Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Christmas in Amman

I write this to you utterly sated, sprawled in the comfy rattan chair of my favorite café, enveloped in swirling, ethereal clouds of sheesha smoke, the chatter of Arabic lingering around me. I am all alone in the family balcony upstairs, disturbed only the sussorous murmur of men’s voices below. Earlier tonight, I gorged myself at a sushi buffet in Le Meridien, a late Christmas present/early New Year’s gift to myself. My world here is so peaceful, so indurately mundane, I find it difficult to believe a war is waging only a few hours away, over the rolling hills of Palestine. 2000 years ago, shepherds harried their flocks through the fields at night, virgins found shelter in a lonely stable, wise men followed the promise of a star to where a sweet babe lay, in a manager. Now, only the flare of missiles illuminate the night, flickering over a land suffused in suffering, in chaos, in despair…Gaza, under fire. غزه, تحت النار

Amman, too, weeps, flooding the streets with a constant deluge of tears, touching the air with a chill of bitterness. The voices of protests ring in the streets, a melancholy dirge answered only by the echo of war. It is a strange, strange world in which I live. I am no longer alone in my café. A couple has seated themselves at the corner table, sipping cinnamon tea and talking softly in Arabic. Life goes on.

A week ago, it was Christmas. Tomorrow, the eve of the new year will befall us. A week ago, all was light and joy. Christmas carols mingled with Arabic pop on the radio. A week ago, I was planning a menu for Christmas dinner, wandering through the aisles of Safeway, accompanied by Nadia, Jess, and a horde of Arab men I have come to call my friends. We pondered the size of our Butterball turkey, lamented over the quantity of potatoes filling our cart, lingered over choice of brownie mix, argued about the colour of plastic utensils, and laughingly piled the bags into Ahmed’s car. The following morning I arose, languidly, and spent stolen hour in Starbucks, studying Arabic and sipping hot chocolate, waiting for Promod to open its doors.

By noon, the Americans relocated to the domain of the Danes (Nadia’s apartment), bringing with us good cheer, green bean casserole, and the arcane knowledge of the art of turkey preparation. I found myself massaging my first turkey, gently caressing the voluptuous breasts with butter in a somewhat obscene manner. With the turkey in the oven, Jess and I stole away to attend a play prepared by our Iraqi colleagues at work. Entitled the Date Palm and the Witch, it was a raucous affair, made somewhat uncomfortable by the fact that the play represented the American invasion of Iraq, with the witch (Evil American Infidels) destroying the peace of the village, splintering its citizens into warring factions. We left before the end.

On the cab ride back to Shemesani, Jess and I took silly pictures in the cab, amusing the cars around us and memorializing an utterly unconventional Christmas. In Nadia’s flat, we mashed the potatoes, chatted with the arriving guests, restricted the smokers to 6 tiles of the kitchen, and saw Santa Claus walk through the door. Nathan carved the turkey, I photographed the event, and we eventually sat down to a veritable feast. Surrounded by a motley collection of Romanians, Americans, Danes, Jordanians, and most likely a few other unidentified nationalities, I savored the flavor of my lovingly buttered turkey, excessive amounts of mashed potatoes, a toast of wine, and the warmth of friends.

On Christmas morn, I opened my eyes to bright beams of sunlight spreading across my Grecian bedspread, my photograph of the King Abdullah, my rocks from Saudi Arabia, my Egyptian wall hanging, my new sweater from Promod, and my Jessica Simpson perfume bottle. My world. I sauntered into Jess’ room with a “Ho ho ho,” startled her from a deep reverie, and tossed her stocking upon her bed. Bundled against the chill in her multiple layers of sleep attire, she rubbed the night from her enviably long eyelashes and said her first words as a 23 year old. “I was happily sleeping!”

We spent Christmas day/Jess’ birthday making popcorn, eating copious amount of chocolate, remembering past holidays, and laughing with our Peace Corps friend, Bryan, who had arrived from his village of Tefila. For a few hours we, too, enjoyed a white Christmas, albeit one induced by blanketing clouds of fog, not snow. Dinner was Indian takeout, and then the doorbell rang. “Merry Christmas!” Nathan, forever punctual, offered Christmas hugs amid the scurrying to prepare for the evening’s party. Jess and I snuck into her room to change into our own Christmas surprise, Mr. and Mrs. Claus costumes. I took the liberty of effeminating jolly old St. Nick with a white tank top under the red suit coat, a black skirt instead of red trousers, and high heels in place of boots. And my beard, I must confess, was discarded early into the night. In my defense, it was rather itchy. With each knock on the door, our apartment filled with more merry-goers until we realized that the guest number had (at least) doubled from its original 15 invited. But it was Christmas, and we are blessed with an amply spacious flat. Happy birthdays and Christmas carols were sung, camel-shaped sugar cookies were consumed, candles were wished upon, and much merriness was had by all. Even the neighbors joined our festivities. During a particularly loud moment of the party, we heard a knock on the door, cringed as we anticipated the veiled inhabitants of downstairs glowering behind it, but opened it to find the (unveiled and, in the words of our male friends, “really hot”) neighbours across the hall, merely curious and amenable to some birthday cake.

By midnight, we ushered the guests to further revelry elsewhere, and sighed in relief as we sank into our beds, dreams of sugar plums dancing in our heads…or the scent of electrical fires burning in the sockets...Bestirred by an unpleasant odor, we espied flames flickering in the electrical socket near Jess’ bed. Oh dear…Thankfully, the fire smoldered itself into mere noxious fumes, but not before cutting the electricity in the bedrooms. Time to call the landlord…Twas a cold night indeed, bundled beneath my warm, but not impermeable, Pooh blanket. The next day we cleaned the apartment, ordered more Indian food, and called the landlord (in actuality, one of his son’s, Selim). It being a Friday, I did not expect any action until the next day, at the earliest. However, we told him it was an emergency, and Selim soon arrived with an electrician in tow. Within an hour, he had replaced the switches in the circuit breaker and also repaired the burned socket.

The next morning, my cell phone awoke me at 9 am. “Laura, good morning. The men to fix the sink will be arriving soon…” And so, I rolled out of bed and greeted the sink repairmen, who spent all morning replacing the faucet and pipework. Perhaps I have not mentioned it, but the sink has been leaking water all over the floor for weeks. About a half hour after they left, a direly familiar “Zzzzzttt,” filled the apartment, and the power shut off completely. Sigh. My roommates abandoned the apartment for the gym, and I contacted Salim..again. The poor man. One of the main problems with the electricity in the apartment is simply age; it was not wired to handle three electric heaters. Furthermore, the apartment next door to ours, now occupied, shares the same connection, so, when ours shuts down, so does theirs. After much consultation, and adamancy on my part, a breaker switch in the basement was flicked, and, alhamdulilah, light and heat returned to our humble abode. Ma sha’allah! Thoroughly weary of the apartment, I abandoned it that evening for distraction of Jafra, the restaurant downtown, and the company of Nathan, who kindly commiserated with my complaints.

I have been out every night this week; either in cafes, studying and discovering new language partners, or at the mall, balking at the exorbitant prices of Forever 21. I really don’t care how cute the dress is; I refuse to pay 31 JD for something worth 25 dollars in America.

The rain has softened into a light mist as I leave the café, ‘masa’ al-kheer-ing’ (good-night-ing) the owner of the hamburger store next door. The men sitting in the café downstairs turn their heads as I stride past, but make no comment, merely puffing on their sheeshas and speaking gravely in low tones, many of them wearing the Palestinian kuffkiya (the black and white headscarf). I walk past two boys standing in front of the mosque, and they politely move from my path, allowing me to step on puddle-free pavement. I reach the apartment building and ascend the four flights of stairs, still breathless at the top. A sliver of light gleams from beneath the door, and all is silent, all is well…

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Finding a bit of holiday cheer...

How do you describe an ostrich to someone who's never seen one before? How do you explain, in Arabic, that the circuit between our apartment and the neighbor's blew and devested us of electricity? How do you say goodbye, when all you want to do is hold on forever? How do you let go, though it may be the hardest thing you've ever done? How do you hang stockings without a mantle? And, most importantly, how in the world am I supposed to wrap presents when I am unable to find wrapping paper in the entirety of Amman!?!?

It's beginning to look alot like Christmas...if you live in Minnesota, land of raging snowstorms, subzero temperatures, and whipping winds. If you live in Amman, the weather remains charmingly mild, sunny during the day, chilly at night. The closest thing you will find to a Christmas light is the green glow of the mosque by night. I have been sorely tempted to cut a branch off one of the pine trees on the way home from school and decorate it; alas, Jess chose the more conventional route and actually purchased a baby tree from Food Food (yes, that is the actual name of a Jordanian supermarket), and we enjoyed a pleasant afternoon unbending the stiff wire branches, fluffing the plastic needles, and resolutely singing Christmas carols over the call to prayer echoing from across the street..."Joy to the world...Allah Akbar...Lord is come, let....Allah Akbar...her king..." You get the idea.

It was around 11 pm one evening, and i was walking home through the small park near our flat when a figure, bundled against the chill, sauntered past. "Merry Christmas," it growled in a somewhat gravelly voice. The swingset, bereft of its usual children, creaked haltingly in the slight breeze, and the teetertotter rattled upon the sidewalk. With a hunched gait, the somewhat occult being passed into the shadows of the nearby school, and I towards home, wondering why the only Christmas cheer I had received came from the form of a Creepy Arab Man. Welcome to the Middle East.

At the moment, I have been forbidden to enter the living room, because a certain Christmas elf named Jess is hanging stockings (upon which she wrote our names in smudgy glitter pens :) with large quantities of tape upon the wall. Actually, perhaps I should rescind my earlier comments on the weather. While my fingers fly over the keyboard, gales of wind are driving variout debris past my window, including the comforters we had hung on the laundry line. Hmmmm....Perhaps I should mount a rescue. But that would require leaving the toasty warmth of room.

