Happy holidays from Amman

Mas salamah (goodbye)

The copyright industry is America’s largest export, something I learned just a few years ago. We still make and sell products and services, but Hollywood is at the top of the list. We sell our decadence to the rest of the world, and they’re buying it. I think the average American gives little thought to this, and yet it is by this that we are judged.

We’re proud of our smut, aren’t we?

I have written many times about the greed of the copyright industry and how this greed is one of the key fuels in the disintermediation of all forms of media — the unbundling thereof. For years, we’ve been forced to pay $18 for a music CD, for example, when all we wanted was one song. We sat through endless commercial interruptions while watching TV, because we had no choice. All of that is changing as media is unbundling and we are rebundling it for ourselves.

This is a central tenet of the Personal Media Revolution (PMR), and it’s important to understand that — in many ways — this same copyright industry brought it on themselves. When any industry begins suing its customers, as the RIAA has done in the U.S., one can safely assume it has lost its way.

On the streets of downtown Amman, amidst the juice stands, perfume sellers, clothing shops and variety stores, exists a type of shop that must gall the copyright cartel. For one Jordanian Dinar (about $1.50), you can buy any DVD or video game available. The quality is not guaranteed, but I can tell you that most work just fine. You can even buy films that are only available in theatres in the U.S.

I bought a couple for the 11-hour flight from Frankfurt to Dallas tomorrow. Sue me, Hollywood. I forgot where I bought them.

One day, these shops may be driven from the streets by Jordanian‑U.S. relations, but that will only drive the dealers elsewhere. This isn’t the U.S., and our reach just isn’t what we think it is. The economy here is whatever the people can make it to be, and if you could witness the poverty for yourselves, you’d bless their ingenuity as I have. After all, it isn’t the tourists who walk the streets of downtown Amman to shop; it’s the people who live here.

I should add that the idea of copyright doesn’t exist in Islam. Artists are recognized and compensated for their work, but after that, it belongs to the public. This no doubt influences those who buy and sell these movies and video games.

And shopping itself is considerably different here than in the West. Every shop is run by the person who owns it. The store often displays a photo of the shopkeeper’s father, the man who most likely built the business years ago. Franchises exist only in the suburbs or at the malls (A big new mall is opening Wednesday. All the women are excited.)

Prices are sometimes shown on merchandise tags but the actual price can vary widely based on where the shopper is from or how skilled the shopper is in bargaining. The shopkeepers have deep insight into the characteristics of Arabs from various countries, and they can alter their smile (and the cash register) accordingly. Waseem is a pro, but when they see me, the price suddenly goes up.

I will be leaving Amman at dawn tomorrow, and I am sad. Soon I will be back in my office with Piffy and feeding my squirrels, for this is my world. But I return a changed man, for I will never view events in the Middle East the same way, nor will I have the same biased and intolerant perspective that I’ve had about the people here. Such things are learned, and what is learned can be changed by personal experience.

This is one of the reasons that I have such hope for the future — the world that all of my daughters and their children will inherit. The internet offers the opportunity for us to learn from each other, not textbooks or one-sided histories. This can only bring us together, and I believe this is God’s will for the human race. The few people I’ve reached by sharing my trip here have knowledge they didn’t have before, and that’s just one person’s journal.

I am most sad, because I will miss my family. But even that is tempered by the warmth in my heart for them, the knowledge that I will return soon, and a conviction that we’ll use this amazing technology to talk to each other in ways our parents couldn’t even imagine. There is no distance in the world of the spirit, and it is here where we will always be together.

Mas salamah from Amman.

Shopping and sightseeing

Finding your way around in Amman takes courage and a strong knowledge of the area. Only main roads are named. There are no “addresses,” because the houses aren’t numbered. This means directions must include landmarks — a shop on the corner, a sign, a building, or some anomaly that is identifiable.

