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.


Friday, June 26, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

What progress looks like. (Image source)
Today was a big day.

On three continents, we saw a series of yet more brutal terror attacks—this time leaving dozens dead and wounded in France, in Kuwait, and at a beach just next door in Tunisia.

Back home in the US today, a nation still in mourning after last week's similar killing of nine black worshipers in a South Carolina church finally got some good news. The Supreme Court announced a narrow 5-4 decision extending the right to marry to gay couples.

These seemingly unrelated events coincided today amid the broader era of transition in which we live. The attacks serve as a reminder that we inhabit a world where reactionary forces seek to manipulate violence, fear, or hatred to impose their own views and lifestyles on others at the expense of individual freedoms. The judicial ruling, however, serves as a reminder that it is those of us working to advance personal liberties and freedom of choice who gain the most ground, year after year.

16 Essential Algiers Experiences

Monday, June 8, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Why 16? Each of Algeria's 48 wilayas, or regions, has an assigned number for its license plates. Because plates on every car registered in Algiers end in 16, the number has become synonymous with the city.
After over two years of living and working in Algiers, I have spent considerable time exploring the city and its surroundings, as well as entertaining a handful of adventurous visitors. In the process, I've gotten to know this city well—even if I'm still discovering more each day.

One thing I've learned: there is lots to do here! (Not a surprise in a Mediterranean port of 4 million people that is also the capital of Africa's largest country, and yet its reputation sadly suggests otherwise.)

Distilling all the Algerian capital's unique sights, culture, and activities into one brief not-to-be-missed list isn't easy, but summer tourism season is upon us, and I have to try something to get more of you to visit! (Plus, the country's tourism officials don't seem likely to try it anytime soon.) So without further ado, here is my selection of 16 essential activities that every visitor to Algiers should experience:

The Haïk's Enduring Allure

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 | Algiers, Algeria (map)

Many Algerians consider the haïk to be just as much a symbol of the nation as its physical monuments.
How much power can a few square meters of white silk wield? A lot more than you might think.

That was my conclusion after the latest outing, one sunny Saturday in late March, by the "Belaredj" collective, the cultural group behind the haïk events I tagged along for twice last year. (To learn more, see "Celebrating the Haïk, and Debating an Algerian Icon" and "The Haïk: A Symbol of Algeria's Revolution".)

The unique allure of the haik—the traditional women's dress of Algeria, now rare on the streets of Algiers—was in full evidence at this spring's outing, organized as always by Belaredj's founder, local performance artist Souad Douibi. Souad's other recent events (which she bills as "performances" rather than mere cultural festivals) had garnered increasing attention, as photographers—myself included—inundated Algerian social media with modern images of this classic symbol. In a country so fixated on its history, such images hold particular power, and motivated more than a few photographers to attend this spring's event.