Back from Egypt, tomorrow the USA

A few days ago I arrived back in Amman after a five-day trip in Egypt. We spent most of our time in Cairo, with one short trip to Alexandria. Cairo itself is pretty amazing, although yes it is disgusting and really dirty. Every time we walked down the streets we would find ourselves covered in blackish water and dust, and we even took surgical masks as a precaution against swine flu (although apparently that’s pretty useless). But despite all our fears about eating dirty food, and even despite the intense heat, Cairo is amazing.

The buildings are so incredibly old and beautiful, and everyone was so helpful and nice and outgoing (although there are plenty of people trying to scam you). You can walk almost everywhere, unlike in Amman, and even though it’s huge the city feels way more manageable than Amman, which has a fraction of Cairo’s population. Amman seems so business-like in comparison to Cairo, which is really so beautiful just to look at and enjoy, even if the buildings are falling apart.

We saw tons of old mosques, the pyramids of course, the Egyptian Museum, Khan al-Khalili market and lots of other sights. We went to Alexandria on our last day and saw the library, although the city itself has definitely seen better days. We cut our day there short so we could spend more time in Cairo, which was a great call.

All in all it was a great trip, with nothing stolen, no diseases caught, and cheap too! I think including hotel, food, in-Egypt transportation and tickets we spent maybe $150 or $200 each, plus our $350 tickets there.

Here are some pictures:

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IMG_2266And in just a few hours I’m heading back to the states after 6 straight months abroad. I feel like I’ve almost forgotten my life there and I’m definitely eager to get back to things and to see family and friends. But also I have to admit it’ll be so nice to be back in a place where things are just so much easier. The air and water are cleaner, institutions work much better, people actually obey traffic laws…sure I have a skewed perspective because I have a pretty nice life in America, but it’ll be great to not have to think through tons of logistical factors just for a simple trip to the grocery store or something like that.

But the whole experience has been life-changing, and I have to thank everyone here who really made it incredible and way more enriching than it otherwise would have been. Nothing in America can phase me now, or at least that’s how I feel, like everything will seem so easy and simple back home. I’ve gotten a lot better at Arabic, although I still have a long way to go and hopefully a third year of study will make a big difference. I met some of the nicest and kindest people ever and I know I’ll stay in touch with them for years, and in the course of 7 months I saw 6 different countries (counting going to China with my mom in January before coming to Jordan). I just feel incredibly lucky to have had this experience and I know I’ll never forget it. Thanks everyone for reading and commenting and staying updated on my life!

–June

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Egypt Awaits

I’ve been the worst blogger ever and haven’t done an update in what feels like months. This, despite the fact that tons has happened–I ended my job, finished up my research, moved out of my apartment and moved in with friends for the next two weeks until I leave for the states on August 13. Tomorrow morning I leave for Egypt with a friend so I figured it’s a good time to FINALLY catch people up.

Basically the summer ended really well. I finally interviewed some Iraqi refugees for my research, which was sort of the last missing piece. I think I found out some really interesting information that I will be able to write into a really great senior essay.

Work also ended well, with me writing five articles for the August issue including one on a group of Iranian Kurdish refugees between the Jordanian and Iraqi borders. I was able to interview two of the refugees over the phone and it was a different sort of piece than what I usually write.

I moved out of my apartment and said goodbye to my super sweet and accommodating landlord Musa. This was a guy who let us pay rent like eight days late on a regular basis and did only the most cursory check of the apartment to give us back our deposit. Visiting him everyday in his grocery store next door is one of the things I’ll miss about this summer for sure.

Now I’m living with my friend here in Amman and enjoying finally not having ten things to do every day and not having to clean or worry about what I’m going to eat or deal with my disgusting toilet and laundry machine. We leave for the airport in just a few hours and I really can’t wait. Egypt’s going to be incredibly hot and crowded and crazy but it’ll be way worth it to see it before heading back. It’s the fifth country I’ve seen on this incredible six-month journey and I think it’ll be a great end to this experience.

Miss you all!

–June

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Semi-regular blog roundup

So, in the latest installment of my-friends-are-so-awesome-so-you-should-read-them, we have my friend Jasper’s blog Ephemera about his summer in Pittsburgh working for a prisoner’s rights group, with occasional forays into Puritan literature, vegetarian cooking, and, of course, adventures in Ultimate frisbee. 

