Category Archives: Jordan

An Arab Bow Tie

If you haven’t read about my bow tie saga yet, this would be a good time. The short story: I randomly wore a bow tie one day and people liked it so much that I decided it would become my thing at this school. Since then, I have tried my hardest to introduce bow ties to the Arab culture – I got the school to manufacture school bow ties and started “Bow Tie Thursday,” where (so far) just barely more than a handful of kids sport a bow tie. It has been slowly catching on – I randomly see kids I have never talked to strolling around in bow ties on Thursdays. One of those moments happened last Thursday, so I tweeted this out of excitement:And I got this response, which I actually agreed wholeheartedly with:

But, but, but, hold the presses. I think I might have actually outdone myself. BEHOLD! The keffiyeh bow tie!
For those of you that don’t know what a keffiyeh is, it’s a beautiful traditional Arab headdress found throughout the Middle East. They protect from the harsh desert sun and also do well in the bitter desert cold. They come in many colors, which often signify various groups and countries – the red ones are associated with Jordan. Most have a very distinct, stately checked pattern. They have come to really represent the region and are a symbol that is still a huge part of Arab life and a point of genuine, unassuming pride. Students at school wear them as scarves when it’s cold out, many older men wear them daily. Lately, they have become somewhat trendy in the American hipster circles too. Here’s a run down of how to tie one on your head.

And in a wonderful blend of American and Jordanian culture, I now have a keffiyeh bow tie!

Here’s how this wonderful creation came about:

  • I went into Madaba with one of my bow ties and showed it to a tailor to see if she could sew something similar with any cloth. Of course she could.
  • I bought a keffiyeh from a nearby store for 2.50 JD (around $3.50) and brought it back to the tailor.
  • In less than a half hour, she cut it up, and sewed it while I drank tea with my barber whose shop is about 3 shops down. All for 2 JD (about $2.80).

So for less than $7 and less than 45 minutes, I got myself a beautiful, custom made bow tie. I wonder how expensive this would have been in the US. Needless to say, I’m freakin’ pumped to wear it to school tomorrow (even if it’s not bow tie Thursday).

And the [Arabic] Oscar Goes To…

As a wonderful way to begin to close out the year, those of us that do not speak Arabic as a first language and are taking Arabic lessons put on a play for the students… in Arabic.

We wrote the play with our wonderful Arabic teacher, Lina (who is younger than I am!), who actually wrote most of it and put many hilarious cultural jokes that we did not know were hilarious until we performed them. The play consists of four scenes of Americans getting into tricky situations because of language difficulties (like accidentally paying a cabbie 3000 JD instead of 30 JD, confusing everyday words in a conversation between students with words for drugs and smoking, and accidentally ordering a pigeon at the grocery store instead of getting directions to the bathroom – the Arabic words for the two are “Hamam” and “Hammam” respectively). I got the lucky role of being the old-man narrator who also sings a short song after every scene with the moral of the story, an Arab Oompa Loopma. Earlier in the year, I danced in front of the school, and now I can add “Sing in Arabic to an entire school in Jordan” to my running list of things I never could have conceptualized I would be doing in the future.

For 10 minutes of glory, the room itself was just bursting with laughter and applause. I was really not expecting the reaction to be quite so enthusiastic, but they absolutely loved it. I have been fending off compliments left and right from students and faculty, and some have suggested that they stop speaking to a lot of us in English because they were so impressed with our Arabic accents.

Though you wont be able to understand the dialogue, its worth checking out the video on the play (posted on my Facebook wall) just to see the students’ reactions to everything. There’s a girl in the background of the video straight up belly laughing the whole time, which in turn made me laugh a lot when I saw the video. [UPDATE: the friend who posted it has privacy settings so you can’t see it unless you work at King’s…. working on getting a different version posted]

I have really noticed a marked improvement in my Arabic over the course of the year. Last year, at the end of the year, a few students made a Rube Goldberg machine as an extra credit project and including a lengthy dialogue in Arabic. I remember watching the video and understanding the gist of it but not really the details. I showed the same video to my classes this year and I was shocked at how much more I could understand now. Guess those Arabic classes are going to good use!

