Ramadan, Syria, and Language Exchange

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The period of time in which I have come to Jordan could not have been better – it overlaps with the holy month of Ramadan. This is a time of spiritual reflection and increased worship for the Muslims. Furthermore, in accordance with the Five Pillars of Islam, it is also a time for fasting, or sawm (صوم‎). While the practice of fasting is hardly exclusive to the Muslims, the state religion is Islam so businesses comply with legal restrictions on when to be open. Places where food is sold are closed from dawn to sunset, and the police will give a light tap on the shoulder for anyone who eats or drinks in public. I view the overlap between my visitation and the month of Ramadan quite positively because I get to attend the late night festivities; I get to hear the firecrackers go off in the evenings; I get to see beautiful sparkling lanterns and lights in the shape of crescent moons; I get to taste foods characteristic of the time of year such as the apricot drink known as qamar al-din (قمر الدين). Similar to the reunion dinner of Lunar New Year celebrations, the fast-breaking meal that occurs at sunset is a time for family togetherness and communal camaraderie. I probably will not be able to experience this myself because my host family is Christian, but I can still listen to wonderful stories from my colleagues who stay in Muslim households.

I can only express my greatest condolences to those who are unable to take part in Ramadan because of ongoing civil conflict. I have in my mind the Syrian men and women who were forced to starve even before the month began because of food shortages. It is quite difficult to set up the decorations for Ramadan festivities when one’s neighborhood is being constantly shelled. I have had the honor of listening to a local Syrian refugee in Amman talk about how the war in Syria is affecting his personal life. Because of the issue of Syrian escapees being sent back to Syria by Arab countries, including Jordan, he was only able to stay here because of his mother’s Jordanian ancestry. He told me about how his mother and son are still in Damascus, and about how he is studying to enter university in the United Kingdom. He intends to apply for his family to seek asylum there, but the problem is the three month waiting period after acceptance. Three months is a long time to wait, and with escalating bloodshed constantly threatening civilians, the situation seems dire for him. Nightmares about his family members plague his sleep, and he showed me the Duloxetine that he regularly takes because of his anxiety problems. After talking about everything ranging from the slitting of throats of Sunni Muslim children to the experience of being shot in the hip by soldiers who guffaw at such pain, my Syrian friend pointed out an interesting irony. He sees people like me and my colleagues at the Ali Baba International Center come to Jordan, visit tourist attractions, and eat luxurious sweets and wonders “What are you people doing here? I am trying to do everything I can to get out of here, yet there are all these people who are regularly doing the opposite.”

It was definitely a depressing experience hearing him out – dare I say that the more I hear about the Syrian conflict, the more my faith in humanity decreases? I needed a relief for my brain and my heart, and thankfully, the Center provided me with just that. A language partner from the University of Jordan was assigned to me; she and I both agreed to meet regularly each week in order to exchange language experience. For a set amount of time, she would help me with my Arabic and likewise for her and English. Each meeting would be a relief for my brain, because I got to take a break from long drills and textual memorization to apply what I learned in a real-world context. Each meeting would be a relief for my heart, because I got to view the smile of someone passionately committed to a mutual relationship of linguistic improvement, a student like myself with whom I could personally relate. In my opinion, the language partner program is definitely a worthwhile project in which I get to assist a local community member with her own goals – a community member in more than one sense of the word, since we both belong to the community of undergraduate students and the community of language learners. I remember on our first meeting, when we were initially discussing the schedule, we exchanged names in our own languages. She showed me the Arabic and the English transliteration. I told her my English name and mentioned that I usually do not tell my Chinese name because people usually struggle to pronounce it. When she had me write down my Chinese name in Chinese characters, she asked that I pronounce it. I wrote down in pÄ«nyÄ«n transcription of my name in Mandarin as well as the closest approximation of a transliteration for my name in my native dialect, and when I pronounced both of them, she laughed. She commented on how difficult it must be to learn Chinese, but I assured her that several linguistic characteristics make it easier to learn for native English speakers than other languages. In the end, we wrapped up our initial meeting quickly, exchanged phone numbers, and left with a fursa sa’eeda (Ùرصة سعيدة), or Nice to meet you.

A final observation: Every day since I got here, I hear a truck every evening passing by the house with music playing. The music I heard seemed similar to the kind of music I heard in my hometown when an ice cream truck passed by. Whenever I heard this music, I knew an ice cream truck was in the vicinity. Up to now, I had assumed that it was the same situation in Jordan based on the similarity between the musical tracks. I never got the chance to run outside and see for myself, but according to my instructor, the trucks that play that music are actually gas dispensers; they drive around loaded with containers of propane, distributing them to drivers who need them. Imagine the disappointment if I heard what I thought to be ice cream truck music, ran outside eager to satiate my sweet tooth, and see instead a bunch of rusty canisters of propane!