Wednesday, July 25, 2012


On Sunday, we were invited to the village of Rumman for iftar, the breaking of the fast.

We left Amman around 6:45, aiming to reach the village just after the call to prayer announced iftar. As we sped out of the city, climbing the many hills of Amman and relishing in the expanse of the valleys, the sun was setting, blood orange. I've never seen a sun set so violent and majestic and raw. It felt like the end of days, the final sun to disappear beneath the curve of the earth in a fiery haze of uncertainty. My heart stopped, my breath caught. Someone once told me that the reason birds go haywire during sunset is because their memories aren't strong enough to recall prior cycles of the sun, the way they have felt the sun set and rise many times. Each sun set terrifies them, as they think that perhaps they will never see light again. I wonder about the validity of this statement, but it certainly describes some of what I was feeling. I felt inter stellar chaos, and my human eyes were too caught in the brilliant colors to return to what was logical, and calm my beating heart.

Our favorite taxi driver (kind of our adopted uncle), Yusuf, was delighted by our reaction to the stunning view. He's been telling us about it for weeks, offering to take us to the top of the hill free of charge any evening we choose, to see the sun set. We've been putting it off, caught up with other things, but in the end I'm glad I experienced it with Yusuf in the driver's seat.

We sped down the road with few other drivers, most people having already made it home for their first meal of the day. Yusuf stopped at a road side convenience store once the sun had set to get water, but returned with chocolate bars and fruit juice for both of us. It felt like a real, honest to goodness road trip. The further we got away from the center of Amman, the clearer the air felt. Like ocean air. The smell of it hit me in the chest and left me spiraling into images of two lane highways dotted with modest homes, of expansive golden fields and perfect creeks, of barefoot wanderings on summer nights. My bones ached, not for the first time, for the sweetness of North Carolina, and it again managed to catch me by surprise.

The hills here are dotted with olive trees, date trees, shrubs and other unfamiliar vegetation. Some of it reminded me of the view from my bedroom at Yagmur and Ugur's house, and suddenly I longed for them too, for the strange comfort Istanbul had provided. The familiarity and warmth of older women was a happy discovery upon arriving at Om Nidal's. Sisterhood, even with strangers, always leaves me feeling as though I've come home.

Om Nidal had prepared a beautiful meal for us, a long table covered in salads, rice, chicken, fish, okra, beans, bread, hummus, and soup. I observed the spread with wonder. My recent, improvised, mediocre endeavors in the kitchen have left me with a new found appreciation for those who can handle dishes even as simple as rice- let alone feasts involving the handling of raw chicken, a feat which I find to be wholly impressive. Jasmine and I were seated and served carab juice in wonderfully elegant glasses. Carab, I learned, is a locally grown alternative to chocolate. The drink is thick and sweet in the warm way chocolate is, and I took to it at once. Something about it reminded me of Brunei, perhaps the texture or the unassuming sweetness present in so much of their food- and people. 

Om Nidal is one of Jasmine's many former students from her time spent at the Royal Botanic Gardens. While there, she worked in the village teaching block printing and fabric dyeing, some of the many skills the women learned and practiced in the workshop. Unfortunately, upon the end of Jasmine's time there, the project fell apart. I get the impression Om Nidal- indeed, all the women- made a valiant effort to rescue it, but the powers that be let things falter for a little too long, and it hasn't been the same since.  They spent time discussing the saga of the workshop, accompanied by Nausreen, Om Nidal's charming daughter-in-law (and soon to be mother!). However, as Jasmine pointed out early on, these are people who don't believe in gossip, and hold strictly to that. Earlier in the day, when advising me in how to dress, she told me to prepare for what basically amounts to church ladies. Upon her comment about gossip, all I could think of was the old stereotype, of southern "Bless her heart," church ladies, and had to laugh at the strange parallels and contradictions constantly melding and separating in my perception of the world.

As we continued our meal, more ladies from the workshop began to join us in Om Nidal's living room. Men were not present throughout the whole of the evening. I could hear them murmuring, sometimes, from the other side of the curtain in the hallway, but didn't lay eyes on one until we were headed to Yusuf's taxi in the dark. All of the women kept their abayas and hijabs on throughout the evening, which I thought was fascinating. They joked and smiled with Jasmine, eager to hear what she's been up to since leaving RBG, and to show her the work they did in her absence. Fadia, a striking woman in her late 20s, showed us exquisite ribbon embroidery that had done on pillowcases and the like on her blackberry, which she kept neatly tucked in a red drawstring bag. Om Nidal shared some of her cross-stitching work, and we marveled at the black, gold, and red creation she had made that was hanging on her wall.

