Week 6: Untitled

Disclaimer: My attempts at deep rumination here in this post have been rushed as time, though a social construct, waits for no man as lazy as myself. I therefore apologise in advance for the following stream-of-consciousness type bunch of garbled text.

Jordan is a hodgepodge of cultures, ethnicities, closely-related dialects, and cuisines. The reason I mention the former sentence is because it can also be said of my home country, Pakistan. The way people hear someone’s last name and gather a rough estimate of their family tree from it, how dialect differences have to be clarified in our language classes, and how eating a meal down the street from one’s own home brings a host of different flavours to one’s mouth all remind me of Pakistan. I wanted to use this blog post to just ruminate on the afore mentioned hodgepodge as someone from a country that can be described similarly.

What makes Jordan distinct from Pakistan in terms of being a mixture of cultures is that these cultures haven’t really been given time to mix; they’ve just been tossed together particularly in terms of how recently some of the large ethnic/identity groups of the country have moved into the region, and how they all converge in Amman. Pakistan consists of the major provinces Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Balochistan and Sindh, that is, without getting into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Kashmir, or Gilgit Baltistan. Each of these is dominated by a particular ethnic group; Punjabis in Punjab, Sindhis in Sindh, and so on. In Jordan however, I’ve seen what it would’ve been like if all of these ethnic groups had been tossed into one city and without the decades of national assimilation that they have today. Palestinian flags are almost as common as Jordanian ones here in Amman, and Syrians are quickly becoming a third major group in the country. The interviews I’ve seen, articles I’ve read, and conversations I’ve had with the newcomers to Jordan all indicate that in terms of identity, the refugees are as confused as anyone trying to figure them out. Some people who just moved here say Amman is their new home, while others who have been here for years are looking for the slightest chance to return home, wherever that may be. Some have a strong belief and trust in the power of the king and the government, while others display sentiments that the Arab Spring rose up on. In Pakistan, it’s all Pakistanis; a homogenous bunch of green flags and distrust for the government.

Moving away from the bigger picture, Jordan has also been interesting to observe as a Canada-born, Pakistan raised, Punjab-residing Urdu speaker with refugee grandparents from India and Afghan ancestry. My host-mother here is of Palestinian descent, while my host-father is Jordanian, and every one of their three sons lives in the United States. Seeing their interactions with a family friend of Syrian descent, for instance, was fairly interesting. He spent some parts of the evening decrying U.S intervention in Syria while ‘dad’ tried to explain all of the U.S money that goes into keeping Jordan afloat. I’ve noted moments when people comment on each other’s dialect, slight differences in demeanour, and even openly discussed how weird some stuff families of their ethnicity do. I was invited to my boss’ daughter’s birthday and, as she and her friends are between the ages of four and six, the parents of the children also attended the birthday. I was lucky enough to sit at a fairly diverse table which put in relief what I have been noticing to a slight extent this whole time; in Jordan the differences in language and demeanour are small oddities and points of discussion whereas back home they define the borders to national provinces. Here, differences are like little quirks to a person’s personality, whereas back home it defines another as ‘the other’. It is shocking to realise that I never knew ethnicity didn’t HAVE to be slightly polarising, and that cultural differences didn’t HAVE to result in some degree of separation from the now unfamiliar other.

It’s probably not as fantastic as I make it out to be. I’m sure there’s some Syrian kid being bullied in his middle school for saying certain words differently but, thus far, I think Jordan has taught me a lot more about me, and my relationship with my ethnicities and home, than I thought it would. My definition of open-mindedness changes every day, and that’s quite fitting when I think about it.

– Omar


Week 5: Breaking Normal – The Farm

Since being in Jordan, I’ve discovered my fascinating ability to adapt and create a “new normal” within days. It’s incredibly easy to forget how different my life is during these 9 weeks, compared to a summer in Philadelphia or at the Jersey Shore. There have been days that have gone by without me consciously acknowledging that I’m in Jordan. It’s a weird thing, but it’s a beautiful thing.

My new normal consists of taking cabs to and from work, eating large meals at 7:50 pm and 3 am during Ramadan, speaking exclusively in Arabic with my host parents, being the only female(s) in a cafe after 9 pm, and so, so much more. The culture is so different and immersing myself in it has been a treat. But when you get into a routine, it’s easy to forget your purpose.

I’ve learned so much from working at the Jordan River Foundation and living in Amman. I’ve met incredible humans and seen multiple lives changed–yet beyond my research and personal growth, there’s a yearning to have a concrete impact on this population.

In that sense, the farm has been an enormous blessing to me and our Duke Engage group, and inshAllah we can be a blessing to the farm. We’ve traveled up to al-Mafraq, a city near the Syrian border, a few times to explore the farm and meet the refugees. In the early afternoon, we arrive to a large, fruitful, well-organized farm bustling with workers trying to finish before the worst sun of the day arrives. Just outside of the farm, a few dozen tents make up a community for the Syrian refugees who work on the farm. It’s extremely difficult to describe these people in one word–they’re refugees, they’re hard-working, humble, compassionate, frightened, and hopeful.They’ve left their home country, fleeing war and moving towards a better life for themselves and their children. They’re people.

