save me a lot of money. The German is called down to the lobby and we meet. His name is Hans, he is an accountant from Berlin on a seven day holiday in Jordan. He seems nice enough and I appreciate anyone who would choose Jordan as a holiday destination. So we agree to rent the car and driver together and the excursion is arranged for the following morning.
Hans is a bit boring. We meet for breakfast before the car arrives and we pretty much run out of conversation by the end of the first cup of coffee. He’s very concerned about the cost of things and he repeats several times that Jordan is a very economical holiday. He wants to see Petra because of the Indiana Jones movie and Wadi Rum because of Lawrence of Arabia. He has an extra day in Amman so he thought he would visit the biblical sites. He was raised a Christian but is not one anymore. “Religion is for children,” he says. “Adults don’t believe that stuff. But it shall be interesting to see the sights.”
The driver arrives. His name is Abdula and he speaks a little English. He will take us to the Dead Sea first. The ride there is uneventful. I force conversation with Hans by telling him more than he wants to hear about my time in Petra and Wadi Rum as we make our way through the crowded big city, out into the barren outskirts over some hills and down, down down to the Dead Sea. It takes over an hour to get there and the place we arrive at is some kind of resort. There are swimming pools, lawn chairs, a restaurant and a roped off swimming area and beach on the Dead Sea where a couple of lifeguards keep an eye on things. Abdula says he will wait in the restaurant. We can go to the beach for as long as we want.
Swimming and/or floating in the Dead Sea… that’s right, I’m doing it. I can now check it off the infinite bucket list. But really, the experience itself is not particularly special. It’s kind of fun to float but the warm water burns the eyes and feels funny on the skin. There are cool water faucets for rinsing just up the hill and the back and forth game of warm float/ cool rinse provides a certain physiological thrill. But the novelty wears off quickly and the reality of a day at the beach sets in. A day at the beach with Hans… What fun!
We only hang out for about an hour. Then we go find Abdula in the restaurant and continue our journey. Next stop… Mount Nebo… the setting for the climax of Exodus… Where Moses gets the Promised Land… It’s a long drive up, up, and up. The Dead Sea is below sea level and Mount Nebo is over a thousand feet. There is a parking area near the top and some benches in the shade. Abdula says he will wait for as long as we like. There are several pathways that circle around the top, some monuments, some plaques and a restaurant. There is also a church but it is closed for renovations. Hans and I split up almost immediately. It’s not a huge space so no doubt we will re-connect again soon. It’s nice to wander solo for a little while and let my mind wander in the inspirational setting. I can see for hundreds of miles in every direction. I think that is Israel out that way and straight ahead.
The pathway leads to a rocky cliff that has a railing and a signpost. An older couple is looking at the sign and talking as I approach. I don’t want them to feel crowded or pressured so I stop a short distance back, take out my camera and look out towards the horizon in search of the perfect photo. Nevertheless, I can overhear their conversation. “That’s why they call it the Promised Land. God promised it to the Jews.” It never ceases to amaze me how so many humans mistake metaphor for reality.
When the older couple moves on, I take my turn at the lookout and sign. Sure enough, it’s a map of sorts… all of Israel is laid out before me like parcels on a realtor’s big board. The sign labels the highlights. Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethlehem…
“It’s all yours my son, it’s all yours.” Says the voice.
“Thanks but no thanks,” I say, “I appreciate the offer but I’m not interested.”
“You have no choice,” says the voice, “you are the chosen people. Not you in particular, of course, you are too old already, but your people are special. Your ancestors will have dominion over all this land as far as the eyes can see.”
“But there are people down there,” I say. “You can’t see them from up here but there are millions of other people there. I don’t want to have dominion over other people. They are alive and free. Why can’t all people just live in harmony?”
“But those people are unbelievers,” says the voice, “they are not chosen so you will smite them. You will put them to the sword and the gun and the smart bomb and the drone and the hellfire missile.”
“But I don’t want to. War is not my way. Dominion is over-rated. I don’t want to own the Promised Land, I want to share it with everyone; the Muslims, the Jews, the Christians… the atheists. No one has dominion over anyone. Everyone can live in peace.”
“You are confused,” says the voice, “war is the way of the world and your side is going to win. That should make you happy.”
