Saturday, June 30, 2007

"What if you were a woman?"

A train, somewhere in Delaware – “What if you were a woman, would you have been able to have the same experiences?”

I’ve been asked that question at book talks, repeatedly. Sometimes the questioner is a concerned mother. Other times it is a woman my age who read Live from Jordan and asked herself at the anti-American protest in Aleppo or in the moonlight of the Western Desert in Egypt, “what if that was me?”

Reading Lolita in Tehranis a bestseller and I can’t go anywhere without seeing Khalid Husseini’s new book. The lives of women and the treatment of foreign women in the Middle East are subjects of popular interest. On both of these issues, I’ve found that American women have negative impressions. In a Miami bookstore, a reader told me that we had to liberate the women of the Middle East; their status was the equivalent of slavery in the United States. At a book club in Washington, we discussed whether certain rights are universal and whether Betty Friedan and the women’s movement in America should have an impact beyond our borders, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

If Saudi women had the right to drive, though, how many would want to get into their cars by themselves and zip over to Starbucks for a latte?

I don’t know.

There is a “women’s only world” in the Middle East that I know little about.

My life in the Middle East was spent mostly in the company of men. As a man, I was able to do certain things like camp in the desert by myself or stay in dodgy hotels without worrying about the underlying sexual connotation or the personal safety that a female traveler has to consider.

I was also able to be a fly on the wall in a way that I don’t think is possible for a female foreigner. I’d talk with other men late into the night in coffee shops. If a foreign woman was there, she was the center of attention and the topic of conversation, for everyone there. In a male only setting, though, conversations ranged from politics and work to sex. Frequently, after the usual topics were covered, my otherworldliness would recede and other conversations that didn’t include me would sprout up. It gave me the chance to listen.

If I were a woman, I don’t think men would have spoken about sex with me. More importantly, I don’t think they would have spoken to a female in such an unguarded way, in such a public venue. People would take care with their words and topics of conversation. There would be a question of personal boundaries and whether something more – in either a sexual or fairy tale kind of way – was on tap.

Along these lines, I got to know young men and their problems. In one-on-one conversations, I gained an understanding for the issues my peers faced, whether it was affording marriage or getting a decent job. It is possible that these same young men would have been as open about their vulnerabilities with women, but more likely that they would have hid them out of insecurity, or not felt comfortable talking with a foreign woman at all. As a man, while I had access to a segment of society and enjoyed a kind of carelessness, I also missed out on an entire world that remains a mystery to me.

In my first week in Amman, I was walking up a set of uneven steps in a poor neighborhood downtown. I was lost and sweating through my shirt when a couple of young women in their early 20s popped out of an alley and passed me. They were wearing hijabs and jilbabs (overshirts that reach the ground), chatting, and were oblivious to my clumsy presence. As they descended, I turned and snuck a peak, catching a glimpse at a jean-clad leg and stylish black boot emerging from the bottom slit of one of the ladies’ jilbabs.

“Gadzouks!” I yelled to myself. “They’re wearing jeans under there!”

In the time that I lived in Jordan, I learned that there was much more than meets the eye, on all subjects, but the story of that peek at a jean-clad leg is a symbolic for how I felt about the world of women. I had female friends and I asked questions and had conversations with women about their lives and what they wanted, but the “women’s only world” remained a secret world to me, a foreign man. My Mom entered it when she visited and told me--to my dismay and envy--that the couple of hours she spent in the University library speaking with female students were the most comfortable and safest she felt in Jordan. Rggh.

So, I’ve asked several women I know, Americans who have traveled throughout the Middle East, and women from Arab countries to offer comments on their experiences as either foreigners or residents in that secret world. We should have comments rolling in this week. I’d welcome other, unsolicited comments, too. Thanks-

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bill and Me

Dupont Circle (still haunting D.C.’s coffee shops) – I received a letter from President Clinton today. I’ve been waiting for this day since I was a 10th grader plotting with John Scott and Rodrigo Pinchera how to get a then campaigning Clinton to join us for a hearts game. So, today was a big day, even if the missive seemed awfully close to a form letter requesting a campaign donation.



It was a form letter.

