Sunday, February 21, 2010

Petra: Bedouins, a snowball fight and a wonder of the world

The Roman Ampitheatre at Petra

Many tourists breeze through Jordan in a day or two, and nearly every single one hits up the ancient city of Petra, one of the seven New Wonder of the World. A few weeks into my semester here, our program took us on an Arabic-only trip to Shobak, home of a crumbling Crusader castle; Little Petra; and PETRA, one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Our trip, in bullet points:

- Shobak: Shobak castle was one of my first castles, but nonetheless wasn’t terribly impressive. We wandered around the grounds with not many other tourists around – save for a very well-dressed British family – and checked out a really dark and creepy passage hidden down a staircase; the Crusaders collected water in the hole, which descends hundreds of steps into the ground. Oh yeah, it had snowed the week before across much of Jordan, leaving strangely out-of-lace white patches across hillside on the desert.

Flannery and her snowball during our epic desert snowball fight. Bet you can’t say you’ve done that before.

Shobak, or what's left of it

Looking up at some ruins at Shobak.

- Little Petra: Apparently our guides didn’t think we could handle the real thing on the first day, so our group ventured over to Little Petra, a smaller version of the fabled town with facades and caves carved into towering, jagged cliffs. A Bedouin man played some tunes for us on a traditional instrument (I forget the name). As we left, another Bedouin dude tried to cajole us into buying cool designs in bottles of sand: “Buy one for your wife … and one for your second wife.” Those words were exactly what my friend Virginia’s guidebook said we’d hear from the Bedouin at Little Petra, haha.

Warming up for the real thing at Lil' Petra, home of many carved-rock staircases.

- Petra Kitchen: After settling into our fancy-shmancy hotel (read: they had a pool) for the evening, the Arabic Language kids and the two professors accompanying us (yes, you read that correctly) headed over to Petra Kitchen, a very classy little restaurant where tourists help cook their own traditional Arab dinner as they learn about the dishes and eat with the Jordanian chefs. Five of us sat at a table with a nice British family and a couple from D.C.; we subsequently got admonished for speaking so much English when we were supposed to only speak Arabic (LAME.). Afterward, my friendly Jordanian professors invited four random guests onto the bus for a crazy ride back to the hotel, during which one of the randos serenaded us with a song by the Lebanese diva Fairouz, promising he had only had “shay” to drink that night.

Tasting the tabbouleh salad for which I chopped vegetables.

- Petra: For those of you who haven’t been, it’s tough to describe in words how cool Petra is. Actually, correction: it’s tough to describe in Arabic words to non-Arabic speakers how cool Petra is. That’s exactly what our Arabic-speaking tour guide attempted to do. He was pretty good, actually, although I didn’t understand much; I did learn how to say “ancient burial site” and “water canals” in Arabic, though. Useful, right?

The Treasury in sweet morning sunlight.

Anyway, Petra was absolutely spectacular. The area for thousands of years B.C.E. had been populated by farming communities and traders, and eventually became a key stop on a trade route between the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian empires. It popped up a bit in the Bible, too, as Kings David and Solomon jockeyed for control of the area; Moses’ brother Aaron died near there, and a shrine to him sits atop a nearby mountain. Around the sixth century B.C.E., the Nabateans settled the valley at Petra and began to carve marvelous caves and facades into the tall, jagged, impenetrable cliffs that protect the area from outsiders. Over the next 1,500 years or so, the Nabateans operated a flourishing trading post heavily influenced by the Romans. By the 13th century C.E., Petra was practically deserted.

We woke up pretty early and arrived before the first tour groups, catching the Treasury, the main attraction, in beautiful early-morning light. We then wandered a few kilometers through the valley – which is narrow in some places but wider in most – and hiked for around 45 minutes to the Monastery, which was more amazing than the Treasury. After a delicious lunch at a restaurant within the grounds, we explored the different facades and climbed random pathways, discovering ancient, man-made caves and more modern Bedouin people sleeping on rocks.

Woah. The Monastery.

The Monastery from close up.

