Three Months in Jordan!

The last few weeks have consisted of us both being in crisis mode over careers and life in general. Many internship applications and not being very impressed with our current Arabic courses led to a whirlwind of questions and research into future study and career options. Exchange programs next year for Sam? Internships? Honours for me? Try and go straight to Masters? Grad jobs? Does this mean we should get internships here ASAP? Or focus on Arabic seeing as the Middle East is the best place to learn? Why are we here? What exactly do we want to get out of the year? Out of life? We aren’t doing anything with our lives!

 

This was a nice moment.

This was a nice moment.

But after realising that yesterday was three months since we arrived in Jordan, we’ve actually done quite a lot. In three months we have:

–       Moved to another country, set up our own apartment and come to know a new city

–       Almost finished a semester of Arabic at university

–       Travelled to Petra, one of the 7 wonders of the world, and explored the ancient city

–       Floated around in the Dead Sea and covered ourselves in mud

–       Participated in an ultra-marathon: 243km from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea

–       Hiked through a number of wadis and played under beautiful waterfalls

–       Been hiking and camping in the mountains to the north of Jordan, near the border with Syria

–       Spent a spontaneous weekend in Lebanon

–       Volunteered at a UN office

–       Taken up private (Arabic) tutoring

–       Held a couple of House of Cards marathons

–       Attended the ANZAC Day service at the Australian embassy in Jordan

–       Attended SOFEX, a bi-annual military arms fair held in Amman.

–       And we’ve met an incredibly diverse range of fascinating people – our friends from uni, who are from just about everywhere and have unique stories and passions, people we have met on hikes and at tourist places, people we’ve met at the embassy, the friendly locals who staff the shops we frequent, and so many more.

 

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Not bad for twelve weeks! If you make it fourteen and a bit weeks, we also managed to see a large portion of Egypt. And we were freaking out that we were wasting time over here… Ha!

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Lebanon- Part 1

Cantaloupe is an amazing restaurant at the end of Rainbow Street in Amman. It has panoramic views of the city and fantastic (Italian) food. We were there with a small group of friends a few weeks ago to farewell our beloved American friend, Justin. (We miss you Justin!!)

A phone-camera snap of the view.

A phone-camera snap of the view.

Realising that it was Easter that coming weekend, we decided to go on the group’s long-awaited trip to Lebanon. Only a few days after Justin left. I guess we subconsciously wanted him to regret leaving us all. Sorry Justin.

A few days later we were off! Only a quick flight of just over an hour and we were there. It turns out we flew with the only airline that is still game (read: crazy?) enough to fly over Syria. So for most of the trip we cruised straight over Syria, although the plane did skirt Damascus so that’s fine, right? Oops. But we got there in one piece. Next challenge was to be let in.

One of the sights we were excited to see in Beirut!

One of the sights we were excited to see in Beirut!

Everyone got through customs without a hassle (Well, Michelle did get hit on by the customs officer: ‘have you tried tabouleh?’.. ‘yes.’ … ‘Lebanese tabouleh is the best. I can show you’ … ‘No thanks.’) But then it was my turn.

For those who don’t know, you cannot be let into Lebanon if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport. It’s the same in Saudi Arabia, amongst other countries. But I knew this, and didn’t have  a stamp.

However, I was born in Jerusalem, and it says so in my Australian passport under place of birth. They took my passport to the main office and consulted with each other. They called the owner of apartment we were staying at in Beirut, asked for many more details etc etc. I explained that I was born in Jerusalem because my Dad was working with the UN at the time, helping Palestinian refugees, and we lived in Bethlehem (Palestine) but the hospital was in Jerusalem. No good. (During the explanation one of them had the clever idea that I just change my place of birth. Genius, why didn’t I think of that beforehand…) They required approval from higher up, saying it would take about three hours. Not ok. I wanted to call for help.

