Friday, December 6, 2013

Arab American or American Arab; Being Home

It’s crazy to think that I’m leaving this place I’ve called home for the past 6 months within the month… Which is what has led me to writing this post. This entry just flowed out of the heart. No edits. No censorship. No pictures. It took me a while to decide whether or not I wanted to write this or not, for most of it is very introspective stuff. But sometimes it helps to write it out.

**Also the blog’s gotten over 5,500 views thus far! I would’ve never believed it if you told me that back when I started not so long ago…**

 As humans, we have an extraordinary sense of emotional identity and response to what we consider our “home”. The majority of us go through at some point or another “identity crisis” of where we consider our individual “home”. Arguably the most common occurrence of this phenomenon is when a couple gets married and buys a house, therein creating a new “home environment” that overshadows the original home that they grew up in. But this experience can also be undergone when a student who has lived at home his or her entire life, and goes off a new “home” for college. These new homes that we situate ourselves in take the place of our original homes, but you never really let go of your first home; your roots. That’s why we always go back: for breaks, for weekends, we always go back “home” whether it’s for the friends and family we left behind or for the feeling of being “home”.

For being a 20 year old college student I’ve had a relatively large amount of “homes”, and places where I have loved ones. Growing up in Pinole, moving to Orinda for high school, and then going to Claremont McKenna in Southern California, I’ve had quite a few “home”-like environments. But none of my previous experiences could have prepared me for what I’m experiencing now. I’ve been in the Middle East for 6 months as of today. Before I get into the effects that Jordan in particular has had on me, I feel as if I must first describe the effects Jerusalem on me.

My direct bloodline is from the holy land, a city that borders the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. In fact you can see the old city walls no more than 200 meters from the house my grandfather owned, and the house my mother was born in.  So If you're talking technicalities, Jerusalem is home. If you've been paying any attention to the 'news' for the past say... 65 years (technically 95 years of current struggle, more if you want to go back to the time of the crusades, and that's STILL not the beginning), you'll know that the Jerusalem is hotly contested land. Christians claim they should own the land. Muslims claim they do own the land. And facts on the ground show that Jews own the land. 

I don't care who you ask, whether it’s the most orthodoxed Jew, any Arab whether Christian or Muslim, or an American ex-pat working and living there, Jerusalem does not feel like home. To anyone. Sure some people feel safer than others, but no one feels 'comfortable' living there. I met an American from Chicago who has been teaching at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for the past 11 years and he said that Jerusalem made Chicago –which for starters isn’t the safest place- look “like an preschool” school in comparison in terms of safety. Everyone is tense, the air is heavy with hatred, there are teenage Israeli's holding machine guns at every corner, and no one is happy with the situation. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians. So although Jerusalem is theoretically my true ancestral home, there are technicalities that make it... Difficult. That all being said, Jerusalem is still to this day my favorite city in the entire world. Hands down. Easily, I've been to Dubai, the most advanced city in the world, Istanbul, the most culturally rich city in the world, Washington DC, the most powerful city in the world, and Jerusalem, the most sought-after city in the world, and Jerusalem has had the biggest impact on me.

Now to Jordan. Jordan is where my mother grew up and is where a lot of my relatives now live, and where -by the time I am done here- I have lived for 7 months. Ergo, I have obvious ties to this country as well. And to fully explain my response to this country, it only makes sense to do so in two parts; when I'm with other Americans and when I'm without other Americans.

Over the summer and during select instances this semester, I passed as a local Jordanian. It took approximately the first month or so for me to freshen up my Arabic well enough for people not to know I was a foreigner when I opened my mouth and for me to recognize some of the cultural norms, but after that I was set. I could fully fit in, and in my interactions people would treat me the same way they treated any other Jordanian. I sometimes would still bring a cousin or a friend when I wanted to go bargain down a price for something, but I really felt at home. When I went on my trips to the Emirates, Istanbul, and Oman when I longed to go home, I would long for Jordan. Not once have I felt “overwhelmed” by this country the same way some of my American friends from my program have. Not once.

