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Blogs from Abroad
Blogs from Santa Clara University students studying abroad.
The following postings have been filtered by tag Sean Lawrence (Jordan)
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Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010 12:00 AM
We’re low on quality television here in the desert. Near as I can tell, about ninety percent of programming falls into one of two categories: hyper-dramatic Arab music videos or what appear to be Koran-based game shows. Accordingly, the small sliver of time I’m able to waste watching television is usually devoted to the lone all-English network, BBC World News.
I caught the tail end of an interview with former first lady Laura Bush the other day. She was discussing the importance of safeguarding women’s rights in Afghanistan as negotiations with the Taliban get underway. One can’t really to disagree with that position. Never mind that yesterday on Al Jazeera I watched an interview with a Taliban official who did just that. Needless to say, that guy didn’t convince me. But I found myself put off by some of what Laura was saying as well. Namely, she referred to the necessarily slow speed at which women’s rights in the Muslim world progress, and attributed this developmental lethargy to a “deep seated misogyny” within Muslim culture. This irked me. Something about applying the word “misogyny” to an entire culture just seemed wrong.
Admittedly, Mrs. Bush was speaking about Afghan – not Arab –culture. As such, I can’t speak with much authority about the merits of her statement (hell, I can’t speak with much authority about anything). Still, it reminded me of the conception of gender relations which I held before showing up in Amman. Since living here, however, my view has grown a little more nuanced.
True, women in Jordan and Arab countries in general, are largely without the opportunities enjoyed by their stateside counterparts. True, I’ve heard endless complaints by the American women in this program about the unwritten nation-wide dress code: if we can see your knees, shoulders, or the whites of your eyes, you may as well be a prostitute. True, there are to this day occasional reports of “honor killings” in Jordan, wherein men murder their sisters or daughters whom they suspect of sexual indiscretion. Ok, I admit, this is starting to sound a lot like misogyny. And at the very least, in the case of the latter it clearly is.
But we in the states have terrible people who commit heinous acts of violence against women also, and whereas we can agree that cultural factors are often involved, we don’t go so far as to call American or Western or Secular culture inherently misogynistic. To a degree unheard of in the states, Arab culture views men and women as inherently different. But the word misogyny is wrapped up the idea of disdain for women. And that is not at all something I have personally noticed here. In fact, many of the norms most associated with Arab cultural “misogyny” are, I would argue, actually practiced out of a deep respect for women and their roles within society. I am aware that the very idea of differentiating between the sexes in any way is uncomfortable to most Americans, myself included. And I would not argue that this social divide is something I would advocate for the U.S. But that doesn’t mean we have to label it as inherently wrong either.
As a man, the most difficult thing about studying here is learning how to talk to women. It’s sort of like being in the 7th grade all over again. That is, if I were to approach a random woman on the street, if only to ask for directions, I would be implying that I hold so little respect for her that I don’t care whether the locals see us having a conversation in public. Such would be an act that implies a degree of familiarity, and therefore – if she’s married, for example – will raise questions among the community. That said, it isn’t the case that as a man I’m never permitted to speak to women. But navigating the complexities of proper time and situation has proven stressful on more than one occasion. I recall leaning over to a girl in the computer lab at school to ask the meaning of a word from my Arabic homework. She wore an all black hijab and trench coat in spite of the 90 degree heat and was visibly nervous at my request. She, answered in a hushed voice, and I communicated my gratitude. She smiled a little and nodded, but quickly added that she could not help me with any more words. The American girls I know here find this forced distance to be very degrading. But many of the Jordanian women with whom I’ve spoken consider these rules to signify reverence for their sex – not derision of it.
In fact, message I get from women here is an oddly familiar one. That is, just as we in the States think of women in the Middle East as oppressed, those over here think of women in the States as exploited. For my part, I see truth in both views. We see women in burkas and say: “Look at what men force them to do!”; They see women in rap videos and say the same.
