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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Few Words About Grapes

The landscape of Amman is striking. While the buildings are all a sandy white that melds with the land itself, there is also a distinct, albeit sparse, variety of plant life. Without a doubt the most beautiful of them (at least to me) are the grapes and grapevines.

The only place I’ve ever seen grapevines are at wineries, but here they thrive as a useful and beautiful commodity. They are not only for decoration. The vines have been carefully led to grow into a canopy over parking spaces to protect cars from the sun or to provide shade on decks and porches. There are green and red grapes, hanging down in full bunches, and as they have become ripe people are placing bags on them for what I assume is protection and gathering.

Other common plants include little trees planted all along the sidewalks that I believe to be olive trees and a strange sort of palm tree (but shorter and thicker). None of these grow naturally and any greenery at all has been planted and is watered by hand on a daily basis. Which makes me a little uncomfortable because it seems like an awful lot of water to be using in a country with such a serious water deficiency. Of course this daily water usage pales in comparison to those living in Abdoun, where I had the experience of visiting for the first time last weekend. Abdoun is a new and developing part of the city near the American Embassy, distinctly upscale with new mansions and villas being built at a rapid rate. There, for the first time since I arrived in Jordan, I saw grass, actual lush green grounds dripping with plant life, almost to an entangled state. Isolated patches of almost jungle-like greenery behind huge metal gates and surrounded by dusty construction sites and white stone. It all looks very out of place and turned my stomach. The amount of water it must take to maintain grounds like that! Imagine what could be done with that much water (or money)! I hate to say it but I guess the exorbitantly rich are the same in all parts of the world. Why? I want to know why. Why can’t everyone feel responsible for the planet? Why don’t people care? Do they think they’re immune? Do they really only worry about their own isolated lives and not care about anyone else or what the future may hold as a result of their apathy? Is there a way to change this indifference (or at least make sure it isn’t passed on to their children?)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Random Stories

During my first week in Amman I lived with Mueen’s wife’s parents (and sister). More of the family lives in the top floor of the building, almost like townhouses but each one is a floor with at least three bedrooms, a huge kitchen, dining room, TV room, several bathrooms and a large formal sitting room for receiving guests.

Since then I have moved into the lower level of the house three houses down from them, which means I have a floor to myself, with all the rooms described above and maybe then some. It is huge. Unfortunately it hasn’t been lived in for some time, resulting in problems like spiders and leaks, and with so much space I spent several nights thinking someone was in there with me because the doors of other rooms would open and close from the breeze (and coming from my cramped NYC living quarters all this space is quite a shock!) When I first moved in we met with the family upstairs. They own the building and were very concerned about me being comfortable down there (I think the idea of a woman alone was difficult for them). They told me if I felt at all uncomfortable just to let them know and they would send the maid down to sleep with me.

Needless to say I have been fine, however, the space has an array of issues and we’re looking for a new apartment. That being said, right now I have a 30-minute walk to work, which is more of an event than it sounds like for several reasons.

First of all, no one walks here. At all. There are virtually no sidewalks and even when there exist it tends to be easier to walk in the street.

The streets have no lines so everyone makes up their own driving rules. Luckily the larger roads (usually divided with three lanes in each direction) have walking bridges to get across. As I mentioned before Amman is extremely hilly and luckily my walk to work is mostly down. After attempting to walk the easy route down the main roads my first day, I was determined to find an alternate route because the fume inhalation and near-death experiences were just unacceptable. I spent an afternoon finding a new path through the residential neighborhood, which is an interesting walk with better scenery and less traffic. My two favorite buildings are a large mosque at the top of the hill, so I know which way to head home (and that I’m almost there when I reach it) and the Holiday Inn, which I can see most of the way and is near my office so keeps me headed in the right direction.

(I tried to add more pictures...but the dialup connection is just not cooperating...)

The second major factor about my walk, or really my time in public for any reason at all, is that I am obviously foreign. I can dress as conservatively as I please but it doesn’t make me stick out any less. And this makes me quite an entertaining novelty to pretty much everyone. Walking or being outside tends to result in honking, staring and hissing from most people. A majority of the honking is actually from cabs that are sure I need a ride, and most people just stare openly, with some men or groups of men hissing or making comments, but more in an entertained than harassing sort of way (that’s not very clear but I hope it makes sense). By that I mean that it isn’t threatening, I feel much safer here than I ever did in NYC, no one would ever dare approach me or touch me, and every person I actually speak with is incredibly friendly and polite. It is just the people I’m passing by, and the only thing that makes me uncomfortable is not being able to understand anything they might say. It’s also hard as an American woman to not stare right back in that ‘I see you looking at me so knock it off’ sort of way. This does not work here and can have the reverse response of enticing comments or being misconstrued as an invitation. This is very hard to not do. I was raised to make eye contact with people, I like to smile, and not being able to do either is hard.

