road trip day one: Madaba, Dead Sea, Petra by Night

The next two posts are a series about my first proper road trip, as I experienced it in Jordan with my mother.

IMG_1295

Being from Michigan, I have spent my fair share of time in cars, as both a driver and a passenger. We regularly drive considerable distances to get around the suburbs of Detroit. And sometimes we drive even farther, across state lines.

My dad has never minded being behind the wheel for long hours, and we took many trips in his car growing up. We would drive to Ohio on summer weekends so we could ride the rollercoasters in Cedar Point. We drove to the upper peninsula of Michigan, to ride tandem bikes around Mackinac Island. Once we even drove over twenty hours, to Florida, for a family trip in Fort Lauderdale.

But those trips always had just one destination. From point A to B, with the occasional rest stop, restaurant, or gas refill in between.

As I mentioned in my last post, my mother visited me in Amman a couple months ago. She is an adventurous soul and likes to experience new things. Naturally, she wanted to see as much of Jordan as possible. A road trip was the best way to see several landmarks in just a few days.

With the help of Ahmad, the driver and tour guide I trust most in Amman, we planned an itinerary. (Let me know if you ever need someone to take you around Jordan and I’ll connect you with him.) We settled on going to Madaba, Mount Nebo, the Dead Sea, Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba.

What follows is the summarized chronicle of our jam-packed trip:

DAY ONE: Madaba, Mount Nebo, Dead Sea, Petra by Night
We leave Amman early and head about an hour southwest, toward the churches and biblical sites in Madaba and Mount Nebo.

Madaba is home to St. George’s church, which contains Byzantine mosaics and the oldest map of Palestine. My mother is a deeply spiritual person and feels peaceful in any house of god, regardless of religion or denomination. She lit a candle and said her prayers, all the while admiring the divine works of art around her.

18582632_10155396861494874_3052369051906509590_n

Afterward, we enjoyed a cup of coffee at the small dukan across the street. Mom was surprised to see that most Jordanians drink their thick Arabic coffee in large paper cups. She had been expecting a small finjan. This is when I explained to my mother that drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, both separately and together, are among the most beloved pastimes of this charming country. (Ahmad agreed.)

18582274_10155396861679874_8860352031215271929_n

We then went to Mount Nebo, and gazed out the same ridge from which Moses viewed the Holy Land. Overlooking the panorama is the Moses Memorial Church, which has foundations dating back to the 4th century AD, and has undergone major renovations in the past few years. I have gone a few times and always appreciate seeing the old tile mosaics and stained glass juxtaposed against modern touches: crisp white walls, steel bars, blond wood panels.

18582498_10155396862259874_5877040775564717177_n

18620337_10155396861974874_8231219885244891672_n

6FFCAD73-81F4-4E4D-A5F3-08EB8AAA975F (1)

We make our way down the curving mountain road to the world’s lowest elevation, the Dead Sea. It is exactly 1,412 feet below sea level. Resorts both large and small dot the coast, as well as a few public beaches. Mom and I take lunch at the resort buffet and spend a few hours in the sun. Like most people who encounter the Dead Sea for the first time, my mom was amazed at how effortlessly she floated in the salty water.

Tired from the activity of the day, we got back in the car for the last drive of the day. Three more hours to Petra. We rested our heads and chatted, stopped at a panoramic view of the mountains for sunset, and picked up a fresh watermelon from a vendor along the road.

18581603_10155396863939874_2985568177878754227_n

We arrived in the evening. Petra is an ancient city and archeological site dating back to the 5th century BC. The buildings are cut from the dusty pink mountain stone of the area, and as such Petra has come to be known at the “Rose City.” Its beauty and historical significance are such that UNESCO has deemed it a World Heritage Site.

We freshened up and made it just in time for the Petra by Night attraction. Every Thursday night, visitors are welcome to stroll along a path of the Rose City. Small tea candles in brown paper bags illuminate your passage. The end of the trail leads to the iconic Treasury building, where visitors sit on hand-woven carpets and listen to music from the local Bedouin community. They play the flute and the rebab, a string instrument that is much like a fiddle. We listened, entranced, sipping from paper cups of syrupy-sweet tea steeped with sage.

