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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Amman Shwei Shwei

Ø Cab Drivers know English Shwei-Shwei. And they will practice it on you. Just as you will practice your meager Arabic on them. The resulting conversation will have any bilingual individual in splits. And the driver too actually. This is right before he invites you home to meet his wife so be forewarned.

Ø Shuman Library is nowhere near Shuman Square. That is probably because Shuman Square is known as Abdun Circle. And absolutely no one other than the Royal Map Drawing Person of Jordan knows that Abdun Circle has an official name which has nothing to do with Abdun. Which is why as tourists, when you follow the map to Shuman Square, you will be completely lost and no one will have any idea as to why you’re even there. It is the same logic behind University Street which actually does have a name, Queen Rania Street. A perfectly legit name if you ask me. But it’s called University Street by all and sundry. Then why not just name it that? Good point. I’ll bring it to the attention of the Street Naming Committee who must think the world absolute wretches. They put in all this effort to name streets after numerous and one princes and princesses, and absolutely no one can name even one side street in this country. Maybe a couple of the main ones but probably not by the names the Committee picked anyway, so ya. They hate us. Much like how I hate the Gas Man (Re: Previous blog on the Gas Man). So yes, to summarize: Names lie. Don’t believe them.

Ø If you want to keep your nationality a secret, especially if you’re wandering the streets of a Muslim country right after a pastor from yonder homeland has threatened to burn the Koran, make sure you go with a country whose language you speak fluently without an American accent or are sure does not exist. Because if you think France a safe bet, be forewarned, the man in charge of the tiny street stall in downtown Amman probably speaks better French than you and in a more authentic accent to boot. So if you’d rather never call yourself Canadian, go with a country as random as say Eritrea because honestly, who speaks Tigrinya other than a fellow Eritrean?

Ø The Simpsons is a national past time. Especially for children. Even the ones who don’t really speak English. It’s the best way to keep antsy, hungry cranky children quite during Ramadan. Switch on The Simpsons or pop in the movie & there will be peace again in this world. This obsession does have its downside too however. Most children you meet who are trying to learn to speak English will speak with a distinct Homer Simpson accent. It is the tragic way of the world. But at least it’s not the little rude baby from Family Guy. Hooey? Whatever. Be grateful for small mercies, I say.

Ø Recycling is so last season. The concept is alien. But then again it is not. The yogurt container might eventually be thrown away but it will be used to store food in for at least 2 weeks before that or until the plastic starts melting inside. And food is never thrown away. And water is scarce anyway so that is used with great restraint. So yes, recycling might not exist American style but it is there in some form or the other.

Ø The king is omnipresent. Truly. Every building has a picture. Or flags to indicate he’d been there. And his grandfather’s room for one night is enough to cordon off the room as a historical artifact for eternity. God Save The King.

The Gas Man

Just a small note on the gas man with his truck of propane and stupid background song – I hate him. That’s all.

