The Aftermath

One week back, and I think I still feel the jetlag.

It's been too easy to get back into my LA routine. I have to stop whatever I'm doing, sit down, and think about my time in Jordan. A cognitive anthropologist I worked for used to say that rehearsing a memory in your head helps cement it as a concrete even in your life. The flipside is that rehearsal also tends to modify your view of the actual event in accordance with your overall emotional evaluation of that period of your life. Regardless, I'm taking the time to do it because it's one of the things that makes me feel most connected to that experience.

My jetlag, incidentally, has been exacerbated by the fact that I spent some more time on airplanes this weekend.

There was a good reason, though, because my grandfather, my abuelo, had his 100th birthday.

We arrived Friday night. My uncle picked us up and drove us to Little Havana, where my grandfather and aunt live. There was a group of relatives waiting for us, including my parents, uncles and a cousin. But conspicuously absent was my grandfather. When I asked about him, they said he was asleep. It was 11pm after all. Well past his bedtime, the night before a big party.
I found out later that they had tried to convince him to stay awake using our arrival as bait.
He was having none of it.
This is how I think the conversation went, based on hearsay, rough translation, and previous observation of the way my aunt and abuelo interact:
Grandfather- I'm tired.
Aunt- Don't you want to stay up to see Alice and Kevin?
Grandfather- Grumble grumble.
Aunt- They're flying all the way from Los Angeles?
Grandfather: Who?
Aunt- Alice and Kevin; your grandchildren.
Grandfather- What about them?
Aunt- Don't you want to stay up to see them?!
Grandfather- No!
Aunt- But dad, they flew all the way from Los Angeles!
Grandfather: Fuck them!
Like I said, he was asleep when we got there.

We stayed at a hotel in Miami Beach. After getting dropped off, we ventured out to Ocean Drive to get a bite to eat.
We ate at the massively overpriced New Cafe. Shrimp cocktail, empanadas and something else I can't remember right now. You get the idea. It was a memorable meal. But, even more memorable was the parade of hoochies and tools sauntering by our table. We felt distinctly out of place, not being dressed in our hoochie and tool outfits. Luckily, I had packed my ripaway shirt.

The next morning, we got up and headed to the florist. My mom had put Alice in charge of table decorations. We purchased some beautiful birds of paradise, vases and rocks. My uncle dropped us off at the hotel where the banquet hall was, about 3 hours before the birthday party began. We set up and wandered around.

My abuelo made his grand entrance around 2pm, to a crowded banquet hall. Despite riding in a wheelchair, he was vivacious, waving his hand like royalty. People flocked to him, offering their congratulations and good wishes.

My cousin Mario organized a photo of the cousins. We gently ousted my grandfather's brother from behind the wheelchair and positioned ourselves around the guest of honor. They had hired a photographer and he was quite imperious about where everyone was looking. He kept demanding that we look at his camera and ignore the 6 or 7 other people around him taking photos as well. He was a little mean about it, which seemed inappropriate, but I guess he was just doing his job. As Antonio Banderas says, "Sometimes, my friend, you have to...how you say...take the lead."

The cake was a large replica of Cuba. My grandfather was given a piece that corresponded to Manzanillo, the town near where he spent the first 60 years of his life.

Whenever I go to these events, I meet so many people whose names I don't know, but whose faces I recognize. Then there's the occasional person who grasps my arm and kisses me and says that they remember when I was little. I'm not sure what to do in these cases, since I rarely even recognize their faces. I usually smile and nod. Then they ask me if I still play the violin. At this point, I usually scour the room for my brother, point him out, and mention that he's not married yet.

The trip was too short. We arrived Friday night and left Sunday afternoon. But, we did get a chance to spend some time at the beach. The water was like a warm, salty bath. The waves were choppy, but we braved them until the lifeguard whistled us in.

It seems like these trips to Miami for my grandfather's birthdays are increasingly the only times when I get to see my extended family. When we all lived in Chicago, we got together often, for Thanksgiving, Nochebuena, birthdays, anniversaries, anything that gave us a chance to gather. Now, with everyone scattered, it's much harder. Whenever I leave Miami, I feel like the only appropriate thing to say is "I hope we'll see each other next year."


