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.”


The Libyan


We have important visitors. One of them sits in the editing lab with Everett and me. I was in the middle of writing a blog entry. The screensaver goes on. I’m looking at Everett, talking, and the visitor is between us, facing my computer. Suddenly I’m terrified. Among the photos available to my screensaver are a few of me kissing my wife.
I’m not allowed to kiss my wife?
Shut up.
Anyways, as luck would have it, one of these photos comes up. What do I do? I turn red, but have to keep talking, noting out of the corner of my eye how excruciatingly long the screensaver holds on the photograph. Slowly, as I finish my sentence, I reach over and gently nudge the mouse. I’ve never been so relieved to see my desktop.

In the cab, Robert tells us that his hotel room is a double.
“I just have one big bed,” I say.
“I have two. One for me, one for my goat.”

Nidal is producing Sharif’s movie. Nidal meets with us about his own film, then as he leaves, makes an observation about his duties as producer.
“All I did was stand around. I don’t know why there’s a producer for a crew of three.”
Everett tires to explain to him what he should be doing. Nidal shakes his head.
“We have a saying in Arabic,” he says, “erdain ou hares.”
“What does that mean?”
“A soldier and two monkeys.”

Firas is explaining how in Egypt, at any given time, fifty percent of the population is stoned.
“It’s legal there,” he says.
Samer pipes up. “Not like here.”
“No,” Firas continues, “here in Jordan if they catch you one time, they put you in jail for a month. If they catch you two times, they put you in jail for 3 months. If they catch you a third time, they put you in jail for a year and a half.”
“And they beat you,” adds Motaz, seriously.
Firas goes on to tell us that when they catch you smoking pot, they try to get the name of your dealer out of you. They basically harass you until you squeal.
“Actually, I have a funny story about that,” he says.
Firas was born in Libya, so some of his friends call him “Firas the Libyan” instead of using his actual last name. So one day, a bunch of them get caught smoking pot and are brought in by the Jordanian police. Under coercion, they give up the name of their dealer: Firas the Libyan.
“They told me about it later, and I was OK because I know how the police are,” says Firas. “But then, every time one of my friends got caught, they would reveal their source as ‘Firas the Libyan.’”
Eventually, the name was used so many times, that Firas began to get worried. When the fifth or sixth group of friends were caught, Firas couldn’t sleep that night, scared to death of a police raid.
The next day he decides to be a good citizen and go to the police station to give himself up.
He arrives and asks for his friend who is in jail. The policeman looks at him, then pulls out his list of known offenders.
“What’s your name?” asks the officer.
“Mm hm.”
The officer flips a page and scans.
“Do you know ‘Firas the Libyan’?”
A pause.
After a moment, the officer says, “Ok, you can go in.”
Firas, relieved, went in to visit his friend.
Firas the Libyan, however, remains an at-large Jordanian drug dealer, most likely armed and dangerous.




On the BBC world news report, I’m on the same map as the new war zone.

One of the RFC staff is from Lebanon. I gently ask her if her family is ok.
“Oh yes,” she says, “they’re on the roof, watching the fireworks.”

She tells me later that she hates Hizbollah. They came in from outside Lebanon (Syria and Iran) in order to cause trouble with Israel.

Lebanon should force Hizbollah to disarm, she says, agreeing in principle with Israel. But then, it’s hard to justify bombing the runways of a commercial airport. I keep trying to find the right and wrong answer. It appears, though, that in the Middle East, everything is negotiable.

When I arrived at the Villa today, a few people were watching Gus Van Sant’s Elephant in the screening room. It would have been beautiful and boring if not for the fact that the Colombine events upon which the movie is based still hold tremendous intrigue for me. The bottom line is, I wanted to know what was going to happen next. It’s hard to argue with a movie that makes you think that.

I ran a sound workshop all day today. Acting under the advice of the incomparable Doug Vaughn, I shocked them by declaring definitively that the only element of a soundtrack you care about during production sound recording is dialog. That got their attention. I spent the rest of the day trying to keep it.