Vodka Martinis in Amman

When you prepare to come study in the Middle East, you have your last drink the weekend before you leave with your friends and then say goodbye to alcohol for the next three months. You’re cool with that, I mean if you really wanted to spend your semester off campus drinking, Jordan probably wasn’t that great an idea in retrospect, what with Ramadan and then the crazy import tax and alcohol basically being haraam. But then… you chance upon Rainbow Street and it’s even better than the articles and the books and the Must Visits you’ve read so far in your background research. And come the first real weekend you have free and your entire program lands up on Shareea El- Rinbo at various different places on this long street and finally after a couple of beers at a café (pre-gaming as we would call it at a campus party) and about a couple of hours with the argeelleyh (the one and only constant love of any self respecting Jordanian – better known to the world as either the hookah or the shisha), you all descend on the same lounge and in true American style commandeer an entire floor and set up base camp, under the aegis of the really cool, dreadlock sporting manager. From there, start rolling the orders, the Long Island Ice Teas and the beers dominate with the occasional Vodka Martini and Sex on the Beach thrown in for the sake for diversity. A bartender is requisitioned off to cater to your needs and the manager himself personally checks in on you, clearing up more tables and chairs for you, your every wish is their command. Other patrons stop by, our high spirits having caught their attention, and we’re soon making friends and spreading out all over the lounge, taking it over slowly, one table at a time, one drink at a time. And as the evening rolls along and more people land up and you progressively get louder and more exuberant, you realize that Amman caught you off guard again. You’d made a pact with yourself, you’d thrown back that last shot and proudly said that you were done for the next three months but there you are, in your strappy top, sipping your Vodka Martini, laughing at a ridiculous drivers license picture stolen from the wallet of one of your fellow compatriots and probably having more fun than you ever did at a sweaty, overcrowded frat party on campus. That’s when you realize that the world was created to catch you off guard. And all you can do is kick back and refuse to be fazed. Laugh and clap your hands when the manager sends over free shots for your friend’s birthday and then toss back a couple just coz they’re probably the best cocktail shots you’ve ever had. The knowledge that you’re totally pushing the limits of your 12 o’clock curfew can only make them taste better. Sigh in absolute resignation as one of your fellow students kicks up a ruckus true drunken style with other obnoxiously drunk American students you have suddenly chanced upon. (We will find each other, we drunk American students – it is a bond stronger than that between identical twins, of that I am now sure.) Make a quick run for the nearest cab, now the designated getaway car, as the argument starts to look ugly and leave still laughing at the last joke of the night. It is vitally important that you leave still laughing. Don’t let the night get the better of you. Always leave laughing. That’s the only way to throw the world into disarray similar to what it threw you into it. You gotta win sometime right?

And as you finally wind down, and are about to get into bed, just take a minute to realize that you really aren’t all that drunk despite the generous dosage of vodka in your drink. The night was fun because you weren’t expecting it to be, because you hadn’t planned it and because the world caught you off guard. The first of many nights out with this myriad collection of souls in Amman, a city of surprises, a city that makes the best cocktail shots ever, a city that reminds you that you can have fun wherever and with whoever, you just need to look hard enough.

Vertigo Visions

Jordan is hilly country. Like really hilly country. Every city is built on hills, some on three like Es-Salt or on seven like Amman. The land between the cities is also hilly. Don’t let the flat highways fool you, the hills on either side are the reality we must face. This country ain’t flat. I am standing on a hill in Turki currently and all I can see around me are more hills. Some are big and some small, but there’s a distinct hierarchy, a sense of dimensions that just adds depth and intensity to a beautiful, nostalgia inducing scenic view. The only flatness one can see is the Dead Sea about 20 miles to the West as the crow flies of where I am standing. The edges are blurred thanks in part to the evening mist which is slowly descending and obscuring the distance from our view but nevertheless the sheer vastness of the Sea, even from this distance, is enough to make one pause to take a breath. The scattered light from the setting sun is showing up patches of shiny ness which I can only assume are bodies of water, maybe lakes and maybe canals. Only patches can be seen from between the hills but they indicate settlements presumably. This is not to assume that Jordanian society is settled in the valleys between hills. Quite the contrary actually. If you walk along a street in downtown Amman – the Balad- you look up and see layers upon layers of buildings and houses and people just living one on top of another. The city is full, there are buildings everywhere but the multiple levels ensure that it never looks cramped, never is cramped. Each building looms over another but isn’t tall enough or obnoxious to block the view for the house above it. The houses aren’t skyscrapers but then again, they don’t need to be. Each one has a beautiful view of what’s going on below and above it just by a little craning of the necks. Privacy may not be a viable option but then again, no one is really that keen on it anyway. What’s the fun in that right?

