New media and a culture of distracti- Squirrel!

A tweet from Rainn Wilson that appeared while writing this post.

Saturday, June 30, 9 a.m. –

The weekend is here. I don’t have a single commitment until work on Monday morning, and the forecast of rain and thunder means I’m likely to spend a considerable portion of the day on the couch.

But in this media climate, laziness rarely translates into a mental reprieve.

My desktop has several tabs open: a New York Times Magazine article on Hilary Clinton, a New Yorker piece examining of our reputation as the “entitlement generation,” and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial essay in The Atlantic about progress for modern women. A notification appears for one of my three email accounts; Google Reader offers updates from favorite blogs about PR, soccer and international affairs; and Twitter sits to the side, smoothly updating as brands and companies around the world add to the live stream. I shuffle between iTunes and Spotify to find a relaxing playlist while I write this post. Silence is not an option.

Glancing over at my iPhone on the table, I consider connecting the HDMI cable that allows me to stream video from my laptop to a small Samsung TV across the room. In the absence of a monthly cable subscription, I rely heavily on services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and – when those platforms aren’t enough – shady pirated streams from TV-links.com or surfthechannel.com. I don’t remember the last full movie I watched at home, but TV shows offer a more manageable alternative anyway. Mad Men and Game of Thrones never last more than an hour, and certain comedies will occupy just 20 minutes of my time.

Two books on the coffee table wait to be finished, their pages bunny-eared part of the way through. I’ve tried to focus on the text, but my mind tends to wander, craving something new and different after just a few pages.

In 2012, the sprawling landscape of technology and media is only exceeded by our own insatiable thirst for content. Type, click, swipe, scroll – with a few simple motions, I can transfer my attention among open tabs as quickly as it takes the machine to respond. StumbleUpon is the ultimate manifestation of our generation’s behavior online – simply add interests, click a button, and let the website bring page after page of unrelated content to you.

This ‘crisis of attention’ has drawn more interest in recent years, with Joe Kraus the most recent to challenge our notion of multi-tasking as a cultural ideal:

“Some people call switching our attention between things that vie for it “multi-tasking”. Like we’re a computer with dual cores running two simultaneous processes…Except that we’re not. Numerous brain-imaging studies have shown that what we call “multi-tasking” in humans, is not multi-tasking at all. Your brain is merely trying to rapidly switch its attention between two tasks. Back and forth, as quickly as it can.

It’s shown not only that we’re dumber when we do this (an average of 10 IQ points dumber – that’s the same as pulling an all-nighter.), but that we’re also 40% less efficient at whatever it is we’re doing.”

It’s proven that our ability to retain information is significantly reduced when it arrives through a digital medium. When we search for an answer on Google, our brain internalizes how to get the answer again rather than what the answer actually is. There is no incentive to remember content when it’s just a click away.

I just finished reading Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a book written in 1985 about our society’s gradual shift towards a “culture of distraction.” Television was the new, disruptive medium at the time, but the Internet has reinforced his important message. From the prologue:

“We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares. 

Visual representation of the contrast between Orwell and Huxley.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. 

As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

I read Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” as a companion to Postman’s examination. Where Postman offers a bemused and sarcastic tone to mock our complacency, Huxley’s warnings remain dark and ominous. They are much more real than 1984’s dystopia, and the consequences far more difficult to undo.

I’ve grown fonder of and more dependent on print media. Text and images remain neatly ordered on the page, so when I tear myself away from Wi-Fi and set aside the iPhone, I can fully engage the content in front of me. I still write to-do lists and take notes by hand, fully aware that this muscle memory is always more powerful than keystrokes on a laptop. And after spending eight hours each day in front of a computer screen for work, the last thing I want to do is sit down in front of another desktop.

Newspapers, magazines, books, notepads and pens – tangible items composed of merely paper and ink – must remain primary tools we use to consume knowledge. The Internet can unlock new ways to access that information. But if we are to internalize the content needed to inform and improve our world, it’s imperative that we also find a way to escape from our gluttonous culture of popular news and instant gratification.

It’s so very wrong to see a 140-character post about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes among reports of a fresh massacre in Syria. Because in that moment, the two items are equal in importance – the death of innocent civilians relegated to the same status as celebrity gossip.

