Be The Change

Train, Train, Train
April 24, 2010, 8:34 am
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Our first two months in Jordan were spent in intensive language and technical training that took place in our host village and also at a nearby University.  About four volunteers are placed in each village, and each village is assigned an “LCF,” a Language and Cultural Facilitator, whose job it is to teach us Arabic and to make sure we are understanding and adjusting to the culture and the experience of living in Jordan.

Our LCF was a young man named Abdulla.  He grew up as a shepherd east of Mafraq, and told us stories about spending nights in the desert as he grazed his flock far and wide.  Somehow he managed to get a scholarship to a university in the UAE, and studied mathematics there.  Upon returning to Jordan he got a job with the Peace Corps.  Abdulla took his job seriously, and wouldn’t let us slack on our studying.  I often wonder what he thought of us—spending time with four Americans in that way is something I think few Jordanians have had the chance to experience.  I wonder what he would think when we’d come in to class, brimming with the latest story of our cultural blundering. He shepherded us through a long and difficult two months, and we owe everything we know about Jordan and Arabic to him.

Our training group consisted of Alonso, Julie, James, and I.  Alonso is a 23-year old kid from Chicago—a poet.  He’s the quiet, observant type, who thinks before he speaks, but laughs a lot.  I came to rely on his big smile, and open, innocent laugh to get me through long, hard days.  Julie is a spunky, 63-year old woman from California.  Her husband passed away a few years ago, and she left her career as a teacher and afterschool instructor to come all the way to Jordan.  We’d laugh a lot and commiserate as we puzzled over the cultural norms, and the appropriate behaviors for women in Jordan.  We’ve now parted ways with Alonso and Julie—they’re in far-off villages of their own—but it’s fun to keep in touch and remember our crazy days together as wide-eyed trainees.

Our training classroom was an empty house on the edge of town.  The man who built it has not yet found someone he wants to marry, and so still lives in his father’s house across the street.  We took over the front room and filled it with alphabet charts and vocabulary words, and we met there every day for several hours to study Arabic.  The classroom was both a prison and a sanctuary—drilling words and phrases for hours a day can be grueling, but having the freedom to escape our host families for a few hours and thereby having the freedom to “be American” for a while was a much-needed release.

Living with a host family was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, but it was exhausting.  They spoke not one word of English, which meant that if we wanted to eat, sleep, or use the bathroom we had to express those needs in Arabic.  I think it was hard, even after three months, for our host father to understand the limitations in our language comprehension, and he would speak quickly, use obscure vocabulary, and get frustrated when we didn’t understand.  Our host mother was much more astute in that way—she would listen patiently as we spit out half-comprehensible thoughts, and she’d puzzle over them until she could make sense of what we were saying.  She’d also speak to us slowly and deliberately, and would laugh with delight when a connection was finally made.  Being totally immersed in another language is an exhausting experience.  There is no rest.  Your mind is always scanning the conversation—straining to understand, to catch one word or phrase that registers a meaning.

Another difficulty we found in adjusting to life in our village was privacy.  In Arab culture privacy is not valued—the culture is communal, and company and the sharing of space and resources is taken as a given.  Arabs are more comfortable in social settings, and seem almost never to want to be alone. They are most relaxed and happy among friends and family, and even something as simple as taking time to wind down before bed is not common.  This, more than anything else, has made us feel our “Americanness.” Because of the exhausting training schedule, the culture shock, and the relentlessness of the language immersion, we craved time to ourselves.  Time to think and to process what we were seeing and feeling.  Time to have a break from Arabic and the cultural norms that were still a mystery to us.  It was hard for our host family to understand this.  They felt something was wrong when we wanted to “go to bed” at 8pm, and they felt they should come keep us company when we often tried to escape to the roof to spend some time alone with our flashcards.

One night we desperately needed to escape and we told our host families we were going to our classroom to study.  We set up a DVD on my laptop but before we could watch it we covered all the windows with paper and turned out the lights.  There we were, huddling together on a tiny, uncomfortable couch, hoping we would escape a knock on the door.  I’ve never felt so silly—hiding away like that—but it was a much-needed and hard-earned diversion.  After about an hour, the knock did come, from Saleem, our neighbor, worried about us being out so long after dark.  It was 8:00pm, and we were three blocks from home.  Thankfully Abdulla ran interference for us while we packed up our clandestine cinema and pretended to study.  Convinced that we were okay and that we knew he was keeping an eye out for us, Saleem went on his way and we finished the movie, having narrowly escaped losing a our two stolen hours of privacy.

