The beginning of this week was tough. I realized that I had already finished more than half of the program here, and I hadn’t come close to completing the goals I had set for myself. I had fitness goals, health goals, and Arabic goals, and I was beginning to feel frustrated that as the days passed my goals seemed more and more unrealistic. Like I have mentioned earlier, Arabic has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to learn in my life. The vocabulary is so dense, the syntax is so unlike English, the sounds are so foreign to my ears, and half the time I can’t use plurals because there is no set rule for how to form them, you either know them or you don’t, and I usually don’t. My goal was to become fluent in Arabic by the time I finished my time here. After all, I had nearly reached that level of fluency of French after only three weeks in France in an immersion program. But I was really wrong. Once in Jerusalem, I was in a church and heard some foreign language. I had no idea what language it was, but I could understand around 70% of it because it was some romance language. I just found it so interesting that not even being able to identify the language, I was able to understand it more than a language I had been intensively studying.
I think it really hit me when I was trying to watch TV. I sat there and just tried to understand what was happening in the shows, and I realized I could only understand maybe 25% of the words being said. That moment I knew that after 6 more weeks I wasn’t going to suddenly understand even an extra 50% of the relentless onslaught of words that I just didn’t know that were coming out of the screen. If I’m lucky, inshAllah I will understand maybe 50% of the TV shows I watch by the conclusion of this program. But I have a good friend, Anusha, whose words I always refer back to in times like those. She said you’ve always just gotta look at how far you’ve come. You just gotta think about where you were at the start of the race. If I think about it, at the beginning of the program I didn’t even understand my host mother when she asked me what my name was, and now I am solidly being able to generally understand what is going on in Arabic TV shows in full on colloquial dialect. It’s pretty awesome, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to understand anything from these shows in August!
Anyway, the week just got better and better from the rough first half. My friend Mohammad randomly texted me after I had sat down in a cafe and set aside the following four hours to studying and taking care of errands asking if I wanted to “Go to a music concert”. He said it was supposed to be really sweet, but I told him no because you know, I had set aside that time to do all the work I hadn’t done. But then I figured, I had told myself I would always put going out to special events like that and “being Jordanian” as my number one priority. So I texted him back and told him I’d go.
The music concert ended up being a high school concert of an all girl school singing in a choir with a german orchestra from another high school that had flown in, and it was the director of my program’s daughter’s school! Damn, now did that feel like a “study abroad” experience. It was a bunch of traditional Arab songs, Jordanians as far as the eye could see, and just an experience I was totally not expecting. I really felt like I had been injected into the Arab world and was living a life like any Jordanian would, in this case watching a family member perform in her high school choir. It also had this feeling of epicness that’s hard to describe, like I was engaging in something bigger than myself. Something that I was very lucky to be experiencing. After that, Mohammad drove me home and I had this incredible talk with him about the difference of Jordanian life and American life, the problems in the different economic sectors of Jordan, and the general societal issues the country faces. It was one of those things where you just take everything for granted… I mean I definitely thought everything was fine and dandy, and it was fascinating to hear Mohammad’s perspective on Jordan’s struggle with it’s economy and workforce. But even more than that, it was incredible to speak with him about the difference in relationships of people in Jordan versus the United States. As in relationships between young and old, men and women, the role of the religion in the country. Just an awesome talk, and one I definitely would not have been able to have had in August.
Anyway, another night I also spent with my friend Evan. It’s funny how I had the chance to do that, actually, since I usually am too busy on Wednesdays since I usually have fencing that ends quite late. When I showed up to fencing though, there was no power (I learned how to say ‘The power is out’, to boot). I initially was gonna head home, but one of the younger fencer guys told me there was a women’s soccer match, Lebanon vs. Jordan, in the stadium right next to us. So like I had said, I would always make doing cool, spontaneous stuff like that a priority.
