One Degree of Coffee Bean

In Cairo, just around the corner from the building where I lived for nearly a year, is a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf franchise. It’s in the Om Kalthoum building (named for the famous Egyptian singer who rose to international stardom in the 1950s and whose house used to sit on the site of what is now a high-rise hotel/apartment building). The two-level cafe is one of the hippest spots in Zamalek, if not Cairo.

And it was also the center of my universe.

Every morning, I would quaff an Americano at The Bean. The staff knew me well and would be making my order as soon as they saw me. It was where I would grade papers, where I would meet friends, and, inevitably, where I would run into people by chance.

So last weekend, when I visited Cairo for a few days, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see so many familiar faces there.

I ran into E, an AUC instructor, a couple of times. Former neighbors and students were there. And, most surprisingly, Munir, who was visiting from Beirut, had just arrived in the neighborhood directly from the airport. He bought a SIM card for his mobile phone and wanted to find a cafe with wireless so he could find my mobile number from an email I had sent the day before. He stopped into the Bean… and ran into me.

Coincidence or Truman Show? You decide.

If we are all six degrees of separation from everyone else in the world, then the Bean makes the odds closer to one or two degrees.

I wonder if Kevin Bacon has ever been there?

I returned to New York on Tuesday after my quick weekend trip to Cairo, and a brief day in Jordan to put a bow and ribbon on the Arab House project. I’m in New York for a few days, working on another project (will update you on that soon), and then it’s off to Princeton next week. I wonder what place there will replace the Bean as my new haunt and galactic center?

Sponge Bob and Me

Sponge Bob mug

In my rental apartment in Amman, I’m making use of the odds and ends left behind by the previous tenant — a few pots and pans, a coffee ibrik, a rackety little blender.

In the living room, there’s a toy oud, a few books (including The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara), a hexagonal jewelry box with mother of pearl inlay, and a little cedar stand with carved wood hands gripping a miniature copy of the Holy Koran.

The cupboards in the kitchen are fairly bare, but I laugh every morning when I drink coffee from an “awesome” Sponge Bob Squarepants mug.

And to think they left that behind.

Frosty, the Snow, Amman

Snow in AmmanIt’s snowing in Amman.

Big thick snowflakes, plopping wet on the ground in a slushy mix. It seems out of place on the palm tree fronds, out of place for the Middle East. On the grass, the inch or so of moist snow is perfect for snowballs and snowmen (but way too wet for snow angels), but the kids I’ve seen playing outside haven’t tried to make Frosty yet.

It’s too warm for much accumulation, so it’ll be slushy, for the most part, today.

Mohannad, the video editor, just arrived an hour late at the post production house where I’m working, popped his head in the door to say he’s here, but quickly added “in Jordan on days like this, we mostly stay at home.”

We apologized for denying him a snow day.

Five years ago, there was day when there was a meter of snow in Amman. It shut down the city for a couple of days. No snow plows. Lots of hills. Bad combination. Just stay home.

I don’t mind the snow here so much. At least it’s warmer than it was a week ago, and Carolyn (the executive producer of the project I’m doing here) was finally able to convince the landlord at the apartment building to turn the heat on for more than four hours a day. It was so cold in my bedroom the other night, I checked into a hotel to sleep. Carolyn and I have both been very sick for the past week, struck by a nasty virus that has gripped half of all the folks we’ve been working with. I felt like a nurse in the tuberculosis ward. After two stressful weeks, our systems could fight it off no longer and we finally succumbed. At the tail end of my time in Beirut, I was down for the count, but now all I have are lingering sniffles and sneezes. Carolyn is still very much under the weather, and, understandably her mood is as blustery as the whirling snow outside.

But in the edit suite I’m content, listening to the Arab House audio mix, and viewing the wintry mix through the window.

My mental soundtrack for the day (which sometimes finds me singing out loud) alternates between “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” and that Trip Shakespeare tune:

It’s coming down
Snow lays on the chainfields
There’s a blessing on the ground

Go home. Go home and take a snow day, Mrs. Braintree!

If only I could.

“How can I be an actress?”

Craig avec beret et Carolyn

Me in Francis Ford Coppola mode, with Carolyn Robinson at Jafra coffee shop in Amman, where we shot the host segments for the Arab House television program we’re working on.  As I noted in an earlier post, a young lady came up to me after I finished directing the three-camera shoot and asked “how can I be an actress?”

I was gracious, but I think I said something like “go be in a play or something.”

Kind of like the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall.


Bethania 03

While working here in Lebanon, we are staying north of Beirut in the village of Harissa.  Our hotel is called Bethania, a mountain retreat center next to a statue and sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary. 

Bethania 02The hotel is a modern building that most often houses pilgrims who come here on spiritual retreats.  It sits behind the cathedral (pictured at right) and the sizable statue on a four-story base that you can climb to just below the figure of Mary. 

Bethania 05In a few adjacent nooks, people had lit candles below images of the Virgin in the windows overlooking the sea. 