As time went by we started to see the beauty in the collective lifestyle of our host families. Visits were long, and we’d so quickly run out of things to talk about.  But after two months, we, too, wanted to spend more and more of our time visiting, and started to ease into the comfort of company.  But we still find ourselves “hiding out”—guarding our coveted “alone time”—when our neighbors want us to socialize day after day.  They are learning to respect our need for space, but I’m not sure they’ll ever really understand it.

City Life
January 29, 2010, 11:35 am
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When the best description Lonely Planet can muster is “dusty and congested frontier town,” you know you’ve wandered into a place whose charms are few.  In the case of Mafraq, however, this became the first place we really realized we were in the Middle East.  Amman’s self-conscious strivings toward modernity—including, but not limited to, a full complement of American fast food restaurants—made it for us a sort of way-station between the West and the Middle East.  It wasn’t until Mafraq that we knew we had wandered further than ever before.

The single most salient characteristic of the town seems to be the countless shops jammed full of cheap household goods, toys, and sundries imported from China.  Disorganized jumbles of plastic fashioned into every imaginable shape—from purple hangers to creamy-white furniture to red and green and bright blue brooms—crowd the entrances to the “dukans” that line the crowded streets, and one dinar can buy any number of amusements: games and toys or jewelry and flowery hair clips or pens and notepads and colored pencils.

But just when you think you’ve gotten lost in a land of dollar-stores, you’ll come upon a women’s clothing store where white-faced slender mannequins display the latest styles in abayas and hijab. Mafraq is in one of the more conservative parts of the country, and women wearing the nikab, or full face covering, are almost as common as men in red-and-white-checked shmakhs. Watching faceless women draped in yards of black fabric shop for socks and diapers and perfume, and bargain with shop owners for better prices, is both humanizing and jarring. It’s a phenomenon we haven’t quite processed yet, but which causes a skipped heartbeat or two when our unconscious, stolen stares are discovered.

The vegetable souk offers piles of green-and-orange clementines, stacks of fist-sized red radishes, and mounds of cauliflower and cabbage heads so enormous as to be nearly unbelievable.  Chickens are slaughtered, bled, and de-feathered while you wait, and patrons walk away with black plastic bags full of flesh that is still warm with recently-extinguished life.  Bakeries often can’t produce bread fast enough for the lines of eager buyers, who watch the conveyor belt impatiently as it delivers steaming khobez to the adolescent boy stuffing them hastily into bags.  Sold by weight, the bread is subsidized so heavily by the government that a dozen pita rounds cost barely twenty-five cents.

A walk in Mafraq always left us exhausted—overwhelmed by the relentless din of Arabic shouted by eager vendors and whispered by shy groups of school girls passing on the street.  The traffic was unyielding, and walking down the street often brought us a brush with passing cars, whose drivers inch through the tightest of spaces—pedestrians notwithstanding.  It was always a relief to find ourselves on the bus headed back to our quiet, out-of-the way village, and heartbreaking, in our fatigue, to have to wait forty minutes for the bus to fill up before departing.

Desert Landscape
January 29, 2010, 11:20 am
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This beautiful picture captures the essence of the landscape outside Mafraq, the area where we lived for our first two months in Jordan. The gently sloping hills seem nothing more than piles of crumbled rocks, each in a different stage of erosion into ever-finer grains of dirt and dust.  The sparse countryside is punctuated only by the rise of huddled groupings of white concrete houses—themselves made from refashioned stones and sand.  Rarely painted in colors that make them show up, their right angles and boxy, darkened windows are the only features that bring them out against the essentially colorless terrain.

