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yalla bye

July 5, 2011

My last full day in Jordan, I woke up at dawn to be driven back to my house from where I’d slept over to spend my last hours with this family. I’ve seen plenty of dusks here, but never any dawns, and I drank in how the rising sun turned the pale buildings all rosy and glowy.

I packed for a few hours, then went to church and listened to people–old and young, close to my heart and mere acquaintances–go around and say absolutely lovely things about me as a farewell present. Two of my students who don’t regularly attend my church came to the service just to say goodbye to me.

I spent the rest of the day hiking up and down my little mountain to see everyone else I’d promised to see. (It’s funny…I thought I spent all week doing this, but every time I left a place the person would say, “But you’re not leaving till Monday! You can come over for a few minutes on Sunday, right??”) I cuddled with babies, wrestled with children, reminisced with friends, and tried not to cry when they cried.

In a weirdly fitting ending to the day, two of my dearest friends here (also two of the first people I met) helped me clean out my apartment and slept over at my place so they could accompany me to the airport in the morning. The further we drove along Airport Road, the more knotted up my insides got. When we finally hauled my bags out of the trunk and stood in the departure hall saying our goodbyes, I joked that it felt like I was about to have a heart attack, what with the butterflies and the racing heart. And then my totally non-crying friend burst into tears and our driver came in to say he was going to get a ticket if they didn’t leave now, so we hugged and parted ways.

We had talked on the way over about reverse culture shock, and things that would probably jar me about being back in the States. But the truth is, I’m a fairly adaptable person and don’t expect to be too distressed by the orderly traffic and well-stocked grocery stores and being ignored by strangers and how people walk around half-naked everywhere (I believe we call those pieces of non-clothing shorts and tank tops in America?). I know it will weird me out, but it won’t send me into spasms of anxiety. The different cultural cues, how my gestures and language will need to readjust, and even the more emotional stuff–how it feels to come home changed and find home is left unchanged, how to cope when your heart is full of stories but most people aren’t actually interested in hearing anything more than “it was fun”–that stuff I think I can take in stride.

That’s not what’s going to kill me about coming home. It’s leaving my people here. Because I am experiencing that enviable, heart-shredding blessing that I can only be thankful for in the end: I’m leaving love to come home to love.

And now I’m sitting at a Starbucks in the airport, already feeling like I’m half a world away and thinking about how each person I left behind shaped me, left a mark on me, changed me. And how impossible it is, really, to explain or describe that. And how isolating that feels. But also how eager I am to dull that sensation in the presence of my people at home. And trying desperately not to lose it here, surrounded by children chugging frappucinos and tourists scrolling through their iPhones…harder than you think.

Home soon, insha’allah…

بشوفك بعدين، يا الاردن…راح اشتاقلك كتيررر

Well, I wrote this all about 22 hours ago, and am just hitting “publish” as I lie on my bed in my absurdly clean American room after a long day of traveling. I was greeted by my parents and grandparents at the airport, and by my brother and friends at home. I am terribly happy. And I am terribly sad.

And this is where (this leg of) the journey ends for now, I think. “Yalla bye” is how we often signed off or parted ways in Jordan, and I loved the Arabish nature of the phrase. And also the sentiment: “Let’s go, bye!” Another step forward. And so on. Off we go.



July 1, 2011

Or, why I’m coming home having gone up a full clothing size…or two.

Something I’m definitely looking forward to at home: full control over my diet. It’s something I’ve slowly but steadily lost over the course of my time here. Of course, this correlated perfectly with my gradual integration into my community, and I wouldn’t trade everything that entailed for the world, let alone to fit into the jeans I originally brought with me. But I do miss wearing them.

See, my people here are incredibly generous. Possibly the most generous people I’ve ever met. I am always walking away from my friends/students’ houses with some small gift in hand, especially now that I’m in the process of goodbye visits. Weird little ornament dolls, handfuls of candy, clothes, jewelry, mugs…I’ve been given it all.

