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The Beautiful Challenge

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Irbid, Jordan

Friday, September 30

One of my teachers here in Jordan insists that by the end of my stay I’ll be ready to blog in Arabic. I try to imagine an alternate reality where typing in Arabic is actually cathartic and where I actually feel able to express myself without crippling deficiencies. Often I have 150 word essays due in my Arabic class, and although this paragraph is already half way to that benchmark after only a few minutes, 150 Arabic words stare me in the face, filled with mockery, for hours on end. There’s no current of thought. No ebb and flow of emotions and rhythm. Only the daunting reality of each ك and ق and خ which, to my untrained ear, seem frighteningly similar. Each sentence is a reminder that there is no “is” in Arabic. Nouns sometimes feel almost naked as they butt up against one another without so much as the courtesy of a connecting article. Perhaps one day I’ll be nimble enough with this new language to capture the sensations of ephemeral Jordanian moments, but until then I’ll be forced to rely on my English and my camera.

Each day as I meander down University Street or speedwalk between the olive groves, on my way across the Yarmouk campus, I’m struck by some crystalline moment that begs to be remembered. They always catch me unaware, and are really remarkable only for their commonness. They’re the things that, as a photographer, I crave to capture and remember, but both my studies and the prevailing culture dictate that for now some images will only be remembered in words. I wish I could show you all these tiny pieces, the sum total of which equals the profound conundrum which is Irbid, Jordan. You glimpse it in the butterfly flutter of long mascaraed eyelashes on a smitten girl on the university campus. Her round cheeks are accentuated by the wrap of her floral patterned head scarf.  She keeps her hands to herself by pressing her arm across her stomach and clutching the strap of her purse as she smiles shyly at the boy who leans back against a car with practiced ease. He wears a tight t-shirt covered with English writing he probably only barely understands and slicks his hair with just too much gel. They are young. They’re flirting under the olive trees, caught somewhere between the past and future. Crowds of students and teachers stream by. Two men shuffle down the street – avoiding the low hanging branches that side swipe you on the sidewalks – in their long white thawbs and red checkered keffiyehs. Across the boulevard a knot of admiring college boys watch as the muscled one in the middle slowly unboxes a pair of newly-acquired Ray Bans. The breeze ruffles the gossamer fabric of the black niqab which covers all but the eyes of a passing woman who might have stepped straight from Jordan’s Bedouin roots. Her physical geometry changes with the breeze as the exaggerated flat-top character of her costume ripples in time with her walk. As her eyes peer out, it’s impossible not to wonder how she sees her world and assesses the stream of high-heeled girls who flow past with tightly concealed hair and even tighter jeans. And what of the minority of Irbid women (though not at all uncommon) who brave the catcalls of countless insecure boys as they stride through life with hair flowing for all to see? You see Jordan in the uniformed and armed police officer prostrating himself in prayer next to his parked police SUV and in the saucy heels and fitted jeans that peak from below the ankle length robe of a conservative woman. It’s in the warm handshake of a store clerk who wants to sell you Turkish shoes, practice his English and assure you that faith is immaterial and that people are merely people – that terrorists are just as aberrant to him as to you. It’s in the old man who offers to walk with you far down the street, just to give you directions to the DHL office.

Nothing is simple here. You breathe complexity in with the sometimes smoky air. I’ll take laundry for example. Best not to even hope to get it done unless you have a whole afternoon free. We technically do have a washing machine in our apartment, but it’s a far different object than what bears that name in the US. It has a hose to be connected to a water source, but there’s no readily apparent water source. This means that the first time we did laundry we had to back the machine up into the bathroom and connect it to the water there. At the recommendation of my good friend Ahmed, I bought two buckets the next time and just filled the machine that way. After the clothes have marinaded and agitated in the soapy water it’s necessary to lift them a few at a time out of the water and put them into the other half of the machine that one friend had the audacity to call a “dryer”. In fact, it is merely the equivalent of the “spin cycle” on a more familiar machine. The clothes require rinsing in buckets and sometimes repeated spinning. While running the spin cycle it’s necessary to constantly monitor and drain the water that’s been spun out of the clothes because otherwise you merely end up blending your bright whites with a swirl of recently expelled water: no drying taking place. Finally when all the steps mentioned have been completed, all the damp clothes are ready. Ready to be spread out over every available surface in our apartment to dry! Thankfully the humidity is quite low here and the clothes usually dry within 24 hours. If I’m really honest, I have to admit that all of this may have been a catalyst to buy new clothes when I went out to the market with my friend. It’s easier (and perhaps cheaper when you account for time) to buy one of the many used shirts at the market than to launder my current ones. Perhaps this is slight hyperbole, but it is an arithmetic worth considering.

