Week 8: Not Tourists

This past week has made me simultaneously feel both immensely out of place and more integrated into Arab culture than ever before. This is largely because two paramount events took place: our excursion to the south of Jordan, and the end of Ramadan, or Eid. We were on a sort of “vacation” from our regular work with the organizations, and the break from the previous rhythm was a cause for reflection on how “assimilated” I feel after spending almost two full months here, but removed from my established monotony of wake, work, eat, and sleep.

The first test was our trip to the south, including Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba/the Red Sea. It was a measure for whether I felt like an American tourist bumbling around iconic sites under the guise of “volunteering,” or whether I was simply a local wanting to get to know my home better. Truth be told, I often felt like the tourist, especially in my weak efforts to order water with my nonexistent Arabic, or when I spent an afternoon lounging around in a bikini between four Middle Eastern countries (Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia), or even just when I was running around with my phone in front of my face, trying to capture everything on camera. The trip was incredible, but there were moments where I had trouble reconciling my wish to serve Jordan as wholly as I can, while still wanting to appreciate the beautiful country I was in through, for a lack of a better word, sightseeing.

The second test was the transition out of Ramadan, and participating in the Muslim holiday of Eid. Ramadan had been fascinating to witness (and briefly partake in—I fasted for a grand total of 3 days). The streets were empty by day, the work hours were shorter. My schedule adjusted to include hours of just lying in my bed, then iftar (the meal to break the fast), and then a transition to lying in front of the TV with the host family. It was very calm, and I witnessed none of the horrors of cigarette- and food-deprived citizens that I had been warned of. The night life flared up, and the few times I left the house after iftar, the streets were filled with everyone who had been sleeping away their hunger through the day. Being that we were still transitioning at the beginning of our trip to Jordan and therefore were never fully integrated to the lifestyle then, Ramadan began to feel like the regular Jordanian life, and I came to forget what life had been like before. However, as Eid was approaching, people began traversing by day more, as they shopped for Eid outfits and began preparing for family visits. The buildup was palpable. Even leaving Amman for three days for our trip south didn’t deter my building excitement for the end of a time of quiet reflection and unity among Muslims into a time of celebration. Finally, Eid arrived, and after all the hype and surrounding buzz, I felt—nothing. The first day of Eid, I just spent all day with my host family playing card games, smoking shisha, and eating snacks. While I enjoyed myself immensely, we didn’t dress up in new clothes and go visit every member of the family as I had expected. It felt like a regular day off. Maybe because I hadn’t fasted, or maybe because I’m not Muslim, but I didn’t have the holiday thrill I do on Christmas or my birthday, and because of that, I felt very isolated from the Jordanian community.

But as I mentioned before, I came to appreciate that, despite my initial uneasiness, both of these events were truly where I felt the most united with the culture around me. I realized that I was simply too self-conscious of the fact that I, a white girl with an offputtingly loud voice who’s taller than most of the people in this country and continuously dons an “American smile” (quote from a taxi driver), was characteristically different than everyone else in a way that I could not help. But to make sure you don’t leave this article without a strong dose of cheesiness, I wanted to bring up a moment in both of the pivotal tests that made me effortlessly feel one with everyone around me. First, in Eid, when I was walking by a park in my neighborhood. Following Ramadan, in which this park was dependably deserted at all times, I immediately noticed the gales of children laughing and people talking, and was stunned at how many people had used the beautiful day to go outside and spend time with their families and complete strangers alike (I have noticed Jordanians don’t like leaving their houses for leisure activities). They were all absorbed in being around each other, and didn’t even have time to stare at the obvious American walking by. As the joy of everyone around me and the sun and clear skies began to take hold of me, I forgot how much I stuck out, and was able to bask in the enthusiasm that everyone else was feeling, giving me the Eid excitement I had been yearning for and a sense of connection to everyone around me. The second moment, that actually came before but left an even greater impact, had actually been in Wadi Rum. We had spent all day driving around, climbing sand dunes, and just generally enjoying ourselves within the vast emptiness of the desert. Having been around oceans and in the Alps, I was familiar with the feeling of insignificance that such great products of nature can instill, and it therefore didn’t affect me in the desert… until the night. After dinner, we were taken out to lay in the sand and stargaze, and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Back home, my backyard is filled with trees that bother your periphery, the sky is often filled with clouds, and there is always light shining nearby, so I could never feel bothered to look at the sky at night. This night, however, we were isolated from anyone else in the middle of the desert, and with the new moon approaching, there wasn’t even the moon’s light to distract us from the stars. It was one of the most beautiful sights that I had ever seen, but despite still wishing I could print the image of the sky in everyone else’s brain as well, I didn’t take a single picture. I forgot that there were people around me, forgot any Western sightseeing trivia that made this desert relevant to tourists (i.e. that the Martian had been filmed here), forgot how long I had been here or when I was leaving. I lost all feeling of significance, and felt one not only with every person, but even the land, stuck between infinite sand and infinite sky. It was a feeling that I now associate with a comfort with the country around me and my ability to absorb myself in my surroundings, allowing me to fully dissociate from the feeling of foreignness I had initially arrived here with.

