Tag Archives: Jordan

A New Beginning and A New Lifestyle

Marhaba! My name is Sofia Sinnokrot and I am a second year student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the 2018-2019 academic year I will be studying abroad in Amman, Jordan. Being half Palestinian and visiting the Middle East several times in my life, I do not share the culture shock that many of my fellow peers have experienced from the moment they saw the McDonald’s sign written in Arabic.

McDonalds

However, visiting the Middle East and living in the Middle East are two completely different situations; the latter in which I was not prepared for. In the United States, we take for granted many aspects of our daily lives that are additional privileges in other parts of the world. For example, Jordan is one of the poorest water countries in the world. That being said, my apartment is only given a measurable tank of water for the month. Once that water runs out, we have to wait until the next refillment period or pay a large amount of money to get a new tank before. We are not able to drink the tap water from our kitchen sink, and have to pay for additional water jugs once we run out of drinking water. It is emphasised that laundry should only be done on the first day that our water is refilled since a load of laundry requires a significant amount of water. Water alone is a major change for me to adjust to while I am here. Being a runner, I consume at least 3 liters of water a day. Not having access to water fountains in buildings is something that is actively on my conscious and an adjustment I have had to account for in my daily routine. Coming from Chicago, unlimited drinkable running water was a norm for me that I took for granted. The same goes for electricity. Electricity in Amman is very expensive, and drying machines are rare household items. Instead of having my laundry done in a few hours, I have to hang my clothes up outside and wait two days for them to dry.

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Life in Amman is very different compared to life in the United States. Most of the food in the supermarkets are imported from nearby countries. Thus, grocery shopping can become very expensive. Vegetables that are imported are sprayed with an extreme amount of pesticides and the chemical taste of them has made eating food an unpleasurable experience. Although I could go on forever comparing the simple life of living in America to the more complex adjustment of living in Amman, there are many positive aspects to each scenario. For one, I have become water conscious. With global warming on the rise, gaining environmental friendly traits is NOT something that should be talked about in a negative way. Jordan being a poor water country is extremely unfortunate, but I am now conscientious of my water usage. As well, instead of buying from supermarkets where goods are imported, I have learned to buy from local sellers. Not only is the food comparably fresh and cheap, I am helping the seller’s family as well as the Jordanian economy.

veggie stand

It is the little things that I do not normally think about that make adjusting to life in Amman a little bit more difficult than I expected. Nonetheless, I love my life here so far and I am very excited for the next few months!

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Agricultural Sustenance in Jordan

As my American friends back home prepared for their annual Halloween activities, my October 31st was spent along the Jordan Valley in a region called Ghor Al Mazraa. Standing as the country’s most fertile region, its unique agricultural climate has excelled Jordan’s all-year-round fruit and vegetable exports for decades. With that being said, Ghor is known for more than just its fertile land and agricultural richness. It is home to a unique, authentic community which sustains itself through resourceful, agricultural living. The people of Ghor exemplify a strong bond between man and nature, one that has held generation after generation and is portrayed throughout their daily lives. I was lucky enough to spend the day with a local family there, who invited my peers and I over for some dinner and more.

Below is a picture of Madia. Madia, who was kind enough to invite us to her small home in Ghor Al Mazraa, introduced us to a whole different lifestyle inside her community, one based on agricultural sustainment.  In the picture below, Madia is teaching us dough-stretching techniques used to make Arabic flatbread. Similar to rolling a pizza, it is done by flopping the dough back and forth between your hands. Once a large circle is formed, the dough is placed onto a large, heated dome.

Madia making bread.

Madia making bread.

This large black dome sits above burning wooden sticks. It is heated and used to cook bread in a matter of seconds. Among many traditional cooking  techniques utilized by Madia and her family, this particular method is used to solely to make bread, a staple component in almost every Arabic meal.

The black dome.

The black dome.

After Madia’s lesson on flatbread making, she gave everyone the chance to make their own piece. I decided to have a go at it myself and to my surprise I ended up making a decent flatbread! I even received a few compliments.

