Saturday, October 31, 2009


Throughout the month of October, myself and another Amideast student (Siler from UPenn) would go every Thursday morning with two students from the Jordanian University, Abdurrahman and Ahmed, to volunteer with Madrasati. Madrasati is a royal educational initiative from Her Majesty Queen Rania that works with struggling schools to better their facilities, hire new teachers, improve resources, etc.

Siler and I signed up to do theatre activities with children at a school in Zarqa, a very low-income town nearby Amman that has that volatile mix of poverty and conservatism that produces people like Zarqawi, whose name says it all. Somehow it wasn't mentioned to us beforehand that said school was for the deaf and mute, so quite a shock when we arrived on the first day prepared to do traditional theatre games! Still, we played lots of charades and learned some Arabic sign language. The second time around, we were prepared and actually did pretty well; we bought art supplies for the children to make masks which they would then write and perform plays around (the idea being that with the face covered, the physical actions in a play are emphasized and they can in fact communicate a great deal without having to speak). There were also lots of awkward conversations about whether I was married to Siler, why I wasn't wearing a hijab (also - isn't it strange to have children being taught to lip-read but having all their female teachers in niqab, amirite?), and whether or not I was Muslim, and then ohmygod how can you not have a religion you must at least be Christian, etc, etc. All in a day's work.

Their final presentations were surprisingly good - a small group of older students acted out, with props and costumes, a little morality-type play about a day in the life of two children, one good and one bad. The bad kid ate a candy bar and didn't brush his teeth afterward, which led to him getting a toothache, etc. Groups of younger children were randomly split up and did little improv scenes based around their masks (lions, cats, frogs, princesses, aliens, and so forth). The children had a great time and it was nice for them to be able to keep the masks, to have something that they made to remind them of the fun experience. I was hilariously interviewed IN ARABIC for a promotional video for Madrasati, so if I ever get hold of the footage I'll post it for a good laugh.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Istanbul III

Tuesday saw a large group of us finally getting ourselves together and visiting the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), the Church of Holy Wisdom, which really cannot be described save pictorially:

Shields of 'Uthman and Hassan

Another library!



One of many mosaics

The view, minus the scaffolding, that Theodora would have had from her special seat.

Afterwards, Matt, Emily and I went back to the Christian neighborhoods and explored some of the churches that had been closed the previous day, some with such fascinating names as St. Mary of the Mongols or St. Stephen of the Bulgars. St. Mary's in particular had some assuredly ancient, smoke-blackened icons and even catacombs, although we were forbidden to enter the latter. We spent that evening (...and some of the morning) again at Taksim with some French students we befriended.

Wednesday was our last day in Istanbul, and Peter, Jamie, Sam and I once again teamed up and took a boat ride on the Bosphorus, during which I saw Leander's Tower (of Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander fame!) which was very exciting for the literature nerd inside me. This, supposedly, is the very place from which Leander leapt into the Hellespont to reach Hero on the other side:

"He touched her hand; in touching it she trembled.
Love deeply grounded, hardly is dissembled.
These lovers parleyed by the touch of hands;
True love is mute, and oft amazed stands.
Thus while dumb signs their yielding hearts entangled,
The air with sparks of living fire was spangled...

What is it now, but mad Leander dares?
"O Hero, Hero!" thus he cried full oft;
And then he got him to a rock aloft,
Where having spied her tower, long stared he on't,
And prayed the narrow toiling Hellespont
To part in twain, that he might come and go;
But still the rising billows answered, "No."
With that he stripped him to the ivory skin
And, crying "Love, I come," leaped lively in."

And some mandrakes for sale on the street for various bodily ailments.

Later, the four of us made our way to the Cemberlitas Hammam, the most famous of the Turkish baths, and turned our faces away from our wallets to get into the fabulously restored complex. Peter and Sam left Jamie and I at the entrance as we split for the men's and women's sections; the women's bath had a large central marble dais upon which women lay on their backs or stomachs and were scrubbed and massaged by the attendants. Around the platform were niches with basins and fountains where three or four women could bathe. The ceiling was high and vaulted and had beautiful lamps and carved geometric shapes. To the side were the hot and cold pools. We scrubbed ourselves with the lemon soap provided and enjoyed the thick steam that filled the hammam and the echoes of voices and laughter and splashes of water.

