“Jerusalem: Clarifying Palestinian and Israeli Identity” by Maureen Lincke

This past week, I had the privilege to travel to Jerusalem over fall break. For the first time, one of the central conflicts of this region was given a physical place and my understanding of the conflict was clarified, which then subtly changed my perception of this place politically defined as the Middle East. The first day, we took a tour with a group based in Hebron called Youth Against Settlements who are against illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. We were shown through one of the more volatile checkpoints into the city center, where Palestinian families and business owners have been pushed out by the IDF forces there to protect Israeli settlers. Our tour guide was a Palestinian sports journalist who guided us through the politics shaping the violence, and explained the unjust treatment of Palestinians by the IDF forces in Hebron.

The tour was important on a level that is difficult to describe to one not familiar with life in Hebron or the West Bank, but it can be related to the necessity of hearing underrepresented stories. Although I loved Jerusalem, the Jewish story was very accessible and I was given a picture of the conflict that was heavily weighted towards the state of Israel. In order to understand the occupation and ongoing struggle of the Palestinians to be recognized as autonomous people, this tour was a necessary part of my visit. The group I toured with was friendly and peaceful and very open to holding conversations with us about their lives and the reality of life as a Palestinian in Hebron, for which I was enormously grateful. They cared about our safety and well-being and I would highly recommend this tour to anyone visiting Bethlehem or Jerusalem.

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Despite the politics, and my own guilt that my Jordanian and Palestinian friends from Amman can’t visit Jerusalem, the city was very beautiful. The history is tangible, especially in the old city, where we spent hours walking through hundreds of small shops that have been there for generations. At Razzouk Tattoo, the Razzouk family has been tattooing in the same small parlor since the year 1300 and we saw design blocks that were just as old. Although the rest of our trip was wonderful and we were collectively enchanted by Jerusalem, I was struck by how isolated the Israeli cities are from cities in the West Bank, which furthered the importance of our visit to Hebron. Jerusalem is only an hour away from Hebron, but the stark difference in infrastructure and dress makes Jerusalem seem almost European, and it becomes clear what story has been historically emphasized to tourists in Israel.

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My time in Jerusalem changed my understanding of what it means to be Palestinian. Because the Palestinians are denied many rights, including claim to a physical country of their own with cohesive infrastructure, it can be difficult to grasp who the Palestinians are, as an ethnicity as well as body with a unique and common nationality. In the face of an ill-defined border, bureaucracy surrounding citizenship and rights to travel are determined by much more arbitrary rules that easily become racist and exclusionary in nature when applied by the IDF. Despite my limited knowledge of the conflict, my time in Hebron made it clear that an institutional change was necessary to ease the tension that permeates every part of the city that I visited. No city that lives under such violent pressure will be able to culturally thrive, and it becomes necessary to work with local groups such as Youth Against Settlement to find a path to creating a livable environment.

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“How to be an Active Outsider” by Maureen Lincke

This past weekend I had my legs waxed with the mother of one of my friends on the Frisbee team. Feeling like an outsider was enhanced by not just a significant language barrier, but also by the fact that I had never had anything waxed before. Neither my friend’s mother, Hind, nor the woman who came to her home to do the waxing spoke English, but the experience of waxing for the first time has the effect of making fast friends with the other people in the room and the barrier was secondary to the feeling of vulnerability. Without going into details about waxing which I assume is painful regardless of where one is in the world, the experience was extremely fun and challenging to my conception of “outsider vs. insider.”

Maybe I had thought that going to a woman’s home in Jordan to get my legs waxed with her would serve as a suitable initiation into becoming an insider to women’s culture in Jordan, but I can’t say I feel any more enlightened. These experiences are vital to my schema for Arabic language, but in the fluid entity that defines culture, there is not a clear path to becoming an “insider” to any of the societal sects. As an Arabic language-learner, it seems to me currently that mastering Arabic fluency is the key to becoming an “insider.” But this brings to light an important question of definitional clarity, and I’m not sure I know how to define an “insider” of Jordanian culture. Hypothetically, if I was to one day master perfect fluency of Arabic, and spoken Jordanian Arabic, it is true that my place in Jordanian society would widen with increased conversational opportunity. But it seems as though the facts of my experience will automatically place me in a position of “outsider” to Jordanian culture.

