Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Two Days of Religion

Once again, I am flirting with danger and choosing to write about work. What can I say, people? I live on the edge.

First, a little background. One of the programs that I manage here at post is the Arabic Book Program. Through this program, we translate a few select American books into Arabic each year and then distribute them regionally to a targeted audience. We run book clubs with them, and donate them to children’s libraries, and do storytelling programs in hospitals. We bring in speakers to discuss them at universities and government institutions, and we ship them to other posts in the region so they can run the same sorts of programs. We do all sorts of cool and interesting things with these books, all to give people in the region a sense of American culture, history, politics and literature. (A quick shout out to my argumentative friend “Chicken Little,” as he shall heretofore be known on this blog – this is a real and a really important program. So don’t go making fun of my books or I’ll make fun of your airplane collection.)

We’ve translated everything from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to the Steve Jobs biography to Bridge to Terabithia, and as a book lover, I couldn’t have found a more perfect program to run if I tried. Seriously. I love books, and I love reading, and I love the idea that I get to help choose what sorts of books people in the region are going to be reading over the next few years.

Right about the time I started this new job of mine, we got a brand new shipment of a book we'd had translated called Unity in Diversity: Interfaith Dialogue in the Middle East. It’s never going to be a best seller in the States in the way that The Joy Luck Club was. But as you can guess from the title, it’s a book with profound implications here in the region. So we invited the author, who is a professor at American University in Washington DC, to come to Jordan for a week and talk to religious scholars and students across the country about his ideas on religious tolerance.

There were several of us working on the program, which took place last week, so I only covered two days of programming. But it was the craziest two days you can imagine.

I spent the first day at a sharia college a few short miles down the road from the Syrian border. A sharia college is for Muslim students who are majoring in religion, so it was a natural place to bring our author, but it sure felt like an odd place to me.

For starters, the university seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. It wasn't, not really, because we were just outside the city of Mafraq. But you couldn't see the city - just miles of desert in every direction. You couldn't see the Syrian refugee camp either, the big one that is featured in the news every day around these parts, but it was right around the corner. Just knowing it was there - I don't know. I almost felt like I could see the prayers of all of those homeless, stateless, sad and frightened people in the camp as they floated skyward. It all felt a bit bleak.

That red tab is about where I was. Amman to the south. Syria to the north. Weird.

And then there was the college itself. In my entire day there, I spotted exactly one uncovered woman. One. Which meant that as I walked the corridors, people gawked at me, open-mouthed. Not only was I waving around a head full of hair, but I was walking around with the men who run the place. Crazy. I definitely felt like a fish out of water. And it didn't help that no one was speaking English. I spent a lot of time smiling and nodding, trying to pick out the words I knew, wondering why none of the other women in the place were talking.

But you know what was cool? The students and the professors really responded to our author, who was talking about the commonalities between religions, and the ways in which various religious groups need to work together. I was expecting - I don't know, perhaps a bit more overt hostility? This was after all, a group of seriously devoted and devout Muslims. There were a few anti-American folks there - there always are. But I was impressed with the message of moderation and tolerance that their professors were delivering. And I found myself wishing that we could run the exact same program in the States. Because frankly, I think there are an awful lot of Americans who need this message of religious tolerance more than we need it here in Jordan, where even devout Muslims wish me a Merry Christmas at this time of year.

The second day of the program was even stranger and more interesting. We went to the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies to meet with some of the people who run the place. In deference to me, they conducted much of the meeting in English. And it was fascinating. I mean, I was sitting there with two experts on the Muslim faith and on religion in general, getting a graduate level primer on different laws within different religions: on Hebrew vs. Arabic, on the Bible and the Quran.

I was taking it all in, kind of fascinated with the level of dialogue that was going on, when who should walk in but two priests, straight from the Vatican, along with a former Foreign Minister. The company I keep, honestly. It was quite surreal, sitting there eavesdropping on the conversations swirling around me and over my head.

This week, I'm back in the office, planning future programming on everything from journalism, to civil rights, to resume writing. Really, it's hard to get bored around here, because from one day to the next I find myself working on completely different things. From a sharia college to a journalism school, to a library, to a hospital. From writing a speech to reading a Newbery Award-winning novel. Every day something different. So far, I think I like it.


Please. Write your own stuff.