29 March 2007

uneven remainders.

Instead of long-winded pondering on the state of the world, I offer brief anecdotes of the absurdity that is life in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Saturday, we went to the gladiator/chariot races show at Jerash, the major Roman ruins outside Amman. See pictures. All in English, it was easy to understand, absolutely hilarious, and at times, even educational. Fleming spent some time with the little boys who sell postcards talking about "the allah named Zues" that he, too, could have a personal relationship with, but the boy was having none of it. So, we sacrificed Candace in the ruins of Zues' temple as a peace offering.

Zahara, our downstairs Iraqi neighbor (of the dental xrays fame) just got engaged to an Iraqi engineer she's apparently *known* for quite some time. Her parents rejected him the first time he asked, but they said yes this time (I'll bite my tongue on this one). The wedding's in the summer, so I'm not sure if I'll be around, but the engagement party is next week, so that'll be exciting. I'll probably get in trouble for wearing a dress, but it's an Iraqi party!

For the first time in our sahafa (newspaper) Arabic class, I'm actually in my element. We've been talking about reproductive health policy in the Muslim world, and I'm the only one who fully understands what all the awkward Arabic phrases are referring to (a nice change from last week's economics discussions). The state of reproductive rights over here is somewhat surprising, and also very not. Essentially, birth control has been ruled permissible for "family planning" (i.e. spacing out the children so you can afford to feed them all), but not for avoiding pregnancy long-term (it's technically a woman's Muslim duty to make as many new Muslims as possible). IUDs are popular here, mainly because the burden of planning (and having and raising, come to think of it) the family falls solely on the woman, and these offer a convenient way to stop having babies without having to tell your husband. My roommate works at the Arab Women's Organization clinic here in Amman (essentially the local Planned Parenthood, but European-funded), and her boss was quite proud that they handed out 25 condoms. Last month. I'm confident I've handed out that many over the span of a few minutes in an alligator costume at UF, where the responsibility of preventing pregnancy is a bit more evenly distributed among the participants.

Granted, this is far more progressive than the Catholics, who lost my respect when the pope deemed that 40 million Africans deserve to die when a small bit of latex could potentially save their lives, but I'm still finding the notion that I am first and foremost a procreation machine a bitter pill to swallow. Greg and I tried to bait our professor into an actual discussion of the issue with vocabulary sentences like "It is important for women to have family planning options if they are to be more than a means of procreation" (yes, I made that sentence in Arabic) and "Reproductive rights are a very new idea in the Middle East." He wouldn't bite, much to our dismay. Then we moved onto fertility treatments and egg donors for old women in Britain, and the conversation reached a new apex of awkwardness with a professor who's uncomfortable talking about the vodka exported from Russia.

Quote of the week from radical Islam: "I feel happy whenever someone kills an American soldier in Iraq." I think I've run out of words.

24 March 2007

the trees get wheeled away.

It's come to my attention that my resident director (hi, Allison!) is under the impression that I'm miserable here and hate everything about this country as a result of reading this blog, and it occurred to me that others out there may be thinking the same. Allow me to clarify (at length, but we all know brevity's never been my strong suit) - the vast majority of my experiences here are utterly fascinating, albeit not always entirely positive. But that goes with anywhere I've been. I'm by no means unhappy, just frustrated beyond belief.

I'm now past the longest I've spent in any other country, and now that I'm "living" here, not merely studying or visiting, I'm getting a much more in depth view of Jordan. The negative experiences I've had stand out because, to me, they represent the greater problem I've struggled to deal with here. Everywhere else I've been, cultural differences have been just that - differences. There was a sense of cultural relativism pervading most of my experiences - although I don't always agree with some aspects of foreign cultures, I've never been outright offended or in complete disagreement before Jordan.

But coming here, I've realized that cultural relativism has its place, and it may well be the trash can. Parts of Jordanian culture are at complete odds with my core values, but I feel as though I'm expected to respect those different from me without that respect being reciprocated. I'm all for embracing diversity, but it's a two way street, and there comes a point where I can no longer smile and nod at practices antithetical to everything I believe.

