In Conclusion: Some Final Thoughts on Jordan

Nine weeks later, I am sitting comfortably in the Duncan Student Center ready to reflect on my incredible summer in Jordan. I am still getting used to things in America: no bidets in the bathrooms, I can drink tap water, humidity is a thing, wearing shorts to a place that’s not the gym is a thing. But more importantly, engaging with people over differences will be much more difficult in the United States. In Jordan, any person will willingly discuss their culture with you – usually over a complementary Arab coffee. Because of that, it was incredibly easy for me to truly understand the culture in which I lived over the last two months.

In terms of language acquisition, Arabic is always tricky, as fusha or MSA is not even spoken by everyone. However, I found out two noticeable things about language acquisition for Arabic:

  1. In regards to amiyya or spoken, the only true way to learn is to speak. Thankfully, almost any Jordanian (even the ones who speak English) will prefer to speak in amiyya. Therefore, unless you really cannot express yourself in Arabic, you always can get the necessary speaking practice.
  2. Fusha is really the language of reading and writing. The best thing to do is pick up a newspaper and read articles. Without reading fusha (specically with the help of Google translate/a dictionary) you can never truly practice the language.

Over nine weeks, I saw tremendous growth of my language skills. I (incredibly) met all my goals. In class, I encountered things like Al Jazeera pieces and short compositions to read, really challenging my skillset. In regards to speaking, I started almost unable to speak to anyone. By the end of my stay, I had successfully had conversations about America, about traffic, about embassies in Amman, and even more. I never could have imagined acquiring the language skills I did, but spending a summer in an Arab country truly can enable anyone to build a skillset.

But beyond language, I think the greatest takeaway I received was about tolerance. In Jordan, despite millions of refugees and immigrants and immense diversity, you do not hear of things like xenophobic violence. Many ethnicities live side by side, contributing to society. In the United States we hear many people claim to be tolerant, but if you really want to see tolerance, I would recommend observing Jordanian society. Sure Jordan has its issues, but building a peaceful society starts with tolerance – something Jordan truly understands.

In terms of the experience the only regret I have was not making as many Jordanian friends as I would have hoped. This could easily have been avoided if I had in Jordan during any other time of the year; most activities and groups through which I could meet and become friends with Jordanians did not run during the summer. That said, I never has at a lack of people to talk to, and even people like dive instructors or bakers or jewelers could become friends with whom you could talk.

I am incredibly excited to come back and utilize my language skills. Hopefully, I can get involved on campus with Arabic speaking groups. I found my experience volunteering teaching English to be very rewarding and a great way to practice Arabic, and I would definitely look to see if I could find this opportunity in South Bend. Additionally, I will be spending a whole semester in Jerusalem under a different golden dome (aka the Dome of the Rock). I really hope to interact with the Palestinian communities of Jerusalem and the surrounding area (i.e. Bethlehem) which will enable me to keep expanding my Arabic while being able to learn more regarding both sides and their stances on one of the most decisive conflicts in the world.

In conclusion, the SLA experience was one I could have only dreamed of. My growth as an Arabic student, a world citizen, and an adult has been remarkable. As I kick off this new year at Notre Dame, I cannot wait to share my new viewpoints and help fight some of the stereotypes. The Arab is far more than just a series of politically conflicted countries; it is a hub of culture and home to some of the most amazing people one could find.

Week 7: The Tropical Side of Jordan

And live from Amman, Jordan, it’s finals week! Writing this blog post is about the only thing that I’ll be doing besides studying, polishing up two essays, and crafting two stellar presentations. But before the stress of the week kicked, I decided I should try to relax a little bit down by the beach!

That said, ya boy can’t go to beach unless he’s looking fresh. So I took a massive risk and went for a haircut at the local barber. My barber Hassan was very friendly when greeting me. I sat down and attempted to explain what I wanted. I had to tell him to go shorter on the sides three times, but when it was all said and done, he did a pretty nice job on my hair. He preceeded to treat me to a washing and a seshoir(drying – yes they stole most hair words from the French). After paying only 5 JD for the haircut, he proceeded to ask if I drank coffee and prepared me a cup. He also asked if I wanted a smoke – a pretty common gesture of hospitality in the Middle East – but I passed on that. I found out that he had been a boxer for 10 years in the past. The other owner – Ayman – entered and joined us. We talked about getting haircuts in other parts of the world (he had been a barber in Denmark and Russia previously) and we both agreed that Americans don’t do a great job on haircuts. I unfortunately had to go catch my bus, but my gus sha’ar(قص شعر) was a pretty good experience!

My friends and I loaded up on the JETT bus from Amman for a weekend of fun, sun, and water (lots of water – big water guy here).  Jordan has a whopping total of 10 miles of Red Sea coastline in the south that the British basically gave to appease the country for the overload of desert that exists in the rest of the country. However, that one strip is the city of Aqaba – a historically significant, beautiful, tropical oasis in a land of dessert.

The Aqaba Castle (كرك العقبة) built by the Mamluks and used by the Ottomans

Aqaba dates back to the second or third century AD. The town was the port city at the end of a road connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Seas. Over time, the Byzantines, Mamluks, and Ottomans all found significance in this location. As a result, a number of fortifications were built – most notably the castle completed by the Mamluks that also doubled as the main barracks for the Ottomans. Aqaba also played a notable role in the shaping of modern Arab history: as the birthplace of the Arab revolt. A number of tribal leaders in the Arabian Peninsula sought to expel the Ottomans from the region during World War I. In order to facilitate the process, the British sent a man named Lawrence (known more commonly as Lawrence of Arabic) to help the tribes coordinate. Thanks to military cooperation, the Arabs successfully crossed a treacherous stretch of desert and attacked Aqaba by land: a feat thought to be impossible. The center of Aqaba’s corniche is Medaan al-Toura al-Arabya (ميدان الثورة العربية) or Arab Revolt Plaza which overlooks the castle and is home to an enormous flagpole that is a symbol of Aqaba. Sharif Hussein ben Ali – the father of the revolt – is memorialized in a beautiful mosque near the center of town.

