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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