They’re equally generous with their food, and there’s no easy way to say no when it’s offered without risking serious offense. The only foreigners I know who have ever successfully done so are viewed as permanent outsiders, and this trait is discussed amongst the locals with open disapproval. So most of my memories from this year will be colored by the food I was fed. The countless cups of sugary tea and Turkish coffee. The many, many times I was held hostage for a meal. The cold wintry day where I was somehow forced to eat three pieces of birthday cake at three different houses (unlucky me). The arrival of spring, which meant being slipped strange little snacks as I tutored–unripe almonds eaten whole, green cherries, watermelon with soft white cheese.

It’s more than just the normal hospitality thing, too–I think I attract pity because I’m a single foreigner, living on my own. And since being a good cook is a source of immense pride for traditionally-minded women, some of them would love nothing more than to be able to boast that their cooking was the cause of all my weight gain. That would just make their lives. And unfortunately for me, I started out “too skinny” by their standards anyway (if I’d started overweight, then they might’ve let me off with an “I can’t, I’m on a diet!” But that wasn’t really an option for me).

There’s also the fact that, for some of these women, food is the best thing they have to offer me. All of my students come from very modest homes–after all, my classes were free. My adult students included Iraqi refugees living on savings and handouts (work is technically illegal) and a woman who walked 20 minutes uphill to get to class because she can’t afford the 30 qirsh (like 40 cents) serveece fare on a twice-a-week basis. Of the kids I tutor, one couldn’t even afford to buy the $4 dictionary required by her school curriculum (so I bought one for her as an end-of-year present). Of course, not everyone I know is struggling to that degree, but for those that are, I know they see feeding me as their only means to thank me for my time. And in those cases, there is something fragile about their offering–something dignity-stripping about refusing to eat what they put before me. So I don’t.

Of course, there are times when I can be stealthier about avoiding it. If I eat slowly, I can ensure I only receive one extra helping instead of two. If the food is offered shortly after I arrive, I can claim to be full from eating earlier. If I am handed packaged food, I can drop it into my bag to eat “later.” But if it’s a full meal…or if a child was secretly sent out to buy me an ice cream bar while I was chatting with his mom…game over.

This is probably why, although I ate well when I was on my own, went to the gym and did yoga weekly, and walked up and down hills everyday…I still gained weight. Because as soon as I left my house, there was no predicting what my diet would look like. And that’s okay with me. Because it’s also why the dilemma I currently face is when to eat the kusa ma7shi (stuffed zucchini) my landlady dropped off for me earlier today, seeing as how every single meal until I leave is booked at someone else’s house. I could definitely have worse problems.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not eagerly anticipating a schedule where I can eat whenever and whatever I want. Just a few more days…


June 24, 2011

I know I’ve been talking about leaving forever, but I can’t help it–once the end’s in sight, it’s kind of hard not to think about. And it doesn’t help that everyone else keeps reminding me all the time too. Threatening to steal my passport. Asking whether I really have to leave. Bursting into random tears over it (that was a girl whom I thought I’d unintentionally offended, but it turned out she was just sad I was leaving…which challenged me a lot because I’d tended towards impatience/annoyance with her for most of the time that I knew her). Etc.

But oooh, they know how to make me feel loved, don’t they?

Pretty much all I’m doing at this stage is eating lots of apricots, running small errands, and making visits. Sitting with dear friends and families and enjoying their presence. I can’t complain–it’s a great way to live. Last Saturday, I stopped by for a visit with some of my students (whose mother is a good friend of mine), and their family dragged me off on a spontaneous excursion to the Dead Sea for the evening.

I went into the water wearing capri-length pants and a tank top over a one-piece swimsuit, and I still managed to be one of the most immodestly dressed people there. At least it was evening, so the public beach wasn’t as crowded…but at the same time, I was self-conscious enough to stay floating deep out in the water when I accidentally splashed my eye rather than swim in to shore so I could rinse at the freshwater pipe…despite the excruciating pain.

Blink a few times and then open your eye. It’ll hurt, but it’ll become normal soon,” my friend advised. She and I were the only ones who ventured that far out. You can’t really drown in the Dead Sea, but people seemed pretty skittish anyway. I tried to follow her advice, but as soon as I blinked my eye open, I felt the burn and snapped it shut again. She laughed at me. “Come on! Don’t be a baby.” She often thinks I’m being a baby, probably because I am, compared to her: she got married at eighteen to a stranger, popped three kids out, and became the no-nonsense woman she is today. Whereas I…I can barely tough out a little pain long enough to let my tears wash away the demon salt from my eye.

