From the Midwest To the Middle East
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises of itself?
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
“Why you are coming to Israel?”
The wide, suspicious eyes of the young Israeli border guard were unnerving after all the laid-back hospitality in Jordan.
“I’m just a tourist,” I said, probably too nonchalantly.
“What kind of tourist?”
“Well, I’m a Christian,” I said, starting to sweat and wishing I’d worn a cross like I’d been advised, “and I want to see the holy sites.”
“What holy sites?” His tone suggested he’d never heard of any “holy sites” in Israel.
“You know,” I said carefully, as if one of us might be slightly insane, “like Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth—”
“Why Nazareth? What’s in Nazareth?” he cut me off sharply.
It was just a random Biblical name as far as I was concerned. I didn’t know it was an Arab town in Israel or what that meant. I certainly didn’t know that the outcome of this, the first of what would be many Israeli interrogations, would profoundly affect the course of my life. But I had clearly picked the wrong answer.
“Because, I mean, that’s where Jesus was born and grew up and—”
“What? He was what?”
“He was… Oh, right! Sorry, he wasn’t born there—”
“Where was he born?!”
“He was born in… uh…”
Christ. I’d sung about where Jesus was born every Sunday morning growing up in eastern Oklahoma. But I had just finished reading a Middle East guidebook, all my associations were shifted, everything was a jumble in my head, a border guard with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder was breathing down my neck, and I couldn’t think.
Just start at the beginning, I told my fevered mind. There was a woman on a donkey, and they went to an inn, and everybody sings O Little Town of—
“Bethlehem!” I smiled and shrugged expansively as if it were the most basic knowledge in the universe.
The guard finally calmed down. I just hoped he wouldn’t figure out the connection between me and the two men behind me. If he did, we could all be in trouble.
Degree of Freedom
This wasn’t where I expected to be at age twenty-three: jobless, planless, and lying through my teeth to Israeli border security.
I had graduated a year earlier, in 2002, with a physics degree from Stanford only to realize I had no interest in spending any more of my young years in a basement lab doing problem sets. Several peers were heading to Wall Street, but I had even less interest in finance. The things I enjoyed most during college—travel, writing, languages, politics, sports—didn’t sound like serious career options for a math-and-science type like me.
Feeling dazed and ashamed, I took a job at a pub near the Stanford campus because it had the best dollars-to-stress ratio of any job I could think of, and the popular image of bartenders was almost sexy enough to make up for the savage beating my ego was taking.
After I settled in with the job, I joined a Jujitsu club, one of those things I had always wanted to do but never had the time. I noticed a purple belt named Michel who had powerful shoulders, light olive skin, and slate blue eyes.
He asked me out after practice one evening. He didn’t have to ask twice.
Over dinner he mentioned he was from Lebanon, a country I knew so little about I couldn’t think of any intelligent questions to ask. I decided to start small. When he dropped me off at the end of the night, I asked how to say “Thank you” in Arabic.
“Shukran,” he said.
I repeated the new word, tasting it in my mouth.
He bowed his head slightly in an utterly charming way and said, “No problem. Any time.”
We only had three months together before he took a job in another city, but they were very good months. He talked incessantly about his native Beirut and its picturesque beaches, forested mountains, crazy nightclubs, world-class food, and gorgeous women, which surprised me. I’d always hazily pictured the Middle East as a vast desert full of cave-dwelling, Kalashnikov-wielding, misogynistic bearded maniacs, and I figured anyone without an armored convoy and a PhD in Middle Eastern studies should probably stay out of it. But Michel made Lebanon sound fabulous, and when he spoke with his Lebanese friends in Arabic or wrote in the flowing Arabic script, it started to seem cool and beautiful and I got tired of being totally ignorant of it. I borrowed a friend’s primer and started learning the language.
As the weeks passed, I began to notice a curious thing: I was pretty happy most of the time. I spent forty hours a week in a fantastic pub, and the rest of my time was wide open to enjoy friends and books, sandwiches and sunsets. I knew I’d been vaguely unhappy most of my life, but I never realized the extent of it until the fog gradually lifted and left me in an unfamiliar landscape so bright it almost hurt my eyes.
My ears burned, though, whenever I asked my patrons at the pub, in all seriousness, if they wanted fries with that. All this happiness and free time flew in the face of my deeply-ingrained rural middle-class upbringing. Whenever I started hyperventilating about it, I took a deep breath and reminded myself that God and society could take care of themselves for a year or two whether or not I was staring at Excel spreadsheets all day. After that, if nothing better came along, I could always dust myself off, buy an Ann Taylor suit on credit, and put together a quasi-fictitious résumé like everyone else.
