Monday, September 30, 2013

Short Takes

I'm still waiting for my camera to be returned to me, so I still don't have pictures of Wadi Rum. In the meantime, I thought I'd post briefly about some of the little things here I notice every day, but that aren't really worthy by themselves of a full length post.


Living in Jordan makes me much, much more appreciative of the strict littering laws in the United States. In my home state of Oregon, intentionally discarding garbage is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and/or $6,250 in fines. Police enforce it with relish. A friend of mine in Oregon loves to pick up anything he sees other people litter and passive aggressively hand it back to them.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Meet a new country, same as your old country

The more time I spend in Jordan, the more I am struck by the things here that really are not different from what I was used to in the United States.

This is not a revelation, I would imagine, to anyone who has traveled abroad for an extended period before. Globalization means that as an American, almost everywhere you go has a McDonalds and a Starbucks. In Jordan, American style restaurants dot every corner near the university district. Advertisements for Ford and Pepsi abound. Two and Half Men and How I Met Your Mother, subtitled in Arabic, are broadcast on the TV alongside Turkish dramas. English is the country's unofficial second language, and almost everyone in Amman can read the alphabet and at least say a few words. On Sunday nights, many of us American students go to Buffalo Wings and Rings, watch American football on the TV, and drink beer. If the beer was cheaper ($7 US a pint!) you would probably think you were in the US.

CIEE students watching NFL football on a Sunday night in Amman.
It isn't just American influence that is pervasive in Jordan. A Korean television dance show called Helm as-Shabab (Loosely translated: the youth's dream) is popular on television as well. Samsung tablets and phones are heavily advertised and used. In Petra, I saw a lot of Chinese tourists, signs in Chinese, and even some Chinese imitation restaurants. Perhaps one of the most remarkable moments from my time in Jordan was at a birthday party held for one of my host family's grandsons. The party was held at Burger King, and the kids played games and danced to music. The birthday boy's favorite song? Gangnam Style. I pondered the implications of sitting in an American restaurant in Jordan listening to Korean pop music. The world is flat, and it's getting flatter all the time.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Jordanian architecture

I'm going to write a longer blog post with pictures about my trip to Wadi Rum, which I returned from yesterday. Unfortunately, I seem to have misplaced my camera, and I don't want to write that post without pictures if it can be helped. I fear I may have left it on the tour bus - if that's the case I'll have to try and scrounge up some pictures from other people. In the meantime I will hope it turns up, and write about the interesting ways Jordanians build their homes.

This is a pretty standard Jordanian home, pulled directly off of Google images. I saw dozens and dozens of buildings like this as I rode down the Desert Highway toward Wadi Rum. The only buildings that don't look this way are commercial buildings (like hotels) and government buildings.

The most noticeable feature is the support columns with rebar still sticking out of the roof. Almost every residential building, especially in rural Jordan, looks like this one. Why? It's planning ahead for potential expansion. My host mother, Samira, explained to me that she didn't think the best use for her family's money was to simply let it sit in the bank. "If it sits in the bank, yani, it disappears. We put it back into the house, and it will always be here yani."

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The King and Jordanian Politics

Politics in Jordan is interesting. The current ruler of the country, King Abdullah II, is a monarch who still retains lot of power. The country has a parliament, but the King sets their agenda and can (and often does) replace the Prime Minister and other government figures at will.

Perhaps the most interesting article about King Abdullah's reign is this March interview with him by Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. The overall gist of the article is that the King loves the US and wants to transition to an American style democracy as soon as circumstances allow. But the king also made numerous blunt and somewhat derogatory comments about various Jordanian political factions that he claims stand in the way, calling tribal leaders "dinosaurs" and the influential Muslim Brotherhood (known as the Islamic Action Front in Jordan) a "Masonic cult".

The king seems to believe that he cannot give up his authority without first creating a strong and diverse political culture in Jordan, lest the nation fall into the hands of the Brotherhood or devolve into tribal factionalism, which remains a challenge in Jordan:
Earlier that day, in his private office in Al Hummar, which overlooks the wealthy neighborhoods of West Amman, the king had explained to me the reason for the trip to Karak: he was trying, in advance of parliamentary elections in January, to instruct these tribal leaders on the importance of representative democracy. He wanted, he said, to see Jordanians build political parties that would not simply function as patronage mills but would advance ideas from across a broad ideological spectrum, and thus establish for Jordan a mature political culture.
The interview provoked a strong reaction from many Jordanians. The Royal Hashemite Court here backtracked on Abullah's comments, saying he was misrepresented. If you read the comments on the article, many supporters of the King claim the interview was fabricated wholly or in part.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A people, a language, and thoughts on learning it

كوب شايkoob shai – cup of tea

Today, as I loitered on the University of Jordan campus waiting for my class to start, I decided to go and grab a cup of tea from one of the many cafeterias that are scattered about. Tea and coffee on the UJ campus are extremely cheap by American standards – a cup runs 0.10 JD, which is about 15 cents in US dollars. In the cafeteria, I am again confronted by a common scenario – I don’t really know what to do here. I don’t know where the cash register is. I don’t know what everyone is saying. I manage to order a cup of tea the old fashioned way – saying shai and gesturing.

After I pay, a girl I don’t know approaches me. “Did you get what you wanted?” she asks. I tell her I did. “I just wondered,” she says sincerely, “A lot of people here don’t speak English, so I can help if you need it.” I thank her I got everything, and leave.

I tell this story because it illustrates both the best part of studying abroad in Jordan and the most challenging part. The people of Jordan that I study and live with are overwhelmingly kind and helpful, like the girl who offered to help me. But my general inability to really speak and understand the language is a growing source of frustration.

The University of Jordan campus.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Snapshots from a week in Jordan

Getting There

As I board the Air France flight from Detroit to Paris, the French crew greets me: "Boujour". I know so little French that I don't even know what the proper response is, so I mumble a greeting in English and scurry down the aisle to look for my seat.

The plane is headed for Charles de Gaulle airport, and I'm concerned about being able to communicate once I get there. I ask a friend who travels internationally a lot if people working at the airport speak English. "Don't worry", he tells me. "Just stand there looking confused and keep saying 'I'm American.' They'll understand."

I find my seat in the center aisle. The middle-aged couple sitting next to me are Americans - I can tell because all the Europeans on the flight a) all look like Daniel Craig and b) are reading a copy of Le Monde. I initiate a brief conversation and discover that they are from Green Bay, Wisconsin. The wife is an ophthalmologist and the husband is an accountant; they're flying through France on their way to the wedding of a friend in Italy. I ask, Have you ever been to Europe before?" Mr. Green Bay admits he has not, and a brief look of fear washes over his face. I can empathize. I consider passing along my friend's advice, but decide it might not be as well received.

At this point, the well dressed European in front of me reclines his seat so that it rests directly on top of my kneecaps. This is of course the ultimate dick move you can pull on an airplane. Mr. Green Bay looks at me sympathetically, then admits apologetically in a whisper that the guy had done the same thing to him when they first boarded, and that he had convinced him to switch to the seat in front of me. I resign myself to watching Arnold Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand, which as it turns out is an excellent movie. Mr. Green Bay shrugs: Nothing I can do, his face says.