Sunday, June 3, 2007

Welcome, welcome, welcome

Matt Garza

Ahlan wa Sahlan! Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be many substantial entries about life and study in the Middle East. I write today from Amman, the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, where I have spent the last 36 hours or so. The people here are beautiful, but due to gender division the women don't talk to me so it's more or less like the United States. No culture shock whatsoever.

There is little to be said at the moment as I am still working to orient myself, but some introductions are in order. Check out the Q+A below for some information about this blog (credit is due to the incomparable Susannah Nitz-Gund for this idea).

Q: Who are you people?
A: We represent a small group of students from UNC-Chapel Hill who come from various religious, political, and geographical backgrounds. Although we are bring various kinds of knowledge and experience to our writing and travels, we are united by a deep-seated love and respect for the Middle East and the Arabic language. If nothing else, we believe there is much to be learned from our time spent traveling.

There are several people who will share their thoughts and stories here. It is best if I let the others speak for themselves. They are expert in their own plans. Personally, I am traveling for language study. Arabic is a central piece of my life, and I expect that much of my personal and professional experiences in the future will revolve around Arabic and the Arabic-speaking world. My time will be split between Jordan (one month) and Egypt (six months), all in an effort to improve my skills with the language. But, in sha Allah, I will find time to relax and take photographs. Expect to find the better ones posted on our blog.

Q: I've heard that even though you studied Arabic in school, you cannot understand the people there. Is this true?
A: In many ways yes. There are two kinds of Arabic: Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and the colloquial forms found throughout the Arabic-speaking world. MSA is the formal language which unites Arabic speakers and Muslims around the world. It is the language of the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, as well as public addresses, radio, and TV news like Al-Jazeera. Given its religious and political prominence, Arabic-speakers hold MSA in high regard. Much respect is given to those who can master its overwhelming complexity and beauty. This is the language which has existed for thousands and thousands of years and which I have studied for the past two. Unfortunately, no one actually speaks it.

People speak a local dialect which is a variant of the original MSA. As is the case with any ancient language, as time passes it develops local iterations which can, in time, become incomprehensible from the original language. The Arabic in the Levant region (more or less Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan) is closest to MSA. I am able to pick up a good deal of what I hear, and the Jordanians can struggle through my MSA. So, for example, a Jordanian and a Syrian can hang out, smoke some shisha, and make plans with one another. But if you're from Morocco, no one outside the country will understand you. Also, everyone tends to understand Egyptian Arabic. This is because its movies and music are popular throughout the region (quick fact: Cairo operates the fourth-largest movie industry in the world, behind the US, India, and Hong Kong) and because of its political prominence in the region. Egypt is in many ways at the heart of the Arab World.

Q: Is it safe there for an American? Are you packing a Canadian flag? Don't they hate our freedom?
A: It is easy to caricature the region based on reports from Iraq, but this is a mistake. Egypt is not Iraq and Jordan is not Ramallah. The places where we will travel are safe and pleasant for all travelers. In my Lonely Planet guide, the author spoke of witnessing a protest in Iran where people shouted "Death to America" and similar mantras. He, a blond-haired man from Britain, described two guys who peeled off from the crowd, approached him, and asked how he liked Iran and whether he would like to have tea with them.

The larger point, though, is that most people are not collecting in the streets. They are doing what people do the world over: going to work, raising kids, and voting on American Idol (Arabian Idol in this part of the world; democracy in action). People can easily distinguish between a government and its citizens. So while they might enjoy talking about the administration, I am rarely confused with George Bush.

On the plane ride over, I sat next to a Palestinian man who thankfully engaged me in conversation. As I always do (and as everyone tells me not to) I steered the conversation towards politics, asked him who he voted for (Fatah it turns out) and what he thought about Israel and the US. He spoke of "the occupation" and how it was as though he was living in a jail given restrictions on his movement. He had little praise for the US, but at the end of the flight he offered me his phone number and told me to call if I had any questions about Jordan. Note: He lives in Jerusalem. Interesting folks...

That should do it for the first post. Please check back frequently as we share our experiences. Also, if you have any thoughts/ideas/suggestions, please share them in the comment section. I would like to know that more than just my mom is reading this blog. Many thanks for visiting.


Bashar said...

Its not just your mom (reading this post), somehow I came across your blog, dont ask me how, and I find it quite interesting and informative, I have a few comments:
-" but due to gender division the women don't talk to me", man, it all depends on where you are and who are the women around you, what your saying is true at some places/cases but not the trend.

-"he offered me his phone number and told me to call if I had any questions about Jordan.yea, jordanians are very hospitable, probably I would do the same,

- Note: He lives in Jerusalem. Interesting folks..." maybe iteresting to you, the thing is 60% of jordanians are palistinian refugees.

anyways, It happened to be that I teach Arabic (dialect) to forigners in Jordan, so if you need any help then let me know.

if you wanna have a fruitful conversation about culture, tradition, Jordanian Scoiety etc... you know where to find me :)


Sam said...

a flying start!

Laurie (Matthew's Sis) said...

Fascinating! I would like to hear even more about the individuals that you are interacting with and I cannot wait to see the upcoming photos. If I can take a few days off, I might be able to squeeze a quick trip in to visit you in Egypt.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for checking in, Matt. Will look forward to reading regularly.

Sarah said...

Hey, nice start! The link for Sharkah is bad though... it comes us http://httpwww.------

Mark Efinger said...

Matt, Thanks for the view of your travels. Also for introducing me to blogging. First time. I wrote a long and philosophical response, with some reflections of my own first naive trip to the middle East, ( summer 1973) but it seems it did not work as I needed to create an account first. I believe thaose thoughts are gone into the cybersphere, but if this works I'll philosophize again subsequently. Still grading school work in Andover. What a contrast. To you and your friends, I owe a debt of gratitude already. perhaps before you are done the world will know more about itself. This is good.

Alisa said...

you are a wonderful writer, I can hear your voice as I read, which is fun (not to mention informative.) Thanks for the insight, I am thrilled to live vicariously through your adventures. Email me if you can

Carlos Toriello said...


thanks for the link to our site, I hope we can successfully share our networks and increase awareness about our endeavors. Quick question, will each author publish their name? I did not realize it was you until I read the comments. Just a thought. Can't wait to read more.

Take care and have fun.

Shaunna said...

You have certainly hit the ground running! We look forward to the next entry and photos!

marnie said...

It's not just your's other's Moms too...interested, concerned, proud...this blog is wonderful! Gives me some hope for the future- can't wait to read the next episodes.

Keegan's Mom