The Ali Baba Center truly is an international location. I have had the pleasure of meeting students from Hungary, Luxembourg, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and France. What these students all have in common is a passion for Arabic language and culture; all of them were willing to pay to come to Jordan and immerse themselves in the local environment. While some of us were placed in different classes based on our prior skill levels, we all have a shared understanding of the importance of understanding this region’s language. While our ages range from 15 to over 28, we all know the value of experiential learning. I am definitely happy to be in a group with such a diversity of similarities and differences. I knew this as soon as class began at 11:00 am on Sunday.
My favorite beneficial aspect of my class is the extent to which my instructor tailors the course content to whatever the class is interested in. She is constantly interested in what she can add, what she can change, and what she can do to facilitate our learning. Based on the most current syllabus, we will be studying some fairly specialized topics, including Arab marriage customs, religion, women’s issues, and conspiracy theories. Of course, emphases on grammar will be thrown in here and there as necessary. The instructor recently complimented me on how well I did on the preliminary assessment of grammatical knowledge; apparently I am a bit ahead of everyone else in my class when it comes to grammar. She did the same thing with regards to my essays. In any case, I do not intend on letting anything get to my ego – I am here to challenge myself. For this reason, I usually spend my afternoons after class studying with friends, including a local Syrian man who we met, in the local café. Our study sessions are permeated by the usual sights, smells, and sounds of Amman – a dense fog in the air from ever abundant nearby smokers; a combination of honks, arm waving, rooftop sitting from groups of cars passing by, signaling someone’s graduation from university; noticeable kisses on the cheeks between several men or several women greeting each other behind us; the call to prayer that booms out of the loudspeakers of the local minaret (a sound that acts as my early morning waker-upper); citizens riding donkeys carrying goods from place to place on the road. Yes, this was the municipality that I had quickly become used to.
“When in Jordan, do as the Jordanians do” – the wisdom of cultural adaptability; I bought a light cotton robe that extended to my ankles called a thawb (Ø«ÙˆØ¨) and, of course, the characteristic headdress that is used to protect the head against the blazing sun rays. In this culture, haggling with small store owners is the norm and time is better spent getting to know others than rushing to be at scheduled events on the dot. Therefore, I spent a good chunk of time ambulating around the marketplace downtown, or the souq (Ø³ÙˆÙ‚). I saw a great variety of merchandise and a great variety of prices; sometimes the shop next door sold the exact same item for a significantly lower initial cost. Everything in the open-air market is always much cheaper than the equivalent goods sold at tourist centers, and store owners do not have much of a problem with opening packages in order to let prospective customers judge product quality for themselves. Surprisingly few were pushy to me and my friends, and I appreciated this. I prefer the store owner who takes a step back and allows me to make observations first. The store owners I interacted with were nothing like those I met in China, who would follow me and make flattering comments if not run up and grab me by the arm. Of course, niceness can go hand in hand with necessity. As an anti-pickpocketing measure, I tried to keep my hands in my pockets as much as possible so that I could feel my hard cash. Interestingly, I never gave much thought to it until my friend pointed out how my pants could work against me in crowded places. Aside from the shops, there were a few nearby religious centers where tourists were allowed. Unfortunately, the King Abdullah I Mosque was closed in preparation for Friday so my colleagues and I could not enter to view the interior. We could only visit an Eastern Orthodox church which was down the street. As we approached, we saw men in tuxedos standing outside, chatting in colloquial Arabic. I wondered why they were dressed so fancily, but I found out the answer along with my friends as we entered the main door; we had walked in on someone’s wedding preparations. The interior was marvelously gorgeous – there were colorful images of Jesus Christ everywhere; sculpted crosses with Arabic script beneath them; lots of gold and lots of mosaics. We tried practicing our Arabic, chatting with some of the women in attendance but most of them replied in English. They seemed very courteous and consistently smiled at us, curiously asking about our backgrounds and why we were in Jordan. I got the feeling that it would have been perfectly acceptable with them to sit in during the wedding ceremony, that guests from the outside would be able to come and go as they please without any sort of “stranger danger” feeling. This was a completely different feeling from what I was used to in the United States, where exact numbers of wedding guests would be recorded and their seats assigned. This was Arab culture.
The international center also organizes trips to local cultural sites. This weekend, we traveled to the archaeological site at Petra, where we traveled on horseback through the blazing heat to see the beautiful ruins of a civilization long forgotten. I only rode on the horse once since the asking price was a bit high, and the heat did not put me in the mood for vehement bargaining. That said, I did my share of argumentation with the street vendors; by the end of the day, my backpack was filled with plush camels, and in my pocket were a stone necklace and a coin supposedly from two thousand years before the birth of Jesus Christ. One was from a sweet Bedouin lady whose companions offered my group hot tea (in the hot sun) as we sat down to chat. It was the first time I stopped to sit and drink with a shopkeeper, so it was an interesting experience hearing her background and story. Someone from my group even received her phone number so that they could hang out next week in her abode. Other experiences there included the rather frequent question of my ethnicity: at multiple points during my travels here, I have been poked randomly by the question, “Are you Japanese?” or by “Are you Korean?”. I usually just smile and clarify my Chinese background, sometimes then replying to inquiries about differences in difficulty between learning Arabic and learning Chinese. One man burst out laughing for no reason I could think of after I told him that I was Chinese. At Petra, a pair of young Arab guys tried greeting me in Mandarin before asking to take photos of me. Perhaps because of the keffiyeh (ÙƒÙˆÙÙŠØ©), or traditional headdress, that I was wearing they said I seemed to look “so Arab.” I took that as a compliment. In any case, that experience with young Arab guys was more pleasant than the time I walked around the University of Jordan, where a group of seven friendly Jordanian guys decided to spontaneously pull me over and ask questions about whether or not I was circumcised, was a Muslim, or liked sex or women. They also had me join in some dancing to music.
The next day, my colleagues independently organized a more recreationally oriented ride to the Dead Sea, Earth’s lowest point of elevation on land. The sunshine was boiling hot, and the sand sizzled beneath the feet of my poor acquaintance who had forgotten to bring his pair of sandals. It was therefore a smart recommendation for our cab driver to make when he suggested we leave in only two to three hours before the afternoon sun kicked in. After changing into bathing gear, I stepped down into the main beach area and beheld the sight. Across the water, I saw the West Bank; in the water, I saw dense mounds of salt deposits; on the water, I saw bathers, caked in black mud, swimming about. I climbed in and soon knew why many felt it was impossible to drown here. The salt concentration was so high, my foot struggled to touch the sand floor. The friends who had accidentally received a dose of water in their eyes described the experience as sharply painful, something I did not want to know of. I did feel the itches around the few small cuts on my mouth and shoulder – that alone convinced me that the 30 minute rule for Dead Sea swimming was a good one. We soon climbed out and brought our salt covered bodies to the showers for rinsing before relaxing on the beach. My friends later bought a mud spa treatment, where men rub Dead Sea mud all over our skin. Supposedly, there are a variety of therapeutic benefits in the mud, so I went ahead and joined in going from light tan to looking like I had been dipped in black sesame soup. The mud became crusty in twenty minutes, so I washed it off in the Sea. My skin felt like it had become as soft as that of a baby – my colleagues agreed. Around one ‘o clock, the temperature had skyrocketed so we packed our bags and called it a day. It was definitely an unforgettable recreational trip for me.