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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jazz Cairo Style

Cairo Jazz Club. Don’t let the name fool you. No it’s not a jazz club. Or maybe it is. Just not the night we decided to drop by. A small little club in a not so hip area of Cairo yet overflowing with people. Egyptians and non-Egyptians alike. Egyptians, Lebanese, Spaniards, Americans, the token Indian (yes me), Italians all jamming out to music from the 70s and 80s. Requests for Lady GaGa turned down. Too new. Contemporary is so passé. The DJ spins ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. Three of us know the lyrics. All of them. We sing. All of them. No one else does. Money for Nothing. Talk About a Revolution. It’s My Life. We Will Rock You. Like A Virgin. Black Or White. Jessie's Girl. Losing My Religion. We sing a little too loud, a little too long. We lose our voices. We don’t care. It’s been too long.

Withstanding the Test of Time

This past week I decided that my life travels would henceforth be dedicated to knocking off the wonders of the world. Why? Because the pyramids literally took my breath away. My pilgrimage to the oldest standing monument was about so much more than just upping my elder brother whose lifelong dream it has been, something I now understand in its entirety. The pyramids, physically, are inspiring; an engineering marvel that modern society can still not replicate, art and creativity representative of the very cradle of civilization. The out of body experience of visiting the pyramids is about more than just the physical wonder though. They are a testament to what the human mind is capable of. They represent, to me at least, indestructibility, resilience of the human spirit and immortality. Pharaoh Khufu created a legacy that has withstood the test of time like nothing else can. The Pyramids at Giza are the only ancient wonder still standing. The others succumbed to natural causes such as earthquakes, man made causes like fires and for some just the test of time finally wore them down. The pyramids though, stood strong through everything. And its not that they were lucky or forgotten about. Human societies love destroying art almost as much as they love creating it. The empires who have come and gone in Egypt have all tried to bring to the knees this culture that preceded them and was a mockery of everything they stood for. The Greeks and Romans thought them uncivilized and backward, the Coptec Christians were vengeful and the Islamic dynasties thought they undermined everything that Islam stood for. Mohammed Ali Pasha for instance, the first ruler of Modern Egypt, wanted to deconstruct the Pyramids and use the stones to build his citadel now built in Old Cairo. What made him change this initial plan? The religious leaders of the day felt it would be sacrilegious to use the stones from a pagan monument to build the Salah-uddin Mosque. Thank the Lord that Anubis is a pagan god, not worthy of even being destroyed. Human scavengers lost their way inside and died in their attempts to plunder the oldest testaments to time. What did they think? Their individual human frailty and ignorance would survive the wonder of the ages? Who did they think would win? How could they possibly conceive it a fair fight? Actual human destruction was either too daunting a task or previous civilizations just didn’t care enough, ignorance that we should be grateful for.

The tectonic plates the pyramids stand upon are mostly free of faults and thus earthquakes. The fertile Nile river basin ensures the land doesn’t dry up enough to cause the ground to crack. Floods and other such disturbances disturb the structure but the stones aren’t held together with mortar. Structural disturbances therefore don’t impact the strength of the design. The stones shift a little but then resettle. They don’t impact the overall composure. The surrounding sand keeps fire away and the pyramids therefore even withstand the forces of Nature, something modern technology and engineering is still trying to wrap its head around.

The pyramids were built as monuments to the dead. It was a way of ensuring that they were not forgotten. Such a basic human need, isn’t it? The knowledge that you were loved enough to be thought of even after you aren’t physically there anymore. I once read somewhere that a person truly dies when the last person to remember them dies. When the memory of them dies, a person is truly gone. The pyramids keep an entire civilization alive. The Pharaonic Age passed over 3000 years ago, Pharaoh Khufu even before that and yet, he is remembered. The Egyptians, the Pharaohs did what every human wishes they could do, be remembered, become immortal, die knowing they have left a mark upon this world. The Pharaohs left their marks and oh what splendorous marks! May we never forget them, the lessons they taught us, the sheer magnificence of the pyramids and everything they represent. Oh Osiris, Smite us the day we dare to forget you, because that day we would have lost our right to marvel and create and be human. That day our souls would have turned to stone.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

My Soul Was Transported

We signed up for a hike through a canyon. Wadi bin Hammad. We drove through desert for two hours only to suddenly appear at the edge of a green, foliaged canyon, with the sound of rippling water, sweetest music to our ears. A small stream snaked through the bottom of the canyon and we plunged into the water for a walk downstream through a canyon of extraordinary beauty. The stream would be no more than ankle deep in some places but then sometimes right after a mini waterfall, the ground would fall away till you were thigh high in water. Mini showers from the walls of the canyon were dispersed up and down the trail. Jurassic Park could have been shot at that very canyon; it had that kind of explorer feel to it. An end of the world walk to salvation feel accompanied me all along, a euphoric apocalyptic survivor sensation that made me want to believe in survival, in resilience, adrenaline rushes and a sense of oneness with your own humanity that only comes from an experience like yesterdays.