Final Thoughts


There wasn’t much time for sound at all. We spent half a day in a dark room. I explained sound design in the best way possible, but it was clear by the time they started editing that what I had said didn’t stick. At least some of them enjoyed when I showed them Punch Drunk Love.

We edited and mixed 12 movies in about a day and a half. Editing and mixing sound in AVID is one of the most clunky, frustrating and inefficient experiences I’ve had. But, it’s what was available, so we made it work.

The night before the final screening, we worked from 10am until 5am. I took a break for an hour to go to a nearby street fair and buy gifts. I was all business. When one vendor started chatting me up, I felt my precious time slipping away. I bargained with him to let me just buy the stuff and move on.

The super long editing day was a Friday, the day of rest. This meant there was no lunch delivered. The students got together and had an animated debate about where to go to eat. At least this is what I gleaned since they spoke in Arabic, with the occasional “Popeye’s” and “Macdonald’s” thrown in. We ended up at Burger King.

I love the way Arabic sounds. It seems like such an expressive language. It makes me feel like I can understand it when I don’t.

The day of the screening we started work at 10am, putting the final touches on the movies. I started to let up on my dictatorial position regarding music during dialog. My will was weakening. Another day and I would have been encouraging them to use wall-to-wall score.

In preparation for my return to LA, I shaved off my beard. This was a difficult process, since I have no clippers in Amman. I patiently used scissors to trim my beard back to a shaveable length. It felt weird to have a smooth face.
The significance of having a beard in Jordan became obvious.
As previously reported, I have been asked for directions countless times. Whenever I went to a store or restaurant, the employees spoke to me in Arabic without hesitation.
When I got into a cab to go to the screening, the driver took one look at me in the rearview mirror, and said cheerfully, “America?”

The screening was a beautiful thing. The students were excited and nervous. We set up the projector outside in the patio. Friends, actors and crews showed up and filled the chairs. Some people sat on the steps and roof. After each movie, the filmmaker came up to the front to say something brief and take questions. It was all quite charming except for the one guy who kept asking things that seemed suspiciously formulated to make him sound knowledgeable. But even he was incapable of souring such a satisfying event. There was an undeniable feeling of accomplishment throughout the evening.

After the screening there was food and drink. Since Chris and I were leaving early the next morning, we stayed late, soaking up as much Jordan as possible.

One of the most touching things about this whole experience has been working closely with the students. They were generous, honest, hard-working, and as hungry for knowledge about filmmaking than any group of people I’ve met at USC. They came in with minimal knowledge about the process of filmmaking, and came out with a group of decent movies. And, more importantly, you could tell that some of them caught the bug. Those students won’t stop trying to make movies and it’s unbelievable rewarding to have been part of that process.

Motaz and Samer stayed up all night with us in order to drive us to the airport at 5am. Every night, when we stayed late, someone waited with us to drive us home. Every single student I talked to the night of the screening kept telling us we had to stay longer. These were real requests. When they asked me to spend a few more days in Jordan, they looked at me expecting me to say yes. I knew that if we had agreed, they would have fought over having us stay at their respective houses.

I missed the opportunity to go to the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, but consoled myself by saying that I would have to return to see those places. In fact, I would rather return to Amman, miss those sights and spend time with my Jordanian friends.

I’m no Middle East expert. Three weeks is nothing. But I am grateful for the opportunity because just setting foot in Jordan has afforded me at the very least a glance at a completely different perspective on the world. This has been richly enhanced by my interactions with the students, who were always open about anything I asked them.

I’m no Middle East expert, but I’m not sure how one could have a strong opinion about the chaos here or an unflagging certainty about the solution to it without at least spending some time here and talking to the people who live here. But this is not a political blog. All I can say is that when the customs officer at LAX asked me skeptically, “Did they treat you well over there?” I got a lump in my throat. I’m not sure what he was implying.
“They treated me extraordinarily well,” I answered.
I don’t think he understood the weight of that statement.
As I waited for my bags, I considered what the reverse experience might have been for one of the students (several of whom are interested in coming to USC to study film). Would Sharif or Motaz or Samer or Nidal or Reham or Reem or Fady or Firas or any of those guys have returned to Jordan after three weeks in the States saying, “They treated me extraordinarily well?”
I wish they could come here, so I could show them some good things about our country. For myself, more than for them, because they seem much more able to distinguish the character of individuals from the actions of their country. But of course, when I told them they should come for a visit, they all smiled at my naiveté. “It’s hard to for us to go there,” they said. What they meant was that the U.S. doesn’t give these people visas. “Well,” I said, “I guess I’ll have to come back.”
I’m serious.


