The Wonders of the World
by Bruce Feiler
Not long ago, I was invited to join a panel that would select the Seven New Wonders of the World. Seven of us, convened by a major television network and leading newspaper, were locked into a room for the better part of a day. Among us were the Asia Guy, the Astronomy Guy, the Naturalist, and the Archaeologist. I was the Middle East Guy. I scoured the region for places that I thought might make the final list. Places that were magical, transcendent, and meaningful. Places that were timeless, but also contained a message that was important for today.
I ultimately chose three sites for consideration. All three had roots in antiquity, had deep spiritual connections, and were symbols of inter-religious coexistence.
The first was the Old City of Jerusalem. As Jeff Greenwald notes in his piece, “In Jerusalem,” one of thirty essays contained in this book, “Walled cities are worlds unto themselves.” But Jerusalem is a world that still influences the rest of the world. Half the globe’s believers consider it holy. While Jerusalem is often in the news for the tension on its streets, the defining fact of the city is that any panorama, any camera angle, any genuflection that incorporates one of its holy sites will necessarily include one of the others. For all its conflict, Jerusalem is a living laboratory of different cultures.
The second place I chose was Persepolis. As Peter Jon Lindberg explains in his essay, “To Hamadan,” Persepolis was conceived by Persian king Darius the Great in the sixth century B.C. It honored Cyrus the Great, who, among other things, destroyed Babylon, ended the exile of the Israelites, and paid for the Israelites to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Darius’s commitment to respecting other faiths is on view in Persepolis, one of the great sites in the ancient world. The highlight of the place is a giant wall with carvings of men from twenty-three different countries bringing tribute to the king. They’re smiling, holding hands. Happiness was a virtue here. And the king promoted that happiness by telling believers in all those different countries that they could worship their own god. Pluralism was pioneered in Ancient Persia.
The final site, St. Catherine’s Monastery, is not included in this collection, though the opening essay, “Bread,” takes place on a boat to the Sinai peninsula and puts the traveler in the mood. Located in the red granite hills in the southern quarter of the Sinai, St. Catherine’s was built 1500 years ago by monks who said that one particular bush at the base of one particular mountain is the actual burning bush where Moses heard the voice of God. The bush is still there today, and is guarded by a fire extinguisher. When I first visited, I thought the fire extinguisher was an eyesore, then I realized the unintended humor: Is it there in case the bush catches on fire? And if it does catch on fire, should I put it out or look for the face of God?
Like so many of the places discussed in this fascinating compendium, St. Catherine’s blends religions and cultures into a mesmerizing mélange. The monastery contains the oldest operating church in the world, where they still conduct services five times a day in Byzantine Greek, but it also has a mosque, which was built to appease local Muslims. The Bedouin come weekly to receive handouts from the Greek monks, including bread and soap.
Reading this book, I stumbled onto many similar scenes, both familiar and fresh. The first breath of tobacco from a water pipe in Egypt, the smell of incense at an all-female gathering in Yemen, fresh mustard greens sautéed in olive oil served in Cyprus. Some are funny, like Chris Kipiniak’s account of a wearying rug negotiation in Cairo. “It was love,” he says when he finally succumbs and makes a purchase, “in a medieval, arranged, political, marriage-of-necessity sort of way. The rug was everything I wanted; it was red, I got it in Egypt, it wasn’t ugly.”
Some are blunt. Murad Kalam writes in his piece, “If It Doesn’t Kill You First” about the hundreds of people sometimes killed during the Haj, “In one twenty-four-hour period during my pilgrimage, eighty-two hajjis will die. People perish in many ways, from natural causes like heart attacks to unnatural ones like dehydration and trampling.”
A surprising number involve blood. Rolf Potts opens his piece, “I arrived at the Jordanian customs stations in Aqaba with the bloodstains still on my pants.” He’s referring to blood from the annual Festival of the Sacrifice. Shannon O’Grady witnesses human blood at the Shia festival of Ashura. “The drumming was loud and sounded as if it was building to a crescendo when, suddenly, I began to smell the blood. I looked toward the square and saw droves of young men beating their backs with razor blades attached to the ends of chains.”
Any traveler to the Middle East will find scenes in here that are reminiscent of earlier trips. Any traveler will discover new places to visit. As for our panel charged with picking the Seven Wonders, Jerusalem was the only place that received a unanimous vote. My other two recommendations lost out. Reading Encounters with the Middle East made me long for the original list, where all seven came from the same, wondrous region.