You feel like you’re alive once you’ve done something like that. Wading upstream is a battle often, you fight for your balance, you fall, you splash about like in a bad jungle horror flick. You sun yourself by a stream, your feet dangling in the water, breathing again after that walk. You duck under reeds trying to find the sunlight, reminiscent of a 1960’s Vietnam War movie. Eventually the narrow corridor of the canyon gives way to a large span of flat gravelly land and everyone settles down for lunch and hookah (yes they brought hookah with them… Oh Jordan!) and then you begin your walk back. The long walk is whiled away in chatter with people you have recently befriended and the atmosphere lends itself to unprecedented intimacy. You discuss everything and anything, souls, transportation, dance, religion, women, homosexuality, driving even. You don’t remember names but you know them in a manner you might never know the people you sit next to in university. The sheer variety of experiences in just that one canyon is enough to take your breath away. You live again and again, a born again kind of feeling infuses your being, much like the sunshine that plays with the water. You’re glad your 20th birthday was this exceptional, this different, the kind of day that reminds you how amazing it is to be alive. Happy Birthday to Me :)

That's Why Jordan

College students don’t read. At least not on my campus. I would spend hours in the library freshman year, thanks to my job and the computer station they had there so I do feel I’m qualified to speak somewhat authoritatively on this issue. No one reads for the sake of reading, for learning. Our college lives are too strenuous, we barely manage to read for class, intellectualism threatens to shroud our youth and why would you want to read Virgil in your free time anyway?

I miss reading. I don’t do enough and I wish I had the strength of character to not watch Grey’s Anatomy on a Thursday night and read Jimmy Carter’s ‘Endangered Values’ instead. There are too many distractions in college, you live with friends you’d rather talk to, watch a movie with, read fiction at the most and your semester reading list is pushed to the back of your mind. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to. It means we don’t have the time, energy or inclination to immerse in a tome of knowledge in our only time off from the intellectualism that envelops us on liberal art college campuses.

But when you come to Jordan to study abroad, you realize there is so much you don’t know about and there is so much to learn and for the first time you have the time to actually learn beyond the classroom. The classes aren’t as strenuous as they would be on a college campus and we’re left with oodles of time to do as we may. Families here don’t read as much so your only source of literature is the library in school which primarily has books on Jordanian history, culture, politics, foreign policy, women, religion, et al. you came to Jordan because you were interested in these topics and here you are, immersed in the culture, surrounded by the issues you’ve read about in classes but never really comprehended till now. You realize there is so much to learn, so much to absorb, so much to do that you actually begin to crave the learning you had no patience for back in school. So when you get half an hour between classes, you read. Whatever book you can get your hands on. An ethnography, a study on women, a book detailing the Israel-Palestinian conflict or even a Saudi Arabian take on Sex and the City (yes it exists.. I read it). You’re game for it all. And the best part is reading becomes a communal activity once again. You’re not the lone geeky kid in the corner reading anymore. Everyone reads. At some point or the other, you’ll find them with a book in their hand, a book they don’t have to read but want to. And that’s why we came to Jordan. We all want to learn, we crave it and that’s why Jordan. Because you learn everyday. It’s all around you. So we read. To learn. To know. To appreciate.

The News Conundrum

Does news have a singular form? Or is the plural the singular? Can you not have just ‘new’? Just one article of it? Arabic has a singular form, Khabar and its plural is Akhbar. If they can pluralize it, why can’t we? Stupid English I say.

A Shout Out To Bollywood

My name is Paromita Sen and I am abso-tota-lutely addicted to Bollywood. There. I said it. I think Shah Rukh Khan epitomizes romance and I will brook no criticism of his various flaws. He isn’t perfect but then neither are you so go away.

My relationship with Bollywood dates back to the 8th Std when I was home alone for the holidays with a TV for company. Bollywood became my sole companion, it consumed my life and I found my soul mate that year. We are yet to have a falling out. College makes everything so much tougher. Bollywood has upped and gone ahead and I’m desperately trying to catch up with the last 2 years that have just zoomed past. Jordan seemed like a nightmare in that sense… where would I indulge this obsession, this absolute mania that was akin to breathing? Every Friday I log online and read reviews of the latest Hindi film release and feel miserable that I have to wait three months before I get to see these movies. But one beautiful Tuesday evening, as I pottered around the kitchen, Atif Aslam’s dulcet voice singing Bekhuda careened right through the door and knocked me off my feet. Kismat Konnection brought me back to life that day as I realized for the first time that Bollywood airs on Jordanian TV. That was also when my host brother chose to inform me that Khalid Baba, my host father, was a self-confessed fan of old Bollywood movies. He might speak minimal English and have only a basic idea of any TV show on FOX but mention Bollywood and he will excitedly rattle off names of the stalwarts of Indian cinema and their landmark movies. Raj Kapoor, Shashi Kapoor, Zeenat Aman and Amitabh Bachchan are but some of the names he will throw your way.

Bollywood was a conversation starter even in the Badia. The pitchy notes of Mere Naseeb Mein playing in a small village in rural Jordan was not something I thought I would ever bear witness to but Bollywood had brought me home again. They played the song over and over again that night because the grandmother thought it was tragic that I was so far away from home and my mother. It was decided therefore that Bollywood music would be my surrogate mother for the night. Hospitality knows no bounds, does it?