After becoming familiar with the farm and building relationships with the refugees, our group decided on our goal: to help the farm with basic needs and future sustainability. When you ask someone living on the farm what they need, they hesitate to ask for anything. After prying, they’ll mention how the mosque needs air condition and a water cooler, and how the children need new clothing. I remember thinking to myself, “This is good, these are things we can help them with”. And so we are.

We’ve started a fundraising campaign that has raised $1,373 to date. This is amount is enough to buy the most necessary items and to kickstart some new projects. This week, we hope to provide the women working on the farm with the supplies and knowledge to make jam, and possibly sun-dried tomatoes. This sounds simple, but any way to create more revenue and sustainability for the farm will create a lasting benefit. Our group acknowledges that in four weeks, we’re gone from Jordan indefinitely, so we have to try to create change that transcends our time here. We’re giving them fish, but we’re also going to give them tools to fish themselves.

A constant thought I’ve had while developing this project, and especially while asking people to donate money, was “why should they help THIS group?” On the issue of refugees alone, there are countless established camps and prominent organizations that one could donate to. But the difference is that we are able to help this group of people. In our short time here, we have the means (with the help of generous donors) to make the lives of the people on the farm drastically better. It doesn’t take much, but we can do it, and we should.

Helping the farm has brought so much joy to myself and my Duke Engage cohort. The people are so deserving, which makes us so eager to bring them good news. In the next few weeks, we hope to do our part in helping this farm– and in a larger sense, giving back to the Jordanian community that has given so much to us in our time here.

– Lindsey

Check out the fundraiser here:

Week 5: Taxi Cab Drivers of Amman

 It’s five weeks in and, of all the experiences that I originally anticipated having in Amman, I never would have placed “Daily Conversations with Taxi Cab Drivers” at the top of my list. Oddly enough, they’ve been the highlight of my trip thus far. Of course, that’s not to say that our group excursions around the country, my internship at the Jordan Red Crescent, or even my homestay family haven’t all provided unique and especially life-changing experiences. They absolutely have. Water hiking in Wadi Al Mujib, swimming in the Dead Sea, learning the historical significance of Ajlon Castle after spectacular countryside hikes, and touring the countryside in Al-Salt have provided some of the most incredible sights and experiences I’ve ever had. Working with Syrian refugees at the Jordan Red Crescent and with our group project on the Al-Mafraq farm has undoubtedly rekindled my passion for humanitarian work and for the refugee cause. And the relationship that I’ve formed with my host family has been nothing short of sincere. Yet, believe it or not, none of these have come close to being as eye-opening as some of the stories I’ve had the chance to hear and the simple conversations I’ve shared with taxi drivers over the past month and a half.

The majority, if not all, of taxi drivers exclusively speak Arabic– only some speak extremely broken English. Language barriers haven’t been much of a hurdle though since I grew up speaking Arabic with my Syrian father and Palestinian mother. Although at times my Arabic comes out broken, I generally don’t have (much) trouble communicating and drivers (typically) can discern what I’m trying to say from my thick Syrian-American accent. Of course, like other foreigners, I’ve sometimes found myself in situations where the driver won’t turn on the meter and attempts to charge me egregiously high prices, or times when drivers will circle around the block to up-charge me a few JDs. But, most of my drives around the city have encompassed nothing but deeply personal conversations. I’ve been surprised how quickly some conversations evolve from awkward, small talk into extremely comfortable personal conversations about nearly every topic imaginable, from soccer, to culture and religion, to even what the U.S. is like.

In a given week, I rely on taxis as my primary source of transportation to get around the city. And, at face value, the taxi-cab situation in Amman is very typical: white and yellow taxis flood the streets as they attempt to navigate the frustrating, disorderly Amman traffic and unpaved streets. But, beyond this superficial veil exists a harsh reality. In a country plagued by an unemployment rate of nearly 30% and upwards of 15% of the population living in poverty, being a taxi driver is anything but a voluntary career choice. As Ahmed, the last driver that I rode with yesterday, put it, “being a taxi driver isn’t a career; it’s a job only for the unemployed.” Many of my conversations with drivers have naturally revolved around this topic.

But, the majority of conversations have been about extremely personal life stories. A significant portion of the Jordanian population is of non-Jordanian origin so, often, drivers will tell me of their journey to Jordan and how they long to return to their country of origin. Others will proudly show me pictures of their children and speak of how they work tirelessly to support their children. One driver showed me a craft of the Palestinian flag that his younger daughter had made for him for his birthday, and then gifted me it so that I would “always remember where my mother is from.” Often, drivers will question my knowledge of the Arab culture and my religiosity, doubting that I actually fast during Ramadan. At other times, though, I’ll hear emotional stories that I never would expect to encounter during a simple taxi ride.