We couldn’t get a sim card, they wouldn’t let us use their phone, and of course, the pay phones did not function. After over an hour of heated debate (in Arabic may I add- yay!), I was finally escorted by security to a pay phone on another floor that did work. My calls weren’t too fruitful in terms of getting me into the country, but I had plenty of time for a nice catch-up with my parents.

Other things we did to stay entertained:

  • Made paper aeroplanes out of the visa forms, earning strange looks from the guards, some of whom later joined us and made planes that put ours to shame.
  • Played soccer with a pen
  •  Watched Sam wear a wicked grin as he sped down the large empty corridor in a wheelchair that he found
  • Michelle taught me some Latin-American dance moves
  • Ate a lot of Oreos
  • Sung
  • Banged our heads on the wall
  • Sam lifted heavy tables and put them back down again, seriously concerning the security staff.

 

Kara and Michele dance the pain away.

Kara and Michele dance the pain away.

Yeah, it got pretty fun toward the end.

 

Nevertheless, five hours later I was finally allowed into the country. And it was great.

At least I know that I can argue in Arabic now!
(Note from Sam: No you can’t – it took 5 hours to get in, remember?)

Bombs on the border: a weekend camping trip with a sad soundtrack

Kara’s observations of sometimes quite surprising social contrasts, and the sad soundtrack to our hike near Ajloun, in the North of Jordan, near the border with Syria.

1. Ancient city in a modern town

Jerash is a town in the north of Jordan, with ancient ruins dating back to 3200BC. We’ve always been advised to go there, but haven’t made the trip yet. We did however drive through on our way to a hike, and wow did we get a shock. Yes, we’ve been to the temples in Egypt and have seen other ruins before, but this was different. An entire, modern town had been built around these buildings- from the car, it almost looked like houses and shops were built on top of ruins half-buried into the hillside. Oh, and they hold a festival in the ancient Roman amphitheatre each year, featuring popular Arabic singers. Modern music in an ancient amphitheatre- how cool is that?

 

2. Beggars and BMWs

On a heavier note, the contrast between rich and poor is pretty strong here. Men in tattered clothes walk the streets of nicer suburbs, sorting through the enormous communal rubbish bins and putting materials in the old wooden cart pulled by their scruffy donkey. Homeless families live under scrap metal and tarpaulins in wastelands right next to major shopping centres. And the poorer, but bustling downtown area is right next to the fancier expat and embassy district.

Sam takes in the view near Irbid/Ajloun.

Sam takes in the view near Irbid/Ajloun.

3. Bombs on a weekend stroll

No, nobody is bombing Jordan, but every now and again we are powerfully reminded of how close Jordan is to countries at war. For example, last weekend we went on an awesome camping trip in the forests up north. We stayed overnight and went on a hike the following day. The birds were singing, the flowers were in full bloom- it was so tranquil and silent. Until we heard a not-so-distant rumble, the echoes bouncing across the mountains. Apparently bombs from Syria. Which would make sense, since we were a maximum of 50km from Dara’a, a major conflict zone in Syria at the moment. So our walk was a huge mixture of silence, laughing and chatting, with the occasional explosion in the background. It was quite surreal, knowing how calamitous the situation is just across the border, but how safe and relatively carefree we were on the other side, eating, drinking and exploring the countryside.

 

4. Men

There are rude men who harass women wherever you go, it’s an unfortunate fact in this day and age. But men here seem to be a lot ruder to me as a female foreigner, while also being a lot politer in some situations too. Hugging between local male and females here isn’t a thing, but nor is shaking hands in many cases. So, any male acquaintances we might make, such as the grocer, the baker or the university guards, will either shake Sam’s hand or give him an enormous hug, while nodding a polite hello to me. Sometimes that is due to their own preference not to shake hands with women, but knowing them, it mostly seems to be out of respect to me. Letting women go first through doorways is also huge here. Fine, I’ll take it!

