I am Anthony E. Savvides. This is my blog.

Reflections & adventures of a writer at heart, a journalist by trade and a waiter by night.

There isn’t enough Salt. Or, a place called Salt, part II.

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Note: this post was written on Saturday, May 19, after our group traveled to Salt, an ancient city in Jordan that was once destined to be the kingdom’s capital.

Last year, while I was studying in Jordan for two weeks, I was fortunate enough to be one of the eight members of our group of 32 to travel on a more intimate excursion to the city of Salt, about 20 km northwest of Amman.

Big Rob, our photography professor, rented a small blue van for the day and hired a driver to take us into the ancient city for the afternoon. You can read more about that trip here.

This year, since our group of about 50 is going to be in Jordan for the entirety of the five-week program, everyone went. Taking a trip with a group that size into a smaller, more conservative Jordanian city was…an interesting experience, to say the least. I’m glad that I was fortunate enough to experience Salt on a more personal level last year, because this year, we were herded around like an American zoo, in Salt for a special showing. People wore jeans that were far too tight. Others wore low-cut shirts, and summery dresses. The whole scene was very strange; there we were, an obnoxious group of 50 loud Americans at a lovely cafe under a tent, enjoying tea and Arabic coffee and ice cream and sheesha and whatnot. Someone decided to plug their iPod into the speaker system at said cafe.

I have never seen cultural imperialism first-hand before, but there we were, dancing along to terrible, awful, American pop music as locals glared with disgust. Instead of enjoying the Jordanian culture, someone felt the need to turn us into a spectacle. Well, I can’t say too many bad things, because I did nothing to change the situation. I was right there with my peers, dancing. Granted, before this happened, we were dancing to traditional Jordanian music, even a song dedicated to the city of Salt.

I won’t write much more to describe our day at the zoo, because I feel that my photographs tell a better story than my words can. Before our pitstop at the tented cafe, we visited the ancient Greek Orthodox Church of St. George (Al Khader Church), which was erected in the 17th century, which was, for me, a highlight of the excursion to Salt this year. During our time there, I was given two things from the priest: the first, a bottle of holy oil, and the second, a green cloth. I was told it was “for wishes.” You are supposed to tie it around your wrist as you make a wish, whatever that may be. And when it comes off, either naturally over time or at your own will, your wish will be granted. While most of my peers and professors tied the strips of green cloth around their wrists, I rolled mine up and placed it in my pocket. I had the feeling that, someday soon, I would need it. (I’ll let you all know when I do…)

We also sat in the city square, under the shade of many trees, sitting among locals as they played mancala. We visited one of the first schools in Jordan, a boys’ secondary school. We visited a lovely, family-run restaurant for lunch. We went to the archeological and historical museum of Salt.

After our tea and coffee break, we drove our big yellow bus up to the highest point in the city to watch the sunset. After sunset, I got to see the tomb of the prophet Elijah in a large, elegant mosque. It was quite incredible. Unfortunately, my camera had died at that point, and all the photos I took are currently being held captive on other cameras and memory sticks. Oh well. Maybe someday, they’ll be returned to me via email. (Jonathon, Caroline: if you’re reading this, I’m talking to you!!) See below for the shots I was able to get.

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Written by AESavvides

June 22, 2012 at 11:38 am

The pinnacle of our reporting from Jordan. An incredible, important story, told by two of my best friends.

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My colleagues, Matt Kauffman and Melissa Tabeek, really outdid the rest of us with their final piece from Jordan; sorry, to the rest of the gang, but it’s true. Their story, below, is so moving, so raw, so powerful, it touched me to my very core. I am close with both of the reporters, and I heard about this story throughout their reporting. Matt, my roommate, would often tell me of the people he and Melissa met in the course of a day. Melissa and I would share a cigarette break, and I could see that something was weighing on her soul; I would try to pull it out of her, but many times she would bottle it up as the tears filled her eyes. I knew that it was difficult for both of them, but I also knew that what they were doing, the story they were telling, was so important.

