Head First, Lost in Amman

The estimated reading time for this post is 22 minutes


This course is interesting from perspective of learning about Arabs as much as learning Arabic – here is an extract:

From Lesson 1 of Main Text: Head First, Lost in Amman

Orbach, Benjamin, “Head First, Lost in Amman,” Live from Jordan, Amacom Books: 2007, pages 11-23.

Letter 1

Head First, Lost in Amman

July 27, 2002

Dear All,

Imagine walking home from work, a tall foreign-looking man approaches you and asks, “I beg your pardon, my good sir, but I just arrived in your country. And in actuality, I do not possess a place of residence, nor do I possess much currency. Can you please assist me with locating a furnished flat?”

Please don’t hurry past or roll up your window—that’s me asking the question, and I need help! I don’t know anyone, I don’t speak the language, I don’t know where anything is, and even if I did, I don’t know how to get there. Oh, I should also mention that when people find out where I’m from, they want to know whether my country is going to invade the country next door, destroy the local economy, and kill innocent people. My first week in Jordan hasn’t quite gone as smoothly as I had hoped.

Classes started at the university, but I spent most of the past week walking the streets of Amman, looking for an apartment. It turns out that the housing market is tight in the summer because rich vacationers from Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar drive on over to enjoy Amman’s summer breeze. Amman isn’t the Tropicana, but 95 degrees with an evening breeze beats 130-degree temperatures in the still desert.

While all of the Middle East may appear on TV to be a hot and dusty scene out of Ishtar, Jordan really is a desert country. Carved out by the British after World War I as a reward to the Sharif Hussein bin Ali (great-great-grandfather to Jordan’s King Abdullah II) for his support against the Turks and the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Jordan lies between the Jordan River to the west, Syria to the north, and the Iraqi and Saudi deserts to the east and south. While the Sharif’s third son, Faisal, received the lush Kingdom of Iraq from the British, his second son, Abdullah, received a swath of desert that was called Transjordan at the time. When Abdullah arrived in Amman in 1921, he found his inheritance to be a poor desert country populated by a combination of Bedouin nomads and farmers. Today, Amman is a Middle Eastern hub, and Jordan is a quickly developing country of 5 million people whose literacy rate is greater than 90 percent. In 1921, though, a quarter of a million people inhabited the four districts of Transjordan, and social communities and laws were largely determined by tribal affiliation.

Jordan’s growth and history have been marked and complicated by the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967. As a result of each war, a wave of Palestinian refugees crossed the Jordan River and took up residence, setting the stage for a contentious relationship between the Bedouin shepherds and farmers on the one hand and the displaced and discontented new arrivals on the other. In 1970, this complicated relationship erupted into civil war. The demographic difficulties of the Jordanian-Palestinian relationship were compounded further in 1991, when Jordan experienced a third major wave of immigration as 300,000 Palestinians and Jordanians were expelled from Persian Gulf countries as retribution for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat siding with Saddam Hussein against Kuwait and Jordan’s King Hussein (father of King Abdullah II) remaining neutral in the 1991 Gulf War.

Many of these 300,000 people sent money home regularly and had been a key source of income for Jordanian and Palestinian families in Jordan. In a heartbeat, they went from meal ticket to unemployed uncle and landed jobless in Jordan. At the same time, Jordan lost critical donor support in the Gulf and the West. International isolation and the influx of new refugees put an economic strain on Jordan, a resource-poor country. This economic despair was a key factor in King Hussein’s choice to pursue peace with Israel and its accompanying promises of Western financial support.

While I generally find these sorts of political fault lines fascinating, it’s finding a place to live that has me most concerned these days. I spend my days walking around, asking people for help, and looking for agencies that rent furnished apartments. Walking isn’t the most efficient means of getting about, but I haven’t figured out how to take the buses. Theoretically, I could take a cab, but I don’t know where I would tell the driver to take me. So, that leaves me trudging through Amman’s streets, searching for white signs with red Arabic letters that advertise furnished apartments. These signs stand out against the Amman skyline and beckon me forward, like the flashing lights of the dollar store at a strip mall. I pick my way through side streets and traffic jams, making my way toward the elusive promise of unpacking my bags.