A donkey, seen from behind, checks out what one sign called the “Grand Canyon” -- it was near the Monastery. Come to think of it, the valley was actually pretty big and red, and there were a bunch of French tourists there. Maybe we were actually in Arizona?

- Bedouin kids + postcards: Speaking of Bedouin, the recent history of Petra is fascinating, too. As recently as maybe 30 years ago, there was practically no limits on entering Petra, and tourists regularly slept inside Petra’s ancient caves alongside their Bedouin hosts. In the 80s, the government moved the Bedouin tribe living in petra to a newly built village a few kilometers away, but today, their presence (and that of other nearby tribes) permeates the valleys and trails of Petra. And by permeating, I mean there are tons of little kids and older women hawking postcards, handmade jewelry and souvernirs throughout the archaeological grounds. True to our goal of befriending Jordan’s entire youth population, Adam and I met a nice little girl who was selling packs of postcards while playing among ancient ruins – that latter of which is clearly a popular pastime in this country. She couldn’t have been more than maybe eight years old, and told us about how much she loved Obama; she didn’t know who Bush was!

As always, there are way more photos on Facebook, as well as two additional ones below. Also, some from a daytrip this past weekend to the Dead Sea, Jordan-style.

A big tomb at Petra. Basically everything that wasn't a monastery, a church or a treasury was a tomb.

...strike that -- there was an elephant, too! Go Jumbos!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

“Please do not be surprised if you hear shooting,” and other funny occurrences

Random things that have happened in my life over the past couple weeks:

1. Tawjihi results:

I received the following U.S. Embassy announcement via e-mail a week and a half ago:
Subject: Tawjihi Celebrations – February 6, 2010
On Saturday, February 6th, the Jordanian Ministry of Education intends to release the interim results of the high-school exam (the Tawjihi). Families throughout Amman often celebrate when the results are announced, and for some the celebration is exuberant. Groups of young adults may drive around in cars blowing horns, and some individuals may shoot into the air. The direct threat is minimal, but traffic can be congested. Please do not be surprised if you hear shooting.
Remember that I don’t have Internet in my apartment over the weekend, so of course I didn’t see this until too late. Thus, when I actually did hear shooting and fireworks – quite close to my house, in fact – I was a bit surprised. But my host grandparents quickly explained what was going on, so all was well. My host grandmother said that the government forbids that type of dangerous celebration, but that our neighbors were “from the village,” thus explaining their disdain for the law and the general mayhem in the streets.

The Tawjihi’s pretty freaking intense. The results – and those numbers alone – determine where you go to college, what majors you can choose from, basically what you can do in life. Hence the freaking out with guns and parties when high-school students find out how they did. One more note: This year the government’s computers screwed up a significant number of the results. More chaos ensued.

2. City Mall:

There are a couple huge, Western shopping malls in Amman. The two big ones are Mecca Mall and City Mall, the latter of which I went to with a Jordanian friend a couple weeks ago. It was strange how similar it was to malls in the U.S. Granted, there were many more hijabs and other types of more conservative dress, but otherwise the teenagers looked and acted the same. A lot of the same stores, too.
Note below that there was an Adidas sale at the 3rd floor during my visit.

City Mall, where the youths go on the weekend

3. Christianity:

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve attended a wedding at an Orthodox church, a Free Evangelical Christian church service and a program at a church where my extended family’s singing group (or “praise team”) performed for a ton of people. It’s fascinating not only to see what my family’s stream of Christianity is like, but even more so, how a religious minority expresses itself in this overwhelmingly Muslim country. From what I’ve experienced, Christians are very comfortable practicing their religion in private, and they speak well of relations between them and Muslims. And churches, Christian bookstores and other symbols are definitely visible around town. Still, there is a clearer division between private and public life for non-Muslims in Jordan.

4. You think D.C. has been hit hard by winter weather? Think again:

The day after our "snow day."

5. The license plate game:

Countries I’ve seen: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia (a lot!), Oman, Yemen, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (various emirates) and Kuwait. Among the KFC’s and Burger Kings visible around Amman, it’s unbelievably easy to forget you’re surrounded by countries with State Department travel warnings. Jordan is kind of like an oasis.

