Monday, March 1, 2010

Nicolas Cage Conquers the Universe: Adventures In the Bad'ia

I wrote the following entries on paper intermittently over the span of my stay in the Bad’ia. They are reproduced here in order and have been slightly edited in order to form a more coherent narrative. I’m also going to hand in some parts of this entry as an academic assignment, which is why in some places it may seem overly analytical.

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The first thing that I noticed about the Bad’ia was that it’s not exactly Lawrence of Arabia. As I write this, I’m sitting on a couch in a modern house with electricity and running water, not a tent surrounded by desert and accessible only by camel. I felt pretty foolish rolling up to town in a full-on dishdash and kufiya when every local guy was wearing Eurotrashy Western clothes. The khanjal (big-ass knife) that I bought for the desert is about as anachronistic as a bow-and-arrow in the 21st-century American west. After 24 hours, I’m tempted to compare the Bedouin tribes to either American Indians, Inuits, cowboys, or Billie Ray Cyrus’ portrayal of the rural American lower-middle class in Hannah Montana: The Movie, [Footnote: I feel like I should explain this reference a little more in case some of my readers aren’t familiar with the nuances of Billie Rae Cyrus’ cinematic works. Basically, the entire premise of Hannah Montana: The Movie is that materialistic urban Americans lack the simple down-home values of their country-dwelling counterparts, a lesson which Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus has to learn by returning from her pop-star lifestyle in Los Angeles to her family’s home in Bible-Belt Tennessee for the summer. As anyone who has actually visited or lived in rural America knows, the Technicolor version of farm life differs significantly from reality—nowhere among the Disney film’s romantic images of chicken coops, horse farms, and picturesque creeks do we see poverty, social backwardness, religious/racial intolerance, or any of the myriad other problems that often form the flip side of the rural American coin. The irony, of course, is that Hannah Montana: The Movie is itself a giant testament to consumerism, the main value it purportedly speaks out against—but that is neither here nor now. The point is that if you visited America and expected your five-day homestay in rural Tennessee to resemble Ms. Montana’s, you would be greatly mistaken, just as I was mistaken to think that living with the Bedouin would entail living in a tent and riding camels.] but none of these comparisons really work on a level deeper than the discrepancies between dated pop-culture images and present-day reality. Basically, my host family seems to have adapted new clothing and technology but remains committed to tradition, hospitality, religion, and other ideals of their heritage. At this point it’s hard for me to articulate exactly how this is different from any other culture, though I may be biased because I tend to make connections rather than highlight differences. Also, tradition has made it hard for me to get to really know my host family—my father, Kasab, is an English teacher and we’ve talked a lot, but he often has to go in the rest of the house to confer with the women, leaving me either alone or with people who speak very little English. Another problem is that almost nobody here speaks Fus’ha—in Jordan as in America, it seems that language tends to degenerate the further you travel from population centers.

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Last night, I accompanied my host dad to his brother’s garage (he’s a blacksmith/mechanic), where about 10 members of his extended family were busy installing a completely new electrical system in Kasab’s truck. Jokingly, my host uncle referred to the new wires as the “cobra” or “snake” whenever I was around. Two guys who I think were employed by my host uncle (but were still relatives somehow) seemed to do most of the work with the “cobra” while everyone else sat around drinking tea; my uncle would occasionally weld a new hole between the engine and passenger compartments if it was necessary. When the job was about ¾ of the way done (the truck had started and the two electricians were slowly connecting wires and putting the dashboard/engine compartment back together), an older man who I later found out was Kasab’s father-in-law arrived. From what I could understand, he criticized some aspect of the electricians’ work, which led to an extended dispute with exaggerated yelling, gesturing, and storming out of the garage in disgust by all parties. Eventually, the problem was resolved and when I asked Kasab to explain it to me, he smiled and just said, “It was a misunderstanding,” after which everybody in the room laughed.

The rewiring of the truck was very much a communal effort even if most of the people deferred to the two employees on all matters electrical. When problems arose in the engine compartment, everybody huddled around to contribute their $.02. When I tried and failed to retie my kufiya to block the smoke from the fire (yes, there was a fire next to the truck for warmth; apparently, fire safety is a new concept in the Arab world), several men leapt to assist me at once. I think there were three or four sets of hands working on my headscarf at one point; I couldn’t really see too well but the resulting doo-rag was excellent. The youngest of my host brothers, a 16 year-old named Thabet, was in charge of everything that could be classified as “Charlie work”—serving tea, maintaining the fire, and preparing seats for the older guys and for guests. In the dispute with the father-in-law and with Thabet, I could see that social hierarchy is stricter here than in Amman.

