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The obnoxious truth of “it’s complicated”

I come to the Middle East from a distinctly Western background. It is impossible to divorce myself and my impressions from this background. Growing up with the Middle East, quite sadly, often depicted as a place with a culture of repression where women were – simply – forced to wear the hijab and live subservient to their husbands, I arrived here, learned this was far from all there was to see, appreciate, learn, understand, and pushed back quite strongly against the simple “terribly sad gendered hierarchy” interpretation I had been given – often overdoing my defense in the name of cultural relativism and the attempt to defeat stereotypes. Years of study and three months of residence in, I finally feel I have some standing in which to present a not objective, but at least more nuanced discussion of what gender and gender roles mean to me and how they appear to me in this country that I am trying to make – at least temporarily – my own.

But that is all this is, how things appear to me. Likely, this view will be far from how these things appear to many others – Jordanians, Palestinians and Westerners alike.

First: Where these impressions are coming from. Two places, really. One, and perhaps most importantly, conversations. The topic of difference in gender roles and responsibilities cannot be avoided when you are a Western female working with and becoming friends with Jordanian females. In the camp, and in taxis and in general life, the questions necessarily come up: what is the dress code like in the States? Is it true that a woman can sleep with whomever she would like, whenever she would like? Does it really not matter if her family hates the man she is with? Can a young girl live by herself, alone, unprotected? If to a Western reader these questions seem absurd, overly general, ignorant – our questions back – Are all women repressed? Do you feel you have no freedom? Don’t you hate being forced to wear the hijab, the niqab? – seem similarly absurd to a Jordanian/Palestinian audience. The fact is – the fascination, and misunderstanding, goes both ways – from the Western interest-broaching-obsession with veiling to the Middle Eastern curiosity/condemnation/fascination with Western social codes on dress and sexual freedom. On both sides, it’s complicated.

Secondly, and largely, my impressions come from my work with UNRWA. I haven’t written about it here, but I’ve been lucky enough to have my 4 days a week at UNRWA become quickly filled with real and vastly interesting work. The agency is rolling out a Gender-Based Violence Referral System in four of the camps; a service direly needed – as will be discussed below. Helping manage the project has allowed me to dive into Jordanian legislation on domestic and sexual abuse, talk to different actors – lawyers, health workers, NGOs – working on the issue and discuss with UNRWA staff in the camps what the situation is for women or children (or men)* who are abused, how the authorities treat them and what societal pressures are upon them regarding speaking out and seeking redress or a change in their situation.

So now, on to the analysis that I am so reticent to give. A topic so loaded always needs to be begun with excuses and apologies. But, eventually, it needs to be begun – in all its over-generalizations. Else how can you try and begin to understand a place?

First, upper classes in Jordan (different in the Gulf it seems) are, as expected, usually a lot more “Westernized” in terms of dress and also in terms of “sexual freedom.” [Now thinking: Sexual freedom may potentially be a misleading term, as there is also a very possible – and here likely – chance that the choice in terms of sexuality and sexual expression will not be sexual experimentation or promiscuity, but rather conservatism. If it is a choice, independently taken, does it not still count as sexual freedom?].  I won’t talk much about the upper classes, primarily because my work is in the camps – necessarily with the more economically hard-struck. In addition, a Westerner doesn’t need an explanation of the sexual or economic role of the upper class women here, as it is quite similar to that you’d find in the States or Europe – some amazing, brilliant women working, pushing, advocating, dominating business, other beautiful Desperate Housewives types who choose to focus on the home, children, clothing instead of professional domination. Both a choice, both their right to take.

In the lower classes, dress and ideas on sex – as you guessed – are far more conservative. In the camps, I have not yet seen a woman not veiled (minus me and girls under 10 or so), and niqabs aren’t uncommon. However, it should be noted that women are usually proud of their dress code, and the niqab is actually often a mark of higher standing – economically or socially – in the camp. Niqabi women are often quite proud that they are niqabi, and ready to quickly explicate on why they have this pride in being niqabi.

[Insert anecdote here:] I was sitting in the camp one Saturday, chatting with some of the women teachers.  We had gotten to the topic of Western dress codes and societal roles for women… again. They were horrified, quite horrified when they began explaining to me the shorts and shirts and practically-underwear that they understood Western women could wear, not being able to understand how a woman could want to expose herself like that, to make herself such a sexual object, rather than protecting her dignity and her personhood with men by covering up and dressing “appropriately”. I tried to explain that it depended on the girl, and that not all girls dressed that way with the express intent of provoking men. Although in my experience growing up, some most certainly did, do. Also tried to help increase understanding that freedoms in relationships and living situations and family approvals also very much depended on the family. Primarily, the women were concerned that if a girl was able to choose her partners and eventual husband without her family’s consent, did that not mean that her connection with her family would be destroyed, and how could that be okay? I explained as best I could. Then we turned to hair.

They had wanted to play with mine before – this time I obliged. Their skill with braiding was absurdly impressive. As it was only women, they felt comfortable enough to take off their hijabs and showed me their own majestically braided hair (oh.my.god.give.me.glistening.black.hair.like.that). Then I followed their questions with my own, asking for explanations of the different styles of hijab, and they were only too happy – all smiles really – to begin to explain and point and re-construct for me. I should have expected, anticipated maybe, but at that point, I had no choice. The braid was then followed with hijabi hair styling – and the women snapped pictures to show me just how nice it looked.

But, none of this was done in a “you should dress like me” sort of way. All was laughter and joking and curiosity and playfulness for a bunch of 20-something-year old women who were a bit bored during the break between to classes. Similar to exchanging clothes with a friend who dresses starkly different from you – the exchange was done just to see how it looked, for amusement. The point is, dress code is simply dress code, fashion. Culturally defined, yes – but a fashion chosen and enjoyed, often with pride.

Now, moving beyond the defense to a bit of – I hope – nuanced criticism. Things are not ideal for women here – as they are not ideal for women in the States, on anywhere.

Still on dress codes and sexual identity. The two are often conflated here – dress provocatively, understand it will be assumed that you are trying to be provocative. In certain areas (certainly not all), when dress codes are flouted, it should be expected that you will be harassed – cat called, hollered at, honked at, disrespected. I’ve mentioned it before.

Now, I personally choose to dress conservatively, because I know it will help me avoid the hassle of the too-loose-tongues of the young men abounding in many of the streets. But, there is something in that statement which forces the question – is this choice or a more subtle manifestation of communal pressure to conform?

As always, I turn to the people that live here for an answer. The women I work with admit that such behavior of men in the streets is ridiculous – but they explicitly ask me to have patience and understanding. They say we have to “feel bad for the men, as they have it harder than the women.” The women’s rationale is that the men don’t have opportunities to work, are bored, feel disempowered and – most seriously – ashamed. To deal with the shame of not being able to fulfill their typical and expected role, they are forced to find means of artificially expressing their power and dominance – manifested for me in catcalls for flouting dress codes. The idea is similar to that of domestic violence rates being higher in economically depressed classes, or racism more expressed. If you feel personally disempowered, you need to find a group to dominate, to re-assert for yourself that you have power. Here, the women in the camps often work outside the homes and manage quite a bit inside the homes. They don’t need to assert their power, because they have a bit of it, more than they have to have as defined by cultural stereotypes. The final point being, when women talk about empowerment and status and equality, it generally has little to do with veils and sexual freedom, but more about economic and political status (the ability to make and effect decisions in society) and being able to find recourse when they are abused violently.

On to violence.

For me, regardless of your movement down the culturally relative line – violence is simply not okay. Violence against a person is in direct contradiction to displaying respect for that person. It flouts choice and freedom, inflicting pain upon a person by your will – not theirs. Regardless of how you want to dress or express yourself sexually, violence is an infringement on your rights. And, sadly, domestic violence and sexual abuse are far from rare.

In the Jordanian government’s defense, they are trying. A few years back, they established the Family Protection Unit, which is mandated to deal with cases of domestic and sexual abuse – to provide psychosocial counseling, legal aid and removal from life-threatening situations. But to the ever-present but. Repeatedly I have been informed that women who show up at the Family Protection Unit and discuss domestic abuse are told by the receiving officer to go home to their father or brother or husband and do their duty. It’s not policy, it’s the bias of that officer – but enough feel that domestic abuse is acceptable, that the public complaint of a woman is not, that they can send a woman with bruises from beatings back home without further thought. And shelter barely exists. In fact, women who are at risk of being killed by their families (honor killings are rare, but not non-existent) are given two options – to return home or be placed in protective custody – in jail, really – placed with other prisoners and not differentiated from them, only able to be released after that family that is targeting them signs a statement promising not to hurt them. Meaning in practice that their freedom is now dependent on the family they are fleeing from. Women have been stuck for years (and years and years). However, the law that most horrifies me is set in the Jordanian Penal Code. It states that if a man rapes a woman, he will be punished harshly – often life imprisonment. However, if he marries that woman, the rape is still considered a crime, but he cannot be punished. If he divorces her before three years have passed, the case can be re-opened and punishment pursued. If he divorces her after three years, though, no punishment for him. Only the three years – or perhaps a lifetime – of punishment for her.

