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

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