August 21, 2006

Reflecting on Six Weeks in Jordan

It feels like I haven't blogged forever since my last post was written during the last hours before I left Amman for Washington D.C. Now that I'm back I hope to be posting more often than I did during my vacation. The long trip across Europe and the Atlantic was very tiring and the recent events in London made things all the more stressful.

We worried about what was allowed on the plane and what wasn't. Thankfully, we were allowed to bring electronics onto the plane (laptop, cameras, phones, etc), but we had to forfeit anything that we had which was made of a "fluid substance." I'm not sure how hard it is for men to do that, but I know it was very inconvenient for me to have to give up my lotion, perfume, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, lip gloss, anti-perspirant, etc. Of course I wasn't stupid enough to throw all that away because I packed some things in my checked luggage, and other things that were banned from the plane cabin I put in a bag that was sent down with the rest of the checked baggage. Although I am usually satisfied with KLM's service, I wondered why they didn't provide us with hygienic essentials that were taken away before boarding. I heard that some airlines were providing passengers with snacks and drinks since they were not allowed to bring on their own. They could've done the same with things like toothpaste, lotion, deodorant, etc.

In any case, we landed safely in one piece and didn't have any trouble at the airport where most employees were surprisingly nice and smiley. Then it occurred to me that I was possibly just looking out for anyone being nice and smiling since much of that was lacking in Jordan :)

On the way home, it took some time for my eyes to adjust to the lush green scenery, the orderly streets, and the generally homogeneous look of suburban Virginia. When I got home, it also took some time for my ears to adjust to the extreme peace and quiet in my neighborhood. No pick-up trucks were roaming the streets honking their horns selling gas and vegetables, no children were to be found yelling and screaming in the streets, no rowdy teenagers were blasting music in their cars or overly aggressive middle aged taxi drivers obsessively honking their horns. It was so quiet that it took me a while longer to fall asleep.

And over the past week since I've been back, I can't help but think about everything that occurred in my month and half stay half way across the world. Nothing had to "happen" per se, just what I observed and heard from Jordanians truly saddened me.

I don't like sounding extremely negative and pessimistic, but it is really hard for me to find something good to say about the state of Jordanian society. Speaking to my cousins about their college experience is utterly depressing. They spoke of incompetent professors, lack of facilities, apathetic students, corrupt administrations, lack of "campus life" and active student organizations, etc.

If colleges were that bad, what was to be said of high schools then? Of course, one cannot speak about high schools in Jordan without considering the Tragedy of Tawjihi. On one side we have families pressuring their children to ace the final 12th grade exam so they can be doctors and engineers. Schools and teachers overload students with work, encourage them to blindly memorize text books and regurgitate the information on the test paper. There is no thinking or analyzing; just memorizing and reciting. And when the results appear, all hell breaks loose. Your final score is announced to everyone, and I mean everyone. If you ace the exam, your life will go on. You will apply to be accepted into any university that takes you, under any major that will accept you with the score that you have, and you will take that road to medicine, computer science, or Arabic studies, whether you like it or not. If you fail the exam, you are doomed. The whole world will know that you are a failure. Even if you were an "A" student your whole life, and you messed up on that one exam, you are a failure. You parents will lock you at home, lower their head when they walk out of the house, and avoid situations where they will be embarrassed to reveal your failing score. If you didn't fail, but didn't score high enough, you will most likely be forced to accept a major you are not passionate about or remotely interested in. You will go on to university lacking the enthusiasm required for students to produce and achieve. You and your peers will not be innovative or creative, and will be afraid of the day you graduate to face the horrors of the job market.

Away from the ailing educational system, you will see a country where as the cliche goes, the rich get richer and poor get poorer. You may stumble upon a neighborhood in Amman with guarded villas, majestic gardens, lavish pools and fountains, and German cars roaming the streets. There is nothing wrong with this picture of course, until you realize that most cities and neighborhoods across the country could not be further away from this image. On those streets, Jordanians worry if they will have enough food and water for the next day. They worry if they will be able to pay the ever increasing taxes on every possible product and service their government provides. They wonder if they will be able to pay for the books or uniforms their children will need for the new school year.

On these same streets, you will encounter some people who pretend to not know anything about law, order, ethics, morals, or common courtesy. Of course I would not want to generalize here, but one too many "incidents" and "encounters" with such individuals makes you wonder if there really is anyone who has respect for the law or maintains any ounce of respect for their fellow human being. There is not much regard for traffic regulations which is evident in the horrifically high rate of fatal accidents in the country. The concept of standing in a line is nearly non-existent, and if one attempts to form one they are easily cut off from every possible direction. The idea of customer service is also a few decades ahead of many institutions and businesses in Jordan.

