Sunday, July 24, 2011

أصدقاء جدد -- New friends

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
- Mother Teresa

During my time here in Amman, I've had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time tutoring English with Iraqi refugees living here. This essentially means that I go with a small group to someone's apartment in the city, where we meet with Iraqis of all ages and backgrounds, with varying levels of English ability, who come to learn and practice.

So last night, after we arrived and greeted everyone, I was placed with a guy who looked about my age and had one of the biggest smiles I've ever seen. I was initially a little self-conscious about whether or not I'd be able to actually teach him anything, especially since the only Iraqi Arabic I know is "sho ko ma ko?" ("what's up?"). But the second he opened his mouth, I knew we weren't going to have any issues. His name was Hussein and his English was awesome! We small-talked for awhile, about our families, our interests, sports, the weather, etc., and I taught him some American slang. He told me about his job as a tailor in Amman, how he studies English in his apartment for hours after work (it showed), and about another friend of his from Chicago, a Fulbright fellow who had been helping him with the language.

The mood in the room was informal, upbeat and welcoming, which is typical here in Jordan, where hospitality is the national sport. At some point we got on the subject of music - Hussein confessed to me that he is a huge Kelly Clarkson fan, who I also love, so we had a laugh about our mutual fandom and then he took out his phone and started playing some in the background while we continued to chat. As "Just Walk Away" faded out, I noticed his smile fade a bit. He looked down, took a deep breath, looked back up, and simply said, "You know, we are really suffering here." He told me about his parents and his sixteen siblings, all but two of which are still in Baghdad, and how hard he works just to send home money. He told me about the everyday injustices he faces as a refugee. Working 16-hour days in the shop just trying to scrape together enough to live and send something home is something I cannot even wrap my mind around. And not everyone in Jordan is always kind to refugees, even if most of the country is made up of them.

Now smiling again, he said, "I want to change my life." He told me he was applying to a program for relocation in the U.S., and that's why he was working so hard on his English. I smiled back. I mean, how could I not? This guy is amazing. But hell if I knew what I could say that could possibly seem encouraging coming from me. I was born and raised in the very system that did this to him, to his family, to his country. What could I possibly say that would mean anything? I was only 13 when the war started. But I am still acutely aware of my position here as an American. I am aware of the kind of people who run my country, and I feel guilty as hell about it. I'd trade a Bush or a Cheney for a Hussein any day - but even if he does make it to the States, I'm also scared for him. The U.S.A. isn't exactly a land of milk and honey when you're a brown immigrant with a Muslim-sounding name, no matter the size of your smile, or how great your love of Kelly Clarkson.

So what do you say from your own heart in this situation? How do you call back to your own humanity when directly confronted with the human cost of your privilege?

Now I am just angry, because now, it's even more personal. Because in these parts, apathy is a privilege possessed only by the blind or heartless. Because I can't stay quiet, I can't turn the other way and pretend I didn't see or hear. Human beings, my friends, are being treated worse than animals because of foreign governments, outside greed and hateful ignorance. It is every level of injustice that I can even imagine, and then some. It is right there in front of me, and it is not going away. So I am fucking livid. I am so mad that I'm afraid my head might explode. I should be.

And beyond that, I find myself feeling helpless, unable to truly understand and maybe unable to really do something about it. It's not as if I didn't know about any of this beforehand, but it's definitely a testament to the power of relationships that it now affects me so much more intensely than it did before. It's sad how little statistics impact us, how we fail to see the humanity behind them. How comfortable we are, how hard it is for us to know the truth of war, and how quickly we forget (or outright ignore) what "collateral damage" really means.

You probably know too that it's all too easy to despair, and a lot more difficult to actually do something to improve the situation. So I am making a conscious effort to channel it into something better. What exactly? God knows. Hope? I'm not quite there yet. I cannot genuinely feel hope about it right now. There are a lot of roadblocks in the way. But I'm trying, because there is still good left, and you see it in good people. Hussein could teach me a thing or two or ten about hope. Big, beautiful, illogical, indefatigable hope.

What amazes me most is that, in spite of everything, he still insisted on wearing that big smile.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

زيارة مادبا -- Madaba visit

This weekend, my friend Emily and I decided to adventure off to the town of Madaba, Jordan, about 30 km southwest of Amman. Though our original intention was to take the bus, a 3.5 JD cab ride ended up taking us to the wrong station. We asked a taxi driver at the station where to find the bus to Madaba, and between our broken Arabic and his broken English, we ascertained that he would take us all the way to Madaba for about 10 JD. In hindsight, I probably could've bargained him down to 8, but I was grateful for the help and not in the mood to haggle. Plus, it was nice having the taxi all to ourselves, windows down, feeling the warm wind rush through as we sped past the farms and villas outside Amman.

