Tag Archives: study abroad
One day. One City. 24 candid pictures of people. Sometimes I have to use words in place of pictures, but sometimes I get to use pictures in place of words.
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.
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.
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.
Sunday, September 5
It’s just after 9pm in Jordan. The days here turn hot unusually early, but by the time that the sun is going down, a cool breeze has kicked up and the low humidity makes it marvelously cool and comfortable. That is, if you’re outside. Right now, I’m at the very back computer of an internet café with evenly painted light purple walls. It’s a little warmer in here and fans and a few florescent tube lights on the ceiling add to the ambiance. A speaker up at the front of café is blasting “No Speak Americano”, the tried and true favorite of my International student friends back at home. It’s been a nonstop rotation of American music since I sat down – most of it leaning toward Celine Dion. It’s just me and Jordanian men with their hair slicked back under loads of hair gel here – listening to the most sugary pop of western music, in a purple room and the man across from me is wearing bright pink head phones. This is Jordan. The mixture of machismo with such an all together different sense of how exactly it is defined than one finds in much of the west. It would be impossible to deny and absolute fascination with western culture and fashion exists, but it is all remixed Middle Eastern style. My new student friends and I have been debating whether we would feel we could trust getting our hair cut at an establishment whose sign is labeled “saloon”. One sign reads something like “SalooN Black Hair HaiR CuTs for MaN”.
We really started to get along well – the 16 of us who are studying here in CET’s program at Yarmouk University. We did. And we were getting to know each other. My roommate Sean and I got along famously and even stayed awake until 4am our first night in country talking and talking. I say did, because all meaningful conversation between the lot of us ended at about 10:30 am today. That’s when we signed our language pledges. Until my 27th birthday, I am sworn to the very best of my ability to only speak Arabic to everyone here – including classmates, roommates, staff, teachers, etc. Maybe that’s why I feel like writing – in English. It was a long, challenging day, but already I can see how this new pressure is finally going to make learning a new language make sense to my brain. The necessity is terrifying at times, yet there is no better motivator.
My new home is on the third floor of a medium sized apartment building. I’m told that the views from the building’s roof are fantastic, but unfortunately when I tried to seek them out with my camera, the building manager had already locked all the doors to keep meddling students away. I had to settle from the view out the windows. As with most of the city, my building is built of the lightest blonde brick. After you go under the russet tiles of the entry way you face both the mirrored doors of the permanently frozen elevator and the cement slab stairs that were clearly set by someone who had no level, fell after their creation or both. When you run up them these stairs give you the slightest sense of walking on a sea bourn ship. The front door is equipped with the funny triple locking mechanism so common in international settings. You can only get in or out if you’re able to get the key to do three full revolutions. The funny part of this is the other unique building feature that makes getting into your room almost like the level of a game. The stairwell lights are on a timer. You can hit the switch at the bottom of the stairs. Then you run up to your room and start turning, hoping to beat the light’s off timer. Thankfully there is another switch near the door that does allow for refreshing the light, but only if you hit the right switch. Otherwise you set off the bird chirping sound of the doorbell – hopefully only for your own apartment. There are three bedrooms and two small bathrooms in the apartment. The bathroom doors are of a strange plastic accordion type that creak ever so much when you shove them open and shut.
As much as I feel like a foreign element right now language wise – I know that I’m going to very soon feel at home here. No, I don’t like the fact that people dump their trash everywhere on the street. No, the way that men treat women here far from delights me. My bed and pillow back at home were far more comfortable than the ones that Sean and I found in our apartment (complete with Mini Mouse and “Fishin’ Buddy” teddy bear sheets), but still, it strangely feels like home. There are too many little details to tell here and now, but it just feels so clear that it is where I’m designed to be for the present.
I should do some studying before bed. Real classes start in the morning!