And then the Americans came. Don't get me wrong, I was very excited to meet the people I was going to be studying with for the next 4 months, and to date I have made friends that I know deep down I will never forget. However in terms of that whole "fitting in" concept, everything changed. Whenever I go anywhere with my American friends, we get a lot of stares. Most of them are staring because of the obvious foreigners walking around, particularly if I'm walking with females. But I can't shake the feeling that some of the stares are actually at me, and that their eyes are staring at me asking me "how did this [Jordanian] guy befriend all these foreigners?" Arguably my favorite aspect of Jordan is the people and how genuinely friendly they are and how far out of their way they go to help you. I have fallen in love with the Jordanian people. But now, whenever I'm walking with Americans, it's hard to tell whether the Jordanians are being friendly to get to know me, or being friendly to get to know the Americans that I'm with.

This shift of prospective has made me question who I am as a person. My entire life I have been the “American-Arab”. Living in Orinda and Claremont and enrolling in predominantly Caucasian institutions has presented me with situations where my upbringing, or my responses to certain situations or topics due to my culture, or even the color of my skin have merited people to see me in a “foreign’ light, whether consciously or subconsciously. It can be anything from not drinking at parties to not liking hotdogs, from my reactions of certain news stories to not eating pork… Wherein I acquire the adjective of an “Arab-American”.

Being in this part of the world has, for the first time in my entire life, presented me with situations where people consider me an “American-Arab” rather than an “Arab-American”. Several times throughout this semester there have been situations where I will be sitting with a Jordanian or a group of Jordanians and I’ll not understand a reference of something, or not understand certain slang words, or do something culturally insensitive, or I won’t know a cultural dance, or food, or slogan at a soccer game. And EVERY time this happens, the Jordanians that I’m with get a look on their face that I can’t quite describe. It’s a mix of confusion and disgust, but what it is mainly is disappointment. I’m just another one of those Arabs who somehow found a way into the “promised land” of America and have forgotten my roots. And every time I see this face that they make, it kills me a little inside. I try to explain to them that the reason I came to Jordan was TO UNDERSTAND my roots and that I was born in America and that I couldn’t have “forgotten” since I never really knew them. But their minds are already set: I’m a traitor.

These reactions from both the Americans and the Jordanians have led me to a situation many would call: “an identity crisis” of sorts. Although I am much more American than I am Arab on the inside, on the outside some would say I look more Arab. I’ve yet to come to terms with this, and am still trying to make up my mind on how I should perceive myself; let alone ask that others perceive me. 2 situations this week have helped push me to a general decision.

The first of these two incidences was at a brunch with a group of my American friends in my program. Seeing as the program has begun to wind down (finals next week….) we have had several “debriefing” activities of our experiences here in Jordan. During these activities and during this brunch in particular, many of my friends feel as though they have been here long enough to make blanket statements of Jordanians and Jordanian culture. Don’t get me wrong, I do the same thing. The reason I bring up this incidence is because I felt myself defending the Jordanian culture. Although I didn’t say anything allowed, in my mind I was almost agitated that they were saying these things about “my people”. My people? That’s the part that shocked me the most and is the reason I bring this up. The same way I would defend my people in America if a Jordanian told me that all Americans wear cowboy hats and ride horses, I found myself defending Jordanians.

The second of the two eye-opening experiences that happened to me this week happened to me today. Long story short (I haven’t written about this in my blog yet because we’re not done filming) I got asked to be an actor in a film here in Jordan. It’s kinda crazy, it’s an Austrian produced film, headed by a Spanish director, set in Afghanistan, being filmed in Jordan, with a bunch of American actors and actresses. Try to imagine how many languages were flying around on the set today…. But I digress. When the cast manager was trying to split the group of minor-roll actors between Jordanians and Americans, she put me in the group of Jordanians. As though I was Jordanian. To be honest I was offended. I spoke up -in English of course-, and told her that she told me she wanted me playing an American role. Because I am American. She switched me to the other group and in the end it wasn’t a big deal, but this sequence of events started me thinking about how people perceive me.