Last week, one driver began sobbing as he told me of being imprisoned in Israel for 10 years for “a crime he didn’t commit”. He even proudly displayed to me the skin on his back, which was covered with lacerations that he claimed were from “daily whippings”. He told me that, after being released from prison two years ago, he was sent to Jordan where he picked up his cab job to help support his wife and their baby daughter, and to also pay for the PTSD medications that he takes on a daily basis.

During another drive, a different cab driver and I had been speaking for nearly an hour (literally) while stuck in traffic. He was a 4th grade English teacher and spoke with pride of his two younger children. Coincidentally, as we got deeper into conversation and I mentioned that my Arabic Professor from my university is originally from Jordan, he asked for my Professor’s name and actually happened to know him. By chance, my driver and Professor had studied together at the same university nearly a decade and a half ago. A week later, my Professor happened to be staying in Jordan for a portion of the summer and a few students from our group and I went to go have iftar with him and his family, where he confirmed that he knew the driver from his college studies. Over the past month and a half, I’ve found one of the most amazing aspects of Jordanian (and the larger Middle Eastern) society and culture to be how everyone happens to know each other. The society is very close-knit and neighbors visit each other on a daily basis. Strangers invite strangers to come join them and their families for iftar every night. On numerous occasions, drivers have even invited me (out of courtesy and not seriousness, I’m assuming) to join them that evening for dinner or for a conversation over some coffee at a café later in the week.

Over the many cabs I’ve taken in the past month a half, I’ve definitely received an inside perspective on many of the realities, challenges and excitements of living in the Middle East. Although this blog post doesn’t completely detail the conversations I’ve had, there is so much more to share and I’ll definitely be elaborating in my next post.

– Khalouk

Week 5: Please Donate!

This week, we launched a CrowdRise campaign to raise money for a group of Syrian refugees who are living on a farm in al-Mafraq, Jordan. Please, read the description of our project below and consider donating, if you are able!


Since the spring of 2011, Syria has been been embroiled in a brutal, calamitous civil war. According to the UNHCR, an estimated 9 million Syrian civilians have been forced from their homes since the outbreak of conflict. Of these displaced families, nearly 1.3 million have found their way into Jordan. Though many of us are familiar with the newsreels of overcrowded boats and sprawling camps, the media narrative often fails to convey the sheer resilience of these refugees.

In particular, the 10 families living now on the al-Mafraq farm come from varied backgrounds. Having previously resided in camps such as al-Aaatari- and before that the Syrian cities of Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus- the refugees here are a hardy and generous group. Currently, they live outside the farm in a camp set up and- in exchange for their labor in tending to the farm- receive a small salary, food, electricity, and a place to stay.

We came to know about al-Mafraq farm thanks to our relationship with the Hashemite Fund for the Development of the Jordan Badia, a local NGO responsible for rural development. Though the farm is impressive with healthy crops and delicious fruit trees, the living conditions of the refugee workers consisted of re-purposed UNHCR tents and makeshift shanties. Additionally, the farm laborers have to weed, till their crops, and maintain farm facilities under a blistering sun and arid, desert conditions.

Regardless of this adversity, they maintained an overflowing sense of hospitality upon our arrival. Despite the fact that many of them were fasting during Ramadan, they continuously offered us coffee and water to quench our thirst. As we continue to develop our relationship with the refugees of al-Mafraq farm, we are asking for your support in order to raise funds to provide more amenities and basic necessities to make the lives of these refugees a little more bearable. After touring the farm, we found that, despite their big hearts and positivity, the residents of the farm are in dire need of certain services. With your support, we will be able to provide these refugees with:

– Air conditioning units for the few trailer units on site, including the farm mosque – water coolers and filters

– materials for farm toilets so that we can construct outhouses on site – sustainable shelters to replace degrading tents

– food, clothing, and child supplies for the 30+ children on the farm

All donations will be deposited directly into a Hashemite Fund account and will be managed jointly by the Hashemite Fund and the DukeEngage team. Once funds are accumulated, we expect to immediately begin purchases from local organizations. Installations and distribution will be organized by the DukeEngage team. We look forward to hearing from you, and thank you for your support

Week 4: On the Issue of Foreign Aid

Despite a slight Ramadan lull (to be expected when the air is suddenly clean of tobacco haze), work began to pick up this week. Given events in the U.S., I was glad to have a busy slate to keep me from poring over updates on the New York Times. My projects this week at work ranged from translation of Arab League documents into English to the beginning of writing a (somewhat daunting) USAID grant for my organization’s operational costs.