Along the way, I stop people and, in Modern Standard Arabic, ask for help. Though some ignore me, most people are friendly and curious to know who I am, where I’ve come from, and what I’m doing in Amman. These encounters end in smiles and a friendly point toward another magic place off in the distance that holds the answers to all of my problems. Many times, though, there is more. Yesterday, someone offered to rent me his basement. After a visit to the apartment, I decided to pass; the boiler was in the “living room.”

Others have offered their phone numbers and told me to call if I need help. The pay phones here take phone cards, though, not coins. So I bought a phone card the other day and have now memorized the Arabic-speaking operator’s message for “the number that you have dialed is not correct; please hang up and try again.” There is no reason to believe that people are giving me wrong numbers. Rather, I think I have my own issues as far as figuring out how to use the phone.

My number-two activity, which I frequently get to do while I’m looking for an apartment, is walking up hills. Amman is a bridgeless city of winding roads carved into little hills that I’m always ascending. I thought that walking around with Lonely Planet’s travel guide to Jordan would land me an apartment and be the best way to figure out how to get around the city. Either Lonely Planet’s maps are the cartographic version of creative writing, or Amman suddenly added more streets in the past year. A tip for aspiring cartographers—details count; include all the streets.

Buses zip past me as I sweat through shirts and walk up Amman’s hilly streets, lost. Their existence suggests a reprieve from further uphill exercises in futility, and I long to hail down one of those buses, but I just don’t know what to say. Besides, my not knowing the bus routes, I don’t have a clue about my own destination. Complicating the problem, if the bus did stop for me, I would probably end up saying something like, “Pardon me, my good man, but will you be embarking on a voyage to the center of this fair metropolis? I desire to travel with you, sir.”

Not knowing the Jordanian dialect is definitely a problem. With my Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) grad school training, I can explain in Arabic the impact of globalization on developing countries, but I don’t know how to ask for the check at a restaurant. I struggle to express myself in the context of daily needs and everyday life, and my small talk is as fluid as a stuttering Frenchman at an Ebonics convention. I would give all my dry shirts for some sort of magic decoder ring that lets me make the transition from MSA to dialect.

To be fair to my grad school Arabic teachers, most people do understand me when I speak. My words lead to a combination of looks of disbelief, big smiles, and the occasional “you need a shower” face scrunch. My problems actually begin when I stop speaking, have to listen, and am expected to respond. At that point in the conversation, I hit the canvas, lights out, a first-round Mike Tyson knockout—i.e., I don’t understand much. As words float by (like butterflies), I ponder whether I’ve really been studying Arabic continuously for the past two years. And, if so, who decided to drop dialect from the curriculum? Ten out of ten lost white guys in the Middle East agree: bad choice.

At the end of a day of being lost and not understanding the world around me, I retreat to Safeway, the air-conditioned palace that is a cross between Whole Foods and Target, but with an Internet café, too. Back home, the closest thing to Amman’s Safeway is the Meijer store, that marvel of Midwestern one-stop shopping where you can fill your cart with fresh pears, cargo shorts, and a chain saw. Unlike the Sunday-morning Meijer crowd, though, the people at Safeway don’t have bed-head and aren’t wearing sweatpants. Safeway is where Amman’s elite go to shop, and they dress for the occasion. Besides the university, it is the only place where I see women walking around unaccompanied by their menfolk or family. In the air-conditioned wonderland of Safeway, I people-watch, browse the aisles for my favorite foods, and check prices. Everything costs a lot less than at home, except for name-brand Western products. Heinz ketchup costs about $6! Not a big concern for me right now, but that’s outrageous.

Even better than Safeway—and my favorite thing about Amman so far—is the Nefertiti Hotel, my temporary home. The Nef is a low-budget hotel that caters to Palestinians and Iraqis who have come to Amman for work or to get away from the stresses of life in the West Bank or Iraq. I stumbled upon the Nef during one of my apartment hunts and decided to stay there after Issa, the twenty-five-year-old receptionist and driver, welcomed me warmly. At $12 a night, the hotel is within my price range, and the people there are very friendly. Even better, they don’t speak English, which means I can practice my Arabic all the time.