P.S. I know that theoretically you would win a Tony not an Oscar for a play, especially a musical (I was singing), but I’d rather have an Oscar.

Interviewing People for ABC News

It sure is an interesting time to be living in the Middle East, especially in Jordan, which sometimes seems like a little island of stability from which we can watch what’s going on in the region. During the Egyptian Revolution, I got questions from so many people about what was going on in Jordan, and I always answered basically “not much.” To be honest, I didn’t really have much more information that someone outside of Jordan couldn’t get too, and I wasn’t really basing my pronouncement on anything but my general take on the political situation here and intuition…. until I hit the streets with ABC News.

A close friend lived in Jordan last year and moved back to the US to pursue a career in journalism (Molly Hunter), starting out in New York working the graveyard shift with ABC News. She had a trip planned to return to Jordan anyway to help out with the non-profit she ran over here (Reclaim Childhood), but she had the luck to have it coincide with the fall of Mubarak. Because of this, ABC decided to keep her in Jordan for a week and have her report a bit about what is going on here. Though Molly’s “Marhabas,” “Shukrans” and Arabic counting skills are pretty awesome, she needed someone who could speak some more Arabic to accompany her to downtown Amman to put together a piece about Egyptians living outside of Egypt and the general feelign of Jordanians. Camera in Molly’s hand, and a list of questions that I pre-translated in mine and off we went!

Now, I could literally name about 500 people who would have been better for this job, but my Arabic is good enough that I was able to ask the questions that needed to be asked, and generally understand the gist of what they were saying to ask further questions. We talked to the juice man, the keffiyeh seller, and roamed around the Tailor Souk (a little alley that is just filled with people outside of their shops sewing’mending suits). People were friendly, excited to be on camera, generally willing to talk,or at least willing to point out people who could. I asked questions about the revolution, life in Jordan, democracy in general, and  anything else I could think of that I could say in Arabic.

The general sentiment:


  • We (as Jordanians) support the people in Egypt in their revolution, but Jordan is a totally different beast. We love the King!
  • If the economic times were better, we (as Egyptians) would move back home to be with our families, though we do get to visit a few times a year. The revolution is great, but that’s not the key to me returning.

The final product: After an hour and a half or so of interviewing, we went back to Molly’s place and watched the footage to pick out the good parts so that Molly could send those to a real translator…. all for what was I guess a short 10 second clip that aired somewhat late at night on ABC news. So if you saw a random shopkeeper in Jordan speaking Arabic on ABC News around February 15th, I’m the goofy, super excited foreigner right outside of the shot asking the questions. And as another final product, my general feelings about the political state in Jordan were now supported with some nice sound bytes from real Jordanians. What’s going on in Jordan? Not much.

This was all probably pretty much “another day on the job” for Molly, but I had an absolute blast.  I think I may have found something to do if I quit my day job…

The Decision I Make Every Time I Come Home

This is the sign for the exit for Madaba, which is where the school is and where I live – a good 20 minutes south of Amman. Whenever I forget that I am living very far away from home, which is often because life is so normal for me here now, this sign is a nice reminder. If I accidentally took a wrong turn trying to get home from Amman – and then continued on my way without realizing it for like 100 km – I could make it to Saudi Arabia or Iraq. I challenge you to find a place in the US where it lists “Mexican Border” and “Canadian Border” on the same sign.

We’re even closer to the Israeli border, but for political reasons, I have never seen the words “Israeli Border” written on a sign. Instead, it always just says “King Hussein Bridge” which is one of the bridges that crosses into Palestine/Israel. Everyone knows what it is anyway, so not writing the words is a nice way of avoiding any sort of political conflict, especially given that more than half of the residents of Amman consider themselves Palestinian by origin. This is an issue of the sort that those of us who live close to the Canadian border would never have to consider.

Fortunately, Jordan Isn’t Egypt

The past week has been a really interesting time to be living in the Middle East. It’s not every day that an authoritarian head of state that has been in power for almost 30 years is thrust aside by a popular revolution, and it’s not for a lack of those types of guys around here. And add that this has happened not only once, but twice in the past couple of weeks. The news has been on non-stop in everyone’s apartments and even has even been blaring on the lonely television in our science department, which I don’t think I have ever seen turned on before.