Call to Prayer


Well, I finally came down with that awful, awful bug that has decimated the ranks of the USC staff at the RFC.
I decided I was not going to suffer from the particular dysentery-like symptoms that have plagued others.
I locked myself in my room and fought the disease with a steady diet of bottled water, lentil soup, and Real Madrid TV.

About a week ago, when Robert was helping Ahmad on his night shoot, Chris made some well-intentioned suggestions.
“Shut up, bitch,” Robert said.
We laughed.
A few minutes later, Chris made another suggestion.
“Shut up, bitch,” Robert said again, then, inexplicably, “I’m serious.”
“I’m serious, let me do my job.”
From henceforth, every sentence has been followed with the phrase “I’m serious.”

In the throes of my illness, the weirdest dreams assailed me.
I dreamt that Alice was cheating on me with a large Cuban man.
I dreamt that my flight from LA to Jordan was grounded in Cleveland because someone in Amman was running frantically through a hotel. No one could catch him.
I dreamt that I was an Arabic cat, hiding underneath a warm car from other, meaner cats. I dreamt that I bit into a falafel sandwich and it expanded in my mouth like a balloon. I couldn’t breathe.
I dreamt that dozens of cameras were thrust into my face, asking impossible questions, blinding me with lights.

I arrived back at the workshop to discover that there were audio problems. Some of the tapes we gave out, HDV/DV tapes instead of regular DV tapes, had audio dropouts and funny little electronic pings. Not everyone who used these tapes had the problem, but the problem showed up only in projects that used these tapes. The night we gave them out we were out of regular tapes. We thought they would be ok. The students who had the problems looked dejected. I felt bad. We told them to cut their movies normally, and that we would figure out how to fix the spots where the audio was distracting. It sucks that these guys have to deal with this, especially since it wasn’t even their mistake.

Someone suggested to Nidal that he make a movie about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
He dismissed the idea, not wanting to deal directly with the politics of such a thing.
“You can make it allegorical,” I say.
“What,” he asks, “Al-Gore-ical? What’s that?”
I guess it’s taking a good idea and sucking the life out of it.

I walk out to the terrace around sunset. Reham is sitting in a chair, listening to the call to prayer. I sit on the ground next to her. We listen for a while. When it’s over, she says, “Well that was nice, wasn’t it?”
“What are they saying during the call?”
She proceeds to translate it for me. Sharif comes by and helps her.
Soon, there is a group of students, taking breaks from editing, cycling in and out of a lively discussion about Islam, its role in the middle east, and its relationship to the chaos that’s going on and the conflict with Israel and the West.
By the end of the night, the call to prayer that started it has been replaced by a slightly drunk Sharif singing some Jordanian pop song to the others in the middle of the street. At some point along the way, someone is sent out to get hummus, falafel and beer. They drag the big table onto the terrace, and we eat together like a big family. Samer lights the scene expertly. At the end of the night, they beg us to let them stay all night to edit.
“Lock us in,” the plead, “we’ll be ok.”
Just at this moment, Samer, being carried upside down by Motaz, drops a beer bottle onto the floor and it shatters.
“No way.”
I tell them they’ll have time tomorrow. We tumble out of the villa onto the silent street.


Corpse Shroud


Robert and I got to Motaz’s shoot. His first location is a conference hall in the Grand Hyatt hotel. Apparently, in Jordan, it’s really easy to get sweet locations for free.
Samer picks us up to take us there. On the way, we talk about the 2005 Amman bombings, one of which occurred that this very hotel. Security is tight now. Samer tells us how that he knew some of the victims from work. There was a wedding in the hotel, and the bomber insinuated himself into the group. During the wedding, he exploded a bomb that was strapped to his body. Samer knew the bride. She survived, but her parents didn’t. I don’t know what kind of person kills guests at a wedding.