Not every news bulletin is meant to be entertaining. Not every headline needs a sound effect to cue the appropriate emotion from viewers. And not every story can be told in 140 characters.

By all means, indulge – the internet is an incredible place with much to offer. But on occasion, also make that concerted, conscious effort to unplug and step away.

I will continue to immerse myself in the digital world: I love the ability to navigate several different tabs at once. And I love juggling my Twitter feed, music playlists, incoming text messages and podcast highlights of Morning Joe simultaneously. It opens a world that didn’t exist for past generations and offers new and exciting ways to learn. But for precisely that reason – because I love the controlled chaos of my personalized media experience – I will also turn it off, pick up a book and retreat to the park for an afternoon. Find a balanced regimen and stick to it. Creativity and inspiration tend to strike in moments of complete solitude or in spaces void of distraction – in the shower, for example.

We have a responsibility as intelligent, capable beings to resist and escape. If we fail to do so, we are bound to wake up one day to find ourselves in that brave new world envisaged by Huxley, shackled by our “infinite appetite for distraction” and paralyzed into inaction. As appealing as a culture of “feelies, orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy” may sound, it is not the world to which we should aspire.

Unless, of course, we sell and market it as “iWorld.” Because that would just be too awesome. 

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I’ll have what she’s having

Airport performance is evaluated by departure data, while airlines are ranked by accurate arrivals. CCOs will use Medicaid as a pilot program but expand to accommodate a larger population if the transition from the FFS model is successful. Microsites can be valuable to a large brand that needs to distinguish unique services or cater to a specific demographic. For the first time ever, the Oregon Food Bank distributed more than 1 million emergency food boxes to families in need.   

That was likely the most disjointed statement you’ll read all day. So if you’re sitting there scratching your head and trying to connect the dots, you can stop. It’s not supposed to follow any pattern or logic.

Oddly enough, that’s how a typical day at a public relations agency tends to unfold. We constantly shift gears to accommodate new assignments, as these tiny nuggets of information organize to form a collective whole. Though my agency covers everything from health care reform to the airline industry, we must develop an expertise in the product or service offered by each individual client.  The success of a campaign depends upon nuanced research and a relentless pursuit of information – not to mention the occasional ability to “fake it.”

I don’t mean to imply that everyone in our industry feigns proficiency at his or her job. To effectively represent a client and communicate its value to stakeholders, you cannot get by on mere pretense. In fact, the professionals with whom I’ve interacted are all incredibly talented and dedicated to their work. They each possess the motivation and patience to succeed, understanding that the learning process is not a static, meaningless endeavor. It will be overwhelming at times, but re-education is vital to the comprehensive – if fragmented – knowledge that clients expect of their public relations team.

This is a beautiful thing: It means that each day will feel new. It means that each day will be a challenge. Most importantly, it means that each day you will leave the office a more capable employee than when you arrived that morning.

…Or you could just fake it and count down the minutes until happy hour. 

Image

 

By James Watkins

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The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Rockin' around the Christmas tree...with Ziad

I came home today to find a proper Christmas tree set up in our living room! Okay, fine, it’s fake and I can’t exactly decorate it with my favorite 49ers ornament from home…but still. With just two weeks left now and the departures gate of Queen Alia Airport well within sight, it’s a comfort to know that I’ll soon be on a couch in Rocklin, stuffing my face with Dad’s banana nut bread and Mimi’s fudge….washing it all down with copious amounts of egg nog and drifting in and out of a jet-lagged stupor as I watch the classics like Elf and Love Actually and A Christmas Story. I cannot wait.

But enough fantasizing.

To be honest, the end of the term has come too quick. The chemistry within our small program has never felt so natural, while the early nervousness that accompanied any interaction with a Jordanian has ceded to a sense of confidence and ease. With a research paper deadline and finals drawing near, teachers have worked to accommodate our rising level of stress and frustration. At this point, some classes are merely a time for discussion and banter among the six of us.

I will be sad to see it all draw to a close, but there remains a daunting challenge between now and the 22nd: Finding a way to balance the inevitable study sessions and mounting responsibility with everything I still want to see and do here in Amman. I have yet to see the Dead Sea, while much of Amman remains unexplored, having spent the past few weekends working on research and homework instead. I’m sure my host family understands the situation, but I still feel distant from them after spending a considerable amount of time either away from home or at my desk in my room.