All this commotion is why the timing of King Abdullah II sacking the prime minister and dissolving the government was a bit unfortunate, as it got swept into the turmoil of Egypt and Tunisia by the worldwide media. Sure there were some protests here, and yes there has been a bit of a government change, but there are many huge differences between what just happened here and what has happened to our neighbors in North Africa that probably aren’t apparent to the average American media patron. Here are just a few:

  1. SCALE: Egyptians gathered earlier this week for a “march of million” in Cairo, where the protests in Jordan have barely topped 3,000. That’s about 0.3% the size. It would be pretty tough for our country of less than 7 million to rouse up a full million for protests.
  2. PROTEST INTENTIONS: In Egypt and Tunisia, they were looking to overthrow a long lasting ruling regime. Here, people wanted a government change, not a regime change. Everybody is pretty much just as pumped about our beloved Abdullah as they have been in the past – me included! They just wanted the prime minister replaced.
  3. FREQUENCY OF THE EVENT: Mubarak has only been overthrown (or almost overthrown I guess) one time in the past 30 years, whereas the government here is dissolved a bit more often. In fact, this is the second time since I’ve been here that this has happened – the Prime Minister that just stepped down took office in December of 2009 to much excitement at the school as he is the father of one of the seniors who graduated last year. It happens so often that the country has had 60 Prime Ministers since 1946. The new Prime Minister has actually already run the government, about six years ago, which is also a fairly common occurrence (one guy held the office six different times over the course of 20 years). Though a new Prime Minister is certainly a change, it wouldn’t have been a CNN alert and NY Times article had Egypt and Tunisia not set the stage.

Bottom line is, while I greatly appreciate the concern from everyone in the states, I’m more concerned that I can’t find my Wednesday socks than I am about my safety here… by a lot (seriously – it’s confusing). Add to that the fact that my plants need watering, I need to buy balloons for Physics class, the knuckleheads in the hall refuse to keep their voices down when they’re roaming the hall at one am, and my DVD remote is missing so I have to watch DVDs all the way through and hope they don’t somehow get messed up halfway through. So while life is interesting following the news, it is the same old daily grind here in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. And insha’allah it will stay that way.

Jordanian Helpfulness

I have found that Jordan is a wonderful place to live as a foreigner. The general public is just so helpful whenever I need to do a routine task for which I would know exactly where to go in the US but have absolutely no idea here. Case in point: last night I had yet another car issue. Since we got the car in February, I have seriously maimed the body of the car not once but twice, I learned the Arabic words for flat tire the hard way, and then last night, I ran over a piece of hard black plastic that was sitting on the black road back to school late in the black night which conveniently detached part of the bumper. Strange that I didn’t see it. I share the car with two other people and neither has had a single issue unless you count refilling the wiper fluid, which tells me there’s some sort of bad mojo between me and the Corolla.

So today, I went into Madaba to try to get the bumper fixed. I went to the gas station where I got a 3 JD ($4.20), hour long, inside and outside hand car wash because I had no other ideas of where to go (and I like those guys!). I pulled up and asked in Arabic if they could fix my (blank… didn’t know the word for bumper). The guy said yes, yes, we fix that and called over two guys that were sitting on the curb. I thought that perhaps these were the body work specialists, but when they came up to the car, they opened the door and hopped in. I thought in my head, ADVENTURE! Let’s go! So I hopped in too, and asked what was going on. We can fix your bumper but not here (which technically means you can’t fix my bumper, but I also don’t know how to say technically in Arabic, so I let that point slide).

We pulled out of the gas station and they directed me for 5-7 minutes or so driving around the little town. We didn’t really talk, or play any car games, just drove. We got to a sketchy little garage with very busted cars strewn around a parking lot, and they called the guy over. He unscrewed part of the bumper, kicked it three times to get it back in the right place, screwed it back in, and charged my 3 JD (1 JD per kick, probably). Then, my friends and I hopped back in, I dropped them back off at the gas station, and before I bid them farewell, one made me put his number in my phone. Thanks Zaid!