* * *Bruce Feiler
is The New York Times
-bestselling author of seven books, including Walking the Bible, Abraham,
and Where God Was Born
, an award-wining journalist, and the host of the series Walking the Bible
with Bruce Feiler on PBS. A frequent commentator on NPR, CNN, and others, he is a contributing editor at Gourmet
. He blogs about religion, travel, and the Middle East at www.feilerfaster.com.
by Nesreen Khashan and Jim Bowman
The sun was setting in the West Bank village, casting shadows on the terraced hillsides lined with olive trees. As evening brought coolness, villagers emerged from their homes to walk along the dirt paths. Young and old walked, women linked arms while men held salty watermelon seeds in their palms that they then cracked between their teeth, letting the shells return to the dusty ground. In the distance, calls to prayer echoed in the twilight sky, overlapping one another like waves. It felt as though the exhortations came from the heavens themselves. Talk was about what uncle was doing, what cousins were studying, who had asked whom for a hand in marriage, which relatives were visiting the homeland at present. It was here that someone from the outside could learn to let life pass slowly. Here in this land so holy, yet so unassuming, that the traveler can practice, perhaps even learn, patience.
It was not as though she set out to learn patience, this outsider who longed to belong to the club. She had really come for another purpose: to discover that kindness and innocence that she had come to associate with her parents. So it was that she returned to the West Bank village that her mother last took her to during infancy, when relatives clutched her chubby arms before memories could take hold…
It is a portrait so unimaginable these days. It may even seem absurd that such a calm exists on land associated with tumult and strife, that someone can tell of something so serene where others know only of unrest. The scene is unlikely because a din obscures daily life in this region, and rarely do the voices of the everyday—sublime and mundane—get to be heard.
The land that most people imagine as the Middle East has become engulfed in a kind of madness transmitted via the twenty-four-hour media circuit, the front pages of newspapers, the images transmitted on the evening news, crammed hastily between commercials for twitching legs, bad hearts, and weakening sexual prowess.
Yet amidst the cacophony called perception that supplants the ordinary, people in the Middle East still go about their lives. They do so through a cultural and existential prism that is unfamiliar to most Westerners. They do so whether roadside bombs, menacing fighter jets, political assassinations, or other forms of violence occur around them. They do so as we all would because at the end of the day, all human beings are remarkable for their ability to adapt and to reveal their resilience and strength, no matter what they face outside their front doors.
In fact, they exist much as people anywhere would when forced to endure hardships. Losing sight of this link and failing to recognize our potential connection with the lives behind the headlines can have devastating consequences. When we don’t connect people to the greater global scheme that includes us, we consign ourselves to the images presented on television. In that way, we become myopic and abandon all the moments that represent the complexity of lives in the Middle East. While those experiences remain hidden from our view, we remain deficient by failing to see them. When we are unaware of other possibilities, how then can we imagine solutions to the global challenges that face us? We are a single community bound to share the same planet. Plowing ahead without forging coexistence is a dangerous plunge. Whether people live in war zones or hundreds of miles from them, there is still something akin to normalcy in this region: places where instability remains something delivered by a television set, places where homes are kept intact with spirit rather than mortar.
This collection offers a snapshot of moments worth preserving. It works because many of the narrators are Westerners who come to places like Jordan, Iran, Israel and Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, in search of a particular type of knowledge about the region; invariably, they end up leaving with something unexpected. This is true whether the traveler is a first-time visitor like Pat Walker, who leaves shattered when she discovers a Bethlehem so different from the one she clung to from childhood, or Yasmine Bahrani, a native Iraqi who finds optimism amidst the turmoil upon a return to the land of her youth.
Like all great moments of travel, the delight in these stories comes not so much from discovering when the narrators, as Nicholas Seeley put it, “finally, finally, get it.” It comes from the process of untangling that revelation, from owning up to the misconceptions that we carry into a situation, and the relief of leaving without them, bundles we are no longer burdened with.
There is no smoke screen here, no quixotic gloss presenting an undisturbed Middle East. There are plenty of portrayals of awkwardness and discomfort to remind the reader of the culturally unfamiliar terrain so many of these narrators have travailed. Attrition will happen, as when Erika Trafton bemoans the unfolding of yet another sleepless night in the boiling intensity of Jerusalem’s Old City, or when Mal Karman recalls the details of his trip to Iran while detained at gunpoint by a sentry in Tehran.
Some realities are coarser than others. Karman’s predicament is unenviable, but the stoicism and dark humor he displays in the face of a mini-crisis leave us with a memorable story and an enlightening picture of a terribly misunderstood country. Joel Carillet’s portrait of animosity among Palestinians and Israelis is tempered by descriptions of individuals from these backgrounds working together to build something enduring that promotes peace.
