Meetings in Amman
Sylvia Caras, PhD

Arab Parliamentary Symposium on Disability Legislation

Amman, Jordan, March 16 - 17

The United Nations has a Special Rapporteur on Disability

who has a Panel of Experts she consults to help her in her work of monitoring the Standard Rules. She was able to invite her Panel of Experts to the Symposium and add on a day for their meeting.

WNUSP has the opportunity to send two people to this meeting and board member Alpha Diop, from Guinea, and I are attending.

Decisions were taken at what was for me last minute, and the itinerary from the Jordan travel agent didn’t arrive until a few days before - three legs, 24 hours elapsed time, not yet purchased. I like to organize carefully and leave plenty of time to be thoughtful about traveling. This trip didn’t work out that way and the weeks before were both anxious and exciting.

The last minute character continued. I had a Protection and Advocacy board meeting to attend first, my last as President, and as I was readying to go the 150 miles from Santa Cruz to Sacramento, I received a phone call from Jordan asking me to pay for the ticket myself that day or reservation wouldn’t be held, and get reimbursed. <gulp>. I asked for an email assuring repayment while in Amman, in US dollars, found I needed a paper ticket, stopped at the airport on the way to Sacramento, found the price was more than I had been authorized to spend (because of the way the tickets had been booked they should have been issued from Jordan to get the better price), take a deep and nervous breath, and put the whole cost on my own credit card, which fortunately has a pretty high limit. I most likely will be fully reimbursed and will just have to accept the expense if I don’t. The alternative seemed to me to not go at all and that would have meant less representation for psychosocial disabilities and that didn’t seem to me OK.

Sunday I woke nervous and early to catch a 6:20 AM flight from Sacramento to Dallas, changed planes to the next leg for New York, waited on board 90 minutes while a fuel tank sensor was delayed, had soup at Au Bon Pain after landing, and am now sitting on the floor at the gate waiting for the Royal Jordanian flight to Amman to board. In front of me at American Airlines check-in in Sacramento was a woman with long hair wound into a large top knot, two huge square duffels, an aluminum rifle case, and a wheel-a-board with an African animal pattern. I decided she was going on safari, and listened as she was trying to negotiate checking the bags and rifle all the way through. I was surprised that even though the tickets were purchased at the last minute I wasn’t selected for extra security screening in Sacramento nor in New York. I did find once I arrived in Jordan that my suitcase had been opened by TSA and not relocked; however nothing was missing. I was also surprised that the Royal Jordanian carry-on limits are more relaxed than their web site specifies. This terminal is an old one, was hard to find, a five minute uphill walk from the air train stop, reeks of insecticide, less so at the gate here than downstairs at check-in. I hear Arabic all around me; I know a couple of words. The plane is full, though a few days ago when I called about seating I was told it was wide open. Boarding began at 9:45; I was settled in my seat by 10:40 - lots of children, several wheel chairs, lots of carry-ons but enough room to stow them all. The bulkhead aisle is full of baby gear. There’s some shouting about seating, that keeping a family together across a whole row of four seats should preempt the ticketed assignments, that a man was promised room to stretch out his broken leg, ... Managers and more managers arrive to soothe. No one is translating the details for me so I can’t tell if this is ordinary or extraordinary anger. I don’t notice any seats actually changed. Traveling on a country’s own airline starts the trip in the United States. The plane is a model A340 and has a small pocket in front of me accessible only when the tray table is down. So tucked around me are a water bottle and my glasses and my things to read are in a pile on the floor. The flight is 10 hours 30 minutes - that’s a lot of listening to babies crying and excited passengers chatter. There is a large man beside me in the window seat. We greet, chat a little. He says he has left his glasses in his jacket pocket stored overhead; I should get them for him. I do, and realize I have just participated in the way women are treated as there to serve men in this part of the world. It amused me, and of course I wouldn’t have minded getting up and getting something from the overhead, but I wasn’t really asked, I was more told. The flight was smooth and on time and we were met at the airport, visas were arranged and we were whisked through the crew immigration line. I was surprised that the people paid to meet certain passengers were allowed on the passenger side of customs/immigration. It then took 60 minutes for the bags to arrive, and a 45 minute drive to an elegant hotel. The luggage was sent up with the bellman in a separate elevator and I rode alone to my floor, exited into an elevator lobby, went through its door to a quiet circular hallway and found my way to my room, large, done in tones of golds and browns, with even a terry cloth robe to use for my stay. And contrary to US hotels, no iron and board and no coffeepot.

