Thursday, December 11, 2008

Time for you and time for me

I was in the institute building's gym last night, happily stretched out on my stomach writing a paper about language use in terrorist texts, when the door swung open and a few of my graduate student friends marched in, single file, with the one in front carrying a pumpkin. 

"Petra," they cried, "come join us! We're going to throw this pumpkin off the roof!"

I needed no more encouragement than that: I jumped up and fell in line, solemnly processing up the stairs to the roof, where we gathered around the edge as E. flung the pumpkin down with all his might.  We quietly waited through the splat on the pavement, sighing with satisfaction, and then just as quietly shuffled back downstairs to our study spots.  

My world goes a little crazy at the end of a semester: I've slept at the institute building two nights in a row now, curled up in chairs with my computer on my lap, trying to eke out just one or two more pages before sleep overtakes me. Normal functioning is forgotten: no dishes, no laundry, no errands, just research and just writing. 

But somewhere in the middle of all that research and writing is time for craziness, time for staying up until 4 am talking, time for kicking a basketball around the gym pretending to be Pele, time for belting out Les Mis songs with other stressed-out grad students, time for testing whether men and women really do walk up stairs differently (yes!), time for giving blood and Christmas caroling and live nativities, and, of course, time for flinging pumpkins off the roof.  

Secretly, I love the end of the semester: it's when everyone else is tired enough to indulge me in wackiness.  If only I didn't have all these pesky papers to write, these would be good, good times.   

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Don't Cha Wish Your Visiting Teaching Supervisor Was Hot Like Me?

I am my ward's visiting teaching supervisor, or at least was, until the bishop got so sick and tired of me lobbying for another teaching calling that I was called back! back by popular demand! into Sunday School. (Okay, so that's not exactly how it went down, but close, at least in that I was whiny.) In any case, in my very short tenure as visiting teaching supervisor I strove mightily to have my calling and release made sure, mostly by sending out very strange, very snarky emails each month asking companionships for their reports. Last month I titled my email "it's that time of the month again!" and threatened to release my hormonal rage on any companionships that didn't report quickly, and so you can imagine the pressure I felt this month: electronic PMS threats are a pretty high attention-getting bar to clear.

Pressure? No problem. Behold the (entire) text of this month's email:

Very critical to the life of a ward
Integral, too, to the plan of the Lord:
Sisters in spirit, sisters in love
In serving each other we serve Him up above.
Talking and teaching and getting to know
Is a time for all to learn and to grow.
No one should slack and no one should shirk
God has called us to this holy work.

Time for the straight talk, time for the truth
Even if saying it's somewhat uncouth:
A visit a month can be asking a ton
Church-assigned friendships are never much fun.
Hell if I learn and hell if I grow
I'm bonding instead with the one down below.
Now that you're listening, I proffer my plea:
Get me your numbers, A.S.A.P.!

I'll leave the question of which stanza to agree with as an exercise for the reader--after you've reported your home and visiting teaching statistics, that is.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Take That, Chomsky

I half-awoke in the dark this morning and rolled over--bleary, confused, and still exhausted--to peek at my alarm: was it time to get up?  When I saw the time, an hour before the alarm, my first and sincere thought was, "Oh no! Only an hour! I'd better sleep furiously or I'll be tired all day!"

An hour later I woke up laughing: even in my sleep, I giggle me

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Has anyone in this family ever even seen a chicken?

I went to the grocery store the other day to do a little Thanksgiving feast shopping, and realized, standing in the produce aisle staring at my list, that I knew the Welsh word for leeks, knew why they're one of the national emblems of Wales, along with the daffodil, and could even remember part of the refrain of a Welsh-language song that mentions leeks, and yet had no idea what a leek actually looked like. 

This year, I am thankful for the modern world, where even totally useless people like me can survive. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Vote Yes on No

(Or is it Vote No on Yes? I can never remember.)

Since it's been almost a year since I posted anything snarktastic about recent Mormon happenings, and since, as a (now official!) resident of California, I have seen, heard, smelled, touched, and tasted nothing but Prop8aganda for the last few months, I feel I should say this: I'm listening, LDS Newsroom, when you tell me that "traditional marriage is essential to society as a whole", and I've decided to take you seriously--we should restrict marriage to the way it has always been. Of course!  That's why I won't be dating anymore: instead, my parents will arrange a match for me.  I'll also, of course, quit school and move back into my parents' house to practice the housewifely arts and add to my hope chest until someone takes me off the shelf. 

That's cool with you, right, parents?  Dad, we can talk dowry amounts over Christmas, and Mom, I know you've been dying for this for years, but no calling up that weird kid George from elementary school who you thought was so cute, okay?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Barack Obama Is My New Bicycle

Way back in June 1999, Indonesia had its first "free and fair" parliamentary election, after forty years of sham democracy under Golkar and the Suharto regime. Jakarta, where we were living, pulsed with excitement that summer, with obvious political energy. The city was draped in colors: red for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, gold for the People’s Working Party, green for the United Development Party, blue and white for the National Mandate Party. With forty-eight parties in the election, almost every color imaginable was in use, and we couldn't go anywhere without being caught up in a political demonstration of some kind. We kept flags for each of the major parties in our car, and I was never shy about joining in whatever rally I passed, shouting slogans with the best of them: Ingat! Perjuangan kita sudah bulat! Remember! Our struggle is already complete!

For election day itself, my family and I hung out in a small village in Lombok, watching as the paper ballots were, one by one, held up in front of the gathered crowd, who cheered or booed at every vote, or, in some cases, evaluated its validity: one voter had mistakenly punched the nail through the ballot card while it was folded, and four parties had been selected. “Buang! Buang!” the women shouted, “Throw it out!” and the men nodded their agreement. Small children played around at the feet of the adults, and those my age, like me, alternated between paying attention and clustering in small groups for idle chit-chat.

This scene stays with me in memory, and years afterwards, as a freshman in college, I wrote about it like this:
Every Indonesian was proud of an ink mark on their thumb, proof that they had voted. Every Indonesian was proud to declare that they had something to do with choosing the leader of their country. Every Indonesian was proud that they finally had a democracy.