That night, Bollywood and the Badia redeemed my faith in the transcendentality of Bollywood, the universal messages of love, family and community that bridge cultures, worlds and languages and the collective appeal of Shashi Kapoor’s boyish charm, Parveen Babi’s coy looks and Amitabh Bachchan’s righteous anger. A ‘killer’ combination as we would have said back in Bollywood obsessed India. And I just found out that there is a channel on Jordanian TV that airs Bollywood movies all day long. My grades are not happy.

Oh I made a new friend last night. She’s Columbian of Palestinian origin and we live worlds apart. What did we find to talk about, you ask? Her favorite actor is Shah Rukh Khan. Veer Zaara is her go to movie and her ring tone is Haule Haule from Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. We had plenty to talk about…

Monday, October 4, 2010


Goats don't like to be milked. They are nothing like cows. Cows just stand around placidly chewing their cud while you try to milk them. they may occasionally tail swat a fly away but that's generally the extent of their physical exertions. i speak from experience. i tried milking a cow once and while i was really not very good at it. the cow made no effort to attack me. Thank the Lord. The cow is a forgiving creature by nature.
the same cannot be said of the goat however. goats sense human intent, first of all. they scatter at the first smell of Milking 101. while they may reluctantly allow the lady of the house, a master in the field, to milk them, they have no such contractual agreement with the student. the goat is a complete devil when facing an amateur. 3 children are recruited to chase the goat and pin her down. you valiantly get down on your haunches only to be surrounded in the dust aftermath of your goat's successful escape. A couple attempts later, you give up trying as you'd feel like a tool to persevere in the face of such resistance. you think the matter ends there and decide to just observe the proceedings , do the whole fly on the wall thing you're becoming real good at.

That's when you learn the second thing about goats. the next newsflash begins to go off just as you realise you've been cornered by three goats, hellbent on exacting revenge for the humiliating past half hour. Newsflash? Oh ya. Goats will chase you if they think you deserve it. And in Goat World nothing reeks more of being haraam than amateur attempts to milk them, a crime deserving of a mass planned, coordinated attack on all things human. The gated area which held the goats was a complete battlezone for the next 20 minutes. the ensuing skirmish involved goats clearing three feet high hurdles and children launching themselves off roofs at errant goats. I of course, just proceeded to run in all possible directions, defense /retreat being my priority rather than attack. yes children years younger than me were out there but being butted by a goat is not on my to-do list, surprise surprise. i finally just escaped the enclosure. yes. a little wimpy. whatever. i'm chalking this one down to experience.

oh and to make things worse? ryan got to ride a camel. something just does not add up here.

Here's to Culture

Attended a Meditteranean music concert courtesy the Italian embassy at the ruins of a Roman citadel in central Amman. How can you not miss culture in Greencastle after that?

Key Phrases I Wish They'd Taught Us

Long Overdue I know... well here goes.

It is perfectly possible to survive in an isolated village where you know just the basic rudiments of their language but some key phrases that you should probably learn before you land up to stay are listed below. these are from my limited experience and therefore the list is anything but complete. please do add on.

1)This is fun! - because clapping your hands constantly, trying to look like an excited school girl gets old real fast.

2) How do you lock the door? - You'll need that one in conjunction with 'May I use the Bathroom/Take a shower'. Go figure.

3) What does ____ mean? - Used alongside "Could you repeat that, but waaaayyyyyy slower this time?" & "I'm sorry I just don't know enough ____ (insert language)" might help you understand a fraction of what is going on and prevent you from looking like the daft, shy, awkward ajnabi, a fate many of us, unfortunately, are getting increasingly used to.

4) Be right back - SO IMPORTANT. you wouldn't think so but oh it is! Learn it or every small action of yours will be blown out of proportion. A quick, sneaky trip up the stairs or to the next room to grab a book, water, shoes, the bathroom, anything, quickly becomes a source of mass confusion. 5 people are sent to bring you back, apologies follow suit and seats are emptied for you to sit on. 5 minutes later, you end up with an entire sofa to yourself and no way of doing what you wanted to do initially.

5)This is too much food - Self explanatory

6) He is a devil child, Can I please throw him of the terrace? - Refer to next point

7) 'Please don't do that' or some variation thereof - If you're living with aforementioned devil child, aged 4, you will need this phrase if only to prevent him from throwing something off the terrace, ingesting litter, rubbing his face in dirt, hurling stones at the car/goat and/or beating up his various siblings with various instruments, namely his devil hands, brooms, hangers, bottles, knifes (who gives a 4 yr old child a butcher's knife anyway!!!!), flower vases, tree branches, siblings themselves and when possible, livestock. Do not underestimate a 4 year old child's ability to improvise.

And last, and probably the most important...

8) 'Thank you for letting me stay with you. I loved spending time with your family and in your home' - Coz you'll feel like a real tool if you can't even express that much after what is bound to be an amazingly real, rare experience.

Peace out...