Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Middle School: The Sequel

Big backpacks, curfews, tons of class time, boys and girls giggling in their own gender-specific groups, notebooks with pictures flowers and babies and animals, driving to school in the morning and returning to your parents in the evening, bathrooms for teachers only, security guards who stop kids from having fun, rules about clothing and where you can sit and where you can walk.

Remember that time that you were in middle school? I do – because I’m reliving it right now! This whole semester has felt like I’m repeating those years, from living at home and commuting to school for the day, to having all my classes with the same people, to getting stared at constantly by students who have nothing better to do than sit with kids of their same gender and goof off between classes.

The University of Jordan, the host institution for my study-abroad program, is the premier institution of higher education in Jordan, with around 40,000 students (I think), graduate programs galore, a big library, a hospital and various research centers. Its leafy campus also contains maybe half of all of Jordan’s trees. Coincidentally, its long tree-lined avenues, assorted snack and coffee huts, gated entrances and a variety of other features make it look somewhat like an amusement park or former zoo. And for some unknown, bizarre reason, I would say that approximately 99 percent of the bathrooms are locked all of the time, or at least when I want to use them. Why? Who knows. My guess is it has something to do with not being able to pay to maintain them, or maybe because the administration thinks the students will dirty them up (in all seriousness, it’s probably the latter).

It’s been difficult to delve too much into the world of UJ students, but from what I’ve picked up after four months observing and interacting with them, it seems to me that there’s a serious lack of student activities and organizations. While there are sports facilities, I’ve never actually heard of a soccer game being played. Unlike at universities in the States, students here don’t have a plethora of clubs to choose from, and I don’t think there’s any real student union building or campus center. Kids just chill outside with their friends. A walk through campus will take you past dozens of small same-sex groups of students wandering about, wasting time until their next class starts. Seeing guys and girls walking together is pretty common, but the vast majority of the time there’s not too much social mixing. But it’s certainly not like male and female students – even the most religious – are afraid to talk to each other – they all do, in fact, interact all the tim. But it’s in the social/dating sphere, where there are definitely divisions for most students.

And the parking lots at UJ aren’t just for parking cars: If a male-female couple wants some privacy to talk, smoke or just hang out together, then they find a place on the curb in a parking lots and plop down between two cars out of view of passers-by. All of this awkward social interaction is a function of a society in which not much mixing occurs between the sexes prior to college; all of the government schools are gender specific. So social interactions for most students – but definitely not all (there are plenty of students who interact with the other sex just like Western students would) – can often mirror those that take place in the hallowed halls of American middle schools from coast to coast.

In terms of clothing, most guys wear relatively tight pants, and a collared shirt or at least a nice graphic tee. Most girls, meanwhile, wear a hijab (headscarf), but the degree of modesty varies from there. Girls tend to dress somewhat conservatively, but you’re just as likely to see short sleeves as you are a niqab (covering everything except the eyes). A girl wearing a hijab might wear a figure-hiding overcoat, while another hijab-wearing girl might wear a tight shirt and leggings. Overall, students dress pretty sharp and snazzy. See the variety for yourself:

(Sorry for the poor quality – I have a slow Internet connection here.)

The biggest mystery with regard to Jordanian students is where the hell they put all their books. Almost every guy only carries around, at most, one or two notebooks or books; any more, and he’s most likely a foreign student (and probably an American from my program). Girls almost always carry around a big purse with a couple notebooks or whatever in it. In short, backpacks are almost as rare as sexual freedom at UJ. It’s kind of frustrating being one of the only students with a big backpack; despite my dressing like a Jordanian, I’m bound to stand out as a foreigner.

Another major part of my perception of Jordanian students is their absurdly hilarious t-shirts with English phrases and words. The vast majority of young Jordanians love American culture and speaking English, and there’s nothing more hip and cool than having a sweet t-shirt with an American colloquialism. Unfortunately, many young Jordanians’ command of English doesn’t go much further than a level comparable to that found on the often awkward and incorrect Google Translate, and some haven’t yet discovered spell-check. This means that that cool American saying on your nifty t-shirt might actually be a horrible butchering of something some t-shirt manufacturer once heard on MTV but later forgot half of and made up the rest. Other t-shirts feature phrases that are grammatically correct but bizarre on a college student. Some examples:

  1. “Boys make great pets”
  2. “Crazy in Party”
  3. “Little Miss V.I.P.” (on a guy)
  4. “Pale is the New Tan”

Every morning, my 15-minute walk across campus would take me past two or three of these shirts, guaranteed. I wish I had been keeping a list of the funniest ones – these are but mere examples, although they give a good overview of the different types of ridiculousness UJ students wear on their chests every day.

