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Meet Me in the Middle (East)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A New Perspective on Christmas

I suppose I’ll always remember waking up alone to a chilly apartment in Amman. The first Christmas I ever spent away from my family. No stockings, no lights, no Christmas cookies and certainly no snow! In fact it looked to be one of the most unpleasant days since I got to Jordan, I couldn’t even see down the street through the wall of fog and rain.

I made myself a cup of tea and curled up on my couch with a smile. Almost an uncontrollable giggle. It all felt surreal. I wasn’t homesick. In my mind I could picture everyone gathered at the farm on Christmas Eve singing carols without me, nibbling on mint bars or congregating around the stove. I have such a clear image of it in my mind. Or of my mom on Christmas morning, waking to open presents without me. She’s even going to have to get them from under the tree. Every year the youngest person has to hand out the presents (needless to say I was always fine with this theory until the first time my brother wasn’t around!) I hope she made Michele do it, it should be her responsibility this year!

I spent Christmas Eve at Justin’s, although it truly felt like any other day. I kept trying to get myself into the ‘holiday spirit’ but the sparse lights and decorations scattered around the city just haven’t been enough to do it. When I got home, I lit a candle and much to my delight, I discovered that Bahrain TV was playing all Christmas carols. I listened for a bit, although some strange versions to be heard, then plopped myself into bed and sang off all the carols I could remember. Unfortunately I’ve discovered that I know the beginning of a LOT of songs, but without the music or a group of people to sing along, it’s sad how few I could actually make it through by myself!

The whole time I had the vision in my mind of Christmas’ past, with many of my family and friends gathered around the piano while Dad plays carols, some people with Christmas hats, the occasional recorder and an array bells (including of course the sleigh bells!). I wonder who has taken my seat next to Dad on the piano stool or is taking responsibility for turning the pages?

And it doesn’t matter that I’m alone or that I can’t sing or even that it’s raining and downright unpleasant here, because in my head I can see the snow piled up on top of the car, the warm glow of the Christmas tree, the smile from Mom as I bounce down the stairs and she makes us both a cup of tea. I can hear the crunch of snow under my feet, I remember agonizing hours of waiting and waiting, because when I was younger we weren’t allowed to open a single present until both of my parents were in the house and finished with the morning barn chores. What agony! Who knew that would only be preparation for this year, since I am still waiting for my box to arrive. I just hope it ever does, since rumor has it many boxes have a habit of disappearing on their way to Jordan.

As I sat that morning I watched the ceremonies unfolding in Indonesia and across south Asia in remembrance of the tsunami victims from a year ago. What sad strength and perseverance. What a year it has been. From the tsunami, to bombings, earthquakes, assassinations, revolutions, elections, how much the world has changed. There are certain years that stick out as transformational, like 1989, I wonder if 2005 will be like that?

I know I have learned that I cannot be alone. With all the loving family and strong friendships I have, I rarely have a sense of loneliness. I may not hear from some people often, but time has little bearing on how close you are in my mind or how much it means that you are a part of my life. And you are. Some of you have been around for a long time, and some of you I am lucky enough to have found this year. All of you have shaped my life and give me faith that there are good people in this world. Stay yourselves and I hope everyone is having a happy holiday full of smiles, family and friends.

And that’s my end of the year sentimental rant :-) I’m off to Cairo on Wednesday for New Year’s Eve. SO excited about the pyramids! May you all have a HAPPY NEW YEAR and may 2006 be . . . (I have been thinking what to put here for about five minutes straight now. I think what I want to say is I hope it’s a year that allows hope to thrive).

Be positive.

I say that as a reminder. As much to myself as to you.

Rob and I at Melissa's, where we had a Christmas brunch and present swap.

Then I went to Croshelle's in the afternoon to help her cook an amazing feast (niether of us are in the picture, but that's our food and everyone else, all of whom I met that day!)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Has the World Gone Crazy?

In my final Arabic class my teacher said he is more convinced every day that the world has gone crazy. Il ‘alem mejnoun.

