Tuesday, July 1, 2008

July 1: Amman, Jordan

After a long night on an airplane packed with families excitedly bound for Jordan and other parts of the Middle East, we arrived in very hot and dusty Amman, the capital and largest city in Jordan. Betsy and I planned to get a ride with Gary, a Champlain College faculty member on the same flight, to our hotel, which is located near his accommodations. Our driver was not quite expecting us, and really had only enough room for Gary and his bag. He kindly made room for us, and we rode, suitcases on our laps, into the city and to our hotel.

Amman is dry, brown, and hilly. The traffic is what one might expect in a city of two million people who consider lines on the highway to be mere suggestions. As much as people might worry that the incendiary politics of the region make travel here risky, it does not compare to the roads. Even the walk from our hotel down the street to a strip of shops near the University was sketchy, as sidewalks kind of come and go and drivers belie all that one hears about wonderful Middle East hospitality. Impatience is the prevailing theme.

Nonetheless, we survived the walk and found a Lebanese snack shop where Betsy and I shared a "mishwi" (my best estimation), which was a lot like...pizza. We were surrounded by mostly college-aged folks, owing to our proximity to the enormous University of Jordan (60,000 students). It is truly fascinating to see in person the Islamic dress common to this region: women uncovered, women in hijabs (just head scarves), in ornate, close-fitting robes that cover their arms and legs completely, and in burqas (a full covering over the head and shoulders with just a small slit where their eyes are). The men look like they could be on the street in Hartford--jeans and open-necked shirts. It's really the women who are quite striking in their dress and beauty.

Today we went to the University of Jordan where we met several faculty members who are working with Gary on Champlain's Global Modules program. While he did some business, Betsy, Al (another CC faculty member) and I took a tour of the campus with a public relations staff member. It's quite a lovely campus, behind a gate and tall fence, teeming with students. Again, the women really stood out, in part because it was about 95 degrees and we were having a hard time imagining what it was like to be covered head to toe in black cloth. We did see some men in traditional garb, but that was the exception. The physical layout of the campus felt something like one of those big California community colleges, but one glance around at the people would convince you you're not in Ventura County. We enjoyed a great lunch in the faculty dining room with our hosts, three of whom teach in the English Department. It was fascinating to talk with them about the texts they use (and don't use) in their American literature classes. Our most senior host, Rula Quawas, who also teaches Women's Studies, explained the "three taboos" about which they are not permitted to teach: sex, religion, politics. She laughed and said, "But these things are what literature is about!" I sensed that Rula is someone who enjoys coloring outside the lines. Another instructor, a much younger woman named Inez, said that she stays away from the three taboos because she finds that such controversy (whether or not it's okay to even discuss these) distracts from discussing the material. And a third, Laza (the only one of the three who was covered--wearing a head scarf), was somewhere in between. She shared a great story about teaching Kate Chopin's "The Awakening," in which a woman commits suicide in part because of her hopelessness about her marriage, a concept that elicited great discussion among her students.

Betsy extended an invitation to both Laza and Inez to come to Champlain (both are hoping to do their Ph.Ds in Europe or the States, so are very interested in such opportunities), but somehow the words "near the Canadian border" seemed to cool their enthusiasm.

Tomorrow we head to Petra, which I am even more excited about, having had everyone here ask, with genuine concern, "Are you going to Petra?" and then responding with great enthusiasm when we answer yes.

I'll try posting some pictures later. It's time for dinner.

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