(An excerpt from an account of my travels in Jordan a few months before 9/11)
Two days earlier, on the bus from Amman to Petra, I met Mohammad, 27, and Zayed, 29. Muhammad wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt, a moustache and a two-day stubble on his square face. Zayed, dressed in “business-casual” attire, had a slim, clean-shaven face. Both spoke a halting English. I initially mistook them for old friends but they had just met on the bus.
Muhammad sat closer to me across the isle so we started talking. He was going to the town of Al Shobak to interview for a teaching job at a government college. He had spent eight years in Baghdad, 1990–98, returning after an MSc in mathematics from Baghdad University. His master’s thesis was titled, “On the Equiconvergence Theorem of Eigen Function Expansion Associated with Ordinary Differential Equations of Third Order.” The last major work on this topic, he claimed, was done in 1907. But of second order only, he pointed out.
I mentioned two famous mathematicians of early Islam: Omar Khayyam and Alhazen. His face lit up; he also knew of al-Farabi, al-Beruni, and Avicenna. “Indians very strong in mathematics,” Muhammad said, looking at me admiringly, as if I deserved some credit for it. He knew that zero and the decimal system had originated in India. I told him that the earliest epigraphic evidence of zero has been found in a central Indian city called Gwalior—for all practical purposes, the birthplace of zero. He responded with a blank stare—why did I offer this odd factoid? Somehow it didn’t occur to me to tell him that I grew up in Gwalior, or that the best response to my factoid so far has been, “Thank you for nothing!”
He was born close to the river Jordan near the Syrian border. For two years since his return from Baghdad, he has lived with his family in Irbid, unemployed. He had a few interviews but nothing worked out—too many applicants; unemployment is a major problem in Jordan. I asked if he liked to teach. He shrugged, he is clearly not enthused about it—it might bring in 70 JD ($100) per week, not enough to live on; even cigarettes would be a luxury—both Muhammad and Zayed got off to smoke at longer stops. “Travel not possible,” he said with a laugh. He had fond memories of Baghdad—inexpensive, nice people, culture and history. “But much suffering now,” he said, “because of America.” He admired Saddam Hussein for being the only Arab leader to stand up to America and Israel. The two have ganged-up to divide and conquer the Arabs, economically and politically. What is needed, he said, is Arab unity.
He is not religious, does not visit a mosque, but believes in a supreme being whose form we do not know. How about me? Do I believe in God? He may exist, I said, but I cannot be sure, nobody thus far has proved his existence—will the notion of proof resonate with him? But there must be a supreme being, he argued, how else to explain the logic of science? He struggled to express his thoughts in English, then gave up; he was not going to change my non-committal stance. Silently, I recited Protagoras, “I know nothing about the gods, either they are or they are not, or what are their shapes. For many things make certain knowledge impossible—the obscurity of the theme and the shortness of human life.”
A bit later, he inquired why I was still unmarried at thirty-three. I raised my right hand, palm facing in, and said, Insha’allah—the definitive response to such questions. He remained curious but shifted his focus: How much money did I make in America? Did I have an American girlfriend? How could I possibly like traveling alone? The landscape around the Desert Highway was, as one might expect, stark and sterile; almost eighty percent of Jordan is barren desert.
Zayed did a Ph.D in biology from a university in Dagestan, southwestern Russia, where he spent nine years. “Very beautiful place,” he said, “in the Greater Caucasus Range.” As I recall now, he translated the title of his dissertation as “Lipid Composition Change in the Brain and Blood in case of Hypothermia and Self-heating.” It turns out, he was going to the same college as Muhammad to interview for another teaching job. Also unemployed for two years, he too lived with family. There were many Indian students at his university in Dagestan. That surprised me; had middle-class Indians become that desperate to escape India and acquire the stamp of a foreign degree?
Zayed had quietly listened to Muhammad admire Saddam Hussein. I then enquired about his own views. “Just like Hitler,” he chuckled, “someone should murder him.” Around then, the driver turned up the music and it became difficult to converse. Besides, they probably preferred a respite from exerting themselves in English for so long.
They got off on a dusty street and lit cigarettes. It was their first visit to Al Shobak and they knew no one. Two years of unemployment must have taken a toll. They both wore anxious expressions of young men at the start of their careers. I wished them luck, and tried to imagine their near-term lives if they got hired at the government college. An MSc in mathematics and a Ph.D in biology eking out a meager living in a dull town at the edge of the desert, in a one-room tenement dwelling, with little attachment to their profession, teaching uninterested students, yearning for female companionship, smoking their lungs out.