For lunch, Motaz’s crew decides to go to the food court at a nearby mall. This is probably the least appealing suggestion I’ve heard all day, but I don’t really have a choice. The mall looks like your typical American one. Most of the signs are in English. I ate a “Chicago style” hot dog. It was pretty gross.

The next stop on Motaz’s shoot is the citadel. It’s the ruins of a Roman fortress set high atop one of the hills in Amman. Again, I’m amazed at how easy it to get a permit to shoot at a monument that is thousands of years old. But that letter with the royal crest on it and some fancy signature allows us to drive up and park next to a row of old Corinthian columns.
The view is stunning, and as the sun sets, the location gets more and more beautiful. We are interrupted by a group of children that insists on watching. They are pretty cute. One of them looks like an adult in kid’s clothes. Maybe he was a midget. Either way, it’s charming the way he randomly shouts “Action” while we’re setting up. The problem arises when they don’t understand that we’re recording sound as well. After a few botched takes, Motaz screams at the kids. But these guys are no strangers to aggressive adults. They shout back, and then slowly move away, turning occasionally to fire another insult in our direction. Finally, the tender love scene between Motaz (acting in his own movie) and the attractive actress playing opposite him can come to fruition. But our little friends have one more trick up their sleeve. As soon as they hear Motaz say “Action,” they begin to whistle and shout and scream. Motaz is pissed, but Samer is the one who goes after them. I’m a little apprehensive, since Samer is about 5’2”, 120. The kids are in a big group and I tell Motaz I’m worried that they will kick Samer’s ass.
“Don’t worry,” says Motaz. “He’s crazy. Little guys are always crazy.”
Sure enough, whatever Samer says gives us the breathing room to get the shot.
Later, as we return to our cars, we see the kids playing soccer in a clearing between columns.

At night, we check in equipment from the groups who have shot during the day, and check it back out to groups shooting the next day. Everyone is supposed to crew on each others’ shoots, but we find out that Firas’ crew has abandoned him in favor of the cute girl.
Not only is she cute, Luke points out, but her mom will probably make everyone lemonade and chocolate cake and serve it on a silver platter. It reminds me of when I was younger and always wanted to go to the rich kid’s house because he had lots of cool toys and delicious junk food.
We solve Firas’ crew problem with the help of Motaz and Samer, who make a flurry of phonecalls.
Then, we shut down Fady’s shoot because it’s been going for almost 16 hours. An angry Sharif, one of Fady’s crew, drives us home. Calm Sharif is a crazy driver. Angry Sharif seems to take offense at the street being empty. We feel lucky to get home.

Reham’s shoot is in the middle of nowhere. This makes sense, since she’s trying to recreate the Garden of Eden. But we drive and drive and drive, and eventually stop on the side of a dusty road next to a broad field dotted with trees. On the opposite side, there’s a Bedouin tent and some donkeys. We all get out and stretch our legs.
“That’s it,” she says, pointing at one of the trees.
We passed a million of these along the way. Why couldn’t we have stopped there?
Nidal, the cinematographer, is worried because we are shooting near the Bedouin camp.
“Why?” asks Reham.
“These people are conservative. If they see a half-naked woman, there’s no telling what they’ll do.”
Yell at us? Throw rocks? Shoot us?
“It’s just more respectful that way.”
We accept this logic and move to a tree that’s a bit more hidden.
Eventually, though, Bedouin herders drive their flocks by us, and one of them stops to watch. We’re a little worried and tell the actors to put their clothes back on. They’re not naked, but quite scandalously clad.
The goatherd seems content to sit peacefully in the shade, so we continue. It dawns on me that this could be the most exciting thing this guy has ever seen.

Luke and I walk up to R&B to get a chicken sandwich. We arrive and get in line behind a cop. As I stare at the menu, I notice peripherally that he has turned in my direction. Then I hear a click. He seems to have moved his hand towards his gun. He’s also playing with the butt of his gun. This is quite odd. I keep staring at the menu as this guy gives me the slow once-over. We remain in this standoff pose, him staring and me pretending everything’s normal, until the employee behind the counter calls to him. The cop turns, picks up his bag of food and walks out into the waiting police car.
I turn to Luke.
“Did you see that guy? He was staring at me and fingering his gun.”
“Yeah, man. You look dangerous.”