To Matt and Melissa: I’m so proud of both of you, and glad to be your friend and your colleague. To Carlene: thank you for guiding them and encouraging them throughout this process. I sat next to Melissa in the lobby of the Imperial Palace Hotel all those weeks ago, the morning after we arrived, when she received your email regarding the story pitch. You wanted her and Matt to report about Syria, and I think everyone can be proud of what they produced.

Journey to Jordan: By the thousands, Syrians are risking their lives to find refuge across the border

Story by Matt Kauffman and Melissa Tabeek

Photos by Matt Kauffman // Video production by Melissa Tabeek

Editor’s note: Reporters Kauffman and Tabeek put together a multi-media presentation of video and photography to show another dimension of what displaced families from Syria have been through on their journey to Jordan. 

AMMAN, Jordan – Sameer Ahmed Darraj thanks God that his family of six made it safely to Jordan after suffering a siege in his hometown of Homs. He’s also grateful he found an apartment in Madaba, a small village southwest of Amman, to shelter his wife, two young children, mother and nephew.

But the trip to their second-floor flat is a struggle for this former Syrian chef-turned-rebel fighter. His legs were blown off by a rocket in April as he fought against President Bashar al-Assad’s army.

Derraj wages a battle still, but now it’s from the flat’s only bed where he recovers from the loss of his legs, severed above the knees and marred with deep, rough, vertical scars.

“When we were crossing the border, we couldn’t speak, we couldn’t make any sounds. When our daughter cried, we had to cover her mouth,” said Sammer, Derraj’s 39-year-old wife, of their escape. “We gave the other [daughter] medicine to make her sleep.”

“We try to remain strong and try to have a very strong heart,” says Sameer Ahmed Derraj. Despite the horrors they’ve witnessed, the Darraj family finds solace in each other’s company.

As Derraj talks about the four-day journey to Jordan carried by comrades across the border, about how his wife kept falling as she lugged their youngest child, about the death of his friend by that same rocket, he speaks for thousands like him. Together, he and they form a new sort of army: Syrians who have fled to fight for their safety and their lives.

Since March of last year, the number of Syrians seeking refuge in Jordan has increased at an exponential rate. What started as a trickle has turned into a flood; in the past two months the amount of “persons of concern” registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, has leapt from 13,933 to about 24,000 – an increase of about 70 percent. But the real number, including Derraj’s six who came illegally, is closer to 120,000, experts say.

While Jordan has long been a safe haven for refugees throughout the Arab world – some estimates say that there are already 2 million Palestinian, Iraqi and Libyan refugees in this country of 6.5 million Jordanians – the situation with Syrians is special. The influx from the north poses a dilemma. The Jordanian government has not officially recognized them as refugees, but rather “guests” of the country.

Unlike neighboring Turkey – which is harboring Syrian refugees in traditional tented camps – Syrians in Jordan are finding safety in cities and villages scattered throughout the kingdom, stretching already limited resources in a country that depends on outside aid. Safety does not always spell decency though; Syrian families sometimes numbering in the double digits are confined to a few small rooms inside overrun apartments.

“There are many cases of two to three families in one apartment and they could have seven or eight kids each. It’s pretty dismal,” says Aoife McDonnell, an assistant external relations officer at UNHCR.

Jawad Anani, a former government official and now private economic consultant, worries about what a continuing onslaught of Syrians will do to the strained resources of this struggling country.

“Jordan’s ability to put up with Syrians is limited. The private sector is paying for it now, but soon the bills will be mounting. We will feel it in the labor market with people looking for jobs. … Time will tell elsewhere where the pressure mounts and where the shoe pinches.”

Darraj, like so many who have come here, feels that pinch. Unable to work, he relies on the generosity of Jordanian strangers to pay his rent. These sympathizers also bring him food and supplies, such as clothes and blankets. He’s clearly grateful, but still, to him, Jordan is just a safe place to heal. He will not stay here.

His mother Salma sits quietly in the corner of the tiny room, emotionless, looking over at her disfigured son. In another corner, on their mother’s lap, are his two young daughters, both in pink tank tops and leggings. They too are staring at him, waiting.

“I am against the evil Bashar,” he says. “If they fix my fingers, then I will go back,” says Darraj.

