Sunday, January 30, 2011

overheard at the Jordan Times 2: more lost than the cast of 'Lost'

Shukom: Do you even know what a bagel is?

Rajiv: Of course I know what a bagel is.

Shukom: Describe it. Describe a bagel.

Rajiv: It’s like, a little...

Shukom: A little what? what? A little dog? That’s a bugle, you idiot.

Me: The dog is a beagle. A bugle is like a little trumpet. You know, like ‘Taps’.

Shukom: Like to the government? What are you talking about?

Rajiv: A's like... a little kosher bread.

it's complicated

I had my first conversation about religion here last week, with Jude, who is my friend Rhea’s fifteen-year-old host sister and a cousin to my family. She was at Fatima’s house, who is her grandmother and our auntie, my mother Aziza’s sister, and we were all eating dinner—I went there after class on Monday instead of going home.

Bruce had told us that religion and politics are topics that people would want to talk about with us—and he’d also told us to be careful, the way you are when you discuss things like this with people you don’t really know. So it was Jude who brought it up; I hadn’t asked but rather waited to be asked.

I have always associated Islam with the differences in dress, because while there are all these aspects to religion that aren’t visible, dress is pretty obvious. In my family, Aziza wears a hijab and none of her daughters do. Auntie Fatima has two daughters, one (Jude’s mother) who came to dinner one night in a skin-tight hot pink velour tracksuit, and another who covers from head to toe, and Jude’s younger sister, Tala, came to Sakher and Samah’s wedding in a strapless sequined red and silver mini-dress with gladiator heels. I, of course, do not cover at all (at home, I go to Meeting for Worship in the t-shirt I slept in, being a member of the least demanding church in the world) but have been successfully modest since getting here, and no one has made any comments to me about dress at all, except for one time Ziad told me I looked nice.

Still, I wondered—and also, I couldn’t help but wonder if they wondered if I wondered. Either religion is such an integral part of life here that it doesn’t need to be talked about, or they just don’t talk about it with me—regardless, I hadn’t talked about it at all with anyone outside of Earlham or Yalla Talk since arriving in Jordan—until Jude.

The three of us, Jude and Ziad and I, were choosing a movie to watch, and Jude said, “Do you want to watch a movie, or play poker?”

“Watch a movie,” I said.

“Okay,” Jude said agreeably. “How many kinds of your religion are there?”

I said that I didn’t understand the question.

She apologized, saying, “My English is not very good.” (It was fantastic.) She went on, and explained: “In my religion,” she said, “We have Sunni and Shiite. How many kinds of Christian are there?”

“Oh,” I said, “alot,” and tried to explain: Catholics and Protestants, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Presbyterian.

“What’s the difference?” she asked.

I blushed. “,” I said. (Truth time: I have no idea. The biggest difference as far as I can tell is that you take Centreville Road to get to the Methodist Church and McLearen to get to the Baptist.)

Nodding amiably, Jude said, “We are Sunni, which is the right way.”

From the couch, Ziad said something sharp. “Okay okay okay,” Jude said. “Not right like, the only way, but closer to the real way.”

Ziad shook his head again and she kept trying to explain: “There are different ways to do it, but this is the way it was originally meant, we think.”

“I understand,” I said, and added, “But I am not really a Christian.”

Jude’s eyes got wide and I realized that it had been a stupid thing to say. A lot of Quakers (most Quakers?) consider themselves to be Christian, and so do I, I guess, by name. What I had meant was, I’m not that kind of Christian, all those Christians have something in common that Quakerism doesn’t have—but by the look on Jude’s face my pronouncement had been shocking. She must have thought I meant I was an atheist, or worse, Jewish.

“I’m Quaker,” I said. Jude shook her head and answered: “I have never heard of this.”

I hurried to explain: it’s a different kind of Christian. We don’t really follow, well, Jesus. (Well, at least not as divine. Like, he was a good guy. But so were a lot of people. But some Quakers believe in Jesus. Not me though, not that way, but it’s okay, nobody minds, I’m still just as much a Quaker as anybody else, or at least my Quakers would say so—)

“And what do you believe?” Jude asked, with real interest.

