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?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Wadi Mouth

I had forgotten, in my three years away from it, how much I enjoy Arabic: it's hard, what with the unfamiliar, hack-up-your-throat phonemes, complicated grammar, huge lexicon*, and diglossic sociolinguistic situation. Arabic's difficulty is what initially attracted me to it--I had a professor, my freshman year of college, who constantly complained about how hard it was, and so I registered for Arabic 101 to see what all the hype was--and its difficulty is what keeps me around. (Luckily, I have a clear distinction in my head between "grammar" and "dating.") There's just so much to love: weird number agreement rules, nominal cases, root-and-pattern morphology, and a dual. I mean, who doesn't love a good feminine dual now and then? (Grammar, people, not dating!)

One of my real favorite things about Arabic, though? The swearing. No, not the Arabic swearing--Arabs will never teach me swear words, a fact about being a woman in the Middle East that frustrates me even more than the excessive modesty requirements--but the English swearing, in Arabic: every other word, it seems, sounds like an English swear word. To wit:

(note: the "a" here is pronounced "uh" and the "q" is pronounced like a "k," but further back; see above, "hacking back-of-the-throat phonemes." All of the words are stressed on the first syllable, except for ittafaq, which is stressed on the last.)

fakkar: to think
fakka: small change
fakha: fruit
ittafaq: to agree
faqat: only
faqim: to be dangerous
faqd: loss

And those are just the f/k or q combinations; I haven't even gotten started on things like the Egyptian Arabic magabitsh, 'she didn't bring' or aashit, 'she lived.'

All this, of course, leads to the best story ever on this topic. Winter 2005, I was in an advanced Arabic literature class at BYU, in which we came across, in a short story, the word mufakk (keep in mind the pronunciation: moo-f*ck, basically). Someone asked the professor what it meant.

"Well," he said, "let's take it apart. What does that mu- mean? Right, it's the active participle marker. Okay, so a mufakk is a thing that fakks."

We are, by this point, trying to stifle our giggles as the professor continues. "So now we look at the meaning of the verb fakk. Does anyone know what fakk means?"

We smirk in silence. "No one? No one knows what fakk means?" Even the TA is laughing by this point--imagine! A BYU professor, swearing right there in class!--but nobody knows the meaning.

The professor sighs impatiently. "I can't believe nobody knows what fakk means. It means 'to screw'!"

The poor professor lost control of the class then for a good minute. The English/Arabic correspondence could not be more perfect: mufakk means 'screwdriver,' and so fakk means 'to screw in.' And so I will be forever loyal to Arabic for that alone--where else, after all, can a nice Mormon girl get some guilt-free swearing time?

*Ha! Look at me, perpetuating unfounded linguistic stereotypes! You** can't stop me!
**But I can stop me. Sigh. The idea of "number of words" in a language is pretty much
meaningless, and so I can't really claim that Arabic has more words than English. I can claim, though, that Arabic writers love using as many synonyms as possible, which means a student's functional vocabulary must be, in a word, huge.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A Round of Applause

In the past few days I have:
  • climbed a large hill to look over the Sea of Galilee into Israel, Syria, and Lebanon
  • gotten hit on by Ahmed the hot hot mounted policeman
  • listened to a bagpipe band play "Amazing Grace" in an ancient Roman theater
  • gotten hit on by Ahmed the cute taxi driver
  • been stripped naked and scrubbed with olive oil by a fat Turkish woman
  • gotten hit on by Ahmed the kindly bookstore owner
  • spent evenings on the balcony, enjoying the breeze and watching wedding fireworks over the city

Bravo to Jordan, I say. Is your summer this much fun? I. think. not.