Week Last: How the Clench Stole Christmas

Editor’s note: This is the tale of how I left Jordan, which implies that it is also the last tale I will blog on this blog. Thank you all so much for reading and many thanks to those that shared these experiences with me and made them possible. I cannot express the impact this opportunity and my time in this welcoming country and generous people has made on my life. Shukran katiran! Here is the saga of my departure…fair warning: it gets a little weird.

Day 1. Snow day

Amman, Jordan, The Middle East
Amman, Jordan, The Middle East

Our final week in Jordan has been a veritable and finale of absurdity. It snowed so they turned the country off.[1] This has harmed a few of our plans. We no longer have a going away party at the Dead Sea, we have make up class instead on Friday because today because it was cancelled. Taxis refuse to run in the not snow. It’s clearly too dangerous. Given how Jordanian taxis drive in the rain[2] I can get behind this plan. I’ve seen how Californians get around snow and when this might be the first snow you have seen in years I can understand why people would be concerned about driving in it. But I am from the great green north![3] We are made of sterner stuff.
So we stay inside today and ate a hot lentil soup called adas with which I feel in love[4]. I chuckle at the awestruck reaction and childlike glee of my host family and the local shabaabs struggling to get up the hill. Jordanian weather coverage is quite exciting: a series of pictures if the two inches of snow backed by what sounded like the Arabic version of smooth jazz/elevator music.[5] Occasionally the host will clap and dance along. Unclear as to whether he knew the camera is rolling. Amman meanwhile was flooding on screen, because this city has zero water collection mechanisms. For those of us who wrote our final papers on water shortages, watching literal torrents of fresh rainwater cascade down off-ramps to spend themselves upon the asphalt and abandoned lots of Amman was intensely frustrating.[6]

Day 2. Blizzardstan

3rd Driest Country on Earth
3rd Driest Country on Earth

I wake with my arm sore from establishing my snow-ball dominance over the local shabaabs.[7]
Get to school. It’s a clear day–cold, but the roads don’t look too bad. I’m preparing to depart for Palestine. I’m a little frustrated about hauling my bags up a slushy hill, but I am now a Stark of Winterfell[8] so this was mafi mushkila. But when I arrive at school I have to ice skate across the terrace and into the kitchen, where I am greeted by no one, rather than the usual throng of students making various forms of breakfast shay. A good three quarters of the program was snowed in at their houses and could not make it to school. Some of this I blamed on fearful taxi drivers but truth be told I was astonished by the amount of snow the Middle East had received. We were hearing reports of Cairo shut down due to its greatest snow fall since Egypt had a king, and students from higher altitudes described impressive snowfall.

What a surreal last day in Jordan! we all thought.[9] Students and staff continued to trickle in throughout the day, some only showing up for a few presentations and a few students never showed up at all. As the day progressed snow fell intermittently and was greeted by excited cries in the middle of people’s presentations. Eventually our death march of presentations ended and it was time for our reentry seminar[10] following which we would be bussed to a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant where the staff would pay for not just our food but also our argila[11] as well. Much excitement! Then we look outside and apparently someone moved Jordan over to Maine. Snow is blowing horizontally and our driver Bassam[12] is bundled in his party van with his expression deteriorating as fast as the weather. Obviously those of us from the north,[13] and a certain cantankerous Sheikh from the Milwaukee area, as well as a boisterous former Potbelly[14] employee from the Chicago area, continued to argue[15] that these roads were certainly passable, so we went outside to have a snowball fight, slipped, fell, bruised our tailbones, etc.[16] The decision was made from on high that dinner was off the table and that departures to home must be made now or not at all. This process severely rushed our goodbyes, which was particularly jarring after our already curtailed reentry seminar brought many to the verge of tears declaring our deep bonds with the SIT tribe. So as weeping friends were literally torn from each other’s[17] arms, three cars departed bearing their heartbroken cargos, heading home in the biggest storm the desert had seen since the one waged by George Bush Sr.

Two of the three returned within 20 min, driven back by the weather.[18] And thus our tribe was snowed in at SIT, with a single available blanket and no food.[19] So, a few brave, valiant souls from a certain consortium of colleges in the LA area[20] ventured forth into the storm in search of sustenance. After a battle with highwaymen, evasion of a Charybdis of incompetently driving Saudis in Audis, and a brief lesson on how to work a de-frost function, we returned victorious bearing shawarma. Thus we settled in for the night, some more comfortably then others, all marveling with varying degrees of frustration or good humor at the absurd circumstance in which we found ourselves, snowed-in in the driest country of the Middle East.

At this point the experience was all still a game, a last laugh at the absence of logic in a country we had grown to love despite, and perhaps for, all its irrational flaws.

Then the morning came and hell froze over.