I’ll leave you with the below t-shirt, which I’ve actually seen twice (!!) around Amman:




P.S. Upon re-reading this blog post, I realize that the vast majority of my comments are based on aesthetic observations of UJ students, often made from afar. I wish I had delved deeper into the issues Jordanian students care about and what makes them tick, or even learned more about the quality of their education as they see it.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Members of the Tribe

Jordan prides itself on its modernity and comfortable living standard, and it has long been praised for its role as a bridge between the Arab world and the West. While you might occasionally pass a Bedouin tent by the side of the road on the outskirts of Amman, you’re much more likely to drive by a KFC or a Burger King. And if you hang out in the right places in Amman and just speak English, it might even feel like you’re back in America (albeit with better food). But, over the four months I’ve been here, I’ve gotten a sinking feeling that the traditional, religious conservatism of Jordan’s past and the rapidly modernizing forces of the global economy have not neatly come together at some midpoint to create an oasis of Middle Eastern capitalistic wonderfulness, for a storybook ending where East meets West and everyone lives happily ever after. Rather, these two opposing trends seem to have been forced to collide – rapidly, at that – resulting in occasional flare-ups when traditional cultural norms don’t mix with modern institutions and values.

Jordan is a very tribal society, with most of the non-Palestinian Jordanians (about 30 to 50 percent of the population) seemingly belonging to a tribe or clan or just a big family (note: everything in this post is based on my observations and conversations, as well as some news articles – definitely no hard-and-fast data). People are often more loyal to the tribe than to the state, and they most certainly tend to respect tribal ties and the traditional tribal system of solving disputes more than they do the Jordanian government’s laws. One professor of mine told us that people aren’t really supposed to punish their fellow tribesmen in certain cases; as such, he said, a policeman might let off someone he catches for a minor violation like speeding just because that person shares the policeman’s name. This can pose a challenge to the rule of law when the largest tribe in Jordan consists of something like 1 million members – one sixth of the country’s population.

Often the first question a Jordanian will ask upon meeting someone else is what his family name is. In the extremely collectivist societies of the Middle East, family is of utmost importance. Jordan is no exception; most Jordanians seem to know the big families and can pinpoint where someone is from or what religion he follows based on his name. Let’s just say “Gittleson” throws them off a bit.

At the universities, tribes have come to play an increasingly common role in campus life, with students voting in student union elections solely for candidates from hand-picked by their tribal leaders or only hanging out with other members of their tribe. Occasionally, violence erupts around student-election time or over minor disputes. Last month, a 20-year-old student was stabbed to death at Balqa Applied University in Salt, the most fiercely tribal city in all of Jordan. A first-year student from a different tribe allegedly got angry, because – I kid you not – the other kid was “staring” at him (although I'm sure there must have been something else brewing, too), according to The Jordan Times:

In his initial testimony … the suspect said that two days before the incident, he exchanged words with the victim because they were staring at each other, one official source close to the investigation said.

“The suspect claimed that on the day of the incident he approached the victim to discuss the staring matter but the victim drew a knife and attempted to stab him,” the source told The Jordan Times on Saturday.

The student’s death set off riots that shut down Balqa Applied University and that spread to other universities around Jordan. The University of Jordan saw some disturbances, but thankfully I was away that week up north in Ajloun.

Speaking of Ajloun, when I was there the cook at the nature reserve and I had a great conversation about how tribes settle scores outside of the normal system of justice. The cook was a member of a tribe in the Ajloun area, and there had been a big fight between his tribe and another one a few weeks before; apparently flare-ups happen a lot. Our conversation has since been supplemented by conversations I’ve had with others about this parallel system.

Here’s how I think it works: Let’s say someone from Tribe A kills someone from Tribe B. Everyone – and I mean everyone – expects violence to occur within the days following the crime; that’s actually probably the weirdest part of all of this – the fact that the revenge violence is so expected. Anyway, members of Tribe B will try to kill the best/smartest/coolest member of Tribe A. It’s the Biblical concept of an-eye-for-an-eye manifested in today’s world. That is, unless tribal elders step in first and arrange an ‘atweh, or a formal, signed decision in which an exchange of money usually occurs and any disagreement is put aside. The decision is generally widely accepted by tribal members. A little later, official government court proceedings occur, but the offending party will most likely just get a relative slap on the wrist due to his case already being taken care of via the tribal route. The government would not want to tread on the long-established, ancient tribal system; in addition, the mitigating influence of many people in the government hailing from the tribes of the involved parties would keep the government’s punishment weaker.

Tribes and the government can clash in other ways, too. Last Tuesday morning, the police carried out a drug sting on a house near Mujema’ Jaber (Jaber Commercial Complex), a 5 to 10 minute walk from my home. When the police entered the house, people inside allegedly locked them in and attacked them with knives. Police opened gunfire, killing the elder brother of the drug suspect. Turns out that brother was a "tribal leader and a landlord" from the Neimat family.

When the man’s relatives found out that he died shortly afterward at a hospital, they started rioting on the busy streets by Mujema’ Jaber. They threw rocks, destroyed police cars and lit a police kiosk on fire. The police shut down the area and fired tear gas to control the crowd. Several people were injured in the drug bust and the rioting, including policemen. All this took place right by my house – I was stuck in traffic forever coming home from the university! But, despite a very heavy police presence in the area over the next couple days, everything calmed down. Why? In part, because:

Late Tuesday, several tribal leaders from southern Jordan visited the funeral house of the Neimat tribe in the adjacent Khalda neighbourhood encouraging its leaders to act with “wisdom and self-restraint”.

For videos and photos of the incident, click here. It’s all in Arabic; scroll down and fast-forward to around halfway through the first video to see the police shoot the tear-gas canisters.

