The Headless Body Politic

November 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I’m not quite sure if I fahima (understand) quite how best to “take advantage of opportunities.” Perhaps it’s my own fault, or perhaps the fault of many others, but I feel like I’ve been given opportunities all my life, and I don’t really know what it’s like to be without them. The whole world is illuminated before me, never in fear of darkness. I’ll never be the prisoner, glimpsing but shadows on a cave wall and confusing the silhouettes for reality. I’ve been given so much, and I don’t often stop to ponder how I’ll arrange my impression of the world, but rather how I’ll arrange the impression of myself to present to the world. As if I were just waiting to figure out how to best exhibit myself.

I learned the word domestic today. It was quite exciting, for I often joke that I’m in a domestic mizaja (mood) as I try to impose order upon our little apartment, but it’s often hopeless. Oh! Speaking of which, about a month ago we moved into our new apartment, and the place is beautiful, and up until today, there were no sketchy incidents–until, early this morning, a random man (who did not live in the building) walked into one of the girls’ unlocked apartments and offered them travel-size lotion. Though in general we are most likely safer in this apartment than the last, it still feels temporary. Like we just moved and we’re about to move again. I’m not quite sure what to cling to here–and as I sit here, in my bed with my left foot propped up on a pillow (there’s a story there), I’m starting to wonder why I don’t just stop trying to forge bonds with the outer world and just give up. Like this guy I know. There’s this guy on our program, and he’s such a conundrum to me. Perhaps because he’s one of the only people I’ve met that didn’t seem to be instantly taken with me–and as positively self-centered as that is, it’s also pathetically true. But he’s not the hard-to-get type of uninterested, he’s just simply concerned with other things. And he has many friends and is generally well-liked, but he doesn’t seem to need any of it. I asked him once about himself, with my standard ready-to-go line for most people, “I don’t know anything about you. Meen anta? A3n jad, I want to know something no one else knows.” And he talked about his summer, which sounded like the epitome of independence to me–a grant to study Arabic in Jordan, a solo journey to Morocco, and then back to Jordan with Middlebury. He was only in Morocco for ten days, but it pushed him to declare that it was the first and the last time he will ever travel alone for that amount of time. As I was sitting there, next to the campfire in the middle of Dana Nature Reserve, I couldn’t help but look at him and search for the answer to why? Was there a problem, I asked–no, he said, no problems, and all in all it was a great trip. He just didn’t want to do it again. Did he trade in comfort, in all aspects, for a fluency in Arabic? When was it that Arabic become a defining factor in his self-presentation, rather than in his impression of the world around him? And so I wonder, what’s the lesson there? Is being sociable, loved and in a constant stream of dates appointments and meet-ups mutually exclusive from being uncomfortable? From exploring and growing? It sure feels like it. And as I look back on the last seven weeks, and forward to the next eight (and as I post this, we’re actually closer to three), I can’t help but wonder if I’ll actively stop being passive. Or if I’ll just act in a routine way, passively–what do I want to get? To give? Is one more important than the other? Is detaching from comfort a guarantee for those precious treasures (like fluency) only obtainable through struggle? I came here with zero expectations, a whole bunch of white pants and a yearning for peace–to learn Arabic better and, quite truthfully, to make it out without more health issues. And I have definitely learned more Arabic, I know that, but I can’t say that I feel confident in either my health (I have a sprained ankle!) or my Arabic. Most of the time I feel lazy and tired, and as one friend said today, English is like a drug–you use it a little and all of a sudden you want more. And it’s not so much the inability to communicate, but the ease of communicating without trying. Do I want to try? Or do I just want the ease of action without thought? But that can’t be worth it, can it?