His wife looks at his mother, a glance Darraj notices. To them, to everyone, he says again: “I want to fight again with the Free Army.”

THE SPARK THAT BECAME A REVOLUTION

The Syrian massacres that started in March were, at the time, the latest government response to the uprisings across the Middle East. Those protests started in December 2010 with one desperate Tunisian man who set himself on fire to protest what he felt was a corrupt and unjust government. His singular act launched a movement that became known as the Arab Spring. This fire has scorched its way across the region, resulting so far in tens of thousands of lives lost and the toppling of four governments.

>>Click here to continue reading.

Second story from Amman is up on the main site.

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Jordanians to Obama: You broke your promise and did nothing for us

Story by Anthony Savvides // Photo by Matt Kauffman

AMMAN, Jordan – This November, the United States will elect a president, and while many American pundits believe Obama will remain in the White House for a second term, some in the Middle East would welcome a change.

Many here believe that Obama has been a disappointment, failing to deliver on early promises to push for a policy shift in the region.

“The Arabs have been very disappointed with him because when he [became] president, the first thing he said when he was sworn in was that he was going to set up a Palestinian state,” said Rana Sabbagh, executive director of Amman-based Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism. “Then he had the Cairo declaration, and we all thought he was going to make a difference, but nothing happened.”

In Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, entitled “A New Beginning,” he tried to reestablish strong ties between the American and Arab worlds. Many in the region were hopeful – for change, a new attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and, indeed, a new beginning. But people here wonder why that “new” approach never seemed to become a reality.

Prince El Hassan bin Talal spoke to a group of students during a press conference about Jordanian politics and social issues. He touched on the problems in Jordan concerning the influx of refugees and the Palestinian issue, as well as President Obama’s position toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As the years passed, the tide shifted back to mistrust. Obama famously said in his Cairo address that the US would not “turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.” But, Arab observers say that Obama never followed through, and policies in the region have remained as they always have been: pro-Israeli.

“I don’t believe in liberal theories of the person as president,” said Sara Ababneh, professor of political and international relations in the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “The US is an imperial power, and that’s how they act [in the region]. As a superpower, [the US] does what it needs to do.”

Distrust of the US has deep roots: The American government supported the establishment of the Israeli state and, over the years, offered its support with billions of dollars and political muscle. There have been efforts to mediate peace, some more dramatic than others. In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton coaxed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yassar Arafat to shake hands during a ceremony. The moment, hailed at the time, is now considered no more than a symbolic snapshot of an unrealized hope for prolonged peace.

>>Click here to continue reading.

I’ll have my mansaf at midnight, after Jerash. Or, an ashtray full of lamb bones.

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Note: this post was written on June 1.

After I arrived back in Amman from Jerash (see photos below), I went straight to a café to use up their internet and make some phone calls. I received an update, via facebook, than unlike me, he was home on time and got to enjoy fresh mansaf with the family for lunch. I sat there with the taste of envy in my mouth as I sipped some overly sweet tea.

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Much, much later than night, I devoured the leftover mansaf. He wrote quite extensively about his mansaf experience, and after I scrapped up the leftovers, I understood why. Even though this is my second consecutive year in Jordan, this was the first time I ever tasted the national dish.

Ohhhhhh man, it was so good. Whatever word is the next level up from delicious is, I would use to describe this meal. Delectable? Scrumptious? Mouth-watering? Excellent? All of the above.

Not my usual go-to midnight snack— that’s cereal or some tea— but certainly a step above. Mohammed and Raed sat across from me in the kitchen as I tore meat off the bone with my teeth. And when I say tore, it sounds far more vicious than it was; this meat was so tender, as soon as I took even a little bite the entire chunk of meat just slid off the bone onto a bed of rice.

I don’t have a picture of this meal for my food slideshow, because I was too hungry to think of anything other than the plate of food in front of me, and my growling stomach. But, again, Matt posted about his mansaf experience, and took some sweet shots of the meal. This was funny to me because it has sort of become my thing on this trip. And he usually always gives me grief about it. But it’s all in jest; he, too, succumbed to the food’s beauty and put his camera before his appetite.