Day 3: The Grey Grim

Editors note: What follows is a first-hand account of our trek to the border of Jordan and Palestine. We had woken that morning and shoveled snow to convince our academic director that the roads were passable and we could begin our voyage. Bassam[21] begrudgingly agreed to drive us. We believed we were driving towards a post-program vacation, but in truth we drove only towards a storm fierce enough to shake the wills of men.[22]More ramble than coherent account, your narrator was drowned in the thick of the experience even as he transcribed it. For full effect, we suggest this passage be accompanied by the track “East Hastings” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and read in the voice of Tom Waits.

caterpillar ambulance tank crawls across a frozen wasteland

we follow.

we don’t know why we follow but we follow           . seems like following is all we can do anymore.

follow the road… when we can see it

following hope… when we have it
great lumbering beasts lurk through the foggy bleak; one breaks itself upon a frozen drift   flailing morbidly      another, entwined, pulls against its captor

like a fury like a despair

we lost the shovel long ago

~~~~
long ago we were traveling to Palestine         long ago we were excited to go but sad to leave

a new journey was beginning                           was a beginning.

long ago we were courageous.            long ago full of confidence.    long ago cheer.

long ago we were warm          but with warmth fled all else.

now we are trapped on the road to Jerusalem

we chided the Jordanians for their fear of snow

we were from the great green north we knew snow we loved snow.

but now

embraced in fog

we have forgotten that love.
~~~~
the border closed at 11:30 due to weather and God
it is 10:40. without snow the road stretched for 40 min          with snow it stretches for eons

too many corpses of caravans clog the roadside graveyard; we pass through only to find another and a third
~~~~
is the tank stuck? Oh god is the army stuck in a middle eastern quagmire?

The tanks rolled in                  slithing            through the sludgy slog         they cleared a path we watched it fill again with snow and the incompetence of a Hyundai minivan

it was not the first time i wept that day[23]
~~~~
11:30

