Monday, September 15, 2008
A Rental Car Named Desire
A few months ago—sometime in mid-July—I took a day trip, along with some friends of mine from the program, to the various castles and fortresses in Jordan’s eastern desert; I would have written about it then—and indeed I drafted most of this entry then—except for a pact of silence we took, in effect until the end of the program, for reasons that will become clear in the next sentence. With that pact lifted, though, I’m now free to write about one of the best trips of my summer, in which, in a strange foreign twist on the classic American road trip saga—a sort of Arab On the Road, but with less drugs—I piled into a car with my friends and drove to Iraq.
We left unthinkably early in the morning, well before the sun rose, probably around four-thirty; instead of being an irritation, this seemed more a symptom of our excitement about the trip and our freedom in planning it: we rented a car—a Hyundai Sonata that we named Saleh, not Desire, after our favorite tutor, and apologized to profusely every time we hit a bump in the road, sand, or rocks over which we drove--and so could leave anytime we wanted. Imagine! After several trips with the entire 22-person group on a tour bus, trapped into tour-bus-like activities—long lunches, tour guides, stopping for souvenirs, ugh--we were delighted to have the freedom to wake up and depart before dawn. We also reveled, as the day went on, in the freedom to slam on the brakes wherever and whenever we wanted: to ask directions from shop people confused at why a carful of Americans would be this far out into the desert, to buy watermelons from random roadside stands, to take pictures of the, um, scenery, such as it was, and once, memorably, to pee, squatting behind the only shelter we could find, small piles of sand. I'm pretty sure that meant we were in full view of all the passing trucks carrying oil from Iraq. Hope they enjoyed it.
the license plate says "al-Anbar"
We spent most of the morning slamming on our brakes for castles, the ostensible purpose of our trip, and indeed they would have been worth a trip on their own: we know how I feel about castles—anyone who is my friend on Facebook might have noticed my status line over the summer about how I LOVE. CASTLES--and these were the coolest kind: standing in the middle of the desert. Let me just emphasize one more time, this was real desert, with nothing growing or living as far as the eye could see. The crazy thing is that these areas used to be oases, palaces for riotous easy living, hunting lodges and trader's inns and T.E. Lawrence's military bases. (That Lawrence guy sure got around.) It’s mostly because of centuries of desertification that bath houses covered with erotic paintings (erotic paintings! In the Middle East!) now stand surrounded by sand, and that trader’s inns seem to be located on no visible route, or, rather, no visible anything. We spent the morning at these places, scrambling over castle walls, and by that I mostly mean breaking in: we left so early in the morning that we arrived before they opened. No problem, we thought, ever the intrepid Americans, and climbed in the window.
Not that we had to break into all of the castles—at one of the larger ones, T.E. Lawrence’s former post, a guard demanded our entry tickets. “If you went to the others,” he said, “you must have a ticket.” Er—we looked at each other and tried to explain: yes, we visited them, no, we don’t have tickets. Fine, he said, then I’ll sell you tickets on a student discount, if you just show me your student I.D. cards. Er—once again we paused. No student IDs. The guard was exasperated: “Then how am I supposed to know that you’re students?” It was looking like we’d have to shell out the money—a whole, I don’t know, $3 each—when another guard stepped in: “Dude,” he told his friends, “they speak Arabic, don’t they? What more proof do you need?”
And so we got in for free, and, after our visit, sat with the guards drinking mint tea and talking about Lebanon. I think, actually, that could serve as a main theme for the day trip. Not Lebanon, that is, but hospitality; Arabs pride themselves on their famous hospitality, and, for the most part, rightfully so. I should have begun this story by declaring that, “I have always depended on the kindness of Arabs,” and then I could recount all the kindnesses we experienced: the people, on every corner of every town, who gave us directions; the guard to another castle, who gave us the key despite the castle being closed; the seventeen year old Bedouin kid, living alone tending his family’s sheep in the desert, who invited us into his tent, served us some dirty water, and told us about his life in the desert (“it’s normal”); the guy who, when we got lost upon entering Amman, drove all the way to our destination so we could follow him; the guards at the Iraqi border who didn’t, as we’ll see, arrest us on the spot.
We finished with all the castles of the eastern desert before noon, which then left us the entire afternoon to drive to Iraq, three hours away from the outermost castle: three hours on a very flat, very straight road, very empty road. Every so often someone—okay, me—would try a car game (“I spy, with my little eye, something brown”) which would inevitably fail (“EVERYTHING!”). You’d think this kind of driving would be easy—nothing to see, nothing to pass, nothing to hit—and you’d be right, during the day, but after nightfall was a different story: our trusty Saleh had no taillights, and his headlights only lit, oh, about a foot in front of us. I kid you not. Now imagine driving through this landscape—no street lights, no city lights, no passing cars, even—with only twelve inches of visibility. I came within inches of slamming into a pack of dogs eating some roadkill, and had to slam on the brakes and swerve into the shoulder, waking everyone up both with the car’s sudden motion, and my shouting, at the top of my lungs, “We’re okay! We’re okay!”