And then one day, as supporters of the winning party poured out onto the streets for celebration, it hit me: democracy is something to be proud of! For the first time in the Indonesians’ lives, their opinions were worthwhile...I realized that America really has given the world a great gift, better even than our Old Navy castoffs. However, we cannot think that because we are such great benefactors we cannot receive a gift. Indonesia can’t give us the money we give to them...but they can give us enthusiasm. Our problem is not democracy itself, but rather our own apathetic attitudes towards it. Fewer and fewer young people vote in each election, and many of those who do view it as just a duty, an unpleasant task. In Lombok, even the children cheered. If all our young people could have seen the June 1999 elections in Indonesia, they would realize, as I did, that voting is not a duty but a wonderful privilege, that even if democracy doesn’t work all the time for every problem, the joy it can bring in some way compensates for the problems it can’t solve.
Young and irritating in many ways, I know, but this still rang true for me last week, when, for the first time in my memory, I saw an election bring joy, sheer joy, on the scale of Indonesia in 1999. Berkeley was a grand place to be on November 4: everyone, and I mean everyone, proudly displayed an "I Voted!" sticker, and when CNN called the election for Obama, people shouted and cheered and poured out into the streets to celebrate. This only echoed what CNN was showing: clips of the streets of Atlanta (everyone out in droves, dancing and cheering), Philadelphia (people marching down the streets shouting happily), and Washington, D.C., outside the gates of the White House (about a thousand people cheering "Obama!" and "Yes we can!"). The celebrations were still happening when I finally started biking home, around midnight; I passed at least four huge groups in the streets, shouting, cheering, dancing. One group had brought out a huge boom box and was having an impromptu dance party. Another group had crowded into the road and was slowing traffic down so they could give high fives to each passing car, and so, of course, we turned our bikes around and rode through the crowd giving high fives too. (As a mildly hilarious side note, apparently I can't give a high five and stay on a bicycle at the same time, and I have the scraped, swollen, and bruised knee to prove it; moreover, according to a friend of mine, there is somewhere local news footage to prove it!) And, even at midnight, there were about 500 people gathered on Telegraph, right near campus, climbing up on street signs and traffic lights, marching through the side streets, setting off fireworks, waving American flags, and, most amazingly to me, breaking into chants of "USA! USA! USA!" and singing the national anthem.

That's right: a crowd of students in Berkeley, California, spontaneously waving flags and singing the national anthem. This seems like a good time to use one of my recent favorite catchphrases: take that, mainstream America!

I don't even know how to finish this. I mean, it's obvious that I've drunk, and enjoyed, the Obama Kool-Aid, but, really, I'm not trying to just write another Gobama piece: I'm fully aware that our struggle isn't already complete, that this is barely the beginning, that Obama doesn't have much experience, and maybe he'll screw it all up, and that, in all likelihood, the president doesn't even matter that much. I tell you all about Indonesia, though, to express some of what last week meant to me: a return to enthusiasm, enthusiasm for the privilege of voting and the joy of democracy. That, my friends, is worth all the skinned knees in the world.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

At first I was afraid, I was petrified

The night before last, I had a very vivid, very terrifying dream in which I wandered into a bad area of town and was raped; I woke from the dream well before my alarm, in a cold sweat, with no desire to go back to sleep, and spent the rest of the day with that lingering creeped-out feeling that can come from nightmares.  Pleasant, I know. 

With that feeling hanging over me, I stopped by Walgreens on my way home to pick up some groceries, and, as I was locking up my bike, was approached by a man standing outside.  "Hi, miss, can you help me with something?" he asked.  "Wanna hang out?"

I'm approached outside of Walgreens every time I go, but this is not what I expected. He was serious: "Just for a few minutes, please? I'm really lonely. We could, I don't know, go back to my place and watch TV or something."

Normally I love to help when I can, but common sense plus dream feelings overrode basic pity--is this guy really so desperately lonely that he's hanging around outside Walgreens looking to make friends? That's heartbreaking!--and I made some (true) excuses about having last-minute reading to do, dodged his request for my phone number, and headed home to the safety of my apartment. 

The supposed safety, that is: about an hour later, around 11.30, sitting around doing my last-minute reading, I heard a key in the locked door.  It took me a few seconds to register the noises: wait a second, I live alone, who has a key?  A man walked into the apartment, took a look around, saw me at my desk, staring at him open-mouthed, and said, in genuine apology, "Oops, sorry! Wrong apartment!" He then turned and left, with no explanation of who he was or why he had a key.  

I feel like the universe is trying to tell me something, though I have no idea what:  never sleep again, perhaps?  Fear men? Call the landlady and get my locks changed NOW?  I don't know about those first two--I slept just fine last night and had a lovely chat with a male classmate this morning, so clearly I will survive--but let me tell you, I'm changing my stupid locks.  

Monday, October 27, 2008

mbatE2008 stories: part 3: palling around with Palmyrans

We almost didn't go to Palmyra, arguably Syria's most famous tourist site, because it's just Roman ruins, and not to sound too blasé , but once you've seen one set of Roman ruins, you've seen them all--that was kind of the point of that whole empire thing, after all. And, having seen Jordan's ruins earlier in the summer, I had had enough of columns, carvings, and concrete.

Or basalt, in the case of Umm Qeis.

I forget why we decided to go; I think we just woke up in the morning and thought, ah, what the heck. So we hopped on a bus and headed out into the desert, a decision we wouldn't regret: Palmyra's ruins, and especially their setting, are pretty spectacular.

More spectacular, though, were the people we met: first, a Bedouin family that lived in a tent near the ruins; as we walked past, their kids ran out to beg for pens, and then invited us in for a drink and a chat. They spoke a dialect of Arabic unfamiliar to me, with the palatal affricates of Iraqi Arabic and the voiced uvular stops of Bedouin Arabic, but they were patient, and so with lots of repeating, we spent about an hour there, discussing everything from how much our shoes cost (too much) to how we remove leg hair (I shave, Amy waxes) to why we're not married (no good men). I think this last answer is where we really made friends: as it turns out, we were hanging out with a mother, her five children, and her beautiful-but-unmarried sister-in-law, who clicked her tongue in recognition at my answer. No good men, indeed.

Or maybe just a few good men: after touring the ruins, we stopped into a cafe in town for drinks and lunch. The owner was either super friendly or super bored, which means he fell in love with us instantly and insisted that we spend hours there, drinking water and talking about sex. Apparently, they don't call it Palmyra for nothing.

Before things got weird with the sex talk, this guy, unsurprisingly, offered us tea, and when we refused, said, surprisingly, "What, are you Mormon or something?"

My jaw dropped-- the Church practically doesn't exist in the Middle East, and no one all summer had had any idea what kind of crazy religion would forbid me tea. I asked how he know, and he gave some vague response about a large group of Mormons who had come through Palmyra a few years before. "They spoke Arabic, too," he said. "They had been studying in Egypt or something."

It didn't take much to put two and two together: a large group of Mormons studying in Egypt who had come through Palmyra a few years ago. "Do you remember their names?" I asked. "Was there a Kaitlyn? Maybe a Ken? Or a Stephen?"

And yes, indeed: this Palmyran restaurant owner had hosted my study abroad group back in 2004, when they traveled in Syria. He probably made them play dress-up with Bedouin robes too.

That was just the beginning of our random encounters with friends and friends-of-friends. We ran into someone I knew from Amman while walking towards the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem. We walked into a restaurant in Petra only to see Chris, an archaeologist and the director of the center that hosted my program in Amman. At one of the Sunday evening concerts hosted by BYU's Jerusalem Center, we met an old acquaintance of mine from BYU. An in perhaps the funniest coincidence, a taxi driver in Amman who wanted to tell us all about the Americans he knows--a common, if overly hopeful, practice--actually knew a friend of mine. I was getting all ready to give the "how could I possibly know all 300 million Americans" spiel when I realized, hey, wait, Jeremy P.? Who has blond hair? And glasses? And speaks Arabic? Uh oh. Don't think this is typical! We don't all know each other, I swear!