Boom operating is not instinctual for anyone. But these guys seem to have an inherent physical resistance to holding the boom over their heads. Maybe they’re afraid to expose their armpits.

The cinematographer set up a demo for exterior night shooting. On the nice monitor, it looks amazing. He pans the camera to include Amman by night, the lights winking different colors, then back to the rough texture of the villa light by a single source.

We have a mini-screening to show the first little projects that they have done. They set up the screen outside on the terrace, leaving all the lighting from the demo up. The drinks arrive. Everyone laughs during the whole screening, especially during the scene between gay Adam and exasperated Eve. The drinking and talking continues into the night, well after the screening is over.

They didn’t show Motaz’s movie during the screening. Apparently it was just too bad. I’m not sure how I feel about that, since he worked just as hard as everyone else, and it’s not like any of these scenes were perfect.

I met a Jordanian tool last night. A friend of a friend of one of the students. I could tell by his demeanor, by the annoying way he mixed Arabic and English and by his slick way of trying to include everyone in the conversation while skillfully maintaining himself as the topic. Somehow he ends up sitting next to me, jawing my ear off. He reveals that Back to the Future is his favorite Spielberg movie. Suddenly I’m much more interested in talking to him.
“That was Robert Zemeckis,” I say.
“Who is this Robber Zemacky? I bet my life that Back to the Future is a Spielberg movie.”
“Sorry. Definitely Zemeckis.”
He refuses to believe me. After making a few calls to friends, and some angry shouting in Arabic, he moves on to another movie, since admitting he is wrong is the death of the tool.
“The next thing you’re going to tell me is that Tim Burton didn’t direct Godzilla,” he says.
“I don’t know who directed Godzilla, but it sure in hell wasn’t Tim Burton.”
“Oh yeah, it was that other guy. The French guy.”
“The guy who directed The Professional.”
Say what?
This is so delightful.

Eventually, a few drinks later, he starts in on how salsa music is the worst music ever, and people who dance to it look stupid. Hm.
“Do you prefer to have sex with men or women?” I ask him.
“Women!” He’s scared, as many tools are, by the mere insinuation of gayness.
“Well,” I say, “the movements you make in salsa dancing are based on a man having sex with a woman. If you think that’s stupid, you must think having sex with a woman is stupid.”
I don’t remember what he said, because I was so pleased with myself.

Ahmad introduces me to his two cousins. Nora and Dora. At least that’s what my mind called them the instant I saw them. They are sisters. Plump sisters. It turns out they’re from Madrid. I immediately start speaking to them in Spanish. Ahmad is blown away. The two sisters are so excited to speak their language that they literally talk at once. It’s fun to speak a language that the students don’t understand.

Later, when the night is over, another friend of a friend of a student drives me home. His name is Osama. In the car ride, Firas tells me that most Arabs don’t like Israel. I figured as much.



14.VII.06 4:25pm

We were going to take a Jordanian bus to Petra, to have the full experience, but it turned out there were no busses running on Thursday. So we took an air-conditioned van driven by an insane little man with a well-groomed mustache. I think the trip normally takes 3 and a half hours. We made it in 2 and a half.

We checked into the Movenpick hotel. Don’t ask. Reservations made by the RFC. There’s a rooftop grill with live music. But we’re not here for the luxury.

Our first experience is Petra by Night. After dark, they light the narrow canyon path to the treasury with candles. As you walk there are vague outlines of enormous rock formations. The sky is sparkling. There are shooting stars.

Inside the canyon, it is warm enough to take off my sweatshirt. The temperature of the canyon creeps from cold to hot, retaining the heat of the day well into the night, and keeping the cool of the evening through the day.

Eventually the path opens up on the treasury. The entire sandy space in front of it is dotted with candles. We sit on straw mats and listen to a Bedouin man play an instrument reminiscent of a lute. When he stops, we clap. When the sound dies away, a haunting flute melody emerges from the darkness of the treasury. At first I think it’s a recording, but then another Bedouin man emerges, slowly making his way through the field of candles, playing the haunting notes. As he does, a man comes by and serves us sweet Bedouin tea. They have asked us to avoid flash photography and excessive talking. I realize at this point that Petra by Night is all about mood.

