Tag Archives: understanding

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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From Another Angle

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Irbid, Jordan

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.

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