Wednesday, October 29, 2008

At first I was afraid, I was petrified

The night before last, I had a very vivid, very terrifying dream in which I wandered into a bad area of town and was raped; I woke from the dream well before my alarm, in a cold sweat, with no desire to go back to sleep, and spent the rest of the day with that lingering creeped-out feeling that can come from nightmares.  Pleasant, I know. 

With that feeling hanging over me, I stopped by Walgreens on my way home to pick up some groceries, and, as I was locking up my bike, was approached by a man standing outside.  "Hi, miss, can you help me with something?" he asked.  "Wanna hang out?"

I'm approached outside of Walgreens every time I go, but this is not what I expected. He was serious: "Just for a few minutes, please? I'm really lonely. We could, I don't know, go back to my place and watch TV or something."

Normally I love to help when I can, but common sense plus dream feelings overrode basic pity--is this guy really so desperately lonely that he's hanging around outside Walgreens looking to make friends? That's heartbreaking!--and I made some (true) excuses about having last-minute reading to do, dodged his request for my phone number, and headed home to the safety of my apartment. 

The supposed safety, that is: about an hour later, around 11.30, sitting around doing my last-minute reading, I heard a key in the locked door.  It took me a few seconds to register the noises: wait a second, I live alone, who has a key?  A man walked into the apartment, took a look around, saw me at my desk, staring at him open-mouthed, and said, in genuine apology, "Oops, sorry! Wrong apartment!" He then turned and left, with no explanation of who he was or why he had a key.  

I feel like the universe is trying to tell me something, though I have no idea what:  never sleep again, perhaps?  Fear men? Call the landlady and get my locks changed NOW?  I don't know about those first two--I slept just fine last night and had a lovely chat with a male classmate this morning, so clearly I will survive--but let me tell you, I'm changing my stupid locks.  

Monday, October 27, 2008

mbatE2008 stories: part 3: palling around with Palmyrans

We almost didn't go to Palmyra, arguably Syria's most famous tourist site, because it's just Roman ruins, and not to sound too blasé , but once you've seen one set of Roman ruins, you've seen them all--that was kind of the point of that whole empire thing, after all. And, having seen Jordan's ruins earlier in the summer, I had had enough of columns, carvings, and concrete.

Or basalt, in the case of Umm Qeis.

I forget why we decided to go; I think we just woke up in the morning and thought, ah, what the heck. So we hopped on a bus and headed out into the desert, a decision we wouldn't regret: Palmyra's ruins, and especially their setting, are pretty spectacular.

More spectacular, though, were the people we met: first, a Bedouin family that lived in a tent near the ruins; as we walked past, their kids ran out to beg for pens, and then invited us in for a drink and a chat. They spoke a dialect of Arabic unfamiliar to me, with the palatal affricates of Iraqi Arabic and the voiced uvular stops of Bedouin Arabic, but they were patient, and so with lots of repeating, we spent about an hour there, discussing everything from how much our shoes cost (too much) to how we remove leg hair (I shave, Amy waxes) to why we're not married (no good men). I think this last answer is where we really made friends: as it turns out, we were hanging out with a mother, her five children, and her beautiful-but-unmarried sister-in-law, who clicked her tongue in recognition at my answer. No good men, indeed.

Or maybe just a few good men: after touring the ruins, we stopped into a cafe in town for drinks and lunch. The owner was either super friendly or super bored, which means he fell in love with us instantly and insisted that we spend hours there, drinking water and talking about sex. Apparently, they don't call it Palmyra for nothing.

Before things got weird with the sex talk, this guy, unsurprisingly, offered us tea, and when we refused, said, surprisingly, "What, are you Mormon or something?"

My jaw dropped-- the Church practically doesn't exist in the Middle East, and no one all summer had had any idea what kind of crazy religion would forbid me tea. I asked how he know, and he gave some vague response about a large group of Mormons who had come through Palmyra a few years before. "They spoke Arabic, too," he said. "They had been studying in Egypt or something."

It didn't take much to put two and two together: a large group of Mormons studying in Egypt who had come through Palmyra a few years ago. "Do you remember their names?" I asked. "Was there a Kaitlyn? Maybe a Ken? Or a Stephen?"

And yes, indeed: this Palmyran restaurant owner had hosted my study abroad group back in 2004, when they traveled in Syria. He probably made them play dress-up with Bedouin robes too.

That was just the beginning of our random encounters with friends and friends-of-friends. We ran into someone I knew from Amman while walking towards the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. We walked into a restaurant in Petra only to see Chris, an archaeologist and the director of the center that hosted my program in Amman. At one of the Sunday evening concerts hosted by BYU's Jerusalem Center, we met an old acquaintance of mine from BYU. An in perhaps the funniest coincidence, a taxi driver in Amman who wanted to tell us all about the Americans he knows--a common, if overly hopeful, practice--actually knew a friend of mine. I was getting all ready to give the "how could I possibly know all 300 million Americans" spiel when I realized, hey, wait, Jeremy P.? Who has blond hair? And glasses? And speaks Arabic? Uh oh. Don't think this is typical! We don't all know each other, I swear!

