Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Spring is in the air

With this title I am speaking quite literally. Spring is in the air. More specifically, olive tree pollen is in the air. I only know this because it turns out I am quite allergic to it. 

Other than that, Spring is going well. March and April were comfortably warm but now I'm pretty sure the summer heat has officially arrived. Spring in Ajloun is so beautiful. Flowers pop up out of nowhere, and every week a new fruit is being plucked off the trees and stuck in kids pockets, only to be pulled out and shared with you later. Almonds, mullberries (toot), eskadenia (loquat in English), hummus (raw chickpeas) and so much more to come. 


View of my landlord's farm, right below my house

We're over 3 months into the semester with only a couple of weeks left, and all of the students and teachers are clearly ready for the summer holiday. I love my students, really, but I must admit that I too am looking forward to a break from the daily routine. 

This semester I have taught 1st, 3rd, and 9th grade English and have done a narrative writing class with the 6th and 7th graders once a week. The 9th graders are extremely challenging to teach. I remember being that age. Turns out that not only is it an incredibly difficult age to be, but also to teach. With the exception of a few girls, the class doesn't do their homework, cheats off one another, and seem to have simply given up.

One main issue in the Jordanian education system is that students can not fail a class or be held back a grade. If they do not pass the final exams, the teacher must make another exam and another exam until the student is able to pass it. Most teachers avoid this extra work by giving each student a passing grade regardless of their score. The final year of high school is known as tawjihi. 12th grade students throughout the kingdom take the same set of exams on the same day over the course of 2 weeks in June. These are the first exams that they have taken in their life that really count and will determine whether or not they will move on to junior college, University, or neither. Once students are old enough to realize this, there is little incentive to try hard unless they feel pressure from family or from within. 

As a teacher, that's something that I'm trying to work on. I'm trying to help students develop a love for learning and to take responsibility for it. But curiosity, discipline, perseverance... those are all hard thing to teach. 

Another volunteer friend and I used to do this thing called rose, bud, thorn every week. We would share the best thing about our week, the thing we are most looking forward to, and the most difficult thing of the week. More often that not, something involving the 3rd grade is my flower. I absolutely love teaching them. They have learned  and improved so much this year and I am so proud of them. 

After school, I teach at the Knowledge Station at the local municipality building. I have an adult beginner's English class twice a week and an English games / conversation / etc class for about 20 6th-8th grade girls.  Days are exhausting, but I usually leave the center feeling good. Since I'm obviously not working for the money, I'm working for the experience and for teaching's sake. I certainly have learned quite a bit and I hope that my work proves beneficial to others.  Like every teacher, I hope that my impact lasts throughout the summer holiday and long after I leave Jordan. And that maybe some tiny seed of information that I planted in someone's head will grow and develop into a beautiful, unique, brilliant something.

lovely girls of 3A
The sweetest note from the 3rd grade girls


Friday, December 27, 2013


Christmas away from family never really feels like Christmas. I've had this song "Christmas in the Northwest" stuck in my head all day. It plays on all of the Seattle radio stations repeatedly starting the day after Thanksgiving, and usually drives everyone crazy by Christmas day, but I can't help but feel nostalgic for it right now. 

The Saturday before Christmas the US Embassy hosted a holiday party for the Peace Corps volunteers and staff. It was bittersweet because it was also an unofficial going away party for many of the J15s, the volunteers who have completed their 27 months of service and are headed home for good. Before the party, two friends and I went to Taj Mall, Amman's nicest mall that added a giant fake Christmas tree, cardboard snowflakes and a small skating rink for the holidays. We sat at the Starbucks and watched little kids skate on the fake ice and pose in front of the tree.  Maybe it was because I was tired  (cough cough) from the night before spent celebrating my best friend's birthday and sad because of the pending goodbyes, but instead of being comforted by something that kinda resembled home, I was more just annoyed by the overdose of holiday consumerism.

The party was nice. We enjoyed each others company and the free holiday style lunch- turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pie. The goodbyes were hard.  But the bonds I formed with some of them are strong enough that I'm confident I'll see them again.

I spent Christmas day with a few volunteer friends. We made dinner and gingerbread cookies and listened to Christmas carols, doing our best to improvise a semi-regular Christmas. I got to talk to, and see, my family via Skype (thank you technology!)