2/27/10

On account of bad weather, I didn’t really do too much yesterday—in fact, I didn’t even leave the house, which drove me a little stir-crazy (read: I daydreamed extensively and designed customized shelving for my dorm room next year). Still, I saw Dr. Raed and Ahmad when they visited to check on me, played chess, and had the following conversation with Thabet [excerpted]:

Thabet: So why don’t you want to go to university with your brother?
Nick: I’d like to, but it won’t happen. We’re different people, we like different things, and that’s why we’ll go to different universities. [side note: I repeat vocab a lot when I speak in Arabic].
T: And you don’t want him to see you with your girlfriend.
N: (laughs). That’s a different problem.
T: Do you have a girlfriend?
N: No, I don’t have a girlfriend.
T: Why not? [Another thing about the Bedouin: they have no qualms asking private questions].
N: (BSing) Uh... it’s difficult to have a girlfriend in university.
T: Yes, I understand. You are busy with your studies. Maybe afterward when you have a job.
N: (recovering) Yes, inshallah.

[Side note: I repeated this conversation several times over the course of the Bad’ia homestay. I also maintained the backstory that I’m a Catholic because it’s very hard to explain that I don’t really go to church, but I’m not an atheist. This led to me getting quizzed by Kasab’s boss on obscure elements of Catholic theology, an exchange which I survived only by feigning poor Arabic skills.]

Anyway, I spent the first third of today (Saturday) inside, which killed me because the rain had finally stopped and I really wanted to go exploring. But today marked a big milestone for my first time indoors—I was invited into the house beyond the guest room. I hung out in Kasab’s self-described “flat,” which was basically a bro-lounge, and watched a series of really terrible movies. Based on my time abroad, I have come to the conclusion that “Bad American Pop Culture” should be a required component in every International Relations curriculum. Today, my eyes and good taste were simultaneously assaulted by a Steven Seagal knockoff of The Rock, where Seagal played an FBI agent undercover as a prisoner on Alcatraz trying to thwart a hostage-taking crisis that somehow engulfs a Supreme Court justice. Luckily, I only saw the end of this explosion-fest (if you thought the final scene didn’t involve people skydiving from exploding helicopters into San Francisco Bay, then think again) which, in all fairness to Mr. Seagal, did a pretty good job of maintaining a coherent plot considering that no scenes were actually shot at Alcatraz.



After that, I managed to catch the end of a movie called Airheads. It starts Steve Buscemi, Adam Sandler, and a guy who looks a lot like a younger Jason Segal as members of a struggling band called The Lone Rangers. In order to gain publicity, the band stages an armed takeover of a radio station and forces the DJs to play their demo tape; Chris Farley is the cop who handles the hostage situation. I am convinced this movie was immediately syndicated overseas just because it was not very good and because most of its stars made it big soon after it was released (I’m guessing in the early 90’s, because the film inexplicably has white rock and roll fans heckling a black police officer with chants of “Rodney King!” “Rodney King!”). Twenty minutes of Christian Bale in Equilibrium was enough to complete the bad-movie trifecta before lunchtime. I left with Kasab to go to an internet café (he wants to take the TOEFL test so he can teach English in the US, and he wanted to have me download some practice tests because although his English is excellent, Kasab isn’t too good with computers). Along the way, we passed a six-car garage turned into a makeshift sheep pen, where a shepherd and his two sons were helping a lamb give birth. We stopped long enough to watch the little guy pop out (I have pictures!) and congratulate the shepherd before going on our way.

