A Brief Tour of the Holy Land
“I hesitate to make pronouncements about the conflict. I’ll only say that I found it very easy to tour this part of the world. I did so with little money and without much planning. I’d encourage anyone interested in America’s policies in the area to do the same, to see it with their own eyes. Doing so put the conflict on a human level for me, as opposed to a historic, or even biblical one. This gives me the courage to speak about it, and to write.”
By Roman Skaskiw
Last summer, my friend Steffen and I decided to follow through on plans to visit Israel and the Palestinian Territories. We wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and went despite the war between Israel and Lebanon that had just begun.
We happened to be Iraq veterans – in addition to fishing partners, drinking partners, each other’s wingmen, concerned citizens of the world, and students of the Arabic language, which was how we met at the University of Iowa. Officially, I was an M.F.A. student in the Writers’ Workshop.
Steffen was moving to Jordan to continue studying Arabic, so it seemed a natural detour for him, and I still had deployment money left from my time in Iraq. I promised my mother to not get hurt, and to stay away from the actual fighting in Lebanon, Northern Israel, and Gaza.
Before we left, I compared notes with a guy I’d met by chance who was also planning to tour Israel and Palestine.
He worked for an organization called Christian Peace Makers and told me his faith in Jesus Christ led him to work on behalf of others. I told him I wasn’t particularly religious, but tried to be a good person, and that I wanted to better understand the conflict and the cause of so much suffering.
He smiled and told me that was great, then clapped me on the back and said “but it won’t get you into heaven.”
I replied, “If people of all the other religions aren’t invited to that snooty party, then I don’t want to go.”
I did say this, but not to him. I said it to myself several hours later, when I thought of it.
My friend Steffen related a different criticism he’d received from an ex-girlfriend in a small town in Iowa.
“Why do you want to go there when we have so many problems in America you can work on?” she asked. “Don’t you care about your country? All those people hate us anyway.”
On August 3rd, we arrived at Amman’s Queen Aila International Airport. It was, for each of us, the first time back in the Middle East since Iraq. Ten minutes into the cab ride to our hotel, each of us knew the other’s thoughts: this place looks just like Iraq. It smelled like Iraq – burnt garbage and diesel.
The same slightly warped roads rose and fell as if asphalt had been poured over the natural topography. They had the same curb-like divider. They got crowded on both sides by the same two and three story buildings, with the same boxy balconies, the ones I so often scanned in Iraq, anticipating enemy fire. It was 3am and I felt as awake as ever.
The driver, a tall, slim man with a thick Iraqi-like mustache, asked in English for our destination, whether it was our first time in Jordan, and where we were from.
“America,” we told him.
“Ahhh, America,” he replied. “Welcome.”
He fell ominously silent.
Through the taxi’s windows, we saw stray dogs searching the streets, and spotted individual pedestrians walking in the darkness. I watched each one suspiciously. Trash blew over the dusty, sand-colored earth. All exactly like Iraq. I caught myself wishing the cabby would use the inside lane, farther from the most likely emplacement of I.E.D.s.
The driver carried our two bags to the hotel lobby. They didn’t have our reservation. We were in the Palace Hotel, as opposed to the Amman Palace Hotel of Lonely Planet fame. They had one room left. Would we like it? Absolutely. I didn’t want to go back outside. I had no weapon, no body armor.
The cabby insisted he’d said seventeen Jordanian Dollars, not seven. Who was I to make a fuss? The important thing was for everyone to be happy, nice and happy.
The man behind the counter had slick hair and a pinstriped suit. Steffen asked if there were other backpackers staying there. There weren’t – just refugees from Iraq and Lebanon. And where were we from?
“Ahhh, America. Welcome.”
A young man carried our bags to the room. He showed us the shower, the window which was painted black, and the television. An Arabic rap video played. The English words “Palestine,” “Iraq,” and “Lebanon” scrolled continuously across the bottom of the screen, a cartoon heart pulsing between each.