My point, if I have one, is that both cultures have pretty dismal records of treating women fairly. But it’s not fair to pat ourselves on the back for having more gender equality than the Muslim world without confronting realities of both cultures. I think most women in the States would rather take the (relatively) equal opportunity of the U.S. along with the objectification of sexuality that comes with it. Likewise, most of the women I’ve spoken to here are quite happy to accept many –though admittedly not all –of their current limitations in exchange for the respect (and make no mistake, in most cases it is a form of respect) that they here receive. I for one am an optimist, and I see no reason that the best of both worlds can’t find its way into both worlds.
Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010 12:00 AM
When asked to keep this blog for SCU, our instructions were to consider what influence our presence as has on the local population. My answer so far? Not nearly as much as they have on us. Still, I’m pretty sure that I’ve made my mark in some way. By my own estimate I’ve inadvertently convinced no fewer than nineteen Jordanians to swap their chosen career of taxi-driver for what is apparently their true passion: self-appointed Arabic tutor. I don’t mean to sound cocky by taking credit for transforming this country into a new hub of transnational communications services – but that’s basically what I’ve done. You’re welcome Jordan.
I’ve traveled enough to know that a friendly cab driver is a rarity worldwide, and to find so many here who are genuinely interested in me and flattered by my desire to learn their language is rather incredible. Unfortunately, this only leaves me that much more ashamed at my growing irritation with cabbies’ insistence on impromptu vocab lessons. At seven in morning, in deadlocked traffic on the way to school, the last thing I want to do is make small talk, let alone in a language I don’t speak very well. Actually, scratch that, that LAST thing I want to do at seven in the morning is move from small talk to compulsory practice of the same set of taxi-related words day after day after day.
On the bright side, my annoyance at being a perpetual novelty has opened my eyes to two previously opaque ideas. The first is the mundane observation that I, as a white middle-class American male, have never in my entire life experienced what it’s like to be treated as the “other.” Sure, I’ve traveled to places wherein I’m the minority. But we expect to stand out from the crowd when we travel. Residency, on the other hand, is supposed to be about blending in – something that for me is simply impossible here.
The second thing left me feeling even guiltier than the tardiness of my realization that being the minority sucks. You see, hospitality is a crucial aspect of Arab culture. To be a guest is to be honored. Thus, my cab-driver’s enthusiasm for the uniqueness of an American speaking Arabic is, in its own cultural context, a great compliment. By focusing on the extent to which I stand out, Jordanians are elevating me to a higher status. Yet to me and my American egalitarian instincts, I’m always a bit put off by their harping on my dissimilarity. What finally occurred to me the other day –while I was once again getting lectured on the Arabic words for street, car, driver, and a colorful repertoire of nasty things to scream at traffic jams –was that perhaps Arab immigrants in the States feel precisely the opposite. Coming to America from a culture wherein foreigners are honored like heroes, how disheartening must it be to arrive in the U.S. and find that the locals not only don’t really care, but actually go out of their way to ignore what it is that distinguishes you? To be stuck suddenly and forever as just another face in the crowd must be far more isolating than my current experience as the eternal “other.”
Once this thought hit me like a swift kick to the shin, I promptly stopped feeling sorry for myself and decided to embrace the courtesy being offered. “Yes, Samir, I’d love to know the word for street…..”
Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010 10:45 PM
It’s been two weeks since we touched down in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. As we descended to the airport on the outskirts of Amman, I noticed an odd touch of geographical irony in that the landscape of the Holy Land, when viewed from the air, is strikingly reminiscent of that surrounding Las Vegas: Sin City, Nevada.
The similarities stop there, though. Amman is a sprawling city of low-rise square buildings built almost invariably of limestone. The “white city” as it’s called seems to rise and fall like sand dunes over the seven hills on which it rests. Add to that the frenetic souks downtown; the blue-domed mosques that checker the cityscape; the
vexingly persistent heat; and I cannot help but feel dazzled at the reality of my location – I’m really in the Middle East.
My first week here passed in a blur of activity. After clearing customs (more on that later) we were met by four men wearing the CIEE logo and who claimed to speak only Arabic, though we later learned that that was just cruel joke. They led us in packs to a collection of white vans which took us to a nearby hotel. We would stay there for the two days of orientation before splitting off to our assigned apartments scattered
throughout the city. Having just endured a twenty-hour traveling day, I skipped most of the formalities and promptly fell asleep.