I’m hoping that my search for souvenirs and Christmas gifts for everyone will provide a final glimpse of the city before I leave. If you have any requests, leave me a comment or send an email and I’ll add it to the list! If not, you’ll have to be content with my opinion of what’s interesting and valuable enough to bring back.  There’s an obvious risk involved here – and no assurance you’ll love what you get – but I promise the intent will be genuine. I’m already evaluating what will be left behind to make sure I meet the airline’s size and weight constraints for luggage.

With my host mom, Salam.

As for updates in Jordan, it’s been an exhausting and rewarding few weeks as we begin to wrap it all up. I finished the first draft of my research paper over the weekend – the Public Relations Industry in the Middle East and its Potential for Growth in the Future – and will be defending my work next week in front of a panel of UJ professors. We’re currently rehearsing a play in the local dialect to perform at a dinner next week with our host families and the CIEE staff. And I’m trying to squeeze in time to work at Naseej, working on documents and publicity for a social media workshop they plan to organize this spring. Nevertheless, classes are finished (officially) in two days – and each remaining day involves a free lunch along with review sessions for finals. Score.

Outside of the world of vocab and grammar and economics and identity crises and phosphate companies, Jordan has also managed to provide some great memories with both American and Jordanian friends recently. Thanksgiving was spent at the home of a US Embassy employee – the generous aunt of one student in our program – who embraced the Jordanian tradition of far too much food and hospitality, with four turkeys and an entire table of various desserts for the guests. I can officially say I carved my first thanksgiving turkey….in Jordan. Go figure. We celebrated Josh’s 20th birthday the next night at a local bar (it is possible to find a beer in Jordan, if you know where to look). Meanwhile, in a divine act of fate, I met a Jordanian who lived in Liverpool for the past three years and attended every home game last season. We spent several nights at Sports Café and watched our Reds beat Chelsea twice at Stamford Bridge and tie table-toppers Man City at home.

In other news, I still love my Ducks – even after waking up at 3 a.m. to watch the frustrating loss to USC a few weeks ago. With Ziad obviously asleep in the same room, I did my best to silence the stream of profanity that tended to follow each disappointing play.  At the end of the day, I’m just grateful that I can come home to watch at least one Oregon game on real TV – that it happens to be the Rose Bowl is just that much better.

I am still trying to get a hold of pictures from Palestine so that I can finally post a summary on Part II of the Eid vacation. In sha’ allah, I will take care of that very soon. Chances are I will be in a fairly unpredictable state for the next 15 days as I confront the reality of finals week and try my best to cope with the reality of this experience finally winding to an end. Either way, the magnitude of it all is certain to do strange things to my mood – but hey, that’s a just natural side-effect of the inevitably warped sleep patterns, right? After all, it’s a comfort to know that all my friends at university back home are dealing with the same thing.

Best of luck to all with Dead Weeks, shopping traffic, travel arrangements and all the other not-so-glamorous parts of the holiday season! Enjoy the next few weeks and I will see you all very soon.

James

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The Eid Part I: Blitzing Beirut

Objective: Do as much as possible.

Strategy: Sleep as little as possible.

The self-proclaimed “Paris of the Middle East,” Beirut welcomed us with open arms and an immediate reprieve from the daily routine in Amman. We arrived on Thursday night in a torrential downpour that forced all of us off the street and into the hotel’s small reception office – immediately foiling our plan to sneak three more people into the reserved two-person room. (We’re poor college students, you can’t possibly expect us to accept the luxury of individual beds when we can save money by sleeping on the floor!) Thus, we met our first challenge: After caving in and accepting two rooms for the first night, we were on our own the next day with no plans or reservations for the next four nights. Luckily, there was a cancellation at the hotel down the street and we were much more strategic about sneaking the extra guests in. Once settled into the alleyway hotel in the heart of Hamra district – with a trifecta of bars directly below our bedroom window – we were able to get on with the vacation…

We spent the first afternoon walking around the American University at Beirut, a gorgeous campus that would shame

We played until we got kicked off the field for wearing jeans and no shoes.

most colleges stateside. Since the University of Jordan in Amman could easily be mistaken for Sierra College in Rocklin, we spent most of the visit in awe of a Middle Eastern campus nestled into green hills of trees and plants. And there was grass! Grass! We wandered down to the turf soccer field, which opens up to a panoramic view of the Mediterranean, and kicked the ball around with some students who live in the dorms on campus. As liberal as the area seemed at times, the university does have separate dorms for women and most students who live off-campus reside with their families in the city.