The emotional range of the collection spans a wide spectrum, including stories that are bittersweet, exuberant, poignant. Each in its own way contributes to our understanding of the complex mosaic that is the Middle East, “warts and all,” as one reviewer writes. The rest we leave for the reader to discover.
Part One: Essence of Family Travel
Road Scholars–James O’Reilly
For the Birds–George Kalogerakis
Pieve San Giacomo–Jason Wilson
Breakfast in a Vineyard–Kathryn Makris
Wee Airborne Advice–Paul Reiser
The Certificate of Virginity–Tim Parks
Past Imperfect, Future Not So Tense–Jane Myers
Travels with Mom–Carol Clurman
Bambina, Bambina!–Kristin Jackson
The Girl in the Photo–Nicholas D. Kristoff
Harvest Out of Africa–Barbara Ellis-Van De Water
The Road to Balbriggan–Janis Cooke Newman
Part Two: Some Things to Do
Honolulu Mamas–Robert Strauss
Shaping the Clay–Nick Gallo
Keno Kids?–Cynthia Gorney
Lessons of the Nile–Joyce Wilson
Through the Eyes of a Little Girl–Franz Lidz
Shake, Paddle, and Roll–Peter Richmond
Rounding the Horn First–David Hays and Daniel Hays
The Land of My Adopted Daughters–William Stephen Cross
Team Spirit–Calvin Trillin
Mike’s Cane–Mary Gaffney
A Storybook Adventure–Ann Banks
The Thrill of the Ride–Marc Jacobson
Atlantic Coast, USA
Into the Woods–Greg Breining
Part Three: Going Your Own Way
An Eye for an Eye–Kuki Gallmann
A Room in Oaxaca–Chelsea Cain
A Seaside Birth–Robin Lee Graham with Derek L.T. Gill
Catalina Island, California
The Cheese Sandwich that Changed My Life–Trams Hollingsworth
Paddling Right–Leila Philip
Colorado River, Grand Canyon
Time Flies–Leigh Montville
Coming Up for Air–Michael Crichton
Six Months in Paradise–Kate Mearns, As told to Abby Ellin
Moving Heaven and Earth–Hugo Williams
My Child, Our Vacation–Kate Divine McAnaney
Connections–Susan Lyn McCombs
South of Haunted Dreams–Eddy L. Harris
Part Four: In the Shadows
Alexandria’s Ghosts–Andre Aciman
Death of a Small Civilization–Jim Dodson
My Doctor, My Sister–Leslie Ehm
Tough Love–Luis Alberto Urrea
A View from the Hospital–Libby Lubin
Part Five: The Last Word
Small Wonders–Maira Kalman
Shaping the Clay
by Nick GalloAn art lover wanted to make a connection with a Zapotec artisan,
but it was his son who provided the key.
A man in a cowboy hat cracked open a walnut with a machete. An old, thin woman in a nearby stall was selling beeswax candles–and perhaps dispensing curses and spells, too, judging by the crowd around her. The “balloon man,” the Pied Piper of vendors, had a pack of kids trailing him as he yelled, “¡Globos! ¡Un mil!”It was Friday market in Ocotlán, in the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico, and my wife Laurie and I felt a familiar giddiness. We were back in Mexico for a vacation. It didn’t matter whether we were climbing a pyramid or snorkeling off the Yucatan or watching a man crack walnuts with a machete–we were once again intoxicated by a swig of life south of the border.
But was Noah, our six-year-old making his first visit to Mexico, feeling a similar excitement? Seated on a bench, he stared without expression at the swirl of activity.
“What if he hates Mexico?” Laurie whispered.
It was an interesting question, or at least the underlying issue was. How do children discover the pleasures of travel? How can parents help kids appreciate other peoples and places? Or is the process too mysterious and complicated for a simple tutorial?
Moments later, we headed out of the market and I had started to think about my own reasons for our trip to Ocotlán. A dusty fanning enclave about twenty miles south of the city of Oaxaca, it was the home of Josefina Aguilar, a ceramist. Several years ago, I’d bought two of her clay sculptures at a Seattle folk-art store.
The first piece, smooth and radiant, is a curvy mermaid floating through a bright array of fish and seashells. The second, a big-busted streetwalker prowling the night with a cigarette dangling from red lips, is comic, jaunty, subversive. These colorful figures, set in my kitchen, bloom with whimsical charm and chase away the Seattle grayness.
My idea was simple: find this source of alchemy and relay my thanks.
Perhaps I allowed myself a fantasy: Josefina, happy to see distant travelers, would invite my family to dine on tamales, beg us to stay in her home, help us move to Mexico, allow me to sip margaritas beneath a palapa for the rest of my life…who knows what I was thinking.