Me and my flatbread.

Me and my flatbread.

Throughout Madia’s home, there were several stations set up for the students in my program which were meant to expose us to the unique lifestyle of the community. After the bread-making station, I decided to check out the other ones located in and out of the house. Among them was a seed-grinding station, where a few of my peers were grinding lentils with a traditional grinder made up of two rocks and a wooden handle. This grinder is used by pouring seeds into the small opening at the top and using a wooden handle to turn two rocks against each other until enough friction is created to break the seeds apart.

A rock grinder.

A seed grinder.

After spending some time at the seed-grinding station, I decided to move on to one of the stations outside. I came across another cooking station, which I would later find out was being utilized to make our dinner for that very night. Here a few of my peers were helping some of the women peel tomatoes. In order to give you a true understanding of the community’s resourcefulness, let it be known that the skins and other parts of the tomato which were not used for the soup were fed to the goats in the backyard!

Peeling tomatoes.

Peeling tomatoes.

Just across the tomato station was another station set up for sauteing vegetables. To my realization, Madia’s family did not own a stove and relied on a pan, metal rack, and burning wood in order to fry the peppers and onions.

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Cooking the veggies.

Lo and behold, the tomatoes that we previously peeled were eventually combined with the fried peppers and onions, and simmered together to make  a delicious homemade tomato soup. We enjoyed our soup with the flatbread we made earlier.

Our yummy soup.

Our yummy soup.

After dinner, Madia and her family invited us back inside for some arts and crafts. Among one of the varying sessions was “model car making.” As a common hobby among children in the community, various wires and other seemingly “useless” materials are utilized to make model cars which are then played with as toys. At this station, one especially talented boy by the name of Khalid displayed his collection of bikes, motorcycles, cars, and airplanes. He even showed us how to bend and form the wires to form the models seen below.

The wire cars.

Khalid’s impressive wire cars.

Among the most interesting and traditional crafts was the natural eyeliner station. One of the young women explained the process of creating this organic makeup– a three hour long process using a black aluminum bowl, olive oil, and a piece of cotton cloth. The cloth is burned over the olive oil while the aluminum tin is placed on top of forming smoke. At the end of the process, a thick black layer is formed on the inner surface of aluminum bowl, and then scraped off and used as eyeliner. They made everyone, both men and women, put it on! Below is a picture of my friend Meghan sporting the traditional eyeliner.

Megan trying out the eyeliner.

Meghan trying out the eyeliner.

The day trip to Ghor was among one of my favorite thus far, and it really put into perspective the manner in which natural resources and agricultural methods are cherished and utilized within Ghor’s community. Coming from Western society where waste is an all too common thing, being exposed to the lifestyle in Ghor Al Mazraa was very inspiring. 

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Service-Learning in Jordan

After reaching a decision to study abroad in Jordan, and only after researching a multitude of programs, I applied to International Studies Abroad (ISA). ISA, as a fairly new study abroad program, seemed to satisfy both my academic and personal endeavors, and my budget too. Upon a further look into the program, I was surprised by the overall options ISA actually offered, in terms of its locations, sessions, courses, and opportunities. I decided to enroll in the Fall 2015 Jordan program, and noticed many course options that are similar to courses offered at my home institution in the U.S., including Arab/Israeli Conflict, Gender in Islam, U.S. Foreign Policy, and Arabic Language. Although these course descriptions were surely more advanced and detailed than that of my home institution’s, I envisioned a similar academic experience throughout my time in Jordan as in the U.S.. This predetermined vision would soon prove to be wrong, in the best way possible.

Although I had first settled on ISA’s basic Fall 2015 program in Jordan, I later decided to look into other options offered. Lo and behold, I stumbled upon something called “service-learning.” This component, in addition to regular coursework, is an add-on option to a semester abroad with ISA, one that is only offered in a limited amount of countries, and takes students “beyond the classroom experience” to provide them with the ability to work with local non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). After having discovered this opportunity, I immediately emailed ISA staff, and added the service-learning component to my program in Jordan. This was probably one of the best decisions in my life.