Part of what UNRWA is trying to do is provide a safe space for women to talk about their issues, problems, pain – because generally it is seen as a mark of a shame for a woman to discuss being victim to domestic or sexual abuse. She can’t talk about it with her friends, her family, and as discussed – many don’t feel safe reporting the issue to the police. Hopefully, this protection gap will be filled in the not too distant future, with UNRWA and some amazing Jordanian NGOs working on the issue – as well as Jordanian and Palestinian staff – men and women alike – who are staunch advocates for change, passionate and engaged and dedicated, fighting for changes in laws and changes in services offered which will lead to recourse for women who have been forced to be subjected to violence and then forced to deal with the repercussions and pain alone.

Now back to excuses and apologies and pleas for nuanced understanding. There are issues here – there are issues everywhere. The States has some gross rates on domestic and sexual abuse as well – and while not privy to the exact legislation, I’m sure we could find some horrendous laws out there that just can’t be believed. And women at home are going on “Slut Walks” to fight against the same perception that is found here – that “provocative” dress necessarily means a “provocative” woman, and that it is the woman’s responsibility to dress conservatively as otherwise a man could just not help but see her as anything but sexual.

I guess, the point is – as illegitimate as it may sound – it is complicated, utterly complicated. But it is the truth. Gender roles and identity and expression depend on the economic class of the person, the family background and their personality – just as it does elsewhere. Still, a thing called culture exists. In my experience, it is just much more ambiguous and loosely and heterogeneously defined than is typically thought.

*Why men was in parenthesis.

GBV tends to be thought of and targeted towards women victims. Have even read some UNHCR publications that have made the slip of only including women and children in their targeted beneficiary structure. However, by definition and in fact, men can also be victims of GBV. For me, disregarding male victims – who often have an even harder time of coming forward when they have been subjected to a sexual crime – seems limited and absurd.

In the spirit of follow-up

Now, in the spirit of follow-up and providing endings to previously over-done stories, some absolutely moral-less but potentially entertaining updates, first concerning that Holy Grail that became an Apartment, and then a Notebook:

About a month ago I was out to dinner with a new Jordanian friend. As was common at this point in my life, I couldn’t help but launch into a likely overly dramatic tirade about my current landlord, my lack of a washing machine and how-poor-foreign-me was having quite the introduction to life in the city that was Amman (and was, despite my lamentations, at that point offering me some milky, foamy, sugary thing oddly still defined as coffee). As my friend’s eyes got wider and wider (it only polite to match my dramaticism with similarly dramatic facial expressions), I began to think to myself that I really was going to be stuck with the one and only ranting Raja for the remainder of the year. But, then – just then – salvation. Like most salvation appearances, however, it at first went unrecognized.

My friend’s grandmother apparently had a flat she rented out to an American woman. But the American woman was moving. What was my budget? My friend would ask. A phone call later, she said it was fine. Would I like to check out the place? No pressure or anything, but she promised it was quite nice, and I wasn’t obligated in any way. At that point, I only said yes because I figured it would be rude to say no. Little did I know that I already should have been pouring out as much gratitude as I could spare. Again, unrecognized salvation.

A few days later, I followed my friend up the stairs to the apartment, attached to her absolutely wonderful grandmother’s house (which was surrounded by a similarly absolutely wonderful garden which was home to three absolutely wonderful cats (a mother and her two orange fraternal cat baby twins). I kid you not – this house came equipped with baby cat twins. And then the apartment. Lord the apartment. Wide windows, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sun room, a sitting room, an expansive kitchen and everything done in blue. My eyes were as wide as the windows when I left. All I could say was, “This is impossible. Your grandmother can’t possibly be willing to rent this place to me for my budget. It is too nice. It is a palace. I can’t live here. It is too nice. And did you see the kittens?” My friend laughed, and told me not to make any decisions – to think about it and let her know. I thought, I signed, I poured out the gratitude. I recognized salvation.

I have now spent a month in this palace I managed to stumble upon (and still feel the need to explain to all those who see it that I got incredibly lucky, slash met some wonderful people, and please let me pay back this karmic boon). But, the universe remaining balanced, all was not well on the Raja front.

Noor, an absolutely wonderful (note the theme?) French-Syrian girl who was working in foreign affairs had moved in with Raja and I about a week before I left. Noor had been planning on staying a year and somehow – miraculously – convinced Raja to lay-down the funds and purchase a washing machine. It took a week for Raja to get the thing actually functioning (and in the coincidental spirit of story-like life – the thing was only fully functional the day I moved out). Still, Noor had a washing machine, and while we had complained about the troubles of Raja and her repeated questions, she seemed set to stay. Seven days later, I received the phone call. Noor was going to the police. I might need to be a witness. She was taking Raja to court.

I paused, gasped and became more and more unable to hold back laughter as the story unfolded. Noor’s fiancée had visited from Syria. He had stayed with Raja (in my old room). After a day in the house, Raja had apparently taken a liking to him, or a disliking to Noor. She had begun to tell him that Noor was addicted to alcohol, stayed out all hours of the night, went out with boys. It should be said that Noor is one of the most “respectable” (as largely defined) girls I had met in Jordan, and that her fiancée is quite conservative and doesn’t take kindly to lies being told about Noor. And so Noor decided to move out. And Raja (unsurprisingly) refused to return her already paid six months rent. Then Noor found Raja’s license, which displayed an entirely different name than Raja had told us was her name. Then Noor threatened to go to the police about the rent. Raja, of course, reacted appropriately. She called Noor’s office and told them Noor had stolen her television.

Noor, actually functioning as a rational human being, then took a photo of the television when she returned to the apartment. The TV still rested comfortably in place in the foyer. She showed the photo to Raja and to her office. Raja, as always, reacted appropriately. She called Noor’s office and told them that yes, Noor had returned the TV, but really – she had stolen it. And that was a problem.

To add to the perhaps inappropriate hilarity, it should be said that Noor is a very small girl, and Raja’s TV is about three times her size and twice her weight, as well as attached to a cupboard about 4 feet by 6 feet wide and tall. “Stealing it” would be nearly impossible. “Returning it” in a day became comical. But that is Raja for you – somehow unaware that lies, if you are going to tell them, should at least be plausible and that remaining stubbornly attached to the absurdities does not make them more believable. How happy I am to be free. And how hopeful I am that Noor is similarly ecstatic in her new – blissfully quiet – residence. Beacuse Noor moved out. She hired a lawyer. Then she called me.

As an aside only related because it is also an update: I visited two more stores in search of Handala notebooks this past week, finding only one book that fit specifications. This time, however, I was determined to seek help, real help, and went on a single-woman stampede across the immaculate white floor to find an employee, a manager, perhaps a concerned citizen who knew a lot about notebooks. Finding the first two, I began – deciding the entire story was necessary in order for them to understand the urgency and import of the task at the hand. The manager sent the employee back to the shelves to find the maker of the notebook, or a notebook from the same company. She came back empty-handed, I then marched on back, immediately located what I now knew was another model of Huria Press (which made the infamous desired Palestinian dressed notebook) and handed it over to the manager. He stared at me. The employee asked me how I knew.  I told them you learn quickly when you let your mind remain consumed by a single notebook for over two weeks. They laughed, and started making phone calls. It turns out, no Safeway in the near area stocked the books – one in a city 2 hours away might have 1 or 2. The next call revealed that the manufacturer hadn’t made any more in quite some time, and that he didn’t know where else you could buy them. The manager and the employee, now infused by my absurd dedication to this quest, seemed flustered, debated who to dial next. Dialed. Had no luck.

Finally, they took my number, promising me to call if anything came up or if they found out the notebooks were anywhere near Amman. [Two hours for the potential acquirement of one or two notebooks was even too much for me, despite the now legendary ability of Handala to remain displaced]. Luckily, the ladies at the camp just laughed when I shared the story the next week, told me I was crazy to have gone through all that trouble. Notebooks forgotten and bull-headed dedication marveled at, they then settled down for another day of gossip and lamenting that the foreigner doesn’t know how to cook. Doesn’t know how to cook a thing. Can you believe?

An identity-defining notebook

I was hot. I hadn’t showered. And a fly felt the need to remind me of just how unfit I was in this huge gleaming palace of processed goods and immaculately-dressed employees in white, continuously buzzing in my ear and refusing to be deterred by a similarly continuous frantic waving of hands. And I was late, and I hadn’t even started looking.

I was in the monstrosity that was Safeway Schmeisani, clutching my notebook to me and wondering again why I hadn’t managed to do this smallest of errands over the course of the last week. Quickly charged up the stairs and past the stares, soliciting looks of disapproval from that immaculate staff, shocked anyone could be so harried and disheveled at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. I registered the need for embarrassment, and then kept running over to the notebooks. Groaning as I saw how many there were, and as I noticed that that fly had managed to keep up with my speed.