So let us move on to ostriches. Ostriches, you say, why ostriches? In my defense, I was attempting to teach my young charges about vowel letters in the alphabet. And, for some reason, the only 'o' word I could recall was ostrich. So, I found myself standing in front a room of curiously amused eyes, attempting to describe what an ostrich is in a poor mixture of Arabic and English. "Very tall bird...big eggs. You know what eggs are, right? Lives in Africa..." As you can tell, my classes occasionally devolve into randomness. But, the longer I teach, the more confident I am, the more challenging I find it...and the more I want to continue it. Perhaps, more on that later.

Yesterday, I was finishing my last class for the day (I have between 2-3 everyday), when Ibrahim, one of the Iraqi volunteers, politely knocked, entered, and handed me his mobile. Rowan, the head of English curriculum for RI, was on the other end. "Hi, Laura! Were you told about the workshop for English teachers today at the British Council? It begins at 4:15." I checked the clock. 4:00. Clearly, somewhere the communication faltered. Imagine that. "No..." Less than 5 minutes later, I clambered into a cab and sped off towards First Circle, unloading 10 minutes later in front of a small, sensibly British sign. I brushed through security, entered a small courtyard, found the surprisingly spacious library, and seated myself at a table as the room quickly swelled to capacity. My first professional workshop! Rowan soon appeared as the session began, and we sat through two hours of useful lexical instruction, new ideas for active learning, and other such subjects that only intrigue English-inclined peoples. I was one of few native English speakers in attendance, and certainly the only blonde :) , but was fascinated by the collection of individuals that are teaching Jordanians English in Amman. Mainly women, but with a smattering of men, some veiled, some not, but all equally passionate about their career. Afterward, I stepped out into the cool evening of Rainbow Street, ambling down the cobblestone avenue to the curve in the road, pausing to absorb the view of Amman, undulating hills twinkling with glow of warm dinners and family gatherings...Shivering, I bundled further into my light jacket and trudged down the road to Wild Jordan, a restuarant/gift shop/nature conservation center, where I selected a few gifts for my Jordan family-Jess, Kathy, Nadia...From there I hopped in a cab to City Mall, hoping to find a few more items for people on my list. For once, though, I was not in the mood to shop (or perhaps just did not want to spend the money), and finally arrived home, exhausted after playing Connect the Ammani Dots all day. From home (Dawar al-Waha) to the university to Jebel Al-Nassir to Rainbow Street ot City Mall to home again.

Ah. And I reacquainted myself with the Bedouins this past weekend. No, don't worry. Not much! Aodeh, one of Fadii's uncles (he was with us over That Weekend in Wadi Rum) invited Kathy out for coffee and sheesha, and she persuaded me to tag along. It was acutally a quite pleasant evening. He picked us up from the flat, drove us downtown to Jafra's, enjoyed tea, sheesha, and a meal with us, and even paid for it. Lol. He is a quite fascinating man with whom to converse, being involved in many different projects, including coordinating a camel race in Israel this spring. Does that mean I trust him? Hell no. But, trust is a many-layered beast, I suppose, and varies according to context. Do I trust him to take me and Kathy to a restaurant in Amman? Yes. Do I trust him alone in the desert? No. However, I did enjoy pulling up into the Arab conservatism of downtown in his SUV, draped in camoflauge mesh and photos of hunting in Wadi Rum.

I suppose I can now consider myself Jordanian, as I now have a photo of the king (and his wife, Queen Rania) stuck to my wall. However, I am fairly un-Jordanian in that I am not suffering through any major drama in my life. In fact, I'm appallingly stable, at least in comparison to the girls sleeping on either side of my room. Jess' boyfriend, Andrew, returned home to America on Thursday night, a justifiably difficult separation, and Fadii, the Bedouin at the root of all of Kathy's angst/joy, is still in Europe, and has ceased to contact her for over a week. I sometimes wonder if I should get a boyfriend, preferably long distance, merely to commiserate. But I suppose someone needs to remain dry-eyed...

Ah, yes...and there was the electricity. Around midnight, two nights ago, I was sitting in my room, happily enjoying a handful of Jordanian Corn Flakes when an ominous "Zzzzmmmm" reverbrated through the apartment, and a cutting of electricity directly followed. Kathy was still up, so we flicked the breaker box a few times, to no avail. So, I called Abu Adel, the man in charge of cleaning the building and pretending to know how to fix it. When I hung up with him, I stepped into the hallway, wondering if the new neighbors (two young women, unveiled) had power. Before I could knock, Rina opened the door, wrapped in a towel. "Hi! You don't have power either, then? I was stepping into the bath, when all of a sudden....Poof!" I lent her my torch to finish her ablutions, waited for Abu Adel, and complained with Kathy until his arrival. He, of course, could do nothing, despite puttering around the flat for 15 minutes and unscrewing various items to poke at the wires beneath. Rina ,cleansed, with her hair now towel-wrapped, came over to return the torch and reprimanded Abu Adel for his lack of execution. While chatting in frustration, I mentioned that the normal solution to the problem is merely flicking the breaker switch, "Like this," I demonstrated, and a low buzz filled the room, and the kitchen lights flickered on. "You're an angel!" Rina exclaimed, and I gained a new admirer. Thus electrified, we found our beds and snuggled beneath various layers of Pooh blankets and Grecian coverlets....

One more reason I know I am finally settling into the neighborhood...The man in the local market near by flat now automatically adds a Bounty bar (think Mounds, but with better chocolate) to my order. I usually bob in once a day to pick up yogurt, pop, Snack Mix, and, of course, the ubiquitious Bounty bar. Today, before I could even ask him to grab one from behind the counter, he reached over and handed me one. Seriously, I think chocolate could solve all of the world's ills...

So now, my dears, tis dark outside, and the wind is howling most lugubriously past my window, invoking unbidden pity for anyone forced outside in such inclimate weather. Now rain is whipping in torrents against the pavement. It does bring the tale of Christ's birth into sharper relief though, realizing what his poor mother suffered! I really don't think any stable is adequate shelter in such weather, and a few hours away, over the rolling hills of Palestine, Mary did indeed find succor in such unlikely quarters. But I shall muse on Christmas stories another day. Tomorrow, I cook!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Returning home...

Ya Misr…Oh Egypt…When I stared out the window of an airplane, a year and a half ago, watching the sands of Egypt blur into brown monotony, I wondered when I would return. Or, perhaps, I wondered how I would return. In the clichéd manner of study abroad handbooks, I ‘found’ myself in Egypt, or perhaps lost my own insularity. I loved it for this reason, and for the wanton impetuosity I exercised, both behavior-wise and monetary-wise (think, NSEP scholarship). I’m a bit older, and marginally wiser, so I wondered. I wondered as I packed my single duffel bag full of tank tops, skirts, and jeans; wondered as myself and three friends hired a taxi to Aqaba, the port city bordering Israel; wondered as I switched from passport # 1 (non-Israeli stamps) to passport # 2; wondered as I trudged across the barren dirt to Israel; wondered (and smiled in blonde innocence) as I handed my suspiciously blank passport to the bristling IDF; wondered as I discarded layers of clothing in the balmy sunshine while my friends endured interrogative treatment (which I somehow eschewed); wondered as we piled into a taxi and drove through the resort town of Eliat and saw tank tops, bikinis, and bars; wondered as I departed Israel (and paid a weighty 88.5 shekels) and stepped into Egypt…

From cleanliness and order to dirt and chaos. From the air-conditioned luxury of Israel’s border terminal to the motionless morass of Egypt. I grinned. I was home. Having failed to procure an Egypt entry visa before I had arrived, unlike my companions, I patiently explained to the guard, in an amusing mixture of Egyptian/Jordanian, that I needed to go to Cairo. “No. Not here. Only for Sinai. In Eliat, it is possible.” Sigh. “I am not returning to Israel. Is it possible to buy one here, in Egypt?” “No.” Well, of course it was. And, with a bit of bribery, I persuaded a tourist company to ‘sponsor’ me and issue me a visa. Soon, I emerged triumphant, to the relief of my friends, who were becoming quite bored staring at the same withered palm tree for half an hour. We chartered a vehicle to deliver us to Dahab, sinking into the air-conditioned van with relief. While Amman had demanded jackets and scarves, the Sinai asked, with a flirtatious wink, for tank tops and shorts. We remained clad in jeans and tee shirts, much to the disappointment of the Egyptian men leering at us in Taba, and sped through the Sinai.

The Red Sea coast in the northern Sinai is seductively beautiful-soaring cliffs and plunging heights, turquoise waters and secluded bays, Crusader castles and fringed palms…It was a delight merely to drink in the view and laugh as the memories flooded back. Before two hours we arrived in Dahab, pulling up at the Penguin Hotel, greeted by the warm staff. Another reason I love Dahab; they were unperturbed by the fact that friends, of the same sex, share rooms! With separate beds of course, but still...The desk manager, Emad, didn’t bat an eye, but escorted us to the rooms, handed us the keys, and invited us for tea in the restaurant. For just a few days, it was lovely to escape the constant need to be munasib (appropriate), the sense that one’s every movement is a reflection of character and morality. It was not quite as lovely, however, to shower in salty water for four days. The hostels of Dahab are refreshingly inexpensive, but they also lack the infrastructure to completely desalinate the water. Though I showered everyday, the lack of soapy suds compelled me to effectively flood our bathroom each shower. Happily, given the warm clime, it dried quickly!

We climbed to the roof of the restaurant, sprawled on the cushions, and enjoyed the final rays of sun spreading across the Red Sea, illuminating the cliffs of Saudi with a luminous light. With a milkshake in hand, good company all around, the warm night breeze sifting through the palm branches, I closed my eyes. It was going to be a good week…

It was on my urging that I had an entourage at all, so I was quite pleased that they seemed to genuinely enjoy the atmosphere of Dahab; Jess and Andrew could kiss and no one cared J, Nathan could smoke sheesha all day, and I could lose in backgammon to Jimmy. Yes, Jimmy. The next morning, one of Kathy’s friends from Cairo, stumbled into the restaurant, weary from the all-night bus ride. The five of us piled into the back of a Jeep, sandwiched between four other equally uncomfortable foreigners, for a snorkel trip to the Blue Hole, a sunken volcanic crater of fathomless depths ringed with superb coral and aquatic life. While Nathan, who, I swear, bears not an ounce of fat on his frame, refused to enter, I plunged right in and happily flippered around, chasing glinting schools of fish through the clear sea and diving to examine a particularly fascinating specimen of elkhorn coral. I even managed to execute a mask switch with Andrew in the open water before returned to land, flopping down on a pile of rocks like a beached seal, and sunning for awhile.