– Julia


Week 7: Patience

Patience, I think, is the trait that has been most exercised and also most beneficial throughout my time in Jordan. I’ve had to exercise patience towards others, patience for myself, patience for my work, and I’ve seen patience exhibited countless times by the people that I’ve met, or merely encountered, here.

It isn’t easy to live in a country that’s entirely unlike your own in so many ways. I thought it was, however, for about the first month I was here. I think the relative ease of the transition compared to what I had expected, paired with the “honeymoon phase” of being here, made me feel as though I had successfully created a new comfort zone for myself without having to go far outside of my previously established one. As the rose colored glasses wore off, though, I began to become frustrated by the petty annoyances that I don’t experience in America, whether the insane traffic, the near-constant street harassment, or the constant need for paper money, preferably in small denominations, to pay the taxi drivers, despite the fact that many shopkeepers are reticent to exchange your big bills for small ones. As all of this began to get to me, I forgot that I’d had a great first month here, and wondered why it was so hard to adjust to life, after being here for a decently long time. It would have been easy to just remain frustrated, with Amman and with myself, but more productive was to be patient, with all of these people who are just living their life as they would in this country, which is theirs not mine, and with myself, as I tried to find a new equilibrium. Eventually, I was able to adapt my routine to avoid the traffic, block out most of the street harassment or find humor in the more flamboyant attempts to get my attention, and create a routine with the man at the dukkan where we (or at least I – it was probably one sided) joked (or seriously complained) about how annoying it was that I always gave him at least 10JD for a 0.25JD water bottle. Had I not been patient, I think those frustrations would have remained, when really, they were easily mitigated; it just took some time, energy, and the patience to allow myself to change.

In work, as well as in life, patience has been abundantly necessary.  While I’m used to offices that are intensely busy, full of constant meetings and phone calls, deadlines, and somewhat impersonal interaction, Jordanian business culture is so much more relationship based. People chat, they take the time to get to know their coworkers, they have coffee together and talk about their lives rather than their next assignment while they’re drinking the coffee. There’s a true personal connection, but sometimes it feels like that’s coming at the expense of accomplishing a ton. Sometimes, I get impatient. Why are people so unconcerned about what’s going on?!? But when I take a moment to think about it, to exercise patience, I see that it’s not that they’re unconcerned about the work, but they are also concerned with themselves, with each other, and with the relationships that they have with their friends and co-workers. It’s a desire for balance in life, not a lack of desire to accomplish work, and when I look back on a day, plenty gets accomplished, just not in a way that I’m used to. I think this way of working leads to a happier, more relaxed but still productive workplace, full of people that are patient with me when I struggle to convey a thought though I don’t know their language or get lost in the downstairs hallways.

Patience is one of the most important things someone can give others, and also one of the most valuable things to receive. I’m glad that I’ve learned so much about patience through my time here, and I hope that these lessons, which are only a small fraction of all that I’ve learned here, stick with me.

