Bou Saada: A Begrudging Appreciation

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 | Bou Saada, Algeria (map)

Under sunny skies, the swimming pool at Bou Saada's Hotel Kerdada looks far more inviting.
That's it?

After six hours dodging reckless truckers along the rain-soaked two-lane highway from Algiers, past mile after mile of dreary fields and depressingly rundown one-horse towns, that was my reaction when we finally pulled the car to a stop in our destination: Bou Saada.

With Nina's parents visiting from Germany, we had been seeking a new destination for a weekend outing, and chose to visit this little oasis town so many friends in Algiers had raved about. But instead of a desert paradise, we found a drab cement-block town that—at least at first view—closely resembled the colorless truck stops we had passed along the way.

In Arabic, Bou Saada translates roughly to "Pleasantville." One of several Algerian towns billed as "the gateway to the desert", it sits inland from the Mediterranean, where the fringes of Algeria's northern highlands yield to the vast Sahara. But the drive had provided yet another hard reminder of Algeria's most constant

In the Latest Belaredj Outing, Remixing Traditions with a Twist on Gender

Tuesday, September 29, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Belaredj founder Souad Douibi models the shanghai, an outfit traditionally worn only by men.
Belaredj, meaning "stork" in Arabic, is a fitting name for an artistic movement whose principal medium is the haïk, the elegant white traditional dress of Algeria's women. But this month the Belaredj collective, led by local artist Souad Douibi, pushed beyond the bounds of its previous performances with an outing centered on the shanghai—the sailor's outfit long favored by the men of Algiers.

Explanations differ as to how men in this North African capital came to wear a blue sailor's outfit named for a city in China. One of the more plausible accounts describes Chinese sailors in the port of Algiers early in the 20th century swapping uniforms with the Algerian dockers, thereby launching a trend that persists until today. (French speakers can read that entire account here, though it is by no means definitive.)

Not that the shanghai is ubiquitous these days on the streets of Algiers. Like the haïk, it is now sported by only a few, usually of a certain advanced age, and more often in the Casbah and other working class neighborhoods.

One thing is certain: the shanghai is definitely not worn by women. And therein lay

My Own Look Back: Jordan, A Decade On

Thursday, September 10, 2015 | Amman, Jordan (map)

Andrew pondering life's mysteries at Dana Nature Reserve in Jordan. (Original photo by J. Ehresman)
This post is a more personal follow-up to my previous entry, "Jordan 2005: Looking Back, A Decade Later".

"Ten years already?!?!" That's what I said to myself earlier this year when I realized that it would soon be a decade since I left my family and college friends back in the US for unknown adventures in Syria and Jordan.

I quietly recognized the first of those anniversaries—that of my arrival in Syria—with one post mourning the country's recent disintegration ("In Syria, Humanity and Heritage Suffer War's Irreparable Devastation") and another reflecting on the difficulties of contributing to solutions from afar ("In Taking Action for Syria, No Easy Answers").

The second anniversary I reached this summer—that of my joyless arrival in Jordan, after spending the summer of my life discovering neighboring Syria—excited me far less. As my friends and longtime readers of this blog know well, I was no fan of Jordan nor of my experience there. Frankly, I was miserable. (Don't believe me? Go back and read my entries from Jordan.) Sure, today it's clear that I was surrounded by a fascinatingly diverse crowd of people, and living with a warm and generous host family that wanted nothing more than to ensure I enjoyed Jordan. But with its Starbucks and strip malls and abundant English speakers, in my eyes Jordan didn't hold a candle to Syria's isolated exoticism, and I spent my time there lamenting my decision not to stay back in Damascus. With that lousy outlook—which was compounded by simultaneous family troubles back home—I set myself up for a bad experience.

Yet my Syria-to-Jordan transition, while painful for me at the time (and probably much more so for those around me), left me with an invaluable life lesson. It will forever serve as my quintessential, hard-earned example of how travel—and life more broadly—gives you back what you put in. My widely divergent experiences in Syria and Jordan were different precisely because of my differences in attitude.

Jordan 2005: Looking Back A Decade Later

Monday, August 31, 2015 | Jordan (map)

Petra, Jordan, September 2005. Standing (left to right): Rob Lowell, Ian Lee, Matthew Southard, Andrew Farrand, Ben Jones, Emily Antoon, Jessica Ehresman, Mike Myers, Tom Hojem, Taylor Luck, Hayden Weiler, DeAnna Arabaty, Julia Robbins, Austin Branion, Lauren Gentry, Ryan Lospaluto. Seated (left to right): tour guide, Andrus Ashoo, Craig Hansen, Kristen Nivling, Lindsey Stephenson, Lindsay Zoeller, David MacDonald, Mariam Banahi, Sami Jarrah, Molly Langer, Emily Wright. Not pictured: organizer Sally Shalabi, Morgan Nilsen.
"I cannot put it simply enough: Jordan shaped me into the man I am today. Those few months would later lead to me finding my religion, my profession, my wife, and personal happiness. A semester well spent."

Taylor, a Chicago-born journalist living in Amman, Jordan, wrote those words last week in response to a survey I sent to 26 fellow Americans.

