Category Archives: Islam

Bosama Bin Dickson

The other week I got the latest edition of the Economist placed mysteriously on my desk:

Something about the whole scenario just cracked me up. The mail situation is a little sketchy at school, but I mean, I have a mailbox, so why the freaky appearance of Osama’s picture out of nowhere on my desk? Is this a sign? And did the person who was placing the post it note TRY to put it right in the middle of his face? Or on his mouth? Did I shut Osama up? Or am I Osama’s dream? Is this actually saying “Now, kill Bowman”? Is this a sign that I am NEXT?!??

Just like it was interesting to be living in the Middle East during the Egyptian revolution, Osama’s death was another event that I feel like experienced much differently off of American soil. To be honest, I didn’t know what to feel about the whole thing, but I certainly didn’t feel like partying in the streets. It was interesting watching people on the news cheering in Times Square waving American flags, and I couldn’t be helped but reminded of watching Iraqi protests of George Bush during the Iraq War.

Now, of course I’m not comparing the two men, but don’t the two pictures above have completely the same vibe? I mean, it’s so easy to look at Iraqi’s as “the other” when watching them on the news, but it’s weird for me to have the same feeling about Americans because I’m so far away from home and no one here is partying in the streets, so I can’t feel that communal triumph the Americans in the picture are feeling. It makes me ask myself how people from Latvia, or Chile, or Mongolia see all of this. The biggest thing I have learned from living abroad and being a part, even if marginally, of a whole different society, is how easy it is to be Americentric living in the US of A and how hard it is to break that mindset. I hope this isn’t sounding pretentious – I mostly am just trying to say that it’s just nice to be able to see your country from an outside perspective and to be able to feel first hand the perspective of “the other.”

I was talking with one of my students, who is Palestinian,  and she mentioned that she was happy he was gone so that there would be less skewed misrepresentations of Islam in the world. And in the end, for some reason that was the feeling with which I most identified. It’s probably just because I’m here, because you know I would have been out in the streets if I lived in New York City instead. But that I realized I’m not happy that he’s gone, because now that he’s off the list, all signs point to the fact that I’m next…

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Heading Back to Jordan (and just in time)

I’m headed back to Jordan today and am almost as excited today as when I boarded the plane about a year ago to come for the first time. I had a wonderful visit, but I’m happy that I am leaving before Pastor Terry Jones commemorates the anniversary of September 11th with “Burn a Koran Day.” If you haven’t been following the media-storm around this one, an obscure pastor from Florida, who believes Islam is Of the Devil, is leading his 50-member congregation in a psychotic ritualistic burning of the Holy Book of Islam to, quote, “bring to awareness to the dangers of Islam and that the Koran is leading people to hell. Eternal fire is the only destination the Koran can lead people to so we want to put the Koran in it’s place – the fire!” With the vitriolic debate surrounding the NYC mosque culminating in this hateful event, I don’t think I’ve ever been more frustrated with the growing Islamophobia in our country.

Many might rightfully point out that this guy does not represent the majority, or even a sizable minority in our county, but his voice is out there, is getting attention, and is being broadcast all over the world. Whether it’s fair or not, we will be judged by people like this. What’s that? It’s not right that a religious zealot with weird facial hair, twisting an otherwise peaceful religion to make hateful, condemning comments, via a face-to-camera video proclamation, backed by a small extremist band of followers, should come to represent millions and millions of people – the vast majority of whom completely disagree with him?