One of the more interesting moments of the week, however, came when I was invited to a nearby hotel for a meeting with a group of Danish CEOs. In the aftermath of JCI’s cooperation with the Confederation of Danish Industry, representatives from DI were touring a group of said CEOs around the country to show them potential investment opportunities. Of course, JCI was there to provide the best possible perspective on the potential for FDI into the country. What made this group of CEO’s different, however, was that they all represented various humanitarian aid-oriented companies. Their products ranged from sustainable toilet systems to cheap shelters.

It goes without saying that the need for such goods is paramount in Jordan. Besides the fact that the country hosts over 2 million refugees, it also suffers from crippling resource shortages that hinder opportunities for growth and humanitarian support (more on this later). As it turns out, this group of companies was here in order to observe these problems and figure out innovative solutions to them. Now, I won’t pretend to be anywhere close to an expert on foreign aid, but my experience at this meeting highlights one of the many difficulties that comes along with corporate humanitarian work.

To say that these companies were here strictly on a humanitarian basis would be a false assertion. To say on the other hand that they were here with a profit seeking motive would also be inaccurate. Instead, their mission seemed to straddle the two seemingly contradictory motives. As it turns out, they were here with a negotiated grant of aid from the Danish government to provide humanitarian assistance to Jordan’s refugees. In order to have this grant be politically feasible, however, the money apparently needs to go towards the operation of Danish companies in Jordan.

Herein lies the conundrum. While it is by no means a bad thing that the Danish government has opted to fund the work of Danish companies to help Jordanian refugees, this mechanism of corporate humanitarianism leaves much to be desired. Namely, because these funds go directly from the Danish government to Danish workers, there is little chance for capacity-building among Jordan’s local industries and companies. As mentioned in earlier blog posts, Jordan’s economy suffers from crippling levels of youth unemployment. One of the main causes of this unemployment is the chronic under-development of local industries and businesses—all of whom are vastly underprepared to utilize growing labor supplies in the kingdom. It’s a classic case of teaching a man to fish vs. giving him a fish. Unless the issue of jumpstarting Jordan’s economy is addressed, no amount of humanitarian aid will make a large enough dent in the country’s deficits and refugee problems. In the end, then, it appears that this solution is more Band-Aid than actual panacea.

Though employing this corporate model of aid is certainly better than the alternative of no aid at all, it seems to have already had a crowding-out effect on local Jordanian aid efforts. Though I have nothing more than anecdotal evidence to support this claim, I have already seen this first hand when it comes to looking for supplies for our own small aid project.

We first came into contact with the families at the al-Mafraq a little while ago. The 10 families living now on the al-Mafraq farm come from varied backgrounds. Having previously resided in camps such as al-Zaatari- and before that the Syrian cities of Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus- the refugees here are a hardy and generous group. Currently, they live outside the farm in a camp set up and- in exchange for their labor in tending to the farm- receive food, electricity, and a place to stay.

When we visited the farm last week, we found that its condition left much to be desired. Though the residents of the farm do receive food and water in exchange for their work, their living conditions consisted of repurposed UNHCR tents and makeshift shanties. Additionally, the farm laborers have to weed, till their crops, and maintain farm facilities under a blistering sun and arid, desert conditions. Regardless of this adversity, they continued to maintain an overflowing sense of hospitality upon our arrival. Despite the fact that many of them were fasting during Ramadan, they continuously offered us coffee and water to quench our thirst.

As we begin to try and help these refugees, we began to look into their needs. Among requests for food and clothing, we received behests for deliverables like air conditioners, water coolers, sustainable toilets, and cheap, easy-to-set-up housing. As I sat down this week to search for suppliers for these items, it became increasingly clear to me that no local Jordanian suppliers could be easily found. Now, this may be because there simply hasn’t been the need for them. That doesn’t seem likely. Instead, it’s hard for me not to make a connection between the aforementioned funding model and the lack of demand for Jordanian-made humanitarian goods. Because all these goods are imported anyways from well-established and well-funded companies in other more developed countries, the demand base has never been enough to seed home-grown businesses. Now, this may all just be a load of bunk, but I feel like I might be on to something here. In any event, someone with a strong background on development/aid literature probably knows the answer to this.

On a somewhat related note, I wanted to mention a whimsical incident on the home front that makes the issue of resource limitations feel very real. Our house’s water supply comes from a water tank at the top of our apartment building. Due to water sharing policies, this tank is resupplied by the government once a week through underground pipes. Under normal conditions, this system seems to work pretty well. Indeed, as long as you’re reasonable about your water consumption, there’s rarely any problem.

This week, however, my roommate forgot to pull the plug on the toilet stopper by accident. This meant that quite literally all of the water in our tank flowed through the toilet and back into the system, leaving us with no water for the rest of the week. Beyond this initial dismay, we had to call a water truck to come early this morning and haul its water delivery pipe up 5 stories to refill our tanks. When all’s said and done, there was no harm at the end. It was just another reminder that, even for the most privileged of us, water scarcity is never very far away.

