Saturday, August 29, 2009

Another Introduction

Yes, we made it. Yes, we are safe. Yes, we are in Amman (the gutteral A)!

I was fortunate enough to find our dear Claire in the Charles De Gaulle airport during our layover in Paris. Firstly, I struggle with this small thing called sleeping and was unable to catch a wink on the plane ride. Then on arrival, when my body was finally ready to snooze, the Parisian sunset dawned itself on my waning eyes. From behind, Claire shouted "Strongin" and jolted my zombie gate. We sat down to catch up, and Claire gently chided me for being a loser. I was busy explaining to her the architectural magnificence of the airport...the symbolism of flight, the mobilization of people, the glass...

In front of our gate to Amman, we noticed the couple other white people...clearly our age, clearly out of place, and clearly wondering just as we were, "Are you on my trip?" The computer monitor of the first girl hinted to us that she was participating in CIEE, and as for the other, Claire and I decided we were too lazy, and that in the case he actually were in our program, we would just meet him in Amman (It turned out to be Alex, another Amideast fellow from Boston who incidentally is like my long lost brother. We make subtle jokes that only the other seems to understand. (Our humor isn't particularly good either)).

The thing I was really struck by on our flight to Amman was the number of military contractors on board. Imagine you're the stewardess looking down the aisle at your passengers. You've got a couple groups: Arab families talking with their kids all dressed in the height of European fashion, awkward tourists like Claire and me, clean-looking businessmen tending to their black berries, and, finally, half a dozen Oakley sunglasses, short haircut, military issued pouch wearing gentlemen. While everyone else is busy getting adjusted in his or her seats, these guys are leaning deep into the headrests and looking straight ahead as if they've already been on the flight for two hours. You know...the guys you read about, but never see. Has anyone back home ever introduced himself to you as a mercenary? I don't think so.

Well, to say the least I was intrigued. They were clearly going back to the Iraqi Theater after time at home for some brief moments. One of them was evening sitting next to me. Despite my efforts to talk with him, he did not seem interested. His forearms were the size of steel pipes, and fingers like callused lug nuts...overall, well trained, highly skilled, reserved, and nowhere to be found on the moral compass. What I did crack from him, however, is quite interesting. He's a civil engineer, originally Iraqi, and has lived in the US since 1988. Anything else is beyond me. Imagine coming back to your war-torn home to rebuild it as a military contractor. That just blows my mind.

Besides that little rant, we finally arrived in Amman to be greeted by Hala, one of the program directors. Claire, Alex, Shawn, and myself piled into a van in which we were driven from the airport in darkness to West Amman where the comfy beds of our four star hotel awaited us. On the ride, I noticed that there were many people huddled in circles sitting right next to the side of the highway. I did not yet know that they were taking Iftar (the break of fast) wherever they were when the maghrib (sunset) prayers were recited. Despite my ignorance, it turns out that the side of highways is actually a pretty hip place for Jordanians to have picnics regardless of whether it is the holy month of Ramadan.

We got to the hotel, reunited with Francesca, and met some of the other kids from our program. Only half of the students arrived on the first night. They were nice, but I was too tired to sustain conversation. The next morning the program brought us all over Amman in a bus with black curtains. The whole time the staff was pointing landmarks out and indicating the neighborhoods we were in. On the way back, they asked whether we recognized anything. Now, I think I've got a pretty good sense of direction, but after ten minutes, I had no clue where I was...let alone the cardinal direction I was facing (it was high noon). Since Amman managed to modernize in the short span of 30 years and has absorbed more than half of its population in that period, to the untrained eye, EVERYTHING looks the same. Tons of indistinguishable cement buildings sprawl over dozens of hills with streets that swerve around and around until they reach traffic circles that when driving around them conjure the sensation of being spun blindfolded before being let loose to whack a piƱata. So, it was a good day.

In the week that followed we sat through numerous briefings on the issue of safety in Jordan. I'd wager that every day we devoted eight hours to the same four or five topics and covered them all several times. It became a little trite at the end. Sure, I'm definitely one who likes to be safe, but after a certain point it just becomes deterring. Some of the main highlights from the lectures were social taboos, conversations not to have, and riding with taxis. 1) If you come to Jordan and are a man, always sit in the front seat. 2) If you are a woman, do not sit in the front seat. 3) Taxi drivers will try to gip you. 4) Rules 1-3 always apply. Another interesting tidbit that I gleaned from the orientation was that "you should not stereotype, but people here are not open to other ways of thinking." I thought to myself about how difficult it must be to support PCness while calling your fellow countrymen ignorant. The conversations to avoid in Jordan are those that discuss "anything different". Great advice...? The specific topics were a) religion b) politics c) sex and d) religion and politics. Thanks for the preparation Amideast.

So, time passed and I'm sure we did other interesting stuff in between, but on another day we were all sent in groups to go on a scavenger hunt through Amman—Amideast's effort to make us discover the city. Overall it was a great plan, but we hit two bumps. The program purposefully advised us to take the wrong bus so we would have to figure out on our own how to get to the actual intended destination, and they also sent us out mid-day for four hours during Ramadan when it is forbidden to eat or drink. So, the whole staying hydrated thing was an added bonus.