Well, I agree. It’s not right. But we should certainly know from first-hand experience that this is what happens. My frustrations for the past few weeks have stemmed not from people’s opinions on the NYC mosque itself, but from the rhetoric surrounding it and the dangerous, uninformed illogical leaps that people make to support their opinions. Terry Jones: is as representative of American views on Islam (and Christianity) as the violent jihadists: who took part in the attacks on 9/11 are representative of Muslim views on the West (and Islam itself). Terry Jones: Christianity as Violent Jihadists: Islam. The mass public in the US makes negative associations with Islam because of extremist images we see in the mass media, just as the mass public in the Muslim world will be affected by the images of their Holy Book being set aflame on US soil, by Americans – there have already been protests all over the world, from the streets of Afghanistan to the US Embassy in Indonesia, and General Petraeus himself has urged the pastor not to go through with the plans as “It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort.” We should be able to see how misinformation and negative images of Islam have been poisoning a nation like ours, with a strong rule of law and smart, capable leaders. Imagine what kind of damage the same kind of filth could do to a nation as volatile as Afghanistan.

So before we condemn Terry Jones (which we obviously should) or worry that he’s spreading the wrong message (which we obviously should), we need to take a look at ourselves and wonder if we have been receiving the wrong message, from the wrong sources ourselves.

[For these same thoughts expressed with a sense of humor, check out this incredibly poignant must-read article from the Onion, the hilarious fake news source, titled Man Already Knows Everything He Needs to Know about Muslims.]

Will Um Bassam Eat Me Before I Leave?

I’m pretty sure Um Bassam is not a fan of Ramadan. She keeps telling me I shouldn’t fast because I’m too skinny. “It would be one thing if you were fat…” One of her favorite past times is to try to feed me as much as possible, which has certainly been limited while I fast during the day. She uses tricks and ploys to lure me into sitting next to her and eating whatever she desires, while we discuss mundane things, like the time when she told me she saw the renter downstairs completely naked, and then made fun of him because he’s Asian (turns out that grandmothers are racist everywhere).

This pastime has led me to believe she’s trying to fatten me up, perhaps to eat me. One time early on I was sitting on my bed reading when Um Bassam popped up in the doorway holding a large box of cookies of some sort. [in Arabic] “RAaaamiiii??!? Would you like a cookie?” Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I said yes, and she immediately retreated out to the main room, beckoning me to follow and to “Oud” (the command “sit,” her trademark phrase)… Ah, the catch. Something in my childhood fairytale education warned me not to follow the short, grinning old woman offering me sweets, but I did. Many, many cookies later (somewhere around 15, I lost count), and many, many crazy stories later, I was finally released from her sweet iron grip, fatter and perhaps more delicious?

My suspicions were aroused again when I came home to find her sitting completely in the dark, with no fan or TV or anything else turned on. “El-Kahruba’ maqtoo3a?” Is the electricity cut off? “La, oud” No, sit. Okaaay…I dutifully followed her instructions and she proceeded to cut a few apples up into slices, peel them one by one and then feed them to me, while I told her how much various world currencies were worth in Syrian Lira (in the dark). “Shukran, shukran, yaslamo” Thank you, thank you so much. And then (and now here’s the kicker) she took the same knife and started peeling off what I thought was dead skin from her fingers. Like, I’m talking using force to dig the knife into the top layer of her finger – actual finger, not the fingernail – and to peel off layers of happy goodness. And then (okay, maybe this is the kicker) she went back to the apple, and used the same knife to peel some pieces to gobble up herself. This was when I decided that even politeness has its limits and refused any further offers.

It took some fighting through the language barrier to figure out that she had been using glue earlier in the day and was trying to get the glue off of her fingers, not trying peel off her outer human skin to reveal the beast beneath. Or so she says. All I know for sure is that Um Bassam may or may not be a fairytale witch. I will see tomorrow whether the cab (which she arranged – !) takes me to the bus station or to her secret renter cooking lair.

Jokes aside, I will certainly miss my new 73 year-old friend, but I am happy to be leaving this 108-degree-Fahrenheit-no-air-conditioning-intermittent-electricity land for the comforts of my own home. Ma’a Es-Salaama yaa Syria! مع السلامة يل سورية

Fasting for Ramadan

Ramadan is quickly approaching (tomorrow!).  It’s certainly not mandatory for anyone to fast, but out of respect for those that are, you aren’t really supposed eat or drink anything in public. That shouldn’t be a big problem for me though because this year, I am going to try fasting. I have sort of been uncomfortable in the past with non-Muslim foreigners attempting to fast, because it feels almost like an invasion of something sacred that people turn into a game, or a gimmick. But I have been curious for a while and was urged by some of my students to try it, which makes it more like being invited to a party than crashing one. Plus, most of the food I eat here is street food anyway, so if I can’t have street food during the day, I might as well not eat anything at all.

