Thursday, April 17, 2014

Phones, corncorbs, and Umm Qais

Ah, phone calls. I should document the various types of phone call I receive and make.

This one person called me several times last week. I returned the call numerous times to find a busy signal. Finally, I reached the caller. I said, “Hello, this is Fr. John and I’m returning your call.” The reply was, “Who are you and what do you want?” I restated that I am Fr. John and that I was returning the call. “Why are you calling me? I don’t know you?,” was the reply. “I am calling you because you called me,” I said. “No, I didn’t,” was the reply. “I am Fr. John and I work at the church.” “O.K. Goodbye,” was the reply.

Five minutes later, when I’m meeting with a different person, the phone rings off the hook because that person is calling me back.

Or, there is always a call, which I return, but there is no answer at the other end. So, I hang up and the person calls me back right away. What gives? They weren’t there a minute ago.

On average, it takes about four phone conversations before I can really figure out what the caller wants. I ask many questions to help tease it out, but it is a lot of patient work.

It is often an ordeal to find out the caller’s name. It is something simple that I would like to know, but I often can’t get it out of the person.

Then there are the people who say, “Hello.” So, I say, “Hello.” And then they say hello, to which I respond “hello.” Then they say, “Good morning,” and I say “Good morning,” and then we are back to the “hellos.” Progressing from conversational basics is not easy. It is not uncommon for us to say “hello” or “good morning” apiece for a dozen times before I ask them if they know any other English words. Why is it so difficult to move forward?

I could go on and on about the multi-directions of the conversations. One must be very patient and a skillful puzzle solver to make headway most times. One day, I will have someone call me and say, “Good morning, Fr. John. This is so-and-so and I would like to speak with you about this topic. Is this a good time to talk?” Oh, that will be sweet.

And then there are text messages.

For a place that is often behind on projects, I am impressed by the rapidity by which the Seventh Circle has been transformed from a rotary into a square with traffic lights. It appeared in last Thursday’s Jordan Times and it was virtually complete by Monday. Everyone’s eyes popped with the speed of the work.

Corncobs bombarded me as I was driving home from an appointment the other day. A pickup truck with loosely collected vegetable pallets lost its freight as his high speed of travel sent his products aloft. I spotted the shaky packaging and stayed clear of it as best I could but those corncobs bounced more than I thought they could.

I saw my first funeral procession earlier in the day. Traffic was backed up and cars were honking their horns just like any other day, but I saw a hearse with three cars travelling in caravan behind it at a respectful speed. Everyone was so frustrated with the pace that they rushed by. I just followed behind in order to pay respects for the dead.

Weeks earlier I was wondering where the Christian cemeteries may be. Upon checking, I’m told two cemeteries exist in East Amman. It would be interesting to visit.  

This is the time of year I like to pull out two books: Howard Fast “April Morning” and Johnny Tremain. It gets me in the right mood for Patriots’ Day.

Yesterday I travelled to Umm Qais, the site of the Gadarene (Gerasene) demoniac in the Decapolis. It is a beautiful spot and I visited last May. I wanted to see the north with its beautiful green grass. It was lovely and it felt so peaceful. The day did not disappoint.

The place is located near the Sea of Galilee where Israel, Jordan, and Syria meet. It provides much room for biblical imaginings. Without a doubt, we know that Jesus would have been familiar with this area of the world. I can ponder him taking in the beauty of the land.

It turns out that most of the soil in Jordan is very fertile, but there is not enough rainfall or irrigation to make the land useful. It is quite a shame. I still hold much hope for Jordan’s progress, but being the fourth poorest nation in its water resources mitigates against making the land viable. I would love to see the climate changed by planting many more trees and bushes that would have an effect upon the rainfall.

Umm Qais was filled with field trips from Girls’ Schools based in Amman. Many of these girls introduced themselves to me and had some conversation as best they could. They were so happy. It was a delightful experience. They had a great time exploring the area and being with one another.

On the journey north, I saw a small village outside Irbid that had at least 18 houses painted in purple. Another dozen were painted in pastel pink. The village looked so colorful in contrast the Amman’s monochromatic pattern. If only more places could do this, the place would look cheerful and happy.

My GPS took me onto some roads that just end.

In Jordan, there is always another way around.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ministry of Food

I ate a camel burger last night since it was supposed to be lean and healthier than cow. It tasted fine. I didn't have an adverse reaction to eat those scraggly, humpy beasts. Did you know that a camel can close its eyes and still see? That is because its eyelids are transparent so it can see where it is going in a blinding sandstorm.

I continued my ministry of food today by offering sandwiches to those people on the street I regularly pass. I am now fairly well connected to the security officers at buildings and parking lots as well as the police and soldiers I pass. I know that the army cannot accept food from anyone because of sound protocol, but they know I offer the food to them in goodwill.