Bill started out with a reference to the Soprano’s spoof (I thought he wanted to discuss the theme music situation), but he just wanted money:

“Hillary can be a great president, but she needs your support to win. And she needs it now as we come down to the wire in the last critical days of this quarter. Come June 30, all the campaigns will be measured on what they raised in the last three months. We have to raise more online before then to show her strength and keep her campaign going.”

I considered the request, and replied with the following:

Dear President Clinton,

Thanks for your note. I have extraordinary respect for you and am actually a child of your legacy. Your time in office was a period of optimism and hope. As a college student in the 90s, I felt it was my duty and honor as an American to try and make my community and our world a better place.

I served in AmeriCorps after college, studied the Middle East and Arabic in graduate school, worked at the State Department for three years developing democratic reform programs, and I wrote a book about the process of listening to, living with, and understanding "the other" -- it is called Live from Jordan" Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East. (I would be honored to send you a copy).

I've decided that I will not be making any campaign contributions this election -- to Hillary or to any other candidate. I'm disgusted by the process and am saddened by what could be accomplished with such funds if they were spent in the Middle East, Darfur, sub-Saharan Africa, and in the United States for that matter. Our problems are too great and too widespread for Americans to be giving money to candidates to talk about themselves or to attack each other. I'll be giving my money to charity instead. If Hillary would like to set up a separate fund for charity -- perhaps devoted to stopping genocide in Darfur -- I would happily make a contribution. Maybe she can be the candidate that raises the most private funds to stop genocide? I like the sound of that.

Please let me know if I can send you a copy of my book.

Best Regards,

Benjamin Orbach

PS, I did like the spoof, but I devoted my blog last week to criticizing Hillary's choice in theme music. Celine Dion? Terrible.

I’ll bet I scared him with the “child of your legacy” comment. Rereading the letter, it also strikes me that I’ve become quite an apple polisher. Oh well.

To the point: Americans are making donations to presidential campaigns at a rate that is making credit card debt feel inadequate. In the first quarter of this year, the leading six candidates raised $115 Million! On June 30, we’ll have numbers on the second quarter. Pundits tell us that $1 Billion could be spent on the 2008 presidential election. That makes me want to puke.

Imagine what a percentage of that money could do if devoted to stopping genocide in Darfur? The Save Darfur Coalition is engaged in advocacy efforts to persuade companies like Fidelity to stop investing in international companies that operate in Sudan. Without such investments, the government of Sudan will be pressured to stop arming and supporting genocide within Sudan’s borders.

Habitat for Humanity is an organization that builds homes for disadvantaged, poor, and homeless people. A $100 contribution would pay for a kitchen sink in the new house of a Katrina victim.

The International Volunteer Program Association is a coalition of non-governmental organizations involved in international volunteer and internship exchanges. Their website offers links to programs around the world, from the Art Corps to World Teach. Your contribution could support the work of unofficial ambassadors.

The 2008 campaign is pivotal for both domestic and foreign policy reasons, and I’ll volunteer for a candidate and register people to vote. However, as I wrote to Bill, why don’t we judge the candidates for their actions, including the funds they raise for the issues they believe in? Governor Huckabee can raise money for creationism textbooks.

When you get those automated emails and evening phone calls, ask what the candidate is doing now about the issues you care about. And consider contributing to one of the causes I mentioned, or something else you care deeply about, instead of enabling a 30 second sound byte about why candidate X will be the best.


Readers tell me that they want more Big Hair posts. One is in the works. In the meantime, my research on Hillary’s theme song has left me obsessed with Journey. If you want to see some Big Hair, check out this video. And if you have any idea how they got into those jeans, please let me know.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Book Clubs and "the Other"

Adams Morgan (still waiting to leave) – It was the first book club that I’ve visited, a group of six women with thoughtful questions. Before that evening, I’d only appeared on radio shows and at bookstores where people were interested in Live from Jordan’s substance but they wanted a taste of the milk -- i.e. some anecdotes and analyses -- before buying the cow.