These are the thoughts going through my mind with less than a month left in this country and left than a month left until I get back to the states. I hope these thoughts resolve themselves before then….

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Big Part of Everything Here

I just got back from a day trip to Ajlone and Jerash today, expecting to be sitting here writing about the unique experiences I had today. And yes there were unique experiences: We got offered dinner with our taxi driver, a tour around the locked side of the castle by the supervisor, and free tea from a Bedouin man. However instead of writing an in depth discussion about how important these two cities have been throughout history, I decided to write about a special site visit that more pertains to the culture of this part of the world. I’ve traveled to 5 different Middle Eastern countries now (if you count Palestine as a country) all of which have a high percentage of Muslim population. I went out of my way to, in each of these 5 countries, visit at least one major mosque and one smaller mosque. And to my surprise prayer, the call to prayer, and the Friday sermon differed from place to place.
I want to pause for a second and put into context how much religion is infused with daily life in these countries. 5 times a day, from every mosque all over the Middle East the call to prayer goes off. In the more westernized locations you may not hear it over the roaring sound of cars on the road. In Jordan I’ve heard there are 5,700 mosques with over 100 new ones being built in the second half of 2013.  So they are a prominent presence. You’d think that hearing the call go off at 4am in the morning would be infuriating, but it’s really quite the opposite. In an activity we did with my study abroad program, several of the students said what they’re going to miss the most from this country is the call to prayer. It is beautiful, and if you’re on top of one of the hills in Jordan when one goes off you can hear several mosques going off all at once, and there are very few sounds in the world that are more powerful.

Abu Dhabi: Sheik Zayed Mosque

Call from Galata Tower; Istanbul

Sultanahmet, Blue Mosque and Hagia  Sophia; Istanbul

From the Citadel; Amman, Jordan

And my personal favorite....
JERUSALEM. Wait till the end, the call to prayer and the church bells start going off at the same time. It's beautiful.

If using Jordan as the benchmark the only country with similar prayer style I have visited is –no surprise- Palestine. Granted praying at Al-Aqsa mosque is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Once you exit the old city and ascent onto the Haram al-Sharif, you feel like you’ve entered a new world. The chaos and the noisiness of the souk are left behind, the Israeli guards at every corner are gone, and you’re left with trees, birds chirping, peacefulness and serenity, and a majestic golden dome in front of you. Other than it being the most powerful and spiritual place I have ever been, the actual athan, prayer, and sermon are all the same as they are here in Jordan. The only difference is there’s a sea of Muslims from all over the world, and after Friday prayer there’s a big demonstration. Al-Aqsa Mosque is also the only place I have ever seen them formally as a group pray Dhuhr and A’sir together since there are always foreigners from far way lands, and if you are traveling you can combine the two prayers.
In Turkey things were a lot different, starting from the call to prayer. The call to prayer in Turkey is significantly longer than in Jordan or Palestine. In the latter two, the call to prayer takes no more than 5 minutes, and then the mosques wait about another 10 minutes before starting the prayer. In Turkey, the call to prayer is elongated twice as long as in Jordan taking a good 10 minutes, and as soon as the call finishes the mosques being the prayer. However the biggest surprise to me was that the Friday sermon before the midday prayer was given in Turkish. Everywhere else I have ever been whether it be an English, Arabic, or Hindi speaking country, every sermon has been in Arabic. This does fit perfectly with the Turkification process, where Ataturk tried to diversify Turkey from the rest of the Arab World, which occurred in the 1920’s and 30’s.
As for the Gulf, thing’s are a little different. In the Emirates, the actual rituals were for all intents and purposes the same as Jordan. However the institutions- meaning the mosques themselves- are much more commercialized. In Dubai and Abu Dhabi, every mosque –whether it was the iconic Sheikh Zayed Mosque or any random corner mosque, they had visiting hours and unlike Turkey –which had many more prominent mosques (Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet Mosque, just to name a few) – the Emirates seemed to deem these institutions as more a tourist site than a religious place. In Turkey the mosques would be closed to tourists during prayer times, whereas in Dubai and Abu Dhabi the mosque was visit-able at all times during the day, and the worshippers would go into a smaller side room to go pray. I managed to visit 4 of the 7 Emirates, and naturally Sharjah and Ras al Kheimeh didn’t have this same touristy feel that the other two did.
The 5th and final place I visited was Oman. I unfortunately wasn’t able to leave Muscat and I wasn’t there long enough to truly understand Omani culture. But what I will say is that of the 3 mosques I entered, all three were Shi’a which was a surprise to me, seeing as Oman is considered a Sunni Muslim country. Shi’a pray a little differently than Sunni’s do.