As far as clothing is concerned, I see everything from sleeveless shirts to full black burkas up to the eyes on the women, sometimes even with a string between the eyes to pull the fabric as close as possible. But neither of those are common. Most women are in long skirts or regular western clothes with colorful headscarves. I see plenty of jeans, especially on younger people, and those boys and girls are often walking with their parents, who will be in sweeping (and comfortable-looking) traditional robes. No one, male or female, wears shorts or anything showing more than a few inches of the legs. I have worn short-sleeves a few times but am generally airing on the conservative side.

My Arabic teacher is here so back to work for me, but just a side note for you DCers, I have found a Surprise Safeway! Can you believe it?!? I couldn’t go to one in NYC but there’s one here! Add it to the list...

I was also taken to a Starbucks this weekend by two Jordanian girls. I tried to resist but they insisted, they love it there. It was huge! Two stories, indoor and outdoor seating and a huge parking lot! Very strange, but did feel like the US when I was standing at the counter.

On a coffee note...I have discovered that although I don’t like American coffee at all, I actually do like Arabic coffee much better. I thought it would be worse because it’s stronger, but I honestly like it (as long as it’s sweetened)! Which is good because it is almost always served at meetings and whenever we go to visit people. Tuhamie even made me make it today and I didn’t ruin it. Sweet. That is my triumph of the day.

Not to be outdone by yesterday, when I had to go get blood taken to prove that I don’t have AIDS so I can get my visa to stay in the country. Thank goodness for Tuhamie. I cannot imagine trying to navigate this entire process alone.

First we went to file my visa extension at the police station, a stark building with sterile hallways, uniformed men with machine guns and less English than anywhere I’ve been so far. And as much as my Arabic has progressed in the last few weeks, I honestly understood very little of the conversation but I definitely need my blood test results even for an extension visa (and not the resident visa I plan to apply for later). So then we took a cab to the health center, where I understood even less. This huge building had long lines of mostly 20- to 40-year-old men winding down the street and up the stairs to various unmarked floors. Tuhamie led me through the lines and after speaking with several people at various windows, I paid 20JD and we headed to the third floor, where I waited in a short line, had my blood drawn, and off we went (results will be ready in two days, then back to the police station!) May the adventures continue!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Life in Khalda

The weather in Amman is amazing I will give it that! Every day I wake up to hot, intense sunshine. I noticed today I was still squinting even with sunglasses! Usually there’s not a cloud in the sky and there is no humidity so the heat is reasonable, and drops considerably at night.

I’m living in a section of the city called Khalda. Amman was originally built on seven hills (called jebels) and so the city is divided into those sections, Jebel Amman being the oldest, is generally referred to as ‘downtown’ by Jordanians. However, this does not mean ‘downtown’ in the conventional sense of the word, and most local people don’t go there at all. At this point it is mostly a tourist attraction, with the stone amphitheater, a small museum, and, of course, a vast array of street vendors trying to sell hookas, jewelry and food of all varieties at three times the usual selling price.

I of course made Mohammad take me down there and show me around. He gave me a grand tour despite the crowded streets and oppressive heat, and even passed me off as a half-Jordanian for reduced admission to the amphitheater :-)

While some of the vendors have actual shops, many people just lay their wares out on tattered blankets in the street. Interestingly enough several of those blankets were covered with people selling the old Iraqi currency with Saddam on the front.

There are a LOT of Iraqis in Jordan. During the first war and the second war Jordan opened its borders for Iraqis to enter seeking refuge. I think the theory was to provide a safe-haven while the fighting occurred and then everyone could return home. Unfortunately that is not how the situation unfolded and a huge influx of Iraqis with large quantities of cash have poured into Jordan, drastically driving up the cost of housing and increasing the rapid depletion of Jordan’s VERY limited natural resources (like water!). Most of the Jordanians and Palestinians I have spoken with have voiced their displeasure with the increasingly long-term presence of the Iraqis, especially the ‘type’ of Iraqis that have come (everyone makes clear that they like the Iraqis as a whole but the population that has come to the city a bit different). I unfortunately can’t tell the difference yet, either in appearance or accent, between the Jordanians, Palestinians, or Iraqis, but a lot of times we will go somewhere and the people I’m with will say there are Iraqis everywhere (like downtown, or in one of the local malls).

Jordan has even recently passed a rule stating that in order to attend school your parents must have legal residence in the country because the school system is so overstressed and overcrowded by the influx that it cannot handle all the students. There are apparently more than a million Iraqis officially in the city and that means there are at least twice that many in reality. Crazy. Anyway, enough about that...

