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!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jordan Joke

A couple weeks ago, we walked into our ‘amiyya (colloquial Arabic) classroom/conference room and found a lone sheet of paper chilling on the table. Stamped with the name of a professor from the “Department of English, University of Jordan,” it featured a pretty awkwardly typed text. What follows is an exact reproduction, typos, weird punctuation and strange spacing intact:

A man is

taking a walk

in Central

park in New

York. Suddenly

he sees

a little girl

being attacked

by a pit bull

dog and


fighting with

the dog. He

succeeds in

killing the

dog and

saving the

girl’s life. A

policeman who
was watching

the scene


over and says:

“You are a

hero, tomorrow

you can read

it in all the


“Brave New

Yorker saves

the life of

little girl”

The man

says: – “But I

am not a New


“Oh ,then it

will say in

newspapers in

the morning:


American saves

life of little

girl’” – the


answers. “But

I am not an

American!” –


the man. “Oh,

what are you

then? ” The

man says: – “I

“! am Saudi â

The next day

the newspapers

says: “Islamic


kills innocent

American dog

Oh man. Keep in mind this is apparently used to teach people English. Wonderful.

Anyway, my blog posts might come less frequently over the next couple weeks, as I have a couple midterms coming up and some travel planned. I’ll try to update as much as possible, and I’ll be adding photos to Facebook, too, inshallah.

In the meantime, I strongly urge you to check out this hilarious blog post on my friend Virginia’s (of El Jerasho fame) blog. It’s all about the ridiculous notebooks that Jordanian bookstores around the university sell; some of them are absolutely absurd.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

El Jerasho

I traveled to Jerash last Saturday with Adam and Virginia, two friends from my program, and three of Adam’s new South American friends who are studying at the University of Jordan. Jerash is an ancient Roman city that has actually survived pretty well and wasn’t too heavily trafficked by tourists when we visited, so that was cool. But the highlight of the trip was – get ready for it – the people we traveled with and the friends we made along the way…

Just kidding. The highlight was the sick Roman ruins, the photos of which are beautiful. But the people were fun, too. Read on:

Arabic -- Español -- English: Adam had warned us that two of his friends, both from Colombia, spoke little to no English and basically no Arabic, so I figured it would be a good chance to dust off the ol' Spanish and converse with people in a language I had studied for six years in middle and high school. Guess what: it was way harder than I thought. After not speaking a language for so long, I couldn’t easily recall simple vocabulary or even remember certain sentence structures or grammar. When I started speaking Spanish to the Colombians, I would end up spurting out some Spanish/Arabic hybrid sentence, which was a problem because the South Americans spoke maybe only like three words of Arabic! They’re here starting to learn Arabic from scratch; that means that they don’t have any command of the two languages you can use to get by in Amman, Arabic and English, and that they’re basically lost a lot of the time. Back to Jerash: I would end up saying things like, “Hola, quieres b’truuh halaa’?” with the first two word in Spanish – “Hello, do you want (to)” – and the rest in Arabic – “go now?” Sooo confusing, but an awesome mental exercise trying to translate between two foreign languages without using any English. And when they – or Adam, who is fluent in Spanish, among other languages – reminded me of Spanish words and grammar, bits and pieces would immediately come back. Oh, by the way, the third kid was from Brazil, a PORTUGUESE-speaking country, although his command of English was way better, plus he could pull of a decent, functional Portuguese-infused version of Spanish.

Main Street Jerash

Sipping tea with the Bedouin: Virginia always jokes that her guidebook repeats over and over and over that you can “sip tea with the Bedouin” wherever you are in Jordan and, through shay (=tea), get an authentic taste of the country and its people. And of course, that’s exactly what we did at the Temple of Artemis, the most striking extant ruin in Jerash. After this really Jordanian/Bedouin-y, local, young guy who was selling coffee, tea and water urged us in like four languages to purchase something from him, I decided I would shell out a few qirsh (Jordanian cents) for a cup of the shay stuff because I was feeling a little sick and congested. Good decision – we ended up spending about 20 minutes or so just chilling with this guy and the really nice tourist policemen standing nearby. Among the topics of conversation: favorite Jordanian foods (mansaf, duh), most beautiful Arabic names (Muhammad, duh), funny Jordanian/Bedouin slang and the different languages everyone spoke. The tea-seller wouldn’t take our money for anything at the end, including a few cups of tea and a couple bottles of water. One of the cops even invited us over to his house after he got off, which was unfortunately too late for us. All of this transpired in Arabic, by the way, which was almost definitely the reason they loved us so much.

