Category Archives: Living Abroad

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…

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.]

Using Facebook, PayPal, eBay from an “Axis of Evil”

I know that there are a lot of people, uneducated and educated, who have a fear of the Middle East, especially of the Arab world. I guess if the only thing you ever hear about are suicide bombers on the news it could be understandable. But, I don’t think that’s only what people hear, just what they focus on. I think it would only take one visit to the Middle East to really change all of that, especially in Jordan. I mean, I feel far more safe in Amman than I do in New York City. Shopkeepers sometimes just cover up their fruit with a blanket and leave it overnight by the side of the road, and nothing happens. The other day when I was trying to get to Syria, I asked a taxi driver “Where can I get a servees (a shared car basically) that goes to Syria?” He took me to some random corner, dropped me off with some guys who barely had a shop front, who put me in a car with a random dude and three other customers and off we went to Syria. Maybe a less trusting… more careful… person would have been a bit freaked out (I read a blog post about some travelers who did the same but followed the driver’s course on their GPS the entire way up to make sure he wasn’t taken them somewhere to, I dunno, suicide bomb them maybe), but I am very trusting of people here and feel very secure.

And the same is true of Syria. Reputation-wise, Jordan gives off a fairly neutral impression, which is very accurate. Syria on the other hand seems to strike fear in the hearts of the democratic and patriotic, an axis of evil ready to pound you in the face with state sponsored terrorism, BAM. The US has a pretty awful relationship, partly because of a little stretch of land on the Mediterranean sea called I-s-r-a-e-l. If you have any hint of an Israeli stamp on your passport, including the sticky former outline of an Israeli sticker, you are denied entry. My visa to come here cost $131, only lasts 15 days, and was a complete pain to obtain.

But you would never know any of this from the situation on the ground. The city reminds me of Istanbul, or some other major city where old and new coexist harmoniously. Americans are like any other foreigners here – which seem to be mostly ignored by Syrians (this I like a lot). The people here are friendly and helpful, and have this way of talking that makes it sound like they’re singing (other Arabs always make fun of this). My students in Jordan who are from Syria are incredibly warm, and hardly representatives of an axis of evil. And Um Bassam rocks my face off. There is a huge gap between the political situation and actions of the Syrian government with the nature of the Syrian people, and this is the gap that I don’t think people see when they think about the Middle East.

But I keep getting reminded of the fact that I am in a country that only just recently lost it’s status on the travel warning list alongside Haiti, Uzbekistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Somalia (among others of course). Facebook is categorically blocked by the government here… or at least it supposedly is. At internet cafes, you just configure your browser an HTTP proxy so that it thinks it is somewhere else in the world. I didn’t know this, but saw a 10 year old girl playing “Fashion World” or something on Facebook so I asked her awkwardly how I could get on. She pulled up the advanced internet settings on my browser and typed a 11-digit number into a few fields by heart. I then went to Google, and it took me to Google: Sri Lanka instead. Her little brother was playing a game where you click on various buttons and it makes George Bush dance. He got bored of that and started to play “Twilight Makeover” instead – the next time I looked at his screen there was a large picture of Edward from Twilight with orange spiky hair.

Then, I tried to finalize some purchases I had made on eBay and pay for them with PayPal. I went to my PayPal and tried to complete a purchase, but got this message instead:

Error 3028. You have accessed your account from a sanctioned country. Per international sanctions regulations, you are not authorized to access the PayPal system. For more information about your PayPal account status, contact

Okay. Again, another strange discontinuity between how I feel living here and how American officials feel about me living here. I figured out how to pay with another internet paying method. But then after trying to log into eBay, I received this:

Hello bobodickie (,

Your eBay account appears to have been used without your permission.

We’ve already taken steps to secure your account. Your credit card information is stored on a secure server and can’t be seen by anyone. We’ve also reset your password and secret question.