Its ya boy scuba diving for the first time ever

As I mentioned earlier, Aqaba is a water town with serious tropical vibes. The best thing to do in Aqaba is to either go snorkeling or scuba diving. Thanks to some lenient regulations on the part of Jordanians, I was able to have my first ever dive! Our guide was named Mohind, and he picked us up bright and early at our hotel. When we arrived at the dive center – only about 7 kilometers from the Saudi border – we were greeted with tea and coffee (and the coffee was really good!). Mohind then gave us our safety briefing about what we needed to do in the water in order to remain safe. After gearing up we hit the beach and entered the water. The coral is incredibly close to the coast (I’d say less that 10 feet out) so it is incredibly easy to see the amazing flora and fauna of the sea. This included some incredible canyons of reefs and sunk planes and tanks used as an “artificial rock” on which the coral can grow. Because I am a beginner, I only dived about 7 meters down. However, I am now certified as a beginner diver, so inshah allah I will be able to dive again and gain a broader skill set!

Just a peak at the beautiful coral in the Gulf of Aqaba – Jordan’s tiny bit of the Red Sea

Once we finished up, we were greeted with more tea! After getting out of wet suits we geared up with snorkeling gear and hit the beach again with more time to relax. From the beach you can see four countries: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. This is another part of the magic of Aqaba!


While on the beach, I was throwing a frisbee around when a shy looking Arab kid walked up near us. I asked him if he played frisbee and he responded yes. After having gone to two weeks of ultimate up at the park near my house I was surprised to meet a Jordanian who was a “disk guy” . His name was Ali, although I was having trouble understanding him so I couldn’t get much more info. However, it was super cool to be enjoying the beach with four countries, coral, and frisbee!

Finally, we finished up. We were thrilled to have been Mohind’s guests at the dive center, and we certainly got to feel a sense of Arab hospitality. While it is not uniform for hospitality to be a value in the Arab world, in the South of Jordan it certainly is.

When we got back to town, we took a siesta as all Aqaba residents do. No wonder why: the weather was 105 with about fifty percent humidity. The vibes because of the weather and geography are far more Saudi that Jordanian. That said, the culture is relatively liberal as many people wear shorts (haram in the north of the country).

When you stand in the right spot you can see four countries from Aqaba: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. Here is Egypt from a boat

After it cooled down a bit, we hopped on a glass bottom boat to see some more coral and catch the sunset go down over the Egyptian Sinai mountains. Although I have never been, Aqaba was reminiscent of what I would imagine Oman to look like: big mountains with a tropical city along the cost, dotted with picturesque white minarets.

View of Aqaba from the sea

Our great day was capped off with a fish dinner: pescatarian me was very very happy to see some fresh shrimp on the table!

While I am still not sure if I am ready for finals, it sure feels good to have gotten a little tropical vacation out of the deal. Wish me luck and I’ll see y’all on the other side!

Week 6: Journeys into the Desert

I am now only two weeks out from returning back to the States. It is remarkable how my time in Jordan has flown by. Because of my tight schedule, I have started to pack it with as much activity as possible!

Fatira Sultia: zaki akteer!

One of these activities was attending Jordan Food Week (أسبوع المأكولات الاردني) at the Ras al Ain Hanger. It is a brand food festival in Amman that celebrates culinary traditions from around Jordan, featuring different restaurants and food stuffs vendors. My friends and I were keen to try as much food as possible before selecting a place for dinner and feasting. I ended up eating a delicious wrap of fried haloumi cheese with a spicy molasses sauce and a delicious fig salad with homemade cheese. The real highlight though was the dessert: fatira sultia (فطيرة سلطية). Made of shredded filo dough covered in butter (ghee was used in our dessert instead), cinnamon sugar, and pistachios, the smooth buttery dessert was surprisingly not as sweet as it sounds. In my opinion it was one of the best foods I have had while in Jordan.

One of my friends from my language institute is a big “disc” guy (aka ultimate frisbee but we’re politically correct here) and had joined a local club in Amman. He had been encouraging people to go for the last few weeks, and this week I finally went. While I hardly would call myself good at ultimate (or even have any experience) it was a great opportunity to get out and meet some new people. There was a great mix of summer students like us, expats who played, and local Jordanians who liked the disc life. I fully intend to keep attending over the next two weeks, as playing some ultimate with Jordanians was a really fun experience!

I have not mentioned this much in my blog, but this is actually my second trip to Jordan (my first being last summer for a whopping three days stuck onto a trip to Palestine). So far, I had only revisited one place (the Amman Citadel – spot Week 1) on my journey; however, I felt incredibly obliged to return to two of Jordan’s most famed and beautiful sites: Petra and Wadi Rum.

Petra Round Two: I even wore the same outfit one year later!

I’ll keep my Petra comments brief, as I personally believe that even as magnificent as Petra is, once you’ve seen Petra once you’ve seen it. It was incredibly fun to have a second hike down the entrance siq (valley), gaze up at the Treasury, and ride a donkey up to the monastery at the far end of the site. However, I would rather focus on what I would consider to be Jordan’s most incredible experience: Wadi Rum.







Wadi Rum is Jordan’s magnificent desert area situated only about thirty miles from the Saudi border in the south. It is characterized by red sand and incredible rock formations. The site is so non-Earth like that pretty much any movie pertaining to Mars is filmed there (including The Martianfeaturing Matt Damon). The magic of Wadi Rum is that regardless of how many times you go, you will always see something different: there’s always a new dune to roll down, or new rock to climb, or a new camp to spend the evening in. I was as blown away – if not more – on my second trip to Wadi Rum than on my first.

Me on a camel

Of course, I made sure I took part in the classic activities. Any trip to Wadi Rum without a camel ride is a waste of time in my opinion – also because I love riding camels! And you have to dangerously climb up at least one rock formation and one dune. And without a proper sunset spot to watch a sunset, you truly cannot say you’ve been to Wadi Rum! I also happened to luck out: a lunar eclipse happened at roughly 10:30 PM on the night of my stay in Wadi Rum. While star gazing is a classic Wadi Rum activity, the red moon dimmed the sky enabling one to see more stars that you could ever imagine.

