But What I Mean to Say Is…

October 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve come to realize that perhaps there is no meaning to anything, no overarching theme or grand plan or easily digestible take-home  message. I’ve leared a shitload in the past few weeks, but have I learned how to successfully communicate with Arabs? Not exactly–But right now I coudn’t tell you exactly what I want. I’ve given up the romanticized “fluency” in Arabic–that will take months more of practice. Do I even want to discover the true, “authentic,” Jordanian culture? Is there even such a thing? This week, in our birnamij-wide bi-weekly meeting, one of our mudeers (directors) got down on us for frequenting arguably the best café in Amman, Turtle Green Tea, because yujid kteer min al-arabize (there is a lot of Arabeze, or Arabic-English spoken), and apparently that’s really not the best enviroment for improving our Arabic. Jordanians our age aren’t “purely” Arabic speakers, most of them are fluent in Arabeezee, and that’s the language they speak between each other, with their family, with their habeebs–and they, like me, listen to English music, watch English tv shows, and pepper their speech with English-isms. With my American friends here I speak an Arabic that is mostly direct translation from English, and we all understand each other mostly because we all know the exact same vocabulary. Sometimes, on a rare occasion, I can respond faster in context solely because the conversation is familiar. I can predict when a question’s coming, when a face is poised for a response; I am a master of knowing what’s supposed to come next. But that doesn’t always mean I can deliver. Sometimes I really don’t know what I’m doing here.

Did you know?! Our building, Zein lilsakan al-Talibat, houses prostitutes who work in the maqha, or prostitution-ring-posing-as-a-coffee-house-next-door? Ugh, right now I just want to close my eyes. I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen. We’re moving out of the brothel and possibly into independence (apartments!)–but honestly I couldn’t tell you which is better or worse for my arabee or mental health. The whole point of our program is for us to make Arab friends, speak Arabic, and trade our American identities in for (perhaps slightly ill-fitting) Arab ones as soon as possible. But seriously, I can’t imagine an “immersion” environment free of ingleezee. A3n jad, the Jordanians our age don’t live in a world of Arabic-only-all-the-time. And I know the idea is we should for our own sakes, but to be quite honest I speak English words all the time. Sometimes to be funny (Heyya kanat shway condescending. Kaifa na’ul “oh no she didn’t” belarabiyye?), sometimes for clarification (“lam u’asid,”  yani, “I didn’t mean to”?) but mostly to just get across the main idea of a sentence when I don’t have the time to describe the word in my limited Arabic vocabulary (“Ah! Ah! Aiwa! Heya kanat shway fowda leila imbarah, yani shitshow kteer). And here we are, five weeks into it and I have no idea what I’m doing here. I’m obviously not going to become fluent in Arabic, discover the hidden secrets of what exactly makes Jordanians precisely Jordanian and different from any other Arab, nor am I here to probe academic theories. I can’t communicate all that well with Arabs or Americans, so any truly meaningful connections are definitely out of reach. And we’re about to move, away from the brothel and “auntie Samira” into something totally different–and while the idea may sound intoxicating–no curfew! no obligations to check in with anyone! complete and utter autonomy!–I’m a little haifa of what will become of us, Americans left to ourselves in the land of sand and, apparently, sex. Will I try harder to make friends with Jordanians? Perhaps not at all? There was a safety and comfort within the walls of zein, and to a certain extent it leveled the playing field between us Americans–if we’re all restricted to the same time schedule and location, then I really can’t blame myself for not finding the perfect Jordanian boyfriend, or not falling in with the Gossip Girl set of Amman, or not befriending Queen Rania. Because I have a curfew, and a few set rules, and therefore I can subsist within the walls of expatriate comfort. Thank God we have each other, us twenty-two Americans in Amman, because without them I might have succumbed to existential quicksand weeks ago. But what will befall us in these shukuk jadeeda? How will I justify to myself a substandard communication ability if I can’t blame my living situation? Basically, behind all this existential questioning and misused jargon, I’m really just scared. I feel like I’m getting by here, in all respects of the word. I know my Arabic is getting better, mostly because I used to be too intimidated to speak to my roommate about anything other than the weather, how much ma bidee sufoof bukra, or whether or not I should buy milk next or she should, but now we can talk about all sorts of fun things, ranging from men to the tajawar (yani  “juxtaposition”–she’s from Vermont, listens to blue grass and wears Chacos) between us, the emotional complexity of the Language Pledge or our anxiety over the whole we-live-in-a-brothel thing. Wa hela, ana shway mahwoosa biha (just a little obsessed). And I’m known as the keeper of kalimat mufeeda, or any useful word–I pioneered communal knowledge of the words “gossip,” “scandal,” “lazy,” “fork,” “knife,”  “link,” “I have a crush on you,” “creepy,” “twins,” and “the best thing in the world.” But I still feel like I get by on luck and on an undeniable charm. Will a new apartment propel me to explore the outside world more, or retreat into a shelter from the constant work of foreignness? I don’t seem to know anything concrete, though I’m learning incredible amounts. It’s funny–here my roommate (and everyone else) has nicknamed me Barbie, a3shan ana shway high maintenance. And apparently I have Barbie’s wardrobe, personality (Wayn Ken?) high heels included (not a common thing among the girls in our program). It’s been suggested that in the future, I work in production, event planning, or possibly the State Department. It seems that, unable to communicate nuanced ideas in Arabic, everything is exaggerated, especially myself: “Oh! I love that restaurant,” “Falafel? Best I’ve ever had,” “Oh, no, Iran is the opposite of Jordan. The culture, the history, everything’s different.” “Oh, I know, I’m very crazy.” There’s just not the linguistic space to communicate subtleties, slights of emotion or even just plain, normal, non-amazing things. At least, not yet. And who knows who I’ll be then! Perhaps my identity won’t sprint between extremes, and I might just rest in the trivialities that, right now, I crave.

