Saturday, June 28, 2008

Getting To Know You

I have this conversation every day:
Arab: What's your name?
Me: Hannah.
Arab: That's an Arabic name!
Me: Yes.


Arab: Are you Arab?
Me: Do I look Arab?
Arab: Oh.


Arab: But you have an Arabic name! Is your mother Arab?
Me: Do I look like my mother is Arab?
Arab: Oh.


Arab: But you have an Arabic name!
It's nice to have some constancy in my life, you know?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

It's All Coming Back To Me Now

I'm in Amman this summer courtesy of Uncle Sam; the U.S. government, quite reasonably, wants Americans who speak Arabic, and so is generously paying for folks like me--that is, 'advanced' Arabic students--to live in the Middle East and improve their language skills. (I'm serious about the "generous" part: my entire studio apartment in California could probably fit into my courtesy-of-your-tax-dollars kitchen here.) I feel very lucky to have stumbled into such a good deal--I mean, what could be better than getting paid to go to two hours a day of class and then spend the rest of the day bumming around the streets of the city, eating hummus and falafel and fuul and tabouleh and occasionally practicing my Arabic. (I'm getting pretty good at, "Excuse me, may I please have some more hummus?")

The catch? I am not, in fact, an advanced Arabic student. A few years ago I was--upon returning from Egypt I tested to the advanced-mid level by the Foreign Service Institute's scale, good enough to earn me 0.5 bonus points in the State Department's hiring process--but, given that, until a week ago, I hadn't spoken a word of Arabic in slightly over three years, and given that in that three years I've studied four other languages, nearly reaching fluency in one, you can imagine what my Arabic retention was like: nil. I could remember most of the grammar rules--that's the fun part!--but had absolutely no vocabulary, and therefore couldn't speak or understand even a simple sentence. (To illustrate, I found, a little while ago, a video of myself, speaking Arabic, in a documentary I was in a few years back. The freakish part? I couldn't understand myself.)

In the few days I've been here, though, I've been surprised at what I'm starting to remember: words bubble up from the depths of my memory, words I haven't thought of in three years, and I find myself confidently answering when someone asks, "How do you say 'trash'?"(zibaala) or "What's the plural of 'daftar'?" (dafaatir). It's a totally bizarre feeling, especially since remembering a vocabulary item often comes with remembering the context in which I learned said item, meaning that I'm constantly remembering things about Egypt I hadn't thought of for years. (The lady under the stairwell who used to narrate for me what was happening on TV: "They shot him. Now he is dead. Now they are burying the body." The giant sign near my school that said "Alexandria is a love wave on Egyptian land." The carriage ride I took where the driver insisted on telling me about the size of an, ahem, certain part of the horse's anatomy. The large fox/wolf/dog that terrorized the streets of Alexandria for a few weeks. How an Egyptian friend, who attended a military camp every summer, tried to persuade me that Pepsi stands for "Pay Every Penny for Saving Israel" and Coca-Cola, read backwards in Arabic, says "No Mohammed No Mecca." The hurricanes that blew through the city in November. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.)

Much as I'm freaked out by the way my brain is supplying me with Arabic words--randomly! never when I need them! but startlingly well!--I'm happy with it: my two years of Arabic in college were not a total waste, and I haven't lost all my Arabic, just misplaced it for a bit. So everyone can breathe a sigh of relief: I did not, in fact, totally mislead Uncle Sam because I just might possibly belong in an advanced Arabic program. If only that translated to an ability to do more than just ask for more hummus.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Getting in JORDAN a soccer game

I wasn't looking forward to coming to Jordan this summer. My program was supposed to be in Yemen, which I was much more excited about, partly because nobody speaks English there, making it a better place to study Arabic, and partly because it has a reputation as the Wild West of the Arab world--one guidebook my roommate read summed up the country as suffering from "general lawlessness."

Unfortunately, what with mortar fire on the embassy compounds and all, the U.S. government recently decreed Yemen as far too unsafe a place to send a bunch of students, and so my program was moved to Jordan, which is considered safe.

(I told the Yemeni shopkeeper down the street that I couldn't go to Yemen because it wasn't safe and he said, "What?!? Of course Yemen is safe! Do you know why? Because everybody owns a gun. Hell, everybody owns three!" General lawlessness, indeed.)

So Jordan was a definite second choice, plus I was dreading the planned structure of the program: five hours of class in morning, plus three hours of optional tutoring, plus three hours of mandatory tutoring. That, frankly, sounds like a drag: why even bother to fly halfway around the world just to sit in a classroom all day?

On arriving, though, we learned that the program had been changed, and we now have two hours of class in the morning, and then are left, for the rest of the day, free to explore, adventure, study, and practice. This means that my life is, as far as I can tell, ideal: yesterday I went to class, went out to lunch, studied vocabulary in a hip cafe in downtown Amman, went to a soccer game, Jordan versus Turkmenistan, went out to dinner, and then stayed up late watching the European Cup Spain vs. Italy match at a trendy bar where all my friends smoked sheesha.