Back to the universities: The debate over the influence of tribes in higher education has been picking up steam in light of last month’s death at Balqa Applied University:

Recent attempts to address university violence on tribal basis have fuelled an existing controversy between traditional powers and advocates of “state of law and institutions”.

An anti-violence code of honour based on tribal ground signed last semester by students of the Amman University College affiliated with the Balqa Applied University (BAU) was recently made public following campus violence that spread to the town of Salt, where the university is located. The document triggered a wider debate on the role of tribal values in these incidents.

Signatories to the agreement included a number of students referred to as “tribes’ representatives in the college”, who stated that they will resort to tribal traditions to resolve fights or disputes that erupt between them or their relatives on campus.

Articles of the code of honour include one on “resolving different tribal conflicts by resorting to tribe representatives in the college” and another about striking deals between these young tribal leaders to nominate candidates for student council elections, either through negotiations or drawing ballots.

The document has received much criticism but also support from student activists and political commentators. It’s possible that what seems like a long-overdue conversation on the role of tribes in a modernizing Jordan will soon take place in the universities, a discussion that could make a big impact in Jordan as a whole.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Wadi Rum: Sipping tea with the Bedouin -- on steroids

This wouldn’t be a true college study-abroad blog if I didn’t at one point say something like, “Sorry I’ve been delinquent in updating! I’ve had oh-so-much work! Man, is time flying by so fast!” You get the point.

Moving on. Two weekends ago, Adam and I traveled south to spend a night sleeping among the Bedouin of the spectacular desert area of Wadi Rum. We spent a few hours in a jeep, touring sites around the desert and often hopping out for short hikes, then camped out in tents, ate traditional Bedouin food and listened to traditional Bedouin music. Ok, maybe the music was piped in over speakers connected to a car radio. Regardless, the entire experience was one of my favorites of the semester. Highlights:

Dozens dead before noon: Public transportation within Amman is unfortunately pretty lacking, to say the least, and the same goes for public transportation between Amman and most tourist sites within Jordan. As the majority of tourists seem to come over for only a day or so on packaged tours of the region with big groups – often on a longer tour of holy sites around the region – there aren’t really many (if any) public busses serving certain sites. There’s literally only one bus from Amman to Petra each day, for example, and it leaves at 6:30 a.m.! To get to Wadi Rum, Adam and I had to taxi to Amman’s southern bus station, wait on a bus for over two hours for it to fill up (oh, by the way, time tables and schedules in general are nonexistent), get dropped off on the side of the road at the junction leading to Wadi Rum and then flag down and pay two young Bedouin guys in an old Mercedes to drive us to the entrance to the park. The bus ride was interesting: people just kept handing me food (of course I already had a full lunch packed thanks to my host grandparents), and we watched two extremely violent movies. Soooo many people died between the two films, and the volume was turned up soooo loud. The weirdest part was how everyone’s eyes were GLUED to the screen the entire time. It was 7 a.m., for crying out loud! I don’t even think the second movie was in Arabic – just in some tribal tongue the actors spoke when they weren’t killing people through martial arts.

The authentic Bedouin experience: Upon arrival in our Bedouin tour group’s office (read: tent), we sipped tea with the Bedouin and were merry. Check. Up next: four-hour Jeep tour of the desert with a Bedouin guide! Sweet! So we set off, but within 30 seconds our guide informed us that he was actually not Bedouin and, in fact, one of only two non-Bedouin guides at Wadi Rum (he was Palestinian). It felt like we were back in Amman. Oh yeah, he said he actually normally lives in Amman.

Us and Rakan, a rare non-Bedouin in Wadi Rum.

Adam and I atop the Little Bridge in the desert.

View from the Jeep.

Oh heyyyy: Beside the usual schpiel about sipping tea with the Bedouin, my guidebook would not shut up about how crowded Wadi Rum is with people galore and all the tour groups that breeze through the area. But, ostensibly because many visitors called off their trips to Jordan due to the volcanic ash cloud over Europe, the desert during our visit appeared remarkably empty. After a few hours driving around with little contact with other visitors, Adam and I (and our non-Bedouin guide) arrived at a sand dune with one other jeep. Climbing the dune, we saw some kids our age walking toward us. Then, all of the sudden Adam said, “Woah, I think I know that guy from Chicago!” Turns out the group consisted of eight American students spending the semester studying in Jerusalem. Adam knew two of them from home, another one is living this semester in the apartment directly above my friend’s place in Jerusalem and yet another one of them knows my freshman-year roommate at Tufts! Small world. They spent the night, coincidentally, at the same campsite as us. So cool.

View from our campsite.

We spent the evening chilling at the campsite. The stars were beautiful, but it was unfortunately pretty cloudy. The sunset and sunrise, though, were among the most magnificent I’ve ever seen.

Our campsite.


Quick update on my semester: My classes end tomorrow (Thursday), and I leave Jordan a week from Friday. So soon! So much to do, so little time. I truly apologize for not updating this blog more frequently, but I guess that’s life. Still, I’m hoping to get a few more posts out soon about: (1) the university and Jordanian students; (2) common Jordanian words/phrases; (3) tribal violence; and (4) a short reflection on my semester. Too ambitious? We’ll see. Please let me know if you’re interested in any other topic.