I slept some and snoozed some and woke to a clear cool day. From my window facing due west Amman stretched out in shades of cream stone and brick and pavement, arches and curves, plus greens, something soothing about the colors triggered such a sense of well-being I felt as if I had a soul connection to this place. That sense of belonging continued as I walked near the hotel in a mixed residential and small business neighborhood. I went back for the included breakfast - I had foul, humus, olives, cucumbers and tea, and passed on the eggs, meats, chesses, cereals, nuts, dried fruit and a whole table of breads and sweet rolls. The city is so large, time short, and taxis are cheap, so I was driven to a handicraft store sponsored by the Queen - basketry, embroidery, ceramics, ... and then to the Roman ruins in Jerash. I had recently seen the DVD of Titus Andronichus and in my imagination saw the characters plotting and revenging as I walked around. The space there was without motion, empty, dead, in a way that felt to me as if there could never be motion or life there again, not at all the stillness and calm of harmony..

I stopped to buy a stamp to send my granddaughter a postcard and only had a 20 JD bill ($30). The post office had no change, asked if I had anything smaller (ATM’s don’t give small change), I said only US, she said she’d take $1.00. I was unable to imagine this happening in a US postoffice! Then I went into the hotel bookstore to buy the postcard. Again, no change. But she said, "of course" when I asked if I could take the postcard and pay later. Imagine that in a US hotel giftshop!.

Adnan and Mona, colleagues from the International Disability Caucus, sent a van for me to visit them at the Landmine Survivors offices where they work, and I heard more detail of how Adnan has developed Jordan - he tells a great story! - after he became LSN’s Jordan director. Ken Rutherford, LSN board member, was there too; he’s teaching now in Jordan.

I got back to my room around 7, preparing to curl up with a novel and to try to stay awake another hour when I noticed a note that had been slipped under the door after I’d returned, an invitation from the Chief Chamberlin to all here for dinner tonight at 8. A few minutes later, despite the do not disturb sign, the bellman is there with a conference briefcase, "very important." So I opened it to find some new documents, some I had already printed and studied on the plane, and a revised final agenda. Listing me as a speaker for tomorrow. That was a shock that I had absorbed the day I left when I made the mistake of checking my email one last time. I was hoping it would turn out to be a mistake since I had not been invited to speak and I had a 45 minute time slot to speak on the ethical underpinnings of disability rights and the convention. I believe the elected WNUSP delegate, Alpha Diop, has prepared remarks and I don’t see him listed, so I am planning to say a few words and then defer to him.

What I’m realizing is that time is valued very differently here but I’m not sure I understand how it works. A taxi driver is willing to wait without charge for 30 minutes, hoping for an extra leg or maybe a tip, drivers are willing to take visitors to places to see, shop, ... and wait for them and take them back. None of the logistics of this meeting that have affected me have been timely. I still have no seat reserved for my return, a source of distress for me - when I try to sleep I wake myself up worried about it and angry. Travelers are advised to drink lots of water because of the planes dry air, and I have visions of crawling over others every 30 minutes to stretch and use the toilets. But it’s more than not been driven by the clock or obsessively punctual. There’s another quality to it that I’m trying to understand. And I think it is combined with the cultural propensity to not separate what I think of as real from what I think of as fantasy. The conference organizer told me he had made all arrangements for me for sightseeing today, and for the two days extra I am adding on, but it appears that nothing has been done. So I am really wrestling with how to meet my own needs for certainty and control and planning and knowing ahead in cultures where these aren’t values. Of course all the worrying about the plane seat and the extra days means I have not much space left to worry about the speech I never had a chance to prepare. I am very comfortable leading a discussion or joining in one without much notice, but I do not think well on my feet and always prepare remarks in writing, usually taking a few months to craft the sentences, share with you all for input, include a quote or two. Ethics is a pretty serious subject to just speak about spontaneously. (I guess I’m whining some here - it’s odd to be so pleased to be here and so upset at the same time.)

A coy of LivingWell, Jordan’s best-selling lifestyle magazine is in my room - lovely fashions, an article on mother-daughter relationships, and three mentions of disability including an article about child abuse. I’m impressed!