But, I was late and I already suffered the embarrassment of arriving, so I might as well finish. 15 minutes later, I had located one notebook according to the specifications laid out for me, but despite plowing through numerous piles of similarly sized stationary, I was still lacking 3 promised-to-be-provided notebooks. I hurried over to the nearest disapproving Safeway employee, hoping beyond hope that I should ignore her look of disgruntlement at being bothered so early in the morning and that she would miraculously know just where I could find the matching set to the 2 notebooks I now clutched, or that some hidden stash would be hiding in a back room only she had access to. But, expectations are made to be left unmet.

The heavily made-up and clearly bothered girl looked at me, shook her head and watched as I attempted (yet again) to wave that fly away. As I was insistent, she decided to show effort, lazily turning over a few notebooks in front of her, even though I had already explained I had looked through them, all of them. Finally, she turned back to me and quite insincerely said, ‘Sorry, no. We don’t have any more with that drawing on the cover. Here, how about you take this one. It is quite a nice. Even has a flower on the front.”

It was only then I realized how absurd I must look – crazed and tired and frantic and rifling through stacks of cheap notebooks to find a pack that matched the one I already had. But how did I explain to this already uninterested employee why this notebook was so important, and why one with “a very nice flower” just would not be able to serve as a substitute. I didn’t have time to explain to her – as I said, I was late – but the beauty of blogging is it gives you a chance to re-visit a situation, and you have all the time in the world to explain away.

This particular notebook was important because it represented a promise I had made to a few of the young women I worked with in the refugee camp. And fulfilling that promise was one step on the way of gaining trust, showing that I kept my word, was dependable. [Although this story shows I clearly wasn’t]. And the only reason that promise had been made was because of the particular drawing on top of the notebook.

A week before, a twenty-three year old teacher-helper, Noor, had picked up my notebook in a moment of boredom and began flipping through it to see the English to Arabic translations I had jotted down. Curiosity satiated, she had closed it. But the cover had aroused curiosity again. Excitedly: “Kristine, where dis you get this? That is Handala. And those are all the names of the towns in Palestine. (Pointing). That one is mine. Do you know Handala? Where did you get this?”

I was smiling and trying to explain that I hadn’t just stumbled upon the notebook, that I had bought it precisely because it showed Handala on top. I had been introduced to Handala in the West Bank. Handala, a little cartoon boy designed by a Palestinian artist in Lebanon, had become one of the most recognized symbols of Palestinian continued displacement and their resistance to being forced to forget. Handala always had his back turned, his spiky hair and plain clothes placed in front of varying scenes from the occupation and the diaspora. He would apparently never grow up, and we would never be able to see his face until Palestine was free. Handala images dot keychains and bumpers and T-shirts and, as I had learned, notebooks.

In this particular case, Handala was holding a pen like a sword, the metaphorical weapon sprouting the names of all the towns that had been abandoned in Palestine in 1948. Noor returned my smile as I got excited about explaining the obvious symbolism that memory and art can be wielded just as fiercely as metal. Noor began to exclaim over how nice it was. She took control of my notebook for the next half hour – showing all the female staff. Each uttered the necessary appreciation – and it was necessary. Any symbol of Palestine and home and resistance was immediately decreed as something wonderful, as that identity-reminding tool of the diaspora and struggle and return as something beautiful. Then followed carefully worded queries as to how much the notebook had cost, just where I had got it – if there was any possibility, any at all, that I could get more. I agreed to bring back 5 for 5 of the staff the next week. And here I was, a week later, struggling through piles of flowered, but not Handala-ed notebooks in Safeway trying to avoid acknowledging that without the back story I was really just a very odd, not so clean foreigner gesturing wildly about notebooks. With a fly for a friend.

The place of Palestinian vs. Jordanian identity is fascinating – and I am sure one could (and that someone has) written copious amounts on it. The Handala story is really just one example of how strongly the “Palestinian common identity” – its themes, generally-held beliefs and symbols – form a part of a cultural heritage and language that can imbue even a cheap notebook with the greatest of importance.

But identity is complicated, and here perhaps even more so than in the West Bank. While most of the people I have met in the camps hold fiercely to their ‘Palestinian refugee selves,’ there is also an unable-to-be-ignored attachment to Jordan. One little girl during a drawing break the week before, even as her teachers were exclaiming over a notebook, drew a picture for me which had three Jordanian flags and the Arabic slogan, “We are all Jordan.” Images of the king and the queen – almost comically spread throughout the city – are also not rare in the camp. Many of the buses I take have the dash littered with military King Abdullah, kind and conservative Queen Rania, sensitive sweatered King Abdullah, tightly dressed Rania, loving Royal family, charitable giving Queen and imposing police-man King.

[Aside: Jordanian nationalism is almost shocking here in its wide breadth and apparent sincerity. While some of my colleagues at work today mentioned that the sacking of the Jordanian PM could be a sign of an Arab Spring slowly rising, I find it hard to believe that all this love for the monarchy is a show. It’d be far too hard to provide the requisite 6 million Oscars to the citizens of the country…].

In a few preliminary interviews with some of the staff at the Center, which began with a discussion of what it means to them to be a “Palestinian refugee,” 4 of 5 told me that they were “Jordanian and Palestinian,” that they were both – that they had everything here, life, citizenship, a community – but that they also had a history in Palestine, and had the right – if not necessarily the desire – to return to it.

I guess the point is – loyalty to communally-held beliefs extend beyond one sphere of communally-held beliefs – and in the camp there is access to Palestinian nationalism and rhetoric and symbolism and metaphor and art, and there is also a connection and commitment to Jordanian slogans and public image and beloved public figures. And it ranges by person. Some I meet would never call themselves Jordanian. And some, like one of my interviewees, despite her status as a Palestinian refugee with UNRWA, told me she wasn’t suitable for my research  – because she was Jordanian.

But, rejecting analysis in favor of conclusion of stories – I was late, and there were more notebooks to buy. While I failed to procure the necessary five before Saturday – the women understood, and laughed at my clear dishevelment when I arrived unreasonably late to the center for the first time. They exclaimed over the one notebook I had found, and I promised to try another Safeway before I returned the next week (this post may be a not so subtle attempt to force myself into acting before the morning the notebooks are due…). I fended off requests and offers to make me gifts in return, and let myself drift into (yet another) discussion on the possibilities of Jordanian marriage proposal and hair…

More on the hair bit soon.

The details of being (common by way of unique)

(Apologies on what may at times seem dangerously close to literary over-dramatization: you have to forgive a highly caffeinated and otherwise procrastination-friendly typer her written forays in search of self-amusement).

It is the details of a story that grab you, bring you in, that make you fall head first into a world so that you are not only observing, but participating, empathizing rather than sympathizing, and empathizing fully. I talk a big game about the importance of story telling, of description, of depiction, and here I find myself weeks into my work in Jordan without having yet provided one deliciously detailed introduction into the world I’ve seemed to have fallen into – at least a few days out of every 7.

First: place. Baq’aa refugee camp is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan – population nearing 100,000, in less than 2 square kilometers of space. You can likely imagine, but to avoid potential leaps, I’ll describe. I take a public mini buss to Baq’aa, a white van which roams around the city, and whose route is only revealed to those informed few (in reality: many) who already take the bus. The vans’ schedules are less than non-existent, but their appearance is magically frequent. I climb aboard the bus, seeking a female to sit next to, occasionally succeeding, and settling in for the surprisingly comfortable 45 minute ride through hills and towns and eventually off a highway, to a street with highly-tan shops folding over each other. As the bus turns right onto a dusty, dirt-road, you know you are in Baq’aa.

The “camp” itself is simply an area – a very crowded, highly active area, with a disarming aroma that can please or pain – garbage floods the streets of Baq’aa (with it unclear just who is in charge of sanitation and maintenance) and cooking is never far away. You just have to hope your nostrils pick the right scent to attach to. Every bit of space around me is utilized – bottoms of buildings are shops, tops of buildings are apartments, outsides of buildings are signs and in front of buildings are carts and baskets and more “shops.” Apartments seem to fall on top of one another, as do people, and things are always being sold or given or discussed in that tan world that is splashed with the color of items to be traded.

I climb down from the white bus and make my way (quickly quickly) towards the Center. It is not that I don’t feel safe (in fact I thought today that the attention/stares were far less in Baq’aa than in parts of Amman), but I most certainly stand out and would rather rapidly make myself over to the quiet and comfort of the Center than dilly-dally in the often-enough cat-call provoking streets. And that quickly, I am there.