The music dissipated into the night air. Mom was moved by the sight of the grand edifice in front of us, illuminated from below by hundreds of tiny flames. I felt infinitely lucky to have witnessed something so big, so obviously important, with my mother.

IMG_6107

We walked back to the hotel with our arms interlinked. The full moon smiled at us from above; the mountains bared their faces etched with churches and tombs; the earth at our feet sparkled with the glow of candles.

**********

Stay tuned for the next post, where I will write about the remaining destinations from our road trip: Petra by day, Wadi Rumi, and Aqaba.

I am curious to hear from you all: Have you been on a road trip before? What are some of your favorite road trip memories? If you haven’t been on one, where would you like to go?

a Venezuelan dinner in Amman

When I think of my mother, the word ‘energy’ comes to mind. She may be the most energetic person I know. Her excitement for life is palpable. You will feel it after spending just a few minutes with her. She is always looking to explore new places, meet new people, taste new flavors, and sway along to a new dance. My mother has a propensity for the spontaneous that I strive to find a little more of in my life.

Surely she enjoys her routines, too. She takes a cup of café con leche in the morning, and chamomile tea in the evening. Each day, she carefully applies her makeup and dresses impeccably. At night she wipes off the colorful powders on her face with an oiled swab of cotton, and replaces them with a nourishing dab of lotion.

I have always grown up with my head in the books, more interested in the contents of a novel than anything else. It took me a while to notice so much of the wisdom in my mother’s rituals, and how she left the space between them unstructured. She lets her daily habits serve as anchors to keep her afloat while she charts new territories. She simultaneously makes room for finding comfort and expanding her comfort zone.

She must have been brave since she was very young, my mother. She left Venezuela in her early twenties to learn English in America. She was working for the tourism department in Caracas at the time, and planned on coming back to her job after she picked up enough English to use it at work. She came to the one state where she had relatives: Michigan.

The Lebanese diaspora is an eternally complicated community. It contains many more narratives than that of my own family. But I can definitively tell you that the Lebanese have been emigrating for over a hundred years, and to cities all over the world. Many of them ended up in Caracas; many more of them ended up in Dearborn. This is where my dad’s family ended up, and this is mother met him, while studying English and staying with relatives.

My mother never let go of her heritage, nor has she relinquished her adventurous spirit. She brought these with her when she recently visited me in Amman.

E777F105-DE21-4080-88C9-99757D042604

She arrived to Queen Alia International Airport late on a Wednesday night. The next day we were taking a taxi to the other side of Amman. We were shopping for specialty groceries at the huge Carrefour at City Mall. We needed things like fresh avocados, a rotisserie chicken, and plantains. We found the former two but not the latter.

F3909C6D-893B-410D-A537-F98DB5C6197D

Why would we need to shop for such groceries within 24 hours of my mother’s arrival? Well, my mom had committed to the idea of cooking a huge Venezuelan feast for my friends. She came to Jordan with a suitcase brimming with pouches of harina pan, corn flour. We would use these to make arepas, one of Venezuela’s most beloved dishes.

Cooking dinner for twenty people is no small feat, so we enlisted the help of many of our guests. Firstly, my current apartment is much too small to host that many people. So, my lovely roommates from my past apartment offered their expansive home as a venue.

Some of my friends came over as soon as the workday ended. After I quickly introduced them to my mother, we put them to work. They picked cilantro and parsley leaves, peeled and mashed garlic and avocados. We chopped fresh vegetables for a salad, and mixed rice with saffron for arroz con pollo.

 My mother directed us each step of the way, using the big voice she somehow contains in her small body. She enthusiastically offered instructions while wiping her brow against the apron my roommates had conjured up for her. Though my mother is all glamour, she is very serious in the kitchen. I know she means business when she sweeps her flawlessly styled hair away from her face. She always uses one of those huge plastic clips that are so characteristic of women in Latin America.