On Sunday I took a four-hour bus ride with another family to Aqaba, where they stay off and on during summers. They were going for the week and invited me to join them for as long as I could (which turned out to be only a day and a half, to their utter disapproval). I walked around town and chatted with the mother during the day and girl-talked with her teenage daughter at night after we’d turned the lights off in our room. Woke up to her two-year-old son jumping on me in the morning. It was freakishly hot and eerily quiet/orderly compared to Amman.

(I walked past but did not spend time on the beach…)

Thursday I visited an Egyptian friend of mine, a single lady who loves to joke around and always raises her hand for a high-five when she makes herself laugh. We sat in her spacious salon with plum juice running down our hands and talked about various cultural differences, and then she said to me, “You know, even though I know you’re a foreigner, you’re not like other foreigners. And sometimes when we talk I think to myself, of course she was born in the Arab world, or maybe she lived here when she was young. I know it’s not true, but I feel this.”

Later that day I found myself sitting on the floor of an Iraqi friend’s house, failing at origami with her son and repeating the words “water,” “better,” and “letter” for her and her husband, who find the American pronunciation of these words just bewildering. [It’s the alveolar flap in the middle that gets them, if you’re wondering. Aren’t you glad I took linguistics freshman year of college?] Then she showed me how she figured out how to use their bootleg copy of Photoshop despite not understanding any of the English commands, just by constant trial and error. Uh, could she be more awesome? I love visiting with her at home because while she’s always stunning, there’s something especially radiant about her when she’s in a t-shirt, makeup-free and with her unveiled hair in a loose, sweaty ponytail.

There’s more, of course. These are just snapshots. More memories for myself than anyone else. I always get like this towards the end of something…trying to cram as many experiences into words as possible before I forget them all.

I talked to my mom on the phone today. She asked me what the hardest part of saying goodbye was. I told her it was not knowing when or if I would see these people again. Because it’s probably never, she said. I got annoyed. Why does she always have to think like that? Why can’t she for once assume that I will have a chance to see them again? Because people always think that, and it’s almost never true, she pointed out matter-of-factly.

It’s hard to explain in words why this distresses me. How the people I write to you about here have burrowed their way into my heart, and my little once-in-a-while anecdotes can’t ever give the full picture of how, or why. Maybe it’s because the very act of relationship-building is so different here, so it feels like both the stakes and the rewards are altered.

Anyway. There’s an Arabic saying that goes, bukra fil mishmish. It literally means something like tomorrow there will be apricots/tomorrow when the apricots come. The figurative meaning is more like in your dreams. It express hopelessness. Well some of my friends and I were joking today that since we’re smack-dab in the middle of apricot season, we should take advantage of this brief season of hope. Anything that would normally be answered with “in your dreams,” we can answer by saying “today there are apricots!”

So guess what? Today there are apricots. Maybe I won’t see any of these people ever again. But maybe I will. Maybe.


June 19, 2011


Apparently, I allowed this entry to fall deep into the black hole of half-post-drafts. Never mind that I wrote most of it and made my cute little collages the week after I returned…in November. But better late than never, right? Right? [That should totally be my life motto at this point.] Journey back with me to the breezes of late fall, will you…

In mid-November, I took advantage of a week-long break thanks to Eid al-Adha to go “across the river” (i.e. to Israel/Palestine) with some friends. It was actually my second time over there, but the first was a whirlwind tour with a fairly large group several years ago. This time I got to travel in my preferred style–exploring at an easy pace with only the vaguest sense of agenda. I saw some of the sites, but much more selectively and with no formal guiding. Mostly I just wandered and ate my way through Jerusalem, talked to strangers, made use of my camera, and soaked in the sounds and smells. I also got to know some friends better, shared in lots of great conversations, and had a chance to breathe. Really breathe.

Still, my week ended up being one of complex emotions. If there’s one thing I can say about Jerusalem, it’s this: the city is an absolute jumble of cultures and faiths and contradictions. I felt like I was constantly wrestling with my reactions to everything I encountered. There was almost too much going on for me: I felt so gloriously free walking around in a relatively more Western, secular environment even as I bumped shoulders with religious pilgrims and Orthodox Jews; I chatted in Arabic with strangers on the street in the Old City but stayed on guard so I wouldn’t slip up and say “shukran kteer” instead of “toda rabbah” at the bagel shop in the New City. That was in its own way complicated–I am a firm believer in learning to say “thank you” in the native tongue of any country I visit, but in an area rife with tension and conflict, even the languages we choose to voice become a tiny way of staking ground.

