Mundane Mustache Musings

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So I was in Egypt last weekend, and it was pretty dang incredible. Not only did I have the best travel buddy in life, the Pyramids were awesome, al-Azhar awe-inspiring, Tahrir eerie and fascinating, Khan al-Khalili marvelously chaotic, the people incredibly warm and welcoming, the food delectable…etc…more on all that later.

This trip to Egypt piqued my interest on a range of things, from the soci-political to the Egyptologist. However, the topic that truly gripped me, and gripped me hard, was that of the mustache.

I saw them everywhere–not only on people, but also in depictions of people from ancient Egypt. Mustaches factored prominently in the serene statues, etchings in stone, and paintings on pottery pieces throughout the Egyptian Museum, Saqqara Museum, and other places (sorry there are no visual aides for this from our trip…we dutifully obeyed all museum rules and checked our cameras at the door). As we left the Egyptian Museum with aching feet from the endless wandering and tired eyes from reading endless plaques, a band of mustachioed older-ish men wandered by, hollering “eeeey ya mooza!” at Trish and I. I got to thinking about this institution of the mustache and the special place it has occupied throughout the ages. Apparently it was a hotly contested style in ancient Egypt that has persisted until modern times and has come to occupy a really hilarious place in modern hipster culture. How is something that was once seen as a symbol of ultimate masculinity and virility now worn ironically by first world kids sporting artfully faded skinny jeans (and Toms…and probably an Invisible Children bracelet…or 5). I decided to do a little poking around.

I turned first to The Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History: “mustache” or “moustache;” refers to hair growth above a man’s upper lip. No mention is made of hair growth on women’s upper lips—I suppose that would be uncouth. Men (and women, largely inadvertently) have sported mustaches since prehistoric times. Wearing a mustache could symbolize one’s membership in a particular military order, monastic order, or occupation. Oftentimes, the mustache was worn by military men, and the size and style were determined by one’s rank. Facial hair could also be worn for practical reasons; it could protect the face from harsh elements such as strong wind or precipitation.

Men may show their conformity or unwillingness to conform to the prevailing style of the day by choosing to wear a mustache. The latter is well-demonstrated by the rise of such phenomena as Movember (for some ardent celebrators of Movember, there is a certain cultish reverence revolving around this holiday…check out this Shanghai expat’s enthusiasm last November: http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/shanghai/articles/blogs-shanghai/expat-affairs/movember-update-brief-history-mustache/  …but isn’t it a little insensitive to launch a festivity celebrating facial hair growth in a place where…well, it’s a little tough for the natives to participate?

But I digress. In ancient Egypt, it was customary to shave all the body hair, including the hair on one’s head.  During the early Old Kingdom (2650 2152), however, depictions of men with thin mustaches started appearing. I must have seen a LOT of Old Kingdom antiquities, because it felt like they were everywhere…which piqued my interest in the inception and endurance of this style in the first place. I was surprised to learn that the institution of the mustache in ancient Egypt was actually the subject of some feisty debate and even legal action. Around 1800 BCE, Pharaoh Teqikencola issued a royal edict outlawing mustaches.

The mustache has been many things—but nothing fascinates me more than its function as a tool for attracting the opposite sex. For reasons that for me continue to remain unclear, women throughout the ages have found mustaches irresistibly sexy. Let us look at our own Abraham Lincoln: when he was campaigning for office in the fall of 1860, Lincoln received a letter from eleven-year-old  Grace Bedell urging him to grow out his facial hair, informing him that “you would look a great deal better because your face is so thin,” adding that “All the ladies like whiskers.”

George Cooper and Stephen Foster wrote a song in 1864 entitled “If You’ve Only Got a Mustache”( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezUb7__xuXk http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/stephen-foster/012636.HTM)…the principal message conveyed by the song is that even if a man lacks many desirable attributes, he has only to grow a mustache to attract women. The song makes a pretty compelling case, I must say.

After digesting all this newfound information, I found that I still thirsted for knowledge about the mighty mustache. I asked my colleagues—teachers at a high school here in Amman—about their thoughts on mustaches. The prevailing sentiment was this: the mustache identifies you as Arab (people sort of grumbled incoherently when I suggested that the mustache was worn non-ironically as a sort of cultural identifier in a number of different countries, such as India), and functions as a sign of manhood and masculinity. My innocent probing also prompted a rather fiery debate amongst the teachers in the department (as my questions are often wont to do): whether the mustache was permitted within Islam and, if so, how it should be sported. Our department was divided into two camps: supporters of the ‘stache and those who vehemently opposed it. Each cited Hadiths in support of their arguments.

I did a little poking around online, and it appears that Prophet Muhammad did have some fairly specific stipulations about mustaches and how they should be worn. According to the Sunna (sayings of the Prophet), the mustache should be light.

