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.