Goodbye, English

The smell of dust and diesel is intoxicating. As I walk out of my hotel and step into the busy streets of Amman, it is the smell more than anything else that helps me to fully realize that I’m back. After a month resting up in the States, I’ve returned to the Middle East, where I’ll be settling in Jordan for the next four months. Under the auspices of CET Academic Programs, I’ll be living in Irbid and studying at Yarmouk University, one of Jordan’s most respected institutions. (People here call it the Harvard of the Middle East, and it is a very high quality institution, although it lacks the grassy quads and gothic buildings.)

During the next four months, I and fifteen other students will study Arabic language, culture, and politics, while pledging to speak only Arabic, 24/7. With our peers, our teachers, the stranger on the street; in the house, in the classroom, on trips – everywhere. In our free time, we’ll be exploring Jordan and getting to know its historic and cultural sites.

Since coming here four days ago, we’ve moved into our apartments near campus and gotten oriented around the campus and city. We live not far from the University, and hopefully the short commute will help me to get to know the surrounding area.

Irbid isn’t on the top of Jordan’s attractions list. My guidebook (from the Rough Guides series) describes Jordan thusly:

“This busy, crowded city – around 75km north of Amman – is genial enough, with rambling souks filling the downtown alleyways, but there’s little to merit a diversion. It is most often visied as a staging-post for journeys into the far north of Jordan; if time is short, give it a miss.” (173)

This lackluster description is one of the reasons I came here. If I were a tourist, I probably would “give this city a miss”, but right now, I haven’t come looking for adventure. Or rather, I am looking for an adventure, but it’s of a different sort. During these next four months, I am looking to establish normalcy here. I want to experience life not as a traveler or a tourist, but as a resident. I know that a semester is an awefully short time, but I want to use it well to get to know the city and its people. If I can stay out of the house and spend enough time with locals experiencing every day, mundane life here, I’ll feel like I can leave saying not “I visited Irbid”, or, “I studied in Irbid”, but, “I lived in Irbid”. To me, studying the Middle East isn’t just about seeing its monuments or its historic sites, but about understanding the everyday lives of the men and women that make up its societies. Hopefully, this day to day immersion will be an adventure in and of itself.

Yesterday at 10:30 AM, all 16 of us signed our language pledges and ceased speaking English. The transition to Arabic wasn’t quite as hard as I expected, but phone conversations have been rather frustrating. Today was the first day of classes, and in what our curriculum described as our “easy week”, we were bombarded with stacks of vocabulary and grammar to learn before our first test on Friday. I’m curious to see what this looks like when they step it up a notch.

Right now, it’s off to my classmates’ apartment to cook up the veggies we bought at the market today. I’m expecting a strange strange fusion of Eastern and Western cooking that you might read about in a post soon.

But between now and then, I’ll be here, making a goof of myself in the streets of Irbid.

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One Response to Goodbye, English

  1. Karen Boss says:

    Whoa, Mark. What a dedicated pledge. And what an important one it will be. You will be able to say with confidence “I lived in Irbid” not simply as a matter of geographical history, but of a cultural and lingual commitment. That is very different than many of your peers’ experience with studying abroad. Kudos to you for recognizing your desire and dedicating yourself to realize it!

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