Okay, that trivializes it a bit. I’m definitely taking this seriously, though I am a little nervous, to be totally honest. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and is pretty much a divine injunction for all able bodied Muslims, but there are other reasons I see for the practice that are more accessible for someone outside the faith like me. For one, it is an astounding show of discipline, something that I know I personally lack in my life, and a show of piety, if it’s possible to use that word in a secular sense, a devotion to what is good and avoiding sins/transgressions/even excess. I also see it (and have heard this a few times before) as an exercise in really sympathizing with the world’s poor, struggling, starving and needy, which is one of the main reasons that I am very curious to see how if feels to go hungry from 4:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night (and then see if I can repeat that about 30 times).

Ramadan has a not-so-directly-related-to-Islam significance too. Just as Christians gather with their extended families for Christmas, families here hop around to various relatives to break the fast. I’ll probably just go find street food.

Which is a good segue to a list of my favorite (mostly street) foods in Damascus:

8. Water – I sweat like a octopus here, it’s insane. I have been drinking over a gallon of water a day and I still pee like once every full moon. I am incredibly nervous about this during Ramadan, because I wont be able to drink any water for about 15 hours a day. I plan on waking up at 4:15 every morning and chugging some good old H2O and then going back to sleep.
7. Pistachios – I know you can get these anywhere, but pistachios are the best, and their Arabic name is fustuq halabi (فستق حلبي) which means Peanuts from Aleppo, a town in Northern Syria. Which means they have to be better here.
6. Cactus fruit – These are sold all over the city (and in Amman too). Picture a prickly orangish/yellowish pear, but symmetrical like a rugby ball, with a similarly colored inside about the same consistency of a pear (actually, maybe softer). They are good, but have large soft seeds all through them that you just have to eat, which can get frustrating. It’s really cool when they display them still attached to the cactus plant.
5. Shawerma – These sandwiches are truly ubiquitous, probably even in the US  (Shawerma = Doner in Turkish p.s.) and have constituted give or take roughly about 100% of my dinners here. Shawerma consists of meat shaved off of a huge rotating meat cylinder, mayonnaise, very minor vegetables (if it’s still considered a vegetable in pickle form) and delicious sauces that come from the big rotating meat cylinder. I like my foods top heavy in terms of the Food Pyramid, thank you very much Kimball Elementary School.
4. Toot Shami – The word literally means Damascus Berry, but I think the English translation is Mulberry (not sure about that). Whatever it is, the juice is freakin’ amazing. It has a bit of a fermented edge (party) it and a certain unbeatable sweetness – awesome. I’m glad Arabs are all about the juice.
3. Fatteh – The only food on this list that’s not a street food, Fatteh is a Syrian specialty. It is one of those foods that tastes much better than it looks, which is good, because I think it kind of looks like a baby threw up into a bowl because he had been sneakily eating solid foods when his little baby digestive system couldn’t handle it. It’s some sort of yoghurt and ghee (cooking butter of some sort?) with pita chips consistency chunks of bread (though softened by the fatty atmosphere) and chicken or another protein of some sort. 100% delicious, though it may or may not go right through your system if you aren’t used to it… even if you have a less than desirable bathroom situation in a small apartment that you share with a few others, including a very wonderful older lady…
2. Bakdash – I’ve written about this before I think, but right in the middle of the most bustling, busy, crazy market is this awesome ice cream shop where they serve this vanilla-like flavor rolled in pistachios (see #7). It’s quite a battle to get in there, order your ice cream, and then get out without dropping it on an Iranian pilgrim or a 10 year old Syrian boy, but the battle is definitely worth it.
1. Jellab – And last but not least, probably the first thing I will get when the sun rolls down every day this month, is Jellab. I’m not sure exactly what it is – I looked it up online and it said “a syrup made from grape molasses” – but it’s deliciously served as a Syrian slushee, perfect for these scorchingly hot days. Actually, I love any flavor of slushed drink around (and there are many), but Jellab is certainly the bast.  I’m already a regular at a shop down the street from Um Bassam’s house and plan on keeping that status.