On Saturday, we took a taxi out to Jeita Grotto north of the city. A nominee in the “New Seven Wonders” competition, the pair of caves is one of the primary tourist destinations in Lebanon. Unfortunately, you’ll have to look up photos online because cameras weren’t allowed inside. I felt like I was on a movie set the entire time, with strategic lighting and all of the stalactites and stalagmites and…uh, that’s the extent of my elementary school knowledge of caves. The lower portion is full of water, so tourists are taken on boats through the cave. We made plenty of jokes about Lebanon reveling in its underground lakes – with water seeping out of the walls and ceilings of the caves – while Jordanians struggle to cope with the severe water shortage in their own country. Though photos weren’t allowed inside, we have plenty outside the caves. The views were spectacular, with steep, green hills separated by a powerful stream that rushed west toward the Mediterranean.

Cable cars to the upper cave.

In an attempt to save money, we decided to take a bus back into the city instead of a taxi. After explaining our destination and receiving confirmation from the driver, we spent 10 minutes in the same traffic circle as he yelled at fellow drivers and pedestrians. And apparently the most efficient way to navigate this route was through a deserted parking lot with what can only be described as a small pond in the middle. So, we learned that service buses in Lebanon have the required capacity to ford a solid foot or two of standing water. We were finally dropped off at “Hamra” and realized that we were nowhere close to our hotel, only returning after an hour or two of walking in which we got turned around several times and became increasingly dependent on advice from local vendors. Don’t worry through, strength in numbers.

Sunday was our big exercise day I suppose, as we spent the entire afternoon wandering around Beirut with no particular destination or sense of purpose. We began from the Corniche, the waterfront path filled with people at all hours of the day and night, and walked towards the downtown area. Without warning, we walked past the St. George Hotel, where explosives equal to 1000 kg of TNT had been detonated in the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in 2006. The crater it left in the street had since been repaired, but the hotel itself was completely dormant, with its face still covered in construction tarps. I didn’t see the memorial statue to the left of the building, but it was impossible to miss the massive “Stop Solidere” banner on the right side – a reference to the Hariri’s company and the bitter legal battle over rights to develop the waterfront property.  We continued on through the city, passing dozens of modern high-rise towers and expensive cars parked along the streets. The red Mazerati and gorgeous Audi R8 managed to stand out from the countless Mercedes’ and BMW’s. Yet in a city that has seen more than its share of war in the past several decades, the evidence of violence was unmistakable; the new and old are all sandwiched together into the same piece of land sticking out into the Mediterranean. We turned down several streets to face buildings with bullet-ridden walls and empty window frames. The seriously damaged Holiday Inn Hotel – a central location in the Battle of the Hotels at the outbreak of civil war in 1975 – rises above most buildings in the district, a visible reminder of the threat of violence in this fragile country.  On a whim, we decided to turn off the street into a local church, the traffic and people outside immediately silenced. We sat down on the pews to take it all in, overcome by the peacefulness of its gorgeous interior.

Walking along the Corniche towards the sunset.

We walked back to the west of the city and watched the sunset over the Mediterranean, with the Corniche becoming more and more crowded as darkness began to creep over the city. Small fireworks were lit on the sidewalk and out over the water, as families brought picnic dinners out to the benches and couples strolled along for a romantic evening together. We saw girls in hijabs roller-blading by and adults power-walking between the crowds, both impossible feats in the dangerous streets of Amman. Though things tend to quiet down in the late afternoon, nighttime sees a re-emergence of life and energy in the city. Since our evening wouldn’t begin for several hours, we found a small French restaurant on the water for a delicious seafood dinner.

