9 - Dispatch From the Bottom

For millions of years, the plates have parted, leaving a deep rift running from Tanzania to Turkey. At the very bottom lies the Dead Sea - 1400 feet below sea level … and dropping. When Granddad put his bridge across the Jordan, it was one of the world's great rivers, draining a huge area of the Middle East and renewing the Dead Sea. All sources of renewal are now damned and diverted - and the Dead Sea is dieing - dropping 3 feet each year. So it's all up hill from here.

We continue our group trip with Harvard, which is a "knife with two sides," as one of our ESL members put it. Logistics are all arranged - when and what to visit - where to stay and how to get there - each hour jammed with carefully scripted sites and events. The Dead Sea is on their list and we pass some on mine.

The upside of the knife is the contacts the Harvard name allows. We have tea with the daughter of a High Court Chief Justice - now a dissident journalist and author. She gifts us one of her books - Freedom Fries and Fried Freedoms - written in English. Her latest book is on the evils of "wasta" - the Arabic word for how contacts and influence are needed to get anything done in the Arab world. She admits to needing wasta to get it published.

The next day Jean finds herself dressed in a museum quality folk costume from the collection of a Mrs. Widad Kawar, a Palestinian with the cultural calling to collect and preserve the traditional dress of tribal groups before the distinct styles and skills are diluted in the refugee camp's concentration. Her home is a wonder of art and artifacts from this area. Another guest is an Iraqi antique dealer who is a wealth of information on waterpipes and says Granddad's was a Turkish model - likely made for hashish smoking.

We are invited to dine with an alumnus who owns the local 4 Seasons Hotel and is a Director of Visa - Jean's old company. The rich here live very well, and pour good wine - or rather their help does. The meal took hours as the numerous rows of knives and forks were used, two by two, until bursting was a real danger. And then out came the fruit and cheese … ohhhh.

In the morning, even though we swore off food for life, again an invitation not to be missed - a tour and lunch at the American Center for Oriental Studies where researchers are housed and fed while digging into this area's rich history and tumultuous present. I hold items older than the bible in my hand and we receive a VIP tour by the Director - an expert on Petra. A pair of West Point cadets on a language study program gives me a personal greeting and I am moved to misty eyes by their youthful zeal and commitment.

Then lunch the next day, at a new resort in the port/resort city of Aqaba, managed by another Harvard alum. He invites the Commissioner of Economic Development and a lady member of the Cabinet. The topics of conversation were varied, knowledgeable, and specific. Inevitably talk evolves to the upcoming US election and the Israel/US situation. "Is the US ready for a non-white male president?" "How can two percent of your population control your foreign policy?" They were equally acceptable of questions from Jean and me - the only Americans at the table - while the Red Sea sparkled in the background.

And not to forget the guide with the group - Elias. He is a Catholic Arab from a Bedouin tribe south of Amman, with degrees in English lit and Middle Eastern history. I feel he is now a friend and feel he feels the same. He is paired with the group's leader John dePury, a man who makes me feel like a shut-in. Lived in far more than a dozen countries and led expeditions in many of the rest - an eager resource for the most thought provoking probe or the genesis of merriment and mirth - as well as keeping the wheels greased and on the right road.

Then there is Ali, our driver. Not only a master of all roads from the Ukraine to Cairo, but a valued source of the working man's view - an Arab man on and of the street. We share tea into the night.

And yes of course, we have done the tourist sites - Ammonite, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and the incomparable Nabatean city of Petra - where we played Indiana Jones until legs failed and the sun set. Indescribable so I won't.

Today, we climb to the tomb of Moses on Mt. Nebo and see the view down to the Jordan River and across to Jericho. From here, it seems likely that Granddad and Joshua both used the same spot to cross. Then on to try out this eating with only the right "clean" hand with the Bedouins near Wadi Dana nature reserve. Sheep's eyes are on the menu - it's all up hill from here too.

- Redrock Rod