Dispatches from Daily Life in Amman

Sunday, December 18, 2005 | Amman, Jordan (map)

Myself, our teacher Najah, and two classmates, Anders the Dane and Umit the Turk.
In my last days here in Amman, I just want to share with everyone back home what some of my daily experiences are like here in Jordan's capital.

As I've written before, on the surface Amman looks a lot like an American suburb, but daily life in this culture is different (even if it's not as different as I might like). I've learned to adapt in part, but not yet to feel at home—or even as happy as I did in Damascus.

Learning Arabic is the main reason I'm here, and thus the main focus of my days, which I spend at the University of Jordan's Arabic Language Center, home to the foreign students, local Arabic teachers, and a few curious Jordanian students who come to make foreign friends and practice their English. A rotating bunch of classmates and I eat lunch each day at the university cafeteria, or sometimes at an
awesome Yemeni restaurant across the street from the university's front gates.

Early on, I felt like I wasn't making much headway with Arabic, which was frustrating. English is mandatory for all students from first grade onward in Jordan, so my host family, the Haddads, almost all speak great English. Most people in Amman (especially the younger generation) are so used to speaking English that they can't even seem to speak in pure Arabic, instead using a mix all the time. Also annoying: whereas educated Syrians spoke literary Arabic ("Fus-ha"), here in Jordan everyone only speaks English and super-fast colloquial Arabic ("'Ammiya"), so for a while there was very little Arabic learning going on. But a few introductory 'Ammiya classes helped, and with time I got my host siblings—mostly the two sisters—to loosen up and speak quite a bit of Arabic to me. Once my Modern Standard Arabic courses began in October, they proved very willing to help me decipher the texts I have been reading, looking up words in the dictionary and explaining subtleties. I have long lists of vocabulary words, and my Arabic has improved tons since I arrived. Fluency, I've learned, is an impossible dream, but my capacity to express my thoughts—even on complex social and political topics—has grown tremendously. The teachers here at the UJ Language Center are definitely top-notch, and the program is better organized than the one back at Damascus University. But of course, nobody can top Boshra, my wonderful teacher back in Damascus!

My class is taught by a young Jordanian guy, Najah, who used to teach at UVA. My fellow students are a few Taiwanese and Koreans (very quiet), a bunch of Turks (very pious—they are all here learning Arabic as part of their religious studies), and a few Danes (very fun).

Back in October several of us in the class organized ourselves into a small international soccer team, to play against other teams in a university league. After months of sitting around eating hummus and falafel, it felt great to be running and sweating and competing again. It also inspired me to start getting some more regular exercise between games, in hopes of not getting too fat. That's been a losing battle, but for the last several months I can proudly say that I have suited up and gone out for a run through the neighborhood every day—even during Ramadan, when I ran in the evenings at the peak of my exhaustion from fasting.

* * *
The University of Jordan Language Center, a venerable institution
While soccer has been a highlight, it was tainted by one bad incident. Back in mid-November, I was kicking the ball around the university field with some friends, when someone took the opportunity to snatch my backpack, which I had left off to the side of the field. They dragged it around the side of a building where nobody could see, then rifled through it until they found my very awesome cellphone and my very valuable wallet. Those are gone. Luckily, they also found my passport, but left that behind. Had they taken my passport, it could have been so much worse, but I still really wanted to kick someone's ass.

Back home that evening, I canceled my credit card and ATM card before the thief could use either of them, and mourned the loss of my ID cards and about $100 in Jordanian dinars. The Haddads were beside themselves that someone would have done this to a foreign guest in their country. I tried to reassure them that it wouldn't ruin my image of Jordan, but inside I was furious too. I decided to write an angry screed in Arabic, denouncing the thief who had violated my belongings when I was a guest in his country. I drafted it, my host brother Deeb helped me refine the language, and I was getting ready to print it when Deeb's cousin Ala' intervened. "Wait a minute, you can't go posting this all around the university!" he exclaimed. "No way! This will cause a huge scandal!" Deeb re-read it. "You know, Andrew, he is right."

It was an important lesson in my experience here, though not one I swallowed easily at first. I pushed back hard, arguing that the best hope for retrieving my stolen stuff was to try to shame the university community into finding and giving up the thief. Deeb, now firmly won over to the other side, patiently explained why in fact this approach was more likely to backfire. In a place like Jordan, he and Ala' argued, it could come across as me being an ungrateful guest, or trigger a witch-hunt that would likely just increase the already high tensions between the campus's Palestinian and Jordanian and Iraqi students. I swallowed my anger and accepted a simpler "missing belongings" flyer, which I pasted on a few campus bulletin boards the next day. The subtler approach didn't get me my stuff back, but it didn't set off any wars either.

* * *

After a few months of getting to know each other—plus the solidarity born of disasters in our respective countries (Hurricane Katrina in the US, and the Amman bombing here in Jordan) and more mundane struggles like the theft of my wallet and phone—relations with the Haddads have picked up significantly in the latter part of my stay here. Particularly with Father Nabil and his wife (who I've called "Mama" since day one as instructed), I've gained a respectable reputation for my studiousness and dedication to Arabic. "Georgetown, shaaaatir..." has become a familiar refrain in the house. It certainly didn't hurt my stock when the other American who was living here, Hayden, spoiled his relations with the family so thoroughly that he finally moved out last month.

I've also grown closer with Deeb and Laith, my host brothers. On weekends, we sometimes go out on the town, to fancy hangouts in Abdali, to the fun-loving Danes' apartment, or to fellow American friends' houses, like for our Halloween party. More often we go up the street to a local cafĂ©, where they chain-smoke and I sip coffee as we play backgammon—a surprisingly complex game that I'm slowly learning to play. We've developed lots of inside jokes between us, and have plenty of fun mocking each other's faults. My laughable attempts at growing facial hair—an indisputable sign of masculinity here in Jordan—are one of their favorite targets.

My freedom of movement has unfortunately been more limited since the bombing last month. Our program leadership had strict rules to begin with, but now much of the city has become off limits: any Western-style restaurants, malls, hotels, etc. are no-go zones, as is the city center. At this point there's not much point in even going out anymore, since so few places remain.

* * *
Laith, myself, and Deeb—the three amigos
With my semester here coming to an end this week, I'm saying my goodbyes at the university and preparing to head to Lebanon for Christmas, to see Julian, my Australian friend from Damascus. It will be a fun cap to these seven months in the Middle East before I head back to the grand old U.S. of A.

But first, decorating the Christmas tree with the Haddads!
With older brother Deeb, and the Christmas tree, and (of course) the King.

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