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June 9, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Forever a part of me. I have blisters and scars all over.

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Well, this week was quite a whirlwind; our group departed from SIT in Amman early on Monday morning and headed toward the south of Jordan. The first stop along the way was the Karak Castle, and it was beautiful. The week’s full agenda included stops at Karak Castle and Dana Biosphere Reserve, as well as Petra, Wadi Rum, and the port city of Aqaba on the Red Sea.

Personally, I feel like castles are similar to Roman ruins, in that they all sort of look exactly the same. I know, they’re not the same thing and each have their own history and story, and their surroundings may be different. But, to my naked eyes, everything unique about a castle is lost once you see another. After two or three, or more, castles all appear the same to me.

After Karak Castle, the bus drove us to the Dana Nature Reserve. The road was long, and the air was thick with humidity. Once we strolled all the way down the road along the mountainside, the camp with white, rounded tents was immediately in front of us. It was amazing- I have never seen so much greenery in Jordan. We went on a “hike,” as a group of too many 46. The hike was a disappointment to Matt and I, who were recalled back to the group as we continued down the path. Now, we’ll never know where it leads to.

Dana was exciting for me, since I had been almost everywhere else we have gone to just a year ago.

Last year, during this weeklong excursion, roughly one new site per day, I learned so much about myself. My way of thinking and living changed.  It was such a time of serenity and peace for me, and I was really able to think deeply about my life, and the people I know and those I love.  I never thought that I would be back here, in Jordan, so soon.  And I didn’t think that the natural solace and tranquility of these places would surround me again.

I sure am glad I was wrong, because Petra and Wadi Rum are incredible places, and I feel blessed to have experienced them both again.  Seeing something you love so much a second time, after some time apart, gives you a deeper appreciation for it.  That’s exactly how I feel about these places, and my time spent there with such good friends.

Well, everyone, that’s all I have for now. I’m on deadline today for my second story, so keep an eye out for that soon. And I’ll be writing more in-depth about my week in the south of Jordan, but for now there just isn’t time. I’ll leave you on the edge of your seat with anticipation for those posts, and some pictures.

Written by AESavvides

June 9, 2012 at 6:18 am

Iraq comes to Jordan. Or, my first international soccer match.

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Note: this post was written on June 4.

Last night, on June 3, I attended a FIFA World Cup Qualifying match between Iraq and Jordan. The two national teams met at Sports City, and huge park with a variety of complexes including the soccer stadium, located in the heart of Amman.  Think Boston Common meets Central Park meets Madison Square Garden meets a graveyard, but completely different.

Matt, Talal, Joe, Sam, Jon, Sean, Joey and I all went to the watch the match, but I didn’t know so many people from our program were going to be there.

At the dinner table the night before, my host brother Amir mentioned that the match was coming up. As soon as Matt and I heard, we immediately inquired about tickets. “We have to go,” I said. Matt agreed.

So, we handed over 20 JD and asked that he purchase four tickets for us. (One ticket cost 5 JD, or about $7. I couldn’t believe it. A match like this in the U.S. would probably cost upward of $50-$100. And by a match like this, I mean the U.S. national team playing another nation in a World Cup Qualifier on home turf.) Amir, Raed and Mohammed wanted to join us for the football match, so the four tickets would be for Matthew and I, along with Talal and whoever else wanted to join.

After the deal was done, I mentioned the possibility of a double byline story, and we began to discuss writing a story about the match. Jordan has never been so close to qualifying for the World Cup tournament, and the two teams have a long history between them, a rivalry that goes way back.

Who would we talk to? The coach of Jordan, who just so happens to be Iraqi. The players. The fans.

How could we get access? Invite Talal, who is such a badass and really should consider a career in journalism. He just pushes and talks his way into everything. He could also serve, as he has countless times over the course of this program, as our translator.

Could we fit in what would be our fourth story? Yes. It’s a game, I thought, and essentially a culture scene story. Quick turnaround.