– Aateeb

Week 3: The Farm


Today, a few of us left Amman to visit the Badiyah region northern Jordan. Mafraq is ten miles from the Syrian border and the closest town to the Zaatari refugee camp, the largest in all of Jordan. According to the UNHCR, Zaatari is home to nearly 80,000 people seeking refuge from war, though many I spoke to here have quoted numbers closer to 100,000. They’ve stopped accepting more refugees because they’ve run out of space, and some former residents have decided to continue their lives in Jordan elsewhere. We visited once such place, a farm that has allowed refugees to set up camp on the property and work for their lodging.

Arriving at the farm at first was presented no surprises. I saw a picture very similar to what news coverage of the refugee crisis has trained me to imagine. Outside my window, I saw makeshift tent that had long surpassed their intended use. They were supported by weak wooden structures popping out like skeletons from beneath dusty tarps. A settlement had been formed right off the road to Amman. Having fixed my attention to the crumbling shelters, however, I hadn’t noticed what was right beyond them: greenery stretching to the horizon.

When we got out of the van, we were greeted warmly and led through dozens of rows of healthy grape trees. I don’t think I had seen leaves on the ground since I had arrived in Jordan. It was a quick path through to the other side though, where immediately the foliage was replaced by water bottles, plastic wrappings, and aluminum cans. We followed a man to a cluster of tents and were welcomed by a woman and her daughter, who I would guess is around 4 years old. She was adorable and she wore a pink sweatshirt with the girl cat from AristoCats on it, her hair was in a Dora bob, and she was swarmed with flies. Her mother had a beautiful smile that she kept throughout the time that she hosted us.

She led us in to the first tent, the floor of which was covered completely by thick and delicately woven rugs. On one side of the structure hung decorative red tapestries that matches the carpets, and on the other hung coarse white tarp with blue patterned UNHCR logos. This tent was used only for visitors. They served those of us who were not fasting for Ramadan water and incredible coffee, and waited for us to proceed.

I had no idea what to say. We were four students accompanied by our program’s host-family coordinator, who acted as our translator. All I could manage to ask, in my developing Arabic, was “What do you need help with?”

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but she didn’t have a list of things that needed fixing for when Duke students visited for a few days. And I, in a situation where I felt out of place and like I was imposing, wasn’t able to use conversation to ease the tension and get to know her before getting straight to the point. I was absolutely aware of how wrong it seemed to enter into the space that they had been living in for two years and assume that there was work for us to do. I felt so awkward about not being able to establish a connection before addressing that we were volunteers. She was nothing but gracious, though, and accepted our intentions wholeheartedly. In Jordan, we all use the phrase “inshAllah” very often, which means “God willing,” and expresses hopefulness for the future and acknowledges that without God’s help it cannot be done. This situation was no exception.

She called her husband and her son, our age or likely older, to join us. Both had just finished their day of work on the farm and entered with such charismatic expressions, wanting to help. We introduced ourselves more properly this time, and did our best to explain again why we were there. After a few back and forths, he made it clear that we were welcome to help anytime, but that there wasn’t anything specific that he could think to give us to work on besides manual labor on the farm. Deciding that this would be a good way to figure out what else we could help with, we happily accepted.

We met with the manager of the farm, who along with the father of the first family we visited gave us a tour of the grounds. The farm is incredibly expansive and very well kept, and I saw all the produce and vegetables that I had been eating since arriving in Jordan. Rows of trees of apricots, peaches, saturn peaches (an incredible discovery of mine since arriving in Jordan), plums, and apples were separated by paths of white fish tank rocks. Their watermelons are being grown under different conditions as part of an experiment, including as melon hybrids, and when we commented on their impressive size, they claimed that they would grow to be twice as big. Around eight massive plastic greenhouses covered their tomato crops, they have 300 sheep, chickens and goats everywhere, around 10 camels and one white horse. It is an astounding production. I was in awe of the beauty and size of the place, and getting to spend time with the men who showed us definitely allowed us to bond with them. Our friendship now consists of agreeing on how delicious the fruits are and pointing at different plants to learn their names in the other’s language.

We are all optimistic now about what we can do to making a lasting impact on the community. We are considering bringing outhouses and water to the fields, an AC unit for the mosque, and mobile homes to replace the tents. This weekend we are regrouping with our program to discuss moving forward and how we can best improve one or two aspect of their lives. InshAllah, we will be back with some good news about our project and the people that we have met and will meet through this experience.

– Luisa

Week 3: The River


I’m leaned up against a wall. It’s made of rough sandstone. Irregular bits and pebbles jut out. Houses here are made of similar materials. The hill left from me has many. Late afternoons, it has an amber glow. The wall is warm to the touch. Days often hit triple digit temperatures here. Sunlit areas can be blindingly bright. That’s why I hug the wall’s shadow. The contrast at the border is extreme.