It was a good trip for people, I'd say, both the people I knew before and the people we got to know: the aforementioned Bedouin family; the ever-so-kind restaurant manager in Hama, delighted to meet and greet Americans unafraid of traveling in Syria; the ever-so-kind hotel manager in Amman, excited at sharing a birthday with Amy; the shop owners in Aleppo who attempted to seduce us with foul--yet hilarious!--language; the huge group of American pilots we hiked with in Petra; the Japanese couple we met in Palmyra, and bumped into again in Aleppo's Great Mosque and Damascus's Old City; the hotel manager in Damascus whose pro-Bush pro-war stance confused us until we learned he was Kurdish; the American backpacker we adopted briefly in Amman, finding him a taxi ride and hotel room; the Israeli Couch Surfer who put us up in Jerusalem for two nights for free; the friendly Iraqi touristsLink at Crac des Chevaliers and Damascus with whom we talked a little bit about the war ("Do you have any relatives in the military? No? Thank God!"); and the teenage boys in Hama who entertained us for an afternoon, throwing themselves off a bridge into a lake, running around to see the pictures Amy had taken, shouting "faxxam! Awesome!" and repeating. Awesome, indeed, kids. Awesome indeed.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Saturday Night in Toledo, OH

John Denver fans among my readers--if there are any--might recognize the title of this entry and wonder whether I'm about to make some clever joke about letting sleeping dogs lie, or spending a week there one day, or whatever the other lyrics of the song are, so I'll just tell you up front: nope. I'm talking about a real Saturday night, in real Toledo, OH. No cleverness here. Just change. And hope.

I'm not quite sure how it happened either, but I ended up in Ohio last weekend, tracting for Obama, walking door to door in lower middle-class neighborhoods saying, "Hi! I'm a volunteer for the Obama campaign! May I ask if you're likely to vote in this year's election? I met all sorts of people, from a transvestite Obama supporter to a McCain supporter with a very large, and very fierce, dog, who managed to get its teeth on my arm just before its owner pulled it off. I got all sorts of answers, ranging from "Sorry, but my right to vote was revoked with my prison term" to "All that is disgusting! Get the hell off my porch!" I thought about referring that last person, a crochety old lady, to the missionaries--lady, I'm a Mormon, trust me, there are much more annoying reasons for me to be on your porch--but then refrained. What does it say about me that referring the missionaries is a form of vengeance?

The most interesting part about the weekend--well, besides seeing this glimpse of old industrial America, and besides getting to peek into every house on the block, and besides examining the inner workings of an Obama field office (hope! change! life-size cutouts of The Man himself!)--was the different reactions my dad and I got at our respective doors. He's 50ish, graying, and (comparatively) well-dressed, a Harvard economics professor who supports Obama partially as repentance for voting for Bush in 2000: when he shows up at your door with brochures, you listen. I'm 24 and look younger, dressed in jeans and Chacos, and fresh from California: when I show up at your door, you grumble about these darn kids and their Obamania. Or, in some cases, you spill your life story: the guy who was jumped in an alleyway, spent four months in a coma, and now can't hold a job because he still gets dizzy spells; the old black guy, a Greyhound employee for 27 years, who was told, after his five back surgeries and kidney surgery, that he wasn't eligible for Medicare; the woman who had just lost her job of 13 years the day before. What is to be done?

The best story, though, and the one that still makes me smile, took place in a mostly-white lower middle class neighborhood. Dad had just given an Obama sign to a guy whose 13 year old son was a big Obama supporter. A few minutes later, his neighbor, wearing torn jeans and a ratty T-shirt, with a broken-down truck on his front lawn, stuck his head out of his door and stared at the sign.

"Yo, Bill!" he shouted. "Do you really want a black guy to be president?"

The fellow with the sign was repairing his roof. He looked up. "Yup."

There was a long pause. Looooong.

"Me too," said the redneck. So we gave him a sign, placing it next to the truck.

I'll just finish by echoing him: me too.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Two Poems for Two Conversations about The Godfather in Two Days

"On Not Enjoying The Godfather And Refusing To Watch Any of the Sequels"

Excessive machismo plus a complicated plot 
Minus women characters or anybody hot
Plus too many gunfights and minus any jokes 
Is the wrong formula for us feminine folk. 

"Breakfast in Bed"

Good old Coppola one-upped Ichabod Crane, 
In a way equestrians declared inhumane. 
We await headless riders as a matter of course
But nobody expected that headless horse. 

Friday, September 26, 2008

mbatE2008 stories: part 2: signs of the times

Often, instead of taking pictures of exotic people and places, I take pictures of signs. What? They're funny.

This one's on the highway that runs along the Dead Sea. While the water is extremely salt, what I don't understand is why the sign must be on the highway --does salty water sometimes jump out at unsuspecting cars?

(ha HA, take THAT, car! Just watch what I'll do to your paint!)

At Petra (ha, Petra at Petra! Imagine that!), I was grateful for a sign that told me what I was seeing: a view. Oh, good. I wouldn't have figured that out otherwise.

Some Syrian sign-maker was having delusions of grandeur.

Most Syrians we met gave us a big thumbs-up when we told them we were American, but apparently not everyone feels like that.

Not all Israelis feel like that either.

If Jesus visited Jerusalem nowadays, he'd be casting out the souvenir shop owners. Seriously--selling the widow's mite?

If only it said "but call it Israel as you're trying to get across the border."

Pretty much as close as I want to get to the Golan Heights. (Note: this is not true. With a few more days, we would have gone.)

This one's my favorite sign picture of all, but it takes a little bit of explanation: like many children, I grew up playing Monopoly. Unlike many children, my family only owned Hebrew Monopoly, in which all the traditional properties (Boardwalk, Park Place, um, er, I don't know any of the other traditional properties--see that "my family only owned Hebrew Monopoly" thing above) were replaced with Israeli properties--the yellow, if I remember correctly, were streets in Tel Aviv, and other colors were streets in Eilat and Jerusalem. This means that as we walked around Jerusalem, I recognized street names, and was especially excited about Ben Yehuda Street, an outdoor shopping area in Jerusalem. Was that the Boardwalk of Hebrew Monopoly? Did I often try to get a monopoly on its color group? Or is my subconscious just enamored of the Hebrew language revivalist?

Who knows. But a picture was still necessary. Duh.

Friday, September 19, 2008

mbatE2008 stories: part 1: crazy talk

blogger's note: the thought of having to sit down and write everything about the mbatE2008 makes. me. tired. So instead of doing grand travelogues like last year, I'm just going to tell my stories at random: what I want, when I want. And it's my blog, so there

blogger's note, part 2: mbatE2008 stands for, in case you don't remember, most bitchingly awesome trip EVER 2008--that is, the two weeks I spent in Syria and Jordan and Israel with Amy, who has beat me to blogging some about the trip; see here or here.  


We were tired, the last day of our trip, because the day before we had biked the 40-mile circumference of the Sea of Galilee.  Let me emphasize: Israel. In August. During the day. 40 miles.  Yeah, it was hot. 

Biking in Jesus' footsteps.  I'm glad my back sweat isn't visible in this picture. 