From the outside, the Center looks like a building still undergoing construction – no permanent door and rocks littering the street that seem to have fallen right from its façade. Inside, the infrastructure is not much better, but the Center makes up for its lack of physical attributes by the personnel inside. Really, the surroundings fade away (making even this description hard for me to construct) in favor of the colorfulness of the people whom I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

Second (of course) comes people. And I continue with details. For, my time here has taught me that the ability to emphasize in “real life” is quite similar to the ways in which we begin to empathize with a character in a story, a novel, a book. By learning their depth, by way of their details, do these people become more than characters, more than momentary anecdotes in our lives, but human beings who we can partially understand through the minuteness of their daily experience. For now, I’ll give you the details that I’ve learned about two of the women/girls I work with – unable to translate their own stories to you yet, I’ll try and transmit what I have managed to garner from them.

First, Ibtisam (‘smile’ in Arabic). Twenty-three and always wearing a flowered blue hijab and a dark blue dress-suit (yet pulling off the repetition exceedingly well), Ibtisam is a graduate in computer-science. She gave me trouble on my first day, pumping me for information about my phantom fiancée (who I had said had concentrated in computer science) and asking me what he did, where he worked, what subject was his focus, if he had any advice for her. Knowing nothing about computer science, but much about avoidance tactics, I returned to a previous comment she had made on my blue nail polish and told her I could bring her the bottle. I did the next week, handing it to her as a gift. The week after that, she seemed embarrassed to show me that she was not wearing the nail polish. I didn’t mind, but she felt the need to explain, “Nail polish here can be torn off after a few hours. I noticed yours has stayed on for a few weeks. You can’t have nail polish on when you pray, so I can’t wear yours. (She paused, then invoking the meaning behind her name). Although you can’t pray when you have your period, so during those 5 days of the month, I can put it on.” She still smiling, I laughed, then absolutely fascinated by this mysterious nail polish that was applicable and removable in the course of hours.

Ibtisam, currently offering IT classes at the Center, does not want to be a teacher. She never wanted to be one. She despises it, and threatened to quit after one of the male teachers yelled at her in front of students for something that had been his mistake. As she put it, “He cannot disrespect me like that and assume I will accept it.” (Ibtisam being another striking example of how much power the women I’ve come across actually wield.) The male teacher yielded, apologizing. Ibtisam kept working, despite her continued frustration with the half-hour of each Excel lecture focused on fending off bachelor proposals for imminent marriage from her 40-50 year old women students. She explained, “There are no jobs here, I can’t go back to Palestine, and everywhere else is a new country, new culture, new language, no family – I can’t go somewhere else for work.”  So she has stayed at the Center, and we wile away my time and her frustrations with games of Tic Tac Toe and Dots.

My introduction to Eaman came as a result of muddled translations –(approximately 75% of my current existence is a result of muddled translations – luckily most being unexpectedly beneficial). In this case, I had explained to some of the teachers that I was hoping to look at how refugees are using creative writing to express themselves and their experiences. They took this to mean that I wanted to see each and every piece of artwork produced by their students. As the students love drawing (and seem to particularly love Sponge Bob), this has resulted in a rather numerous cycle of viewings of yellow and slightly-holey cartoon creatures.

Today, however, I was handed a leaflet of drawings, about 30 in total, and told that one of the students had made them “from her imagination.” I started going through, and was immediately sincerely oohing and aahing at the artist’s level of skill. Most of the pencil sketches were of people – usually cartoon/anime/movie characters she had clearly seen before but had depicted in incredible detail – a boy and a girl hugging, pining for each other, staring into each other’s eyes. A boy fighting a villain of some sort. The little girl from Monsters Inc in her bed staring up at the Big Blue Furry One. Others seemed original and were quite striking. A princess swinging in a wooden seat in a garden filled with flowers. A man encapsulated in a raindrop. A close-up, colored sketch of a girl’s face, huge blue tears covering and falling from her eyes.

The teacher then led the artist in. I already knew Eaman (15 years old) quite well. She was one of the group of girls who repeatedly asked me to work with them through breaks, lunch, extra time to cover vocabulary, grammar, chats about our lives. Now, she sat and looked at me rather shyly.  I was also unsure of where to start – not really knowing how to question anyone about artwork, but knowing the teachers were expecting me to commence (circa immediately) “my research.”  And so I began. Expectations to meet and all of that wonderfulness.

Eaman explained to me that her father, an engineer, also drew – although he focuses on landscapes and wildlife rather than people. He hadn’t taught her to draw – and none of her other brothers and sisters (2 boys, 3 girls) were particularly into the arts. Eaman, however, was. She also liked poetry, and had even written one about Jordan. She loved to read and write (I was intrigued). She explained that she doesn’t really think about much when she is drawing a picture, and generally doesn’t have a story behind the sketch or a particular idea she is trying to depict. She draws what she feels, pointing to the one of the crying girl and smiling as she noted that she was “a bit mad” when she drew it. I told her it was my favorite.

With that, we wandered back into the classroom – time for English lessons it seemed. I sat down with a few of the other girls before the rest of the class arrived. Sitting, one of the 13 year olds came and shook my hand (mandatory to shake hands in this group when you enter a room), and immediately asked me why I wear a ring on my right index finger – “it’s haram” (forbidden). She was curious, not accusatory. I was absolutely lost. A ring? Eaman heard, and immediately shushed her – telling her it was none of her business, and whispering something in her ear. I noted it was fine, but said I didn’t understand the question. As explained to me by the growing group of students, the index finger is used for praying and thus cannot have a ring worn on it. A chorus started chattering to the original curious questioner that I was not Muslim, and that she should leave me alone. Again, I noted it was fine, but the girl insisted on apologizing, telling me she knew I had freedom, and I could wear the ring on my index finger if I liked (I had moved it at this point), and that she was sorry, really sorry. I couldn’t help laughing and telling her I appreciated the fun fact she had shared with me, and never minded satiating curiosity. Eaman then tugged me away to show me pictures on her phone of her cousins/of her mom’s trip to Mecca. Suddenly, it was time to actually do my job.

These stories may have bored you, and if you’ve made it this far, I thank your for sticking through. I’d like to offer a (rapid) explanation of why I think these two “regular” anecdotes (girl annoyed with work, no other jobs) and (girl drawing pictures of princesses and women and movies) mean a lot to me. Two reasons, really. First, they remind of everything that is happening in Baq’aa camp that is so much more than the level of sanitation and the crowdedness of the houses. This is not to say that poverty and waste and constrictions of a refugee camp are not incredibly difficult and that we should not work to alleviate the strain they put on people’s lives. But, rightly or wrongly, I feel these words/labels are often put on a person and then responded to with pity, wide eyes, expressions resembling “oh no, how terrible! how sad.” And, yes it is sad, and some of it is terrible, but it is possible to pity a person without conceiving of them as an equal and an individual. And these stories, through the individualities present, make clear to me that these are people living in a certain condition, not a condition defining a people.

Second, but in a similar vein, these stories aren’t about “Palestinian refugees” as such. It’s about a person (well, persons), and persons with concerns far beyond being poor and going back to Palestine and being angry. That is not to say either Ibtisam or Eaman or any of the other women and men I have met do not consider Palestine to be an important (incredibly so) part of who they are and what they dream of, but that it is one piece of it, and so much of what they think about, talk about, even draw is, as stated – regular. Dreams of more money, of a new job, of a respectful boss, of the right to draw as long as you want, to be a princess, to fall in love – so typical as to potentially be boring, but infinitely important to remember when attempting to understand the common humanity of another person through the uniqueness of their minutest details of being.

Now, I am off, likely attempting to hide from the embarrassment of having allowed this post to get the better of me, and ending up gushing/ranting/overly ambitious and amateurly philosophizing yet again. I blame the caffeine. And the pretty font.

the link between women: throwing my lot in with refugee girls

This, I warn, will be long – likely too long, but blame my tardiness on any blog posts regarding anything but apartments and the absolute necessity of revealing that my life is more than home-seeking. It will also likely resemble more of a gush/rant/series of revelations than any semblance of logical thoughts. To prove the point, it will remain unlisted – thoughts still far too unformed for numbers and bullets. But I interrupt my preemptive apologies to actually continue with the story.

As a bit of background – it was very important to me in coming to Jordan for a year to discover how things could be done ‘differently.’ In fact, my fellowship required that I discover the possible meanings of ‘different‘ when it came to directing my life. I had defined different for work as describing real engagement on the ground, rather than macro-level office decisions on policy and procedure and programmes that tend to remain quite divorced from the people who are benefitting from programmes, procedures and policies.

What that meant for me, or as I had envisioned it, was volunteering in the camps – ideally looking at how refugees were using creative writing for self-expression and personal empowerment. [See former blog posts for all the barriers and issues that rapidly appeared.] As advised by previous volunteers/researchers/too-curious human beings, I began to look for ways to volunteer first in the community – informed time and time again that it was imperative I improve Arabic towards fluency and, even more importantly, establish trust and build relationships. As it was put to me – there was no way I could launch a credible project within the community unless I had worked with them, gotten to know them and allowed them to get to know me for at least a few months. Keep this oft-repeated imperative in mind when judging my following actions, I beg you.