And my favorite blogger, Molly, just started a  new blog, Nepali Molly, about her coming year or two working in Nepal on issues of sustainable development in Kathmandu. I cannot wait for her to start and share all her experiences so I’ll be following it obsessively.

–June

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Family visits, leaves, I remain for the second half

For the last week and a half my mom and sister were here in town visiting, which was a pretty awesome time. It was cool to show someone else all the sights–Jerash, Petra, Wadi Rum, and all around Amman–although I sorta messed up and got us all food poisoned (thanks, Hashem’s!). But despite the bumps it was a pretty cool trip and their first time to an Arab country, and we ended it all with an unforgettable trip to the Dead Sea complete with a beautiful view of the sunset and a belly-dancing show. Sweeeeet.

So now I’m here, starting the second half of my summer. Things with research are picking up just as things with Jo Magazine are slowing down a bit–my editor’s been gone on vacation for a month so I have one assignment so far that is progressing very gradually if at all. But I had an amazing interview with someone at the WHO on Iraqis and mental health issues, who gave me thirteen pages of notes, three or four very promising contacts at the UNHCR and other agencies that I’ll be interviewing in the coming weeks, and access to a working group comprised of all the NGOs working on mental health services for Iraqis in Jordan–basically, the jackpot of independent research. I asked to attend their July meeting, and not only were they okay with that, but they want me to present what I’ve found so far and my research objectives. Hopefully I’ll get some feedback on my thesis (as yet completely undetermined) and methods.  I’m sure I’ll make a ton more contacts there that will lead to a couple very busy weeks in late July.

I’d really love to share all the things I’ve been finding in my research, but the information is fairly sensitive and I don’t really feel comfortable publishing it on a blog. I’ve had to promise my sources that this research will be seen by a handful of people–my advisor, a handful of people in the Middle East Studies department at Yale, and other seniors whom I’ll present my research to in the spring so it probably wouldn’t be halal to discuss things here, no matter how interesting/heartbreaking my findings have been.

I’ve been watching Al Jazeera English non-stop for the past few days, and I want to work for them so badly I can taste it. They’re so professional and one of the few television news outlets that actually does work I find interesting and in-depth. It’s such a weird feeling–I know exactly what I want to do, and I KNOW I would be good at it–but no one has any money for journalists any more. My friend at the AP said they’re not really hiring and it’s almost impossible to get into the organization these days. I’m just hoping I can parlay my Farsi and semi-Arabic skills plus years of print-journalism internships into some sort of entry-level position…I will work for nothing if it means I can work for an organization actually still doing good international journalism. The job search, which I’m officially launching in August, is going to be a hell of an experience. I’m half-considering applying for one of those high-paying State Department jobs in Afghanistan, giving my parents a couple of strokes in the process…

In non-work related stuff, I may be going to Turkey for a few days in early August before flying back home. The prospect of visiting Istanbul is just too much of a dream to think clearly about right now, and it all depends on finding a good deal and good timing, but it would be an amazing end to an amazing six months abroad.

–June

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Lentil Veggie Burgers

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While there is plenty of hummus and falafel and fuul (fava beans) and other such vegetarian-friendly food available here in Jordan, I can only depend on those staples so much before it gets boring. And unsurprisingly, there is almost no vegetarian community here (indeed, “vegetarian” is usually interpreted to mean “doesn’t eat beef”). While a lone restaurant here and there sells veggie burgers, there’s no frozen garden-burger variety available in supermarkets.

So, out of semi-desperation and semi-boredom and after stumbling upon this recipe from 101 Cookbooks, I decided to make my own burgers. I’m pretty pleased with how they turned out, although having a food processor like the recipe dictates would have helped in keeping the mixture from separating while I was frying the patties. I added lemon zest and red and green peppers in addition to what the recipe asked for, which added some flavor as well as made the burgers more interesting-looking. Here’s what the mixture looked like before shaped into patties:

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And somewhat messy, in the skillet:

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The lentils and bread crumbs in the recipe make the burgers somewhat bready already (a rhyme!), so I probably won’t be eating them with buns but rather with a fork and knife, and of course all the condiments. All around a pretty good first try. My roommate is deathly ill with tonsilitis, so I think my next lentil-based recipe will be a soup with carrots and celery.

–June

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That was Belgium, this is Jordan

So this post is way late but I’ve been busy, so whatever. I’m home sick with pretty constant nausea, possibly induced by a bad egg sandwich, so I thought it would be a good time to post.