In any event, after obtaining directions to Josefina’s house at the market, we walked along the town’s main street for about a mile until we found ourselves outside her gate. Atop a brick archway, a line of two-foot-tall ceramic figures–among them, a religious saint and a farmer–formed a welcome party. We walked through the open gate into a courtyard set inside a two-story, stucco home.
Nearby, a woman in a simple white blouse and loose skirt knelt on the ground and rolled out a sheet of moist, brown clay. She was a big Buddha of a woman–heavy-set, brown-skinned, impassive. She appeared to be about forty years old.
When I announced that I wanted to meet Josefina, she flicked a glance at me, then returned her attention to the clay.
“That’s Josefina,” said a man in the courtyard, pointing to her. I introduced myself, and in awkward Spanish, I told her that I loved her work, that I had two of her sculptures in my house, that I had come to see her “all the way from Seattle.”
“Gracias,” she responded, politely. She told me in Spanish that she had made pottery all her life, learned ceramics from her mother, and had traveled to the U.S. to exhibit her work–“all the way to Texas and Chicago and Boston.”
She spoke in short sentences. She did not smile. Unnerved, I tried to talk of the special spirit of her work. I blathered on that it “breathed of Mexico,” that it was transcendent, that it spoke from the heart yet was rooted to the earth, until soon I began to sound like a lunatic combination of Shirley MacLaine and Ricardo Montalban from Fantasy Island.
She gave me a long look, then resumed her work. She wasn’t hostile, but I didn’t think we’d be sharing a plate of tamales soon.
To be truthful, I was feeling miffed. I had half-expected to be mobbed by children hawking ceramics, but there was just the silence of this square-jawed Zapotec woman, solid as the earth, working the clay with such smooth, natural movements that her hands seemed to rise up from the ground.
Rebuffed, I felt my eyes begin to canvass the courtyard, ferreting out corners and peeking into alcoves. I knew the symptoms: I was transforming into The American Shopper, looking for something to buy.
At the far end of the courtyard, a girl about twelve years old applied glitter to a mermaid sculpture. I wandered over and when I discovered the price–about $10–I gulped hard. I’d paid eight times that much in Seattle for a similar piece. Now I was in for another shock: neither this sculpture nor any others were for sale. All were on order for U.S. shops.
I cursed my luck, thundered at “greedy gringo gallery-owners,” and contemplated ransacking the garbage for “seconds.” Just as shopper’s lust threatened to overwhelm me, I happened to look back at Josefina.
There she was, still seated in the dirt, but beside her was Noah. Cross-legged, he sat transfixed, his eyes locked on her movements. The “glitter girl” was advising me when to return for better shopping opportunities, but now my attention was on Noah. He held a piece of clay in his hands. Moistening it with water, he rolled it in his palms and tried to shape it as Josefina directed him.
I watched as she brought out a primitive tool, a foot-long wooden stick with a metal hook on it. With a baker’s hands–strong, thick wrists, and fingers that fluttered like butterflies–she pushed and poked the clay as if it were a ball of masa, or tortilla dough. She shaped it into a human figure, then continued to mold it until it grew into a village woman with a sliced watermelon on her head. She returned the clay to a formless mass, then rolled the ball into a cherub’s face, with big cheeks.
Shy and private, Noah said nothing, but he did not take his eyes off the clay. When Josefina offered it to him, he accepted it eagerly. Ignoring us, he kneaded the clay into an oval shape, using the tool to make fine marks. Every so often, he looked up to study Josefina’s human figures, then plunged back into work.
When I got close, I saw that he had composed something quite lovely: a woman’s face–long and majestic, even noble. When he finished, he held it out and deposited it in Josefina’s hands. Her eyes lit up. Muscles in her face moved. “El niño es un buen artesano,” she said to the man painting candleholders nearby. He joked about hiring Noah and she laughed. Her seeming dispassion melted away. She was buoyant.
For the next half-hour, this unlikely pair–a woman/spirit from the Zapotec world and my 50-pound blond kindergartner–were at each other’s side. Without speaking, she used her hands to instruct him, teaching him how to hold the clay, how to touch it, how to feel it.
Finally, Noah finished working and stood up. He placed his ceramic face atop one of Josefina’s human torsos that were drying in the sun.
“Tell her it’s a present, Dad.”
“Un regálo,” I said.
She fastened her eyes on my son and nodded her head. A word formed slowly: “Gracias.”
Amid this wonderfulness, I confess I held out hope: would Josefina save my failed shopping excursion and make us a present of a prized sculpture?
She did not. But we had our gift: the look of wonder on my son’s face. It announced the birth of a traveler, the first step to citizenry of the world.
Nick Gallo is a Seattle freelance writer, who specializes in travel to Mexico.