“Trim closely the moustache, and let the beard flow (Grow).”  Hadith no. 498

“Trim the moustache closely and spare the beard” says Ibn Umar, Hadith no. 449

“Act against contrary to the polytheists, trim closely the moustache and grow the beard.”
Hadith no. 500

I gotta say, it’s really pretty amazing the stuff you turn up when you Google “Arabs Mustaches.”

However, in my quest for quippy mustache material, I came across something that kind of brought my light-hearted and sort of vague musings about mustaches back to reality…and also reinforced my friend colleagues’ assertion that the mustache is something that identifies a man as uniquely Arab. I read this piece by Etgar Keret entitled “A Mustache For My Son” in the Sunday New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/26/magazine/a-mustache-for-my-son.html?_r=1). Keret writes about how he grows a mustache at the somewhat odd request of his son, Lev, for his sixth birthday. Keret goes on to marvel at how his newfound tuft of upper lip hair changed his interactions with people; instead of inquiring about his family or asking about his well-being—the usual conversation starters—they would say, “What’s with the mustache?” He also found that people were also eager to share their own mustache stories—he shares one mustache-centric conversation he has with his acupuncturist. A former IDF soldier, the acupuncturist tells Keret how he was part of an elite military unit during one of several Israeli invasions of Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. In order to blend in with the Arabs, the Israeli soldiers would paint on mustaches in order to blend in more with the Arab population.  “It sounds like a joke,” the acupuncturist said, “but we went on an undercover operation once, disguised as Arabs, and they told us the two most important things were the mustache and the shoes. If you have a respectable mustache and believable shoes, people will take you for an Arab even if your parents are from Poland.” He then goes on to describe an operation in which he and his fellow IDFers, sporting their painted-on ‘staches, almost shot and killed an Arab carrying a large umbrella because they thought it was a Kalashnikov. Keret ends the article resolving to shave off his mustache, musing over “The story of a kid with a scribble that looked like a mustache, who almost killed a man with an umbrella that looked like a rifle, on a covert operation that looked like a war. Maybe I’ll shave this mustache off after all. Reality here is confusing enough as it is.”

For me, I find the notion of elite IDP soldiers with painted-on mustaches conducting covert operation milling amongst Arabs at once totally absurd and entirely chilling.

I then perused article in Mondoweiss (http://mondoweiss.net/2012/02/edgar-keret-in-the-ny-times-magazine-trys-on-orientalism-with-an-iconic-arab-look.html ), an online newspaper that I’ve only just now come across that seeks to cover the “war of ideas on the Middle East” from a “progressive Jewish perspective.” The article attacks Keret pretty heatedly for his “A Mustache for my Son.” Entitled “Etgar Keret in the ‘NY Times Magazine’ tries on orientalism with an iconic ‘Arab’ look,” the piece is overly feisty and rife with misplaced indignance. The author blasts Keret for not even mentioning “Palestinians” by name in his piece and thereby failing to capitalize upon a crucial “teaching moment”…a point that is breathtakingly dumb, as the story Keret relates took place in Lebanon. The author continues to rail against Keret’s “dominant Ashkenazi narrative” and “orientalizing the Arab Other” by using the term “Arab” (this sort of stuff gets so wearying sometimes). However, if you have the patience to wade through the author’s sass, though, I think it’s sort of interesting to muse on the mustache being utilized to the end of camouflaging IDF soldiers amongst Arabs and how the mustache, for these IDF guys, was closely associated with Arabs, and by extension, for these IDF guys, terrorism. This speaks to the fact that perhaps the mustache, in addition to its prominent cultural role throughout the ages, also carries some interesting socio-political weight.

Hmmm…food for some mustachioed thought.

Cheers

 

 

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Kony 2012: Harnessing the Goodwill of Youth to Effect Change…or Masturbatory Hipster Propaganda?

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I actually wrote this title before the story broke a few days ago about Jason Russell’s pant-less playing in traffic. Prophetic, no?

 I’ve been doing a lot of reading, listening, and thinking about this Kony 2012 affair lately. I saw the film last weekend and I found myself thoroughly horrified for reasons I couldn’t readily pin down. But also, I sheepishly admit that I was thrilled by the rapid-fire clips of Invisible Children members feverishly working to petition members of Congress, plastering Kony 2012 signs everywhere, and doing a lot of fist-pumping and jumping in the air as the result of what must be the immense satisfaction of knowing you’ve been helping African children all day long–all enhanced by swells of Mumford and Sons. This confusion I felt was exacerbated by the fact that the internet has been ablaze with people praising, pontificating, poo-poo-ing, putzing, preaching, prevaricating, etc.  Hencetoforth  is my attempt to process through this whole thing.  