The monochrome would be more striking if it weren’t for the ever-present smattering of black plastic sacks, empty Pepsi bottles, and silvery chip bags that cluster in the ditches near the roadsides and cling relentlessly to the tumbleweeds.  The goats even seem to confuse the ubiquitous garbage with natural plant life, and munch paper cigarette cartons almost as eagerly as mouthfuls of grass. I’ve often wondered how this desert must have looked before the invention of disposable packaging. Sometimes driving past open spaces gives the impression that the land glitters with a thousand diamonds, as countless shards of broken glass gleam and glint in the sunlight. The tragedy seems to lie in the sheer volume of man-made waste spread across this sparse land—the word “litter” seems altogether too insubstantial a word to describe it.  How would the community ever launch a successful cleanup effort?  I have visions of little boys running through the hills chasing elusive, airborne plastic bags intent on their freedom from the confinement of dumpsters.

The dust in the air and the wide, open horizons make for the most breathtaking sunsets, as the sky turns coral and red and purple—wide swaths of color dotted by sparse and wisping clouds.  Amazingly, however, after sometimes as little as one rainstorm, the uninterrupted beige turns overnight into rolling green hills, as the latent seeds of desert grasses and scrubby shrubs take advantage of the scarce moisture.  According to villagers, this part of Jordan used to be filled with natural trees and greenery, but the past decades have seen sparser and sparser rainfall—shorter and shorter winters.

During the weeks I was teaching in the village Girls’ School the seventh-grade English curriculum appropriately presented a lesson on “Deserts.”  With pictures of the Sahara and the rolling dunes of the Gulf States, the passage explained that deserts are places where water is scarce and few animals and plants can survive.  The landscape is dominated by rocks and sand and dust, and only the heartiest creatures could make their home there, the book asserted.  Using the unit’s “have you ever…” grammar lesson, and trying to elicit some conversation from the girls, I asked, “Have you ever been to a desert?”  “No!” came the chorus of replies.  “Really?” I said, directing their attention outward through the small, dusty, barred windows.  “Look outside…this is a desert.”  The girls laughed at my ignorance, emphatically arguing that I was mistaken.  “Other parts of Jordan—like east of Mafraq—that is a desert,” they said.  “This is a garden,” their teacher agreed, in her broken English.  I apologized for having misunderstood, and the matter was settled.  A garden.  All a matter of perspective, I suppose.

Holiday Cheer
December 9, 2009, 7:22 pm
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In the event that any of you dear souls out there reading this would like to send us a Christmas card, we’d love to hear from you!  This is a photo from Thanksgiving–to celebrate we really splurged and went to one of the few (the only?) pizza joints in this part of the country.  Pizza and Pepsi–what a feast.

Come to Prayer. Come to Success. God is Great.
December 9, 2009, 5:10 pm
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This morning the travel alarm clock and its annoying buzz woke us at 5:30, and James braved the icy desert air to switch on the water heater in hopes of starting the day with a warm shower. As the sun grew stronger in the sky the now-familiar bells of our neighbors’ goats clanged and their young shepherd—a boy maybe 10 years of age—whistled through his fingers, calling them back from their breakfast of grazing on the sparse greenery that has cropped up among the stony and colorless landscape. I peeked out the window and caught a glimpse of him hoisting his backpack up onto his shoulder as he heads off to school. This week has brought rain, which nourishes the olive groves found outside each cinder-block home, but thwarts the efforts of dutiful wives who hang rows of colorful laundry out to dry on the long wires spanning roofs and yards.

We’ve finally begun sleeping through the call to prayer that rings out before dawn, but with four mosques in our village of 5,000 people, the later calls are hard to miss. I’ve come to appreciate them and their invitations—“Come to prayer, come to success. God is great.” God is great indeed.

While waiting for the bus to come to take us to the University for training, we heard a knock at the door and opened it to see the little orphaned lamb that has become our regular visitor, along with his shepherd, Omar, under whose knees the little lamb huddles in the cold. Omar is about 19 years old, and is a kind, simple person whose warmth we felt almost from the first day we met him. Mainly occupied with keeping the sheep and the goats, Omar recently bought a new wardrobe with the money earned from selling part of the flock to faithful families who sacrificed an animal to commemorate the Muslim holiday of Eid. Omar is off to the army in just ten days—the vast majority of village young men leave school after tenth grade and head to the military as perhaps their only option for gainful employment. We will miss Omar dearly—as will his mother, Umm Shaker, and his little brother, Momon and, of course, his little lamb.