We are talking about names. Reem’s name means “deer.” Her last name means “moonlight.” Reham’s name means “summer rain.” Samer’s name means “he who doesn’t sleep at night.” Firas’ name means he’s the son of a lion.
This all makes me think of the conundrum of my experience with the Jordan University guard.
I corner some students and interrogate them about my name.
“So what the hell does ‘Keffin’ mean?”
They cast about. They can’t really come up with anything.
I leave the room. I refuse to settle for this. I come back.
“You’re sure?” I ask, poking my head through the door.
They think some more.
“Keffin,” I say, “come on! Or Keffan, or something! Come on!”
“Keffan!” One of them perks up. I don’t remember whom because I was so excited.
He says something in Arabic to the others. They discuss it for a few moments.
“What the hell does it mean!?”
“Well,” he says, “you know how Muslims don’t use coffins?”
“No, but ok…”
“Well, ‘Keffan’ is the shroud they wrap dead bodies in.”
“Your name means ‘corpse shroud.’”
Fucking great.


Eat the meat


I’ve been engaged in a passive aggressive war with the hotel maid assigned to my room. It all started when I discovered that my shower “curtain” didn’t do much to keep water off the floor. I got out and stepped onto a completely soaked bathmat. So, taking advantage of one of the two towels afforded to me, I laid out a dry path to the sink. Perfect, I thought. One towel to dry myself and one to sop up the water that floods the floor every time I take a shower.
However, I came back the next day to find only one towel available. Hm. Perhaps an oversight.
The next day, two towels are back, but there’s no bathmat.
The next day, two towels and a bathmat, but no hand towels.
The next day, everything but washcloths.
I’m not sure what this woman wants, but I’m starting to get a little scared.

With VIPs in town, last night there was a “BBQ” at the house of a local Jordanian producer. He runs a new production company that is trying to give a voice to Jordanian filmmakers.
He picks us up and drives us to what can only be described as a palatial home. It turns out that it’s his parents’ house. We mingle in the back yard. It’s lit with candles. There’s a heated pool, an outdoor bar, nicely set tables and loads of servants.
We drink and talk.
Then, in a manner consistent with good servants, the food appears without us even noticing. It’s time to eat.
The offerings consist of sushi, shrimp, stuffed peppers, steak and potatoes, a whole fish, various vegetables, all spread out nicely across the bar.
We eat.
Then, magically, dessert appears.
Several kinds of cheese, fruits, some of which I don’t recognize, apple cobbler, chocolate cake, almond vanilla ice cream.
And here I expected a night of good old brats and beer.

At the BBQ there was a young, fairly attractive woman. During drinks, I notice her talking to Merva, so I decide to slide over and see if I can join the conversation.
I walk up and introduce myself.
“Where are you from?” she asks.
“The U.S.”
“I’m Canadian. I was just about to tell a great story about stupid American tourists.”
She says this last bit to me as if we both just realized we had the same favorite color.
The story is not that funny, but she is able to draw it out ad nauseum.
Ugh, I think. I slowly wander away.
Later, at dinner, I end up at her table. I easily avoid her conversation by turning my attention to the lively people next to me.
Eventually, however, she herds the whole table into a discussion that revolves around her area of expertise. What a surprise.
It turns out she’s some sort of reporter, an ex-pat middle easterner back in the region to cover various stories. She’s just come back from Egypt, it appears. Our discussion at first had to do with some American cultural exports that we agreed were positive ones: jazz, the civil rights movement….she stops us here. Apparently the name Malcolm X made her think of how Cairo accepted all these oppressed individuals like Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela, and how some leader in Egypt went off and married a Ghanean leader and they had a son and he came back to Egypt and lives by the Nile and has a huge afro and is really cool if you email him to have coffee when you’re in town.
At this point she has completely monopolized the conversation.
Both her tone and the pace of her words are dizzying. I have the sudden urge to put my head down on the table and go to sleep.
Later, in the car, I am unable to express my frustration. Merva sums it up nicely.
“She’s one of these annoying orientalists, who talks and talks about how fascinating the middle east is.”
“I’m from here,” she adds. “It’s not that fascinating.”