42151DFF-0B67-417F-8A7A-4766FDDDF48F

I led a group in rolling balls of dough for the arepas. My roommate went to work on the sangria, dicing fresh fruits to mix with 7-Up and bottles of red wine. One of my friends brought a bottle of homemade araq, grape liquor, from his family’s orchard in the Biqa’ valley of Lebanon. Another friend brought falafel, just in case we needed more food, and because we’re in Jordan, so why not?

The hours spent cooking flew by. Good company, laughter, and convivial conversation helped to mellow the frantic energy of preparing a huge feast. In no time, we had our dinner table set. My mother gathered everyone around the table so we could commemorate the moment with a photograph (or, more accurately, several photographs, many of which were selfies).

3133F1AF-D238-4912-AFCB-8C298CE14D58 (2)

And finally, we dug in. People passed around the tray of steaming hot corn patties, scooped piles of avocado and chicken salad for each other. Glasses were poured and plates were filled. Words of welcome were exchanged and joy permeated the room.

We may not have had every ingredient we needed to make the dinner in true Venezuelan fashion. But never have arepas tasted so delicious as they did that evening, with my mother here in Amman.

FE6EEEDA-C98E-4EA0-A216-F0625A408307

creating home abroad

The first apartment I lived in as a somewhat independent adult was in Hyde Park, tucked cozily on the corner of 54th and Woodlawn. I was nineteen and had just finished my first year of college. I had quickly grown tired of overpriced, tiny dorm rooms and mediocre dining hall meals. I felt ready to make a change. Luckily, I had made a friend that summer who felt similarly. Early into our friendship, we decided that we would leave the dorms and live together the following year.

72672_10151357248157815_1781758488_n.jpg

I learned so much during the two years we spent together in our south-side Chicago apartment. I think of my college roommate Nina often these days, as I make a new home for myself here in Amman. I wonder if she understands how much she taught me about living well.

Nina viewed home as a sacred space, a place to replenish the soul. She tended to our apartment with corresponding devotion. She would bring fresh flowers and green plants on her way home from class, arranging them carefully in glass jars along the windowsill. She strung black and white photographs along a string that she tacked along the hallway. She installed antique shelves in our living room, which we adorned with our most beloved books. She made elaborate meals for herself and took the time to plate them in ways that pleased her.

IMG956346

Nina did all these things, not necessarily because they served a function or increased her productivity, but as an act of care for herself. This love spilled beyond the boundaries of her own life into mine. I began thinking more seriously about the small ways that I too could bring joy into my every day. I saw a role model in Nina, someone who did not allow the demands of being a busy college student to deprive her of life itself.

I offer these reflections now, nearly four years later and ten thousand kilometers away, because home is on my mind.

IMG_5708

I recently moved into a new apartment in a different neighborhood here in Amman. Not only have I physically changed my location, but I have also entered a new stage in my Fulbright year. I spent my first six months in Jordan trying to do everything. I insisted on seeing new places every weekend, constantly making new friends, and taking up as many new opportunities in my work and studies. I was so concerned about expanding my comfort zone that I forgot to truly build one. I did not prioritize the rituals involved in building a home. The place I lived in became a launching pad to the world outside, rather than a world within itself. I found joy in the company of my wonderful and eternally supportive roommates, yet I still felt somehow unsettled, as though I was constantly in motion.

My move to a new apartment coincided with the realization that I needed to settle more comfortably into my life here, even if that meant being less busy. Over the past month I have been re-assessing what it would take for me to feel more at home in Jordan. I cut back on some extraneous commitments and set priorities for my work.

I spend more time in my apartment. I buy fresh fruits and vegetables every couple of days at the corner market, rather than stocking up for an entire week at the grocery store. I take a few moments to look up recipes that excite me, and try to cook something different every day. I have invested in a membership at a gym within walking distance, and I’ve slowly gotten back into running. I am returning to the practice of journaling by making my diary, instead of my email, the accompaniment to my morning coffee.

And it feels good to slow down.

I recognize that I may not always be able to do all of these things for myself. I grasp that the freedom of structuring my own schedule is a great privilege of this grant. And so I hope to honor the time and space at my disposal for the four months that remain of my Fulbright term.