I enjoy chatting with these guys even though we are frustrated that I don't know more Arabic than I have. I've spent so much time with parish that my time has not been free enough to pick up the language. Still, we communicate and it seems like I have a friendly, familiar face on every street corner now.

I did realize that as I offered sandwiches to some, they thought I was selling it to them. "Free." Oh, thank you.

Music and Dance

Wonderful. The Friends of Jordan Festivals held the Amman Springs Series of concerts called Strings and Pianos a few days ago. I was fortunate to attend one of them at the Al Hussein Cultural Center is Ras Al Ein. Friends of Jordan is trying to create a love for classical western music in the capital, but they recognize it is a difficult venture.

The first night had works by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, and the attendance was scarce. The second night was a healthy audience and the score features Brahms and Schumann. The final night featured Rachmaninoff, Chopin (who spent time in Amman) and Dvorak.

The Series was a way of bringing Jordanians that specialize in western music to return to the capital for audience enrichment. All the performers are accomplished in their fields.

The twenty-five year old, Karim Said, is the mainstay of the program. He is an aspiring conductor and a versatile pianist. He recently founded the Da Vinci Players in London.

Alongside the pianos were two violinists, a violist, and cellist. Since Amman does not have great supply or demand for Western music, the tickets were a steal. It is unfortunate that more people are not aware of the great value of entertainment they could receive from such a modest investment of money.

This week and next, I look forward to the Amman Contemporary Dance Festival at the National Center of Culture and Arts. We might as well enjoy these professional performances at these great prices.

Otherwise, Holy Week is upon us. It lives.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Coffeehouse

I decided to leave my office today and sit at a quiet, but busy coffeehouse to catch up on some menial activities. I imagined my day would be filled with lots of interesting Jordanians enjoying conversation. The place is very quiet, quieter than most libraries. I love it. What a gift!

However, my dream of enjoying a cup of coffee was dashed. Oh, I am enjoying a coffee, but I feel the discrepancy between rich and poor. I am, for all intents and purposes, rich, even though I don't have much money, but the security guard outside the store greeted me with a very warm smile. I remarked on his smile and he said, "It is because you are here. You make me happy."

Oh, I felt so bad. I wish he could join me and we could have a conversation. I can tell that he does not have disposable income for a coffee or pastry, so I will treat him to one upon my departure. I am just watching him peruse the area outdoors. He is a friendly chap who is making everyone he meets feel good. I wish we could all enjoy the simple delights in life that make it more memorable.

Calm before Holy Week

A week before Holy Week and all feels calm. I look forward to reading the online newspapers each morning to see what is new in this part of the world. Russian seems to be on a tear; Syria is in a protracted stalemate with Assad; Quebec’s secessionists failed; Turkey is headed towards a more Islamic tradition; elections in India and Pakistan are remote and worrisome; Egypt seems to be creeping along; Iran shows its bravado; the Saudi family lifts some restrictions on women; Lebanon supports Hizbollah in Syria. Jordan inches towards stability.

For three recent mornings as I set out in my car to various destinations, I was very pleased with the very nice drivers on the road. Two Jordan drivers must exist: the traditional Kamikazes who are the rush hour maniacs and the better drivers whose efforts are obscured by the taxi drivers and impatient ones. I pray that the better drivers have an increased role in setting new standards in Jordan. All in all, it makes me very happy to begin my day with pleasant drivers.

Of course there are spectrums of people here, but when two sorts of behaviors are aligned against each other, the difference is stark. I saw the kindness of one man reaching out to an elderly man while I was on my way to church and then I was saw two former friends who are in an isolated stare down because one has a visa to the U.S. while the other does not. It broke my heart that these two men had their friendship severed so totally because of a piece of paper. Both will eventually repatriate; one’s fortune just turned sooner than the other.

I accompanied some parishioners on retreat this past week. I had a lovely day in the sun. The natural surroundings were very pleasant and I enjoyed the silence. My prayer was wondering if people and nations that can spend time comfortably in silence leads to a peaceful people. I think prayer and silence helps one to obtain peace. As noted by the parishioners, silence is not easy and is seen as something to be avoided. They haven’t seen that it can be one’s best friend. As an introvert, I really need it.

It make me think on a national level whether introspect and silence leads to peace. Russia probably cannot stand to look at itself in the silence. The silent people of the world endure all sorts of oppression but for many, it can lead to freedom in the face of oppression.

In Amman, coffeehouses have become places of refuge. If I need a break from parish life, I go to a coffeehouse for a respite. This is actually a very rare occurrence. I’m often with someone, but the idea of having a place to where I can escape is comforting. I found two new coffeehouses that do not allow for smoking and are neighborhood places of respite – one on Jebel Weibdeh, the other in Sweifieh. The number of new places that are restricting smoking is reassuring.