A couple of weeks ago there was a huge snowstorm that hit much of the Middle East, Jordan being no exception. Most of the country got completely covered in white blankets, some areas accumulated as much as 4 feet. School and work was cancelled for 9 days straight. It was cold and extremely difficult to get around, but it was beautiful and did allow for some fun.

I've heard that this is the worst storm to hit the area in 60 years and people are predicting it to be the beginning of a harsh winter. I may complain about my windows being a little thin and my space heater not radiating quite enough heat, but I am thankful for having the amenities to keep warm. It's important to remember that many of the people in the world don't have these resources, or have been stripped of them because of natural disaster or war. Stay humble, be grateful.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

Every Thanksgiving growing up, my mom would have us hold hands around the table and each say something we were thankful for before gorging on turkey and mashed potatoes and stuffing and cranberry sauce and pecan pie and everything else delicious that comes with traditional Thanksgiving meals. 

I've had periods where I dislike Thanksgiving for all of the usual reasons- overindulgence, the commercialism, the origins of Thanksgiving, yada yada yada. Maybe being away from America is what helps me separate myself from all that so that I can really focus in on the many people, experiences and things I have to be thankful for. As I've gotten older, the number of Thanksgivings spent away from my family and outside of the states is increasing, but so are the number of things I have to be thankful for. Nearly all of them fall into one of two categories: people and experiences. 

I am thankful for my family and friends back home, the ones who I have known my entire life or close to that. I miss them every day but am so grateful for how supportive they are. They were supportive in my decision to move somewhere far away and continue to be there for me when things are rough. I'm thankful for every email, Skype call, or quick text message that reminds me that I too am in there thoughts and am not being forgotten about. 

I'm thankful for this experience. Getting to spend 27 months living in another culture that I used to know so little about. I recognize the deep and unique privilege that I have been given to be able to get up and go somewhere new. I'm thankful for the people who have welcomed me into this place, adopted me as a daughter and sister. Who have invited me to join in all their family celebrations and will feed me until I feel like I'm going to explode. Who will slow down their Arabic so that I can understand what's going on and who will explain to me the really confusing plots of Turkish soap operas.  This whole experience would feel empty and purposeless and plain ol sad without these people.  

The friends I have made through Peace Corps, the other volunteers, are like family. Most of them scoff at this but we all know it's true. Some of the dynamics are slightly dysfunctional, just like all families, but we love each other and there is a level of comfort I have with them that exceeds many other relationships. They're a unique, hardworking, silly group of folks. 

Tonight I will celebrate Thanksgiving by getting together with a group of volunteers. We'll eat chicken because it's too hard to find and roast a turkey. I'm not sure if we will have pie and there definitely won't be any of those tasty seasonal beers that are coming out around this time, but we'll be together and can collectively give thanks for this experience. 

A happy happy happy Thanksgiving to you all. Be sure to count your blessings and, if you have the chance, eat some pecan pie and think of me during every delicious bite. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The wedding

I knew that Peace Corps would provide me with many experiences to add to my "list of firsts"... first time crossing the Atlantic, first time getting an Amoeba, first time having a cockroach climb out of my drain mid-shower.  Ya know. Peace Corps stuff. But never did I ever imagine that "first time hosting a bachelorette party (laylat henna)" or "first time getting my hair and makeup professionally done" would be added to the list during my 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Laylat henna is the Arab world's equivalent to a bachelorette party. It's the night before the wedding where all the women gather in once place and the men in another to celebrate the soon to be newlyweds. Traditionally, the bride's hands are decorated with henna. However, at this party the bride opted to go sans henna, but with music, singing and dancing.

The groom is my landlord's oldest son and the bride is a very distant cousin of the family. They were planning on having the women's party on my landlord's roof but Thursday was overcast and they were nervous it was going to rain. So Thursday morning two of my landlord's daughters come to propose the idea of having the party in a big spare room in my house that up until recently had stored all of the furniture for the newlyweds. I was a little hesitant but agreed. The hesitance comes from my overall dislike of being in big groups of people without the opportunity for a breath of air. But, after all, this is the family that feeds me and takes care of me and goes out of their way to accommodate me all of the time.