Some people aren’t milk buyers, though. They sip in the supermarket (Borders) aisles and stop off at their neighbor’s or friend’s for a glug glug. Well-meaning people have told me that they thought my experience sounded “so interesting,” and that they were going to “borrow” Live from Jordan from the library or a friend. Don’t get me wrong, I have a message, and I’d like to spread it like cream cheese on a Sunday morning garlic bagel. But come on -- I’m 31, this is my first book, and I need to sell some copies. If you like the arts, support the artists. And yes, I’m using the term “artist” loosely.

I’m fascinated by the concept of book clubs, though. They are women’s answer to poker night. Groups of women choose a book to read, actually read the book, and then discuss it in detail over drinks and finger foods. I suspected something else might be going on (secret NASCAR watching, perhaps) but at both of the book clubs I’ve visited, there was thought provoking conversation and no mention of Jeff Gordon.

The best thing about the book club conversations is that everyone has read the book and there are challenging questions about the Middle East and my experience. You can really get in depth on some of the nuances.

At this book club visit, Jeanette, an African-American lawyer, asked me whether my experience living as “the other” in Jordan had given me insight into the experience of blacks in America. I’ve thought about this subject a lot, but had yet to speak about it in public.

When I was living in the Arab World in 2002 and 2003, I hid my Jewish identity for both security and for professional reasons. In Jordan especially, because of the absence of Jewish history (compared to Egypt or Syria), there is little distinction made between Jews as members of a faith and the Israeli army, a reviled institution. On the professional front, I went to Jordan to learn about daily life and people’s viewpoints on political issues, not to be the center of a traveling Talmudic road show, debating details of doctrine – that isn’t my bag. So, out there on my own without official protection, I had to choose how to identify myself to the people I didn’t know and trust. The assassination of Laurence Foley deeply disturbed me; before he was killed, and certainly after, I lied.

When you’re hiding something, as I was, you avoid certain situations. When coffee shop discussions came around to the tenets of Christianity, I redirected questions back to the questioner and Islam. I had many of the same conversations and became adept at the two-step. With the arrival of holidays, I traveled or stayed home, sick.

If you’re black, you can’t hide your skin color, however. So while I thought about being the “other” a lot and transposed it to different contexts, I told Jeanette that I didn’t understand racial discrimination much better. Instead, I think I gained more of an insight into what it is like to be secretly gay in America.

I haven’t read any literature on life in the closet, so this is a complete (and hopefully respectful) stab. I think there are similarities, however, of avoiding certain conversation topics (like relationships), feeling alone when you aren’t participating in events that are the norm for the community, and resenting “forced” participation in these events in order to fit in and not raise suspicions (the prom, college date parties, work events).

There are more difficult situations, too. What happens when people you’ve become friends with say hateful things about gays or Jews? These are your friends, you know that they are generous or kind, but it turns out that they are also ignorant and perhaps hateful.

Worse, what happens when you become good friends with someone and haven’t been honest about who you are? Is there a full disclosure obligation? Such a forced clarification is insulting to everyone. It’s like, “I know we’re friends, but you’re entitled to know that I’m really _____ and you now have the opportunity to excuse yourself from this friendship because being _____ is so terrible that I’m obligated to explain it to everyone I meet and make sure that they have full information before continuing our friendship.” That’s awful, for the friend, too. You’re projecting on to them a desire for a prejudicial escape hatch.

So, I think I gained some insight into living a secret world, but I’m not sure. What are others’ thoughts about the “secret Jew in Jordan” vs. “gay in an American closet” comparison? Also interesting, how does being “the other” openly compare to being “the other” in secret?

Comments welcome, thanks-

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Hillary Blew It

Washington D.C. - Hillary chose Celine Dion’s You and I as her theme music over Journey’s Don’t Stop Believen’. A few thoughts on why this choice was a disaster:

Origin of the Artist. Celine Dion is from Canada! Her website has options for English and French. Worse, when you click buttons on the website, Celine Dion’s music starts playing. Do you know how embarrassing that is when you’re at work? I had to get up and close the door to my office.
It is not that I’m anti-Canada. Anyone who has read my book knows that I like Canada and even posed as a Canuck under different periods of duress. Despite my distaste for those Canada patches that our northern neighbors sew to their backpacks (to make sure they aren’t mistaken for Americans), I think Canada is a nice, clean place and I wish we had their health care system. Even better, every twenty years, Canada sends Pittsburgh the greatest hockey player to walk the planet. I like that.
Journey, on the other hand, is from San Francisco. They are a quintessential American rock band – hits in the 70s and 80s, long hair, and mullets! That’s an image Hillary should want to identify with. The more pictures she rolls out, like the one of her in that paisley shirt (which may be velour), the better. The Midwest wants to see a human Hilary, not someone in glitter.