On our way back to HQ, we hitched a taxi with quite the cabby, a fair and quiet gentleman. Yet, when we finally hit some thick traffic, I mechanically asked about the weather. From that point on, the windows came down, the music started bumping, and all of a sudden the other passenger in the back, my friend Sam, and the cabby were "broing out" as if they had been friends for years. Every time we passed a woman...she didn't even have to be attractive (I think the prerequisite was just two legs and a head...arms were just an added plus)...the cabby would toot his meager horn at her and tilt the rearview mirror to make eye contact with Sam while smirking his eyebrows in a Fonzi kind of way.

He began speaking unrestrained and offered to take us to the ocean after the end of Ramadan so we could grill on the beach and chase women. Quite the offer. Out of politeness, we exchanged numbers. Another rule of Jordan, never trust your cabby. Well, I paid and tipped him for his enthusiasm. Later that night when Sam and I were sitting around, we got a call from our cabby. He inquired as to what we were up to. I graciously replied that we were busy "studying for a test". That seemed to make the point, or so I thought. The next day after several hours of more safety orientation, I trodded back to our hotel with a group of other kids. From somewhere behind me, I heard the gentle call of my name. Low and behold, it was our Cabby! He jumped out of his car, fervently shook my hand, and walloped a bouquet of kisses on either side of my face. I strained to emulate his enjoyment, and awkwardly accepted each hello. We exchanged brief words about how everything was going. Apparently he was not stocking me, which is what everyone thought at first, but actually waiting for a customer outside a store. The customer's interaction with the cabby assured me that the cabby was a good guy. The patron was an American heading the Checker's franchise in the Middle East. Apparently, every time he comes to Amman, our cabby is the taxi he uses. Who knows...maybe I will end up at some beach, grilling, and checking out women.

Sometime last week, I finally moved into my house. The program director here had completely freaked me out by claiming that my family was oober religious and that I would be on a tight leash. There would be an early curfew, no mention of drinking, no mention of sex, and almost no mention of anything different. Needless to say, after maybe three hours into the first night of my homestay, literally every single safety tip was broken. My older host brother wanted to talk to me about everything from communism to manage tois. Later that evening, we barbequed an entire pig on his roof and guzzled a fine bottle of Johnny Walker. It was not near anything I was told to expect.

So, I've definitely been living the lush life here. The family is great. I get along really well with both brothers and the mother is incredibly sweet to me. It is sometimes hard to do my homework here because I would rather be socializing with the family, and learning Arabic from speaking and listening. The one problem I have is that the food may be too good. The type of food I would rather be eating, but probably shouldn't. Every day when I wake up there are plates already set out on the table laden with pita, olives, three types of cheeses, and eggs. Cheese is my demise. I have no will power against it. This one cheese here, whose name is taken from the Arabic word for yogurt, lebneh, is amazing. It tastes like goat cheese and goes great with everything. Fortunately, I'm with a Christian family, which permits us to gorge ourselves during Ramadan.

As far as academics are concerned, the Arabic courses are amazing. They are 100x better than my previous Arabic courses at Carleton. The teachers are all really fun and really appear to want to be teaching the class. The resources they have available to assist have even been much more helpful than an entire week of Arabic at Carleton. The content courses on the other hand, have been a tad ridiculous. I was originally signed up for a course called Environmental Issues in the Middle East. When I got the course for me first three hour period, however, I found myself shot right into the high school course AP Environmental Science.

We were using power points directly from some textbook and discussing the fact that the world is made up of matter, which is in turn made up of atoms, which are in turn made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Now, I may be a physics major at Carleton, but this was not the course I was expecting at all. After that first class where we discussed chemical bonding, me and the four other kids tried to make a written proposal to the program about the course we thought we were taking. The administration was very accepting to our recommendations, but when we got to class for the next period, nothing had changed. The professor seemed rather defensive, and began lecturing about natural selection in populations of species. As politely as possible after the first hour, I informed the professor that I would not be able to take his class. Though the domino effect did not occur all at the same time, by the end of the class period, four of the five students dropped the class. The remaining student was not even able to continue because the professor resigned the next day. That was my first taste of the content courses at Amideast.

My second taste was when I had to join the only other course offered. Class was supposed to start at 1:00pm, and we were going to a Greek orthodox church downtown to speak with the director of a the program "coexistence" here in Jordan. We waited at HQ for over an hour and didn't arrive until later into 2, and still had to wait for our professor to arrive after us. What I got out of the discussion is that it is very easy to coexist in Jordan even when you are a minority. The point the Fr. did not highlight was that there is only one minority left in Jordan, the Christians, and if you've survived this long alongside Islam, it would make sense that you could coexist to some extent. Nor was he so interested in promoting coexistence among the other non-Abrahamic faiths. He kept stating that Islam is a peaceful religion, but did not mention that a growing percentage of practitioners are interpreting it otherwise. And by mere statistical reasoning, if the majority of the world is Muslim, and let's say regardless of religion the world has a certain percentage of people that are extremists about their ideology, it would make sense then that the majority of extremists are Muslim. How do we explain the old Afghanistan or today's Iran or any of the places where honor crimes are committed and where women are treated as third class citizens?

Well, that is my post for now. I'll check in again soon. Peace!

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