(At least we didn’t hit any crossing camels.)
We were okay, though, much as we were okay through several dust storms, and much as we were okay when we decided to take a detour and drive through eleven kilometers of rocks and sand to see a tree. Yeah, I know, a tree, right? Eleven kilometers of offroading in a Hyundai for a tree? But this was a special tree—Mohammed sat under it once, or something—and mostly we were intrigued by the idea of anything growing in this landscape. It was worth every kilometer.
When we finally arrived at the Iraqi border, at least the Jordanian side of it, sweaty and dusty and tired, we realized something critical: we had no plan. All we wanted was to set a foot over the border, just one foot, just to say we had ‘been’ to Iraq, but how best to persuade the border guards to let it happen? We figured, hey, why not be honest, and so my friend C and I, deemed the most friendly and, more importantly, Arabic-speaking, stepped out of the car and walked up to the gate, where we stood unnoticed for a minute before C coughed quietly to get the guard’s attention. “Excuse me,” he said, “Hi. Can we come in?” And we both smiled winningly.
One thing led to another, and in a few minutes later the appropriate supervisors had been called, and we were in the guard office, being questioned—in a friendly way, sure, but it was still more nerve-wracking than most speaking practice times are.
“I’m sorry,” the boss said, “Explain this to me one more time. Why are you here?”
“We’re tourists,” I said. “We wanted to see the border.”
“And maybe put one foot over it,” C added. “Just one foot!”
“I see,” the boss said thoughtfully. “Journalists, right?”
“No! No, no, no, no, no…not journalists. Tourists. We’re students, in Amman. All we wanted was to see the border!”
“And maybe put one foot over it—just one!”
This was a hard sell, clearly. “So, you’re intelligence, right?” the boss asked.
“Don’t you think the U.S. would send better intelligence agents than us?” C asked, and, working his charm to the utmost, exchanged some laughing high fives with the other guards.
The boss was less amused. “So, if you’re students, what are you studying? And why study Arabic?”
I am a shameless suck up who knows how to charm Arabs: “Because it’s a beautiful language, of course! We love the grammar, the words, and especially the poetry!”
“You like poetry?” the boss asked, warming up to us. “Then recite some!”
By this time the others waiting in the car had been called in, and so they, too, got to join in quoting some of the poetry we had just studied: "I yearn for my mother's bread/for my mother's coffee/for my mother's touch.". And when we were done with that, I added that we liked Arabic music too, and that started a second round of the strangest pop quiz in my life: singing Amr Diab lyrics to a room full of guards at the Iraqi border to prove that I was not an intelligence agent. “Darling, light of my eyes, I’ve loved you for years”—I’m sure the U.S. is sending better intelligence agents than me.
We waited at least an hour in that room, while various phone calls were made, all of them starting with, “So we’ve got this group of American tourists,” followed by laughter we could hear through the phone, and while we waited we tried our hardest to charm the guards: C kept up his jokes and high fives, T, with his endless knowledge of Nancy Ajram lyrics, kept singing, and the girls flirted shamelessly.
I asked one guard where he was from, and responded enthusiastically to his reply: “Oh, you’re from Irbid! I’m going there next week!”
“You should come see me,” he said. This is standard and I usually ignore it.
“Maybe, that would be fun.” I paused, and followed with the only question I could think of: “Are you married?”
“No,” he said, “are you offering?”
I pretended to think for a minute: “That depends. Are you going to let us into Iraq?”
Future suitors beware: I drive a hard bargain. Or a really easy one, I guess, if you happen to be a guard at the Iraqi border.
In the end, a decision was made: we could step out into, and walk around in, the no-man’s-land between Jordan and Iraq, but not actually cross into Iraq, still about a mile away; this our Jordanian guard friends deemed too dangerous: “We haven’t even been over there,” they said, “and we have guns.”
This just had to be untrue, but what we were going to do? They had our passports, and, as they so rightly pointed out, guns. So we wandered around in the in between for a few minutes, taking no pictures, by order of our friends the guards, and then shook hands with everyone, made a few more jokes and a few more promises to visit Irbid, and then piled back into our car, done and done. If we hadn't managed to get to the Iraq side, well, at least we had managed to see some cool desert castles, and a tree, without crashing, dying of dehydration, or, even more frighteningly, getting arrested or more seriously interrogated, and sometimes that's enough for a single day.