Quakerism is hard to explain without a language barrier. “We believe,” I said, “that really...big. And really complicated—” (oh, great, I thought, 500 years of religious philosophy boiled down to Quakerism: “it’s complicated” with God) “—and hard to understand.” My fingers were crossed, metaphorically, that this was wouldn’t sound like a total cop-out with regard to the Belief question.

I was surprised, and relieved, when her eyes lit up.

“That’s the same!” she said. “That’s what we believe! That God is great, the most great, and incredible. Always we say this first, that God is the most great.”

“I agree with you,” I said, relieved that we had established this most basic monotheistic similarity so quickly.

“What else?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “Quakers, we...well...because God is so great it would be impossible for any one person to ever...really understand, completely...”

(There are all these different levels to Quakerism. How far to take this? Your personal relationship with God, which is, maybe, your personal relationship with everything that’s God within yourself, and within everyone else, but that gets tricky so start with yourself, and maybe if you are good to others they will be good back but maybe not which is still okay, because being good to others is being good to yourself, too, and will make it easier to be Good in general, which comprises Integrity and treating everybody with Equality and brings you a little closer, maybe, to Truth.)

I told Jude that I had been raised, that Quakers believed (there was no way to go into the lack of creed. Absolutely no way) that there is truth in many religions, that we study many books and many prophets in the search for Truth.

“Did you study my religion?” Jude inquired, and as I said, “Yes, I have, a little,” I said a silent thank you to my mother for making me go to First Day School and to Gwen Zanin for allowing me to answer that question honestly.

“And do you think it’s true?”

I hesitated and then said: “Yes, a lot of it, and I think it’s beautiful,” which was both true and, apparently, satisfying to Jude, because the next thing she said was:

“I’m in the mood for a horror—let’s watch the Last Exorcist.”

I didn’t know if they would understand it if I joked that watching horror movies is against my personal religion, and I’m not sure it would have gone over well anyway. So we watched it, and when I got too scared we pressed pause and cooked popcorn on the stove and the kernels got stuck in our teeth and we went outside to play with a remote control helicopter that almost got stuck in the tall trees of Auntie Fatima’s courtyard, and afterwards, still high on the aftertaste of the horror, Ziad snuck up on Jude and made her shriek. All this—also the same.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

the low-down

It’s a good time to be studying politics in the Middle East. We’ve been lucky: protests that are largely peaceful, no violence that I’ve heard of—though the newspaper I work for is largely under the thumb of the Jordanian mukhabarat, and it's not impossible that if the government was taking a violent stance against protesters we'd be the last to say anything about it.

This week King Abdullah has made trips to Bedouin camps in Jordan--securing the base, I guess. Really, though, I don’t believe the government here is in any danger of real overhaul, given Abdullah’s popularity—both genuine and loyalty-induced. Black Iris says the same ( (Note: I love this blog, and it's a lot smarter than I am.)

That being said, the unrest that does exist in Jordan—and there’ve been weekly demonstrations since I got here, including one earlier today—has been the work of the Islamic Action Front, an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, that has a political base in Palestinian Jordanians, and hasn’t been thrilled with Jordan’s relations with Israel since the peace accord in 1997. Issues include: rising food prices, unequal employment opportunities for many Palestinian citizens, and peace ties with the United States, given that the US’s economic and diplomatic relationship with Israel.

The Islamic Action Front is very present on the Jordanian political scene, and has stayed that way by staying quiet. But now that the Muslim Brotherhood has officially joined the party in Egypt, and it looks like a second Middle Eastern leader is on his way out of power, who knows what reforms could be on the way for Jordan, fueled by the other recent successes? Demands: to be able to vote for prime minister, instead of having him be appointed by the King. Really, this is pretty reasonable, in contrast with Egyptian and Tunisian demands.

Reform in Jordan would mean louder voices of its Palestinian population. Could it mean a Jordan that takes a stronger hand in dealings with Israel? But the United States would never let that happen—and Jordan is tied too closely, economically, to the United States, to risk diplomatic ties. Maybe.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

overheard at the Jordan Times: a proper respect for the news of the day

Shukom: Did you see the football score?