The next day, after a quick breakfast, we head down to Petra again, this time in the fullness of sunlight. When the day is over we agree that Petra by Night was the perfect introduction. It made our trip a slow unveiling of a masterpiece.

It’s impossible to describe the beauty of the rock formations and the vastness of the landscape.

The treasury has a wonderful red color that seems to get redder as the day goes on.

A Bedouin man convinces us to ride camels to our next destination, the head of the trail that climbs up to the monastery. We talk him down to from 30JD to 20JD for the three of us. At least I think we talked him down. There are two camels. Daisy and Zsu Zsu. Luke rides behind the saddle on my camel. Later, when I complain about the bumpiness of the ride, he scoffs. Apparently a camel’s back, while appearing soft, is really quite bony.

We realize that camels are a lot taller than we thought. And the ride is very very bumpy, particularly when the Bedouin man clicks his tongue and the camels begin to trot. I think he does it just to mess with me. I can feel my sperm count going down.

We arrive and are immediately accosted by a group of children with donkeys, offering to save us from the grueling climb to the monastery by providing their special mode of transport. Once of the positives of having taken the camels this far is that we are cured of any more desire to ride animals. We walk.

The hike is pretty hard, up well-worn steps that switchback constantly. We stop often to look back at the staggering views. Every few hundred yards is a makeshift Bedouin hut, usually burlap draped over four wooden posts. Here, old women and children sell jewelry or offer donkey rides.

One Beouin girl says, “Ride up on donkey. 2 jaydee. Very far.”
Chris, being witty, says “How about for free?”
“How about I die?” she retorts.

Thank God we are carrying water.

We finally reach the monastery. Another beautiful structure carved directly into the rock face, like the treasury. It’s completely worth the hike.

Some weird instinct kicks in and I search the landscape for the highest point and decide I’m going to climb up there. Luke and Chris are a little wary. By the time they start to follow me, I’m frantically scrambling my way up. Climbing like this feels right.

On the way back down, a man is ferociously beating a donkey. I can hear the smack of stick on scull.

There’s a charming little girl, sitting in the shade. I carefully ask her if I can take her picture.
She shakes her head, “No.”
I start to put my camera away.
She springs to life. “Yes, yes!”
She poses.

We make our way back the way we came. The paths are full of tourists now, since it’s midday. A fat man in flip flops will never make it. Americans stick out like a sore thumb. I wonder if I do. But then I remember that I’ve been asked for directions numerous times. Next time I’ll shake my head, touch my finger to my nose, wink and say, “I’ll see you at the meeting.”


Sophomore Jinx


Shariff’s scene is about a mean guy who sees a man in a wheelchair, decides to help him into a building, realizes the error of his meanness and becomes a kind man. The shots don’t really tell the story well, so in the dark screening room, Everett shuts the door and demands of the class a simple answer to the following question:
“How will we know the importance of this wheelchair to the mean guy?”
No on answers.
“How will we know the wheelchair is significant to him?”
Some shuffling, but no on speaks up.
“Anyone? Faculty can answer too.”
Still nothing. I’m not about to get this one wrong.
Finally Nidal raises his hand. Wry, bearded, sleepy-eyed Nidal.
“Decorate the wheel chair?”
The class erupts.

Merva took us to a falafel place up the street from the infamous Hambooorger joint. Apparently the King eats there sometimes. I wonder if he has to wait as long as we did.
I get the one in sesame pita and add a coke. We walk back to the villa and sit on the terrace. It’s sunset.
The falafel is the most wonderful food I’ve eaten since arriving in Jordan.

We went out to a hip outdoor bar. Merva ordered Chivas and demanded more when the shot did not meet her needs. Everett worried his way through a few mojitos. Pitcher of beer for Luke and me. We got our pints and liters crossed up. Later, Luke was pale, I was swearing profusely in Arabic, and the cab ride was an adventure.