In fact, amidst all our other conversations, I had a vigorous discussion with a friend about conflicting narratives, untold perspectives, and how we put our feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into practice. In the end, we realized that we were coming from very different places…we hold the same views, but push in opposite directions because of what we’re used to resisting. It was kind of a fascinating revelation.

One major highlight of my trip was crossing over into Bethlehem for a day. Even though I came in at a relatively slow hour and there wasn’t too much of a crowd at the checkpoint, filing through the narrow, cage-like passageway only to be waved through without a second glance when I revealed my American passport–while the old Arab lady behind me got detained with a long, brusque questioning–was more than a little unsettling. (Let’s not even talk about how it took us a traumatic 9 hours to make a 40mi journey when crossing the border in the first place…)

Once we crossed over, we walked along the concrete, graffiti-covered wall (or “security fence“) separating the West Bank from Israel until we arrived at the nonprofit community center where we’d made an appointment to speak with one of the employees. He explained a bit about their work there before taking us on a tour of one of Bethlehem’s refugee camps. As we walked, he told us story after story of injustice colliding with hope–from his own life as well as from the lives of others in that community. And it was that hope lacing his voice, free of bitterness but full of yearning, that renewed my faith in the possibility of peace in this land…it’s the long and violent journey that might be required to bring us there that disturbs me.

Afterwards, one of my friends and I made the walk over to the Church of the Nativity, which we checked out ever-so-briefly before leaving. (I’ve been before, and it’s overall quite disappointing anyway.) But there was one, persistent thought that plagued me all day up to that point: I wish this was required for every tour group passing through Bethlehem. Because there are hundreds (thousands?) each year. And they slide in via tour bus, bypassing the checkpoint, oblivious to the story written into the wall–literally!–around them. I wish they were all required to take a break between souvenir shopping and shrine visiting to get a good, hard look at what surrounds them.

And then, I wish they’d hold that thought as they enter the church to pray. That as they kneel at the supposed birthplace of the Prince of Peace, they’d remember he came to “proclaim good news to the poor [and] freedom for the prisoners.” And not just the financially poor and physically imprisoned, but also the poor in spirit and prisoners to hate. That he came to reconcile…and not just us to God, but also us to one another.

In the end, there were so many little moments that colored my experiences as a whole, that drove me to think and pray about the conflict in/over this land even more than before. But there’s a reason this post isn’t going up until now, a good seven months after my visit–I came home feeling like I hadn’t yet digested them myself, and every time I came here to finish writing up this post, I couldn’t find the words. But then I realized recently that this post was still sitting here, unfinished. And that just seemed ridiculous. So here you go, imperfect words and all.

P.S. Oh, and I must admit…I didn’t exactly hate the easy access to amazing food that week, either. I took full advantage.

As always, photos got fuzzy when re-sized…click to enlarge/sharpen.


“quality time” time

June 16, 2011

My time here is ever so rapidly slipping away from me, which is the cause of much anxiety and consternation (for me). Not that I’m not super excited to come home and see all my friends and family. I am. I promise! It’s just…

Well, tonight I was standing in the street telling off some boys (that I know well) for setting off fireworks near the grass, which had briefly caught fire. The sunset was all bold and orange the way it gets on a clear evening, and there was this cool, yummy breeze wrapping around us. I thought about how in less than three weeks I wouldn’t be standing on these hilly streets anymore, backlit by the sunset and yelling at children. How I wouldn’t be here in the thick of summer, when the grapes ripened on the vines overhanging my apartment, and when the only bearable part of the day was the cool night.

It made me sad.

On the other hand, this week I’ve done a handful of awesome things with my time, in addition to catching up majorly on sleep. The last week in particular was an absolute marathon of teaching and tutoring thanks to final exam season. This week has been blissfully (disconcertingly) free in comparison.