Clean and warm, we ate dinner together and Peter and I (Jamie and Sam were leaving the next day) met up with the rest of our original crew at the airport to head back to Amman.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Istanbul II

Continuing from the end of number one:

Saturday night saw Peter, Sam and myself walking along the waterfront in Sultanahmet and then exploring Taksim Square, a crowded, brightly lit tunnel-vision of restaurants, fancy shops, and nightclubs.

The next morning, a large group of us went to Topkapi Palace, which proved to be quite the challenge to get into without getting trampled by Spanish tour groups and the like. After we made it through the gauntlet of ticket booth, line, mosh pit, line, metal detector, etc., (a sort of modern-day version of the increasing exclusivity of the gate of the sultan, followed by the first courtyard, up to the fourth which was the sultan's private audience hall) it was fascinating to finally see the place I had learned so much about in studying the Ottomans in Making of the Modern Middle East last fall. There was a small museum that contained such relics as a hair from the beard of the Prophet, the case that contained that hair, a mold of his footprint, one of his teeth, and so forth; unfortunately photography was forbidden! The rest of the palace reminded me very much of the Mughal palaces I saw in India: courtyards upon courtyards, elegant calligraphy and archways, beautiful tile-laden walls and a propensity towards libraries :). Construction was started on Topkapi in 1459 by Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople, and it was the seat of Ottoman governance for about the next 400 years. It's hard to capture the enormity of the place and its true sense of majesty, however contrived that may sound when describing a palace. I'll let the pictures try to describe it better:


Tiles and calligraphic Ottoman seal of the sultan (tughra)

View of the Bosphorus

Tiled wall of a library, with special niches for turbans!

Another library shot

Monday saw myself, Peter, Sam and Jamie exploring the area around Balat, where there were a lot of historical churches, but unfortunately we couldn't get into any of them. However, wandering the neighborhood streets was a great experience, to see a little slice of everyday life away from the tourist-ridden Sultanahmet. The neighborhood also fell along the lines of the Theodosian Walls, which we climbed and walked along for a while. We also found a small shrine with a tomb covered in decorative sheets and flowers; the first nod towards this kind of popular devotionalism I'd seen so far in the Middle East. We eventually made our way to the little Byzantine Church of St. Saviour in Chora, which had the most spectacular mosaics I've ever seen. We even made friends with one of the Turkish museum guards, who gave us a free tour (the French tour we were trying to listen in on wanted us each to pay ten euros. Right).

Neighborhood street

Another street shot

Part of the Theodosian Walls

St. Saviour in Chora

This mosaic of the baby Virgin taking her first steps is remarkable because of the depiction of wind - it's hard to see, but the trees at the top are leaning to the right, and Mary's mother's shawl is being blown over her head in the same direction.

Incredibly preserved mosaics from the Byzantine era and onwards.

That evening saw, for me, a quiet walk along the waterfront and an early night, since I hadn't slept properly since Thursday!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Istanbul I

For the week-long break we got for 'Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan, all three of us decided to go to Istanbul.

We arrived in the city around 6 am on Friday morning and somehow managed to figure out the tram system well enough to get ourselves to our hostel in Sultanahmet, a neighborhood full of hostels and tourist traps but also situated perfectly with the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya less than 5 minutes' walk away. After a nap, the group of about 12 of us split and we went our separate ways for the day, with myself, Sean, and Clarence choosing to simply wander around the area until that evening. We ended up wandering down to the waterfront, walking through Gulshane Park and around the Topkapi Palace area, down almost to the area where the next day we would find the Grand Bazaar. Returning to Sultanahmet in the early evening, I went to the Blue Mosque for maghrib and did namaz with other women in the women's section, with whom I had some interesting Turkish-English-Arabic conversation and played with their children. The Blue Mosque itself was beautiful, with all the colored tiles that give it its name as well as circles of hanging lamps illuminating the vast inner space. It had an ethereal glow to it that was peaceful and elegant.

Saturday saw us exploring the Grand Bazaar, a massive labyrinth of stalls offering everything you could ever want all in a covered space that has been operating for centuries. Wandering through the maze of jewelry, leather, carpets, antiquities, spices, sunglasses, clothing, and argeelas eventually brought me to the small courtyard of the Book Bazaar, where I could find second hand books as well as old illuminated manuscripts and calligraphers at work. After sitting, chatting, and having tea with one shopkeeper who was a restoration artist of illuminated manuscripts as well as a calligrapher (we talked about My Name is Red!), I caved in and bought a page from a Persian book that depicts two astronomers at work and, as far as my limited knowledge of Persian takes me, describes some of the celestial bodies in rhymed verse.

