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.