One afternoon in March of 2003, I found a copy of The Wave, a San Francisco magazine, left behind at the pub. The Iraq War had just begun, and it was full of articles about the Arab world. I flipped it open to a satirical piece about spending Spring Break in the Middle East. It listed the major countries of the region (including Lebanon), their most impressive tourist attractions, and why the people of each country wanted to kill us.
I knew it was supposed to be a joke, but it bothered me. I biked to the Stanford Bookstore and picked up a Lonely Planet guidebook, From Istanbul to Cairo on a Shoestring, expecting to see nothing but dire travel warnings. To my astonishment, it recommended the route as one of the most romantic, historically rich, and friendly in the world, and no more dangerous than Brazil or Thailand.
A month later, a friend in France named Olivier wrote to me that he had three weeks of vacation coming up in September, and why didn’t we meet up somewhere?
I had some money saved up and was planning on using it to travel. I said sure, sent him an offhand list of half a dozen Mediterranean countries, and told him to pick one, imagining languid ferry rides among Greek and Italian islands.
He wrote back: “What do you think about Egypt?”
My heart sank. I didn’t even remember putting Egypt on the list. But I had given him his choice, and the Middle East was cheaper than Europe, which meant I could travel much longer. Plus it seemed a shame that I didn’t know enough to have an informed opinion on the Iraq War. My political science classes had been full of disconnected anecdotes and competing theories that left me unsure what to believe. The post-9/11 newspapers and magazines hadn’t been much help, either. Here was a chance to have a look for myself. It was nice, anyway, to think my Arabic studying suddenly had a purpose.
As my plane landed in Cairo in September 2003, it was clear that reading a guidebook hadn’t remotely prepared me for the Middle East. My knowledge of the culture was almost nil, my Arabic skills were pitiful, and I felt ridiculous in my cargo shorts and ponytail. All the other women wore diaphanous headscarves and subtle, lovely makeup, and if the aim of that getup was to make them less attractive, it had failed miserably.
Just then two boisterous college-age Egyptian guys walked up to me and asked, “Where you from?”
“Uh, America,” I said, too taken aback to wonder whether it was wise to reveal my nationality on my first day in the Arab world when my country was at war with an Arab state.
“Ah, America!” They seemed delighted by the revelation. “First time in Egypt?”
“Welcome to Egypt!” They smiled and bounced away toward passport control.
And I felt much better.
As Olivier and I traveled from the Pyramids in the north to Luxor in the south, no one mentioned the Iraq War. All thought of politics was lost in the dusty, sweaty shuffle of catching buses, finding restaurants, haggling over prices, and visiting tombs and museums.
When our cultural duty was done, we headed to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, a remote triangle of mountainous desert wedged between the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba, for some rest and relaxation. Our first stop was Dahab, a backpacker’s resort on the Gulf of Aqaba coast whose main pedestrian drag ran right along the water. Past the flat, shallow reef tables was a drop-off populated by living corals and psychedelic tropical fish, then the sapphire sea filling a mile-deep crack in the earth. Twenty miles across the Gulf of Aqaba sat the hazy, sandy mountains of Saudi Arabia.
We settled in at a $3-a-night camp and stretched out on brightly colored cushions in a Bedouin-style sitting area next to the sea. I put a Dire Straits tape on the camp’s sound system, ordered a strawberry milkshake, watched little aquamarine waves breaking against the reefs, and finally felt like I was on vacation.
Olivier had to leave after three days to catch his plane back to Paris. I was planning on following my guidebook’s itinerary through Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey over the next three months. But I was in no mood to pick up and be a tourist again anytime soon. I bade Olivier adieu and ordered another hookah.
A few days later I gathered enough steam to hike two hours north to a tiny Bedouin village, a loose collection of grass huts and a few dozen camels tethered to a flat spit of desert between the mountains and the sea. There was no electricity in the village. The only illumination came from the sun, the moon, the stars, and candles. I hadn’t made any plans or reservations, but I was soon invited to have dinner and sleep on a foam mattress in one of the grass huts for a nominal fee.
I hiked farther north the next morning to a turquoise lagoon where I came across an Estonian free diver named Dan. His hair was salty and sun-bleached and he wore a silver hoop earring, a wooden bead necklace, and a wry, dimpled smile. He dove deep into the blue depths with his weight belt, wetsuit, and carefully trained breath-holding ability while I snorkeled around the coral gardens and tried not to touch anything poisonous.
When the shadows of the Sinai Mountains were getting long, Dan and I moseyed back to the Bedouin village and found a spacious octagonal thatched shelter with a gas stove that served as a hotel and restaurant. We sat on cushions in the candlelight and talked for hours while our host prepared a dinner of fish and rice and vegetables and Bedouin flatbread. My body and mind were relaxed and at ease, and I soon felt like I’d known Dan for years.