Madaba's a small town, so we just had our driver drop us off in the center of town and figured we'd make our own way from there. The tiny city is best known for its mosaics, of which there are TONS -- mostly from the Byzantine era in the 6th century AD. It also has a small but thriving Christian community (about 10% of the local population), mostly Catholics and Greek Orthodox, who have built some seriously beautiful churches. For example, Emily and I started our Madaba adventure at St. George's Greek Orthodox church, which boasts an exquisite, ancient mosaic floor map of the Dead Sea and surrounding areas of Jordan and Palestine. This was also where one of the locals laughed at me when I asked how much tickets inside cost in the local dialect. Apparently blonde American chicks speaking Jordanian amiyya aren't that common or something?

After wandering around the church and into the crypt for a bit, we started off towards the south. Passing by a souvenir shop, I saw some scarves that caught my fancy. As I was browsing, the shop owner approached me, an extremely kind-looking woman in a black hijab and abaya, and started showing me the selection of colors. I asked her "'iddeish?" ("How much?") and she replied, "dinarein" (2 JD). I realised I only had a 50 JD bill with me, which I was intending to break at lunchtime. When I informed her of this, she started insisting that I take the scarf with me anyway, and come back to pay her once I had change. Jordanian hospitality (and trust) truly never fails to amaze.

But after digging in my purse, I located enough spare change to cover the cost, so with my new scarf in tow, we continued towards the Madaba Archaeological Park. This is essentially an archaeological dig, left in its original location, with walking platforms around the mosaics so visitors can enjoy them. It cost only 2 JD to get in -- and we were definitely not expecting that to include a complete guided tour from the supervisor at the site, an extremely nice man named Amjad, but that's exactly what we got. He was so excited that we were Arabic students that he even gave the entire tour in both English and Arabic, which was amazingly helpful. We saw a fabulously mosaiced private residence, a 2nd-century Roman road, still beautifully intact, and even a piece of King Herod's palace from the 1st century B.C. Also, the word for "mosaic," which is fuseifusa' (فسيفساء), is now my favorite Arabic word ever.

Later, we ate lunch in this ambient and wonderfully air-conditioned restaurant near the Park. The owner asked where we were from in impeccable English -- and when I replied "Chicago," he looked at me in total disbelief and said "you're kidding me!" Apparently he just moved back to Jordan from there only seven months ago. When I asked where in the city he had been living, he told me Lawrence and Elston. That's only blocks away from North Park and my old stomping grounds! The tiny town of Madaba was definitely not the sort of place I'd have ever expected to find someone from Albany Park, but once again, this world finds fun ways to prove to me how small it really is. :)

After stuffing our faces full of fattoush salad, chicken marinated with balsamic vinegar, hummus, bread and fresh juice (mine was strawberry, Emily's was lemon-mint), we ventured further off into the city to look for the Madaba museum. After getting slightly lost, we found the museum, and an extremely eccentric jokester of a tour guide named Tariq. He spoke very little English, so he gave us the tour in Arabic. He was congenial, slightly creepy, and extremely fond of taking artistic photographs of us on Emily's camera. We were thoroughly entertained, if slightly confused. Let's suffice it to say that it was one of the most random and goofily memorable two-hour museum tours of my life.

After the museum, we decided to check out some of the souvenir shops still open on one of the main roads. Emily was looking for carpets, so we chanced upon a little shop, owned and operated by a nice, if slightly gruff gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair and excellent laugh lines. He patiently led us through his impressive selection of carpets -- and naturally, we gravitated towards the exorbitantly expensive silk Persian ones before settling on very nice, if more rustic, Bedouin ones. I also found a lovely traditional necklace made of silver and local precious stones, which he kindly sold to me for about 15 JD, as well as a gorgeous antique Bedouin dagger, also 15 JD.

As we completed our purchases, he insisted on making us tea and we made conversation. Despite missing his two front teeth, he spoke in beautiful and enthusiastic English. I was starting to sense an incredibly spiritual presence, and my suspicions were confirmed when he started sharing with us some of his thoughts on life. He told us about how he had never been able to marry, having been struck by financial hardship every time he had saved enough to afford it. He also told us about his faith, and the strength he received from the Holy Spirit to overcome obstacles. He then proceeded to read me like an open book, offer advice and pray over us. I love spiritual people, so I sat open as a water jar while he pontificated about life and kept insisting "don't blame me, this is all Jesus." As if we hadn't already met enough fascinating people in Madaba.