The great part was that I felt not an ounce of distrust in the situation. Stuff like this has happened so many times. How weird would I have felt in some other country when two strange dudes got into my car with little to no explanation and told me to drive somewhere? And when we got to the body shop, after we got out of the car, the guy wanted me to pull my car around, so one of my two new car buddies grabbed my keys from me, hopped in and did it for me. How easily he could have driven away with our leased car that I share with two other people.

What an awesome feeling to have my helplessness counteracted with Jordanian helpfulness. So if you’re having car troubles, just let me know – I have the number of a great guy to help you out.

Putting My Arabic to the Test

Parents’ Weekend, just like last year, was quite an experience. It has a pretty stressful lead up, with the nerves that come with having parents in your classroom and conferences with D-student families, but always ends up being a very affirming experience. I left feeling very much appreciated by the parents and their students alike. I also left with a bit more confidence in my Arabic after two great experiences.

First, we had our first swim meet last Friday, which was quite an experience in and of itself – I showed up and learned that I was not only the coach but was going to run the meet (register all the swimmers for the events, find and organize the timers, be the starter for all the events etc). The only kink was that the coach for the other school did not really speak much English. Without hesitation, we switched into Arabic, and did the whole deal in Arabic. I learned lots of great new words (like relay! tatabi3 تتابع) while registering the other students and negotiating various items with the other coach (who insisted on changing lane assignments for his swimmers for no reason at all). The other school brought their high school girls and middle school boys to race our high school boys, but thatdidn’t stop our guys from grunting and cheering when we  beat them in relay.

Then, the next day, we had a day full of parent teacher conferences. Most were fairly uneventful, but one student came in with his parents and cheerily said “Mr. Bowman, you can do it in Arabic, right? Or would you like me to translate?” Again, no hesitation, I just went for it. I stumbled over my words, had trouble expressing myself, solicited words I didn’t know from my student, but I expressed my main ideas in Arabic. I mean, the student is one of the easiest to talk about (it would have been much harder had I not been saying “he’s wonderful” in many different ways), but I still felt so proud that I could do something real with my Arabic skills instead of just read Arabic Harry Potter and understand high schoolers swearing.

I don’t get many experiences like this on our compound in the middle of nowhere, so I value every one so much. I’d love to bring on the real world more often than our infrequent parents weekends.

Donut Points

I am not one of those teachers who doesn’t make mistakes on the board. I had this math professor in college  who never once made a single mistake on the board in one semester of teaching (MATH 354: Survey of Algebra, easily the best math class I took in college, still can’t really tell you what even the title of the class means). He was also very typical math professor – curly Russian fro, about 140 pounds, short sleeved button down shirts, thick eastern European Bond villian accent etc. I will never forget the first day of class when he couldn’t turn the projector off or get the screen to go up so he could use the chalkboard. It was like watching a sitcom, or Saturday Night Live, except that it was Tuesday morning, and the laugh track was really quiet because we weren’t sure what to do.

Anyway, I hope from my description of him (and the Venn Diagram from the last post) you gather that I am not like him. And I do make mistakes on the board, often. When you’re standing in front of 18 teenagers, the last thing you’re thinking about is double checking whether x actually should be negative or not (even though you just said out loud it should be). So I instituted something in my classes called “Donut Points,” thank you to the interwebs for the idea. Every time I make a mistake on the board and they correct it, the class earns a donut point. When we get up to 30, I buy donuts. Pretty simple, and strangely effective (many kids have told me it helps them pay attention better).

Well, in my Physics classes I’m still in the low teens, but Calculus was pretty quick – it only took about 5 weeks to gather up enough points for donuts, which we cashed in a few days ago. I got the donuts from the local donut joint, Donuts Factory, which in a land without copyright law is allowed to have the exact same logo as Dunkin’ Donuts. I arrived to class humbled by my mistakes, and then quickly forgot about them after a knock-off Boston Kreme. Now I’m okay that I’m not one of those teachers who never makes mistakes on the board.