The world has grown smaller. The threats have grown bigger. The destruction that can be wreaked by a single person has multiplied exponentially. Have people have gone crazy? Are people forgetting how to care, how to trust and respect one another? He seems to think so.

My teacher is a charming and intelligent man, raised in a village south of Amman. He speaks three languages and has taught French and Arabic for 25 years. Just thinking about him conjures up a smile on my face. And he said all this in a resigned and baffled tone, a mixture of sad submission and frank acknowledgment of something he was tired of struggling against.

He was of course quickly countered by the energetic class of mostly Americans, who jumped to rally the optimistic view of the world. And some agreed with him. Someone said it really isn’t that bad, the world has been through the Black Death and several other terrible periods and it just goes in cycles. I think this is an interesting argument, and I am trying not to be depressed that it was the best answer we came up with on the spot. Mind you it was a brief discussion that digressed us quickly away from Arabic and so we were drawn back to focus on the subject at hand, but still. . .

So is the world crazier? I think back to when I was a kid (and this is one of those I’m going to sound old directions but it can’t be avoided). It seemed like the world was a different place. I don’t know about less crazy but definitely less paranoid and less afraid. We rode around in the back of trucks with no seatbelts, spent hours wandering off by ourselves, created elaborate games out of sticks, played dodgeball and performed daring acts like eating pop rocks with soda, and while it’s possible I had a no-so-average childhood on a dairy farm in upstate NY with no TV…I don’t feel like kids today have the same childhood bubble in which to revel in, carefree, discovering themselves and the world. Is the world, are people today, better, worse or different than in the past? (I also feel like every generation says this to some extent, so maybe this is just a reoccurring generational sensation.) Or maybe I have just seen more of the world, maybe this is the sensation of me growing up and taking that final step out of the bubble. Ma barrif. I don’t know.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

40 Days Later

Monday marked 40 days after the suicide bomb attacks here in Amman. The last day of the traditional mourning period, the 40th day was recognized with remembrance ceremonies across the country.

On Sunday I was at the Lib Girls School in Madaba for a festival recognizing teacher and student achievements. Despite the celebratory atmosphere, the activities included a skit portraying the lives of the wedding couple from their engagement to the bombing itself. The day also included a variety of patriotic songs sung by the entire school while some of students held signs reading:

"Yes to Jordan" "Amman in Our Hearts"

"No to terrorism" "Yes to Peace"

I have some great pictures of all of this that do more justice than I could, hopefully I can put them up at some point.

Two days later (Tues. morning) I was back in Amman at Al-Asriyyah, where the middle school put on a more theatrical performance to remember the tragic events. Dressed in black, with one row of students sitting along the front of the stage, they sang and performed a choreographed dance, both created for this ceremony. Three speeches were also given an at least one of the student dancers broke down into tears on the stage. It was a hard experience, moving and frustrating at the same time because of course I could understand little of the dialogue or the songs. I have the program and will hopefully have one of my friends translate the words of the song written for the ceremony, for which they asked everyone in the audience to stand and participate in, and of course I tried my best.

Beautiful but not as raw as the depiction in Lib, both engaged students in expressing their thoughts and emotions, and both highlighted the country’s anger and sorrow at violence against such innocent, average Jordanians. I also met the wedding couple from the Radisson SAS, they were there for the ceremony and then visited classes in the school. They have been a great symbol of the tragedy, strength, unity and hope in Jordan, speaking out against the use of terrorism and the misinterpretation of religion to justify such acts.

Since the attacks security has been strange and scattered. There are metal detectors at grocery stores, malls, and some restaurants. They go off all the time. I set them off at all three locations and am rarely stopped by anyone. Apparently profiling is still in full use here and I guess I don’t fit the profile? There’s a security guard at the center where I take my Arabic classes, big barriers surrounding the entrances to hotels, embassies and other unidentified buildings, and of course the raging debate over what level of security measures should be implemented by the government.

Maybe before they go passing a bunch of dramatic, knee-jerk legislation, they should take a long, hard look at the U.S. After the terrorist attacks a wide range of responses were passed to address security. A few years on, many of those initiatives are being scaled back as people realize just how ineffective most of those measures have been (not to mention questionable in terms of personal rights and freedoms).