Our host, who called himself Abraham, wore a traditional white tunic and a thin white scarf fashioned into a loose turban around his head. He told us tales by candlelight about Egypt and Israel dropping bombs on the Sinai, about treasures hidden in caves by fleeing Bedouins, and about smuggling on boats and camels across borders his people didn’t recognize. His manner of speech was playful and ponderous, and he always had a clever, ironic expression on his face. He told us the names of the seasonal winds and said he liked octopus season best because “it’s no bones, just good, white meat.”
The next morning I walked back to Abraham’s place to drink some tea before I departed. Then I completely failed to depart. Dan and I floated lazily among the bright yellow butterfly fish, iridescent parrotfish, and flashy lionfish, waited three hours for breakfast while the sun climbed, snorkeled again, waited three hours for dinner while the sun descended, and passed out contentedly on our cushions. The next day we did the same.
At night we went swimming at the village’s sandy beach under a new moon and got a surprise. Our moving hands and feet stirred up trails of bright pinpoints of light in the water. We laughed in wonder. Dan said, “It’s like a fairy tale.” Abraham later told us they were billions and billions of tiny bioluminescent plankton, but we felt like we were swimming in swirling fields of sparkling water stars.
The beauty of the world filled our senses completely. Every day the sun hurtled across a flawless sky, then the galaxy floated by like a majestically slow comet. The sea shone deep blue against the Mars-like Saudi landscape. The coral gardens were incomprehensible miracles, hovering explosions of form and color below the water’s surface. There was no sense of time, just an endlessly marvelous present. For the first time I understood the meaning of the phrase, “My cup runneth over.”
Dan was due to leave the Sinai after four days. As we were parting in Dahab, he took me aside. “There’s something I haven’t told you,” he said. “I’m not really Estonian. I grew up in Siberia, and a few years ago I moved to Israel. I’m an Israeli citizen now.” He fiddled with a strap on his backpack. “Sorry for not telling you sooner. It’s just easier not to say you’re Israeli around here. But if you plan on visiting Israel, my house is your house any time.”
“Well, don’t worry,” I said. “Your nationality makes no difference to me. And I’d love to visit you in Israel. The problem is, my guidebook says that if I get an Israeli visa stamp in my passport, I won’t be allowed to visit Syria or Lebanon. And I have to go through Syria to get to Turkey.”
“I understand,” he said. “But let me know if you change your mind.”
Eye of the Storm
I caught a ferry to Jordan and spent a week hiking around the southern Jordanian deserts. Along the way, through some process of cultural osmosis, I began to learn how to greet people in the local ways, how to spot a petty scam artist, what the local prices ought to be, and how to cut down on mild harassment from unmarried young men—namely by covering my knees and shoulders and wearing a fake wedding ring.
I made my way north to the capital, Amman, and liked it immediately. The best view of the city was from the hilltop ruins of the Roman Citadel at sunset. The expansive sky turned pink and purple, the boxy white houses on the city’s seventeen hills shone sand-colored, and the minarets glowed with green neon amid wheeling flocks of pigeons while calls to prayer echoed in stereo.
I took the advice of an Irish backpacker I’d met in southern Jordan and stayed at the Al Sarayya Hotel despite its astronomical price of 14 Jordanian dinars ($20) per night. It was in the old downtown area where hospitality is still a way of life. I almost felt bad talking with shopkeepers and waiters there because they often refused to charge me for food and services after we’d chatted long enough to feel like friends.
The manager of the hotel was a droll and charming man named Fayez who’d been trained as an electrical engineer. He was an intelligent, clean-cut chain-smoker, tall and thin and distinguished looking.
I sat in his office with a few other guests, and he offered everyone small porcelain cups of sweet Arabic coffee, on the house. Someone asked about the stuffed white wolf sitting on top of one of his filing cabinets. Fayez explained that a reporter had nicked it from one of Saddam’s palaces. He’d left it in Fayez’s office and made him promise not to sell it.
“But I don’t know,” Fayez mused sardonically. “Probably I could get a few thousand for him on eBay. What do you think?”
My scalp prickled in an odd and unnerving way. This was war loot. And it wasn’t from a historical event that could safely be categorized as something done in other times and other places by other people. This was here and now, and it was my country that had done the invading.
Jordan, sandwiched between Iraq and Israel, is a jumping-off point for journalists on their way to Baghdad and Jerusalem. The Al Sarayya was a favorite among independent journalists, filmmakers, and foreign aid workers. Every evening they congregated in Fayez’s office to share their stories over bottomless cups of sweet, strong tea and Arabic coffee.