The women were all kind and good humored, each with distinctive, feisty personalities. Om Nidal is clearly the leader of them all, but they each seem to have their place in the group. The evening was full of stories, witty banter, and plenty of laughter. As our time winded down, Om Nidal invited us to the rooftop, pointing out her pomegranate trees on the way. She pointed to a much smaller structure behind the house, explaining that it was the house she had lived in when she first married her husband. She and her husband, she said, had built the whole complex with their bare hands, which is why her knees gave her so much trouble now. SHE BUILT A WHOLE FREAKING HOUSE.


Guys. I can't even manage a sand castle. Om Nidal is the ultimate badass.

We climbed the staircase to the roof, the women pointing towards the lights of Jerash with delight. The stars drifted and swayed above us. I felt as though I had raced the sun to greet my old friends, the stars.

Nausreen graciously showed us into her portion of the house, the second floor apartment she shares with her husband. It consists of a spacious bedroom, a beautiful balcony, a small but functional kitchen, and a sitting room. After marveling at the views from the balcony, we were seated in the sitting room and served Arabic coffee. Nausreen also broke out three photo albums; miscellaneous, engagement, and wedding.
We began with the wedding album, and I must say, some of the pictures were very surprising. The group shots were relatively predictable,showing the bride and groom surrounded by their jovial extended families, Nausreen shining among all of them- swathed in a white satin cloak and hood, like a winter queen.  The photos of her with Hassan, however, were something else altogether.

The cloak was shed to reveal a strapless, beaded princess gown, and her long dark hair was piled elaborately on her head. In many of the photographs she held a red rose, and Hassan was pretty much invariably staring at her in wonder, whilst she gazed straight into the lens. Ladies and gentlemen, Nausreen can smize unlike anyone I have ever seen. Smoldering, seductive, powerful, expressive eyes- and she knows it. While Hassan is reverently kissing her shoulder or her neck and holding her waist, she unabashedly stares down the viewer, owning her beauty and her power. They were very romantic, very posed, and very sweet. The engagement album was similar, Nausreen in a deep maroon strapless gown and a tiara, leaning against her fiancé and allowing him to look totally swept up in puppy love as she focused on her posing.

The final album was by far the greatest. It began with pictures of her and Hassan as children with their families. These were fascinating on their own, but the last 30 or so photos take the prize. While Nausreen was in college, she had taken some glamour shots of herself. Some were done at a studio, with the kitschiest, blown out, 1980s gradient backgrounds and superimposed beach themed borders- and some were down by herself (or maybe with a friend), in her bedroom. In them, she portrays a multitude of different personas. The most memorable and prominent included punk rock girl, Spanish dancer, and American Eagle girl. Punk rock girl wore mid-thigh green plaid dresses with industrial zippers and combat boots.  Spanish dancer was most often seen in a lace up, black lace corset/tank top with various brightly colored skirts, posing coyly on chairs, staring seductively through kohl lined eyes. American Eagle girl was fresh faced, wearing white linen shirts and denim shorts, and the trademark American smile. Jasmine and I were delighted to find a kindred spirit, someone else who believes in the power of photos as a form of self expression and amateur anthropology. "Pictures are the best thing, " Nausreen said, "because you can look back at yourself and remember." Later Jasmine and I discussed how aging doesn't scare people here, and how refreshing that is. The pressure to stay young in America is really very strange, and discredits all the amazing things that accompany physical changes as we grow old. I hope that I can age gracefully, without the bitterness I often see in amongst women in the states. I hope that I can look back on pictures of myself from this time in my life with fondness and gratitude, and without the slightest bit of jealousy.

We headed home soon thereafter. Om Nidal plucked small jasmine blossoms for each of us, as well as two pomegranates from her tree. We set off into the night with fruit, flowers, and hearts fuller than usual. I let myself be carried away by the lights in the valleys on the drive home, let my thoughts wander, as they often do, beyond words and into something closer to energy. I rolled down my window (fun fact: on the back windows of Yusuf's taxi, he has a decal of King Abdullah waving. It's hilarious.) and let the wind call me back from being too far inside my head, reminding me to smile and let myself move past contentment and into joy.

When we reached our duar (circle), we stopped back at the sweet shop. They remembered us from earlier, and made a small pass at Jasmine- "Please keep coming back! We make only sweet things here, including our customers."


Armed with a kilo of a little bit of everything they had to offer, we retired on the terrace and chowed down. I had never been drunk off of food until that night. We were both totally slap happy, giggling uncontrollably under the stars at two in the morning, feeling the sugar push through our blood and the world turn under us. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Moments That I Haven't Mentioned: Part 1

So, contrary to all the negativity I've been trying to gracefully express in recent posts, lots of good things happen in Amman too.