That night we dined in the Nemo Restaurant, avoiding the Finding Nemo special, but enjoying the gentle battering of the waves along the rocky shore and constant parade of interesting characters along the cornice. Dahab attracts a most curious type of traveler. In the morn of a new day we tanned; reclined in the lounges atop the Penguin restaurant, we baked our sun-starved, pallid complexions and cooled off in the sparkling calmness of the Red Sea. At sunset, Nathan and I galloped along the beach, framed against the craggy peaks of mountains and the vermillion glow of the sinking sun. Walking with Jess along the cornice that night, I chanced upon the Funny Mummy, saw a familiar figure standing under an arch, and approached with a grin on my face. His jaw rather dropped. “Ya bunia!” A hug later, I found myself thoroughly reacquainted with the cowboy hat-wearing, recalcitrant owner of the Funny Mummy, Jimmy, mentioned in quite a few past blogs, if you care to sift backwards. After a promise to visit later, Jess and I returned to our friends. “I looked over, heard someone shout, and then saw you in the arms of another man, and I didn’t know what to do!” Jess joked.

As our growing horde walked down the cornice, I glanced over to find Nathan in the arms of another woman! “Kathy!” I cried, and the third roommate laughed. Together, we all settled into VIP treatment at the Funny Mummy, while Jess and Andrew somehow persuaded the entire clan to join them on a trek up Mt. Sinai. I politely declined the invite (after all, I didn’t go to Dahab to climb a mountain. All those milkshakes would be wasted!), studied some Arabic, and slept quite peacefully.

Late the next morning, I returned from a leisurely walk along the cornice. Engrossed in my ipod, I blinked several times at the smeared streak of crimson suddenly blooming on the walkway. Eid! Eid al-Adha, holiday of the sacrifice, is thus celebrated by slaughtering a sheep or goat in honor of Abraham’s sacrifice. Sure enough, my eyes followed the trail of blood to the edge of the sidewalk, where a man was slitting the throat of a black-haired goat, much to the discomfort of several sunburned Westerners seated in the nearby restaurants. I watched the blood seep from the goat for a few moments, bid the man a roseate, “Kool sena wa enta tayib!” and strolled away, soon to find several bleary-eyed friends sinking into the cushions of the Funny Mummy. “Good morning!” I shouted cheerfully, folding in beside them. Teeth might have gnashed. I tactfully entered a period of silent bemusement as they scarfed down breakfast, and allowed them to resume conversation. A day of hebetude and sun revived even the most unwilling, and a night of Egyptian beer (well, milkshake for me) and backgammon in the Funny Mummy, freshly arrived Danish friends from Jordan, a cute Brit by the name of Mark, and warm firelight cheered us all. Good thing, too, because Jess, Andrew, and I said our good-byes and boarded a mini bus for the long road to Cairo. Tess had left the previous night, and everyone else was remaining in the sun-splashed paradox of Dahab for varying lengths.

I slept. Awoke once or twice, and slept through several passport checkpoints. When I later mentioned, to Jess, that they never asked to see i.d., she laughed. “They did. Someone was sound asleep. And I suppose they figured the blondie wasn’t too suspicious.” I awoke to the grey clarity of early morning and the jumbled humanity of Cairo. Cement apartment buildings and traffic circles flashed by while I gazed, incredulously, at old haunts. “That was where I left for Fayoum, and there’s the Starbucks in Heliopolis, and there’s Talat Harb….” I said to myself. The mini van deposited us in the epicenter of my previous Cairo life, Medan Tahrir, home to the Egyptian Museum, and, far more importantly, the old campus of AUC.

We flagged down a Cairo cab, cautiously opened the door, and piled into the shabbily ‘quaint’ interior. “Zamalek. Mohamed Marashi.” Tess was kindly allowing Jess and Andrew to stay in her apartment, which happens to be located in the Metro building of Zamalek. That’s where I used to live, people! I lived on the 3rd floor of tower one, she lives on the 15th. We arrived, a bit fatigued, and entered the lobby of tower one. The bowab, or doorman, gestured at all three elevators. “Maien faash.” Oh, Metro Building…Instead, we took the elevator in the opposite tower, climbed to the roof, walked over a somewhat frightening metal link between the buildings, and knocked on Tess’ door. After an early morning run to the 24 hour Metro grocery store, Jess and I strolled around Zamalek; I babbled like an idiot and she listened politely.

Around noon, the four of us took a taxi back to Medan Tahrir, hopped on the subway in the direction of Helwan, and departed-they to visit Coptic Cairo, and I to stay with Sarah, who lives in a suburb called Maadi. Having purchased an Egyptian SIM card for my mobile, I called Sarah, who soon arrived at the Metro stop in Maadi, properly greeting me with a big hug. “I still can’t believe you only travel with one bag,” she remarked, admiring my light packing abilities. Yet another testament to how I have changed, I suppose. She, of course, being accustomed to my earlier packing predilections of large suitcases and large duffel bags for less than a week of vacation.

We visited her local Metro branch, where we selected chocolate chip cookie ingredients. As we rode in a cab through the leafy avenues, somewhat clean streets, and modern buildings, I felt just a twinge of envy for Sarah. Which only partway vanished when I reached her building, trudged up the four flights of stairs to her floor (no elevator) and entered her brand new, halfway furnished apartment. Unlike many Egyptian apartments, hers is subtly styled in pale stone walls and tiled floors, smooth granite countertops and muted colors, Delightfully absent was the gilded ostentation of many Arab abodes, but also, less delightfully, was the absence of much furniture. Sarah and her roommate have been slowly furnishing the apartment, and I was graciously provided with a comfortable futon on which sleep, but they still lack proper wardrobes for their bedrooms, and several other rather necessary pieces of furniture. However, everything works, and it was comforting to know that, when I flicked on a light switch, I would not short circuit the room.

Perhaps the best feature of the apartment-the next door neighbor, Shereena. Sarah, Shereena, and I were travel buddies in Greece, and it was wonderful to see her again. However, Sarah and I diligently settled into the task before us-cookie baking, to bring to dinner later that night. If the fun we had baking could have translated into perfect cookies, ours would have been spectacular. Alas, the first batch rather burned, and the second congobulated into an unseemly, although good-tasting, lump. After my deliciously long, un-salty shower, Sarah and I took a cab to Abeer’s house. Abeer is a professor of Amia at AUC, and knew her relatively well, given her effulgent personality. She is both warm and gracious, beautiful and motherly, welcoming and consummately kind…We arrived to find her in the kitchen, although she forbade us to help. Instead, we played with her young daughter, Selwa, and chatted in a mixture of English and Arabic. Though her English is flawless, she speaks Egyptian with us in a vain attempt to illuminate our minds. Soon, more guests arrived in the form of Shereena and several other girls in her same program. With the addition of their chocolate-dipped strawberry tuxedoes, dinner was almost ready, a bountiful affair of freshly slaughtered goat, rice dishes, salads, fresh lemon juice, laughter at my garbled Jordanian accent, and, finally, desert and digestion.

While the rest of the girls left early, Sarah and I stayed until almost 11, talking with Abeer. Her oldest son, Abdu, is, quite frankly, an utter ass, spoiled, rude, ungrateful, and spiteful. Having failed his secondary school English exam, he was unable to get into AUC and the free tuition he would receive because of his mother’s position. Instead, she is paying excessive amounts of money for him to attend a private school, though he will likely fail that, too. A year ago, at 16, he snuck out of the house, borrowed his mother’s car, and rolled it several times on the autostrade, severely injuring his arm and totaling the car. At the very least, he could act grateful for her unwavering support; instead, he instigated an argument, in front of Sarah and me, in the most belligerent tone. Sarah intervened on the side of Abeer, her husband sat passively in the corner, and eventually Abdu stormed out in a childish tantrum, wondering why his mother won’t treat him like an adult.

Anyway, after a long discussion on parenting, Sarah and I returned home, I collapsed into the futon, half awoke at 3 am to the arrival of Christal, the other roommate returning from Siwa oasis, but was asleep within seconds, blissfully slumbering through her unpacking. Shereena and I took a walk through the neighborhood and breakfast together. Later in the afternoon, I visited the Khan with Shereena and a few other girls, as they needed Christmas presents for their visit back home. The Khan is, of course, the market of Cairo, a serpentine maze of narrow alleyways, kitschy shops, ornate Islamic architecture, the echo of muzzeins, and the hassle of shopkeepers. Here I reunited with Jess and Andrew, showing them my favorite coffee shop, Fushawi’s, treating myself to some henna, touring the Al Azhar mosque, and dragging them through the back alleys of Islamic Cairo to the tentmaker’s market. Along the way, past the stalls selling risqué lingerie, bedsheets, and cooking pots, we passed encountered a stream of vermillion running freshly across the road, and a fetid stench roiling past. Piled along the side of the alleyway lay numerous animal skins, the results of the recent feast, awaiting disposal and garnering a most unpleasant. Oh Cairo…

After purchasing my only souvenir of the trip, a small wall hanging for my room in Amman, I took a shortcut through a local neighborhood, happening upon an Eid celebration complete with camel rides, carnival games, and fried food. Smiling, I piled into a cab, raced to Maadi, and met up with Sarah and co. to see a movie at the local theatire, Al-Wa3d, The Promise, a quite racy affair about the Egyptian mob, lovers, prostitutes, revenge, and forgiveness. As there were no subtitles, I appreciated the presence of Abeer immensely, both for her personality and translating skills.