Anyway, it was pretty cold but Jordan ended up winning 3-0 so it was worth it. Also the younger guys always teach me pretty heinous things, so it’s always hilarious to hang out with them. Anyway, I still had a lot of time in the day left so I hit up my friend Evan to chill.
We just went to Rainbow Street, which is one of the best places for night life in Jordan, and walked around. We initially planned to go to a bar, but it was early so we decided to explore the smaller restaurants around. We even got falafel from the “best falafel place” in Amman! It was good but I dunno if it was the best. Anyway, this was really the turn around of my week because when I spoke to Evan, we both vented about our frustrations, what we liked, what we didn’t like, and it was a relief to see that other people were feeling the same way and it was ok to feel cornered. We went to a sick, secluded little cafe and smoked some arguile (shisha). I do less of it then I used to when I got here, but I still can’t make circles that well but I’m hoping to be able to soon enough. So if you ever want to smoke shisha, I am down and, hopefully, will be able to blow circles. We ended the night by eating these awesome chili cheese fries at a place called Buffalo Wings and Rings.
I had a trip to Wadi Rum, pretty much the tourist spot after Petra in Jordan, that weekend so I really tried to get all my work done on Thursday, since we’d be leaving on Friday and not coming back until Saturday (work week is Sun-Thurs here). That morning I woke up, beat a level of Fire Emblem ( الحمدلله) , hit the gym. Before going to the cafe to study, I figured I’d hit up my friend Badr to see what he was up to. All I got from him was a text that was “I’m close by your house come hang out!” I really wanted to do some work, but then I remembered that the next week was project week (no classes!) so I had time. I went to where he was only to stumble upon his pride and joy – he was opening up a burger joint! Literally named iBurger, the place had just been repainted and he was set on having it open in a week’s time. I spent the day with him going to different stores searching for all the supplies for the store, and we also stopped at a place called “Royal Snack” where he got this massive meal for 3 JDs (5 bucks). It was literally a burger, a hot dog, a zinger, fries, and a drink. Anyway, it was a typical Jordanian sort of shop you wouldn’t really find in Philly or Houston, moreso a place like Mexico. It had this homey feeling, where younger people gathered to eat cheap food and have a view of the city from the small crevices in the wall, despite probably not having the qualifications required to get 5 stars on from a health inspector test.
That night, I went to this SICK seafood restaurant. We had had this place recommended to us. It was this Iraqi place that I had just heard was “really good”. When I arrived there after an awkward cab ride, Jordan and Evan, waving their arms in all sorts of gestures, were running out of breath viciously trying to explain how these guys prepared the fish. So the set up of the place was pretty cool. There’s like a sitting spot where you wait for your meal. While you wait they bring you hot tea (especially good in the cold). Every meal takes about 30 minutes to prepare, and Evan and Jordan assured me they had ordered something good for all of us. When I walked into the “preparation” room, I saw this small pool full of these massive fish and a guy just pulling them out of the water, weighing them, and then putting them in the queue that inevitably ends in a furnace of flames for them. It was awesome though. The guy would pull out the next fish in the queue, swiftly, albeit brutally, deliver a powerful blow to its head and immediately eviscerate it. I thought that maybe the fish was dead from being out of the water long enough so that the bludgeoning was extraneous, but the bread maker assured me “no no these fish can live 3-4 hours out of the water without rain!”
So what they end up doing is opening the fish up (sort of like as if it were a butterfly) and then holding it in place with this metal contraption and sticking it in a fire for 30 minutes. The results are really awesome, the fish tasted great! Also while you wait a guy literally just sits there and makes bread fresh from a stone oven and just hands it to you after he pulls it out, so you have more to eat while you wait. Such an awesome experience. Mohammad, Evan, Jordan and I sat at the table and devoured the fish with our fresh bread. زاكي!
