Jun 22, 2004

Extremely proud to be Jordanian

I've never been so proud of Jordan before. Today the Minister of Education, Dr. Khaled Touqan, alongside with the head of Fighting Corruption department from the Jordanian Central Intelligence agency, they both have announced that the Tawjihi exams were stolen and sold in the market. Upon this discovery, the minister of Education has cancelled the exams taken so far, and announced that new exams will be created and given starting in one week.

This is truly great. For years, stealing exam questions has been a continuous habit. Private schools have made profit by giving these questions to their students to increase the school's average score. But this time, this year this Minister of Education meant NO FOOLING. He called the Jordanian Central Intelligence to investigate. The JCI caught the main people who stole the papers, and they also caught several private schools who bought the exams. Apparently, the head of the 4th Educational Area was involved in this act of corruption.

This decision must have been VERY BRAVE by the minister of education. His job is on the line now - but still, he did it, because it's the right thing.

This minister of education, Dr. Khaled Touqan, graduated from MIT and taught there for a while. And then, he came back to head the University of Balqa. Pretty much, he brought the best professors from University of Jordan who were reprimanded time and again for their advanced and progressive educational methods. I met several of these professors, and they talk about this guy as a great and brilliant scientist and manager. He was the one who convinced the EU to build a Nuclear Research plant in Jordan for the use of the Middle East universities. He then became the minister of Education. One of his biggest achievements so far is putting the Internet in the education. He has requested that every single teacher in the ministry to take free Internet and Computer courses. He's also installing a complete IT infrastructure to keep and distribute all data in schools and the ministry. My mother is a teacher in a public school, and it's amazing to see her talk about NetMeeting and chatting and using Word and Excel. Now, just imagine that all public school teachers will - slows but persistently - will reach that point.

The only bad thing about Dr.Touqan's Press Release was the VERY VERY STUPID journalists who were asking if he will give his resignation, and some were repeating out-of-earth rumors about "getting phone calls from Singapore to initiate the investigation"!! Anyways, to look at the positive side, the journalists had the chance to be rude during the press release, which is SOMETHING RATHER NEW in a small 3rd world country like Jordan.

Today, I'm very happy. I'm very hopeful. I'm very proud to be Jordanian.

Jun 19, 2004

Amman Trip – Part III - the last leg: Istanbul-Amman

Amman Trip – the last leg: Istanbul-Amman
By the end of the Monday 6-14-04, I made it to Gate 205, where the passengers were gathering to board the plane to Amman. Just being there, watching the mildly dark faces ornamented with a variety of facial black hair – from big moustaches to goatees to full beards and all that in between (I think I have to write a blog about the Art of Jordanian facial hair one day), hearing people talk in the typical middle-eastern way - “know-it-all” in attitude and theatrical in gestures, observing the continuity of life through the hoards of children of all different ages running around, crying and playing around an old grandmother trying to secure her clothe-bag underneath her leg, …, oh, I already feel home.

We boarded the airplane on time and I had the lucky to sit next to a very nice Iraqi professor going back to Baghdad after attending a conference in Istanbul. The conference was about The “Scientific” Water Problems in the Middle East (“scientific” to differentiate it from “political” – which is a totally different intractable issue) – a conference between scholars of five countries in the area, organized by University of Oklahoma!! (I think this is a good topic for another blog – the weakness of management skills in the Arab World. We always seem to need an outside manager to organize ourselves. An interesting example is the Al-Kindi music group from Aleppo, Syria, where the head of the group is a French man who sold all his belongings in France, moved, to Aleppo, and created one of the finest traditional Arabic troupes in the area … oh.. anyways, let’s keep that for another blog).

The Iraqi professor fascinated me. His eyes were bright, his head was high, but the scars of time have added heavily to the wrinkles of his 50-something years old face.

- كيف بغداد؟
- بغداد جريحة وصابرة ومحتسبة. ما كان وما سيكون في يد الله، لكن الناس غير راضية والتغيير قادم لامحالة.
- How is Baghdad?
- Baghdad is scarred, patient, and preparing. Of course what has been, and what will be is all in the hands of God, but people are not satisfied with the situation and change is inevitable.

After years of hardship, the Iraqi civilization is still alive and strong within its people. This poetic instinctive off-hand airplane-small-talk response from this water resources engineering professor carries so much culture and originality – it made me stop and think. It’s not just the meaning of what he said, but it’s how he put it – a style that one won’t learn in an engineering school, a style that I only remember seeing in ancient poetry from the Abbasid golden era – when Baghdad was one of the most advanced cities in the world. He learned how to speak like this because he’s the son of Baghdad of thousand years. These words were not his, but they were echoed through the years of civilization through him. I felt I was not talking to a man – but to a whole city – both in space and time. Baghdad was sitting next to me on the airplane and telling me that she has not given up. She is protesting now – not violently – but persistently.