In my short time at the Nef, I’ve taken on a sort of mascot-like status. Mascot might not be the best description; I’m more like a novelty act than the San Diego Chicken. I’m similar to a street performer that people are inexplicably drawn to for a moment, before moving along about their business. There are so few foreigners here, and the ones that do come generally stay in places like the Hyatt or other luxury chains. So, for the non-elites, and in particular the Iraqis and Palestinians that stay at the Nef, I’m a curiosity: an American who came to Jordan for a year to study Arabic at Jordan University.

When I come home from Safeway, I sit in one of the many chairs of the TV room lobby of the Nef and wait for Issa, his older brother Mohammed, and friends of the neighborhood to stop by and visit. Other guests come and go, sit and watch the news, and pepper me with a sequence of questions that usually include:

“Where are you from?”

“When did you arrive?”

“What are you doing in Jordan?”

“Why are you studying Arabic?”

“What is your religion?”

“What is your asl—your (genealogical) roots?”

This last question may seem odd, but it makes sense here. When I respond and, in kind, ask people where they are from, most declare, “I’m of Palestinian descent, but a Jordanian citizen.”

Clearly, they feel the importance of making such a distinction. If they said “Jordanian,” then I might think that their family is from Jordan and that they are trying to hide their Palestinian identity, of which they are proud. And if they answered “Palestinian,” I might confuse them as someone who doesn’t have citizenship. Many of the Palestinian-Jordanians who ask me this question seem eager to recount their own personal stories of injustice and to assert their Palestinian identity. At times, I’ve felt that I’m asked about my asl solely due to the questioner’s nationalistic need to share his own personal narrative, rather than out of real curiosity about my otherness.

It is also possible, however, that by asking me to explain my roots, my new acquaintances are affording me the courtesy of asserting exactly who I am. I don’t have to just be an “American”—I can be an Italian-American or a Lebanese-American. In any case, I’ve had several long conversations about where I am from. Because of my goatee, short dark hair, and choice to come live in the Arab East, most people think that I have an Arab parent. When people hear my name, though, if they are educated, they suspect that I come from Jewish roots. In this regard, Benyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s former prime minister, is turning out to be one of the more influential people in my life. “Benyamin” or “Benjamin” has become a well-known Jewish name in the Arab East. Telling people that my name is “Ben” isn’t really an option since it means “son” in Arabic and is not a name. Bin Laden means the “son of Laden.” So, I introduce myself as “Benja,” which is good for confusing the educated and noneducated alike.

Because hostility toward Israel is plainly obvious here, I don’t feel comfortable telling people that I meet on the street or at the university that I am Jewish. For the most part, I’ve told people that I come from a mixed Muslim, Christian, and Jewish background that involves ancestors from Turkey and Poland. This story has gotten complicated at times, and I actually wrote the whole narrative down in my journal to keep it straight. I’m not proud of lying, but I don’t want my religion to become the centerpiece for all of my conversations.

In addition to being curious and full of questions about who I am and what I’m doing here, the people at the Nef are incredibly generous. Whenever Issa, Mohammed, or Fayez—a journalist who works nearby—have something to eat, they insist on sharing their meal with me, no matter how hard I protest that I’m not hungry. Frequently, we sit on the patio in front of the hotel and drink tea. A few times, Fayez and others have taken me to a local coffee shop to sit outside in the summer breeze, smoke a water pipe, and drink more tea.

On the patio or at the coffee shop, Fayez, Issa, Mohammed, and others speak with me in MSA, rather than dialect, so that I can understand them. Beyond the oft-repeated basic questions, the hot topics that interest my friends at the Nef are religion and American foreign policy, with a heavy emphasis on Israel and Iraq. Whether it is sitting at a coffee shop with Fayez, a water pipe in hand, or reclining in the passenger seat of the Nef’s white Fiat parked in front of the hotel while Issa plays with the radio dial, I am bombarded with questions concerning American foreign policy:

“Why does America confront Iraq?”

“Why does America sell F-16s to Israel to use against the Palestinian people?”

“Why does America condemn Palestinian resistance against Israel but veto United Nations resolutions that condemn Israeli terrorism against Palestinian civilians?”

“Why doesn’t America organize an international coalition to expel Israel from occupied Palestine the way it expelled Iraq from occupied Kuwait in 1991?”