Sound and Lyrics. I can’t listen to You and I without worrying that someone is going to catch me and I’ll have to explain that I’m doing research for a blog post. I listened to Don’t Stop Believen' once last night and I’m humming the chorus at my desk, bobbing my head, and dreaming about big hair coming back.
As for the lyrics, Don’t Stop Believen’ blows You and I out of the water. It is about tough times, people on the margins, and hope for the future. You and I is about flying, together. As far as love songs go, that could be nice. This is theme music, though, and I don’t like the image of America and Hillary engaged in a love affair, flying together above the clouds.
Let’s go to the telestrator and examine the lyrics up close.

Don’t Stop Believen’ opens with:

Just a small town girl, livin in a lonely world
She took the midnight train goin anywhere

Who can’t identify with this? We’re all chasing dreams here. The song’s chorus is great:

Dont stop believen'
Hold on to the feelin . .

Bill had “Don’t Stop” (thinking about tomorrow),” and Hillary could have had “Don’t Stop Believin.” Part of Hillary’s appeal is the return of Bill and the optimism of the 90s. The Hilary people missed.

Let’s take a closer look at the lyrics of “You and I.” The song opens with:

High above the mountains, far across the sea
I can hear your voice calling out to me
Brighter than the sun and darker than the night
I can see your love shining like a light

Huh? We’re talking about our next choice for President, not the love of my life. The chorus:

You and I
Were meant to fly
Higher than the clouds
We'll sail across the sky

I don’t get it. The flying thing seems overly ambitious. If we were meant to fly, can someone please make our airlines start serving food on the plane again? It isn’t so much that I mind eating at Potbelly’s before take off. Rather, I can’t stand the assorted smells of a mall food court emanating from the row behind me. McDonald’s and Kung Pow mixed at 30,000 feet is a recipe for nausea. Someone should do a study of the increase in the number of incidents of vomiting since airlines dropped food service. And another thing, don’t bring that big cookie around and try to sell it to me for $4. That’s just insulting.

The Titanic Factor. You say Celine Dion, I think Titanic. Maybe that’s because I lived in the Middle East for a year and had an ungodly number of conversations about Celine Dion, Canada, and Titanic, but I can’t be alone in this. I have to ask the question, “What campaign wants to be associated with the Titanic?”

So, Hillary made a mistake. She used a democratic process on her website to determine her theme music. I’m sure more people out there like Celine Dion than Journey these days, but democracy isn’t good for all situations. Democracy is good for decisions that impact the common good or the majority of the people. Choosing theme music is something entirely personal, like the clothes you wear. Is Hillary going to post potential outfits for the convention on her website and let her voters choose her wardrobe too? I hope they don’t choose an oversized Clyde Frazier throwback jersey or a Zoot suit.

It is going to be disappointing to have to hear Celine Dion over and over again for the next year and a half. The only thing that will make it tolerable is if Hillary’s team can rig it so that she swoops in from the rafters, on Batman-like wires, at future campaign appearances as they play the music. If they can do that, then I take it all back and You and I was the right choice.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Unofficial Ambassadors

Pittsburgh -- About a week and a half ago, Metro published an interview on one of my favorite Live from Jordan topics – the role of Unofficial Ambassadors. “Unofficial Ambassadors” is my own term for American citizens who improve America’s relations with the rest of the world, and the Middle East specifically, by traveling, working, volunteering, and studying abroad.

It was a nice piece; Jason Notte, the Metro writer, wrote a summary of my book and pulled a few questions and answers from our lunch in a Cuban restaurant near Broadway and 51st in Manhattan. The restaurant had terrific espresso, and the food wasn’t bad either, except that Jason ordered a mini-hamburger and it was the size of a carmex lip balm container. He put some ketchup on the burger, and it disappeared. I felt bad for him; he must have eaten an early dinner that night.

