We visited a tourist pool/spa center with a private beach which meant that we had access to showers and two lovely pools. Although many women wore bikinis like us, not everyone was an American tourist, and many women sat poolside wearing full niqabs and large sun hats. Some women swam with ultra-conservative swim suits that included a built-in head covering. (Imagine some varieties of competitive racing suits!) Photo credit for most of these pictures goes to Chelsea Layman and her spectacular water-proof camera!
Milia stood in front of us, trying to compose her face as she injected an imaginary needle into her forearm. “Heroin! Crack! Shooting up!” we yelled. “Drugs!” someone finally shouted. We got a thumbs up. Ok, next word… She crossed her legs, held reins in her hand. “Riding! Horse! Camel!” we guessed. Camel was right. Confusion ensued. “Drug camel?” we tried. Another thumbs up. Then she made a big “x” with her arms. We paused. Again, she made a big x, pretended to shoot up, then pantomimed riding a camel. I had no idea, but Sara finally got it. “ANTI-NARCOTICS CAMEL!” The room exploded in laughter and applause, and the scorekeeper gave our team another point. (There was context for the clue. In a meeting about why we shouldn’t try drugs in Jordan, an officer in the Anti-Narcotics Unit told us about controlling Jordan’s border with anti-narcotics camels.) Over the course of the game, we there were more fun ones. I turned up “The Sex Pistols,” which was only awkward because our professor and his wife were playing with us. Then there was “Uncle Sam,” which the girl didn’t know how to act out because she claimed she’d never seen an Uncle Sam Wants You poster. The rest of the list was more tame–orphanage, Charlie Sheen, Bashar al-Assad (the president of Syria), sports bra, the Salem Witch Trials, digestive problems, CMC bro. The party wound down before we finished all the prompts, but it was a satisfying end to our Fourth of July. Since we’re not important enough to be invited to the U.S. Embassy’s Fourth of July dinner (it’s mostly a public relations event, not a party for ex-pats), we had decided to arrange our own celebrations. Each of us signed up to bring a dish, and two girls who had red, white and blue decorations offered to host in their apartment. By 7:30 when we started dinner, we had fried chicken, cowboy mashed potatoes, fruit salad, pasta salad, chips and hamburgers. My roommate and I had originally planned on making apple pie, but since we didn’t have a rolling pin, flat counter space or pie plates, we switched to an apple crumble instead and it turned out excellently. The evening was spent playing charades, eating familiar food and reminiscing about things we miss most about America–abundant water, good coffee, long showers, Chinese takeout, microwaves, gentle laundrey detergent, dryers, country music and English. At some point, we got so nostalgic that someone started singing The Star Spangled Banner and we all joined in. And as we celebrated America’s birthday for a few hours, it seemed that we were not in Jordan at all.
The lights turned off and the DJ turned up the bass. Dry-ice smoke seeped onto the dance floor and a new spray of confetti cascaded onto our heads. Suddenly, I could sing along with the music! As the beat thumped out a steady rhythm, more girls ran to the dance floor and soon everyone was gyrating to the sound of an American pop diva. It seemed just like a scene from a club in LA. The funny part was that I was at an girls-only graduation party in Jordan. Getting an invitation to the party had been a fluke. One of the young women who works with our study abroad organization graduated from the University of Jordan two weeks ago, and we had attended the ceremony, wished her “mabrook,” and given her some flowers. The ceremony was like any other university graduation, and except for being in Arabic, it was like other American graduations I’ve seen, but with slightly less pomp. Nevertheless, Ala had been very excited that we had come and she invited all the girls to her girls-only graduation party. It was held in a small wedding hall, and she told us we could wear whatever we wanted (i.e. short skirts or tight dresses). Not knowing what we were getting into, we threw on the cutest dresses we could find and tried to navigate Amman in search of the wedding hall. Walking in to the party was disorienting. For one thing, we were extremely underdressed. About half the girls there were wearing prom dresses, virtually everyone was in heels, and their hair and makeup was done like they were getting married in several hours. And then, we couldn’t find Ala until she came over to give us kisses. The trouble was that she had her hair down! We’d only ever seen her in her white hajib, but she looked like a completely different person with her hair fully down, in a beautiful, low-cut dress! She was quick to pull us onto the dance floor. To be honest, it was quite awkward. Everyone at the party knew the lyrics to the all-Arabic songs except us, and although Ala’s friends were friendly, they knew the how to dance quite gracefully to the subtle beat, and we didn’t. I picked up some arm and hip movements from watching other girls, but since the music was too loud to try introducing myself (and since the other American girls didn’t feel comfortable dancing much), we sat out a lot. But only until the American songs came on. I can’t even explain how the energy in the room changed. Girls screamed, then mobbed the dance floor. The lights turned off and everyone started singing. And then, something funny happened. I realized that everyone at the party was looking at us, the Americans. Two girls grabbed my hand. “Teach me! Teach me!” they shouted. I had no idea what they wanted until someone explained: “I want to dance American!” I kept moving to the music and just laughed. There is no way to dance American, I explained. They wouldn’t have any of that, and kept pestering me. Finally, they left the dance floor to get reinforcements. All of a sudden, a 60-year-old woman in a pastel pink mother-of-the-bride dress grabbed my arm and pulled me to the edge of the dance floor. She motioned that I should dance, and I decided to improvise. I bobbed to the music, waved my hands to the beat, and demonstrated how to “pop” my chest. They loved it. The DJ only played four American songs, but that was all it took to make us besties with Ala’s friends. After that, they let us into a circle and taught us how to shimmy our shoulders, roll our hips like belly dancers and move our arms. It was truly one of the most fun evenings I’ve had in Amman, and when we left, Ala’s friends all kissed me three times on the cheek. “I love you!” one girl said to me. I responded in Arabic, “Ana bahebik kaman!”