Down in old Irbid is the souq or market. You can wind between labyrinthine stalls that sell everything from fresh dates to water valves to used sandals. I could never find the places where I end up if it were not for local friends. They guide me down alleys and under canopies until I arrive at places I’m never sure I could locate again. One thing much stronger in Jordan than in the US is community. Something as simple as shirt shopping needn’t be carried out solo. Instead, you find the shop that’s run by an old friend. When you drop in he might just offer you coffee, and then show you the freshly arrived bag of quality European cast-offs. Together you and the owners will settle in to go through the bag, item by item, until something catches your eye. Then you get to try on the item and present yourself for the review of those running the store and possibly even the other browsing customers. The result is wonderfully relaxed and involves lots of storytelling, chair sitting, and perhaps even a wedding invitation, but it does not happen quickly. Nothing does. I’ve been here a month, and was shockingly gratified to realize that I actually told a story to a friend on a bus last night. My conjugations were horrific and my vocabulary also included a healthy share of hand motions, but I think she understood what had happened by the time I stopped. Being constantly surrounded by Arabic, I’m always reminded of how far I have to go. Still, it’s good to stop in brief moments and remember how far I’ve been able to come in these last weeks. Just like everything here in Jordan it’s slow, and rather difficult, but also surrounded with a great deal of spare but ineffable beauty.

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banquet001.jpg - The chef prepares to create an asian stir fry.banquet002.jpgbanquet003.jpgbanquet004.jpg - Traditional Jordanian mansaf.banquet005.jpg - Rabiya and Manal.  It's so good to know that these two have my back.banquet006.jpg - The banquet is spread.banquet007.jpg - Typical.banquet008.jpgbanquet009.jpg - The other patrons at the restraunt got quite the dinner entertainment.banquet010.jpg - People taking pictures of people.banquet011.jpg - Some of the funniest guys you could ever meet.banquet012.jpg - And the dancing begins.banquet013.jpgbanquet014.jpgbanquet015.jpgbanquet016.jpgbanquet017.jpg - Getting into the grove.banquet018.jpg - Our audience.

Irbid, Jordan

Friday, September 9

Last summer I decided to take on a triathlon – not so much because I loved swimming, but more because I really didn’t like it.  I had a summer that was mostly un-booked, and it seemed like a perfect time to deal with my deep rooted fear of the water.  From my earliest memories I never really loved being in the water, but it all got exponentially worse when, as a young swimmer, I went snorkeling with my brother.  After diving down, I came up with a snorkel full of water, and breathed in hard.  As I felt the claustrophobic grip of lungs filling with water, I flailed and grabbed at my brother Micah.  Thankfully, he knew enough about how to help a drowning swimmer, and he was able to drag me back to the safety of the lakeshore.  That feeling of panic, when you’re over your head and the whole world seems to be closing in on your head and chest – when your whole reality feels like a cavernous yawning, pulling you with unseen fingers down toward the darkness and deep.  This is the feeling that left me far from excited about spending time in the water.  Last summer’s training went well, nonetheless, and although far from a talented swimmer, I was not particularly afraid when my first race day came around.  Until you’ve swam in your first triathlon, there’s really no way to completely know the feeling of being smack in the middle of what many racers refer to as “the washing machine”.  Frothy water pulses around you as arms and legs of powerful swimmers slash the water, and, at times, your body and goggles.  I went out hard and survived the first leg of the swim.  I was proud to have maintained my own in this watery melee.  I turned around the first buoy and went into the long straightaway.  As I paddled along, a variety of factors began to play games with my mind.  My practice had been in the same lake, but in the shallow portion, where you could always at least see bottom.  Now, I was swimming through dark, deep and murky water.  I began to physically wane, and the nettling tentacles of fear began to enwrap me.  For a brief period, just succumbing to the dark forces of the water felt like the easier thing to do.  I was gasping and beginning to flail to stay above water.  I popped my head up and looked for the nearest rescue boat only to realize that it was just far enough that they might never see me go down.  With the realization that I had no other option, my vigor was renewed – I could not stop.  I could not let myself drown.  Everything in me had to keep fighting for shore.  And I did make it to shore.  Not particularly well, but I did make it.  I had to mentally calm myself and, one stroke at a time, take dominion over the jaws of watery fear that were chomping at me.  That moment of terror in the lake went in my personal catalogue of memories as one of the most challenging moments of my life.  It was brief, but I was wracked with an incomparable feeling of lostness and confusion.