Currently I am dually enrolled as a student at The University of Amman Ahliyya, and as a volunteer English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at my placement NGO. My specific placement NGO is called The Family Development Association. This association works under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Development in Jordan, and serves as a kindergarten school and host for various other programs, including an ESL workshop. My participation at The Family Development Association allows me to work with a variety of target groups, including a kindergarten group (ages 4-5), a “Youth @ Risk” group (ages 8-14), and older English Language Learners (ELL) groups (ages 10-14).

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I volunteer three days a week at the NGO, and my responsibilities have allowed me to serve as both an assistant student teacher, and as an ESL teacher. On each of the three days I arrive at the NGO in the morning, where I first spend time with the kindergarten group until the end of their school day at 1:00 P.M.. During their session, my responsibilities are fairly widespread. I help facilitate various activities such as breakfast, recess, and lunch time. In addition, I am given time to host my own English lesson plan where I introduce the children to English letters and/or numbers and help them trace those letters/numbers (they are still learning to read and write). In cooperation with the staff at the NGO, we also facilitate story time, and arts and craft sessions as well.

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After the normal school day ends at 1:00 P.M., and after the kindergartners all go home, The Family Development Association opens its doors to the other two groups I mentioned above, from 1:00 P.M. to 3:00 P. M..

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My involvement with the Youth @ Risk group in particular has been a one-of-a-kind experience. These kids are often victims of financial, family, environmental, and social threats. Most of the kids in this group have parents or family members who are refugees, and in most cases a lot of these kids stopped attending school at an early age. The Family Development Association offers counseling specifically for this group, through its Save the Children NGO affiliate on site. I was lucky enough to even sit in on one of these sessions with the kids, where we created our own name tags and talked about ourselves and our interests in Arabic and English. I also work extensively with this group to teach them English in a fun, approachable manner. I have received amazing feedback during my sessions with these kids, and one of the young boys even stopped me after a class to personally ask if we could hold an English session every day.

In terms of the older ELL groups, my English lessons are facilitated in a more advanced fashion. I am able to do so because most of the members in this group have learned the basics of the language, which allows me to build off of their previous knowledge. In contrary, my lessons in the Youth @ Risk group focuses on the very basics.

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My experience with ISA’s Service-Learning program has truly been a humbling and rewarding one. Throughout my short time volunteering at The Family Development Association, I have established great connections across the all-women staff, and all of the groups of kids. So much so, the staff even asked me to attend a field trip with them, the kindergartners greet me with a high-five every morning, and the young boys often stop to talk to me after our sessions.

I am so glad to make such a positive impact on the lives of these children, especially since they have already made one on me. I could have never imagined my semester abroad as an ESL teacher, and having no prior teaching experience, I was a bit worried at first. In spite, I quickly built relationships with staff and students alike, and received great feedback from all of the groups at the NGO. This experience has made me appreciate the importance of an education as the gateway to a successful future. It has also opened ideas for my very own future as an ESL teacher abroad. I want to thank both ISA and The Family Development Association for exposing me to this wonderful opportunity, which has enhanced my study abroad in Jordan unimaginably so.  

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An Emerging Scene: Gay Culture in Jordan

If you ever happen to find yourself along one of Amman’s booming inner-city streets, take a moment to look past its electric urban vibe, just long enough to notice the cultural exchange of affection between the region’s adolescent men. You may spot two shabaab (young guys) walking side by side, arms intertwined. You may even notice another pair, walking proudly with their hands interlocked. These seemingly flirtatious gestures, alongside the infamous triple-kiss-on-the-cheek salute, should not be mistaken as sexual connotations, but rather exemplify culturally affectionate and heterosexual friendships among members of its Middle Eastern patriarch.