“I am not confused at all,” I say, “you are the evil one and not god. I will not accept your unholy offer.” In order to emphasize my rejection, I step up to the railing, raise my fist in the air and shout, “you can keep your blood soaked Promised Land. I don’t want it. I want to be free!”
After my proclamation, I turn away from the cliff and see Hans walking towards me on the trail. “Well, hello, Patrick,” he says, “I see you have found the lookout.”
“It’s quite the view,” I say.
Hans steps forward and looks at the sign. He then looks at the horizon. “How does the story go,” he asks me, “do you know? The bible one where Moses talked to God?”
“I don’t remember it exactly,” I say, “but I think I understand the basics. The Jews were miserable slaves in Egypt until the prophet Moses talks to God on Mount Sinai. Apparently, God tells Moses that if his people will agree to follow the Ten Commandments, God will help them escape slavery and he will show them a new place to live. In other words, Moses promises obedience to God’s laws and in exchange, God promises Moses land. God then proceeds to provide some supernatural assistance to Moses and his people. First he performs a few magic tricks to convince the Egyptians to let them go; then he parts the Red Sea so they can escape the pursuing army and then he assists them with food and water when they are wandering aimlessly in the desert for a very long time. Finally, after all this saga and all this adventure, Moses and his people end up here or right near here. Moses comes up to this spot where we are now and he talks to God again. This time God congratulates Moses for escaping slavery and reaching his destination. He points out the lands of Israel down there and he tells Moses that those are the lands he promised him. Moses is very old now so he, himself, won’t live to make it into the Promised Land. But God assures him that his ancestors will live happily ever after there. The end.”
“But no one lives happy ever after in Israel,” says Hans, “they are always at war there.”
“That’s the next book of the bible,” I say, “the story about unbelievers falling to the sword. But I don’t know that one so well. We never talked about it much in school and Hollywood never made a movie about it. The freedom story that ends with Moses on this mountain is much more interesting and inspiring than the bloody conquest story that comes afterwards.”
“The freedom story is not true either,” says Hans, “archaeologists have proven that Jews were never slaves in Egypt. “
“Truth or fiction doesn’t matter,” I say, “the story has power because people believe it. Everyone supports the cause of freedom, not so many go along with the story of conquest.”
Hans and I walk back to the parking area together. Along the way, I tell him my theory about fiction and subjective truth. In my opinion, there is more truth in a well told story based in experience than there is in a list of boring objective facts. In other words, it you want to understand reality, you have to immerse yourself in the lie. Hans thinks that I am crazy. Facts are facts. He believes in numbers and the scientific method.
When we wake up Abdula on the bench near the car, it is still early afternoon. He says we have time for a visit to Madaba. Madaba is a pleasant small city that is famous for the tile work in some of its Christian churches. A fairly multi-cultural place with a high percentage of Christian citizens (30%), it is also a wonderful spot to spend an afternoon. Abdula drives us around to several churches and Hans and I check out the tile work. We are both very impressed. No photos are allowed so you have to see it yourself. I kind of like the limitation. It somehow enhances the experience. I stare hard to implant the image on my brain. The details are exquisite but the concentrating is a little mind numbing. Afterwards, we go to a café with outdoor tables on a busy little street.
Hans is really not so boring. He won’t smoke a shisha with me because, as he mentions three or four times, the tobacco is bad for you. But he does have a coffee and he does surprise me with some fascinating conversation. We start out talking about the bible story and why Moses gets to see the Promised Land but not enter it. And somehow end up discussing the power of propaganda and Imperialist nation states. The British, French and Americans in North America, the Spanish in South America, the Belgians in the Congo and the Dutch in Southern Africa.; they all used the same story line. No, no, no they were not evil conquerors mass murdering innocents; they were god’s chosen people bringing holy law and order to the Promised Land. I, somehow, find it metaphorically significant that Hans and I are having this conversation at a café in Madaba, a city well known for its cultural and ethnic tolerance; where Muslims and Christians hang out in harmony. So it is possible.
We get back to Amman in the early evening. Hans is leaving for Petra in the morning. He only has one night in the big city. As we climb from the taxi in front of our hotel, he asks me about food. “Have you eaten in any of the restaurants?” he asks. “What’s good to eat here? Maybe you would like to join me?”
“Mensaf,” I say without hesitation, “lamb mensaf. Yes, my friend, you have to try the lamb mensaf. It is so delicious… Come on. I know just the place.”