6. The search for the dried alligator:

My friend Adam and I spent a good part of the day last Saturday exploring downtown Amman, or Al-Balad. We wandered into an old building restored by a Jordanian philanthropist called “the Duke,” who of course happened to be there; they wouldn’t let us leave without giving us tea. Next came the obligatory visit to the main mosque, which actually wasn’t too exciting or eye-catching; a stroll through a really sweet fruit and vegetable market; wandering down an alley filled, surprisingly, with lingerie shops; and a fruitless, hour-long search for a traditional Arabic medicine stall that Adam’s Lonely Planet guidebook said had a dried alligator hanging from the ceiling.

Hashem's Restaurant has some of the best falafel and ful in town. You sit in an alley and get a handful of falafel balls, a big bowl of fresh hummus, chopped onions and tomatoes and really, really sweet tea. Maybe you share a table with another random diner?
Total cost: $2.10

We finally ended up atop
Jebel al-Qal’a (Citadel Hill), the highest point in downtown Amman and a site with ruins thousands of years old, not to mention a bunch of little kids playing hide-and-seek among them. Way cooler than the playground back in the day at JDS. We, of course, befriended the kids and impressed them with our command of the local tongue (see below). In addition to the photos here, there's a bunch more up on Facebook.

Humans first settled Jebel al-Qal’a more than 18,000 years ago. The ancient city Rabbath Ammon, which was located on top of the hill and now lends its name to modern Amman, is even mentioned in the Bible (trust me, I read the story last week before I went). The views -- on all sides -- are sweet.

The Roman Temple of Hercules towers above the city.

A partially restored mosque among the ruins of an Umayyad palace at Jebel al-Qal'a.

Best way to practice Arabic ever.

Aaaaand this weekend, I went to Petra – blog post/pictures coming soon! First, gotta study for two vocab quizzes…

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Yom 'aadi fi hayaati = A regular day in my life

I’m finally beginning to settle into a regular routine, which is nice considering the hardest part of moving to a new country and living with a new family has been creating constants in my daily schedule. While many things are similar to the States, even familiar activities like going to the gym are a little different (read: weights measured in kilograms instead of pounds, not to mention significantly more Jordanian meatheads here than at the Rockville JCC). What follows is the schedule I’ve followed so far, but I’m not completely comfortable with it, mainly because it’s missing something important: free, personal, alone time (preferably with Internet).

I wake up bright and early every morning and maybe three seconds later a rush of the frigid, stagnant air in my room welcomes me to the absolute worst part of my day, by far: getting dressed. To say that my bedroom is cold in the morning is an understatement. Take whatever temperature it is outside, add maybe 15 degrees, and that’s my room temperature (or at least that’s what it feels like). For reference, the outside temperature dipped below freezing the other night. I swear I kind of saw my breath yesterday morning.

So much food.

Next, after a breakfast of pita, cheeses, zaytar (a spice), olive oil, apricot jam, vegetables, tea and, if I’m lucky, ful, hummus or falafel (all arranged/cooked for me by my host grandfather), I hail a taxi from near my house and take the 15- to 20-minute ride to the University of Jordan. Every morning I sit through two hours of Modern Standard Arabic (fosha), which is pretty freaking difficult; the professor’s good and we’re being taught the language the way it’s supposed to be taught – through literature and poetry – but it’s tough having 10 hours of the class a week.

The wonderful view from our basement classroom. Fosha takes place in the basement of the behemoth engineering building, intentionally hidden away from all the English spoken at the language buildings on the other side of campus. It’s cold and dreary there.

Moving on. After that class I generally have some free time, in which I do some combination of the following: (1) homework; (2) use the Internet; (3) eat the lunch that my host grandfather packs for me daily – it generally consists of four pita-and-cheese/zaytar sandwiches, a cucumber and an apple and/or orange; or (4) go to a delicious restaurant near the school and get some kind of dirt-cheap falafel/hummus/meat/shawarma/chicken/tomato/pickle combination. I’m also going to start meeting with a Jordanian student “peer tutor,” ba’ad shway (=after a little while). Wow, I actually thought of that phrase in Arabic before I did in English. Sweet.

