Saturday, September 29, 2012

Week 5: Desert Castles/Russian Circus

This past week I visited Jordan's desert castles, rehearsed with the choir Dozan wa Awtar, volunteered at the Amman National School for the second time, visited the circus, and helped paint my host family's living room. Six days ago was our trip to the desert castles. Exactly fourteen of us from Amideast spent our saturday in the deserts east of Amman. It was mind-boggling how close we were to Jordan's borders. Our bus driver was joking we could make it to either Syria, Iraq, or Saudi Arabia in under an hour. The first castle we visited was Qasr Kharaneh. The wild dog running along the edge of the parking lot was only the third I've seen here in Jordan. The other two were here in Amman. I have no idea how this dog is able to survive out in the desert. When we reached the top of the castle there was nothing but dunes and power lines in every direction. The castle is said to have been a meeting point for the upper class of Damascus during the time of the Umayyad caliphate (before their last remaining prince's flight to Spain/Al Andalus). This makes the castle easily over a thousand years old. Surprisingly archaeologists have found no means of water storage at the castle. This leads them to believe it was just a waypoint or meeting place for caravans.

Qasr Kharaneh
After a 30 minute drive through the desert we arrived at Qasr al Azraq. When I first looked at my pictures from the castle it seemed as if I had used some sort of filter with my camera. I just don't recall the interior courtyard looking this dark. Though it must be said the grey stones used in the castle's construction are unlike anything I've seen elsewhere in Jordan. The sand-colored rock used in the other two castles as construction materials resembles that of all the buildings here in Amman. Lawrence of Arabia is believed to have stayed in Qasr al Azraq for two weeks during the Arab Revolt. The smaller square shaped structure to the right of the picture is actually an old mosque. Inside it looked as if there were at one time gypsum carvings on the structure's interior arches. This was technically the first mosque I've visited here in Jordan. I'm still hoping to visit one that's in use here in Amman.

Qasr al Azraq

 We also visited the al-Azraq oasis. The word Azraq in Arabic fittingly means blue (somewhat like azul in Spanish). Seeing the sprawling greenery, hearing the birds, and watching them hunt for fish made me realize how much I miss nature. I guess nature by my standards is simply greenery. If I look hard enough there are traces of it in Amman. But being here makes me realize how blessed the forests and ecosystems of New York State are with water. Al Azraq is a waypoint for over 300 species of birds migrating between Asia and Europe. One of the species I'd never heard of before was the bee eater. The Jordanians have done a great job maintaining the park and the dam built there by the Romans. It makes sense that Al Azraq isn't choking on wrappers, plastic containers, and cardboard as one in every four glasses of water in Amman comes from this oasis.
Qasr Amra
UNESCO World Heritage Site

Restorations at Qasr Amra
In my opinion, the final castle we visited was by far the most striking. Its walls and ceilings were covered in paintings and frescoes. The Jordanian government is doing there best to preserve this site and has hired a team of Italians to clean and restore the castle's paintings. I took the chance to practice my Spanish with them and the team said they'd been toiling for six months just to clean one section of paintings. The structure is complete with its own Roman bath. According to our guide, who brought our attention to the overly detailed paintings of the castle, it was more a pleasure palace than it was a fortress.

 Besides travelling around Jordan I've also been studying, volunteering, and singing here in Amman. Classes are going great at Amideast. I also volunteer in music classes at the Amman National School helping elementary and middle schoolers with basic music theory and guitar lessons. Once a week I spend a couple hours rehearsing with the choir Dozan wa Awtar. We have a huge Christmas concert right before I leave in December. Most of the songs we're singing are in English or Romantic languages. I was actually hoping to learn at least one song in Arabic and bring it back to sing with Laurentian Singers. For any of you who are interested, Laurentian Singers will be touring down the east coast this coming spring. We are scheduled to make stops in Central New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC.

I have seen a few roadside tents with satellite tv.
Ahlan wa Sahlan
Al Cirq Al Rusee
A few nights ago I went to the circus down the street from my house. I've been wondering for weeks about what is going on inside that tent. Maybe that is one of the purposes behind having it in a tent, to maintain an element of curiosity amongst the public. It is definitely why I wasn't allowed to take any pictures during the performances. There was a trapeze act, a troupe of gymnasts, and a couple of circus clowns. Furthermore, though there were a few colorful parakeets, no lions or elephants were part of the show. I'd like to end this post with an observation and realization that has taken a month to dawn on me. Everywhere around Amman most buildings have rebar jutting out of their roofs. Upon first glance I didn't realize how universal an occurrence this was in Jordan. Though overtime I started to realize Jordanians must be leaving their options open to continue building. I asked a few of my fellow students this week about what we have been seeing and they said that it is a Jordanian tradition for a son to build on top of his father's home. Though I haven't asked any Jordanians about this occurrence, after perusing a few sources on the internet the explanation I received seems correct. To me the jutting rebar all over the city is a valuable microcosm for the proximity of Jordanian familial relations.