The plane landed in Amman. I did not stop at the immigration counter this time – for the first time in 4 years. I was home. As I descended the escalator to the baggage claims area – it hit me. Yes, I remember you, Amman.

When my friends learned that I have 2 stops before reaching Amman, they told me to kiss my bags goodbye. They said I won’t see them before a week – in best case. Switching bags on international flights once is hard enough – two is next to impossible. Add to that changing my itinerary once in Seattle – where the bags had to be re-tagged to Paris, and then in Amsterdam, to be re-tagged to Istanbul, and then again to the earlier flight in Istanbul. Add to that the long transit time. I was standing with the other passengers, eyes fixed on the conveyer belt – truly asking myself if I should give up and just go or try and wait. The bags took a long time to come up because there was another flight right before of us … guess from where … Frankfurt! Ah… the irony. Lo and Behold! As the bags started appearing, I saw my 2 bags. I think I was the first passenger from Istanbul to get his bags. The happiness of getting my bags was only shattered by the thought of the Last Hurdle … Jordanian Customs.

Jordanian Customs
I’ve heard so many horror stories about the customs charging more money than what the items are actually worth. When people hear you’re traveling, they just pour a stream of “experienced advice” on dealing with Jordanian customs. How to take all gifts out of your bags and make them look “used”. They say NEVER show something wrapped. Put the cord in one bag, the machine in another, and the manuals in a third.

Oh wow – as I’m writing this blog, an accident took place in the main street in front of our house. A 6-wheeler just crossed the separator and went to the other side (wrong direction) of the street. I see one person being carried to a police car. I’m impressed – it took the police 2 seconds to appear. I hope all will be fine.

Anyways, so I walked to the customs counter. They had two paths – “nothing to declare” and “declare items”. I thought for a moment about my belongings - do I carry anything worthy of note? – well, I don't see a list of what is “custom-able” hanging in the airport - it's hard to remember what to think about. I couldn’t think of anything to declare, so I went ahead to the “nothing to declare” booth. The guy there looked at my bags, saw a “security check” tag on one of them. He said “what electrical devices do you have here.” Electrical devices!? … I truly don’t have any. Think, think.. think quickly. What could he be asking for…. Ah “It must be my external harddisk”. “Go ahead”, he said “welcome”.

Now, I was disappointed. That’s IT!! The “horror” of Jordanian customs.. 2 words!. Well, I guess either I’m a blessed person .. or people LUV to exaggerate. I think the second is more likely J Actually, given the whole trip. I can believe in my “guardian angel”.

I made it to Amman, in one piece, and both my bags, and saw my family as they waited in the airport. There’s nothing like hugging a familiar-looking guy, who is taller than you, and then learning he’s your little brother. Oh… what 4 years can do to a teenager.

I’m in Amman now, and it’s time to start blogging my adventures within the borders. Scenes from future blogs:
Standing in line at the US-embassy
Amman, the white city
Common objects found on top of Jordanian buildings
Stay tuned …

Jun 17, 2004

Amman Trip '04, Part II, Terminal - the reality show!!

And the immigration officer in Amsterdam told me that he will
send me back to where I came from - US - because I don't have an EU visa. Well,
the US won't let me in either because I gave my I-94 card when I left the
airport and I need to get another one from the US embassy in Amman. I could
imagine myself setting a tent in the Airport - right between the escalators
from the plane and the immigration desks - an unrecognizable human being who
fell throw the cracks between the buracrecies of the two most advanced
continents on Earth.

I guess I've got ahead of myself. Let me explain how I got in
that situation.

I boarded the airplane from Seattle to Amsterdam thinking that
my trip to Amman has been all sit by now and it's just a matter of time. Well,
apparently the trip refused to be any less mischief. The 8 hours over the
pacific were not bad. The food was OK. The guy sitting next to me turned out to
be the VP of a ship-making research center in Norway coming back from Alaska!
The movies were average - first 50 dates was funny at times. The other movie
was way too boring - about that president who runs as the Mayer against his

(The lands of ice northern Canada - picture from the airplane)

Amsterdam ... surprize!