My experience with waxing my legs, while relatively awkward and illustrative of my present outsider status due to an inability to converse in Arabic, was actually a positive experience with defining myself as an outsider. As an outsider, there are ways to present myself as a passive learner and ways to present myself as an active learner, and this differentiation seems more important than that of outsider vs. insider. There’s not a way for me to come off as Jordanian, even in the multitude of presentations that identity can take, because I don’t speak Arabic. Confronted with this fact, it becomes important to become an active outsider to Jordanian culture by watching interactions and engaging in conversations in ways that don’t involve complex language. The most wonderful discovery I have made about being an outsider is that language isn’t always necessary to interact with other people, or that sometimes a single word can get your point across. This is how I have gone about becoming knowledgeable about culture, by actively listening to the conversations around me. And this is how I can present myself as an active member of Jordanian society, even if I cannot become an insider.

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“The Simple Accomplishments of Learning Arabic” by Maureen Lincke

What is most remarkable about learning a language is being forced to restart a very basic form of human communication. There is an initial feeling of excitement and eagerness to dive into something new, and then there is an uncomfortably intimate moment where the language opens up details of your personality that are connected to how you use language. So, for example, I consider myself personable and good at meaningful small talk, but without the Arabic language tools, I have found myself facing the fact that I am unavoidably awkward and a little cold in all my interactions.

On Monday morning, I do not have Arabic lessons so I like to walk to the coffee shop that is close to my house and Skype my sister. Getting to coffee shops early, within the first thirty minutes of the opening, has always been the best time to get to a coffee shop because the coffee is fresh, it’s quiet, and I’m the only one using the wifi so the connection is fast. If there is no one else in the coffee shop though, it becomes much more necessary to make a little bit of small talk with the barista. On one particular morning, I ordered a latte and a cookie but I couldn’t think of a single topic of conversation that I could maintain. I know plenty of ways to ask for directions to my house, ask for change, or say ‘spicy chicken’ but none of these topics merited any relevance that morning in the coffee shop so I just stood there and tried to telepathically communicate small talk to reestablish the comfortable quiet of the morning.

It’s not easy being abroad and realizing I’m playing into an American stereotype by speaking very very poor Arabic, but it’s made better by an encouraging teacher and by days where I flawlessly direct taxi drivers to AMIDEAST. I am surrounded by Arabic-speaking people who are willing to interpret my haphazardly strung together words, and for this, I am grateful. It has helped me come much further than I did in the first month of learning French in high school because I am surrounded by opportunities to practice. I find, despite how elementary my Arabic is, the more I attempt to blunder my way through an interaction in Arabic, the more encouraged I become. Regardless of how useless the interaction is, I am much more pleased by simple accomplishments and simply recalling a word spontaneously almost ensures my ability to permanently add it to my vocabulary. I am grateful for the simple pleasure of recalling the word for ‘banana milkshake’ in the middle of a restaurant, even if that’s all I can order for myself.

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“Art in Amman: the Familial Photographs of Karimeh Abbud” by Maureen Lincke

Yesterday my roommate and I had some time to explore Amman and happened to stumble upon the Khalid Shoman Foundation, which is an art gallery near Paris circle. It was an amazing area and we were able to see three exhibits, distinct from one another by separate buildings. The main exhibit was Desert Soundcapes by Ammar Khammash who “explores the landscape of Jordan and Palestine to unearth a hidden order, a secret code, or an undiscovered musical scale hidden in the millions of flints in the desert” (Sahel Al Hiyari, exhibit curator).

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My favorite exhibit, however, were photographs taken by the first Arab woman photographer, Karimeh Abbud. Her photographs document her life in Palestine during the British Mandate–around 1920-1930–and was such a compelling view of the everyday life of a Palestinian. Because Abbud advertised herself as a family photographer, her photos are intimate and honest in a way staged photographs from that time are not. Her photographs are staged, but there is an unmistakable familiarity between the photographer and her subjects, which is different from the stiff black and white portraits that share no relationship with the photographer or, by extension, the viewer.

