28 February 2007

where the olive green of life has turned to ash.

Last weekend, we took a painfully long trip to the eastern desert of Jordan (quite pretty, actually, but you all know how I feel about organized bus trips). We stopped at a couple of desert castles, but nothing to write home about. This, however, was exciting:

At a center for ecological education, I seriously contemplated joining the ranks of the left-wing American nutjobs who free animals from zoos. There was a terrified baby hyena in a cage smaller than my dorm room (approximately 8'x10') and a borderline psychotic wolf in the equivalent of your average suburban hallway. The center aims to teach Jordanians about the ecosystems of their country and how to preserve them. And I had lamented the lack of sound environmental policy in this country (oh Germany, where are you when I need you?) - the environmentalists don't even understand the concept. The man who gave us the tour was so proud of what they'd done with the nocturnal animals in a darkened room so people could see them active during the day, but I still wanted to cry.

We also stopped at the Azraq (Arabic for "blue") wetlands reserve, which almost killed my tree hugging little heart. Being from Florida, I generally define "wetlands" as, well, wet. Not so much over here. A small handful of fish hanging around the pipe delivering the water from Syria back into the wetlands, a scattering of lonely ducks, and tall, thick, brown, and dying grass along the shore, such as it were. It used to be a major bird migration stopping point, but since there's no water or plant life, the birds are gradually going elsewhere. They're trying so hard to revive the area, but it's simply too far gone.

Most exciting, we visited a preserve that's home to a herd of oryx, an animal thought extinct until recently. Only a few of you understand why an oryx is so exciting to me - if you don't get it, go read this book. I'll get a picture up soon.

PS. I think my Islam professor might be a Holocaust denier. I've never met one in the flesh before. My roommate's a kosher Jew. This is about to get interesting.

PPS. My friend James just got his Peace Corps invitation. He's going to Tanzania in health education, which is only my dream destination. I'm so jealous.

23 February 2007

they're not wearing wooden shoes.

Over the weekend, we were in a local restaurant where some shebab were watching what I have now (not so) affectionately termed the "I hate America" channel. Forgetting for a moment that they were not at all made uncomfortable by our presence, they were actively engaged in watching a "news" segment about an American spy drone that had been shot down (we missed by whom). Fine, that's all well and good, I realize we spy on other nations. But then they showed the "wreckage." The American "flag" had fifteen some odd stripes and no stars. I can deal with biased news (there isn't really another way, but more on that later), but outright falsification is more than I can swallow.

I realize this isn't the mainstream news and most people don't use it as their sole or even primary source, but there's something appalling about the fact that this is being watched, even as entertainment. I'm a big critic of those who generalize about Arab culture, but I'm beginning to lose sympathy and realizing there's a grain of truth in every stereotype. I suppose Borat is in the same category, only in reverse, but I watched it knowing it was an absurd farce and I think most other Americans did too. Maybe I have too much faith in the American public and the Jordanians realize the implications of what they're watching, but I have a sinking feeling that's not always the case.

In Arabic for the last week, we've been talking about Edward Said's Orientalism. Admittedly, I haven't read the book yet, but since our teacher felt we were qualified to discuss the work after a two paragraph Arabic summary, I feel I'm entitled to express an opinion in the meantime. If this isn't the point Said was making, then I'm wrong, but it was the point our professor was making, so I'm going to have myself a little rant regardless.

Essentially, as I understand it, it boiled down to Said's assertion that human knowledge is inherently non neutral; we are all biased by our own cultural, religious, and social backgrounds (agreed). Then, we started on the West's oppression of the East, its generalizations about Eastern culture, and the "exotic" perception of the East as the "other." I'll grant parts of that premise, especially considering European excursions into the region in the 17th and 18th century, but I think the nature of the problem has changed. It's a problem with the relations and perceptions BETWEEN East and West, it's not all the fault of the West (and definitely not just the United States, as some suggested). So why is it acceptable for Said to generalize about the West's oppressive generalizations about the East? Isn't he doing precisely what he's criticizing the West for? It's a two way street - no one is innocent in this, and petty finger pointing won't help.

Khlas (finished) - that's the end of my rant. I'm going to go read Orientalism now and see what Said really meant, since I'm guessing a couple of Arabic sentences probably didn't convey the whole meaning.

Unrelated note, the UN is awesome. Slavery's not so bad after all. And I may have found a paying gig as an English tutor, so life is grand.