While Wadi Rum is technically a nature reserve, it is impossible to talk about the site without discussing the indigenous people: the Bedouins. In Jordan, there are three types of people. First there are the mediny (مدني) – those from the cities. The overwhelming majority of Jordanians are medinymostly because Amman’s population constitutes over half the country’s total population. Then there are the fellahior villagers. These people usually live in the North in the smaller towns on the outskirts of the metropolitan areas of Jerash and Irbid (spot my past posts for some discussion of Jerash and Irbid). Then there are the bedowy (بدوي) or Bedouins who reside mainly in the deserts of the South.

The treatment of Bedouins have always been a major question within the country of Jordan. Historically, Bedouins and their tribes were the only people truly settled in the modern state of Jordan. The tribes were nomadic and lived in tents. To this day, they wear a traditional robe called a deshdajah and often wear a keffiyeh head scarf. Because of this conservative tribal culture, most mediny possess a number of stereotypes about Bedouins (mostly the facts I have just listed). As a result, many look down on the Bedouins and some even fail to consider them in forming their opinions on the country of Jordan.

What a view from the camp
The smoky zarba pit

While in Wadi Rum, I got to stay in a tent at a Bedouin camp. I hoped to learn more about their culture and their opinions on their relationship with the country of Jordan. After returning from a day of touring the impressive rock formations, we were treated to a meal called zarba(زرب) which refers to anything cooked with coals underground (kind of like a Polynesian-style pig roast). While pescatarian me could not take advantage of the meat, the smoked vegetables along with a wide array of Middle Eastern salads were delectable.


After sitting listening to a local Bedouin play the oud – a classical guitar-like Middle Eastern instrument – we had the opportunity to talk with the owner of the camp. He told us a story or two talking about the culture of the Bedouin. Interestingly, the Bedouins talk more like Saudis than Jordanians; as a result, their spoken Arabic resembles fusha, meaning I could understand and converse with the locals far easier than I would with a mediny in Amman. I made sure I took advantage of this ability to communicate to ask a few questions.

The owner – Suleyman – told us about his life story. He had served in the Jordanian special forces before coming back to Wadi Rum. Along the way he had married a villager from outside of Irbid – an rare and almost forbidden love. He answered my questions describing the immense respect he had for King Abdullah and the Jordanian government. Over the last few years, the government has invested in projects to help improve the standard of life for Bedouins in the desert. This has involved building houses, hospitals and schools in the village at Wadi Rum. While he said he misses the old life, he acknowledges that it will be better for his children. His eldest daughter had just left to study medicine in Irbid (way up north) and hopefully become the first doctor from the tribe of Wadi Rum.

Many Bedouins have ties to Saudi Arabia or even nationality, as their tribes often stretch over the nearby European-made border. Suleyman’s tribe is originally from Mada’in Saleh, an ancient Nabataean city in Saudi Arabia (considered the Petra of Saudi Arabia). He has extensive family over the border and has a visa that enables him to enter and exit Saudi Arabia freely. I asked him if he and his tribe felt more Saudi or Jordanian. He said “Definitely Jordanian”. He explained about the generosity and benevolence provided from the Jordanian monarchy, and how from the start of the country of Jordan Bedouins have been accepted by the government – even if society felt differently. He compared that to his family who live in Saudi Arabia, where the government feels little need to aid the Bedouins. The level of poverty there far exceeds that of Jordan, as the government really only cares about the major cities and not the rural communities.

While Suleyman described the relationship between the government and Bedouins to be pretty rosy, historically this is not always the case. The major tourist site of Petra is a great example of this. A tribe that Suleyman described as Bedoun (بدون) or “Without” in English moved into Petra and lived in its caves. These people do not have the same value base as other Bedouins, and most would consider these people to be lacking the hospitality of true Bedouins. When the Kingdom of Jordan sought to develop Petra as tourist site, the King expelled the residents of Petra. However, as they had no where to go, they continued to live among the ancient facades, often times desecrating the antiquities. As a result, the government allowed the locals to work at the site, mainly leading donkeys and camels or running souvenir stands. The king built a series of apartments nearby to the site so that the locals still had a place to live. By 1990, no people lived among the facades.

I asked my tour guide about whether he felt the government had overstepped their bounds. He seemed to think that the governments policy was fair especially given their generosity in building homes for the people, and that the locals of Petra were doing more to damage the site than anything else. However, while on a donkey up to the enormous monastery at the top of a mountain, I asked the little kid guiding the donkey if he was from “Here in Wadi Musa” (Wadi Musa being the major town about two kilometers away from Petra). His response was “No, from here in Petra”. While the population has been relocated, they still view Petra as “their place” and as a result often run the tourist activities past the main gate mafia style.

After a fun weekend in the South, I have a better understanding of the riff between the mediny and the bedowy. While the government has treated the bedowy kindly and respectfully, there is still a divide between the two groups. That said, it is impossible to talk about the Kingdom of Jordan without talking about the Bedouins. There are an integral part of Jordanian society and culture, and with the government’s protection, they should continue to fill this roll.

Thank you to all who have put up with my writing for the last few weeks. I have a few more posts coming your way before I’m back in the Bend so be on the lookout!

Week 5: “Cultural Experiences”

This week was a long one. I had three very distinct “cultural experiences”. Two were very enjoyable ones, and one not so enjoyable one.

We’ll start with the unenjoyable one, since it happened first. If you read last week’s content, you probably know about my recent travels to Egypt. One thing that Egypt is famed for is horrendous kitchen cleanliness. While we did our best to only eat at clean, reputable restaurants, something – probably mangoes – got the best of many of us. I got pretty sick while watching the World Cup Final, and after I found out that some people had been diagnosed with parasites, I realized I had to get myself checked out.