Men holding hands in Middle East

To the Western eye, behaviors such as hand-holding and cheek-kissing often prelude to homosexual innuendos. Based on predetermined concepts of homosexuality, being touchy-feely with those of the same sex is automatically considered “gay.” Afterall, when’s the last time you looked at a couple of guys holding hands, without assuming their sexual orientation? You’d probably think to yourself, “Oh, they must be dating,” or “Oh, they’re gay.” On the contrary, if two men were seen holding hands or exchanging kisses on the cheek across the streets of Amman, the rest of the community would think nothing more than to admire their strong friendship.

Historically speaking, homosexuality across the Islamic world was deemed Haram (taboo) ever since prophet Lut’s mission. According to the Quran (Islam’s holy scripture), Lut was sent to eradicate homosexual behaviors across two ancient twin cities, known as Sodom and Gomorrah (near the present day Dead Sea). When the indigenous populations refused to let go of their impermissible cultures, Lut was subsequently ordered (by God) to leave the city, and did so without his wife by his side.

Long story short, God condemned the two cities, and turned them upside down the very next day. Lut’s wife, who stayed behind to witness such acts, was turned into salt as punishment. Her statue is rumored to lie upon a mountain top near the Sea still to this day.

Lut's wife.

Lut’s wife.

It comes to no surprise to me then, that homosexuality and its acceptance across the Middle-East has witnessed little to no progress since Lut’s time. With the exception of Israel and Lebanon, among the only two nations in the region who recognize LGBT rights, the latter part of the Muslim world continues to outlaw same sex relations.

As a gay man myself,  I often questioned my decision to study abroad in a region where my very innate being is openly outlawed. Afterall, how could I possibly feel safe to be myself, in an area that swears against my right to love? Despite inner fears, I found comfort upon discovering that Jordan is among the more socially advanced countries when it comes to perceptions of homosexuality. So much so, it even legalized gay activity in the early 1950’s, in comparison to other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and Yemen, where the death penalty is still applied to members of the community.

Even more to my surprise, Jordan is actually home to one of the first Middle Eastern cafe’s which openly embraces and accepts “liberal cultures,” whose mission is to unite people of all backgrounds in hopes of promoting vast equality. Books@Cafe, located in Jabal Amman, stands among the only regional institutions that advocates for peace and tolerance across all types of people, regardless of sexual orientation.

Books@Cafe

Books@Cafe offers members of its LGBT community a safe place unlike any other. Groups of homosexual friends can chat freely among themselves, absent of any societal judgement, ridicule, or discrimination, as they enjoy a delicious plate of wings or a warm grilled cheese sandwich. I myself, have enjoyed several nights out at this stylish joint with various friends within and outside of my own community. It’s one of the only places where I felt like I could be myself, without fear or hesitation.

I was rather relieved to have discovered this location. Being the only gay male in my study abroad program, I worried about finding friends within my own community, ones with whom I could share and relate experiences with. I did however manage to form one particular friendship certainly worth noting, (ironically formed outside of the Books@Cafe environment), which helped me overcome my worry of lonesomeness throughout my experience here. Though I won’t mention his name (you know who you are, and will probably be embarrassed that I mentioned you in this post), this individual has not only befriended me, but has played a significant role during my short time in Amman thus far. As a native Jordanian, he’s showed me around aspects of Amman nightlife, and exposed me to other cultural features this vibrant city has to offer. I highly value the time spent together with him, and I thank him for making my assimilation in Jordan that much easier.

Although my time as a gay foreigner in Jordan may seemingly glorify a happy-go-lucky experience, the truth is, many members of the community here in Jordan and throughout the Middle East continue to remain closeted, and are reluctant to outwardly express themselves. I have the luxury of going back to a country where my right to love is widely accepted and embraced, whereas many Jordanians across the Middle East, simply do not.

I can only hope that the influence shed by institutions such as Books@Cafe spreads far beyond the inflexible ideologies of Middle Eastern social society, and that one day, love can stand as a gender-less, class-less, and label-free foundation of life.