P.S. For those of you reading from the Boston area, I’m glad that over the last few days you were able to get a taste (literally) of what living in Jordan is like, that is, without a potable water supply. Take that, developed world! Although your water was still probably safer to drink than ours…

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Palestinians in Jordan: Refugee camps and one spectacular view

I’m finally finished with a nice, long research paper (in Arabic!) and some trip planning, alhamdullilah. Eight days of classes left.

Two-and-a-half weeks ago I had the unbelievable opportunity to visit three Palestinian refugee camps in and around Amman in the company of top officials at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which oversees education, health care, social services and other aid to millions of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria (thanks, Uncle Frank!). UNRWA mainly dispenses services to Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967 who live in the aforementioned areas, a third of whom reside in 58 refugee camps.

Jordan treats its refugees very well relative to other host governments: those who fled to the West or East Banks of the Jordan River in 1948 and/or to the East Bank in 1967 enjoy full citizenship and rights here; as a result, about 50 to 70 percent of Jordan’s population consists of ethnic Palestinians. While Jordan is home to about 40 percent of Palestinian refugees (1.9 million), only 17 percent of Palestinians here live in the country’s 13 camps.

In a very official-looking, white UN van flanked by two white UN SUVs, our group of about six headed out to south Amman camp that I think was founded in 1967 (I forgot its name, but upon Googling, it appears that it might have been Wihdat, described below). There, we saw a dark, crumbling secondary school in which hundreds of girls studied in tiny classrooms so packed that the teachers often couldn’t walk through the aisles. A rented accommodation, the school was typical of many UNRWA facilities in which landlords are unwilling to address the poor state of the building they rent. While we were in the school’s small computer lab, a (really gutsy) girl jumped up in front of us and launched into a speech about how much she appreciated the school and how she was worried because she had heard UNRWA was cutting programs (not true).

Next, we vanned it over to nearby Wihdat (or maybe just somewhere in the same camp), a massive ’48 camp that is home to a one-year-old girls elementary school that sat in shocking contrast to the old facility we had just visited. The German government-funded school, owned by UNRWA, featured a science club, handrails alongside the stairs, a troop of singing girls serving coffee and snacks and – most noticeably – a ton of light. The site visit was meant to show us the difference between UNRWA-owned and rented facilities.

We got a different taste of the problems UNRWA faces in Jordan after a 30-minute drive south of Amman, at Al-Talibiyah Camp near Amman’s international airport. Wide, open farmland all of the sudden ends at the densely populated area surrounding the camp; the camp itself, founded in 1967, houses about 8,000 refugees in even tighter accommodations. We learned from a long presentation on the camp’s surprisingly advanced and professional urban development program that the camp’s isolated location is perhaps the greatest challenge to increasing its stagnant level of business.

Most Talibiyah refugees camp from Beersheba, now in southern Israel, and Hebron, in the southern West Bank. Interestingly, many camps consist largely of refugees from a certain city or area; it’s like large chunks of cities picked up and transported themselves to various locales around Jordan, and have now been calling Jordanian cities and camps home for decades.

Touring two homes among the hundreds of living accommodations arranged on a military-barracks style grid with narrow alleys gave me my first glimpse into life in camp “shelters,” UNRWA’s apt label for the pathetic, falling-apart buildings that serve as housing for so many refugees. The homes featured corrugated, collapsing roofing; dripping water by exposed wiring; very little natural sunlight; lack of ventilation; and very little privacy.

A UNRWA official asked me if the day’s trip had brought me to “my first camps.” It had, but talking with him and the other officials opened my eyes to how well off the people in these camps were relative to those in places like Lebanon or Gaza. Jordan’s camps looked like other low-income sections of the country – the two in Amman just blended in with the rest of the neighborhoods – save for the fact that they were much more densely packed. But in Lebanon, the officials said, some camps are so cramped and built-up that you can walk through them without seeing any natural sunlight. They told me that Palestinians there are institutionally discriminated against, too, with around 72 professions blocked to them because they are prohibited from joining the professional unions.

The whole day was way more educational and interesting than classes (which I got out of), and I feel very lucky to have gone with such experienced and knowledgeable people. Sorry no photos accompany this post – it wouldn’t have been appropriate to take pictures.

Luckily, I did take tons of photos where I went the next day: Umm Qais, a beautiful, ruin-filled area located in the hills in the northwest corner of Jordan, right on the border with Israel and the Golan Heights. Palestinians come from all over Jordan to check out the view into their former homeland; Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee are extremely close and clearly visible. The place also has really cool bathrooms.

Restaurant with the best view in Jordan.

Checking out the Sea of Galilee with binoculars.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ali Baba and the Egyptian hagglers

Sunset over the Nile River.

I’m terribly sorry for the lack of new posts – I’ve had a busy few weeks, with spring break in Egypt and then a weeklong retreat in northern Jordan with my program. Egypt and Amman with my parents was excellent. Our basic itinerary follows:

Thursday, March 25: Ben flies to Cairo in the evening.

Friday, March 26: Coptic Cairo with Areebah and Flannery (from my program in Jordan), then train to Alexandria (2.5 hours) to meet Mike from Tufts and play backgammon with his Egyptian friends.

