Thursday, October 14, 2010


"Critique, I believe, is most powerful when it leaves open the possibility that we might also be remade in the process of engaging another's worldview, that we might come to learn things that we did not already know before we undertook engagement. This requires that we occasionally turn the critical gaze upon ourselves, to leave open the possibility that we may be remade through an encounter with the other." -Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety

Friday, April 2, 2010

ليش لا اكلت؟

(translation: why didn't you eat?)

I just got back from Spring Break in Syria (Spring Break! Wooo!), and had the most amazing time ever. I fell in love with the narrow, winding streets of the old cities and the welcoming people, and I've never felt so overcome with a feeling historical or cultural appreciation! Sure, I had learned about the Great Wall and Taoism before going to China, and the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame before going to Paris, but that was nothing like this. I feel like I've been studying the Middle East and Islam for such a long time now--I mean for the past six month's I've thought about nothing but Arabic and Arab culture--and it was incredibly satisfying to see things that I learned about in school.

Damascus was especially exciting. Not only is it the capital, claims to be the oldest city in the world (although so does Aleppo), and is home to the Umayyad Mosque, but it is also incredibly important to Shi'a pilgrims.

The Umayyad Mosque is the most famous mosque in the world, other than those in Mecca and Medina. The location has been a holy site since the 9th century BCE, but was transformed into a mosque in 705 CE. It's absolutely beautiful. The minarets all date to different time periods and have their own unique characteristics. The marble floor of the courtyard is cool and smooth, and the tiling on the inner walls glimmer in the sunlight. It is so peaceful inside; I felt as if I could have sat for hours watching the children slide on the smooth floor and their parents perform one of their five daily prayers.

Also in the Umayyad Mosque are the (claimed to be) heads of John the Baptist and Hussein, the Shi'a martyr who was killed by the forces of the Caliph Yazid at the Battle of Karbala. Hussein was the son of the fourth Caliph Ali and the grandson of Muhammad, and, according to Shiites, should have been the leader of the Ummah, the Muslim community. He stood up against oppression and tyranny, although he and his small army were outnumbered by about 40,000. Hussein was killed in battle, and his head was carried to the Caliph in Damascus.

Zainab, the sister of Hussein, wept for her brother and for the disgrace that was brought upon the house of the prophet. For Shi'a women, she is a symbol of strength and sacrifice.

Shi'as typically commemorate the Martyrdom of Hussein with the Mourning of Muharram, which often includes self-flaggelation of men (to represent the sacrifice of Hussein) and weeping of women (to honor the courage of Zainab). I first learned about this in an course about political identity in Iraq, and then later in Islamic Politics, and of course was fascinated by this ritual of remembrance. But I never thought that I would actually ever see it! While it was not Muharram and there was no self-flaggelation at the Umayyad Mosque, Shi'a pilgrims rushed to touch the shrine of Hussein, and the women wept over it, as Zainab had done over her brother.

The next day we went to the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque, which is a mausoleum for Ruqayya, the daughter of Hussein. The mosque is just about 30 years old, was built by the Iranians, and has the most mirror mosaics I've seen in my life! I had never heard of Sayyida Ruqayya before, but hundreds of Iranian pilgrims flocked to her tomb, and the women wept for her, just as they did for Hussein.

Syria recently opened its boarders to Iranians, and thousands of them covered the streets of the Old City of Damascus, especially close the the Umayyad and Sayyida Ruqayya Mosques. Many people would try to speak to us in Farsi, and we would try to speak to them in Arabic, and neither of us would understand. Although there were times where I felt overwhelmed by the crowds (especially next to the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque), I felt totally welcome to these shrines and holy sites. The pilgrims were so excited to see to us and to try to speak to us. Some smiled, and some gave us candy, but all were warm and treated us as if we were one of them. Feeling that sense of community at a Shi'ite pilgrimage site made me really think about the sense of brotherhood during the hajj to Mecca that changed Malcolm X's life: "My pilgrimage broadened my scope. It blessed me with a new insight. In two weeks in the Holy Land, I saw what I never had seen in thirty-nine years here in America. I saw all races, all colors, -- blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans -- in true brotherhood! In unity! Living as one! Worshipping as one! No segregationists -- no liberals; they would not have known how to interpret the meaning of those words."

It was amazing to see all of that first hand, and to experience the unity of a religious pilgrimage although I wasn't myself a pilgrim. (What is it going to be like when I go to Egypt?? And then Philistine?!?!) But, I would be lying if I didn't say that one of the best things about Syria was the food. And, boy, did I ever eat.