IMG_5898

This year is certainly not about making my life in Amman resemble exactly the life that I live back in the United States. But I think it is okay to step back sometimes and create comfort in the moments between pushing comfort zones. In fact, I am finding it is essential to my own living sustainably abroad.

All new beginnings should be accompanied with some reflections on gratitude for the past and present. I would like to dedicate this post to all the people I have shared a home with, and to my current roommate, Miriam. It certainly is not easy to sync your life alongside that of somebody else’s, no matter how lovely the company. But the connection that co-existing fosters and the lessons that can be learned along the way are worth the effort.

14500218_10153763523781502_2119868990506899893_o

****

Home can mean many different things depending on who you ask. I would love to hear from you all: What does home mean to you? What does it take to make you feel at home?

IMG_5880

 

[Originally published on Andrea in Amman blog, May 2017]

one week in Morocco, four years later

The first Arab country I ever visited was Morocco. It was four years ago; I was 20 years old and had just completed my second year of college. I had received a scholarship to study Arabic intensively and live with a host family over the summer.

I was sent to Meknes, a small city about an hour west of Fes. My host family included a grandmother approaching seventy years old, her middle-aged daughter, and a live-in maid. They hosted me along with another student in the program. I felt at home among this group of women. Though we each had our own stories and concerns, we still shared a world within the same four walls.

I did not speak Arabic as well then as I do now. And I spoke almost exclusively in formal, Modern Standard Arabic. Meanwhile, my host family spoke solely in darija, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic. We did our best to meet each other halfway. I began reformulating my sentences into darija as I picked up more of the dialect. They made efforts to use the stiff formal Arabic of the TV news and their school days.

When these linguistic compromises failed, we communicated with gestures and dramatic facial expressions. My favorite gesture was for “I feel sick.” The grandmother of the house would use her thumbs to pull down her lower eye sockets. She would then roll her pupils up toward the ceiling. My roommate and I always laughed hysterically at this, and the grandmother would join us.

Before coming to Morocco, I had never fasted for Ramadan. I decided to join my host family in their observance of the holy month. Some of my fondest memories from that summer are the moments with which we broke the fast together. We took sips of water and warm milk. We followed this with harira soup accompanied by dates, hardboiled eggs, and a sticky sweet called shabakiya. Though we were relieved to finally satisfy our hunger and thirst, these meals were never rushed. We ate slowly and savored each other’s company, passing little bowls around the table.

I also remember the interconnection of my little city to the big cities of Rabat and Casablanca, just hours away by rail. I recall resting my head against the cool window of the buses heading north to Tangier and Chefchaouen. Sometimes I chatted for hours with the person sitting next to me, often a fellow student from my program. Other times I simply took in the view from my window, watching plains of vivid green spotted with cows turn into rolling hills and peaked mountains.

I was transported back to many of these memories last month, when I had the chance to visit Morocco for a Fulbright conference with researchers from across the Middle East and North Africa. I traveled to Morocco a few days before the conference with a couple of my friends. We wanted to spend some time exploring and relaxing on our own before an intense week of presentations and professional gatherings. Our itinerary took us west from Casablanca to Fes for a day, then north to Chefchaouen for a couple nights, and then back south to Rabat for the conference.

IMG_5257

Much of our time was spent in transit. Our flight from Amman to Casablanca included a seven-hour layover in Abu Dhabi. We passed the time at the airport sipping karak chai and typing away at our laptops, finishing up our conference preparations. On the second plane to Casablanca, I ended up chatting with the young men next to me after I had woken them up so I could use the bathroom. They were from the north of Morocco, visiting after nearly a year away working in Bahrain. “Leaving makes you understand the value of home. There is no place like it. I understand now what my country is worth – the people, the land, all of it.”

We landed in Casablanca in the morning, and immediately hopped on a train to Fes. I ordered a coffee with milk from the little shop at the train station. I fumbled with my coins, trying to remember the shape of each denomination of dirhams. “Sorry, I’m new to this money.” I explained to the café attendant, a jovial old man. “Are you new to this planet, too?” He jokes as he helps me sort out the right amount of change.