This leads into several other debates entirely about freedom versus security and what it is that constitutes safety and security in the first place, but I reserve that discussion for another time. For now, Jordan, like America, like Iraq, like the U.K. and Spain and Sri Lanka and a growing number of other nations, must struggle with the realization that you can work to be safer but you cannot be safe. Governments struggle with the fact that there is no longer a nation to condemn, but an ideology to struggle against, internally and externally. And with the growing arsenals of small arms, conventional, chem/bio and heaven forbid nuclear, ‘they’ only have to succeed once. Yet through all this, people must learn to live with that reality. And I mean LIVE. Not in fear. Not surrounded by men with guns or holding their breath. Not looking out of the corner of their eyes at their neighbors or those seated next to them on the bus. The power of the world is shifting. Governments are no longer the only decision-makers. People, groups, individuals have more power and it’s growing. Apathy cannot be an option. You have to care.

And I’ve been staring at this last paragraph for like five minutes, which is really long if you think about it, and I’ve deleted it twice on the grounds that it’s too much of a philosophical soapbox rant. But against my better judgment I’m just going to leave it there. Humor me. Email me. Tell me what you think. I like to be positive, I want to be hopeful, but I am not naive. I guess I’d like to call myself an optimistic realist.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Word About Plane Tickets

In November a group of us decided to go to Cairo for New Year’s Eve. To this day I don’t exactly know how many people are going because there are a few dozen travel plans, all converging in Cairo in time for New Year’s Eve itself. Some people are taking a month to travel across southern Jordan, around the south of Egypt and back up to Cairo. Some are flying directly to Cairo. And some are opting for the inefficient but drastically cheaper method of traveling by bus to Aqaba, taking the ferry around the Sinai Peninsula, and then taking another bus to Cairo. All told it is projected to take about 21 hours, and will cost roughly half of the one-hour flight.

I have decided to go the ‘quick’ route and am flying on Dec.28th and am so excited, I mean little kid with ice cream in summer excited, about the pyramids. I mean, the PYRAMIDS. Need I say more? I’ll save it until I actually go and have a real description for you.

Cairo sounds like the NYC of the Middle East, no sleeping, crazy people trying to sell you things every step you take, intense traffic and a vibrant social scene. Should be interesting!

Getting our plane tickets was another ordeal entirely. You would think that the NATIONAL airline, the main carrier for a nation of 77.5 million people would have to be pretty efficient, or at least basically functional, but you would be sorely mistaken.

We reserved tickets on Egypt Air in mid-November and had until Dec. 22 to purchase them. So we took some time to research other deals and in the end, out of some mixture of frustration/acceptance/simplicity, decided we would just buy them. Rob had made the reservation, 180 JD each ($1 = .75 JD) but had since run off to play in the US for two weeks, so Justin and I were in charge of buying the tickets.

Justin called to confirm the tickets and discovered that it is impossible to purchase tickets over the phone. You have to physically go down to the Egypt Air office to buy the tickets. Now we live in Amman so this doesn’t sound like that big a deal but what about people in the rest of the country? And of course, nothing is ever so simple….

They said we should come in the next two days to buy the tickets (on a Thurs.) and to our surprise they actually were open on Friday (which is like Sunday here). Of course they were only open from 3:00 to 5:00 but ma fil moush kileh (not a problem).

We got to the office after a long, adventurous cab ride trying to find the office, including our cab driver stopping and getting out to ask for directions at several different locations. It was raining. This is the first day it has rained in about two months. The office was empty except for one man. Who told us that the tickets we reserved existed, but the price was now higher.

What is the point of the reservation?

We don’t know. He said it was related to gas prices, and that he could knock four JD off each ticket, but that was all he could do. So now we’re bartering for tickets?! What? How can he do that? No idea.

And then he added that, since it was Friday, we could only pay for the tickets in CASH.

Arguing was futile, though we tried for a while, then we walked around in the rain trying to find an ATM, and had to find three because the machines wouldn't let us take out enough money.

