February 11, 2009
Recently I met with Majed, an elderly Arabic schoolteacher in Amman, Jordan. Not long ago, he taught me Arabic, and we still meet occasionally to talk about the media in Jordan. He lives in a small clay mud brick house in Amman and has 10 children. He asked me about my recent trip to the US. To my surprise, I found myself telling Majid that the confident, energetic America I had come to know during my college years in the States was almost unrecognizable. I told him that America is facing challenges–people are losing their homes, losing their jobs and millions can no longer afford health insurance. They elected a new President, I told him, to try to help them. As I spoke to the schoolteacher, President Obama’s themes of hope and change rung in my head. Images flashed through my mind of the thousands of young and old Americans lining the streets of Chicago hoping to be part of history. Majid shook his head in disbelief and said: “I will pray for them.”
During my trip to the U.S. in November, I was conscious of an uncomfortable role-reversal. In the past, I had become used to being accosted by Americans who want to talk to me about creating job opportunities for frustrated, unemployed Arabs. This time, American friends worried about losing their jobs turned to me for comfort.
I saw thousands of Americans lining the streets to attend what was ludicrously termed a “job fair” in New York. Bill, a college friend, told me job fairs are the new soup kitchens. Instead of speaking of the future, we ended up reminiscing about the ‘roaring’ 90’s. Today, Bill works at Citibank. I read that 50,000 Citibank employees will be laid off in the next few months. Everyday, I hope that Bill doesn’t lose his job.
I saw many homeless and scarred Gulf War vets sleeping on the crowded and cold corner of Columbus circle in Manhattan. I found myself comforting a store clerk at my favorite retail store because she had heard rumors that her store was closing down. The next day, I stopped to acknowledge a lonely flautist and a grungy guitarist in the subway. The open guitar case inviting donations sitting in front of him was empty. I assured an American friend, who left Jordan to study law in New York, that a new US administration will bring a sense of optimism. Then we found ourselves staring at the front page of the business section with a photo depicting young lawyers packing their bags and heading to Dubai.
At the neighborhood drug store, another American told me about his struggle to finish film school and his diminishing hope that images will make a difference in this world. The Fletcher family, who graciously invited me for Thanksgiving dinner in Long Island, gathered to gaze at a computer screen. The images were of palm-tree shaped hotels and an indoor ski resort in Dubai. Their enthusiasm reminded me of photos I saw of Disney World when I was a child in Jordan and, later when I was older, my impressions of Las Vegas.
On my visit to New York, I awakened every morning and promised the newspaper seller I would continue buying the print version of his newspaper. It hardly eased his worries as the newspaper industry continues to suffer unparalleled layoffs and diminishing revenue. I returned to an unexpected continuing boom in Jordan–a Middle Eastern country with scarce natural resources that is currently the second largest recipient of US aid in the world per capita next to Israel.
While American newspapers file for bankruptcy, a single Jordanian news website has already hit the million mark, surpassing both print and broadcast media in the country. As the American franchise restaurant Bennigan’s filed for bankruptcy this summer, Jordanian families exuberantly packed the newly built Bennigan’s in Amman. The restaurant remains open. And when Americans were Googling the address of their favorite neighborhood Starbucks to see if it was closing down, I was surprised to see three newly Starbucks springing in my Amman neighborhood.
On my last day in New York, a French-Jewish woman decided to tell me the story of her journey from France to New York before selling me a suitcase. “I work day and night here so my son can go to university,” she told me. “I don’t sleep often.” An Arab-American cab driver mentioned that in America at least he did not have to worry about access to hot and cold water or heating. “I am sure Americans will not starve. That is good, no?” Our conversation reminded me of a story I read on the debate brewing over the use of the SAT for college admissions. Only a few weeks later, I read that many young Americans will not even afford to go to college.
When I was called to speak on a panel regarding the Middle East at CUNY, a former CBS veteran correspondent told me she had traveled across the US but was convinced the best Sushi she has ever tasted was at a jazz bar in the Middle East.
I returned to Jordan a few weeks ago, and immediately noticed that local hip-hop concerts and standup comedy shows were selling out in Amman. The Mayor created the first ever standup comedy festival in the Middle East, showcasing up-and-coming comedic talent and encouraging more Jordanians to get involved in comedy. A representative from my graduate school and I met over lunch in Amman and wondered how the university might strengthen and support international alumni activities and programs. Could USAID in Jordan fund it? Then we looked at each other and laughed: American foreign aid would be returning to an American university.