we make it through creeping

on the vehicular equivalent of our hands and knees like a vermin but we make it through

~~~~
11:37

The Descent

as the quavery white heights rise behind, us we tumble through villages

and towns seeing their first snow in a hundred years and we have come down unto these hinterlands having seen enough of snow to last another hundred

Then[24] in greeting like mother at the return of a child the sky wept for us and the snow turned to rain and the trees revealed their naked green boughs and waved us on, beckoning like lovers–we fled the white wastes, the elephant graveyard of trucks and Camrys, vans and buses, past the tanks past the broken trees and broken men we flew, flew past, down and through the rain and bounded over hills, glimpsing the sun across the Deadest Sea, watching the snowy hills of Amman retreating…

And that is how we left Jordan.


[1] The government said you weren’t allowed to work because of the snow. This was a royally mandated snow day.

[2] Slowly and with great trepidation

[3] The Pacific Northwest, though truth be told my town is not reknown for its snowy winters, but we aren’t going to talk about that.

[4] It was like a spicy oatmeal

[5] I have heard Arabic elevator music and it is much more exciting than America’s

[6] It’s not like I expected Dune level water conservation, but honestly you need more than three gutters and a drain.

[7] I had an evolutionary advantage. They hadn’t even unlocked the ice-ball upgrade. Sad really

[8] Housing assignments were sent out. I don’t want to talk about it.

[9] Little did we know of the storm that was brewing

[10] A workshop about sharing the experience and reverse culture shock upon re-entry into the US. However, we all made crude  answers to “what re-entry means to you?” w/re those individuals returning to a relationship after 3 months abroad. We are all 12.

[11] Commonly known in the states as hookah, but for some reason every Jordanian thinks Americans call it “Hubbly Bubbly”

[12] Later a hero in a saga yet to be told but read on… if you dare.

[13] Pacific northwest cause I’m an asshole

[14] tm

[15] With a not insignificant amount of false bravado

[16] Fun times for all.

[17] Ma3 Ba3d

[18] Command of the remaining car had been handed over to Captain Potbelly, who navigated her back to Medina A’Riyaddiya, with a healthy dose of pushing. Their odyssey is another story entirely.

[19] But plenty of tea

[20] Who for modesty’s sake will remain unnamed

[21] Our savior and fearless guide

[22] Or any other category with which one might identify

[23] Nor the last

[24] Tone shift! Switch from Tom Waits to Samwise Gamgee during the scene on Mount Doom.

Week 9 (or whatever): A day in the Life of Boomer ZNN

OR: That one time I was an Austrian movie star. But not like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Assalaamu ‘Alaykum.

Astute readers of this blog will recall that I am studying abroad in Jordan not Europe and may therefore be reasonably confused as to how I ended up in an Austrian film. I’m unclear how to explain this phenomenon myself. The star studded ride to fame was filled with so many little people to trod upon, I don’t know where to begin.

Essentially the film industry suffers similar mushkilat as the study abroad industry: if you want to go to the Mideast/anywhere America has warred recently, you don’t really have many safe options. So following in the steps of such KBL[1] directed Oscar winning stress fests as Zero Dark 40 and The Foot Locker[2] most production crews and study abroad students choose Jordan. With the right lighting and music it provides that oh-so-desirable atmosphere of deserts, resentment, and ethnic tension, but with none of the explosions.[3]

Shloonak.

Anyway, long story short, they needed white people.[4]  So I was white, and in Jordan and therefore qualified. After a harrowing audition, where I was tasked with portraying a monstrous character without a script, I was obviously immediately cast as an extra.[5]

But then I got my big break when a poor harried Spaniard named Beatrith[6] called desperate for a white American male to play a white American male. Frankly it was the role I was born to play.

When I arrived on-set last Friday, freshly trimmed, appropriately pale, I learned that as a “Speaking Role” I would be changing in the “Truck” instead of the “Closet” with the extras. Truly I had finally made it.

Ahlan wa Sahlan ya binat

Stardom is not all glitter and cocaine and prostitutes though[7] and I discovered the hard work that goes into becoming an international auteur/actor/acteur. Pretty much 2/3rds of my time is spent standing. Then being hustled to another place to stand some more. And this is without the cameras rolling, this is the standing near where the cameras are preparing to role. At any given time there are about a hundred people standing around, while 25 other people stand around and regulate around where the 100 stand .[8]

Then we couldn’t breathe. Billowing black smoke engulfed us, twisting around the abandoned lot and seeming to follow us no matter where the 25 herders re-coordinated  our standing around. They had lit a few tires on fire for the scene because of course and why would you have wanted to know beforehand? Eventually someone came to the conclusion that vaporized rubber and tar is probably not the best for one’s lungs and that perhaps we should ask for one of the masks all the crew members are wearing.[9]  I, however, decided to suffer for my art.

Habibi..

After a few more tires were immolated, we did the scene and it was awesome.

I, Boomer ZNN,[10] found myself running through a freshly exploded neighborhood,[11] scrambling over mud and blood and fire, with dead and dying children strewn this way and that, a man crushed by a refrigerator[12] and assorted body parts. Screaming and shouting was the only thing that pieced the smoke and dust whipped into a spiteful fury at my eyes and face. And dammit did I carry my mic. And dammit did wear the shit out of those khakis. It was gold and sex and chocolate this scene, and I was lost in the simple luxury of being.

And then we had to do it 4 more times, which totally sucked.


[1] Katherine Bigelow. We run in the same circles now)

[2] Industry jokes, I’d explain them but then they wouldn’t be funny

[3] Usually. So far.

[4] Aseem had an interesting conversation reminding the casting director that “American-looking” is not necessarily the same thing as “Caucasian.”

[5] Something about contractual obligations and how  they couldn’t replace every other actor with me no matter how much they wanted to. I get it. it’s the business, you can’t take these things personally.

[6] Beatriz really, but I’m an asshole

[7] Usually. So far.

[8] Not unlike my programs excursions.

[9] Quite a few among them fled coughing to get some “fresh air” where they promptly took off their masks and lit up cigarettes.