Virtually all the scenes that the students screened ended up having wall-to-wall music. I had been warned about this tendency, but that didn’t suppress my disapproval. Clearly I’m going to have to spend time in the editing room with them. I blew up at Samer, who had loud music with lyrics over an entire dialog-heavy scene.
“Why is the music there?”
“What does it do for you story?”
“I don’t know.”
“How does it help?”
“Oh. The sound was bad, so I wanted to cover it up.”
My head exploded.

This morning there was only cold water. So I took a cold shower. I could get tired of this “training” hotel very quickly.

Still distressed after our pint/liter mixup, I skulked around the villa today, nursing a bit of a headache. I felt waves of nausea and by body periodically flushed, rendering my face hot to the touch. I stood near the doorway to catch the intermittent breezes from the terrace while the students observed their first casting session. The first actor was terrible. He looked slightly worried and sleepy the whole time. The scene was in Arabic, so I had no idea what he was saying. But unless he was playing a coma patient with gas, he wasn’t convincing in the least. Of course, I’m sure it didn’t help that there was a roomful of snickering students watching him crash and burn. After he left, Everett closed the doors (there’s goes my damn breeze) and yelled at them for their lack of respect. I started sweating again and my eyes planned out a path towards the restroom. The day was getting worse and worse until the front door flew open with a bang. Lunch-man. Was that a stack of flat cardboard boxes he just carried in? I sniffed the air. He went out and came back with more. My hopes were confirmed. I thought I saw a white horse tethered outside the building. My day turned a corner. Pizza for lunch.


Turkish delight

12.VII.06 8:24a.m.

I’m a rogue TA. The other ones have professors they work for. I’m my own boss. What this means is that I end up spending most of my time doing various tasks that have nothing to do with sound. Yesterday I taught them how to capture their footage and start editing it. While watching their shoots, I’ve answered questions about framing, performance, continuity. I must confess that I prefer it this way. It makes me feel like a filmmaker as opposed to the sound guy. I never wanted to be the sound guy.

I ate a hambooorger. It was a decent one. But I was immediately disgusted with myself for two reasons: 1)Hamburgers are unhealthy 2)I’m in Jordan eating a hamburger. Tomorrow I’m definitely eating falafel.

This jet lag is strange. I’ve traveled to other countries before, Korea, Spain, Italy; but I don’t remember being this messed up. I think it’s the flip-flop of the time difference. Night is day; day, night. By the afternoon, by body is prepared to shut down. It’s really disconcerting to be so out of it in the middle of the day. I don’t think it helps that the workday is long either. However, I think that teaching at this workshop is much more valuable than doing touristy things. Being with the students is already very rewarding and probably as culturally educational as seeing the sights could ever be. That being said, we’re giving the students Thursday afternoon off so we can travel down to Petra for a day and a half. Word is that Petra is the one place you have to see in Jordan.

We’ve decided to call the building where we have the workshop “The Villa”. This won out over such promising candidates as “The Experiment”, “Summer Production Workshop”, “Chez Prince Ali” and “The Laboratory.” I feel we’ve made the correct choice.

We named this neighborhood Suddha Park. “Suddha” means “echo” in Arabic, although I’m not sure about it’s English spelling.

More staff arrived. All of a sudden the program is running smoothly. Half the class is learning editing (from the editing TA) and the other half is learning cinematography. I put together sound kits for my portion of the workshop, coming up in a few days.

The students are stressing about their movies. This is a good sign.

Luke is editing a small documentary about the workshop. He scrolls through the footage and finds a shot of me showing Samer how to hold a boom.
He labels the shot “Kevin engages in pedantics.”
“Pedantry,” I tell him.