About two minutes later, we reached the internet café, which was four older desktops and a fifth slightly newer one all sharing a satellite internet connection. The netcafe was right next to a small poolhall/coffeeshop, so there were lots of shabab (young guys) hanging around and all of them knew Kasab. [Footnote: I haven’t seen a female, not even covered in public, for three days now, and it’s really starting to weird me out. I think Dan Holleb’s theory about radical terrorism being fueled by a lack of sex may be valid—forget about sex before marriage, these guys can’t even flirt to let off a little steam. Not that the Bedouin are terrorists, but I do understand now how easy it must be for the Wahhabis to recruit.] I spent maybe half an hour smoking hookah, drinking coffee (Bedouin cappuchino is Winner instant coffee heated over a Coleman grill, with extra crystals sprinkled/heaped on top like cinnamon on a regular cappuchino. It tastes like hot chocolate at first, but the aftertaste of the dry instant coffee makes you want to vomit) and talking with local guys as they played a version of cutthroat. Mainly, our dialogue consisted of us sharing swear words, a staple of any cultural exchange, and the guys insulting each other in English so I could understand (“He is not a good person,” “He sleeps and drinks in the street,” etc.). After spending too much time in the netcafe, we started to return home but got sidetracked twice. Because of Bedouin customs that basically make it impossible to either refuse an invitation or not invite someone into your home, this tends to happen quite a bit. The first time, we drank tea in the home of a Syrian guy who was quick to ask me my first overtly political question: “What do you think of Saddam Hussein?” Earlier in the conversation, it had come up that some of the American cross-border raids from Iraq into Syria had hit this guy’s hometown, so I tried to choose my words carefully and have Kasab translate. “Saddam Hussein was not a good person, but Iraq did not need to be invaded,” I said diplomatically. Kasab looked at me pitifully. “Nick, I will not translate that. This guy, he loves Saddam.” Oh well, you can’t please ‘em all—even if the Iraq war was geopolitically, ethically, and financially stupid, I’m not about to call Saddam Hussein a good guy. [Footnote: later on, I had this same exchange with some of my host family, and I thought up an even more diplomatic/legalistic answer: “Saddam Hussein was not as benevolent as King Abdullah.” Somewhere, Bill Clinton is proud of me.]

Moving from international to local politics, our next visit was to Kasab’s brother’s house, were I met the village sheikh. Sheikh Habis works as a mechanic in the Jordanian air force, so I presented him with my aviator sunglasses as a gift. Apparently, they’re hard to come by outside of Amman, so the sheikh was pretty pumped and gave me one of his arghals (the black rings that holds down Arab headscarves, arghals represent a man’s honor) to reciprocate. [Footnote: when I told him that he would “look like the men in the American film Top Gun,” Sheikh Habis’ face lit up with joy, which just reinforces my earlier point about why shitty pop culture should be mandatory for IR majors]. All in all, the sheikh was a funny guy—he joked constantly about slaughtering lambs and cursed as much as the guys in the pool hall. I think that as a group, Bedouin men curse more than guys in Amman, but that may also be because they are not used to having foreigners around and don’t expect me to understand when they say “ibn sharmoota” (son of a bitch) in everyday conversation.



To cap things off, on my way out the door I introduced myself to one of Kasab’s nephews as “Nicholas” (Dr. Raed advised me to go by this name in the Bad’ia, because out there “Nick” literally means “fuck”). He replied by saying, “Oh, like Nicolas Cage!” If you know me at all, you can imagine how stoked I was to finally be compared to my idol and namesake, so I immediately began quizzing this poor Arab kid on the merits of Mr. Cage’s movies. Unfortunately, he didn’t know any of the titles, so he just said, “I don’t remember the names, I just watch and enjoy them,” which I thought was an excellent philosophy. He also gave me a great way to introduce myself to schoolkids, which came in handy the next day.

2/28/10

Today was really fun. I woke up at 5:45 to take pictures and watch the sunrise, and I think I got some real Ansel Adams stuff. After freezing my ass off waiting for the clouds to look cool, I went to school with Kasab, who is a middle school English teacher. He pretty much let me teach the class while he graded tests, which I got a huge kick out of. Most of the time I just read their lesson and let them practice reading English to me, and then answered their questions about America and my family. There wasn’t much language overlap, so sometimes Kasab had to look up and translate, but usually I did a good job of sticking to simple questions like “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My pidgin Arabic and digital camera were huge hits, too. The school itself was shamelessly nationalist in the way that only a Jordanian school can be—I captured some pretty over-the-top propaganda photos and sayings on film—but all things considered, I think they’re doing a pretty good job of educating the kids. Based on my highly informal surveys (asking the whole class at once and listening to what they yell at me), most of the 76 students want to go to university and almost all of them want to visit America. At least as many boys aspired to be doctors/engineers as did pilots/soccer players.