 A teleferique brings visitors up the mountain to the base of the statue.  From my balcony, I have a great view of the Mediterranean Sea and the coast. 

For those of you who follow the news, you’ll know that there was a bomb blast that killed some people today in a Beirut suburb.  I can report that Carolyn and I are safely ensconced in our mountain retreat and, since we seem to be the only guests in the hotel,  we’re enjoying the peace and quiet of the evening. 

Bethania 01

Jebel Al-Qala, Amman, Jordan

stone face CU

Hercules Temple columnEarlier today, I went to the old part of Amman, where Roman ruins mingle with the trappings of a modern Arab capital: the honking horns, bustling businesses and blaring music. Modern streets surround a Roman theater which rises up the hillside, blanketed with homes. Jebel Al-Qala is the citadel of Amman, and on its top are the ruins of a temple to Hercules built around 170 BC, and the Umayyad palace, built in 720 and used throughout the Abbasid and Fatamid periods. A reconstructed dome (it’s debatable whether this building ever had one) was built in 1998 with an inner structure made of golden wood.

Hercules Temple Jebel Al-Qala Amman Wide shotThere’s also a nice archaeological museum with artifacts from the Stone and Bronze ages, the Nabatean period, and onward through the Roman and Byzantine periods to the various Muslim controlled eras. In the photo above, ancient eyes stare from a stone face on a Hellenistic sculpture.


Temple of Hercules at Jebel Al-Qala Amman Jordan Temple of Hercules with sunset

Umayyad Palace Umayyad Palace dome inside

Photos and Text ©2008 Craig Duff
All Rights Reserved

Notes from Home

Locust Trees in Ohio

Things I learned on my visit home to Ohio.

Hornet’s Nest— Over the summer, hornets made their home in my mom’s basement in a cubby hole that she had long used for canned foods. The hornets nest is huge — about three feet high and a foot and a half across. There was some talk about “Craig” removing the nest because “the hornets are dead now because it’s too cold.” But “Craig” managed to convince “Mom” that a better scenario would be to hire a professional. Opening a hornet’s nest is not just a metaphor for playing with danger.

basketball backboard in Ohio— The old backboard of the basketball net behind the house is showing its age, and the TV antenna tower still stands, but has a rusty patina.

Pine Trees Ohio

— For several Christmases, my family decided to get live spruce trees with the roots intact in an earthen ball, so we could plant them in the yard afterward. Most of those trees survive in my mom’s yard, and — along with several pine saplings I planted when I was a boy scout — are now some four stories tall. The old locust trees in the front yard, which were there when the house was built the year I was born, grow more slowly and look much the same as they did when I was growing up. Their scraggly limbs in winter looking like varicose veins on the sky.

— I was reminded of an anecdote from my youth I’d conveniently forgotten. When my cousin Angela cut her leg on some barbed wire in the woods behind our houses, I apparently decided to put a tourniquet on it (a bit histrionic, I know), much to the horror of my aunt.

Mecca 2The county where I grew up was part of the Connecticut Western Reserve, and was named for the former governor of Connecticut, Jonathan Trumbull, who owned a great deal of land here. It is almost perfectly square, with 25 perfectly square townships. Some of the names of those townships seem borrowed from the pages of a Western Civilization textbook: Mesopotamia, Vienna (pronounced Vye-ENNA, the town where I went to high school) and Mecca, where my mother’s family lived.

Continue reading “Notes from Home”

Building the “Arab House”

Emad and Violette 1Here are some images from the last two days here in Jordan, as a host and crew from Jordan Television, others from a local production company, an anchor from the Lebanese Broadcasting Company, myself and two others from the International Center for Journalists, produced the host segments for a program called “Arab House.”

Emad at teleprompterThe program — known as Al Beit Al Arabi in Arabic — is a cooperative venture between the two broadcasters and each will present the four-part newsmagazine series during the month of February. Arab House was the brainchild of Carolyn Robinson, a friend and former CNN colleague, who based her idea on the World Report program on CNN. Taysir and Carolyn

The show presents news stories from both countries on major social issues affecting the Arab world.

I’m here as a Knight International Journalism Fellow (the same program that sent me to Egypt last year), for a month-long stint in Amman and Beirut. Carolyn has also been a Knight Fellow various times in places like East Timor and the Middle East.

Jordan TV Sound manCarolyn and I hatched the plan for my participation during a train ride from New York City to Princeton when we went to visit the campus last fall.

For the three-camera shoot we commandeered a local coffee shop with its rustic interior, and shushed the young folks smoking their bubbly pipes when their chatter got too loud.

Emad and Violette 2Yesterday, when the room got chilly, I put on my black beret and scarf and looked a little like Francis Ford Coppola as I directed the action.

One young girl who watched from a side table during the shoot came up to me afterwards and asked, with all earnestness and sincerity, “how can I be an actress?”

I’m having a blast, and it’s great to be back in this part of the world. Some of my handful of Arabic words are even coming back to me.