I promptly headed to the Specialty Hospital (مستشفى التخصصي) nearby my apartment to get checked out. They prompted me into the ER, and after a brief evaluation took me into a room with about 10 little nooks to receive care. The hospital was clean and the doctors all spoke English (although it took a little extra explaining to make sure I wasn’t given Penicillin as I am allergic). The nurses put me on an IV (not really sure why but oh well), although their English was pretty much nonexistent. I had to ask little things like “kul shay kwais?” (everything is fine?) to make sure I knew what was going on. After my test for parasites came back negative (hamd’illeh) the doctor went Jordanian on me and gave me five prescriptions (the doctors here are infamous for giving too much medicine). Thankfully, a week after my trip I am finishing up my final antibiotic and I think I am all better (inshah allah)!

After a long week of catching up, hospital visits, and midterm exams, my friends and I sought to relax a bit. We figured there was only one way to destress like a Jordanian: by hitting up a Turkish bath (حمامات تركية). Turkish baths are originally from Turkey (obviously) and spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. Today, you can still find many in operation around the Arab world – particularly in Jordan. Although several of the dozen or so baths in Amman serve as tourist spas and charge fairly high prices, my friends and I needed to go cheap, so we went to one located on the outskirts of the city.

When we arrived, we entered a changing room with lockers to place our clothes and changed into basically a disposable bathing suit. We then entered a big, circus like room filled with men (and only men at a traditional establishment like the one we went to) wearing the same disposable bathing suit at different stations of the bathing process. We were directed to begin by showering, and then to enter the hot tub. While sitting in the hot tub, we were brought a sort of sweet cleansing juice/tea. After sitting for about ten minutes enjoying the warm water, we were directed to a man who covered our face in a cream, who then pointed us to the steam room. We spent only five minutes sweating in the steam room (we’re wimps, I know), allowing the pore cleansing cream to enter.

After another shower, we were instructed to lay down on a marble table. A man with an exfoliating loofa-like glove proceeded to rub down every inch of your body, removing a plethora of dead skin. After shower number three, we went to be scrubbed down – quite literally a man using a scrubbing device with soap to clean you. It felt a little like being a six year old taking getting a bath from your mother, but it also felt pampering. After being washed down, we each received a deep tissue message – something I needed after the stress of midterm studying! Rising up from the table after one last shower, I felt pretty incredible and cleaner than ever. After being dried off and handed two towels, I was able to bask in my new found cleanliness. We were stunned at the low price of 10 JD for the entire treatment. While I would not recommend a Turkish Bath for the faint of heart (there’s a lot of men, and women are generally not allowed unless there’s a separate room), for those up for an interesting time it is a great way to chill out with some friends and get a wonderful little spa treatment.

Drying off post Turkish bath with a soda

My final cultural experience led me to a group that has quickly become a significant minority in Jordan: Syrians. Historically, Syria was the most powerful and peaceful nation in the Shams; but in 2011, that changed with the attempts to oust President Bashar al-Assad and the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. It is estimated that since the start of the Syrian civil war, roughly 1.2 million Syrians have fled to Jordan, with Jordan housing more refugees than any other country except for Lebanon and Turkey.

As you walk around Amman, you can sense that Jordan’s northern neighbor has had its cultural impact on the city. For instance, you can regularly find booza(بوظة) – a Syrian-style ice cream enriched with gum to be more malleable and less prone to melting. The best way to eat it is covered in pistachios. At a recent trip to Bakdesh – a Syrian transplant ice cream parlor that has become Amman’s preferred place for booza – I saw the staff member quite literally roll a cylindrical thing of ice cream in pistachios. The treat is not very sweet because of the nuts and is a excellent way to finish a meal.

A number of people in the city have Syrian roots. We met a shopkeeper from Syria who mentioned he learned English back in school (Syria’s were the best in the region). Adding a bit of comedy, his coworker jarred in, “Yeah Bashar al-Assad taught him English, you believe it?” This little interaction seems to sum up Syrians in Jordan: they live normal lives like most Jordanians and acknowledge the many downfalls of their country; yet they are proud of their heritage and truly yearn to return to their homes up north.

While you can certainly find traces of Syria in Amman, I wanted to really explore the conflict. So when the opportunity to teach English to a group of refugees in Irbid came up, I jumped on the opportunity.

Irbid is Jordan’s second largest city, yet it feels a world away from Amman. Nestled in the forested mountains up north, the streets are tree-lined and the town feels more like bustling suburb that anything. Irbid sits twelve miles away from the Syrian border and roughly twenty miles away from Daraa – the birthplace of the revolt. As a result, many of the Syrians who relocated to Jordan chose Irbid – a Syrian-esque city close to the border.

Professor Mark back at it again teaching English

After arriving with my group of volunteers, we were handed a group of forty refugees. Some spoke English well enough to understand NPR podcasts; others couldn’t even read the alphabet. Our challenge was to group them so they could get something out of our short English lesson. I was in charge of a group of “intermediate” speakers who ranged drastically in quality. I spoke predominantly in Arabic – something I was surprised I was able to do – in order to teach things about writing and grammar. After having them write mini stories, I helped them edit their writing, and I am sure that learned at least the word “to keep”! The experience was incredibly fruitful for the kids and even helped me improve my Arabic.

While teaching, we asked everyone to say their names and where they were from. Most of the group identified as from Irbid. However, one student said he was from Homs in Syria. After the lesson while we were feasting on a meal of mansef, I asked him a little about his life. He had been living in Jordan for seven years, and he very much seemed at home. However, when I asked him which he preferred, he gave a big smile and responded, “Syria, of course!”

Jordan has plenty of experience with refugees in the past, as hundreds of Palestinians have been absorbed into Jordanian society. Because of the welcoming nature of Jordan, Syrians are treated well; but they very much miss their home and would return if they had the chance.

View from the JETT bus: out in the distance you can see Syria

On the bus back from Irbid, you can see the Syria very clearly. As I took in the scenic view, I thought about how beautiful a country it must be, and how wonderful its people are. It truly is sad to see how war can tear apart such a lovely place, especially given the comfort and safe feel of Irbid. I hope in the future that Syria can regain its glory and welcome visitors – and its own people – back into the land.