Whew. Cairo was a whirlwind of activity. The next morning, the undisputed chef of the building, Shereena, cooked her friends a masterful meal of chicken curry, rice, chai, and other culinary feats. As I was sitting down to partake of the repast, my mobile rang to an unknown number. I answered it cautiously. “Wawa!!” shouted a voice at the other end. “Wait, Deya?!” So, after lunch, and many thanks to Shereena, I visited the bus station to purchase my return ticket for 12:15 that night to Dahab, and then cabbed it over to Zamalek. Deya, I hope you recall, was my best friend in Egypt and a current student at Cambridge, home in Cairo for a school holiday. Her cousin, Heba, also a friend of mine, also appeared in the doorway of Deya’s Zamalek flat. I whiled away the afternoon and most of the evening watching the sun set from the balcony, greeting her parents with warm hellos, and sprawling across her bed like times of old, gossiping over chocolate and pistachios.

I delayed my departure from Deya’s cozy abode until almost 10. From there, I raced to buy a few snacks in Seoudi, an favorite grocery store, hopped into a taxi, impatiently endured the Zamalek traffic, scrambled out of the taxi into the Metro, raced to Sarah’s flat in Maadi, and waited 10 precious minutes while I pressed various buttons, attempting to get buzzed in. Finally, I figured it out, sprinted up the stairs, grabbed my bags, bid her a fond farewell, and wobbled down the street to catch a taxi. The first one attempted to charge me 30 LE. “La!” I cried, hopping out and conveniently forgetting that the only bus to Dahab was leaving within the hour. I checked my mobile. 11:30. “Zift,” I cursed to myself, throwing myself into the next cab and reaching a 25 LE fare agreement. Traffic wasn’t too snarled along the cornice, and we reached Ramses square with ample time. I breathed a sigh of relief, but tensed when the driver stopped in front of a shadowy, fairly deserted, and quite incorrect place he called Turgoman. “No, this is not it!” I stated emphatically, in Arabic, of course, and he eventually asked someone and drove off, muttering. 15 minutes later, frustration etched his brows, sweat coated mine, and the clock read 12:15. “Il mahata-il gadeed!” I shouted! Recognition crept into his dull features, and he jerked the car into another direction. There, the station! I saw it, and then watched it disappear into the rearview mirror and he puttered past it, clearly unaware. “War’inaa!” He slowly turned the car around, seemingly diffident to the hour, and finally reached our destination. I threw the fare at him, tugged my duffel bag into the station, fairly sprinted through the long hallway, paused to ask a helpful, if slightly lecherous, guard for directions, emerged in the downstairs hall, found it appallingly deserted, and despaired. There, at the far end! A bus still waited, and I sprint-waddled past the empty chairs and befuddled candy sellers as I waved frantically at the guards. They appeared to see me (I was quite a spectacle), and held the bus. Sigh. I collapsed into my seat, closed my eyes, and hoped Dahab would be worth it…

And, of course, it was. Again, I slept much of the ride, arriving to early morning sunshine and milkshakes. I stole two days of indolence in Dahab (photo of the Funny Mummy), meeting new friends, becoming a fan of British football, and wearing my new wool skirt for the first time. I checked into the Penguin, and Emad, as usual was at the desk. "You don't have a reservaton?" I shook my head no. "Don't worry, we'll take care of you." And, of course, he did, giving me a room for only 60 LE a night (about 12 dollars). By no means luxurious, it was more than adequate, with a small bathroom, two beds, and several windows to catch the breeze. In a completely non-sarcastic way, I found the peely plaster on the wall strangely artistic...And one does not go to Dahab to be inside...Not when bronzing weather and good company can be found in the Funny Mummy!

Alas, life called, and so I took a bus to Taba, crossed the border into Israel, experienced my first full body search courtesy of the IDF, taxied to Jordan, and argued my way into a service to Amman. I think, I fear, travel is done for a little while. Work and school beckon, and the Christmas holidays are right around the corner.

Until we meet again, dear readers, Kool sena wa entum tayibeen! Happy holidays!

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Travel is, in its most clichéd definition, intended to broaden one’s horizons, to lift perception beyond its current level of perspicacity. Syria took most every stereotype I harboured about it, and the Arab world, and blew them away, quite like the recent car bomb that exploded two months ago in the streets of Damascus. Syria is in no way perfect, but nor is it the axis of evil; it is merely a country, full of people, full of culture, run by a government that occasionally opposes American policy. My experience was lucid, in the way a rock drops into a crystal pool, spreading ripples across the surface. The further I ventured beyond the confines of my own insularity, the clearer my experiences became.

Alright, I think that’s enough metaphorical jargle; let’s get down to what actually happened. Several of my friends who had trekked up to Syria before spent 6 hours waiting at the border for visas, and had not reached Dameshq (Damascus in Arabic) until midnight. So, I left my flat at 6:30 am with my roommate (لو كانت صاحبي انك تحكي العربية فتعرف اني سافرت وحيدة ولكن امي تظن اني روحت مع جسكا. هذا سر بيننا, صاح؟)
We took a cab through the pale morning sun to Abdali, where services, or taxis, wait to bring passengers to Dameshq and Beirut. We waited until one other passenger arrived, bringing the total number to 4, and then slid into the rather comfy backseat (it was a Mercedes) for the hour ride to the Syrian border. The driver, when learning I am American, frowned slightly and said (in Arabic), “It’s sometimes difficult for Americans at the border.” I suppose we deserve it, though, as most Arabs try, in vain, to enter the U.S. The least I can do is wait a few hours to gain entry…

My first difficulties arose on the Jordanian side of border. You see, I was 20 twenty days illegal; yani, my 1 month entry visa had expired 20 days previous, but I had failed to renew it. As I strode up to the departure window, the officials opened my passport, poised to stamp it, and paused, mumbling amongst themselves. In broken English, they explained I was ‘late’. “I know,” I said in Arabic, and they all beamed. “Oh, you speak Arabic!” After a bit more discussion on their part, they directed me to wait to the side while they summoned the shorta, or police. After standing around for 5 minutes, I became tired of waiting and found the shorta myself. “Your visa, it is bad,” the officer said. “I know, I am sorry,” I replied in Arabic. “I am a student…” We chatted for a few minutes, and then he led me through a labyrinth of hallways to the other side of the building, which is the Arrivals Hall. They charged me a 22.5 JD fine (it should have been a bit more), corrected my immigrant status, and ushered me over to Syria, after many shukrans on my part.

Syria didn’t appear that different from Jordan. The scruffy dirt under my feet wasn’t magically more hostile, and the endless plain of desert was merely an extension of the same Jordanian monotony. The Arrivals Hall in Dar’aa, Syria, greeted me with a large poster of the current ‘president’, Bashar Al-Assad and a sign, in semi-lucent English, that kindly welcomed foreigners in to Syria, and, if we had any complaints, to kindly fill out a form and drop it in the comment box. How lovely. At the foreigners’ window, the official looked at my passport, looked at me, and said, “Go make copy.” “Wayn?” “Building next door.” So, after bumbling into several incorrect buildings (it was more like 4 down and off to the right), and flirting with several officials, I found the copier and returned to the immigration building. “Please, sit,” directed the official, gesturing to a row of chairs on the side wall. At least he offered a ‘please’. The Syrian in the car breezed through security, and the Iraqi received his visa about 15 minute later. Only Jess and I waited…After half an hour, our driver came to sit next to me, and I had a lovely conversation with him for awhile. Alas, my Arabic practice was insolently interrupted by the other two passengers, who claimed to have business in Damascus. Sigh. My driver went up to the window, asked about the delay, and received a ‘who knows’ shrug. So, I tried, and told them my car was leaving. They at least appeared sympathetic, but said they needed confirmation from the intelligence office in Damascus before they could process me. So, the car left, and we waited through the morning. About three hours after we had first traversed the threshold of immigration, one of the officers, with whom I had been making googly eyes at for the last hour, motioned me over. “You pay that man,” he pointed to the bank window behind me, “16 dollars.” Before he could change his mind, I flashed him a smile, paid my fee, gave the receipt back to the official, and received my visa. Wicked! To buy a visa from the Syrian Embassy in the U.S., Americans are charged 130 dollars.

“But wait! You need a car!” They asked, concerned. “We will find you one.” They walked outside with me and found a service that had two spaces for Jess and me. With many shukrans, I bid the surprisingly amiable border guard good-bye, and waited for the other passengers to arrive. I had paid 11 dinars for the first car, the fixed price for all services to Dameshq. I bargained the next driver down to 7, which didn’t seem too unreasonable. We waited for about an hour outside immigration, soaking in the delightful sunshine, chattering in Arabic, and feeling fairly successful. Finally, the other passengers arrived, we passed through the final border check, and drove to Damascus. Damascus!!!

I’ll confess I dozed somewhat in the backseat, jolting awake at random intervals as villages, mileage signs, crumbling bridges, and gravid effigies of the president flashed by. And then Damascus arose from the flatness of the desert sand- a cacophony of sounds, sights, and scent; a tumbling city of precarious buildings, soaring mosques, and ancient treasures; of ceaseless honking, booming muzzeins, and Arabic pop; of freshly baked bread, incense, and the occasional whiff of the sewer. We arrived by cab to Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the old city, and disembarked at Straight Street. Following the hotel’s excellent directions, we ambled down a narrow alleyway (not so unusual; most of the city is a confounding grid of narrow alleyways and dead ends), turned right, and found ourselves in front of the hostel, an innocuous building with a cross at the top. The owner greeted us warmly, ushered us in, offered us tea, and explained the hostel’s procedures. Jess and I deposited our bags in the quaint and very clean room, visited the shared bathroom (gasp, I know! But true) and set out to explore the city.

The only way to explore a new place is to get lost, and we had a delightful time becoming utterly befuddled by streets that abruptly ended, branched into multiple alleys, and changed names. Eventually, we found the heart of the old city, the Umayyad Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in Islam, first constructed in the 7th century with various additions through time. It is the (insha’allah) resting place of John the Baptist and a contemporary gathering place for Muslims. Foreign females ‘get’ to don bulky, hobbit-like robes to enter the mosque, but the uncomfortable attire is soon forgotten when one enters the mosque and glides across the expansive marble courtyard, sitting in the long afternoon shadows as children play and Arab men stare. Brilliant mosaics adorn the octagonal treasury and one wall of the mosque, depicting scenes from paradise. Inside a shadowy hall lies the grave of John the Baptist and another famous martyr, lavishly entombed in carved wooden screens and elaborate sarcophagi.

