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!