[10] For I was the Boom technician for the ZNN film crew, but they didn’t have a boom for me, so in a crisis of identity I took a regular mic instead.

[11] They found an apocalyptic vacant lot in Jordan, somehow.

[12] A masterclass, the way he detached his limbs like that. What craft.

The Badia Part 2: The Reckoning

Badia life means a lot of sitting. I spent much of my time just sort of sitting in a room and was occasionally brought tea[1] while the children mercilessly beat each other, because that is how children pass the time in the Badia. In the rare hours I wasn’t sitting, or sitting and eating, or sleeping after eating, I was either hanging out with my host dad or playing with the children. Playing with children was fun and all[2] but I preferred hanging out with host dad. The thing about Bedouin men is that in their home they are the king of the house[3]. But when they are out with their bros, they are 15 years old. Aseem and I took a road trip to Aqaba[4]  with our host dads and they were literally giddy, dancing in their chairs and driving recklessly.

Roadside attraction
Roadside attraction

We returned to Aqaba with our program on our excursion to the southern Badia, and enjoyed a very different experience. When we first arrived with our host dads we discovered that in fact, we were to be staying the night, and that we would be staying in Khaled Abu Rashid’s second house in Aqaba. We immediately unpacked the argila, and proceeded to drive to a relative’s house where we were, obviously fed and chai-ed. We swam out on a public beach with the extended family, and the Jordanians complained about how cold the tropical clear blue water was. We Saudi watched on the boardwalk. When we arrived with the program we checked into a fancy hotel, and went snorkeling off some famous Dead Sea reefs. We were able to wear revealing swimming garments. However some of our fellow snorkelers wore more modest swim attire, for example the woman in a full tracksuit and hijab[5].

Prior to Aqaba, our program trekked through Petra and Wadi Rum. Petra is honestly underwhelming as far as cities carved out of a sheer mountain face go. The Nabateans really didn’t have good taste. Everything was the same color, there was no curb appeal, and no curb either. All the columns were Ionian, which is frankly just embarrassing, and the bas relief facades were trying too hard. Petra must have had the worst condo board ever. No wonder everyone moved out.

Tacky
Tacky

Wadi Rum was like riding a Toyota Hilux over Mars. I expected to find the Curiosity rover around every corner. We piled into the back of the trucks and went roaming around the desert at a surprisingly reasonable pace, which we later discovered was because the car immediately in front of us in the caravan contained a certain fear stricken member of the group, who may or may not have been a program administer, and who may or may not have brought her Burberry purse with her on a desert excursion. This character was demanding, pleading to keep the speed frustratingly low, and infuriatingly safe. That night we ate out of a underground oven, smoked argila and stargazed, which is all in all a decent way to spend an evening. The next morning however we awoke bright and early to ride camels, which baffles me. What tribesman, back in the day, looked at that mean, awkward, spindly legged, humpbacked animal and thought “I should get on top”? Camels stand up the same way 75 year old men do, apparently ravaged by gout, but they sit down like a drunk college student, by effectively collapsing onto their front knees and then letting the rest of the body follow. All this being said, riding a camel is fantastic, because you feel like you are riding a ship, but the beast is so tall it’s like you are in the crow’s nest. And if you got a patient camel[6], you were pretty much golden.

All in all, it was a pleasure to enjoy the southern Badia as a tourist, but I rather preferred living there with my delightful Badia host family. Plus there were more chai breaks.


[1] By occasionally I of course mean constantly, and by tea I mean simple syrup with some leaves in it.

[2] I originally enjoyed playing with the children. I tried to teach them a game. I turned into the UN handing out food aid in Somalia and accidently started a war.

[3] He sits and smokes his argila, while a child brings him tea. When he is done a different child comes and takes it away. People bring him things, pour him tea, etc. He sits silently in his traditional clothes, surveying his domain. But then he will break character and show me a YouTube video of a camel getting stuffed into the trunk of a Camry, and he will laugh uproariously.

[4] Jordan’s one and only port town, which everyone is very excited about because it has ocean, though I have yet to meet a Jordanian who knows how to swim.

[5] However, joke’s on us naked Americans, cause I got the shit stung out of me by tiny baby jellyfish. Scuba Bint had no such struggles.

[6] I named her/him Chanel, because he/she was fabulous.

The Badia Round 1. Belated

I prepare to return to the Southern badia today which gives me a chance to recollect on the week I spent living with a Bedouin family early this month. I confess I was fairly lax at reporting on this experience when I originally returned, but please understand that the very next day we went to “Fancy Farm” so I was quite distracted by the pool and the grass that didn’t murder my toes with hate and spines. Perhaps after marinating in my head for some time this retrospective might even be more tolerable for my readers. Apologies for the lack of photos, I am literally writing this moments before I depart. 

Aseem and I, tending the flock
Aseem and I, tending the flock

My Badia host father armed me within 20 minutes of arrival. With a gun.[1] Full disclosure for anyone from the State Department who is currently reviewing my internship application, if you have found any photos of me wearing a kufia, traditional robes and a sidearm, it was part of this cultural exchange which I promise I really promise better equips me to spend a summer working for the Department. Sincerely, thank you for the opportunity to apply.[2] My host father equipped me with his traditional head wrap, as well as his traditional shoulder holster and we had ourselves a Bedouin photo shoot.

Eating Kebseh. Surreptitiously photographed by my host siblings.
Eating Kebseh. Surreptitiously photographed by my host siblings.

Then we ate. Those who are privy to the more intimate details of my privy may have been receiving uncomfortably rapid updates upon my gastrointestinal health.[3] Well, budding proctologists[4] fear no longer, this meal cured me. A large bowl of kebseh[5] was placed in the center of the perimeter couching[6] living area, and I was gestured to sit. “Wow” I thought to myself, “That’s  a pretty big bowl for just me and my host dad!” How wrong I was, because that was a pretty big bowl just for me. Failing to finish the meal would be a great shame and an affront to the Bedouin hospitality, so the stakes were high. As I have heard, we do not rise to the occasion but rather default to our training, and in this circumstance I certainly defaulted to my training as a college age male, Italian heritage, and gorging myself in Morocco during Ramadan. But I could not have trained for what happened next.