It seems we’re on the brink of some new, bright shiny beginning after a month’s worth of knowledge. Perhaps that’s the best thing, and perhaps instead of trying to probe everything–the people, the culture, the language, myself–for meaning, I should just do it. Roll with the punches, dive in, “take advantage”–because it seems that that’s all there is left to do. I make a fool out of myself with every word here, and I really don’t have that much left to lose. Bas mumkin everything to gain. Fa…Ashoofikum baadayn, wa mab’a3rf shoo rah yseer–kul shay mumkin fil Urdun! (So, I’ll see you later, and I don’t know what’ll happen–anything’s possible in Jordan!)



October 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Three weeks is really the maximum amount of time one can cling to the title “visitor” before becoming a “resident,” however temporary that residency may be. As I contemplate the relative permanency of my stay in Jordan, I realize that the thing I’ve learned most is, likely, restraint. I am sitting smack in the middle of a fakhir (posh) outdoor restaurant, and while all the Arabs around me drink, smoke arghileh and laugh ostentatiously I am conspicuously typing on my computer with Al-Kitaab open in my lap, feeling more and more like a foreigner. It’s a funny thing, in the States I often go out alone–to cafés, shopping, on a walk–and I delight in the feeling of anonymity and escape. Because for me, too often the burden of simply being is remedied best by not being–and outside in the world, I can be anyone. That possibility of reinvention (a strictly American pastime, if you ask me) is always present, constant, and more than anything else–accessible. I’m finding that here it’s quite the opposite–the public space is not for escape, nor reinvention nor slipping into any individual identity, rather the public space is where individuals undertake the burden of public identity and its ensuing consequences. Here, the place for escape is where one is out of public sight: inside, in the home, and away from the mutually reinforcing public code of expression.

I have never found this to be the case in America. Go to the grocery store in your pajama pats, treat the world as you wish–I think it has to do with the internet or development of something. It seems to me that American private lives play out across stages, devoid of wings or curtain call or intermission, and each interaction takes place between a performer and an audience. The only way to exit stage left is to stop interacting; escape into the public sphere where anyone can be anything. But the Middle East is a horse of a different color: the public sphere is interpersonal, and requires constant interactions in which roles are already prescribed, and successful connection prohibits ad-libbing. Once intimacy is established indoors, or in a place off-stage, behind loosely closed doors, the scripts are burned and suddenly people are free.

Western culture demands public, genuine expressions of some inner identity, but our country has become a consumer machine and the only logical explanation must be that we’re empty. I, as an American, have freedom of speech, of dress of thought of action of expression, but I wonder if sometimes we don’t need a little structure. If one has nothing to push against, is there any possibility of true expression? The idea is yes; an expression is literally the conveyance of either an emotion or a thought, both things that are individually sensed before they can be communally shared. But sometimes the barrier between “individually sensed” and “communally expressed” crumbles, and I wonder how much of  interaction is expression, and how much is just reaction to outside stimulus. How genuine can one be if one if constantly performing? To be a full person, one must be both fully internally developed, such that there is an essence of a person that is indistinguishable, unchanging and translatable across any medium, and be able to express this self across a thousand different mediums–starting with the personal–emotions, facial expressions, mannerism and dress, and spanning to the abstract: can you tweet yourself well enough to express who you really are? can you post it on a wall? can you blog intuitively, effortlessly translating this fully developed self to the rest of the world? Of course not. You need some sort of mutually understandable code for everyone to agree upon. In the West, this isn’t defined. It’s up to you to find a way to express the infinite in a finite way. Here, it’s very defined. There is not the same freedom of expression, of thought, of dress. Instead in outer world the methods of communicating are limited.