On the train to Fes we shared the compartment with a man from Meknes. He was delighted to hear that I had studied there four years ago. We all chat to pass the time. He asks us about Jordan, and how it compares to Morocco. We ask him where he would like to travel if he had the chance, about his preferences for big cities or small cities. The conversation turns to professions, and he gets shy. “I am an officer in the army,” he says. “I am proud to serve my country, but I have other dreams.” “Like what?” we ask. “Many things. For one thing, I would like to open a farm with my wife.”

He pauses. “There are other things, too. I am a creative person with ambitions.” My heart breaks at the honesty and yearning in his words. He asks us what we do, and what we dream to do. Are we doing it? He gets off at the station before us. “Thank you so much. For this conversation.” He places his palm on his chest as a gesture of gratitude. We tell him that it was a pleasure meeting him, too, and that we hope to try cheese from his farm one day.

There are so many other stories to recount from my time in Morocco. I could talk about all the things I saw: the buzzing energy of the souq, the immensely beautiful tilework of mosques and madrasas, the magically green forest that led to a waterfall in the Atlas mountains. But what strike me most are these little conversations I had along the way. These are the moments I want to share most. The people I met in the places I visited.

Fes

In between telling us the history of various buildings in Fes, our guide told us more about himself. He studied English literature in college and he wrote his thesis on The Glass Menagerie. He teaches English at the local university these days, but he enjoys showing people around his hometown on the weekends. “It’s nice to be out in the fresh air, to learn about different cultures. I get to meet people from all over the world.”

He takes us to an open-air fabric factory wedged between the narrow city streets. An older man works a hand machine, weaving cactus fibers into stunning swaths of silk. A younger man tells us about the manufacturing process, how they continue to do everything by hand despite the labor it requires. We ask him why. “It is part of our family tradition. The man at the spinning wheel? That is my father. His father, my grandfather, taught him to make fabric this way. And god willing, one day I will pass this practice on to my own son.”

Chefchaouen

The night we arrived in this lovely city of blue along the northern coast of Morocco, we took a taxi to our bed-and-breakfast hotel. The driver was curious about us, how we spoke Arabic, as many of the tourists that come to his town exclusively speak either Spanish, French, or English. We told him that one in our group speaks French, and that I speak Spanish. He switched from Arabic to a sleepy-sounding Spanish. “My grandfather, he spoke to us in Spanish. We are descended from the Moors in the south of Spain.” I ask if he has ever been to Spain. “Never.” “Why not? It is so close, you could swim there! And you should connect with your roots!” I respond naively. “I wish. But the documents are the problem. It is hard to get a visa. And expensive.” I am reminded once again of my privilege to move about this world relatively freely, and I am humbled.

IMG_5101

The next day, we took a hike in Aqshour. We ran into a woman who appeared to be slowing down after a few hours along the trail. “Would you like a sip of water?” My friend Nina offers. The woman happily obliges, taking big sips from the bottle. “Don’t worry, keep it!” Nina says. I walk slowly with the woman until she catches her breath again. “I hurt my foot earlier, and I lost track of my friends.” She says. “That’s alright, you can walk with us.” I respond. She picks up on my Arabic accent and asks if I am Lebanese. “Well, yes, of Lebanese descent.” She switches from speaking in darija to a nearly perfect Lebanese dialect. “How did you learn to speak like that?” I ask her. “I love Lebanese TV shows, music, films, everything!” She exclaims. Kteer kteer, she throws in, for good measure. Like the taxi driver, she too has never left the country, but hopes to see more of the world someday.

Rabat

On the evening train into the capital, we are assigned into an already crowded compartment. I move someone’s bag over to the right in order to fit my suitcase in the overhead compartment. The woman next to me starts making concerned noises in French. “I am sorry, I don’t understand.” I try this statement in English, then in Spanish. The woman’s eyes light up. She finishes adjusting her bag, and exclaims, “Spanish!” in Spanish. We start talking about our connections to this language. I am of Lebanese heritage, but my mom was born and raised in Venezuela. She responds to me and prefaces her own story at once: “Las cosas bonitas vienen de la mezcla.” Beautiful things come from the mix. She is from Tangier, of a Moroccan father and Spanish mother. She learned French and Italian in school, and spoke Spanish and darija at home.

