Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Beginning

The word 'Badia' used to describe the desertous periods in Jordan comes from the verb meaning 'to begin.'  And indeed, the land there is very primordial.  Supposedly the inhabitants of the Badia--the Bedouin--are not much different all across the desert, north into Iraq, down into Saudi Arabia, this is where the Arab culture began.

But surprisingly the main difference I noticed between life in Amman and the life I observed in the five days I spent in the northern Badia was cultural, not technological as the not only the name might in imply, but also indeed as I had assumed, despite and perhaps because of the SIT orientation.

I lived in a village called Difyanah, near the city of Mafraq.  My house was less than three miles from the Syrian border.  Unlike most periods of time during my SIT program, these days had no schedule.  I was dropped off at the house of my host-family and was supposed to live, just live, for a few days.
my house (top floor unfinished)
And the living was the main difference.  I was struck by the quiet and the solitude.  Perhaps this was a function of me being an English-speaking, male guest in a conservative culture, but I think otherwise.  I watched my host father, a retired army officer, spend long moments walking around the house and grounds in sweats, just looking.  When I walked out on the road north, towards the Syrian border, I saw single men in traditional dress, herding sheep and goat just as they had for generations.  My younger brother, Yazin, spent most of his free time in an abandoned building on our property, waiting to sell candy and popcorn to the neighborhood kids for a few piaster. I sat with him, most days, and when we had exhausted our meager phrases of Arabic communication, we did just sit.

looking north out the road towards Syria
 And inside, life was different too. I was told that I had a teenage host sister, but I never saw her.  I saw my host mother all of two times.  I was never invited past the entry room and adjoining couch room, the main room of the house as far as guests are concerned.  I spent a lot of time in my couch room, reclining on the pillows that lined the room, drinking tea and reading The Brothers Karamazov (thanks, Dad), wondering if I should be doing more in my role as guest or in my days in the Badia, but this is, I guess, mainly what they do. 
our couch room
 When I left the house with my host brother Laith, a 21 year old studying to be a teacher, it was usually (always) to other people's couch rooms.  When we had guests, it was the same thing.  Large groups of shebab (men in their 20s) reclined in various poses around the room, talking, playing cards (cheating relentlessly), chain smoking, but mostly chilling on cell phones.

Technology is everywhere here, but in a different way.  Almost everyone has a TV in the couch room, but if it was on it was usually tuned to news or a soccer video game, never the Turkish soap operas popular in Amman.  On their cellphones, no one was making plans or calling friends, and definitely not girlfriends.  Instead, they were sharing videos, songs and mostly just playing games.  It was different. 

It was kind of like vacation. Spent time reading, walking in lieu of running, being brought endless tea, and thinking about coming home. 

But it was perhaps the most uncomfortable vacation.  I was alone.  My reading was done in short increments before I felt too awkward sitting there and stood up for a minute, maybe walked into the other room.  If I walked through the town, everyone wanted to talk to me or just look.  When I hung out with the shebab, I was either struggling through an Arabic explanation of US foreign policy in the Middle East or saying nothing, trying to follow the conversation. 

I was happy to come back to Amman, happy to spend the next day decompressing at the Dead Sea with my program, but I was happier that I spent the five days in the desert.  Surrounded by technology but not using it, surrounded by yet a new, more socially conservative culture. But with time, quiet, and space to think.  And a different perspective on the world I came back to.
the sun setting over the palestine across the dead sea

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