September 19, 2011 § 2 Comments
It’s amazing to me how much a decision–specifically a decision to act–can become the touchstone of one’s identity. I think back to freshman year registration, when I signed myself up for Arabic One along with hundreds of other first-years. That one choice stuck fast to my academic career, and is now defining me as a person, and not just me as a student. And it was Arabic, in a roundabout way, that brought me to study Iran–and sometimes it feels false. Should you be able to choose your future like that? If I had known then, on that bright Friay morning when I was registering for classes at Tufts for the first time, that Arabic would end up being not only my concentration but a large part of who I am today–would I still have chosen it? There’s an emptiness to choices between equal options–Arabic? Mandarin? French?–and I sometimes wonder if I bargained too much in a seemingly random selection.
I promised myself I wouldn’t do too much of this, but here I go blogging in English, my first defiant act against the famous Middlebury Language Pledge, where each of us Americans pledge our identities, friendships and personalities away in exchange for linguistic ability. I make it sound a little more dramatic than it actually is, but to tell you the truth, the first day or so felt just like that–as if each one of us were reduced to standard vocabulary from a book to try and communicate the extremely complicated answer to why we’re here, who we are and what we want. Luckily, I always find that we know more than we think we do. And, while forced into a state of semi-communication and plenty of long silences during lunchtime conversations, we pick up a lot of new words, fast. I now know the most useful of phrases for day-to-day living in Jordan: trash can, computer charger, bed bugs, how much, on your left, sexy, shame on you, wait up, skim milk, please put on the meter and no, but inshallah I will find a husband soon.
Yesterday was our seventh day in Jordan, and also the first day of classes. The twenty-five of us, all American university students (it seems we’re pretty evenly split between Tufts and Middlebury, with the odd Brown or Stanford kid thrown into the mix) made this decision, and for the present it will define everything. Amman, the capital city, is the quintessential site of West meets East–there is West Amman and East Amman, and the two halves share a thin border. The West inspires little imagination, mostly replicating corners of European sister cities. The women are almost never muhajriba (“covered,” or they don’t wear the veil), the whole place reeks of wealth and Western shops and restaurants litter each corner. However Eastern Amman is entirely different, teeming with people in all kinds of dress, while souqs (“markets”) spill over the sidewalk and suddenly everyone is a participant. The entire city is covered in the same beige-color limestone, which blends into the dusty hills perfectly. Amman was originally built like Rome, on seven hills, but now covers twenty. So walking the city is all but impossible, but taxis cover every inch of concrete this place has to offer. And the taxis are amazing. It’s all of 1 ½ JD (Jordanian Dinar) to get almost anywhere, and split between four of us, we can get anywhere for 25 irsh (cents). And within that time, we learn everything about the taxi driver and him about us–one started telling us how essential green tea is for your health during Ramadan, another started giving us Fusha lessons, and yet another proposed marriage. It’s a funny thing–in almost every other country I’ve been to, if I speak the language to a native they will respond in their language, and sometimes even mistake me for a local. However that is impossible here–perhaps because of my accent, but more likely because of my look. I was buying a two liter bottle of water–a bi-daily occurrence in the desert–and without even opening my mouth, I set the water on the counter and before I could chirp ad-deish (how much), the shop owner smiles and says, “thirty cents,” in English.
And even when you do get locals to respond to you in Arabic, my responses can still be fatally discouraging. All of us have taken at least two years of Modern Standard Arabic in college, which is called Fusha in Arabic, coming from the root word for “eloquent.” And truly, Fusha is seen as a highly sophisticated, structured and elegant language . . . That no one speaks. Instead, each region of the Arab world opts for a much easier, and truly prettier form of Arabic called amiyya, or “dialect” Arabic. Tunisia has it’s own Amiyya, as does Morocco, Iraq, the Levant (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine), as well as the Sudan and others–suffice it to say, in order to speak Arabic you must specify where you’re going to speak it. And the difference between these two languages, Fusha and Amiyya, is striking. So, though I “know” Arabic, in the sense that I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying it, I have the vocabulary and grammatical knowledge of a three-year old. But it’s interesting–when you’re forced to speak another language, with everyone around you, the outside world becomes comforting. All of a sudden, sitting in your room alone and writing back home bel-arabiyya (in Arabic) is anything but fun–in fact it can be quite isolating–and getting in a taxi to wast al-balad (literally “middle of the town,” or “downtown”) feels much more encouraging; almost like if you’re forced into another language, the only way you can exist is to communicate yourself through that other language. It’s funny, but I’m much less anxious about the semester than I thought I would be. Our program directors have already made it clear that it’s more or less up to us to make this a success, and that passively going to class and doing our homework won’t cut it. But already passivity is not an option–our decision to act predicated a million more actions in the coming months, all of which promise more identity shifts than I can imagine. And in the meantime, I’m enjoying the constant motion and seeing who this decision will make me.