Dear Amman

January 21st, 2020 by weaverka

Now that I have left you, I have realized how much I love you. It’s like when they pave paradise to put up a parking lot, which is basically what has happened to you. You used to be a city of “mountains and rivers,” referred to even as Philadelphia (city of brotherly love/friendship) way back in the day. But now, you have grown tremendously in even just the last 10 years. There is no more water. Your population now makes up half the population of the entire country of Jordan. You house the poor and the rich. You house so many people who don’t actually belong to you.

You don’t really have any sidewalks. Or public transportation. But your taxi drivers know your roads, highways, and side streets like the back of their leathery hands.

You are wild. That’s how I described you when people asked, and it is how I will continue to describe you. You are so wild. There’s a night life, but it’s secret and you have to know people to get in and wear modest clothing over your “going out” outfit. There’s a strong visible presence of Islam, with so many small signs declaring God as great, or the only god, or forgiving all along your streets. And in your streets, no one follows any of the traffic laws. Honking, hand-signs, and eye-contact serve in place of stop signs and turn signals. Your people greet each other with kisses. They offer each other respect, blessings for every little interaction and service. People spend days undoing the most well-done plans, and your old men sit outside shops drinking coffee, talking politics, and twirling their prayer beads.

Oh what a life.

My favorite part about you were rides within the downtown area, from Rainbow Street to Jabal Al-Webdieh, when the road would dip into the valley where Wassat Al-Balad (downtown) lived and then climb up into the newly gentrified part of town and arts district (Webdieh). It was in those rides that your old glory could be seen, where I could count your four mountains and take in the tan houses that went on forever into the desert.

You were hard. You were welcoming and excluding all at the same time. You made me tough. You made me cry. You made me feel beautiful. You made me a new kind of brave. You made me wild too.

Coldplay debuted their newest album on a rickety stage on your highest historical site, the Citadel. They played one show at sunrise and one at sunset, but few of your people were able to buy tickets. The plague of “wassta” (connections, in a negative way) that rule your government and businesses struck again, allowing only the rich (most from the Gulf) to access what your laypeople first desired.

But, some good came from it. Although I did not get tickets to the concert, the event encouraged me to listen to Coldplay’s new album, and I found the song that reminds me of you. We can call it our song, if you’d like.

In “Orphans,” I hear the horns of your taxi drivers and a familiar Arabian rhythm in the background. The song asks when can I go back and get drunk with my friends? When can I go back and feel young again? When can I go back and feel home again?

I would listen to this song and feel understood. I often felt so constrained in you, Amman, like most of my daily choices were not in my hands. Like I wasn’t ever completely free. There was a tension I carried upon my shoulders for months with you. And often, I just wanted to go home.

On my second to the last night, you sang me “songs by the light of the moon” as I gazed at your Citadel on the hill and listened to “Orphans” again. I used to listen to our song when I felt trapped in you, now I listen to it when I miss you and everything about our life together.

But now that I have left you, the song has taken on new meaning. I have realized the unique loves and friendships that I had. I long for your people, my people, your mountains, your familiar noise, your nights that never ended, and your days that drug by. I see my time with you as one of the most adventurous, challenging, and wild times of my life.

Thank you, my dear Amman. I will return one day, wallahi (I swear).

Inshallah (God willing)

Love,

-Kendall

I’m Every Woman

January 21st, 2020 by weaverka

This is a brief reflection on being a woman in an Arab country. It in no way claims to contain every perspective or give a holostic view of what it is like to be a woman in an Arab country/culture. These are stories told to me and my story. And now that the disclaimer is over…

I got “cat-called” six times in a span of an hour last night. Walking to the gym from work and then back home. All in all, a 55 minute walk. One man even stopped, rolled down his window and meowed at me. Yes. I said he meowed at me. He was pretty shocked when my response was to practically spit a curse back at him in Arabic. But, I’d been practicing that one for a while.