On the surface, this relates directly to gender relations and sexual repression in the Arab world. As a lifelong advocate of reproductive rights and equality of opportunity (note the obvious absence of the word "feminist"), I can't help but be appalled by gender relations in Islam. When I leave the guys' apartment late (i.e. anytime after dark), Matt or Fleming always walks me down the hill to hail a cab. They'd walk me to my car in the states too, because they're chivalrous men. What gets me here is that their motivation is more than that - it's the knowledge that I alone do not garner respect. They hail the cab, they negotiate with the driver, and as I get in, they tell the driver that I am their sister and to make sure I get home safely. Out of respect for my "brother," only one driver of the many has ever blatantly hit on me or tried to touch me. (On second thought, I'm appalled by my own willingness to accept even one).

Although this surface disrespect for women angers me, it is representative of a greater problem - a lack of personal responsibility. If I am harassed by a man, the fault lies with me - I must have been tempting him. I don't think of myself as unattractive, but I'm pretty confident that I'm not such a prize that men can't control themselves near me. The degree to which women have internalized this (not just Arab women - I've seen it in the westerners here and even myself) frightens me. When I've told others about the other night, one of the first questions I get asked is "What were you wearing?" As if that were even remotely relevant (although I've caught myself justifying my anger by saying I was conservatively dressed). If I answered, "a miniskirt, stilettos, and a low-cut silk camisole," would that make the harassment justified? Others have subtly looked me up and down to appraise if my attire suggests I'm somehow easy. In the states, these same women would be furious at the suggestion that a victim was "asking for it," but here, it seems a perfectly natural response to blame the women. The only people who consistently and fully blame the men are my western male friends (hamda allah!). A tour guide at the Hussein mosque said that Islam mandates women cover because they must be protected and preserved (like valuables in a bank vault, in his words). My feelings on that notion aside, if we're so valuable, how do you reconcile that idea with the reality that we're treated like meat?

But there's a bigger problem - a fundamental disconnect between values and actions, appearance and reality - that is growing more apparent every day. All over campus, I see unmarried veiled women sitting alone with men who aren't their brothers, between cars in the parking lot, under staircases, behind trees, etc. This is absolutely haram. Yet I'm the one who gets accusing glares for wearing something as slutty as a polo shirt and jeans. It seems it is preferable to preach lofty ideals in public and duck behind a wall to violate everything you stand for, than actually start a dialogue on the role of these values in a modern society. This is where I simply cannot assimilate - I have far more respect for those who practice what they preach than for those who profess lofty ideals for others, but don't embody them themselves (herein lies my problem with the Christian right). Devout people from any faith who actually live their values are admirable in my book (my feelings on organized faith aside). In defense of my "heathen" lifestyle, I can sleep at night just fine, and I'll only accept judgement from those who can say the same. If that makes me a racist and Islamaphobe, then I'll wear the badges with pride.

I've discussed this with friends here many times, and it boils down to the entire notion of "in sha allah." If god wills it. Will the water be fixed, will we cover this topic in class, does the cab driver know where he's going, will I see you tomorrow, will men stop treating women as objects? In sha allah. These things are not under the will of god - they are completely within the realm of man's control of his own life. But it's far easier to pass the burden on to god - if it doesn't happen, he didn't will it. End of story, no need to worry. For a girl raised with a profound sense of personal, social, and fiscal (thanks Dad!) responsibility, this notion that people are not actually accountable for their own problems is absurd.

At long last, herein lies my struggle with this experience. I've spent the last few years studying Arabic in hopes of improving my country's relationship with this region. I'm now convinced that both sides are equally responsible, and both sides are going to have to make significant strides towards understanding. I desperately want to be part of the solution to the tension between East and West. Now, I've discovered that I won't, in fact, be able to "change the world" (or even make a dent) unless there's someone on the other side who wants the same thing. This loss of control (of my own destiny and dreams, in a sense), is what's so frustrating. I don't hate or even really dislike Jordanians - I'm saddened that I'm witnessing a culture dig its own grave while clamoring for someone else to blame. I'm also not suggesting that America and the West are innocent here - I'll be the first to admit that our policy in this region has been historically uniformed, misguided, and downright wrong. I think I said this in regards to Israel and Palestine last summer, but if we're both trapped in the same sinking ship, what's to gain from deciding who poked the first hole?