I’m standing on the sidewalk. My office is behind me, uphill. It looms five stories above. A river of traffic lies in front. Fifty feet across, it’s incredibly busy. It splits in half to the right. It merges into one road leftward.

A small store is to the left. It offers cigarettes and not much more. A solitary Pepsi drink refrigerator stands outside. Its blue light provides some refreshing contrast. A layer of dust covers the fridge. It’s the same color as the walls. The sandstone tint is seemingly inescapable. The dust gets in your mouth too. Thirst is exacerbated by this dust. It’s Ramadan now, so no public drinking. You’ll get thrown in jail for punishment.

The store walls host some graffiti. Red and black Arabic was sprayed on. The shopkeeper stops sweeping the sidewalk. He yells at an employee to come. The subordinate brings a water bucket over. They start scrubbing the letters off together.

The Royal Palace is directly in front. Six uniformed soldiers patrol back and forth. Many more are in the guard building. It doesn’t appear to be air-conditioned. However, that still beats the direct sun. Every so often, an armored car appears. It’s waved through security and continues driving. One wonders if the guards are ornamental. The palace itself is usually empty anyways.

Yellow and white taxis flood the streets. Maybe one in a hundred is vacant. Faded blue and black trucks sputter along. The flow of cars is incredibly variable. An intersection to the left controls all. Traffic here moves in two-minute cycles. Two minutes of madness – two of silence. During traffic lulls, people cross the road. Bags in hand, they scamper through. It’s like a real-life Frogger. Except in Frogger, there are lanes.

Cars here don’t believe in cruising. They liberally apply both gas and brakes. Speed limits are goals to achieve. The quickest to surpass them wins. Cars bob and weave through traffic. Back home, driving could be relaxing. I sense little of that relaxation here. It’s near impossible to drive on autopilot. Avoiding car crashes requires constant situational awareness. And yet, almost everyone seems distracted.

Taxi drivers yammer into headsets, swerving around. People bury hands into glove compartments. Their eyes often follow moments after. They must REALLY need that one document. At least people don’t text and drive. The pedestrians are even more plugged in. Several people have walked by already. Almost all of them were calling someone. Otherwise, they had little in common. Some were essentially clothed in rags. Others were dressed to the nines. Their Samsungs and Nokias bind them together. Their phones are their Jordanian ID.

The street marinades in a smell cocktail. Gasoline fumes form the base notes. Most cars are older, less efficient. Their tailpipes belch out visible soot. The air is choked with engine exhaust. Back home, I associated gasoline with freedom. It embodied the agency to do whatever. To go wherever, to have free will. It meant driving along I-35 completely carefree. Here, it smells like standstill traffic. It smells of honking horns, screeching tires. It reeks of road rage and recklessness.

Yesterday, throngs of people were smoking here. Their tobacco smoke cut through the air. Today, as Ramadan starts, daytime smoking stops. A man irritably taps his foot nearby. I can’t help but think it’s withdrawal. He finished an entire pack yesterday. I can see him eyeing the store. There’s only four more hours until sunset. And with that sunset, comes freedom.

Refuse is strewn all over the road. Funny, since there are multiple visible dumpsters. The familiar smell of trash permeates everywhere. But, something smells different today. It’s like trash, but ten times stronger. Unfortunately, the smell is all too familiar. Stray cats are everywhere in Amman. When they die, no one buries them. They lie in the sun, completely exposed. Swarms of flies buzz around the carcasses. I start walking downtown to get away. This is too much right now.

Finally, I see an empty cab ahead. I jump, wave, even lean into traffic. Nothing gets the driver’s attention. I yell, hoping that he’ll hear something. No dice. The street here is just too loud. Tires squeal as teenagers race ancient Toyotas. Tires squeal as threadbare ones lose traction. Tires squeal as trucks swerve, avoiding deaths. Passing buses emit earsplitting roars. I’m drowning in an ocean of noise.

Suddenly, an invasive species enters this ocean. I can distinctly hear Fetty Wap. His voice mixes adds to the mixture. Of the noises of the streets. Of a thousand conversations, all at once. Of the Quran readings on public radio stations. It’s not the Lexus and the Olive Tree anymore. Nowadays, it’s the Fetty and the Quran station. The iPhone and the 1980s Toyota. The whole world and Amman.

– Bobby

Week 3: Reflections and a Rushed Synopsis

32 minutes ago, I chose to ignore the following phone message from the person nice enough to be taking responsibility for these blog posts: “pls send me blog posts sometime in the next hour or so.” I must therefore ask, dear reader, that you forgive the shoddiness of my writing at this time. Next time you read one of my blog posts I promise that it will be terrible due to my inherent laziness rather than due to its being written in a rushed manner. On to my ruminations on Duke Engage Jordan thus far.

