The Odyssey in Jordan

I taught my first class on the Odyssey at the University of Jordan today, and I was not prepared for the nerve it touched in my students.

I normally consider the Odyssey light, comedic, adventure entertainment– especially compared to its sibling, the Iliad, which ends in the death of a great man, an honorable hero, and with portents of doom for many characters with whom we have come to sympathize.

The Odyssey, on the other hand, ends with a family reunited, a faithful wife rewarded, miscreants massacred, a crafty hero returned to his rightful place, and an awkward adolescent making his way into manhood. Plus nymphs and cyclopes, and sea monsters. And lots of feasting.

My students saw it differently. Many of them are Syrian, or Iraqi, or Palestinian. More than half the class said some variation of: “We know what it is to be kept away from home, to show up destitute on the doorsteps of strangers and hope they greet us with compassion instead of hostility. We know what it’s like to wonder about the fate of family members, caught up in wars that seem to go on forever, and to hope against hope that one day they will come home.”

I looked at my class– overwhelmingly women– bright-eyed, expressive, eager, razor-sharp, in their stylish, colorful, head scarves, or their Ramones t-shirts and jeans. And I was (and continue to be) profoundly moved– stunned, and ashamed I had been such a fool that I hadn’t anticipated a reading like this.

My class went in a very different direction than the one I had planned.

For many, many reasons, this is one of the great rewards of lifelong study and teaching of literature. The opportunity to be astonished, to feel a blaze of new light shed on an old story (one of the oldest). To be dazzled by a glimpse into another’s vision.

I will have more to say on this, I think. But right now, I know just enough to know that I’m not even close to figuring this out yet. And that I’m going to be wrestling intensely with how to help my students approach this text.

It used to be that the ending of the Iliad posed the greatest threat to making me tear up. After today’s class, I wonder if the Odyssey won’t have the same effect.


In the Wadi


Here are some photos from two weekends ago, when I went exploring a wadi with a Jordanian biologist. It was exceedingly remote, and scorchingly hot. There was some difficult travel, and a bit of anxiety near the end as our water began to run low. (Drinking out of the wadis is expressly not recommended, for a variety of reasons.) It’s quite a different environment from Alaska, where I’m accustomed to hiking. There, drinkable water is everywhere.

I also learned that falafel makes a great trail snack. Especially accompanied by zaatar, figs, and apples.


That is me, fully dressed, and sporting sunglasses and Red Sox hat, while I luxuriated in a wadi-fed lagoon, as the evening began to cool everything down.

There are more photos at my flickr site.

A Early Tour Of Official Jordan




I have four copies of this document. I had 10, but I had to file six with various office scattered about the sun-blasted hills of Amman. There are lots of stamps and stickers and signatures on this form, you will notice, and on no two copies are they in the same place.

This is the document you have to obtain and file when you lose a passport in Amman, as I did less than a week into my time in Jordan.

When I realized I lost the passport, I did exactly what I had been advised to do: went to the police and reported it missing. I chose a station in a neighborhood popular with expatriates, assuming that the police there would be more accustomed to dealing with the problems of hapless foreigners.

That may have been so. I don’t know for sure. As I arrived, a guard with a submachine gun barked at my taxi driver to (I assume), get the @#$% away from the gate. He sped off the second my couple of dinars hit his palm. I had barely started closing his door.

Inside the station, I was shuttled from office to office, each a mirror repetition of the one preceding: a sweltering office with a fan, a high ceiling, and a desk, behind which would sit a thin, mustached man wearing a uniform with epaulettes, and alternately drinking tea and smoking a cigarette. The man would scrutinize me, and ask me questions in Arabic, of which I know just enough to know I wasn’t getting all of the question. At all.

I communicated mostly in the metaphorical mode Giambattista Vico sets out in New Science: waving my hands around (respectfully) and doing my best to be understood in my half-remembered half- FusHa Arabic.

After two hours, what seemed like a sergeant of some kind typed up a piece of paper, handed me two copies, and said to bring it to another police station. Tomorrow. Not enough time to take care of it today. I walked out into the blazing sun. Defeated, but determined to do this properly, even if it took a month– which, increasingly, it seemed as if it would.

When I informed the people at my program about my problem, they expressed some bemused disbelief at what I had attempted. They informed me in no uncertain terms that I was not to attempt this again. Instead, I was to come back tomorrow and go with the Jordanian version of Winston Wolf, who would be coming directly.

The next morning, the Wolf took me in the blazing kiln of the Amman morning sun to a sun blasted office in what seemed a far off district of the city. We negotiated six or seven offices, and obtained the paper posted above. Then to another. Then another. Then another. Before long, it was the afternoon, and we had several copies of papers stamped and counterstamped; signed, countersigned, and sealed with wax.

At one office I could follow enough of the conversation, which went something like this:

The Wolf: As you can see, we’ve been to all the other offices and we have all the stamps and signatures.

Mustached Officer: What are you doing here?

The Wolf: I’m his translator and guide, just helping negotiate the process for this hajj.

Officer: [Laughter]

Older woman: [knitting in corner] Make him wait. The U.S. never gives us visas. It’s only fair.

The Wolf: He doesn’t work at the visa office. It’s not his fault.

[More laughter]

Officer: No, no, I’d really like to get these guys out of my office. [Stamps papers in rapid succession, and then signs each stamp with a flourish and a smile]

Without the Wolf, I would still be navigating this process.

When we left the office he turned to me and said “One more stop, I think. This has gone really, really, well.”

“You’re kidding, right?” I say. “We’ve been at this solidly all day. I’ve lost count of all the offices we’ve visited– some of them twice– and we’re still not done. I bet the office we need now close before we can get what we need.”

“I know. But we’re ALMOST done. That’s what’s amazing. We’ll probably finish today– that’s great! It’s very, very smooth. That’s rare.”

The last facility was like the finale of a great musical: every element of the earlier acts came back onstage for one final appearance. There were epaulettes and submachine guns, crowds of people from all over the world attempting to extend visas, or obtain residencies, find passports, renew documents; there were jokes and smoking officials. There were stamps, counterstamps and signatures. There were fees.

I can’t show you pictures of these facilities, because I didn’t take any photos. One does not photograph official buildings in Jordan.

We did finish in one day. The Wolf made it happen. Armed with my new stamped documents, I was ready for my appointment at the U.S. Embassy, to apply for a replacement passport. In almost three weeks.

Then, two days later, the embassy called. A tax driver had turned in my passport, and could I please come pick it up?