I leave this country in 20 days and go back to the States for the first time since early June. It’s all winding down…. There’s still a LOT I want to say and write about, so keep checking the blog!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

One of Those Days...

Everyone has those days (shout out to Miley Cirus), where you wake up and know you have a million different things to do, a million different places to be, and a million different people to see. Where everything happens all at once: where you wish you could unwrap that one day into a whole week.

...A million is a little bit of an exaggeration of an exaggeration, but this past Wednesday was one I will not soon forget.

I woke up super early to go across town to meet a guy–whom-I-overheard-at-the-gym-talking-about-ticket’s brother’s cousin’s friend. And bought these:

I'll spare you the dramatic turn of events of this black-market deal, where after meeting up with this brother, him and his cousins wanted me to get into their car and drive to the supposed third party who had the tickets, all while carrying the equivalent of around $600. I refused, naturally. 

Long story short, I walked away with 12 tickets. And by walked I mean sprinted to find a taxi because I was almost late to an important conference: The fifth annual Amman Security Colloquium.

Add caption

Sleepy diplomats....

According to the Jordanian Times: "Organised by the Arab Institute for Security Studies, the two-day meeting gathers over 150 local, regional and international figures, who will debate issues pertaining to security and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, according to a statement from the University of Jordan, the main venue for the gathering." I was the only person from my program to be invited to the prestigious meeting, and although the conference was performed mainly in English, all of the Arabic diplomats were given a listening device that would broadcasting a live translation.

Director of the Arab Institute for Security Studies

This guys job description is insane...
Andreas Reinicke, EU. His job is to find a solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict in a way where Gaza and the West Bank are connected by land, and Jerusalem is the capital of two different states: a Palestinian one and an Israeli one. ...HA. Good luck with that one.

As soon as the conference was over, I BOOKED it back to my house as fast as I could to change out of the suit I was wearing all morning into a more proper attire for the biggest most important sporting event I have ever attended. Half of the 11 of my friends that were going with me came with me to my house, then we went straight from my place to the stadium (at around 1:30pm). Keep in mind the game doesn't start till 6pm...We met up with the other half of the group at the stadium and sat around till game-time doing.... well what DIDN'T we do...

Due to the influx of refugees from all over the region, Jordan is often referred to as “a single nation, with a population of multiple nations.” I wrote a paper about Jordan this summer, and how refugees from Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria throughout the past half century have shaped Jordan’s political and cultural structure. The conclusion that my paper came to was that Jordan will not be affected by an internal revolution similar to the ones of other surrounding “Arab Spring” countries due in part to the wide variety of interests that exist in the Hashemite Kingdom. Not only are their different socio-economic classes, but there is a massive Palestinian population (which estimates claim are as high as 70% of the population) who have very different interests than the indigenous Jordanian people, who have very different interest from the Syrian population, etc. Therefore having all of these interests align at the same time under a single cause is... difficult, to say the least. And for the first time in as long as I can remember, it happened. Yesterday.
Jordan vs Urugay. Winner gets an automatic bid into the World Cup 2014 Qualifiers in Brazil. Understandably, people were getting excited, but I have never seen anywhere near as much national pride as I saw yesterday. All day up and down any street, no matter which neighborhood, Jordan flags were waving everywhere. Traffic around the stadium was at a halt 7 hours before kickoff. Every cafĂ© was packed full hours before the game. And stadium itself was overflowing with people. Apparently they sold 5,000 more tickets than seats. And there was STILL a black market because people couldn’t find tickets. I personally bought my ticket (along with 11 other tickets for my friends) 7-times the actual price from a guy–whom-I-overheard-at-the-gym-talking-about-ticket’s brother’s cousin’s friend.