 What I can gather from everything I’ve read thus far is this: on March 5, 2012, Invisible Children, a California-based activist group, posted a 30 minute video on YouTube entitled “Kony 2012.” The main thrust of the video is a call to “arrest” Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group (now) notorious for its abduction and enslavement of children, in Uganda. The film opens with a few minutes dedicated to marveling at the technological advancements of the age—we are reminded that we are more connected than ever before, and because of this heightened interconnectedness, “ the game has new rules.” The narrative momentum of the film is driven by the personal story of filmmaker and Invisible Children founder Jason Russell in a pretty compelling way. The birth of Russell’s son Gavin, his discovery of the tragic situation in Uganda ten years before, and the long road of activism to “Kony 2012” are all woven into the greater call to bring down Joseph Kony. The filmmakers propose to do this by launching a campaign to make Kony—and his atrocities—visible in 2012. In less than a week, the video had 80 million views. As of March 22, the film had gotten around 84 million hits.

 Unfortunately, “Kony 2012” has a number of problems, glaring errors, and morally reprehensible points—many of which came under fire in the deluge of criticism that poured in after the film’s inception as the fastest growing social media campaign ever, according to online video consulting group Visible Measures.  

 In a Foreign Policy guest post, Joshua Keating identifies the two most glaring errors of the film:

1)      Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and has not been for 6 years. “Kony 2012” offers viewers a map with a sort of amorphous blob spreading over Uganda, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—the filmmakers have been using this point to defend against accusations of misrepresenting Kony’s whereabouts. However, the (few) practical elements  of the film’s big dramatic call to bring down Kony basically amount to sending US military advisors to help Ugandan national forces to track him down…which obviously doesn’t help much at all if he’s not even in the country. According to Keating, it appears that Invisible Children won’t let a “meddlesome detail” like Kony’s actual whereabouts stop them from their ultimate goal: which is to stop Kony. Just as long as they’re persevering and raising fists in solidarity in time with the Mumford and Sons crescendos (a prevalent motif in “Kony 2012” that obviously really hit a chord with me…so to speak…).     

2)      The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) now numbers at most in the hundreds. Keating asserts that “while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality.” The grim figure of 30,000 child soldiers in the LRA given by the film refers to the total number of children that have been involved with the LRA over the decades that Kony has been operating—nearly 30 years.  Kony’s numbers are actually WANING, and his organization is on the decline. This particularly messes with the credibility of the film, which seeks to instill this sense of urgency by telling us that if we don’t continue to apply pressure (it is, of course, unclear how and where this pressure should be put on), Kony’s LRA will only to continue to become an even more pernicious phenomenon. “If we’re not successful, he is going to be growing his numbers,” Republican senator Jim Inhofe, one of the principal interviewees from Congress in the film, vigorously reminds us. Not so much, Jim. (An aside: Inhofe is one of the most conservative members of Congress, notorious for his support for Israel [“Because God said so”], strong stance against protecting the environment, and general warmongering behavior. Obviously not a guy known for his compassion…and probably generally representative of the type of stuff that Invisible Childrenbut I guess he said the right stuff to make it into the film).  

 Further, Deeper Problems:

                So we’ve seen from the factual errors that the film probably won’t really help effect much practical change. Furthermore, it over-simplifies a super complex issue into what David Rieff calls an “infantile” and “fundamentally childlike view of the world.” There is a scene in the film that is particularly representative of this, and one that I found especially grueling: Jason Russell sits down with his toddler son, Gavin, to explain what he does for a living. He poses this question to Gavin, who responds, “You keep the bad guys from being mean.” Unfortunately, the argument throughout the film doesn’t get much deeper or nuanced than that. We are presented with this thoroughly polarized and diametrically opposed picture of the world. We have on one side, the nefarious soulless child-napper Joseph Koney. On the other, we have Jason Russell, his organization of skinny-jean-sporting activists, and arsenal of T-shirts, bracelets, and other paraphernalia designed to display one’s compassion for African children.

                As my infinitely insightful friend Trish pointed out the other day, Americans are no strangers to oversimplification. We like it so much, in fact, that we prefer to consolidate what we see as global evil—a complex tangle of political, social, and economic phenomena in opposition to the United States in some way or another—into just a few evil-doers. We are pros at pinpointing the “bad guy” associated with any generally negative, mostly anti-American, international crisis.  Osama Bin Laden à 9/11. Saddam Hussein à Gulf War. And now, Kony à Ugandan child soldiers. We then proceed to build our own cult of personality for them that grotesquely exaggerate their intelligence, wilyness, and capacity for evil…an image that certainly does not reflect reality. Anyone who was with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s will talk about how Osama was just the Saudi sugar daddy. He was no great generator of Islamist ideology or military strategy to bring down the nefarious West.  We made him into this super elusive, intelligent international evil man of mystery. And now we’re doing the same thing with Kony.

 This post is getting too long. There’s so much more to be said, really. There are problems with the way Invisible Children has handled money. The film reflects an astonishingly awful American middle class provincialism. And I’m sure it’s all out there on the Internet somewhere. My final point is this: despite all the problems with it, the film is well-done (cinematically speaking). With ingenious narrative devices, skillful editing, and a sweet music track to boot, it is pretty damn compelling. Plus, for a range of reasons, it has reached a previously apathetic demographic (well…maybe not apathetic…but inactive) and impelled people to act in ways that nothing has previously.