Ba’adein (=afterward – did it again!), I have a little less than two hours of either electives or colloquial Jordanian. My electives consist of Contemporary Arab Media (of course) and Creative Writing. All of my professors are very, very smart – or so they seem – and are actually pretty good at teaching. They tend to combine American and Arab styles of instruction to different degrees; there’s been a much greater emphasis on memorization of vocabulary, for example, but, like my Arabic teachers at Tufts, they repeatedly plea with students to ask questions and interrupt them whenever we don’t understand something. We also take this once-a-week, half-credit class called Interpersonal Communication, taught in English by an American study abroad-program staff member.

The main gate at the University of Jordan. They don't really ID foreigners -- it's like reverse racial profiling.

After classes, I go to either (1) the gym; (2) some nearby café to use the Internet and do homework with other people; or (3) TAGKS, a fancy computer lab near the university to which all the kids on my program have access. Upon returning home in the late afternoon/early evening, my host grandmother heats up dinner for me and I generally eat alone (they eat earlier, around 4:30 p.m. or so). Then I do homework; shower; have tea, cookies and sweets; and eat at least one orange and generally an apple, too – peeled and cut by my host grandfather. Note: Jordanians love to put different spices or flavorings or whatever in their tea; I’ve tried nana (mint) and muramiya (a kind of minty leaf), among other things. And when I do homework, my host grandparents love to help – although my host grandfather did tell me the other day that the last time he took a fosha class was in 1950.

Shockingly, I go to bed before 2 or 3 a.m., my normal bedtime at Tufts – sometimes as early as midnight! In addition to learning the Arabic language and interpersonal communication and such, coming to Jordan has taught me the value of sleep. When basically the entire day is mentally exhausting, all I want to do is sleep, sleep, sleep.

A few quick, final notes:

  • Personal time does not exist here. You’re expected to give the family “face time,” especially when you arrive home, even if the TV is on. People love to just chill together in the living room. Also, they told us during orientation that people think you’re weird if you study or hang out alone in your bedroom, so basically I’m always chillin’ with the fam in the main room. It’s kind of suffocating not having personal time; I’m always with friends or family, and my Skype and telephone conversations usually take place in public areas.
  • Internet: I thought it’d be great not to have Internet access, a BlackBerry, constant e-mail, etc., but frankly it’s just kind of annoying when I want to get stuff done or look something up in the evenings and I can’t. I don’t have Internet at home, although the other day I discovered that my host grandparents’ sons, who live in the same building, do. So it’s off and on, but definitely not enough.
  • Curfew: I have a curfew of 10 p.m. every day, although I think I might be able to negotiate that one. Some people have even earlier ones!

Sorry this post was boring. Up next: fun/crazy things that happened over the past week, and Petra!

Main road leading in from the front gate at UJ.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

To the 7th Circle, and yalla!

Actual conversation with a taxi driver one morning last week (translated from colloquial Arabic!):

Me: “Good morning, how are you?”

Taxi driver: “Good morning, praise be to God.”

Me: “To the University of Jordan, please.”

Taxi driver: “Ok… Where are you from?”

Me: “America.”

Taxi driver: “Ahhh! U.S.A.! What’s your name?”

Me: “My name’s Ben.”

Taxi driver: “…Ehhh… In U.S.A., your name is Ben. In Jordan, your name is… Abdullah!”