Anyways, I reach Amsterdam in awe. the airport there is really
nice. I follow the signs leading to gate B to board my connection to Paris when
... I had to go through Immigration. When the immigration officer did not find
my EU visa, he called his boss and told me you are in trouble... KLM/NWA in US
reserved a connection for me in Europe knowing that I don't have visa.
Apparently, this is something very stupid that the KML/NWA did before and the
Dutch immigration authorities fined them for it. The officer told me I was
"lucky today" (note the quotes!) because he won't insist on sending me back to
US, but he will nicely direct me to the KLM ticketing desk to get a direct
flight to Amman!!! This would have been all fine if there WAS A FLIGHT TO AMMAN
that day. There was NOT!

The earliest flight to Amman was not until Wednesday - and it
was only Monday at the time!! Thanks to Hussein Kanji, I knew previously that
there's a flight to Amman through Istanbul on the Turkish airways. The KLM
officer found it, and while cussing in Dutch at the US NWA/KLM office in US, he
got my ticket all done. The plane to Amman leaves at 11:40pm from Istanbul -
thus giving me a whole day to waste. I changed my ticket yet a fourth time to
leave to Istanbul as soon as possible - instead of getting stuck in Amsterdam

(Amsterdam airport - the stereotypical cosmopolitan airport "see, buy, fly"!! ya sure)

Waiting to go to Istanbul - I started laughing. All along I
wanted to stop in Istanbul in transit to see the city - but I couldn't find a
reservation that goers through there. Things were so bad few hours earlier - I
could have had to cancel my whole trip because of the Visa issue, and then I
was about to get stuck between borders, and then ... somehow ... alhamdulillah,
as if it was all planned so accurately, I end up getting KLM to pay to send me
for a day in transit to Istanbul - while still paying less than what the
cheapest agency wanted to charge me. I truly feel I'm blessed at times. The sun
shines when the storm is at its bleakest point.

(Masjid Sultanahmet - the Blue mosque, in Istanbul)

I arrived at Istanbul and went to the city and ... WOW. The Blue
mosque - masjid of Sultanehmet was a piece of divine beauty. I arrived there
for Asr prayers - and I felt I was praying 500 years ago with the Caliphs of
the Ottoman empires. Words fall short of describing the feeling of awe inside
that mosque, hearing the muazzin's voice, the smell of the old wood, and the
huge 6 minarets, ... it was truly an experience.

(inside Masjid Sultanahmet)

(the Bazaar - the ancient market. It's a HUGE place, full with
little paths like this one)

And then I continued to the Bazaar where I looked for a small restaurant in a
small pathway that had only Turks in it - no tourists. Who better to trust for
the authentic traditional cuisine than the people of the land themselves? I got
a delicious plate of Shish Kabaabs Mix - enough for 2 people, for only $8 (12
million TK!! I can say now that I've lived as a millionaire - at least for half
a day). That stuff was delicious - with a strong dark cup of Turkish black tea.


Then I walked around, entering every mosque I found (and there
were plenty of those ancient mosques in the downtown area in Istanbul). I
bought couple of items from the traditions Bazaar (which is a museum like
covered market). I bought a very funny pipe of the shape of a turbaned face. I
also bought a small glass model of the Aya Sophia mosque.

(Aya Sophia, a church, a mosque, and now a Museum -
closes on Mondays, so take note)

Now I'm back in the airport waiting for my midnight trip to
Amman ... inshallah finally I'll see my family. TBC with the latests
adventures. Jordanian lost in space... Muhammad Arrabi

Jun 13, 2004

Amman Trip '04, Part I, An eventful beginning

INS Registration

While I wanted to write about my journey to Amman, I never
thought I would start so fast. I come in early to the airport, cruising down
I-5 south. There is virtually no traffic at all. We get to the airport in 20
minutes. I wanted to get early to give enough buffer for the INS registration
procedure. All nationals of certain countries
need to register with the INS when they leave and when they enter the US.
Surprisingly, I checked in - my luggage is not above the 70-pound limit, thanks
to God. I get to terminal S, where the international flights get off, and I go
to the INS office. The Office looks A LOT like movies. The minimalist
official-looking signs lead you to an EMPTY HALL. You get there and look around
- there's nowhere to go. This is when you realize there is a sign pointing down
that says "press here and somebody will come to help you". I pressed the
buzzer and waited. Couple of seconds later, surely enough, an officer opens the
door and takes me in to "take care of you... in more than one way - if you understand what we mean". This is exactly what the
INS officer said! This got me thinking about the ultimate question in such cases
.... Should I laugh or be very very afraid!!

Luckily, the INS officer was a very nice man who was throwing
jokes right and left. The whole registration thing took less than 5 minutes,
and I was out. This is better than my previous experience when I had to cancel
my Canada trip because of the INS officer's false warning. Anyways, that's a
different story.