– Helena

Week 7: Portraits

My time interning with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies based in Amman has been an enriching, thought-provoking experience for me. Even though I take notes regularly at work and reflect internally often, I have always struggled to journal consistently. Inspiration, for me, is always fleeting and unpredictable, so you can imagine my horror knowing I would have to write a blog post at a pre-determined date as a contribution to our cohort’s blog. But luckily, now, at 5am on a day before work, I have managed to (hopefully coherently) put together some thoughts with a loose thematic focus on medicine, love, people, and art.

I think often that medicine can teach you to either love or hate people, and that I am lucky to have approached the discipline with the disposition of an artist. Being an artist teaches you to, easily and without resistance, fall in love with things – this has always been somewhat of a vice to me, but I hope (and think) that on my deathbed I will have been happy that I effortlessly discovered and found things to be beautiful, something probably amplified by the fact that I am passionate by nature.

At Duke, my formal program of study is Empirical, Social & Cognitive Aesthetics; because the title is so dense, what I started telling people is that I study why things are beautiful – how, from the levels of sensation, perception, and interpretation, we transform and organize our world into something that does not just make sense, but is rich in music, art, language, and culture, through the lenses of neuroscience, biology, and evolution. To me, beauty, pain, and change – among other things – are some of the experiences most universal to being human, to communicating, and to understanding each other.

Though I haven’t done it in awhile, I find portraiture to be the surest way that you will become someone that falls in love with everything and everyone. It is easy. The more you tire of drawing pretty faces, the more those faces that create interesting lines and shapes become valuable, and the more you learn to appreciate the mundane details of a face as features that are special. Portraiture can, and should, be intimate. As you discover the unique ways in which someone’s eyes crinkle and nose bends, I think you begin to practice literally taking people at face value – being able to appreciate whatever value is there, even if it’s not a kind of value that even they themselves would regard to be beautiful.

My Arabic teacher here in Jordan told our class that in order to speak, you must listen, that in order to write, you must read. I think this is analogous to portraiture too – that if you want to create, you must observe; to do, you must watch. This practice has made me infinitely more observant. It has widened the scope of my appreciation for living things, and it, often to my detriment, makes me prone to become hopelessly passionate about things which I do truly, authentically, find beautiful.

So, in the spirit of loving, I set out to draw my host family. My relationship with the family as a whole and as individuals has not been without trials. I come back from work exhausted – “Katir tabanah, bidi anam” (“Very tired, I want to sleep”) is an integral part of my Arabic inventory; I’ve also seen our family’s dynamic change with the introduction of Ramadan and daily fasts, which I have tried my best to participate in. And although they live comfortably, the tension caused by the extra stress my roommate and I put on resources, like water and internet, punctuate our interactions. That said, despite the inevitable challenges associated with integrating into an unfamiliar household, I have enjoyed our late nights drinking coffee with our parents, playing soccer, shopping, and sharing meals and photos with our siblings – our attempts to communicate across broken English and Arabic have also been endearingly embarrassing, and I have learned a great deal through this.

In this post, you’ll find my pencil rendered portraits of my host mother, nephew, and youngest brother. We have a large family – there are nine people living in the house right now if you include my roommate and me – so I’ll update future blog posts with portraits of the rest of the family as I finish them. I think my family may have originally expected the portraits would be closer to stick figures, but now that I’ve shown them the first two, I am being bombarded with requests, so hopefully over the remainder of my stay I will have a complete series.

kelsey blog pic

Drawing these portraits has been a good daily meditation of sorts for me. I also did a sketch series last summer when I was interning in Prague. After long days at the hospital, I’d sit down with my work notebook and sketch impressions of the cityscape – passersby would watch me a lot, so it ended up being a nice way to meet people (I even met a Duke alumus doing this!). This time around, my sketching has been more of an exercise in close observation and patience, which is reflective of how I am trying to approach my internship in Amman. I like to think that as I’ve practiced this, I’m also becoming more conscientious about being patient, being an observer when appropriate, and approaching every refugee I interact with during fieldwork or every employee I work with in the office with the same love and patience I need to create a portrait.