What I won’t take so well is men calling out, beeping or otherwise harassing me, even when I’m with Sam. Now this happens in Australia too, don’t get me wrong, but walking home by myself this afternoon I realised just how much worse it is here. Men of all ages beep and stare out the window, others call out ‘I love you!’, while others just whistle or chuckle to themselves as you walk past. But I also realised how lucky I am here as a white woman. I was talking to my South Korean friend earlier today, as she carries a whistle on her keyring for safety. I was a bit amused, until she explained why. See, there aren’t too many people of Asian origin here, and many of those with South Asian roots are prostitutes. So while I put up with some harmless but annoying comments, men yell ‘sex’ and ‘massage’ at her to the point where she actually fears for her safety. This would never happen to a local girl, towards which men are so much more respectful, but is a sad fact purely based on race, and harshly jars with the more conservative parts of society.

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5. Niqabs and nightclubs 

As with any country, some people are more religious than others. Goes without saying. But the contrast between the most outwardly conservative people and the more liberal folk has been quite surprising. These observations are largely based on how people seem to look and behave, and obviously there is more to it than that. Nevertheless, clothing and subtle behavioural habits can actually be quite informative here. For example, at university everyone dresses conservatively. Some girls might wear skinny jeans or leggings, but most wear hijabs and long coat-dresses that seem to be one of the most popular items of clothing for women.  There are also quite a few girls that wear even looser clothing as well as the full niqab. Men are also modest in dress, wearing relatively smart clothes, closed shoes, and they always wear long pants.

The more conservative girls do not speak to men they don’t know for longer than necessary (for example the guards at the gates), and there are certain rules of socialising among this group. Some guys and girls hang out together at uni, but some of my Jordanian girlfriends gave me an interesting insight into their families’ values. Sitting at a café, we saw a guy and a girl in a hijab sitting together, and then taking a selfie. My friends started laughing, quite surprised at what they said is forbidden. For them, guys and girls can’t really be friends, and you couldn’t even do what this couple did with a male cousin, in case you marry him.

Compare this to a night out. Dressed relatively conservatively (I wore jeans and a long-sleeve top), Sam and I wandered in to a swanky bar. It was filled with rich locals, and boy were they different. Girls had several layers of makeup and wore tiny skin-tight black dresses with enormous heels, some with quite scary-looking spikes on them. They all sat closer with their arms around each other, something you never see at university, and chatted drunkenly, mostly to the opposite sex. While there was a lot less PDA (thankfully) than clubs in Australia, it was a shock to see this in Amman, especially having only seen locals interacting at the much more conservative uni. Nevertheless, I don’t think Mooseheads has much of a market to exploit to over here. Pity.

Nope, The Monastery in Petra doesn't have much to do with this post. But who cares? I could look at it all day.

Nope, The Monastery in Petra doesn’t have much to do with this post. But who cares? I could look at it all day.

 

 

 

 

Student Union Election Day – Middle Eastern style.

Jordanian university students take their student union elections seriously.

Apparently the different candidates and parties are all tribal or family aligned. That is where the money for all these signs comes from.

Big, medium, small and sun-sized posters.

Big, medium, small and sun-sized posters.

Election day is pretty wild, lots of students don’t go to campus at all and there are plenty of police and military near the campus ready for trouble – which is expected. The police & army aren’t allowed on Uni campus though, so the unarmed uni security have to deal with it. We have made friends with some of them, we see them every day at the gate, and they are lovely! So we were hoping that they don’t have to deal with too much crap.

Some young students were dressed in military-style leather boots and camouflage pants. We assume they were students because to get on campus you have to use a student ID card. It was very disconcerting to see these guys essentially dressed for battle, especially since there were unconfirmed rumours of knives and guns being drawn in previous years. Some guys were wearing headwear in such a way that made it easy to cover their face quickly. They seemed fully prepared for quite a serious fight.

Despite this, there were no metal detectors or anything at the Uni gates. Maybe taking the threat of violence seriously will encourage violence? Or perhaps tribal leaders outside the uni give strict orders to the UJ students to keep it calm?