Lastly, I would like to commend the Gilman Scholarship Program for choosing this specific prompt, and for embracing its applicants regardless of who it is they choose to love. Thank you.

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Destination: Amman, Jordan

As cliché as it sounds, studying abroad has been a dream of mine since the day I enrolled into college. Having never travelled outside the States, I rightfully yearned to explore far beyond their borders. To put things into perspective, I was born and raised in New Jersey, the same state where I attended school, shy of a 15 minute commute from my home. Indubitably, over the span of my academic career, I seemingly developed an intense desire to experience an academic environment both out-of-country, and out of comfort zone.

Just a few months into my junior year, I decided to turn my dream of studying abroad into a reality. One year, and one International Studies Abroad acceptance letter later, I find myself sitting inside of my student apartment in Amman, Jordan writing this very post.

At this point you may be wondering, why Amman, Jordan? Why didn’t I opt for a more ravishing European scene, where the sandy coasts of Barcelona, or the picturesque Isles of Greece would surely attract any first time abroad student? Albeit alluring, I based my choice upon a passion for Arabic language, culture, and an academic pursuit within degrees of Political Science and Middle-Eastern studies. Studying abroad in Jordan would make it possible to learn Arabic in an adequate setting, all while embracing authentic Middle-Eastern culture to the fullest. Besides, if I ever wanted to branch out of my comfort zone, studying in the capital city of Amman seemed like a good start.

I arrived a day earlier than expected (my original flight was actually cancelled & re-booked due to a pilot strike), and I was subsequently faced with the daunting task of making housing arrangements for the night. Equipped with a rusty Arabic vocabulary and an eager mindset, I stepped out of the airport with an intent to engage in conversation amid surrounding locals. Among the first things I took notice of upon exiting the airport was the geography. The barren landscapes were met with a sense of tranquility and calmness. Surprisingly enough, the weather allowed for a dry, yet comfortable atmosphere. Despite soaring temperatures, the air lacked a sense of humidity, and surely enough trumped any summer day in New Jersey.

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Nevertheless, my first real experience of Jordan was during a tour of downtown Amman, referred to as “Al Bilad”, or the old country. Upon a tour of the city, I instantaneously fell in love with its cultural affluence. Between breathtaking mountainsides and photographic horizons, my eyes drifted into an astonished daze. One of the stops along the tour was a renowned restaurant known as ‘The Hashem Restaurant’. We ordered a round of hummus and falafel, which was undoubtedly the best of its kind. Stomachs full, we successfully ended our day with our first taxi ride back to the apartments.

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My newfound love for Amman was not solely influenced by its cultured downtown region, but rather solidified through an excursion made to the ancient Roman Citadel in a district known as “Jabal al-Qal’a”, or the The Castle Mountain. This historical site remarkably distinguishes itself from the booming metropolitan area just a few hundred feet below it. Standing tall are the archaic Temple of Hercules, and the Umayyad Palace; both of which illustrate previous occupations by the Assyrians and Persians, whose influence still linger across the scene even thousands of years later.

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My time spent in Jordan falls short of one week, and I can assure you it’s been the most culturally shocking, frenetic, and rewarding weeks in my entire life. In the short week that I have been here, I have experienced a variety of cultural differences, environmental adaptations, social adjustments, and academic challenges. Simple things that are taken for granted in the States seem to be absent across Jordanian norms, including long hot showers (Jordan lacks an abundance of water resources), or being able to wear a pair of shorts in public without being deemed as unprofessional. Despite facing a variety of personal challenges, the experiences I face while in Jordan will allow me to grow both as a student, and as an individual. As difficult as they may be, I personally promise to approach each situation with diligence, and utilize every experience (including the tough and ugly ones) as a tool to learn and grow.

And even though I’m still in the honeymoon phase of my experience, my time here in Amman, Jordan thus far has been unforgettable. If things continue going the way they have been, I may not get a chance to feel homesick!

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