Saturday, March 27: Explore Alexandria, eat some of the best fish of my life, drink the unquestionably best mango juice of my life, etc. Train back to Cairo.

Aforementioned best fish of my life.

Mike and I wandered the alleys of Alexandria – one of his favorite Egyptian pastimes – and discovered a bunch of cool random stuff.

Colorful Alexandria.

Sunday, March 28: Explore Islamic Cairo, including walking through maybe eight mosques or so and wandering around random neighborhoods and then Khan al-Khalili, the tourist bazaar. Parents arrive. Switch from hostel in Downtown Cairo to a hotel that provides toilet paper (!) and a fully functional shower. Luxury! Watch a very underwhelming, but still cool, sound-and-light show at the Pyramids of Giza.

Monday, March 29: Pyramids of Giza (Great Pyramid, Sphinx, etc.), Pyramids of Saqqara (Step Pyramid) and Memphis (big statue of Ramses II, among other stuff). Overall, an epic day. Oh wait, then we went to a seder in Cairo. Egypt, the sequel. More on that at a later point.

Scarier than Cairo traffic.

Tuesday, March 30: Al-Azhar Mosque in Islamic Cairo, Khan al-Khalili market, some other sites/activities I can’t remember offhand. Fly to Aswan, in southern Egypt (actually called Upper Egypt because of the flow of the Nile).

Wednesday, March 31: Happy Birthday, Dad! After sleeping on a cot of wooden planks, taxi with my parents to our Nile cruise ship. Using the ship as a base, tour the Unfinished Obelisk, which is exactly what it sounds like; the Aswan High Dam, otherwise known as the lamest tourist site ever; and Philae Island and its Nubian temple, significantly less lame. Birthday celebration for my dad at dinner.

Believe it or not, he’s actually dancing here. I think.

Thursday, April 1: Set sail at 3 a.m. down (or rather, up) the Nile. Stop at the Temple of Horus in Edfu and the Temple of Kom Ombo in Kom Ombo.

Friday, April 2: Luxor’s West and East Banks, including the Valley of the Kings and a bunch of tombs and monuments. Luxor and Karnak Temples. Very cool, but very hot. As our guide spoke, it was really clear that she was just translating from Arabic to English in her mind as she went on. On top of that, she’d constantly insert the word, “Whyyyy?” into sentences whenever she was explaining anything.

Saturday, April 3: All tombed- and templed-out. Instead, checked out Luxor’s tourist market, but first got taken by an enterprising horse-cart driver to a “new market” that was basically his friends’ store. Played backgammon in the real market. Saw the fancy Winter Palace hotel. Took a felucca (little passenger sailboat) ride on the Nile, then chilled on the cruise ship’s deck. Fly to Amman via Cairo.

The mercury hovered around 100 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit during our visit. Coincidentally, approximately 90 percent of horse-cart drivers and felucca captains we encountered tried to win us over with the joke, “Welcome to Alaska! Want a ride?” Their horses all seemed to be named “Ferrari” or “Rolls-Royce,” too…

Sunday, April 4: Arrive at hotel in Amman at 3 a.m. Tour the city: the Citadel, Hashem’s restaurant, Roman Amphitheater, the souk and Rainbow Street. Buy Dad a birthday present: a Jordanian keffiyeh (headdress).

Monday, April 5: Showed my parents the University of Jordan campus. Then we ate lunch with my host family! My parents met my host grandparents and extended host family (think the normal amount of food we eat, only doubled). Then, my mom and dad taxied down to Petra while I stayed in Amman.

Tuesday, April 6: I went to classes while my parents checked out Petra. They came back to Amman, where we ate dinner at an Iraqi restaurant; the main dish, grilled fish, took an hour to cook. Parents return home.

At the ruins of the Citadel, atop Jebel Qal’a (Citadel Hill).

The best part of Egypt, aside from the pyramids and ancient wonders and seeing my parents and stuff, was learning how to bargain for everything. Haggling is a way of life there, and every single quoted price is negotiable. It wasn’t uncommon for a shopkeeper to tell us a price around 200 Egyptian pounds (about $36.50) and for us to get it down to something like 40. Another time, a kid told me three little Pharaonic figurines (say that five times fast) cost 500, but he eventually dropped it down to 40. Many Western tourists hate the constant struggle and lengthy process that accompanies nearly every purchase in Egypt, with the uncertain time commitment and the ever-present, creeping feeling that, no matter what, you’re still getting ripped off. But I absolutely loved it, and speaking Arabic undoubtedly helped a ton.