So after a day of beautiful weather, mosaics galore, incredibly kind people, crazy tour guides, and of course our tea time with the toothless Arab Christian mystical man, we decided it was high time to head back to Amman. I somehow managed to completely own our cab ride back with bargaining skills I didn't even know existed -- prompting the cab driver to charge us 3 JD less and still tell me "btehhki arabiyy kweis!" ("you speak Arabic well!").

It was one of the rare moments when I actually felt accomplished, confident that I had in fact learned some Arabic since coming here, a feeling which was definitely a welcome break from the frustrating process of language immersion. In fact, my day in Madaba may have been one of my favorite days this entire summer. I think I'll have to go back for another visit before I leave. :)

Monday, July 11, 2011

البتراء -- The rose-red city

They seem no work of Man's creative hand,
Where Labour wrought as wayward Fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
Match me such marvel, save in Eastern clime,—
A rose-red city—'half as old as time!'

-- John William Burgon

It was populated as early as 1550 B.C. and has since showed up in the Bible, the accounts of Josephus, and of course Indiana Jones--among other things! So you can imagine my excitement when I found out I'd be visiting the otherworldly-beautiful ancient city of Petra, located in southern Jordan. I could try and tell you in words that my high expectations were not disappointed, but I'll never manage. Let's just suffice it to say that you should make a point to visit it for yourself someday. :)

We left for Petra on Thursday after classes, and wasted little time in making the 4-hour drive to our campsite. On the way, we stopped at a tourist trap souvenir place, where I definitely did not buy anything, instead befriending some local kids riding their bikes in the parking lot along with a few other friends from my program. As we were chatting, one of the kids kept talking about the necklace I was wearing, a $5 Forever 21 impulse buy in the shape of an elephant, and asking where it was from.

I knew already that in Jordan's ever-generous culture, it's not uncommon for someone to simply give away a possession if another person shows unusual interest in it, so I was not surprised when my new 7-year-old friend asked, "a3tinni?" (give it to me?). I don't know why exactly, but I did. I guess I figured that if a cheap necklace could make my new friend's day, then it was the least I could do. Sure enough, he immediately placed it around his neck, tucked it into his soccer jersey, and grinned like it was Christmas morning. It was adorable.

Shortly thereafter, we departed to trek the rest of the way to our hotel in Wadi Musa. Something about looking out the window onto those winding roads and seemingly endless stretches of desert was the closest I've felt to limitless in a long time. Later, when we neared even closer to Petra, we stopped at an outcrop overlooking the valley of Wadi Musa to watch the sun set, twice its normal size, dripping like an overripe plum behind the mountains, and bringing to mind Walt Whitman's immortal words "I am large; I contain multitudes."

After we arrived at our hotel, the extremely Swiss and extremely fancy Moevenpick, I unpacked my stuff, enjoyed a scrumptious buffet dinner (like I said, extremely fancy) and explored the area nearby. The town near Petra has festivals with live music every Thursday and Friday night, so I ventured out for a bit to hear some of the tunes before heading up to the hotel's rooftop cafe to have a drink and smoke some arghile with a few friends from the program before finally calling it a night.

The next morning began our Petra blitz. After packing for the day and grabbing some breakfast, our group set off towards the site entrance. Immediately we were descended upon by myriad salesmen hawking postcards and pony rides--but I was a little too distracted by the amazing rock formations to pay very much attention.

Once inside Petra, we wandered through the Siq, a narrow passage cut deep into the salmon-colored sandstone by thousands of years of water erosion. Petra is prone to flash floods, which have helped to carve its unique landscape and once provided water and income for Petra's ancient inhabitants. This path ultimately opens into a wide clearing, where we catch our first glimpse of the breathtaking Nabataean treasury, surrounded by camels and Bedouin merchants.

The path continues in many directions, since Petra is more of a landscape than a specific site. This particular day, we started the hike towards the Monastery, another one of Petra's largest ancient structures. After climbing nearly 1000 stairs carved into the hill and scrambling over a few rock faces, we finally made it to the site--and although the 100+ degree heat certainly did not make our job very easy, it was absolutely worth it.