I am going to start with what I have struggled with. Here in Jordan, I rarely speak my native language, am always worried about getting lost somewhere in this maze of identical buildings, and sleep in the same room as a stranger. Basically it’s been like O-week all over except this time I am surrounded by fairly self-confident Jordanians instead of insecure first-years, the buildings are beige rectangles instead of glass boxes, I don’t know the language, and my new roommate also shares a bed with me. Oftentimes I am homesick, uncomfortable, and anxious. Due to the aggravation of my usually mild sleeping disorder, I am also often exhausted. In addition, I am now fasting as the month of Ramadan has come about.

The bit that is supposed to come next is how I am dealing with all of these issues. The answer is not very well. I’m working on it though and just this morning managed a full two hours of sleep. The question then becomes why am I still around if I’m having all of these issues? I actually do have the answer to this one. It’s the answer to why I’m still a Duke student despite facing similar issues there; the pros make one forget all about the cons.

My homestay family is kind and always willing to help. My workplace, made up of a fantastic group of individuals, gives me responsibilities I would never have trusted myself with, but I haven’t failed yet and have learnt so much from it. The personal interactions I have here are so genuine and for every rude, abrasive, or dislikeable character in this city there are a hundred kind, genuine, amicable ones. Duke’s community partner here in Amman, SIT, interacts with us primarily through five people. I feel completely comfortable going to four of those five with any issues I have, and that’s because the fifth, Muhammad, doesn’t speak much English and his job is locking up the SIT centre after eight. He doesn’t do much student counselling but I’ve learnt that he’s still great to have a laugh with. I’d change his name for this blog post but seriously his name is Muhammad; you aren’t gonna be able to track him down from that in a Muslim majority nation. There’s also the food. Allow me to remind you, dear reader, that, as a person from the subcontinent Columbus was looking for because of its spices when he stumbled upon North America, a semester of Marketplace food was quite difficult. I occasionally stuck a spoonful of mustard into my mouth just to wake my taste buds up. Here, however, I cannot remember having had a bad meal, or even a lacklustre one, except for the time I mistook yogurt for a sandwich condiment. Oh and, finally, I guess my cohort is nice too.

To conclude, it hasn’t been easy but it has been a great experience. It isn’t all perfect, but I have time to figure out the parts that aren’t. Not too much time though; we’re already a third of the way done.

On the next blog post; actual insights on the community rather than garbled nonsense.


Week 3: Looking Back

Now that we’re about a third of the way in, I wanted to take a second to reflect on what it has been like so far. I was in the car with my host mom last night, we were driving through the city which was full of lights and smells and sounds and the bustle of people preparing for Ramadan, and she asked, “What’s the worst part about Amman?” I was truly stumped. Obviously I’ve had good days and less good days, days when I’ve wished that I could go home to my own bed and my own food and my dog, and days when I haven’t wanted to get out of bed and deal with the stress of having to find a taxi and then communicate with the driver in my ~10 words of Arabic, but could I genuinely categorize anything that I’d seen or felt or experienced as the worst? Absolutely not.

Adjusting to the work climate here has been a little bit difficult, because it is so slowly paced, relaxed, and friendly compared to the US work environments that I’ve been in before and observed. There have been times that I’ve felt a little frustrated because I haven’t really felt like I had a direction for my work, but those times have easily been remedied by sitting down with the director of the Fund and getting clarification on my assignment and on what ideas he likes, doesn’t like, thinks are feasible, and thinks I should pursue further. Work is definitely not the worst.

My host family has been nothing but kind and supportive, spending as much time with me as they are able and ensuring that we are always fed and happy and have the things we need to get by. Their home is beautiful, their neighborhood now feels like my own, and everything is good. Still nothing that I could categorize as the worst.

Our activities at SIT, the people that run our program, our Arabic lessons, lectures, and trips out into other parts of the country also have been only positive. I’ve learned a lot, often in unexpected places, and the casual conversations that I’ve had with people who live in Jordan through these events have undoubtedly been some of my greatest experiences and most inspiring moments. Still, nothing bad.

And even the little things that could be annoying but are really okay: the excessive traffic might raise the cost of my taxi, but lets me see more of the city and observe more of my surroundings. The excessive heat really has no upside, but according to snapchats from my Mom I couldn’t escape it at home either, so it can’t be the worst part about this place. I was truly stumped by my host mom’s question, though I thought about it for quite a while.

While not everything has been the best ever, which is inevitable because I’m living a real life in a foreign-to-me city, nothing has come close to being the worst. Which is why I’m still so looking forward to the next ~6 weeks (only 6 more weeks?!) in this wonderful city.


Downtown Amman, Late Afternoon

– Helena

Week 2: Settling In

This week I’m going to try and balance a discussion of goings-on at work with what I hope is a little insight into my experiences with Jordanian culture. On that note, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that it’s sometimes hard to separate the two, particularly when one is talking about the reasons that culture and traditions are the way they are. More on that weird meta-concept in the next blog piece.

