This entry was recently submitted by Ellen Paddock, a student at Duke University and a participant in AMIDEAST’s summer 2012 Intensive Arabic Program in Amman, Jordan. In it, she reflects on the program and her experiences with learning Arabic in Jordan’s capital.
It is always difficult to funnel weeks of an experience into a short reflection; the pieces tend to run together, held by a glue of recurring sensations: heat and dust, the blast of cool air when entering a building, staring at whiteboards and the construction site out the window, favorite places and half-understood chatter. You leave, initially, with a dusty mosaic of memories; an overall sense of what that experience was like.
Take the time to examine the memories, however, and pieces jump out at you that are so alive with color that you wonder that they ever blended in. My study abroad experience in Jordan was full of such moments: watching silk lanterns float into the sky at a Ramadan festival in a public park, catching the crowd ‘s reaction to a poet crowing that “My blood is hot and my heart is strong because I am Jordanian!”, celebrating Iftar with fellow AMIDEAST students on a pedestrian bridge after realizing that we were stranded taxi-less until traffic resumed, watching a young boy hustle baby chicks dyed brilliant purple, blues and reds to drivers at a stoplight, glimpsing 30 years’ worth of archeological knowledge from an elderly doctor at Ajloun castle.
All metaphors aside, coming to Jordan as a student with AMIDEAST gave me a different lens for observing Middle Eastern culture. Though I had traveled in the past and even lived in the Middle East, this is first time that I was able to emerge beyond a Western bubble, by approaching the entire four weeks as a learning experience, and by committing to stepping outside of my comfort zone.
My classes were certainly key to this goal. Between AMIDEAST’s organization and the Qasid Institute’s excellent professors, the program absolutely lived up to its title of Intensive Arabic. With 5 hours of classes per day, several hours of homework, group excursions and meetings with language partners, there was little mental downtime. As program manager Hala Qubein noted- it’s like pouring large volumes of water into a soda can: lots of information in a very small space of time. This image frequently crossed my mind during particularly difficult grammar lessons or when working through five pages of new vocabulary overnight.
However, as challenging as the academics were, it was always exciting when hard work paid off: when I was able to have a real conversation with my language partner, or to decipher some of the Jordanian colloquial dialect on the streets. My language partner was particularly welcoming and helpful; we conducted most of our meetings in Arabic, and though there was an assigned topic to discuss every week, our discussions went far beyond those topics. Though we occasionally had to switch to English or resort to a kind of charades to define a specific word, we were able to discuss subjects from our respective backgrounds, to Jordanian and U.S. politics, to current books and movies, to social issues affecting each of our countries, and more. Even if we had stayed on the topics assigned, however, there was a lot to learn. My Jordanian A’amiya (colloquial) teacher sought to orient class around current issues in Jordan that were also extremely instructive about its culture: the challenges and administration of tourism, violence in universities, particular health challenges (such as smoking), the current culture of reading in Jordan (and its contrast with the historical), labor in Jordan and the way shame or honor play into the job market. Though many of these topics were somewhat surprising to my American classmates and me because they were different from the types of issues we are familiar with in the U.S., they always led to dynamic discussions.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of coming to Jordan for Arabic was gathering the courage to risk being wrong; experiencing the struggle to convey fully formed thoughts in a language with which I am just beginning to acquire familiarity. As numerous friends, taxi drivers, and waiters offered in consolation after a fumbled exchange, “Maalesh, alaarabi wahid min asaab lughat”- It’s okay, Arabic is one of the most difficult languages. There’s a multilevel truth in the delivery of that statement: Arabic is difficult, but it also a beautiful language, one whose native speakers are largely very welcoming and understanding when it comes to the simple difficulties of communication. As English is increasingly prevalent in Jordanian business, education, administration, and media, many Jordanians are equally familiar with the struggle to convey meaning through a second language. It’s the same struggle that many immigrants to the United States face, and in that respect visiting Jordan also taught me to better understand my own country. Without a doubt, this is an experience that will stay with me forever.