Quote of the week from Islam class: "Because God said so." (in response to several questions about the significance of certain Islamic symbols, beliefs, etc).

19 February 2007

going for the gold.

I survived my first hailstorm. It hurt.

A guy in our program is now starting for the Jordanian national rugby team. He thought he was playing for a local pick-up sort of team, but he was wrong.

I have a job. (Well, in the sense that someone is benefiting from my labors, not so much that I'm reaping financial rewards). I got an internship with the Amman office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, in the Iraq section. I start on Tuesday, so I don't know too many specifics yet, but I'll be working on IDP policy for Iraq.

On a related note, after three and a half years, my very first Arabic word (al-uman al-mutahida = United Nations) finally proved practical. I had directions to the UNHCR office and a street address (which is essentially useless since no one in Amman uses street names), and we made it all the way to the last turn before we got lost. He pulled over to ask a couple of shabab about the street, but they didn't know. I dropped my first word, and lo and behold, the language barrier dissolved and they pointed out my destination.

Candace is teaching me and Fleming to play the guitar. I'm so excited - I may actually have a semblance of musical ability by the end of the semester.

I dropped my history class to pick up the much-touted Islam in the Modern Context class after I heard about the lunatic professor who, on the first day, explained that 99% of Muslims don't fully understand their faith...because the West (read: America) won't let them. The textbook is an embarrassingly ungrammatical edit of the English translation of a relatively well respected Arabic Introduction to Islam. The American woman who edited the original translation explains in the introduction that this book led her to submit to the path of Islam and she hopes it will do the same for others. Typos and misspellings aside, I always enjoy attempts to convert me, so this should be an entertaining experience.

15 February 2007

the american dream.

Pictured above is the stunning cake my friends baked and I decorated in honor of our Valentine's Day chocolate potluck and (belatedly) Barack Obama's official announcement of his candidacy for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Although the bananas backfired as a decorating material, our love transcends our lacking artistic skills. If you haven't read The Audacity of Hope yet, you should. It drags a bit in the middle, and I'm not inclined to endorse his "Faith" chapter, but I'm still on board 100%. He offers a refreshing realistic idealism and (dare I say it?) hope for our country's potential. Ohib Barack kathiran.

I know not all of you love Barack (or even liberals), so here's a fun restaurant we can all enjoy. I'm not even quite sure what they were aming for. I can't help but think there's good money to be made in the translation business here if I could just convince the Jordanians. Our favorite convenience store, Seven Brothers, gave us a sand filled vase as a present that reads "7 Borthers Stor." They sell ginger ale though, so I can silence my inner grammarian for the cause.

My Arabic class thus far has been interesting and educational, albeit depressing. We've had a lesson entitled "Kayfa maat al-nas?" (How do people die?) where we learned a dozen words to describe death (including drowning, burning, suffocation, suicide, execution, assassination, and martyrdom), another on natural disasters, and today we learned important vocabulary words like vengeance, extremist, suicide operations, explosives, and refugees. Arabic also has twenty words for love, in varying degrees, but I only know one. I know we're focusing on media Arabic here, but honestly! No wonder everyone sounds angry all the time.

13 February 2007

between the raindrops.

It finally stopped raining after two false alarms. Yippee hooray.

[edit: make that three false alarms and no sign of stopping anytime soon.]

During our two weeks of colloquial classes (i.e. thirty hours of my life that I can never get back again), we also spent our afternoons sitting through a series of generally excruciating lectures, with one notable exception. A woman with a PhD in Islamic Studies from the University of Jordan and another one in English Literature from Manchester (UK) who also studied in the States spoke on Islam and its role in Jordanian society. She was a devout Muslim who wore hijab, so I was initially skeptical of her objectivity, but she acknowledged her biases up front and actually proved quite realistic in her interpretations of her faith. Someone challenged her to justify Islam's prominent place in the politics of the Middle East, given the growing problems in the region. She described an ideal system where the people chose those most qualified to represent them, had the freedom to question and criticize said leaders, and the ability to replace corrupt or inefficient leaders (hmmm, that sounds vaguely familiar). As a follow up, we asked her if there were any Islamic states that currently met that standard. "If I were to be completely honest, I would say that there is Islam in the West but no Muslims (read: American democracy is a good idea), and Muslims but not Islam in the Middle East." I almost fell off my chair. Perhaps I don't represent the root of ALL things evil, after all.