“Why does America hate Muslims and wage war against Islam?”

“Why can’t Arabs obtain visas to enter the United States? Is it true that Arabs are attacked on the street in America because of September 11?”

Frequently, I feel like an American spokesperson scrambling for answers, seeking to make logical arguments that will make the point that America is not at war with Islam in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is tougher to address. Almost everyone that I’ve met so far at the Nef, on the street, or at the university identifies themselves as Palestinian in some way. Their parents or grandparents came to Jordan in the 1948, 1967, or 1991 waves of Palestinian immigration. The continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is also a factor in the flow of Palestinians to Jordan. As a result, the majority of the people living in Jordan are Palestinian or of Palestinian ancestry—estimates range to as high as 60 percent of the population. Not surprising, these displaced Palestinians have strong and emotional opinions on the Arab-Israeli conflict, a topic that I’ll have to take up in a future letter.

I should probably say something about the university, the reason why I’m here. I’ve been to a few of my classes so far and already realize that the university setting itself, home to about 30,000 students, is much more interesting than the content of my classes. The campus is the size of a few city blocks, fenced in, and lined with trees. On my first day, I showed the guard my passport, entered the main gate, and stepped into a different universe. Feelings of disorientation have characterized my past week, but I experienced sensory overload at the university; it felt like I was wearing a wool sweater in August.

When I walked through the main gate and down the central artery, a wide stone pathway surrounded by tall evergreen trees and administration buildings, I felt as if all eyes were upon me. I scanned the crowd for a familiar face, but of course there wasn’t one—I am in Jordan, and everyone I know lives at the Nefertiti Hotel. On the main walkway, hundreds of students milled about or sat on notebooks (to keep their clothes from getting dusty) under the shaded cover of towering trees.

As usual, I had no idea where to go, but I continued straight along the stone walkway toward the clock tower in the center of campus. I walked past men wearing tight Euro-style jeans and short-sleeved collared shirts, and women who could have stepped out of Vanity Fair ads, with designer jeans and shirts. Other women were dressed more conservatively, with gray or white hijabs and blue, green, gray, khaki, or black jilbabs. A hijab is an Islamic head scarf and a jilbab is a shapeless button-down or zip-up outer garment that looks like a painter’s smock. It covers a woman’s clothes from her collar to ankles.

I passed the library and, with moving lips, read the names of other buildings, looking for one that might house the language center. I thought about asking for directions, but I didn’t know who to approach. While I have no problem with strangers on the street laughing at me, for some reason, I’m sensitive about serving as the butt of students’ jokes. I even felt reluctant to make eye contact with female students, not knowing what would be culturally acceptable and what might be misinterpreted. I think I might be overly sensitive to not wanting to offend people. Eventually, I found the language center.

Despite my limited attendance so far (I’ve spent most of my time lost and looking for a place to live), it’s clear that classes are horrendous. There are about twenty other students in my Arabic class—the second most advanced level—who I’ve divided into three groups: the Lawrences, the princes, and the true believers. The Lawrences, who I’ve nicknamed after the British Arabist played by Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, are Western academic types who study Arabic because of their interest in Arab history or culture. Their presence at the university and their study of Arabic is an affair of the mind; they want to gain a skill set valuable to professional development and achievement. Based upon their political persuasion and interpretation of history, Lawrences are classified, in a black or white way, as either “Arabists,” if they love all things Arab, or “Orientalists,” if they are critical of aspects of Arab history or culture. In our class, we have a few Lawrences: a Korean-American, a British guy, a couple of Italians and Spaniards, and me.

The princes (and princesses) are Arab-Europeans or Arab-Americans who speak either good Arabic, because their parents spoke their native language to them as children, or no Arabic, because their parents chose to speak only their new tongue upon immigrating to America or Europe. Our class has a French-Palestinian and a French-Iraqi who both speak Arabic almost to the level of fluency, but struggle to read and write the language. Their study of Arabic is an affair of the heart; they seek to complete a missing part of their identity.

