Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jordan Challenge 9:Fulbrightain Ride Naqahtain through Wadi Rum

All the people I know who love to travel, myself included, do it for a combination of reasons.  There is the chance to see amazing new places, obviously, and taste, hear, smell and feel things totally out of our usual comfort zone. Just as important is the opportunity to connect -- briefly but meaningfully -- with people who are simultaneously distinctly different and profoundly similar to ourselves.  And I have the strong suspicion that I'm not the only traveller I know who is particularly excited to see places I vaguely heard of as a child, and always thereafter associated with exotic, almost mythical, tales and adventures.  Once in a great while all these reasons come together in a short space of time to create a particularly memorable experience. That's what happened this weekend when Elizabeth and I visited Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum is the classic Arabian desert, made famous to Westerners by the story and movie of Lawrence of Arabia.  It's a land of pink and orange sand, spectacular wind-carved sandstone cliffs and canyons, sun and shadows.  Although the Bedouins who still live there are as likely to be driving (VERY FAST) pick-ups and 4x4's as camels (though there are still plenty of those) and the camps they've created have fluorescent bulbs in addition to the lanterns, it's a land otherwise virtually untouched by time, homogenizing commercialization or liability lawyers.  The only thing that determines how fast you go in a truck or how high you climb on a cliff is you, and your willingness to take on the dares of your utterly carefree Bedouin driver or guide.

With absolutely no idea what to expect, and our major goal being to scout out the area for future trips, my good friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Elizabeth. and I took off on a Friday morning in the taxi of Muhammad, who enjoys the well-earned reputation within the Amman expat community as the most honest and caring driver in the city.  As we travelled south with stops along the way for many tiny cups of sweet coffee and tea, he generously threw in numerous lessons on Islam, Jordanian culture and language.  In Wadi Rum we he introduced us to Meta'b, our Bedouin driver, who proceeded to spin several 360s in the truck (with Elizabeth and I in it) in the gas station parking lot as a little mini-orientation.  Afterward an older man in a police uniform waved him down, and I thought we might at least get reprimanded for this display of recklessness, but it was just Meta'b's uncle wanting to say hello.

Over the next 36 hours we
  • drove to some of the more famous cliff formations (including one where that we arrived just after sunset, and promptly got stick in the sand.  Meta'b yelled something in Arabic (which I later learned was, "anyone who loves the prophet Muhammad, come out here and push!") which amassed an army of young men in about 15 seconds flat who laughed and joked as they impossibly  pushed the truck out of the sand pit and up a dune);

    A view of the desert -- and our white truck -- just minutes before the sand swallowed it, necessitating the concerted efforts of a dozen good-humored Bedouins
  • spent the night at a beautiful new camp and ate a dinner of meat roasted in a deep pit and shrek bread cooked over a giant stone;

    Pulling the sheep and chicken out of its charcoal burial so we can devour it
    A view of our camp from inside the tent where we ate
    Elizabeth points out the amenities of our tent, including our favorite, the towels folded up like swans on our beds (which we didn't use because neither of us felt like taking a cold shower in the chilly morning).
  • hiked out of the camp and up a sand dune with Muhammad and Meta'b late in the night to see the thickest carpet of stars I've witnessed outside of rural Tanzania and held a competition for two hours to see who could see the most shooting stars while learning the differences on the Islamic and Christian takes of the New Testament and cracking jokes (the theme of most of them being that Arabic has a special construction for words in between singular and plural that involves adding "tain" or "ain" to double them);
  • Muhammad, Elizabeth and I drinking three more of the innumerable cups of tea we were served in Bedouin tents all over the desert
  • hiked up sand dunes and cliff formations to see Nabatean hieroglyphics and amazing views; and

    Meta'b and I standing in front of a wall of Nabotean hieroglyphics after climbing up to get to them.
    Resting on top of a high sand dune -- you can't tell from the photo that only a minute before I was desperately panting for air -- hiking uphill in the sand is hard!
  • fulfilled a longstanding dream of both Elizabeth and I to have our Lawrence of Arabia moment by riding through the same area he did, the same way he did, on camelback.