Today, after spending roughly three hours writing in a coffeeshop and catching up with my mother, I stepped into the brutally hot madness that is Sharia Jamia, or, University Street. Trying to catch a cab between 12:30 and 5 is virtually impossible. There are girls who move in packs and swipe taxis, and mousy teenaged boys who pop up out of nowhere and slide into cabs before you can really process what's going on. Plus, there aren't really any cabs to be had. They're all occupied, hustling busy Ammanites from place to places. It was with this knowledge that I ventured into the street at roughly 3 pm today, clutching my laptop and kicking myself for having broken my sunglasses. Squinting into oncoming traffic, I foresaw a long wait, and I tried to prepare myself for the inevitable break in sanity that accompanies these moments.

About seven or eight minutes into my wait, I finally get a taxi flagged down. He pulls in front of me, but then I remember that there's an elderly woman with her middle aged son behind me, and I offer them the cab. They gratefully accept and speed away in what might have been my vessel of escape. My twinge of regret is quickly countered by an image of the woman, Arab soap opera style, falling to the ground with heat stroke and her son melodramatically falling to his knees and screaming as I zoom away in a cab and the people in the streets curse my name. Better to avoid that scenario and find another cab.

Thinking I see one that is empty, I raise my right arm with exhaustion. The cab pulls in front of me, and perhaps the most regal looking woman I have ever seen in my life motions for me to come into the cab. I shuffle forward in my confused, sweaty, and disheveled state. I confirm that my destination is acceptable to the driver, and jump in, thanking the queen in the back seat in breathy Arabic.

She tells me she is heading to the University Hospital, and that from there Faisal will take me wherever I want. Her voice is soft but sure, and I turn to thank her. She is swathed in a black abaya, with a dark rose hijab surrounding her face and making her glow like sunset.  Her eyes are lined with bright black kohl, and her thick, arched eyebrows run parallel to her windswept cheeks. The smile she gives me only serves to illuminate her further. I hold to the belief that God manifests in many different forms throughout our day, and in this moment, she appeared to be no less than an angel of mercy.  Something told me I was in the presence of royalty, and I repeated, "Shukran jiddan," still dazed and out of breath.

Her name was Aem, and though she didn't speak much English and I don't speak much Arabic, we managed to hold a pretty substantial conversation with the help of Faisal. She told me she made Faisal stop because she thought I was beautiful, and it was not nice for women to have to wait for taxis anyways. She told me she was a teacher, and that I reminded her of one of her students. I couldn't believe she thought I was beautiful, when she was easily the most striking person I have ever seen in real life.  She teaches writing and literature at a private high school, so I told her writing was my first love (which is something I've only realized recently). She touched her hand to her heart and smiled wide. By this time, we had reached the hospital and we both got out of the car to say goodbye. We kissed three times on the cheek, as is the Arab custom, and I wished her well before she went on her way. My heart swelled with the sentiment of unexpected sisterhood.

I slid into the backseat and reminded Faisal where I was headed. After a moment, he clucked his tongue.

"Sad story, sad story."

"Whose? Aem?"

"Yes, yes."

"What is sad?"

"She has, uh, very bad sickness. I do not know the word in English. Starts very small and grows and grows. Wait one minute, it is on the building here…"

But before we have moved past the trees that block the English lettering on the building, I know what he is saying. Sure enough,  on the side of the beige tower, the word "cancer" beams at me in cobalt, washing over my smile.

"Oh no. Oh no."

"Yes. Sad story. She has big meeting tomorrow with doctor. With knife, you know?"

I wince at his language barrier enhanced description of surgery.

"I know. I will pray for her."

"Yes. She would like that."

We are silent and he rolls the windows up, opting for the buzz of air conditioning to fill the space Aem has left. I look to the miniature taxi bobbling on his dashboard.

"I like your small car," I say in Arabic, and he turns around with a smile.

"Ah, really? Speak Arabi?"

"Shweya." (A little).

Faisal becomes impassioned.

"Ah, Madison! I will teach you everything!"

The remainder of the ride is the equivalent of the world's most entertaining pre-school vocabulary lesson. He points with gusto to body parts and things we pass on the streets, and I laugh so hard that later, as I recount the tale to Jasmine and Atef, I find that I can't remember what I learned. When we arrive at my building, he refuses my money and asks that I take down his number, should I ever need a ride. I thank him profusely and head inside, not bothering to fight back the smile plastered on my face.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Consequences of Foreign Lands and a Stunted Sense of Reality

I am in a fight to the death with Amman, the beige gem, the land of sand and screaming winds.

Eventually I'll probably do something of a top 10 moments post. I think by now we all know that I don't respond terribly well to structure, and writing comes most easily when I am organically inspired. Unfortunately, this city has me paralyzed.