Week 4: Ana fi Misr???

TECHNICALLY this blog is about Jordan. However, it is widely agreed that Jordan is perhaps the least culturally interesting country in the Arab World. Jordan is a country constructed by the British to reward the loyalty of the Hashemite family during the First World War. They were awarded a small corner of low-populated land north of the Arabian peninsula – far away from their home base in the southern half of the Arabian peninsula. While the Hashemite family has created a safe, stable environment in Jordan, any culture within their country is imported from Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, or Saudi Arabia; not one ounce of culture is unique to Jordan. So when my language institute offered a trip to Cairo, I immediately jumped on the opportunity.

As I sit in Amman getting over a pretty bad case of food poisoning, I have decided to showcase the culture, history, and life of the Arab World’s largest country: Egypt.

Cairo dates back to about 14000 years ago, when the ancient Egyptian civilization began to form. However, we usually begin referring to Egyptian history about 5500 years ago when the first written documents were found and the capital – Memphis – was situated approximately at the same spot as modern Cairo. After the fall of the Egyptian empires, Egypt was absorbed into the Greco-Roman world. However, Egypt did not get its next chance to shine until about 900 AD when the Islamic Caliphates began to rule. In 969, the city of Cairo was officially founded by the Fattimids – one of the main Islamic dynasties to rule from Egypt. During the 1100’s, Cairo became a point of interest for Crusaders seeking to consolidate power in the region. They were unable to take the city – now the capital of Egypt – thanks to a ruler named Saladin or Salah ad-din (صلاح الدين). His dynasty – the Ayyubids – and the following Mamluks ruled from Cairo until the Ottomans took control of the city. However, Egypt was able to gain autonomy when Muhammed Ali Pasha (not to be confused with the boxer, who chose his Muslim name in honor of the Egyptian leader) consolidated power in the early 19thcentury; the Ottomans were afraid of Muhammed Ali and let him run the area that was Egypt. This is considered the start of “Modern Egypt” as we know today.

The First Egyptian Pyramid at Saqarra

With Cairo’s illustrious history, there are so many monuments and historic sites that display the grandeur of its past. Perhaps the most notable of these monuments are the pyramids. The first pyramid was a sloppily constructed step pyramid in Saqarra, south of present day Cairo. Over the next two hundred years, royal engineers finally sharpened up all the details and built one of the most famous monuments in history – the Great Pyramid at Giza. The steep pyramid is pretty tall and I was a bit overwhelmed to see it so up close (and go inside!). Many people complain about how the Pyramids are not alone in a desert corridor (they are located in Giza, a 4 million person city that compromises of anything west of the Nile). That did not stop me from enjoying the desert around the Pyramids where I rode four-by-fours (the pharaoh’s transportation method of choice) and camels around the area.

The Pyramids at Giza

In Cairo proper, the Egyptian Museum houses perhaps the best collection

Inside the Egypt Museum

of Egyptian artifacts on the planet. The current building – which the museum will be leaving in 2022 – has no AC stunningly, but the humidity did not stop me from enjoying the wide range of antiquities. The museum overlooks Tahrir Square – an underwhelming traffic circle that served as the center of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. Seeing Tahrir Square is a reminder that Egypt is still making history to this day.

Tahrir Square: the site of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011

While ancient Egypt is pretty cool, perhaps the most beautiful buildings in Cairo date back to the Islamic Caliphates. “Islamic Cairo” – the unofficial Old Town of Cairo – houses a number of stunning houses, mosques, schools (including Al-Azhar, the oldest Islamic university in the world), shops (centered around the bustling Khan el-Khalili souq), and an intimidating citadel built by Salah al-Din. The architecture is a mix between Fattimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk buildings, and each one possesses elaborate designs and incredible stone carvings that rival the Alhambra in Spain. I visited two Fattimid Era mosques, and each time I was stunned by the precision of the craftsmanship.

Islamic CairoThe most beautiful mosque in Cairo – in my opinion – was built more recently. Muhammed Ali Pasha built his mosque in the 1820’s and apparently used stones from the outer coating of the Pyramids. Perched on the highest point in the city in Salah al-Din’s castle, I have never seen anything like it. The marble courtyard surrounded by stunning columns and elaborate craftsmanship leads to the mosque proper which is built in the more “modern” style (in an Ottoman style). Words cannot describe the beauty of this building.

Gama’a Muhammed Ali Basha (جمعة محمد علي باشة)Over time, Egypt developed one of the most unique cultures in the Arab world. Egyptian food features far less Levantine food (ie hummus, shwarma, kibbeh), with the main Egyptian dish being koshary. Koshary is essentially carb overload: it is rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, and fried onions finished with tomato sauce and optional garlic vinegar and hot sauce. I ate koshary at the world’s most famous koshary restaurant named Abu Tarek, a three-floored establishment with a décor that can be described as a combination between a New York diner and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The koshary – after being flavored to your liking with hot sauce and garlic – was a hardy meal, and I think I will adopt it as my carb-meal before the next half marathon I run!

Koshary: As the Egyptians would say, “Helou ‘awi!”

Additionally food in Egypt includes ta’ami, which is often called Egyptian falafel. Unlike it’s Levantine counterpart, it is flat and made with fava beans instead of chick peas. The ta’ami is also significantly spicier than its Levantine cousin. When Egyptians want protein, they have two main specialties. The first is pigeon. These pigeons are not the ones that fly in and out of the subway train, but deliberately farmed like a quail. I did not try any pigeon as I am a pescatarian, but the variety stuffed with rice is favored by everyone. More up my alley is the fish eaten. While in Cairo I stuffed myself with a delicious Egyptian dinner with fried whole shrimp, fried calamari, and barbequed fish while riding a felucca, a boat indigenous to the Nile. I certainly enjoyed myself from a culinary standpoint in Egypt (although I may be paying the price now).