 But the problem here for me is twofold: first, the film suggests that by clicking “share” or tweeting for the downfall of Kony is enough to bring about change.  Before you pat yourself on the back for doing your part to save African children because your status was “#StopKony” for a few days (until it came time to post and re-post various versions of the Hunger Games trailer), know that bringing about awareness is just a first step. This, for me, is one of the biggest issues with “Kony 2012.” This awareness, “Make Him Visible” campaign is a waste…because, in its flagrant disregard for the facts needed to carry on in pursuit of the (pretty unrealistic and misguided) goal of “arresting Joseph Kony,” it places the emphasis in the wrong place.

 Second issue: what’s worrying me MOST out of all of this is that I think it’s really telling about what gets us fired up about something. Really awful stuff happens in the world a lot, and we don’t bat an eyelash. Then why do we collectively go nuts over a cause that is largely misinformed and obsolete. Not only because how it is framed for us, but also for how it can make us look and subsequently feel. Invisible Children has really tapped into something; you get to feel great about doing something that doesn’t take much time or effort, and as an added perk, everyone is aware of it. It’s the TOMS shoes thing…when you pad around in your uncomfortable little flats (or wedges or boots…God, they make wedges and boots now…), EVERYONE will know that a child in Africa got a pair of shoes BECAUSE OF YOU (never mind that they are poorly made and will wear out within several months). The Kony 2012 campaign plays upon similar sentiments. Share this video on your Facebook wall and you’ve saved a child soldier. All your friends will see it and know how big your heart is. Wear this Kony 2012 bracelet and everyone who sees you will know you’re doing your part to stop global perniciousness. Ugh…it just feels like this make-myself-feel-good, almost masturbatory process. That is ineffective and misguided. So not only do Ugandan child get forced to be soldiers in Kony’s army…they also get plastered all over a social media campaign that assuages the imperialist white guilt without effectually addressing their needs. So it seems that African children lose yet again.  

 So I guess that’s it for now. It’s sad what the “Kony 2012” affair represents, but it’s heartening in that it has shown the potential for rallying people around a previously unknown human rights issue. Even if it is for troubling reasons. 

Sources: 

http://www.npr.org/2012/03/08/148235383/fact-checking-the-kony-2012-viral-video?ps=rs

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/03/14/the_road_to_hell_is_paved_with_viral_videos_kony_2012?page=0,0

http://www.npr.org/2012/03/09/148305533/how-teenagers-learned-to-hate-joseph-kony?ft=1&f=1001

http://allafrica.com/stories/201203200366.html

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/03/2012312853317675.html

http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/jkeating

http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/07/guest_post_joseph_kony_is_not_in_uganda_and_other_complicated_things

On (my abject failure in but newfound ardent desire to improve) Keeping a Blog

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I decided that I don’t really find keeping a dedicated record detailing my travels to be consistently inspiring. Why? I really couldn’t say. Sometimes I’m fairly bursting to chronicle my misadventures, and, at other times, I’m so bored by the very idea that I have think about something else lest I literally get sleepy. Why is this so?  People keep regular blogs all the time, right? I read my friends’ blogs weekly, if not to keep up with their wanderings then to at least stay abreast of the current memes (especially those associated with Mean Girls or Downton Abbey) or gaze upon photos taken in obscure places at obscure angles. I feel like blogs of this nature help foster a sort of personal connection that isn’t really conveyed by Facebook.  Rather than this sort of snarl of photos, status updates, and other social network-y things, a blog is a tightly controlled avenue of expression through which you reveal only what you want—a feat Facebook cannot seem to achieve, despite their latest arsenal of privacy tools set against soothing white and blue templates. Blogs, in that they require more forethought and framing than a Facebook post, represent a higher form of online expression. Not that I’m any less of a Facebook addict than everyone else on the planet. I just feel like there’s definitely so much merit to keeping record of one’s thoughts, photos, or internet findings in blog form.    

 But the kind that I’m coming to value more and more are those that discuss current issues.

In fact, these kinds of musings—on news websites and standing alone—are coming to inform the public consciousness and ways of conceiving of media in a variety of new ways. We just did a short unit on media in my American Conversation and Culture class last week and covered these topics—I’m pretty sure that the only person whose interest was piqued was mine.  I was blown away by just how much a little probing into the news beyond my usual cursory glance at my homepage, The Jordan Times, yielded: fiery debates being waged, thoughtful discussion being engaged in, fascinating parallels being drawn…spanning online newspapers, NPR audio stories, and my newly discovered obsession, blogs. I was hooked. My students, however, were thoroughly nonplussed. They didn’t care about how Rupert Murdoch had been pulling the puppet strings of public opinion for a decade…they didn’t care about Fox News, they didn’t care about media bias, they didn’t care about Al-Jazeera’s extended spat with the US military in 2003…they were just generally uninspired…like most tenth graders, I suppose.  