The next morning we have to take a cab to Nidal’s shoot, but the directions are complicated, and there’s no way we can give them to the cabbie, since we don’t speak Arabic. As a compromise, Sharif gives us directions to a Burger King nearby, and agrees to pick us up there in half an hour.
We hail a cab and I try to explain to him where we want to go.
He scans the paper where I’ve written the street name and the closest circle to it. Below that I wrote “Burger King.”
“Ah!” he exclaims. “Boorger King!”
He motions excitedly for us to get in.
“Boorger King,” he repeats, “you want to eat the meat! Eat the meat!”
“No, we’re just meeting someone.”
“Eat the meat!”
“Yeah, ok.”

Nidal’s shoot is pretty disorganized. Everett has to crack the whip and play AD. These guys have a lot of positive energy, but set organization is foreign to them. It makes me realize that without knowledge about how to shoot efficiently, a project will crumble.

While waiting for the students to check out their equipment, Luke and I watched Ghostbusters. I confess that it’s the first time I’ve seen it in its entirety. It was like filling in a blank from my childhood.

I get that a ceasefire won’t prevent Hizbollah from continuing its violence. But the dismissive way in which Condoleeza Rice referred to a potential ceasefire as a false promise was maddening. Not only are the high majority of casualties and damages affecting innocent Lebanese, but Hizbollah still seems undaunted. The amount of collateral damage in this operation is downright sickening.


First Circle


Firas’ movie is based on a real story.
One night, he was at a party, drinking the night away with friends, when someone produced a quantity of small pink pills.
“Everyone take one,” he says, magnaimously.
They all do.
Firas is unaffected. Later in the evening, he finds the bottle lying on a table, unsupervised. So he takes a few more, just for good measure. Still nothing.
Oh well, he thinks.
He leaves the party, goes home, falls asleep.
The next day he wakes up a little hung over, but feeling ok, considering. However, sitting in his room is a transparent person (a la Predator). This is odd, he thinks. Very odd. He rubs his eyes and goes about his morning preparations. At various intervals, he sees these transparent people hanging around his house: he encounters one in the bathroom, doing his business, one in the garden reading, one watching TV and eating popcorn, etc.
At this point, he starts to freak out a little and asks his younger brother if he can see these transparent people. The brother tells him he’s crazy.
Firas becomes more and more worried. He shuts himself in his bedroom and smokes cigarette after cigarette, trying to figure it all out. Suddenly it dawns on him: the pink pills!
Precisely at this moment of realization, there is a knock on the door.
His dad calls to him to open up. This is not a positive turn of events. Firas frantically stubs out his cigarette, then tells his dad to come in.
The father strides into the room and stands before Firas, looking concerned. “Your brother tells me you’ve been seeing transparent people.”
Firas’ dad is pretty strict, and Firas is deathly afraid of revealing his revelation about the pills. He doesn’t even really know that Firas smokes.
Pause. They stare at each other.
“You must be seeing the dead.”
Firas waits. This is not what he expected.
“Can you talk to them,” Firas’ father asks.
Firas decides to ride it out, hoping his dad will let it go and leave.
“Oh yes.”
“Are there any in the room now?”
“Yes,” Firas lies.
“How many?”
Dad nods. He looks around, then back at Firas. He leans in.
“What is their religion?”
Firas pretends to talk to the transparent people, then receives an imaginary answer.
“One Muslim and two Christians.”
Firas’ dad straightens up immediately. He looks at Firas sternly.
“Well tell them they have to leave. We can’t have Christians in this house.”

I asked Fady if he’ll go back to Iraq when the workshop is over. He thinks he will, but his mom is worried. Families in their neighborhood are receiving death threats tacked to their doors. So far, Fady’s family has been unaffected, but it’s not safe. People are using the unrest to satisfy personal and religious grudges. This is why Fady’s mom told him not to come home.

I finally got some RFC swag. Books, a DVD and a hat.