Once you have directions, however, there’s the small matter of driving the streets. Horns sound everywhere, as drivers position themselves according to their needs (and regardless of yours), and near misses are commonplace. A two lane road becomes a four lane road simply because the drivers decide they can make it so. Lane markings? Who cares? It’s all about getting where you’re going. Defensive driving will leave you at the curb. Aggression is what’s needed here, aggression and a hand on the horn.

Waseem is a veteran driver here, and he wove in and out of traffic with a skill that New York cab drivers would envy. He lets old men into his lane, but that’s where he draws the line. We swiped a parking place from a woman at the mall. She was there before us, but we had the advantage. Why wait?

Zig, zig, zag! That’s Amman on wheels. And it rained today, which made driving even more adventurous.

Ahead of us, a cab driver stopped in traffic to pick up a fare ON A CURVING HIGHWAY ONRAMP. We almost crashed, which brought several horn blasts and a few choice words from my son-in-law. “Idiot!”

Our destination was Mecca Mall, four floors of shopping that you might find anywhere. Prices are ridiculous, at least twice what one would pay in the States. We rode the escalators up and down, which was great entertainment for the kids, and bought an American favorite: Cinnabons.

After the mall, we drove around the ritzy neighborhoods to look at mansions under construction. These, folks, are palaces, and many of them are being built for newcomers to Amman and Jordan. In just four years, the population in Amman has gone from about one million to two and a quarter million people, many of them businessmen from Iraq who are seeking refuge for their families here. These are people with money who prospered under Sadaam Hussein, and there is concern about what would happen to Jordan’s economy if they suddenly left to return home.

The other growth engine is Palestinians, who continue to find friends, family and support in Jordan.

Construction is everywhere, and land prices have quadrupled. A small piece of land in a nice neighborhood will run upwards of a half-a-million dollars. Schools — private schools mostly — are being built to handle the influx of children. New roads are being built to accommodate new traffic patterns and all the new motorists here.

But, as I mentioned earlier, there are clearly two Ammans, and the gap between the haves and have-nots is enormous. There is no government assistance for anyone, so people make a living however they can. My daughter and son-in-law’s home is in a very nice neighborhood, but the windows are all barred, and a stone and steel fence surrounds the property.

At the end of the day, we had one more stop to make, but Jenny couldn’t join us. She was too busy holding two sleeping beauties who’d had enough of roads and shops and ice cream and escalators.

These are the moments that grandparents cherish and for which we burst with pride.

Life is, after all, a series of changing seasons, and I have had my share this year. I came here to escape Christmas, all the holiday trappings and the emotions that accompany them. What I found exceeded my expectations — and by a mile. For half-way around the world, I discovered the best holiday gift ever: my family.

Words are simply insufficient to describe what that means to me.

An Islamic love story

When most of my friends and family heard that I was coming to Amman to visit my daughter and her family, they wanted a report on how my Jenny (Jenan) was surviving in a culture that oppresses women. After all, they reason, she had given up her freedom for a life as a slave. Moreover, well-intentioned Christian friends believe she must be going to hell for embracing Islam. These are the things I have heard about my flesh-and-blood.

If these are the things you believe, then let me give you my report. I offer not an apologetic for Islam, but my own witness. I am not an expert; I am her father.

My daughter has more freedom than many women I have known in my life. The name on her driver’s license follows the Arabic tradition of bloodlines: Jennifer Terry Norris Heaton. The second name is mine. The third name is my father’s. The woman does not take the name of the man in marriage, for the covenant is one of choice. She wears the hijab (covering) not only because belief in Islam requires it (although there are many women here who do not), but she also wears it because she wants to wear it, for it honors her husband. The concept of honor is significant here, and it runs both ways.

When I visited my grandson Osama’s school, I asked to take a picture of the woman principal. She asked that I not take her picture, because it might somehow dishonor her husband. This was not a demand or law or requirement. It was her wish, and this is the nature of most of the culture.

Call it tribal, if you wish, but the family unit is everything here. If the families are strong, the culture is strong, and this Islam teaches.