 

I persevered on. From my initial foray into the corpus of daily online news—fresh waves being generated for the next day before you can finish sifting through that morning’s latest—I found it all somewhat daunting. My favorite blogs—Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, Mark Lynch’s Abu Aardvark, As’ad Abu Khalil’s Angry Arab News Service—really help alleviate this.  They not only help synthesize the deluge of news information and highlight what they find to be the most important stories, but also they each provide a largely unique and expert perspective that I, as someone that feels perpetually over-whelmed by news sources of varying credibility, find comforting. When I came across something particularly atrocious that Tom Friedman wrote a few months ago, I turned to the blogosphere—both for confirmation of my abject disgust but also to find if there was an iota of truth in his egocentric and brashly pro-Israeli ramblings. The same went for the wearying Kony 2012 debate—Foreign Policy blo gger David Rieff similarly helped me nail down the reasons why I felt like retching every time Jason Russell tossed his blond, hi-lited hair and raised a heavily-bracleted fist in solidarity with the children of Uganda.     

 

So in an attempt to engage myself a little more (and contribute to online discussions in what I hope is a vaguely productive way…even if my readership continues to be mostly Mom), I’m going re-enter the blogosphere with a renewed sense of purpose—to kind of attempt to synthesize and process through the loads of news I waste loads of time on every day. And weave my own little narrative in there somewhere.  Be on the look-out for my forthcoming “Kony 2012: Harnessing the Goodwill of Youth to Effect Change…or Masturbatory Hipster Propaganda?”  

Thanksgiving Update

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Bereft in Blogging:
Having been recently reminded of my meager number of blog posts and poor blogging performance  (thanks Mom), I have decided to try to salvage my readership (again, probably mostly Mom) and churn out an update.

Turkey Day:
Thanksgiving in Amman has been entirely wonderful—if not for the delicious food (Arabic and American alike) and marvelous company, then merely the sheer number of Thanksgiving dinners I have attended (4, to be exact). Wednesday was the official Fulbright potluck, Thursday we put on a dinner for the Sudanese men we teach, and last night (Friday) was an “Arab Thanksgiving” with the woman that owns the store next to our apartment. Feyrouz, the owner of the store, lived in New York City for a number of years; we’ve gotten to know her and her family throughout our daily shopping trips to her store for soda, chocolate, halloumi cheese, and other junk foods with which to properly eat our feelings.  She very kindly took pity on us (unattached young people–that is, those that are not married or do not live with their parents–are very unusual here and are either looked upon with mild distant disapproval or showered with food and love…we’ve mostly experienced the latter) and had us over for Thanksgiving. She made coosa (zucchini stuffed with meat and rice and my absolute FAVORITE), malfoof (lamb meat wrapped with boiled cabbage leaves), and several different rice dishes. We then drank tea and smoked shisha with her and her family late into the evening. It was quite a pleasant way to pass Black Friday (the first Black Friday in something like 21 years that I didn’t battle crowds at department stores, in fact). I will be attending dinner number 5 this afternoon–with the family of one of my tutees.

Eid al-Adha:
There are two big annual holidays for Muslims–Eid al-Fitr (after Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha–both of which I was thoroughly fortunate to be around for. The Eid al-Fitr took place at the end of August / beginning of September, right when I got here (feasting galore in Lebanon)—and the Eid al-Adha took place the first week in November. For the Eid al-Adha, we got a week off from school—which my roommate Hannah and I swiftly capitalized on and bought tickets to Lebanon and Turkey. So, for the first 8 days or so in November, we took a much needed mental hiatus from all things pedagogical and jaunted around two of the SWEETEST cities in the region: Beirut and Istanbul. I feel like a series of visual representations will be more effective here than a rundown of our itinerary…more on this later…

Amman Living: 
The days are filling up quickly. I am still helping with the 9th and 10th grade at the Jubilee School, my Fulbright assignment school. It is an intriguing mix between government school and private school—academically engaged students from all walks of life must go through a rigorous admissions process, and how much their families pay is based off of their income. I have also started teaching some English enrichment courses for 9th graders. Even though I’m pretty sure my novelty has largely worn off by now, the kids, although a bit rascally at times, are still really incredible and engaged. My friend Zayn has started an Arabic language debate club at Jubilee, and there was a great deal of interest in that, so I’m really hoping to start an English language debate club as well.

In addition, I’ve jumped on board with a project started by Jen, one of my roommates, where we teach beginning and intermediate English classes to two houses of Sudanese refugees. My friend Cooper and I are teaching at a house in Jebel Amman, and my roomates and our other two friends are teaching at a house in Jebel Wehbdey.

I spend the rest of my time either with Arabic tutoring / studying or lesson planning. There’s little time for goofing off these days—but yet I still manage to get my more-or-less-daily fix of 30Rock.

10/1/11

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A speedy catch-up ‘til now: September has definitely been entirely amazing / nuts / really satisfying because I’d been anticipating coming to Jordan for so long. It’s been pretty great to experience my absolute love for Arabic (dormant for the 1.5 years without structured study but since risen again) and my enthusiasm for the region in general play out into this reality where I really get to do the things I’ve been interested in. Blah blah, okay, enough with that.