Although our democracy is apparently quite desirable, it seems our culture is still "a boil on the butt of humanity." (not her quote, someone else's). She railed against the immorality of western culture as seen on satellite television and its influence on Jordanian youth. Girls contemplating buying bikinis and such after what they've seen on American TV shows. God forbid! I know I'm supposed to respect cultural differences and all, (and I'm trying!) but the manner in which women are treated (and treat themselves) here is more than I can handle (more on that at a later date, I'm trying to keep my idealism relatively intact for a bit longer).

Say what you want about American culture, god knows I have my own personal issues with many aspects of it, but last I checked no one is forcing anyone to pay for satellite television and then also watch the western shows syndicated by Arabic channels. I think the blame is being seriously mislaid here - if you don't like my culture, then don't watch it and don't emulate it. Someone brought up a brilliant point here - if American democracy is what an Islamic state should be, then how do you fit a conformist, collectivist culture into that model? A fundamental principle of our democracy is individual choice, and it is inherently undemocratic to call for the banning of that which a particular individual or sector of society finds offensive. The American President said it best:

"You've got to want it bad, because it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil who is standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the 'land of the free'? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that. Then you can stand up and sing about the 'land of the free.'"

In a similar vein, I'm beginning to tire of the assumption that because I am an American woman, I am also inherently immoral. Because I don't cover myself and wear makeup, I am asking to be harassed by men on the street. Because I believe that sexuality is an individual choice and not a uniform cultural mandate, it must follow that I've chosen a life of wanton debauchery. For all the time I've spent criticizing others for their sweeping generalizations about Arabs and defending this region I love dearly, I'd appreciate some reciprocation. If Americans are racist for assuming all Arabs are terrorists who hate freedom, shouldn't it follow that it is equally ignorant to assume that Americans are immoral sex-crazed violent lunatics?

I finally posted pictures! We went to the Citadel, the (alleged) site of Jesus' baptism, Mt. Nebo, where God showed Moses the Holy Land, and Madaba, site of the oldest mosaic map of the Holy Land, last weekend. I saw Nebo and Madaba last summer, so here are those pictures (along with many others).

08 February 2007

"the middle east is full of crazy people."

Highlights from some of the more ridiculous cab rides I've taken lately.

Middle-aged driver: You are from Florida? I went there once - Tampa, Miami, Orlando. What city?
J: Orlando.
D: Disney World! I love the Magic Kingdom. The movie with the glasses where the things fly at you - it's like it's happening really. And the space mountain. I want to go to Orlando again.

Old man driver: [turns on Arabic news] All the news Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, all the time.
...[headlines about Bush's budget, Fatah and Hamas, and Syria]
D: The Syrian President is crazy. He say he bring peace to Iraq. If he can make it, why he wait?
J: [appropriate laughter]
D: The Middle East is full of crazy people. You know why? They eat too much falafel.

Young creepy driver: I give you my telephone number, you call me if you need taxi. Call anytime.
J: [nervous laugh] Shokran.
D: You call me now so I have your number?
J: Thanks, but I'll call you when I need a cab.
D: You are from America? I need to find American woman for marry so I can get passport.
J: [nervous laugh]
D: I give you $10,000 to take me to America.
J: [nervous laugh] I don't think my father would like that.

05 February 2007

three americans and an iraqi walk into a hospital.

It's not the beginning of a joke, that was my yesterday. We went downstairs to return our neighbor's plates from the (beefy) meal she brought us last week. I was planning to go get xrays for Peace Corps with her while Ashley and Robin (my roommates) were going to go to the Safeway for some grocery shopping. Zahara (Iraqi neighbor) is rather lonely in town and anxious to improve her English so she can pass the TOEFL and study in the States, so she instead proposed that we all go to the hospital and then go shopping together. Since she was doing me a favor and it's heartbreaking to tell her no, we agreed.

While she changed, we had an awkward conversation with her father - he asked "What's your nationality?" In retrospect, "Canadian, eh" would have been the smart response, but we went with honesty. He replied, "I'm Iraqi," in a tone that silently added "thanks for decimating my country, assholes." We turned the conversation back to polite discussions of what we were studying and practiced our Arabic with him, but I think the damage was done, because he changed the TV to the Iraqi anti-American propaganda channel featuring footage of kidnapped, wounded, or killed American soldiers, gruesome pictures of Iraqi civilians, and a streaming line of propaganda across the bottom, all set to Arabic rap. Thankfully, Zahara's mother brought out the candy and offered tea to smooth things over - she was more interested in getting to know us than starting a fight, and she silenced dad with a pointed glare. Awkward...

