As we gather in the departure lounge in preparation for boarding our Royal Jordanian Airways flight, a sense of the “familiar” begins to gradually melt away. Strange accents, different facial features, headscarves on many of the women, kafirs on the some of the men, a smattering of Sikh turbans, the occasional thobe. Writing begins to appear where I cannot even discern the letters, let alone make sense of the words or sentences.
And so we board our metal cylinder, eight seats per row times 36 rows (not counting first class), to hurl through space for eleven hours as we start out on our own Haj. Unfamiliar place names. Unknown distances. Who borders whom? Where are the borders? And where is Iraq in relation to Jordan, anyway?
The flight magazine is two magazines in one. The front is largely in English, offering the usual array of electronic gizmos, duty free perfumes, alcohol, and jewelry, and short articles on “upscale Jordan”. The back half of the magazine may well be selling exactly the same things, but I don’t have a clue, since I read not a word of Arabic. To my eye some inebriated insect dipped its tentacles in ink and followed a circuitous path across page after page, making an endless succession of squiggles, some of them so subtle as to be indistinguishable from its neighbor. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore.
We watch Frazer and The Simpsons reruns, with subtitles in Arabic. We watch Will Ferrell in some inane movie about soccer dads. The same squiggles from the drunken insect appear across the bottom of the screen each time Will speaks. The flight attendants all wear tailored suits with straight skirts and pillbox hats, and look both extremely retro and classy at the same time.
And all around us the headscarves and the kafirs and the thobes and the Sikh turbans are returning to their Holy Place, to that land, that sense of place that draws them all here, no matter where they have chosen to live. Every so often the movie, or the sitcom rerun, pauses, to display a graphic of a plane superimposed on a compass. Our plane is the pointer, and with every twist and turn in the night sky the travelers on board are reoriented to Mecca by this simple graphic.
Drew talks to us for a while about “true North” disappearing for Christians. What physical reference point do we have to guide us in our spiritual journeys? Where is our Mecca? Have we Western Protestants become so metaphysical that we have lost all sense of the compass? Some would say that Sunday worship was once that compass, and the community that was experienced at that time our source of sustenance. Will Ferrell and the rest of the soccer moms and dads have largely obliterated that reference point, with Sunday sports now vying for, and by and large successfully diverting, our attentions on Sunday mornings. What replaces it? What would a Western Protestant “Haj” look like? Am I on one now?
We land in Amman about 4 PM on Wednesday without incident, all a little dazed from having lost about a day there somewhere in the night sky. As we taxi to the boarding gate, we pass three idle jets from Iraqi Air. When we disembark, I get a closer look at some of the passengers in the rear of the plane. A small group of very fit young English-speaking men, with bulging biceps and hard eyes, wearing mismatched fatigues, are last off the plane. They carry duffles and knapsacks, and appear to move with quiet and menacing purpose. As we wait for our baggage I hear the public address system call the next flight to Baghdad. I am reminded that not everyone flies to Jordan for a personal Haj, or to view ancient sites. For some Westerners there is a far more grim reason for being here. It is a jumping off point for more dangerous places in this troubled part of the world.
We board our tour bus and head toward our hotel and evening meal, passing grazing sheep and goats less than a mile from the airport, and the occasional camel. Dual-language billboards dot the highway on both sides, most advertising cell phone service, DVD players, and internet access. The sheep seem to pay no attention.