Much like elsewhere in the region, private taxi rides in Amman are insanely cheap and really crazy cultural experiences. Everyone in the city seems to hate taxi drivers (in Jordanian colloquial, taxi driver = “shoofeyrr”). They basically overcharge people who are clearly foreigners, driving them a longer route than necessary and running up the meter. They’re also super sleazy. Guys are expected to sit in the front passenger seat to show respect to the driver, and girls are supposed to sit in the back lest the shoofeyrr think that they’re coming onto them. Granted, that’s a cultural thing that doesn’t necessarily reflect the drivers’ sketchballiness, but I have heard stories of some drivers grabbing girls’ legs and making inappropriate comments to women (I’ve maybe seen one female driver in three weeks here). Seriously, drivers? But still, it’s unfair to imply that all shoofeyrrs are bad people. One the other night presented a 15-minute monologue about the importance of studying other cultures, how religion and money fuel wars and how people just want a comfortable life free of strife in the short time they have here on Earth.

I take a taxi to and from the University of Jordan every weekday, as well as on the weekends and sometimes in the evenings, so I’ve met many a driver. Most of them have been pretty quiet, but sometimes they’re big talkers. A lot of them live in lower-income East Amman; one shoofeyrr told me he lived in a Palestinian refugee camp in the city. Speaking of that guy, he also told me that people used to live where the Dead Sea is but that God flipped the earth there because the people were practicing homosexuality. That one came out of nowhere. You just have to kind of nod in those situations and change the subject (those situations = when strangers bring up politics, religion or other touchy topics). And, really, who knows if that’s what he actually said, because I don’t actually speak Arabic. Whatever.

To hail a cab, you stick out your hand and maybe a finger or two. A cab is never far away, though – they constantly beep at pedestrians, like them alerting you to their presence would make you more likely to jump into one. Street names are a new phenomenon in Amman and most people still don’t use them, so you first just tell the driver the neighborhood you’re traveling to and then, when you get closer, give him more specific landmarks directions and landmarks.

My 20-minute cab ride to the University of Jordan costs the equivalent of about $2.10, which is awesome. I think I’ve only been actually ripped off once, although “overcharging” you means the trip would cost maybe 50 cents more. That’s a lot for people who make an average of $1,200 a year – taxi drivers even less than the national median income – but not really for the tourists they’re ripping off. So sometimes I feel like I need to step back and realize that arguing over a quarter-dinar (35 cents) is pretty stupid and unnecessary.

Riding in taxis is above all a cultural and linguistic test that I hope I can master in the short time I’m here. As Tala, the one Jordanian person I know at Tufts, recently told me, “Maneuvering taxis in Amman is an art.” More like a ridiculous crash course (no pun intended) in not looking like a tourist, knowing the intricacies of city neighborhoods, speaking colloquial Arabic and holding on for dear life when a traffic circle is near.

And sometimes there’s the added component of just surviving a hilarious, wacky driver. Coming home from a café last week, this kid my age picked me up in his cab. First, he saw the two girls from my program I was with and asked why I didn’t want to “take them home to my house,” wink wink. Then, he proceeded to tell me he was studying in Saudi Arabia to be a fighter pilot and that he had traveled to America to learn “spoken American English” – not the type they teach in the classroom. I figured this could be legit, but the first red flag came when he told me he spent three months in MILWAUKEE of all places, just chilling and learning to pronounce words like “water” as “warer.” Then he let go of the wheel for like 10 seconds and showed me a business card in Arabic with “Meelwakee” and “Weescunson” written on the back. Proof he was in the Midwest! After I convinced him to grab the wheel and drive the car, we arrived home safely. Alhamdullilah.

P.S. I wrote this post two nights ago, and yesterday I had yet another, let’s say, enlightening, taxi experience along with a friend. On the way to downtown Amman in the morning, our driver told us (1) that he has family in Chicago; (2) that the Jews killed Jesus and are taking over the world; and (3) that “Hashem’s” restaurant, our destination, has some of the best food the city. Definitely an “Uh huh, uh huh, yalla…” moment…

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Snow Day!

Today is the most comfortable and at-home I’ve felt since I’ve temporarily moved to Amman. Why? Because we had a snow day on account of just a little slush and drizzle! Basically the same as Montgomery County Public Schools, always ready to cancel classes when they feel a quarter-inch of snow might fall the next day. Today reminds me of one winter day in maybe 10th grade when MCPS cancelled school the day before and all that happened was like an hour or two of rain. And today is Thursday, which means we have a long weekend (weekend here = Friday and Saturday).