And of course, there are the stories we shared throughout the week of the Fulbright conference. It was a joy to hear about the work that my peers have been up to, and in the evenings, to have winding conversations about things we feel too busy to discuss in our normal lives. I came away from the conference with an even deeper respect for the strength and intelligence of the individuals (and especially the women!) in my cohort.
IMG_4969

DSC_1929

I am immensely grateful that my studies and work brought me back to Morocco, for just one week, four years later. In some ways, it was a time of re-acquaintance with once-familiar memories. In other ways, it was a time for discovery: a time to apply years of language study into deeper, more meaningful conversations with the people around me.

To the travelers out there, I offer my humble advice: Stay curious, ask questions, and try to have at least one conversation with a kind stranger on your next trip. You never know which stories you might be lucky enough to hear, and how much those stories might come to mean to you one day.

IMG_4891

[Originally posted on Andrea in Amman blog, April 2017]

histories collide: a day in As-Salt

Drive about an hour west of Amman, and you will end up in a lovely city called As-Salt. I had the chance to visit in February with a group of friends from my language institute. I was excited to feel the pulse of city life outside of the buzzing capital.

We started our day on the bus with paper cups of coffee and flaky cheese croissants. I watched the tight city streets melt into ambling stretches of highway. The land became more verdant as we traveled west. “A yellow-blue kind of green,” I wrote to myself in the little brown notebook I carry on trips. “It’s greener here. Not Michigan or Maryland green, but green enough.”

IMG_4284

On our way, we pause upon a hill overlooking Palestine. Dusty emerald hills give way to orderly rows of olive trees. The horizon fades from beige to blue. I have taken in views like these before in Jordan, but they never seem to get old. The sun shines bright enough for me to shed my woolen coat. I relish in this reprieve from the winter air.

IMG_4308

We hop back on the bus and soon enough we arrive in the city square. As-Salt traces its history across empires, from Byzantine to Ottoman. It was the first capital of the nascent Transjordanian state, until King Abdullah I moved his government to Amman.

The buildings in As-Salt are much older than those in Amman. Their antiquity conveys a sense of grace, a concern for the aesthetic that I sometimes find missing in my neighborhood. I later learn that these elegant edifices are remnants of the city’s rapid development in the late 19th century, when traders from Nablus came to expand their business. They used local stone to build in the style of their hometown across the Jordan River.

IMG_4321

Our guide around the city was a jovial woman who shared my name: Andrea. She spoke colloquial Arabic like any other local. I had to ask, “Where are you from?” She smiled and explained patiently, and I knew that she must hear this question often. Her parents were Greek and German, and she had married a Jordanian from As-Salt. I remember that although my name is a relic of my mother’s upbringing in Venezuela, its origins are in ancient Greece.IMG_4320

We spend the day exploring churches and mosques, and listening to Andrea narrate the city’s story. Missionaries from Spain. Battles fought between imperial powers, viceroys and pashas. Roman tombs. All of this taking place on a city built upon three hills. I could hardly make sense of the details involved in the collision of histories that is As-Salt. I focused instead on simple things, like how the interiors of buildings are as geometrically stunning as their exteriors.

In the afternoon, we take a walk through the bazaars of al-Hammam Street. It is named for the Turkish bathhouses it was lined with during the Ottoman Empire. We skip the stores selling clothes and household items, heading straight for the sweet vendors. We try fresh qatayef, these delightfully soft and spongy pancakes, and even have the chance to try making our own on the hot griddle. All the while, families come and go, scooping up warm piles of qatayef by the half-dozen. As if this is not enough to satisfy a sweet tooth, our guide offers us a tray of‘awameh. We gobble down these little orbs of fried dough, soaked in sugar syrup until saturated.

16804462_10155009445269770_8894344424445670743_o

Sugar coursing through our veins, we end our excursion with a late lunch at a small guesthouse. We dig into piles of salad and maqlouba rice with chicken. After we fill out bellies, our hosts gather us into the main lounge. They show us some of the clothing that people in As-Salt wear for celebrations and weddings. We marvel at the embroidered swaths of fabric, ranging from pitch black and royal purple and burnt orange.