We were also tired, of course, from two weeks spent traveling at our pace--no time for sleeping! no time for eating!--and so were happy to spend an afternoon, after having crossed from Israel back into Jordan, hanging around Amman sampling Arab desserts. 

Kunafa. I'm for it. 

As we were sitting there, a fight started brewing on the street--loud voices, lots of arm waving. That's not too unusual, so I didn't bother to listen at first, until I caught some of what one man was shouting: 

"You never change!  Americans can change--they change their president every four years!  They're having an election right now!  You Arabs, though, just sit around all day doing nothing!"

Interesting, I thought, so I tuned into the fight. From the looks on the faces of those watching, this was crazy-homeless-guy talk, not normal fight-on-the-street talk. The guy shouted some more along those lines, detailing the worthlessness of his listener, who, after a few minutes, lost patience and walked away, with the guy still shouting as his back, throwing out his final invective:

"What are you, an EYE doctor? Interested in EYE medicine?"

I made eye contact with another bystander and raised my eyebrows in a question: WTF?  He shrugged at me: Who knows. Just ignore the crazy homeless guy. 

Ignore I did, but the phrase has stuck with me: what a nice rhythm, what total lack of sense. And in the last few weeks, back to normal life, guess what runs through my head when someone bumps into me, cuts in line, opens their car door as I'm biking past, or tries to pay in pennies at the grocery store:

What are you, an EYE doctor? Interested in EYE medicine?  

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Rental Car Named Desire

A few months ago—sometime in mid-July—I took a day trip, along with some friends of mine from the program, to the various castles and fortresses in Jordan’s eastern desert; I would have written about it then—and indeed I drafted most of this entry then—except for a pact of silence we took, in effect until the end of the program, for reasons that will become clear in the next sentence. With that pact lifted, though, I’m now free to write about one of the best trips of my summer, in which, in a strange foreign twist on the classic American road trip saga—a sort of Arab On the Road, but with less drugs—I piled into a car with my friends and drove to Iraq.

We left unthinkably early in the morning, well before the sun rose, probably around four-thirty; instead of being an irritation, this seemed more a symptom of our excitement about the trip and our freedom in planning it: we rented a car—a Hyundai Sonata that we named Saleh, not Desire, after our favorite tutor, and apologized to profusely every time we hit a bump in the road, sand, or rocks over which we drove--and so could leave anytime we wanted. Imagine! After several trips with the entire 22-person group on a tour bus, trapped into tour-bus-like activities—long lunches, tour guides, stopping for souvenirs, ugh--we were delighted to have the freedom to wake up and depart before dawn. We also reveled, as the day went on, in the freedom to slam on the brakes wherever and whenever we wanted: to ask directions from shop people confused at why a carful of Americans would be this far out into the desert, to buy watermelons from random roadside stands, to take pictures of the, um, scenery, such as it was, and once, memorably, to pee, squatting behind the only shelter we could find, small piles of sand. I'm pretty sure that meant we were in full view of all the passing trucks carrying oil from Iraq. Hope they enjoyed it.

the license plate says "al-Anbar"

We spent most of the morning slamming on our brakes for castles, the ostensible purpose of our trip, and indeed they would have been worth a trip on their own: we know how I feel about castles—anyone who is my friend on Facebook might have noticed my status line over the summer about how I LOVE. CASTLES--and these were the coolest kind: standing in the middle of the desert. Let me just emphasize one more time, this was real desert, with nothing growing or living as far as the eye could see. The crazy thing is that these areas used to be oases, palaces for riotous easy living, hunting lodges and trader's inns and T.E. Lawrence's military bases. (That Lawrence guy sure got around.) It’s mostly because of centuries of desertification that bath houses covered with erotic paintings (erotic paintings! In the Middle East!) now stand surrounded by sand, and that trader’s inns seem to be located on no visible route, or, rather, no visible anything. We spent the morning at these places, scrambling over castle walls, and by that I mostly mean breaking in: we left so early in the morning that we arrived before they opened. No problem, we thought, ever the intrepid Americans, and climbed in the window.

Not that we had to break into all of the castles—at one of the larger ones, T.E. Lawrence’s former post, a guard demanded our entry tickets. “If you went to the others,” he said, “you must have a ticket.” Er—we looked at each other and tried to explain: yes, we visited them, no, we don’t have tickets. Fine, he said, then I’ll sell you tickets on a student discount, if you just show me your student I.D. cards. Er—once again we paused. No student IDs. The guard was exasperated: “Then how am I supposed to know that you’re students?” It was looking like we’d have to shell out the money—a whole, I don’t know, $3 each—when another guard stepped in: “Dude,” he told his friends, “they speak Arabic, don’t they? What more proof do you need?”

And so we got in for free, and, after our visit, sat with the guards drinking mint tea and talking about Lebanon. I think, actually, that could serve as a main theme for the day trip. Not Lebanon, that is, but hospitality; Arabs pride themselves on their famous hospitality, and, for the most part, rightfully so. I should have begun this story by declaring that, “I have always depended on the kindness of Arabs,” and then I could recount all the kindnesses we experienced: the people, on every corner of every town, who gave us directions; the guard to another castle, who gave us the key despite the castle being closed; the seventeen year old Bedouin kid, living alone tending his family’s sheep in the desert, who invited us into his tent, served us some dirty water, and told us about his life in the desert (“it’s normal”); the guy who, when we got lost upon entering Amman, drove all the way to our destination so we could follow him; the guards at the Iraqi border who didn’t, as we’ll see, arrest us on the spot.

We finished with all the castles of the eastern desert before noon, which then left us the entire afternoon to drive to Iraq, three hours away from the outermost castle: three hours on a very flat, very straight road, very empty road. Every so often someone—okay, me—would try a car game (“I spy, with my little eye, something brown”) which would inevitably fail (“EVERYTHING!”). You’d think this kind of driving would be easy—nothing to see, nothing to pass, nothing to hit—and you’d be right, during the day, but after nightfall was a different story: our trusty Saleh had no taillights, and his headlights only lit, oh, about a foot in front of us. I kid you not. Now imagine driving through this landscape—no street lights, no city lights, no passing cars, even—with only twelve inches of visibility. I came within inches of slamming into a pack of dogs eating some roadkill, and had to slam on the brakes and swerve into the shoulder, waking everyone up both with the car’s sudden motion, and my shouting, at the top of my lungs, “We’re okay! We’re okay!”

(At least we didn’t hit any crossing camels.)

We were okay, though, much as we were okay through several dust storms, and much as we were okay when we decided to take a detour and drive through eleven kilometers of rocks and sand to see a tree. Yeah, I know, a tree, right? Eleven kilometers of offroading in a Hyundai for a tree? But this was a special tree—Mohammed sat under it once, or something—and mostly we were intrigued by the idea of anything growing in this landscape. It was worth every kilometer.

When we finally arrived at the Iraqi border, at least the Jordanian side of it, sweaty and dusty and tired, we realized something critical: we had no plan. All we wanted was to set a foot over the border, just one foot, just to say we had ‘been’ to Iraq, but how best to persuade the border guards to let it happen? We figured, hey, why not be honest, and so my friend C and I, deemed the most friendly and, more importantly, Arabic-speaking, stepped out of the car and walked up to the gate, where we stood unnoticed for a minute before C coughed quietly to get the guard’s attention. “Excuse me,” he said, “Hi. Can we come in?” And we both smiled winningly.