After regretfully returning our hobbit gowns to the tourist office, and exploring the Roman ruins abutting the mosque, we headed to the main souq, or market, of Damascus, an infusion of noise, color, and jostling crowds. Damascus, and Syria in general, is littered with Roman ruins, which have simply been incorporated into more modern constructions. For instance, the main gateway to the souq actually leads through an impressive collection of Roman pillars, shopkeepers selling their wares between the columns. The main souq is covered, which merely echoes the confusion through the twisted streets of gold and lingerie shops, decadent ice cream stands, housewares and children’s shoe stores all cramped into tiny stalls with aggressive shopkeepers.

Soon, dusk fell, and the muzzein’s voice of the Umayyad mosque filtered through the alleyways of the old city, calling the faithful to prayer in the same words used 1500 years ago. After a ‘circuitous’ route home, I stopped in an internet café near Bab Touma and also texted my friend, Tom, who is studying Arabic in Damascus. Tom and I suffered through two years of Arabic together at the U before venturing abroad to more immersing language experiences. I met him at the corner of Bab Touma street and Straight Street, spent a few hours getting caught up in the courtyard of his house, and then attending Thanksgiving at another house in the old city. Perhaps here I should explain living situations in Damascus. There are certainly plenty of apartments; however, from what I have gleaned, it is more common to rent a room in a restored house, at least if you prefer to live in the old city. If properly maintained, these houses can be quite charming, with tiled courtyards surrounded by various rooms, snaking staircases and trailing vines leading to the upper floors. Alas, or perhaps not, Thanksgiving was not over until 3 am that morning, an utterly delightful affair of mashed potatoes, grilled chicken, fish, Indian curries, plentiful wine, and good company.

Which merely meant that my desire to by up the next morning by 6:30, and onto a Roman ruins site called Palmyra, did not seem nearly as inviting as it had the previous afternoon. So, we slept in. Jess decided to spend the day around Damascus, exploring it a bit more, but I decided to seize the advice of the inveterately helpful owner and make my way to Bosra, a town in southern Syria. Which entailed deciphering the minibus network of Damascus, a rather daunting challenge to someone who had only arrived a day ago. However, with the advice and directions of the hotel owner, I found the correct station, and the correct bus, and waited for it to fill up. Minibuses are a very inexpensive and safe method of travel, if somewhat uncomfortable, but they never leave until full, often accruing a wait time of 20 minutes or more.

I took the bus to Dar’aa, and from there transferred to Bosra, seating myself by the window at the ramshackle bus station, watching the wind whip debris into little whirlwinds outside. While I had encountered many unveiled women in the streets of Damascus, hijabs prevailed outside the liberal walls of the city. Eventually, the bus became full, and we headed off to Bosra. I had unfortunately run out of change, and needed to give the driver a 500 SP note for a 30 SP fare. 50 SP=1 USD. I turned to the young man seated next to me, apologized for my lack of change (in rather decent Arabic, I thought), but he responded back, in perfect English, “Don’t worry. I think the driver has change.” Oh! The lack of English speakers in Syria is actually refreshing as it forced me to communicate only in Arabic.

Indeed, the driver had change (a rarity in Syria, trust me). However, the silence broken between us, my seatmate and I began talking, mainly in English, as his was quite impeccable, being a graduate student of English lit at Damascus University. His sister lives in Bosra, and he and his brother (also on the bus) were visiting her for the weekend. As we neared our final destination, he invited me to lunch with his family. There was something genuine about him, something anti-Creepy Arab Man. So, I accepted. We clambered out of the bus, walked about 5-10 minutes down the street, and came to a moderate house protected by leafy shade from the arching trees in the yard. He rang the doorbell and an adorable girl around the age of seven smiled up at him. “Hello!” We removed our shoes and entered the home. He introduced me to his sister, Manal, who didn’t speak English, but nonetheless welcomed me with a gentle smile and soft eyes.

I found two more equally adorable angels in the reception room of the house, devoid of furniture (except for the heating stove in the center), instead lined with comfortable rugs and mats for guests and a picture of Nasrallah (Hezbollah leader) hanging on the wall. Noor was 9 months old, with impossibly wide, sparkling eyes and a gurgling laugh, while her sister, Fatima, behaved with all the gravity of a sleepy four year old, reserved until you told her she was beautiful (she was), lighting up with a shy smile that warmed the room more than the cozy stove. Their older sister, Sarah, diligently studied her English homework and pushed aside her almond hair with impatient hands, eying me somewhat suspiciously with gorgeous, light brown/bluish eyes. I was, as you may be able to tell, instantly enamored. Manal had prepared maglooba, a delectable concoction of rice, meat, potatoes, and nuts in one giant lump. She apologized for only offering one dish (aside from the customary green salad and yogurt), but I told her it was more than enough and was rewarded with the beautiful smile that she had passed on to her daughters.

The food was, of course, delicious, and Manal plied me with several helpings until I, in preservation of my comfort level, politely declined. After lunch, we reclined on the cushions, sipping tea and laughing at Noor as she gazed at me with limpid, innocent eyes and a smile which revealed her two teeth. The girls proudly showed me their new clothes for the upcoming Eid, or holiday, and then my friend, Mua3tezil (for ease of everyone, let’s just call him Mu) asked if I was ready to leave. Regretfully, I left their warm hospitality with many shukrans, and bundled against the chilly air, pure from a recent rain shower. “Never trust a Syrian weather forecaster!” Mu said with a laugh. “If they tell you it will be sunny, don’t forget to bring an umbrella.”

We soon arrived at the Roman ruins of the city, a large Roman theatre (the largest in the world, in fact, that is still wholly intact), regretfully closed, and a whole city beyond. “Wow, I didn’t know there was this much,” I commented, and he laughed. “It would take hours to see it all. I’ll show you the most important stuff.” With that, we embarked on a ruins tour, peering into vacant doorways and admiring still-erect columns and archways that framed the approaching dusk. A mosque sat in the center, dating back to the 8th century, a row of men faithfully performing the sundown prayer. Interestingly, many Arabs actually live inside the ruins, converting the half-crumbled walls into homes, placing satellite dishes next to Roman capitals, and somehow blending the old and new harmoniously.

A direct bus to Damascus left at 6 pm, so Mu led me to the ticketing office, where a reserved seat awaited me. Rather than wait around the station for an hour, we left to see a bit more of the city. He led me to a small stone building in the center of a traffic circle. “Look in there.” I poked my head into the doorway, saw a few tomb-like structures several feet below street level, and shrugged. “Cool.” “No, look at the door!” As he gestured, I saw why he had brought me there. There was a giant stone door, still hinged with etchings on it, that had once entombed the dead. And then it hit me, really hit me. Mu didn’t have ulterior motives, he wasn’t hitting on me, he wasn’t taking advantage of me. He is one of the few Arab men I can call my friend, and mean simply that. No sex, no offers of sex, no questions of marriage. We sat on the edge of an old Roman stoop next to a traffic circle and talked. We covered everything- Syria’s nuclear policy (زاد الطين بلة), marriage, the future, jobs, religion, extremism…He looked at his mobile once. “I’m glad the time is moving slowly.” And I was too. It was pure enjoyment. The cold and my impending departure chased us back to the bus office, where my bus soon arrived, surprisingly on time. I looked at him, he looked at me and shook my hand. “It was so nice to meet you, Laura.” And then I raced to catch the bus. We didn’t exchange contact information. It was enough, I think, what we had.

After reaching Damascus, I visited the internet café briefly, grabbed some dinner on the walk home, and curled up in my room, spending a quiet evening in front of the heater, studying Arabic and smiling over a perfect day.

I slept in a bit the next morning-hey, it’s vacation, right?-unsure of my plans. Jess had needed to return to Amman the previous evening, so I was by myself. The ever gracious owner inquired about Bosra, and I thanked him profusely for the tip. “Today you can go to Maalulaa. It’s maybe an hour outside of Damascus. It’s built on the edge of a cliff. Very nice monastery there. And they speak Aramaic.” I was sold. I finished breakfast, fended off the hops of the resident rabbit, stored my luggage in the office, and set off to find the bus station to Maalulaa. After half an hour of waiting, I again found myself as the only foreigner on the bus, but I was an old hat at it by that point, so I watched the scenery out the window change from flat plain to hills to sharp, white cliffs. Maalulaa slowly filtered into view, a city indeed perched on the cliff face, row upon row of houses climbing up the rocks, the occasional church steeple and minaret soaring above the streets. I left the bus in front of a monastery, toured it briefly, and then followed the road until it stopped, entering a gorge. St. Sekla’s gorge. Somewhat like the siq in Petra, with smooth, towering walls confining a narrow pathway. I soon emerged onto a spring, and road, which I followed up to another monastery, this one overlooking the town below. Inside, an ancient stone chapel glowed with candlelight and dim lamps, the simple wooden altar somehow more beautiful than the gilded ones of Europe. On the trip back down through the siq, I encountered a rather cute Arab couple photographing each other. “Would you like me to take a picture of you together?” I asked, in Arabic. “You speak Arabic,” the woman breathed, brightly adorned in a pink hijab. “Please!”

So , I snapped their photo, and then they asked me where I was from. “America!” “Ma sha’allah!” the man whispered, which translates, sort of, like a ‘wow’ or ‘oh my goodness’. That’s me, spreading American goodwill wherever I go J

I wandered into a few of the shops near the first monastery, asking where I could catch the next bus. “Right here!” the owner said. “Would you like to sample some local wine?” Well, I couldn’t see any buses in the vicinity, so I deigned to try a glass, having drunk perhaps two sips when the man asked me, “Are you tired?” Horrible thoughts of being date raped and drugged crossed my mind, even though I was sitting in the window of a shop, and tourists frequently bopped in and out. “No!” But I set down the wine, a bit regretfully, because it was good, bought a bottle (hey, for 3 dollars, you would have too), and raced to stop the minibus that had just pulled up outside the monastery.

