Friday, March 13, 2009


Tis that time of month of again…No, not THAT time of month :P It is the time of month when I wake up, hit the snooze on my alarm clock, cuddle into the warmth of my Pooh blanket a little longer, and morosely drag myself from the dregs of mosque-interrupted slumber to a warm shower…and realize that I have not blogged in an egregiously long period of time. I’d apologize, but, then again, I think I’ve already offered remorse for the same sentiments in previous entries. So, you must suffer with my whimsical entries a bit longer.

It is also that time of year…finally. Jess and I were trudging home from school on Sunday, passing through the small park near our home, and noticed white blossoms budding on the branches of a tree tucked behind the walls of a garden. Spring!!!! Although I hesitate to promulgate the word too loudly, for fear of retribution from the fickle gods of Ammani weather, I think spring may have finally arrived. After weeks of bitterly driving winds, battering rain showers, pummeling hail, and the occasional sprinkle of snow, sun broke through the fortress of clouds, and cheery beams of sunshine beckoned us from beneath our layers of blankets and shivering.

I think I may have neglected to mention that we received our heating bill for the last three months. It totaled 380 dinars. So, all of those nights of semi-toasty coziness next to the heater were not quite as blithe as we had expected…We coughed up the money, said good-bye to our savings, and resolved to live in chilly resilience for the rest of the winter. We finally reached the point where we laughed at the absurdity of the situation. Jessica, Rebecca, and I sat in our living room, huddled beneath blankets and jackets, and fingers semi-frozen as we scrawled out our homework, our breath emerging in white puffs that swiftly dissipated in the frozen air. I no longer put my groceries in the fridge; what was the point, when the temp of the apartment was the same as that of the talaaja (fridge, in Arabic).

But, we were strong. Winter is not eternal; I do not live in the land of Narnia, and there is no witch to cast the curse of endless winter over the deserts of Jordan. It’s interesting, however. I feel…different, with the change in weather. Reborn is too dramatic, but perhaps revitalized is more appropriate. My body, in a state of inertia for the past several months, uncurled from its constant state of huddled shivering to realize my world again. There is, in fact, more to life than the distance between the warmth of my bed, the steamy heat of the shower, and the cocoon of blankets on the couch.

Even the small lake pooling on the floor of the living room cannot banish my good humor. Nor did the sparking water heater switch, which we smelled one evening while preparing for bed. “Hey, do you guys smell something….burning?” And so, upon further investigation, we tracked the scent to the hot water switch, which we quickly turned off. When the electrician, our old friend by now, arrived the next day to repair it, he laughed and asked if anything else was in imminent need of breaking. “mumkin il-ousbua3 al-jaii,” I joked. Probably next week. Such is the life.

A rather unexpected series of adventures have been thrust upon my life this past week; and, no, I am not referring to the continual excitements of the Arabic language- I learned how to say, “I poked out the eyes of everyone around you”- but rather, physical discoveries taking me beyond the confines of Amman. Last Wednesday, I participated in a retreat for my work, Relief International. I think it was officially a “workshop”, although the only working we endured was stabbing balloons with knives. Due to tensions in the workplace, and stress after the war in Gaza, and merely because team-building and stress relief are always useful excuses, the Jebel Nasser office group took a holiday. We gathered, early, last Wednesday, and boarded a chartered bus to the Western border of Jordan (i.e. Israel, but we try to mention the name as seldom as possible).

I was impressed; we were only half an hour late in leaving the center; positively early to Arab Time. One of my favorite people in Jordan, Malak, arrived to join our group. She is the daughter of one of the managers of the center, an entirely brilliant girl who speaks nearly flawless English at the age of 15 and is at the head of her class in school. And, for those of you who are wondering why I was not in school…I skipped. And instead spent 8 hours surrounded by the chatter of Arabic and the beat of the tabla (drum), both produced energetically by my Iraqi colleagues.

Because I was the only native English speaker, the group leaders conducted the entire day in Arabic, and I am pleased to say that I understood the majority of what was said without the aid of a translator. However, if I ever had a vocab question, Malak or Ahmed were only a few feet away. We played trivia games for much of the ride, but occasionally the leaders asked for volunteers to walk up to the mic and perform some task, usually involving humiliation on the participant’s side. Needleless to say, I was ‘volunteered’, and made to repeat “Lorry wara lorry,” (truck behind truck) five times. At least I won a bandana for my efforts.