Tired of Being In Transit

I left home when I was nine. I’ve not been back ever since. To live that is. I was in boarding school till the end and then went to the corn fields of Indiana for college and now I’m writing this from Amman. I don’t plan to ever settle down in Kolkata so that’s it for home and me. It’s now never going to be more than a holiday destination for me. I’m going to have leave Indiana if I want to go to grad school and if life goes the way I envision it, that’s another city and another continent. And while I love this wandering lifestyle, this independence, this ability to just pack and up and move and not be tied down, I think I’m tiring at the prospect of doing this for another 10 years.

I sometimes wonder what it is like for those who are born in the same community, grow up there, marry into it and are eventually put to rest there. That sense of rootedness, that knowledge that you belong, that you’re home could almost beat the feelings of stagnation that I’m sure I would feel. Your life is where you are, not split across continents and countries. You know where you belong. I wake up some mornings and for a brief second, right before the morning actually dawns upon me, I am unable to tell where in the world I am. I open my closet to pull out a stole I really want to wear that day and realize I don’t know if it’s here in Amman, in a storage box in Greencastle, in a musty cupboard in Kolkata or with one of my many friends who could have taken it back during the days when we all had a communal closet in school and never knew what belonged to whom. If the last one is the case, then God Alone knows which corner of the world it is now draping itself around a slightly neck in need for cover. It’s a beautiful thought that I could potentially be leaving my mark in so many parts of the world but sometimes, just sometimes, this suitcase existence begins to grate. I want to finally be done with living out of suitcases. I want to know what it is like to actually live in a home, for real, one that is yours and your life is there, in that one place. I want to be known at the grocery store, I want to have a tab somewhere and subscriptions that need to be suspended for 3 weeks, not 8 months. I don’t want to be a seasonal flavour anymore. I want to be a regular. I don’t care where, just somewhere. And I want to know when. How long till I reach someplace? How much longer in transit for me?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

We Are Obsessed With Healthy Democracies

Jordan isn’t America. Surprise surprise.

There may be many states that want to ape the West, want to reach where the USA is today but you have got to appreciate the fact that many don’t. In fact, I believe it absolutely imperative that you do so because otherwise it is sheer hypocrisy that you criticize the US Government’s involvement in international affairs and yet view the world through the lens of what you define as a ‘healthy democracy’. Because honestly what is this obsession with ‘healthy democracies’? Living in a nascent state is a reality that large parts of the world are facing up to this very moment and I don’t think there is anything as daunting as that politically. Any nation state that exists as a result of the decolonizing process post-WWII will be able to identify with the issues that Jordan faces today in its liberalization and democratization process. The concept of a state is new to us of the colonial legacy. We belong to the era of kingdoms and autonomous, self sufficient units. Aristotle would have been proud of us. We were small enough governing bodies to prove his hypotheses if he had so wished. And then some colonial power or the other swept along and created new governing bodies according to rules of statehood that I don’t we really ever got. India may be the largest democracy in the world today but sometimes that seems like just the worst idea ever. Democracy allowed the Godhra riots, the infamous state sponsored carnage of Muslims early on this century, as well as the rise of extremist parties such as the Maoist movement in the North East and in the central tribal belt. Democracy has had to have been suspended in large chunks of the country, martial law has been imposed and human rights are characters in fictional tales narrated after curfew. This cannot possibly be what our freedom fighters had in mind when they envisioned a free and democratic India. And yes, we’re making do but really? We’re a god awful mess.

Jordan’s monarchy might not allow complete political and religious freedom but the monarchy here has been effective for this country, no denying that. Jordan’s citizens are looked after, their basic needs are met and most importantly they are safe from the consequences of the political instability that surrounds their fair nation. A Prime Minister is in power for four years and has to concern himself with winning elections, garnering public favor and has little time/power/freedom to carry out long terms goals in the interest of the country, in the interest of setting up an infrastructure that can help the struggling nascent state become a stable one. The monarchy is given the freedom to actually prepare and lead Jordan towards an effective democracy and that process is going on currently. It may be slow but it is happening. And what is so wrong about a bureaucratic monarchy anyway? It's not absolutist, this ain't George Orwell's 1984 being reenacted out here. The most major difference between the way Presidential and Parliamentary systems function and this monarchy is that the king is born to rule while we elect our rulers. The ruler however, still derives his legitimacy from the people, the people of El-Urdon want a monarchy, they respond to the system in place and we might not understand that but really, who are we to criticise it? The monarchy isn't random and arbitrary, the ministries are consulted, the government cares, the people are looked after and are safe and yes, they can't really be practising Scientologists but seriously? That's probably a good thing!