My Very Own Syrian Wedding

During Orientation for the school (now almost 3 weeks ago, it seems like it was just yesterday) we had a school-wide performance by a traditional Syrian group. This was the type of song and dance that they would do at a wedding, which means, naturally, they needed a groom. Well, my boss in the science department asked me if I would be the groom for the performance. I said “sure” because he had told me all I would have to do is stand there while the band sang and dance around me.


I got up in front of the school and stood center stage and the band formed around me in a V with me in the center facing the whole school (see picture above). And then they just played music – apparently the groom is the one who is supposed to dance. Well, I stood there for a good 4 minutes awkwardly shaking my shoulder waiting for the repetitive song to end. I guess they weren’t having that, because they kept on playing.


I danced like there was no tomorrow, throwing out all of my good old 7th grade white boy moves, often just settling back into what I call the “rodeo clown”. And then they gave me a stick, and the stick became my crazed dance partner. So, another 3 minutes passes (this was a looooong song) and I’m still up there dancing. FINALLY, students decided to do what happens at a real Syrian wedding and join in. A bunch  formed a dabka line (picture a slower, more rhytmic river dance – people with their arms over each other’s shoulders) came up, surrounded me, lifted me up and then started lifting each other up (at which point I kind of ducked behind the crowd and clapped for the rest of the time).

It was actually a pretty funny experience and I got a lot of compliments for my dancing skillz. The bad part though? I never even got to meet my bride.

My Car – Shim Hates Me

I think my car hates me. I would probably hate me too if I were my car. I got in an accident when I was 16, a few months after I got my license, but then never touched another car again with my car in the states (his name is Webster, I miss him dearly)… But then I started driving here in Jordan. Within two months I managed to send our currently nameless car to the shop twice. Shim (also haven’t even determined its gender identity) has two brand new doors, a brand new front bumper, and has it’s SECOND brand new front-right-over-the-wheel-panel-thing in two months. Also, it has a new Jordanian flag because the first time it went in someone stole my flag (why, people?? jealous of my patriotism?). I know, I’m spoiling shim with all these new parts, right?

When my parents visited in March they had a wonderful visit, but one of the only things they didn’t like here was the crazy no-blinker, change-lanes, honk-and-flash-your-lights, people-walk-in-your-path driving. Sadly though, I can’t even blame my driving blunders on the crazy driving here, because both incidents happened with parked cars or stationary objects. The first time, I thought shim was skinnier that it was and scraped the entire right side from front wheel to back (see earlier post Jordanian Driving Fail for a picture). Fail. And then the next time, I whipped out of my parking spot at school slamming the front right side of my car into a sturdy concrete trash can that was, out of fairness to me and my driving skillz, too low for me to see it out of the window from the drivers seat. I hopped out to realize that the incredibly heavy trash can was knocked over, at which point I wasn’t even mad, I was impressed, even more so when I tried to right the trash can, and realized it was almost too heavy for me to pick up. Shim is strong.

The complicating factor this second time was that I was planning on driving a few students into Amman, so they were standing about 100 feet away. After hoisting the trash can I hopped in, and pretended like nothing had happened. I didn’t know if they had seen or not because we got distracted when one bizarrely tried to let the air out of someone’s tires in front of me (no, you did not drop your cell phone under a car in the faculty parking lot, and no, that’s not a “prank”), but later they revealed that they had in fact seen me smash the trash can (and had heard the loud crack that it made). They confessed they were nervous to get in the car with me, but I was their last resort. I thought they were just giving me a hard time but no, they were actually nervous. After I dropped them off I went a couple of hundred yards up the street before deciding I needed to use my cell phone. Like the responsible, GOOD driver that I am, I pulled off to the side to talk. No more than a minute later, I see one of my gangly friends sprinting up to the side of my car. He looked in and saw me talking on the phone. “Oh, phew, I thought you had hit something!! Okay, bye Mr. Bowman!” Part of me thought it was very nice that he reacted like that, but that part of me was trying to convince the other parts of me that I’m not a failure of a vehicle operator. I have street smarts.

So my car hates me and probably thinks I’m about as good of a driver as those forced to ride with me do. Maybe it’s time I show some affection and give shim a name…