“You go to Khaled’s house now,” stated my host father Mohammad when I was proudly finishing the kebseh. Khaled was the host father of my friend Aseem.[7] I sat down with Aseem, similarly bedecked in his traditional garments and asked him how lunch was. “I haven’t had it,” came the ominous reply. I was to be fed again. Khaled brought out maklouba[8] by which I mean he brought out a Mayan Calendar sized rack of redundancy, that I was expected to put in my face. Gnawing on a chicken bone I recalled the scene in Fargo where Steve Buscemi has been thrust into a wood chipper, but the chipper has so much matter that his leg has gotten jammed in the teeth. That was my face and stomach’s relationship with the Steve Buscemi the chicken. Then, when I was physically incapable[9] of eating another bite, we were offered figs. We also drank about a gallon of tea. We then visited a man, mostly for the hell of it, who showed us how to fish for falcons[10] and how a particular type of bread was made. We were of course, expected to eat the bread, and subtly chastised for how slowly we were eating it.

This was day one, yet the trend of binge eating and being unable to move continued for the rest of the trip.

Thus ends part one of the Badia, I will return from the south with a lovely compare and contrast.


[1] For the purposes of CMC’s study abroad policies, Nicole’s (and my mother’s) sanity, and my program’s official policy, we are going to say that this gun was unloaded, and we are going to say that it was an old antique, and we are going to say my host-dad didn’t have the nine year old daughter carry it in his shoulder holster from room to room.

[2] please don’t nuke my security clearance

[3] My poops.

[4] If budding has anything to do with proctology experience, I pray you have a skilled doctor.

[5] A chicken and rice dish, with spices.

[6] Favorite part of Arab interior design, every wall has a couch, and every couch is a bed.

[7] Author of the Abrog which I’m sure you all read  instead of my reporting.

[8] A chicken and rice dish, with spices.

[9] I knew I was physically incapable, because when I took a bite of the fig (forthcoming) my mouth told my brain it was delicious, perhaps the most delicious, yet my stomach misheard Brain’s convo with Mouth, got mad, and unceremoniously vomited into Mouth. Still a great fig though.

[10] A pigeon is given a strange vest with a series of loops of fishing line, and sent into the air as bait for the falcon. The falcon attacks the pigeon, but gets its talons caught into the pigeons Bill Cosby sweater, and is unable to fly away. His Bedouin pursuers catch him, and sell him to a Saudi because of course you would sell that to a Saudi.

El Maghreb Mara Tany

I’m writing this at 5 in the morning in Amman after 3 hours in a bus, 4 hours in airports, 7 hours in a plane, and a final hour in a bus. Today we Ibn Batuta-ed our way back from Morocco. Our program took a weeklong excursion to Morocco, which is your correspondent’s humble excuse for the tardiness of this post.[1]

I could not have been happier for an opportunity to return to Morocco after spending two incredible as well as academically grueling months there last summer learning Arabic. However Morocco was actually the programs third choice. Egypt was our original plan, and then there was a revolution, and then there was another revolution. So we were going to go to Turkey, but there was that little Syria thing over its southern border, plus civil unrest in Istanbul (awkward cause our classes there were supposed to be about how great and non-dictatorial Erdogon was doing). So we went to Morocco. Here is a brief flyby of our week.

Day 1: Arrive in Rabat. Immediately sleep.

Day 2: Depart for Fes/Meknes an hour late. (Time change troubles. Turns out Morocco has

Bab fi Meknes
Bab fi Meknes

daylight savings time) Tour Meknes and look at a lot of babs[2]. Screw around in a granary. Develop an intimate understanding of the term “hangry.”
Arrive at a restaurant tucked away in a mountain town resembling a place Vito Corleone might have retired to in Sicily. Here I was fortunate enough to have my brain exploded by a spiced chicken and baked quince Tagine.
Visited the roman ruins of Volibulus, took photos with a 2 thousand year old sculpted phallus.[3]

Day 3: Fes
Described by a friend as the day when everyone’s personality flaws got turned up to 11. We were shuttled around from tourist trap to tourist trap, each person expressing some different grievance about the process. The grievances of others were annoyances that they can just damn well shut the hell up about, but one’s own grievances were mortal injustices.
That being said, the old city of Fes is one of my favorite places in Morocco despite the fact that it has all the things that usually make me hate a place.[4] Fes has two old cities, a new old city and an old old city. The new one is 700 years old, the old over 1200. The decorations inside some of the ancient mosques have been preserved, and baffle the mind with the attention to detail and escalations of complexity across every surface.

Day 4/5 Rabat
My homestay family! I was able to visit my homestay family from the summer. The sweetest woman Nezha and her 30 year old son named Amine. She was the wife of a Moroccan diplomat to France, lived on the Champs-Élysées

is the consummate matriarch and one of the best cooks I have ever met. She enjoys gesturing to women of varying ethnicities on the television and interrogating me as to whom I prefer. She’s as smart as a whip, and a brilliant conversationalist when I can understand what she is saying. Once when I complained about my homework, she pointed to the textbook and summed up my Arabic language career with the phrase “forget your American girlfriend, this is your lover now.”[5]

In Rabat I played tour guide for my friends, as well as translator occasionally for my program directors. Moroccan Arabic, like Moroccan cuisine, is a delicious mess, incorporating influence from Spanish, French, the indigenous language, Tamazight, all in a loose Arabic structure. Let’s be clear, my Darija is not good, but hearing my highly educated program coordinators have to default to a blend of formal Arabic and English[6] was deeply satisfying.

Fasefusa Floors
Fasefusa Floors

Day 5/6: Marrakech.
So many white person dreadlocks.