Fulbrightain (two Fulbrighters) riding on naqahtain (two female camels).  Our work here is done.
Not bad for a day and a half. 

One trip, two new friends.  Here's Elizabeth on the way to Wadi Rum with Muhammad...

...and just before we left saying goodbye to Meta'b.
Wadi Rum needs to go on everyone's bucket list.  Seriously. I can recommend an amazing camp and some great drivers who might just become long-term friends.  All you have to do is go.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jordan Challenge 8: Visit Jerash and the North

Sometimes the best thing to do when a plan falls apart is to re-group and figure out something else. That was definitely the case this weekend.  My friend Elizabeth and I had made a big, ambitious plan to head out to the Wadi Rum desert and check things out there.  We both really want to try a camel trek, but also neither of us have ever been there, and both of us are planning to take other people there this year. So, we wanted to go see it for ourselves as a sort of reconnaissance trip. But a lethal combination of deadlines, Arabic tests and drivers who turn their phones off for very long periods of time laid waste to our marvelous plans.

 And so instead, late on Friday night (which is functionally our Saturday night), we hit on the brilliant idea of calling up the backpacker hotels in Amman to see if we could tag along on one of the trips that they schedule for their guests if they can scrape up a minimum of four people.  Sure enough, the Farah Hotel (where I've stayed in the past with intrepid student/friend/travellers Siham, Connor, Kate and Alexsis) had two guests who wanted to go out to Northern Jordan if only two more people would join in. We signed up a little before midnight and showed up at the lobby the next morning at 8 am and off we went.

The loop we took had three stops, all of them great in their own way. Here's the list, actually, from the bulletin board at the Farah:
It all started out with a single little piece of paper tacked to a bulletin board...

My friend, fellow Fulbrighter and partner in crime for the day's adventure, Elizabeth. Here she is tucked into a little staircase of what we agreed was our favorite structure among the ruins of Jerash -- the smaller North Theatre.
So, the four of us, two tourists from Serbia and Croatia, Elizabeth and I jumped into a van and our driver headed north.  We first went all the way to the northwest corner of the country to the town of Umm Qais. For those who know their bible stories, Umm Qais is featured in a story from the book of Matthew (8:28-32).  According to the story Jesus was passing through the area and came across a pair of people possessed by demons.  So he cast the demons out of them but the demons, looking for some other lives to ruin, then took possession of a herd of pigs who, alas, dealt with their demon possession by flinging themselves into the sea, presumably the Sea of Galilee.

Plenty o' columns still kicking around Umm Qais

Elizabeth ignoring the multi-national view over her shoulder in order to decide whether we should get fattoush as well as hummus (silly question, we got them both, obviously.)

Although it's fairly unclear (at least to tourists) what route the suicidal pigs took, the area is also known for its amazing Roman ruins, though these are smaller and much less-visited than the ones in Jerash further south.  My favorite thing about Umm Qais, however, is the phenomenal Rest House there, where you can sit and have a late breakfast and see into Syria, the disputed Golan Heights, Israel and Palestine and the Sea of Galilee. Everything below looks so calm and sweepingly beautiful it's hard to reconcile with the turmoil in the news that mention of many of these places evokes.

From Umm Qais we started going south and stopped at the very impressive Qala-at Al-Rabad (Ajloun Castle).  You can see it for miles around, as it's perched up on a very high hill above the Jordan Valley.  The Crusades are a topic I never thought much about till I came here, but you can't help but think about them at the Ajloun Castle. It was built in the 1180s and was apparently an important part of the defense against the Crusaders. It's really pretty huge and just gorgeous inside and out. I'm a big castle-goer as a tourist, and I'd put this one right near the top of the list of ones I've ever walked through.

Among my less-bright moves of the day was failing to get a single of picture of the castle in its entirety.  But even from this one showing one of the corner towers you can get a sense of just how huge and impressive it is.

Our driver was pretty strict with our time limits (especially after Elizabeth and I went overtime at Umm Qais), but you could have spent all day exploring the vaulted passageways like these that were all over the place inside.

