Monday, November 4, 2013

All the King's men, a proposition, and an incredible act of hospitality

I apologize for not writing for so long - I got sucked into midterms and a bit behind on my schoolwork after my Eid al-Adhak break, and sort of put off writing any thing for my travel blog. So I'm sorry. But not that sorry.

Daily Life (حياة يومي)

At this point, I've sort of settled into a daily routine here in Amman. On Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays I have class at 9:00 AM. On Mondays and Wednesdays I have it at 8:00 AM (Friday and Saturday are the weekend here, since Friday and not Sunday is holy in Islam). So every day, I get up about an hour and a half before class (in theory), get dressed and wander out onto my street to find a taxi. Samira, my host mother, usually leaves the house before I do, riding to the school where she teaches with her daughter-in-law. She always leaves me a cup of tea and either fried or boiled eggs, something I consider an incredible act of generosity given how much work she already does for me and her sons.

The ride to the University of Jordan usually takes about 20-30 minutes. Today, however, it took more like 30 or 40. As we were riding, I noticed Jordanian soldiers holding M-16s spaced approximately every ten meters along the edge of the street. Traffic had slowed basically to a crawl along the entire length of Medina Monawarra street, atypical even when there's been an accident. I asked my taxi driver in Arabic why the army (al-jeesh) was out in the streets today. "The King is going to Parliament", he said. The net impact of the King's trip on my life was that I was fifteen minutes late to Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) class today.


At the University, when I have time before class or a break, I wander into the University cafeteria, conveniently located right near my classroom. I, along with nearly everyone in my Modern Standard Arabic class, buy a cup of Arabic coffee or tea there. At this point, the cashier knows all of us by sight, and doesn't even have to ask me what I want anymore. I just hand him fifteen qirsh (about 20 cents) and he hands me my ticket. I sometimes suspect that he likes us more than some of the Jordanian students, because the American students tend to form a line and greet him in Arabic, while Jordanians tend to have a more "free for all" approach to waiting in line.

After class, I tend to eat at one of the restaurants outside the main gate of the University. Today I went to el-Turko, which despite its name also sells Arabic food. I've come to love schwerma, and have picked up the rather unhealthy habit of eating it almost every day. A schwema meal is extremely cheap (between two and four USD, with a drink and fries) and tastes pretty universally good regardless of where you get it. El-Turko has a kind of tasty garlic mayonnaise that comes with the schwerma meal, and lately I've been enjoying it over the standard mayo that most schwerma joints dispense.

In the afternoon, I either have my area studies classes or my Ammiya Arabic class. My area studies classes are both in political science/international relations: America and the Arabs and Paths to Peace. Both focus heavily on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In hindsight, I would not take both of them again, as much of the materiel for the two is redundant. They are also much easier than my classes at Macalester in terms of workload, many fewer readings and only one paper to write at the end of the term.

My Ammiya class covers the local Jordanian dialect, which is significantly different from MSA. It's taught by a younger guy named Saleh, and is mostly conversation based since Ammiya is all verbal. I received for the class a textbook with a lot of vocabulary and information on the dialect, which I use heavily as a reference and often try to study on my own. Over the first month I was here, I became more and more enthusiastic about Ammiya as the general uselessness in daily life of MSA was impressed upon me. Increasingly, however, I've noticed that a lot of media Arabic is actually spoken in a mix of MSA and dialect, such as on radio programs and on the always-popular Arabs Got Talent. I keep with me a little notepad at all times and write down Ammiya words I learn or hear when I get a chance, I try and pick up a new one once every day.

After my last class, I either take a bus or taxi back to my host family's home, usually getting there sometime in the afternoon. Figuring out how to take the bus took me about a month, and I have the disadvantage of living in a neighborhood with infrequent bus service. Buses in Jordan also rarely operate on a schedule, in general a bus shows up once an hour near the University of Jordan and sits until full (as in, people literally standing in the aisle). It then takes about another half an hour to get home. The entire process typically takes about an hour, but has the advantage of being much cheaper than taking a taxi - the bus costs only half a dinar, whereas a taxi can cost around two.

Samira pretty much always beats me home, since she usually finishes work in the early afternoon. She likes to eat much earlier than I usually do in the US, around 3 or 4 PM. She also cooks a lot of food, usually more than enough for her, me, and her son Bassem (who she often cooks for as both he and his wife work). She follows this up by making Arabic coffee. Somewhere between 4 and 8, her various grandchildren also come over and like to watch TV, play games on my iPhone, or play hide and seek, which is what we did today. Sulieman and I have discovered that he can fit just about perfectly inside my big rolling suitcase, although his sisters caught onto that trick pretty quickly. In between all of this, I try and get my homework done.

