Category Archives: Living Abroad

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.

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…

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.

Sir Bowman Dickson The Respected

One of my fellow teachers from last year is getting married in a week and I was lucky enough to be invited to the wedding. I feel pretty lucky to be invited, especially because I will be one of the only non-native Arabic speakers there. I will have to let my dancing skills speak for me. The wedding invitation is one of the coolest things I have ever received though. It is addressed to “السيد بومان ديكسون المحترم (El-Sayyid Booomaaaan Deeeeksoooon El-Mu7taram) which basically translates to “Sir Bowman Dickson The Respected”. That title is definitely a first for me.

The Airport: Where I Obtain Friends

We’re starting up Arabic classes for the ex-pat faculty on Wednesday and I’m so excited! It is amazing how quickly a foreign language fades when you don’t have consistent exposure (which I don’t get inside of our English bubble). Add the growing rustiness to the fact that I speak this strange combination of colloquial and formal Arabic… I can’t wait to continue my formal Arabic education, and especially add to my functional Arabic, which can be pretty hilariously slightly off at times.

Take for example a recent Arabic slip up at the airport. There are many places in Jordan where they have checkpoints along the road, which usually consist of a police officer asking you where you are going. They barely listen to your answer before saying “Okay, go ahead.” Very tight security. The funny one is at the road that leads into the airport (and goes nowhere else). Where are you going? Uh, the airport… Okay, go ahead. Well, I tried to be fancy one time and speak to them in Arabic. I was going to pick up a friend coming back into town so I tried to express this to them with my rusty language skills. I couldn’t think on the spot a word for “pick up” so I tried “get” but the “get” word I used was a more formal Arabic word which means more “to obtain” than to get. So, what I said was “I’m going to obtain friends at the airport.” They immediately began laughing, and corrected me. When I got into the airport, I thought about making some new friends just so I would have been telling the truth 10 minutes earlier.

Pumped for classes to start. I would love to come home from this experience with solid language skills.


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.

Looking the Part

I often find myself playing the game “If you had told me five years ago that I would __________ I would have _________.” You fill in the first blank with details about your life and then the second blank with some sort of surprised action (I would have literally lit you on fire, I would have slapped you in the face and called you Susan, I would have puked all over myself then stopped dropped and rolled etc). I have had tons of statements to fill in the first blank since I moved here last August….

  • be a Calculus and Physics teacher
  • live in Jordan
  • speak decent Arabic
  • have a receding hair line
  • spend $50 on a grade book program because I know enough to prefer one grade book to another
  • have a bank account in a foreign currency
  • go camping with…

Well, I have a new one to add. If you had told me five years ago that I would own a lab coat with my name embroidered on it I would have said, well butter my butt and call me biscuit. My department head in the science department is a phenomenal guy, and loves doing things to bring us together as a department. The latest has been to order lab coats for the entire department embroidered with our names – two for each person. So I own two of these.

Even though I typed this before you read it, I can practically taste your jealousy as you read this, even from 9,000 miles away.