Taylor: No, I was watching the Egyptian revolution.

Shukom: It was six to zero!

day in the life

8:27 a.m.: I wake up, and remember I’m in Jordan. It’s the eerie music box song of the petrol truck that does it, making its runs up and down Ridwhan Street, as it does several times every day. The only sound I can compare it to is the ice cream truck—but it’s nothing like the ice cream truck. I’ve gotten used to it enough that I hardly notice it during the day—but for now it’s still new enough to wake me up. I lay awake under orange blankets in my bed, trying to remember what day of the week it is.

8:30 a.m.: My alarm goes off. I get up, groggy, and dress for the gym.

8:45 a.m.: Ziad knocks on my door, calling me to breakfast. In the kitchen, Ruba pours sugary tea in to little glass cups as Aziza, my Jordanian mother, toasts pita over the flame of the gas stove. Rana is wrapped in a blanket on the couch, her face furrowed, moodily flipping through the channels of the TV, and Uncle Ahmed has been to the supermarket and back already, bringing fresh bread for the day.

Breakfast is a spread of hummus, falafel, scrambled eggs, olives, olive oil and zatar, tomatoes and creamy labneh, and we eat with pita forks from pita plates, everyone standing around the table in the sunny kitchen, chattering in Arabic while ripping apart the hot bread with their fingers. We will eat the same thing again for dinner, which won’t be until 9 or 10 that night, coming together before bed the way same we do when we first wake up.

breakfast. Clockwise: pita bread (khubez), ground thyme (zatar), tomatoes (banadoura), cheese (jibneh), olive oil (zeit). Jealous?

9: 15 a.m.: I go outside to catch a taxi to the gym—but Uncle Ahmed always offers to drive me, the way he does every day. He says that Duwar Sebha’a is on his way to somewhere or the other—but I’m pretty sure that he just goes back home after he drops me off. On the way, he points out landmarks to me and I stumble over the foreign words with a clumsy tongue that feels too big for my mouth. When we arrive outside the gym, I say thank you and Ahmed says goodbye.

9:30 a.m.: In the gym, they know my name and say, “marHaba, Anna,” when I come in and “thank you, Anna,” when I leave. I run on a treadmill by a window that looks out over the sloping mountains and wadis of Amman, the houses like stacked boxes up and over the hills, the domed mosques, and the narrow, winding streets. Five times a day the call to prayer echoes over these hills, haunting and unifying and moving, another sound that’s unlike anything I hear at home. In the distance the horizon is sharp and defined where city gives way to desert.

My neighborhood.

11: 30 a.m.: Sometimes I meet Kelly and Rhea at the gym, sometimes not; either way I end up afterwards at the coffee shop on the corner, sitting on the second story with my laptop, sipping tea and watching the traffic go by below. Last Thursday, Kelly, Rhea and I were joined here by a gaggle of teenagers who had just gotten out of school and come to smoke sheesha and drink something that looked suspiciously like a frappuchino.

1:00 p.m.: I am home, and if there isn’t cooking to help with then there are Turkish soap operas, dubbed in Arabic, to be watched.

My favorite is called “Forbidden Love” and I have no idea what it’s about—but there’s a lot of crying and it all seems very sad, as forbidden love usually is. The commitment to soap operas is it seems, quite a cultural phenomenon: all of our families watch them, and when the twelve of us from Earlham see each other later in the day we will compare notes and argue about whether Mohammad made a mistake or not.

Mohanned (left), the lover of Samar (middle) who is married to Anad (right) who is Mohanned's uncle. Drama.

2:00 p.m.: Lunch.

It’s the biggest meal of the day: recently we’ve been having mansaf, the national dish of Jordan. It’s boiled seasoned lamp with hot yogurt sauce on a bed of rice, parsley and nuts. It’s delicious, but incredibly heavy, and I drag myself through it, protesting when Aziza spoons more rice onto my plate before it’s even empty. At Jo Bedu, a t-shirt shop that apparently serves as the hipsters’ headquarters in Jordan, they have a shirt that says in white letters on a black background: I SURVIVED MANSAF. Now I know why. After mansaf, I usually need a nap, but instead I help Aziza do the dishes.