The xrays at the hospital were actually quite painless - nothing in Jordan ever takes the five minutes it's promised to, but this actually did. It was handy having a contact since she could bypass the appointments, have her friend take the xrays, print them, then I paid (a mere 10 JDs, or $14!) and we left. Too easy, as it would turn out.

But then we went shopping. At the Safeway way out in Sweifeiyeh, not the one a half dinar ride from our apartment. Granted, this one is bigger and fancier, but she wanted to give us the grand tour first. There's an enormous buffet restaurant on the first floor, and she took us through and proudly read the (english) labels on every dish. This coming after her conversation about how "Americans are so big!" the week before, so we couldn't help but feel that the buffet was a subtle dig at the fat Americans. Then she showed us every aisle of the store. Including the fresh meat section, where she was bewildered to discover that none of us ate beef (ironically, this is also the same location where I mistook a whole cow hanging in the window for a pig while shopping with Matt last week. Whoops.) Long story short, four hours later, we made it back to the apartment from what was supposed to be a brief excursion. Life just moves slower here.

PS. It's been near-freezing raining for five days now with no signs of stopping, safe a brief hour of sunshine this afternoon. Whoever thought I was moving to a desert was sadly mistaken. On a brighter note, you can buy processed queso cheese dip in this country (a flava of love nod to Leah!).

02 February 2007

beauty is pain.

Women in the Arab world: always an engaging topic (please, resist the urge to laugh and comment on the shortness of such discussions since "women have no rights here." We've already exhausted every joke in the book, and I'll be commenting on the rights or lack thereof of Jordanian women soon). Women at the gym however, are an endless source of amusement (yes, I'm going to the gym. Everyday, in fact. The showers are quite possibly the most amazing ones I've ever encountered and we got in trouble during our first week for using up all the water in our apartment on laundry, so we don't shower at home anymore. Apparently there's a water shortage out here in the desert?). Arab women are also big on going to the gym, but not so much on the working out. They walk on treadmills at a snail's pace, spend ten minutes on a bike a low resistance, then "lift weights" on the lowest possible machine settings, all the while chatting with friends or on cell phones. It seems to be more of a social activity than anything else. Us American girls get the strangest looks when we spend enough time on an elliptical trainer to break a sweat or lift more than twenty pounds. I wish I could take video and post it, but some how I think that'd be culturally inappropriate.

Disclaimer: For all my male readers, you may want to skip this paragraph if you're still under the (faulty) impression that women roll out of bed each morning hairless and perfectly coiffed. Ladies, while everything else in this country is disappointingly expensive, you can get a wax for mere peanuts. Apparently, women in the Arab world don't shave, that's for men, so they wax. Everything. You can get a leg and bikini wax for less than ten bucks if you can endure the pain and the suggestions that they could also take off your nonexistant moustache, beard, and perhaps even your arm hair, if you wanted. The things we do for beauty. On the bright side, manicures, pedicures, and salon blowouts are also cheap.

Welcome back boys. Turning to the topic of my neighborhood, it turns out we're living in a virtual Iraqi refugee camp. Most of our building and the one next door are inhabited by Iraqi refugees/expats. Our neighborhood is rather pricey, so these are the wealthier Iraqis who fled on their own accord and can afford nice apartments, so the term "refugee" doesn't necessarily apply. We met our downstairs neighbor at the salon next door, and after she brought us dinner one night, she filled us in on the neighborhood. She left just over three years ago, but has two brothers still there going to school in the northern part of the country. Her father is a cardiologist and she works as a dental assistant, so they're quite well off.

This illustrates perfectly how this country works - as it turns out, the dental xrays I submitted to Peace Corps were incomplete and I now have to get a full set here. (Thankfully, PC included a prepaid Fedex envelope!). I have a neighbor will take me to her office to ensure I'm not ripped off. Everyone has a cousin, friend, or friends of a friend's dog's babysitter with the connections you need. It's actually rather ridiculous, but it helps get the job done.

In other news, I and most of my belongings reek of smoke because non-smoking laws haven't quite reached this far across the pond and every taxi driver in the city chain smokes. We're going on a tour of the major city sights tomorrow, so I should have some pictures posted soon, in sha allah.