So needless to say I didn’t get any homework done that night. The next morning, bright and early, we got on a bus headed straight to Wadi Rum. It was one of those awesome trips where you just get really pensive and think about your whole life. I thought about so many things during those four hours. The people whom I was lucky had entered into my life, FIJI, fencing, my plans for the future, what mattered to me and what didn’t, my ideas for the future. It was such a stark contrast from how the week had started. I felt like I was so in control of my life. And like I had decided to do, I wrote it all down so that I wouldn’t forget what I had been thinking about. It’s the biggest shame to have all of these inspirational ideas and feel so pumped about life and then forget them.
I was really psyched because my mentor, Anas, was on the trip with us and I hadn’t seen him for a while. We got to the first site, took all our bags, and hopped into the back of some vans and started to drive through the desert. We made our first stop at this big hill. It was mainly made up of really soft, red sand, so we took off our shoes and ran up it. Then came a more rocky part, so Anas and I climbed up to the top with “To The World” blasting from my pocket. It was worth the gash in my foot, I can say that for sure. I literally felt on top of the world. I was at the highest point of the hill and could see for miles and miles.
At this point we realized we were sort of late so we climbed back down. When we got to the sand, we took advantage of the downhill and ran as fast as we could. Honestly I’ve never felt so free, running at absolute full speed without fear of falling, barefoot… I reached a velocity I had never experienced on foot, every leap I took came with it a feeling of floating from the immense air time I was getting. Every step I took was a small spurt of flight.
Anyways, hopped onto the back of the truck , and headed towards our next destination. We arrived at the tents we would be staying at. They were pretty big, and all the beds had like triple blankets on them. We had heard it gets quite cold, so I was happy to see them. What was more shocking was that at the camp I ran into a friend I had met in Oman last summer! His name’s John. He told me he would be in Wadi Rum, but I wasn’t able to reply in time and had absolutely no idea that by sheer coincidence he would be working at the exact location I was staying in! It was great to see an old friend. For how big the world is, fortuitous encounters like those bring a smile to my face. We spent the night pretty casually. We ate this meal (I forgot the name whoops) what is cooked completely under the sand, plus other stuff (falafel hummus laban etc u know the drill). Then, we sat by this fire inside the tent drinking tons of warm tea, listening to the Bedouins tell us their stories, and cooking marshmallows. Anas is a fencer like me, so everyone wanted to see me and him fence with those wooden sticks you use to cook marshmallows over a fire. The fight ended with me literally having to pull Anas’s stick out of my hand. Like it actually went into my hand, vertically if I might add (as in it didn’t go in like perpendicular lines, it went in through the webbed part between the fingers).
After that, Anas, Jordan, and Badr went walking in the night of the desert to go exploring. The temperature had dropped at that point it was quite cold. It was a lot different from my last time in Wadi Rum though, and I guess I never had the outdoor experience to realize how much of an impact the moon had. It was a full moon that night (that’s actually what Badr means in Arabic) and it lit up the entire night. We could clearly see in the night and had no need for our phones to light the path. Last time, it was pitch black without a light. You could couldn’t see five feet in front of you. This time, it was sort of like a state of twilight, just a bit darker. I guess that’s what they mean by “moonlight”.
Something sort of cool… We were walking in the night and at one point Anas suddenly interrupted the conversation and said “stop”. Then he said “Let’s turn around”. We turned around and started making our trek back home. When I asked him why, he said he thought he saw, from a distance, the gleam of an animal’s eye in the distance. In Wadi Rum they actually warn you about the wild animals (like hyenas) that can travel in packs… It can be quite dangerous. I turned around to see if I saw anything, too. Just to check. Sure enough, a slight glimmer met my gaze from the depths of a distant cave. I shuddered, and we ended up getting back home after a half hour walk.