About two weeks ago was the tenth anniversary of King Abdullah’s accession to the throne. It was pretty ridiculous, with constant traffic jams, flags everywhere, and crowds of people gathered outside to greet the King and Queen on their royal procession. People wore red kuffiyehs and Jordan’s colors, painted their faces, and decorated their cars with flags. Kids would sit on truck beds or lean out windows and wave flags, and young men blasted nationalist songs out their windows at all hours of the day and night.

But despite all of the pomp, it all felt a little fake, and I can’t exactly put my finger on why, but I’ll try. Maybe it was the dull expression on some people’s faces as they engaged in all this celebration, or my own realization that Jordan’s government is so actively and desperately trying to carve a national identity out of tribal loyalties and a large, marginalized refugee population, or the fact that during the course of the day I saw a guy decorating his car with a red kuffiyeh, finish his drink, and promptly throw the plastic bottle on the ground. What kind of nationalism or patriotism warrants that sort of careless behavior? That more than anything made me realize that there isn’t any sort of community involvement or engagement here or any sense of civic duty…people’s interactions with each other in the public sphere here are marked very often by selfishness. If you can get away with not following a law or regulation, you do, even though it might hurt someone else. You drive dangerously fast and bumper to bumper and switch lanes gratuitously just to get to your destination as quickly as possible. Any queue is marked by confusion and a cluster of people scrambling to be first to get service, instead of waiting their turn. People simply don’t respect their communal facilities–I saw this at the University of Jordan, where it’s really a struggle to find a decent bathroom, one that’s not littered with cigarette butts and has toilet paper and working toilets.

A typical scene in Amman, this one outside my window: a car accident probably caused by someone's careless driving. The man in the upper half of the picture irately yelled at the driver and my landlord for twenty minutes. I heard the Arabic word for "shit" a lot.

A typical scene in Amman, this one outside my window: a car accident probably caused by someone's careless driving. The man in the upper half of the picture irately yelled at the driver and my landlord for twenty minutes. I heard the Arabic word for "shit" a lot.

But, it’s not as if people don’t know how to behave. I had lunch with a professor from last semester, and she was telling me the Belgian ambassador to Jordan told her how the Jordanians he worked with in Belgium were really great and polite and knew how to follow all regulations to the letter. He was back in Jordan with one of them when he saw him violating some regulation. He asked him why he did the correct thing in Belgium and was now violating the rule, and the Jordanian replied, “That was Belgium. This is Jordan.” That basically tells you everything you need to know about the attitude here. It’s really quite frustrating, and it makes me think that as long as that’s the case, there’s no way Jordan will be able to create any sort of national identity that doesn’t hinge on excluding some group. I think the most patriotic or authentically nationalist thing someone can do is pick up a piece of trash or (on a larger level) doing any sort of engaged, systematic community service project, and both seem like the most unlikely thing you would ever see happen in Jordan.

–June

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Tis the season…

…for elections, and Iran’s having a big one as I write this. Like most Iranians outside of the country I’m really eager to see what comes out of it considering a lot hinges on whether or not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wins a second term and is able to continue his hardline stance or whether more moderate voices like Mir Hussein Mousavi will move in. There are tons of journalists in Iran right now and I think even the Daily Show sent a correspondent there, and I really wish I could be there now just to see the excitement and the tension.

There are lots of gorgeous photos coming out of the election process, but I think this one wins for just sheer badass-ness. Global Voices does a good job of analyzing the Iranian blogosphere and concludes that Mousavi has broader support than Ahmadinejad, whose support is mainly concentrated in conservative blogs. Of course, this is a poor indicator of who’s actually going to win since only a thin sliver of Iran’s population has regular access to the internet, but Iranian bloggers are particularly active so it’s good to know where they’re leaning.

It’s interesting being in an Arab country while Iran’s in the news. Sometimes I feel not exactly hostility, but a certain level of unease towards Iran among the people here, and a lot of it’s due to Iran’s involvement in Iraq and growing involvement in Lebanon. The friends that I’ve talked to maintain that they really love Iran and its people and culture, and I have no reason to think they’re not sincere, but Iran’s meddling in Iraq especially is a big sore point for them. It pops up as a semi-awkward conversation topic at random times and I think that’s just a testament to how concerned some Arabs are about Iranian influence. It makes me think that Iran can never really be a regional leader with Arab support, which I think they desperately want to be, as long as they insist on funding Shiite militias and trying to control politicians in both Iraq and Lebanon.

–June

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