Look hard and see if you can see if you can spot the reason classes were canceled today.

The two tallest buildings in Jordan, experiencing the beautiful weather.

A day off is also nice considering the past few weeks have been so mentally exhausting. My program is one of two run by the same company here; mine has 14 students and all of the classes are in Arabic, and the other has maybe 90 kids with some of the classes in English. My group takes a language pledge, which on paper means we speak Arabic all of the time except for maybe a couple hours a week. If the powers that be (i.e. the professors and program staff) hear us speaking English, we get a warning and lower grades. In practice, though, we speak way more English, at least for now. It’s extremely difficult getting to know people only speaking rudimentary Arabic, and my command of spoken Arabic – which is quite different from the formal Arabic I’ve been learning for five semesters – was next to nothing when I got here. Turns out the vocabulary from the story I read in Arabic 4 about 14th-century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta isn’t too useful in day-to-day life. So, at least at the beginning, we kind of speak Arabic in the morning and during classes, and at cafés and other places outside class, we turn to a mix of Arabic and English, or just plain English. Hopefully conversing in Arabic will come more easily in the future. I am actually already picking up a lot.

My general rule is that I talk to all Jordanians only in Arabic. Not to sound cliché, but when I step outside of the classroom, that’s when I feel like I’m really learning. Taxi drivers, store owners, asking people for directions – that’s where you really pick up the useful vocab and expressions, the latter of which always seem to involve Allah (i.e. “May God give you strength,” when you get out of a taxi). Colloquial Arabic and formal Modern Standard Arabic (hereby referred to as “‘amiyya” and “fosha,” respectively), are pretty different. ‘Amiyya is used in everyday life, while fosha is used on the news, in books, in advertisements, on signs, etc. – basically most things that are written. While much of the vocab is the same between the two, ‘amiyya is a lot more lax with respect to grammar and pronunciation. A lot of words are slurred together or are said more quickly, with less attention paid to vowel sounds, and most of the poetic grammatical structures I’ve been studying over the last couple semesters have become irrelevant. Most importantly, verbs are conjugated differently, and some key verbs are just completely different words in ‘amiyya. I haven’t learned all the tenses in ‘amiyya yet so it’s been hard. When I talk, it’s a combination of fosha and ‘amiyya, and in response sometimes people just chuckle and try to dust off their fosha from grade school. Most people can understand fosha; when they respond in ‘amiyya, though, I can’t always understand them. So they might just respond in English, because its easier for them to do that than speak in the archaic language that is fosha (which is hilarious to think about). I tell them “baas ‘arabi” – “only Arabic” – and then when I speak I sound like I’m speaking an old, Qur’anic tongue (because I am!). Whatever – people really like that an American is trying to learn Arabic. My host grandfather told me that learning Arabic was like swimming in a large sea of complicated words and expressions.

An example of the proliferation of the English language in Amman.

In addition to interacting with other Jordanians, I only speak Arabic to my host family. It’s really frustrating because my host grandfather speaks English fluently, as do most of their kids – one of whom attended college in the U.S. – and I really want to participate in their conversations but can’t to a great extent at this point. My host grandmother is a teacher, though, and two of their daughter-in-laws teach fosha to Jordanian elementary- and high-schoolers, so they’re all about speaking Arabic to me and helping with my homework. In fact, I’ve been surprised in general about how willing people are in terms of speaking Arabic to me and being patient with me. I think they just appreciate a foreigner’s willingness to come to Amman and study Arabic.

I shall leave you with this photo from the café I’m in now, called The Good Book Shop. Devin and I only just realized that it’s a Christian book shop, despite being surrounded for a couple hours by self-help books, Bibles and books about cocktails (i.e. alcohol – forbidden in Islam). This is a ridiculous book:

Welcome to the Middle East.

P.S. After talking to other members of my group, it apparently is actually snowing around the city. But not really that much. The weather here seems to be like Jerusalem, which is also located at a higher elevation and is only like an hour away.