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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sweet Victory

I can’t explain why exactly, but since I arrived in Jordan I’ve been hooked on soccer. Sure, I like playing the game (I even had a less than mediocre stint on a BYU intramural team last fall), but I’ve never made time to sit down and watch an entire ninety-minute game. Now I watch World Cup games almost nightly. And what’s more is that my support for America is so firm that my heart rate reaches dangerous speeds when they play.

Like most countries in the world, Jordan possesses a much stronger love for soccer than America. The passion of the locals is probably the leading cause of my newfound interest. I’ve watched the games at parties in Amman a couple of times, but usually I watch them in the local youth center right here in Salhiyya. Every night, the village boys, teenagers, and men show up in droves to snag a plastic lawn chair and root for their team of choice beneath the glow of the only wall-mounted flat screen I’ve seen in the Badia. Jordan’s national team didn’t make it to the cup this year, so most people have chosen one of the big teams like Argentina, Brazil, or Spain to support. Because of this phenomenon, both playing teams get some support from the locals in any given match. There has been one game, however, that united the whole village in support for one team and loathing for another: this afternoon’s match between Algeria and the United States.

By the time the game started at 5:00, Cyrus, James, and I had staked our claims on the second row in prime viewing position. The Pan-Arabist sentiments that engendered support for Algeria overcame all but two local men in the entire viewing hall. One was an Egyptian whose bitterness towards the Algerian team made him our greatest ally (On a fluke, Egypt lost to Algeria in a qualifying game sparking riots and shaky political relations between the two countries in the days following). The other was a stranger in a white thobe – perhaps a guardian angel . . . jk.

The cheering and clapping leading up to Algeria’s first failed attempt at a goal was more energetic than any support I’d heard in any other game I’ve been to at the youth center. When America scored what looked like its first goal, the five of us American supporters leapt into the air screaming and clapping until the ref called offside’s and voided the goal. Following the call, the other seventy or so guys in the room clapped and mocked our premature celebration. I knew then that my boys from the States had to win if I didn’t want to go home humiliated in front of my entire village.

At halftime, the score was still zero to zero which got me worrying considerably. If America was to advance to tournament play, they had to win this game, especially since England was simultaneously beating Slovenia. The Algerians had to win if they wanted a chance at all. With such high stakes, the atmosphere became more and more nerve-racking as the match wore on. Every time the Algerians looked like they were going in for a goal, the masses screamed and jumped. And, whenever the Americans were getting ready to score, the skimpy US section cheered amongst the sea of Algerian supporters. Finally, in the ninety-first minute of the game, Donovan scored a goal for America. My four comrades and I went ballistic jumping up and down and even indulging ourselves in blowing the plastic horn I brought for extra effect. In two and a half minutes, the deal was sealed and America had won. To my surprise, many of the staunch Algerian supporters graciously congratulated us on our victory.

In celebration, James and I went to the market and bought a box of date cookies to hand out to passersby. The people here understand that we’re Americans who love our country, so despite fresh wounds they received us well. One of my local buddies who hadn’t been at the game but had heard the news greeted me with congratulations and kisses. Some of the neighborhood kids stopped us on the way home to take pictures after our victory. Indeed, victory is sweet.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Imsik Sharbak

Yes friends, I am the proud possessor of a month-long mustache. This majestic addition to my appearance is beautiful, I know. But don’t be fooled, masculine swank isn’t the only thing this bad boy brings to the table. My mustache’s aesthetic splendor is equaled by its functional utility. Besides serving as the ideal receptacle of savory morsels from meals passed, my mustache gives me Arab street cred.

In the Badia, most men over thirty-five have a mustache. In fact, mustaches have become so culturally valuable that an idiom linked to one’s word of honor has sprung up around them: “Imsak sharbak?,” or “hold your mustache?” The English equivalent is something like “Cross your heart and hope to die?” I figured that I need a mustache to hold in case my honor is ever put into question. Truthfully, most people tell me it looks bad and that I need to get rid of it. So, that’s what’s happening tomorrow morning.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Women and Children

This morning we were invited to a meeting held by Riath (a friend and leader of a local NGO) and Dr. Bader al-Qayd in a remote village West of Sabha only feet from the Syrian border. The women of the area had gathered together to learn about democratic political involvement particularly in the scheduled parliamentary elections of this coming November. Dr. Bader and Riath’s lecture encouraged the women to vote in line with their personal views rather than simply voting according to what their tribes or even husbands supported.

Although Jordan’s political system is leagues ahead of the rest of the Middle East, democracy is still a budding concept here. To see these hijabed Bedouin women gather in a sweltering shack filled with flies to learn about voting was inspiring. Like many American women I know, they are concerned about their communities and want their families’ needs represented in government. One of the women present was the first parliamentary candidate from this region. She came to support and educate her countrywomen. The discussion was in Arabic, so I obviously had some trouble understanding everything. Nonetheless, I sensed that I was witnessing something important.

After the meeting, we strengthened some existing contacts and forged a new one with Ahmed, a representative of an Amman based NGO. Ahmed’s work focuses on human and women’s rights issues. Hopefully we can line up some work with his organization for students next year and possibly even this summer.