The first thing I thought of upon seeing it was the following Walt Whitman poem:

"When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

b-ball and a doll

okay, here we go. first official blog post from me. the one we all knew from the start was going to be the worst at actually keeping a blog. (proving to be true)

story #1: the basketball game
every wednesday we have a "cultural exchange" with a group of jordanian students who are about our age. one of these students is very enthusiastic about having new friends and is really nice and he invited a group of us to watch another of the students play in a basketball game at a local, famous sports club (an-naadi). the club is in a really nice, westernized part of town so all of the people there were all done up and made us look like scrubs in comparison. we got there early, in time to witness the team warm ups. we literally could have been back in the us. bad pop hits playing over the loudspeakers and the teams shooting
baskets (teams including both boys AND girls. woah!). the game itself was fairly routine and uneventful. but wait. sitting on one of the team's benches was a man. a man who stood out due to his BIC pen mascot costume. that's right. can't picture it? it looked a little something like this:

after a crushing defeat, BIC got a little distressed:

the greatest part about this mascot (besides, you know, everything about the getup) was that he just sat there the entire time. there was no dancing, no cheering, no extra movement of any sort. except for the one time when apparently it got a little too warm in the mascot suit and he removed the head. only to find a sad little middle-aged, moderately chubby man inside the suit. there is a reason why being a mascot should be an anonymous pursuit.

so, we were all pretty happy with our time at the game, mostly made up of making fun of the mascot man, trying to learn cheers in arabic, drinking some free juice, etc. and then came the half time show. imagine the tv show 'america's got talent' except it was in the middle east and the band was entirely made up of 12-year-olds and there were some break dancing crews and some other crazy dancing happening. the band performed such crowd favorites as "dancing queen" and "i will survive". what winners. i'm still unsure what the outcome of the game itself was, but it was a pretty great night.

story #2: the doll.
on to a slightly more serious topic. so. there are a total of seven people in our family, including two parents, four children, and one unidentifiable entity. on first glance, one would probably call it simply a "doll". a child's plaything. no big deal, right?
BUT WAIT. the doll is so much more. it has matted chunks of grey hair, a lazy eye, remnants of creepy writing all over its old body, and definitely not enough limbs. a visual cue is necessary:

so that is it. just sitting there. on our family's living room couch. all the time. but not just in one, static place like it is some heirloom or something to be looked at. it is like actually just another member of the family. all the other family members sit with it and play with it and hang out with it all the time. probably more than they hang out with us. it's weird. after a little while, it got so ridiculous that cesca and i just had to ask them about it (we were, honestly, a little worried that it was just them playing a trick on us and seeing how long it would take us to call them out on their weird behavior). this, however, was not the case. when we asked them what the deal was (in broken, probably incorrect arabic, of course), they all proceeded to look at us as if WE were the crazy ones as they clung to the doll defensively: 'what do you mean, what is the deal with this? do you not have dolls in america?' we dropped the subject. we'll keep you updated.

so, yeah! just a couple of tidbits from our lovely time here in 'amman. yay! one entire blog post. check.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Send us mail!

Our mailing address is:

Study Abroad
[Student name]
P.O. Box 1249

Snail mail and postcards are welcome; packages, however, are not a good idea and probably won't reach us anyway.

Start writing! :)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Crazy McCray-Cray

Yesterday night, Claire and I went to the nearby small city of Salt to have iftar with some more relatives of our very social family. First of all, the ride in was beautiful - we rolled into Salt with host siblings Khalid and Rawan just in time to watch the sun dip below the horizon, and the city itself is situated on hillsides that overlook the lights of the houses opposite as well as the desert. It reminded me of similar places in Italy, instead that except of the ocean, you've got the desert. Anyway, we entered the house of our host father's brother to discover that he was the same Crazy that we had met a few days earlier when he came here for iftar. Let's just put it this way - this man is legit insane. Here's an example of one of our conversations:

Claire or me: "Al-salaam aleikum!"
Crazy McCrazy: *unintelligible babbling* Yes. Yes. Good. America.
Claire: "Keifak?" (how are you?)
Crazy: "Alhamdulillahi alhamdullilahi. You. Learn. Arabic?"
Claire: "Aywa" (yes)
Crazy: I. (points at self). Arabic. English. German. Turkish. (starts making insane hand gestures and sputtering)

And so on. Iftar was, as usual, delicious, and with the rest of the family stifling as much laughter as us at the crazy uncle. He's been to visit us a few times since, with just as much sputtering and hilarity.