It's not that I don't love it. It's that I don't know it. I don't know where to start, and at this point, I don't have the cash to start with. When I stay in, I'm plagued by a sense of failing as a traveler, and find myself wallowing in lethargy and self loathing. For all the beauty I'm surrounded by on a daily basis, it's been a dark couple of weeks. This kind of low is rather foreign to me, and though I can feel myself climbing out, if you had asked me a couple of days ago, I wouldn't have known what to say. Coming to Amman has been, I think, one of the most challenging things I have ever done. Back home, I tend to be pretty fearless. I confront the unknown. I explore. Even in Istanbul I was constantly energized by this intense longing to discover. Here, I'm mostly just afraid, and as a result, lonely really for the first time in my life. The way I feel, the way I have made myself feel, is more foreign to me than the city. I can't explore Amman properly until I get myself under control.

And so my mission in Amman, first and foremost, is to center myself. I need to fill my time, and the only way to do that is to get over myself and get out into the city.

I've been here for awhile, and even with my sudden frozen state, I've experienced too much to really write it all down.

(For the record, I am currently out with new friend and fellow North Carolinian named Evan Gearino, a NC State student here researching  perceptions  and awareness of the Palestinian conflict among college students. He has the happiest voice of anyone I've ever met, is really good at Arabic, and generally just a cool guy. I ran into him today on campus after meeting at a July 4th party and he allowed me to tag along to Hollywood Café, which sounds super American, but in reality is wonderfully Jordanian.)

So let's start with classes.

The University of Jordan is record breakingly unorganized, but it all seems to have worked out in the end. My main professor, Dr. Mothanna, is a riot. He's a 5'6" balding man with broad cheeks and beautiful blue eyes, and he possesses the kind of infectious smile found exclusively in children. His enthusiasm is heart warming, as is that of several of the students in my class. I'm thinking of one in particular, Somi Kim. She's Korean, and has the happiest and loudest voice of anyone I've ever met. She repeats every word that comes out of Dr. Mothanna's mouth, with a smile and a quick nod of the head. Her high energy physicality is fascinating, she moves in long and languid strides with stiff arms, and her gestures all become very quick and repetitive, somehow expressing all she needs to from the way she moves her neck and shoulders. She's easily the best student in the class, and certainly possesses the best energy. My closest friend in the class is  Danna, just barely 16 and studying while she stays with her grandparents here in Amman. We're both pretty quiet, but share a love of Biskrem cookies, and enjoy the feeling of solidarity as we try to understand what the hell is going on in our grammar lectures.

Jasmine, my roommate, is a never ending source of energy and ideas. She is a writer, an artist, a designer, and a force to be reckoned with. She is her own art, and is always the strongest presence in the room. She is helping me crawl out of my self-imposed cage of t-shirts and jeans, encouraging me to explore brightly colored dresses that I would ordinarily deem as something I could never pull off, and happily introducing me to her world of bright pink lipstick, blue mascara instead of black, and the knowledge of my "colors." All of this initiation into her world of up-cycling used clothing and blending the anthropology of designs has led to a wonderful and entirely unexpected thing: photo shoots.

Cameras, on the whole, make me nervous. They still do, I guess, although the ANTM antics of my counterparts during my travels abroad last summer, Ian and Jessica, helped me to outgrow it. Still, though. A month ago, I wouldn't have really believed that I'd be standing on a terrace at sunset, wearing a bright orange 1960s cocktail dress, nude pumps, and a Bedouin chandelier on my head. Twists and turns, my friends, twists and turns. And yet, due to the perfect combination of Friday market finds, color coordinated props, and the magic light of sundown, we had an impromptu photo shoot. And it was magnificent. Jasmine has a far more carefully trained eye than I, and she's teaching me how to see the integrity of the composition as a whole, rather than focusing solely on the human in the photo. It led to another impromptu photoshoot, featuring me in what appears to be a romper from the 1930s or 1940s, and a very WWII hat, scaling our front terrace and hanging out with our building's harrus (حرس , which means guard) and friend, Atef. He's a good sport, and when we ask him to run out on quick grocery runs, he usually sticks around for coffee or juice. The night of the photoshoot, we spent about an hour watching belly dancing videos (which were gorgeous) and looking at pictures of him and his kids in Egypt. He's a wonderful guy, and we're lucky to have him.