Three Americans, two Colombians, a Brazilian, a Bedouin and two Jordanian policemen.

The moving columns: About 15 minutes into exploring Jerash among the smattering of German, Spanish, Jordanian, French, Canadian, etc. tour groups wandering around the ruins, a super-sketch kid and a smaller version of him came up to us, offered to take our picture and then insisted that we follow them to see “the moving column.” Thoroughly confused and unable to figure out a way to shake the kids, we followed them for a minute to a seemingly normal column along the colonnaded main street. Then the bigger kid pointed to a coin jammed between the column and its base and preceded to push really hard on the column, which actually started swaying a tiny bit! “Don’t worry, won’t fall.” Adam tipped him like 20 cents or something, which he was apparently dissatisfied with. Oh well. Later on, at the Temple of Artemis with the Bedouin guy whose name I clearly have forgotten, we were able to push on the columns ourselves and make them sway; this time, a spoon stuck between the base and the column facilitated the movement. What was going on? Turns out, according to my guidebook, they were designed to sway a bit to offset the effects of strong winds and earth tremors. Cool.

Built to withstand the forces of nature.

Amman to Jerash and back = cheapest trip ever:

45-minute bus ride to Jerash: 0.70 JD

Admission to the ancient city, for university students: 0.50 JD

Lunch and excessive snacks: Free, care of my loving host family

Taxi ride back to Amman: 4 JD

Sipping tea with the Bedouin: Priceless (literally)

Total cost: 5.20 JD = about US$7.30

Don’t worry – I got ‘em.

Hey hee (=that’s it). More photos can be found on Facebook, as always. Yalla bye.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Music of Amman, Part I

I wrote this post about a month ago and only recently had fast enough Internet access for long enough to upload the accompanying video. Enjoy:

Two sounds heard every day across Amman make this city quite different from D.C. or Boston, and on my second day with my host family both of the noises woke me up within a few hours of each other.

First, sometime around 5 a.m. came the first of five daily calls to prayer. Every day, every mosque with a minaret (tower) uses super-loud speakers to blast the voice of a man reciting beautiful lines in Arabic. Every time I hear it I get chills. It’s almost surreal walking down the street or sitting in a café and all of the sudden hearing a booming reminder that you’re in a Muslim country. It’s pretty crazy that an entire society can be religious enough for it to be okay for the local place of worship to literally project its preferred way of life and observance onto the masses. I’m still learning, but I think when observant Muslims hear the call to prayer, they don’t have to pray immediately but can fulfill the religious obligation within a reasonable period of time afterward. Daily prayer seems to be a relatively private matter, except on Friday mornings, when a lot of people congregate at the mosques to pray. But in general, you can kind of just take a break from what you’re doing and head over to somewhere with a prayer mat, or lay your own; there’s one in the corner in the computer center we hang out in a lot, for example. The call to prayer isn’t too loud in my house, as we don’t live near many mosques. It is loud enough to hear clearly, though.

The al-Husseini Mosque's minaret, from which the call to prayer is projected, towers over the streets of Wast al-Balad (downtown Amman).

More peculiar than the call to prayer is the music of the gas trucks. Gas for cooking and heating isn’t piped directly to houses and businesses in Amman; instead, hundreds of small, blue trucks drive around slowly, blasting their music to alert people that they’re near. People in need of gas run outside shouting, “Ghaz, ghaz!” to get the drivers’ attention. The music is soooo creepy, and all of them – even different companies – use the same bizarre tune. Observe:

Your speakers aren’t broken – that’s what the trucks actually sound like. Sorry for the shakiness; my host grandfather seemed to think they wouldn’t be happy with me filming them. And if this doesn't work in the

e-mail version of this post, try playing the video on the blog itself.