So there you go - I'm not miserable here, Candace and I are actually thinking about staying for the summer. I'm fascinated and confused, as befits my usual state. I miss American food in a way I never have before, and I'm craving the first amendment in a big way, but I wouldn't trade this experience for anything (well, maybe a truckload of good tortilla chips and some hard cider delivered by a caravan of my favorite Gators).

PS. I don't think I've ever mentioned this, but it's great. My doorbell chirps like a bird. Every doorbell in the building does. Someone had a sense of humor.

PPS. Fun fact - we were talking about "watonii (my nation)" in Arabic class, and I had the unique distinction of being the only person who had visited every country represented (Turkey, Belgium, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, although the Japanese guy was absent today). I felt pretty good about myself. Even better, we talked about politics, but shockingly, not in the Middle East - we actually discussed Taiwanese independence and the North/South Korea situation. Still can't go to the grocery store though, but I'm going to do something to address that myself.

18 March 2007

maktab al-bareed.

I experienced the Jordanian Post Office today, in an excruciatingly inefficient hour of my life that I can never get back again. The post office was a nightmare of bureaucratic chaos. You walk in, wander aimlessly among the PO boxes until someone takes pity on you and points you up the stairs to the actual office (no signs to indicate this, however). I've drawn a map to help illuminate the process.

Step 1: Take package slip to man at desk, who digs through "file system" of cardboard scribbled with marker to find receipt.
Step 2: Take said receipt to old man with ledger in back room, who records your passport information and stamps the receipt.
Step 3: Old man gives receipt to shabab in storage room, who finds package.
Step 4: Take package to yet another official, who opens it, stares blankly at the nine bags of gummy worms, and creates more paperwork.
Step 5: Take paperwork to customs agent for signature.
Step 6: Take signed paperwork to other customs agent for stamp and filing.
Step 7: Take receipt to third customs agent for payment of duties.
Step 8: Take receipt back to old man with ledger, who records the payment of customs duties.
Step 9: Take receipt back to package-searcher, claim (open) package, leave office.

The significance of the other rooms remains a mystery, although I'm guessing they're probably used for sending a package, since it would be silly to have one employee perform more than one function. On the bright side, three boxes of matzo ball soup means we can have Jew night now, complete with potato latkes (but probably no challah and/or bagels).

16 March 2007

if i were a ghost i wouldn't haunt this place.

Pictures of the snow...

As things turned out, I would have been better curled up in bed watching The West Wing and eating popcorn all day, instead of venturing into the storm. After sliding into a pile of frozen slush on my way out of work, I headed to the gym only to discover that it had closed for the storm, locking me out of a run and a hot shower. In my haste to catch a cab, I butt-slid a few feet down the hill, found a cab, and proceeded home to rediscover why I hadn't showered there since the weekend we moved in. My roommates, in their infinite wisdom, had orchestrated a chili party for the evening, so, given my feelings on beans, I hightailed it out of there to meet Matt and Fleming for dinner. I trudged through the slush, avoided a hit-and-run crossing the road, and stopped at the ATM, where I caught the attention of a shabab and his sidekick.

At first I thought he was just going to mug me, but oh, if wishing made it so. He actually wanted to declare his love for me, repeatedly, so I ignored him and he went back to his friend. Then he came back again, grabbed me, I yelled at him, and he left. I tried to hurry along the road to find a cab, but the boots and the slush weren't conducive to rapid escape. He came back one last time, declared his love, grabbed me again, and attempted to kiss me. Yes, the men in this country are pigs and I'm not going to make excuses for them anymore. In the throes of my disgust and anger, I forgot about the can of mace in my purse that Fleming had given me for just such an occasion, and instead continued to yell at him. I kept waving for a cab as I walked away, but they were all full because of the snow.

Finally, a cab with an older woman and her three daughters, all veiled, stopped and waved me over to share their cab. Veiled women in the Middle East are like nuns in Rome - when the men get creepy, flock to the women of god. As I made conversation with the one next to me in the back, she explained her veil/face covering, implying that if I was wearing it, the shabab wouldn't have been harassing me. (FYI, it was snowing, so I was in a coat, scarf, and hat - not exactly the most scandalous getup. But that's irrelevant - there's nothing a woman can wear or not wear that somehow makes it acceptable for her to be treated as a subhuman piece of meat, and that's the way I'm looked at here). Anyway, she then asked if I was a Christian, which led us into a discussion of why I don't have a religion. I didn't have the Arabic vocabulary or the stamina to explain my disdain for orgainzed faith, so I just said I liked to study all of them. Next, she proceeded to tell me about the beauty of a faith that views me as immoral, violent, sexually deviant, and ignorant, and I contemplated telling her how I really felt, but pretended not to understand her Arabic instead.