So a (not- so) quick Lebanon recap: After spending a few fabulous days in Saida with the amazing Al-Akhdar family for the wedding, I went to Ehden (translates aptly as “Eden”) to see some distant relatives (my first cousin in Mobile married a Lebanese guy, these people are his family…I visited them in the spring of 2010 when I was in Dubai, so I figured I’d pop on over for another visit since I was in the neighborhood). Ehden is sort of the sister resort town of Sgharta, another small town in the north known for its special kibbe and number of guns per capita. In the summer, everyone goes to Ehden, which is at a super high elevation, to escape the heat of the summer in Sgharta (although the weather in Sgharta felt heavenly compared to the sweltering humidity we had in Alabama this summer). It’s a very idyllic place: everyone knows everyone else, the cafes in the midan (sort of town center) are jam-packed with people eating dessert, smoking shisha, and drinking coffee every night, and everyone seems to be on perennial vacay. The Kaouis, the family I stayed with, live right next to St. George’s Church, a Marionite Catholic church that contains the body of Youssef Bey Karam, a prominent leader in northern Lebanon during the Ottoman period. His body is eerily well-preserved in a clear casket, and strong-jawed statues of him brandishing swords and plaques extolling his virtues of bravery and leadership are all around. One of the Kaoui grandchildren, Angie, was helping out at this festival called Radical Rush two of the days I was there. Curious, I went with her. Radical Rush turned out to be this collection of heights-based thrill activities: bungee jumping, zip lining, free fall, etc. I have a pretty intense fear of heights, and I resolved to hold everyone’s stuff while they jumped out of rickety cages or rappelled down the side of the Ehden Country Club Hotel…but I soon gave into peer pressure and found myself leaping off the edge of the hotel with the best of them to zip-line above the entire event. I also did the free fall and went up in the bungee jumping cage, but couldn’t quite bring myself to jump. One can only conquer so much of one’s fears in a day.

Ehden was all-in-all quite enjoyable, but the real downer was that I got robbed twice while I was there.  The first time, a few hours after I’d gotten to Ehden, I was pretty bummed…but also accepted that such things happen to tourists, etc etc, so I just withdrew more money, stuck it in my wallet, and went on my merry way. I didn’t realize I’d been robbed for the second time until I was almost to the bus station in Tripoli to go back to Beirut to see Dima and fly back to Amman the following day.  The lira lifters had taken EVERYTHING… I didn’t even have the 4,000 (about $2.50) for the bus ticket. I was pretty distraught and suddenly felt very much like an outsider in a country where I’d always been made to feel incredibly at home. I think the most pervasive feeling at that point was about 2 parts vulnerability, 1 part sheer stupidity.  The people driving me to the bus station, family friend Leila and her son Jeff (who has a sister named Grace roughly my age) were SO AMAZING…they took care of me entirely, giving me money for the bus ticket and going so far as going with me into the station and buying the ticket for me…while I looked on from the waiting room, blubbering slightly still.

Getting robbed definitely sucked, but there were SO many things that happened during the rest of my trip to counteract all the thievery negativity. On my ride back to Beirut, there was a really sweet half-Lebanese, half-Australian family that sort of took me in and fed me snacks. When we got to Beirut, the bus driver made a special stop for me, personally hailed me a cab, and hauled my luggage into it—my initial sniffling when I got on the bus really paid off, I suppose. When I met up with Dima, my former FLTA Arabic instructor from UAB, at her fancy new corner office in a publishing company across from the American University in Beirut, it was as if nothing icky had happened atall. Dima and her lovely roommate, Lubna (who works in finance, I believe), took me to a super posh restaurant on the corniche right on the Mediterranean where we had dessert and shisha. These rather attractive people sitting near us ended up getting our meal…they turned out to be distant cousins of Lubna’s visiting from Romania…a little bizarre but so very nice. We spent the evening strolling the corniche and eating various things like fool (beans) and roasted ears of corn from street vendors. Lubna went home, and then we met up with Dima’s friend Dima, a research associate with Carnegie, for mint lemonade.

The next day, we tried to squeeze in as many things Beirut that we could before my flight at 5. Dima had graciously taken a day off work, so we got right to it. We got our hair and nails done, took a boat ride through the caves of Raoushe (our scantily clad boat-driver was certainly easy on the eyes), went to the Hariri mosque and wandered around that part of town, and ATE ATE ATE: ice-cream, halloumi cheese galore, Nescafe from Deek’s, etc etc etc. I flew back to Amman (home, I guess), ktirrrr mabsoota (verrry happy).

COMMENCE PHASE 2: Life in Amman

I suppose there’s not too terribly much to say about the period of time before we moved into our apartment. I got in on the 6th of September, and they put the Fulbrighters up at this okay hotel in Shmeisani, one of the central residential areas of Amman. We got a nice free breakfast every morning and fairly consistently working internet.