The gas-truck drivers seem to freak out Friday mornings, when I hear them no fewer than five times in a few hours. “Why can’t people just call when they need a gas delivery?” you ask. Great question – haven’t figured that one out yet. I asked my host grandfather the same question, and he said he didn’t know, adding that he thought the music was annoying. I think the system is a remnant of a time when people here didn’t really use telephones to communicate. You still see that manifest itself elsewhere, such as when friends and family drop by without calling first.

Gas tanks perched ominously on the back of a gas truck.

Anyway, the music sounds like it’s out of some Tim Burton fairytale and seems to follow me everywhere. Hope everything’s good back in America. Yalla bye bye.

P.S. One month later, the music still creeps me out – it’s so ridiculous. Only now since I shot that video of the truck last month, whenever my host grandfather hears a gas truck approaching, he runs over to me and goes, “Ben, the ghaz is here! Do you want ghaz?!?!”

P.P.S. I headed up to see the beautiful Roman ruins in Jerash, a city not too far north of Amman. Blog post/photos to follow soon.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Maybe they should just install some benches in Iraq

Amman made it into the New York Times last week with a feature story about – you guessed it – sidewalks and benches! Oh man, welcome to the oh-so-tumultuous news cycle here in Jordan. The NYT’s Michael Slackman discusses the new public-improvement projects:

“These are not one-time projects, a few benches here and there, but part of a master plan for Amman, an attempt to bring order to a city with roots that date from 8,500 B.C. and whose modern incarnation hosts 2.5 million residents, 3 million in the summer. Amman’s master plan has a slogan – ‘A livable city is an organized city, with a soul’ – a subtle way of describing what Amman does not want to be, which is Dubai.”
One line in particular resonated with my experiences thus far. The reporter explains how Amman is a city made up largely of immigrants – Palestinians, Iraqis and Lebanese, oh my! – and that it is struggling to claim its own identity. “But no matter how many generations later [after their families immigrated to Amman], people rarely identify as being from Amman, many people here said.” So true – so much of the time when I get in a taxi or meet a new person, they’ll tell me they’re from Palestine or elsewhere; almost without exception, they were actually born in Jordan and their parents or grandparents were the immigrants.

In other news, the other night I was chilling in the family room on my computer when I noticed that, on the TV, ad after ad on the Dubai-based Al Arabiya regional news channel was touting the views and promises of various candidates in the upcoming Iraqi elections. Woah – I’m actually close enough to Iraq to see firsthand the election advertisements! Interestingly, many of them seemed to oppose the violence and explain how their candidate or party would fix things. ... And WOAH a second time! I just noticed an ad on my Facebook profile for an Iraqi candidate's Facebook page. Crazy...

Some of the phrases on here include, "Your candidate for Baghdad," "Together ... toward change," and "Our future, together." How nice and hopeful.

Now, for Random Fact #237 about Jordan: This country has a severe lack of change! From taxi drivers and corner-shawarma shops to supermarkets and banks, no one ever has any small bills! It’s soooo annoying. I have to check to make sure I have a couple one-dinar notes on me before I get in a taxi, as chances are the driver won’t have the appropriate coins and bills to make change for a five-dinar note. It’s so bad that you hear, “Ma fi frata” (“There isn’t any change”), almost as much as the ubiquitous “inshallah” or “alhamdullilah” (“God-willing” and “praise be to God,” respectively). Some official seriously screwed up when he was trying to figure out how many of each note to print... On a more serious note, though, I realized that one reason some people, like taxi drivers, might not have the luxury of having change available to their customers is because they don't do enough business and might not actually have enough money available to do so.

Bonus Fact: They don’t have napkins here either! Instead, everyone uses tissues. In the U.S., the brand name is Kleenex; here, it’s “Fine,” pronounced like in English. So let’s say Farfoud drops some hummus on his shirt. Oh man, not again, ya Farfoud! In order to wipe it off, the now chickpea-covered man might say to his friend Rami, “Pass me a Fine.” And all would be well.