As such, women are supposed to be revered in Islamic culture, and I have seen this with my own eyes. The idea that they are chattel is ancient Arabic and predates Islam. There are bad relationships and spousal abuse here, but this is also true in the West. Waseem and Jenan are very much husband and wife. All couples argue as well as kiss, but Waseem and my daughter have discovered a secret that Allie and I knew — that the commitment of love demands that you never go to bed angry.

Theirs is a love story for the ages, for Waseem faced unfathomable familial pressure to not marry an American. Their courtship included long months of separation and countless attempts to accept that they must not be together. They both endured hardship, condescension and ridicule, and yet, theirs is a textbook Islamic marriage, the fruit of which is four wonderful children.

My daughter speaks fluent Arabic, and she has worked hard at it. She is completely accepted now in the family and the community and is, in fact, considered a rare jewel to those who once questioned Waseem’s sanity in bringing an American woman into his life. I am so proud of her, for her courage and convictions exceed my own. I am proud, too, of Waseem, for he is my son. The way he cares for his family is to be envied. He is passionate and admits to a dark side, but he is warm, tactile and caring in ways that I find remarkable. If this is the influence of Islam, then who am I to find fault?

I couldn’t be more proud of Waseem, even if he was my own son.

To those whose religious convictions proclaim my daughter’s damnation, I feel sorry for you. I believe that heaven and hell are eternal conditions not bound by the laws of time and space and that the best judge of where we will “be” is not what we say or believe but how we behave in this life. For eternity touches our lives in the here and now, and “heaven on earth” is a very real experience, as is “hell on earth.” You want to know where you’re going? Take a moment to examine your heart at this moment, for it’s a pretty clear indication. You are practicing today for what will come.

I disrespect no one’s religion or their right to believe what they believe. But to suggest that my daughter is hell bound based on your beliefs is absurd by any stretch of the imagination. I am not her judge and neither are you, and frankly, if we’d just leave the world alone instead of trying to twist it to fit our wishes, I think we’d be amazed at how easily we’d all get along.

Long ago while researching the community of Albuquerque for a media company, I met a Native American who taught me something profound. In order to fully understand others, we must have what he called a “crossover” experience; we must live in their moccasins for a period. This, he argued, immediately brings the walls down, for we discover that we are all people and that we need each other. I’ve had this a couple of times in my life, and this visit to Amman has been another. I will never view the world the same again, and that is a blessing for which I am eternally grateful.

Commerce and family in Amman

Today was another eventful day with my son-in-law. We went downtown to shop and look at the people. Jordanians who live in the downtown area are very poor. Nobody smiles. The place used to be thriving with people, but suburban sprawl has moved many shoppers to markets within their own communities, leaving downtown with a dwindling number of people. You could’ve fooled me, however, because I thought the place was crowded and noisy.

The experience was amazing for these foreign eyes. The smells went from the sublime to the nasty, often separated only by a few feet. Professional hucksters and beggars were everywhere, and I found myself covering my pockets. I bought some jewelry and a chess set for loved ones back home, and Waseem bought candy for the children and produce for Jenan.

We stopped at a shop that will mix any perfume scent you can imagine (or buy). One of the Arabian perfumes that they asked me to smell nearly knocked me over, because it was so awful. I told Waseem that I thought they let us smell that one to make the others smell good.

DVD and software sales are everywhere. I bought two films that are currently in theatres in the U.S. for one dinar each (about $1.50). The copyright cartel in Hollywood can’t be happy with this.

Amman is a city alive with energy.

Waseem used to teach at the University, and we spent an hour touring the place and visiting old friends. Students are students, regardless of where they’re located. Some dress conservatively; others are much more liberal. Such is youth.

Everybody loves the King, at least partly because you aren’t allowed NOT to love him (and his queen).

I need a day just to catch my breath, and I’m hoping for that tomorrow. Friday is a day of rest, and my legs sure need it.

The Palestinian “home” key

The key to my home.