She then fed me knaffa, an Arabic dessert I find rather foul, which was just icing on the cake. I switched the conversation to Abdoun, the area of town we were going to, and ended up trying to explain sushi in Arabic, a feat at which I failed spectatularly. I finally got to the restaurant, only to discover that I had also managed to sit in gum during the course of the taxi ride. Yippee. Thanks to pan-Asian, Oreo ice cream, and the company of two of my favorite people, the day ended on a good note, but I am finding myself increasingly hostile to the notion that the sexual repression of this region is somehow just different, and not actually detrimental to social progress.

Moral of the story: in the words of the recently-discovered David Dondero, "If I were a ghost, I wouldn't haunt this place."

15 March 2007

snow day.

That's right, it's snowing/hailing in al-sharq al-owsat. And not just a little - it's sticking, and the university cancelled class. Plowing hasn't really caught on here, so the streets are full of slush, which makes walking really fun. And taxi drivers seem to have embraced the day off as well, so getting to work today was quite a challenge. I'll post pictures on Sunday when I have my laptop at school - it's a pretty sizeable amount for anyone, but particularly for a Florida girl living in what is supposed to be a desert. Yesterday, we got our first hint of the storm when it rained, hailed, and snowed simultaneously. On the hilly streets, that means a rushing river of near-freezing water. It's great, nothing like wading through icy filth. We've also had some brief power outages around town, so life is pretty grand right now.

On a brighter note, yesterday was Pi Day/Einstein's birthday. We celebrated with some Domino's (delivered, with directions given to the driver entirely in Arabic, nonetheless) and a lengthy discussion of geopolitics and obscure triva. For your consideration:

1. What do Lichenstein and Uzbekistan have in common?
2. Name the five countries that end in the letter "L."
3. Write the names of all fifty states in six minutes or less.
4. There are 14 punctuation marks in English. Name them.

13 March 2007

america the beautiful.

As I write, a small group of Iraqi refugees (quite possibly my neighbors) are staging a peaceful demonstration outside the UNHCR office. Nothing violent or even loud, they're just making their presence known and, I suppose, reminding the UN of its commitment to refugees. My first Jordanian demonstration! This is exciting - I saw a few in Israel last summer, and they're definitely a spunkier bunch, but I respect peaceful gatherings. Aaah, the sweet smell of freedom of assembly, as brought to you by the infidels!

Speaking of American values, I think I may have distilled the true essence of American exceptionalism. It's not some abstract notion of "freedom" or "democracy," since many more people than would care to admit secretly crave such absurd privileges. It's peanut butter. No one else seems to love it the way we do. I brought some apples (Granny Smith, of course - a little more expensive to import, but worth every penny) and a jar of peanut butter to eat for lunch at work, and everyone in the office was just appalled at the notion of combining the two, let alone that I like peanut butter enough to lick the knife clean. I share my office with an Italian woman, my desk with a visiting Iraqi, and our boss is a German, and all three attest to the fact that this is an American peculiarity. So there you have it. Mystery solved, it's the peanut butter that makes us just a little different.

PS. Candace's parents are visiting, and they brought me and Matt each a jar of Jif. It's fabulous. No more potentially salmonella-infected Peter Pan for me! They also keep feeding us, which is even better. I love the Sharrows.

10 March 2007

the national pastime.

...is not baseball, soccer, or even a highly culturally insensitive-but-acceptable Scrabble word. It's getting and keeping change. The dinar is printed in 5, 10, 20, and 50 JD denominations, but no one wants them. Buy a 2 dinar meal in a restaurant and hand the clerk a 5, and you'll get a look of death as he asks you if you have change. You could pay him with your singles, but then you couldn't take a cab. Drivers always pretend not to have change, so your choice is either get ripped off, start a fight and have him dig out his change, or outsmart the system and have change. I've had a few fights, and they generally go well since they don't expect the white girl to fight back in Arabic, but it gets time consuming.