Our Rouda’s graduation ceremonies were held today. The Rouda is the UN-funded pre/elementary school that our home base NGO manages. Our young English students performed the dances they’ve been practicing for weeks (including my personal favorite in which the boys, decked out in military apparel and toy machine guns, fire into the crowd in a show of patriotic, albeit violent, fervor). This time they did so in front of sheikhs, government officials, military leaders, and a sea of family members. This graduation was unlike anything I’ve seen in the States. Aside from the several giant posters of King Abdullah II on the walls, the chaotic nature of the whole event made it exotic. At any given moment, the person addressing the crowd probably only possessed ten percent of the attention in the room. Everyone was so noisy and distracted! It was fun to watch.

One moment during the graduation ceremony was particularly memorable. An exceptionally religious-looking man, complete with beard, thob, and skullcap, picked up his little daughter and hugged and kissed her repeatedly after she had received her diploma. His barrage of smiles and congratulations undoubtedly communicated his love for her and showed her how important her education is to him.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Remember, only the penitent man shall pass.

This morning, Abu Ala and the rest of the Gumia held a small ceremony in our upstairs study room where he presented Loren with an award for his service in the Badia. It’s clear to see how much these people love Loren out here. His outgoing personality and his ability to chameleonize into the local mindset endear him to most of the people here. Ralph Brown, his daughter and nephew, and Malcom Botto were also all present at the ceremony.

By noon, we were all off to Amman to begin our three-day vacation through Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba. Our first destination in Amman was the ancient Roman amphitheater near the center of old Amman. It seats six thousand and is still in use today. Afterwards, we checked into our hostel. On the way there, I was reminded of how effectively disorganized traffic is in Amman as our cab driver disregarded lane divisions and blasted through tight squeezes. That night we ate at the falafel and kunafa specialists Hashem’s and Habiba’s. We stayed up late chatting with Jenni’s very Westernized host family.

Waking up at five to get on our three-hour bus ride to Petra was a little rough, but something about seeing limitless barren deserts out either side of the bus is kind of invigorating. It’s hard to believe that even before the ancient Edomites and Ammonites we read of in the Old Testament, people were crossing and inhabiting little pockets of this inhospitable region. Jordanians still do today. As a Las Vegan, I’m really not that different; of course, I demand the comforts of electricity, AC, and automobiles.

Petra itself is astonishing. They call it one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. I can attest that it does not disappoint. This two thousand year old city was constructed by the pre-Islamic Arab traders of the region: the Nabataeans. Carved out of beautiful red sandstone in Greco-Roman style, this hidden city one my heart in Indiana Jones’ Last Crusade. So, seeing it in the flesh was cool to say the least. Contrary to my assumptions, Petra is not one solitary building fa├žade, it is a city complete with suburbs, temples, government buildings, and even a stone carved water pipeline that supplied the city. As I walked through the city, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the ambition of these people.

My favorite spot was the treasury, which is tucked away in the intersection of two narrow sandstone canyons. This is where the Holy Grail was housed for centuries until 1944 when a Nazi sympathizer named Elsa led an unsuccessful expedition to recover it. An unexpected earthquake destroyed much of the inside of the treasury, and the Grail was lost in a crevasse. Elsa was killed and the Nazi’z went home empty handed. The Jordanian authorities have since blocked the treasury’s entrance to keep curious tourists from being decapitated by one of its many booby traps. However, I could still get close enough to the inside to see a mysterious sparkle in the shadows. This undoubtedly came from the chainmail worn by a crusader who continues to guard the Grail’s final resting place deep below the crust of the earth.

By late afternoon, we’d made it to Wadi Rum. The best way I can describe it is Lake Powell with sand instead of water. Wadi Rum is a region of the southern desert where sandstone mountains rise hundreds of meters out of the sand. The climbing was great and the views were spectacular. While hiking, I met this hilarious guy from Amman whose Arabic was impossible for me to understand. I eventually understood his invitation for me to eat with him and the rest of his middle-aged friends who were as crazy as frat house boys. I ended up chatting and dancing with them at our group’s camp for most of the evening (men danced with men and women danced with women). Although we were total strangers and had little in common, these older men invited me to their village for Mansaf, insistently included me in their group, and helped me with my Arabic for the rest of the weekend (we were traveling in a group). Most of the people here are remarkably kind.

The next day, we were in Aqaba, the first Ottoman stronghold that Lawrence and the Arab Revolt took in WWI. The snorkeling was great. The mall was strange – it was filled with only Chinese products and Chinese shopkeepers. The one-mile divide between Aqaba and the Israeli city of Eliat was even stranger. The thin strip of desert between the two cities is a visible reminder of the tension that remains in the region. What happened off the coast of Gaza this morning sparked a demonstration here in Amman, but I’ve encountered no problems. Unlike many Westerners, most of the Arabs I’ve met have the ability to separate their attitudes towards governments from their feelings towards people. No one I’ve met has liked the Bush administration, but all have liked Americans.

Well, I’m excited to get back to work in the Badia. We have some great projects coming our way.