Bridging Cultural Barriers with Art in Amman, Jordan

In an age of mistrust, one largely fueled by a broad spectrum of news media with agendas to fill, I find myself on a mission to diffuse that.   We can choose to be willing participants a la George Orwell (1984), or we can turn off those vexing screens and go out into our world and work to counter these insidious effects.   One way that I have found works well is through art and creative expression.

Jordan is a real jewel.   If you break from the tourist busses and go solo, the locals you encounter along the way will almost always take the time to smile and share their treasured insights.   One such encounter happened while sketching the King Hussein Mosque one spring day as I sat under an old olive tree.

An unexpected tap on my shoulder and I turned around to see a smiling young boy and girl, no older than three or four.   Wearing sandals and white robes (thawbs), these two looked like little angels, their jet-black hair framing their friendly faces.  And as I turned to look for their parents, there they were also smiling but a bit more reserved.   The father approached, arms behind him, and began to speak to me in impeccable English;

“You are enjoying your moment, yes?”

“Yes, thank you, I am.” as I stood out of respect to chat with him.   “I am studying architecture and I am trying to sketch this grand mosque.   I hope that is ok to do.”

An almost imperceptible grin came over this impressive man, “Of course it is.   I hope that my children have not disturbed you.”

“No, no.  Not at all.   What a glorious day it is.”  And though the exchange was brief, it was typical of the way that I go about my travels abroad and in the US.   People know when there is a threat and when there is not.   I’ve worked hard to present myself in a respectful way.  Why do otherwise?

Hundreds, if not thousands, were walking up the hill on their way into service and soon I would have the gardens all to myself.   Conscious that I was a Westerner in this sacred area, I was careful to keep my distance and low profile.   So much of this region was in turmoil, that I knew I was a bit vulnerable, but I also appreciated that this may be the only time that I would be in Amman and so I kept sketching the intricate structure.

It was probably an hour when the main doors opened again and the worshippers came back out; it was a sea of people walking towards me as I tried to make my way back to my driver on the other side of the complex.   I kept my head down, again, consciously aware of my foreign presence when suddenly I hear,

“Mister!   Hello, mister!” and I turned to see the tall, slender man with the impressive beard smiling at me as he and his entire family approached.

I must have been a bit surprised and now quickly, a bit embarrassed hoping that they’d not ask to see my sad looking sketch, but too late.

“Please.   You have finished your drawing.  May we see?”, the little ones were particularly eager.   Dread filled me because this really was not one of my better works, but I relented.

“Of course you may, but I must warn you, it is not very good.”

They all smiled, some probably spoke no English, and I have learned that the gentle and kind expressions have a way of speaking a language of their own.   I kneeled down, placed my backpack on the ground and opened my worn, leather journal to my mediocre sketch when I looked at the two children whose faces were now grinning ear to ear.  To them, I suppose it was a masterpiece.

The masses were moving around us, some looking down at what was going on at knee level when I carefully tore the two pages out of my journal and handed this to the children.  I placed my hand on their shoulders and told them it was a gift.

The father looked genuinely touched as did the other adults and I shook the man’s hand as we bade each other a farewell.

“Inch Allah”  (God Willing)… a beautiful saying

“إن شاء الله”, I responded, as we parted ways.

With God’s will, perhaps those sad, looking sketches will endure as a sort of cultural embrace in a world seemingly gone mad…

[Multimedia, public domain image, filtered through Prisma for artistic expression]