Becca and Christian from Claremont McKenna! We ran into them right outside the stadium.

In the long line waiting to get in...

At the gate

The atmosphere inside the stadium, well I would be lying if I said things settled down. I thought it was crazy outside, but the real excitement was inside. This was the first time Jordan has ever gotten this close to qualifying to the World Cup. This was also the first time Jordan has ever played a team of the caliber of Uruguay, a top 10 internationally ranked soccer team. They placed fourth in the World Cup 3 years ago. And with players like Luis Suarez, Diego Forlan, and Edinson Cavani, no one was really hoping for anything more than a tie. We were sitting next to a group of Jordanians who brought 5 big drums. On our other side as a group of Saudi Arabians who came to Jordan just to watch this game. Behind us was a group of Palestinians, and in front of us were some teenage guys who kept trying to pester the girls. It was astounding to see all these different people with such varying views on Jordan rally behind the Jordanian national team. This was the first time in my entire life I had really seen any proof to His Excellency Dr. Omar Rifai’s claim that Pan-Arabism still exists on a popular level.
FANSSSS. We befriended these two pretty quickly


Hahahahahaha. Back story, Luis Suarez is arguably Uruguay's best player. During a game he bit another player and got suspended for weeks because of it. Al-Nashama is one of Jordan's better players (although the coach didn't even put him in during this game which is a reason for a lot of drama for the coach with the presss. Apparently the coach and Al-Nashama "don't get along").

Other Jordanian friends we made.

Us Americans kind of made a scene.... Paparazzi sucks... 

YEEEEEE. Bassel (the blurry one in the back next to me) is a Palestinian who actually gave us a ride home, and my roommate and I got dinner with him afterwards. Really nice guy, who goes to the University of Jordan too! Laurence and Denise are the two in front.


This happened...

He's a "cheerleader" you could say. Everyone knows him, and EVERYONE does whatever he says. There's a good part of the video with him in it. Unfortunately I turned off the camera right before he started the "USA USA USA" chant for us.

We took a picture with him!


PACKED FULL STADIUM. Apparently they sold way more tickets than there are seats for the game.

My roommate Alex was reading right before the game..... Crazy I know.

Uruguay fans..... Grrrr.....


Jordan's National Team

Uruguay's National Team

DENISON CAVANI IN THE FLESH. One of the best strikers, forwards, players in the world right now. 

Luis Suarez. Even if you're not a big soccer fan, you know about Luis Suarez. Think back for a second, to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Remember when Ghana knocked out the United States in that heartbreaking octafinals match? Well Ghana went on to play Uruguay in the quarter finals, and in the 120th minute of play (for those of you that don't know soccer, a game is 90 minutes and if the game is still tied, the game goes into 30 mins of overtime, then if it's still tied they go to a penalty shootout), literally the very last minute of the game, a player on Ghana shoots the ball and obviously about to score. The goalie was on the ground, the shot was too high for anyone to hit it with their head. Then... Luis Suarez raised his arms and blocked the ball from going in the goal with his hand. Luis Suarez got kicked out of the game immediately. Ghana went on to lose that match. The next game, Suarez got boo'd from everyone in the entire stadium every time he touched the ball.  Fast forward a few years, Suarez also bit a player mid-game one time? Interesting character this one. Nonetheless, one of the best players in the world as well.

Uruguay celebrating after a goal.

Jordan waiting for Uruguay to finish celebrating after a goal.....

Ouch.... We left a little early, the final score was 5-0.