Back in Damascus, I wandered through the old city one more time, purchasing a lusciously rich navy blue scarf and some sweetly-scented olive soap to perfume my clothing drawers. Then, it was back to the hostel, good-bye (and see you soon!) to the owner, hello to the two Aussies who had just arrived, off to the bus station, into a service, and over the border to Amman. And home.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Ahlan wa sahalan. I live in a nation of welcomes; every time I walk into my local grocery store, through the university gates, into the kitchen at work, I hear this phrase, ahlan wa sahlan. Welcome. My chocolate man who lives around the corner, and whose establishment I frequent with unseemly dedication, never fails to procure a welcome as I step into his store. The Creepy Arab Man, who must have millions of brothers throughout the Middle East, often accosts me on the street, “Welcome in Jordan! How are you?” Quite lovely, thank you, as I brush past him silently on my path to school. It is impossible to feel unwelcome in Jordan.

My giraffe carpet even smiles at me, dancing blithely under my feet. If a psychedelically-colored giraffe could talk, it, too, would say, in a deep, ponderous, voice, “Dude, ahlan.” Perhaps it’s best that my carpet giraffes remain silent. Long-necked, garishly spotted animals aside, I live in world so full of hospitality, one must wonder if there is room for something different. Because I know I am not always welcome. I know my neighbors think my lifestyle is haram, forbidden. I see it in their eyes as they watch me climb to the top floor, and I hear it on their lips as they caution me to be careful about visitors. “They will talk about you,” the Palestinian Christian woman below warned us, after she saw Kathy with Fadii, after she saw the almost constant stream of visitors flowing in and out of the apartment.

I decided it was unnecessary to inform her that they have been talking about us since the day we moved in. And that I, at least, returned to the Middle East fully equipped to absorb such unspoken accusations. Kathy wishes everyone would like her, and doesn’t always understand when I tell her religion and cultural values overpower even the most charismatic personality. Sometimes love truly does blind a person, at least to their own reality. But just as often as the false smiles precedes a mendacious ahlan, so too does a genuine smile accompany a warm welcome.

At church last Thursday, I sang hymns of halleluiah in Arabic, listened to a sermon (in Arabic, of course) on grace, and offered to prayer to God…in Arabic. After the service ended, I met some of the members of the congregation who were some of the kindest people I have yet to meet. Their church is a simple affair-smooth white stone, grey tile, a single window pane of stained glass, uncomfortable wooden benches- but the community they built around it is richer than the most sumptuous cathedral of Rome. Perhaps it was merely refreshing to see a whole herd of unveiled women, but I returned home that night more content than I have been in a while. After grabbing a reward of potato wedges from the local Snack House (which lived up to the anticipation, btw), I settled into my desolate apartment to enjoy a movie and fall asleep. Although before I snuggled into bed, I switched on lights in the kitchen, firmly closed my door, and curled up next to the luridly orange heater. Seriously, this place can get creepy at night.

The absence of roommates does have a few advantages-the next morning, I was able to take a deliciously long shower, shave two appendages that desperately needed it (ewww, I know you really didn’t want to know that) and enjoy lavish indolence for most of the day. Perhaps here is a good point to mention the debaucherous moments of the past few weeks. Kathy, dear Kathy, came to me one evening with a request. “Ummm, Laura,” she asked quite timidly in opposition to her forceful personality. I cocked my head, quizzical. “Do you ummm, have you…I need to buy condoms, but I’m too scared !!!” A few minutes later, we walked out of the house together, giggling rather uncontrollably, and marched into the local pharmacy, where I strode up the counter, asked the two potentially Creepy Arab Men behind the counter, “Do you have condoms?” without a trace of reticence. Kathy later described it as ‘totally awesome’. I’ll confess, I was far more amused than was decorous, I suppose. But I’ll be damned if I let the Arab world shame me for buying an innocent sheath of latex. We proceeded to also visit the fruit and veggie man in the circle, veritably skipping home with cucumbers, apples, chocolate, Diet Coke, and condoms swinging happily along. What a perfect evening…

Sometimes I spend so much time hurrying past life that I fail to pause and absorb it. There is much that is beautiful, both hidden and salient, in Amman that I oft forget to appreciate. At night, my own traffic circle spotlights a pool of jetting fountains that merrily froth water, oblivious to the congestion swirling around it. Couples sometimes sit on its edge, equally ignorant of life rushing around them, as they gaze chastely into each others’ eyes, or, perhaps, even daring to hold hands. Then there are the hills of East Amman, floating into view (6 days a week!), as my taxi crests a certain rise on Istiqlaal Street. Building after white stone building climbs up the hills, like a crescendo of sound peaking at the summit, the outline of tilted apartments and poorly-constructed offices somehow blending harmoniously into the blue vault of sky behind. And then, of course, there are my children, tumbles of them, boys and girls, veiled and unveiled, teenage and still in the innocent bloom of childhood. As every teacher has known, they are both a source of joy and ceaseless frustration.

One of the older girls, 15, Sahuur, is both strikingly beautiful and endlessly eager to learn English; after class she will come to me or Jess and talk until we are evicted from the office. We were perusing an atlas of the world yesterday, chatting about the globe’s numerous nations, and every once in a while Jess or I would exclaim about a country we visited, and she was amazed. She leaned over to Jess, smiled with sparkling wonder, and breathed softly, “You are so fortunate!” And, indeed, we are, to be able to look at a map of the world and point out our many travel destinations.

Although travel has been temporarily postponed for me, due to job, sickness, and lack of funds J This weekend, all three factors be damned, though, I’m going to Syria. On Thanksgiving, no less. My Thanksgiving feast may consist of a few slices of dried turkey from the duty-free while I wait at border control for 8 hours for my visa to be processed.

So, I’ve been sick. I suppose it had to happen sometime-but I woke up last Saturday with a sniffly nose. On Monday the sore throat started, and on Tuesday I gave up on school and slept all day. The fact that I was engaged in Brisingr, an 800 page novel, didn’t contribute to a desire to attend classes, either. Most nights I spend in the embrace of an adorable male who holds me all night long... Well, sort of. You see, the blanket I selected (after much deliberation) bears the effigy of Pooh, somewhat appropriate, since both blanket and bear are warm, soft, and cuddly. And nights in Amman can be rather long without someone to keep you warm.

On Tuesday I ate at a wonderful restaurant downtown, Jafra, quintessentially Arab, accessed through a shadowy alleyway, a creaking set of wooden stairs, and a dark hallway. But once you’ve arrived, the ambiance pervades and you settle back to enjoy the experience-Bedouin rugs, painting, and other handicrafts across the room, long couches conducive to lingering along the walls, succulent scents of food mingling with the fruity smoke of sheesha and the harsher scent of cigarettes wafting through the air…And, afterwards, fully sated, we (I, Jess and the ubiquitious boyfriend) waddled downstairs, through the sketchy alley, into the street, poked into a pirated DVD store, and found a copy of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants II! For 1 dinar, I did not consider it too much a splurge…

I cannot believe I have been here for 2.5 months…the more I seem to grasp at time, the swifter it melts away. Thanksgiving is one week away!?! Christmas a mere month!?! How is this possible, when just yesterday I stepped off a plane into the scorching desert of Amman, and tomorrow it seems I will climb back on...But time is rarely my friend. It laughs when I stand on the cliffs of Santorini, close my eyes, and wish I could remain a statue here forever, and mocks me when I am stuck in a cab with Creepy Arab Man, making the minutes drag on like hours.

Before this weekend, too, slips away unbidden, I think I shall go. I am looking forward to Indian take-out tonight and work tomorrow…As my freshly French-pedicured toes brush across my dancing giraffe carpet, I bid you ahlan wa sahlan. You are always welcome.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


I took another audacious step down a road I once despised-Teaching Highway 101. It most likely leads to nowhere, and derails off a cliff high above the ocean to plunge the unwary traveler into the tempestuous waters below. Wet and sputtering, I’ll swim to shore and find a new path…But, for now, it is firm, dry, and oh so exciting! After that vivid metaphor, you’re probably once again scratching your heads and wondering what on earth the Middle East is doing to the once-sane Wawa. It’s done a number of things to me, actually, include force me to match every outfit to a coordinating scarf, resume my loathe/love relationship with men, accept the inevitability of sand in my life, and make me a teacher. This last statement, of course, being the one to which my slightly incongruous metaphor refers.

I had a meeting yesterday with the curriculum development coordinator in the Om Uthayna offices. Om Uthayna, for those of you unfamiliar with the innumerable neighborhoods of Amman, is an area of this city not too far from my flat. We discussed several projects for me, which I will probably detail in a later blog, but then she mentioned that one of the English teachers, Zaid, from Jebel Nassir is stuck in Iraq. And by stuck I mean, unable to return to Amman, where he has been working, because Jordanian authorities refuse to allow him to cross the border. Aside from his personal tribulations, this also places RI (henceforth short for Relief International/Schools Online) in a slight quandary-who’s going to teach English!?! Well that, my dears, would be me. Yup, I’ve gone from never having really taught English, to teaching casual conversational classes to adults, to instructing genuine lessons to genuine, school-age pupils!

Rowan offered me the option of graciously refusing. Never, or, as the British-accented and educated Rowan might say, wicked! Yesterday was my first day. I arrived as usual in Jebel Nessir, directing the cab down shari3a (street) Istiqlaal, through the windy hills of East Amman to a rolling stop in front of RI. I made my usual round of greetings on the 2nd floor offices where I usual work, sitting in the library and gently exchanging conversation with anyone courageous enough to engage the odd foreigner in lessons. However, after making use of the clean (a rarity in Amman, trust me; the bathroom at the uni are appalling, to put it mildly. They have neither seats nor toilet paper, and rarely soap), females-only bathroom, I trooped downstairs where the majority of the classrooms are located. While many of the people on the 2nd floor are staff members (i.e. salaried Jordanians), almost all (if not all) of the teaching staff are volunteers, i.e. Iraqis. Which only means that I get to learn yet another dialect, and, trust me, the Iraqi dialect is fairly quirky and quite unlike Jordanian. The word for whiteboard is loh7 is Jordanian, but saboora in Iraqi.

