I've decided that a good way of determing whether or not it has been a long day is by comparing the number of timezones crossed with the number of hours slept in one day; if the former outweighs the latter the day can go down in the registry of all things interminable. Long day and lack of sleep aside, I could hardly contain my excitement and anticipation as I stepped off the plane and walked inside the Queen Alia Airport in Amman, Jordan. Four years have passed, almost to the month, since I was last in the Middle East as a student. Many of the old memories came rushing back, along with familiar sights and smells and, thankfully, a smattering the Arabic phrases necessary to ward off over-eager porters and taxi drivers. Hopefully by the time I leave here I'll have a lot more to add to each of those categories.
Day one has been thankfully slow as my body begins adjusting to a new wake- and sleep-cycle. Tomorrow intensive Arabic classes will begin, but for now I'm simply taking in all the sights and sounds across the street from the University of Jordan. The pungent smell of fruit-flavored tobacco and shisha wafts around me on the patio of this very trendy cafe where men and women, from their appearance mostly college students, gather to talk, smoke, and study. Just a few meters away a constant stream of cars roars by, an eclectic mix of BMWs, Mercedes, and very old VW buses. This is city life and the throbbing Arabic pop wailing out of the speaker behind me keeps a steady beat with the stream and flow humanity around me.
A few observations on the city so far, as well as some hypotheses to verify over the next month:
Amman is a modern city in a way that Cairo is not. While Cairo is the center of Arabic entertainment—movies, television, and music—it also is home to one of the world's oldest universites and centers of Islamic thought. This ancient school has a restraining influence on society that is not matched in Amman. One had to search to find women smoking and gathering in public places with men in Cairo; while even on my first day in Amman I've already seen multiple instances of these more liberal displays of emancipation. Another surprise was that I was not awakened at 0500 to the sound of the call to prayer blaring from mosques across the city. In fact, I've only heard and seen one mosque so far. I suspect that the dirth of mosques in this area may be an anomaly and once I start travelling around the city I'll come across a more religious sector.
Amman is a much more wealthy city, and Jordan's economy is much better off than Egypt's; I immediately noticed the lack of donkeys and horses sharing road space with cars and trucks. That, along with a fleet of public government street cleaners immediately makes for a much better olfactory experience than the one I had previously enjoyed in Cairo. Another obvious sign of the strength of the economy is that the U.S. dollar is only worth 68 Jordanian cents. I've heard that the first influx of Iraqi refugees/immigrants brought a great deal of wealth with them, raising prices and even boosting the economy somewhat. However, as more refugees continue to arrive from Iraq, this time not bringing money but only the ability to work for less than Jordanian nationals, it is possible that there may be a shift in the economy once again. Of course I don't expect to notice any sort of change over the next month, but I hope to engage in some conversations with a number of locals to get their opinion on the work scene.
Beneath the veneer of culture and religion, people are still very much the same. It doesn't take a very experienced eye to pick out those women who, while following the letter of the law, are able to turn a long-sleeved, floor-length dress and head scarf into somthing sensual and provocative. A quick glance around me reveals men who are best described as con-artists, others who pander to those with money, and still others with a genuine and disinterested style of interaction that can even put a wary foreigner at ease. I look forward to meeting a diverse group of people while here and hope to engage many in "conversations that count" on the assumption that such conversations are possible because our commonalities as humans outweigh any possible difference created by culture and worldview.
Here's to an exciting month of exploration, learning, and adventure! I invite you, dear readers, to take part in my adventure through this cyberspatial medium by posting any comments or questions below. I'll do my best to find answers and share experiences that may shed light on those subjects most interesting to you.