“New Views from Petra” by Quinn Stevenson

“What did you do last week?”

“Oh you know, study Arabic, see one the 7 wonders of the world…how’s home?”

That’s how I casually played off going to Petra last week. We have officially passed the midway point of our semester abroad. It’s odd to realize that I’ve been living in Amman for two months. Yet with the halfway point here, both midterms and the Southern Excursion have arrived. Last week, we went on the Southern Excursion which included an overnight stay in Wadi Rum and a day trip to Petra. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in Jordan

In Wadi Rum, we went on a two-hour Jeep tour through the desert. I never thought a desert could be beautiful,Entry 6 - Photo 1.JPG but Wadi Rum proved me wrong. At the same time, it’s hard not to observe the poverty. Often during our drive to Wadi Rum, our tour guide would mention where we were passing through at the moment. To me, it wouldn’t seem like a town, but just a few tourist shops. Similarly in Wadi Rum, there’s mainly only tourist cams. Deeper into the desert, we saw numerous people with extremely minimal living conditions. It’s striking how going to the desert is what reminds me of the disparity between Jordanians. Certainly we’ve seen the wealth differences in Amman, but outside the city the poverty is much more visible.

We drove around for hours taking constant photos of rock formations and the solo tire tracks of our Jeep. At last we settled at one place to enjoy tea and watch the sunset behind the rocks. This photo below is of the Wadi Rum sunset.

The next day we started the commute to Petra. Having seen the iconic photo of Petra on every Jordanian tourist book, I thought I knew what to expect. I was completely wrong. The city is so much more vast and nuanced than I could have imagined. Our guide walked us through the narrow rock formations and gave us details about every small carving, such as who made it and its meaning. We spent so long weaving through rock formations that I was quite surprised when the trail suddenly expanded to show the Treasury. Arash, our guide, was able to give us numerous details about the building. For example, it was actually carved from the stone itself. The foresight and immense skill required for carving these structures makes the city all the more impressive.

However, my favorite part of the excursion was the long hike to the Monastery. In a completely separate part of the city from the Treasury, there is a wide uphill trail leading to the Monastery, much less famous ruin. What’s amazing about the Monastery is how it was carved similar to the Treasury, despite its isolated location. The hike up the path takes about 20 minutes and is approximately 800 steps. It’s impressive to imagine the Nabataeans using this path to transport their labor and tools to carve out the Monastery.

When my friend and I reached the top of the path, it felt deserted compared to the Treasury. There was nearly no one around. The complete lack of people and it’s distance from the rest of the city, make the Monastery feel like a hidden gem in giant tourist attraction.Entry 6 - Photo 2.JPGAdditionally, the views from the Monastery stretched out forever above the city and rock formations.  It was an absolutely amazing sight and so peaceful. I truly loved this excursion. Wadi Rum and Petra are absolute must see visits for anyone travelling to Jordan.

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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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“Arab Cuisine: More than Falafel and Hummus” by Quinn Stevenson

The day before I left for Jordan, one of my close friends asked me “What is Jordanian food like?” I had to admit that I had no idea. Would there be falafel and hummus everywhere?  Whenever I had envisioned living in Jordan, I had never pictured food. I arrived to Amman with absolutely no expectations of Jordan food. Luckily, my host mom is an amazing cook. She quickly introduced me to the variety and flavors of Arabic cuisine.

There have been numerous delicious meals, but my I particularly love kushari and makluba. Kushari is an Egyptian dish of macaroni, rice, lentils, and a spiced tomato sauce. My favorite though is the traditional Jordanian makluba. Makluba in Arabic translates to “upside down” which describes how it is made. Chicken, rice, and vegetables are packed tight in a pot and flipped “upside down” onto a serving platter. It’s an intimidating dish and usually stands between 6-12 inches tall.

Unfortunately, I’m never fast enough to get a photo of makluba. This photo shows the table of food offered at the student-faculty dinner AMIDEAST hosts every semester.

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However, my favorite aspect of the food in Jordan is learning the cultural practices that are attached to the food. Such as when and why they are eaten. In my experience, makluba is not a typical everyday dinner. It’s meant for an event. For example, my host family and their extended relatives routinely gather every Thursday night. Often there is a giant platter of makluba served. This one chicken and rice dish will serve between 12-25+ people and leave everyone satisfied.

This shows how Jordanian culture can also be reflected in their food. Makluba is a traditional and cultural dish. Its giant size reflects the familial and hospital characteristics of Jordan lifestyle. It’s meant for large gatherings, particularly with family or guests.

This photo shows a cup of mint tea that that is routinely offered everywhere in Jordan.

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Additionally, tea or mint tea is a constant. Regular Lipton black tea with added mint leaves, “chi nana” is a delicious. My host mother likes to serve mint tea at family gatherings as a regular post dinner beverage. Or often, someone will offer Arabic coffee. Arabic coffee is similar in many ways to Turkish coffee. It’s very strong and poured into very tiny cups. In our very first week of classes, one of our professors brought Arabic coffee to welcome us to Jordan. She went through an extensive ritual of pouring us coffee and explaining the smallest nuances of how one drinks the coffee. Such as how coffee is traditionally only served or accepted with the right hand. Or how to decline another cup, one would gently shake it back and forth.