A little over an hour later, we arrived at the site of the Baptism on the Jordan River. Yes, The Baptism, you know, the one in the Bible, where Jesus is submerged in the Jordan River? It still gets me, sometimes, how close I am to the origins of Western religion/culture/conflict. I live on the edge of the Holy Land, a mere two hours (not including the interminable border waits) from Jerusalem. As my friend Aaron was commenting as we were driving on the road to Madaba, the geography of Jordan is startling similar to that of Israel; or, perhaps, not so startlingly, since they were once the same country. In times long gone, shepherds did not have to fear land mines and machine gun-manned borders. The land simply was, an endless vista of rocky mountains, scrubby outcroppings, salty seas, groves of olive trees, dusty paths, lazy rivers, and humanity, all fluidly mingling on the roads from Damascus to Jerusalem, from ancient Philadelphia (that’s Amman) to Cairo.

But, no. Now the Middle East, my world, is marred by barbed wire fences, guard posts, and the tangibility of tension. “Laura, look, over there,” Doram, the (cute) sports teacher at Jebel Nasser indicated, standing breathlessly close to my ear, “Israel.” And then the moment was ruined when he uttered a curse, in Arabic, and turned away in disgust.

Malak, my little angel (her name means angel in Arabic), hovered near me or her father throughout our excursion, offering soft commentary in her sweet voice. “This forest must be scary at night!” she whispered as we passed beneath the knurled forms of the trees lining the banks of the Jordan river. She was right, though, the flickering shadows reflected off the black swamp water, the twisted arms of the trees thrusting menacingly across the path, the absence of birdsong. “I bet there are ghosts here at night!” I joked with my colleague, Luma, in Arabic, and she shuddered.

Being Arabs, my group took a plethora of photographs, dragging me into the majority of them, pausing at every interesting tree, pool, and stone. Our guide stopped before the site where, they think, Jesus was actually baptized, now a stagnant puddle of algae-ridden significance. “You see,” the guide stated, “the Jordan River has shrunk since the time of Jesus. Now, people are baptized in the actual river, at the point closest to this site.”

So, we trekked through more twisted woods, past natural springs to the Jordan River, a languid stream entirely un-Biblical in proportion. About 15 feet across the river, the Israeli flag fluttered in the breeze, and IDF soldiers watched our group warily. A nervous twitter passed through our group, and their behavior (forgive me) resembled a recusant child stealing a cookie from the jar, knowing she’s wrong, but nonetheless enjoying the occasion. More pictures were taken with the Israeli flag prominent in the background. I performed a few ‘baptisms’ of my more courageous colleagues, and then we headed up the bank to the Greek Orthodox church.

Our invasion of the small nave frightened away the white tourists, whose guide eyed our babbling multitudes with annoyance. I was rather shocked by the enthusiasm of my group, who flowed into every last niche of the church, sitting, photographing, and laughing beneath the stern countenance of Jesus, who watched from a mural on the ceiling.

We hiked back to the bus, thoroughly sweaty and hot by this time, and rode about 15 minutes to a villa near the Dead Sea. Inside the stone walls, we separated, with unspoken familiarity, women into one room, men into the other. Initially, I had followed the men into the living room, but then I realized I was the only female. Oops. I found my female colleagues sprawled across the beds in their private sanctuary, removing their veils and giggling as they relaxed away from the prying eyes of menfolk. Boring. I soon abandoned them and went out the pool, where I soaked my feet and absorbed the warmth of the sun. I laid down on the heated stone, stretching out while keeping my body covered, when Ahmed walked by and muttered, “Bad idea, Laura.” The next day, I was paging through the pictures that had been taken and discovered one of myself, ‘lasciviously’ lying on the ground.

Throughout the afternoon, we played team-building games, ravenously devoured lunch, and relaxed away from the stress of the workplace. A few of the boys (including Doram, very nice body, btw) went swimming, and I watched them enviously as the splashed in the refreshingly pool. However, I knew that is lying in the ground in haram (forbidden) then stripping down for a swim would get me stoned. At the end of the day, we gathered in the living room, blew up balloons, and wrote on them our biggest challenge in life at the current time. The person who could best solve it was given a knife to pop the balloon. Given the severity of certain situations (my family is in danger in Iraq; I am not able to earn any money as a refugee in Jordan), I felt rather imperialistic when I reticently stated my challenge as, “The Arabic language.”