Freedom of Religion

You want the people of Jordan to have the freedom of religion in the American sense of the word, in the interest of civil rights but do you even understand what religion means to these people? Religion is about more than what you wake up for on a Sunday morning here, religion in this culture shapes who you are, who your friends are, who you marry, what food you eat and what you call yourself, your history, lineage and heritage. It gives you a sense of community, a sense of belonging, something to do on holidays. America doesn’t have religious holidays, at least none that I have witnessed in my last two years there, with the exception of Easter I think, when my Lutheran friend trotted off to the Baptist service on campus, as the Lutheran church was an entire 20 minute ride away. Religion is important to you but it is personal. It doesn’t play out in the social sphere. Here it does. If you weren’t Muslim like your family, what would you do during Ramadan? For an entire month? As the sole atheist in your family, would you celebrate iftaar with them and take money on Eid? Would you stay awake till the muezzin’s call to partake in suhoor? Yes they may not be pious, practicing Muslims year long but during the month of Ramadan, they are rooted, they belong to someone, to someplace. Religion is cultural, the rituals of religion are more cultural than significant of religious fervor. In a country where shari’a law exists successfully along side all the trappings of a liberalizing economy, how can you not appreciate the beauty of the integral role that religion plays in shaping the culture of this place? And anyway, you don’t argue when your last name is put down to correspond with your father’s. Instead, you trace it back to the first courageous immigrant who reached the hallowed shores of America so you can sit here today in someone else's country and argue about their presumed need for freedom of religion. Well, maybe the Muslims and Christians of Jordan don’t argue about their religion as it keeps them from becoming autonomous, ‘independent’ entities with no social fabric to catch them. They can trace back their lineage to the tribe they come from, the tribal saint they derive their ancestry from or even the Prophet. Are you really going to trivialize their ancestry to a debate about what you perceive to be civil rights? Because seriously, unless you’re absolutely fine with people in America just walking around saying their name are Jewel or Ke$ha with no last name, or some blonde stereotype who goes by just Amber and has no daddy to come take her home, don’t try and ‘gift’ the Jordanians the freedom to potentially be completely disenfranchised.

My country, my people derive their identities from their religious inclinations, the religion of their forefathers. Yes, I’m thankful that my mother allowed me to practice my freedom of choice as guaranteed in my Constitution, and she respects that my brother and I chose to be agnostics/atheists but this doesn’t mean that I pity those who were brought up within the parameters of a certain faith. I envy them to be perfectly honest. They have a sense of community wherever they go, the knowledge that they can be anywhere in the world but Diwali will still bring in wishes from family in India and world over, Eid will still be celebrated, maybe with strangers but those of your community nevertheless. On Diwali and Durga Puja I sit alone at home practicing my right to the freedom of religious beliefs while my city gathers outside to eat, dance, sing, pray and for that one evening they leave their unhappiness, woes, and sorrows behind and get along for once.