We sat together in front of Matt’s computer, which I sort of commandeered away from him, and drafted our pitch to Carlene. It was almost midnight. Shortly thereafter, we turned in for the night. I woke up at 5 a.m. for a quick start to the day, and to fit in a morning workout.

About an hour later, I checked my email. Carlene responded, at about 4:30 a.m. (Does she EVER sleep!? I don’t know how she does it. Even if she was just then waking up, she has two kids with her on this trip and 16 student journalists reporting to her on a daily basis. She’s such a badass. God bless her.)

The email was simple, straightforward, but harsh. As I read the email, which was a list of 4 talking points, I began to sweat a little. Her questions were so cutting, so specific. It made me feel as though my pitch was garbage. What was I thinking? How will I ever be able to fully grasp the art of this thing called journalism that I do? Why didn’t I think of these questions?

Shortly thereafter, I heard my bedroom door creak open and light footsteps. It was Matt. He peeked into the living room area, where I was seated at the dining room table in front of my laptop. I told him that we got a response from Carlene. He just continued into the bathroom to brush his teeth and such, and I didn’t blame him. It was too early in the morning to be dealing with Carlene’s hard edits—and this wasn’t even an edit, it was just a response to a pitch.

Throughout the course of the morning, Matt and I talked, over breakfast and during our hunt for a cab, about our story idea. Why can’t we just do a story about this game?, we kept saying. Why does it always have to be so much more than just skin deep? I proposed it to Matt intending, and thinking, that it would be a no-brainer. We would go, cover the event, and just by doing that we would have a culture scene story.

As the day dragged on, my excitement for the game grew. I had never before been to an international soccer match, and the last time I saw a live match was when I was much younger. It was a New York Rough Riders game, and it was probably definitely awful. (I’m not even sure that team still exists.) So, needless to say, the chance to catch Jordan hosting Iraq in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier felt incredible, like it was meant to be.

The story Matt and I had hoped to write, though, was not. As Carlene explained later that afternoon, Amanda had pitched a soccer story two weeks earlier, and we couldn’t have TWO soccer news stories. You know, because people around the world don’t like soccer and would hate to read two stories about it. Oh no wait, that’s just in America. The rest of the world, I would argue, probably would have enjoyed both of these stories. Amanda wanted to write about why the Jordanian league teams are not popular here, and why fans flock to either FC Barcelona or Real Madrid. It could have been an interesting story, but would have been completely different than the story Matt and I had in mind.

Oh well. Matt and I went to the game and met up with the guys, and both looked at each other moments into the first half and had a ‘fuck it’ look. We were on the same page. I put my AP notepad down, and we just watched the game, enjoyed it.

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No reporting, no trying to convince anyone it was worth writing about, and no compromising on what we wanted to write. Just soccer with friends.

 

Written by AESavvides

June 8, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Water.

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While I showered at 3 a.m., between transcribing an interview and responding to a slew of emails from the states, I couldn’t help but wonder about the severe water crisis in Jordan. I turned the knob, three times all the way around, before any water came out of the showerhead. And when the water finally made its way out, it was a mere dribble. As it splattered onto the shower floor, I stepped under the weak stream of water, and even though the knob I turned was on the right, for hot water, it was ice cold on my skin.

I began to lather up, quickly, as I couldn’t bare the cold for too long. All around me, lining the bathtub, were a variety of buckets, all different sizes. They must be there, strategically placed, to catch the excess water, I thought. Water in this country is a precious resource. Let me try that again: water, on our lovely blue little planet called Earth, is a precious resource. I don’t think some people realize that.

I was in and out, drying off with a towel, within 6 minutes. Many of the buckets around me collected some water, most of it soapy. But I think that’s the point, for my host mother to recycle this water that would otherwise be pouring down the drain. Most nights, there is a towel or tablecloth soaking in the large, round blue bin that can always be found in the bathtub. I feel blessed to live in a place where I don’t worry about running or drinking water on a daily basis, but living in a place where I do has changed that. I will now take shorter showers, and make a conscious effort to reduce the amount of water that I use, and more importantly, that I waste. We do all share this planet, after all.

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June 7, 2012 at 9:50 am