Perspective. View the site of Jesus’ baptism through Muslim eyes, see your challenges in relation to the inequality around you. Realize that weather is ephemeral, not eternal. Realize that true friends are eternal, and not ephemeral. Experience Pink Panty Dropper night without dropping a single panty. Listen to Egyptian Arabic with the (slightly smug) knowledge of having triumphed to Jordanian Arabic…

Hmmmm…some of that I will leave to your fecund imaginations…but one of the adventures upon which I am allowed to espouse is Aaron. Time for a quick trip down memory lane…Remember, in Cairo, I had two Aaron friends? One of whom worked for State Department? Re-enter Aaron, in Amman on business. Tough life, I know. I met him at his luxury Ammani hotel, introduced him to Jafra, the Arab restaurant downtown, and the Jordanian dialect. Being State, he is an unusually perspicacious being, and he adopted a semi-Jordanian accent remarkably swiftly. However, there were moments when his Egyptian shone through, and I had to laugh. I may not have a job, but a least I can speak Arabic in two dialects ;-)

On Monday, we (as in, all of Jordan) celebrated the birthday of Mohammed. Alhamdulilah, as this marked a national holiday from work and school, and an opportunity to travel around Jordan with Aaron. He rented a mid-sized sedan from his hotel, and discovered that translated into a scratched and sputtering Chevy Aveo. No worries. I directed him out of Amman, with a quick detour to my flat to pay the rent. “So, is this a typical Jordanian apartment?” Aaron asked, as we walked up the four flights of stairs (still no elevator). “Yup. Note lake on the floor.” But, he was impressed with the rooftop balcony.

We drove to Madaba, about half an hour outside of Amman, coursing through the valleys and over the hills of Jordan’s topographical variation. “It’s a lot…hillier…than Cairo,” Aaron commented, easing the car adroitly through Middle Eastern congestion. “And cleaner, and…” The list grew.

“Now this is more like Cairo,” Aaron said, as we nudged forward in holiday Madaba traffic, eyeing the disheveled storefronts on either side of the road, the ubiquitous Arab men shouting, the accumulation of rubbish, and the disorderly lanes of traffic. “But they’re actually waiting at the stoplights.” That would be in reference to the lack of traffic adherence in Cairo. Of course, I got us hopelessly lost attempting to find the mosaic church, but, with a few shouts for directions, we found the church and spent a couple hours wandering through the streets, enjoying (on Aaron’s part, anyway; I merely continued to revel in it) the return to the Arab world, and savoring cheap shawerma and Arab hospitality.

With Aaron’s desire for mosaics thoroughly sated, we left town, got slightly lost again, and proceeded to Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land before he died. Having visited twice before, I followed Aaron patiently as he discovered the unremarkable (and perpetually hazy) view, and then suggested we drive down to the Dead Sea. The bright sunshine of the Dead Sea Valley warmed my face, and I lazily stretched in the passenger’s seat, enjoying my holiday away from Amman, while I allowed Aaron to navigate to steep curves and abrupt incline changes of the road. Partaking a second lunch at the Dead Sea Panorama, we raced back to Amman in time for sunset atop the Citadel, a surprisingly poignant visit. With the brilliance of sunset deepening into a fathomless blue, we approached the vestiges of the Zeus temple, a few pillars standing testament to forsaken glory of Rome. As the voice of every mosque in the city drifted up to us, blendingly mellifluously into a single ‘Allah Akbar’, we climbed among the Roman columns, stood among the remains of a Byzantine church, and watched the light fade behind an abandoned mosque. Amman spread before us-north, south, east, and west- and we stood in the center of it all, surrounded by the timeless voice of Islam.

The moment faded, and we left the citadel, picked up one of Aaron’s colleagues, and ate dinner in one of the most sha3bi (hole-in-the-wall) restaurants in Amman, Hashem’s. For 6.5 dinar, we feasted on the greasy delights of falafel, hummus, fries, fool (beans), bread, and tea. From there, I took them to one of swankiest districts of Amman, Sweifeh, where we people-watched. Returning them safely to their hotel, I cabbed home, arriving to a darkened apartment, the roomies already sensibly tucked into bed. Perspective, I smiled softly as the incorporeality of slumber overtook me. The ability to feel the shiver of immortality as the mosques call to pray, the ability to feel insignificant among the relics of the ancients. May I never lose it.