The young man fiddled with the remote, switching to an English-language news channel. More than two hundred rockets had struck northern Israel and killed an American-born kibbutz resident. Somber men in suits discussed the scores of civilians killed by an Israeli air strike at Qana and the incident’s impact on the world opinion. I handed the young man a Jordanian Dollar.
Steffen and I spoke, hinting at our concerns, not laughing. I mentioned how the man behind the desk was one Google search away from discovering that I’m a U.S. Army veteran. I pulled a table in front of the door. It was good and heavy. I made a little plan of which way to roll in case the black-painted window exploded in a burst of glass and fire. We bedded down at 5am, still wired tight.
I remembered Iraq in ways completely forgotten since my return two years ago. I remembered the fear I had carried, and the constant pressing need for security. I rolled over and saw Steffen as wide-awake as me, and the phone on the nightstand between us.
I tried to dial the US Embassy, thinking I could at least register my presence – a starting point for the authorities after I go missing – but I couldn’t figure out how to get an outside line. Twenty hours of travel eventually made itself felt. We fell asleep. A short while later, we woke to a knock at the door.
I sprang from bed. Steffen looked at me, said nothing. We’d imagined forced-entry, shooting, R.P.G.s, and had literally discussed the relative merits of surrender and evasion. I even had a plan for what to do if I got captured and they filmed my beheading.
(I’d look at the camera and say “at least I’m saving a lot on car insurance by switching to Geico.” I’d joked about this with fellow soldiers, but my intention was sincere.)
We’d discussed all sorts of contingencies, but were at a total loss, faced with a knock at the door. I dragged the table away and slid open the bolt.
Two maids stepped in, tinkered with the fuse box and left. Still alive… hungry too.
The dining area turned out to be empty, and the waitress turned out to speak English. She served us tea, bread, jelly, butter and wedges of cheese. We felt better. Steffen rated his chance of survival at fifty percent, and forty in my case because of more definitively Caucasian features and a weaker command of Arabic.
Outside, the streets were packed: old men with long beards, young men in slacks and tight, collared shirts, pretty women, the majority veiled, and about every tenth with even her face covered.
The sidewalks were made narrower by the merchants who spread out cellular phones, remote controls, t-shirts, women’s robes, kitchen knives, pipe couplings and elbow joins, toy cars, colorful sacks of beans, mint leaves dried or fresh, and more. No one seemed to react to the two white guys in Teva sandals, and we gradually stopped avoiding eye contact. Our pace slowed.
It turned out our intended hotel stood just a few blocks away. I dug their free Internet access.
Imagine Chinatown, NYC: packed, vendors lining the streets, taxi drivers leaning on their horns. Now, imagine a break between the buildings, and a millennia-old ruin amid the commotion. That’s what the Umayyad ruins looked like, and the Temple of Hercules and gorgeous Roman Theater were only slightly set apart.
Falafel and big bottle of water in downtown Amman: 1.50 Jordanian Dollars.
In central Amman, further from our downtown hostel, the streets were broader and the sidewalks cleaner. They had parks.
Back at the hotel, we met a man in the elevator. He told us he was the owner. He spoke all of a sudden. “I like Americans very much, but Bush – very, very bad.” He rubbed his palms together. “Blood is on his hands.” I got the impression he wanted to say more, but couldn’t get over the language barrier.
I figured out how to get an outside line from our room (Dial 9). I called the embassy, but the marginal English and soaring indifference of the lady who answered led me to abandon my plans of registering. Besides, Amman was filled with normal people doing normal things.
I’m not sure what I keep expecting, but everywhere I’ve travelled, even to Afghanistan, I’ve always felt mild surprise and even disappointment at the realization that people get dressed in the morning, go to work, eat dinner, etc. It seems the world is inhabited by humans.
August 4: Steffen left much of his luggage at the hotel – things he’d need for his year in Amman, and we began our trip to Israel.
The thing I wish I saw in Jordan: Petra, where temples and monuments are carved into sheer cliffs, but on this trip we were eager to reach Israel.
Roman Skaskiw served as an infantry officer with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq. As of May 2007, he has been mobilized from the inactive reserve in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is a 2007 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His essay “Email From Iraq” appeared in Stanford Magazine March/April 2004.