After rendezvousing with the rest of our group at the hotel, we took cabs to a popular club to enjoy our last full night in the city.  Upon returning around four in the morning, we picked up breakfast and went back down to the Corniche to watch the sunrise. Eager to take advantage of the little time we had left in the country, we found a taxi to take us to the civil war museum and were treated to a gorgeous morning drive through the hills outside the city. We passed a number of small villages with Muslim families outside preparing their lamb for the Eid al-Adha feast that night. The museum held a number of real artifacts from the wars – including destroyed helicopters, tanks and missiles – and our taxi driver gave us a personal tour of the location, including a tunnel used to move militants and equipment during the conflict. Though I’m sure we looked a bit out of place – we were the only visitors at those early hours – everyone was exceedingly kind. Our driver must have enjoyed our company and ability to converse in Arabic, as he offered to take us to the airport early the next morning as well, blowing kisses as we exited the taxi.

Syrian mountains barely visible in the distance.

In the afternoon, we waited over two hours to ride the telefrique, a cable car from Jounieh to the mountain peak that holds the Lady of Lebanon. Though I spent my time in line sandwiched between Arab men who grew increasingly impatient with the snail’s pace at which we were moving, it turned out to be well worth the wait. We had arrived around 2 p.m., but our ascent in the cable car coincided perfectly with another gorgeous sunset over the water. The basilica atop the hill was exceptional and the views of the Mediterranean and surrounding coastal cities were the most memorable from the entire trip. Having been awake for 38 hours – and knowing that we’d made the most of our time in Beirut – we reluctantly packed our things and caught a short night of sleep before leaving for the airport at 6 a.m. the next morning.

It took me less than two hours on Friday to realize that I’d completely fallen in love with Lebanon. Though Amman will always be my first home in the Middle East, it simply cannot compete with the beauty of Beirut. From the lush, green hills above the city, we could look west to the Mediterranean and east to the snow-covered mountains of Syria, appreciative that Assad’s repressive violence hadn’t crept over the border just yet. After all, Lebanon has already suffered through more than its share of conflict in the past century – see Sabra and Chatila or the Civil War of 1975-1990 – and the liberal culture is balanced by the lingering tensions in the country. While the ghosts of its past warn against another slip into sectarian violence, Beirut still manages to epitomize everything that’s good about multiculturalism. We were able to use Arabic in taxis, French in restaurants and English at the bars. We met college students from Saudi Arabia eager to exchange phone numbers and Facebook information. We could stay out all night and hear DJs sample Bay Area rap, yet take a taxi immediately after and witness a display of weapons and machinery from a war that had raged just five years earlier in the same place.

It was strange to experience this range of human nature in such a short period of time and within such a small space of land, but I suppose that was the real value of the trip. My experience in Lebanon wasn’t about political coalitions or foreign occupation or sectarian violence – though all very real factors in its national identity – but about the brief interactions we had with all of the Lebanese people in their tiny country. Considering these positive interactions and the huge potential for future growth in the city, I have every intention of getting back….as soon as possible.

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The Rural Retreat. And More!

This way to Artemis...

Just a short blurb here about Jerash, which was a tad soured by the fact that I was missing the Liverpool and Manchester United match while we took our sweet time through ancient castles and Roman ruins. The temples of Zeus and Artemis – or what’s left of them – were particularly impressive, as was the main circle in the city and the iconic entrance gate that remains surprisingly intact. After Jerash, it was a short jaunt over to Ajloun, where we toured the ancient castle that served as an outpost during the crusades for Suleiman’s forces. I appreciated the view from the higher towers, looking out over the relatively green valleys and hills of Ajloun.

On our most program-sponsored outing, we spent five days completely isolated and alone in the wilderness of southern Jordan. In other words, we didn’t have internet access. It was a bit traumatic to ignore news and email completely for a week, but we survived.

Dana

We spent the first two nights in Dana Village, a small outpost that receives funding from the Jordanian government and USAID to operate in a relatively obscure location in the wilderness reserve. Once again, the views were exceptional and I won’t forget our class sessions sitting on the edge of a hill looking out over the valleys below. We spent half a day volunteering at a local school nearby, installing soccer goals, a volley ball net and a basketball hoop in the school yard. We were able to meet all of the kids and talk with them in their classrooms before heading outside for a chaotic and crowded game of soccer. I was amazed by how intelligent some of the girls were – we all got a kick out of one who connected their current lesson about olive trees to the “Jews” occupying land in Palestine – and all of the boys were desperate to know whether we supported Barcelona or Real Madrid. In Jordan, those might as well be the only two teams that exist in the world of soccer.