I just got back (whoops, now that was two weeks ago and I still haven’t washed the dust of Cairo off my white–now beige–pants) from a ten-day trip to Misr (Egypt) during Eid Al-Adha. We began our journey in Cairo and after three days hopped onto a tour headed South, where we rambled through temples in Aswan and Abu Simbel, slept on a felucca (a sailboat about the size of a large dining room table) up to Kom Ombo, Edfu and Luxor before finally returning to Cairo (Alqahira in Arabic, meaning “the victorious”). And that she is–my usual travels expectations have never been quite so defeated as they were in Egypt. Firstly, the country is comically divided–within Cairo itself, just walking around the city I saw leftovers from the French, monuments to the British, and of course plenty of sky risers from what I can only guess to be the seventies. A city of twenty million, Cairo could be construed as bustling, congested, or even stuffed to the point of bursting, but I never felt that way–for Cairo without it’s bloated population would be empty, the people were necessary to carrying it’s identity along from periods of foreign rule to periods of intense nationalism. Our hostel, Meramees (amazing, by the way–if you’re ever in Cairo, you must stay with these five men who run the place and who will make sure you’re stay is unforgettable), was a three-minute walk from Tahrir Square, and so of course we explored the place (which is actually not a square, but a massive circle). Everyone we spoke with had a different opinion of the Revolution–one of the hostel managers had no problem telling us just how much business he had before last January, while our guide at Kom Ombo informed us that the crowds we had to weave through were a mere 2% of the numbers the year before, and that we were incredibly lucky to not have to wait half an hour to enter the temple. And as we climbed over ten-thousand year old temples, through Great pyramids and all throughout ancient Egyptian history, I couldn’t help but wonder how this country was going to remake itself. Excuse me if I generalize, but if we look back over the recent-ish history of Egypt it goes something like this: Egypt was under Ottoman rule starting in the sixteenth century, then subject to French invasion at the end of the eighteenth, after which power flipped from Mohammad Ali Pasha to the British, whom eventually garnered control over Egypt in 1882, holding onto it until the (first) Egyptian Revolution in 1952. Over the next six decades, just three men would rule the country: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, who as we all know was deposed from power just a mere nine months ago.

So my question is this: how do a people, a nation, create an identity when the nation-state is under foreign control? How much does one’s environment, in that case, interfere–or help?–with the formation of identity? Really I think my questions boil down to this–which is more effective to know one’s self, as either an individual or a collective–“free” choice, meaning choice made free of pressure, or “forced” choice, or those choices made in response to external factors? Because my gut reaction is that free choice isn’t really meaningful at all–how can anything mean anything if the options are equal?–and that those choices made under pressure, with a struggle for survival, are the ones that expose the most about the chooser, because there is no time for deliberation, for i3tabaar (consideration, literally in Arabic, “to repeatedly express to one’s self”). And so I look to a country whose systems of government have grown out of reactions to other systems of government–revolutions against foreign occupation, colonialism, and finally against native rulers who have fallen prey to corruption–doesn’t it make sense that that national identity has to be strong, cohesive, deep, because of all the challenges that have chipped away at the outlying hypocrisies and inconsistencies, leaving a much more–I shudder as I think the word “pure,” but–well-formed identity? And then I look back on myself, on us, this group of expats in Jordan, and it all seems so arbitrary to me. I don’t know how much of my own intents to trust, and as I sit here, once again in a Western-style café (the bakery downstairs boasts “Gluten-free bread,” which is all but un-findable in Jordan, a country where bread can sometimes serve as the utensil, placemat and napkin to hummus and fattah laden meal) on Rainbow Street, I know that I’m so thankful that our crazy program, with all its flaws and rough starts, is doing the one thing it promised us: to put us in an environment of all Arabic all the time. Our Pledge may not hold up in Skype calls to our parents or negotiations with the Emergency Room Doctor at Al-Khalidi, or sometimes in quiet moments of mental exhaustion, but in general it persists–and the incredible thing is not so much our Arabic, which for all it’s improvement and speed and impressive sounding vocabulary has stared to disintegrate into a lazier form of the language that only we understand, but I find that I stop thinking so much. Stop deliberating. Get out of my head and not worry so much about whether or not I’m making the best of my time here, or what it means for my identity that I’m a twenty (almost twenty-one!) year old spending time in the Middle East–because maybe I can finally abandon the semi-arrogant notion that one’s actions are valid only for one’s own identity, and adopt the idea that the most important is the action itself, and whatever that means for the identity will follow.

 

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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!)

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!

Where Am I?

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