Farewells and Beginnings

(Sent to Rotarians and Friends) The conclusion of a scholarship but not of an experience.

Some may call this is my farewell letter regarding my Cultural Ambassadorial Scholarship for the Summer and Fall of 09 in Jordan. But I wouldn’t.

A month and a half ago I completed my last semester at the University of Jordan Language Center (or as they now like to call it, Institute for Teaching Arabic to Non Arabic Speakers, which I believe was a clever ploy to teach the students new words). I had been studying at the Language Center since the summer of last year, and was able to complete levels 2 and 3 along with evening classes in Colloquial Arabic. I also took two classes outside the language center, Islamic studies and Political Studies. Both classes were in English but I was the only foreigner in one and one of three in the other. Apart from thoroughly enjoying the classes, especially the Islamic studies, I was able to get more of a glimpse of what it is like to be a student in Jordan. I met lots of Jordanians who we initially confused and then interested in my own interest in their country, language and culture.

Throughout the course of my six months I participated in a variety of volunteer opportunities, although honestly I would have really liked to be involved in more. I taught an English class in one of the former Palestinian refugee camps, 30 little kids eager to learn and also to make fun of my name, which seems to happen alot. With Rotary I participated in an Iftar, the meal to break the fast during Ramadan, put on for children from a local orphanage. I also met with Rotaract clubs and participated in a few of their meetings and a conference around Amman.  For my last couple of months in Jordan I interned with an organization called Injaz Al-Arab, a branch of Junior Achievement International. I had a contact through a mentor at my University at home and was able to help out for a few months. Injaz is a great program that connects business leaders to the classroom. Providing volunteers to teach entrepreneurship through real life experience, to students who are really allowed to get creative with their education. Apart from pushing the Ministries of education in 13 countries in the Middle East to adventure with its program, they also put on a regional Student Company Competition, which allows teams of students to create entrepreneurial organizations and compete against other students groups internationally. This program fuels students desire to be entrepreneurial and opens up a world apart from the normal cigarette and tea government jobs.

Arabic is something I would not recommend as hobby, nor a light project to pick up on the side (although more power to you if you want to try). Arabic is a full time job, it requires hours of studying, talking, listening; it turns your dictionary (Hans Wehr, every Arabic student knows him personally) into your best friend and worst enemy. Its like walking on a treadmill; you look around and see that you are going no where, no matter how fast you go or how hard you try. Until you realize that you are making your body more healthy, you are improving your stamina, that as soon as you get off the treadmill you will be in better shape than before, then you can be happy with what you are doing. And as you walk on that treadmill, although you maybe going nowhere, the world is passing around you, and if you’re smart, you can watch and learn from it.

As I think back on Amman, I do have to say that it is a tranquil city, not to downplay a lot of grumbling and tension and activity bubbling below the surface, but compared to the surrounding region, it is relatively quiet.  Amman most impressive feature are the amazing people, a mix of Bedouin, Palestinian, Iraqi, Circassian, Christian, Muslim and other. It is a place people come to have a normal life, to escape the chaos that blows across the rest of the region. This is not to say that there are not issues and difficulties facing many of those who live in Amman, it is just that comparatively Amman’s prosperity and comfort level are enjoyed by many. Yet back to the people, I would have to say that Jordanians are some of the nicest people I have met. They are genuinely caring, helpful and very very kind. Although sometimes it feels like you have 5 girlfriends at the same time, calling you, wanting to hang out, just wondering how you are doing, except they are large Arab men between the ages of 20 and 50,  it can get overwhelming. It is not uncommon to have a decent conversation with a cab driver and then have him refuse payment in the end, and not only the custom of refusing a couple times before saying yes, but literally getting out of the car and chasing you to give back your money.

My first couple weeks in Amman, I stayed at the house of a Rotarian, Yousef Batshon. He is from the Amman-Petra club and had formerly been in charge of the Ambassadorial Scholars. With him I was able to see family life, have a great big lunch every Friday, and really learn some of the things you miss out on not living with a family. Also living in the same apartment building, apart from his brother and his wife, was their mother. She was 90 something years old, and once upon a time was an English teacher at a Church in Jaffa. Every Friday when we sat at the table she would point to the family picture and say “Look!” in English. The majority of what she said was incoherent (to me) but she stilled managed to slip a few English phrases in there. Like when she would show me a picture of King Abdullah and say “hatha (or this is) the best!” I really enjoyed going back to Yousef’s on Fridays’ and showing them what I had been learning or share with them what I had been doing, I am very thankful to Yousef and his family.

I had a group of friends that worked at the reception area of an institute were I took Colloquial Arabic classes. These guys were cousins, nephews and uncles, all somehow related and best of friends. Every evening during the breaks during class, I would talk and drink tea with them, until I realized I was learning more with them then in the class! We all became really good friends, watching football, going on road trips, hanging out, eating (lots of eating) and whatever else, most of it including a cup of “shy” or tea. Those guys, and many others, really made my experience worth it. Not only was it great for my Arabic but also they were just great people.

The reason why I don’t believe this is my farewell letter, is because although my scholarship period has technically ended, I still see myself as a scholar. Promoting the goals and ideas of Rotary and the Ambassadorial scholarship while also telling all those I can about it. I am also continuing to study Arabic. Jordan was a great start, but I don’t believe 6 months, (or even a year) is really enough. Now that I have more of an understanding of the language and the region, I have decided to move to Damascus and participate in the Institute for Higher Language Learning at the University of Damascus. Damascus is truly an amazing city, it is one that hasn’t stopped its activity for last nine thousand years. The culture and life here is beautiful, it is truly a city that has been here since time began. I love this city and the movement and the language and the people, it has proved to be a more suitable environment for me to continue learning Arabic. Amman was the best place to start, and Damascus is the place to finish.

My path with Rotary, which began during high school with Camp Royal, has led me everywhere from Fresno to Buenos Aires to Guatemala City to Amman and now to Damascus, and its not stopping there. I look forward to pursing the World Peace Fellowship and have even discovered DRRAGG, (Disaster Relief Rotary Action Group ) which is a organization made up of Rotarians that provides post disaster relief and aid.  Rotary was developed either perfectly to fit my interests, or has modeled me as I have grown. Either way, I am excited for the future and what ever it has to offer.

Although I would like to write more, and hopefully in the future will, I do have to get back to studying. Arabic is a language that seems to grow exponentially and I am continuously trying to catch up. A Spaniard said something the other day that I believe is applicable to life in general but particularly to learning Arabic in Damascus, “Just look outside, they all have something to teach you.”

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