Then, of course, there is IKEA. They have a smoking section in their restaurant, but seventy-five percent of the restaurant is non-smoking and lots of people sit there. It creates a wonderful climate. Yesterday while I was there, I saw a man teach his five year old son how to take the tray from the table and place it onto the conveyor belt. I enjoyed that so much. I watched as others respectfully honored the standards of the place. I like the positive effect that IKEA is having on Jordan. During mid-day, the place was packed with serious shoppers. They do know how to make money, but also to create a pleasant shopping experience.

I do see more Westerners in Amman than ever before. Maybe I am just noticing them but Western faces seem more in abundance.

With regards to church, I have received the music books for all parishes and it is making quiet a good impression. We will all be singing the same songs and it provides a universal standardization that was missing previously. Many parishioners have thanked me for it and it creates uniformity and updating. For so long we have been singing outdates songs from the 1970’s. Progress is difficult to forge, but we are doing it.

I also began supplying the Blood of Christ to one worship center. I am impressed that over 75% of the people are receiving. We also had anointing rites administered last week as we have been preparing for healing and reconciliation these past 30 days of Lent. We are now ready for Holy Week. It always strikes me as odd that everyone looks forward to Passion Sunday so much. They come into the church jubilant and leave grieving. Ah! It has a life all its own.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Al-Azraq Oasis

Half a year ago, I visited the Al-Azraq Oasis in eastern Jordan, the site where Lawrence of Arabia rested during his journeys. I have wanted to go back there for a while to see if the great Disi Irrigation project has helped restore the water levels of the oasis.

As I walked along the water reserve, I was somewhat excited because water seemed to be on an increase. However, when I talked with the man at the front desk, he said there has been no positive increase of water levels because the Syrians have dammed up all the springs that cut off the supply to the oasis. This is very sad. I had great hopes.

I wanted to see the migratory birds that were returning from Africa to East Asia, Europe, and Russia. I was able to see some, but it was late morning and they feed early in the morning or at dusk.

However, the Azraq Killfish are in abundant supply in the ponds. Frogs jump around and dragonflies buzz. It is quite nice to see. This could be a natural resource if is simply had a greater expanse of water. Small critters ran through the grass and Water Oxen from the Chechen region were re-introduced to the land a few decades ago.

Large birds roost in the trees behind the pond. I could hear many birds but see few. I know I was there at the wrong hour, but it was still worth visiting. I will return.

Anyways, the areas around Amman are very green and overgrown. Everyone is saying, “It looks so pretty.” The landscape looks soft and inviting. It hides all the trash that litters the landscape, so for a brief moment, it looks beautiful. I do wish we could plant more trees and bushes that would change around the climate to a more temperate one. I’m sure people would like the enjoyment the trees provide. It reminds me of the Dr. Seuss movie, “The Lorax.” For the time being, it is right just to enjoy it. 


IKEA opened this month in Amman and I enjoyed my excursion to this Swedish Superstore. The store is massive, clean, and well organized. I can see that it will change around the way Jordanians do business.

IKEA is probably the only store in Jordan in which items may be returned to the store. I’m sure there are some standards in place because I’m sure many people will use something and then bring it back. Just the fact they can do that is an enhancement and will draw more shoppers to the store. The quality is fine and the displays and showrooms are quite attractive. Of course, I like the bright colors used in the showrooms.

It has many decorative items that could enhance a church’s worship environment, like overly large vases, candles, plants, and other accouterments. I can see being a regular at this shopping venue. Even the kitchen gadgets are sturdy and at a lower price, other competitors may be forced to reduce their prices. I love that this store is here.

I am pleased with the standards of customer service that are in place. While I was sitting in the restaurant, a woman lit up a cigarette and an employee showed her where the smoking section was. Of course, she had a few more puffs before extinguishing her butt, did not leave, and left her dirty trays behinds, but it is a good start that someone is monitoring these practices. I have a feeling that Jordan is going to move towards becoming  a smoke-free environment.

My Palestinian-Jordanian friend had a lengthy discussion about Western companies who establish a corporation in Jordan. He said that Western companies ought to abide by Jordanian culture and I contend that if a company is going to exist, it has a right to employ its own standards. Of course, we were talking about cigarette smoking. I told him the company already acquiesced to the culture by installing a smoking restaurant section. They also installed air purifiers in the area so that it would suck out the harmful tobacco. The conversation had many permutations, but we both agreed that a company like IKEA is going to raise standards of service.

I like that after eating, patrons are expected to place their dirty trays on the conveyor belt. It keeps meal prices reduced and carriages are set up to help make the Do-it-yourself practice a convenient reality. Most people left the dirty trays on the table, but some actually helped out. Several people complied. It is a good example to set. I love it. Raised standards of life in a communal setting. Adhering to the laws is good and has a purpose.

I bought something at the store that I searched for in Jordan for the past one and a half years. I’m very happy.