So, if everyone is giving their change to drivers but they still insist they don't have any, then I just don't know where all the change is going. Somewhere, a diabolical little man is hoarding every 1 dinar bill in the country. Why even bother printing 50s?

I'm going to squelch my growing cynicism about the state of world affairs and focus on the more entertaining aspects of life in al-sharq al-owsat for a bit, at least until my next Islam class drives me over the edge. I think winter's officially ended, which means it's approaching time for me to start pushing the boundaries of what's haram (forbidden) with a little elbow and ankle peep show. Today I learned the words for military coup, to overthrow, political vacuum, and a whole host of economics terms I don't fully understand in English, let alone Arabic. Still can't go to the grocery store though.

I had dinner at Applebee's the other night (don't judge, it's actually pretty delicious here!). It's just like an American Applebee's, with the kitschy Americana on the walls and the bar in the middle. Except the bar isn't stocked. It's just there, occupying space. It's not the cheapest place in town, so the usual clientele consists of wealthy Jordanians and visiting Gulf Arabs (who are among the most conservative in the region). So, you get the constant amusement of fully veiled (and I mean all black, head to toe, only eyes showing veiled) women lifting their veil to drink a virgin strawberry daiquiri from an enormous margarita glass with a picture of Elvis and a Texas license plate on the wall behind them, while their white-robed husband tears into a chicken wing. Aaahh, globalization at its finest. I'd take a picture, but the notion of photographing women hasn't been as effective a cultural exchange as the infidel food and drink.

My grammar-loving soulmate introduced me to what may very well be the most exciting blog on the internet. I'm so excited! Also, the gym plays Copeland's "Appalachian Spring" at least once an hour in the locker room, which makes me think fondly of my band nerd days.

Please look at my revoltingly talented friend's photography, since I haven't taken any pictures here in quite a while.

07 March 2007

that just doesn't make sense.

This is absurd. People are seriously considering suppressing a vaccine for cancer in their zeal to perpetuate false ideas about sex education.

Quote of the week from Islam class: "Homosexuality is like terrorism." Over the course of the 90 minute lecture, I was torn between vomiting, storming from the room, or punching him on behalf of the (at least) one homosexual person in the room and the countless others elsewhere that I love and respect. I love the first amendment dearly, but he doesn't fall under its provisions (and doesn't want to, apparently), nothing requires me to listen, and I'm paying (an obscene amout of money) to be here. It's not so much that he's saying these revolting things, but more that he is touted as a leader and visionary in his field, and is respected and encouraged by the administration of the largest university in one of the most "moderate" Islamic states.

Second lesson from class: Osama bin Laden had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks. It was the US government and intelligence communities who killed 3000 of their own civilians. Bin Laden and other extremists don't represent him and other Muslims because they can't vote for their leaders, but Bush represents the totality of Americans and the West (including the millions who didn't vote for him and spent a great deal of time campaigning for the other guy) because we have that democracy that we hold in such high esteem. Last I checked, Jordan hadn't rejected its rather generous aid package, yet my country is the one with the double standards. I have felt the urge to defend the Bush Administration, the Department of Defense, the US military, and even Christianity in this class, a feat which I'm sure most of you never imagined you'd witness.

I have never, in my life, been more proud to be an American than when I have the privilege to stand up in a public forum and disagree with its policies while defending the values I hold most dear.

04 March 2007

declarations of faith.

From my favorite reformed Christian:

Speaking of faith, my Arabic teacher is now convinced that I deserve to be in her class. I'm not the type to comment on every minute point solely to hear the sound of my voice, so I don't speak up as often as some. We had to do oral presentations on important thinkers (I used my future president, Barack), and she was absolutely shocked and impressed to discover that I was able to communicate quite proficiently in Arabic. Truth be told, so was I. Perhaps I have been learning something over these past three years.

There was a total lunar eclipse last night. America may have better food, gender relations, traffic laws, and a comprehensible language, but the full eclipse was best seen from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, so take that. I'll post some pictures once I get them from Matt since my camera's battery conveniently died. It was gorgeous.

I got my hair cut. By an openly gay Jordanian man in painfully snug women's pants, nonetheless. It was great. Candace found him, and he apparently loves cutting straight, fine "white" hair (Arab women have very thick, curly hair), so I managed a successful first foreign haircut experience without a hideous mishap. I miss the UC and having gay men in my life.