-I went to a cinema for the first time to watch the new X-Men movie with an awesome friend (and actually first roommate).We had assigned seats (like in Korea!). But the theater was pretty much empty, and when we walked in a few minutes late the movie had already started, which totally scandalized our sense of Arab time. Anyway, that meant it was completely dark…so we ended up sitting wherever we wanted. Still, nice attempt to be organized, Jordan.

-I went for an evening kanafeh run with my Iraqi friend and her boys. And by “run” I mean “slow walk” because little legs + all uphill + lots of distracting things in the street = pretty slow journey. But we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly…when we got up to the top where the restaurant sits at the edge of our modest little plaza, next to the fairy tale mosque, I made my friend laugh by explaining how different it was to be walking there with her family instead of by myself. I.e. I didn’t hear one single word of awkward street harassment. Just got a lot of double-takes and weird looks…like, Who’s the random Chinese girl with that gorgeous hijabi’s kids hanging all over her?

-I baked carrot cake with the assistance of a bored and occasionally sullen teenage girl who balked at the idea of putting carrots in a cake but also was excited to bake a cake for the first time. It was delicious. I gave half to her family. It remains to be discovered what they thought…Jordanians’ taste for cake is totally weird to me. First of all, the cake you get at local bakeries is dry and bland and flavorless. But I have watched many a local freak out at the idea of…say, frosting with actual flavoring in it (such as cream cheese frosting, the best kind), and cake that actually tastes like something (lemons apparently don’t belong in cake, ever). Apparently that’s all just gross.

Anyway, I have more such quality time dates planned for the rest of the next few weeks…but it all feels a bit like I’m just biding my time, you know? Which is just the worst feeling, really. So I am drifting in and out of this persistent melancholy, trying to enjoy every last moment but also dreading the pack-up-and-say-goodbye that awaits around the corner.

our famous mosque

breaking circles

June 8, 2011

(or, what i’m learning from my second-culture relationships)

Arabs take pride in their incredibly generous hospitality–visiting is like the cornerstone of social life here, and women-who-are-not-me keep their houses spotless in anticipation of unannounced visitors. Homes here, even the tiniest ones, usually have some space or room marked off as a receiving room, and they are almost always set up in the same arrangement. (Sofa sets come pre-packaged with all the right pieces.) They celebrate their holidays by making rounds among friends and families, stopping by each other’s houses until all the chocolate has been given out.

In this culture of hospitality, locals also tend to fling open their doors to strangers with a hearty ahlan wa sahlan, providing you with cold or hot beverages, snacks, or if you’re lucky, a meal in which they give you the biggest and choicest portions. They include you in their conversations, bring you into the thick of their lives, tell you that you’re one of them now, part of the family…even as their special treatment of you makes it obvious that you’re not. At all.

Their open hearts and arms and homes make the initial steps of relationship-building seem strangely easy. That first hurdle of letting your guard down and getting to know each other…in the West it sometimes feels like the hardest part, but you step over it without even noticing here. Soon children are climbing all over you and women are sharing their stories, and it’s clear you’ve broken into their circle.

But the thing is, as I’ve only recently realized, sometimes that’s actually just an outer circle. And as easy as that circle is to break, there are inner ones, held closer to the heart, that take a lot more time to crack–time, and energy, and language comprehension. There’s a difference between being made at home in the salon and being welcomed into the messy bedroom, the kitchen, the bathroom.*

I was thinking about all this last week as I sat with two women–both dear friends, both completely different from each other–and suddenly realized the hazards of reaching a place in my Arabic where I can comprehend basically every word coming out of someone’s mouth. [Depending on the conversation. Of course.] These are women who have more than opened their lives to me. I have spent hours upon hours with them. I teach their children, and once a week I teach them. I kick off my shoes and sit cross-legged on their couches. I’ve heard their stories, prayed with them, worried with them. But one of them has always been far more open about sharing her life, while the other is by her own admission very private, because gossip is so prevalent in this culture (a downside of the open-home thing–oh my does news travel fast).

Last week, the more reticent of the two cracked an inner circle with me and started sharing some of her tough stuff. The inner stuff. Stuff that changed the way I saw her and her life. And I understood every painful word of it, and when she turned to me and asked–mostly rhetorically–“What can I do?” I just stared at her and opened my mouth so that some meaningless half-words could fall out.

