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Ever feel outnumbered? I don’t mean to sound like too much of a Western chauvinist, but on my Royal Jordanian flight to Amman I was definitely the outsider. My clothes, fair hair and blue eyes clearly set me apart from a sea of dark complexions and darker beards. Not that anyone else seemed to give a damn. They weren’t alarmed about my copy of "Chicken Soup for the Soul". Or even when I started humming, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head”. No one looked at me funny or reported me to the flight crew for being too white. Although they probably should have.
And when they threw down their prayer rugs in the aisles and prayed to Mecca at 30,000 feet, no one gave me dirty looks as I sipped my Chablis.
No, they were totally cool with me. I was the one that was a little spooked. It just felt odd to be on a plane with 200 “suspicious people” - many of them robed and speaking a secret language. I mean if I saw “something”, with whom could I say “something”? Of course in this space, I was probably the “something”.
Which was just crazy since no one could have been nicer to this American devil. We could take some lessons in chill from our Middle Eastern fellow travelers.
The Ramadan Tent
Upon landing, I joined up with my crew who had been huddled in the rear of the plane. Sometimes we all flew together in Business, sometimes in Coach, sometimes the client only flew me up front. Who am I to protest? It was the client’s will.
That client, the Jordan Tourism Board, whisked us off to dinner. This being Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, we found ourselves in a big Ramadan tent. I don’t know what it is about big tents and special occasions but they do go well together. Maybe it has to do with childhood and memories of the circus.. or perhaps bar mitzvahs. Who doesn’t like to party under the big top – especially during Ramadan.
This large space was festive and bright, filled with many hungry souls. During Ramadan the pious fast all day, only breaking this fast with a massive feast at sundown. Of course, I hadn’t fasted, but instead, continually noshed on my Royal Jordanian flight.
So there we were, seated with the hundreds who were starving – they hadn’t eaten all day. My business partner had preceded me to Jordan. Upon spotting my entrance, he shouted out, “Abu Tommy!” Then seeing the muddled, jet-lagged look I gave him, laughed. My hosts explained…
In most of the world’s cultures a son is named for the father as in Jayson, Jackson, Jacobson, etc. In Hebrew the word ‘ben’ means ‘of’ – the son is of the father. The French use ‘du’; the Spanish ‘de’; the Germans ‘von’; and the Arab world uses ‘ibn’ or ‘bin’.
But in Arabic one can also reverse the lineage, naming the father for the son as a kind of nickname. My son is Tommy, therefore I can call myself Abu Tommy. And that’s exactly how everyone referred to me in that big Ramadan tent.
It was fun. I mean how many Jewish guys can go around calling themselves, ‘Abu’? So we sat on big cushions and feasted. From across the table my cameraman called to me.
“Abu Tommy, please pass me the couscous.” I stared him down as if he had stolen my prize sheep, but then broke into a benevolent smile and passed the bowl.
“Certainly Grasshopper…”. OK, I was really mixing up my cultures. But hey, I was jet lagged and time warped.
We stuffed ourselves like sultans until fully sated. Then came the hubbly-bubbly. Every table got one – a big, silver hookah with an array of tubes for multiple smokers. The ornate machines burned tobacco infused with dried fruit. We all leaned back and puffed. It was not unpleasant, although I hear it’s pretty unhealthy. But by then we had been up for several days so what’s another hit to the system?
Sitting there like a pasha after our long journey, engorged with this sumptuous smoky feast, Jordan was looking mighty fine to Abu Tommy.
The King’s Super Puma
Jordan is one long memory. Its red sandstone deserts will stay with you forever. It was here in the Wadi Rum that a young Lawrence of Arabia organized the Arab revolt against the Turks. Our job was to photograph this timeless landscape from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Wadis and on to Petra.
My partner in this venture had secured from King Abdullah the use of one of his Super Puma Air Force helicopters for aerial shooting. The King was most generous and let us take the chopper for an entire day. We could go wherever we chose.