Every day, I’m trying new food in Jordan. It’s interesting to constantly note small or large differences in the food and the food culture. At the very least, when I return home I can tell my friend that Jordanian food is more than just falafel and hummus. Its large meals accompanied by numerous people and constant cups of mint tea.

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Curiosity and Culture Beyond the Classroom by Quinn Stevenson

The one month mark has officially passed! Yesterday marked the official full month that I’ve spent in Jordan. It’s unreal that I’ve been here for so long already. Yet this afternoon, I directed my cab driver down a backroad route to my home stay in only Arabic. We even conversed in mixed Arabic and English to discuss his family in Jordan and America. While Jordan still feels new and exciting, I’ve started to settle into my life here.

One of the most interesting aspects of this past month is people’s curiosity about why I’m here. Peers, taxi drivers, professors and even strangers always ask me “Why did you come to Jordan?” Usually they’re satisfied when I say I came to learn Arabic. Last week however I was leaving a café in Jabal al Weibdeh and my taxi driver probed a little further. Why did I want to learn Arabic, why did I need to know it?

 

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I described to him how since I study Middle Eastern politics, I know it’s important to study the culture and language too. My liberal arts education has taught me to value the relationship between different fields and disciplines. This valuing of curiosity and knowledge was very influential for me to come the MENA region. I was also eager to be challenged in a non-Western environment. I also really value personal growth from uncomfortable or new situations. Thankfully, there has already been a lot of growth in the last month which has been very beneficial.

A huge benefit of studying in the Middle East is being able to learn about this region in a non-academic setting.  In only a month, I’ve had countless conversations on very serious, thoughtful, and controversial topics with people I just met. For example, last week I spoke extensively about the differences, real and perceived, between Christianity and Islam with my language partner. Or the week before when my host sister and I spent 2 hours discussing the creation of Jordan, Iraq, and Syria.

I love having these conversations because they’re so beneficial. I’ve studied the MENA region in numerous classes, but it’s important to learn outside the classroom too. For example, I read about Jordanian hospitality in the Amideast pre-departure guides. Yet personally feeling that hospitality is different than reading about it. Such as when my host mom deliberately makes me a PB&J to make me feel more “at home” here. Studying in the Middle East adds personal connections that facilitate deeper understanding of cultural norms.

 

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Second, through these conversations I’m learning about cultural rituals that I never would study in class. For example, my language partner and I went out for Iraqi cuisine last week. While eating, we started discussing the differences between American and Jordanian dating expectations. She then elaborated on how a couple becomes engaged. Knowing that Arab culture is much more family centered, I expected there would be more family involvement. Yet I was blown away by the depth and the detail to which she described the “courting” process.

Coming to Jordan with this curiosity and interest in culture has helped me engage positively with the Jordanians I meet. Further, meeting and speaking with Jordanians has benefited me immensely in opening my eyes to cultural nuances I wouldn’t read in a textbook. It’s only been a month, but I’m already anticipating future cultural dialogues and experiences.

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“Arabic Lessons from a 5-Year-Old” by Quinn Stevenson

Marhaba! Kefik?  It’s been almost three weeks since I arrived in Jordan. Amman is still quite new, but I’m slowly settling in. The first part of “settling in” to Amman was moving in with my host family. My host family lives in Tila` al `Ali, a neighborhood in Amman about 20 minutes away from AMIDEAST and the Abdoun neighborhood. My host father works at Apple and my host mother is a teacher. They have three daughters, aged 15, 5, and 3. What I love most about living with my host family is how they turn any day into a cultural and learning experience.

When I wake up in the morning, only the 5 and 3-year-olds are awake watching cartoons. I’ll eat breakfast with them and try to converse in my limited Arabic. My 5 year old host sister laughs at my Arabic and tries to correct me. Currently, I’m struggling to pronounce the “kh” sound in “Sabah Al-khayr” which means “Good Morning.” In my defense, the Arabic “kh” sound does not exist in the English language. My Arabic professor says it takes time to say the “kh” sound naturally and it’s only been a week since I learned it.

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After class, I return home for family dinner. My host mom is a fantastic cook. I’m always eating seconds and thirds of some mysterious Arab meal. Occasionally, I’ll remember the name of one especially tasty dish. My favorite so far is kushari, a traditional Egyptian dish. Kushari is made of rice, macaroni, lentils, and a spicy tomato sauce. Dinner table conversation usually switches between Arabic and English by everyone. I’ve started to actively listen for any Arabic words or phrases I might know. Last night my host father said “ma ba3rif” while watching the news which means “I don’t know.” He was amused by my happiness over this simple expression. Since I still don’t know the alphabet, recognizing Arabic words in a conversation is super exciting.

Another great part of a host family is experiencing their culture. One difference between Jordanian and American culture is the importance of family. Every Thursday the whole extended family gets together. Last week I counted between 25 people crowded into my host aunt’s living room! A giant dish of rice and chicken is served for dinner and then strong Jordanian coffee. Everyone spends hours talking and eating together. In my first 4 days with my host family, there were three family gatherings!

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The opportunity to live with a host family is one of my favorite parts of studying abroad. My host family gives me a chance to really press in and constantly engage in Jordanian culture. I’m learning more Arabic every day. Additionally, I’m slowly learning the small and large cultural differences. Such as the huge emphasis they place on family. Or my host mother’s emphasis on raising multilingual children. Did I mention in addition to Arabic and English, the girls are also learning French? My host family is my window into Jordanian life and I’m so grateful for this experience.

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