At breakfast, I discussed my dilemma about getting results with a man from Egypt - he said it stemmed from the other person’s desire to please, so saying yes, yes, but then facing obstacles, and not being willing to come back and tell me that the results were unsuccessful. So when I saw the agent later I was firm about the information I wanted and got results. The special arrangements were a brochure from a travel company which arranged trips for a minimum of two people, day trips, though I am planning to spend an overnight. Not good; nothing had been arranged, but I now I will do that myself.

I had time for a short walk, and noticed that the curbs are about 12" high.

From the IDC, I have seen Kicki, Alpha, Liisa, Venus, Maria, Kelly, Akiko, Gideon, Dianne, Robert

Alpha and his assistant missed their flight. The rebooking took them through Frankfurt, the assistant didn’t have a European transit visa and wasn’t allowed to continue. Alpha is here without a signer. He has asked me to read his presentation.

I spoke to the Special Rapporteur’s staff person about no notice about presenting. She didn’t see a problem, said they had rearranged things to take advantage of the expertise of those who would be present. It turns out the others found out on Thursday, I on Saturday, so I wasn’t much disadvantaged, one the morning of her presentation. I guess if I’m here as an expert, I need to have enough to say to be able to be spontaneous.

I have said hello to many sitting near me; all are friendly, collegial, and want to know my work and how it will impact theirs. One, a UK politician and member of the Council of Europe, was familiar with MIND, knew Mary Nettle. He has had arthritis for many years and we spoke about his strategies - he keeps pain in the background and his mind very occupied. The opening ceremonies were held in a large room and dignitaries greeted about 150. The Special Rapporteur looked magnificent and mysterious in native dress, voluminous black robes and scarves and only her whole face visible. Then coffee and pastries. Now, some 125 are seated by country, with name cards and microphones which one turns on to speak, and a few small country flags. There’s water, kleenex, candy and ashtrays. The speakers are in armchairs, no table in front for notes or water and are speaking sitting, holding hand mics, and there is a podium also.

I’m aware that I see only some visible disabilities - blind, deaf, wheelchairs, some crutches - no service animals, no augmented communication, no one whose whose normal speech is hard to understand.

I’m having trouble staying awake, have been napping during many remarks, as the program runs later and later. Bill Rowland, author of Nothing About Us Without Us, a history of the South Africa disability movement, substituting at the last minute, did an especially good job and referenced work in particular Arab countries. There was some time throughout the day for audience interventions and one in particular was about how to manage people who can’t recognize their disability. My hackles rose, I immediately though to TAC and NAMI, but the speaker was actually speaking about people with severe developmental and intellectual disabilities as well and concerned that when there was no longer family to support the person with the disability that there be institutional placements still available. Lunch was at 2:30, some 50 returned for the afternoon session and actually stayed ‘til the end. My panel finally started around 5:30 and as I sat in the front I had a very hard time staying awake! My presentation was respectfully received, I read Alpha’s, we were finally done, I went to my room quickly, ambivalent about attending the formal dinner, showered, changed, napped, and did go to dinner, where several came up to me with appreciations about what I had said and how I had said it. Dinner was delicious - crudites, shrimp and salmon and greens, broccoli soup, meat vegetables potatoes, desserts, ... My whole table left before dessert (about 10 PM), I tumbled in to bed, and woke this morning to another clear crisp day and the view of Jordan from my window.

amman.jpg (30752 bytes)

It took 30 minutes to find out I could only reserve me plane seat once I arrived at the airport or I could use city check in the night before.

Internet was available and I spent an hour at the computer and then went to a breakout, lunch, and the conclusion.

I heard several appealing phrases:

disability is a community issue

our work is shaping society

accessibility is also about access to the hearts of mind

local life

Mobile phone tones are loud, shrill, recognizable - I think it may be competitive, like the loud vrooms of a motorcycle.

An Albanian woman wishes to change the disability slogan to "Everything about us, with us." to create positive phrasing.

My ears are itching. I have been wearing earphones while the Arabic input is translated and I am becoming allergic to the foam earpieces.

There were three afternoon work groups, the rapporteurs joined with parliamentarians to create summary recommendations to Arab Parliamentarians which the chair has presented and is trying to get the group to not copy-edit. But there are many hands raised. The chair is pushing for people to be brief and his insistence is creating more raised hands.

(I went to the accessibility work group (the others were education and employment). The presentations, from IEFS Jordan and from Liisa , World Deaf Federation, were excellent and there were several good interventions from others including a woman from South Africa who spoke about the benefit to all of providing access.)