A few days later, I moved into the first apartment I saw with two marvelous girls, Jen and Hannah, fellow Fulbright ETAs. I guess I was just not feeling the whole scouring the city for the perfect apartment thing…I found something really incredible that I loved, and khalus, that was it. We moved in the weekend before orientation…it was nice to have a sort of home base during that time. The place is actually probably the perfect apartment…I kept thinking that the novelty of living in such a nice, large apartment (probably the fanciest place I’m ever going to live) would wear off after a week or so, but we’re rolling three weeks deep now, and I’m still pretty dang enamored. We have three different sitting rooms (one formal, one informal / TV room, and a sun room), three large bedrooms (each with either a king size bed or two twin beds), an opulent dining room, and a large and very functional kitchen. Our apartment used to be occupied by our landlady’s mother, and I believe we’re the first occupants outside of the family. Our landlady is really wonderful…she actually is on the Fulbright board that reviews applications for potential Fulbrighters, and therefore sort of knew us already. Bizarre, no? But apparently that’s just the nature of Amman…it’s really just a tiny little town.

 

The last couple weeks of September have definitely seen a lot of wandering and attempts to orient ourselves in the city. I still have yet to find a really good street map of the city. We’re in a great area because it is so central. We’re within walking distance of Qasid, the language institute where we take Arabic classes…we’re right next to Sports City, this sort of odd sports complex of gyms, pools, running paths, soccer fields, etc. I’m hoping to do my ETA side project on the role of women’s sports organizations in the community, and such proximity to Sports City should be really sweet.

School is awesome. I am starting my third week tomorrow at Jubilee School. I am helping with 9th grade students mostly, but there’s a smattering of 10th graders as well. Thus far, I am really in love with 9th grade…they’ve got a twinge or two of middle school still in them that hasn’t matured its way out yet, but they’re cute, fun, and eager to learn. I’m pretty sure that last one will dissipate gradually as my novelty wears off—perhaps sooner than later, even—but I’ll ride that wave as long as it lasts.

So that’s it for now…an evening of Arabic homework and lesson planning awaits. More on the weekend in Aqaba laterzzz  (but here are some photo teasers)

9/17/11

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So I am now officially over two weeks behind on my adventure /misadventure chronicling. Once a consistent source of internet and something vaguely resembling structure in my life are made available, I expect this process will become slightly smoother. However, rather than backtracking fifteen days and attempting to provide an immensely detailed account as before, I will instead attempt something rather novel for me: a succinct summary. (And I don’t mean to drag out my musings on proper blog form and my departure from it…it’s just that I’d like to eventually establish some sort of semblance of that elusive creature, consistency).

 

…but not right now. Because my stream of conscious scribbling took me elsewhere…

 

 

Currently…

I am somewhat frantically rifling through some teaching modules and classroom management readings while the call to prayer sounds outside of my window. My first day of school is tomorrow, and I’m stricken with an acute attack of nerves, but my anxiety-fuelled heart palpitations are soothed somewhat by the haunting chant amplified by the two or so buildings that separate my apartment and the mosque. The sun, rather more brutal than usual today, has thankfully gone down, and the breeze rustles the olive trees and less native ornamental shrubberies in my downstairs neighbor’s garden.  There is the dull thud of a soccer ball ricocheting off limestone wall, also eerily amplified where I am perched on my little balcony overlooking eastern Shmeisani. After the call to prayer ends, spritely Arabic music resumes from below, only to be silenced once again when another call to prayer sounds from a mosque few blocks away.  The whir of cars passing on the nearby highway provides some nice ambient noise, frequently punctuated by horns (liberally used here…but more functionally rather than an expression of anger).  The murmur of a TV resounds above me, probably a Turkish soap opera dubbed over in Lebanese colloquial (the grandmother across from us is obsessed with them). The rigid knot of worry loosens in my chest as I minimize the Peace Corps’ rather vague treatise on staying positive in the classroom, and I instead settle in to watch the sunset in its entirety.

 

So tomorrow’s the big dayyyy…I cease to be Grace, unemployed liberal arts graduate, and transform into Miss Grace, English teaching assistant extraordinaire.

9/10/11

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For someone ardently aspiring to establish a regular practice of writing and being more reflective throughout what has already become a supremely amazing experience, I have proven myself to somewhat unworthy of this hallowed practice of blogging. I have been in the Middle East for twelve days now—in 30 minutes it will be thirteen days. Despite my failure to start writing upon (or even before, for those truly reflective thoughtful types) my arrival, perhaps all is not lost yet. In an attempt to salvage this process, I have generated below is what I find to be a reasonably organized introduction and account of what I have experienced to date. Insha’allah more posts at regular intervals will follow.  And maybe once my residual jet-lag / general exhaustion subside, I’ll have fewer obscenely long, run-on sentences that will surely irk some of my readers who prefer more succinct summaries.