We cleaned up the room, the living room, and the bathroom and got the speakers and chairs set up. I asked the girls how many guests they thought would come and they told me "mish katheer" (not a lot). Guests showed up around 7 and the party went on well past 11. There were at least 70 women and children in my house- dancing, eating cake, drinking Arabic coffee, the kids spraying silly string. The speakers broke sometime around 10, but drumming and singing immediately filled the sudden silence. Women would come into my room to feed their babies and put them to sleep and teenage girls would peak through my bedroom and bathroom windows to spy on the boys' party happening on the roof near by. All in all it was a fun night. I was a bit of a stressed mess, wondering about whether or not strangers were going through the "edjnabeeas" (the foreigner's) stuff. But at the end of the night all of my landlords daughters and some other women stayed to help clean the house, leaving it much cleaner than it was to begin with.  

The wedding was the following night. At 2 I went with the oldest sister to get my hair and makeup done at a saloon near by (the other girls went to Irbid, the big city about an hour north). More firsts I should note- first time having more than 30 bobby pins in my hair at once and first time wearing orange eye shadow out in public.

The wedding was at a big hall in Ajloun, a good thing because there were about 300 men and about 400 women and kids who attended the party. There are no vows read in front of all the guests. The bride and groom sign a legal document sometime during the party to officiate the marriage. The bride and groom sit on a big chair at the front of the hall for about 30 minutes at the beginning of the party and dance a little bit until the groom heads to the other hall to socialize with the men. The bride remains in the chair and people go up to congratulate her. Everyone else dances or sits and chats and eats kunafa.

The party ends by about 8 and the procession of cars starts back to Kufranja. Once people reach town, the honking and gun shots start. Cars put on their emergency blinkers as they drive and lay on their horns to alert the town of the newlyweds. It's a lot more fun to be part of then to listen to (I live right off of the main road and there are weddings almost every weekend... in fact, I hear one now)

Some people go on honeymoons, but this is becoming much less common due to the economy and that Syria, which was once a common affordable vacation spot for Jordanians, is now in war and ruins. In a few days the newlyweds will have a housewarming party where friends will go visit their new home and bring gifts. It is also tradition for multi generations of families to live right next to each other, the new house is right below the groom's family.  The next son to get married will live in the house where I'm living now. He happens to be a charming guy who is just about my age, but as fun as the wedding was, and as great as this house is, the idea of having a Jordanian wedding and living in this house for the rest of my life just doesn't seem particularly appealing. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The tipping point

To begin, I am happy here. I haven't once had a serious regret about being here. 

That being said, being in a foreign place intensifies the normal highs and lows that we all experience. This week has been a particularly tough one. I normally choose to avoid any negativity from these blog entries and certainly don't view blogging as an appropriate instrument for venting, but, there's no point in trying to deceive my readers or myself that this experience has been all flowers and sunshine. 

After a particularly exhausting week, I was relieved to sleep in on Friday. I woke up, still somehow drained, and went to the dukaan to buy some yogurt and then to the bakery. Every Friday morning the bakery has a swarm of shebab pushing in front of one another trying to buy bread. I was the only female and somehow worked my way to the front. As I was buying my bread, one of the bakers, one I didn't recognize, asked me if I was an American. Yes. If I get an American wife I can go to America right? he shouted, in front of everyone. Fishing the 30 gursh out of my wallet I mumbled ma baraf. He turned to the other baker and said something I didn't understand and they laughed. The older man, Abu Muhammad, who runs the bakery gave them a scolding look, gave me a sympathetic one, and handed me my bag. I walked away looking towards the ground. The rest of the weekend I didn't feel like leaving my house. It wasn't because of that comment. It's certainly not the first time a stupid boy has tried to get a rise out of his friend at my expense. But that's precisely it. It's not the first or only or last.
* dukaan = shop/ grocery store * shebab = group of boys or men * ma baraf = I don't know * gursh = cents

Sexual harassment is certainly not unique to Jordan. Upon reading this please don't disregard every wonderful thing I have told you about this place. They are all true! But harassment is an issue here. It's usually "little things", the long stares or boys or men yelling "welcome to jordan! whats your name, whats your name, whats your name" over and over again as you walk by doing your best to ignore them. It seems insignificant, people asking what my name is. It didn't use to bother me at all really. But these aren't conversation starters (you can always tell the difference)- this is heckling and a form of harassment that happens every single day. Every single day I leave my house at least. Keep in mind that men and women don't converse in the streets here, which makes the yelling at women even more disrespectful. Even when I see my landlord's sons in the street, they politely smile and keep walking out of respect and to protect my reputation here. In the home we talk and joke and eat meals together but on the street, no. They know that and I know that.