Kara and I only saw one fight. Two vans full of security screamed up to the Arts buildings and there was much yelling and ruckus but no one seemed to get hurt. It was kind of funny to see two very angry looking guys walk purposefully into the mob of men yelling whole holding hands. Here that’s about trust and a strong connection, men hold hands all the time, but it’s so non-masculine in Australia so it’s a bit odd to see in that context.

One of the most interesting things Kara and I saw and later talked about was the way security guards and students interacted. In Australia we tend to see police and similar authority figures as the position first and a person second, but here it seemed to be the other way around. The guards were really hands on but not in an intimidating way, they would grab emotional young men by their shoulders or clothes and shake them while yelling at them, but it was somehow not threatening and did nothing to escalate the situation. The guards were like father figures or something.

The way the day was handled was fascinating. There are some 41,000 students at UJ, 50% of whom voted that day. In Australia if there was 20,000 students in one place at one time every year, and there were fights every year, what kind of police presence would you expect? A bunch of un-armed, overweight middle aged men in minivans? Or police with dogs, batons, handcuffs, pepper spray and handguns?

Apparently there was tear gas used on the campus during the day (we didn’t see that), and there was some serious police capacity at the front gate, so maybe the contrast isn’t as significant as I’m making it out to be. Or maybe I just have such ridiculous expectations of the Middle East – based on hollywood movies and worst-case-scenario examples from the Western media – that anything less than a bomb or civil war seems tame?

Outside the main gate of the Uni.

Outside the main gate of the Uni.

Whatever the case, all this energy put into the elections should not be confused with a passion for democracy. The candidates all just seemed to want to win for family/tribal prestige. It had little to do with running the student union. The divisions and tensions over such an unimportant, small-time election may be representative of the rifts that cause conflicts throughout the whole region.

If all that matters is which tribe had more members on campus on the day, then why call it a vote? Call it a head count.

Why kissing is wrong.

This is pretty cool, what is happening in our apartment right now.

Kara invited our landlord’s mother over for two reasons: to get to know her and talk about the country and its culture, and also to practice Arabic.

They’re on the couch with tea and biscuits in front of them. They’re talking about… oh right, I have no idea what they’re talking about now because my Arabic is at the level of a 2 year old.. If that. But Kara may as well be a local, it’s very impressive to watch.

Earlier we were talking about Palestine – a topic that comes up almost daily here – and I had my first feeling of guilt over the topic. This lovely woman is Palestinian, and she was telling us about her family’s story. They left their home in 1948, when Israel was established.

Her family is from Jaffa, which is a gorgeous, smaller city on the coast of Israel. I told her I had been there and that it’s beautiful, and then saw the look on her face. She hasn’t been there. She, like most of the 4.7 million Palestinians alive today, are unable to enter Israel and see their old homes. But I can go anytime I like, despite having never lived there. That’s why I felt guilty.

It’s just one of the injustices of the complicated situation. Please do not take this as a blanket anti-Israeli statement – it’s not – but I wanted to share that particular feeling and that particular moment with you. Nothing more.

But here is the story that relates to the title of this post:

It’s against the rules for men and women to kiss on university grounds. Guess how we found that out? Yeah, the campus security told us. Whoops.

Kara immediately felt guilty and reprimanded herself for not knowing better. I shrugged it off (like the culturally insensitive guy that I am) more easily, but we don’t kiss on campus anymore. This makes me sad.

For the record: we were’t making out or anything. It was just a good-bye peck – Kara was off to her class and I was off to nap in the library.

And because I’m a really slow learner, today I wore my shorts on the walk home from the running track at the uni. It was hot, I was sweaty and I didn’t want to get my jeans all gross. For the record: Kara said I should put some damn pants on.

Walking through campus with these shorts on resulted in groups of girls giggling, or looking at me with disgust, and guys doing double-takes or laughing. I didn’t feel judged, I felt like a sort of weird stranger, like an alien.

