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.

The Pledge

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.

Only Time Will Tell

September 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

This blog is starting to exceed me — I was its author, creator, but now I’m nothing more than a helpless servant. I don’t know how I can follow up the popular Persian posts with anything meaningful about waiting for Amman, Jordan. Time is running out to ruminate on the eve of my departure, and the problem is such: I leave in a week, and I can’t say that I feel anything but quiet, distant apathy. I’m not excited, worried, anxious, emotional, nothing–I’ve been expecting this for months now, and I’ve found that with time, I mellow out and stop worrying, sometimes to the point of numbness. I simply expect this experience. But, you know, I’ve come to find that everything is about timing. We’re all born with a certain amount of time: some have the excruciating tragedy of no time at all, and death comes for them all too quickly before they’ve had the chance to work out the meaning for themselves, whereas others are spoiled rotten with oceans of moments, weeks, years–downright ages–of time. Everyone assures me, “Ah! You’ll have the time of your life!”, going so far as to warn, “You’re so young, this is your moment, don’t waste it,” and finally, “You’re going to the Middle East? Now? During the Arab Spring? What an amazing time; you’ll watch history unfold itself.” And while all of that is true, I can’t help but think that this isn’t my time, but rather this is the paramount moment for a place, a people, and this time I’m not traveling with the existential dreams of discovering myself, but rather the academic dreams of discovering another‘s identity. A place’s identity. You know, timing was one of the first things I could identify about Iran. It was a very wise seventh-grade history teacher (who was Persian, coincidentally), that told us “Our world is in its adolescence. We’re much younger than we may think.” But it seemed to me that Iran wasn’t. It was this place that had witnessed so many hallmarks of humanity so early, traits we would later call upon as the essence of our very beings: justice, freedom, civilization. Not to say that many other peoples didn’t contribute to the collective human identity, but this one just seemed so ahead of it’s time. And look at it now–condemned “backwards,” “archaic,” “stuck in the past”–it seems identity is all about timing.

I suppose I should introduce the next couple dozen of blog entries. I will be spending the fall semester of my junior year abroad, in Amman, Jordan, through Middlebury’s Schools Abroad in the Middle East. For those of you who haven’t heard, Middlebury’s program in Alexandria, Egypt was long considered the best study abroad program for college undergraduates to become fluent in Arabic, as written about in the New York Times. This semester there are about twenty-five of us, all American college students who have been studying Arabic for a minimum of two years. We’ll all be living in apartment buildings bordering the University campus, with an American roommate from our program, and Jordanian flatmates. We’ll take classes with the students in our program at the University of Jordan, and all our coursework will be in Arabic. The exciting part about traveling to Jordan is that we will learn Levantine Arabic, the colloquial Arabic spoken in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Israel/the Palestinian territories. For the past two years I’ve studied MSA, or Modern Standard Arabic, which is a very formal version of the Arabic language that is usually only used in writing and on news broadcasts. Each region of the Arabic-speaking world has its own amiyya, or colloquial Arabic: Egyptian, Tunisian, Moroccan, Iraqi, Gulf, ect. Oh! And we’ve all signed this piece of paper called The Language Pledge, in which we promise to only speak Arabic for the duration of our stay in Amman, save keeping in touch with family. By December 20th our program and our pledge end, and my parents have given me permission to travel around the Middle East after my program ends–so far I’m thinking Christmas in Jerusalem, visiting friends in the West Bank (hey Tamara…) and maybe New Year’s in Cairo. But who knows? It’s only September–I could be worlds away in December!

So I remember about this time before Iran, with a week left to go before boarding that plane, we were urged to write down our preconceptions, our questions, our pre-formed judgements that would be tested, changed and solidified oversees. So… Jordan. What do I want to do? I have three short months (September 10th to December 20th) in this country, and I know I should set some goals, or have some thoughts, or attempt to do some things instead of just being passive, so here goes. I want to have a conversation without identifying myself as min amreeka (“from America”) or as a foreign student studying Arabic. I must try Arabic coffee and tea in various coffeehouses, internet cafés and at the in somebody’s home. See the sites: hike Wadi Rum, visit Petra (at night!), swim in the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, see the Mandaba Map. See the inside of a Jordanian home. Pray, in a mosque. And finally, do more than just learn enough Levantine Arabic to show off, but I really want to be able to communicate. I want to have some confidence, some knowledge other than what I can get out of Lonely Planet’s Middle East Phrasebook. I want to make my professors–the people who fought for an Arabic major at Tufts so that their students could profess expertise in the Arabic language–proud. I really just want all this work, all this new knowledge that I’ve acquired over the last two years at school to be worth it. I want a return on my academic investment and the confidence that goes with making the right choices at the right time. Who knows what I’ll learn, what I’ll see–only time will tell!

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