Saturday, June 18, 2011

قي عمان -- In Amman

Marhaba ya shabaab! Shoo fi ma fi?

It's the end of my second full day in beautiful Amman, Jordan, and I already feel at home. That is to say, I feel way more comfortable than I probably should, considering I don't yet know my way around and I only know a little bit of Jordanian and Palestinian amiyya (colloquial) dialect. Still, the city is so lovely, the sun so warm, and the people so nice that I don't feel nearly as nervous or out-of-place as I expected I would.

We arrived in Amman at around 8:30 p.m. local time. Our itinerary promised us that we'd be met at the gate by a rep from Petra Moon Tours (?), who would help us purchase our visas. Sure enough, there he was, giving each of us 20 dinar to put inside our passports, which he then collected and cut through the line towards the visa desk to run the paperwork. I spent the next 20 minutes or so feeling very sleepy, not to mention very very paranoid because my passport was not on my person--since I now have a bit of a passport-possessiveness complex after losing my first one, a stressful mistake that set me back $250.

But alhamdulillah, thanks God, our visa guy came back and started sending us through the border control and customs. These types of things normally make me nervous, but the officer told me he liked my blue eyes and didn't ask any scary questions, so it ended up being fairly painless. After waiting for the rest of the group and our bus, it was off to ACOR! Driving through Amman for that first time felt so surreal. I was so utterly jet-lagged, and everything was lit up so beautifully, it almost felt like I was in some kind of Arab Disneyland, rather than another country.

Our first few full days basically consisted of a few hours of orientation, some amiyya classes, and exploring this absolutely gorgeous city. Amman is one of the oldest continuously populated cities in the world, so it still bears the footprints of many historical empires--Greek, Umayyad, Ottoman. Roman ruins still sprawl out next door to exquisite mosques, tiny shops nestled in-between. City streets housing hookah lounges, falafel stands and ultra-modern coffee shops detour into bustling traditional souqs full of carpets, street food, intricate jewelry, and nostalgic carvings and paintings of the land that was once called Palestine--the ancestral home of 50-70% of Jordanian residents. Once again, my heart sank to remember the millions of refugees who are still denied their right to return home, the millions more whose olive trees and houses have already been wiped off the map, and how much dispossession and grief has resulted from the struggle over a land that took our plane all of five minutes to fly over.

The rest of my Friday was spent exploring the hills of Amman on foot. Did I mention that it's really hilly? My legs are still sore. Inshallah, God willing, the terrain will help me work off all the falafel and kabab that I'll undoubtedly stuff my face with this summer.

Eventually we made our way to a hookah lounge, where I ordered baba ghanouj and an arghile (known in the West as "hookah," of course) with lemon-mint shisha. The crowdedness of wust al-balad, the downtown area, creates such an amazing energy--as does the remarkable diversity of the area. Gucci hijabis, foreigners, niqabi women, guys that look straight out of Jersey Shore, elegant ladies in embroidered thoths, men in long robes and kufiyyas on their heads, me--and hipsters! Lots of them! Who knew that Amman had such a thriving hipster scene? (Our observation of this quickly led to the invention of the word الحبستر -- even if transliteration is like, sooo mainstream.)

Our last stop was at an absolutely amazing concert in Souq Jara by the band المربّع (El-Morabba3). Jordanian alt-rock that sounded like Sigur Ros, Fairuz and 90s rock thrown into a blender with a little mint and lemon. I was legitimately impressed within the first few numbers--then, as if they weren't already cool enough, the bass player became the lead singer, the lead singer turned into the doumbek player, they brought out a fantastic guest singer, and the electric guitarist whipped out a violin bow and started coaxing out elaborate microtonal scales, and my jaw was on the ground. All this with the backdrop of an Amman sunset and the ruins of the citadel of Hercules on the horizon. Jus sayin.

Today was slightly less exciting, but I was able to stuff my face with homemade Arabic food and get some much-needed shopping done. My speaking partner, Mais, took a group of us to Carrefour (think Walmart, only French in origin and Arabicized), where I was able to grab some school supplies. This subsequently led to my first encounter with a Jordanian who speaks no English--our cab driver, who not surprisingly was somewhat confused by our unusual directions to go to Jordan University Street and turn right after Eat 'n' Go. Figuring out the rest was another humbling experience for beginners in a difficult language--but somehow we made it work. :)

Tomorrow begins my first classes at Qasid Institute, so I'd better get some sleep! For now, ma salaama!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Out of B-14

It's my last night in the U.S.A. for a little while. Seems appropriate that I would spend it in its capitol.