The following day, we left to camp with a local family in Shobak. With a collection of tents on a hill nearby the ancient crusader castle, the hospitality and generosity from our hosts exceeded anything I’ve experienced so far in Jordan. On top of that, we had a chef who travelled with us and cooked three massive meals every day. I’ve literally never eaten so much food in 5 days. After a full meal of Mansaf, the national dish of Jordan, our host family came into the tent with six or seven plates of cake and sweets for desert. My stomach is still paying the price for it, but it was all delicious and there was no way to turn down such an honest extension of kindness. Speaking of food….

I was finally forced to face the reality of eating meat, as we watched our host kill a lamb and then helped to skin it and prepare the edible parts for our meals. I learned that the sound a lamb makes is eerily similar to the Arabic word for no, which was a bit unsettling. Still, it was a unique experience and I definitely have a greater appreciation for that delicious, juicy protein we love so much. We had the meat for lunch just hours later, made a stew of the organs – including the pancreas and, yes, the testacles – for dinner, and used the head as the center piece for mansaf the following day. I broadened my horizons a bit and tried everything that was served, including the tongue and brain. Not bad for someone who didn’t like tomatoes a year and a half ago.

Tunnel lit up by the camera flash.

We also hiked up to the Shobak Castle, which was used during the crusades in battle and served as a connection point between Jerusalem and Aqaba. The castle itself has deteriorated quite a bit and was difficult to navigate, so the real value of the experience was the secret passageway that leads from the castle to an exit below. The tunnel is closed to average tourists for safety reasons, but Abu Yazen – our personal guide and living legend – led us down the crumbling stairs through a pitch black tunnel, winding through the heart of the hill and emerging at an obscure exit with a ladder to reach the surface once again. As far as adventure goes, it was easily the highlight of the trip so far.

We visited another school in Shobak, which belongs to the family of our poetry professor. The director of the school boasted of having the best student-teacher ratio in the country, with 60 kids to 21 instructors (I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about what that says about the education system here).  We played a soccer game in the school yard for all of the students, Americans against Jordanians, winning 4-1 with a flurry of goals from our Arabic instructor Saleh. After the game, we were able to visit with the kids, who are almost all part of the Al-Saudia tribe that populates most of the small town. From the reception of both the students and staff at the school, it was obvious that it’s not every day a group of Americans just drops in for a visit. It’s just another thing on the itinerary for us, but for these kids, it can leave an important and lasting impression. We all agreed that our visits to the two schools were the best part of the week.

Hike up to the remains of Shobak Castle.

The previous day, we met a local Bedouin man who is 100 years old. Born in Palestine, he worked with Jewish residents for years and insisted that there were no problems until the Haganah began operating in the 30s and 40s. Still, he insisted that he holds no ill-will towards the Jewish people. Married twice with a total 13 kids, his biggest concern is the cost of electricity, an invention that arrived during his own lifetime. When staple foods cost no more than 50 cents, an electricity bill of 30 dollars is incredibly high.

From visiting a man born in 1911 to interacting with children born after 9/11, the common sense of respect and generosity we shared was remarkable. There was absolutely no sense of hostility or discomfort – even for the girls in our group – and I found our interactions with these people more natural and welcoming than in the city. Amidst the constant buzz of traffic and people, foreign tourists and students are nothing new in Amman. Yet our visits to families and schools outside of the large, populated areas have been the most impressionable moments for me over the last few months. With its reputation for delicious food and amazing hospitality, I can understand why tourists may return from Jordan disappointed. It’s impossible to experience these things without venturing off the beaten track and meeting people in places like Dana and Shobak and Ajloun. I’m so grateful to be in a program that gives us the opportunity to do this.

So, I think that’s all for now. The rest of the trip was filled with games, food, music, food, hiking, and more food….and, of course, lots of Arabic. We now enter a full week of multi-day midterms before the Eid Al-Adha break. But once Thursday arrives, I’m off to Beirut for several days and hopefully on to Jerusalem and the West Bank after that. Once the break wraps up on November 13th, I’m a mere 5 weeks from arriving in San Francisco! I cannot believe how fast the term has gone by so far, but I’ll be doing everything I can to slow it down and pack in as much adventure, work and study as I can into this remaining time.

The castle at night.