 

Who I Am, What I’m Doing

My name is Grace, and I’m beginning a 10-month Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Amman, Jordan. I just graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a degree in International Studies, Spanish, and Arabic. I did very little with my life this summer and it was marvelous. However, I’ve had a mounting craving for some structure, which will soon be sated when I begin teaching at the Jubilee School, a special public school funded by Queen Noor’s Foundation located on the outskirts of the city. I arrived in Amman on the 30th of August, flew out to Lebanon for six days for a wedding and family visit, then returned on the 6th of September.

 

An Amman Arrival

So I flew in almost two weeks ago into Queen Alia International Airport. From my tearful farewell to Granny, Mom, and Dad, I bounced from Pcola to ATL to Chi-town enjoying a number of extensive layovers and security checkpoints, having made a rather logistically poor but perhaps more economical decision to buy separate tickets and therefore having to check my bags several different times. I did, however, have the distinct pleasure of meeting up with the illustrious Jen Ghandhi (PHOTO) in Chicago to share my last beer and meal of pork for some time. The evening soured slightly after Jen left, when a surly Royal Jordanian clerk forced me to check one of my carry-ons, apparently overweight, for a nauseating fee of $100. I arrived in Amman the next day around 6 PM, breezing through passport check and customs to be greeted by the ebullient Fulbright driver. I exercised my extremely rusty pidgin Arabic with the friendly chatty driver and snapped a few photos coming into southern Amman. I then stayed one night in the Qasr-Metropole Hotel, a pretty ritzy joint arranged by Fulbright in the Shmeisani neighborhood. After joining my dear friend Adamwho has lived in Amman for almost two years now for some pizza and arguile in the bustling Jebel al-Webdey neighborhood, I succumbed to exhaustion and passed out spectacularly with my clothes still on back at the hotel.

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Aloo Beirut (and Saida and Ehden)

The next morning, I was jarred from my jet-lag addled slumber to head back to the airport to fly out to Beirut on Middle Eastern Airlines. I was a touch apprehensive about this airline, as neither I nor anyone I knew had taken it before, but it turned out to be an immensely pleasant 45 minute flight with a drink, meal, and movies available. I’m really of the increasingly strong opinion that airlines in the US should take a leaf out of the book of such airlines. I was picked up at the airport by Walid, the dad of my close friend from high school Ayesha, and his childhood chum Ahmad.  The day was whirlwind and incredible. After dining sumptuously at Walid’s sister’s home in Saida ,I met up with my former Arabic FLTA and friend Dima  before heading on a tour of southern Lebanon with Walid and Ahmad. We bombed around Tyre and perused the ruins there . While the area is primarily known for the Roman city and coliseum, evidence of prehistoric activity in the form of flint tools dating back to the Neolithic age have been found as well. On our drive back to Saida, we dropped in on Ibrahim, Walid’s oldest brother and father of the guy getting married, Ala’. Ibrahim, who owns and operates a dairy farm with wildly amazing views of the lively topography of southern Lebanon, was just turning the corner on his tractor when we cruised up. I instantly felt a pang for my own bucolic background. We met Ibrahim’s family and then set about touring Ala’s posh new house, recently constructed next to his parents’, for himself and his soon-to-be bride.

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Following a number of earth-shattering meals at Fatima’s house:

and the arrival of some lovely girls (more family from Dubai—Rawan, Nadine, and Rind, cousins of the groom for the wedding, we caravanned off to the bride’s village in the mountains on Thursday night for what could be considered the equivalent to the rehearsal dinner. But it was infinitely more bumpin’ dance party than anything else. In the shadow of the bride’s uncle’s opulent villa, a crowd of family, friends, neighbors, and one typically underdressed yet delighted Arabophile milled about. The ceremony involves an entering of the bride and groom (which had to be repeated because the groom’s family [us] arrived so late and missed it). Afterwards, amidst a fascinating cocktail of raucous Arabic music, European trance, and house music, the bride and groom are hoisted on chairs / the shoulders of their friends and bobbed around as everyone dances around them. I was thrilled that I got to show off my debke skills, which entailed a great deal of lurching and stumbling as I tried and failed to keep my balance sporting high wedge heels on the uneven, treacherous cobblestone. It was basically too much fun

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The next evening, the wedding itself took place. Rind and I got our hair done earlier in the day, so I went to this event with much more confidence that I would blend in a bit more in with the Lebanese luxe. Sure enough, however, my khaki garden dress looked mildly comical next to the immensely sparkly floor-length ball gowns and sleek suits. One quite nice-looking guy was whimsically sporting red Converses, but everything else was glitz and glam. The wedding was held at this massively beautiful beach resort. We were treated to this really interesting show of a singer and a number of back up girls…SO different from American weddings…there really aren’t words…fireworks, sparklers, etc. Arab weddings are just so much more profound.

    

Okay, I’m wearing down, will finish the Lebanon chronicling at some other juncture.

Lovelovelove