Week 6: Looking Inward

Our discussion last Saturday began with each of us opening up about our worries, hopes, and expectations for the trip. Others mentioned their expectations of getting close with their homestay family, making close friends, or having an impact at their organization. I, on the other hand, emphasized how I tried very hard to have no expectations, to not come in with preconceived worries or notions about what life in Amman would be like. I tried to do this because I was surrounded by voices both at Duke and back home that strongly questioned my choice to come to Jordan. Despite my best efforts at controlling my biases and their affect on my perception of Amman, I believe now that I have failed. Even looking back on my first blog post, Hair, I noticed that it was essentially a counterargument against the bias I held towards the position of women in Jordan and in the Middle East in general.

I have this general discomfort with the gender based separation of spaces that is prevalent here. One of the most enjoyable moments in Amman thus far was watching the champions league final with several of my colleagues at a café. However, the only women in the entire café were the other Duke Engage participants. One of the waiters asked if the women with us were Russian, which in Amman is code for prostitute. This, all after our friends had to call around to find this single café that would even allow women to watch the game in the first place. This moment, among other instances, seemed to confirm my biases and preconceived notions about the society of Amman.

This is compounded by the subject of my research at the Center for Strategic Studies at Jordan University. I am fortunate to work for two amazing women, Dr. Hana Al-Gallal and Dr. Sara Ababneh. Dr. Hana was heavily involved in the Libyan revolution that ousted Qaddaffi, then eventually became the minister of education but resigned because she disliked the new path of the increasingly Islamist government and its restriction of women’s rights. Dr. Sara is great as well, she speaks several languages, and has engaged me in some truly fascinating discussions. My initial research with Dr. Hana actually helped to both reject and confirm some of the notions that I had towards the position of women in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa). I read pieces on how heavily involved women were in the Arab Spring but had largely been excluded from the process of rebuilding their nations. I also learned about Islamic feminism, a truly intriguing movement that uses feminist interpretations of the Quran to promote the value that Islam in fact supports gender equality.

The most elucidating piece I read made a point on how the west uses women’s rights and the treatment of women to “other” different nations or societies, especially the MENA. This piece began to help me to come to terms with my discomfort I had been feeling in Jordan.  My research with Dr. Sara has really opened my eyes to how my bias and “othering” of Jordan has occurred. Dr. Sara has me researching honor killings in Jordan but as a comparison to honor killings in America, and how the number of such killings, proportionally, do not differ much between the nations. Her overall message to me was “what does America’s obsession with honor killings say about America itself?” Initially, this was very difficult research to do, not because information was hard to find but because it was so upsetting once it had been found. The fact that many honor killers have reduced sentences because of the legal code of Jordan as well as family complicity in the killing was truly disturbing. I became more and more disenchanted with a culture where this was tolerated, and more and more discomforted by the instances I had personally seen of women occupying a secondary space in Jordan.

However, this was because I had forgotten about what Dr. Sara told me, I had to think about what my discomfort but morbid fascination with this topic and the more general treatment of women in Jordan said about me. I noticed that after Iftar usually the men will go sit in one room and the women will sit in another, but is that so different than it is in America? The cafés or the funeral reception for a General, which we were invited to by our host father, occupied solely by men, do these spaces not persist in the United States as well? I began to think about myself, I am in a fraternity, a traditionally male space, but I have no such discomfort with it like I do with the spaces here. I have been searching my mind trying to determine what justifies one and maligns the other. My beliefs have been constantly reinforced by media portrayals of Islam and the Middle East or common narratives promoted by politicians who try to make the MENA seem lesser by emphasizing women’s rights. It is imperative that we don’t limit our critique to other societies that we find problematic, but to look inward turn those critiques on analogous institutions and traditions that we blindly accept.

– Ben