Saturday, 13 September 2008


Over the years that we have been living in Malawi people have asked the question, “so where is home?” I have usually fudged the answer (don’t tell anyone), as every time I have come back to Australia I have always felt a bit more foreign. Technically, and unfortunately cynically the answer is in fact simple to answer. “Home is the place where they can’t deport you from and where you end up when others won’t have you”. This idea, although not new to me, was made concrete while on route to Australia when I saw an aged, haggard and fallen British 70’s rock icon, Garry Glitter, being refused entry to a string of Asian countries due to his criminal activities. Finally, after a brief tour of the orient he accepted the fact that he would only be granted entry into ‘the mother land,’ from where I doubt he will ever be able to leave.

In Amman, Jordan, when ‘home’ was just a hop, skip and a jump away I took a straw pole around the kitchen table on the 'home' question. For Wendy and the boys, home is Australia (they all answered unanimously), even Ben, who has really only lived in Australia vicariously through us. Sometimes I have heard him speak about Adelaide and Australia like he’s been living there for 30 years. Other times he’s speaks of it like someone who only just realised there is land beyond the Malawi border. I know that Adelaide is a great place and everyone wants to live there, but we are trying to tone down the boys rhetoric that Adelaide is not a country in its own right, nor is it a part of South Africa, Italy, the USA, London or China, well not at the moment anyway.

In reality home for all of them, (And for me as well I guess. I am just trying to play the role of the detached observer!) is not really about a location but where family is. We know that we have really great friends in Africa, but in Oz live the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. People whom they feel more than a filial connection and who themselves have a firm commitment to them. It is kind of strange really because that is a very African idea of home as well.

There are challenges coming ‘home’, when one has been away a while. Everything looks the same, but not everything is. I have found that in some situations I have fumbled in my reactions. Last week at the supermarket I had a ‘where am I moment’ with the guy on the cash register. After piling all of my groceries onto the conveyor-belt (is that what it's called?) I was left holding a bag of tomatoes, which just wouldn’t fit. So I just handed them to him. He looked at me, and I just looked at him. Then he asked what I wanted him to do with them. I froze, thinking perhaps I had should have weighed them all before going to the cash register like is done in Jordan, and Malawi. In the end it was not a trick question. He just wanted to know whether I wanted them packed separately to the other goods! I also needed help from him punching the correct buttons on the little card machine at the register so that I could pay for it all with my card. His comment toward the end of the whole transaction was telling and made me wonder whether if in fact I was home, “You’re new here aren’t you mate?” Oh, is it that obvious?

So now we are all in training to be real Ozies. Our goal is to blend in. At the moment I am trying to get the boys up to scratch with Oz-glish, which for those of you who have never been to Australia, it is a language with some similarities to English. As our family language consultant I have been working overtime to help the boys understand its complexities as it is quiet a difficult dialect, full of nuances for the unsuspecting. The other day Ben asked me what the radio announcer meant when he said “he would be appearing in person at the show this arvo.” “Oh”, I said knowingly, “he means later on today”. Again when a friend said to the boys on leaving our house “ooroo lads” they just stared at him blankly. Just as well I was there to explain, “oh he means see you later guys”. I am sure they will get the hang of it soon. 20 million Australians have so it can’t be that hard, can it?

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Sorry I can’t come, I am in hospital!

I have never been very good at lying. I think that I must emit some sort of glow or something when I do, which flashes a big warning signal to the world. Not that it’s really something that I aspire to be better at. I am also not good at lying because it ranks toward the top of the list of things that most Australians know they shouldn’t do. It ranks just slightly below committing mass murder, infidelity with their best friend’s wife/girlfriend and, if you believe the advertisements, spilling someone’s iced coffee!

Despite it’s high rank in Australia, I have been discovering that lying does not rank nearly as well elsewhere when it comes to inappropriate types of behaviour. I started to get suspicious this week that I was missing something vital in my interactions. Three people, over the course of three days, gave me the same excuse for why they could not keep previously arranged agreements. Their lines were all the same, “oh sorry, but I am in hospital”.

Either I am mistaken and I am just maligning people’s characters and the hospitals of Jordan are really just bursting at the seams with people with leg and throat problems, or I have just stumbled on a common culturally appropriate method for extracting oneself from unpleasant and tricky situations. It’s quiet a good line really. Even if you are suspicious of your acquaintances actions, it is difficult to lecture them on the telephone about the value of “keeping one’s promises”, when they have just told you they are lying in hospital. One lady added that the reason she hadn’t called to cancel our arrangement was because this was the first day that she has been able to speak since being admitted.