One thing led to another, and in a few minutes later the appropriate supervisors had been called, and we were in the guard office, being questioned—in a friendly way, sure, but it was still more nerve-wracking than most speaking practice times are.

“I’m sorry,” the boss said, “Explain this to me one more time. Why are you here?”

“We’re tourists,” I said. “We wanted to see the border.”

“And maybe put one foot over it,” C added. “Just one foot!”

“I see,” the boss said thoughtfully. “Journalists, right?”

“No! No, no, no, no, no…not journalists. Tourists. We’re students, in Amman. All we wanted was to see the border!”

“And maybe put one foot over it—just one!”

This was a hard sell, clearly. “So, you’re intelligence, right?” the boss asked.

“Don’t you think the U.S. would send better intelligence agents than us?” C asked, and, working his charm to the utmost, exchanged some laughing high fives with the other guards.

The boss was less amused. “So, if you’re students, what are you studying? And why study Arabic?”

I am a shameless suck up who knows how to charm Arabs: “Because it’s a beautiful language, of course! We love the grammar, the words, and especially the poetry!”

“You like poetry?” the boss asked, warming up to us. “Then recite some!”

By this time the others waiting in the car had been called in, and so they, too, got to join in quoting some of the poetry we had just studied: "I yearn for my mother's bread/for my mother's coffee/for my mother's touch.". And when we were done with that, I added that we liked Arabic music too, and that started a second round of the strangest pop quiz in my life: singing Amr Diab lyrics to a room full of guards at the Iraqi border to prove that I was not an intelligence agent. “Darling, light of my eyes, I’ve loved you for years”—I’m sure the U.S. is sending better intelligence agents than me.

We waited at least an hour in that room, while various phone calls were made, all of them starting with, “So we’ve got this group of American tourists,” followed by laughter we could hear through the phone, and while we waited we tried our hardest to charm the guards: C kept up his jokes and high fives, T, with his endless knowledge of Nancy Ajram lyrics, kept singing, and the girls flirted shamelessly.

I asked one guard where he was from, and responded enthusiastically to his reply: “Oh, you’re from Irbid! I’m going there next week!”

“You should come see me,” he said. This is standard and I usually ignore it.

“Maybe, that would be fun.” I paused, and followed with the only question I could think of: “Are you married?”

“No,” he said, “are you offering?”

I pretended to think for a minute: “That depends. Are you going to let us into Iraq?”

Future suitors beware: I drive a hard bargain. Or a really easy one, I guess, if you happen to be a guard at the Iraqi border.

In the end, a decision was made: we could step out into, and walk around in, the no-man’s-land between Jordan and Iraq, but not actually cross into Iraq, still about a mile away; this our Jordanian guard friends deemed too dangerous: “We haven’t even been over there,” they said, “and we have guns.”

This just had to be untrue, but what we were going to do? They had our passports, and, as they so rightly pointed out, guns. So we wandered around in the in between for a few minutes, taking no pictures, by order of our friends the guards, and then shook hands with everyone, made a few more jokes and a few more promises to visit Irbid, and then piled back into our car, done and done. If we hadn't managed to get to the Iraq side, well, at least we had managed to see some cool desert castles, and a tree, without crashing, dying of dehydration, or, even more frighteningly, getting arrested or more seriously interrogated, and sometimes that's enough for a single day.  

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Close Encounters of the Diverse Kind

I just devoted my whole summer to Arabic, day in and day out, working hard, with blood, sweat, tears, and everything in between. For all that work, I got a certificate in the mail, an evaluation of "advanced plus" from a third-party language tester, and that sweet, special feeling of being able to say "I speak Arabic."

So what do I do, upon getting back to Berkeley, to keep up my Arabic, to prevent the attrition that happened last time around? Enroll in an advanced Arabic class, right?

Wrong. I, on a whim, sign up for beginning Vietnamese. Commitment issues, anyone?

Vietnamese, though, is awesomely fun. The language, meh: I hate vowels, and suck at tones, so I just have to keep reminding myself that this is good for me, if only because I now know how to pronounce "pho."

The class, though, cracks me up, mostly because it is so. freaking. Asian. The teacher quietly and politely calls s tudents to the front of the class, where they quietly and politely read the assigned dialogue out loud, after which we quietly and politely applaud. Really, though, I find it so funny because the class roll looks something like this:

Kevin Nguyen
Lisa Nyugen
Michelle Nguyen
Steven Nguyen
Tiffany Nguyen
Hannah English Surname
Joseph Tran
Linda Tran
Phyllis Tran

That's right: I am the only non-Asian student in the class. We did a speaking exercise the other day about our nationalities, and we went around the room answering, which sounded a bit like this: "I am Vietnamese-American." "I am Vietnamese-American." "I am Vietnamese-American." "I am Vietnamese-Cambodian-American." "I am Vietnamese-Indonesian-American." "I am Vietnamese-Chinese-American." "I am...American?" Good thing the word for "American" has a rising tone--if I sound underconfident, well, it's just the language.

You know that entry in Stuff White People Like about how white people like being the only white person around? (Now you do.) And about how ethnic restaurants are only judged to be good if they're full of non-white people? Well, maybe I should start judging my language class experience by the same criteria: it may not be the most effective teaching in the world, and I may be miles behind my classmates the heritage speakers, but at the very least I am having an authentic experience.


(Oh, and I'm going to write about my trip soon, I promise. Until then, I'll whet your appetite with this picture, taken in Bethlehem:

I think my new strategy for blogging about this trip might just be to, every post, promise that I will blog soon, and include a picture with the promise. It's not a bad strategy--if I post every, oh, few days or so, I could get through my pictures in only a few years!)

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Hannah In Real Life

I am back in Berkeley after my travel adventures, and have been thrown directly into the thick of things; let's not go over what I've been trying to do this week (compensate for a week of missed classes! get over jet lag! see friends! settle into my apartment! find a purpose in life!) except to say that I feel a bit like this:

Tiny. Inadequate. Taking on the impossible. In fact, I should just attach a Demotivator-type slogan to that picture and hang it above my desk: "GRAD SCHOOL. What Made You Think It Was a Good Idea?"

I promise an update soon--soon! really!--because I have lots of whos and whats and wheres to talk about: Syrian Bedouin, Iraqi border guards, hot Spanish tourists, Israeli soldiers, Jordanian taxi drivers; biking, walking, talking, photographing, laughing, sleeping, and definitely not eating; castles, churches, tents, mosques, markets, and dirty, dirty hostels. Give me time, though, to collect my thoughts (and my pictures!) and to get my real life a bit more in order.

And in that real life? You know, where I'm a mature, responsible adult and etc etc? Right now I have green paint on my shin, and purple on my elbow. My right arm is covered with splashed Otter Pop juice, and my left calf is smeared with bicycle grease. Oh, and I smell like chlorine. So I guess real life isn't so bad: grad school woes or not, this is my kind of Saturday.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Dance to the Beat, To the Rhythm of the Nile

We officially finished the academic portions of our program this morning, with a final exam so ridiculously hard that...well, no, come to think of it, I've got nothing to say about it, as I hate talking about any test after the fact. It's over, it's done with, and so what if I didn't quite figure out that the article was about IMF reforms. Bah.