I left Chicago right on schedule at 10 a.m., June 13, 2011, not a cloud in the sky. A smooth flight, a metro ride, and a walk several blocks had me at my hotel near Washington Circle.

During the next few hours I checked in, explored, found some lunch, had my first meeting, met a bunch of people, got coffee, and generally basked in how nice it felt to be back in a city again after several weeks of mostly suburbs.

After my CLS responsibilities were done for the day, my friend Kent was nice enough to show me around Washington, and I promised a homecooked Indian meal in return. We ate on his apartment rooftop, turned towards the view of Capitol Hill. It might just be me, but this city seems to have a different vibe from any other city I've been to. Perhaps it's a consequence of having so much control (and money!) concentrated in such a tight nucleus. It's no wonder people are seduced by the idea of attaining Washington power. The energy, the pull of it is tangible, heavy in the air. This is a city that worships policies above gods. If your policy wins, they'll even build you your own temple.

First impressions of the CLS program can be summed up in a word: awesome. The people are just lovely. Pretty much everyone seems super easygoing, genuine and excited to learn. I like the diversity of personalities and disciplines I've seen so far. I like gatherings of travelers and "language people," where I feel as though I'm among kindred spirits. Looking forward to spending the next few months in big and beautiful Amman with this big and beautiful community.

Today during orientation I was able to meet many wonderful people from the Department of State, as well as the Middle East Institute and the U.S. Institute of Peace. One of the things I found most encouraging was their own stories about their career paths. For example, our keynote speaker talked about how, during her undergraduate years, she had no idea what she wanted to do, knowing only of her interest in languages and foreign policy. (Sound familiar?) Her career has since led her from the CIA to the Dept. of Defense to the Dept. of State--so it was encouraging to know that I don't need to feel as if I'm behind the curve for not having a detailed itinerary of the rest of my life. It will definitely be interesting to see what opportunities might open up as a result of this program.

But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. For now, I'm just ecstatic that tomorrow is the day I finally depart! I think it's safe to say that, while turning in my CLS application last November 15th, I never pictured myself actually sitting here, preparing myself to fly 7,000 miles away from home for what I don't doubt will be the most intellectually and emotionally rigorous experience of my entire life. And I couldn't be more excited!

It's only the beginning. :)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

An American in Amman

Only a few days left before the biggest adventure of my life ... so far! I'll be traveling as a U.S. government exchange scholar with the Department of State's Critical Language Scholarship program. They're sending me to the Middle East for two reasons: one, for me to learn Arabic by being immersed in an intensive language institute; and two, to be a cultural ambassador of sorts for my own country--a grassroots sort of diplomat, if you will. :)

I've had a lot of interesting reactions from people when I tell them about my upcoming trip. Either they just don't really get why I want to go, or they assume I'm going to get kidnapped. Some family members and friends have only thinly veiled their disdain for the region and their distrust of its occupants. I don't necessarily blame them, because if one's only source of information is western media, then it's hardly surprising that one would have this impression that the Middle East is populated solely by barbarians. How interesting it is that a service meant to inform people's perceptions of the world becomes nothing more than a shady business that distorts them.

I say, all the more reason why it's so important to get out there, to meet the people and see the place for oneself before jumping to conclusions. I wish that more of my fellow Americans would make a concerted effort to get to know the Middle East, instead of casting it off as some amorphous entity defined only by danger and terrorism. I wish more Americans could look at this region and people the way I do, to embrace those cultural differences that do exist while still embracing its beauty, its history, and especially its people. At least based on my impressions of my friends from the region, there's a lot more to it than meets our limited eye. I guess I'll just have to see for myself!

So here's to stumbling through a language I still don't know very well, and learning lots, and academically getting my butt kicked, and new friends, and scholars and travelers, and Arabic coffee, and most of all to life. It's pretty big and beautiful when you open up to it. Ma'a salaama ya Chicago!