Mansaf. And yes, that is steaming hot yogurt sauce that's being poured over it. We also put more meat on top of the meat that's already there. The lady in the white t-shirt is my host sister, Rana; the lady in black is a family member whose name I embarrassingly enough cannot remember.

3:00 p.m.: At Ziad’s insistence, we watch another installment of the six disc long video of my oldest host sister’s wedding.

Rasha now lives in Venezuela with her husband Hassan and their seven-months-old daughter, Zahura, and if you have any questions about what happened at Rasha’s wedding, I can certainly answer them, because I am an expert. Note to IPO: I should probably get a couple of credits for this.

4:00 p.m.: I leave for Arabic.

The taxi landmark is Mukhtar Mall at Duwar Medina. I am now pretty much fluent in taxicab Arabic, especially turning down marriage proposals or spontaneous vacations to Aqaba with the cabbie, both of which are offered frequently.

My street.

I am in the five-thirty to seven Arabic class with Arielle, Leila, and Rachel—but all the other Earlham kids are in the four to five-thirty session, and I like to get there early in order to hang out at the Science and Technology Club, which we have rented out for classes. This is a good place to hang out because there is always hot tea, snacks, wireless, and, of course, the opportunity to discuss the Turkish soap operas with my fellow Earlhamites. We trade taxi stories and compare how much we were served to eat at lunch until five-thirty, when we go in for our class with Reema.

Reema is probably the best foreign language teacher I’ve ever had, or maybe I just feel that way because we’re doing easy things so far: for example, the alphabet. But Reema is also very stylish and beautiful, wearing outfits with color-coordinated ankle-length skirts, long sleeved cardigans, and patterned silk hijabs in jewel tones that always match her eyeshadow.

We have a good time in class. Leila has a fancy pen that records the lecture as she writes, and it has pros and cons. The pros are that it can upload her notes in her handwriting to her laptop and associate any point in the uploaded written notes with the corresponding point in the recorded lecture, all by magic; the major con is that knowing I’m being recorded puts me under pressure to be even funnier than usual, so I make a lot of bad jokes. Rachel, who is giggly, usually dissolves in to hysterics at any joke that I make, no matter how bad it is, and the result is gratifying but not conducive to the learning environment. Regardless, I am making progress in Arabic, mostly because my two options are a) make progress in Arabic or b) not communicate.

7:00 p.m.: Class lets out, and I hightail it to the Jordan Times, because I’m already late.

At the Times, I work with Rajiv, a design editor. Actually, I was a present from Ica, an editor, to Rajiv, to reward him for doing so much at the Times. The first time I met Ica I was a little terrified—she has tomato-red hair in an assymetrical bob and pointy-toed stilettos, and she looked at me over the top of her glasses the way newspaper editors always do in the movies.

“Well, Anna,” she said, “what am I going to do with you?”

I started rambling, telling her that I had experience with reporting, copy-editing, content-editing, InDesign, photo-editing—

“I know,” she said, interrupting me with a smile. It wasn’t a nice smile. “I’ll give you to Rajiv.”

Which is how I ended up doing proofreading and layout with Rajiv and Shukom in a little cubicle near the back of the office. Rajiv calls me Anna Kournikova and lays out pages at lightening speed while Shukom, complains about “Big Boss” and reads funny things from the Internet out loud.

Working at the Times has been humbling; the first morning I opened the paper and saw that one of the changes I had made the previous night hadn’t gone through, I felt a kind of visceral indignation—all the changes that I made to the Word always went in. This is, of course, because I have gone from the top of the newsroom food chain to the bottom, and am now an insignificant intern who has actually zero influence on what happens to the paper. So it’s humbling, and I’m learning a lot. But it is the most familiar place in Amman; walking in feels like going home. I’ve felt that way since I first walked in to meet Ica and talk about my hours: it’s comfortable and quiet but full of energy and the white noise of pages running off on the printer, smart people, and the smell of ink.

10:00 p.m.: I get to go home.