Jordanian cultural insiders, I am sure are quick to pick up the cues well before it comes to forcing the untruth. It’s only ‘cultural outsiders’, like yours truly, who miss the big teleprompter, stumbling on until usually it’s too late.

I actually think that it’s never meant to get to the point of telling the lie. Cultural insiders get enough clues along the way that they never make that embarrassing phone call to ask, “Hey where are you, I am waiting here as we had agreed?” Only to hear those now familiar words, “Oh I am sorry I can’t come because I am in hospital”.

In Malawi where we have lived for more than twelve years I am also the sucker for believing the “see you tomorrow line”. Part of my trouble is I want to believe the straight-forward answer. I am bred and inculturated to believe it. So much so that even after experiencing countless let-downs I still go on believing, which often leaves me looking bewildered while waiting by the side of the road or some other place for people who never intended on coming.

Perhaps I am challenged by this because the world from which I come is not subtle enough in this area. I am unaccustomed to nuance in simple agreements as Australians are mostly blunt and matter-of-fact as only they can be.

My solace in all of this is that I believe that my ‘hospitalised acquaintances’ were sort of being nice to me. This is because their set of inappropriate behaviours is different to mine, Their’s has shame and the avoidance of shame high at the top and lying somewhere way down the bottom.

For them uttering the blunt reply of “Ah sorry mate, I just can’t make it or I don’t want to do it” is to be avoided at all cost. This would be about as unpleasant for them as it would be for me telling Mother Teresa (if she were still alive and did door to door collection for the poor) that I had just given at the office, when really I hadn’t.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

A desert experience

Learning another language is an intense, strenuous and often emotional struggle. At times it has seemed like I am loosing my mind. The last couple of weeks I have found myself muttering strange words for no apparent reason. The other day while waiting for a taxi I heard myself repeating the phrase in Arabic, “the door of the house”, “the door of the house”! Again while out exercising another evening I again caught myself muttering repeatedly the word zawuja, zawuja, zawuja, like I was possessed or something. I only stopped when I saw a group of young boys looking at me. The word actually means ‘wife’ in Arabic. Hopefully no-one got the wrong idea that I was on the lookout for a second one! After experiencing this a number of times I felt that it was time for us to take a short break so that my brain could de-fragment thus enabling all of the new words to settle and the loose bits of my brain to come back together again. Well that was the plan with Humpty Dumpty too, wasn't it, but it never did happen!

So, after 6 intense weeks and with over 400 Arabic words floating around in my head we headed off into the desert to see some of Jordan’s treasures. We did the tourist thing and went to Petra, which for those of you without a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, it is a 2000 and something year old Nabataean city of tombs carved into the rock cliffs and made famous by the Indian Jones film. It is truly an amazing place. However, the most memorable aspect of the trip, for me, was an early morning trek up Mount Haroun to visit the final resting place of Aaron, Moses’ brother.

I went alone (for some unknown reason none of the rest of the family wanted to join me!), with a Bedouin guide who called himself Khalid, with the gold tooth. He shouldn't be confused with his nephew, Muhammad with the gold tooth, whom I had met the day before! The trek was a three hour journey up a long valley and then up a very rocky mountain on the back of a mule. It was an exhilarating, but painful experience, partly because all that separated me from the steel framed saddle was a thin blanket and also because my guide insisted that we trot our mules for the entire journey. To insure that this happened Khalid with the gold tooth rode directly behind my mule; close enough so that he could whack it every so often with a little whippy stick and mutter some thing which was only intelligible to him and his mule. The stick and the mutter did the trick and my butt is a living testimony to the fact, as it is still raw one week on!

As Khalid with the gold tooth was muttering and whipping I kept thinking about the Old Testament story of Balaam and the donkey and expected the angel of the Lord to appear at any moment and let us have it for animal torture. Fortunately, we made it to the top before this happened.

On arrival at the grave site, which is literally on top of Mount Haroun and is now enclosed in a small mosque, I found myself quiet emotional and somewhat overwhelmed. I remember just kneeling down and thanking God for Aaron, and asking God to make me a useful servant like him.

I think Aaron actually gets a bit of a raw deal in history because of the golden calf incident. If I only had one golden calf type incident on my record, I'd be a fortunate man. But I like Aaron because he was willing to serve a higher purpose than his own agenda, such a rare thing in life. He reminds me of the character Sam in The Lord of the Rings. Without Sam, Frodo would never have been able to complete the journey and dispose of the ring.

Maybe this is one of the marks of a true servant leader.