Some students are naturals. They know instinctively where to put the camera and how to compose and interesting shot. Others struggle. Some have a gift, to be sure, but it’s not a gift like perfect pitch. Some exhibit talent from the beginning, but never move beyond it. Others develop slowly, eventually passing up the initial favorites. The 18 year old Iraqi, Fady, has a fantastic eye. We’re trying to cultivate it, but I’m interested to see how his film turns out. What we have a hard time evaluating, however, is their ability to get performance from actors. Most of the scripts are in Arabic, so we have not idea what’s going on. The ones in English tend to be a bit stilted, although with real actors they might be different.

While in Iraq, before the workshop started, Fady went to get a haircut. No luck. His barber had been kidnapped by insurgents.

I have plans to eat more Turkish delight.


Arrival and adjustment

11.VII.06 8:30am

We flew over water forever. Finally we crossed over land. Israel. Then Palestine. Then Jordan. The land looked parched.

The airport smells like smoke. I expected a man holding up a sheet of paper with my name. There wasn’t. It turns out later that there was someone to meet both me and another passenger. They couldn’t find me so they just left. I changed money, bought a visa, and went through passport control.

After a while of waiting, I decided to take a taxi.
The young man grasps my heavy bag. We walk into the dim blue light of the evening. One hundred taxi drivers stand around, in identical grey uniforms with black ties. I feel like prey. But I’m sort of ignored. Finally, the young man gets a driver’s attention.
“Century Park Hotel,” I say.
“I know it.”
I climb into the cab. The young man who carried my bag waits for a tip. I empty the change in my pocket onto his palm. We’re off.

The world cup final is on the radio. Arabic sounds familiar, like I should understand it, but all I can pick out is the occasional Zidane and Buffón. The driver turns down the radio.
“What is you country of origin?”
I hesitate. I almost say Cananda.
“The United States.”
“Welcome,” he says.
But, I hedge and tell him that my mother is from Cuba.
“Welcome,” he says.

We arrive at the hotel. The soccer game is blaring from the outdoor bar. I’m so exhausted, but I’m anxious to see the second half. The hotel looks posh, but it’s superficial. The paint is warped and cracking in places. The shaving mirror hangs by a screw. The TV doesn’t turn on.
I find out later that it’s a training hotel. No wonder everyone here is so young and affably incompetent.

I come upon Luke in the hotel bar, his head buried in a Sudoku puzzle. I have a beer and watch the game. Zidane headbutts Materazzi. Luke doesn’t care, but the older gentlemen sitting in front of us scoffs. Trezeuguet missed his penalty. The gentleman turns to me.
“I knew he would miss.”

It turns out that virtually every Jordanian I meet was rooting for Italy. For some reason I assume they would’ve rooted for France.

I dream that a Jordanian man plucks me sleeve and pulls me aside.
“Is your nose still growing?”
He nods sagely.
“You’re one of us.”

In the morning, The Royal Film Commission sends a car for us to go to the building where the classes are. They’ve already been going on for a week. The building is a large old house built it the 19th century, all sandstone, completely white inside, with a rooftop overlooking old Amman. The house is full of nooks and crannies, weird rooms, big windows, painted tile.
A mighty Jordanian flag ripples in slow motion in the distance.
“This building is amazing,” I say. “I could live here.”
“Tchk.” A finger waggles. “This is the Prince’s house.”

They are shooting scenes from their scripts. They are excited but generally awkward. The boom operator points the mic at the sky. The cameraman puts the tripod in the street. The director keeps yelling “Standby!” and looking over at me knowingly. I smile and indicate for the boom operator to point the mic towards the actor.

Firas has his arm in a sling, long curly hair tied back, and a USC Cinema baseball cap. Between puffs of a cigarette he shouts, “Camera!”
“Rolling.” Firas holds his good arm in the air, and then drops it like an executioner.
A man begins to gesticulate, apparently communicating with the invisible people in the room. A small older man who works at the RFC walks into the scene, carrying his script. He shouts something in Arabic, refers to his script, then looks up and finishes his reprimand.

