Entry 1

The Journal of an Apprentice Orientalist

Entry 1

The Journal of an Apprentice Orientalist

Entry 1
A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 26 2004 2:40 PM

The Journal of an Apprentice Orientalist

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One useful thing to remember while traveling in the Arab world: Don't do something just because the Saudis are doing it.

On Saturday afternoon I'd just arrived in Amman when I found out that novelist Abdel Rahman Munif had died the day before in Damascus. Munif was born in Amman, but also lived in Baghdad and then Paris for a bit before he returned to Syria. Munif is best known for his "Cities of Salt" series of five novels about a kingdom much like Saudi Arabia and its origins as a Bedouin society.

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Bedouins were on my mind today because I'd met with some people at the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, a Jordanian NGO located in a beautiful new building high on one of the city's seven hills. The RSCN has a lot of pretty great projects, like eco-tourism to various national reserves where it had to convince the Bedouins it was in their economic interest to use the natural resources wisely. For instance, I'm told there are 5 million goats in Jordan, or one per each Jordanian human. Those goats do a lot of damage as they graze on just about anything they can find. It used to be different when the Bedouins could migrate wherever they wanted with their goats, and thus rotate the grazing pastures, but now there are international borders and no one's letting goats through that easily. These days life is also tough for the oryx, the desert-wandering antelope-like creature that's the national symbol of Jordan and an important symbol throughout the Arab world, but the Bedouins didn't know that, so they kept hunting them till the oryx were close to extinction. Thanks to the efforts of RSCN and others, the species is coming back, even though at Wadi Rum a few of the oryx, so I'm told, thought they were mountain deer and fell off a cliff. You have to feel sorry for them, not even knowing who they are, which brings me back to my original point about not doing something just because the Saudis do it.

Last night I had dinner, for the second night in a row, at Fakhreddine, now one of my favorite restaurants in Amman or anywhere in the world; it's also a favorite of, among others, French soccer great Michel Platini and former Iraqi Foreign Minister and Baathist Tariq Aziz. I'd been reading Munif's Story of a City, a wonderful memoir about growing up in Amman in the '30s and '40s—the tail end of the golden age for goats in this part of the world—and walked out into the cool night air. My hotel is only a few blocks away, but when a cabdriver said he remembered me from the night before, I felt like Michel Platini and hopped in.

After dinner, I was ready to call it an evening when Khaled, as I shall call my cabbie, convinced me not to go home, saying he knew a fun place we would like. Khaled is from Palestine, like many Jordanians, and we spent the cab ride talking about music, especially what we didn't like: Egyptian pretty-boy crooners like Amr Diab and Hani Shaker. So when we reached our destination, and a Tunisian girl in a leopard-skin leotard told us how much she liked Amr Diab, we gave her a big Bronx cheer and laughed her off.

Now, it's not exactly what you think, this place Khaled knew. It was a music hall cabaret kind of thing, with dancing girls, yes, but in Cairo I'd seen infants at places like this, whole families, honeymooners even. There were no families at this place, but there were many Saudi guys, sitting, as Saudi guys often do, in the darkest recesses of the room, spending lots of money on drink and women. In spite of all the bad U.S. press about Saudi Arabia, Saudis are often pretty fun guys with a good sense of humor, especially about money.

Not that Khaled and I weren't having a great time. I was drinking beer, but Khaled, as an observant Muslim, was only encouraging me to drink beer. The singer was excellent—an Egyptian named Sami Zaki. He went over to the Saudis and started singing about al-Mamlika as-Saudeya (the Saudi Kingdom), and then he came over to Khaled and me and asked where I was from. I have to say, there's nothing like hearing "America, yeah, Brooklyn is in the house" over and over again in an Arab disco. The Saudis were totally digging it. Khaled was so happy he asked for a stack of funny money (sold at some bars to tip female dancers)—just like the Saudi guys had. Across the world, funny money costs real money when you give it to the women. Before I knew what was happening, Khaled was tossing funny money at a Moroccan woman. After some smooth-talking—or the exact opposite of it—we managed to convince the manager we had no idea what we were doing, and he let it slide. But in the cab ride back, I just couldn't stop myself from drumming that one lesson home. Khaled, we're not Saudi guys; we're not millionaires. His reply to my reproaches was the most melancholic this Brooklynite's ever heard in the back of a cab after a fun night out. I know, Khaled said sadly, I know.