Our last stop of the tour was the biggest -- the ruins of Jerash.  They're located right in the middle of the modern town of Jerash, and they are pretty spectacular. There are parts of Roman streets, still paved with giant stone and lined with columns, two theatres, various temple and fountain ruins and, most fun of all, a hippodrome that has been restored so they can do shows for the tourists with recreations of army legions, gladiators and chariot racing. We sat in front of a group of super-exited kids who desperately wanted at least one of the defeated gladiators to have to get the thumbs down (though we learned that actually the signs were thumbs-up (live) or thumbs on their side (die).

Chariot racing!  How cool is that?

In Jerash there are still a bunch of places like this with intact stone-paved roads (where you can actually see the wagon ruts worn into the stone) and columns along the side.

Apparently, the desert weather here has done wonders in helping with the preservation of these historical sites. Tramping around the ruins, it was fun to try to imagine Northern Jordan as first the biblical land of Gilead, and then as the area of not one but ten Roman city-states, and finally what it must have been like when it was holding its own against the Crusaders from Europe. It was a phenomenal day, and I can't wait to have a second look with visitors and friends in future visits Northward. Next stop (hopefully) -- Wadi Rum!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Jordan Challenge 7: Teach at the University of Jordan

Today I wrote the first of what I hope will be a monthly blog post for our political science blog at Saint Michael's College, and it made me realize something funny.  In my list of challenges in Jordan, I never listed the nominal reason I'm here in the first place: teaching at the University of Jordan.  I think part of the reason that I didn't think of it as a challenge is that, because the courses I could teach were a poor match up with the courses they needed taught in the American Studies program this semester, I actually have a very light load. In fact, I'm only teaching one graduate course, and that's to a small class.  To remedy the situation for next semester I'll be submitting a list of courses I could teach not only in American Studies but also in several other grad programs run within the Faculty of International Studies where I'm assigned. I've been assured by my Dean that I won't get off quite this easily next time.

On further reflection, though, I've come to realize that my teaching assignment, light as it is, is still a challenge, for both my students and me.  There's nothing like an intensive three-hour discussion-oriented format to make a person remember that linguistic and cultural differences are real.  For starters, the course, like all the courses in the graduate American Studies program, are taught in English.  This is obviously a huge boon for me, since I don't speak Arabic (though I am definitely putting in some real time in and out of class trying to learn it) but it is a huge burden on my students, who must not only communicate during class time, but also complete all their assigned readings and papers. On my end, all the professors, administrators and staff I have worked with are fluent in English, and graciously don't make a big deal of the fact that I can't join in the small talk of the department.  But the actual documents of the program, including things like the roll sheet for the class, are in Arabic, and so the secretaries very kindly transliterated the students' names for me, or I wouldn't have been able to see who was who in our first class meeting.

We all agree that my office is a much better place to hold class -- among other things, the chairs are more comfortable.
As for cultural differences, there are the obvious ones, such as differences in dress (e.g. out in public people dress much more conservatively than they do in the United States) and religion.  But there are also many more subtle differences that come out in interesting ways during class discussions or day-to-day interactions.  One of the interesting differences between the way Islam is practiced in Jordan and the way Christianity is practiced in the United States, is that Islam is much more woven into the fabric of everyday life.  There is a call to prayer five times a day, and so we take our break during class so that it will coincide with the call that occurs during that time. Everyday speech has many references to Allah (like insha'Allah -- if God wishes, which is the standard response to any stated plan). Culturally, the family unit is very important here. Most single adults live with their parents, only moving when they get married.  Family homes (and therefore lucky foreign renters like me)  have lovely formal dining rooms where everyone gets together for meals, and extended families are very important too. In our class, which is about American social problems, we've been talking a lot about the American value of liberty and it's connection to individualism in American culture.  This is quite a contrast with values here that  focus on individual's roles and responsibilities within their family and community.
Here are Eman and Israa...

....and here are Rana and Rola.  When I told them about the poli sci blog they all agreed to be photographed, though they did suggest in the future a bit of advanced warning would be nice.