As it happens, last Sunday, Jasmine and I attended an exhibit opening at The Studio, a gallery, print making studio, and workspace founded by recent college graduates Ghalia Barghouthi, Muna Amareen, Sarah Hatahet and Sara Rashdan. It's an incredible space and has a wonderfully inclusive and stimulating energy. We were there to see the new work of Omar Al-Zo'bi, whose tongue in cheek, graphic,  "mass produced" creations are humorous and lend themselves to the questions of what we're consuming and who's behind it. While there, we met Serene and Basma, artists in their own right, and women looking for an outlet for their creativity. Serene works in film and photography, while Basma is making the transition from art to fashion, and eventually to performance design. We met them at the top of Abdali (Friday Market), close to the center of the city, armed with a box, a suitcase, and a duffel bag full of clothing, accessories, and make up.
We didn't end up making it into Abdali at all- we didn't need to. The Jazzy Jeff, high waisted 1980s pants and obnoxiously bright yellow crop top we had chosen looked pretty darn good next to the taxi, and our favorite taxi driver, Yusuf, was kind enough to let me climb all over it for about an hour. Our quartet attracted quite the audience, and by the time I was standing on the taxi we had attracted about 10 people, plus a few very friendly men in a truck, as our viewers. 

We headed to The Studio, and shot Basma on the balcony in her own designs, with me in a 1940s pastel jumpsuit. Basma's t-shirts are inspired by the geometric designs on Jordanian trucks, and are pretty cool, if you ask me. I can't wait to buy one! Basma ended up in another of her designs, a rich ochre draped jacket and black leather leggings. I was graced with the opportunity to model one of Jasmine' designs, a bright green, regal dress with beautiful, diamond detailing on the back, the sleeves, and the hem. It made me feel like a queen! I'm learning so much from these photo shoots in terms of art design, how colors work with skin tones, how lines and environment can be in dialogue with clothing and the human body, and how to tell a story in a single shot.

We finished the evening off with a beer and promises to meet up to curate the photos soon, and before you know it they'll be up on facebook.

There's a lot more to write about, especially because none of this post has very much to do with Amman itself and more to do with the people. For now, I'm headed to the police station to extend my visa. Wish me luck! More to come!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

WARNING: This is a less a travel blog post, and more of a poorly articulated look into what is currently mulling around my being.

Amman is a city made for sunrise and sunset.

It's a growing, bustling city. Noise is everywhere, and yet, I find it to be a city that demands your silent attention. Amman calls you to inhale and exhale, to honor and practice what you've learned from the world, and to appreciate that you have treasure troves of knowledge left to gain. Maybe it's the history embedded in the dust that cakes the tops of my feet at the end of every day, also found grainy between my curls, and hiding beneath my fingernails. I know that it's dirt, but there is something holy in it. Even washing it away becomes a small, smiling kind of ceremony. Something, however untraceable, of the roots of my heart lies in this place.  Dust to dust, light from light. Dust, the earth, is ancient, and it is what has given us life. It is old and it is new, and therefore so am I, and so is everyone. I feel a calm here that is unprecedented, and it has given way to thoughts I usually shy away from.

I am quiet here, perhaps too quiet. I listen far more often than I speak. This pattern has been developing steadily over the past two years. I trust my ideas less, and I am painfully aware that what I know of the world is limited, that my opinions have been formed rather rashly, and based upon sources that are not necessarily to be trusted. I've expressed this to Jasmine, my flat mate. She is more, though, a kind of soul sister initiating me into what she has learned of the world thus far. She tells me every perspective has value, each place in your life reveals something new. I myself have shared this oft repeated line with friends and  acquaintances in the past, and yet hearing it said to me, it doesn't quite change my striking lack of faith in myself and my ability to think.

Amman is challenging me to grow up. It inspires the kind of self-reflection I have previously feared and avoided, and I fear that my uncertainty is occasionally expressed a little too pointedly to my mother over the phone. As I try to recap my days and explain my internal struggles, I find myself raising my voice and battling on the offensive, suddenly defending ideas that I am only trying to wrap my head around. After traveling through Asia last summer, and the Middle East this summer, it is becoming harder and harder for me to conscientiously pass judgment on anyone. Nothing at all appears black and white. And perhaps some things should, but I'm so deep into this journey of trying to understanding the human heart and the circumstances that shape it, that I can't bring myself to really delineate between right and wrong, true and false, pure and corrupted. Honoring and acknowledging complexity has taken a new role in the way I view the world, sharpened by the fact that I have grown up in an incredibly privileged context. I am from the white American middle class, and have been blessed with married and supportive parents, a good education, a supportive extended family,  and the good fortune to have found part time jobs. How can I know, how I can I bring myself to pass judgment on the actions taken by those who face the challenges of poverty, oppression, corruption, and discrimination?