This isn't the best example of the rebar. Though it's the best I could find from the windows of my host family's apartment.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Week 4: Jerash and Oud Lessons

What used to be Main Street in Jerash
Temple of Jupiter
(if you look closely a few of my friends skipped
out on the tour and scaled the ruins)
 I'm writing to you a day earlier than usual as I'm embarking on a day long trip tomorrow in order to see a few desert castles and an oasis. I'll have specifics on them in my next post. But before I dive into this week's trip to Jerash I want to touch upon a few more observations I've made about culture here in Jordan. A year ago while I was enrolled in a cultural anthropology course at St. Lawrence I realized the value of cross-cultural studies. By taking that sort of course you learn a great deal about the culture of others and in doing so you also learn a lot about your own. A great example of this unfolded for me this past week in Jordan with with regards to underlying symbols of Christianity in the United States. While speaking with a Jordanian Christian about the calls to prayer in Amman I realized that music, or at least notes, are also periodically played by places of worship in the States. I always thought the basic function of church bells was to inform listeners as to the time of day. Yet on the topic of calls to prayer, my Jordanian friend said they would love to live next to a church and hear its bells throughout the day. It never occurred to me that the periodic ringing we hear throughout the US could have such connotation. I also never made the connection between Islam and Christianity that both have a means to provide chronological structure within the daily lives of their believers. Another observation I made came while I was watching an ambulance blow by me in traffic a few days ago. The ambulance had a large crescent moon as part of its paint job. In Jordan the equivalent of the organization the Red Cross is the Red Crescent. Anything medical here from hospitals to ambulances, displays the red crescent of Islam. Back home I never made the connection that the red cross we see everywhere from military corpsmen to our own ambulances also stands as a reference to Christianity. My final observation of culture this week came when a complete stranger walked into the student lounge asking for my classmate Christian. As a side-note, no one except American Amideast students are allowed in our lounge or our entire wing of the 4th floor. The man was speaking entirely in Arabic and I could only make out that he had been at the Amideast offices last week with Christian. Because no advanced Arabic students were there to translate for us we went to get our program director. Like 4th graders we all listened as our director grilled the man out in the hall as to why he came to that part of the building. A few minutes later our director came back into the lounge with the man with a huge smile on her face. She said he had come to thank our classmate Christian for helping him find the program offices last week and that it was proper for him to do so in front of all his colleagues. After the man left our director told us we had just witnessed a Jordanian display of gratitude.

Now for my impressions of the Roman ruins at Jerash. I'm going to change things up and explain our trip using captions, on a picture by picture basis.

One of the first rules you learn as a history major is never think of  those living before you as simple or technologically challenged, they were ingenious in their use of the resources available to them and the technology of their day and age. The un-paraphrased quote comes from John H. Arnold's book History: A Very Short Introduction. The gist of this quote resonated in my head when I first saw the Roman manhole covers throughout the streets of Jerash. Our tour guide said that the Roman water/sewage systems were so advanced that one could actually jump down into them and crawl underneath the cobblestone streets.

There were Greek and Roman inscriptions everywhere, it's possible some of them were ancient graffiti.

Large groups of Italians and Germans toured Jerash at the same time as we did.  When we all converged on one of the two amphitheaters at Jerash one of the Italians went down on the stage and sang opera pieces for everyone. Though Italian isn't exactly Latin it was still cool to think that centuries ago someone of similar ancestry and in a similar language sang there. The acoustics were amazing. My friend Martha, from Laurentian Singers, and I also sang a few pieces.

It's been hard not having pets here in Jordan and seeing homeless cats all over the place. Luckily for me I haven't pet any yet nor do I plan to. The day before this picture was taken a girl on my program was bitten after a rabid cat broke into her host family's house.
Our tour guide set up a lever and fulcrum underneath one of the pillars to demonstrate how much they normally sway. This was actually pretty scary to see.
Archaeologist's have unearthed dozens of mosaics at Jerash.

