Wednesday, February 3, 2010

First Impressions: Food, Class, and (possible) Arab Prostitutes

I wrote this last night, but I didn't have internet access to post until now. Apparently it's about to snow in Amman and we're about to go on a "drop-off," which is basically a practice run of navigating the city as part of orientation. We meet host families tomorrow so I'll probably have a lot to write about after that. Anyway, here goes nothing:

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I’ve been in Amman for just over 24 hours. It’s not nearly enough time to get a feel for anything, so I’m just going to offer up a series of unorganized initial impressions about the city, the program, the group, and everything else that I’ve managed to absorb.

My flights, visas, luggage, and all of the simple stuff went fine. I had a seven-hour layover in the Paris airport terminal that I spent watching old episodes of The Wire and meeting a few of the SIT kids. In the process, I also broke my personal record for sleeplessness (starting at 7:15 AM in Bangor, ME, I didn’t sleep until 3:30 PM Amman time. That’s 25 hours and 15 minutes for those of you counting at home). By the time I rolled into the hotel with the other SIT kids, I was running on fumes. I gorged on an Arabic dinner platter, staggered upstairs and passed out for ten hours of glorious sleep.

We spent most of the next day doing orientation stuff. It was four hours of pretty commonsense “do”s and “don’t”s (do have an open mind, don’t disrespect your host family, that sort of thing). But on the plus side, our “campus” is gorgeous. It’s one four-story building that’s literally right next to the Venezuelan embassy (with the right password, I could steal their WiFi, but unfortunately their password was not “guest” so no dice). From the top floors, we have an incredible view of East Amman (I’ll have pictures later).

One of the coolest things about the program is that we get an hour and a half every day to get lunch anywhere in the city. Taxis are dirt cheap (a 20-minute ride across the city costs about 2 JD or roughly $3.00) and food is a pretty good deal too (we ate at Al-Baal, a fairly high-end restaurant for about 6 JD per person, or $8.50). And the food is phenomenal. I grew up eating mainly bread and pasta—I didn’t eat meat until I was 14 or so. Arab food is all of the carbs I loved when I was 7 combined with all of the meat I loved when I was 17. Even in restaurants, meals are served platter-style because Arabs want you to try everything. The result is a giant mix and match—staples like falafel and pita bread and meat collide with hummous, vegetables, and more exotic toppings to form a giant multi-course mashup of deliciousness. I thought I might catch some flak for eating left-handed (I grew up eating lefty but most Arabs eat only with their right hand). However, both local waiters as well as the Jordanian program directors said it wouldn’t be a problem, so I continued shoveling in food at maximum efficiency. This could turn out to be a mixed blessing; I probably consumed a Michael Phelps-esque 4,000 calories today without getting any kind of exercise. If this continues, I’ll wind up fatter than Luke Wilson.

The program itself seems like the perfect combination of organization and spontaneity. Class runs for five hours a day, but because of weekends and our trip to Egypt, the Bedouin family homestay, visiting Aqaba and the Dead Sea, and the monthlong independent study project, we’re only actually in class for 35 days. After orientation and a group dinner today, we still had time to spend a couple hours in a hookah bar, which was playing loud Arabic remixes of American songs and employed waitresses who wore exactly the kind of clothing that our directors said would invite “unwanted attention"--they totally showed off their shoulders and wore tight clothing (I also think they were trying earning some money on the side seducing the customers, because what self-respecting hookah bar keeps five “waitresses” standing around in addition to the seven male waiters at 9 PM on a Tuesday night?) But don’t worry, Mom, their charms didn’t separate me from my dinars—for some reason, they seemed to focus on the two businessmen in the corner booth rather than the group of 12 students. The point? At first glance, Amman really is the modern, relatively westernized Middle Eastern city it bills itself as.

Despite the distractions, we had some interesting conversations through the haze of hookah smoke and over the blaring of Arab rap. At first, it’s hard to think of our group as anything but homogenous—there are 29 of us, 22 are female, I think all but two are IR or Middle Eastern Studies majors, and almost everyone goes to a small liberal arts college. We’re the kind of group that can easily find mutual friends, common interests, and understand each other’s pop-culture references. But I think that beneath the overwhelming sameness everyone has a pretty unique story that emerges as you get to know them. For example, I tried to compare SIT’s cast of characters to Jersey Shore (with me driving the plot as The Situation, my roommate Luke as my partner-in-crime Pauly D, and my other roommate Martin as the laid-back, smack-talking Vinny), but I realized it’s too early to start with the comparisons. It doesn’t work. I don’t know if there’s a fight-starting Ronnie in the group, or even a psychotic Angelina, a manipulative Sammie, or a sweetheart Snookie among our ranks. I guess I can only hope Amman will be our shore house—a place to hang out and, you know, avoid all the drama.


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