Nidal is Palestinian. He has spent that past 10 years traveling around the world.
“Last night, the Italians were crazy,” he says. “In my neighborhood, they were shooting guns into the air.”
He explains that before advanced communication, this was a way to let people know someone was getting married. It was a sign of celebration.
“I see.”
He smiles wryly. “It’s not a good idea, though.”
“People get hurt. You see, bullets that go up come down.”

A monitor is missing. There are two, but we need a third for the upcoming shoots. I go to the RFC office with Luke to look at the sound equipment. Apparently it’s a very laid-back place. According to Luke, they’re like filmmaking hippies, or ski-bums.
They’ve been looking for the monitor for days. Everett, the directing/producing teacher, is stressing about it. We open a cabinet. There it is! The RFC people gather and nod. Of course it would turn up, since you were looking for it. The magic of the middle east! they say. Sometimes helps, sometimes hurts. I look around for a bottle to rub.

Above the Prince’s house is a wonderful coffee shop/lamp store. We drink Turkish coffee in the afternoon. I deliver a lecture on Isalm to Luke, based on a book I’ve been reading. It’s V.S. Naipul’s Among the Believers. I was reading it on the plane while surrounded by arab women in headscarves. Go figure. Luke listens politely, because the view is amazing, and Turkish coffee comes with Turkish delight. It’s a sensory experience, as aromatic as it is flavorful. It’s delightful enough to get us through my book report.

Reham is one of the three women in the program. Her script is amusing, set in the Garden of Eden, between a gay Adam and an exasperated Eve. She is debating the relative merits of just embracing the us of a fake snake as Satan or trying to hide him in the shadows of a tree. Either way, I’m angled to be the voice of Satan.
It’s midday and hot and her crew is a little on edge. They banter and argue. Set politics are universal. The woman playing Eve refuses to go on without some water. The boom guy pokes Adam in the head with the mic. Once in a while they look over at me apologetically. I try to put on an expression that says, let’s be serious about this stuff, guys, but it probably just looks like I hate them.

We eat a crude dinner at Hambooorger. I order a chicken sandwich. It’s delicious, by my tastes yearn towards the hambooorgers. Next time, I think to myself, I’m totally getting a hambooorger.

I fall asleep on a mattress in a classroom. I wake up to sunset and one of the the haunting calls to prayer. I stand outside on the terrace with Everett. We just listen.

In the evening, as we project dailies in the makeshift screening room, windows blacked out, fan humming, I notice a small cat pad through the dimly lit house. I sneak out and follow it into one of the empty classrooms. It’s dark, so I tap on the light. The cat has unwrapped and pulled out my half-eaten chicken sandwich. She scurries away when I walk in, but there’s no exit but the door I’m standing in. She circles the room a few times, to gather her courage, then skids past me and out the door into the shadows. She’s small and white with brown stripes. I named her Taco.

We drink beer and smoke a hookah. Of the flavors offered, apple, melon and special, we choose special. Smoking it reminded me of when I was younger and my nose was stuffed, my mom would put me in the bathroom and run a hot shower. A couple nearby is red-faced with steam.
We discuss the students. We discuss the teachers. We discuss the hotel. We drink the whole time, against my better judgement.

“Why you think those guys blew up the hotel?” the taxi driver asks as we speed away from the hookah lounge, hours later. He’s referring to the 2005 hotel bombings in Amman.
“Because they ate too much falafel!”
We laugh because he’s old and brittle, with the vocal cadence of a standup comic. He weaves through traffic.
“Your hotel,” he says, “you think it’s five stars?” We tell him it’s four. He cackles.
“One and a half!” We laugh because it’s kind of true.
“Okay,” he revises, “maybe two or three.”
He goes on to talk about how flights to Egypt used to be so much cheaper.
“You know why it’s so expensive now?”
“Too many motherfuckers in the world.”
We laugh because we’ve just pulled up to the hotel. As we gather our things, he angles for more money.
“Ah, my wife, you know, she kicked me out.”
We tell him we’re sorry.
I give him two JDs. The ride should cost one.
“Too many bitches in the world,” he cries.
We laugh and exit the cab quickly and safely.