These differences in values translate into differences in the way we see social problem. For example in discussions and a writing assignment my students wondered if perhaps the disintegration of the American traditional family and the large amounts of liberty we Americans take for granted are factors in the alcohol and drug use and violence that they pointed out as some of our social problems. (Two others that were often listed were racial inequality and gender discrimination -- which I had not predicted as topping the list.)

So far we've had a very values-focused discussion, looking at the way that Americans view equity, security, efficiency and liberty. We've also done some review of American history and next week will do the same with American political institutions.  After that we dig into three social problems areas: health care; racial and income inequality; and criminal justice. We'll end with students presenting their research on their own choice of an American social problem. I'm lucky that I have a class that's very forgiving of my inability to speak Arabic and lack of cultural knowledge about everyday things they take for granted.  I'm learning a lot from them, and hope they feel the same way about me and the class.  Should be a fascinating semester!
Not a great shot, but one I associate with leaving campus.  The campus is very large, and all of it is surrounded by a big fence with three gates.  This is the main gate, and there is a very big road in front of it, and a collection of fast food restaurants and businesses catering to students on the other side.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Jordan Challenge 6: Become a Rainbow Street Regular

So, given the fact that some of this year's challenges, like learning even a little Arabic, are going to be monumental I think I deserve to throw some easy ones in there too.  And this one definitely qualifies as easy, and also delightful.  I think every city has a neighborhood or area that is known to be a little (or maybe a lot) more international and artsy and bohemian.  In Amman, that is Rainbow Street. One of the only things that makes Amman even vaguely navigable as a city is that it has seven traffic circles running consecutively westward from the city that help you get your bearings because they are called "First Circle", "Second Circle", etc.  Happily, Rainbow Street begins at First Circle so it's easy to reach, even by a directionally-challenged person such as myself..  It's connected to another street called Omar bin al-Khattab, except that everyone calls that street Mango Street.  The main point of all of this is that both Rainbow and Mango Streets are loaded with cafes, bookstores, cool little shops and ex-pats.  And at the risk of becoming a cliche, it's where I intend to spend a good amount of time during my Fulbright year.

Things are off to a strong start, thanks to some of my Fulbright friends, most especially Elizabeth, who embodies the term vivacious in all that she does, and one of my awesome graduate students, Rola, who knew after only a few weeks of classes that I clearly needed to spend a morning exploring beyond Books Cafe, where I usually make my beeline on arriving in the neighborhood.

Rola invited me to meet her at First Circle on a Wednesday morning.  Once we'd both arrived, we went for a walk down Rainbow Street that took in bookstore shopping, a visit to the Jordan River Foundation -- a nonprofit founded by Queen Rania selling high-end crafts made by Jordanian women -- and finally, a new cafe for both of us, the Old View Cafe on Mango Street.  As you can see from the pictures, the food was fantastic (these are various forms of manaqeesh -- a kind of flat bread covered with various savory toppings) and the views even better.  We spent a phenomenal chunk of the day with Rola explaining all kinds of things to me -- from Jordanian words to customs, and we will surely be back.

The Old View Cafe comes by its name honestly.  The view is truly fantastic!

And the food is quite tasty.  Yet another reason to be grateful to Rola -- being introduced to kiwi-lemon juice that we both had.

Here's Rola hamming it up a bit.

And here she is in front of the Jordan River Foundation shop and doing a little promotion for my book on AIDS policy in the US that I lent her for a paper she's going to research.
Today (Friday) is the day of worship in Jordan and kind of  like Sunday in the United States.  Nothing happens in the morning but in the afternoon after noon prayers some things do open, including most of the shops on and around Rainbow Street.  It's also the day of the Souk Jara, another Rainbow Street institution.  It's an open-air market of crafts, art and food, and loads of fun.  So, of course, Elizabeth suggested we should have brunch at the expat standby, Books Cafe, and things got even more fun when our Fulbright friends Christina, Jayme and Kelsey agreed to join as well.  After a very leisurely load-up on many carbs and iced drinks, and running into quite a few other expat friends, we finally relinquished our cushy couch to other hungry Friday fans, and headed to the Souk Jara.  A few paintings and book purchases later we declared the afternoon a success and broke to go to our respective houses to whip up something tasty for a Fulbright potluck we'll all be attending tonight. 
Two more Fulbright students -- Grace and Hannah -- demonstrating that it is, in fact, possible to do work on Friday afternoon at books.  They are both working as English Teaching Assistants and were working on their next week's lesson plans.