They belong. I don’t.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Victim Of Roads

The roads here in Amman are designed to make the walker burn off the calories they gain by eating all that rice and oil and meat and cheese. They're a smart move on the part of the Ministry of Health. Except, as a member of the uninitiated proletariat, I'm pretty sure they're out to kill me.
A friend and I recently went to check out a gym in our neighbourhood. 'Fitness Palace' is approximately 6 minutes and 22 seconds away from where I stay and should be a cake walk. The road there however is another story. There are gates in the middle of the sidewalk that guard or shut off nothing. They just are. Existentialism at it's best. Or they have been taken over by the trees or are completely dug up So you walk on the roads due to a complete lack of choice. The roads are generally at a 40 degree angle and they're slick as sweat on a bald head on a summer day and the cars drive like they're in a video game. There is a completely totalled car parked on the edge of the curb here and it is does so much for my self confidence when I attempt to cross the road here. I realise that all the stamina I plan to build up at the gym will be so crucially necessary just for me to able to walk up that insane road.
The walk downhill is a race against gravity that tests every muscle in your body, your dexterity, your personal flexibility and all your shoes. The soles of my beautiful bronze Madden Girl toga sandals, as I call them, are now as smooth as the roads they trudge. I could do atleast 5 salsa right turns in these shoes.
Either way, I'm screwed.

The Last Bastions of the ‘Right Hand Drive’

The British Commonwealth is no longer a force to be reckoned with. The initially omnipresent British have other issues to concern themselves with now, such as the discovery of CCTVs and Big Brother, both in reality show format and in reality itself. The Commonwealth has been left unsupervised which would explain why major arterial roads in New Delhi are caving in a mere month before the Commonwealth Games, and the Delhi government would rather direct its efforts towards kicking college students out of dorm rooms and ignore the actual fixing of the roads so college students can physically leave (which is what they want to do anyway) and the CWG participants may actually, finally find the road to the Games.

I’ve been in a couple of different countries this last year and what I now notice is that Commonwealth Nations are increasingly abandoning the Right Hand Drive in favor of the more ubiquitous and American form of driving on the ‘right’ side of the road. The French Commonwealth nations pride themselves on being former French colonies but we, as members of the British Commonwealth enjoy no favors within the community, no sense of community to be precise and no pride in our common legacy. I sometimes wonder why this sheer disregard of the colonial powers? Yes I agree colonialism is a detestable form of government (yes, China and the USA, neo-imperialism too) and economic or military might is no method of taking over a country but we must at some point think and realize that we owe these colonial powers a sense of identity that we might not have had. What the Commonwealth has in common is a common history, a common origin, a common root. Before we became colonies, we were but mere kingdoms, warring amongst ourselves, with constantly changing boundaries and a population that paid allegiance only to their tribal leader. The sense of a global world that is emerging today is possible thanks to the unity each individual country displaced in the face of a colonial imperialist. India should not be a country. We are split across the country by every factor that could help define as a common nation. Any factor that could make us a state is disputable when it comes to India. We are split by history, politics, religion, ethnicity, language, geography and any other factor that defines the reason behind a nation state. And yet we are a country. Because the British colonial powers created one country out of the 801 kingdoms that existed prior to their arrival and for the first time we of the subcontinent could talk about a common experience. We rallied together for the first time in support of a national cause in the face of British opposition. Kudos to us. I think sometimes only Bengalis and Australians now pride themselves on being former British subjects, my grandfather numbering this estimable group. We are, I think the last official, proud former British subjects. We now alone uphold the banner that once never saw night. We are the last bastions of the Right Hand Drive.

Amman: Theme Sandstone

It sometimes feels like the entire city of Amman met for a city council and decided to go with Theme Sandstone when it came to constructing their city. The city is entirely done up in shades of beige and varying gentle sandstone shades and while many may think this would make for dull window gazing, Amman has in reality made a smart aesthetic choice here. The sandstone is a constant reminder of the desert that surrounds this oasis of modernisation and the history of this place. One is never allowed to forget her origins. At the same time, these sandstone monuments allow the green of the trees to appear fresher than they actually are while the lights shine and glint off these buildings at night, giving the city a glassier look than it actually has. The buildings themselves are very contemporary in design and by investing wisely in sandstone that can make the buildings look like they were made of more expensive glass, the local economy’s sandstone deposits are being put to use, the builder’s coffers protected and the tag of modernizing Third World country preserved. Win-win-win situation if you ask me.