I had been recommended on to a center in one of the camps bordering Amman. Badly translated phone calls resulted in me finding a mini-bus near the university, boarding it, garnering the usual “foreigner on bus – ?” stares and keeping my fingers tightly crossed that I would actually dismount in the proper place this time around. I did, and was led by a very cheerful, 45-odd English teacher named Ibrahim on towards the center. As we walked, I was introduced to any and all human beings that Ibrahim happened to know. Was also taken on a tour of his friend’s shop – which was home to wedding parties, a photography studio for weddings and a working fountain with fishes. They were incredibly disappointed I didn’t have a camera to start snapping photos. And Ibrahim kept attempting to lead me by arm to the next point of interest. Innocent anywhere else, the slight touches were (highly) inappropriate in this context. My now-highly-honed too-friendly-generally-indicates-later-difficulties-awareness-mechanisms were rapidly turned to status red.

But, I kept enforcing physical distance, asking questions about the center, how it worked and when we would get there. We finally did. The director – unfriendly, now a good sign – asked me quickly when I could come, what I could help with, and what my hours would be. He explained that the center worked on the same double-shift system as the UNRWA schools (info break(ib): because there are too many students and not enough teachers, half the students go to official school in the morning, and the other half in the afternoon. During the shift they don’t have school, they go to the center for curricular enhancement (ib: English, Math, Arabic, Library, Sports)). He told me I could help Ibrahim with English and to get back to him when I knew firmly when I could be at the center. Okay.

On to the classroom – where boys were falling over each other and laughing and yelling and acting exactly as one would expect 20 some 11 to 14 year old boys to act. I asked Ibrahim previously what to talk about, what their level of English was, if he was going to lead the lesson or if I should talk. He told me, “As you like.” Thought: I would like to help, I can’t help without any information. Action: “Okay.”

I learned rapidly that the level of English was – from the youngest to the oldest grades, near non-existent. ‘My name is’ and ‘I am – years old’ seemed almost alien. My eyes likely as wide as a deer’s and having no idea where to go from here, I did the only thing I could do – I began. I was winging it and wondering the entire time as to how I managed to continuously find myself in the most ridiculous of situations with the most ridiculous of roles. Still, bumbling along I finally struck gold when deciding Ibrahim was going to tell me nothing, and that forcefulness and the garnering of interest were the only possible ways forward. So I started speaking loudly, unapologetically and calling on them to tell me who their favorite football team was, and who was their favorite player. Despite that almost all liked Milan and Messi, the topic was beloved enough to get a semblance of quiet. Ibrahim seemed more concerned that I hadn’t signed my name on each of their papers than that the English class had no structure or plan or connection to what they did in school. Other classes followed, my ‘lesson plan’ was repeated, Ibrahim repeatedly reiterated to any and all questions, “As you wish.”

The school day ended, and I was led on another marathon tour of the center, of the camp, of the ‘principal people you just have to know’ and another center close by. The entire time I repeatedly attempted avoiding the small moments of physical contact from Ibrahim (again, innocent in any other context – in the streets of a camp, entirely not okay) and tried to get him to tell me something about the students, the schedule of the center, what value I was adding, what I could do better, what the level of the students was in English and what their lesson plan was in school. He laughed and told me to talk about what I wanted in class, it was “as I wished.” With a reminder to bring a camera next time, I began to realize Ibrahim was much more concerned that I got my assumed-desired-touring done than that I actually helped the students. There was also an invitation/mandate to have lunch with his family next Friday, and to stay the night in his house so that I could meet the other “students of the arts and painting and writing, like you are interested in” next Saturday morning.  Before judging that I hadn’t immediately absolutely refused, remember that pesky oft-repeated imperative to ‘connect’. I could not/would not/did not want to accept Ibrahim’s invitation for a night at his house with his family, but as he was my only contact at the moment, and had left me with little and less time to establish a relationship with the other teachers, I was entirely lost as to what to do… besides return.

And so I did. And Day 2 at the Center was much like Day 1, and Day 3 like Day 2. Two important moments. First, my initial lunch with all the teachers, where one man (who didn’t work at the center and whose attendance was questionable) apparently made a crack that I should have the last piece of chicken because I was ‘better’ than one of the other female teachers. I gave the chicken to her. He said he was mad/sad that I had agreed with her over him. I said there had to be a bond between women. The change in the women’s relationship to me was immediate. Second, while I politely turned down Ibrahim’s invite for Friday – pointing to apartment moving as an excuse, he said, “What about next Friday?” I told him I couldn’t stay the night – my “fiancee” [hypothetically introduced as a computer programmer studying in England] was relatively conservative and did not want me to spend the night in his house. Ibrahim immediately turned on the insinuating, overpowering and tentacle-like hospitable charm – I had to trust him, my fiancee had to trust him, I would be staying with his family, his wife, his children, nothing would happen to me, if I wanted to work in this community I had to build a relationship with them, and I couldn’t do that if I didn’t eat with them, stay with them, live with them, many foreigners had stayed with him before, I had to feel safe with them, they respected me, they wanted me to become a part of their community and on and on. Memories of taxi drivers from Irbid in my head, I was strong regarding the impossibility of staying the night, but had no idea how to refuse the offer to lunch. After all, despite the currently highly critical blog post, Ibrahim had helped me, and introduced me to folks and allowed me to lead class – and there was always that pesky imperative. I couldn’t refuse, I didn’t want to accept – so I stalled.

And then came Saturday – and breakthroughs in all and everything. The morning was with Ibrahim. He ‘taught’ a class (I had begun to see quite rapidly that the man was without patience or much interest in his students), and I sat outside and attempted to tutor. One little girl asked me why I didn’t cover my hair. As she put it, it was forbidden. Ibrahim came out – didn’t much care how the tutoring had gone and led me to the old center where a group of orphan girls came together every Saturday for different activities. For the first time, I was left alone with just the women – and it was wonderful.

They were curious about me and why I was there, and I was just as curious about them. We bantered away in Arabic and English and it felt comfortable. We did some English practice, and they actually seemed excited – focused on learning the language rather than just entertaining me, which was a wonderful change. After that, one of the woman teachers told me I had an hour and a half to do, “whatever I wanted.” At this point, I knew not to question, and just did.

The girls sat around a table and I asked them to imagine that they were at the end of their lives and they had achieved all they had ever wanted to achieve. “Now, please, write a story about it or draw a picture of yourself with symbols of your gone-after dreams.” Stares followed, and the silence of absolute confusion greeted me. (ib: Creativity – from the peaks of imagination utilization and creative writing to the simplest of making up new sentences or new paragraphs with vocabulary learned – is not a part of the curriculum. Languages are taught by memorization, copying, repetition. In a previous class I had asked students to make up sentences using “my favorite.” Only after putting possible favorite things on the board to choose could sentence creation commence.) But I was patient. I went around to each girl at that table and began to ask her questions – What did she want to do when she grew up? Where did she want to live? Did she want to get married? What kind of house did she want to have? With the specific questions they were able to begin to move – and with the freedom to write in English, Arabic or draw things began to be produced.

And it was wonderful. Because okay, yes, all of these girls are Palestinian refugees, more specifically orphan Palestinian refugees who live in Jordan. But their dreams are not about “returning to the homeland” or “olive trees” or any of the other traditional narratives or motifs that are heard time and time again when the words “Palestinian refugee identity” are mentioned. Rather, one wanted to be a dancer, to become famous in “all of the world.” Another wanted to draw and eventually create a cartoon like sponge-bob (her picture of herself at the end of the life was, literally, of a female sponge-bob). Another wanted to learn famous poems, to then recite them and to finally write her own poems for everyone in the Arab world. Another girl wanted to be a police officer, another a famous lawyer, a graphic designer, one wanted a ‘huge red house in Abu Dhabi.’ And on.

In the end, it shouldn’t be that surprising that a group of young girls put in a room and given a prompt came up with a range of answers on how they envisioned their lives. But it is infinitely important to individualize when attempting to break beyond these huge, all-encompassing and often inaccurate generalizations about what it means to be something – particularly a something so loaded as a Palestinian refugee.

The hour left me smiling, and the day with the women where I just felt… comfortable… had left me entirely more resolved about the Ibrahim situation. I was also hopeful that – with time and practice and trust built – a creative workshop might not only be possible, but also hugely beneficial for all involved.