This is not to mention, of course, the unmentionable: the sad state of political "reform" and political awareness in the country. I don't want to delve too much into this category because it would simply take too long to discuss. What bothered me most about this is how rare it is to find young Jordanians who are interested in or aware of the domestic, regional or international political scene. These 20 somethings can't be bothered much with issues of parliaments, freedom of speech and expression, national agendas, a couple of wars next door, etc. Knowledge of or interest in politics and/or social movements appears to be superficial. You don't find many youth "dedicated" to a cause, whether it be political, social, environmental, or economic. There is a certain segment of young citizens active with religious organizations but it is not a majority by any calculation. I naturally find myself comparing college students in Jordan to those in the US, which is probably an unfair thing to do seeing the huge difference between these two countries. In the US, you'd be hard pressed to find a college student who is not involved in a student organization such as sororities and fraternities, social justice clubs, animal rights clubs, religious studies clubs, cultural clubs, and academic interest clubs. I realize that the environment in Jordanian universities is not as welcoming of this type of activity, but it is also clear that many students are too lazy to take the initiative to push for these programs at their colleges. They would rather not deal with the bureaucracy and trouble it would take to start one of these clubs, but they also do not realize that if they commit to making this happen then it will be easier for students after them to do the same and benefit from their efforts.

To be honest, my intention is not to highlight all these negative aspects of Jordanian society that I witnessed just for the sake of it. It really hurts me to see that we are so behind on many issues despite the potential that our countrymen and women have to make things better. It's not easy to bring about change into society but I strongly believe that if each person becomes aware of the ills of their society and has the will to make it better, then they will find a way to do so, one at a time. I really do hope that the next time I visit my beloved Jordan, I will witness a change, even the smallest positive changes will be good enough for me. As long as I don't come back to reflect on the same problems without any improvements, I will be satisfied.

Here's to hoping.

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7 Comments:

At 11:08 AM, Blogger Abu Shreek said...

Good effort Moi.
I read your last post (5 weeks in Jordan) and I felt so home sick and depressed and realized how much I miss Amman. (especially with the pictures and stuff).
I read this post and I remebered those images you eloquently described, and I felt very very depressed.
I think I am going to boycott your blog. :o)

 
At 12:32 PM, Blogger الفلسطينية said...

welcome back! hamdillah 3a salameh.
i was lucky enough to be back a few days b4 this liquid thing fiasco. are they serious? its getting out of hand- when is this gonna stop?

 
At 4:45 PM, Anonymous Iman said...

Welcome 'home!'

hese 20 somethings can't be bothered much with issues of parliaments, freedom of speech and expression, national agendas, a couple of wars next door, etc. Knowledge of or interest in politics and/or social movements appears to be superficial.
You're very right. but perhaps it's the environment in which they grew up in ... teh Arab world in general does not encourage involvement, questioning, analysis, creativity. We live in a crippling society dominated by the thoughts of our leaders in which we have to be shadows of ... It's like psychological paralysis ... fear...we grow up feeling that whatever we do will not matter anyway!

You don't find many youth "dedicated" to a cause, whether it be political, social, environmental, or economic. There is a certain segment of young citizens active with religious organizations but it is not a majority by any calculation. I naturally find myself comparing college students in Jordan to those in the US, which is probably an unfair thing to do seeing the huge difference between these two countries.
I've visited various universitis (Al-Najah, Al-Quds, Birzeit, American University in Jenin) when visiting Palestine, and I must say that the student body is pretty much active in those different areas. I am not sure if this is something that is only lacking in Jordan or other parts of the Arab world as well.

On a different yet similar note, I have to say that the general public in Palestine is not very much tuned into the news. When spending my time in Palestine, I am amazed at how people are just not interested in listening to the news or reading about it. When I ask why this is a missing part of their everyday, the answer is always the same coming from a school kid to an adult: We are living it everyday, so what's the point of watching it?

And they're right ...

In the US, you'd be hard pressed to find a college student who is not involved in a student organization such as sororities and fraternities, social justice clubs, animal rights clubs, religious studies clubs, cultural clubs, and academic interest clubs. I realize that the environment in Jordanian universities is not as welcoming of this type of activity, but it is also clear that many students are too lazy to take the initiative to push for these programs at their colleges. They would rather not deal with the bureaucracy and trouble it would take to start one of these clubs, but they also do not realize that if they commit to making this happen then it will be easier for students after them to do the same and benefit from their efforts.
I am inclined to say your comparison here is not valid per se. While there is a greater opportunity for students here in the USA to be involved, the influence they have and impact they leave is not one fit for a strong valid comparison...i mean, 73% can name Larry, Curly and Moe (the Three Stooges ... I love the 2 stooges! Curly is my favorite) as comapred to only 42% who could name the three branches of the U.S. government (judicial, executive and legislative).