It was a good trip for people, I'd say, both the people I knew before and the people we got to know: the aforementioned Bedouin family; the ever-so-kind restaurant manager in Hama, delighted to meet and greet Americans unafraid of traveling in Syria; the ever-so-kind hotel manager in Amman, excited at sharing a birthday with Amy; the shop owners in Aleppo who attempted to seduce us with foul--yet hilarious!--language; the huge group of American pilots we hiked with in Petra; the Japanese couple we met in Palmyra, and bumped into again in Aleppo's Great Mosque and Damascus's Old City; the hotel manager in Damascus whose pro-Bush pro-war stance confused us until we learned he was Kurdish; the American backpacker we adopted briefly in Amman, finding him a taxi ride and hotel room; the Israeli Couch Surfer who put us up in Jerusalem for two nights for free; the friendly Iraqi touristsLink at Crac des Chevaliers and Damascus with whom we talked a little bit about the war ("Do you have any relatives in the military? No? Thank God!"); and the teenage boys in Hama who entertained us for an afternoon, throwing themselves off a bridge into a lake, running around to see the pictures Amy had taken, shouting "faxxam! Awesome!" and repeating. Awesome, indeed, kids. Awesome indeed.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Saturday Night in Toledo, OH

John Denver fans among my readers--if there are any--might recognize the title of this entry and wonder whether I'm about to make some clever joke about letting sleeping dogs lie, or spending a week there one day, or whatever the other lyrics of the song are, so I'll just tell you up front: nope. I'm talking about a real Saturday night, in real Toledo, OH. No cleverness here. Just change. And hope.

I'm not quite sure how it happened either, but I ended up in Ohio last weekend, tracting for Obama, walking door to door in lower middle-class neighborhoods saying, "Hi! I'm a volunteer for the Obama campaign! May I ask if you're likely to vote in this year's election? I met all sorts of people, from a transvestite Obama supporter to a McCain supporter with a very large, and very fierce, dog, who managed to get its teeth on my arm just before its owner pulled it off. I got all sorts of answers, ranging from "Sorry, but my right to vote was revoked with my prison term" to "All that is disgusting! Get the hell off my porch!" I thought about referring that last person, a crochety old lady, to the missionaries--lady, I'm a Mormon, trust me, there are much more annoying reasons for me to be on your porch--but then refrained. What does it say about me that referring the missionaries is a form of vengeance?

The most interesting part about the weekend--well, besides seeing this glimpse of old industrial America, and besides getting to peek into every house on the block, and besides examining the inner workings of an Obama field office (hope! change! life-size cutouts of The Man himself!)--was the different reactions my dad and I got at our respective doors. He's 50ish, graying, and (comparatively) well-dressed, a Harvard economics professor who supports Obama partially as repentance for voting for Bush in 2000: when he shows up at your door with brochures, you listen. I'm 24 and look younger, dressed in jeans and Chacos, and fresh from California: when I show up at your door, you grumble about these darn kids and their Obamania. Or, in some cases, you spill your life story: the guy who was jumped in an alleyway, spent four months in a coma, and now can't hold a job because he still gets dizzy spells; the old black guy, a Greyhound employee for 27 years, who was told, after his five back surgeries and kidney surgery, that he wasn't eligible for Medicare; the woman who had just lost her job of 13 years the day before. What is to be done?

The best story, though, and the one that still makes me smile, took place in a mostly-white lower middle class neighborhood. Dad had just given an Obama sign to a guy whose 13 year old son was a big Obama supporter. A few minutes later, his neighbor, wearing torn jeans and a ratty T-shirt, with a broken-down truck on his front lawn, stuck his head out of his door and stared at the sign.

"Yo, Bill!" he shouted. "Do you really want a black guy to be president?"

The fellow with the sign was repairing his roof. He looked up. "Yup."

There was a long pause. Looooong.

"Me too," said the redneck. So we gave him a sign, placing it next to the truck.

I'll just finish by echoing him: me too.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Two Poems for Two Conversations about The Godfather in Two Days

"On Not Enjoying The Godfather And Refusing To Watch Any of the Sequels"

Excessive machismo plus a complicated plot 
Minus women characters or anybody hot
Plus too many gunfights and minus any jokes 
Is the wrong formula for us feminine folk. 

"Breakfast in Bed"

Good old Coppola one-upped Ichabod Crane, 
In a way equestrians declared inhumane. 
We await headless riders as a matter of course
But nobody expected that headless horse.