Revelations continued in the office of one of Ibrahim’s friends (a female teacher, I think beginning to feel ownership for me, had thankfully come along – community will talk if a foreign woman walks solo with a Palestinian man, regardless of age difference or said foreign woman’s actual intent). Ibrahim brought out the hospitality tentacles again and asked when I would come spend time with his family, mentioning off-hand that he had actually quit the center he had been working at, and was moving to a new one to become a director (ib: at this second center, children pay (quite a bit) for lessons). Miriam, the woman teacher, immediately made eye contact, telling me I could still come to the first center on Wednesday at 9, as agreed – while Ibrahim and friend told her no, Kristine can go when she wants, that is far too early. I told Miriam I’d be there at nine, waving goodbye and stalling still on Friday excursions. Ibrahim had mentioned again that I wouldn’t be forming connections if I didn’t visit people’s houses – particularly, his.

It was a final fantastic conversation with a wonderful friend who had worked in refugee camps before that finally gave me an answer. As she put it, this was common – and perceptions that many (if not most) foreign women were entirely free, just meant that relationships with most men would be near impossible. She also pointed out that if I did go to lunch at his house, and particularly if I stayed late, that I would immediately lose any possibility of connection with the women in the camp. Because, regardless of what happened, people would talk – and I would be just another foreign women flouting norms. With that pesky imperative remembered but turned on its head, I decided to just – simply – refuse.

Phone calls from Ibrahim asking when I was coming, how I was, would I be at his house on Friday? I told him I would be at the first center at Wednesday at 9, as agreed. He told me I should spend half the day at the first center and half the day at his. I said no, thank you – but it was important to me that where I worked was free for students, and I had already told Miriam that I would be at the initial center the whole day. He said, “Oh that is no problem, she will change her mind.” I said, no – thank you, that was unnecessary, as I was going to the first center. He told me to call him any way in the morning. I said why, thank you very much but I know how to walk from the bus stop to the center by myself. He said still call him. Called back later to tell me he had worksheets for me that I should come pick up from his center in the morning. I (secretly/accidentally/cowardly) forgot to call him in the morning.

But, the center that day was better. I was given an English class by myself and – with free reign and the knowledge that I just had to go, run and start with the absolute basic basics, I actually think I helped make some progress with the girls. Chatting with Miriam, I asked about the still-on-the-table offer for lunch from Ibrahim, and that I felt uncomfortable about it. She completely supported me, and was by far and away more respectful of me after I had explained that I wanted to do what was appropriate and that I didn’t know how to say no but that I didn’t think it was good for me to go to my house by himself. The words out of my mouth, she immediately started gushing that it was up to me, but no, it wasn’t appropriate, and she would never do that, and if I went people would start talking and thinking things and it was totally okay that I refused.  The story got around, the other women teachers were becoming more welcoming to me and now they were inviting me to their homes to teach me how to cook and all seemed very very good, until…

The director of the center called me into his office and introduced me to his director – the director of the entire club in the camp. Introductions were brief and followed by an order not to speak with Ibrahim – informing me he had been fired and that he was trying to create problems with the center. Telling me I didn’t work for him, but that I worked for the center. I assured them that I worked for the center, not for a specific person and was here to help the students as I could, and that I did not want problems with anyone. They seemed overly shocked at my readiness to cut off ‘relationships’ with Ibrahim, which left me wondering what they had thought the relationship had been. Despite my general agreement with them,  I still felt extremely iffy about the whole situation of being told who I should and should not talk to – particularly as 2 of the other female teachers had opened up to me and told me they did not particularly like this director. Politics upon politics in a very small and highly talkative office…

The day ended with the women walking me to the bus station, asking me (expectedly) what the director had talked to me about, why and what I had said. Also received a call from Ibrahim asking why I hadn’t visited. Politely explained that I had been late, that I couldn’t come this Friday – but thank you, and that no, if we were not working together I didn’t think we needed to chat by phone. He was terse, but it had become necessary.

And (in long-winded form) that is what doing something ‘different’ has evolved into for me on the ground. And it has certainly been different – with moments of absolute brilliance from fellow female teachers in terms of friendliness and protection and advice offered, and students and interest and desire to stay after, talk more, check through spelling and sentences and broad smiles being seen after class. But understanding of where to go from here is minimal, and likely very similar to that very first day I stood in front of a class – with no direction and absolutely zero idea as to what is needed, the only thing to really do is keep going, talking, doing.

Hopefully a few months will give me knowledge enough to move forward with previous creativity-inducing plans. For I haven’t forgotten, despite the distracting calls of politics and pettiness and pure confusion. Still, the moments infused with happiness and feelings of actual accomplishment have thus far still outweighed the three p’s. Hoping the trend continues, with dividends.

the art of apartment hunting

One arrives in a city and expects to have some difficulties figuring out how things are done – the search for a residence likely to be one of the most difficult systems to access and begin to understand. Such was true in Jordan. But the learning curve was epically steeper than I had expected. As a metaphor: Imagine you had put on skis once or twice – always with help – but had decided to try independence and make your way down a green circled ski slope. Then you find yourself alone, on top of the mountain and the only thing in front of you is black diamond-ed cliffs. You aren’t even sure where most of the trails begin. The journey down the trail was varied, and involved numerous different attempts at technique. As per usual, a listed saga:

Step 1, from the US of A – attempt to find apartment via the interwebs – as a good Craig’s List-familiar friend would. (If using this as a tutorial: http://www.expatriates.com/classifieds/amm/housingavailable/)

Step 2, choose a room in an apartment with a Jordanian woman, arrive Amman, discover your mistake See earlier posts for details. (if using this as a tutorial: skip this step).

Step 3, while living with chafed hands and increasingly dirty clothes, begin an avid search for a new place – continue using the interwebs, begin to ask other foreigners for advice. Start to receive phone numbers. (if using this as a tutorial: start here).

Step 4, dial these numbers, asking the realtors if the lovely-little apartments you had finally found after hours of searching on previously mentioned website and one other (http://amman.dubizzle.com/ — yes, dubizzle) were still available. Have a confused realtor respond that he didn’t know what apartment you were talking about. Describe? Describe. Have him finally (pretend to) remember and say – ah, sorry, not available. But, what do you want – tell me? Describe again – small, furnished, location.

Step 5, have realtors fail to answer your phone calls. Or tell you to call back tomorrow. Call tomorrow. Have them tell you that the apartment you had been planning to see was gone. Find some Fulbrighters. Search for apartments with them by wandering along the street of the area you want to live and asking shop owners if they knew of any buildings with furnished apartments for rent. Have shop owners treat this as a totally legitimate practice. Follow them from their stores. See apartments. Inquire about prices (somehow the shop owners know all the answers). Fail to find something appropriate.

Step 6, hassle realtors. Finally get them to show you apartments. Have them bring you to unfurnished buildings in bumble(bleep) Amman. Have them bring you to studios which smell funny and look like they popped out of Austin Powers’ nightmares. Have them bring you to “studios for women” that seem FANTASTIC until the man in the cell phone shop next to it tells you that the building is known for its “overly friendly ‘working’ women.” Sell your old cellphones. Then flee.

Step 7, have some epically fantastic Jordanian/Syrian/English/International friends recommend places and apartments to you – offering you the owners’ numbers. Find yourself in unbearably gorgeous furnishings, for the same price as oddly perfumed and oddly inhabited studios. Find yourself unable to imagine living in such a wonderful apartment after days of conditioning and mentally-preparing for a year with Austin’s ghost. Feel utterly stuck when it comes to making a decision.

Step 8, post on your far-too-verbose blog. Find yourself hoping the posting is cathartic enough to force a decision. Be wrong.

the raja chronicles

Some of you have been introduced in previous posts to my almost-unbelievably-character-like landlady/roommate Raja. I am here to (ideally) finish out the Raja chronicles. However, with at least another week (and potentially two) in what has rapidly become a (not-so) fun house, I have little optimism for soon-achieved peace. My running (and most serious) complaint with Raja has been the “evolution” of the tidbits she tells me (read: every question I have asked her has been responded to with slightly modified and ever-context-dependent answers). A few of the best examples:

the mystical and mysterious washing machine: 

1. Before arriving, confirmed with Hani (the ‘realtor,’ i.e. friend who used the internet) that there was a working washing machine.

2. Arrived during Ramadan. Was informed by Raja that the machine was broken, but would be fixed after the end of the holidays. Maria (other renter) and I would have to wash our clothes by hand until then. One week, no problem.

3. Ramadan arrives, Eid passes. Another week goes by. Maria leaves. I ask, “Wain (where) is the washing machine?” Response, “It’s still broken. Someone will come to fix it over the next few days. Now go wash your clothes.”

4. Another week passes. I decide to ask to see the washing machine, under the pretense that I can try and fix it (I obviously can’t) but really with an increasing doubt that said machine exists. Raja pauses. Eyes widen. Feigned anger enters into the conversation. Feigned confusion at what I am asking. 10 sentences later and a few attempts to walk away, I finally gather – using my specific, pointed and grammatically simple Arabic sentences – there is no washing in the apartment. no washing machine in the building. no washing machine anywhere potentially close. … What?