Cheers, and RAMADAN KAREEM! رماضن كريم

Meeting up with Friends where East meets up with West

As I mentioned previously, I spent Eid Al-Adha ’09 in Turkey with one of my best friends from college, Sam. We spent 4 days in Istanbul and then decided out of the blue to go to a place that we hadn’t heard of before we got there – Cappadocia. We took a 10-hour overnight bus to this very strange place which turned out to be this other-worldly landscape where early Christians carved all these churches into these weird structures that people kept calling Fairy Chimneys – what?

Overall, an extremely interesting country that is on the bridge between East and West in almost every sense. The geographic is obvious; religiously, 98% of the country is Muslim but there is a similar secular feel to it as a European country, though you can hear the call to prayer booming 5 times a day; ethnically, Turks are nearly exact middle ground between Arabs and honkeys (for lack of a better term); landscape-wise, the country was a strange middle ground between a desert and a more lush; linguistically, Turkish sounded very Eastern European but had many elements similar to Arabic (but was ultimately completely incomprehensible – see DUR sign above)… I could go on – but it was interesting as a Westerner living in an Eastern country to travel in this strange transition land. Check out my friend Napatra’s post about East/West and everything in between. Experiences like this, and insight from people like Napatra, make me really rethink our broad generalizations of the world around us. I think they are more dangerous than they are useful.

Anyway, in case you found this post boring, my favorite thing I saw in Turkey (of many, many things that I saw) was a guy selling Cialis and pirated copies of children’s movies, most prominently Turkish Ice Age 3, at his little street stand. That sounds like a sweet afternoon. Christmas is coming up, Mom…

If you would like to see some of the actually beautiful and cool things in Istanbul and see the Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia, check out the Pictures page for my new album about Turkey (pictures taken by Sam though). I also added a photostich of the Hagia Sophia, one of the most prominent landmarks of Istanbul, which was just TOO TALL to capture with one image! Check it out, yo.

Turkey Day in Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. This is the first time in my 22 year existence on this Earth that I haven’t spent Thanksgiving with my extensive extended family. We usually spend time with my Dad’s side of the family, feasting and then playing our traditional Thanksgiving game of… floor hockey. A little strange, but an absolute blast.

Coincidentally (because the Islamic calendar is lunar and hops back about 11 days every year), Thanksgiving coincides this year with the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha (عيد الأضحى‎), which is a holiday marking the pilgrimage to Mecca. To commemorate the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismail as an act of obedience to God (copyright Wikipedia, ha), Muslim families all over the world sacrifice some sort of animal, usually a sheep – not that different from Thanksgiving, eh? We make pilgrimages to our families houses and sacrifices turkeys. But there is a big difference – the actual Eid is tomorrow, but today is a day where many Muslims will fast for the entire day. So this year, our day of feasting ironically coincides with their day of fasting.

Nothing reminds you more that you are an ex-pat than Thanksgiving. I was invited to 3 or 4 separate feasts, all from people trying to keep alive in their hearts the most genuine of our annual holidays, even if it would be with randos and not their families. I decided to celebrate right here on campus with the American faculty, and it looks like it’s going to be a gathering of a few dozen. We are all thankful of this nice calendar coincidence because we actually get a week long “Thanksgiving” vacation, just like we normally do.