Anyway, enough on linguistic variations. On to my adorable students! Another phrase you probably never thought I utter (or transcribe, I suppose, since it’s difficult to utter a blog…). After eating lunch with the volunteers, I met the other English teacher, Hassan, a fascinating man who taught English in Iraq for 30 years and prefers sweaters that zip and checkered berets for attire. He briefed me on the current level of the students, allowed me to peruse a few textbooks, and then sat down to watch me teach. Ahhhh! There is not much of a curriculum to follow; the students don’t actually have textbooks, or any materials other than a notebook and pen. Basically, we teach them what we think they should know…Meaning, I need to do more research on English acquisition! All of the students that I have taught are learning some form of present tense verbs-the simple present, present continuous, or present perfect continuous. However, as some of you may have experienced, it is one thing to know what you should teach, and a whole other concept to actually teach it! Throw in the fact that most of the students don’t speak much English and I find myself faced with a real challenge. Particularly because I want to engage the children in something more than a grammar lesson. Of course, when instructing on English, it is necessary to write verb forms and rules on the board, but I feel it is also imperative to involve the students, to get them participating, active. Rowan is a major proponent of active learning, and with good reason. Children who merely sit and copy (or don’t copy) what I write on the board may retain a small portion of the lesson, but those who play games with the lesson are more likely to retain it, if only because they remember the enjoyment of the activity.

So that’s my theory. However, standing in front of 15-20 students who stare at you inquisitively, attempting to stutter through explanations in broken English/Arabic, is entirely another. I ended up mainly teaching grammar, but also calling on each student to give me examples, to pull from their memory other verbs they used, etc. My favorite class was the youngest age group, who are still learning colors, animals, simple phrases, etc. By the end of the class, we were roaring like lions and giggling profusely. There are a couple students in each class who swiftly distinguish themselves as the most gifted, and I somewhat wish I could pull them out and teach them individually. In them I see both passion and intelligence, an eagerness to learn that is not always reflected in their classmates. They are the students, mainly girls, who jump up and raise their hand, “Miss, miss, I know the answer,” or who sit demurely, but always have a complex sentence prepared when no one else can produce an example.

Today I taught one class and then watched Hassan teach the most advanced level, absorbing some valuable instruction skills from his lesson. Although fluency in Arabic is something that may take me a little while to master. He is a wonderful mentor, though, and thoroughly enjoys teaching me Arabic words while I answer his questions on obtuse English usage questions. Everyone is graciously, and sometimes a tad obsequiously, kind to me. I always find myself with a cup of tea in my hand when I start the lesson, courtesy of one of the volunteers downstairs, and they never fail to provide me with a bagged lunch before I leave, the same food that the students receive. Never mind that it’s the same food every day, or that I can’t eat half of it; it is the gesture that I appreciate, and the bag of peanuts I always munch on the cab ride home!

On Monday evening I went shopping (although I didn’t buy anything!) with a few of my co-workers, including Niraan the librarian, Noor the data enterer, and Raheer…I forget her title. In my area, Tala3 Al-Ali exists a street of clothing stores offering Western-style apparel at inexpensive prices. Because I suspect they are factory overstocks, or items that didn’t sell well, one often needs to search to find something suitable, but the four of us spent several hours happily plying through various racks, laughing at some of the absurd fashions, and conversing in a mellifluous mix of Arabic and English.

Hmmmm…let’s see…this week has otherwise been quite mundane. I currently have the house to myself. Jess is meeting some family friends in Jerusalem, and Kathy is, you guessed it, in Wadi Rum with Fadii. Originally, I and one other friend had planned to accompany her and also witness a horse race through the desert. I assumed we would be staying at Rebhe’s camp for free, as before, particularly since Fadii invited us to join him. However, when I tried to confirm this with Kathy, she told me I would be paying for my accommodation. So much for Bedouin hospitality…I suppose it only extends as far as their hopes of sleeping with me. So, rather than waste a fair amount of money on another unenjoyable experience in Rebhe’s camp, I cancelled my plans and will spend the weekend in Amman. Besides, this new teaching gig of mine runs 6 days a week, so breaking away on the weekends (i.e. to Syria) is temporarily impossible until they find a new teacher. Just as well, because then I can’t spend money J

In about 10 minutes I am embarking on a Christian experience in Amman. The British character in class (not Cute Brit, we’ll call this one Cambridge Brit) invited me to join him at a church service tonight. As it will be conducted entirely in Arabic, wish me luck!!!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Yes, we can...

I feel the need to write. It's not the all-consuming, burning, crushing desire that drives the human race to do both extraordinary and terrible things...It is merely a mild sensation, a polite tap on my brain, asking if I would like the sprawl my primitive philosophies acorss the internet, requesting me to log into blogger this Friday morning and transcribe a few thoughts. So, here I am, listening to the sounds of the energized, if not downright rapacious, imam preach from the nearby mosque. Allah Akbar, he cries, among other, far more indecipherable laments. Kathy has just awoke, and I hear her in the kitchen, lighting the stove by flicking the sparks together and hoping the gas tank will not explode. I know without seeing that she is boiling a pot of water for tea, preparing to dump copious amounts of sugar and spices into it, Bedouin-style. Speaking of Bedouins, Fadii still lies in her bed in the room next door, occasionally coughing from his lingering cold. His cell phone sings, distinct because of the ring tone song..."When the night..." For the rest of my life, when I hear Ben E. King croon the words, "Stand by Me," Fadii will be right there, laughing in our living room, waiting to answer the phone until the chorus plays.

Jess is gone for the day, off to a study group or something. Only I woke up languidly, alone, stretching slowly in the relative warmth of my room, ensconced between the warmth of my blankets and the infernal orange glow of the heater. In the middle of the night, when I first flick the heater on, I am still somewhat perturbed by its primordial radiance, an orange so peculiar I have only ever witnessed it in the flowing lava of Hawaii. And now, here it is, cheerily heating my apartment in Amman, nature harnassed between cheap metal coils.

It has been a strange, strange week. I feel myself taking a step back from the events of the last few days, attempting to do something other than merely participate in the broad sweep of life propelling me, us, and the world along in a swirl of excitement, uncertainty, and hope. At times I feel a visceral disconnect from everything, as if I am standing in the midst of a whirlwind, watching the world spin its intrigues around me. But then again, I suppose I am as much a part of that whirlwind as anyone, and more than most.

Ok, now you all are thoroughly confused. What in the world are you talking 'bout, Laura? Well, I'm sure you can guess one of the main events of the week, i.e., Yes-we-can-man night. I was preternaturally excited for the elections, giddy all day, bouncing through class, practically skipping home through the congested traffic of medina al-munawwara street. I think I've mentioned this, but I didn't vote. Not because I don't care, but, in part, because I'm a little bit lazy, and, in part, because I really wasn't too keen on a particular candidate. No, my political leaning propelled me toward Mr. McCain, and I, for one, LOVE Sarah Palin :), hockey mom and all, but Barack Obama is a spark of change in an America that desperately needs vigor, energy, and commitment to solve the numerous crises. And this is not to say that McCain could not have delivered that, because I trust his experience and his record more than Obama. But it is to say that I was a bit more ambivalent in this election. Honestly, it's just fun to hear Obama speak-he uses the same corny metaphors that I do! And he's not, like, 70 years old. So, suffice it to say, I went into the night cheering for McCain, but not terribly disappointed when Obama won. Bill Mahr said this to Larry King in an interview, and, for me anyway, it holds true:

I sensed something in conservatives reacting to the election yesterday. Even the ones who voted for McCain, they sort of were relieved. I sensed that. It was like, yes, I guess I kind of had to pull the lever for McCain, but secretly a part of me knew that this country needed a breath of fresh air, needed a new kind of president, a new kind of politics, a new face, a smart guy, a flexible guy, a supple leader.

Besides, by the end of the night, I really didn't care who won, just as long as I could rest for an hour before work. You see, over here, the very first polls on the East coast didn't start reporting until 1 am. At that time, I had been at Books @ Cafe for several hours, watching a football match, sipping a Redbull and Vodka (only one for energy though; the night was far too important for alcohol), and smiling as Wolf Blitzer pontificated aimlessly on CNN. About 2, myself, Jess, and about 10 of our mostly American friends headed to our apartment to await the results. As I walked in the door, I was greeted by the sight of Fadii (who I knew was there) and several random Bedouin men on our couch. Sigh. He was pulling the whole Arab, "If your house is my house, than your house is also my friends' house..." cultural disconnect. Fadii, I love you to death, but my house is just your house, not other random Arab men's house. They appeared mild-mannered, sitting on our couch, munching on nuts and watching CNN as if they actually cared. Kathy wandered in, rolled her eyes slightly at me, but proceeded to be the good hostess Fadii is training her to be. When one of the 3 randoms became drunkenly obnoxious, Fadii removed him, and Kathy instructed her boyfriend NOT to invite strange men into her roommates' home.

So there we sat, about 10 Americans mingled with a few Jordanians, tersely snacking on potato chips, Bugles, pumpkin seeds and chickpeas as we sipped caffeine-laden drinks and watched the results filter across the pond, across Europe, across the Med, and into our chilled apartment on the 4th floor of Wathara Building 22, Garden Street, Ta3laa al-Ali, Amman. Bundled under jackets and huddled together for warmth, we watched as blue seeped across the American states, from East to West in an inexorable crawl. After realizing that victory for McCain was virtually impossible, I retired to my room to curl near my highly flammable heater and attempt sleep, but I was too caffeinated and constantly aroused by the cheers bouncing into my room from the living room. So I returned. As dawn bled over the darkness of night, and light illuminated our weary faces, our friends stumbled sleepily home, we tidied the mess, and I laid down for about 2 hours, before arising to go to work Wednesday afternoon. School, I regret to say, was long since forsaken, both for me, and for any other American who cared enough about their country to watch the elections (harsh, I know).