Arabic word of the day: مساكنة  (masaakna)

All Arabic words are based on three consonants with a basic root meaning.  Depending on the pattern and vowels placed between, the meaning can then change to form nouns and adjectives and other parts of speech. For example, the Arabic letters equivalent to “k-t-b” mean “to write”. Kaatb is writer, maktaba is office and maktoob is written. For the word above, the root is s-k-n, meaning “to live.” Prior to the Arab spring, this form did not exist. But with a new Tunisian initiative that allows men and women to live together without being married, “masaakna” – to live amongst one another, or co-habitate – has been applied to the name of the law. Since our recent additions to English dictionary are usually tech-related terms like “blog” and “Google,” I found it interesting that this addition to the Arabic language is a direct reflection of new freedoms for the Tunisian people.

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Cloudy with a Chance of Meatbal…I Mean, More Carbs

"You mean that was just the first course?"

It’s an overcast day here in Amman, which is a welcome change in my mind at least. Unlike Eugene – where it can go from rain to hail to snow to clear blue skies in the matter of a few hours – the weather here is always a reliable forecast of sun, with temperatures in the upper 80s pretty much every day. A heavy cloud of sand blew in from the desert last week, shrouding the entire city in dust and blocking the sun for a solid two days. Apparently it only happens once or twice a year. So…yeah. Exciting stuff.

I have yet to cave in and buy any real American food here, although I hear the quality of McDonalds, Burger King and Hardee’s exceeds any of the stateside locations. But after scrounging for protein all summer in summer camp cuisine, I’ve found that attempting to eat a protein-rich diet here is even more futile. The nightly dinner is always based on a massive plate of rice (plate – not to be confused with side-dish or bowl). There is usually something to go with it, but that heaping plate of rice is always waiting for me, without fail. Sometimes I don’t even realize there’s chicken with it until I dig an inch in and discover that precious source of protein-ey goodness.  I cannot complain because I’m guaranteed at least two meals each day from my host family, a luxury I’ll miss once I return to college apartment life in January. And despite the warped food pyramid they use here, everything is delicious. Nevertheless, we’ve all conceded that gym workouts have all been relegated to the status of carb-burning rather than muscle-building sessions. I know that back stateside, Jeff Whitney and Brogan Wroolie are shaking their heads in disappointment.

Volunteering at a school in Ajloun.

Highlights from the week (in no particular order) :

–          Aqaba: It was a brief jaunt south for the weekend, where we stayed at the gorgeous Radisson Blue hotel right on the Red Sea. The view from our room looked right out across to Egypt. We spent all of Friday out at the five pools or swimming in the sea, some of the clearest water I’ve never been in. Due to the time constraints and our general lack of energy, I have no pictures or exciting adventures to share with you. The town itself was hardly an accurate depiction of Jordanian culture, with tourists and vacationers everywhere…but I can promise you that we enjoyed the short reprieve from Amman and had no problem playing the “dumb tourist” role when smuggling extra people into rooms or sneaking a late-night swim in the sea.

–           Yesterday I saw a local vendor wearing a crewneck sweatshirt with an American flag that read “American Mom” in bold red letters. I distinctly recall the recommendation from our program materials that we don’t bring any clothing with American flags or decals on it. To see a man in America wearing something like that would raise eyebrows. In Amman I really don’t know what to think.

–          After applying and interviewing with the Naseej Foundation, I received a volunteer position to research, collate and write materials for the organization’s fundraising efforts and online presence. The Foundation works closely with youth groups and low-income communities throughout the Arab world, facilitating a connection between participants, donors, NGOs and policy-makers. Right on the heels of the Arab Spring, it’s a fantastic opportunity to get involved with such a progressive organization and promote their goal of “sustainable developmental change” – an objective that naturally begins with the empowerment of young leaders in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Palestine.

–          Manchester United vs. Liverpool on Saturday – I’ll savor the late afternoon kickoff here, knowing that Garrett is getting up at 4:30 a.m. in the dorms to watch it. Don’t worry though, regardless of the time zone, YNWA. And hopefully I’ll be able to catch the Oregon game early Sunday morning with a student here from ASU. We’ll be doing our best to find a shady online stream to watch.