But I don't mind talking about the celebrations after the tests: I came home and right away devoted several hours cleaning my apartment for a girls-only afternoon party with our tutors, during which we sang and danced and ate snacks and gasp! took off our head scarves. Okay, that was them, not us, but still--exciting!

Even more exciting, though, was the evening's activity: an Amr Diab concert in Jerash, at the South Theater. Imagine 3,000 Jordanians packed into a Roman theater, screaming and clapping and chanting and singing and dancing with the biggest pop star in the Arab world right now, and then imagine me, screaming and clapping and chanting and singing and dancing right along with them. I couldn't quite follow the clapping--even the basic "clap-along" rhythms are far more complex than our Western 4/4 systems--but believe you me, I know all the words to all the songs, and could sing the lyrics with the best of them. (Granted, they're not all that hard: habibi, my darling, I love you, my darling, take me, my darling.) And, since we were at the very back, with an empty area right behind us, I could dance my little heart out, along with the Jordanian guys next to us, who were surprised and delighted to join me in some good old hip-shaking, hand-clapping fun. Good times, good times.

But speaking of good times, I'm heading off for some more, for three weeks or so: a few days on the beach in Aqaba, a Red Sea resort, and then to Petra, and then to Syria and Israel and Petra again. Expect radio silence, and don't worry too much--after all, I only have to coordinate an entire trip around the Middle East, including persuading Syrian officials that no, I would never dream of going to Israel (oh, sorry, "occupied Palestine"), and then persuade Israeli officials that no, that Syrian stamp on my passport doesn't mean a thing and I would never dream of studying Arabic! Honestly!

Let the good times roll.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Not Drowning But Wading

I don't blog much about my daily life here in Jordan, mostly because there's not much to write about: the funniest thing that happens to me on class days is watching my classmates realize, mid-sentence, that when talking about women's issues in Arab society they're going to have to conjugate verbs for the feminine plural. And since I don't have any photos of the expression that says, "Oh, crap...can I reasonably pretend that at least one man wears the hijab or gets pregnant or becomes a victim of honor killings?", I suspect it is much funnier to me than to you.

It never ceases to surprise me that I'm living in a foreign country and not just bubbling over with odd incidents from day to day--Indonesia, after all, was a treasure trove, India not much worse, and if I had had a blog in Egypt, I could have written every day about things like competitive greetings, car accidents, dramatic illnesses, and pushy Muslim friends who wanted to take me to their neighborhood's Eid Al-Fitr celebration and teach me to pray. Jordanians, apparently, are not completely insane: in contrast with Egypt, where people lectured me every day about how Arab oil comes from the corpses of dead heroes, transformed by Allah as a reward for their faithfulness, Jordanians refrain from conspiracy theories and instead say perfectly reasonable things like "I hate George W. Bush" and "the U.S. presence in Iraq is causing problems" and "these rising oil prices are very hard on everyone." The craziest thing I've heard from someone yet is that I should say "Praise Allah" when I sneeze, because every time I do, Allah kills a dog in my place. That was from an Iraqi, though, so I'm not sure it counts.

So, basically, I go to class, go out to eat, wander around Amman, do my Arabic homework, buy pirated DVDs (Planet Earth for $5!), hang out shirtless with my roommates (hey, it's hot), visit Jordanian friends, attend prayers at a local mosque, and read lots of linguistics articles. It's quite the life--and I agree with the recent Jordan Times article, citing the king that 'Jordan is doing fine'--but it also means that there's nothing to see here, folks, move along. Or, rather, it means that all my blog entries inevitably focus less on the weekdays, and more on the weekends, when I do things like swim/wade up this river:

through this canyon:
to go skinny dipping under this waterfall:

Yup. Nothing to see here. Nothing at all. Move along.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Flirting for Fruit

For my 24th birthday, I celebrated my youth by embarking, the day before, on a grand test of stamina: getting up at 6 AM, taking a public bus to Irbid, a town about two hours away, going to church, hiking up a two-mile hill to a crusader castle in Ajlun, visiting a Byzantine church and the supposed site of Elijah's ascension, hanging out at a farm in a river valley, navigating my way back to Amman on three separate public buses, eating dinner at the house of the branch president, chasing his young children around for at least an hour, and then having an impromptu midnight birthday party with my roommates and whoever of the 22 students on my program stopped by my apartment. Think that's not enough of an endurance test? Think again: I did most of that in Arabic, from chatting with bus drivers and old women pounding spices and overenthusiastic tour guides to praying in sacrament meeting, bearing my testimony, and translating the Young Women's lesson I attended. And it was 100 degrees out. And it was Fast Friday, and I, for once, remembered, which means I did all of that on an empty stomach and dry throat. Let it not be said that youth is wasted on the young: we enjoy it.

My hunger (or, more precisely, thirst) made me, luckily, not disposed to put up with any crap, which in this case means the attention of one of the bus drivers, who told me I had a "pretty body" and tried to kiss me, despite my effort to be fully covered so as not to look like a tramp. And here I thought long sleeves were a magic protective shield. Somehow, though, my creep-detecting instincts didn't kick in for the castle's tour guide, who, after taking me on an energetic and detailed tour of the castle, including the secret tunnels, announced that we would then continue our tour to Mar Elias, the aforementioned Byzantine church. "Wait," I wondered, "I thought he just belonged to the castle. Did I somehow agree to this without noticing? Well, he seems nice enough, I guess." So I jumped in his car and off we drove, just the two of us.

And that's how I ended up with an afternoon drive through a Jordanian nature reserve, with a 50-something Arab man inventing love songs to me, in grand classical style, with a low vibratro voice. Imagine Leonard Cohen, in Arabic, producing lines like "I would that I were a bird/so I could flutter near you forever, in any country, even America" and "the trees dance in the wind/only for your sake, O light of my eyes, O my blue-eyed darling." Every so often he'd pause in the song, just to make sure I understood the lyrics: "Flutter--you know? Like to fly around closely. So I could always be near you, see. Get it?" Yes. Yes, I got it. And yes, it made me uncomfortable--how, exactly, should one respond to such a serenade?

Not that I'm complaining too loudly: as the result of a little Arabic and a little flirting (or, okay, a little blue eyes/blue passport magic), I got a personalized tour not only of a crusader castle--and we all know how I feel about castles!!--but also of a beautiful old church site, complete with herds of grazing goats wandering through, and of a charming farm, where, get this, there were trees. And grass. Growing! Naturally! Maybe I've been in the desert too long, but that was the best part, that or the fact that my would-be suitor then plucked fresh figs and pomegranates and mint from those trees, thoughtfully arranging them for me in a box so that I could break my fast on them later, or, as the case was, share them with everyone who came to my impromptu birthday party. Wandering off into forests with strange foreign men is probably not a good habit--at least, my mother never sounds too happy about it--but how can I quit when I get such rewards?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Watch Where You're Going!

