Dancing with No Music

Did I look 10000% like an American while I jammed out to old Matchbox Twenty songs walking to the local Cafe dressed in my college sweatshirt and carrying my book bag? Yes. Yes I did.

But, as I told a Jordanian friend the other day, no matter what I do, everything about this five-foot two blondie screams “I’m not from around here!” So, sometimes you might as well just embrace it (within culturally appropriate limits).

This week was a whirlwind, and spent mostly in Arabic. It is rare for me to really use my language skills. But opportunities presented themselves and I loved it. After Geneva, my friends and I dictated a few goals for ourselves moving forward. Our study abroad program has offered little support as to how to navigate this culture, the language, our homestays, and our research. Still, we are determined to make the best of it in our own way.

My main and connected two goals were to A) Just say “yes” (AKA get out more) and B) Hang out with more Arabs (or at least Arabic speakers).

When my Careem (the Arab Uber) driver whipped out his English textbook and asked me to tutor him weekly, I said yes.
When a Sudanese humanitarian aid worker invited me to a refugee cultural night at the local Jesuit Community Center and drinks with some other refugees after, I said yes.
When my host mom’s best-friend asked me to marry one of her sons, I said….well I said no to that, but I did ask if she would teach me to cook.

Today was the second Friday that I have gone to Mama Sabah’s (her name means “morning” in Arabic) for cooking lessons. This Friday I arrived early before Mama Sabah’s daughters, who speak enough English to help us get by, were awake. She began to teach me how to roll stuffed grape leaves and Musakhan, all the while speaking rapid-fire Arabic.

I think there must something special about Mama Sabah. I do not believe my Arabic is any good until I enter her house. Somehow, we both understand each other when we speak. I am not sure if it is because she uses a good mixture of fusha and aamiyaa or because most of the spices we put in the food do not have English equivalents. Whatever the reason, it works. The food turned out lovely. It took from 10 AM-2:30 PM to prepare, with me frantically writing down everything we did; half in Arabic and half in English.

Cooking in Arabic with Mama Sabah is like dancing with no music. There is a rhythm that you can feel, and it has the potential to still be beautiful, yet there’s a certain level of uncertainty. Dancing with no music takes a certain level of “fake it till you make it” and trusting your muscle memory to take over, which is my new approach to Arabic. And also maybe life in Amman.

I do not have the support systems I expected here, so I am creating my own. I am taking chances with friendships and adventures. Asking for help and lessons from people like Mama Sabah to my host cousins to the baristas at the Cafe to the women at the gym.

I am worried my research for the Presidential Scholarship is not going to turn out…the way I wanted it to?…the way it “should?” Honestly, I am just worried it will not turn out at all. But what else can I do but use the tools I have been provided as best I can? I guess I’m gonna send a few emails, read a few UN reports, and dance with no music all the way home from this Cafe.

There are no recipes or timers in Mama Sabah’s kitchen. Everything is determined using your senses. You have to be fully present, or you’ll risk burning the rice or putting too much oil on the giant naan bread. (Not naming any names here, people). So I will try to apply that to my social and academic life here. Be where you are and utilize all the resources you have.

My favorite moment of the day was when, although Mama Sabah handed me a spoon, I squatted down next her on the kitchen floor and used my hands to scoop a garlicy, purple onion mixture onto pizza-sized pieces of bread before we put them in the oven. She noticed my hand smooshing the onions next to hers and looked up at me. The surprised look in her eyes quickly turned to delight as she exclaimed, “Kalilah, you cook like an Arab! Habibiti!”

I may forever look like an American, but y’all, I’m going to try to leave here cooking like an Arab. Cooking lesson #3 is next Friday. Until then, I’ll conduct some interviews and write up some papers. It’ll all come together, Ishallah (God Willing).

Take care Wofford,