I'm off to go practice oud at the music shop down the street from my house. Now that I'm a student there they let me borrow an oud and play whenever I want. We haven't been able to locate my host mom's virtuosic cousin so in the meantime I'm taking a few lessons there.  I hope all is well back in the States or wherever you are reading this. Thanks for visiting my blog.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Week 3: Citizen Diplomacy

Viva Barcelona
 Sorry for the wait. Maybe some of you, or one of you, have gotten used to waking up on Saturday mornings to find my blog posts (Nana). My computer bugged out this morning due to my constant changing between Arabic and English characters. Fortunately my brain can handle this sort of transition better than my laptop. I've been pleased with my acquisition of colloquial and modern standard Arabic over the last few weeks. But before I jump into my adventures of this past week I'll open up my subject matter to what many of you have watched, heard, and are currently thinking about. With everything that has been going on in the region Amman is stable. I haven't experienced any acrimony directed towards me. I still receive kind words like ahlan wa sahlan (welcome) on the street. But just to be safe all students in my program were encouraged to call off any trips to locations outside of Amman this weekend and keep a low profile. With regards to the situation I've tried to take the most optimistic stance possible. Hence the name for this blog entry. Eleven years ago I sat out on my front porch in fear as helicopters and jets roared over my house towards NYC. As a nine year old I felt helpless with regards to the situation. Though I still have some fear I don't feel helpless anymore. Each interaction I have with Jordanians I do my best to make a positive impression. It's the same way I would treat anyone back in the States. It's just here I am more aware of the proactive nature of day-to-day interactions. A strategy I would recommend to anyone for easier travel by cab in Amman or any city is bringing up soccer rivalries. I know at first it sounds counterintuitive and possibly dangerous. Most Jordanians are heavily invested in la Liga (Spain's Premier League), and its major rivalry Barcelona v. Real Madrid. But if you inquire as to what the cab driver's preference is within that rivalry and agree with them on the given team you become a brother to them. Certain drivers have actually referred to me as ak-ee (my brother) after finding out where my allegiance lies. Luckily I don't have to lie that much as most of Jordanians are also Barcelona fans. In essence, the strategy is a simple white lie that lowers your chances of a cab driver ripping you off at the end of each trip. In three weeks I have only been ripped off twice by cab drivers. While I'm on the topic of soccer I should add that the Jordanian national team beat the Australians in World Cup group play this week. I actually got stuck in traffic on the way back from signing up for a gym membership and was able to see the celebrations first-hand. There were people hanging out of moon-roofs with Jordanian flags and fireworks going off all over the city. Earlier on during my time here in Jordan I was hoping to attend the match, but because I could pass for an Australian my program barred me from going. Just seeing the celebrations in the street was enough for me. My final soccer related topic is the Manchester United (all red) jersey above. If you're ever in Jordan and hoping to outfit your infant in an official Man U jersey it's going to set you back 52 JD or $70 US. With all the space I've dedicated to soccer in this post I hope I have imparted how important the sport is to Jordanians.

Every student enrolled in the Amideast program gets paired with a Jordanian who is hoping to improve their English and help you improve your Arabic. This week I met my language partner Khaled at a restaurant called Wazzup Dog. I had a hot dog with sweet corn, chips, relish, cheese, mayo, mustard, and ketchup. It was actually pretty good. We also visited City Mall here in Amman. It was as if I was back at Carousel mall or whatever they're passing it off for now (Destiny mall?) in Syracuse. Because of the similarities I didn't really want to be there. This is a common theme of my life here in Amman. I try to distance myself from the semblances of western culture to gain more insight on that of Jordanians. This at times can be difficult as many Jordanians speak english better than I speak arabic and due to the fact that the city is already very modern. I realized the other night on my way home from class that many stores lining the streets of Amman are specialized, small, and family owned. I hypothesized that so far larger chain stores haven't taken a huge chunk out of their business. To support this observation I haven't seen any Walmarts or other super-stores. The closest thing I've seen is the single Carrefour mega-center in City Mall. The following three pictures demonstrate the range of commercial development in Amman.

