Into the East

Feature, Letters From Jordan

By Jack Smith IV, Staff Writer

The Brief

Between January 10th and January 22nd, a group of students from Montclair State University will be traveling to the Middle East with faculty as a film crew, documenting the Hayatuna Amman project, which provides arts education and cultural workshops to disenfranchised children in Jordan. One trip was made this past summer as the first in a series of trips. I’ve gone along with the crew to document the work, interview the teachers, film classes and rehearsals as they approach a pivotal performance, and prepare to edit together a documentary in the Spring.
These are my daily logs throughout the day as we document the trip. I’ll be travelling with Steve McCarthy, and David Sanders, faculty in the Television and Digital Media department who are producing our documentary project in conjunction with Hayatuna Amman. Also on the trip will be Kenny Spooner, and Mike Mee, two uniquely talented students and crew members.



The Flight

We pack the truck with the gear, 4 cameras,   light kits, tripods, our enormous bags, and head to Newark International. Customs is surprisingly lax, the staff at airport check-in overwhelmed. We re-arrange our seats to our preferences, and are out. Dave wants the isle seat, Mike and I look for windows along the length of the flight. Spooner will take anything.

We’re preparing to board for Frankfurt, our first stop, forty five minutes before the flight. Each of us lug a camera bag, Steve reminisces about his worst baggage experiences. And I’m just stopped for coffee. Lookin’ for a familiar thing before taking off. And they’ll keep my latte if I don’t finish it quick.

On the flight, David and the boys sit ahead. The flight is particularly cold, and the staff is friendly enough. I order the vegetarian option; better quality. I can’t sleep, so wrapped in a blanket, I decide to review the binder from the previous trip. The last person to take this trip was Lindsay Rassmann, another student in the department, whose notes include everything from the list of logged taped to the transcripts of the interviews, to emails regarding deadlines and other projects. She edited a variety of small pieces for Hayatuna Amman from the footage she gathered in the first trip, and we have a lot to build on.

I start with the transcripts. So far, I’m not sure what to make of the work ahead. The line of questioning seems good enough from the previous interviewer… perhaps not specific enough? I worry if we’ll be able to be close to the children. Though it’s sensitive, dealing with children in hardship, we’ll have to get up close and personal if we’re going to tell their story effectively.The flight attendants tell us that we have to find time to visit the city of Petra, Wadi Rum, the various great sights of Jordan while we’re within the country. I have a feeling we won’t have much time for sightseeing. It’s going to be ten big work days, lots to do, with little downtime. In Jordan, it’s only a little warmer than home in New Jersey, and apparently there’s snow on the ground in Amman.I sleep. When the lights come on, it’s still dark, though we’re about to fly into sunset. When I think I should keep sleeping, I notice out the window that we’re over Europe. It seems to me that the European cities have a different quality of light, a softer, deeper city of glow. If it’s an optical illusion, at least it feels like an appropriate one.Sunrise breaks over us. The German man sitting next to me wakes, and looks over: “Coldest flight ever.” I wake David so that he doesn’t miss the free coffee, and luckily he appreciates it. Before long, we’re going to land.
   The City of Frankfurt

Our long layover leaves us an early afternoon in the historic district of Frankfurt. A simple train ride into town, though we don’t expect the frigid cold, and we’re exhausted from the time difference, which puts our brisky 11am stroll at our biological 5am. Nevertheless, we find our way into the historic district.

The first thing to notice is the outdoor eating. In downtown Frankfurt, the shops are often small walk-in delis with no tables, or simply counters along the street with no indoor area at all. Instead, tables are set outside, even in the winter, sometimes with a heating lamp or two. Even at the McDonalds, you can see your breath as you order your chicken sandwich. We have what passes for us as an authentic lunch: schnitzel with lemon, a zesty potato salad served cold, a wurst cut in two on a crisp roll. We eat huddled at a table on the cobblestone street with our shoulders to our ears.

Seeing American chains abroad is apparently considered by some to be a comfort, but as a side note, the quality of product is often much better overseas. When we stop in at a Starbucks to hop on the free wifi, I order a tall coffee, and am confused when she asks “For here or to go?” They have cheesecake and German chocolate truffle where I expect to see lemon loaf. This is to say nothing of the observable improvements in our fast-food chains outside of our borders.

By this point, we’ve been up for far too long. We see the city hall, an old cathedral by the river, and we’re ready to head back to the airport. Back at the gate, Steve waits with the equipment, and we hop on our second short flight, a short three hours to Amman.

We find our way through customs, where a driver with a van was waiting for us. We packed it to capacity with us five passengers and all of the equipment, and went out into the night. It was 1:00 am when our plane got in, and the four-lane highways that banked through the desert were nearly bare. In the Middle East, the highways take sudden surprising changes in elevation, banks and dives that you’d never see in the West.

When we arrive, it’s late. Henrik Melius, the founder of Spiritus Mundi and the Hayatuna Amman project, waits to show us into the apartment where Kenny, Mike, and myself will be staying. We find out we have the day off in the morning, perhaps a little sightseeing before work on the project begins.




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