The rest of my day was spent enjoying the mountain overlooks, chatting with some Bedouin guys in a cafe, and playing with these adorable kittens that seemed to be running around everywhere. A two-hour trek back out of molten hot Petra was then followed promptly by the most refreshing shower of my entire life, a nap, and a feast of musakhan, tabbouleh, baba ghannouj and more live music in town. Life just sucks sometimes, right?

I spent most of the next day chilling in town and hanging out by the pool. I really enjoyed venturing into some of the shops to meet some of the merchants and practice my Arabic. The folks around those parts are certainly used to white tourists, but after observing some of my fellow Petra visitors, I could tell that they don't often see white tourists who speak Arabic. And seeing as how most foreign tourists tend to assume that everyone will just adapt to them instead of the other way around, I got the sense that even my meager attempts to speak their language and assimilate to their culture were appreciated. One of the shop owners insisted on giving me tea, told me repeatedly that I looked like a queen, and offered to find me a nice Jordanian husband if I ever decided to stay. Jordanians are just that generous, I s'pose. :P

So that's the scoop on Petra. Again, I can try my hardest to convey the sheer grandeur of the place, but I will undoubtedly fail. So if anything, may my experiences help inspire you to visit for yourself. Yalla! :)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Hot days and hafles

I'm now in the throes of my third week of classes, and already I'm wishing that I could stay longer. The more Arabic I learn, the more frustrated I get at how little I know, and the more I want to stay here long enough to become seriously fluent. It's funny how life works that way!

Which is not to say that I haven't been doing things other than studying. Actually, I'm happy to report that I've been able to get out in some capacity most every day. Saturday, for example, I was feeling extra American, so I went out to City Mall to indulge in a little shopping and Starbucks. There are about 10 Starbucks locations in Amman, and they look exactly the same as the ones at home. (If anything, the Jordanian ones are bigger, and come with more comfy chairs.) The one I went to didn't have any of the fancy syrups--coconut, pumpkin, and the like--so I ordered a mocha frappucino. To be completely honest, though, I think I prefer Arabic coffee....

I also shopped around a bit, though most of the stores at City Mall were rather expensive. Really, the best places to shop around here are the vintage souqs and the areas further downtown that sell more traditional clothing. Perhaps if I have some stipend left over at summer's end, I'll go splurge on something fancy--but for now, I just bought a flowy new t-shirt from Mango. It goes well with my long skirts, to which I am now addicted. Breezy, comfy, and elegant for the win.

On Sunday night, after a long day of class and dabkeh dancing, I had the amazing opportunity to see singer-songwriter Souad Massi perform with her band in the Odeon Theatre in downtown Amman, as part of the Al-Balad music festival that started last week. I was already a fan of hers before coming to Amman, so you can imagine I was way excited for the chance to see her perform live. The Odeon theatre is an old Roman amphitheater from many centuries ago, so the seats were fairly far from the stage in a big arc. As the concert started, I found myself wishing we could get closer to the stage and start dancing--and I was not disappointed. After opening with a set of mostly ballads, she insisted everyone come right up to the stage, and to make a long story short, I was about 10 feet away from her for the majority of the performance. She played my favorite songs "Ilham" and "Khalouni," along with a bunch of other great tunes.

The lady herself! Fantastic voice and so much musical talent.

During the concert we had a dance circle with a bunch of students from the University of Jordan, who (by the way) were very unsubtle flirts, to hilarious effect. Watching them scheme amongst each other about how to put the moves on a bunch of American ladies was extremely entertaining. (My favorite bad pick-up line of the night was directed at my friend Rachel--"You want to practice your Arabic. I want to practice my English. I have free time...."--but I think she let him down easy.)

That being said, it's occurred to me several times since arriving that I get cat-called a lot less here than I do in Albany Park. Being blonde over here makes you a somewhat exotic commodity, so I'm used to getting stared at here and there (by everyone, not just men), but real harassment here seems basically non-existent. Nowhere is perfect, but contrary to common Western belief, the culture here is generally respectful of women. In fact, I wonder whether or not the U.S. could learn a thing or two. Just a thought.