People keep contacting me to see if things are ok here. I imagine it’s hard to wade through all the news reports in the US. I always thought of the middle east as a big interconnected jumble of countries.
Everyone I’ve seen here is going about his life. I think Jordanians are used to being in the middle of it. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. A young Jordanian man I met at a party told me that the influx of Lebanese and Palestinians will take a toll on Amman’s August water resources. And if something happens in Syria, the anticipated flood of Syrians will put Jordan on the edge. In addition, they’re in a delicate economic and political situation here. Jordan’s relatively friendly relationship with Israel and the West will be tested if the Lebanese/Israeli conflict isn’t resolved. The King already has his hand full.

I ask a cab driver about my name.
“Keffin,” I say. “Keffin.”
I’m sitting next to him in the passenger seat. He looks over at me ominously, says something tersely in Arabic, then turns back.
“Do you know what it means?”
He ignores me.
The rest of the ride to the RFC is silent and fast. It’s like he can’t wait to get me out of his cab.
My quest continues.

This afternoon, during a break, I walk down the hill to the city center. The workshop is in a quiet, fairly affluent neighborhood, but from the terrace you can hear the chaotic bustle of the city center.
I descend a long series of steps to the first circle, the downtown traffic hub. Amman’s main traffic landmarks are circles one through seven.
Amman’s city center is unlike anything I’ve seen.
Cars weaving, honking, pedestrians dancing across the street. There are no crosswalks, and very few traffic lights. All the buildings are the pale sandstone color, but worn and crumbling. The exhaust in the air is suffocating. Women in robes and headscarves clutter the dingy sidewalk, along men in grimy clothing. Café workers nimbly dodge traffic, holding trays of coffee and food. It’s lunchtime.
It’s sweltering. I zig-zag through the streets, following shade. I duck into a covered alleyway lined with fruit stands. It’s hard to move and my ears are assaulted with the jumbled shouting of the vendors. But the smell of exhaust is suddenly and delightfully replaced by the sweet aroma of peaches and grapes and cherries. I move through this area slowly.
Eventually I come upon a 2nd century Roman amphitheater, right smack in the middle of Amman. It’s a bizarre change of scenery. The ruins are fairly well preserved, and nearby there is a park-like area full of people enjoying the shade. I sit for a few moments, and look at the people. There is a group of young people chatting away. They don’t seem to notice me, and I wonder if they just think I’m another Jordanian, enjoying the day.
After a while, I get up and start the return journey. On the way, I pass one of the many mosques. I get a glimpse of the first area through the columns. It looks like the Alhambra, except grimier. There are all kinds of people selling trinkets outside.
The walk back to the villa is hard, going up.
By the time I arrive, my shirt is clinging to my back. It’s hot down in the first circle.

One of our students quit the program. He was older, unctuous and overbearing. He complained that the RFC didn’t give him actors, but didn’t seem to make any calls himself. Eventually, he was given an ultimatum: cast your movie and crew up, or you can’t make one. He made some effort, but then an unfortunate incident occurred.
The faculty had discussed his personality issues: yelling at other students, refusing to respect the female teacher, blaming the RFC for casting, etc. It was agreed upon that someone should bring these things up to him in a delicate manner.
However, one of the RFC guys pulled him aside, in a room full of USC people, and started chewing him out in Arabic, referring to the offended teachers and students by name. We all slowly trickled out of the room.
All of us, that is, except Luke, who was stuck working on his computer. I returned a bit later to find Luke, eyes glued to the screen with unnatural intensity while our soon-to-be ex-student sat nearby, mumbling to himself.
The only word I caught was the occasional “disrespect” mixed in with some disgruntled Arabic.
We haven’t seen him since.

Some plumbers came to the villa to fix the lack of water problem. Apparently there’s no city water the flows into the house. The house has a huge tank that’s supposed to get refilled periodically. In the process of opening doors and poking into corners in search of various valves and pipes, they discovered a room. A secret room.
As it turns out, this room is a war shelter, a rarity in Amman.
Now there’s a place to hide if things go south. We’ll have to pick only the cream of the crop, though, since the room is small. But hey, at least there’s a toilet.


small problem


“Hey, you’re late, Nidal,” Luke shouts. “Where have you been?”
Editing class has begun, and Nidal is just getting back from an early shoot.
Nidal snarls, “I came to take the only piss I take all day, “ then stalks into the bathroom.

