Sunday, July 22, 2007

Scattered Thoughts II: With a Vengeance


Hello All,

Without further ado here is the second installment of my general reflections on Jordan, a collection of ideas indicative of the level of insight I brought to bear on the Hashemite Kingdom. Please expect more keen observations from my new home in Cairo where my exposure is infinitely greater. But hopefully there's some worthwhile ideas here.

1. I came to the Middle East with the expectation that I would not touch many people. An odd idea, but my limited understanding of Arab society led me to imagine rigid and formal interaction among the people, worlds away from the hugs and kisses of Chile or the Merengue dancing of the Dominican Republic. To a certain extent, I was right. Gender norms prescribe that I not initiate handshakes with women and hugging, at least in public, is frowned upon. But what I did not expect was the way in which men interact. In the taxis, the drivers were constantly touching me, slapping my knee to make a point or touching my hand to express affection. The latter bit, hand holding, is what most surprises me. Men here are constantly walking arm in arm, a confusing sight for an outsider like myself (more thoughts on "the Gay" in the future, al-Gay in Arabic). But it's just a common platonic gesture.

My favorite story about this involves a friend, Mike, who had asked a heavily armed soldier to help him find the local radio station. Without missing a beat, the officer took him by the hand such that the AK-47 was now securely under Mike's arm, and tenderly walked him a block or two in the right direction. How sweet!

2. Returning to the subject of women, I have been curious to investigate the stereotype of veiled women as being docile, an idea easily done away with after meeting any of the incredible women I have been fortunate enough to work and study with over the past few years. But there is nuance and complexity to the gender roles among Arab-Muslims, and so I offer one brief account. Walking around the markets of one of the Palestinian refugee camps, you see plenty of women, shopping for fruit, meats, and other household items. In addition to these domestic purchases, I also noticed a number of women, some wearing the niqab and others the hijab, browsing for slightly more adult items, namely lingerie. On the main thoroughfare, it was a trip to see women in full veil holding up a frilly pink bra in sight of the entire crowd of people. Certainly a challenge to many notions of sexual repression.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to snap a photo of the lingerie shoppers, but here's a snippet from the world of cutting-edge hijabi fashion.

3. The dome of the mosque, the quintessential design in Islamic architecture, provides an oasis of color in Amman, a much needed respite from the harsh monotone of Jordan’s cityscape. While there are plenty of Carolina blue domes to be found, my personal favorite is just down the block, a deep, inviting purple with two horizontal midnight blue stripes. Just gorgeous. And at night all the minarets are lit up in green, the color of the prophet Muhammad. Where there are no street lamps, the minarets can light the way.

Coincidentally, the very same color illuminates our local ATM at night. Fitting since it charges no withdrawal fee.

4. The call to prayer. There is nothing quite like it in all the world. When the imam begins to recite Allahu Akbar, people turn off the radio, cell phones are silenced, and, impossibly, taxi driver honk a little less. The entire city slows down just a bit as reverence for the prayer is observed. It is a constant reminder of the powerful religiosity in the lives of so many people here. And even though its message is not directed towards me, I cannot ignore its beauty. Five times a day, a stirring reminder of exactly where I am.

Other photos...

Market in a refugee camp.

Roman Columns.

Thanks for reading.


Gale said...

It is something I have not seen in the US: what you call the beauty, stop everything to pray for the sake of prayer. Not for others to see. Not a put on. Hmm.

Good pics.

Seems men in the US could use a dose of male, touching and talking? A way to decrease agression and discuss issues?

QuiQui said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
QuiQui said...

Great posts, everyone! I've been keeping up with you all throughout the summer. :)

Matt, your latest post regarding women reminded me of a good friend of mine who is a MAC makeup artist in New York. She says that, surprisingly, Saudi Arabia has a MAC store that does amazing business. The thing is that over there, women doll themselves up for the HOME, not for outside.

Completely reverse from the U.S., no? Where some women won't go outside to get the mail without putting their face on. :)