It was a hundred and four degrees when I stepped off the plane. I was slightly hung over, having had a couple of whiskeys to try to get to sleep about halfway through the 14-hour flight from Chicago to Amman. There was a screaming baby behind me. The baby screamed all 14 hours of the flight. The whiskey did nothing, except give me a headache, so now I had a headache in a country I’d never been in before, my ears were ringing from the screaming baby, I couldn’t find the airport exit. And it was a hundred and four degrees.
I went to Amman two years ago this summer, in that period of weird and crazy calm after major combat in Iraq ended but before the current crush of suicide bombings and attacks on countries all around began. I’d gone there to interview someone; I had a duffel bag full of granola bars and long sleeved blouses and no idea what to expect.
At four a.m., I was wide awake in my hotel room, watching bad American sitcoms and music videos dubbed into Arabic, trying to pick up something with my few words of the language. I’d brought one book and had read it already, and it wasn’t light yet.
The call to prayer startled me; I’d heard it in America, of course, but never this loud, never echoing across a city, never like this. I flung open the hotel window and stepped out onto the tiny, tiny balcony, barely more than a large window ledge, and listened to the city waking to itself. Watched the small dark shapes of people emerging from doorways and walking towards the mosque.
I held my breath. I’m a white chick from Wisconsin, guys, I’ve led a fairly sheltered life. I’d never in my (then) twenty-eight years heard something so beautiful. I stayed on that balcony until the sun came up, red and peach bathing the hills and banishing a bluish haze, heat shimmering the horizon into a dizzying squiggle of daylight.
I came back after only seven days, not enough time to pretend familiarity with the place, came back with a duffel bag full of notebooks and tapes and an empty recorder (the security guy on the way out for some reason had wanted my batteries, I handed them over, not wanting an argument with the airport’s most heavily armed man), came back with a terrible addiction to Turkish coffee and a sunburn as well as a gash down one arm from an ill-fated hike in Petra, a story for another time.
I had gone there for one story and came back with a hundred. The hotel I stayed at, recommended to me by a friend, had a manager so incredibly patient he helped me dial the confusing room phone four times. A guide who sort of attached himself to me took me up and down a mountain and showed me a place where you could whisper into one side of a Roman forum and hear that whisper on the other. A silver merchant talked politics, careful to say, we love you, we don’t love your government. Yes, I was going to spend money in his shop, but I tried to think of a sentiment like that being directed at Arabs in America and it shamed me. Taxi drivers don’t signal, they honk loudly and drive onto the sidewalk. Once, I got in a cab and the driver spoke no English and laughed at my badly broken Arabic; I pulled out pictures from a guidebook and we found a street that way and he sang to me as we drove. Another, unfamiliar with my hotel and confused by the map (as was I) drove up and down the streets of the neighborhood until I spotted the place out the window, 45 minutes of very pleasant, very lost sightseeing. The people I went there to interview, in their neighborhood children played kickball (or soccer, or something else) in the street and figs grew in the yard.
As I said, I’m not pretending familiarity or expertise, not dissecting the political implications, not talking about the Jordanian royal family or Zarqawi or Bin Laden. Only saying this: I’m picturing the city I remember now, watching the news reports, hoping I don’t see Harabi or Muhammed or Walid or Sabri in the frames. Only saying this: people in this place everybody’s talking about, people in this place were good and kind to me.
Only saying this: My thoughts are with the innocents who died today. My thoughts are in the city, and in my heart I’m standing on the balcony, waiting for the sun to come up.