Thursday, 21 August 2008

Sorry I can’t come, I am in hospital!

I have never been very good at lying. I think that I must emit some sort of glow or something when I do, which flashes a big warning signal to the world. Not that it’s really something that I aspire to be better at. I am also not good at lying because it ranks toward the top of the list of things that most Australians know they shouldn’t do. It ranks just slightly below committing mass murder, infidelity with their best friend’s wife/girlfriend and, if you believe the advertisements, spilling someone’s iced coffee!

Despite it’s high rank in Australia, I have been discovering that lying does not rank nearly as well elsewhere when it comes to inappropriate types of behaviour. I started to get suspicious this week that I was missing something vital in my interactions. Three people, over the course of three days, gave me the same excuse for why they could not keep previously arranged agreements. Their lines were all the same, “oh sorry, but I am in hospital”.

Either I am mistaken and I am just maligning people’s characters and the hospitals of Jordan are really just bursting at the seams with people with leg and throat problems, or I have just stumbled on a common culturally appropriate method for extracting oneself from unpleasant and tricky situations. It’s quiet a good line really. Even if you are suspicious of your acquaintances actions, it is difficult to lecture them on the telephone about the value of “keeping one’s promises”, when they have just told you they are lying in hospital. One lady added that the reason she hadn’t called to cancel our arrangement was because this was the first day that she has been able to speak since being admitted.

Jordanian cultural insiders, I am sure are quick to pick up the cues well before it comes to forcing the untruth. It’s only ‘cultural outsiders’, like yours truly, who miss the big teleprompter, stumbling on until usually it’s too late.

I actually think that it’s never meant to get to the point of telling the lie. Cultural insiders get enough clues along the way that they never make that embarrassing phone call to ask, “Hey where are you, I am waiting here as we had agreed?” Only to hear those now familiar words, “Oh I am sorry I can’t come because I am in hospital”.

In Malawi where we have lived for more than twelve years I am also the sucker for believing the “see you tomorrow line”. Part of my trouble is I want to believe the straight-forward answer. I am bred and inculturated to believe it. So much so that even after experiencing countless let-downs I still go on believing, which often leaves me looking bewildered while waiting by the side of the road or some other place for people who never intended on coming.

Perhaps I am challenged by this because the world from which I come is not subtle enough in this area. I am unaccustomed to nuance in simple agreements as Australians are mostly blunt and matter-of-fact as only they can be.

My solace in all of this is that I believe that my ‘hospitalised acquaintances’ were sort of being nice to me. This is because their set of inappropriate behaviours is different to mine, Their’s has shame and the avoidance of shame high at the top and lying somewhere way down the bottom.

For them uttering the blunt reply of “Ah sorry mate, I just can’t make it or I don’t want to do it” is to be avoided at all cost. This would be about as unpleasant for them as it would be for me telling Mother Teresa (if she were still alive and did door to door collection for the poor) that I had just given at the office, when really I hadn’t.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

A desert experience

Learning another language is an intense, strenuous and often emotional struggle. At times it has seemed like I am loosing my mind. The last couple of weeks I have found myself muttering strange words for no apparent reason. The other day while waiting for a taxi I heard myself repeating the phrase in Arabic, “the door of the house”, “the door of the house”! Again while out exercising another evening I again caught myself muttering repeatedly the word zawuja, zawuja, zawuja, like I was possessed or something. I only stopped when I saw a group of young boys looking at me. The word actually means ‘wife’ in Arabic. Hopefully no-one got the wrong idea that I was on the lookout for a second one! After experiencing this a number of times I felt that it was time for us to take a short break so that my brain could de-fragment thus enabling all of the new words to settle and the loose bits of my brain to come back together again. Well that was the plan with Humpty Dumpty too, wasn't it, but it never did happen!

So, after 6 intense weeks and with over 400 Arabic words floating around in my head we headed off into the desert to see some of Jordan’s treasures. We did the tourist thing and went to Petra, which for those of you without a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, it is a 2000 and something year old Nabataean city of tombs carved into the rock cliffs and made famous by the Indian Jones film. It is truly an amazing place. However, the most memorable aspect of the trip, for me, was an early morning trek up Mount Haroun to visit the final resting place of Aaron, Moses’ brother.

I went alone (for some unknown reason none of the rest of the family wanted to join me!), with a Bedouin guide who called himself Khalid, with the gold tooth. He shouldn't be confused with his nephew, Muhammad with the gold tooth, whom I had met the day before! The trek was a three hour journey up a long valley and then up a very rocky mountain on the back of a mule. It was an exhilarating, but painful experience, partly because all that separated me from the steel framed saddle was a thin blanket and also because my guide insisted that we trot our mules for the entire journey. To insure that this happened Khalid with the gold tooth rode directly behind my mule; close enough so that he could whack it every so often with a little whippy stick and mutter some thing which was only intelligible to him and his mule. The stick and the mutter did the trick and my butt is a living testimony to the fact, as it is still raw one week on!

As Khalid with the gold tooth was muttering and whipping I kept thinking about the Old Testament story of Balaam and the donkey and expected the angel of the Lord to appear at any moment and let us have it for animal torture. Fortunately, we made it to the top before this happened.

On arrival at the grave site, which is literally on top of Mount Haroun and is now enclosed in a small mosque, I found myself quiet emotional and somewhat overwhelmed. I remember just kneeling down and thanking God for Aaron, and asking God to make me a useful servant like him.

I think Aaron actually gets a bit of a raw deal in history because of the golden calf incident. If I only had one golden calf type incident on my record, I'd be a fortunate man. But I like Aaron because he was willing to serve a higher purpose than his own agenda, such a rare thing in life. He reminds me of the character Sam in The Lord of the Rings. Without Sam, Frodo would never have been able to complete the journey and dispose of the ring.

Maybe this is one of the marks of a true servant leader.

These pictures represent many of the new words I have been grappling with in Arabic

The Monastery, Petra

This is Wadi al-Bgidha, Wadi Rum, home to T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia

Ian and Ben on the little rock bridge

Ian, Ben and Simeon braving the heights of Umm Fruth Rock Bridge. Wendy bravely standing below!

Literally on top of Mt Haroun, the site of Aaron's grave