Friday morning's sacrament meeting talk (yes, that's right, singular: church only meets for two hours here) began with a story about a man who wanted to get to Detroit but accidentally got on a bus to St. Louis, and so ended up lost and miles away from his destination. The speaker then, of course, analogized that to life and choices and consequences, etc, and spent a lot of his talk repeating this reminder: don't get on the wrong bus!

With that warning echoing in my ears, I headed out to the Friday market that I often frequent after church; I rarely buy anything, but just enjoy wandering the open-air market with vendors shouting at me as loud as they can: skirts, two dinars! Cucumbers, half a dinar a kilo! Pirated DVDs, one dinar! Now that's what I call a Sabbath.

This last Friday, though, I wasn't in the mood, and so began my trip home just a few minutes after arriving, stepping out into the street to look for, you guessed it, a bus. As I began my search for the right bus, one to the university, another bus passed, with Salt written on the front. On a whim, I thought, hey, I've heard good things about Salt, maybe I'll go. So I called out to the conductor, who nodded to confirm the destination, and dashed across several lanes of traffic to the door.

After I settled into my seat, the conductor came by and somewhat sheepishly admitted that the bus was coming from Salt, not going to it. Oops--what was that church talk about again? "But no worries," he said, "I can still get you there."

(Did I ever tell the story of the time in Yogyakarta when the bus conductor lied to me about whether the bus passed my stop, just to get my 10-cent fare? Boy, did he look embarrassed when I climbed back on his bus, going the opposite way this time, after having realized that he lied to me and my destination was nowhere nearby. At least I won the argument about whether I should pay again.)

Luckily, this conductor made good on his promise; after a harrowing ride through the city, with the conductor hanging out the open door, chatting with passengers and passers-by--"going to the market, eh? going to get some lunch, eh?"--and hurrying people off the bus, even into oncoming traffic--"downtown! downtown! Remember we're in the left lane! Quick, before the light changes!"--we arrived at the bus station, and the conductor very paternally delivered me personally to a bus to Salt, even going so far as to ask another passenger to give me his seat, as I otherwise would have had to sit next to a man. And co-ed seating, not surprisingly for a Muslim country, is just. not. done.

And so, despite getting on the "wrong" bus, I got to spend a lovely Friday afternoon in small-town Jordan, where I ate a delicious chicken lunch, chatting with the restaurant owner; walked through the streets, observing--a pre-teen girl wearing hiking her too-big abaya up to her knees; a young boy running down a steep alleyway with a bag of fresh pita bread; an old man in a kefiyyeh sitting on a park bench smoking a cigarette--and sat in the town square, surrounded by Ottoman architecture, reading a Tawfiq al-Hakim play for my literature class. (That's right, without a dictionary: take that, America-mockers!) That day, the wrong bus was the right choice.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Punctilious. Nimble. Globetrotter.1

I haven't blogged much lately, partly because I've been devoting my time to vocabulary review and grammar tutorials, but mostly because I've been doing so much traveling. That sounds counterintuitive, but I always hesitate to blog about trips, for fear of becoming one of those bloggers--you know, the type whose posts are just pictures and exclamation points: "and then we saw this! And it was amazing! And then we saw that! It was amazing too!!! Look at my beautiful pictures2! And isn't my life just awesome3?!?!"

But I'm going to have to do just that, else the blog would be entirely about my classes (and I only have two hours a day, so there's not much to say4) or my roommates (and this blog is not just a quote board, funny as they are, since quote boards irritate me5) or my awkward wandering Amman, into mosques (awkward situation: "so when did you become a Muslim?"), souqs (awkward question: "Are you Iraqi?6"), and Palestinian refugee neighborhoods (awkward event: children throwing rocks at me7). Plus, I'll inevitably write about travel later in August, when Amy flies out to join me on the mbatE20088, so I might as well start now. Get ready for pictures, exclamation points, and total, utter gloating.


Probably my favorite so far of all our group trips (sorry, Jerash and Umm Qais) was our camping trip to Wadi Rum, the southern desert landscape made famous, like everything else in this area, by Lawrence of Arabia9. About 20 of us piled into a bus for the four-hour drive south, during which our driver played the same song on repeat, loudly, the entire way. I kept falling asleep and waking up, only to wonder if I had slept at all, since the bus was still vibrating with the same boom dee-dee boom dee-dee BOOM. The fact that the scenery was persistently, stubbornly unchanging didn't help much with reorienting myself after a nap.

(Speaking of the scenery, can I take this moment to say that I'm convinced that Jordan is just a bizarro Utah? Desert canyons, sand, arches, polygamists. Oh, and the Dead Sea, the Middle East's answer to the Great Salt Lake. We visited a few weeks ago and had a blast floating effortlessly because of the salinity, and stinging terribly because of that same salinity: hangnails in water with a 30% salt content are not cool. Likewise for any other open sores or pores, which, strangely enough, makes it a good thing I hadn't shaved my legs before the trip10. Anyway, Jordan, if you need a new tourist slogan, I've got an idea: "Come on over to Jordan, southern Utah with camels!11")

Confused, inadequate sleep, like mine on the bus, was a theme of the trip, though, as we spent the night there, after watching the beautiful sunset, staying up late stargazing, talking, and dancing by the fire to, I swear, the same song from the bus, over and over again. I'll never be able to hear that rhythm again without thinking of the tipsy, overweight Arab man who tried to teach me to belly dance--and when he said "belly," he meant it. Good times.

The next morning, we set off for aimless wandering through the desert, led by a very cranky Bedouin guide and his open-backed Toyota jeep so old that T.E. Lawrence himself would have opted for a newer model. At least we had the wind in our hair.

We wandered aimlessly past a desert fortress, a huge rock balanced on another rock12, a slot canyon with ancient carvings, camels, and, of course, sand dunes, where we played happily for at least an hour. It turns out running up and down huge hills in 100-degree weather can actually be fun--at least until you realize you've been running up and down huge hills in 100-degree weather. I think heat does something to the brain.

It was no surprise to anyone, of course, when our jeep broke down. As we sat in the sun waiting for our now-even-crankier driver to figure out the problem (um, maybe that your jeep practically a geological formation itself?), one of the other jeep drivers cranked up his sound system to play, I swear, that same damn song. Emboldened by my lessons of the night before, and possibly also that pesky heat/brain combination, I stood up, shouted "DESERT DANCE PARTY," and jumped down into the sand. Others followed suit, and we spent a good half an hour getting down in the desert. What could be more fun than that?

Maybe, possibly, our trip back through the desert, in which we all--squished now into three jeeps instead of four, having given up on the Toyota--raced each other through the scrub and over sand dunes, with our drivers slightly, ahem, three kefiyyehs to the wind, if you know what I mean. Our driver had clearly drowned his grumpiness in something other than water, and spent the drive back imitating animal noises and telling a long story in very fast, very slurred Arabic, the only word of which we really understood was "Iskar! Iskar!"--get drunk! Get drunk! Yeah, buddy, I think you just did. Is that why they call it Wadi Rum?