Around dawn on the day after our arrival, we one-hundred-or-so study abroad students found ourselves on a tour bus bound for the Dead Sea, about an hour south of Amman. The academic staff had elected it as the site of our orientation program, a decision about which none of us could complain. The Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, is so salinated that it’s literally impossible to sink. After intently listening to the
orientation presentation (read: sleeping), we were let loose on the beach where we all took turns marveling at our own buoyancy. I felt rather badly for the handful of tourists who had been enjoying the beach before our arrival, as I can’t imagine a less desirable vacation story than having your locale invaded by an hundred American college students.
Each of us slathered ourselves with gobs of Dead Sea mud, which we took from a large tripod near the water and then washed it off in the silky water. This apparently is a pastime of Dead Sea visitors, at least enough of one to merit a special tripod to display the stuff. The tripod was labeled, in English only, “Free Mud” presumably because only an American would ever expect to pay for mud.
The rest of our orientation was less glamorous. We transferred to our apartments a few days later, and began adjusting to everyday life in Jordan. Much of this has been no different than adjusting to any new city, whether San Jose or Beijing. But as I began trying to fit into normal Jordanian life, I couldn’t stop recalling my very first
experience upon getting off the airplane.
Those of us who had identified one another as fellow study abroad students while on the flight shared a momentary bout of panic as we attempted to navigate the Customs signposts which were written entirely in Arabic. We debated as to which line we belonged in as we each compared our interpretations of the various signs. Eventually we chose a line on the far right of the room filled by distinctively Western-looking businesspeople. We managed to come to a consensus that the line was labeled either “Investors” or “Foreigners” (I personally had thought it translated as “sandwiches”). In retrospect, our decision making process was something of a social experiment because what it ultimately boiled down to was: Follow the other white people.
Since being faced with solving the usual start-of-term problems at the University of Jordan ( e.g. where are my classes? how do I drop one? how do I drop two? how do I drop out completely without telling my parents? et cetera) I have had to make a conscious effort to find answers for myself rather than taking this same “easy” way out. In most casestrategy of seeking assistance from the local population has cost considerably more time and effort than simply sticking to the familiar. But consequently I feel much more at home at the University of Jordan – an institution serving over 35,000 students, the vast majority of whom are Jordanian – than do many of my peers.
The downside of this strategy is that acquiring this insider knowledge often comes at the price of looking extraordinarily stupid.A few days after arriving in Amman, I popped into a small shwerma restaurant (shwerma, by the way, is something like the Arab equivalent of a philly-cheese-steak sandwich) and stood to the side observing how
the method of ordering was supposed to proceed. After watching for nearly fifteen minutes from the corner of this restaurant – which, mind you, is no larger than a Campisi dorm room and packed with twenty or so people – I concluded that the man who worked out the process of ordering must be the same guy who organized the New York Stock Exchange. That is, the idea appeared to be to yell angrily at no one in particular while brandishing small slips of paper in the air. Unfortunately, how anyone was able to procure food out of that system was as much of a mystery to
me as is how anyone manages to procure money from the New York Stock Exchange. I waited another ten minutes, drawing more and more attention to myself as that creepy foreign guy just standing in the corner, before I tried my hand (a pretty pathetic hand) at some broken Arabic. I did my best to ask an employee-ish-looking man where to order. “Bis hatef” he answered curtly – “phone orders only.”
And so I came to realize that living abroad is mostly a matter of accepting ones regression into idiocy. One must accept that there is no way to know anything without going through the painful process of learning it. One has to take the subordinate role in many situations where, back home, assertive leadership would be quite easy. Ordering food is a good example. At home, I tell the employee what I want to eat, and how I want it. But here, ordering a meal is almost always a question
–Can I order this here? Do I pay for this here? Did you just say this is goat kidney?–and the usefulness of the response is determined entirely by the mercy of the employee. At home I am accustomed to having a pretty good idea of what, why and how things are supposed to be done. But here, attempting to shimmy oneself into that pose of comfort, without first experiencing the seldom easy and often awkward process of learning, is simply impossible.