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!)

Out of the Blue

July 25, 2011 § 2 Comments

We had been going for hours. It was after dinner at Hotel Abbasi, Isfahan, on the night of Amanda’s thirty-sixth birthday, and upon request Bahman had taken us back to the Imam Square’s Imperial Bazaar to find the perfect blue enamel bowls. Rebecca and I had seen the small bowls the day before, at Vank Cathedral in New Julfa, but disregarding the “If you love it, buy it,” travel motto, we assured ourselves we could find them later–the city was filled with enamel workshops, after all. So that night we were back at Imam Square, along with the rest of the Isfahanis. Families were picnicking on the large lawn in the middle of the square, while women lifted by five-inch designer heels and men stuffed into faded denim pants pushed past us to the bastani shop (we’re not the only ones with the ice cream obsession), as we pushed through the dark and the heat to any enamel shop we could find. “How about these?” Bahman would ask, holding up blue, turquoise, and light pink soup bowls. The artist nodded slightly, firing off something in Farsi. “They’ve been fired three times, at 150º C, you can’t find any with this quality!” Bahman translated the artist’s persuasion, his eyebrows raising and his forehead giving up small beads of sweat. No, we told him, these are too big. So onto the next shop, we pushed our own way through the crowds swarming under the arches of the well-lit bazaar to find those bowls.

There’s something about intuition. I will be the first to pledge myself to science, philosophy and reason before all superstition, but something else seems to be at work lately that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it’s all the feel-good movies I’ve inundated myself with since returning to the US from Iran two weeks ago, but I feel confident in saying I know what I want. For the first time in my life, things are perfectly clear and I have no more questions, doubts, pro-con lists cluttering my mind–I just know that I want to keep studying Iran. My beautiful adopted parents, Chuck and Rebecca, had such dreams for me. As the youngest on the trip, we would often sit around the breakfast table at the hotel in Shiraz or in Tehran, everyone making fun of the fact that I don’t understand certain cultural references (“That was before my time,” I’d say, sullenly), and everyone would bank on my future for me. CIA agent, Ambassador, Cultural Attaché, Photojournalist–the titles were never-ending and exhilarating. But it was Chuck and Rebecca, Georgetown natives, who held the biggest of dreams for me.

We had just entered our fourth shop, upon the suggestion of our tireless guide (“I have a friend who works in this one!” Bahman told us, enthusiastic til the end), when Chuck was tempting me with dreams of a career at the State Department. “Think it over,” he prodded. “You know, they can pay for grad school–you have to ace your GREs and have a solid GPA, but you can go for free.” “Really?” I said, fingering a little blue vase. “Oh of course! JD, PhD, MA, whatever.” “But doesn’t it make more sense to get your MS in Foreign Service or something?” “It doesn’t matter what you study, just so long as they have you after graduation.”

The words were intoxicating. My parents, in all their generosity and support, told me that they’d finance my undergraduate career but any advanced degree was on me. So, being the relatively frugal person I am (when it comes to my own funds–I have no problem spending their money!) the question of being in debt at 24 was not even a consideration. I’d only go for my Master’s if it was a pre-professional degree,” I told my dad on the way to the airport on my last trip back east, “Because otherwise, the cost is too high.” But as I stood in that little shop, still exhausted from looking for those perfect bowls, I saw a world of possibility open up beyond the stone arches of the bazaar. I’ve always loved to collect, to take advantage of opportunities and feel like I’ve gotten some great deal or made the most out of something, and I knew that if I truly had the chance to barter two more years of study for a three year contract with the State, I would jump to keep studying Iran. It’s pathetic, really it is–people think I’m irresponsible, a little crazy and probably too enthusiastic to seriously conclude anything about anything, especially Iran. My, a-hum, Doctor, while shoving a metal contraption somewhere metal should never be, asked me about my summer plans and then said, “Oh honey. Why Iran? You’re an American.” But as Chuck sat on that dirty plastic chair, in a sea of turquoise, aqua, cerulean and the deepest of all blues covering vases, plates and bowls that were either too big or too small or too not right, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d already found what I’d been looking for; or rather it found me: the knowledge of exactly what I want. For so long I’ve been quite adept at intuiting others’ wants and needs–but my own were so elusive, always hiding out of sight. But that’s the thing about Iran. Nothing is as it seems and even the most inconvenient of truths are right there in plain sight.

And there, six shops later, the perfect bowls were waiting for us. They were the precise size–for, say, olives during book club (as Rebecca was planning on using them for), or jewelry on the nightstand (as Amanda was planning on using them for), or gifts, as mine will be. I was only going to buy one, maybe two, but on a gut instinct I got three, and ended up with a discount. It was somewhere in Iran, between the hyperactive nights in Isfahan to the lazy afternoons of Yazd, that I stopped hearing everything else and I didn’t figure outwhat I want, per se, but I came to know it. As if it had been waiting all along. I don’t know where I’ll end up for grad school–Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service? Harvard Grad’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies? London’s School of Oriental and African Studies?–but I’m not done with Iran. It’s what I want, and I’m not afraid to pursue it. As Rumi once said, “All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.”

The bastani shop in Imam Square, Isfahan, at night

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