But see, this is why I haven't blogged much: not only am I a jerk for being a picture-posting tourist type, I'm a jerk for having such an incredibly good life: my weekends involve tooling around the desert with tipsy Bedouin. I love this summer13.


1See here. You won't regret it.
2Nobody wants to see your vacation slideshow. Unless you accidentally leave a picture of your infection-swollen testicle in it, like a guy I know did in his post-mission picture slideshow.
3I'm sorry if you're one of those people. But unless there's funny commentary, know that I'm skimming.
4That's right, two hours. Thank you, State Department.
5 If it were, though, I'd include the many quotes showing how my roommate is convinced I'm trying to convert her: "Is this Jell-O part of your sneaky Mormon plan?"
6My even more awkward answer: "No, the opposite: I'm American." The opposite? Smooth, Hannah, smooth.
7I kid you not.
8 Most Bitchingly Awesome Trip Ever 2008. As opposed to the mbatE2007.
9That guy really got around.
10 Or, okay, at all this summer. Whatever: I have to stay covered all the time anyway.
11Assuming, of course, that either southern Utah or camels are an attraction.
12This was as lame as it sounds: I'm not particularly impressed by balancing from rocks. Keeping still is what they do.
13Exclamation point!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

You Know You're in the Middle East When...

Actually, I could write any number of things here--when you spend Thursday nights listening to Qur'anic recitations at a local mosque, when you wear long sleeves and long pants even in 110-degree weather, when you eat nothing but falafel for three days, when you look at a camel and think, 'how pretty,' when you're not fazed by dirt or noise or chaos or navy showers or constant cigarette smoke or crazy taxi drivers or rich Khaliji men or their niqabi women, when you speak Arabic even to your American friends--but when you really know is this: when your roommate walks into the kitchen, twirls around for you to see what she's wearing, and asks, "Does this outfit make me look Shi'ite?"

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Passport Panic: An Open Letter

Dear UPS,

You know, when a person pays $40 to mail something overnight, it's probably best to mail it, don't you think? I mean, not to be picky or anything, but "we'll deliver it the next day" doesn't--or shouldn't--generally mean "we'll claim that we delivered it, and then, when called out on the lie, show up with the package a week late." People get stressed out, you know, when they mail their passports halfway across the world and then are told, oops, sorry, it's gone, we put it on your doorstep, it's not our fault, don't blame us! They get even more stressed out when that means they're stuck in the Middle East without a passport or visa. Yeah. Yeah, that makes them happy.

Okay, I'll cut out the sarcasm: I'm angry, UPS, angry that you refuse to deliver me books from Amazon without getting my signature but will supposedly leave my passport--MY PASSPORT, my beautiful, internationally-stamped, supplementary-paged passport, with my Jordanian residency stamp and my brand-new $150 Syrian visa--on the steps of a house with no delivery confirmation. Angry that you caused me that much panic, and even angrier that you caused my mom that much panic. And don't think that the fact that your 'tracking' function worked, and that you brought it by later, 6 days after the claimed arrival date, lets you off the hook. I've got my eye on you, UPS. And I'll be using FedEx from now on.

Love Hate,

Petra the almost-passportless

Monday, July 14, 2008

Master of My (Semantic) Domain, part 2

(part 1)

Sample sentences I understood today:
  • The national petrol investment company of the United Arab Emirates announced today that it, along with a Qatari investment commisison, would establish an investment fund exceeding one billion dollars, in order to undertake an operation of capturing the world investment stage.
  • Five judges in the high court of Iraq survived an assassination attempt when bombs exploded outside their homes east of the capital of Baghdad, in an incident anonymous sources described as a plot to terrorize the justice system.
  • An Israeli spokesman said to the Reuters news agency that the Palestinian journalist who accused Israeli soldiers of detaining and torturing him upon his return from Europe to the West Bank "met with fair treatment during his inspection" and "underwent a routine check because of his suspected involvement in terrorist organizations"; the spokesman added that the journalist lost consciousness and fainted during the check for unknown reasons.
Sample sentences I misunderstood today:
  • That'll be 50 piastres, please.
  • The bus station is up the road and to the left.
  • What do you think of Jordan?
No points for guessing where I get most of my Arabic language practice.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Just Another Mamluk Monday

Since the institute where I'm studying doesn't like to give its students proper weekends--they say it decreases motivation or some other such educational blah blah blah--we have Mondays and Fridays off, Friday being the Muslim holy day and Monday being a totally random choice, a convenient day to have off. (That's right: Friday is the new Sunday and Monday is the new Saturday. Just try to imagine how much that confuses me.)

As a further aside, I should note that, since I only have two hours of class a day, every day feels like a weekend day; I spend my time going to the gym, meeting friendly Jordanians at the gym, and eating lunch with said people instead of working out at said gym; bargaining over vegetable prices at outdoor souqs; going to outdoor concerts of Palestinian protest hip-hop groups, watching documentaries about Palestinian protest hip-hop groups, and then listening to yet other Palestinian protest hip-hop groups conduct a Q&A session about their protests, their hip-hop, and their Palestine; and watching a Turkish soap opera dubbed into Arabic and then discussing it--can you believe he kidnapped her?--with everyone I know. And, of course, I still sit on the balcony every evening to watch the wedding fireworks over the city. (When the invasion comes, how will we know?) Homework, schmomework.

On Mondays, though, I get to blow off homework even more, and so, with my last Monday off, I rounded up a roommate and hopped on a bus to Karak, home of a 12th-century Crusader castle. We were prepared for too much adventure--my roommate woke up feeling sick, so we spent the morning joking about the possibility of projectile vomiting on a public bus--but, in the the end, got just enough, leaving us very proud of ourselves: we successfully found and rode a public bus, we understood a tour of the castle's underground tunnels given entirely in Arabic, we didn't die of heatstroke, we (okay, I) didn't succumb to panic attacks when it turned out that the "Desert Highway" was not, in fact, misnamed.

Plus, we had an awesome time. I love castles, so of course I was predisposed to enjoy myself, but the day exceeded even my expectations: we arrived just in time for the noon prayer, and so as we first stood on the walls of the castle, looking down over Wadi Karak and Wadi Mujib, river valleys cut into the desert landscape, seeing all the way to the Dead Sea and the possible site of Sodom and Gomorrah in one direction, we heard, from all the towns spread in the valley, and finally coming out of the wadis themselves, the call to prayer: Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!

And it only got better from there: after the magic of that moment, we spent a few hours exploring the interior of the castle, adding the word "crusader" to everything as we tried to figure out the castle's structure: Crusader kitchens, Crusader ovens, Crusader parapets, Crusader tunnels, Crusader barracks where Crusader soldiers slept on Crusader cots, my Crusader dumb idea to climb up a rocky Crusader wall to a Crusader window.

Until, of course, we found out, from our Arabic tour of the underground tunnels, that only some of the castle was built by Crusaders; the rest was built, after the departure of the Crusaders, by Mamluks.

Okay, fine--Mamluk tunnels, Mamluk garrisons, Mamluk keeps, Mamluk castles, Mamluk bottles of water to keep us going in the Mamluk midday heat. I can live with that, just like I can live with Mondays instead of Saturdays off. Anyone up for a trip to Ajlun next week?