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The familiar lifestyle of a home in Palestine was not a part of the images I have seen of Palestine up until this point and I felt so delighted to look at the playful snapshots captured by Abbud. Knowing the everyday, even mundane, parts of life is the most vital, and the most overlooked part of the history of a people. So upon walking into the exhibit, I was so grateful to have the opportunity to see the work of a woman deeply connected to the home lives of Palestinians before the country transformed forever into the complex political question-mark I know it as today. Especially in the context of my classes (The Arab-Israeli Relations), it is easy to become caught up in the historical tragedy, or the violence produced, and put this as context for every Palestinian. Although it is a sad story, the political realities are not wholly representative of the memory of Palestine. There are very real memories of holidays, food, school, and friends that also shape the history in addition to the British Mandate, which are so well captured by Abbud’s photography.

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There were books documenting the other exhibits hosted by the gallery, and the overwhelming majority were Arab artists entrenched in what it means to be Arab, or Muslim, or Palestinian, or of some other Middle Eastern identity, in the present context. This is the first art gallery I have seen so far, but I really hope to come back and see all the other exhibits they host because of the unique intimacy offered by art, especially politically driven art. And, as Edward Saaid might say, everything is political because everything produced by humans is done so in the context of a culture with a political structure that influences that work, often subconsciously. My classes are going to be wonderful and I am really looking forward to them, but these art exhibits supplement my knowledge of individual stories that are often missed when learning an entire history of a group of people. In other words, I am so grateful I was able to see such happy snapshots of everyday life for Karimeh Abbud in the midst of reading about the contentious history of the British mandate. Life continues to go on, even in the slow process of a politically changing landscape.

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“Reflections at the Dead Sea” by Quinn Stevenson

As I start looking for plane tickets back to the US, it’s slowly sinking in that my abroad semester is coming to an end. At the end of April we had our last excursion to the Biblical sites in Jordan. We went to Mount Nebo, the Jordan River, and the Baptism Site of Jesus. It was so amazing to learn all the history and religious meanings that are entwined with these places. We finished our excursion with a night at a Dead Sea Resort. With finals and the program end approaching, it was a great opportunity to have fun with everyone for the last time.

While at the resort, we also began abroad reflections. Trying to list my most overwhelming and most successful moments in Jordan brought to light the lessons I’ve learned from Amman and Amideast. Unsurprisingly, both of these moments involved Arabic. My very first Arabic lesson was terrifying; it hit me all at once how I wouldn’t be able to communicate. In contrast, my most successful moment was when I defied my own expectations. When my taxi driver got lost one time, I not only navigated us to my home stay but also directed him entirely in Arabic.

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Comparing these moments in the semester, my opposing lowest and highest points, has taught me something universal. That the more imposing a task seems in the beginning signifies how more satisfying the reward will be in the end. I’m hopeful that remembering this lesson will motivate me to continue studying Arabic in the US.

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“My Arabic Journey – Expressions and Prepositions” by Quinn Stevenson

“How’s the Arabic going?” It seems like every time I talk to someone at home, they ask this question. “Well…” I pause, “It’s certainly going. All the time.”

When I wrote my very first blog post in December before I left for Jordan, I described my biggest concerns about living in Amman. More than anything else, I was worried about Arabic. I felt really unprepared to be moving to a country where I didn’t know a single word of the language. When I first arrived in Amman, I was overwhelmed with all the street and building sings. Everything was completely in Arabic. Everyone else in the program was sounding out street signs, and I was struggling to distinguish letters.

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Reflecting back to that day shows me how much I have learned.  Today we received our last and final Arabic quiz back. It stuns me to realize that 3 months ago, I couldn’t say hello or even recognize Arabic letters. Now I’m writing sentences and attempting to write a paragraph. Certainly, they’re simple sentences and it was a 4 sentence paragraph, but that’s still quite a lot of change.