I’m too tired to really talk to the cab driver. Sometimes I will make up identities for myself, invent a husband and four children at home in Texas or a whirlwind tour of the cosmopolitan Middle East with my boss, an up and coming New York fashion designer. But at night, after work, tired and overwhelmed by trying to speak Arabic I’m usually just Anna, a student from Indiana.

When I get home, the entire family and sometimes some extras are gathered in the living room, all in their pajamas. If I have managed to make it home without needing to call for directions, they cheer for me when I come in the door. I change in to sweatpants and sit down with them in front of the television.

“Anna, are you hungry?” Ziad will ask me. “You want something to eat?”

“No thank you,” I say.

“Okay,” he says, and makes me a sandwich.

11:30 p.m.: I go to bed.

I’m the first one, every night—Ziad will be up until three or four. It’s cold in the house so I snuggle up under the three heavy blankets on my bed, still in my sweatpants and a heavy sweater. I cuddle up with my stuffed Ewok and check my email, Skype with Kaitlin or Rosa or, once a week, call my mom. I turn off the lights and fall asleep as the sound of the petrol truck driving away fades into the distance and Ziad, Eyad, Rana and Ruba chatter in Arabic from the living room.

Friday, January 21, 2011

the main event

A week ago, we met a friend of Bruce’s who works selecting students for the SIT Jordan program. In our discussion about the next three months, she related the most useful cultural observation I’ve heard since I got here: that students who come to Jordan are often very concerned with having an “authentic” Jordan experience. Don’t worry about this, she said: by virtue of being in Jordan, you have already achieved this. All of the experiences you have in Jordan are authentic. You don’t have to worry about riding a camel through the desert with the Bedouins unless you want to. (Which, by the way, I definitely do.)

This was very refreshing to me. I think there should be a word for the kind of culture shock that nobody ever talks about: the kind where you fly twelve hours and to a foreign land with a different language and religion and cuisine, having no idea what to expect, only to realize that, really, nothing is that different. A latte still costs three dollars in some places and one in others; taxi drivers are mean and frustrated when passengers don’t speak the language; I still get hooted at on the street and struggle not to make eye contact with the harassers; mothers fight with their daughters about how they dress. (Didn’t I have this same fight with my mother, like, two weeks before I left? Over a skirt, not a hijab, but isn't the principle the same?)

My point is that I think that maybe instead of lecturing us on all of the cultural do’s and don’ts of Jordan (they’ll stare because of your hair color, you’ll take showers that are too long and too hot, the music will be different and you will dress wrong, you’ll long for familiar food and wish you were home but don’t worry, it’s only three and a half months) the International Programs Office would have done better to shrug and say: some things will be different. You’ll see when you get there. Ask if you’re confused. Dress modestly and be polite, be aware of your surroundings and remember that the people are just people, and try to think of them that way even though you’re terrified. And aren’t all of these things we should be doing anyway?

(Note: it's completely possible that this WAS what IPO tried to tell us, and that I just totally freaked out for no reason. That is not beyond the realm of plausibility, especially given my propensity to freak out--in which case I'm coming a little bit late to this cultural-sensitivity- as-basic-human-courtesy party. But if that was the message they were trying to send us, I didn't get it. Only freak-out.)

It’s obvious that the biggest mistake I could make this semester would be to view the people I interact with as representative of AUTHENTIC JORDANIANS: CULTURAL DIFFERENCES, HOW QUAINT. After all, it would be bad news if I were viewed as representative of all global generalizations about Americans. That being said, there are some lifestyle differences between my host family and me, some small (they put the sugar in before the tea, or have I just been doing that backwards my entire life and I didn’t know?) and some huge and world-shaking (and this is my real observation for the day, thanks for reading through my four paragraphs of qualification) : no one here is ever alone.

This is what I want to write about today: the group mentality, the value that my host family and all of their relatives seem to place on always being together. This is especially true in the house. I will go to my room to read or study or just exist—but no one else will, and after a few minutes someone will come to find me, Ziad offering coffee or tea in the salon, or to show me something in a photo album or a magazine. Part of this is probably that I am a guest and my isolation is interpreted as unhappiness, but I think that maybe isolation is interpreted as unhappiness in everyone here, not only moody foreign exchange students.