When I asked my program director in Amman why I got placed with a host family the exact opposite of what I had requested, she told me that it was because I needed to be in a “special,” safer neighborhood. Why? Because I have blonde hair and blue eyes. I would argue now that although I do tend to get a little more attention on the street, I don’t think my hair and eyes put me in too much more “danger” than my brunette counterparts.

It was so funny to me, as someone whose hair is never quite blonde enough and whose eyes are never quite blue enough in the US, to be credited with looking like Barbie, a beauty queen, a “real American girl” while in the Arab world, and receiving more male attention than I ever had in my life. I don’t think it ever had to do with me being especially pretty, but more that I was simply different.

It was not until 5 weeks into my time in Amman that I realized why I felt so uncomfortable walking down the street or going to the grocery store. It was because there were barely any women. Most women in Jordan would stay in their homes, having their sons or husbands fetch the groceries or run errands. When I walked on the street, I was surrounded by people, but not just people. I was surrounded by men. It took me a while to feel comfortable walking around town. Not only was I usually the only blonde-haired, blue-eyed one out, but I was also the only woman.

I felt like all eyes were on me, and I hated it. Eventually, though, I learned to embrace this, thanks to some advice from my Palestinian/American/Jordanian host-cousin. I either kept my eyes straight ahead and pretended the men around me didn’t exist, or I would greet those around me with a smile and break the ice a bit. It all depended on how I felt and how I assessed the situation.

One of my dear local friends in Jordan described feeling similarly as an Arab woman within a society that has certain expectations for her. She shared that her father’s family is constantly asking when she is going to get married (she is 23) and why she wants to go to university and get a job instead of getting married and having children. “For some women,” she said, “this is good, and one day I want a family too. But first I want my freedom. I want to choose my life’s path for myself. But here, in Jordan, I feel like I cannot. Everyone is judging what I wear, how I act, if I work, if I marry, where I go. Someone is always watching you. And it is like this for many women here. We don’t have the freedom you have.”

In Palestine, I have felt more comfortable, partially because of my growth in Amman, but also because there are more women out and about here than there were in Jordan. I have no idea why this is, but it would be interesting to look into later, and I am very thankful for all my ladies taking on the town.

The other day, I walked into the office of a local NGO for an interview to find the secretary wrestling with her hijab (the headscarf women wear to cover their hair). This was odd, because most women I know who are covered (another term for wearing hijab) would only adjust their head scarves in a private room, away from public eyes (mainly the eyes of men). I guess the secretary saw my quizzical look because she began explaining the situation to me.

She had grown up in a “modern” family that allowed her and her sisters to wear what they wanted. She had never worn the hijab until recently, after her marriage to a man from a more traditional family. She said, “He did not make me wear it, I chose to begin wearing it.” But then in the same breath said her husband had persuaded her to wear it, since now she is a married woman and it is improper to show her hair in public. I didn’t know what to think of the situation. I could only give reassuring words that I was not judging her or her husband and that yes, I would be frustrated by that thing right now too, and but oh habibti you do look beautiful, don’t worry.

There were many friends of mine in Amman who hated wearing hijab. One friend told me her father often complained to her mother about how she was dressing, that it was not suitable for a young woman to wear such clothes. Many women shared that they had to wear hijab to please their husband or their parents.

But, there’s also the other end of the spectrum. My host mom came from a very “modern” and liberal Muslim family. She did not wear hijab until she was in her mid-forties. My host mother had a spiritual crisis, in which she felt she needed to know The Truth. So she read all three of the Holy Books, the Hebrew Torah, the Christians’ New Testament, and the Qu’ran, and asked God to show her which was true. She felt, in the end, that the Qu’ran was true, and decided that if she was going to say to God, this is the way and truth you are giving me, she needed to commit herself to it fully. So, she began praying five times a day, reading the Qu’ran regularly, and wearing hijab.

Her family members think it’s strange, and say openly that they wish she did not wear it. To them, she’s crazy to choose to be covered.