Breakfast this morning was sparse: Arabic cheese—which is, in my opinion, an undeserved euphamism for rotten yogurt ☺—olive oil, and zatar, a delicious mix of dry spices into which we dip our oiled bread. Our host father prides himself on the tea he makes—usually unbearably strong and characteristically sweet—but we drink it ritually to start the day.

Because of the cold weather (called “berrrt” in Arabic!) most people sleep long hours, tucked in under piles of blankets so heavy it’s nearly impossible to stir beneath them. The past week has brought the appearance of “sobas,” small gas heaters that get turned up to the maximum and fill the air with a noxious, soporific smell that seems to lull us into a meditative state. The orange glow of the mantle reflects off our already-red cheeks as we huddle around the floor cushions, visiting. The temperature outside can’t be colder than fifty degrees, but because of the straight brick-and-mortar construction of the houses, fifty degrees outside means fifty degrees inside. It can be grueling to live a full twenty degrees below room temperature during the greater part of the day. Mercifully, the noonday sun heats up nicely, and I make sure to pause outside to defrost as often as possible. Living in these houses makes the comfort of American life stand out in high relief, and I admire our host family’s resilience. Their parents endured this weather while living in tents, and still further into the desert with its extremes of hot and cold.

Our Arabic is progressing, we never lack for conversation, and the joy in people’s faces as we attempt to communicate and nod along through the bulk of what they say in response is beyond compare. The training period is intense, for sure, but our focus is clear, and the number of tasks we have to juggle is slim compared to a day’s work in the States. I have often been struck in these several weeks by thoughts of what my life would be like were I in America. I find myself wondering what my worries would be—what my obligations? There is a calm to the day to day experience of being a world apart from those things, and I hope it never leaves me so long as that distance remains.

We’ve been living in this Bedouin village for nearly two months now, and have finally found ourselves sufficiently ingratiated to be receiving enough dinner invitations to last us another two. “Stay—drink tea,” is the common refrain as we try to move on to the neighbor or the sister or the “ibin am-mi” who has invited us as well. We’ve assembled our favorite characters, and see them as often as our schedule permits:

There is Umm Salaa, our host father’s mother. She is an authentic Bedouin woman, born in a tent, where she lived out her childhood. She married at sixteen, and her dowry was neither gold nor money, but a proper house in which to raise eight children, the first generation of her family to know a life apart from the roaming impermanence of her own. Umm Sala is a strong, wily, and animated woman, whose face bears the bluish-grey tattoos common among Bedouin women of her generation. Illiterate and largely unaware of what lies outside her own experience, she is nonetheless content—laughing much, and directing her family’s affairs shrewdly and with careful attention to cultural norms. She loves for me to take photos of her—especially of her holding the coffee urn, a symbol of her hospitality, a characteristic valued here above all else—except perhaps for piety.

Piety is where Abu Salaa comes in. The patriarch of the family, he is a jolly man who cannot speak without smiling, and who usually greets us on his way either to or from the mosque. He has been to America once many years ago, perhaps for military training, as his tales of the U.S. almost always involve some merry reenactment of a parachute drill. “Jordan, Amerca: same, same,” he always says, rubbing the edges of his forefingers together in the gesture used to communicate familial relationships. “America very good,” he adds, grinning, having exercised the full extent of his English vocabulary. As good as America is, though, he insists that after two years we won’t want to leave Jordan. “Mama, Baba nooo Amerca,” he says, waving his hands back and forth like an umpire declaring us “safe” upon arrival in our new home. “Ordon!” he proclaims, pointing enthusiastically to the ground and then reaching his hand out in hopes that James will slap it emphatically, indicating his appreciation for Abu Salaa’s good humor.

“After you leave our village, will you visit us?” We must hear this question ten times a day, particularly from Umm Salaa, who seems as concerned about the answer the fifth time she asks it as she was the very first. She turns her round, chubby face toward me, her brow furrowed and her piercing eyes searching my face for a positive response. “Inshalla,” I say, “God willing,” which, as noncommittal as it seems, satisfies more than any emphatic “yes” or “definitely” ever could. “Aaay-wa!” she declares, nodding emphatically, secure now once again in the fact that we won’t forget her, that we will return to her, that this strange foreigner whom she has welcomed into her home will be more than a fleeting memory. She turns back to face her daughters across the room, her bare feet protruding from under her loose black frock, and reaches up to tighten the band of fabric tied around her forehead and ears, running her hands down the long tails that hang on either side of her face. She wears a large silver and turquoise ring on her left hand, which adds a touch of class to her otherwise austere dress. As she gestures with her dark, wrinkled, and work-worn hands, it gleams out, as simple, beautiful, and captivating as she is.