The first comment was about grammar, the chair tried to divert, others copy-edited, the chair said it would be reviewed, could we approve, people clapped, but others sounded enraged - this is the language of the Koran - we must respect that and review every word! Finally the chair invoked Jordan’s Prince, who has been attending, and recognized his representative to close. After all that, as people were standing, assembling themselves for goodbyes and to leave, the whole room was invited to a dinner, busses at 8 PM, to a fine Jordanian restaurant. Then those still there were arranged on the steps or a group photo - the flash kept lighting but more and more people joined the arrangement and the photographer kept backing up to include more people in his frame. I’ve asked to be emailed the final copy of the Declaration and will share it when it arrives.

Again this morning, I felt delight as I looked out the window; what I realized that so drew me was the congruence, the sense of harmony.

There’s smoking in the lobby, smoking in the dining rooms, fortunately the rooms are large, the ceilings high, and the ventilation pretty good.

We’ve been fed well, banquets and buffets and included breakfasts, international cuisine with just a bit of Middle Eastern specialties.

Friday, today, is the reason I am here, as an alternate for WNUSP at the meeting of the Panel of Experts of the Special Rapporteur. Including attendants, there are 20 in the room, plus a team of three technicians, videoing. From Inclusion International, Dianne and Robert; Sylvia and Gideon for Rehabilitation International; a deaf blind man and his attendant; Venus, the Special Rapporteur and ?, who is translating as she speaks in Arabic; Kicki and her attendant, Karl here as observor: William Roland, an observer for WFD who is the notetaker; Liisa and two interpreters, Thuraya, Alpha and me. I have already seen the materials provided us in the meeting packet. SR is going to Africa, is covering the world map, wants feedback concerning the visits, how to utilize the organizations there. There will be notes and minutes of this meeting so I will only note what is exceptional, or impressive. The flavor is similar to the IDA meetings I’ve observed, moving very slowly through the agenda, with careful attention to the smallest detail. The SR is responding to the input in Arabic and is being translated. I am partly taking these notes and partly typing with Alpha, the WNUSP representative, who is deaf and whose interpreter had visa problems.

My loner/lonely style was underscored when I realized that almost all the Experts have an assistant/interpreter someone they can lean on and debrief with, someone to whom they are a high priority.

The meeting almost ended early, but several others have final thoughts.

I awake very early to find the phone message light flashing. Voice mail said no message, call front desk. Front desk said system was doing back-up, call back. I started to imagine many dreadful scenarios, wondering who knew I was here that wouldn’t have left a phone message, what plan cancelled, flight rescheduled, ... It was a long wait ‘til the back-up completed. "Oh, Mrs Caras, I’m *so* sorry" said the clerk, and through my mind floated faxes about deaths and disasters, what could be so awful that he would be condoling. Well, what was so awful was that there was no message; the system had made a mistake! I was delighted, and then pondered what I had just put myself through.

I spent the day in southern Amman, visiting the Badia desert area, home of the Bedouin, where Lawrence of Arabia lived, and where the film was shot, saw his "house," a large rock formation which provided shelter, was struck by the wonderful stillness, no sound so that any sound was clear and recognizable, a rustle of leaves, wind, a footstep. The area is an ecotourism site, and there were many groups, the ones I overheard speaking French. USAID built the village - one story boxes laid out in a gird of paved roads. Camels watch the entrances, waiting to give a ride to the tourists. There are also, via satellite, television, internet, and everyone seems to have a mobile phone. I was offered tea in a home, woven wool carpets for walls and roof, very cool inside, oriented to catch the breeze, two rooms. The one I was in was large and rectangular. A man lay on a bed against the further short wall, welcoming. He had an atlas and asked by pointing, where in Europe I was from. I turned two further pages to the Americas, pointed, he turned back to Europe. We did this a few times. He was disappointed that I wasn’t a doctor and hadn’t medicines to leave him, so I handed over two aspirin. He summoned someone from the next room by using a stick to beat against the dividing carpet. There was a force and anger (I imagined) in his summons. I was told that the reason woman are veiled is to protect their skin; men have beards for this.

Highways and local roads have what I call speed bumps. On the highways there are marked in the road and keep traffic paced. Locally, they aren’t always so clearly marked and drivers sometimes bounce unexpectedly.