So, please do not think that all women who wear hijab are being forced to. But please do think about the expectations you put on the women in your own life. Think about the expectations your culture puts upon the women in your life.
-To look a certain way
-To dress a certain way
-To serve a certain way
-To worship God a certain way
-To live a certain life (career, goals, relationships, family life, etc.)

And think carefully about the words you give the women in your life, especially regarding their choices. Are your words life-giving? Do they affirm her as someone who is strong, capable, and beautiful in her own way?

I was blessed to grow up in a family where I was given this affirmation. I would say that in general, my host family in Jordan gave me a similar love. And I would also say that it has served me well as a woman, here and at home.

Love,

-KK

To all the taxi drivers I’ve ever loved before

January 21st, 2020 by weaverka

I think we can all agree that “To all the boys I’ve loved before” was a chick-flick with some beautiful truths. Writing letters have been my love language for a while now. To me, they epitomize the idea of letting people know that you love them, especially when you know the relationship is a temporary one, or nearing its end. In the very transient nature of college years, I’ve written many a love letter to people I knew I would most likely never get to see again. People I loved deeply and truthfully for a season, and wanted them to know how deeply they were loved before we parted ways.

I learned it’s ok to momentarily fall in love with strangers through a memoir by Hannah Brencher, who found her purpose while writing love letters to strangers in New York City (my fav book of all time, If You Find This Letter). Sometimes strangers offer you pieces of their hearts through their eyes, smile, or kind words; and I think it’s good to let people know when you’re grateful or when you love them. And it’s ok to fall in love fast.

Sadly, I never got the chance to write love letters to all the men who made my morning commute one of my favorite things about Amman. The men who offered me kindness through their smiles, jokes, ability to avoid traffic, Arabic lessons, and stories. These are some of those stories.

To Bilal, who I forcefully gave my phone number at the end of our ride so that I could tutor him in English. Which, I only did once, on a Wednesday night at Mind Hub Coffee Shop for two hours. It gave me such joy to teach you, but I never did it again. Forgive me, Bilal, for not helping you more.

To Mohammed, the 55 year-old man who made me and my friend Layla sing to Whitney Houston’s “And I Will Always Love You” with the windows down in rush hour traffic. He said, “I don’t know what she is saying, but I love this song.”

To the amazing old man with the nasty taxi who agreed to take all five of my friends across town for no extra charge on a Thursday night (this was a miracle people, believe me).

To Bashir, you said you were from a Bedouin tribe, and then launched into an abstinence talk (completely in Arabic…surprisingly easy to follow), which took up most of our 20 minute ride to my school. You told me that if I wanted to marry a Muslim man, I can’t have sex before I’m married, or even when I’m engaged. It’s just not right, it’s against the Quran. You were very glad to hear that I had never had a boyfriend (lol), and bragged about how beautiful and strong your wife is. You two had just had a baby boy, who you showed me many pictures of. At the beginning of the ride, you asked my name. I told you “Kendall, like *insert Arabic word for candle*.” You said, “This will not do. In my tribe, when there is a woman who is beautiful, kind, and brave like you, we name her Filaa.” The rest of the sex talk and chat about your family was punctuated by pauses in which you would ask, “What is your name?” I would answer, “Filaa!” and you would yell “Yes! Excellent!”

To Mohanned, you had a story similar to many of the men who drove me around this fall. You have a good job with a steady paycheck, but it is not enough, so you work during the day and drive Uber at night. Just like Ali, whose taxi was the sketchiest I ever entered (I swear the axle wasn’t all one part), but was a saving grace after one of the hardest and yet sweetest days I had in Amman. Ali hand-rolled a cigarette in his left hand while steering with his right; I felt perfectly safe. During the day, Ali is a school bus driver and Mohanned is a secret service agent for the Jordanian royal family.