–          On a bit of a serious note, we spent our Thursday morning at a nursing home just outside of Amman touring the building and visiting with its residents. I doubt it was our first choice for a field trip, but it was a sobering experience for all of us. One of the gentlemen I talked with flashed his medal from the Jordanian military and raved on and on about the need for training and exercise – well into his seventies, he managed to get down and do a few push-ups to show off – and another sat in his room beaming with pride, surrounded by pictures of him with King Abdullah and Queen Rania. Yet a woman also refused to have pictures taken with us; the last time someone filmed her it ended up on the news, disgracing her family for putting her in the nursing home. Now her family doesn’t visit anymore. Other residents were simply unable to interact or acknowledge our presence at all. The space left behind by those absent visitors – sons and daughters and spouses and colleagues long gone – was impossible to ignore.

The term “culture shock” refers to the challenge of acclimating to new customs and traditions while living abroad. I will admit that there are obvious differences, yet I’ve also been amazed by the sheer compatibility of our basic values and ambitions. We may be separated by distance and religion and tradition, but we find ourselves bound together by the innately human need for love and security. Many of the people we visited today have been witnesses to the some of the most dramatic geopolitical challenges of this past century, yet there was no talk amongst us of war or politics or demonstrations. Memories of personal triumph dominated the conversation. Pictures from years past sat at the bedside in several rooms. Many, many hands held “mesbaha” – prayer beads – tangible symbols of a relationship with God that has come to fill the void left behind by now absent friends and family.

Our perception of this specific region is inexorably tied to war and violence, a casualty of the way that we consume and process information. We see the Middle East through the esoteric lens of history books and media reports and become immune to the fundamentally human element of it all. Robert Fisk, a British journalist who has covered conflicts of the Middle East for the past four decades, makes an important distinction in his work, reminding us that “war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death.” Statistics and rhetoric conspire to veil the tragedy of violence in all corners of the world, a reality which can only be understood through the personal accounts of those who suffer. So picturing the stereotype of extremists sitting around plotting an attack is nothing less than comical, especially here in Jordan. I’m not saying the threat is nonexistent, but the primary concern for most people is steady employment and the ability to sustain a healthy relationship with family and friends. Sound familiar?  We may not be able to quantify or measure the value of personal relationships, but its diminished presence yesterday in that nursing home was impossible to overlook.

 

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Wadi Rum, Petra and Beyond

Most comfortable clothing ever.

Arabic phrase of the week:

Something is up : “fee inna” : في ان

On our way to Wadi Rum and Petra last weekend, we stopped for a bathroom break along the highway and were turned away at the rest stop without any real explanation. With no desire to stick around and ask questions, our program director simply concluded, “fee inna.” And off we went. The long desert highway stretching from Amman down to Aqaba isn’t much different from I-5 in California, just with camels instead of cows.  At a checkpoint, our tour guide hopped out to offer the officers and other cars some of our extra desserts, including a couple of American tourists in front of us – needless to say, they declined the offer. Rave all you want about Arab hospitality, but Americans know better than to accept sweets from strangers in white vans.

Our time in Wadi Rum on Friday was amazing. When you see “4×4 desert tour” on the trip itinerary, you assume it means buckled into a Jeep Wrangler driven by a professional tour guide, with the tourists able to focus on the gorgeous scenery zipping by – definitely not the case. We sat on benches bolted into the bed of an old pick-up, driven by a Bedouin kid who was easily two or three years younger than us. There were no restraints of any kind, so we held on tight.

No idea what we were singing.

Not to worry though, it was actually the camel ride that proved to be the most painful experience of the weekend. I don’t care how many blankets are draped over its back, there’s nothing comfortable about it. But we had just been given our own dish-dashes (the white robe-like thing) and shmogs (the red scarf), so at the time I was too distracted attempting by best Lawrence of Arabia impression to be bothered with the bruising and chafing. Ironically, my Bedouin guide spent the entire walk watching videos and texting friends on his cell phone. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how he has perfect cell coverage in Wadi Rum when I lose service in our living room in Rocklin. Regardless, I think AT&T could learn a few things from the cell networks here.

We arrived at the Bedouin camp around 6:30, just in time to climb up one of the nearby hills and watch the sunset. Fordinner, our hosts used a makeshift oven – a fire pit encloses the food, which is then buried under sand – to hold a three-level rack of chicken, fish, potatoes, rice and veggies. No idea where you get fish in the middle of the desert, but it was all delicious. We spent the rest of the night around the fire singing, dancing and playing games.

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