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Some of the differences between US and Jordanian schools were noticeable, too. First and foremost, excellence is demanded of the student, not the teacher. While I was hanging out in the headmaster’s office with some of the teachers after school, the father of a 5th-grade student came in and started yelling at Kasab and the principal. Talking with Kasab afterwards, I figured out what the argument was about: the student had gotten 0/5 questions right on his English quiz that day, and the father was demanding to know why the student had’nt been beaten. Patiently, the principal explained that the school doesn’t punish students for poor performance. After what seemed like a long debate about the relative merits of this policy and how it contrasted with the father’s own upbringing, the father demanded that he be notified if his son did poorly (ostensibly so he could conduct the beatings himself at home). Seeing the potential problem, Kasab and the headmaster agreed to call him only if he failed several tests in a row, which the father agreed to. The entire time, the boy (I had nicknamed him “majnoon” or “crazy” during class because he liked to make funny faces at me) was standing right next to me looking like he’d seen a ghost. I felt bad for the kid, but his dad was clearly steeped in tradition—while all of the kids and teachers wore Western clothes, he wore an immaculate gray dishdash with a starched-white kufiya, and his closely-trimmed mustache suggested that he meant business.

Secondly, Jordanian schools don’t really identify special-needs kids. There was one student in particular who clearly had some kind of developmental disorder and needed one-on-one attention, but wasn’t receiving it (on my second day in class, I noticed a few more of these kids, but none as obvious as the first one). As far as I could tell, this poor guy didn’t even have a book, he just kind of sat in class and bothered the other students, who did their best to ignore him or move away from him. It was very sad, but the fact of the matter is that this school just doesn’t have the resources to accommodate him—the only materials beyond the bare-bones stuff supplied by the Ministry of Education were H1N1 warning posters from USAID, which were in every room. Still, it’s worth noting that the Bedouin family system ensures that he’ll be taken care of outside of school, which is somewhat relieving to know.

After school I went to a barbershop, where I took a nap while Kasab got a haircut and a hot shave. We went home to eat lunch and then napped until dinnertime (getting up at 5:45 is a bitch). When I woke up again, I came into the living room and was surprised to see women—Kasab’s wife, sister, and mother were all hanging out watching TV. Even though they cooked all of my meals, this was the first time I’d seen them in four days. They were extremely quiet around me even then, but I managed to tease a few smiles out of them, which in the Bad’ia is roughly the equivalent of pulling off the Ocean’s Eleven heist. Later, I found out that the reason I had been allowed in the room with them was because I am now formally a member of the Al-Naimat tribe, which is pretty cool to think about.

When I came into the room (still groggy from the nap), Abu Kasab and Rami were in the middle of an intense chess match. One of Kasab’s favorite things to do is to insult people in English so they can’t understand; for example, today in class he described his students to me by saying things like, “Muhammad has head like potato,” or, about a chubby kid, “Laith has face like bread.” He did this while the kids were standing next to him, beaming with pride. Anyway, during the chess match, Kasab would do this every two minutes even though he wasn’t playing, until someone got mad enough to hit him. This nearly caused a brawl two games later when I was playing Muhammad in a particularly spirited game [Footnote: over dinner, we had another intensely political discussion in which Muhammad used some of his only English to state bluntly, “I fucking hate Israel.” He asked me if I hated Israel, and I tried to explain that I didn’t hate any country because hate only leads to more war, but I think this diplomatic parsing got lost in translation. When we set up the chessboard after dinner, Muhammad was playing as black, and he said, “I am Iraq. You are America. Let’s go, I am hungry!” He was joking, but still, the national pride implications combined with the fact that everyone was gathered around watching us made the game pretty tense.] because he thought Kasab was giving me advice when really, all he was saying was “You will sweep the floor with Muhammad.” At one point, Muhammad even woke up Kasab’s father, who is a private English tutor, so he could translate for him and make sure there was no cheating. I won that game (USA! USA!), but Muhammad demanded a rematch and the night ended when he finally beat me. Since he had never (up until that point) won a game of chess in his life, Muhammad promptly whipped out his camera phone and took pictures of the board and of me in a mock-crying pose for posterity. He asked me for my email so he could send me the photo, and we exchanged contact info. All in all, I had a great time in the Bad’ia, but it was because of the people and not because I did any of the stereotypical desert activities that I was expecting. It’s kind of bittersweet for my stay to be over so quickly, but hopefully this won’t be the last time I visit Qura Al Naimat. Like Miley Cyrus, I can’t wait to see it again.

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