So life is good. I think, now, that the following picture best sums up how I feel right now about being in Jordan:


Saturday, June 21, 2008

No Sleep 'Til Berkeley

I arrived in the Middle East seriously, seriously sleep-deprived, with six nights in a row of less than four hours of sleep: from last Thursday night when I stayed up late playing gambling games with California Indians to Saturday night when I neglected to sleep at all, being too busy packing and talking on the phone with mishkin27 to Tuesday and Wednesday, both nights spent curled up uncomfortably against the wall of a plane. This means that I spent most of the past week in a haze, alternating between a slightly manic social energy, used to get to know the (very cool) other students on my Arabic program as we oriented in DC and began our long trek to Jordan, and an exhausted stupor, leaving me barely able to move or think, plus prone to falling sleep on patches of grass by the river in Frankfurt, place of an agonizing 12-hour layover, where a group of German men entertained themselves by throwing coins at me, a fact I didn’t quite believe until I woke up to find myself surrounded by 28 cents, all in one- and two-Euro coins.

(Okay, people, for real, who does that? Why on earth would a group of grown men decide to throw coins off a bridge onto a sleeping tourist? Not that I'm complaining--I used the money on a lemon gelato in the town square--but still. Weird.)

I left Berkeley less than a week ago but already it seems like forever and a dream in the past. (Days are long, as it turns out, when you don’t sleep.) I was only in DC a day and two nights, which I spent listening to a series of rules for Jordan--no, none of this, and don't even think about that--hanging out with DC friends, like Leon and the SLO, touring the Natural History Museum before it opened ("Don't worry," our program coordinator told a concerned security guard. "They're not civilians."), and generally freaking out the eerie sense of déjà vu in the city of my childhood—I didn't recognize anything, per se, but felt that I knew it anyway.

And now I am in Amman, a city in which I do not experience any deja vu, eerie or not. Instead, I'm wandering around lost, given that, as far as I can tell--and maybe it's just the sleep deprivation talking--every building in the entire city looks the same: white, five stories, square.

But I've had a good few days here nonetheless, touring some of the city's historical sites--a Roman theater, a Roman temple, an Umayyad mosque--getting to know my new neighborhood, and starting Arabic classes again after a three-year break. And I think, now, that this summer could be good, provided that I, at some point, can get some sleep--that is, if every night were not interrupted by a very loud proclamation of ALLAHU AKBAR. I love the call to prayer, I really do--nothing is more beautiful to me than the sound of a city echoing with it from every block--but with jet lag? Not cool. I suppose I should just resign myself, now, to a very sleep-deprived summer. At the very least, I can hope that Jordanians won't throw coins at me.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Bicycle! Bicycle! Bicycle!

I don't know where I acquired my deathly fear of biking, as I spent most of my childhood riding my bike around the streets of our suburban neighborhood, usually pretending it was a racehorse. My fear mostly pertains to biking in traffic, and I think, to some extent, that this is logical: bicycles require coordination, especially around cars, and I'm clumsy. This past week alone, I've randomly dropped the books I was carrying, spilled my classmate's coffee cup, fallen down a flight of stairs, and somehow gained nine (nine!) fairly substantial bruises on my shins and calves alone.

(I went to the doctor this morning, to complain about how my knees have been hurting for the last, oh, month. I offered, as evidence, the bruises surrounding each kneecap. "Mmmm-hmmm," the doctor said, skeptically, and we both looked at the bruises covering the rest of my legs. There was a long pause, and when I added, "then again, I bruise easily, so maybe the knee ones don't mean anything," the doctor was quick to agree.)

So maybe it's no wonder that I'm absolutely convinced that the instant I get on a bike I will fall into a pothole/be hit by a car/ride into an open car door/be struck by a meteor. Wonder or not, however, G.K. Chesterton's maxim that
"no man should leave anything in the world of which he is afraid" has been a guiding principle of my life since I first read it in The Man Who Was Thursday; because of it, I've taken multivariable calculus, ridden a motorcycle, gone to parties where I barely knew anyone, crossed busy third-world streets even after getting hit by a car on one of them, and killed countless cockroaches. And now, because of it, and because I live too far to walk, I will be biking to school every day.

(Okay, so I haven't eliminated all things I'm afraid of from the world, but I'm working on it. Today bicycling in traffic, tomorrow Australia, brain damage, and the highway underpass near my apartment!)