Popularized by rock and roll bands, 70s era drug addled hiatuses from college, and white people who name their kids “Namaste,” Marrakech has become the go to “cultural experience” for westerners unwilling to actually go south of the Sahara but extremely willing to smoke a lot of hashish.[7] Marrakech is in many ways the Africa people pay for. The main square has snake charmers and traditional dancers; monkeys on chains and story tellers. It is all an elaborate show, marketed to be just the right kind of “traditional” and the right kind of “exotic.” And the square’s showmen are professionals at their particular craft, at selling an experience.
I hate it a little bit. That being said our hotel had a pool. So after a fairly informative interesting tour of the beautiful palaces and tombs, and a somewhat inappropriate traditional medicine seminar[8] where we were extolled the virtues of ginseng[9], I occupied myself by being a tourist, and floating in the pool for hours. After experiencing the swarm of cultural commodification and haram-ly dressed European tourists in the main square, many joined me.

Day 7: Reverse Ibn Batuta

Traveling with a program is always an exercise in relinquishing control to an uncaring universe, but nothing is more a masterclass in existentialism than the return flights. I’ve always gotten the sense that the time I spend in airports doesn’t count in real life. It seems like I should be able tally it all up and redeem it like a coupon at the gates of heaven. Delirious, sleep-deprived, hangry masses wandering through a series of terminals that all look the same, stuck on people movers that somehow always get you to the end of the hallway slower than walking but just farther than your gate, passing through three separate, useless security checks, and getting patted down by three separate dour faced Egyptian men[10] paints for me a pretty compelling picture of purgatory.
And it’s absolutely worth it, the tourists[11], the acts for the tourists, the absurdities of our schedules and tours, the airport existential voids. I cannot wait to return to Morocco.


[1] Sorry Nicole.

[2] Gates or doors. The ancient gates to the old cities are covered in mosaics, carvings and caligraphy

[3] There was more to the ruins than the phallus, but none more important.

[4] Oodles of tourists, a lingering smell of feces. (There is a tannery in the old city so it’s probably not the sewage system. Probably.)

[5] Soul shatteringly true

[6] Arabglese!

[7] What’s up Ashland hippies?

[8] The man literally sold snake oil. Or rather, dried chameleon to prevent black magic.

[9] Let’s put it this way: the Roman phallus sculpture had no need for ginseng.

[10] Thank God I didn’t buy any ginseng.

[11] I always seem to remove myself from that category, even though I am as much a tourist as any of them.

Week 3(ish): Shoo B’tfakir

I’m clearly in the land before time. I’m gonna turn the corner and get eaten by a pack of Velociraptor. Either that or Indiana Jones will be fleeing racist caricatures, whip in hand, shouting at Sean Connery. Keifa nakoul “primordial beauty” bil arabi?[1]

This weekend I had the incredible luck of being in the right place at the right time, largely because last week I was in a different right place at a different right time. Walking with a friend downtown, she brought up a trip she was planning to visit some Bedouin friends of hers who run an Eco-lodge in the south, where she had taught English a few summers back. Graciously, she invited me and a few others on the program to come down with her. Freshman year was wrapping up and I figured it would nice to spend sophomore summer outside of Amman for a change.[2] I’ve had good sophomore summers but this was the best.

Where was I?

541839_3457751898817_1753988366_n
Here.

I honestly cannot say with great certainty where I was. I was in Wadi Dana, next to the Feynan Eco-lodge, close to the villiage Gre-Gra’a, and I have no idea what that means. For all intents and purposes it was Mars. Driving in at night across the desert, I thought it might be the moon had the moon not been illuminating the shattered cliff faces that surrounded us, occasionally dispersing and revealing infinite plains and forgotten ruins.[3] What I can say was that I was folded into the back of an ancient Kia pick-up truck, held together by twine and crossed fingers, careening through the night across what was generously called a road. I shared the back of the cab with three other men, while our two female compatriots shared the front seat, and our driver/guide/host/sage Suleiman sat with his brother in the driver’s seat.[4] I can sympathize with astronauts during re-entry as our little space-shuttle violently attacked the bumps and potholes like it bore them a grudge.

Where did we stay?

Bedouin hospitality is legendary in Jordan. A story we were told during orientation elaborated on the tradition, claiming that historically a traveler was welcomed to stay for up the three days no questions asked.[5] The legends were absolutely true. Our host Suleiman invited us to sleep in his bait esha’ar [6] underneath the brightest moon I have ever seen, fed us, and served us each about a pint of sweet tea with herbs. The family’s camp was deceptively simple: a large open living area, a cooking area, a covered women’s quarters and a few pens for the herds of goats and sheep.  However, they also owned a large house in the nearby village and were clearly better off than the other families in the area.

We woke just before sunrise to the sound of a buzzsaw. This noise turned out to be swarms of black flies that had evidently been eating our sweat and dead skin all morning. We were clearly an exotic flavor. After covering our faces and failing to fall back asleep, we trekked briefly up the nearby hill to overlook the wadi, and watch the sunlight creep across from Israel/Palestine to the west as the Sun peeked over the mountains to the east.  The pink dawn lit up the red rock of the surrounding mountains in the same way I might imagine daybreak on Mars.

What did we do?

We started our hike through Wadi Ghwiya early that day and followed the PVC irrigation pipes up to their source at the river. Now instead of Mars we hiked through one of the better suburbs of Mordor, where sheer black cliff faces struggled to bear their own weight over us, and little hardy plants[7] grew in between the shattered bits of mountain that had tumbled off.  Here our host was in his element, while we fumbled along behind. Shoes became a bit of a mushkila.[8] Our friend who invited me had broken the leather strap on her sandal. Mafi mushkila. Previously insignificant, each of us had a wish bracelet from the Church of Saint George’s Foot, a small length of green fabric that we repurposed as a means to tie Holly’s foot to her shoe. With a few later adjustments, these straps lasted us the length of our trip, and actually had a hip rustic look that would kill in Oregon.

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This is bafflingly in the desert.