First of all, everything is more delicious is Syria. I don't know if it was because we were on break and I was excited about seeing everything and trying new things, but everything tasted better--i mean you can even drink the tap water there!!

The basics--hummus, mutabbal, baba ghanouj, and fattoush--were so much more flavorful! I think they use better olive oil in Syria, and these beautiful red spices that they don't use in Jordan. I'm not sure exactly what they are, but I tried to by some at the spice market in downtown Amman and I think it may be a combination of sweet and spicy paprikas.

Secondly, there are so many more types of food in Syria than there are in Jordan! Its basically the perfect mix of French and Arab cultures...every cafe has crepes or belgium waffles, and basically everything has something pomegranate in it.

Meet feteh. Feteh is delicious, and many could probably claim it to be the sole contributor to their obesity. It is basically pita bread that is drenched in tahini, then covered in ghee (yanie, pure saturated fat), hummus, chickpeas, and olive oil. So in other words, it is probally the worst thing that you could ever possibly eat. But it is amazing. I think we ate it at least 4 times for breakfast.

We first had feteh at this great restaurant in Lattakia that our friend Abdullah showed us. I've never seen bigger pots of hummus in my life!! It reminded me a bit of an old Coney Island where regulars go every morning for the special. We of course sat in the "family" section in the back and, thus, were out of the real action, but we were happy and full.

Wa baaden, foul. Now, I've eaten foul before, but never like this. In Haleb (Aleppo), we went to this great little foul place for breakfast each morning, Haj Abdo al-Fawwal. Yacoub somehow found this place amongst the nameless, twisty streets of the Christian quarter, and I'm so glad he did! The owner was maybe the sweetest and cutest cold man in the world, and they served the foul with the most flavorful, fresh tomato slices you could ever imagine.

And just down the street from Haj Abdo al-Fawwal was the bread factory where they got their bread from. The men would pile the bread on these giant rugs before delivering them to local restaurants. The first morning we walked by, I said something along the lines of, "hatha kiteer khobez!" (or, that is a lot of bread!). Of course they found it hilarious, and they gave us giant pieces of bread to eat (after we had eaten probably a kilo each of foul, mind you.) We thanked them and started to walk away and then they insisted that we take more bread that was warm and fresh out of the oven. We did of course, and we were happy and full.

The next morning after we ate foul, the men at the factory took us inside and we saw how the bread was made. It was really cool to see--all these pieces of dough being sliced and squashed before being rolled out flat and put into a flaming oven--and smelled so delicious. We akeed left with free bread, and we were again happy and full.

This is mouhamara--or, maybe one of the most delicious things i've ever eaten. Ever! (And for some reason, none of us took a picture of it! So I stole this one off the interwebs.) Like hummus of baba ghanouj, its a mix of walnuts, pomegranate molasses, toasted bread crumbs, olive oil, roasted red peppers, and spices. Sooo yummy. After we tried it in Haleb, we couldn't stop eating it. We had to order it at every meal because it made us so happy and full.

And now for the most wonderful things in Syria...the heluwiyat (desserts)!!!!! Just in case you don't know, I love desserts. So much. Ana amoot fi heluwiyat. And I especially love them from Syria, because pistachios (fustook halebe) are from Haleb! I love pistachios, and I made it a point to tell every person I met that I did (and of course they LOVED that).

My favorite heluwiyat is heressa, and in Haleb I ate the most delicious heressa with fustook halebe. And the owner of the dessert shop let me taste it for free. I was so happy and full.

Jill fell in love with aeesh abbulbul, or the brid's nests. The colors of the pistachios were so beautiful! And they were soo yummy. When Jill bought the biggest aseesh abbulbu (with fustook halebe, of course) we had ever seen, I was given a free piece of baklawa. Of course we were happy and full.

And the ice cream. Bakdash. Suhbanallah! This was the ice cream to end all other ice creams. Its in the souq al-hamidiyya, close to the Umayyad Mosque in Damasucs. The shop looks like an old fashioned little diner, and they hand mix the ice cream before it is "stretched and slapped, and then rolled into pistachio nuts." It's otherwise known as perfection.

We went to Bakdash twice (how could we not go the second day?). The beauty of Bakdash is that you can have as many flavors in one cone was you want, all for the same price of 50 Syrian pounds (roughly $1). The first time I had vanilla, chocolate, and mango. The second time vanilla, strawberry, and tout (berry). It was incredible. I am still thinking about how happy and full I was.