Samira likes to watch TV in the evening, particularly Turkish dramas and cooking shows. Turkish dramas are insanely popular in Jordan, and I enjoy watching them sometimes as I get to try and decipher the dubbed-in Ammiya. I now have at least some basic knowledge of the characters and plot of both Love and Punishement (عشق و جزء) and As Time Goes By (على مر زمان). Samira never watches the news or even reads the newspaper, although she told me her late husband used to do so all the time. "All this hitting and killing," she says sometimes, "I don't like it. Why let it go in your head?"

Samira then gives me tea, sweets and fruits while we watch, often more than I can possibly eat. If you're getting the impression from this blog post that I am absurdly well-fed in this country, you are entirely correct.

Harassment and Flirting (تحرش و معاكسة)

As a male in Jordan, I've never had a problem with sexual harassment here. However, just about every girl in the CIEE program has had something happen. I've heard taxi drivers are especially bad about this, often persistently asking if a girl is married, etc. Men have also shouted things at girls from car windows. One girl I spoke to even had her breast grabbed by someone driving by. I have almost never witnessed this personally, since I think it's much less likely to happen to a woman with a male friend present. However, when I was downtown with a blonde, female friend from Macalester, I definitely noticed the huge number of stares directed her way. At one point, we were actually approached by a Jordanian guy, who asked me for permission to take a picture with her (he didn't ask her, just me). Creeped out, we declined.

Last week, as I made my way to my second area studies class, I was actually approached by two Jordanian girls from the University. They were giggling and kind of pushing each other toward me. "Excuse me," they asked me. "Can you help us with this?" They handed me a worksheet from some kind of computer science class. I looked at it to try and help, but quickly realized that you need to have a spreadsheet open on a computer to do it, and we were standing outside the main gate by the street. At first I was confused, but as they tried to steer the conversation to where I was from and other topics, I started to suspect they were flirting with me, which was later confirmed by some of my Jordanian friends. I'm in a relationship, so I told the girls I had to go to class and left (I wasn't lying, I had a midterm). "Next time," one of my Jordanian friends advised, "give them my number."

Hospitality (مضياف)

Last weekend, I and two of my Jordanian friends went out to visit one of their families near the town of al-Salt. Most Jordanians are Palestinian refugees or the descendants of Palestinians who fled the region during the various wars there, but some 70% are what is called "East Bankers", or members of the families that originally lived east of the Jordan River. The King is one such person, as is the Jordanian friend I was with. East Bank tribes control most of the Jordanian political apparatus, and constitute the King's primary base of support.

We first visited his home in Amman, where I met his father and brothers and had a little bit of coffee. When you enter a traditional Jordanian home, you are brought to a large, ornately decorated sitting room. The host brings you a cup, and pours into it about a centimeter of coffee. This is a symbolic amount of coffee, and after drinking it, you shake the cup slightly to indicate you are finished. Historically, depending upon what you do with the cup, you could indicate to the hosts that you need assistance or need to hide at their home. My friend had previously studied in the United States, and showed me a number of Jordanian cultural artifacts and then showed me a Confederate flag he had apparently been given when the US, which was one of the last things I expected to find here and found hilarious.

We then drove out and met one of his cousins near Salt, and smoked some shisha and had some Arabic coffee. I learned that his cousin is a also a student and studies business at Balqa University. From there we sat drove to the top of a hill and watched the sunset in the Jordan Valley (I'm still kicking myself for not having my camera) which was absolutely gorgeous. Finally, we went back down to his cousin's home.

After entering through the guest area and going through the coffee routine, we sat for a while with the patriarch of the family. My friend's family is huge, and he can trace back their lineage to the Islamic invasion of Spain and even to pre-Islamic times. "When my cousin got in a car accident," he told me, "300 people came to the hospital." His uncle is essentially the patriarch of the family, and spends much of his time receiving guests in the house and solving problems both within the family and between it and other families. Family and tribal connections (wasta) are huge in Jordan, even in Amman. They can get you out of trouble with the police, they can get you a job, they can expedite your business license, etc.

My friend's cousin brought me some fruits, and then as we stood up to leave, presented me with a ornate wooden box, inscribed with Arabic calligraphy, that held in it a small decorative Qur'an. I was blown away. In the US, this is the kind of gift I could would try to refuse to accept, especially family I had just met. But my friend assured me that his cousin wanted me to have it, and that this was part of Jordanian hospitality culture. It's incredibly generous, something like this would be pretty pricey in Amman, especially for a tourist like me. It's also an act of considerable trust to give a Qur'an to a non-Muslim that you just met.



I'll try and write a couple more posts about my trip to Palestine and Israel and my trips to Wadi Rum, Petra, and Umm Qais over the rest of the week.

Edit (11/4): Updated with pictures of Qur'an.

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