The flight we have is a great one, and I refuse to let this taint my enthusiasm about Egypt (have I mentioned PYRAMIDS!??!?!??!!!) The tickets are now in hand. And lesson learned. If you like the price. Buy the tickets! (And beware of state-run travel services.)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

My Green Card!

I would just like to mention that now, after being an illegal immigrant in Jordan for the last few weeks because my tourist visa expired on Nov. 19, and after weeks of getting letters, signatures, photocopies, stamps, pictures, an HIV test and standing in lines at two ministries, three police stations and passing a background investigation by the Mukhabarat, I am now an official resident of Jordan! Complete with shiny new residency ID card!

I can now go to Petra for 1JD instead of 35JD.

I can stop being scared of being kicked out of the country and will no longer be wasting my miniscule stipend on the daily fines for having no visa.

I now get discounts at untold numbers of local tourist destinations.

I no longer have to bring my passport to get through checkpoints.

AND I can apply for my visa to Syria! YAY!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Wedding Crasher...

I realize it’s been some time since I posted anything and there is quite an array of stories to tell. I have been watching the city transform itself post-bombings and try to balance the desire for enhanced security with the reality that there is only so much that can be done. In the first weeks following the suicide attacks the small mall by myself installed metal detectors at the grocery store entrance (meaning you walked into the mall, but then through the detectors to enter C-Town). After about a week they disappeared again, only to reappear after another few days at the entrance to the mall. Although you can walk in through the parking garage without hitting any security, and people set the alarm off all the time but I have yet to see anyone stopped. Is this supposed to make people feel better?

All of the hotels have enhanced their security by erecting perimeters that prevent anyone from driving up to the hotels. These barriers are protected by a varied number of armed men and there are also metal detectors at the entrances. Because no bombs could be made without using metal...? Or because they actually ever stop anyone who sets off the alarm? hmm...

With all these changes I have to ask myself the same question I did in DC after the terrorist attacks in the US: Do all these increased yet ineffectual security efforts make people feel more or less safe?

Aside from these changes, and a sea of Jordanian flags, banners and pictures of the king on every car, building and tied along the street, life has returned to normal in the city.

I have been to two wedding receptions, both in hotels and both after the bombings. What a fun and interesting experience (as weddings usually are :-) The first was the brother of Shaza, one of the teachers at Al-Asriyyah, and the second was my coworker’s brother.

Shaza invited me to a party at her house the night before her brother’s wedding. Although we had often talked about getting together, this was the first time I ever spent any time with her outside of school and of course the first time I met any of her family. She came with her cousin to pick me up and we went to her house. There are two separate parties, one for the men and one for the women. I met her brothers on the way in, just because they happened to be moving cars when we pulled up, and the one gettign married invited me to the wedding the next day. (Can you imagine in the US someone inviting a total stranger to their wedding, the day before?!!) I was very pleasantly surprised and of course accepted the invitation.

Upstairs at the party were all of Shaza’s female relatives as well as some of her brother’s female coworkers that were invited to the wedding. When we walked in the door, she pulled her hijab right off and as other women arrived they all tossed theirs off as well, with some revealing miniskirts, sequins, dyed hair and slinky dresses that rivaled the average American club scene. This of course mixed with the older women in a dressy form of traditional Arab attire (comfy robes with embroidery, see pic) and several conservative upscale outfits just like you would see at any wedding gathering.

The night was filled with hours of food, dancing and loud music, including some time spent, much to the entertainment of all I am sure, trying to teach me how to ‘dance like an Arab girl’ (For those of you who know my dance skills, picture that, then add the mysterious belly-dancer hand movements and that hip thing...).

By around midnight some of the men started to tentatively trickle up and knock on the outside door looking for their wives and ready to head home. Slowly as the women began to leave I watched them re-robe, which they do without missing a beat and definitely while maintaining full conversations. I also came to the frightened realization that the next day I was going to see them all again at the wedding…fully covered….and would I be able to recognize any of them!?!?