On the bus between Haleb and Hama, Ata sat next to this vet named Mohammed. He invited us over to his house for a quick lunch, because we told him that were only planning on staying in town for two hours or so--yanie, just enough time to see the water wheels and eat lunch before heading to Damascus. We should have known, though, that there is no such thing as a "quick" or "light" meal in the Arab world! Especially when you are invited into someone's house! His mom was so sweet to us, and instantly started cooking two or three chickens, minced meat pies, salad, pasta, and french fries when we walked into their apartment. This was, of course, in addition to the 2 kilos of hummus and bread she had her other son bring home. So we all sat on in the living room, watching Arab music videos while we waited to eat this "simple" lunch. There was so much food on the table! There were a lot of us--the five of us, plus Mohammed, his brother and sister, and his mother--but three of us (well, i guess two and a half of us) don't eat meat. Mohammed's mother sat next to me, and insisted that I eat two of the deep fried meat pies (they were quite delicious, but so is anything that is wrapped in filo dough and deep fried to a golden brown perfection), and kept putting giant pieces of chicken in front of me. We tried to explain that Ata, Yacoub, and I don't eat meat (they don't eat any here), and they kept looking at us with these sad, confused looks on their face saying, "hatha jaj, mish leham" (this is chicken, not meat). Mohammed's mother kept putting smaller and smaller pieces of chicken closer to Yacoub's face every time he said "la, shukran!", and at one point she scraped the lamb out of one of the little pies and handed it to Ata saying, "ma fi leham!" (there is no meat in it!). I think Jill was a champ and had to eat an entire chicken by herself once again to make up for us non-meat eaters. After I had stuffed myself with hummus, pasta, salad, french fries and one and a half meat pies, I had still had the giant pieces of chicken in front of me, and Mohammad's mother looked at me so seriously and said to me "lesh la eklte!?" (why didn't you eat?!) I ate!!! I was so happy and full--maybe too full to even be happy--but I ate, I promise!

Then we, of course, went back to the living room where we drank tea with cinnamon, ate a giant platter of fruit, drank kahoua s3da, and offered them a piece of our delicious pistachio baklawa from Haleb. Before we left, Mohammed, and his brother and sister, took us around Hama to show us all of the Roman waterwheels. Needless to say, we stayed in Hama for 5 hours more than we expected to, but we left for Damascus happy and full and exhausted.

Syria was by far the best backpacking trip I've ever been on; and i now i have very fond memories of being constantly happy and full. Check out my pictures on facebook:

انا اموت في سوريا

Monday, February 8, 2010

كنافة ورقص شركي

(translation: kanafa and belly dancing)

This weekend I was lucky enough to spend time with Amal, Jill's language partner, at her home in Zarqa. Jill, Laura, and I took a service taxi, which is basically a large van that follows a route between two destinations (in our case, Amman and Zarqa) and stops where ever you need it to along the way.

After spending time in Zarqa, I can see why people say that Amman is better. There are no malls, no movie theaters, no Pizza Huts or KFCs; the streets are noisy and dirty; and I would bet that the only internet in the city is dial-up in smoke filled internet cafes. Most of the people there are refugees, and much poorer than the people in Western Amman. But there is a sort of authenticity and vibrance that doesn't exist where we live, which is close to the University of Jordan and the swanky clubs of Abdun.

As we walked from the bus station to the second-hand clothing market, we passed the army base and dozens of homeless refugees. At no point did I feel threatened or at risk, but I certainly stood out amongst the crowd. I by no means "fit in" in Amman--especially in wasit al-balad (the old, downtown area)--but there are places in Western Amman where I have been addressed as an Arab, and spoken to in Arabic. In Zarqa, I am clearly an outsider. Part of it is my skin, and part of it is my clothes, but most of it is because I do not wear the veil. I would guess that more than 95% of women in Zarqa wear the hijab, and some even wear the niqab (the black veil that reveals only their eyes). While I could certainly cover my hair to blend with the crowd, part of me feels as if I would be doing it for the wrong reasons, that I would be taking advantage of this religious custom for my own secular benefit.

Being in Zarqa reminded me of wasit al-balad, especially the calls of the street vendors, the colors of the spices, and the beautiful scarves pouring from the little shops onto the street. One big difference is that people do not speak English to us, even though we are clearly foreigners. So although we were stared at as usual, we could listen to the Arabic around us as we tasted little candies and smelled the meat from the shwarma stands.