I slept in Petra and in the morning visited the remains of that very old community. There’s a very large expanse, a mix of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and others in the architectural elements and carvings, all built into the natural sandstone formations.

Then a ride on the Kings Highway, which is now the long way back. Because Israel is just across the sea, we passed through three security checkpoints between Petra and the Dead Sea. There are entrances to the waters from the hotels and through one public area which has a fee, then a shop, restaurant, bathing facilities, little tables with chairs and an umbrella.

I did some arithmetic after paying my hotel bill - there’s a 18% tax on my room, and a 27% tax on the fee for using the internet (which came to about $11.50 an hour)

Airplane seat assignment is only at check in and I had visions of many hours in a middle seat so I used the city terminal and checked in the afternoon before, got a comfortable seat, then had to unlock my bag for a guard to paw through - he was intrigued by the laptop battery which I checked to save some weight in my carry on, but took my word for its function.

For my last Jordan experience until the airport, I treated myself to a relaxing reflexology foot massage.

I just watched a orange then red sun slide quickly out of sight.

The airport transfer arranged by the conference organizer didn’t show up, I had no Jordanian money left and no small US bills. Hotel reception and the bellman said the $21 US I had left would be enough, took me to a taxi, spoke to the driver as I clutched the two bills, we got quickly to the airport where the driver said that wasn’t enough, the fare was 18 JD ($27) and we had a conversation about that. Since I had no more small bills, I prevailed, but neither of us was very happy. The airport procedure was confusing, I kept asking which line and process next. First, my carry-on bags went through one detector while I went to the women’s line, through curtains, where I was wanded, the pen in my pocket inspected, and then out through another curtain to the other side, to collect my luggage. I was not at all happy to have left tickets, passport, wallet, ... so far away but all was intact. Then to pay the 5JD exit fee, for which I’d reserved a bill, then to immigration who said I didn’t need to pay the fee and I must return and get my money back while he held my passport and ticket. Which I did and when I returned through the exit fee coupon collection point the guard wanted my voucher and ticket and I needed to remind him that I was returning. At which point a man from the transfer company appeared, said my name, I nodded and continued to get my passport and ticket and he vanished. I don’t know what that was about. There was another complete security screening at the gate. This time my suitcase was opened and the guard pawed through with abandon, tossing items on to the table, inspecting each piece of jewelry, wanted to know what my timer did, asked me to turn on the computer but seemed to not mind when I said it had no battery attached, ... Then to ticket collection, where I was told I had to gate check my roll-a-board, more reorganizing, ... and finally boarding for a 13.5 hour flight to Chicago. When I’d asked about seating five days before, I was told the flight had lots of room. But when I boarded, it was full. So the process or buying tickets and getting seats is all apparently very last minute. On board there was an announcement to check our passports since two had been switched, then another announcement, one had been lost. Mid flight warning lights began flashing and a bell kept chiming and crew scurried from both ends of the plane towards the center lavatories. A man had been smoking. I was told that his passport was taken and there would be a heavy fine, but I saw him deplaning and I think they may have not imposed the penalty. Later, a different lavatory smelled of smoke, but I heard no alarms.

TSA at ORD: Staff were busy officiating, rearranging bins on exit rollers, pushing gear through on entrance rollers. I am very careful, have an order for my things: bin with shoes and jacket, roll-a-board, bin with laptop, tote bag with money, etc. Then I walk through and retrieve. As I was putting on my shoes I saw the bin with my laptop pushed off the rollers by the next items coming through. I'd been traveling already for 17 hours and am amazed that my reactions were quick enough to grab the bin and prevent the laptop from ending up on the floor. The TSA agent standing there said a bland "thank you:" I said: "It's my laptop!"

I'm still a bit shaky thinking about this. What would have been my actions if it had fallen? I would have had to install a battery and turn it on and see if it worked and get the name of the TSA agent and then, if the liquid display broke, as I would anticipate, what next?

I had already been hassled by the person who checked the boarding passes about having three pieces instead of two. I had taken some things out to do while I waited, explained they all fit inside and I would restore after the laptop came out, she took my boarding pass away until I repacked all into two pieces.

I felt like an object marching to an arbitrary drummer.

I went to sleep at home at 1 AM, woke at 3:15 with no idea where I was, wondered if breakfast had been included, realized I hadn’t asked what time it was served, noted that there was another room, noted the spaciousness, ... and realized I was at home!