I hear all the time about how a common marital communication breakdown occurs when a woman tells her husband about her problems, he responds by offering solutions (duh), and she gets mad–turns out she just wants someone to listen and sympathize, not fix things, but he doesn’t get that. Well, I guess I’ll make an awesome husband someday, because if you share a problem with me, my immediate inclination is to offer you my unasked-for advice. Even if the topic is something I’ve never heard of before, dangit, I have an opinion and I want you to hear it! But in my nine-ish months here, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my role in my relationships is often more that of an encourager than a fixer. There is just too much that I don’t understand, and the most I can offer is some grammatically incorrect word of kindness and a prayer.

And you know what? This quieter, 2.0 version of myself would like to know: What is so wrong with that? With shutting up, and smiling or murmuring, and only voicing your opinion when it really, really matters? When my friend let me into that inner circle of her life on Monday, she wasn’t looking for advice. She wasn’t looking for a solution. She was looking for someone to listen, to absorb a little of her pain, to tell her it was okay to feel the way she did. So that’s what I did. It was all I could do. And I think it was more than enough.

Now if only I can convince Version 1.0 to carry some of this with me back to America. I’m sure my friends there would appreciate the quiet too.

*Once I attended a mini cultural lecture here where I was told I should avoid using a host’s bathroom if I could help it because that is private space. Good thing I’ve broken that rule many times now…first of all, if a visit lasts for 4 hours and I’ve been plied with tea/coffee/water/juice/Nescafe/Pepsi the whole time, chances are I’m gonna need to pee. Also, there was that one time I ran to a host’s bathroom to throw up because I had some stomach bug that decided to manifest itself in the taxi on the way there. Woohoo for breaking rules.


May 30, 2011

Hello, summer! Your arrival was so stealthy and swift this year. One minute I was hugging a sweater to my arms, the next I was soaking it with my sweat. (To be fair, I do sweat a lot.) Here are some other signs that you’re officially here and planning to stay:

-I have a significant watch and ring tan from what feels like just occasionally stepping out of my house during the daytime (the nerve!).
-All the dukkans have dragged out their ice cream freezers and filled them with cold sweet treats, and you can’t walk a street without passing me a kid with an ice cream in hand anymore.
-There’s a lingering burnt quality to the air these days–it smells like burning rubbish, barbecue smoke, singed skin. When I was studying in Ireland I remember thinking that the summer air smelled like damp earth and cigarettes. Here, it smells like scorch.
-Figs and melons are dominating the fruit world in my local shops.
-Mosquitoes. As in, there are mosquitoes circling my head as we speak. I just smacked myself in the head trying to kill one. Don’t judge me…desperate times call for desperate measures, okay.

As for me, with one month to go, it feels like some things are wrapping up already:

-My language class is officially over, leaving me with two newly free mornings.
-The children’s program I was working with in the Palestinian camp had its last session on Thursday, leaving me with two more free mornings (although one has already been re-filled with a new commitment). This afternoon I met with the team I worked with there for a final lunch.
-An Iraqi family that contains three of my favorite (adult) students–one of whom is a dear friend–finally received their long-awaited plane tickets to America, and they’re leaving on Monday.
-My adult English classes have gotten steadily smaller in the last few weeks thanks to some recent life changes in some of my students’ lives (like the aforementioned plane tickets).
-I was asked to say a few words in my church today reflecting on my time here, and the way I was introduced and followed-up made me feel a little teary. People are so kind to me.

I’m still teaching and tutoring, and I’m still helping out with a few different programs here, including the two girls’ groups, which are actually requiring a bit more of my time now. In other words, I’m still pretty busy. But at the same time, everything in my life has the unmistakable feel of winding down.

People are trying to convince me to stay even as they’re making plans that won’t include me because I’ll be gone. The community I’ve had around me these last 8.5 months is thinning out as foreigners leave for the summer (or forever) and locals reshuffle. And my attention is already turning to the next big step in my life: law school. It’s not just an idle thought or far-off plan anymore. Loan applications have been submitted, a lease for an apartment has been signed (!)…

The scary process of Moving On has already begun.

I’m hoping to finish off my time here by being more intentional about visits. And sleep and health. And prayer. My lighter week should help with that. At least a little.

pictures from church picnic to gilead…you know you miss me!