 I find my heart pushing at the sides of my body the way it did when I was child, desperate to love everyone, and to forget the rest. I haven't felt that kind of compassion for a long, long time. I feel as though I am returning to myself, though this time with challenges I fear my mind will never overcome. I fear becoming "political" on this platform, because as important as politics are (or at least, they seem), the matters of the human heart will always be more my level of understanding. However, one of the issues I have been grappling with is that of Palestine/Israel. From a purely human rights perspective, it's a situation that needs to be remedied immediately. It is unjust and heartbreaking in every way. The things I have learned about the conflict so far in college (since no one bothered to really mention it to me before) make it incredibly difficult for me to sympathize with those involved in the creation of Israel. When I first learned of it, I was shocked by how quickly I could write them off as cruel, and as evil. But of course, nothing is all good, and nothing is all evil, and I quickly distanced myself from that snap judgment. The situation is layered and complex and beyond my grasp. I try to articulate all this to my mother, who retorts with hints of shock and disapproval in her tone, "Well what about the Israelis killed by suicide bombers? What about them?" I have no answer, and immediately regret my decision to share. I regret the venom in my words of response even more.

The issue of suicide bombers and the resulting death is equally heartbreaking, without a doubt. But I can't pretend to know the truth of circumstances that lead people into suicide bombs, just like I can't pretend to know what it's like to feel like a people without a land, and to fight for what you feel you deserve. I can't pretend to know what it's like to have my identity challenged and ignored, to have my house occupied or bulldozed, to be denied access to a good education, to have my life controlled by a military power (supported by the super power of the US) set against my very existence. I can't pretend to know what it's like to have all of this exploding and raging inside of me, leaving me vulnerable and angry and scared, and then to be embraced by extremists who brainwash their young. I can't know, and I won't pretend to. This is not an attempt to defend murderers, it is an attempt to understand the context from which healing and peace must arise. The perpetrators here, in my eyes, are the governments and the things they have done with their militaries. People are pushed to these ends by powers that care nothing for them as individuals, that aim to divide and conquer, that use the livelihoods of innocents as avenues and leverage for the own secret and corrupt games. Israeli citizens are not to blame, and neither are Palestinians. In a perfect world, less people would stand idly by, and more would take a stand. But perhaps I should begin implementing that in my own country before I go prescribing it to an issue beyond my understanding.  

I hesitate to put all of this online, for friends and family, for acquaintances and total strangers. I don't claim to know everything, or to be set in my ways. I only claim to recognize a problem, and to be grappling with it as best I can. If you are incensed by what I've written and want to give me a mouthful, I urge you to do so in a way that fosters understanding, and not anger. I am eager to learn all that I can, but it is hard to listen to arguments meant to defeat, and not to educate. Keep in mind that this post is less of a political statement, and more of an invitation into what my mind and heart are trying to process. My aim is to be honest about my journey to understand, and who knows if I'll ever come to a stopping place. I hope not, I think it's better to let yourself always be flexible and open and curious. Things that stagnate tend to die. No matter what I come to know, it would be foolish to expect that I could singlehandedly solve the conflict. My chief occupations, I hope, will be to actively seek understanding, and to actively demonstrate love.  Be the change, ya dig?

I am trying to pray to Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, who made peace among the murderous  fathers and sons of her own family, who fought over who would control the land of their kingdom. She seems to be an old hand at resolving conflict among those that are, in reality, all one.

So, now that I've gotten all of THAT off my chest and my mind is a little clearer, I can move on to the more light hearted parts of life. The next post will be full of the things I've been doing! I need to go work on Arabic for a while and attend a gallery opening (and set up our new furniture for the terrace!), but I promise the second post will be up before midnight, a definitely happier.

Thanks to anyone who read this rambling, half baked, uncertain expression of a struggle to understand with compassion.

Here's an article by Omid Safi, one of my incredible professors at UNC, and the man who led the educational tour portion of my time in Turkey. He is far more articulate and knowledgeable than I, and manages to express the factual evidence that has fueled my understanding of the conflict.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Buses, cafes, and motorcycles

Okay, guys. If you didn't know this already, I'm playing catch up. I spent two wonderful weeks on Omid Safi's Turkey Educational Tour, learning about Sufism and documenting examples of Islamic Art for the Kenan Institute. In a way, this was my first venture into a world where my favorite things combine- art and the Middle East. The ART\Islam project has some very noble and exciting goals, and I feel very lucky to be involved with its conception. I think it has a bright future, and I hope to continue working on it throughout my time at Carolina. Anyways, as I play catch up, life is happening. So I'm going to write for a little while about life right now, and return to story telling soon.

Life in the present moment: sitting in a super trendy, chic café tucked a few streets away from Istiklal. It's way swankier than cafes I usually frequent, but there's nothing wrong  with a change of pace. It's called The House Café, if anyone feels like googling it.