So Amman is divided in half really, east and west, with the east being the older (poorer) section and the west being more modern (for example, the section I live in, which didn’t even exist 15 years ago). The city has doubled in size and is projected to do so again by 2025. There are construction sites everywhere (and mostly Egyptian and Iraqi workers, I think they are basically like Mexicans in the US).

There is a big building going up right across the street from my office, I can watch them working out the window, we are on the second (meaning third, since it is GF, 1, 2, etc) and have one whole wall of windows.

The guys have been nice enough to designate Mohammad’s office as ‘the smoking room’ and most of the time it is just me and Mohammad or Tuhamie. In the beginning it was Tuhamie and I in the mornings, then Mohammad in the afternoons, but now school has started and Tuhamie is teaching in Zarka (the neighboring city to the north, where he lives) so he isn’t at the office until late afternoon.

Here's a picture of Tuhamie in our wing of the office, which has three rooms in total, plus a small kitchen and bathroom.

Tuhamie is great, I have spent a lot of time with him at work and last weekend I went to stay with him and his wife (and her extended family) in Zarka. Family is a really big deal in Jordan and many families share buildings, with for example the parents on one floor with the married children on the floor above and the unmarried still living with the parents. Unmarried men and women stay at home until the day they are married. This has nothing to do with age, sex or religion. I have met men and women, Muslim and Christian, hardworking and living at home. Moreover I have been told that it would be incredibly strange and suspicious for anyone to move out (i.e. what would you be doing that is so scandalous or what is wrong with you that you are not with your parents?) to the point that any woman not living at home is ‘tainted’ and even women who leave home to attend universities abroad or in other regions are subject to heightened scrutiny.

I spent some time trying to explain how virtually the opposite is true in America (i.e. people wonder what is wrong with you if you are living with (mooching from?) your parents). Needless to say it was received with some shock. And questions like “But who would take care of you if you are sick?” and “Why would you leave your family to be all alone?” I would like to say I had perfect answers, and I tried, but mostly it was one of many enlightening discussions.

Family size is also an issue. Meaning it is a BIG issue that you have a BIG family. My Arabic tutor is one of 12, nine girls, and although the younger families seem to have fewer children, the most important thing is you absolutely must have a boy. This is openly acknowledged and expressed by men and women alike. It even affects names, because once a boy is born, the father is then called, for example, Abu Mohammad, or ‘the father of Mohammad’ instead of by his first name. This is all traditional, and is starting to fade in Amman but is apparently still the case in the villages.

And I actually meant to say more about Zarka, maybe tomorrow (bükra!) but now I have a meeting...*hugs*

Sunday, September 04, 2005

أهلا وسهلا (Welcome)

I flew into Amman at 5:30 in the morning on the same day as the bombings in Aqaba. Figures. Although, geography lesson of the day, Aqaba is Jordan's only port and is located at the very south-eastern tip of the country (a.k.a. far from Amman). The whole situation did have people in Jordan talking though because there hasn't been an attack of any kind within Jordan in a long time.

However, at 5:30 in the morning, this was really not the foremost of my concerns, I was more focused on getting out of the airplane, finding out if my bags made it in one piece, figuring out if I could really get a visa and hoping that Mohammad was actually going to be there to meet me.

Lucky for me, all went smoothly, I never even spoke to anyone, just got off the plane, paid for my visa, passed through customs, immigration and baggage without a single word! And there was Mohammad.

Side note, by the way, Mohammad is my boss, coworker, man responsible for finding me housing, my finances, and pretty much everything else.

We headed to Mueen's house, a teacher who also works with us in the iEARN office, where I had my first Jordanian meal -- all mezza which I love and I get to eat with my hands (must be the farm girl in me b/c I love it). Eggs, ful (fava beans in a hummus-like state), tomatoes, cucumbers, zata (one of my new favorite foods!), these yogurt balls, jam, pita, cookies and tea with fresh mint. whew. all delicious, which I then learned in Arabic (za-keey) and is definitely one of the most-used words in my limited vocabulary.

After eating I fell asleep for a while, after which I went with him, his wife, their two young kids and the maid/nanny (her name is Geisha and she is from Sri Lanka) on a driving tour of Amman. The city is incredibly vast and growing at a rapid rate, there are new buildings going up everywhere! Almost everything is built out of white stone and the entire section of the city that I live in didn't exist 10 years ago.

Where do I live you ask?

I will tell you all about it, but that's it for now, it's Sunday (which is like Monday) and I have to get some work done!

Amman (on my way to work)

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Amman Posted by Picasa