I went this morning to visit the shoot Nidal was on. It’s Sharif’s movie, set partially at the University of Jordan. I take a cab and arrive at the main gate. It’s a bustling place, full of vendors and buses and cabs and young people in brightly colored outfits.
There’s one gate, guarded by some shifty looking men in uniform. I notice that students have to show their IDs to get in. Doesn’t look like I can slip by.
I go up to one of the guards.
“I work for the Royal Film Commission, and there’s a movie shoot here that I’m supposed to visit.”
The guy looks at me blankly. I notice he has a weird gash near his eyebrow. It’s really deep, as if he had tried to remove his entire eyebrow ridge with a kitchen knife. It’s shocking. And of course, I can’t my eyes off of this bizarre wound.
He indicates another guard standing next to him. Relieved to be able to look away, I turn to his companion. This man has a mischievous look on his face. I explain my situation to him.
“Do you have ID?”
“Um, does this work?” I open my wallet and show him my California driver’s license.
He looks at it closely.
I nod.
He grasps my arm firmly. Looks me in the eye.
“You know who Keffin is?”
I shake my head. He chuckles.
“Ok, then, Keffin. You go straight, two hundred two meters, turn left several times and go. Welcome.”
He dismisses me by pushing me through the gate, without giving me a chance to ask him who or what “Keffin” is.

I’m lost on the campus of the University of Jordan. I can’t find the Faculty of Engineering, where Sharif is supposedly shooting. I wander around, but most of the buildings have big signs in Arabic only.

I’m starting to wonder if I stick out like a sore thumb. My beard seems to help me blend in Amman in general, but these people look more like young Europeans. The men do, at least: slick hair, smooth faces, tight pants. I notice in the bustle of the campus that most of the little groups of people are organized by gender. It feels like a Western university, but it’s hard not to notice this characteristic. Either it’s that religious/cultural gender separation, or it’s the 5th grade dance phenomenon.

I also notice that most of the women are wearing headscarves. But these aren’t your standard black or white ones; some are pink or green; others look tie-dyed or psychedelic. I start paying more attention and consider that there must be some irony in a woman wearing a headscarf while showing her midriff.

I wander aimlessly now. I look at a map. I sit down for a few moments and watch the traffic go by. Once in a while an uncovered woman appears. It’s a shock to see the swirl of hair in a sea of smooth heads. Eventually I give up and head back out. I hope to interact with the guard again, and discover who this “Keffin.” But he’s busy, and I’m ready to leave. I’ll have to ask the students about my namesake.

Ahmad shoots his movie at night. With the extensive help of Robert, Reem, the DP, lights the terrace. As with the lighting demo, the image is beautiful. According to Robert, however, the scene feels like a South American soap opera. I tend to agree. He means it as a criticism, but I think there’s a place for melodrama in the world of cinema. Perhaps I’m justifying my own inclinations, though. A comedy is next. I’ve promised myself. I swear it.

I can’t stand the smell of the hotel dining room when I walk in for breakfast. Some unique amalgam of odors makes me want to turn around and run. Little sausages plus cold eggs plus pickled veggies plus hearty yogurt plus Aunt Jemima syrup plus hummus. But it’s free. My breakfasts are becoming more and more continental.

Later, back at the Villa, Everett pops into the room where Luke and I are working on our computers.
“Get ready to look busy,” he says.
“Who is it?”
Turns out they’re giving a tour to a man who is the King’s “right-hand man.” At least that’s the way I heard him described.
He enters the room. He is medium height, compact, shaved head, piercing eyes. I introduce myself. We shake hands. His grip is vise-like. He holds my gaze directly. Then he breaks contact and continues his tour of the facility.
Later I learn this anecdote about him:
He’s at dinner with some important people from USC and the RFC. He gets a call on his phone. He excuses himself.
It turns out an American tourist was taking pictures of the Iraqi embassy. They picked him up, took him inside and began beating him.
Our guy comes back to the dinner table after a few minutes, slides his napkin back onto his lap.
“Small problem. Taken care of.”