Today, I ventured for the first time onto Istanbul public transportation. I've got to say, for being all alone and not speaking the language, and having a vague idea at best of the city layout, I did a pretty good job. I did have a pretty long and poorly planned walk from the Yenikapi bus station to the Sultan Ahmet area (complete with creepers and the overbearing sun), but it wasn't totally dreadful, and just as panic hit, I magically found myself right in front of the shop where we had had a carpet workshop! The guy I needed to see, Adem (Burhan's brother) was there anyway, so I was able to return his bus card to him. They invited me to join them for watermelon, bread, cheese, and salad, and if you can believe it, I almost refused.

How American of me. I really had no where to be. I had a vague idea of getting myself up to Taksim and exploring a bit, then eventually getting some work done in a café. The first words out of my mouth were, "Oh no, I really should be going."


I have a terrible habit of rushing, and an unnatural fixation on efficiency.

I stopped myself, put my purse down, and retracted my statement.

"Actually, I'll stay."

Mehmet (the man who had shown me how he repairs carpets) was there, carefully rolling up the carpets that lay on the floor from a day of selling to customers. Something about his posture is very poetic. He has careful hands, as I suppose you'd expect, and a slow kind of grace in the way he balances on his toes, squatting to roll carpets and meticulously clean the wooden floor. His presence stays with me, quiet as he is.

I sat with Ebu Bekir, Adem, Mehmet, and Yasar, listening to them tell stories about customers, discuss pricing, and laugh  about things I simply didn't understand. The conversation, as usual, was in Turkish. It felt so good to be there, to have been invited in by near strangers. As time goes on I find that I have little pockets of friendship in this city. What a lovely thing.

And now I'm sitting in this trendy café, on a side street, my newfound confidence in Istanbul public transportation leading me to the sad realization that there is so much of the city that I haven't seen. This place of winding streets and endless hills is particularly adept at shielding its gems. I'd need to spend a lifetime here before I felt like I knew any of its secrets. The idea of spending a semester abroad here is on my mind more and more.

As for yesterday, close friends and family will be surprised to find that I overcame my lifelong fear of motorcycles and spent the whole day riding on the back of Ugur's bike. Ladies and gentlemen, 'twas magnificent. I now believe the best, indeed, the only, way to truly drink in the Bosphorous is to speed down coastal roads on a motorcycle. Sheer glory, and apparently, the best place to come to very large and emotional realizations.

After spending the day between the American embassy and swanky meetings with actors and producers (more on that later), Ugur was taking me to a lakeside café for some chill time. It was dusk, and the sky just above the rim of the earth was bruised purple, and surrounded by a ring of gold. The sky above us was still that light, innocent shade of blue, and its reflection in the water was brighter than its true manifestation. I felt like I was gliding between two magical realms. And somehow, in all of the vast mystery above and below me, I began thinking about the little thing that is my life.

How did I come to be on the back of a motorcycle with one of the most important playwrights in Turkey?

1.       Middle school: I get literally the smallest part in the school play, and fall in love with theatre.
2.       Dad lost job
3.       Moved to Greenville, NC
4.       Met Merle Pereira, who would later introduce me to Emily Ocker, who would be the biggest influence in making my decision to attend UNC much easier and keep me from feeling like a total failure. (Not that UNC is a bad school, I just had a very different idea of where I'd be going).
5.       Attended UNCSA
6.       As fate would have it, Julianne Lawson happened to be visiting her home in Chapel Hill the same weekend my interview for Hampshire College was scheduled. I caught  a ride with her and stayed with my cousins instead of having my parents take me and stay in a hotel. They gave me a tour of the campus, which led me to apply to the school.
7.       Rejected from UNCSA.
8.       Emily Ocker was accepted to UNC.
9.       My family's financial situation leaves me with one choice: UNC.
10.   I decide to go, and the two of us decide to be roommates.
11.   She informs me of SEAS.
12.   I apply, and am accepted. Best summer ever.
13.   The next year, I immediately begin applying for grants to travel abroad again. My acting teacher from UNCSA hooks me up with the ART\Islam project.
14.   I find myself with two grants to study my favorite things in Turkey and Jordan.

I have been worrying so much lately about my future, specifically career path foolishness. But God has led me to beautiful things, and through beautiful struggles, why is it that I don't trust that he will do the same in my future? I started crying (I cry a lot here), and felt shivers go down my spine at the realization of how totally blessed I have been, how blessed I am, and how much potential exists within my future. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


One of my favorite people on this trip has been Roya, Omid's daughter. But I hear "jan" attached the end of their names so often that it has all melded into one word for me. I think of them, now, as Roya-jan, Omid-jan, Nausheen-jan, etc. "Jan" means soul or life force, and is used in a context similar to "dear." So, when addressing someone  you love, you add "jan" to their name. More than once, when I have said Yagmur's name to get her attention, she has responded with "janam?"