City Mall

Electronics Section at Carrefour

I still haven't broken down and gone to the Burger King at the end of my street

This week I also took the opportunity to audition for the choir Dozan wa Awtar. Auditions were held at the Etihad Bank here in Amman. Right behind the bank a skyscraper is approaching completion. I made it into the choir along with two others from the Amideast program. One of whom is a fellow Laurentian Singer. Our first rehearsal is monday night. Because we were encouraged to become hermits this weekend with the possibility of protests at the US embassy we invited a few other Amideast students over and had a barbeque. We had trouble lighting all of the coals so my host brother had the brilliant idea to stoke them with a hair dryer. In arabic he called his contribution a fiqra heluwa (good idea). I won't type what I called it in english. The dinner turned out to be delicious with no shocks or burns. Afterwards we played the card game Trix late into the night. Everyone except me smoked  tobacco in a water pipe (argeela). I already get my fill of smoke from all the engine exhaust here in Amman.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Week 2: Excursions/Host Family

This week I made a couple day trips to destinations outside Amman and I moved in with my host family. A week ago today however, I visited the Souk Jara (Jara Market). It was purely by chance that I stumbled upon the market. I was near the city center on my way to pick up a dictionary in colloquial Jordanian Arabic when I saw a street mobbed with people and lined with vendors. For those of you who are interested, the dictionary is called Diwan Baladna (the dictionary of our country). I've had multiple Jordanians take a look at the book and they all thought it was great. While walking through the market their was a stand selling these dictionaries. The vendors themselves looked like bouncers you might see outside a club. It turns out though that they were the dictionary's co-authors. Most of my friends bought copies there and we all had our books signed by the authors. Sunday of this past week, the beginning of the work week here, my Islamic Art class made a field trip to Salt. There is an arts college there where I will travel to twice a week during the second half of the semester to learn woodcarving. On the road to Salt I saw scenery unlike anything I've ever seen before. The rolling hills melted into dunes and the dunes merged into the mountains separating the West Bank and Jordan. The two shots to the left are from our trip to Salt. We were up so high and on such a steep cliff that the picture to the immediate left almost appears to be an aerial shot. The landscape was dotted with olive groves and flocks of sheep. From that distance I couldn't tell if the shepherds were amongst their flocks. When we got to the art institute the masters there put on a demonstration of pottery making and wood carving. My professor for that class is wonderful. Her approach to visual art is unlike any other I've ever seen or heard. For her it is a form of meditation and letting the sacred geometry run its course. If you look closely the two pictures below are before and after shots of the wood carving master and a component he made for an elaborate window blind. As I'm writing I can hear a cat fight outside. This is pretty common here. Jordanians don't keep pets, but the streets are full of stray cats.

My host family here is wonderful. My host mom is the president of a charity, my host brother is an undergrad in a computer related field, and we also have a live-in housekeeper. Due to the fact that I'm hoping to take oud lessons while I'm here in Jordan, I was elated to learn this week that my host mom is the cousin of a virtuosic Jordanian oud player. Because our housekeeper speaks very little English and is here throughout much of the day I often come home right after class to have her drill and teach me vocabulary. So far I have learned more Arabic from her than my study abroad program and my host mom and host brother. I often avoid spending too much time at the program offices with all the other American students because every day our lounge feels more American than Jordanian. Everyone there speaks English regardless of their skill set in Arabic. My philosophy here is to continually make the extra effort to immerse myself in Jordanian culture and the Arabic language. Is that not why I'm here? Moving back to my host family, our apartment is in a convenient part of Amman. By cab, we are only 15 minutes from the Amideast program offices. We are close to a gym as well. Today I'm hoping to go get a membership. Right down our street is a Russian circus. I haven't visited yet. I hear they have an assad (lion) there. I'm fearful of going because I don't want to see the condition of the animals. Unfortunately my camera doesn't do too well in low light conditions. But I thought that the mixture of blurring colors and lights might convey how disorienting traffic is here in Amman.

The small tea table I have included is representative of what the woodcarving masters I'll be learning under make on a day to day basis. I asked my host mother and the piece is close to a hundred years old and is of Syrian origin. If you look closely the miniature table is one big wooden mosaic. Someone tediously pieced thousands of geometrically cut pieces of wood together to form this single table. This week I made a new friend in my Amideast language partner Khaled. Earlier this week he took a few of my friends and I out to a café where we learned the card game Trix. For all of you from my immediate family you know I'm not usually one for cards. But I really had a lot of fun learning it and have since played Trix with my host brother.