To Ahmed, You picked me up at 5 PM on a Thursday, which was a mistake since everyone goes out for drives on Thursday nights. What should have been a 18 minute ride turned into a 42 minute one, but neither of us cared. You somehow understood my broken Arabic, and bolstered my confidence by not switching to English the entire ride, although you easily could have. You wanted so badly to learn English that you studied 6 hours a day but couldn’t find a language partner, which made it difficult to learn. Everything within me wanted to volunteer as your language partner, but I knew my remaining month wasn’t enough time. When I asked you why you wanted to learn English, you gave me the answer nearly every Arab man I met did, “Opportunity.” You said you just wanted to be able to work in even a coffee shop or restaurant, but needed better English to do so.

To Mohammed, who laughed when I asked his name and said “Guess!”(I guessed right). You made the near-hour long drive from my aunt’s house so much fun as we talked about life, the economy, the rich and poor, and bopped to your workout playlist. You graduated at the top of your class in Civil Engineering and you have your masters degree, but you can’t find related work in Jordan. Instead you wake up at 6:30 and drive Uber from 7 AM- 7 PM before you go to the gym for an hour and continue bopping to your workout playlist.

To Zaade, the first man to teach me the Arabic alphabet. You made me repeat it after you a dozen times on our 45 minute drive (again, tried to go out on a Thursday night, like the fool I am). At the end of the ride, you thanked me, saying that talking with me had made the time pass so quickly.

To Mahar, the young doctor who can’t find a job so he works at an insurance agency part time and drives for Careem part time. Within minutes of getting into the car, Mahar dropped the f-bomb three times and let me know that he had 5 shots of whiskey to get warm the night before and had woken up hungover before coming to pick me up. I said, “Should I be concerned? Should you be driving?” He just laughed and then told me he was a doctor while lighting cigarette #2. “We all have our vices,” he said. Mahar stood out to me because his English was full of familiar slang. He spoke English much more casually than most Arabs. “I watch a lot of movies and YouTube, and all my med school text books were in English. That’s why.” He said.

And to Yousef, my first real taxi driver during my second week in Amman. When I imagined my time in Amman, I really thought I would be able to walk most places and take the bus when it was too far to walk. I was severely disappointed to learn the first day that I would have to take taxis and Ubers in order to get anywhere. I hated getting in the back of strangers’ cars, especially when we would sit in silence the entire ride. I was not yet confident enough in my Arabic to start conversations, and most Uber drivers were young men. They did not want to bother me as their passenger and risk losing 5 star rating. I hated travelling…until Yousef. He didn’t speak a lick of English, but had kind eyes and a generous smile. He asked me how I was and when I answered “tired” in Arabic, his face lit up. We then spent the ride playing a little game. He would ask me questions in Fusha and then teach me how to answer them in Aamiya, making me repeat the lines over and over again until I sounded like him, clapping when I finally got it right. I emerged from that taxi a much more confident woman. He taught me that maybe transportation in Amman didn’t have to be such a miserable part of life there for me.

It’s funny reflecting now…one of my main complaints about Amman early on was that I had to take Careems, Ubers, and taxis everywhere…by the second to the last month, it was one of my favorite parts about life in Amman. Praise God.

That leads me to my last (well second-to-the-last) taxi ride in Amman. I don’t know your name, but I got into your taxi at the First Circle, after saying goodbye to all my friends. It was my last day in Amman, and I was heading home to pack and spend my last few hours with my host family. As soon as I stepped into your taxi, I knew something was up. After the usual chit-chat, you began explaining that you wanted an American wife and you loved America, which were common comments. The way you were looking at the space between my legs in the review mirror as you made those comments however, was not. But this was supposed to be my last taxi ride in Amman, and I was not going to let my favorite Jordan activity end on a bad note. So I commanded you (in Arabic) to stop the car. I said I was done, I’d find a different taxi, and I did. I also found something I had already kind of known. Taking taxis in Amman had made me brave. Brave, strong, and maybe a little street smart. I speak my best Arabic in the back of a cab.