It’s a funny thing, men in the Middle East. In our amiyya class, we spent an entire hour and a half class discussing harassment and how to combat it like a native. Most of the phrases are the standard, “Let go of me,” “Get away from me,” “I’m going to call the police,” but then there are others: “I am a guest of yours in Jordan,” “Don’t you have sisters?” and “May God curse your fathers.” As Tawfiq, our professor said, “You need to appeal to a man’s morality, his sense of self.” So there I am, sitting in class and growing more and more suspicious of all Arab men, the day before our big trip to Aqaba. The next day, we all get up at five a.m., unwillingly witness shorouq al shams (the sun rise), and head off towards Al-Aqaba, one of the touristy-ist spots in Jordan where I am constantly reminded of the fact that I am really just a visitor who is quite dependent on sporadic help from men. At one point we walked past the shatra a3ma (public beach), where men seemed to prowl while covered women (some in burkinis and others just in full coverage on the shore) dotted the seascape. In desperate need of a good tourist experience, Ayane, Rabab, Rena and I searched high and low for Aqaba’s best snorkeling. After a few phone calls and a little sleuthing, we figure out that we actually need to be at the Japanese Gardens, a strip of beach about 10 minutes away by taxi, where Arab families congregate in small groups allowing for relative privacy. We figure out that to snorkel, we need to rent the equipment and then leave our bags with a man named Waseem, who runs the snack shop. As I handed my all-purpose brown leather hobo bag to a very over-eager looking man, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would see my camera again. Can I trust him? And even more importantly, how important is it for me to snorkel–maybe I could just go back to the hotel and not take the risk? But, in the end I donned my mask, fins and snorkel and handed over the bag. As we’re trying to find the best place to enter the water (sans burkini and with webbed contraptions strapped to our feet) a man who approached us earlier, trying to offer us another deal on kamama, tries to tell us that we’re entering the Red Sea incorrectly and come, come with him now, and he will show us the right way. Growing more and more annoyed by this man’s seemingly profit-intentioned offer, I tell him no, thank you, we are just fine and we’ll not be in need of his services. And just as I say this, my rubber-capped heel slips on a rock, and I plunge my hand into the water to balance myself–getting stung b a kunfuth al-bahar (sea urchin) in the process. So, of course, the man comes running with even more offers of lighting a cigarette to get out the stingers, or going to the Clinic or perhaps just swimming with it anyways, and as I’m standing in the shallow coast of the Red Sea in my black bikini, full snorkeling gear and with an acute pain emanating from my fingers, I look around at the growing crowd of Arabs and this man who, for all his possible annoyance is possibly just trying to help. So I give him my hand, decide to trust for a moment and waddle (for that’s really the only movement you can do in flippers) in the direction he’s pointing to.

And the snorkeling was phenomenal. We swam through schools of fish, saw more sea urchins (from a distance, thank god) and basked in the freedom of the Sea. After a slightly embarrassing and attention-yielding walk back from the dock to the snack shop, I got my bag back, with all of its contents safe and sound inside. I was feeling so good about things that I didn’t object to the idea of hitch-hiking back to the city center, which we did be-belash (for free) in a nice Aqabian man’s car. The rest of the trip was even more stunning–we drove from Aqaba to Wadi Rum, a desert valley that houses incredible rock formations and a thousand great spots to watch the ghoroub al-shams (sunset). It’s an interesting thing, being a young foreign woman in Jordan. It seems that simultaneously some public activities–like walking to the gym at dusk–is much harder, replete with stares, unwanted attention and the knowledge that just by being out in public in a certain time and place renders you conspicuous, a public entity ripe for the consequences of public interaction. Yet at the same time, to be a foreign woman is to be in the constant clutches of Arab hospitality (not quite comparable to that of Iran, but still!), and to always be the recipient of local generosity and general good will. All the cat-calls, whistles and impaling stares I’ve gotten on the streets of Amman are equalled only by the number of times I’ve been helped by a relentless taxi driver who will not give up until I’ve reached my destination, or offered discounts from shop keepers and been given extra hummus at Sefeen. And perhaps that’s just a consequence of being undeniably foreign, but sometimes I wonder if that’s not a consequence of living in a place where the public sphere is not for individual advancement but for communal advancement, where each member is subjected to the human emotions of its components. Bi shakl a3m (in general), the idea of this social arrangement scared me at first–I’ve been taught to be cautious of widely-accepted truths–but I’m beginning to see that perhaps there’s a sort of communal protection, a safety in being known.

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