These pictures represent many of the new words I have been grappling with in Arabic

The Monastery, Petra

This is Wadi al-Bgidha, Wadi Rum, home to T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia

Ian and Ben on the little rock bridge

Ian, Ben and Simeon braving the heights of Umm Fruth Rock Bridge. Wendy bravely standing below!

Literally on top of Mt Haroun, the site of Aaron's grave

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Is it safe?

Is it safe there, they ask? It’s a reasonable question, but often not one easily answered. The first evening we arrived in Amman I thought, “no, this place is definitely not safe”. Shortly after entering our apartment on dusk we heard a series of loud explosions. Fortunately, I thought at the time, “the bomb shutters” are down. Little did I know that the loud explosions would be a nightly affair, as people let off fireworks as part of their celebratory routine for weddings and birthdays. I also discovered, the following morning, that our “bomb shutters” are not actually shutters for bombs, but are ultra thick sun blinds, which everyone has to stop sun turning their apartments into ovens from the morning and afternoon sun. It is strange how conditioned we become by the media, that we interpret the world with their views even when these interpretations are contrary to how things really are.

Last week there was an attack here in Jordan on some tourists. A disgruntled person shot up a bus-load of tourists who were leaving an evening symphony concert in the centre of Amman, wounding six. I found this out at 2.45 am when I groped for the ringing phone only to hear my mother stating the obvious, “oh thank-goodness Ian, you’re alive”. By her tone, I knew that she had seen a vision in which the whole city of Amman had been levelled by a loan gunman, and I was the last man standing. I think that my mother has some sort of super-police-scanner, which is able to pick up and translate police signals from any point on the earth.

But what can we really do to protect ourselves? Stay at home! Although attacks by terrorists are a reality, and precaution and vigilance are necessary, I think that there are actually much easier ways to leave the planet than by a terrorist’s bullet or bomb. For example, here in Amman, I feel terrorised just crossing the road. Yesterday while crossing the road on the way to my Arabic lesson I witnessed a man reversing his car down the centre lane of a three-lane highway. He had overrun a parking spot that he wanted! More amazing than this was that I was the only person on the highway who seemed disturbed. More frequently, I have witnessed people crossing busy intersections diagonally. That’s right, corner-to-corner on foot. I guess people take literally the fact that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line! Whether these fears of mine are real or just apparent I am now not sure. Though, from what I have read and now experienced there are fewer accidents from the seeming chaos than one might expect. I am coming to realise that my ideas of proximity and traffic flow are different to most Jordanians and I am trying to adjust.

Apart from the traffic, the one sure way to feel safer about where you live is to get out and meet the locals. Then you realise that they are not actually part of a wider plot to end the world as we know it, but they are in fact normal people who are trying to live, have hopes, aspirations and struggles just like we do. “Wow! What a rocket science discovery!” One taxi driver told me last week, after our series of greetings in Arabic ground down to a halt, that he was “miserable”. Then he proceeded to tell me all of his woes, including being wifeless, job-prospect-less and economically challenged. It is funny what people tell a complete stranger when they know that they will never see them again. After he told me his woes, I decided to tell him mine and I am sure that we both departed feeling better. Cheap therapy at about 20 cents a kilometre!

In general Jordanians have made us feel safe and welcome. Even the soldier at the road-block leading to the Dead Sea made us feel welcome as he made me prod and open all of the bags, while he stood at a safe distance. Once this procedure was complete he begged us to come and drink coffee with him and his buddies in their army tent. Kind of inviting, except that it was 45C in the shade and the kids could see the water of the Dead Sea in the distance. We took a rain check that time, knowing without a doubt that we would have opportunity to experience Jordanian warmth, welcome and hospitality on many more occasions.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Hijabs, bikinis and my flannel PJ’s

When I was in primary school I had a reoccurring dream in which I found myself in the schoolyard wearing only my flannel PJ’s. All of the other kids in the dream were fully dressed, decked out in their regular school gear. It was only me who was dying of shame, with absolutely nowhere to hide. At the time, I put it down to a loathing for all things flannel, which you can hardly disagree with. Little did I know, however, that there were other issues lurking deeper within than a mere distaste for flannel! After moving to Malawi my flannel PJ dream resurfaced, but this time it had evolved into the “shorts and no T-shirt dream”. This dream would invariably place me on the main street of the African town of Namwera, on market day, wearing only my shorts. I am actually breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it. Again, there was only embarrassment and nowhere to hide.

Since coming to Jordan my PJ dream has not yet surfaced, but I imagine, if we stayed here long enough that it would. I know now, however, that when it does appear it will have metamorphosed into something, which would articulate the idealised norms of Jordanian society.