The most interesting aspect I’ve learned about my Arabic development is that I’m oddly more comfortable speaking than writing. This is the exact reverse of all my previous language study. I attribute this comfortability solely to living with the language and culture. Without realized it, I’ve adapted to Jordan by learning survival words.

This past week, our Women in Islam class took a field trip to visit various Qur’anic sites and different mosques in Amman. We ate homemade makluba—oh, how I love makluba!—and have a picnic in the park. While we were eating our professor said to us “Sahtein.” It took me a while to catch on, but this is a cultural expression Jordanians say around meals that means vaguely “on your health.” The customary response is “Allah ‘al-bik.” Which means “same to you.” It’s extremely rewarding though that while I may not always know what to say in our Arabic class, I’ve picked up the cultural Arabic expressions that I could appropriately respond to my professor.  It’s a level of participation in the culture I never expected to gain and I have only my host family to thank.

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“Families and Olives: Surprises in Jordan” by Quinn Stevenson

Marhaba! I didn’t mention it, but my last entry about Wadi Rum and Petra was actually written while I was on Spring Break in India. That really shows how fast this semester is going, midterms, Southern Excursion, Spring Break…it’s all flying by so fast!

While writing about Petra in my hostel in Mumbai, I realized I had talked more about Jordan in India than in Jordan! Whenever I told people that I’ve been living in Jordan, they become immensely curious to hear all about it. Most especially the Americans I met wanted to know how Jordan differs from the US. I found myself reflecting and describing Jordan more in Mumbai than in Amman. As people constantly asked me questions, it made me aware of the different conditions-the city, the culture, the environment-that I had never verbalized before.

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First, Amman is unlike any large capital city I know. Demographically, there are only 6.5 million people living in Jordan. Of these 6.5 million, 4 million live in Amman. Yet despite all the people and congested streets, Amman doesn’t feel that large. My roommate and I live approximately 20 minutes away from the AMIDEAST Center. This seems like a very reasonable commute to me. Yet when I tell any Jordanian I live in Tila ‘al ‘Ali, they’ll cry “Oh! So far!” It’s certainly a city, but Jordanians think of Amman as a town where everything is so close.

Second, American and Jordanian cultures are extremely different due to their different focuses. American culture tends to be very individualist. By contrast, Jordanian culture tends to be very family oriented. Certainly this can be exemplified by how often families meet. A few entries ago, I described my host family and their routine family gatherings. I’ve since learned how much family gatherings are a staple of Jordanian culture. While my host family gathers every Thursday night, I recently attended my language partner’s family gathering on a Friday afternoon. Compared to my host family, this gathering was gigantic. There was at least 45 people in attendance. Her aunt set up two rooms and dining tables full of food. So many people attended that my language partner genuinely didn’t know everyone.

Through these small instances you really learn how central and important family is to Jordanian life. My host father once remarked that he hadn’t seen his family in so long! It had been about 12 hours, he joked.

Environmentally, the culture prioritizes two things: water and olive oil. Similar to all of the Middle East and desert environments, water is extremely precious. Most homes have a large water tank that is filled up once a week. In our home stay, the water tank is filled up every weekend and meant to last for the week. This causes everyone to be very conscious of their water usage. My roommate and I take extremely short showers and my host mom limits laundry to once a week. Drinking water is even more precious. Faucet water isn’t safe to drink so most Amideast students carry disposable water bottles everywhere. Fortunately, these water bottles are very cheap in most stores and you can buy a one liter bottle for 1 JD.

The second part of the environment and culture that surprised me was the prominence of olive oil. Olive trees are a staple part of Middle Eastern landscape. When we went to Ajloun, our tour guide deliberately took us to an overlook to see a view of the olive trees. Here is a photo of the trees I took below. Due to its re-occurrence in the landscape, olive oil factors extensively into Jordanian/Arab cuisine. From foul to hummus to baba ganoush to fatteh, olive oil is a core ingredient staple. All of these foods I’ve mentioned are dishes that incorporate a significant amount of olive oil. They’re traditionally eaten with pita and are delicious. There are so many differences Jordan and the US, but the city, the culture, and the environment stick out as the most memorable and interesting.

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