I have noticed this phenomenon outside of the house, too. It’s true at the gym, where the women at the check-in desk is never at the check-in desk—she’s always having coffee with the woman from the other desk, getting up to swipe my card before returning to her conversation. It’s true in Al Balad, where woman travel in packs through the vegetable souk or teenaged girls in tight tank tops run their hands over rows of pashminas, gossiping. (When I first noticed this I thought of going to Tyson’s with Clarissa, how easily we drift apart inside a store, calling each other’s cells from the dressing room when we need an opinion.) On the rare occasion where I have noticed someone alone on the street they are on their cell phones, and even taxi drivers are constantly leaning out their windows to yell to one another, chatting at red lights.

This value was reflected in the work of Abdul Hay Mosallam, a Palestinian artist who works primarily in condensed sawdust on wooden backgrounds, whose exhibit we saw at the National Gallery during our first Contemporary art and Culture class. In his works he depicts the culture and tragedy of the Palestinian people. Some of his symbolism is on the subtle side...

and some is less so:

It’s rare that someone is alone in his depictions, and when someone is, they are weeping. They are not individuals but masses, feeling common emotions, grieving or celebrating together, and the pictures were richer and more vibrant for it. The sense I get is that this is a society where people interact with people; other people are the main event.

One last image to solidify this impression: at the wedding of Sakher and Samah, which I attended on my first night with my host family, I watched one hundred and fifty people dance until 2:30 in the morning. They were all screaming, clapping, dancing (and all 100% sober!) shrieking with excitement and genuine, tangible, electric pleasure to be together.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

the food

When Rana, my host sister, asked if I wanted a sandwich, I answered with what I thought was a stunning “la, ana ma joann” (no, I’m not hungry). She brought me one anyway, a demonstration of either the impossible generosity of the Jordanian people or just how terrible my Arabic is.

The thing is, it’s probably the former, and quite frankly it is getting out of control: I have been full since I got to Jordan. Because of this—the undeniable importance of food in Jordanian culture—I think it’s probably important to step back from critical social and cultural analysis and talk about something important: food.

On the first real night on the program, at the Granada Hotel, we twelve Earlhamites ate dinner in the hotel restaurant. Bruce, our program leader, had told us before he left to have a quiet meal of his own at his flat that the owener of the Granada, a friend of his, had prepared a special meal just for us. So at eight p.m. we assembled in the restaurant, Rachel, Kelly, Rhea, Leila, Rossa, Arielle, Bill, Tyler, Simon, Ikram, Eric and I, waiting expectantly like little puppy dogs at the table, panting and drooling a little as the servers filed in and we buckled down for our first real meal in Jordan.

It was beyond description: fresh hummus and baba ganouj and falafel and hot, puffed up pita bread and a salad with tomatoes, cucumber, olives, and the lightest, saltiest feta cheese I have ever tasted. Everything was fantastic; it was the best of everything. We stuffed ourselves, asking for more pita to clean our plates and washing everything down with mint and lemon juice, a Jordanian drink that is addictive. When the server, a tall, skinny man with a perpetually concerned look on his mustached face, came back out to clear our plates, we chimed a chorus of sated gratitude.

“Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed the appetizers,” he said, looking genuinely relieved, as his team whisked away our plates and replaced them with fresh ones.

Leila said: “You’re joking, right?”

The server gave a little bow. I am almost certain that he has never told a joke in his life.

The second course was chicken and rice with onions and cucumber and yogurt sauce. I barely made it, and keep in mind that I am actually famous for being able to eat my weight in, for example, burritos from La Mexicana. What I’m trying to say is, I am not an amateur when it comes to eating—but Granada hotel had me beat. After the entree came tea and dessert, a flaky pastry wrapped around sweet cheese, at which point Rachel sat back in her chair, rubbed her stomach, looked at her watch and declared: “It’s nine-thirty. We have been eating for an hour and a half.”

Somehow, we dragged our round bellies up three flights of stairs, and all twelve of us collapsed on one bed, in Eric and Ikram’s room. “What do you want to do tonight?” someone asked.

“Sleep,” eleven other voices groaned.