A lovely male student politely stopped us and asked if we had a moment to speak with him. He told me that my shorts were a little too short because the Uni is quite conservative, the girls are Muslim, and that I should wear longer shorts or pants. I can wear shorts on the track though, or while playing sport. He was incredibly nice, in fact we exchanged numbers and we’ll meet up and help each other with languages (we will help him with English and he’ll help us with Arabic!). It was a very gentle, but important, lesson about the culture here.

That is, some things are very different here. Spending most of my time with Westerners – in the classes and because that’s who I meet also in social situations – it’s easy to think Jordan is not so different to anywhere else. People dress differently – at Uni I’d say 90 or 95% of women wear a hijab – but they don’t seem to act so differently. Girls still giggle, guys still strut.

But there are very different boundaries.

Kara had a conversation with some girls our age and they were fascinated by our relationship. For them, boyfriends just aren’t a thing. For us, getting married without really knowing your partner isn’t a thing. In Australia, if we were married both our parents would freak out. Here, if we kissed and went on dates but weren’t married our parents would freak out. It’s the exact opposite. Each cultural system has it’s own strengths and weaknesses.

I like to think of myself as someone who doesn’t change depending on who I am around. No matter where I am or who I’m with, I’m me. That’s not meant to be abrasive, I don’t try and bulldoze my way through life, but I do try to be open and honest about who I am and what I think with everyone. With empathy and respect this shouldn’t, I think, cause problems.

So I have a weird little conflict in my mind about wearing longer shorts. Obviously I will, and I feel stupid for not doing so in the first place. But it’s one of the few times where I will change something about myself against my own will to suit or please others. It’s SUCH a small thing, but I wonder what it would feel like to have to do this on many levels all at once? I’d hate it. I guess that’s what they call oppression.

I’m not saying people here who wear longer shorts or hijabs or whatever don’t want to. And to be completely honest I quite like not having cleavage all around me. I like the less sexualised environment. And I think if I grew up here and saw a Miley Cyrus music video I’d think the West is a morally corrupt cesspool of shit, too.

Anyway, that’s my stream-of-consciousness cultural observations related to clothing. Hope you liked it.

Because we don’t have any super relevant photos for this post, here are some pics of me and Kara facing off over coffee like Obama and Putin are doing over Ukraine. High stakes stuff, I say.

Top ten funny street vendor moments

Taxi drivers, felucca drivers, horse and carriage drivers, shopkeepers… Everyone is trying to sell their goods or services to us. Constantly. This has led to some interesting encounters. Here are some favourites:

1. Walking through a souk:
“Come and spend your money here!”
Subtle.

2. When the five MILLIONTH man tries to offer us a ride in a horse and carriage as we’re walking along the Nile:

Driver: Do you know how much for a carriage ride?
Me (Kara): Yes. Five pounds.
Driver: …Oh. (And leaves)

3. Sam singing as we walk through a souk
Vendor: I recommend to you that you stop singing. You have a bad voice. (Prepares himself for a selling pitch)
Sam: Well I recommend that you go away.
It worked.

4. WE FOUND A WAY TO GET RID OF PEOPLE HASSLING US!!
We were being hassled by kids pretending to be beggars at the Botanical Gardens in Aswan.

They couldn’t stop giggling, but kept following us and asking for money.
Eventually, I told them (in Arabic) that we weren’t tourists, so please leave us alone. So they did! Then they came back and actually had a chat. Turns out they were on a big family picnic while on their school holidays. Cheeky devils.

Other common attempts to attract our attention:
5. No hassle, no hassle!

6. Lucky man! How many camels? (Getting very old now)

7. Yes yes yes yes yes?

8. *Something incomprehensible in German, thinking we are German tourists*

9. Looking is free today! (as opposed to all the days you pay to walk in a store?)

10. Remember me? I work at your hotel!

11. (Bonus) Where you from? Australia? Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!

It gets pretty annoying, but you get used to relegating the hassle to background noise, and in the end, they are just doing their business.

That said, the best tip for having a conversation with a haggler, is don’t get roped in to a conversation with a haggler!