Love,

Filaa

You got somewhere better to be?

January 21st, 2020 by weaverka

I don’t think I ever met someone who wasn’t trying to get out of Jordan, or had not lived outside of Jordan before.

The country of Jordan is beautiful, a shelter in the storm that is the Middle East. It has everything, a massive, modern city, a quiet countryside, rich historical sites, and plenty of Nutella-themed desserts. Jordanian people are hailed as some of the most welcoming in the world. At first, I thought maybe this was simply an Arab attribute, and in someways, I still think it is. At the very least, Jordanian hospitality was easy to recognize.

Ahalan wa Sahlan (Welcome) is a phrase any visitor to Jordan will hear about 100,000,003 times. As soon as you tell a Jordanian where you are from, they will “ahlan wa sahlan” you…and then they will continue to repeat the phrase throughout your conversation.

Taxi drivers say it. Grandmothers say it when you ask them for directions. Security guards say it when you ask them to take your phone and tell your Uber driver how to find you outside of City Mall. Grocery store owners say it when they hand you your change. Shabab (young men) say it when you walk down the street.
*This is another kind of welcoming, not exactly the kind any girl desires; but it can be amusing, especially when you turn around in the middle of Rainbow Street, look them in the eyes, open your arms wide and shout back “Yes, I am welcome in Jordan!” in Arabic.

What can I say? It was my last week in Amman, I felt I had nothing to lose.

Many of the humanitarians that I met with in Jordan cited this welcoming spirit as for why Jordan has continuously taken in refugees, especially Syrian refugees.

First it was the Palestine refugees, then the Iraqis, then the Syrians, along with scattered groups of Sudanese and Somalian refugees. The state of Jordan seems to always say, “Ahlan wa Sahlan.” The Jordanian humanitarians acted as if receiving these vast numbers of people was a simple choice, and the decision was made based upon this culture of hospitality. In the early days of the Syrian crisis, when there were no UN-built camps, Jordanians near the Northern borders took Syrians into their own homes. Similar to when Palestinians were first driven from their land in 1948, many believed the Syrians would be able to return after a week or two once things settled down.

It has been nearly 8 years.

And now Jordan is struggling to maintain its welcome amidst failing infrastructure, one of the worst water scarcities in the world, and the increasing discontent of its residents.

There were quite a few protests while I was in Amman. I would receive a notification of the time, place, and reason for the protest via a study abroad safety app Wofford made us sign up for. Since it is difficult to avoid the main thoroughfares of Amman (the 8 circles, look ’em up), I typically found myself in a taxi or Uber, driving by the protests…or at least what were supposed to be the protests. The main protests I heard about were a teachers’ strike, along with calls for better economic opportunities, more democracy, and more respect of human rights. I never actually saw the protests; instead I saw armored vehicles and police officers who arrived before the protesters could. Now, don’t go thinking Jordan is some oppressive regime, because it is not. But, this is just one of the stark differences between a monarchy and a democracy. In the US, protests are celebrated and fairly normal; that is not the case here.

I have had 4 Arabic classes, with four different teachers, three in Amman and one in the US, that all revolved around immigration and the reasons for immigrating. To say immigration and seeking asylum are important topics in the Middle East would be an understatement. Jordan is a country where 1 in 4 of its citizens are of Palestinian descent. It is currently home to 1.4 million registered Syrian refugees.

It is the safe haven everyone wants to get out of.

Most of my friends in Jordan, whether young Syrian refugees, Jordanian men who went to college in the US or Canada, young Jordanians with masters’ degrees, successful dentists, doctors, and entrepreneurs, mothers of marrying-age men, Sudanese refugees, or my many taxi and Uber drivers; all were hoping to immigrate. The reasons were always employment and freedom, and the opportunities that would arise from those two.