5. Raja then informs me that it actually was taken to the store. And it is being fixed. Increasingly angry, I wait another three days (my hands tired from the constant clothes washing and my clothes angry by the more-than-mediocre treatment). I ask her what is taking so long. Now, apparently, the washing machine’s computer broke – and that is very expensive to fix, so she doesn’t have the money. But she’ll buy a new one.

6. Week. New girl arrives – potentially to live here for a year. On the first day, sitting in the common room she asks Raja where the washing machine is. I hold back laughter (having included in one of my many fights with Raja that this was going to be a problem for any renter – that I was not, in fact, crazy for being upset there was no machine). Raja pauses, procrastinates, finally tells her it is broken, but she’ll buy a new one. Later that evening, when new girl is showering, Raja asks me if I said something to her about the washing machine. Incredulous, I say no – I met her an hour ago – in front of Raja, and clearly didn’t have a chance to sabotage Raja’s new project/victim/sadeeq.

7. Today. Raja and I do battle (as she walks around my entire room opening closets, ripping open drawers in an attempt to find the socks that I had worn (that day) on my trip to the ruins at Jerash). I feigned ignorance. Then returned to the magical and mysterious washing machine. I said the new girl was also going to be mad about this. Raja said she wouldn’t be. That she understood there was no machine. Had understood before. I told her I had heard her ask. Raja said that this problem was between her and the new girl and had nothing to do with me. I should keep out of it. Three weeks of scrubbing had lead me to believe otherwise.

clarifying conversation: 

[Backdrop: I am eating in the kitchen after Raja has gone to bed, and new girl comes in to ask where she can find a pot to wash her shirt. She seems upset, I help her search. A comment on why the machine was broken. My bemused shock was apparent. She sat to eat with me and discuss.]

Revelations:

1. Raja had told new girl that she shouldn’t talk to me, as I apparently thought everyone in Jordan was a liar. When the new girl asked why, Raja just told her not to bother me. When the new girl asked where I was (I was in my room), Raja said she didn’t know. New girl didn’t obey the bar on discussion, and we realized rapidly why Raja hadn’t wanted us to compare notes.

2. Raja told new girl that old renter Maria had broken the machine… recently, and she hadn’t bought a new one – but would – when prices went down. See above. As for prices, when buying from the equivalent of Target, the prices are quite set.

3. Raja had told me someone was coming to take my room on the 23 of September. Then I told her the apartment I wanted wasn’t ready to the 3 of October, but that if it was a problem I could stay in a hotel for a week, particularly as Renter 3 was – as Raja had told it – coming in on the night of the 23 of September. All of sudden Raja said – no problem, stay till 3 October, I’ll just tell Renter 3 to come later. Confused – “won’t this create a problem for Renter 3” “no, no, no problem” “erm, okay.” Then today after battle, suddenly (as in 10 seconds and necessarily telepathically) Raja (without the help of a phone call) discovered Renter 3 could only come on 23 September. So I had to leave. Alrighty, then. In dinner discussions with new girl, however, it became clear that Renter 3, like the washing machine, did not exist. Instead, Raja had told new girl that when I left she could use my bedroom for extra space if she paid a little girl. Such would be difficult if Renter 3 was so frantically arriving only hours after my departure.

4. Pricing, A: Hani had originally told me the price was 140. Raja told me the price was 210 with water and electricity – saying that the two were very expensive – close to 80/90 a month.  I was home two weeks later when the bill came. Had it handed to me and very clearly read “25 JD” for both water and electric. Mmhmm.

B: According to Hani, price for the big bedroom (with its own bath) was 200. Raja told me Maria had paid 300 for it. Two weeks later in casual conversation it comes out that Maria paid 180. New girl is paying 230. Anyone that has come to see my (much smaller) room has insisted on paying – at most – 160. I don’t much mind the price difference. I dislike the constant readjustment of what is, in fact, fact.

5. Raja told me she had gotten laid off three months ago during the financial crisis and would begin looking for work after Ramadan. Made me sympathize with the money problems/amount of time at home/difficulty adjusting to what I assumed was reactions to boredom. She told new girl she had quit 5, 6 or 7 months ago because she was bored with her job. Sympathy fleeing. She told both of us she was going to start looking for work after Ramadan. To date, efforts have involved lengthy tv-watching, Salon going and gossip mongering.

(That sounded harsh. I know. Forgive an imprisoned renter her rants. Particularly when it is partly vindictively motivated:).

6. Raja took the two stories of my misunderstood-social-signaling and told the new girl that I was going around Jordan flaunting myself to men and hitting on guys in cell phone stores. Also noted that I hated everyone in Jordan and distrusted all Arabs. [New renter is French-Syrian]. Ouch. Tried to correct the (extreme) misperception, and apologize.

Again, I know the above sounds harsh/angry/petty/absurd. It is. I am aware. I also recognize frustration creeping into my voice is not the best of looks. But, luckily the internet (when unread) provides a wonderful platform for public displays that are shockingly anonymous and unheard. A rant that doesn’t actually require an audience to suffer it. The best kind, I’d say.

 

mashrou3 leila and it’s a small, small middle eastern world

During an early meeting, someone had recommended that I check out a Lebanese band called Mashrou’ Leila. They described them to me as “avant-garde/experimental/indie Middle Eastern music with a mild social/political agenda.” I was intrigued, but wary.

My previous experience with Middle Eastern music that had sounded academically interesting had left me feeling guilty due to my inability to actually like the music, regardless of how interesting it was. {Check out the film Slingshot Hip Hop (about the burgeoning Palestinian Hip Hop scene) to see what I mean}. I really tried – I swear I did – to like the bands -downloaded their music and forced myself to listen. But sadly, guiltily, failingly, I just couldn’t enjoy their music for mere entertainment.  I was worried that – yet again – the Mashrou’ Leila project would be incredibly interesting – fascinating even – but farther than far from entertaining or enjoyable.

With feelings of guilt already being prepared, I typed the new recommendation into YouTube, popped in the headphones, tuned out still-crazy-and-cleanly Raja, and began to listen. I didn’t stop.

The band is good. Really good. I spent the next three days with them on repeat, doing lots of singing and very little analysis. The best bit : they were coming to Amman, playing at the Citadel.

With a bunch of young Jordanians (story for another time) that I’ve recently befriended, I decided to head to the concert. After a visit or two to a few of the girls’ houses (culture=crazy social), three of us finally hopped in the car  and headed in the direction we believed the Citadel could be found. Although the centuries-old fortress sits atop the city, is one of it’s most famed land marks and is lit-up at night, it took us about an hour to wind our way through the maze that is Amman to reach our not-so-hidden destination. A parking struggle later, we were finally wandering into the concert.

The setting itself was absurd. Picture yourself surrounded by 2000 years of history, with the sandy stone lit up by similarly sandy colored lights. Behind you, behind the stage is all of Amman, the limestone buildings sprawling over the 7 hills that give the city its unforgettable aesthetic. The band is playing (violin, keyboard and unbearably good voice included) and all of Jordan’s young and hip hipsters have gathered. I (obviously) rocked out. When I realized that I was far more into the music than most of the people I was with and that my three day obsession had made me not only a fan, but a groupie, I shifted between patting myself on the shoulder and blushing (extremely). But with kefiyah’s thrown in, thank you’s after each song and a band that clearly just enjoyed being on stage, I was okay with exhibiting obvious awe.

The concert was followed by a second creative car-ride, taking us through East Amman and back before we arrived at the bar where the group had decided to gather. As had the band. With a background of Che Guevara photos, Queen music and all that can be pictured of a Jordanian dive-bar, I found myself chatting with one of the band’s members.

The guys were more than down-to-earth (really, I was the odd one at being so excitable). They had all met at AUB, architecture students together. They graduated this past year and are all currently looking for real-life work. The lead singer was flying out at 3 am to start his first day at an engineering firm in Beirut the next day. They weren’t sure how they were going to work combing work with music. It was their first concert in Amman. It was weird because everyone knew them in Lebanon and here it was the first time they felt they had real… (polite pause)…. fans. They loved music but you couldn’t make a living off of it in the Middle East. The market was too small.

My Jordanian friends laughed as I gushed – the chance to hear the band’s story/their outlook on music/etc. and on. They also laughed at my amazement that the guys had known the elder sister of my friend Yara with whom I had stayed in Beirut. They reminded me – yet again – that the Middle East (in a certain social and economic class) is a small, small world. There is only a certain amount of people who have enough money/the mentality/the type of family that allows them to go out, drink, visit clubs and bars and the well-known spots that soon make everyone who visits them well-known. (Seriously, though: the level of intimacy/understanding/background-knowledge everyone has of everyone else is actually incredible (part amazing, part unsettling)). Still, despite the laughter, I embraced being the excitable American. Figure it is far more fun to be excitable than jaded.

So, get excited. Check them out:

 

edward said and exiles

Read Edward Said’s “Reflections on Exile” today. Was absolutely blown-away.  Required reading for all persons defining themselves as exiles, emigres, refugees or expatriates. Highly recommended for any other who finds themselves interested in the four-above-mentioned-and-highly-mobile personhood categories.