Luckily the next day this was less of a problem than I expected, and I do wonder how much my perception of them was shaped by meeting them first in this more relaxed context versus if I had met them fully covered in the more day-to-day societal context. I would like to say it wouldn’t have changed at all, but I don’t know how true that would be.

The wedding reception was at Le Meridian and followed a whole day of events including the conventional ceremony of everyone in the family going to the bride’s house, then piling into cars (a stage of the wedding you often witness in the city as the convoy makes its way down the road, easily identified by the wall of flowers on the hood and trunk, incessant beeping, and most notably, the cameramen hanging out the windows of nearby cars documenting the journey). A similar event occurs at the groom’s house and I’m not sure the exact logistics of how this fits with the actual marriage ceremony because I have yet to experience these first stages, but the end result culminates in an elaborate reception.

Arriving at the hotel, I had to navigate through the security barriers, two men with guns, one guard, one metal detector and one woman inside the lobby who had to wand me down. Once inside I found my way to the banquet hall and to Shaza, who had designed a dress for the occasion and it was stunning! It was so unique and gorgeous and she had incorporated her hijab into the dress design itself. A real piece of artwork.

Everyone was fun and friendly and so welcoming, I had an amazing time! I stayed the entire night, with much dancing and terrific food, and I even managed to practice my Arabic some (although most of the time the music was too loud for real conversations).

Despite all that I couldn't help wondering how amused they all must have been by me, or how many people were asking 'Who is this strange girl and what is she doing here?' Not to mention the bride herself, who, in both instances, I 'met' on the dance floor.

After attending my second wedding just this week, I have identified some standard characteristics of Arabic/Muslim wedding receptions so far:

* Fun drummers and singers at the front to welcome the couple
* A minimum of 4-8 cameramen
* Many bright spotlights
* VERY loud music (we're talking like 15 amps the size of refrigerators)
* A stage for the newlyweds to sit on
* Cutting the cake with a LARGE SWORD before dinner
* No alcohol, no bouquet toss, no speeches
* Photo montage of bride and groom as children that everyone must watch before eating
* First dance followed by dancing, also before dinner
* Smoke machine!
* Buffet dinner
* Prom dresses, hooker boots, and dress hijabs all in one room
* Arabic version of the conga line, with cameramen following as close as possible

And that is all I have to say about that!

Aside from weddings, I have also been going to my colloquial Arabic classes three nights a week and am happy to report that I have held several conversations in Arabic recently (even forming full sentences on occasion!) This is of course balanced out by the fact that at any given time I try to listen to conversations, or hold one not related to directions, food, what I am doing in Jordan or whether I’m married, I discover I have no idea what is going on.

Work is another story entirely that will require another post, and with major changes coming soon. It’s been unseasonably warm, even for Jordan, and I haven’t worn a coat in two weeks (even resorted to short-sleeves because it was so hot, which I rarely wear here). I spent Thanksgiving at work but did manage to make it out for a nice dinner courtesy of Andris (a.k.a. The State Department...a.k.a. my own tax dollars...that give him a ridiculous per diem which he feels so guilty about he spends on all us poor volunteers).

Last Friday was also my first day off in a few weeks, and there was hiking, yay! Wadi Mujib. OK so it was more like a guided stroll uphill with the Jordanians smoking most of the way, but it was still nice to be outside and moving! And they have other trails there that are closed now because it’s ‘winter’ and there could be flash-floods, but in the spring there is a 9-hour hike that takes you in to a waterfall and then you rappel down it!! I CANNOT wait! (and p.s. on the flash floods... I’m no expert but it has rained a whole three times since I got here. I understand the concept and all, but I’m really not seeing the imminent danger of flash floods...?)

And a final p.s. to the birthday box contributors, which I just finally got last weekend, the breath of home is truly appreciated. Wish I could send you some fresh hummus and knafer as a thank you but you’ll have to take my (much less tasty but heartfelt) words of gratitude instead.

**As usual, the picture upload idea is NOT working, but tomorrow I will have high-speed internet thanks to Justin, who is telling me come work at his place. Guess you’ll just have to come back and look then!**