For those of you who don’t live in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, Metro is the free newspaper that is handed out at subway stations in the morning. We have one in Washington D.C. too, called the Express – it is like Headline News meets the Washington Post, Sudoku, and a classified section on steroids. It is especially nice for the people who don’t have cell phone reception on the train or who forgot their ipods at home.

Back to the unofficial ambassador interview though, my contention is that we do much better as a country if everyday Americans are the face of America to the Middle East rather than someone official, like Donald Rumsfeld. Not to take away from the efforts put forward by our military and diplomatic corps, but they represent and implement U.S. foreign policy first. Only afterwards are they able to represent the “American people.”

Whoa, how can I make a distinction between the U.S. government and Americans you might be asking? Well, it is true – Americans elect the President and Congress. But, in the Middle East, people separate the American people from the U.S. government. The American people gave the world Martin Luther King, the Matrix, and the minimum wage (I think – we at least get a lot of credit for it). The U.S. government brought you Iraq. In sum, people love Mariah Carey but hate George Bush. If we want to decrease anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, we should play to our strengths – the American people – rather than making everything a discussion of our (perceived) weaknesses, U.S. policy.

So, playing to our strengths, unofficial American ambassadors make us safer in the world for two reasons. First, they demonstrate our humanity. Despite the carnage you see on the nightly news, the killing of innocents is abhorred in the Middle East. When the issue of whether it is okay for al-Qaida to target American civilians is debated in salons and coffee shops across the Middle East, we want people to think of the Americans they know, like, and who have made the world better a better place. We don’t want them to think of our leaders who smirk at them and say in so many words, “we’re strong, you’re weak, and we’ll do what we think is best.”

Second, unofficial ambassadors can play a positive role in helping people in the developing world address the unmet human needs of their communities. Doctors without Borders, Peace Corps Volunteers, scholars, practitioners, and study-abroad students have a lot to offer in their fields of expertise or through their attributes of openness and curiosity. They’re able to travel around, unhampered, and people are willing and eager to accept advice and assistance, especially if there aren’t strings attached. While there isn’t much that American citizens can expect to accomplish on major policy questions in the Middle East, they should get involved in “people’s issues” like education, health, and IT training. One well meaning and knowledgeable person can have a multiplying impact. Just don’t wear shorts, behave like a jerk, or hit on someone’s wife or daughter.

The nice thing about having a platform, even if it is a small one like mine, is that you can say and write things and interested people of all stripes contact you and want to know more. I’ve recently met (in person or over email) high school students, college professors, and other potential unofficial ambassadors of varying interests and proficiencies who want to make connections with their Middle Eastern counterparts but who aren’t sure of where to begin.

Figuring out how to form those linkages in the most productive way seems like a good next step. I’ve been facilitating different connections over the last week and a half, and would be happy to continue. Send emails about what you can offer or what you’re looking for, and I’ll try to point you in a reasonable direction.


Pittsburgh – Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East has been out since the start of May. I’ve been receiving a lot of interest and feedback at the “grassroots level” by way of emails, bookstore talks, book clubs, and talk radio/local NPR call-in questions. In a way, it is like the response to the original letters that I sent home from Jordan and Egypt. The New York Times editors may not care less about what I have to say (I still can’t place an oped with them), but people in Wisconsin, South Florida, Utah, and Ohio seem genuinely intrigued.

One of the surprises of this grassroots response is the number of people who have contacted me with questions about traveling or living in Jordan or other parts of the Middle East. Most are in college or just out of college. That’s great news, for everyone involved. There have been a lot of emails, though, and I haven’t been able to keep up as well as I would have liked. So, true to my book, I thought this blog would be a place where I could:

- Answer questions and continue discussions that have arisen from my book
- Continue to write about the intersection of our interests with everyday people and colorful places (in the Middle East, but also in other venues too)
- Respond to travel and living abroad questions and share others' stories too
- Daydream about the upcoming Steelers season, huevos rancheros, and other issues of paramount importance to me

Thanks for stopping by-