Can be found here: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~germ43/pdfs/said_reflections.pdf

pleasure reading as a cultural concept?

(warning: length and seriousness-levels reaching new heights)

So, the background: one of the major projects/goals/aims/life-learning-adventures I wanted to pursue during my year was an “exploration into how Palestinian refugees use written and spoken word as a tool for personal and community empowerment.” Put into non-fellowship-application-language, I was hoping to look into how art – particularly writing – can be used to create social change. I’m not sure how I stumbled upon the idea, but I do know I quickly became attached to it for both personal and academic (read: what are considered legitimate) reasons.

First, I love/have always loved/will always love reading/writing/all things word-related. I wanted to see if I could somehow connect the hobby/individual passion/whatever you want to call it to my “work.” Second, over two years of research/work/academic focus, it’s hard not to realize that Palestinian refugees (and many other subaltern populations) have been left – in a very real sense – voiceless in the international sphere. And that this is a problem. The reasons why aren’t too hard to pinpoint – the conflict and the debates and the (stalled) negotiations get the attention/headlines in the media/political realm/life of NGOs and humanitarian organizations – the immediacy of these “higher-level issues” requiring focus and quick responses. The day-to-day, real concerns, life experiences of the populations that these “higher-level” questions concern/affect, however, tend to be obscured/ignored/not catchy enough for headlines. Such is the way of life these (and most past) days.

Still, I figure – with a year, I have the time, attention and lack of other responsibilities needed to make the voices/day-to-day/ground level life my major concern. And what better way to try and understand this than to see what the group of people I have been studying are writing creatively – what is important to them, how they express it, and what they do with that which they express.

The idea was followed by what I considered a pretty simple plan. In time not working, I’d volunteer with an NGO/community organization in one of the refugee camps/neighborhoods that was offering creative writing workshops. (The Palestinian Writers Workshop in the West Bank leading me to believe that if something like this was in Ramallah, it would likely be in Jordan too). If not, I figured there had to be something, anything offering some form of artistic workshop – be it photography or filming or painting. Starting my own workshop seemed overly ambitious and not a bit sustainable – I only had a year and I’d rather work with an established group than multiply efforts working towards the same end. So I contacted those I could while at home and was repeatedly told that it’d be much easier if I just waited until I landed in Jordan. So I landed, began contact contacting and meeting very recently mentioned contacts.

And it was then I was reminded of mice, men and the terribly predictable tendency of things to go awry.

Problem One: Jordan is – as anticipated – not the center of most folks’ attention.

There is very little NGO/international volunteer work happening in the Palestinian refugee camps in the country (at least compared to the plethora of aid organizations present in the West Bank).

Proposed solution: Shift focus to local, community organizations? Might be even better in terms of really becoming a part of the community.

Problem Two: There is very little civil society action/activism happening in Jordan (generally) and in the Palestinian refugee camps (particularly).

I’ve been given a number of different explanations for this. The two most heard examples being: People are happy with the system here – we haven’t had an Arab Spring for a reason. Jordanian society is generally less concerned with political activism than economic advances and increasing industry. The most compelling: Despite making up over half the population of Jordan, Palestinians have a historically rocky relationship with the government. Particularly after Black September in 1978 when clashes between the PLO (then based in Jordan) and the Jordanian government led to the deaths of 3000 people. The event still isn’t largely talked about. But, as the government has to approve any organizations/NGOs/large projects in the camps, and as the government is still wary of anything too political/cultural/activisty, many projects that go beyond English learning and vocational training get vetoed. Regardless of the reasons (or likely the ways in which they combine), the fact is: cultural projects happening in the camps are few and needle-like in the difficulty they present when searching for them in haystack-resembling neighborhoods.

Proposed solution: Forget previous worries and start something on my own? A creative writing workshop offered at an existing after-school program, or as curriculum support?

(Most unexpected) Problem Three: Pleasure reading is apparently a cultural concept, and not one found in Jordan. Nor are the related past times of journaling, chronicling or – you guessed it – creative writing particularly compelling or widespread.

I was alerted to this possibility early on, meeting with an (incredibly) impressive Williams student who grew up in Jordan and started a creative writing workshop for Jordanian students in private schools. He mentioned quickly that he had come across some difficulties in getting students to be comfortable with expressing themselves and that he had to sell the course to parents as a way to improve English – the idea of taking a class on creative writing seen as entirely frivolous.

About a week later, I met a woman who began an NGO called We Love Reading in Jordan – the entire premise of her work being that no one reads. In our very long day together (which included a visit to her house, book idea exchanges and a cooking lesson), she explained to me that reading tended to be seen as antisocial – necessary for work and school, but not a possible form of entertainment. In a society where time together, community and sociability are seen as incredibly important, separating yourself from conversation, the family, other people to go sit and read is… odd. Rather, oral history and story telling play a much more central role – a way to share narratives that remains communal. (perhaps a continuation of the historic focus on public poetry recitation as the Arab world’s art form of choice?).

As the two of us decried a life without reading (biased as avid readers would be), we began to throw out some more ideas on why this could be the way it was, and what this might mean for my project/interests/year. One of the central points we kept coming back to was that of language. Quickly, the Arabic of reading and writing is very different than the Arabic spoken. Different enough that “formal” Arabic is taught like another language would be in school – with grammar rules and vocabulary and pronunciation tending to be despised as overly complex and difficult and entirely unfun. Schools don’t teach literature as American ones do (I miss English class). And the only exposure students usually get to any form of creative writing in school (primary, secondary or college) is pieces of poetry or slices of taken from novels in formal Arabic as grammar practice.

Reading, then, is not as simple as picking up and piecing out words that sound like what you hear on a day-to-day, it is just as strenuous as it would be for a young French speaker learning Spanish to read a children’s story in her second-tongue. You are not going to journal if every word written, every sentence formulated is a structure, and you are not going to dive into the world of creativity if you don’t even want to chronicle events. Without reading, without the idea that reading can be fun, without the memory of the books you read as a child that absolutely swept you away, that you fell inside, that you couldn’t believe you had to leave when the back cover shut, why would anyone want to write? Without learning about the impact novels can have, the importance of authors like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Langston Hughes, why would you ever think to pick up a pen to chronicle your life experiences, to make a statement, to try and change things?

Proposed solution: Crap. I should have listened to Stuff-White-People-Like. The inescapable desire to engage in Blogging, Journaling, Sitting in Cafes and Writing Novels – all apparently a product of our cultural heritage. Pros and Cons there – I’d say. Con, con, cons though if you are a person who just might maybe be hoping to explore the use of written and spoken word as a tool for personal and community empowerment in a community that doesn’t seem to care too much about the written word.

No, but really: It isn’t the end of the world – and there are a few things that must be said before all my fellow-readers out there despair, or all those too-eager-to-feel-superior judge harshly.

First, there are Arab authors out there – some amazing ones in fact. Check out Ghassan Kanafani for some great allegorical writing (and straight-up-direct) writing on Palestinians here and there. Or Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian who is prolific and is an unbelievable storyteller. My previous meetings with the works of authors like these was one of the reasons I was so shocked to hear what I was hearing. Of course there are those who read, write (and do so fantastically) here, but they tend to be the rarity.

Second, while reading and writing may not be the most prominent of expressive outlets, that is not to say that there are not expressive outlets. Contemporary art is booming in Amman right now. There are galleries around almost every corner, exhibits changing every few weeks and a community that is absolutely up-to-date, fascinated and way-outside-my-level-of-comprehension when it comes to technique and color and meaning and symbolism. In addition, as previously mentioned, film is on the up and up in Jordan – with the Royal Film Commission and all the help they offer certainly aiding in the achievement of any young Jordanian’s cinematic dreams.

Lastly, and the moral of the story I suppose, is that writing is only one means of expression, and it is the power of expression that I am hoping to explore. While I am still doggedly pursuing possibilities to start a creative writing workshop (be it quite simple and forced to start off by convincing students that reading can be interesting, writing can be worthwhile and that language can be a tool rather than chore), there is an abundance of things here to explore – be they written or drawn or filmed or sung.

Post Script One: I have been testing the “pleasure reading” doesn’t exist here hypothesis since I heard it. So far, pleasure reading: 0, not-existing-hypothesis: 5. Been hanging out with a group of very-well-to-do Jordanians recently, and thinking it might be a socioeconomic thing, began to ask them about reading/writing/journaling/what have you. (It’s okay – I am allowed my moments of oddness, expected from the foreigner). All but two I asked (who named themselves outside-the-norm) did not like reading for pleasure, none kept a journal and none seemed particularly interested in my whole “I’m obsessed with creative writing” thing. So, not a class thing.

Post Script Two: Apologies on all above generalizations. Simply trends an amateur like me has observed/recorded/been lead to believe.