Then, later tonight, I’m headed off to Istanbul, Turkey to meet up with one of my best friends from college, Sam Davies, and travel for a week. The flight was only $300 and will only take a little more than 2 hours – crazy! So to add to the irony and weirdness of this day living outside of the States, I’ll be ending my Turkey Day in Turkey. I’m thankful that I have this opportunity to live, teach and travel abroad, and I’m thankful for all my family and friends who won’t fade even though I’m 9,000 miles away.

Cheers, I’ll write again in a week…

Eid Mubarak – عيد مبارك

Ramadan is officially over. It was supposed to end either today or tomorrow depending on when the first sliver of this month’s moon showed it’s sorry face, but whoever is in charge of that call saw the moon tonight. Hooray. Now, this means that we have a weeklong break for Eid al-Fitr (عيد الفطر). Some fellow teachers and I are headed down to Wadi Mujib to hike up a riverbed in a Grand Canyon-esque setting, then to the world famous Petra to explore the ancient civilization carved into the side of these beautiful red rocks, and will end up in Wadi Rum to camp in the desert for two nights with some Bedouins. Sweet.

Three weeks on the job, then a vacation – not bad! And I might get another vacation very, very soon. The Jordanian government is so freaked out by Swine Flu that if TWO CASES of H1N1 are reported from our campus, we get shutdown (indefinitely… but at least one week). Every person coming onto campus will have to have their temperature taken. There are 800 students, faculty and staff who work here. Chances of having Vacation Jr very shortly after this one are pretty good.

Eid Mubarak! Goodbye until Thursday…

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The streets of Madaba, celebrating the beginning of Eid. This later turned into a mini-riot, a little scary.

Ramadan Kareem – رمضان كريم

We’re about two and a half weeks into the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the month in which it is believed the first verses of the Quraan were revealed to Muhammad. As many of you probably know, during this month, Muslims of age fast from dawn to dusk and generally live a disciplined life (no alcohol, no other “sins of everyday life”). It’s basically Lent on speed. I think the most difficult part is that you are not allowed to ingest anything, including water. And we live in a desert! And people still exercise! Many of the students are fasting. Some get up around 4 am to have a snack before dawn (called “Sahoor” – السحور) and then we all gather for a sit down meal right after dusk (called “Iftar” – الإفطار which literally means breaking, thus the breaking of the fast). Those are a blast, and they have wonderful food, especially the deserts.

It sounds incredibly difficult, and all the Americans here are blown away by it all. People outside the cultural context tend to think of it as a penance or a punishment, but the Muslims I have interacted with really don’t complain at all – it’s a month of discipline and diligence, charity and solidarity with the poor, but it’s also a month of family celebrations. Every Iftar is an occasion to see and celebrate with different family members, and since the whole country alters it’s schedule so that everyone has Iftar free, it becomes a wonderful time to see loved ones. The traffic is absolutely insane around Iftar because people are trying to get to their relatives’ houses. Many Muslim countries actually consume more food during Ramadan, and many Muslims gain weight from the big Iftar dinners. Ramadan ain’t no weight loss plan.

So, Ramadan is pretty exciting for Jordanians (Christian ones too) because they have family here whom they get to see. It kinda sucks for the foreigners, even though we’re not the ones fasting. Everything is closed all the time! Many people stay up very late and wake up late (work hours are shifted and shortened) so that they are awake for less of the fasting period, and working hours are so minimal that many stores (and certainly cafes) don’t even open until after Iftar. I feel have been stuck on this campus for the entire month! It’s incredibly frustrating, and as much as I appreciate it, I am excited for Ramadan to end (also we get a week off for Eid al-Fitr –  عيد الفطر which is the holiday of the breaking of the fast after Ramadan).

Random: Lately, whenever I hear “Ramadan” I start singing in my head “Rama-dan-cha think your girlfriend was hot like me.” A nice little Middle Eastern take on that great hit by the Pussycat Dolls. Luckily, I haven’t slipped and done this out loud… yet.