Me having a good time on a felucca

It is impossible to talk about Cairo without talking about the Nile. If you go about seven miles away from the Nile in either Cairo (the east side) or Giza (the west side), you will find yourself in the desert with no trees at all. However, as you move closer and closer to the river, Cairo/Giza becomes green with lots of trees lining the streets. Eventually you hit the river – a lush, tropical wonderland surrounded by hotel high-rises. It is imperative to go on a felucca boat (especially the party ones that blast Arab hits) to the see the Nile (I went twice), and I cannot describe just how green, lush, and beautiful the Nile is. It truly gives life to the country of Egypt.

The Nile and al-Gazeera as seen from my hotel room… not bad eh?!

That said, Egypt’s (and specifically Cairo’s) dependence on the Nile means that roughly 20 million people are squished into a 15 mile radius. Every building in Egypt is taller than six stories (in Jordan, none would be taller than 5), and walking the street or driving through the city can be a real challenge. The crowdedness is everywhere in Cairo whether you live on Gezeera in Zamalek (the incredibly bougie part of Cairo on an island in the Nile) or if you live in a slum. Many builders opted to keep the brick frame as the exterior to save money. Many building projects go unfinished, and it seems that every other building is abandoned before completion. The crowdedness and subsequent poverty in Egypt was something I had never truly experienced. One day, we visited a co-op farm growing mangoes (an Egyptian specialty) south of Cairo. The family lived in horrendous conditions, and were even begging for money as we visited them. Amman is the middle class of the Middle East, and I am happy I left the comfy Kingdom of Jordan to experience how the poorer countries live.

One thing I was unable to do was get to talk to a number of Egyptians. There are two main reasons for that. The first is that the Egyptian dialect of spoken Arabic is completely different from the Shami dialect I am learning. Certain letters are pronounced differently, most notably jeem( ج) is pronounced as a g-sound instead of a j-sound (jamea’a جامعة[university] is pronounced gamea’a in Egypt). That said, hearing and learning some Egyptian dialect allowed me to understand the origin many words in fusha (MSA). Fushais a standard form that takes from all forms of spoken Arabic, and because Egypt is the largest Arab country, many of their words feature prominently – enhancing my language education. The other reason I was unable to talk to Egyptians is due to a certain level of restricted free speech. The post-revolution government in Egypt – headed by Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi – has become very authoritative; you see far more Sisi propaganda in Cairo than you would ever see for King Abdullah in Amman. That said, I felt afraid to ask people I conversed with about their opinions on Egypt. The only thing I asked Egyptians during my trip was if they liked Mohammed Salah – a soccer player for British club Liverpool whose incredible performances and humble persona has made him a national hero in Egypt. The sense of nervousness I felt in talking politics with anyone drastically differs from Amman, and was certainly something I will not forget.

Before I finish my mini-profile on Egypt, I want to leave a link to a song from 2014 called Boshret Kheir(بشرة خير) or “Good Omen”. It is performed by an Emrati singer named Hussain al-Jasmi (one of my favorite Arab singers), although the song focuses on the resilience of the Egyptian people and has become a nationalist hymn and unifying force for the Egyptian people. Egypt is a magnificent country with incredible people and a culture unique and unrivaled by any country in the Arab world. I truly wish Egypt and its people boshret kheiras the country continues to find itself during this post revolution phase.

Week 3: Talking to People!

And week two is now tarikh!

My first round of quizzes and tests were very difficult, but I am adapting to the study very well. My instructors are a bit on the harsh end for grading, but they truly are striving to improve my Arabic skills.

And I present new technology: the bidet!

I am also adapting nicely to the culture here in Jordan! One thing that could be most striking for a westerner is the complete absence of toilet paper outside of one’s apartment. It is consider unclean for Muslims to wipe themselves (for real). Instead, you find bidets – quite literally mini hoses – everywhere. It took me a bit of time to warm up to the bidet, but it really does a good job of cleaning up. One Jordanian teenager even told me to return to the US with one and proclaim that I have brought “new technology” – although I think that might be too far.

While some cultural attributes such as the bidet can be observed without language skills, I realized that I needed to improve my spoken Arabic – or ammiya– if I wanted to engage with locals. I decided to enroll in a supplementary amiyya class at my institute, adding another 5 hours of classes to my week. Despite the time commitment, I am quickly picking up the structures (or lack there of) of amiyya, meaning I can finally interact with people.

Now with some skills, I am starting to converse more with locals then ever before. I was able to meet with a man name Mohammed to watch the England-Colombia football match (and no its not soccer!). My friends and I were surprised when we met him, as he was in his thirties. He was looking for a speaking partner to practice a little English, and we learned he was my kind of guy – AKA an accountant – working in audit for BDO in Amman. We conversed a bit about his career, a bit about our education, and a bit about the match (which to be honest was total crap). We hope that we can keep meeting with Mohammed to practice a bit more.

I was challenged further to interact with locals in my media class. In our class, we were discussing tribes (or ‘ashiraعشيرة) in Jordan and their relationship with the government. Our professor challenged us to talk to three Jordanians and ask them what their ethnicity is, what tribe or family they are from, and what their profession is. I was a bit overwhelmed, as I thought I knew no Jordanians. However, I realized that I was wrong.

I began talking to Mohammed – a safe bet given we had just met to watch a game. We engaged in a meaningful discussion talking about whether tribes added to detracted from Jordanian society. I then talked with Abu Alas, the wonderfully joyful security guard at the institute. Finally, I engaged in my first discussion with Amal – the owner of that mokhobzwe always go to. Through my interviewing I was struck by the different backgrounds each person had; one was a Palestinian, one was Jordanian, and one was Iraqi. These basic conversations (finally in Arabic!) had proved that Jordan is a diverse country. Just fifteen years ago, Amman was a dusty town of a million residents. Thanks to immigration, it is now a booming metropolis of 4 million people. This is fueled to the different immigrants that have come to area from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and other countries. My first engagements with locals were certainly fruitful ones.

