Before I left, I assumed that the transitional challenges would arise from the obvious cultural and societal differences between America and an Arab country, but I find myself more thrown off by the experience of living and learning downtown in a large city. Whether it’s the dirty bathrooms or an inability to go anywhere without hailing a cab or bus, the obstacles are the same ones I would face in a city like San Francisco or New York. And for every one discrepancy between our cultures, there are always two or three similarities. Although the gym I joined near the university campus is all-male and closes each Friday for the Muslim holy day, the televisions inside broadcast the electric sex of MTV’s “Nothing But Hits” all afternoon. All I can hope is that this representation of American culture is not the only one pervading Arab homes. I suppose this is why students like me are here, but it’s tough to compete with the appeal of this particular narrative. In a culture where most women cover all but their face and hands out of modesty and respect, the borderline pornography of MTV is…shocking, to say the least.
I’m nearly three weeks in now, and things are cruising along nicely. In the process of adjusting to this new pace, I’ve learned one very important thing: Feeling confused, embarrassed and unprepared is the norm – not the exception. Most of the time, it doesn’t hurt to confess that I simply do not know. Taxi drivers and local employees all assume that we’re tourists anyway – so I probably just don’t know any better. But any time I manage to surprise them with a bit of Arabic or acquired grasp of a local custom, it’s an impressionable moment. Although it’s a frustrating process at times, it’s important to enjoy the small victories and displays of competence – however insignificant in the long run. After feeling discouraged at one point this week, all it took was a decent exchange with my taxi driver and a conversation with my host mother and her sister over dinner to lift my spirits and reaffirm my commitment to the program.
Last week, we took a day trip to one of the prime tourist destinations in Jordan – Madaba. Known as “the city of mosaics,” it has an impressive collection of ancient Byzantine and Umayyad churches and mosques. In St. George’s Basilica, I found myself surrounded by dozens of ancient paintings and a mosaic map of the holy land on the floor – “humbled” was the word I jotted down in my travel journal. The pictures really don’t do it justice, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. The view from Mt. Nebo – where Moses first looked out over the “promised land” – was a bit anticlimactic, since Jerusalem and the Dead Sea were shrouded by a haze of dust that had settled over Palestine. But standing in the birthplace of the three great Abrahimic faiths, I came a bit closer to understanding its ability to arouse such passion and resilience among its peoples.
Now that classes are in full swing and the daily homework load has begun to accumulate, I’ve found that it’s impossible to maintain the same routine as I had at college in Oregon. Usually, I’m at the university for the entire day, filling the time between classes with studying or a brief gym session. Once I get home at night, it’s just dinner and homework. No internet access at the house means it’s tough to distract myself from the work at hand, and I find myself exhausted and ready for bed much earlier than back home. Several students have a curfew of 11 p.m., which means that even our weekend ventures don’t extend too late into the night. There are sporadic happy hours around town – even a $2 tequila night – but you really can’t beat the authenticity of the downtown souqs or a small café for the night.
I’ve been trying to wrap up this post for a week or so….and I I’ve still managed to leave things out. But we leave for Petra(!) tomorrow morning, so I’ll just plan to include those notes in the updates next week when I return. I was able to Skype earlier this week with the family – it was great to see everyone! The only one missing was Garrett, who’s already up at Oregon having a blast. I miss you all back home, so feel free to get in touch if you get a chance. As it turns out, the internet is quicker than I’d expected, so email and Facebook are best. And best of luck to any friends getting ready to start up their final year of college this week!