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…