Without further ado, I present to you my tried-and-true Six Easy Steps for Paying What You Want (Kinda) in Egypt:

  1. Research the price beforehand. Consult Lonely Planet guidebook and ask disinterested observers. It’s often difficult to trust anyone, though, considering everyone seems to have a friend or a cousin who is a taxi driver or shop owner to whom they want to send you and your money.
  2. Ask the shop owner the price. Shop owner tells you something like 150, but you know the price is 35. Look incredulous. Call the price/shop/shop owner some combination of “expensive,” “crazy” and “wrong.” Act like the owner put you off, start to look off into the distance for other stores, other crappy Pyramid figurines, other stuffed camels, etc. Smile on the inside as the shop owner tries to regain your interest by rapidly slashing the price, first to 140, then to 130 and then to 120.
  3. Talk to the merchant about the product, ask him his name, ask where he’s from, ask about his kids, ask about his health, ask about his uncle’s health, ask about his uncle’s son’s wife’s health, say some stereotypical Egyptian Arabic phrase, make a joke about your own “foreign” Arabic accent, etc. Then tell the guy you only want to pay 25. “HAHAHA!” Man laughs in your face you to try to phase you, you ignore it and he cringes on the inside because he knows he’s found a formidable opponent.
  4. He drops the price a few more times, maybe down to 80. Keep looking around, saying you want the “Egyptian price” and that you might actually peace out, go get some tea or something and then maybe return. Shop owner asks you for new price, you say 30. He laughs, you don’t care, he drops the price to 70. “Final price! I only make commission of 5. Good quality. You won’t find this price anywhere else – ask anyone.” Lies, all lies.
  5. Start walking away. Bloodbath begins, with the price slashed left and right. Shop owner follows you through the market, with you refusing to budge, except maybe up to 35. He goes, “Ok, 45, final price.” You’re adamant, “Halaas, enough, 35.” He says, “Forty – that’s it.” Turn, walk away, say your price one more time. Hear the defeated, deflated shop owner mutter, “Maashi, ok, 35, yalla.”
  6. Afterward, don’t ask anyone else the real price. You don’t want to hear someone say, “Oh yeah, I got that for only 5 pounds. Idiot.”

Despite employing the Six Steps, I’m sure we got ripped off a lot anyway – it was almost unavoidable. Having said that (Curb reference!), once when I haggled with a shop owner for some scarves, he called me Ali Baba the thief afterward. Another time, the owner of the felucca boat on the Nile complained after we finalized a price that I was a hard bargainer. Egypt was lucky we didn’t stick around for longer.

Egypt in general was absolutely wonderful – thanks, Mom and Dad, for an awesome time! The crowdedness of Cairo was simultaneously overwhelming and enthralling, while the city’s dirty, trash-covered streets and the country’s general disorganization made me yearn for the relative orderliness of Jordan. Egypt’s different Arabic dialect also made things frustrating at times. The difference between Jordanian and Egyptian Arabic is somewhat more extreme than the difference between American and British English, as not only the accent and some random words change but so do a large number of key, everyday words and phrases.

Showing my mom and dad around Amman was great, too. It was nice to be in an environment I knew well – plus, from the second I set foot in the Amman airport I understood way more spoken Arabic.

See below for more photos; even more will be up soon on Facebook, inshallah.

Mosque of Ibn Tulun, Cairo.

Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

Ferrari the horse leads our carriage on the wrong side of the road, on the way to the Temple of Kom Ombo.

Small part of Karnak Temple, Luxor.

A man performing the traditional dance of the whirling dervishes.

The West Bank. No, not that West Bank. The West Bank of the Nile.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ahlan wa Sahlan to Amman -- don’t forget to buckle up!

Multiple times a day, every day, I hear ahlan wa sahlan, or “welcome”; often, it’s ahlan wa sahlan lil’urdun, or “welcome to Jordan.” Jordanians use that phrase in all situations when talking to a foreigner: How do you see our country? Welcome to Jordan. How did you like the food? Welcome to Jordan. Would you like that to-go? Welcome to Jordan. The other day, my friend told me one of her family members said, “Turn up the volume on the TV. Thank you … Welcome to Jordan.”

So it was a pleasure a week and half ago to have the opportunity to be on the other end of that hospitable exchange, welcoming two friends from Tufts, Matt and Aaron, to Amman for a couple days. They got a pretty good tour of the city, as well as a day trip to Jerash (although I didn’t got to Jerash again). We basically hit up all the main tourist and food sites – emphasis on food – watched Friday prayers at the main mosque downtown, saw a bloody cow’s head at the suq (market), watched the sun set over Jebel Qal’a and the citadel ruins and played soccer with little Jordanian kids at the aforementioned ruins. And the highlight: tea and snacks at my host family’s house! Haroun and Mattew, as they were called for the hour or two they visited, enjoyed musakhin (crunchy chicken-wrap snacks), two types of cake, tea and conversation with my host family in – gasp! – English! First time I’ve spoken more than a sentence or two in English with my host grandparents. It was really nice seeing friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and, by all accounts, the two visiting Jumbos had a very helu (=sweet/good/nice) time.

Scene outside an animal/hookah/Arabic instrument shop in Wast al-Balad (downtown Amman).

Amman at dusk. Oh, no – that means my curfew is near!

That weekend I was also lucky enough to visit a place in Jordan where I might possibly have taken more photos than I did at Petra: the Royal Automobile Museum! King Abdullah II established the museum in memory of King Hussein, his father, after the latter’s death in 1999; King Hussein apparently loved cars, and the museum contained many of his and his predecessors’ vehicles, particularly those that served in some sort of official capacity.

I have loved cars since I was a young child. astute readers might recall that my first word was “Honda,” in reference to the return of my dad from work every day in his blue Honda Accord (I guess that means my first language would have been Japanese – wonder what implications that has for my Arabic studies). Anyway, long story short, this fancy museum was like a playground.


