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.
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.
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.
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.
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.