The game itself was a lot of fun. I lost my voice, got a good 8 different telephone numbers from men I will probably never see again, and a lot of disappointment. Jordan ended up losing 5-0, however they played much better than the score makes it seem. And no matter how the score was going to end, Jordan –for the first time in its history- has some international recognition as a soccer team. AND KING ABDULLAH WAS THERE! I've been at the same place at the same time as the king! That never happens!

Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the President of the Jordan Football Association had this to say: “I’m very proud of the team despite the result. I want to express my total and everlasting support for the players, come what may. It was a punishing game, and a unique and very valuable experience that has taught them an awful lot.”

Monday, November 11, 2013


One thing I hadn't expected to have seen a lot of we're concerts in the Middle East. However wow was I wrong. I have fully immersed myself in Arab pop culture and have widely expanded my music taste.

Since coming to Jordan, I’ve had the opportunity to go to 3 different concerts. One was a music festival where several different start-up bands with unique sounds had a chance to get their music heard. The second (and my personal favorite) was a Mohammad Assaf concert. Mohammad Assaf is the most recent Arab Idol winner, and is my personal idol. His story of how he came from nothing in Gaza to now touring Europe and America in the next few months is inspiring. In his very first interview, he told the world about his struggle trying to get a spot on the show: After leaving his home, he spent a full day and a half trying to escape Gaza and get into Egypt (where the Arab Idol tryouts were). Since it took him so long to get into Egypt, by the time he got there all the spots for the tryouts were already taken. So he called his mom, who advised him to jump the fence of the Arab Idol complex and make them listen to his voice. So he proceeded to hop the tall fence, and was immediately seized by guards. While being apprehended and taken away he decided that it was now or never, so he decided to sing. As soon as he started singing, the guards let go and everyone in the long line waiting their turn to try out all quieted down. One of the men in line (who we later found out was from Kuwait) came up to Mohammad and gave him his ticket to try out, telling Mohammad that he “didn’t have a chance at winning, but that [he] might”. This story shows how although the idea of Pan-Arabism is for all-intents-and-purposes dead on a political level, on a social level a Kuwaiti will help out a Gaza’wi. 

Olivia, Kerri, and I outside the Cultural Palace in the Sport's City where the concert was held.

Random Jordanian guys we became friends with.



With all that said, the most thought-provoking was the third concert; the Mashrou' Leila concert. Mashrou' Leila, which literally translates to “One-night Project”, is a band based out of Lebanon. They were formed in 2008 at the American University of Beirut. Their debut album's 9 songs wittily discuss subject matters such as lost love, war, politics, security and political assassination, materialism, immigration and homosexuality. The signature aspect of their music is their political lyrics. They discuss their frustration with the political situation in Lebanon, and hearing them perform at a time where the situation in Lebanon is as dire as ever was interesting and eye opening. Although I couldn’t understand every word they were saying (Lebanese Arabic is very infused with French), whenever something controversial was said the crowd would erupt with excitement. It seemed as though the crowd fed off of the slandering of political figures and the highlighting of unjust situations in Lebanon.

What I found most interesting about Mashrou' Leila is that they very actively defies Middle Eastern cultural norms. The main singer, Hammed Sino, is very openly homosexual. He was featured on the October 2013 issue of the French Gay Magazine Tetu. It doesn’t take very much research very deeply to know that Lebanon, Beirut in particular, is very easily the most liberal place in all of the Middle East. The rest of the Middle East, particularly rural country areas actively suppresses open homosexuality. The other observation I had was in regards to the content of Mashrou’ Leila’s music. After looking deeper into it, I came to realize that all Jordanian artists talk predominantly about King Abdullah and the Jordanian Kingdom. Other artists whether from Lebanon, Egypt, or Palestine, discuss a wider variety of topics from political issues to social unrest. There seems to be a suppression of the topics that Jordanian singers can discuss which is particularly interesting because government doesn’t block much of anything on the internet. Surprisingly the country that had the most internet blockage was Turkey. Things to think about…

Nick and I.

Emma and I.