I finally snagged a picture of myself
One of the three gates at the Roman ruins of Jerash

I interrupted my intense interactions to have a little fun. My friends and I visited the Roman ruins at Jerash – roughly 45 minutes outside of Amman. Although UNESCO considers the site to be “over-restored” and not a heritage site, seeing the remnants of the Roman world was truly breathtaking. With two Roman temples, twenty churches, three entry arches (all in a row too), the remains of countless houses, a full hippodrome, two amphitheaters, and a full plaza and columnated avenue, it is hard not to be in awe of the Roman civilization. The Middle East has been important for millennia, and it is breathtaking to remind yourself that even the grand Romans found a great deal of importance in what is now tiny Jordan.


The next day, I got back to my talking habits. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to volunteer with a Jordanian charity called Tikiya um Ali(تكية ام علي), an organization that arranges and delivers boxes of food called hadaya(هدايا) or gifts for individuals living under the poverty line. I joined about six members of my institute along with another twenty or so Jordanian teenagers and college students to help tackle hunger in Amman.

Starting at the warehouse I met a number of people, including a teenager of Jordanian descent with relatives in Amman named Faud who lives in Canton, Michigan – the hometown of my roommate from last year! I also met a Jordanian named Abdulrahman and his 14-year-old cousin – both made sure I learned some of Arabic’s more colorful words. Everyone spoke very good English, so I could not really get much practice in Arabic, but I did have some good experiences to talk about Jordanian day-to-day life and some of the reasons that Jordan is easily the “nicest” or perhaps “most accessible and free” country to live in the Middle East.

While on the bus, Abdulrahman’s cousin asked me a ton of questions – all in English (he was looking for practice, but he was sounding really good). He asked me about America, and even told me he had relatives in Milwaukee, so he had taken a trip to the States. Then, he asked me a very basic question that really got me thinking: “Do you like Trump?”

I gave the young man my response and asked him if he liked Trump. He gave me a pretty deep answer for someone living 6000 miles away from America. He said, “We [Jordanians] don’t like Trump because he doesn’t let certain people in.” I was curious and probed further, asking him if he liked America. He responded, “We love America; we just don’t like Trump.”

Jordan is pivotal role in American foreign policy in the Middle East. The policy for the last thirty years or so centers on the State of Israel being our primary ally, with Israel coordinating with Jordan – a buffer state and secondary ally – to maintain American interests. And because of this, American opinions are generally very positive in Jordan. King Abdullah himself studied at an inferior Catholic school named Georgetown, and he espouses a number of liberal values similar to those of the west. In fact, many Jordanians either have friends or family in the States, and some even studying or travelling frequently to the US. Even American culture is big in the wealthier parts of Amman. As I sat in a bougie two-floor, twenty-four hour Starbucks in Abdoun (the really nice neighborhood home to high profile embassies such as the American and Saudi ones), a hefty Jordanian in his twenties told me about his recent trip to Las Vegas, telling me in perfect English while taking a hit off his Juul, “Dude, I love Vegas! It’s crazy and so much fun.”

The more I asked around, the more I received similar responses. As I ate a meal at a local Yemeni restaurant near my apartment, the waiter – a middle-aged man – asked me if I liked Trump when I told him I was from America. This time – only in Arabic – I asked him if he liked Trump and America. He mirrored the previous response, saying he loved everything about America “ilaa Trump” (except Trump).

I proceeded to ask my professor – an educated female in her mid-twenties – about how Jordanians view America. Politically, there seems to be a lack of knowledge on American policy or even American involvement in Jordan. My professor said that a number of stereotypes about Americans exist; “Americans are rich” is the at the forefront. That said, many Arabs – both in and outside of Jordan – feel friction as many in America have placed Arabs as “the enemy”, although these feelings are usually strictly in regards to our government. While a political dissent for the United States is sometimes apparent, Jordanians seem to embrace Americans and love the culture from which we come.

Shukran to everyone who is actually reading my longwinded commentary. If you are following week-to-week, I have a surprise up my sleeve for next week’s post so stay tuned!

Week 2: Lots of Class and Lots of Mosaics

And the second week of safoof (classes) has dawned! So far my experiences in Amman have been incredible, enabling me to gain the experience of living in an Arab country.

My classes run four hours a day starting at 8 AM (masha allah!) and are broken up into a “skills” session and a “media” session.  After class has ended I can usually expect another three hours of homework. My teachers have been challenging me through intense listening and reading exercises from authentic sources, and I can already discern an improvement in my Arabic skills.

On a typical school day, I usually do not have much time to do anything outside of school aside from grocery store runs, the occasional gym trip, or (if it’s a special day) a walk to the local outlet of Habibeh Sweets, home of Amman’s finest kanafe (كنافة) – a pastry of cheese with shredded filo dough and a sweet syrup poured over the top.

While at my apartment, I like to take advantage of the few television stations we have. One of these is a station playing Arabic Pop music videos on loop – a perfect station to have on while cooking dinner. The other is Majan TV, on which there seems to be only one show called Hal Halaalek? (هل هلالك؟). The show is produced in a mall in Oman, and if you look closely you can see shopping carts and people walking by while they film. Despite poor the production work, the show – which focuses on Muslim lifestyles across the Middle East – presents interviews in fusha or Modern Standard Arabic. This enables me to test my listening skills and gain additional cultural points outside of class.

While in class and on Majan TV fusha is the language of choice, on the streets people speak Jordanian amiyya– a spoken dialect of Arabic. My knowledge of amiyya is very limited, although I have picked up enough to be able to communicate basic phrases with the waiters at the local mu‘ahwe (مقوه) – a Jordanian style coffeehouse where men (and if it is conservative like our neighborhood, only men) go to drink tea and coffee, use waterpipes known as shisha or arguilleh (أرجيلة), and play cards or watch whatever soccer match may be on. My friends and I have been frequenting these establishments every few nights to watch the World Cup games like a local while sipping tea with fresh mint leaves.