The yelling in English is unique to foreigners, but other forms of verbal or other harassment is not. Every woman who has walked in the street has received this. Any contention that "women are asking for it" by the way they present themselves is not only revolting misogynistic bullshit, but false. It doesn't matter if you're wearing a hijab or not, it doesn't matter if you're wearing your baggiest, most conservative and borderline frumpy clothes or if you're wearing skinny jeans and a cute top, if your face is completely made up or if you're letting every zit, wrinkle and bag under your eye show. Many men think that simply being female warrants an invitation for harassment. A lot of men tell their wives and daughters to not walk the streets alone, in an attempt to protect them from this harassment. It seems obvious that more of the talking should be with their sons and friends.

Sometime last week, I was walking home from the bus behind a couple of college aged girls. A few boys hanging out on the street stared at the girls and as they passed, one pretended to smack one of the girl's ass and they all laughed and high-fived. I walked by several seconds later and gave them a piercing stare and muttered iabe (shame).

I have told people about these types of incidents before and get told to just forget it. Ignore them. Avoid eye contact. It's because you're too beautiful. Knowing the 'advice' I would get, I opted to stop talking or complaining about it. That weekend, I stayed inside. I canceled plans to go to Amman. I ignored phone calls from my landlord. I read countless articles online about sexual harassment. About women all over the world feeling the same way I do. The internet is giving people the chance to voice this, but in the streets it's still the same. I let the bakery incident and all unvoiced incidents of harassment build up and it lead to a mild case of agoraphobia.

I don't know what women who experience this should do. Sometimes I think that the best thing really is to ignore it. Does their pathetic attempt at getting attention deserve a reaction? Sometimes reacting only results in more laughter. A while back, a group of pre-pubescent boys yelled something particularly offensive at me. I spun around and yelled iabe alaiku. ma endku huwatt? shame on you, don't you have sisters? They stared at me. And then one, the leader of the pack, responded- la. no. And they all bursted into laughter. I threw my hands in the air and continued my walk up the hill. Maybe I should have used it as a teaching moment, to explain to them that this is wrong behavior. But maybe families I don't know don't want the edjnabia (the foreigner) to be the one lecturing their children. Plus... it's hard to think rationally or clearly (in Arabic) in the heat of the moment.

My best friend and English teacher counterpart has been a huge support. She doesn't have any answers but listens to me with a sympathetic ear. She doesn't tell me it's addi (normal) or to ignore it. She usually just hugs me and gives me half of her sandwich. I will probably write a whole blog post dedicated to her at one point- work and life here would be so different without her.

Before I end this, a few things I'ld like to make clear. 1) I don't hate all men nor do I hate all Arab men. The husbands and brothers of my female friends that I have gotten to know are quite wonderful. 2) more "serious" levels of harassment and abuse do exist here, but do not often get reported because of a culture of shaming the victim. Nothing more serious than verbal harassment has happened to me.  3) I don't believe that this type of behavior is because of religion. Pick any religion and you can find cases of extreme abuse or harassment. Same goes for non-religious individuals or groups.

It's Eid al-Adha on Tuesday, the "festival of the sacrifice" that honors Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God before God intervened and sent him a lamb to sacrifice instead. Many Muslims celebrate by sacrificing a sheep and enjoying a big feast together. I won't partake in the celebrations this year, but will take advantage of the week long time off work. I'm about to venture South with some fellow volunteer friends and visit some of Jordan's main tourist attractions, including Petra and Wadi Rum. I think being around good friends in beautiful places is exactly what I need to rebalance the scale post tipping point.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

School days

The school year has started off great. It's been a busy, busy month and a half but there have been lots of smiles and "a-ha" moments along the way. Here are just a few of the faces I get to see each day. 
thumbs up!  
1st grade - 9 of the 45 1b kiddos
3rd grade reading practice 
 Another school week starts tomorrow, bright and early. Good night! 