King Hussein ruled Jordan for over 46 years, amassing a spectacular car collection over those decades in power. Rolls-Royce, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and countless old, now-defunct luxury-auto companies were represented at the museum. Signs noted the historic significance of each car: King Hussein opened Parliament in this one, this prince or princess was married in this one, etc. One model, a 1975 stretch Mercedes called the “Pullman,” was a favorite of world leaders and specially made for each client. Another, a 1961 Lincoln Continental Convertible, was used not only in King Abdullah II’s wedding to Queen Rania but also during his coronation and during the 1985 opening of Parliament. King Abdullah, like his father, seems to have a penchant for motorcycles. Funny story: When Barack Obama, the presidential candidate, visited Jordan in 2008, King Abdullah personally drove him in a Mercedes to the airport. In the photo of them setting out on their drive, Obama can be seen buckling his seatbelt (good job, America).

Ferrari, Mercedes, Bugatti. The 2009 Mercedes Benz SL 65 AMG "Black Series" is the most powerful, rarest Mercedes in the world, according to the museum sign: "only 250 will ever be made of this model." The Bugatti can go 0-60 mph in 2.6 seconds, come to a complete stop in 2.3 and is so powerful that it would lift off the ground were it not aerodynamically designed not to.

The museum was located near a couple others in Al-Hussein National Park, this big massive green space in a nice area of Amman. The park is home to what I believe is the biggest mosque in Amman and probably the country, the fairly new King Hussein bin Talal Mosque. My friend Adam and I wandered up to the gate, where we befriended a white-robed man in his late 20s who does the call to prayer (he’s called the muezzin) at the mosque – i.e. he has a beautiful, powerful voice. He gave us a tour in Arabic, recited some lines from the Qur’an for us and offered to give us free Arabic lessons in the future, using the Qur’an as a text.

Then, last week, I took a trip to America – the land of efficiency and grammatically correct signs – when the 14 kids on my program and two program directors were hosted by U.S. Ambassador to Jordan Stephen Beecroft and his wife, for coffee and refreshments at their residence at the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Thanks so much to Mr. Jonathan Taylor, my great high school newspaper advisor and government/journalism teacher, who put me in touch with the Beecrofts and helped set up this meeting.

Highlights of our visit:

  1. Emerging from security and feeling like we had arrived in Arizona or New Mexico, based on the architecture, climate, language and nationality of the people.
  2. The fact that Vice President Biden had just been here last week. Ambassador Beecroft told us all about the veep’s visit.
  3. Ambassador Beecroft, who is fluent in Arabic, teaching us Arabic slang and insults.

Finally, Sunday was Mother’s Day in Jordan, so happy (belated) Mother’s Day to all my readers for whom this is relevant! We celebrated as a family on Friday, when all the kids and grandkids came over. We ate four cakes – ironically baked by the four mothers in attendance – and sang “Happy Birthday” for some reason.

Now, I have only a couple days left until spring break and EGYPT this Thursday!

Saturday, March 20, 2010


This week marked the midpoint of my semester in Amman, and I figured I should write a super-long blog post about how I feel. So here it is. (Also, it turns out I didn’t travel this weekend.)

This semester in many ways has both confirmed a lot of my expectations and surprised me in unforeseen ways. I chose Amman as a study-abroad locale for two reasons: to learn spoken Arabic and to get a handle on Arab culture. I liked the idea of studying in Jordan for a number of reasons, such as safety and the quality of the program, but particularly because the Palestinian dialect predominant in Amman is the Arabic dialect which will probably be most useful for me later in life. I chose a language-immersion program because I figured, hey, I’m going to be there for four months, and I better maximize my opportunities to learn the language and really challenge myself.

For the most part, I’m happy with my decision and am getting my fill of Arabic and cultural immersion and all that stuff. But looking back, there have been lots of things that have surprised me:

  1. Language > politics: I figured that all the kids on my program would be studying international relations and politics and such, but most of the students on this intensive Arabic program, appropriately, are primarily interested in just focusing on language. On top of that, my host family isn’t into politics at all. I pick up hints all the time of the conflict and refugees and frustration, but it’s usually just because I pay attention to the way a taxi driver talks about the news or if there’s an anti-Israel flier or protest on campus. I wish we talked about politics more, but oh well.
  2. Oh yeah, I’m in a Muslim country: Living with a Christian family in a nation that’s around 95 percent Muslim has its blessings (literally) and drawbacks. Often, I’ll learn an expression in class that uses the word Allah, God’s name – a saying like “alhamdulillah” (=praise be to God) – that the vast majority of the population and the Arab world in general uses in daily speech. But when I walk through the doors of my home, it’s like some phrases are thrown out the window. “Alhamdulillah” becomes “neshkor ar-rab” (=we thank the Lord), while my family never uses the ubiquitous “wallahi,” which uses God’s name to mean “I swear,” which they’re opposed to. It’s fascinating witnessing and learning how a small minority religious group seeks to assert itself through language and lifestyle, but I’m really surprised at how little I’ve learned about Islam since I’ve arrived here. Still, I feel very lucky to have a window into my host family’s world. Actually, as my host grandparents would say, there’s no such thing as luck – everything is predetermined by the Lord. Welcome to my life.
  3. Amman is a great Arabic classroom: More often than not people will gladly acquiesce when I speak to them only in Arabic, happy to help an American learn their ridiculously complex tongue and to teach me a few useful words, which usually relate to food. A strong command of English, however, is generally a Jordanian’s ticket to a good job – in fact, I think some subjects at the university are taught exclusively in English – and as a result everyone above maybe the level of taxi driver is guaranteed to be able to, at the very least, communicate with you in basic English and to want to practice their English with you. Many, many people are bilingual, and I constantly hear spoken Arabic laced with English words and expressions when university students and others talk among themselves. Two days ago, I bumped into a kid at the University of Jordan campus and said, “Asif” (=sorry). He responded, “Mish ‘asif’ – ‘sorry’” (=Not ‘asif’ – ‘sorry’) – saying that the English word “sorry” was more appropriate than its Arabic counterpart. Except he pronounced with a strong Jordanian accent, saying “surry”… Members of my host family – particularly the younger ones – pepper their speech with tons of English words, like “goodbye,” “goodnight” and “please.” I expected all of this, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how I can kind of remove myself from all this English hilariousness and actually have (or attempt to have) Arabic conversations with people.
  4. <3: To repeat again for posterity, I’m unbelievably lucky to have been placed with my host grandparents, who are so nice and who literally love everyone. On Sunday, my host grandmother told me that they love me like their own son, which was so wonderful to hear. And I’ve been having some very long conversations in Arabic with them, during which I’ve actually been able to get some complex ideas across (i.e. about Arabic culture, their time growing up, the different countries they’ve lived in and wars they’ve experienced, religion, Jordanian society today and even the conflict next door a bit). Still, I’m slightly terrified of “family day,” or Fridays, when an average of 10 family members of all ages gather in our apartment for lunch. While my host uncles and aunts and cousins and whoevers don’t really make me feel awkward when I just sit in the room barely understanding much of their conversations, I still don’t enjoy the few hours every Friday when it feels like I’m thrust into a family’s weekly tradition without the ability to fully participate or belong. And I believe it’s almost 100 percent because of the language barrier; everyone’s really super nice and welcoming (my host grandparents raised them well).
  5. Entrenched social structure 1, Ben 0: I’ve made very few Jordanian friends my age. Social interactions here tend to be based largely on family ties and preexisting groups of friends. At the university, for example, cousins might hang out with each other all day and even change their classes to stay together. To a large extent, it’s because Jordanian society has very tribal roots; not to mention, the population is divided between ethnic Palestinians from the West Bank (of the Jordan River) and “East Bank Jordanians,” or those who are considered to be original Jordanians but who are outnumbered by the Palestinians. I realize that I’m only here for four months and that it’s probably hard to make lasting friendships on semester-long study abroad programs anywhere around the world, but it would be nice to meet some more students my age.

Some solutions/goals:

  1. Explore East Amman: Get out of the ritzy, upper-middle-class West Amman bubble, and visit the more “sha’abi” places where a significant chunk of the population of Jordan lives. “Sha’abi” loosely translates to popular/people’s/traditional/regular/typical. I hope I’m using that right… I’ll try to learn more about Jordan’s refugee camps and neighborhoods, too.
  2. Make a greater effort to better get to know my “peer language tutor” and the university in general: My program assigns every student a Jordanian peer who gets paid a bit and meets with us up to three hours a week. My partner, with whom I meet every other day between classes, is a bit awkward and hasn’t been too proactive in terms of starting conversations, showing me around the university or just interculturally communicating in general. We also seem have different interests – throw in the language barrier and, voila, I’ve come to see our meetings as a burden, or time I could be spending using the Internet or doing homework. But I realize this has been kind of stupid on my part and that I’m wasting an opportunity. My partner even mentioned at the beginning of the semester that he’d invite me over to his house for mansaf! Gotta get on that. As for getting to know the university better, I recently realized that after two months I don’t really know too much about what the University of Jordan is like through the eyes of a Jordanian student – what professors are like, how academically challenging courses are, if student groups do, in fact, exist, and – most importantly – whether there’s a such thing as a University of Jordan Naked Quad Run. This world seems harder to crack into, but I feel like I just have to meet more people and actually seek these activities out.
  3. Hang out with my host family more: I did this a lot at the beginning, but as I’ve become more comfortable here I’ve slowly gotten into a groove of going out with friends more, traveling and just generally following a regular routine of my own. But there are some fascinating people living in my house – my grandparents and their kids – not to mention a bunch of cute grandkids running around. I need to try to have more one-on-one conversations with people, as it is usually too intimidating to talk when everyone joins together for big family meals.
  4. Write down Arabic words in my notebook more often: I used to write down new words and phrases all the time, but I’ve gotten lazy recently. Gotta change that.
  5. Not write any more really long blog posts like this one: Instead, maybe do some homework or something.

In short, I’m very happy with the way this semester’s been going. My host family’s great and so are the other kids on my program. I’m (really, really, really) well fed, too, and there’s plenty of hot water to go around. I feel guilty complaining about anything because some of my friends have pretty crazy/confused host families or other legitimate things to be upset about, like sexual harassment.

That’s all for now! I’ll try to post again in the next few days. Let me know if you have any questions!