Amal is very sweet, and went out of her way to make us feel welcome. Not only did she buy us candies (tutu), falafel sandwiches, and snacks before taking us to her home, but she showed us her favorite shops in town and paid for our bus ride to her neighborhood. Her family lives in an apartment building, with each family living on a different floor. Her grandfather lived on the main floor, and her family on the second. We walked into a large sitting room and sat by space heaters as we waited for lunch to be ready. Her father came and smoked his cigarettes with us, and discussed American politics and the voting system in Jordan. He is very well educated, and worked as a diplomat in more than 14 countries in Europe and the Middle East. His English was basically flawless, but he was patient with us as we struggled to form sentences in Arabic.

Amal's mother prepared us a delicious lunch, and after we took off our shoes we were led to the special sitting room for guests. There were no chairs or couches, but these mattress like seats on the floor. We sat around a small ottoman-like table filled with rice, bread, peppers, and stew. The food was delicious, and even though i felt totally stuffed, I sipped some kahoua aswad (arabic style black coffee) and met the rest of her family: 4 sisters, and 2 brothers. We tried to watch the VHS of her sister Shems' wedding, but after maybe 20 minutes of trying to remove the tracking from the tape, Amal gave up and put on the Debke DVD she bought from the market.

Debke is a sort of arab line dance where you interlace fingers with the person next to you and move to your right with different steps and beats. Its super popular at weddings and parties, but people do it EVERYWHERE! And I really mean everywhere! I've done it in people's homes, at theatre at the Hashemite University with the Debke team, at the mall, and on the badminton courts and the University's sports complex. After some serious dancing to Elisa and Wail Kafouri, Amal's sister brought us some scarves and tied them around our hips and began to teach us rakus sharke (eastern or belly dancing). Unlike Debke, which boys and girls dance everywhere, rakus sharke is done only by girls, and only in the privacy of their homes. No boys allowed! Abadan!

After we were out of breath from all of the dancing, Amal's oldest sister invited us to a Tawjihi party. The Tawjihi is the exam high school students must take in order to enter University. Its wayyy more intense than the SAT or ACT, and your admittance on getting into a good college AND a particular major depends on it. Saturday was the announcement of the results, and horns were honking and fireworks exploding all day. (There actually was a problem with the test results this year, and they had to be re-announced the following day--although this did not stop any form of celebration!)

The party was girls only, and I've never been happy to be with only girls in my life! It was so interesting to see Amal and her sisters take the time to match their hijabs to their outfits for the five minute walk to the party, and then almost instantly remove them upon entrance into the house. There were women of all ages--anywhere from 2 to 80--and each in different styles of clothing. Some of the older women wore the thobe, a long black dress with beautiful embroidery, and some of the younger girls wore their most stylish jeans and sparkly tops. But the age- and style-gaps did not stop them all from singing and dancing their hearts out. The hostess was constantly chanting and her guests repeating after her, while her two daughters danced in the middle of the living room. We danced more Debke, although this time to the beat of a drum, and then once again tied scarves around our hips and put metal discs on our thumb and forefingers while we learned to belly dance with all of the women. Needless to say, we do not have parties in the US like this. All of the women were so comfortable with each other, and cheered each other on as they shook their hips to the music. It was a sort of girl-bonding that certainly exists in the US, but one that doesn't typically cross age gaps. I'm so glad that we were there! There has been a lot of girl-bonding in my life lately, and I loved seeing it in this new environment and feeling it, even though I couldn't understand everything they were saying.

After a while they passed out kanafe, a delicious heluwiyat (dessert) that is made out of sweet cheese, bread crumbs, and syrup or honey. I was still stuffed from lunch, but couldn't pass up kanafe and ate mine quickly. After a minute or so, a women noticed that I had eaten my piece, and tried to give me another. "La la la, shukran!" I said (no thanks), but she insisted. "Fudle! Helu!" (Go ahead! Its sweet and delicious). Oh, how I know that its sweet and delicious.

After about a half an hour of more dancing and a cramp in my side (as Jill put it, "Why do I have cramps all over my stomach?? Oh yeah! Because I ate kanfe and jumped"), we walked back to Amal's house to be presented with more heluwiyat, basboosa. This is my favorite, and, thus, couldn't turn it down even though I was close to going into a diabetic coma. Basboosa is basically coconut and semolina wheat drenched in honey (i.e. delicious). We discussed more politics with Amal's father and her extended family, and then retreated to the guest sitting room where we talked about what celebrities we think are cute, giggled, played UNO, ate baked sweet potatoes, and gave each other henna before falling asleep on the mattresses on the floor. Yes, I temporarily turned into a seventh grade girl.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

!اهلاً وسهلاً

ahalan wa sahalan! (translation: welcome!)