December 9, 2009, 5:09 pm
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Our internet access has been extremely limited lately–perhaps 20 minutes a week! We have so much to say and so many stories to tell, but our time online is limited. Hopefully in we will be able to publish more soon, but please don’t give up on us–we’re still out here and would love to hear from you!

From the Dusty Desert with Love
November 8, 2009, 5:37 am
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Well, we’ve been in Jordan for two weeks now, and with our home-stay family for just about 10 days.  We are happy and adjusting to life here as best we can with only limited Arabic.  We live with a couple 30 and 34 years old who have one little 1-year old girl.  They are sweet and generous, and insist that we sleep in their bedroom.  Apparently it’s pretty luxurious to have  bed, so we don’t say no!  They sleep on the farshas (3-inch cushions) in the visiting room.  The house is concrete and not insulated, so it feels good to go out and bake in the winter sun every once in a while.

We are staying in a dusty village of about 4,000 people close to the Syrian border and about 200 miles west of Baghdad.  The village consists of two tribes of bedouins, which is an ancient people who have wandered the desert in this region herding sheep and goats for centuries.  Mostly they have settled in houses now and most work for the army.  Because we are in a border town (just a few miles from Syria) there is an army base nearby that employs most of the men in the area.  Some people still herd goats–like our neighbors, who own about 20.  All of the women are covered, mostly with scarves and long dresses, and in the city there are even a good percentage who cover their faces and hands.  Many of the men wear long white robes (called a dish-dash) and the red checkered head scarves, but many also wear modern clothes.  Not a lot of bathing happens because they get water only once a week and have to store it in tanks on the roof.  We have been bathing every other day, which seems a little much.  As we adjust, it will probaby be less!


Every day we wake up to the sound of the morning call to prayer–echoing out from three different mosques at the same time.  That is, if the roosters don’t wake us up first! We have a simple breakfast of flatbread, yogurt, olive oil, and sometimes cheese or an egg.  We then walk up the street to another person’s house–they’ve lent us a room for our language classes, and we have a teacher for the four volunteers who live in the village.  Our teacher is a recent college grad who attended university in the United Arab Emirates.  We have learned how to introduce ourselves and describe our family relationships (very important here), and how to count and the alphabet.  We’re very excited that we’re now able to sound out words and are close to being able to read.  We now know how to greet properly–it’s hard, though, b/c there are so many different ways to greet and they all include either the word allah or salaam.  Tough to keep them straight!

We have a big lunch around 2pm, which usually consists of one of Jordan’s signature dishes–Magluba or Mansef.  Mansef is goat meat served over rice with a rich yogurt-broth ladeled over it.  It’s required that you eat Mansef with your hands!  Magluba is like Mansef only with chicken and a side salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and parsley in lemon juice.  It’s all delicious!  Sometimes we have dinner, sometimes not.  It’s mostly leftovers or some fruit or some biscuits.  The food is great, and we haven’t gotten sick yet.  We boil our water, but other than that we haven’t had to worry too much.


Other than class, we sit for hours and entertain a long stream of visitors who come to see us every day.  just when we think we’ve met them all, another sister or brother shows up.  They’re all relatives, and they like to just sit and look at us, and help us speak Arabic.  Some–like our host father–want to learn English and have us pronounce things for them over and over.  It’s a nice exchange.  The gender segregation is often stark, but lately since they’ve gotten to know us, they allow us to all sit in a room of mixed men and women.  Our host mother rarely leaves the house, however.

Everyone is very kind and patient, and we try very hard to communicate, but very, very slowly!

Today is our first excursion into the “big” city, which is a real treat.  We are at an internet cafe right now and we are loving it!  Not much time left, but we wanted to let you know we’re doing just fine and other than having stressful dreams about learning Arabic, things are calm and peaceful and slow.  It’s nice.  We can’t wait to be able to speak, though, so we can get started lending a hand!


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