Exactly ten years earlier, almost to the very day, Taylor, I, and the rest of that same group—then just skittish college students—had been sitting awkwardly in the continental breakfast bar of an Amman hotel, sizing each other up out the corners of our eyes during a crash course in Jordanian culture, all the while eagerly awaiting our host family assignments and the start of Arabic classes a few days later.

I had hopped a taxi there from Damascus. Others had flown from California, Florida, Maine, Missouri, or Wyoming. Some would stay a semester and others a whole year, through a study abroad program run by CIEE in conjunction with AMIDEAST and the University of Jordan.

All of us came to Jordan from different backgrounds, shared several intense months together and, for the most part, went our separate ways. As the 10-year anniversary of our arrival in Jordan approached, I was curious to know where we all ended up. And while it can be fun to play "Where Are They Now?", another question intrigued me even more: How did those few months in the Middle East shape our lives?

To mark the anniversary, I invited my companions in Jordan to help me answer that question. I sent them a brief survey, and received responses from over half the group (16 in fact, with an almost even split between men and women, and between those who stayed one semester or a full year). Perhaps not everyone's life was as transformed as Taylor's was, but this exercise—while far from scientific—revealed a range of experiences even more formative, varied, and fascinating than I had imagined.

Bourek Meets World

Saturday, August 1, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Lucky dog: Several days after his adoption, Bourek has put on weight and gained confidence.
My sister, Maggie, was 8 and I was 11 when our family dog, Ilex, died.

The loss of our childhood companion and protector left an instant void in the house. So the next Christmas, I didn't hesitate in listing "puppy" at the top of my holiday wish list. I wanted a dog of my own so badly that it ached. My mother, mercilessly practical, tried to talk sense into me, pointing out how little time our increasingly busy work, school, and sports schedules permitted us to be home.

Today I can see that she was right—it would have been unfair to the dog. But at the time, I wasn't interested in listening. Until the day I got a puppy, I swore to the whole family, I would call my sister "Puppy". Unfortunately for Maggie, the innocent victim in this battle of wills, I have continued to execute the threat faithfully ever since—long enough for the nickname to stick of its own accord, long

The Good Life, à la Marseillaise

Saturday, July 25, 2015 | Marseille, France (map)

Dining seaside with the crew, including gracious hosts Mendouh and Mohamed, in Havana hats.
Mendouh thinks big. An Algerian Berber raised in southern France, Mendouh now lives in Algiers, running in the same mixed crew of Algerians and expats with whom I spend my evenings and weekends. He was one of the ringleaders of last November's memorable Marseille odyssey—an experience that weighed heavily in my decision to accept his latest invitation.

For his 31st birthday, Mendouh invited 120 friends—childhood buddies from France, drinking buddies from Algiers, plus his mother, brother, and seven sisters—to spend an extended weekend at a countryside villa he rented near the family home in Provence, outside Marseille. Nearly everyone invited made an appearance at some point during the weekend's events, which sprawled over several days at a scale more reminiscent of an extravagant Indian wedding than of your average birthday party.

In Taking Action for Syria, No Easy Answers

Sunday, July 5, 2015 | Syria (map)

Extending a hand: a Greco-Roman mosaic at the Syrian National Museum (Damascus, 2005)
In response to my post last week ("In Syria, Humanity and Heritage Suffer War's Irreparable Devastation"), a regular reader back in the USA wrote me to express his dismay at the state of affairs in Syria: "Why all the killing and destruction? It's just evil... and it seems like it is all around us." He concluded, "[It] seems there is little hope."

When you stop to reflect on the Syrian crisis, it can be easy to reach this conclusion. What hope exists for a place that seems to have generated nothing but bad news for five straight years? For a people whose desperation grows exponentially month after month?

Fatigue with the seemingly intractable sectarian conflicts of the Middle East has pushed many people outside Syria to simply tune out. Many ordinary Syrians feel the international community has abandoned them. (Sadly, it's largely true.) In

In Syria, Humanity and Heritage Suffer War's Irreparable Devastation

Monday, June 29, 2015 | Syria (map)

This church in Quneitra, the largest Syrian city in the Golan Heights, was damaged during the 1967 war with Israel. When I visited in 2005, the devastation visible in the Golan was the exception in Syria.
Ten years ago this month, I quit my summer construction job early and, buoyed by the single year of Arabic studies I then had under my belt, left my friends back at Georgetown and my family back in Baltimore to fly off to Damascus, Syria.

Looking back a decade later, the two brief months I spent in Syria—which I wrote about extensively on this blog—stand out in my mind as some of the happiest of my life, and among the most formative. I spent my weekdays absorbed in Arabic study, advancing swiftly thanks to the patient Syrians all around me. Each weekend, I explored a different part of the country, clambering over ancient ruins, wandering unknown souks, and revelling in Syrians' warm hospitality.

The place wasn't without its frustrations, to be sure—and the political tensions were palpable—but I came away from that summer with a deep reverence and respect for the country, its people, and its heritage.

Today, those fond memories make it that much harder to watch the destruction that is being heaped upon that same country, those same people, and that same heritage. The Syria I fell in love with no longer exists, and will never again exist as such.