Yesterday, the chef who makes us dinner five nights a week at Al Bateel hotel made us American food for 4th of July. There were hamburgers, hot dogs (beef of course, since pork is a big no-no here), cole slaw, and French fries, among other things--finished off with apple pie. Granted, the hot dogs came in Arab-style sandwich bread instead of hot dog buns, and the cole slaw had a spice in it that I'm positive is not available in most American supermarkets, but the effort and enthusiasm behind the meal was such a kind gesture. Jordanian hospitality is legend for good reason, and it never fails to make me smile. :)

But alas, my homework is calling. 'Til next time, ma salaama!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

هذا البلد الجميل -- This beautiful country

I awoke this morning with the realization that today is my third Saturday in Amman. It is truly amazing how fast the time has flown! It's now only six more weeks until I'm back in the States, which seems absolutely crazy to me because I feel so at home here in this beautiful country. I never cease to be struck by Jordan's unique combination of old and new. The sight of Bedouin nomads riding camels next to hotels and office buildings and herds of goats grazing next to homes and restaurants continues to intrigue me, though it no longer surprises me. I know I'm going to miss this place.

Speaking of things I'm going to miss, can we talk about the food for a minute please? Getting used to all this deliciousness has definitely been a bit of an adjustment for my digestive system--like the bout of food poisoning I had last weekend that quickly taught me to completely avoid any restaurant not frequented by the locals--but I really, really can't complain. The best restaurants here serve up plenty of fresh-baked flatbread, sometimes in lieu of utensils and plates, along with mint teas, elaborately spiced stews, cucumber and tomato salads, delectable lamb and chicken dishes, and of course the ubiquitous hummus and baba ghannouj. My absolute favorite food here so far is a Palestinian dish called musakhan, which has chicken, onions and sumac baked onto flatbread brushed with olive oil. It's kind of like an Arabic pizza, and oh-so-delicious. I'm also a huge fan of the juices here, which are widely available in many flavors like mango-orange, apple-pineapple, and my personal favorite, lemon-mint. I think it goes without saying that I'm going to have some working out to do when I get back....but that can wait. :-)

The crew tucks into a Yemeni feast at Mota3m Sana'a, which serves up the best ful mudammas I've ever tasted in my life! (Note the lack of plates and cutlery--we kick it family-style here, flatbread only. I imagine Atkins is rolling in his grave.)

Classes at Qasid are going great. I absolutely adore my teachers, who are equal parts spunky, strict and extremely patient. One day of classes here is essentially the equivalent of a week's worth of study at home, so the intensiveness of the program can really get to us sometimes. Arabic is so rich and so complex, it's kind of a linguistic Hydra: cut off the head of one confusing grammatical rule, and three more grow in its place. This makes for an endless supply of new things to learn, but it also makes it pretty much impossible to gauge how much you're actually learning. My strategy for now is just to get as good as I can at what I already know of the language, which may not be very much in the grand scheme of things, but it's better than trying to paint a huge canvas with tools I don't yet know how to use. Even if my speaking skills are still less than fabulous, I'm pleased with how much I can understand in conversation. That's a start, and inshallah, with time and perseverance, I think the rest will come. Inshallah.

Have I mentioned that Jordan is absolutely beautiful? Mashallah.

Yesterday, a bunch of us trekked down to the Dead Sea to take a load off after these past few weeks of intensive studies. Day-passes to a fancy resort cost about 35JD, so we took advantage of the opportunity to chill out, catch some sun and soak. Floating around in the salty water, slathering myself in mineral mud and napping away the afternoon under a tiki umbrella was definitely a welcome break from homework and brain-melting language immersion. Generally I'm not big on touristy places, but it was very nice nonetheless--and even if the spa treatments and food were obnoxiously overpriced, the mud was still free. I think I understand now why cosmetics companies are obsessed with Dead Sea minerals, because with the exception of a little sunburn, my skin feels amazing!

Clear sky, hot sun, salty water, free mud. Bliss.

Later in the afternoon, a few of us dropped into the hotel gift shop to look around. As expected, the merchandise was absurdly expensive, but we made some new friends--two extremely kind brothers from Jerusalem, who worked at the resort and were surprised to learn that we spoke some Arabic. We chatted about Middle Eastern history and mused about the beauty of the phrase "alhamdulillah" while sampling Dead Sea lotions. I also learned the Arabic word for "checkpoint."

By far, the loveliest part of the day was at sunset time. The sun was no longer beating down, but the residual heat was still coming up from the ground, a pleasant warmth. Against the hazy crimson light of the early evening, we sat on the deck overlooking the beach, smoked arghile and watched the sun set over Palestine on the other side of the sea. I thought back to my new friends in the gift shop, and wondered how it must feel to work within sight of the home they are not allowed to return to. As we were leaving, I said a little prayer for peace and willed it across the water.

All that being said--writing this blog post is enabling my inner procrastinator like nobody's business, so I should probably wrap it up and get started on my homework. So much to do, so many things to see, so little time! Much love from Amman, and ma salaama!