While I have been here, I have begun to think that perhaps I am not alone with my PJ dream. In fact, I think that many Jordanian women have my flannel PJ dream. Not of me wearing my flannel PJ’s, but their version of it. In their dream, instead of flannel PJ’s, they are standing on the main street without their heads covered or they are sitting at the Dead Sea wearing a pair of bikinis, like many of the Western tourists here. Such dreams usually occur for them after having watched Bay Watch on cable TV and after eating tahini dip which is a couple of days too old. There really should be a warning label on tahini for this reason!

There has been a lot of press in many countries, Western and non-Western, about whether women should be allowed to cover their heads at school, university, work and so forth. It is easy for us non-hijab wearing people to argue against head covering, because we feel absolutely no emotion about our heads being uncovered. Perhaps we should all be forced to spend a day in the schoolyard wearing only flannel PJ’s, as this would give us a sense of what it would feel like for many women to go out without their heads covered.

Since being in Jordan, Wendy and I have tried to adjust our attire as best we can to be culturally appropriate, although this is hard for us. This is not because we don’t want to or because we don’t like the clothing, but because we have no real emotional sense of what is required. Our sense of shame and appropriateness is different, and is coloured by our own culture. Because of our emotional handicap, (dare I say it, culturally challenged) we are doing our best to observe what the majority are wearing and follow suit. This is easier for me, as from my little observation and what I have read it is very similar to how people dress in Malawi where we have lived for so long. The Lonely Planet Guide, sums it up beautifully by saying that for a man in Jordan wearing shorts is like walking down the street in your underpants. Well then, I guess Jordan is not a place where you will encounter Superman, but I think that I can at least fit in.

Wendy, on the other hand has gone beyond her normal emotional and cultural levels of shame and embraced wearing the loose clothing, which covers her legs and arms, and which is typically worn by many Arab women here. She doesn’t yet wear a hijab, except when we are out in the open sun, because it is cooler. I imagine, however, that if we stayed here long enough she might begin to have her own flannel PJ dream in which she finds herself out and about without any head-covering.

In the end it appears to me the hijab is not just about meeting religious ideals, and even less about male domination or prudishness. It is worn from an internal sense of emotional and cultural appropriateness and who am I to judge what this is for another.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Encountering Arabic through falafels and Abu Hassan

Here we are in Amman, Jordan, where the days are furnace-like hot and the nights surprisingly cool. It is the food, which is a highlight for us so far, as it is incredibly tasty; that is, compared with the common staple we are used to in Malawi, which does little to challenge the taste buds unless one adds plenty of hot chilli sauce. Why is it that after only a few lines I am already talking about food?

We have been here for just over a week and my list of Arabic words that I have mastered is growing rapidly. In our initial foray into the Arabic language, which is the focus of our stay here in Jordan, I have discovered that I am well on the way to fluency in one particular area, food. I have no problem ordering falafel, shwarma, kebab, hummus, tahini, babaghanoush and tabuli. It is just basic greetings and working out how to tell the falafel cook to hold off on the gherkins, which are still proving to be a challenge. However, pointing and shaking my head have so far been effective in this department.

Ah yes the art of communication, I hear you say.

Last Sunday, which was a working day here in Jordan, was my warm-up exercise for learning Arabic. Fortunately for us we met Abu Hassan, a taxi driver, who had the uncanny ability to look at me for the entire journey, write Arabic phrases in my little note book, fire at me Arabic terms, like a machine gun on full throttle, thinking that I would pick them up if he repeated them often enough. All the while, he was dodging traffic, which is not easy at the best of time in Amman. Then to top it all off he got us home in record time at the cheapest price. ($1.50). If they made statues in Jordan to commemorate their heroes, one should be made to honour the multi-talented Abu Haasan. On reaching our house, Abu Hassan gave me his telephone number and promised to show us around Amman and teach me language at the same time. I have not quiet found the courage to call him yet as I am not sure whether we would all survive the ordeal!

The day after meeting Abu Hazzan:
Waking up the following day, I felt the effects of Abu Hassan’s barrage of words. DOUBT. Will I learn anything here? Yep, does that sound familiar? It’s every language learner’s nightmare. (If you are learning another language and you never feel this effect, then maybe you need to induce some more scary thoughts or something to get yourself moving.) As a result of our ride with Abu Hassan I have discovered once again, not only am I culturally challenged wherever I go, but linguistically challenged as well. I am not naturally gifted as a linguist. I realised today that language acquisition, for me, is primarily about discipline; self discipline. Basically I am good at getting up each day and giving it a go. So that is what I am going to do for the next two months and hopefully I will expand my abilities beyond my meagre culinary experiences. Salaam.