That night was really cold, even with the three blankets. Anas and I woke up at 5:30 to see the sunrise. When we got up, it was quite bright and even though it was 5:30 and the sun wasn’t up yet, you could see the moon high in the deep blue sky. It was still very very cold though. Desert cold, they call it. We found a nearby cliff and scaled it to get the best view. The fifteen minutes I waited for that sunrise may have been some of the coldest of my life. We were almost frozen like statues, at the mercy of the wind, as we waited for the sun to pop up from behind the mountains in the distant. It was another one of those pensive moments where you just got to stop and think. Everything around me was so calm… And all I could do was reflect. In those fifteen minutes my body was frozen but my mind was racing. I could see the land all around me, and thinking about how it all was waiting for the sun. And Anas joked about “Nope, there’s just not gonna be sun today.” I hadn’t even thought about how much that statement rang with me. Like that doesn’t happen, there is never a day without sun. That’s what makes it a day. But there are so few things in life that are 100% it was hard to imagine that not even on one day of the last billions of years the sun did not come up past those mountains. The certainty of that and everything it entails is something I’ll have to ponder more later on.
Anyway that was the first time I saw a sunrise. It was amazing to see, especially wearing contacts. The curves of my lenses captured the rays of the sun, so I could see the curvature of my contacts from the suns rays in my field of vision. As the sun got higher and higher, more and more rays populated my vision, until the sun was finally up and that single streak of gold had turned into a myriad of shooting stars engulfing everything in sight. And with it, more importantly, entered a flood of warmth. الحمدلله
We actually made a video from that morning on that hill that we posted on Facebook, for those of you who have seen it. It was a play on the name Anas gave me, “Sanad” which is an Arab name and also conveniently Denes spelled backwards. He also gave me this last name “Al Ajarma” which is apparently just a random last name but everyone thinks its hilarious when I say it. So in the video, Anas asks me “Who are you?” And I say “I’m Sanad”. Then he says “Sanad who?” And I go “Sanad Al Ajarma!”, yelling it from the top of the mountain. Then I say “What are you looking at? I’m going to hit you.” at which point he replies “No!” and the video ends.
The rest of the day was quite fun. I said bye to John, we rode bikes in the desert, and ended with another long four hour ride home to Amman. The start of this next week was Project Week, where we would get to learn a lot about the culture of Amman in any field we choose.
Before writing this, I was speaking to my good friend Connie. I was happy to hear that she was doing very well and enjoying her life, and I’m really glad I spoke to her because it cemented what I had learned over the past few weeks, and in my time abroad in general. It’s really changed my life for the better. Being removed from Penn, also having been in Russia and Sierra Leone this summer, makes me realize how big the world really is. How so many things that I cared so much about at Penn just don’t matter at all when you take a step outside. I used to really care what others would think about every action I take. Like maybe I’d want to ask someone to a date night, but I’d end up not going through with it because I would be afraid she’d say no and it would be weird afterwards, or I would be self-conscious to post something on Facebook or any form of internet because I would worry about if others would think it was weird… But now I’ve realized that I’m just doing me, and that’s all that matters to me now. If she DOES say no, or I put something on Facebook that people DO think is weird… I mean in the end it’s just an experience, and it means so little in my life. I’ve realized I want to go where I want to go, hang out with the people I like, and just do my thing.
I also feel like I’ve grown more into a man here. Problems have arisen while I’ve been here, whether they be here or at home, and I’ve come to the point where I’ve realized “I’m 20 years old, about to turn 21… I’m old enough to solve my own problems and settle things with people when I don’t agree.” Whether it means voicing your opinion when you don’t agree with someone, even if they are your very close friend, or telling someone “Hey man, don’t do that to me – I don’t like it”, even if it stirs up a brief uncomfortable moment between the two of you, or simply dealing with obstacles you face in your life the most effective and mature manner – I feel like it’s all coming together for me.
Anyways, I cannot believe how fast this time has gone by. THIS is my study abroad and before I know it I’ll be back in Texas celebrating Christmas and my 21st. Hopefully I make the most out of the next few weeks, and inshAllah project week is as good as I hope it will be.