So the only reason someone would access their account from Syria is if they were an evil internet auction pirate, attempting to illegally bid on retro t-shirts, Harry Potter books and DVDs of Mythbusters (for class!). Perhaps they do that with all unrecognized places from which you access your account, but I highly doubt that a French IP address, or a Canadian one would prompt the same response.

It’s hard for me to rationalize the existence of such wonderful people and such a richly historical, peaceful city in such a hated country, but I guess I’m glad to be having the problem of associating [state sponsored terrorism, breaches of individual freedom, an oppressive government with a bad reputation] WITH the people here rather than the problem of separating [these things] FROM my tutor, my host, my students, the culture, Arabs…

I”m certainly not looking over my shoulder for suicide bombers when I walk around the city.

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

Ma’a Es-Salaama El-Urdun, Hello United States

The time has come to pick up and return back to the US, though not for all that long. As the blog is titled Bowman in Arabia and not Bowman in America, I will be taking a break from writing (mostly because there won’t be anything all THAT interesting to write about). I will pick back up in August when I return to this side of the world, where the hilarity of a dude living outside of his culture combined with the inherent hilarity of working in a high school will continue.

Don’t forget to pick back up on the blog – I have really loved having this link to everyone all over the world this year and would love it to continue.

Until August…

Teacher Moment #6: Inappropriate Nicknames, oops

One of my favorite students keeps tricking me into calling him really inappropriate nicknames, and it makes me feel really old and stupid because I just totally don’t realize that they are inappropriate until weeks later. Or maybe it’s not because I’m old, maybe it’s just because I am foreign – like when we would always get the Japanese exchange student in high school to say really nasty things to our math teacher. 

Well first, he friended me on Facebook (request denied) and his middle name is listed on there as “Parliament”. I thought that this was some strange nickname having to do with the government, or perhaps that it was some sort of nickname like a professional wrestler, so I started calling him that. Turns out that Parliament is a brand of cigarettes  – the last thing that our students need is more people encouraging them to smoke…

Then, somewhere else on Facebook he had written his nickname as Abu Henry” (replace Henry with the actual name of one of the other students in my class), which translates as “Father of Henry” which I thought was really funny because oh look these guys are pretending to be each other’s sons and fathers…. but no. When an idiot high schooler say Abu [someone’s name] they are saying it because they are insinuating that they may or may not be sleeping with the other person’s mother. Fool me twice, shame on me.

And lastly (and this is the worst one): he and another student in the class were working together on a lab, and they are supposed to write their lab partner’s name on the top of their lab next to theirs. So this guy wrote “Susu El-Mutawahish” for his friend, which means “SuSu the monster” and then the other guy wrote “Abu Mreij” for my inappropriate friend. Well I didn’t know what that meant, but I started writing it on his paper thinking it was something innocent like Susu El-Mutawahish (which p.s. I hope is innocent). Then I mentioned this to another student and he was too embarrassed to tell me what it meant (red flag!)… I eventually got it out of this other kid that “Mreij” is masturbation. Again, Abu means “father of” basically… so Abu Mreij is the Arabic way of saying King of Masturbation (there’s a cocktail party fact for you). Fool me thrice…

Physics Extra Credit: Rube Goldberg Machine #1

EXPERIMENT: I decided to offer a year end extra credit assignment for my students, an option for which was to make a Rube Goldberg machine. I’m sure you know what it is even if you haven’t heard the name – they are those machines where dominoes fall over which hits a boot which knocks over a bucket, which pours water on a cat, which then wakes up and screeches, hitting into a ball perched on a ramp, which goes down the ramp…. etc etc until it performs a simple task in the end like lighting a match or pressing the button to make toast. My two favorite ones that you may have seen are the Honda Cog and OKGO’s video for the song This Too Shall Pass (same band who did the badass treadmill video too).

RESULTS: Absolutely. Hilarious. This is the first of a few I will post. Notice in this one that the original plan was to have their guinea pig start the machine, but it wasn’t being very cooperative.