Eventually we discovered that we had not yet reached the beginning of the canyon we would be hiking that day. Here we enter the Land Before Time, or Jurassic Park. Nestled between the walls of the canyon which itself was nestled between jagged forbidding mountain faces, was the Garden of Eden. Full of lush vegetation, a literally babbling brook, frogs and crabs, and palm trees growing out of the walls of the canyon. I swear every photo of me captures a ludicrous face of bewilderment. We stopped for lunch and learned that obviously our guide packed a teapot and a bag of flour. We made bread by burying it in hot coals[9] and drank about a gallon of tea each.

We returned around sunset and watched massive storm clouds roll in to thwart my expectations of the desert. Dinner had to be unearthed from a buried oil drum.[10] Within this drum five roasted chicken were dripping off a wire rack over a pot of rice, while whole onions and potato were cooking on the coals. If the Food Network is pornography, eating this chicken was losing my virginity. [11] Then we of course drank more tea, watched the International Space Station tumble through the sky and passed right out.

See? Freaking out.
See? Freaking out.

The following day we had better adapted to our buzzing alarm clocks and I was able to sleep until an impressive 8:30. We got the opportunity to meet some of the other families in the area, all of whom served us still more tea. We visited an apparently unexcavated ancient ruin[12]. No signs indicated its origin, and no caution tape prohibited our exploration. Our theory, based on a full viewing of all of the canonical Indiana Jones movies[13], a cursory understanding of the plot of the Mummy, and multiple Discovery Channel marathons, argues that once the wadi was a lush riverbank, overlooked by a decent sized Roman settlement on the nearby hilltop. The tiered city had clear walls and houses with a few remaining arches. We discovered pottery shards in the basement of one house, and collapsed classical columns near another.  Needless to say, I was freaking out.

To conclude our trip, we drank more tea, then drank a light cardamom spiced coffee, ate lunch, were eaten by flies, and piled back into our Kia space shuttle for takeoff. Re-entry into Amman, dirty, sore, exhausted, full of tea, caused probably more culture shock than our original arrival in early September.  Despite, or maybe because of, this jarring disconnect between the countryside and the city, we all got cheeseburgers for dinner.


[1] “How do we say ….. in Arabic?” This is the most important phrase I know. I have a habit of talking myself into corners and escaping with “Keifa nakoul, (insert absurd academic term: structural-level racism, hegemony, Edward 40-hands) bil arabi?”

[2] Attentive readers will recall that the program breaks down conveniently into the four years of college (high school for some.) For clarity, I include the full breakdown of the abroad micro-timeline here: Freshman year, all the Amrikiun travel in packs for about 2-3 weeks, then split up during sophomore summer for the first independently organized weekend trips. (Usually this is where the first hook ups really kick off, though I assure you none happened on my trip for reasons that will soon become obvious.) Sophomore year has now begun. It will last about two weeks. There will be drama as friend groups and romances from freshman year dissolve and reconsolidate. We will realize that school is still school anywhere in the world and that will be a tremendous buzzkill. Junior summer: the program will leave on its first big trip, usually a solid 4-5 day experience to contrast the host city with a neighboring area. Junior year is rough. Midterms hit like a train. Certain personalities become intolerable. Quirks and charms of the host nation evolve into downright injustices. Incidentally, the beginning of junior year, week 5-6, is the week where culture shock may turn into outright depression, according to the US Dept. of State—really. Luckily, in the second half of junior year, as a post-midterm reward, the study abroad program studies abroad. For example, we are going to Morocco for about a week. Finally we return to senior year, ostensibly refreshed and ready to finish strong. This of course does not occur, as students begin to check exactly what “pass-fail” means to their registrar, and procrastinate on the program’s final paper. Second semester senior year is exactly what it sounds like: the program cannot wait to go home, fantasizing about cheeseburger combinations and the comfortably familiar nuances of our native cultures. Yet in the last couple of days the melancholy reality of imminent departure sets in. Then, all of a sudden, you all separate at a major airline hub (Frankfurt, it’s always Frankfurt) and boom, you’ve graduated. Real life resumes as soon as you get off the plane.

[3] I’m not kidding about the ruins.

[4] The two girls in the front demonstrate an interesting prioritization of social norms. Generally women are obliged to sit in the back of a cab or car “for their protection.” However, it is more haram for them bounce along these craters wedged between two unmarried men, so they took the front as the lesser of two poisons. Instead I was wedged and bounced to our camp.

[5] Not their name, nor where they were from, nor why they were leaving. After three days they may reveal this information and stay longer with the host’s permission, or leave. Our host, Suleiman, confirmed that this is not just historical but still very much the case, describing a tale where a man who had murdered someone in the nearby village over a property dispute, sought three days of refuge with his father before escaping to his own tribe in the north. Despite this consequence, the historical reasoning behind the tradition makes a lot of sense. If the only people for miles of desert refuse to take you in, you are probably gonna die.

[6] Literally “Hair House,” because the massive tent is composed of woven goat hair carpet.

[7] All poisonous, obviously.

[8] “Problem,” a crucial word in Arabglese. Essential to the phrase “Mafi mushkila” which means no problem, especially when there is definitely a problem yet your corresponded lacks the nuanced understanding of Arabic to determine exactly what it is.

[9] Awesome.

[10] An underground oven called a zurb, which to an Arabic neophyte is dangerously close to the slang for male genitalia. Confusion over this distinction caused a few polite silences.

[11] Sorry CMC Study Abroad.

[12] See I told you I wasn’t kidding.

[13] Excluding the fourth. Clearly.

Week 2: Salti Tales

Salt City

Turns out the Middle East is hot. Not to preemptively discredit my eventual IR degree, but I think that’s why there is so much conflict. Case study: me. This week’s consistent heat in unintelligibly large Celsius degrees coupled with long pants[1] turned me into the grumpiest camel in the wadi. I encourage the reader to bear this grouchy lens in mind, and take the tone of the remainder of this entry with that bitter grain of salt. I am in fact, enjoying myself, but I fear this post will do little to convey that sentiment. 

Transportation:

After a solid week and half good luck, getting a cab has suddenly become an existential experience.[2] Nothing confirms how the universe is fundamentally uncaring like trudging in the heat away from your house in search of taxis, only to look over your shoulder and see three dart like rabbits out from around corners and disappear. Then you return, like a fool, to the now empty street corner and watch three more taxis assemble and disperse in the direction you were headed originally. At this point, certain you have cracked the strategy, you set off again towards the apparent Mecca[3] of taxis a block over only to have the Sisyphusian process[4] repeat itself for 20 more minutes until you are late for Research Methods and Ethics.

Getting a cab home is even more of an exercise in futility. I still am unsure of how to pronounce the name of my neighborhood. More importantly, I don’t think anyone else knows how to pronounce it either, because I’ve heard about 5 different permutations[5], and about half the cabbies I talk to don’t recognize any of them.

The City of Salt:

Al Kniessa
Al Kniessa

This weekend we traveled to the City of Salt[6]. This trip managed to get full marks for things I don’t like to do while traveling: Look like a tourist. Slowly amble. Move with a herd of Americans. Impinge upon the daily life of the locals.

And thus we shambled en-masse through the tiny streets of the Salt sooq, drawling our American English—all flat vowels and limping consonants, snapping pictures of this poor rejul selling knock-off Nikes, ogling over what would otherwise be just another day at work for him. We finally arrived at a local square, and fell like a heavy cloud over some old dudes just tryna play some mankala. Somehow[7], the Jordanians were exceptionally gracious and welcomed our presence. Honestly, we made me more uncomfortable than we made them.

Later, after not one, but two trips to archeological museums to look at functionally the same pottery because the British took all the cool stuff, we toured a tiny ancient church. This church, like many others, was ostensibly built on the spot St George slew a dragon[8] but they have the footprint to prove it. A friend of mine and I swapped Sunday school stories and forgot how to say the Nicene Creed, which didn’t matter anyway because we were pretty sure this church was Orthodox. Also it had a bingo night.

Size 11, wide
Size 11, wide

Our lunch[9] at a local restaurant turned into mock wedding ceremony, where two of our compatriots on the program were draped in about a hundred pounds of fabric and paraded around to traditional music as the bride and groom. During the description of a traditional Medina Salt wedding, the phrase “Salti womens” was uttered and the collective maturity of our group dropped to about that of a 13 year old. I was a groomsman in the procession, but was denied a headdress[10]. The groom, Mike, hereafter referred to as The Sheikh, is one of the 8 men in my program and has a beard Salafis would kill for. Fully costumed and wielding a sword, he appeared to be ready to lead his tribe in revolt against the Ottomans[11]

Our day in Salt concluded at the highest point in the city, overlooking the River Jordan, watching the sun set over the West Bank. Because I lack a religious/ethnic connection to that land, perhaps the view, though heartbreakingly gorgeous, had less significance to me than it did to some of my compatriots. Yet, hearing the call to prayer echo from Palestine over a refugee camp to answer the call to prayer emanating from Medina Salt is not something I will likely forget.

Domesticity:

Right now I am munching on a pile of unidentifiable nuts[12] given to me by my host dad[13]. I’m typing around my 1 and a half year old host sister, who is covered in some form of paste, and handing me things off my bedside table. The other night she helped me with my Arabic homework, by drawing on it with green highlighter[14].

I believe I have reached the extent of my ability to allow someone to serve me. It’s extremely unnerving. I am assertively told not to do all the things my mother taught me to do. Do not clear your plate.[15] Don’t you dare get your own beverage.  You want to do your own laundry? We don’t know what this means. Omi fascistically ensures my absolute absence of personal responsibility in this house. One day, the 19 month old spilled the rice and yogurt Omi was feeding to my 10 year old host sister. I offered to get her some tissues, merely a single tissue, and was vigorously rebuffed. Omi will be literally covered in babies, and will steadfastly refuse to let me retrieve my own glass of water. The scariest thing is, I see occasions where I acquiesce, and realize that it’s really easy to get used to an arrangement that favors you, to the extent that you come to expect it. I hope I never do.


[1] Obligatory. Shorts are considered immodest, which is understandable. My calves have been known to end marriages.

[2] Though I have no business complaining compared to some of my compatriots living far across town in what is basically Iraq. Featured here: http://abrog.aseemchipalkatti.com/the-american-revolution/

[3] Sorry

[4] A theme my Arabic grammar homework illustrates beautifully.

[5] In order of least to most guttural: Dra Garbi, Dra’a ‘erbeh, Druy Gurba, Dra3 e’Grrbe, *gargle*. So, for my friends studying abroad in Europe, with your metros and your Romance languages, I’m afraid I have little sympathy for Facebook statuses about “culture shock”.

[6] That’s actually just a transliteration. The city in fact had little to do with salt.

[7] This is not a slight at Jordanians. I’m baffled at their patience. My reaction, were I in their place,would have been thinly veiled condescension and hostility.

[8] That was a difficult word for our guide to translate from Arabic. For the longest time it was a wolf.

[9] Lunch is an understatement. By the end of the feast most of my body weight was chicken, rice and yogurt. Bread was mistaken for an edible utensil.

[10] IS THERE NO JUSTICE?

[11] Especially in sepia toned instragram photos, of which we have an abundance. You can follow Sheikh Mikh’s blog here: http://fullybeardedfullyimmersed.blogspot.com/.

[12] Sorry again.

[13] He just sort of came in and poured them onto the bed next to me. He did the same with French Cheese Lays. This happens a lot in the house. Food is constantly just pushed into my hands. After being presented with a half a chicken, I am asked if I want another half of a chicken. I have learned to never say I am hungry, even if I am (which is rare and only when I eat a small lunch at school). Once I made that mistake at around 7:30 one night. The next thing I know, I’m waking up the next morning late for class.

[14] I think it adds a nice touch.

[15] When I attempted to help Omi wash a dish the first week, she looked at me baffled and asked, “You know how? You wash dishes in America?” Then she said I was a better daughter than her daughter.