Yesterday we visited Saladin's castle at Ajloun. The fortress was fantastic. To think that someone a thousand years ago trekked hundreds of miles from Jerusalem and Damascus and had the vision to build such a structure is truly amazing. We were up so high we could see into both the West Bank and Syria. We pretty much had the fortress to ourselves as we went early in the day and it was the day of prayer. Later on we went to a nature preserve that was full of pine and olive trees. With the elevation and the amount of flora I got the feeling of being in the Adirondacks. But when I looked out from the top of the mountain there beyond the tree line was nothing but dunes as far as I could see.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Week 1: Orientation

With one week behind me I have made a few surface level observations of Jordanian culture and linguistic tendencies. But before we dive into them I want to recount my flights across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. From Syracuse to Toronto I flew in a 16 seater twin propellor plane. I had never flown in a plane before with an open cockpit. Seeing the pilot fight crosswinds while landing was a little nerve-racking.

But all went well and I had a fantastic view of Toronto as we flew into the airport. I was supposed to meet up with a friend and fellow Laurentian Singer at Pearson. She has travelled the world a bit more than me and I thought that travelling as a team might improve our chances of making flights and not getting hung up in customs. Her flight was delayed in Rochester and she ended up missing our connection. With hindsight I'm glad I was forced to go it alone navigating through the labyrinth that was Heathrow Airport. I had under an hour to make my connection to Amman. I'm sure those of you who know me well can picture me frantically double-timing through terminals sweating, and making a big deal out of my situation.

But no matter I eventually overcame jetlag in under 36 hours. Jumping back in time, while flying into Amman I had a fantastic view of a Greece, Turkey, and Tel Aviv. I don't think the pictures I took will ever do the scenery justice. I saw shepherds leading their flocks through the desert and the Dead Sea. The best I can display is to the left. I think it might be a southernmost point of Turkey or possibly Cyprus. If you look closely the white stone of the villages stands in contrast with the surrounding greenery. My host-brother just turned off his Rap music so we could hear the noontime call to prayer. I can't convey its beauty with words. Another decent shot I took was the confluence of the Mediterranean into the sky. The white line across the picture is clouds far off in the atmosphere. The sky and the Mediterranean are almost a mirror image of each other.

After landing in Jordan getting a Visa was as easy as my program said it should be. My first impression of Jordan driving out of the airport was a vague sense of growth and urban sprawl. All along the highway were small roadside stands selling bottled water and cotton candy. There were also shopping centers popping up featuring Ikea, KFC, and McDonald's. It is very Jordanian to eat cotton candy. Yesterday I heard a weird whistling down on the street in my host family's neighborhood. The closest thing I've ever heard to this whistle was the one Willy Wonka uses to summon Oompa Loompas. It turns out it was a guy walking down the street selling cotton candy. This is normal. Another strange noise in the streets here is the sound of happy birthday and ice cream truck tunes. One would think they'd have ice cream trucks here with the heat. But lo and behold it was a propane vendor. I've heard these propane trucks every day this week. Another interesting noise I've heard involving traffic is sporadic frantic honking. Honking is a constant sound while driving around Amman. Its three million inhabitants use it to signal each other when changing lanes or when the light turns green. Yet this doesn't explain the sporadic honking fits I've heard. I asked my program director the other day and she said I've heard wedding parties.

There are at least half a dozen skyscrapers being built in Amman. They are not extremely tall, but their foundations are quite deep. I've heard that bedrock is much farther down than other parts of the world. This constrains the height of buildings. Amman also has a feat of engineering in their suspension bridge. It happens to be right next to our program offices. It reminds me of the suspension bridge in Boston.

Earlier on in the week we visited the Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad ruins overlooking the city. Strewn to the side of the tour path was a stone tablet or grave stone. My American friend of Greek descent said that it is Greek writing. He has had many compliments on his English. Strangers say you have wonderful English for a Jordanian.

The view from up there was excellent. Though we weren't able to visit the Roman amphitheater it  sat less than half a mile beneath us. The columns that still stand there are remnants of the Temple of Hercules. There are also remnants of 4th century Christian churches there. Mosaics still sprawl all along the church floors. An Umayyad mosque still stands there as well. Within the last decade a team from Spain repaired its bronze dome. This interested me, as much of my research centers on Arabic influence in Spain. Because our tour guide spoke Spanish in addition to Arabic and English he added some more words to the list I've been developing that counts the relations between Spanish, English, and Arabic I have observed. I will display this list of linguistic similarities in later posts. On a final note, during our visit to the ruins one of the calls to prayer occurred. Because we were up so high and it was a windy day all of the muezzin's calls blended together into a wonderful harmony. Because only certain holy scales are used each call mathematically and musically gels with one another. It was the closest thing I've ever heard to a celestial chorus. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard.

I thought I'd include this picture for those of you who paint. I'm not sure what the species is, but I took it in the gardens surrounding an art gallery we visited as part of a scavenger hunt.