On the work side, this week was exciting precisely because I had the chance to sit down and work. Unlike last week where I was relegated to the confines of the Meridien Hotel, I was able to settle down this week in the office and start to set my bearings moving forward. The office itself is quite nice and occupies the third floor of a slowly-degrading office building right off of the second circle. Past the wood paneled board-room and ceramic tile Fresca on the wall, it really isn’t too much different than any other office.

Where differences do start to become apparent, however, is the employees and the ways that they interact with one another. Unlike my previous internship experiences, it became increasingly apparent to me from the beginning that the work culture here is radically different than anything I was accustomed to in the US. By this, I mean a number of things. First off, there seems to be a relative relaxation here that would be almost unheard of in an American business setting. Although I myself show up at 8 am, most of my colleagues will leisurely make their way into the office ay 8:30 and sip tea until 9 am. Let me be clear, however, in stating that I don’t mean to be critical in the slightest when it comes to the work culture. Past the billowing puffs of smoke that relegate the office climate to a perpetual haze, I’ve found the geniality of the people and general productivity of the goings-on to be really welcoming.

From the beginning, though, I can tell that I’m perpetually a step behind. More so than the typical intern in a professional setting who is always racing to catch up, I find myself in a constant jog to understand and execute in any way that could somehow be useful. Part of this, I think, is due to the apparent language barrier that exists between me and my coworkers. Though I do speak a decent amount of Arabic, I am nowhere near the level of fluency that I would need to operate effectively in an office setting. I certainly lack the technical vocabulary, let alone the listening skills, to follow along effectively enough in a meeting to be of any use.

This, in turn, I feel is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it means that I am driven to learn—and learn quickly—all the vocabulary that I might possibly need to survive. On the other hand, it means that I miss out on any conversation that isn’t deliberately directed towards me. In turn, this takes one of my most effective weapons as an intern out of my arsenal. If I’m not able to contribute to conversations I overhear, and if I’m not able to pick apart third-party conversations to find something useful to do, there’s not much that I can do outside of what is directly delegated to me.

None of that is to say that what is delegated to me is by any means menial or uninteresting. In fact, the work that I have accomplished over the course of this week has been quite engaging and—I hope—useful. (By now, you can probably tell that my entire life here is a constant travail towards fulfilling some self-righteous notion of what it means to be “useful.”). The range of projects I’ve completed here have ranged from a macro-analysis of the problems facing the Jordanian economy to data analysis of SME survey responses to said problems. Additionally, I was able to help craft a memo/brochure to send to other Business Organizations in the MENA region on how to maximize their environmental efficiency within their own office. We also went a step further by providing a framework that they could present to their constituent business on how to craft effective and comprehensive energy-saving, pro-environment programs.

On the domestic side, things really couldn’t be going better. Our homestay family is delightful and our accommodations are homely. Though our ‘father’s’ smoking means that I can’t really find much respite from the smog that clogs the office hallways, he more than makes up for it with his wry sense of humor and kind demeanor. In interacting with my family, I feel like my Arabic is improving dramatically. Perhaps because the stakes aren’t so high as they are in the office or because the relationships are more relaxed, I feel like my family is highly accommodating to my desire to improve my language skills.

They’re also just a blast to hang out with. When we are able to drag our host brother Nayaf out of his room and away from his incessant studying (it’s time for finals), we’ll go together to the fifa bar (an arcade specially designed just for FIFA- or its European equivalent, PES) for a rousing re-enactment of El Classico before scarfing down some juicy shawarma. When we are unable to get him out of the room, we’re also easily content playing a high-stakes game of Jenga with our household champion, the redoubtable (and less-than-four-feet-tall) Ghazal. Speaking of soccer (fütbol), one of our best experiences thus far has been the chance to visit a café and watch the UEFA champion’s league final between Real and Atletico Madrid. Jordanians take their sport seriously, and it was thrill to be among people who took the game more seriously than any American ever took the super bowl.

At that café, as with anywhere else in this town, the food has been spectacular. Whether it be succulent shawarma or sour mint lemonade, our food experience has been replete with food savory and sweet at every turn. To that extent, some of my favorite restaurants have included the famous Shawarma Reem, the locally-sourced and vegetarian Shams-el-Balad, and the succulent Kanafeh from Habibah sweets. I would be remiss, however, to forego mentioning the variety of food available at home. Among the various stir-fried vegetables and overflowing bowls of falafel stands Mansaf, the centerpiece of any self-respecting Jordanian spread. Comprised of lamb soaked in lamb’s milk atop rice and seasoned liberally with cilantro, almonds, and spices, it’s a sight to behold. Stay tuned for more food related adventures.

– Aateeb