This is why I say I never met anyone who was not trying to get out of Jordan. Most everyone I spoke to would say they were trying to get a visa to study or work in another country, or they were encouraging their children to do so. Many of the fathers and husbands of the host families I interacted with were working in Saudi Arabia or the US because they could not find good jobs in Jordan.

Two friends told me they wanted to leave because they saw no future in Amman for themselves and their families. As Syrian women, they could not work in their specialized fields since the government has only approved a few sectors to employ Syrians. Both hold non-skilled jobs in Amman, and are grateful for them, since this is a rare occurrence. Still, their eyes are ahead, hoping for opportunities to leave Jordan and seek a better life elsewhere.

Sadly, other countries are not as “ahlan wa sahlan” as Jordan. Still, the grass seems, and in many ways is, greener on the other side, wherever that side may be. For right now, it seems Jordan will continue to struggle and its residents will continue to look for somewhere better to be.

Take care Wofford,

Kendall

The wind goes where the boat wants it

December 1st, 2019 by weaverka

Thank God my friend Melissa is a psychology major.

We are beginning week three of my study abroad program’s independent research portion, meaning my days are no longer set by classes and controlled by the chaos that was the SIT office. Rather, they begin with two hours of Arabic tutoring in the local dialect and then are framed by interviews with humanitarian aid organizations and trips to cafes.

In all honesty, my research is going well. Organizations have been very welcoming and responsive, which is the opposite of what I was told to expect. My questions are being answered and the ball is rolling.

Still, I have no idea how to conduct research. I spent all of yesterday trying to find sources for my literature review that would help me format questions and analyze my qualitative date. Nothing. So then I desperately tried to re-word and re-work my research proposal into a question not only worth answering, but one that could guide my interviews in a more purposeful direction.

But this was to no avail.

Finally, discouraged and encouraged all at the same time, I walked 15 minutes from the cafe I had planted myself at for 6 hours to the cafe my friends were working at. And I told Melissa I was worried I would not have anything of worth to bring back to Wofford.

She put on her psych-major pants and in under 10 minutes gave me some steps I could use to code my interview questions and answers, and helped me brainstorm some new key words for my research question. Now I’m getting somewhere.

an example of Amman’s graffiti, which celebrates its diversity

The five of us went on a 2-hour long walking graffiti tour of Amman as our weekend activity this past Friday. The group was about 12 foreigners and led by a former refugee and mechanical engineer turned full-time hip-hop street performer, Aladdin.

Aladdin (pronounced ala-deen, meaning he who rises to the higher religion) is the son of an imam who has chosen his own destiny. That sounds excessive, but it is so true of this man. Aladdin was an early member of the hip-hop culture here in Amman (a story of art very similar to that of hip hop’s early days in the US…except hip hop here is still up-and-coming). He and his friends would perform (rap, beat-box, break-dance, graffitti) in stairways because they could see who was coming and going. If they saw someone who would tell their parents about their art, they would run.

At first, Aladdin’s street performing angered his father, because just like preacher’s kids in the south, there are certain community expectations for the behavior of an imam’s son. But over time, with much grace and patience, Aladdin convinced his family of the beauty of hip-hop as an art form and lifestyle.

One of our stops during the tour was a spray-painted popular Arabic poem at the beginning of a stairwell. But the first line was missing. The first line is so well-known, and said so frequently in Jordanian culture that it wasn’t worth mentioning…it tells you to give up on your dreams when things don’t go as plan, obviously it’s just not your destiny.

“The wind does not go where the boat wants.”

But, that line was missing. The rest of the poem that was in bright red on the cracking stone wall speaks hope to the soul. It tells that actually, you’re not just the boat. You’re the waves. And the wind. And the rudder.

Thus, the wind does in fact go where the boat wants.

Especially if you have friends in the boat with you helping steer and row in the right direction.

My research is gonna go where this little boat wants it.

P.S. There are some beautiful humans in the art community of Amman. I’ll share more about them and the unique space they occupy later.

Take care Wofford,

Kendall