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!