Monday, September 12
The other day I got an excited text from my buddy Mark, informing me that the door to the roof of our building was open. Of course, that could only mean one thing. Picture time! If you find yourself on a Jordanian roof, expect to see two things: water tanks and satellite dishes. Here you will find a few images that I dutifully captured so that you might know what to expect if you ever find yourself in an action film, trying to outrun pursuers on the roof of an unknown apartment building. Sometime in the future I think I’ll talk about what’s inside all those tanks – water. I want to talk about water and the roll that it plays in the lives of individuals and of this region as a whole. But I’ll leave that for another time.
Yesterday was the eleventh of September. Sunday, or yuum alahd (day one) of the Arabic work week. Dodging through Jordanian morning traffic on my way to class at Yarmouk University, it was hard to believe that exactly ten years had passed since the day that so changed history and cemented much of American perception toward the Arabic and larger Islamic worlds. As I look around at my American classmates, the reality is that the events of that day probably played a bigger part in bringing many of us here than we even realize. In so many ways, our generation is a product of that event. I, along with most of America, started to see that day how little I knew of the world. And I spent the ten year anniversary in the best of all possible ways – getting my finger prints taken in a Jordanian police station.
No, I wasn’t in any sort of trouble. In order to get a student residency permit for the country, it’s necessary to go through quite a handful a red tape. Our program staff decided to bite the bullet and do as much as possible all at once, so the lot of us students loaded into a bus, and rode to the local police office. (Quite nicely we passed a heard of camels on our way.) By the gate a bereted solider lounged with his machine gun, working his worry beads through his fingers. As we entered the station, the omnipresent smile of King Abdullah beamed down from the wall - in this case with a shiny-eyed falcon peering over his shoulder. Men in uniform came and went, greeting each other with the repeated kisses of greeting traditional to the region. The whole gaggle of us were herded upstairs by a university staff member. He’s the kind of guy who looks like a movie character. The kind who, when first you meet him your not sure if his stolid demeanor is friendly, or not. The sort of guy that you’d introduce in a movie script with your character tripping and falling. The first thing that he sees is a pair of freshly shined shoes. The camera tilts up to show an imposing angle on a tall, solemn and perfectly put-together man. The kind of man that (introduction not withstanding), ultimately, you can’t survive without.
Once upstairs, we clustered down one hallway, and then back out into a waiting room. Blue-uniformed governement officers thrust forms at us. First we each received one in Arabic. As we struggled to know which blanks to fill in, and what to write in them, a second round of forms was passed – this time in English. Should we write in English? Or in Arabic? Do we even have true addresses in the country? Okay. No addresses. Building names? Location? I know it in Arabic… but should we transliterate it into English to match everything else we’ve written on the form? So the carousel went until we each had some 2 or 3 pages shoved into our passports and were ready to return to the lower level for the next step. Somehow I ended up at the front of the line and was directed into a room where a woman sat at a table with a massive ink pad. For reasons that I couldn’t comprehend at the time, I was pushed back out of the room to wait. This was a ladies first situation! One by one each student was meticulously finger printed and then waved to the bathroom to let the fresh ink mix in streams of cold soapy water. Standing by a table, waiting my turn, I began “chatting” with one of the officers who stood by me. Like everyone working at the station, he was a genuinely pleasant man. He looked at me from under his heavy lashes and and tried to make his meaning clear to me. Suddenly his words began to form together in a way that grabbed my brain. I was jolted back to the day. He was asking me about September 11. If we were all Americans. If it had happened close to where I lived. He was concerned for us.
Each day here is full, and this one just kept coming. My language partner and new friend invited me to his house for dinner. As I ate dinner with his mother and brother, Al Jazeera Arabic played in the background, and I was reminded that it’s more fitting to use your right hand for eating and drinking. My friend’s brother was a medical student in Yemen, until the late unrest in that country. He was just breaking a fast when I dropped in and he cheerfully welcomed me to the table. He understood my perpetual confusion, he told me. It had been the same for him when he first moved to Yemen and he was unable to understand any of the regional dialect. Shway, shway, he reminded me. Slowly, slowly. It will come. The full moon rose as I sipped sugary sweet mint tea and ate fresh teen fruits with my hospitable friends. The final call to prayer sounded out across the neighborhood from the local mosque and it was time for the party to end.
Words are not enough to express the supreme beauty of experiencing the cultures of the world as people and relationships rather than slogans and ideas. For all that’s broken in the world, I find life in these moments.