A Swedish woman told us that a waiter in Baghdad once started talking to an Iraqi-born Swede she was traveling with. The rest of the Swedes were impatient and wanted service, but the Iraqi-born Swede told them to wait. The waiter was telling him that his sister and her family had been on a minibus a few days earlier, and the bus had stopped for an American soldier at a checkpoint. The soldier waved them through. But as they were passing, a woman reached for a baby bottle. The soldier emptied his ammunition clip into the bus, killing six people. Apparently, he’d thought she was reaching for a grenade.
As their stories went on and on, my palms began sweating and my heart beat faster. I was almost shaking. Strangely, it wasn’t the horror of the stories themselves that upset me the most. It was the prickling realization of how thoroughly I had been misled by my own press and government. They’d made the war sound so clean and under control, abstract and far away. Here, it sounded like nothing short of a bloodsoaked catastrophe.
Then again, maybe these “independent journalists” were lying or exaggerating, trying to impress each other and tourists like me with their big talk.
There was one way to find out. It was nice enough drinking tea with Bedouins and gazing at the stone monuments of bygone eras. But here was a chance to witness history as it was being made.
I asked about expeditions to Baghdad the next day and was offered a ride in a shared taxi for $200. I wasn’t sure what I would do once I got there. I figured I could meet people like I had in Cairo, Dahab, and Amman, and things would work out somehow.
In the evening, I told two journalists about my plan and asked if it sounded wise.
“Are you a reporter?” one asked.
“Foreign aid worker?”
They narrowed their eyes. “Then why do you want to go?”
I shrugged. “Just to see.”
They looked at me like they couldn’t tell whether I was a maniac or an idiot. Then they made it vividly clear that the violence in Baghdad was far too random and gruesome for tourists.
The next evening Fayez invited me to dinner with two men, Yusif and Sebastian, who were on vacation from their work in the West Bank of the Palestinian territories. Sebastian was a young, slim Canadian paramedic with close-cropped brown hair. Yusif was a skinny, white, blond British Muslim who had the aristocratic aura of a wandering ascetic. His face was drawn tight with laugh lines, his teeth were crooked, and his age was impossible to guess. There was something childlike, almost impish about him, yet he irresistibly commanded respect and attention. His words seemed to come from a deep well of spiritual confidence that was either brilliant or insane, yet he was humble and friendly. I had never met anyone remotely like him.
They were on their way to Petra, the ancient Nabatean city carved into the living rock of a canyon in southern Jordan. Its most striking landmark is a matchless monument called Al Khazneh, which famously served as the final resting place of the Holy Grail in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The massive, shimmering, rose-hued tomb, exquisitely ornamented and symmetrical, is accessible through a mile-long crack in a mountain.
Sebastian found me the next day and invited me to join them. I hesitated. I’d already gone to Petra a week earlier, and going again would cut into my dwindling time and funds. But I had, after all, just been invited to one of the most magical places on earth in the company of one of the most intriguing people I had ever met. I didn’t hesitate long.
Along the way, Yusif mentioned that he had trained in survival in the Sudan from age fourteen to twenty-two, and he claimed to have met Osama bin Laden during that time. Yusif had also lived in a cave in southern Spain for several years. Now he was on the town council of a hilltop Palestinian village called Jayyous. He spoke fluent Arabic. Sebastian and I watched him silence a busload of Jordanians with his sing-song recitation of the Quran.
Both men talked compulsively about their experiences in Palestine. Yusif was sometimes offhand, almost clinical as he told his stories. Other times he was wide-eyed, like a kid describing a crime so outrageous he feared no one would believe him.
Their stories, like those of the journalists, were difficult to take at face value. But I had learned in Fayez’s office that the American government gives Israel more than $3 billion a year, making it the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world. If their stories were true, it seemed like something I should know. If I called their bluff and things weren’t really so bad, I could take that as a lesson learned, hang out with Dan in Israel, and move on.
I hated the thought of missing out on Syria and Lebanon if my passport got stamped by Israel. But here was a chance to learn things for myself, experientially, that there was no other way to learn. The West Bank didn’t sound nearly as dangerous as the free-for-all in Baghdad, and I had just made friends with two ready-made tour-guides. I knew I’d never forgive myself if I passed all that up for the sake of being a tourist.
As we were heading back to Amman, I asked Yusif and Sebastian if I could go with them when they went back to the West Bank.
“You’re welcome to join us,” Sebastian said. “But you might get turned back at the Israeli border if the guards suspect you plan on visiting the West Bank. It’s better not to mention anything about that.”
“And it’s probably best if we pretend we don’t know each other,” Yusif said in his clipped patrician accent. “The interrogations will be much simpler that way.”
So, green and wide-eyed, I wandered into the Holy Land.
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