This is equivalent to, "My dear?" or, more literally (and beautifully), "My soul?"

I am not from a culture where this term of endearment is the norm, and yet, I feel deeply inclined to use it. So, I've begun to, a bit. At least with Roya, because it flows so well.

Roya is only eleven, but she is, by far, one of the smartest "kids" I've ever met. Calling her a kid feels wrong, somehow. She's more mature than that. Young lady seems more fitting. I have had the honor, on this trip, to be occasionally graced by her precocious company. She absorbs everything we say, everything we see. She often picks up on details of places that my distracted mind passes by. She is incredible in every way, without losing that essential love of life present in every child. She cracks jokes and loves Magnum bars, sings Adele and Lady Gage like she is an award winning recording artist, and lectures often on the dangers of smoking. She is more powerful and beautiful than she knows, and I feel so lucky to have witnessed even two weeks of her growth as a human.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

Repairing Carpets, Confidence, and Faith

Following my afternoon of overwrought emotion, my fellow students and I were led by Omid to a carpet shop, owned by Adem and his family. Upon our arrival, we were presented with plates upon plates of fresh cherries, and they were to die for. My mood improved significantly with that alone.

Ebubekir, one of the owners, spoke to us at length about the nuances and subtleties within the world of carpets. As he  moved through the four different types, he and his partners held up example after example, so that by the time he had finished his 20 minute speech, the floor had risen beneath him, carpet upon carpet upon carpet. To be perfectly honest, what I have always known as "Persian carpets" have never held much appeal for me. They feel too grandiose, too laden with history and saturated color. They demand to be kept clean (But it's something people walk on! Does not compute.), to be taken care off, to be shown off with pride. I far prefer used things, perhaps with cleaner lines, simpler patterns, brighter colors, and less expectations of high society behavior.

Somehow, though, in this smallish, wooden room with my friends, all of the carpets around me suddenly held their own charm. Adem spoke to us about the significance of carpets in the lives of people of the region, the meaning of common symbols, and the evolving use of carpets in the modern world. Carpets serve very practical purposes, as do related pieces such as cradles and saddlebacks, which are now cut and turned into carpets as well. But they also mean a great deal to tribes, who all possess their own unique patterns. As women are married outside of the tribe, they meld their design with that of their husbands family, creating a new pattern for that family. Designs can include symbols for many things, commonly relating to fertility, eternity, and luck.  It is, traditionally, a female occupation, to make carpets. Even as they emphasized this, they proudly spoke of their own weaving skills. The bending of gender normative roles only served to please me further.

As I am a broke college student, buying one of their many masterpieces wasn't an option for me, no matter how much their complex patterns were beginning to grow on me. So, I settled instead with asking an obnoxious amount of questions about the process of carpet weaving. Eventually Adem tired of me, and called in his friend and colleague, Mehmet Konukcu, to take care of me.

As he graciously showed me his weaving work on carpets needing repairs, a theme we had been discussing within Islamic art suddenly hit me.

“The jewel is already inside. Get rid of all that is superfluous.”

In Islam, the essential quality of a human being is known as fitra. It is our nature as we were intended to be. Much of what we have come across in speaking with religious leaders, our teachers, and artists, relates back to this. Art, within the context of Islam, focuses on revealing the beauty of God’s creation rather than being something the artist created independent from the divine.

This quality is especially clear within architecture. The glorious and beautiful Sultan Ahmet Mosque was already within the marble, the excess simply had to be carved away to reveal the truth. This is what we need to do to ourselves, to carve away our egos until all that is left is the perfect human being, living as we were intended to.  Balance has also been a prevalent topic of discussion, particularly when discussing the names of God in the Islamic tradition, which usually come in pairs. God restrains and expands, abases and exalts. Artists work every day between the two qualities. Beauty is nothing without the grotesque.

Mehmet took us outside, and showed us his materials. When he is repairing carpets, he unravels the ones that cannot be saved and reuses the wool. He recreates the design that had been there before, but disappeared for a spell. As Adem said, "He breathes life into carpets that have died."

His hand skillfully laced back and forth, tied knots and changed colors. It was like magic, and he did it all effortlessly, even needing to slow himself down so that we were able to tell what it was he was doing. I held my camcorder and tried to not let it distance me from the experience. We simply sat and watched him work in awe, a life's passion manifesting itself before us. Destinies are funny things- I don’t know how much I believe in them, or rather, how much control one has over them. But I do know that when you see someone who is on the right path, it's impossible to look away. They're blazing through their excess, and heading straight to the core of their being, letting it be what the world around them can see.