A bad chicken whopper

I went to the upper concourse, sat in the S1 terminal, and
started my "waste time" mode, trying to wait for 3:15 hours
until the 1:15pm flight. I got a burger (a chicken whopper - VERY BAD).
Waiting was not bothering me - given that I still had a 24 hour trip. I was
going to Amsterdam first on NWA/KLM. And then I would change to Lufthansa to go
to Frankfurt, and from there I would take the Royal Jordanian airlines to
Amman. I had transit time of 6 hours and 2 hours accordingly in Amsterdam and
Frankfurt. (complicated ticket - yup, and cheap. I got it through the
Travelocity's Flexible Dates search. I paid $1250, which is $300 less than
the best rate I got from an agent)

The call

And as I was having these nice thoughts ... the phone rang. It
was Mohammad Kaddoura, asking very calmly "I just wanted to check - nothing to
be afraid of - but I think changing planes in Frankfurt requires a visa to
German [note - I'm a national of Jordan]. You do have yours, right?", "No...",

I told him I'll check with the airlines and see what to do. I
got up telling myself they can't require a visa.. right.. I'm just changing
airplanes - not entering Germany... WRONG - came the answer from the KLM
attendant. and this is when I had this ... terrible feeling that I've never
felt exactly before ... let me describe it

I felt that my blood pressure was going up rapidly. I felt a
squeezing on the sides of my head, and my ears started humming badly. I felt as
if I was losing conscience - very similar to when I defended my thesis. I think
this is caused by a combination of little sleep, low sugar level, and then
stressful situation. Am I going to not see my family - yet for another year? am
I going to lose my 4-week vacation? I could barely hear the attendant giving me
KLM and RJ assistance numbers and advising me to go back to the ticketing
counter in the main terminal. I shook my head and went to a chair.

This is when my engineering head starting rolling. First, I had
to recover, so I just threw myself on the chair, and waited about 10 seconds to
calm down. I invoked the concept of "Tawakkul" in Islam. You live in this life
through events and challenges - one after another. You can only choose how to
deal with them. There's nothing you can do to affect the events themselves. God
will take care of that. All what you have to do is to always choose the right
morally-correct (at times more demanding) path. Slowly the humming sound went
away and my head relaxed. Wow, this feels much better. I started by setting the
worst scenario case ... I will take a cab back to my Seattle, get a 1-way
ticket to Amman that leaves within couple of days and that does NOT go through
Frankfurt. And then come back on the same ticket. This should cost me between
$600-1200. Just having this scenario made me feel much better.

Now my job is to look for alternatives that are better than the
worst scenario. I called KLM - they don't deal with visas. The German consulate
is closed. The Royal Jordanian have a $400 flight from Amsterdam directly to
Amman on Wednesday - which means spending 2 days in the airport there (didn't
seem very bad). I found a ticket on the internet through Turkish airlines. It's
Amsterdam-Istanbul-Amman. I was about to buy ($800) when the site refused
saying that it doesn't have time to send the paper ticket to me.

I looked at time - it was 10:30. This gave me around 2 hours
before boarding time. I went back to the main terminal and waited in the
"reticketing line" - which takes a LONG line, and everybody there is in a
hurry. I wanted about 20 mintues to speak with an agent. The conveyer belt got
broken all of a sudden, which made the whole ticketing area much more confusing
and crowded. The KLM agent was SO NICE with me. She apologized because the
first agent who checked me in should have told me about the visa and found some
kind of a solution. And then she called to check the type of ticket I have ...
and like an answer from heaven, she suggested I go through Paris and it'll cost
me only $200. I shouted YES ... please! Alhamdullilah (thanks God).

Re-routing through Paris

15 minutes later and million keystrokes, I had my modified
ticket. They sent a note to reroute my luggage, and I actually will get to
Amman 1.5 hours earlier. Great! I called Kaddoura and Amjad who got me to the
airport to tell them "no need to pick me up ;-)", and also called Hussein who
was very helpful in checking with the Turkish airlines and making sure I don't
need a visa to connect through Istanbul. I also called my family to tell them I
will arrive earlier.

(triumphant in the airport with the new tickets in my pocket - well,
actually very exhausted)

With all of this out of the way ... I'm sitting here now
waiting to board the plane. I'm so glad I came early enough to the airport. It
would have felt very bad to get stuck in Amsterdam or in the plane in
Frankfurt. Although I've paid this unexpected $200 - but I'm still getting a
price better than the best agent out there ;-). Hopefully the rest of the
flight won't be as eventful. I'm going for vacation after all...

(to be continued...)