So while we have much more resources in the USA than do most other countries, I don't think the majority is utilizing them for their benefit...and the study that was released a week or so ago suggest exactly that! Americans know pop culture more than they do current events! And quite frankly, I think the majority of Americans don't give a crap about current events...and that explains my own personal observations as well... 8 out 10 on the train reading a newspaper start from the back (sports section!); the other 2 flip to the weather and horoscopes!

And the question (that I constantly ask myself!) remains...can we really blame our Arab students for the lack of invovlment, lack of voice?!

 
At 10:01 PM, Anonymous rahooba said...

hey hey! glad you're back. as for your post-- it's interesting because in general arabs are extraordinarily passionate about politics-- it invades every conversation! every allah yil3an.. every song (ok fine, maybe just sha3baan 3abdel ra7eem)... I also find it strange that there is a coexisting apathy. I think that, in general, we have, as a people, lost hope. So, yes, we know all this stuff is going on...but who cares? can't do anything about it...so then you stop even being aware of what's happening. And the Arab mentality of the dominance of the status quo is overbearing. There are very little cultural injections of "one person can change everything" and "inspiration"-- these are mainly American ideals that inundate our society's movies, books, etc.

 
At 6:29 PM, Blogger moi said...

Abu Shreek--I'm glad I was able to keep you in tune with what's going on in Jordan, the good and the bad :)

الفلسطينية--Allah ysalmik :) You were definitely lucky to beat the new security checks. I'm not sure how long it will last, and although I understand the need to keep us all safe, some things are just getting out of hand (are lip gloss & mascara really that dangerous?!).

iman-- I can always rely on you to leave me a comment to really think about ;) This is exactly what I'm talking about, the mentality that one person cannot make a difference. Like you said, a "paralysis" of some sort that makes people think any effort at change is insignificant and ineffective. Only once we are able to change this kind of thinking will we see any progress in the Middle East.

With regards to Palestinian students and society, I think that would have to be an exception. Of course the student body would be active in trying to raise awareness about the injustices they face and engage in a type of peaceful resistance to the oppression and occupation. They feel the pressure on a daily basis and therefore they react. This imminent sense of insecurity and injustice is not as evident in other Arab countries and therefore does not solicit the same response.

As for your 3rd point, I do agree that American students are not as politically engaged as they should be. In my post I lamented the fact that Jordanian students were not only apathetic towards the political situation but to any other "cause" whether it be social, environmental, etc. While American students are not as involved in politics, you do find that a good number of them would be involved in some kind of organization, internship, volunteering that seeks to make a difference in their communities. They don't have to necessarily be involved in politics, but at least anything that doesn't involve Haifa Wehbe & cell phones! You see what I'm saying?

rahooba-- walek alf alf mabrook on the new blog ;)
Like you, I tend to think that Arabs are very much politically aware, which is true to an extent. From what I saw during my summer in Jordan, political talk was mostly limited to the above 30 age group. In my post I was referring to the younger crowd, university students and 20-somethings, many of whom appear to be much less concerned about political freedoms and regional conflicts. And like you and Iman pointed out, young Arabs don't find an environment that encourages activism and making a difference. It's an environment that, like you said, accepts the status quo.

 
At 9:37 PM, Anonymous Iman said...

in some kind of organization, internship, volunteering that seeks to make a difference in their communities. They don't have to necessarily be involved in politics, but at least anything that doesn't involve Haifa Wehbe & cell phones! You see what I'm saying?

Right, but this is due to the educational system and school curriculum. In grade school I had to commit to certain hours of 'community service' within my school such as mointoring lunch hour for the younger kids (aimed at teaching us responsibility), an X number of community service hours followed by a written report have to be completed before graduating high school, I remember having to read a stack of books and poems aside from the class textbook for English classes and present book reports to class, debates, impropmtu speeches, (even in pre-school, kids are taught about respecting nature, the enviorment and 'civil duty' ... I am very impressed by the work my nieces and nephews bring home from pre-school, the educational field trips they go on, and the assignments they have. I cannot compare pre-schools here to back home, because I don't know how it is back home but a close comparison would be Arabic school my older nieces attend. They HATE it. They seriously dread going to Arabic school on the weekends. When I ask them why. They say it's boring, kids are not engaged in challenging activities and the teachers are rude!)

And as far as college, internship in most cases is a requirment for most undergraduate and graduate programs. So you see, what you're talking about is not something the age group you'r focusing on in America CHOOSE to do but rather is the product of the education system that teaches them the importance of these causes you mention side by side coloring inside the line! Perhaps if it was missing, they would be just like those in the Arab world!

 
At 10:44 PM, Blogger الفلسطينية said...

moi; but of course theyre dangerous- what are u talking about? dont u know- them arabs use these make up tactics so that they can stare down people with a look of terror. one glance, and everyone will turn to stone (fact is we're just too darn beautiful). crazy terrorists!

 

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