That night, I saw a side of Jordanian girls that I’d never seen before. They like to dance just as much as us American girls do, and they like to wear glittery tops and slinky dresses the same way do. I enjoyed dancing at the party, but I’m so glad I got to attend because it made Ala and all of her friends so much more 3-dimensional to me. When I see Jordanian women and girls covered and wearing the hijab, I assume that they are extremely conservative people in general, in their private life as much as in their public life. And before, I’ve thought I can’t relate to them at all. In fact, I’ve associate their headscarf with a lot of negative qualities like being anti-feminist and unprogressive. But going to Ala’s party helped me see that these women have many similarities to me, regardless of the veil. Finally, it also helped me understand why any woman wearing a headscarf might not want to approach me, especially if I was wearing a short sleeve shirt. Put in her position, I would most likely think that there was no way I could relate to an American who wears short sleeves in public and has close friendships with American men.
A student who attends CMC lives in Amman, Jordan, and when she found out that CMC has a program in Amman this summer, she invited us to her family’s farm. The word “farm” is a little misleading for her family’s countryside property, which is actually just a very nice country house with a medium-sized vegetable garden and a field of olive and fruit trees. The invitation was for 11:30am—5pm, and I wondered what we would be doing for the whole time. The answer was simply: feasting. First, we started with the appetizers—drinks, cucumbers, carrots and cheese mixed with thyme and olive oil from their olive trees. Then there were fresh, milky almonds. Next came homemade pita stuffed with fresh tomatoes, falafel and more white goat cheese. I was full, but shwarma magically appeared, and our friend’s mother insisted that we try it. After two bites, I was really done, but it turned out that those had just been the appetizers! Our Actual Lunch consisted of kebab, every type of dip you’ve ever heard of, fresh bread, chicken, grilled onions, and lamb. And after an hour of sitting in stupor paralyzed by massive food comas, we roused ourselves at the word “dessert.” What a dessert it was! There was a chocolate cake (our contribution to the meal), kanafeh, milk pudding with pistachios, and an amazing fruit platter with plums, cherries, toot (like blackberries, but sweeter and more tender), melon and strawberries. We ate ourselves into another stupor and then had to lie down in the sun before we could pile into buses to get back to Amman and our minimalist kitchens where the most popular dishes include rice, lentils or eggs. I didn’t feel hungry again for 24 hours.
“You are here with the CIA?” The man’s eyes swelled to round saucers. He swallowed and looked around once. I had to clarify, and quickly. “La, la, la, la! CI-E-E, not the CIA!” The conversation had started when one of the employees from the Marketing Department at INJAZ came in to formally introduce himself. He complemented my accent and said that he hadn’t realized I was American until someone told him my name. But then he asked me where I was studying Arabic. I was studying through the University of Jordan with a program called CIEE, I told him. That was when he got worried. I managed to explain the difference between the CIA and CIEE, but it reminded me of a lesson where we went over how to explain why we were studying Arabic. For most of us on the CMC program, we’re interested in the foreign service, or working for some level of the state department. But that’s not always a good thing to publicize in this area of the world. In class, we kept it simple; we learned to say that we want to learn a new culture (thaquafa jadeeda), that we think Arabic is a beautiful language (looga helooa), and that we’re not spies (jooaasees). And sometimes that works, but I still get questions about my motives, mainly from taxi drivers. They can’t believe I’d ever want to study Arabic just for the joy of learning a language. But, as my coworker claims, if you don’t have at least two conspiracy theories, you’re not a good Arab.
I spend half of each weekday at my internship with INJAZ, a local NGO whose mission is to prepare Jordanian youth to become productive members of society and to succeed in a global economy. INJAZ has many programs, including a school adoption program and an internship placement program for university students, but most of its resources are devoted to the classes it offers in private schools. Volunteers from the private business sector (including the CEO of Zain, a major telecommunications company in Jordan) teach classes on entrepreneurship, leadership and business skills in public schools using INJAZ curricula. In honor of their volunteers, INJAZ held its annual Volunteer Awards event at the Dead Sea Convention Center. 1,250 volunteers attended, and it made for a busy evening! INJAZ currently has one of the largest Facebook and Twitter followings of any local nonprofit, and the goal for the night was to get at least 600 more people to follow us! I was in charge of helping people log in to Facebook on one of our twelve laptops and “like” INJAZ, which meant I got to practice a LOT of Arabic. Unfortunately, the booths were outside where it was 90 degrees, and the dress code was all black for company employees. I was relieved when appetizers outdoors were finished, and speeches started in the air-conditioned main room. The highlight of the evening was definitely when the band RUM performed live. The band, which does mainly instrumental pieces, is quite famous in Jordan. They played for a little over 45 minutes, and by the end of it, a large group of men had gotten up and started dancing dubkeh, the national dance of Jordan. For a sample of the music, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oIH0escnnI. Afterwards, I was surprised to find out that there was a surprise birthday party for the president of INJAZ. With all the festivities, I didn’t end up getting home until 1:30am!