Since I've arrived in Jordan I've found nothing but hospitality and welcoming people. Everyone--from the president of the Hashemite University, to the manager of our new apartment building, to the poor bell boy who carried our giant suitcases four times from the van to our rooms and back again--is excited to help us, and bend over backwards to make our impression of Jordan a good one. However, at times this hospitality can be a bit overwhelming, and feels we are always being watched, and that we will never be able to leave our little bubble of America while here, and that we won't actually be able to practice our arabic.

And this hospitality (or overprotection, iza bidik), has caused us a few problems...and its only been three days! First of all, we are not allowed to live in Zarqa, and we will no longer have Jordanian roommates. This is really upsetting! It was one of the great things about this program, that we would live in a place that was sort of off the beaten track, that we would live with Jordanians, and not speak English at all! But, they (i mean, the president and the top officials of the Hashemite University) want us to have a good impression of Jordan, and Zarqa will not give us a good impression because there is not much to do--no malls, not as many restaurants, clubs, or shops as Amman. But there is Arabic! Additionally, the president is worried about our security there. Zarqa has been in the news in Jordan a lot recently because it is so conservative, and there is a bigger chance for problems there than in Amman. We all understand and appreciate this concern, but we want to see what Jordanian life is like! It isn't in the sports complex of the university (where the president wanted us to live, and where there was no private shower--but he would "put one in" in two days), and its not having taxis hired for us from our hotel.

But Munther and Muhammad al-Masri, the head of our program here, found us a beautiful apartment in the "collegetown" of Amman. It is just across the street from the Jordanian University, close to ACOR, the location of the US Government's Critical Language Scholarship, and much nicer than any apartment I've ever lived in! And it is very very cheap, even cheaper than the place in Zarqa, and the landlord is willing to do anything for us: add more routers so we can get wifi in our rooms, put washing machines in our apartments, and hire a cleaning lady twice a week! It is very comfortable, but I almost feel a bit uncomfortable how comfortable it is! But I'm not complaining, of course, as long as I can make friends at both universities and speak arabic always!

And speaking of speaking arabic, I'm finding that I'm remembering more words than I thought I would, and that words are flowing better than I expected. Its easier to speak in the morning than at night, of course. Its really exhausting! But...I can't understand almost anything people say!!! Especially if they are just on the street. I had a few conversations with taxi drivers, and I've understood most of what they've said, but they typically speak a little slower and clearer than workers on the bus or in service taxis with a lot of people around. But its getting better, and we start classes on Sunday, and things will come back, and I will soak up a lot more, inshallah (if god wills).

I've taken over 200 pictures, but the internet is pretty slow. I will try to post some soon, and inshallah I will find some hospitality at a nice little coffee shop in Amman, or at the library at the University of Jordan (which is the largest in the country!).

مع سلامة مع الحب (goodbye with love).

Saturday, January 9, 2010

first post

here it is. the first blog post we've all been waiting for!

...or not. but here goes:

i'm getting ready to head to jordan for six months (well, 5 and a half). that will be the longest time i've spent away from my friends and family, and certainly the longest i've spent out of the country.

i'm so so so so so so so so so excited to go (did i put enough 'so's?) i want to learn arabic and live in the middle east. i want to speak arabic with the people who live in it and think in it, and hopefully i will be able to think in it after living in it for so long. i'm excited to see new places, to try new things, to eat new foods, to hear new sounds, to meet to people. i want to see this infamous 'conflict' from a new perspective, and to understand what it means to appreciate the ever-valuable resource of water. i can't wait for the olives and dates, zeit waa zataar, kahoua aswad (shukran, abu yosef).

but i'm scared. not about cultural differences or seemingly uncomfortable standards of living--i can't wait for those things! i am so excited for new things, for awkward moments of cultural ignorance, for crazy cab drivers, for greasy street food, for trying to explain 'vegetarianism' to people who love lamb (yes, i will be eating meat. yes, that is one thing i am not overly excited about), and for using 'arabian' toilets in public places and running out of my personal stash of toilet paper.

what i'm afraid of being away from friends, especially those that i've come to be so close with this semester. i'm afraid of being too nervous to speak. i'm afraid of not being able to speak with men because i'm a girl (a young lady, as they say). i'm afraid that i will have waisted this year if i don't become fluent.

so that being said, i'm going to use this blog talk about everything, from how often i can shower to how long the ferry from aqaba to nuweiba takes, so that all of my far away friends and family can read my ideas (fikrat) and listen to me talk about how many falafel sandwiches i eat in a day.