In the cab ride, at work, with colleagues, all I heard about was the election. News headlines on the Arab stations hailed the election as a great step forward, an inevitable improvement in American government, and translated his victory speech as well as offering positive comments from Arab leaders around the Middle East. Interestingly, though, not everyone supports Obama here. During my conversation classes that day, the topic arose, and Khalid, one of the computer teachers in Wehdat, thought that McCain is better for Iraq. He is, I should mention, a refugee. Why, I asked, genuinely surprised. Because he thinks the American troops are needed in Iraq for stability, and that Obama will extract them sooner than McCain. However, he said insightfully, Obama is better for Middle Eastern relations, generally, being of course, not Bush-aligned...And so forth. Only time will tell how true Obama's promise of change will ring, and how his policies of foreign diplomacy will affect the Middle East. For now, there is hope.

Speaking of hope, one of most assured ways of relinquishing hope for bitter guilt is discussing Iraq with refugees. Yesterday, Thursday, I worked at Wehdat. I took a cab there, all by myself, and enjoyed the sense of freedom when I wandered a bit around the markets, reveling in the crush of humanity, strange stares, and colorful stalls that comprise the 'camp'. I arrived earlier, about 11:30, because the office closes at 3. So, if I only arrive at 1, then I only have about 2 hours of lesson time! I discussed daily life with two of the female teachers, Iman and Maai, which led into an intense dialogue concerning the differences in life in Iraq both before and after the American 'liberation' in 2003. Life in Amman is so much more expensive, so much more difficult, so much more unfriendly, they said. In Iraq, the schools were better, they had homes, cars, jobs...Here, they're refugees, unable to legally work. Hey, I'm a bright blonde American! Go Operation Iraqi Freedom! (Note sarcasm). I will not launch into a tirade, if only because I know that there are other, valid, points of view on the topic, but when standing in front of refugees, describing the welfare systems of England and America while they are unable to either return home or go to America, logic occasionally flees.

Ha. So, rather than attempt to wrangle a taxi in Wehdat, the center manager dropped me off at home, where I opened the door to the tantalizing scents of Bedouin cooking. Fadii can do truly amazing things in the kitchen. Maglooba, this time, literally meaning upside down, a tasty concoction of spiced saffron rice, onions, potatoes, and chicken served en masse, upside down. And then, of course, our water ran out, as we have had guests all day/most nights this week. Wednesday, I forgot to mention, we had Ben and Clement over for one of our intellectual dinners of Bedouin cooking and classy wine :) Our landlord came over to turn on the reserve tank, but we must be extra cautious to not run out...

So what else? Ahhh, yes, the confoundingly obtuse world of men. While everyone around me is happily engaged in some form of relationship, I find myself, not suprisingly or unhappily, alone. Well, not alone, but when my only communication with a certain character at the Embassy occurs via text message, because his life is work, then I consider myself alone. Which is as it has almost always been (for those of you who know my past :), and will likely always be. However, when I think about my happiest moments in life, they have been with my family, with my friends, or alone, transversing the world. And now I can service-taxi myself (with a friend or two in tow, mother) off to Syria next weekend without guilt, and trek down to Egypt and Cairo for Eid next month without fear of leaving behind something...And last night didn't help. After Fadii and Kathy had their umpteenth fight (don't worry, they always make up; they wouldn't be Fadii and Kathy without one major tiff and week :), and their tearful soap opera unraveled in my living room, I plugged into my computer and watched a cheesy chick flick, which happily restored my faith in humanity through corny romances and teen drama.

Ok, well pardon the slightly rancoric rant; I really do have lots of wonderful guy friends, one of whom I hope to meet in Damascus next weekend! Now all I need to do is charm the border guards into granting me a visa. With Obama as president-elect, I need to keep telling myself, yes you can, Laura, yes you can!

Ahhhh. So there is my just-woken-up-slightly-pensive-summary-of-thoughts. Hashoofik ba3d shawaya!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Russian? You?

No, I’m not Russian, thank you very much. Nor am I a prostitute. Nor do I want to be your ‘friend.’ And no, hell no, do I want to make your friend ‘happy’. Welcome to life in the Middle East J The propositions have certainly been interesting this past week. For instance, I’ve ascertained that the question, “Are you Russian?” is actually a veiled form of solicitation, since ‘most’ of the female Russian population here in Amman are, well, prostitutes. Such is my education. Please note that the outfit raimenting me in the photo is in fact a Halloween costume, confined to the vicinity of my apartment, and is in no way, shape, or form a reflection of my behavior in the Middle Eastern region. Further information on said evening shall be provided below.

Hmmmm…class is decidedly mundane, so I will not expound on its daily trials, except perhaps to mention that the favorite homework I do is Jess’, and involves reading a novel, Hayatii, written about the daily emotional drama of Arab (in this case, Egyptian) life. Work, however, is much more exciting, in particular since I have begun my adventures in Wehdat, a.k.a. Palestinian refugee camp in East Amman. This refugee ‘camp’ is unlike the miles of battered tents found on the outskirts of African war zones; it is a veritable city, tangled with alleyways and snarled traffic, pollution and cart-pushers selling roasted nuts, shrieking children and equally shrill mothers, grey apartment buildings and obnoxious lingerie stores, the largest market in Amman, and a sports complex that hosts the offices of Relief International, where I work.

I had been forewarned, but I was still slightly shocked when I hopped out of the car, rushed out of the rain, and stepped on the Israeli flag, painted on the entirety of the entrance floor to the sports complex. Wehdat isn’t more conservative than the rest of Amman, it’s just slightly more, well, political. Recently renovated, the center is a bit of an oasis amid the chaos of the sports center, with classrooms, offices, and a computer lab available to instruct and counsel Arab youth. During my first visit, which Ahmed kindly escorted, I met all of the volunteers and staff at the center and toured the sports complex. Perhaps I should mention that the Wehdat football (soccer) team is the best in the country- I guess political persecution inspires unparalleled football skill…Anyway, I was granted access into the president’s office/trophy room, where I viewed the plethora of fake metallic trophies cluttering the room. The next day, when I went to the center to actually begin my English teaching, I was barraged with eager staff to pick my brain. I set up shop in an empty classroom, and had a constant flood of women relying on me, me!, to improve their English. So, I taught, new vocab words, new phrases, new grammar…Most challenging, to me, was balancing the differing levels of English, from raw beginner to fairly advanced. I struggled with keeping everyone engaged, interested, and learning, especially when certain students would talk for longer than their turn J In the end, I gained as much knowledge as them, both in regards to teaching skills, and knowledge of Iraqi culture-about the totalitarian reign of Saddam Hussein, and his edict about women’s dress (only black or grey) to famed cuisine.

Several of us piled into the company car for the drive back to Jebel Naser, unprepared for the deluge emptying from the skies. The streets flooded, literally, and raging rivers roiled down the hills and roads of East Amman, unable to seep into the ground due to backed up drainage systems. Amman is a desert city, and wholly unaccustomed to any weather without ‘sand’ in the name. Our doughty little car rolled through the streets without getting stalled, Alhamdulillah, and, after the showers came one of the most gorgeous rainbows, vibrantly stretching over the jumble of white and grey Amman.

Ohhhh, and I also went bowling, at one of the 4 star hotels in Amman (why they have a bowling alley, who knows), but I came in second! For someone who can barely kick a football straight, and will never master serving a volleyball, this is quite an accomplishment.

And now we need to have a serious discussion about the weather. Two weeks ago, I was climbing waterfalls and tanning on the balcony. Now, I’m shivering in my bedroom and huddled under piles of blankets in the living room. Well, alright, I am a Minnesotan, so, while everyone else is sporting sensible sweaters, I’m still in tee-shirts, but still…The weather outside is actually quite palatable. It is merely the dreaded chill of the unheated apartment that causes so much complaint. However, our landlord just dropped off portable electric heaters a few hours ago, 3 total, so I will now have a four foot cushion of warmth in my bedroom, since their range is, errrr, limited. So, no, life in Amman is not all parties, vacations, and transcendent revelations.

Unless by transcendent revelations, you mean overcoming one’s fear of giant bugs. Because that I have accomplished. Jess and I went out for a speed walk session two days ago, and returned to do some stretches on the mattresses propped in the sunroom. I pulled my out, plopped it on the floor, flopped on top of it, and felt something scurry past my hair and off the mat. Something large, exo-skeletal, brown…and cockroach-y. I’m proud to say I didn’t even screech, but merely scowled, grabbed my sandal, tracked it behind the couch, and smushed it satisfactorily. Insect-Wawa War-Laura 1, Bugs 0. And last night, as some friends and I gathered in our living room to study and huddle for warmth, I noticed a many-legged creature scuttling across the floor. I was actually excited! When everyone else refused to share my interest, I grabbed the requisite sandal and beat the intruding centipede repeatedly. Laura 2, Bugs 0!

Halloween fell on last Friday, although, due to the lack of festivities in Muslim Amman, Jess and I (Kathy was, where else, in Wadi Rum J brought Halloween to Amman. We spent the day tooling around City Mall, marveling at the Western wonders of Carrefour, purchasing winter jackets in Promod, and adorning suitably inappropriate costumes for the small party we hosted. I was a ‘belly dancer’; Jess was the Looooove Doctor. As a reward/punishment for a somewhat successfully execute party, Jess and I ‘treated’ ourselves to waxing appointments at the spa. Fun fun. However, what cost me 70 dollars in America cost me 12 here.

Speaking of inappropriate topics…alright, we’ll leave those to the imagination. Instead, let’s focus on politics for a moment. As a few of you may have noticed, tomorrow is election day in Amrika, and I have wasted many hours watching the coverage on CNN, BBC, and Al-Jazeera. Obama seems to be the candidate of choice for Jordan, and our class discussions on the topic inevitably devolve into asking me, one of the three Americans, who I voted for. Errr…well, I actually didn’t vote at all, but, since the reasons for that are too elaborate to enumerate in Arabic, I merely say it’s a secret. Lame, I know. Everyone says McCain, “he just like Bush.” But please affect a slightly high-pitched, nasal accent when reading that. Like most of the cab drivers do. Whew. I need to be sleeping soon, to prepare for a long night of election coverage tomorrow. When we meet again, America will, insha’allah, have a new president!