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Nationalism is the Crutch of the Morally Weak

January 17, 2011

Robes in Amman

Note: This piece was written in spring, 2009 in Amman, Jordan. I thought I might try to get it published (alright, I did try to get it published). Failing that: to the blogosphere.

Nationalism is the crutch of the morally weak.

I was standing at one of the University of Jordan’s bus stations, waiting with perhaps one hundred students, going home for the evening. I was making my way to Madaba, roughly an hour bus ride south of Amman. Not being able to read the Arabic on the sides of the buses or on the station billboards, I approached a young man to ask about the bus to Madaba.

“As-Salam Aleikem, this bus to Madaba? Autobus to Madaba?” I asked in a traveler’s pigeon-English.

“Aleikem Salam. La, la. There buses to Madaba,” He pointed. “That way. Yellow bus. Not blue, not red. Yellow bus.”


And so I walked fifty meters to the next stopping point and approached another student. I received the same answer, roughly, and so I kept walking. I asked again when I thought I had gone far enough. This time: “Yes, here is the bus to Madaba.”

Being unable to speak the language of a place very nearly equals helplessness. It certainly equals awkwardness. To engage in illiterate world travel, one must be able to put shame away, to grin like the idiotic American one is, and to pray to St. Christopher that the pose one strikes elicits sympathy, as well as interest. I did all of this, I think. Or perhaps I did not need to. I missed two buses, due to crowding and an incredible amount of fighting at the bus doors. Male students would grab the arms of other young men and hurl them out of the way. Girls, most in Hijab, were quieter about this, but at one point I felt a tug at my arm and realized that a petite, demure-looking Hijab-ed girl had pulled me out of the way and darted past.

As I missed the second bus, a young man with a short beard approached me. “Don’t try to get on this bus. I’m telling you, I will find you a spot. Don’t worry.” This man, Jesus Christ we’ll call him, shoved me toward a friend of his, Yeshem, who grabbed my arm and pulled me to where a group of loud, twenty-something guys were attacking an incoming bus. They smacked the sides with their palms and held the doors and pretended to guide and push it into its slot. The driver honked and cursed at them (he was, as it turned out, an old friend of theirs). When the bus stopped, one of the men held me back while the other two slammed their bodies into the doorway, shoving violently. My new friend Yeshem and I waited peacefully while the remainder of the students worked their way into the bus and filled it, save the two seats reserved for us. Our spots were guarded by a violent, loud Indian-Jordanian who was introduced to me, and will from this mention forward be known, as “Mr. Hindi.”

Upon entering the bus, “Mr. Hindi” began yelling at me in Arabic and showing me photos on his cell phone. “Mr. Hindi” lifting weights, “Mr. Hindi” dressing as a Bedouin warrior, “Mr. Hindi” with a succession of cute American girls. “That one from Florida. Yes. And this one, Chicavo. And this one – look at her – she from China.” Finally, photos of “Mr. Hindi” holding various handguns and machine guns. The slide show finished, absurdly, with a photo of a three year old boy standing against a wall next to an assault rifle just slightly taller than him.  The child may have been “Mr. Hindi”’s brother or cousin or who knows, but the gun was decidedly owned by “Mr. Hindi.”

“Mr. Hindi” switched spots with Yesham, and now you get to see why I wrote that thing earlier about nationalism and moral weakness. I wrote it to remind me, and you (whoever you are) that this essay is supposed to represent confusion, not resolution. It is a display of dischordancy, not finality. If it illustrates a point, it is that the point is not clear or simple. But it also – this conversation, this idea – may hold some truth.

Upon sitting down, and pausing briefly to collect his thoughts, Yesham asked me about the US government, in a way I did not expect and had not encountered.

“I would very much like to ask you about your juries in America,” he started. “Tell me about the American legal system. This separation of two types of law – civil and criminal is it? I really do not understand it well at all, despite studying it at university.”

From here the conversation moved, as it does, to foreign policy; to Barack Obama, to the pain inflicted on the Arab people by George W. Bush, to the recent attack on Gaza, to the French, and finally back to juries.  The conversation, to this point, was interesting, but not especially different (excepting the initial surprise topic of juries) from other Amman-bus conversations I’d had. It was the return to juries that turned the conversation toward an eccentric and profound place.

“Do you watch Oprah?” Yeshem asked.  “I was watching Oprah and I saw a story of a murderer who was freed, and he was in love with a woman. And her father would not let her see him. And the court would not let this happen.  They took the side of the father.  I do not know if it was a jury or if it was a judge. How does this work?”

I said that in this case I did not know, and could not know without more information.

“They were in love,” he continued. “I saw it on the television, how the man wept. He had tears coming down his face…He was in love with her. I am interested in this, because I am in love. I tell her many times, ‘I will marry you, please marry me.’ And she gives me words. She says maybe, she lets me walk her to the bus. But she will not marry me. I say ‘then give me a word, and I will wait for you,’ but she will not do this. And if I ask her to go somewhere to talk to me, she says she cannot, because of her parents and my parents and so forth. I will be in love with her until I die.”

I told him that in the US, we would go on a few dates and maybe realize we didn’t like each other after all. Or that we did. This simple relational revolution allows one to be shut down on date three, rather than at the beginning or never. He should think about this, I thought. He had, more than I.

“Sometimes I think, you know, that the Middle East will modernize some. Technology will change, we will all have cell phones and computers and drive good cars. But there are things you cannot change here, as much as you want to. Ideas. Ideas here do not change. We may modernize what we do, but we cannot change how we think. Sometimes I think we are stuck like this. This makes me very afraid. Maybe we cannot become like you in America. This saddens me so very much. America is what we need to be like, I think. You are so free.  But I do not think can change our minds.”

Then, out of the loud darkness of the bus, the voice of Liberty:

“You know, Abraham Lincoln was a very good man. Like Barack Obama is now. You know he never went to school? He just studied law on his own, in his small house. And he became the president.  And he united America, when the south tried to break away. We studied about this at school. He was assassinated while he watched a movie. He freed the niggers.”

A pause, and then:

“Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty…” He nearly knocked me over, emotionally reciting the Gettysburg address in a very thick Jordanian accent.

It trailed off – he could not remember all of the words – but I do not exaggerate when I say that this conversation, this bus ride, and this man…they are the goddamned American dream. Not money. Not capitalism. Not the rugged individual. Freedom from war. Freedom from slavery. Freedom from crooked juries. The Freedom to watch Oprah. Freedom to tell a girl you love her.



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