The brunch crew: Kelsey, Christina, Elizabeth and Jayme.

And here they are again in the heart of all that is happening in the Rainbow Street neighborhood -- on the corner of Rainbow and Mango Streets.

The take-away point is this: if you're in Amman you owe it to yourself to check out Rainbow Street and while away a few hours in the cafes and shops.  And if you're in Amman for a while, it might just become a habit.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Jordan Challenge 5: 0.0 Learning Arabic (the Baby Step Way)

So, when I posted my List of Challenges for my year in Jordan, I had a multiple-part goal of learning some Arabic.  While I can report some progress in my process -- I have a very patient tutor, Ghada, who teaches me four hours per week and I have produced sheets and sheets of awkwardly- handwritten Arabic alphabets in my big green notebook bought for the purpose -- I am still an emphatic failure when it comes to the product, as in actual ability to speak, write words, or comprehend what people are saying.

For anyone who has not ever undertaken the study of Arabic as a second language, I feel the need to point out a few things, all of them in defense of my main point, which is that Arabic is really, really hard to learn.  Here are a few of the reasons why:
1.  The alphabet is completely different than the Roman alphabet.  So when you start studying Spanish or French or Kiswahili, you are using letters you already know (albeit with a few additions or subtractractions).  Not so Arabic.  Here, for example, is the way that the word "Arabic" looks transliterated into Arabic: أرابيك
The letters are (from right to left -- another complicating factor): alif/raa/alif/ba/yaa/kaaf
2.  In Arabic some of the vowels get dropped out. If a word has "short" vowels in it, the short vowels are little dashes and symbols above or below letters that they follow, but in everything except children's books and the Holy Koran they get dropped out. It's kind of like the shorthand people use when texting, except it's universal. Supposedly, once you learn enough vocabulary and have some actually reading chops, you are able to figure out contextually what the word is without those little dashes to help.
3.  Here in Jordan, there are two Arabics: Modern Standard Arabic and Jordanian Arabic.  It makes sense to learn Modern Standard Arabic because that is the way most things are written across the Arab world, but if that is all you learn, you won't be able to understand people here in everyday conversation. 
4.  There are about ten letters that have no equivalent sound in English. Lots of them are made in the back of the throat and I am a long, long way from accomplishing most of them.
5.  Most of the letters have four forms: how they look standing alone, at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word and as the last letter of a word.  So, when you are memorizing the alphabet you have to memorize all four forms just  to recognize the letter.

I know there are many other ways in which Arabic is distinctly hard, but I don't know what they are yet, because in Arabic-learning terms I'd say I'm about in preschool.  I know the alphabet and the numbers to ten (which also look different than Roman numbers) and can read a few words here and there like the stop signs that are ignored by all  the drivers, and, in fact, everyone but me (and I believe this also makes me the only person to appreciate the literary value of the common stop sign). And at the gym where I run on a treadmill with a TV screen that allows me to watch bad American programs, I can sometimes pick out pronouns in the Arabic subtitles below.

Oh, and I can write my name. And thus, it seems appropriate to close with a little visual.  Here are my official Fulbrighter business cards for the year.  One side is in English, the other in Arabic.  I circled my name on the Arabic one (although the transliteration is actually closer to D. (as in Dr.) Batreesia Sibleen, since there is no P in Arabic).

My one source of hope is that I am surrounded by dozens of extremely bright Fulbright students, all of whom hit the ground here already knowing some Arabic, and they are now studying in earnest while conducting  their research or teaching assistant assignments.  If they can do it, I have hope that I may progress from preschool to somewhere solidly in the elementary school range by the time I leave.  I will definitely report in on what I hope will be progress.