So we jumped on board, ready with our cameras, headphones and MP3 players.
Along with my crew, the King had added his personal photographer to the group. He was a hip looking dude with an assortment of DSLR’s hanging from his neck and a black leather doo rag. His English was perfect.
He asked me where I was from. “California”, I replied.
“Where in L.A.?”, he wanted to know. I was surprised. Usually people on the other side of the world are satisfied with just the mention of my notorious city.
“Uh… Sherman Oaks”, I answered.
He smiled. “Oh, I have a place in Sherman Oaks.” was the astonishing reply.
What?! He caught the look on my face and laughed. Here I had traveled nearly 8,000 miles to an airbase in the Jordanian desert, climbed aboard the King’s helicopter, only to meet a guy who probably used the same dry cleaner as me.
The River Jordan
We rolled back the chopper doors so the cameramen could have a clear view and lifted off. In just moments, we were over the Jordan River, looking down upon the ancient site of Bethany Beyond the Jordan. I recognized several churches from our earlier shoot on the ground.
It was here we had seen a group of American pilgrims, wading into the Jordan River. This was the presumed site where John had baptized Jesus. The pilgrims had slipped under the water, soaking in this eternal mystery. They rose and held onto each other, their joy and emotion too full to contain.
They cried and their tears flowed, joining the river. We stood there, moved by the sight of our fellow countrymen gripped in their fierce embrace. This is the Middle-East – you can’t take ten steps without tripping over some history, drama, joy or heartbreak.
Looking down to the river from this chopper, a thought occurred to me. The Jordan River is the border between Jordan and the West Bank, Israeli territory. I made my way up to the pilot
I shouted to him through my headset, “Hey, we’re pretty close to Israeli airspace. Do you think we should notify them?”
I thought it best to be prudent. I didn’t want my crew, or me for that matter, felled by an overzealous Israeli pilot.
The pilot turned to me with a big grin, “We ahh in Israaeli aihhh space!”
And he laughed.
I snapped my head around toward his big windshield, half expecting an incoming missile.
“Ohh…. Well can we go back to Jordan?”, I hopefully suggested.
He held onto his reply a few moments as we circled around.
“Cerhtaanly Sir, no problem…”
Then with a smile he swung back east, back to the Jordanian desert. Ok, my guess is they had already told the Israelis their plans. But this Jordanian aircrew enjoyed their moment with Abu Tommy.
The Walk Of Life
Heading over the desert now, we went low and… fast. We were doing maybe 120 knots and were only about 30 feet above the desert floor. The doors were wide open and the ground was racing beneath us. In the distance, I could see Bedouins trekking across the plain with their caravans of camels. Just beneath us, the reddish desert was a passing blur.
If ever a moment called for a great driving (flying?) mix, this was it. I hit the play button on my MP3 and shuttled through Springsteen, the Beatles, John Fogerty and Dire Straits… and Elvis.
We sailed over the ancient city of Petra, which we really shouldn’t have, as it’s a protected UNESCO World Heritage site. But we were quick about it, getting our shots and hopefully not destabilizing the ancient structures. Then we cruised over 1000 year old Crusader castles and 2000-year-old Roman ruins. Jordan has been a happening place… forever.
So that’s how we spent our last day in the Hashemite Kingdom Of Jordan. Tomorrow we would be flying back to the States – some of my crew to Rochester, me of course, to Sherman Oaks. We were flying slower now headed for our airbase. Again, below us was the Jordan River. I could see more pilgrims wading in its water. We circled around to get some shots.
The big circles again took us over Israeli airspace and then Jordanian airspace, as we watched the Pilgrims bathe in this sacred river. Around and around we went, flying over Israel to Jordan and back again, witnessing below us this holy Christian ceremony. And doing all of this with the help of our Jordanian, Arab… Muslim… friends.
Just another day in the Mid-East. The kind you usually don’t hear about.
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