Lastly, there are the true believers who are religious Muslims from Chechnya, Indonesia, and Turkey. They read from the Koran masterfully but can’t speak Arabic at all. Their study of Arabic is an affair of both the heart and the mind; knowledge of Arabic will allow them to achieve spiritual fulfillment. Together, we make quite a combination, both socially and academically. Though on the social front, my classmates so far share a common trait of not wanting to speak with me. Maybe it’s because I missed the first week of school and the icebreaker games.

It’s not this group of Lawrences, princes, and true believers that makes classes difficult though—it’s my teachers. I have four teachers, and all but one comes across as lazy or disinterested. My grammar teacher has devoted the first fifteen minutes of each class to talking about how much he hates Israel’s prime minister, Ariel Sharon. He then spends half of the class answering questions from Austin (the Korean-American) regarding grammar minutia. The other day we spent twenty minutes on the pronunciation of female plurals in the dual set. That’s not going to help me find a place to live and is as relevant as a fifth-grade English class back home practicing the spelling and pronunciation of Polish last names.

“M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I, now say it again, class!”

After grammar, our reading teacher, “the Cartoon,” takes over. The Cartoon has a spiky blond mullet haircut and bulging eyes. He is kind of like a helmetless hockey player who has just been checked against the boards. The Cartoon spends half of class looking out into the hallway at students passing by, and the other half reading the text out loud, asking us what words mean, and behaving like Bugs Bunny. He doesn’t actually explain vocabulary words or offer synonyms. Instead, he acts out the words. Since I only know vocabulary that deals with globalization, occupation, and weapons of mass destruction, I never know the answers to his questions. The texts we’ve read so far have been about marriage, sickness, and camels. The Cartoon frequently curls his upper lip, theatrically snarls “no” to the answers students give, and then acts out words and phrases such as “virus,” “camel with two humps,” and “wedding engagement.” Strangely, it is always the same pantomime routine. Both he and the Sharon-hating grammarian answered their cell phones in class today.

The best part about class is the break. Between grammar and reading, I sit outside, eat oranges, and people-watch for thirty minutes. Yesterday, while I was eating an orange, a student with her head covered approached me. Usually, I try not to let Jordanians speak to me in English by playing the game of answering English questions in Arabic. I was so taken aback by her forwardness, though, that I would have spoken with her in pig latin had she asked. Nadia, the girl, wanted to practice English. She told me that she was a Jordanian of Palestinian descent and asked me about my roots, sure that I was a prince. We ended up talking about religion. She told me that just because people were religiously observant didn’t mean that they were good people. Nadia was very appreciative of my willingness to speak with her, which I found funny. She doesn’t know that I don’t really have any friends to speak with, except for my bewildered associates at the Nef.

From Nadia, to the group at the Nef, to the people I’ve met on the street, I’m impressed by the little acts of generosity and hospitality strangers have offered me so far. My prearrival fears of encountering hatred and anger toward Americans were pretty off. As Jordanians and Palestinians give me directions, welcome me to their country, and make suggestions as to where I might find a place to live, they say to me that as an American, I am welcome.

People, they tell me, are different from their governments. We are all human beings and the same everywhere, regardless of our nationality. Governments, however, are evil. Since no one here has a say in choosing their government, Jordanians and Palestinians have sympathy for Americans. To them, my government is an international bully and liar, and not reflective of the positive stereotype of American people being honest and well meaning. (There are, of course, negative stereotypes, which I’m discovering, too—a story for later.) They don’t hold me responsible for American foreign policy—I’m just a simple citizen, like them, who has nothing to do with my government’s choices. I can’t help but wonder whether this sentiment will change as I continue to defend U.S. policies in discussions about Iraq, the war on terrorism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It’s been quite a beginning, hope you all are well. More to come soon—



Orbach, Benjamin, “Head First, Lost in Amman,” Live from Jordan, Amacom Books: 2007, pps 11-23.

Excerpted from Live from Jordan by Benjamin Orbach,Copyright © 2007 Benjamin Orbach. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved. http://www.amacombooks.org.

Students granted access to this material are granted permission to download or print out one (1) copy of the Live from Jordan excerpts for personal use only and agree not to reproduce, retransmit, distribute, disseminate, sell, publish, broadcast or circulate this material without prior written permission of the copyright owner (AMA).

On the Carnegie Mellon course there is simple multiple choice questions at this point to test what you have learned in the above excerpt.