I remember that night as the night that my jet lag was completely cured. Not even a seven-hour time change could fight through that much food to keep me awake.

It’s not just at meals, though. Whether it’s pistachio ice cream on the street, a cup of hot sahlab (milk custard with coconut and cinammon) for 500 fils in the souk, or crunchy Lebanese bread filled with salty, rich cheese, bought on the side of the road and eaten in the sunshine in the center of Duwar Itanyi on Jabel Amman, Jordan is delicious. I plan to continue eating this way for the next three and a half months. I also plan to join a gym pretty promptly.

Oh, and by the way, I ate the sandwich— the one Rana bought me. It was a hot chicken shawarma with pickles and tomatoes—and seeing as, since Rana had already gone to the trouble of the buying it, therefore eating the sandwich basically made me a martyr and thus any accumulated calories would not count (that’s true) I just did it. Surprise: it was the best decision I had made all day.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

the Jordanian state of mind

At around five-fifteen p.m., which was my ten a.m., the captain came over the loudspeaker and announced that we were flying over the holy city of Jerusalem. All around the plane there was anxious movement: we were reaching the last twenty minutes of what had been a twelve-hour flight.

When we descended over the West Bank, Ani, my Palestinian seatmate, leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder. “You can see the settlements,” he said, and then sat back in his seat so I could look out the window. From the sky the camps were little black boxes littered in the sand, like something someone had carelessly spilled and then forgotten about.

“They’re illegal,” Ani said, “but that doesn’t really mean anything to anyone.”

Then we were over the Dead Sea and our descent had quickened so only a little bit of cloud was between the plane and the windy water, and then the rocky brown landscape stretched out in front of me, and I had my first sight of the Middle East.

When we landed, the flight attendant came on and said, “Welcome to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” and the plane burst into applause, because so many of the people on the plane that had taken me 6000 miles from my home had finally brought them back to theirs.

Nour, whose brother owned the hotel where our program orientation was held, met me outside Queen Alia International Airport with a sign said “Earlham College” and then my name. In the car conversation was sparse, but between my broken Arabic and his little bit of English, we cobbled together a language we could both understand.

“You’re going to Petra?” he asked. “Wadi Rum? the Dead Sea?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” I answered. At this point I was so manically excited to finally be in Jordan that my exhaustion had disappeared. “I can’t wait.”

“Petra is very beautifully,” he said approvingly, and then added, “When you go swimming in the Dead Sea, you can see Palestine on the other side. You can see the Israelis on the other side.” He let go of the steering wheel and mimed holding a rifle, firing it.

The conflict is everywhere: our tour guide at Hercules’ temple at the citadel on top of Jabal Qalal dropped in comments about Israel and Palestine in between the Ammonites and the Romans. On the street, vendor stands are named “Jerusalem Falafel,” or “Jerusalem Coffee” or even “Jerusalem Refrigerators” and the “Jerusalem” is a clear sign that the owners are Palestinian. And at Yalla Talk, where we sat in a circle with two Muslim men and four Muslim women, all in hijab, we were encouraged to share openly on every aspect of our religious beliefs and questions—until one student on the program suggested that perhaps “tolerance” was too reserved, too quietly hateful, a thing to aim for when it came to Jordan’s relationships with Judaism. It became immediately clear that friendship with Jewish people was out of the question.

“You need to put yourself in a Jordanian state of mind,” one of the men explained. “Tolerance is a huge step for us. You don’t know what it’s been like.”

I opted to take Political Economy of the Middle East instead of Conflict Resolution, but I have a feeling that this conflict, which is everywhere, on every street corner and everyone’s mind, all of the time, will define my studies here. Some fast facts: 75% of Jordan’s population is Palestinian refugees; 92% is Muslim; 70% is under the age of 30; 50% is under 15. The population of Amman will soon reach 4 million, and we know that there have been people here for as far back as history will take us. From home in Indiana and Virginia, these facts are what I had. The conflict is interesting, puzzling, and of course tragic—but I underestimated the effect that this proximity to it would have on me. I never really got it. I never really understood Nour, and the Israeli soldiers with guns on the far side of the Dead Sea.