In addition to the local coffeeshops, I have been able to use my ammiya with taxi drivers and Careem drivers – the Arab world’s (far superior) version of Uber. By speaking shway araby w shway ingleezy (a little Arabic and a little English) we have gotten to where we wanted and met some great people! One night when we were coming back from a trendy part of Amman centered around Rainbow Street, we had an awesome Careem driver named Yahya. Yahya played some awesome jams on the way back to our flat and introduced us to an Egyptian song called Al Dekhlaweyat (الدخلاويات) which we have been listening to nonstop!

Part of the famed map of the Holy Lands at Saint George Church in Madaba

Additionally, we met a Careem driver named Loay with whom I was able to negotiate a  fare to Madaba for the day – a Christian city located about 40 minutes south of Amman. Madaba is famed for their millenia-old mosaics – both at ruins of churches and in present churches. The most famous of these churches is Saint George Church, a small Orthodox church home to the oldest map of the Holy Lands. The image from around 500 AD, centered around a detailed depiction of Jerusalem, is awe-inspiring. Everywhere in Madaba you go, you can find Roman, Byzantine, or Abassid Mosaics that adorn the floors – or former floors – of the many churches.

An enormous mosaic at Madaba Archeological Park

Our favorite church was a Catholic one (of course!!). The Church of John the Baptist features a maze of tunnels underneath the church. Among the nooks include a millennia old Moabite well from which you can still drink (and we did!), a series of Byzantine ruins, and doorways about the size of a five year old

Masha allah – what a view!

child that require a lot of crawling. But the best part is after you climb up – a number of stairs, dodging low lying beams holding bells, and two rickety ladders late – to the top of the bell tower. From the top, the highest point in Madaba, you can see everything in the city!

To cap off the day, we stopped by Mount Nebo – a Franciscan shrine on the spot where Moses was believed to have first viewed the land of Canaan. From the top, you can visit a church that combines an archeological dig with a typical modern parish church in the United States and take in breathtaking views of the surrounding land – including

Mount Nebo view of the Dead Sea and Palestine

the Dead Sea and the West Bank (and even Jerusalem on a good day). Seeing the landscape and having a peak over the border filled me with memories of my past trip to Palestine; maybe I will make it back soon!

On the way back to Amman, Loay handed me the phone to talk with his nephew – a young Jordanian student looking for an English speaking partner. My roommates and I were quick to jump on his offer, and we are looking forward to meeting up, talking some Arabic (and English), and watching some soccer at a local mu’ahwe.

The next week should bring on new opportunities here in Jordan, and I am excited to continue my studies!

Marhaban from Jordan!

Ahlan w sahlan mn al-Ordan! I landed in Amman – the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – on Tuesday evening and have been settling nicely into the city. I am in an apartment in mentaqat al-Rashid (منطقة الرشيد) nearby Sport City in northwest Amman. My apartment is filled with four students with whom I will be studying with at the nearby Qasid Institute.

The Temple of Hercules at the Amman Citadel

Since landing, we have had several free days. We made sure we explored some of Amman’s cultural heritage in al-Balad – the historic downtown. Perched on the top of a hill named Jabal al-Qala’a (جبل القلعة), the citadel houses an impressive array of ruins including a Roman temple, prehistoric caves, and an

View of al-Balad and the Roman Amphitheater from Jabal al-Qala’a

Ummayad palace. Below the mountain, we viewed the impressive Roman Amphitheater and sprawling souq. At the souq you can buy anything you can haggle for; however, I need to improve my spoken Arabic skills before I bargain for an eggplant!



In Al-Balad, you can find a number of restaurants serving delicious Arab foods. However, the real spot to eat at is Hashem Restaurant. Situated in an alleyway sandwiched between two buildings, Hashem is an unassuming spot where all the locals go to get their food fix; even King Abdullah is a fan! Our waiter served us a spread with all the classics served in bowls with olive oil. This includedhummos (حمص), the famed chickpea and tahini puree; baba ghanouj (بابا غنوج), hummos’ cousin made with eggplant in lieu of chickpea;falafel(فلافل), a fritter made of either chickpea or lima bean; sabaha(سباحة), a warm chickpea puree that’s similar albeit not identical to hummos [there is no tahini]; and ful(فل), a warm bean puree. All of these must be eaten with a nice warm piece of Arabic bread (خبز العربي)– a flat bread that sometimes, albeit not always, equivalent to pita bread.

As the Jordanians would call it, ta’am zaki!

Despite being ancient and ubiquitous in the Levantine region, these foods have no history or legend the way pizza does in Italy. However, the accessibility of the ingredients used (sesame seed paste [tahini], chickpeas, eggplant) has made these food very cheap and popular; in fact, our scrumptious and enormous lunch for four cost us only 9 JD. Because of that, foods such as hummos have become the de facto “food for all classes” that even the poorest of Jordanians can afford.

While anyone can mix the ingredients together, only certain places can have the best ratio between chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini, and spices. Hashem Restaurant is that place in Amman (and perhaps in all of Jordan). The nutty hummos and baba ghanouj are perhaps the best in the country and produce a creamy, rich taste and texture when eaten. That said, I should not get used to eating this food regularly; it is known to be highly unhealthy and is akin to Middle Eastern fast food. Around our apartment, a number of take-away restaurants will serve falafel wrapped in bread with hummos and salad with a yogurt sauce – the perfect snack for lunch!

Our Arab coffee pot, AKA how to stay awake in class!

Even in our apartment we are becoming accustomed to local foods! Every day, we take a walk to the local mokhobz(مخبز)or bakery to get local Arabic bread we eat for breakfast with lebnah(لبنه)– an Arab dairy product that is a cross between yogurt and cream cheese. Additionally, we bought a small coffee pot to make Arab-style coffee – a blend of coffee and cardamom. While we are still perfecting the process of brewing the coffee – which is simply added to boiling water while continuing to heat the pot – the strong coffee served in a small espresso-like glass is a great way to start the day!

Tomorrow is the first day of Arabic classes. While I am nervous to begin, I am also excited to begin expanding my vocabulary and hopefully gaining new friends both through class and involvement with the local community!