Frankly, conquering this fear has been far easier than I expected: after a tense first few ride, where I spent the entire time muttering under my breath, "Please don't kill me please don't kill me please don't kill me!", and after a few embarrassing moments, like, as I've mentioned, falling off my bicycle at a red light--where, of course, both motorists and pedestrians are gathered to watch and mock; sometimes I think I need a "student biker" sign, or maybe some flashing yellow lights, which could notify everyone that I'm a danger to myself and others right now--I'm beginning to relax and, strangely enough, enjoy myself. I'm still thinking about death, but now it's a mental game: how will that car try to kill me and make it look like an accident? What about that car over there? I remember why I spent so much time on my bike as a child: it's fun! It doesn't hurt, of course, that I've completely fallen in love with my bicycle. I think it's beautiful, absolutely beautiful; it's my baby, my darling, my one true love, and I tell it so every day--multiple times a day, even. Actually, every time I return to it after hours apart, during which time I'm usually stressing about whether it will get stolen or damaged. (I'm pretty sure I would cry.) I also greet it when I come home, and apologize to it when we go over bumpy portions of the road, though perhaps I should be apologizing to my butt instead, because, wow am I sore.

So I'm a bicycle commuter now, I guess, and I should hurry up and resign myself to the fact that I will never again arrive somewhere with cute hair. I should also, of course, develop more of a system for doing practical tasks on a bicycle, as I've had some, er, interesting experiences with that. This past Sunday morning, I woke up several hours before church dying to make zucchini bread; realizing that I didn't have eggs or flour or sugar, I decided zucchini bread was an ox in the mire and headed off to the grocery store nearby, where I bought my ingredients and picked up some cereal that was on sale. So the I walked out of the grocery store to my bike and realized, uh oh, I didn't quite think this one through: here I was with two plastic bags full of cereal, sugar, flour, and eggs, and I have no backpack or basket on my bike.

It was a tricky situation, but I figured out how to loop the handles of the plastic bags around the (curved) handlebars of my bike, and began very carefully riding home, with, of course, the bags swinging around and, of course, bringing the front of the bike with them. I'm lucky it was 7.30 on a Sunday morning, because I was wobbling and veering all over the road; that would have been a really easy moment to kill me and make it look like an accident. As I serpentined, too, the bags with the sugar, flour, and eggs hit against the front wheel. I didn't pay much attention to it, all my concentration instead on incorporating the rhythm of the bag hitting into the rhythm of my steering, but was forced to notice when the bag hit against the wheel and bam! exploded into a giant one-pound pile of sugar, right there in the street. When I stopped to deal with it, I looked back and realized that every hit against the wheel had torn the bag a little more, and that I had left a trail of sugar behind me for the last, oh, half-mile. That's me: a modern-day, biking Gretel. I just wanted to make sure I could find Safeway again, you know?

(The best part of this story? The eggs made it home perfectly intact.)

Ridiculous rides like this are raising my confidence, though, and I'm gradually improving on the road. Someday, maybe, I'll even be able to ride to school without imagining every passing car swerving, ever so gently, to bump me off.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

And she'll have fun fun fun

It's summertime now, and the living is easy--or would be, if I were not the sort of person to make up a million complicated projects for myself the minute my life lacks structure. I can't deal with unorganized time, see: if I ever wake up to a day without tasks, I begin to invent them. My invented tasks, over the last few weeks, have included a trip to Boston, where I baked desserts (key lime pie, raspberry pretzel jello, honey cookies, and chocolate chip/peanut butter Rice Krispie treats, all in one morning), hung out with family, went to an amusement park (but only for one 155-second ride), ran around Fresh Pond and along the Charles, ate, ate, and, ate, and just generally enjoyed being done with school. Then The Duke flew back to the Bay Area with me, and we spent a week hefting everything I own (in Hefty bags--ha! Get it?) and transporting it to my new apartment. Oh, and we enjoyed ourselves a little bit on the side: we went biking on the San Francisco Bay Trail, which included a stop by the Albany Bulb to see the driftwood art; we went into the city to see (and laugh uncontrollably at, in my case) the sea lions at Pier 49, and then the buffalo in Golden Gate Park, and then, strangely, Nancy Pelosi at the Embarcadero; we went to the De Young museum, where we heard an interesting lecture, listened to a concert of Afghani music, saw San Francisco's Critical Mass, and, as a bonus, viewed art; we climed all over the ruins of the Sutro Baths, in the dark; we went bowling, we went to the horse races, we ate out, we cooked, we laughed, we cried.

Okay, not that last one, I don't think. But we did a lot.

Does it feel to you that all my blog entries lately are lists? It feels that way to me. I could continue listing all the things I've done this past week (cleaned and furnished an apartment, my first without a roommate; baked zucchini bread; ran a half marathon; bought a bicycle) but that will just make me tired, and I have to save up all my energy for the 14-hour days I'm putting into volunteering for a workshop my department is holding this week.

I promise a non-list entry soon, probably about my attempts to get around town on a bicycle, which have been, in a word, hilarious. Or maybe just "incompetent." I am getting better, though: despite the fact that I am not the most confident of bicyclists, I have only fallen off in the road once. So far. Keep your fingers crossed it doesn't happen again.