I relate this overlong story, because its memory came rushing back today.  I was sitting in Arabic class for the fourth and final day of our first week.  I suddenly realized that as I forced my ears to strain for meaning in the teacher’s rapid fire Arabic, I kept having visions of the arms and legs of aggressive swimmers surrounding me.  I had been a bit sick the night before, and although I tried for a long time to study, my brain was like a full sponge and would retain no more vocabulary.  When Safaa, my teacher, handed me my test, I stared blankly at most of the pages.  The whole test was completely in Arabic text, and I had to provide all the answers in relation to other Arabic words.  It was not translating English words to Arabic or visa versa, but rather an exercise in translating Arabic words to Arabic synonyms or antonyms.  More than in any previous university class I felt profoundly out classed and defeated by the material.  There is no chance for approximating knowledge here.  Only the cold, hard realization of how much you do not know.  My teacher is a wonderful and caring person, but I was just behind the curve and losing ground fast.  The test completed, we went back to the regular regimen of class which involved lots of me straining mightily to hear words that I could call up from my memory bank and then staring blankly in complete and utter confusion when called upon to perform some simple classroom exercise.  As I marinaded in the hours of consuming incomprehension, this is when memories of my first triathlon swim began to materialize.  I was suddenly jerked to the realization that I was longing to be thrown into the deepest part of the lake, surrounded by 50 or even 100 swimmers.  There, at least, the pain of lostness and confused struggle would be over relatively quickly. The longest race I’ve ever swam was over in less than half an hour – then I was able to go on to biking and running, the areas where I can actually excel (or at least hold my own).  For me, the most profoundly difficult portion in triathlons is at least finite and mercifully short.  Now I was looking at three hours this morning, and every weekday to come for the next 8 months – and that’s not counting the frustration of being unable to express yourself in everyday conversation with your friends or people on the street.

I love expression.  Both through words and images, expression of thoughts and ideas is one of my greatest loves.  I know the English language – well.  In my everyday life I’ve been accustomed to being the one providing assistance and guidance, especially in matters of language.  I’ve proofread papers for many friends and even spent some time in the capacity of a teacher.  Here in Jordan I’m handily the oldest student in the program.  (My home university once helpfully reminded me in an email that I’m an “older non-traditional student”.)  In terms of life experience perhaps I’m ahead of some of my classmates, but in terms of language ability I’m not being modest when I say that my level is well lower than any of my new friends.  This is hard.  This is good for me.  After class, I had to go find help.

We are lucky to be surrounded by some of the best and most patient people in the world in the form of our staff and language partners.  It’s discouraging to even go ask a question and seek help when you know you need a dictionary and note pad to even begin forming the questions that you have.  It’s beyond exhausting for me, but there is help to be had.  The weeks ahead will show exactly what that is going to look like.  I’ll probably need some more extensive one-on-one tutoring, and it’s going to take a lot of work, but there are people around me who are willing to bend over backwards to help.  The feeling of need is a profoundly cleansing thing, and, when you’re surrounded by the right people, has the capacity to produce a joy, borne of gratefulness, that transcends even the agony of the need.

I’m reminded of the ancient biblical promise that “weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning”.  The time of day may have been a little bit off, but one of the most challenging of days concluded with the most joyous of feasts.  Surrounded by wonderful friends in a fascinating new country, I was treated to a magnificent outdoor banquet.  Asian and Arabic food was prepared in front of us and we sat together at long tables, sharing together in a bounty rare to this world.  After dinner was cleared we began dancing - first between our tables and then bleeding out into the brick courtyard.  We learned a basic version of the traditional Arabic dabke folk dance and as day traded off with night, we held hands and danced until my sandals came apart and we poured with sweat.  Two men in traditional Jordanian Bedouin dress sat at a nearby table slowly smoking their arghile and looking on at this strange conglomeration of lively foreigners.  We probably engaged in even more culturally forbidden behavior that we knew. As we danced, a toddler from a nearby table came out onto the patio.  Happily, he bobbed alongside us to the supremely danceable rhythms of the Arabic drums.  Life, when lived best, is filled with these wonderfully incongruous roller-coasters of emotion.  I hate it.  I love it.  I wouldn’t trade my life with anyone.

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