Moon rising over Kufranjah, August 2013

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A few notes on Syria

School is back in session! The semester started off a bit chaotic. Not only chaotic in the sense that there was no mudeera (head mistress) for the first 2 weeks, classes were overcrowded, and most students'  books didn't arrive until at least the second week of school, but also chaotic in the larger scheme of things. When I say the larger scheme of things, I am referring to Syria's use of chemical weapons that killed some 1400 people.

I watched the news obsessively. On one channel I would see footage of people burning and screaming. I would change the channel and watch Obama address the world announcing that a military strike on Syria was necessary. The bread guy, my coworkers and neighbors asked me what I thought- is Obama good or bad? Will a strike stop the Syrian war? Will a strike spread the war to Jordan? Just about each and every time I replied the same way: walla ma baraf. inta shu ryek? - really, I don't know- what do you think? Responses varied but most people were as uncertain about it all as I was. Many of the Jordanians I have talked to have voiced that Assad needs to go. However, like much of the international community, myself included, weren't sure if a US strike was the way to go.

At the beginning of September I remember hearing a few military planes going right overhead while sitting in the teachers' room. It got quiet. My friend and counterpart Safa looked over at me and saw my "what the f*** was that" face, patted me on the knee and said don't worry. Despite the questions and the constant dialogue amongst volunteers about the possibility of being evacuated, during the 2 week span of questioning "will he or won't he", life went on pretty much as normal here in village. And as it turns out, there was no strike against Syria, alhamdulillah. The US and Russia reached an agreement on September 14 that Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons would be removed and destroyed.

Although chemical weapons may no longer be a threat in Syria, it does not mean that country is any closer to peace. The impact that it is having on Jordan, a country that is stable but quite weak in resources, is huge. According to Wadah Hmoud, director of the Syrian refugee camps administration, the total number of Syrian refugees in all the governorates across Jordan has reached more than 580,000 with the number of those in the camps now standing at 127,859. UNICEF says that 1,170 children, many under 10 years old, have come to Jordan alone and have taken refuge in Za’atari. 

In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, King Abdullah II told the assembly that 
The flow of Syrian refugees in Jordan already equals one-tenth of our own population. It could reach one million, some 20% of our population, by next year. These are not just numbers; they are people, who need food, water, shelter, sanitation, electricity, health care, and more. Not even the strongest global economies could absorb this demand on infrastructure and resources, let alone a small economy and the fourth water-poorest country in the world. (more)
In addition, the foreign assistance extended to Jordan to assist Syrian refugees does not even cover 30% of the actual cost of the crisis in Jordan, according to Interior Minister Hussein Majali. (jordantimes) Jordan has received 235 million JD (Jordanian Dinars) in foreign aid, but Syrian refugees have already cost Jordan over 660 JD million, according to Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Ibrahim Saif. UN officials estimate that Jordan will be hosting around 1.2 million Syrians by the end of the year. The Jordanian government said that Jordan needs an additional $850 million JD in international assistance to provide for that magnitude of refugees.

Although the burden on Jordan is huge, I realize it most when I read the news rather than on a day to day basis. Volunteers living further north, in Mafraq, probably would say differently. But here the impact is less noticeable, for me. That's probably because although I am technically a volunteer, all my needs are being provided for.

Prices of food have gone up, electricity is more expensive, and the prices of water and bread are expected to rise. The place I notice it most is the school I teach at. I am not sure of the number of Syrians who attend the Basic Girls' School, but the classrooms are considerably more crowded than they were last year. The Syrians I know and teach are wonderful. Doa'a, a ninth grader, is excellent in English and a motivated learner. She has been absent all week however. When I asked if anyone knew where she was, her classmates told me that she is now attending an evening school that they opened here (as they have in many cities and towns throughout the country) to help accommodate the influx of "over 78,000 Syrian students into public schools" throughout the country (jordantimes).

Although Jordan is doing it's best to provide, the country is clearly not able to permanently host this number of people. There are not enough jobs and not enough resources. The refugees know this, and are eager to return home as soon as it becomes safe to do so. One of Jordanian's favorite questions is "shu assan?", what's better? They ask it shamelessly and about everything- food, people, places. Upon meeting me people always ask me what's better, Jordan or Amreeka and I almost always say ma baraf and spit out a couple of good things about Jordan and a couple good things about America and leave it at that. Doa'a was asked this in front of everyone by our vice principle who visited English class a few weeks ago "shu assan, Ordan o Surri?" Without a pause or hesitation, she answered Surri.