16879944_10154227156360796_478930126_o

On the bus ride home, the traffic to exit As-Salt is heavy. The headlights of vehicles glow against the dark blue sunset. I wonder where people are going on this Saturday evening. It is the day before the workweek. Perhaps they are making their commute to the bigger city, to the capital that became afterward, to Amman.

IMG_4332

[Originally published on Andrea in Amman, March 2017]

a vocabulary of belonging

I keep a notebook with all the Arabic words I learn while going about my days here in Amman. It’s funny how these pages, filled with swirling Arabic letters on the right side and their boxy English translations on the left side, have almost become a journal. Each word is traced back to a moment where I needed to express something beyond the limits of my third tongue. Sometimes, it is a word that corresponds with a stream of thought, or an emotion. Other times, it is a word needed to narrate mundane happenings, or critical events across the globe.

img_4477-rotation

When I first got here, I was so scared of sounding foreign, ajnabiya. As someone of Lebanese heritage, I felt a strange pressure to sound the part of Arab as much as I looked it. I filled my notebook with words to help get me through everyday exchanges. I hoped that if I learned enough of these words, and learned them well, I could direct taxicabs and order coffee and buy groceries without anyone noticing my foreignness.

Dakhla. Entrance, turn, exit. As in, take the third exit on the traffic circle.

Sada. Plain. Please, I would like plain coffee, without sugar.

Wazan. To weigh. Could you weigh these vegetables for me?

Continue straight, if you please. Medium sugar. Not this roundabout, but the next one. I’ll have one-third kilo of stuffed eggplants, please.

img_2231

I practiced pronunciation over and over: in the morning before heading out, at night before falling asleep. I would whisper my new words five times under my breath before ducking into a taxi or a corner store. I would will myself to use these words confidently, with my full voice.

Did people notice that I wasn’t from here? Of course. There was always something that gave me away. If it weren’t an incorrectly conjugated verb or an awkward word choice, it would be my clothing or the way I carried myself. I was, and often continue to be, somehow marked by the look and sound of someone who doesn’t completely belong here.

And… this is okay! This is perfect. This is the truth.

After five months in Jordan, I am much less concerned about “passing” for a “true” Arab. That is not the point of me being here. (And what is a “true” Arab anyway?) I now embrace the complicated story that is my engagement with the Arabic language. I enjoy explaining that I have a Spanish name because my mother was born in Venezuela to Lebanese parents. I cherish all the new words I learn without expecting them to help me better “play the part” of someone who belongs.

Words are simply tools for me to better express myself. Me. The woman who is not from here. The woman with the strange name and familiar features. The woman who is learning so much here, and is immensely grateful for the generosity of spirit she has encountered among the people here. The woman who wants to keep learning; to meet everyone and see everything during her short time here as a guest.

In essence, I have let go of unfair expectations for myself, and started practicing acceptance. This has helped me to enjoy language learning, and my everyday interactions with people, much more.

I will keep filling notebooks with Arabic words and their English translations.

I am building a new vocabulary of belonging. Words that animate conversations both silly and serious, conversations that eventually become the foundation for new friendships. Words that reflect my personality, interests, and ambitions. Words that allow me to better understand others. Words that close the distance between unfamiliar and familiar, and punctuate the passage of time from winter to spring.

I am excited to learn each and every one of them.

img_2228

*********

Thank you to Jordan-based photographer Amena Alani for the photos in this post. I met her while I was studying at Turtle Green Cafe. She was inspired by the beautiful candle-lit pot from which I was sipping my masala tea. She asked if she could take a few pictures, and I happily obliged. She very kindly sent me the photos a week later over email. I am excited to stay in touch and keep up with Amena’s photography on her Flickr account. 

[Originally published on Andrea in Amman blog, February 2017]

home for a moment

The inertia of home always surprises me. Even after five months in Jordan. Or after five years in Chicago. After so much time away, you start to think that maybe your home is not just the place you grew up, but rather everywhere you have been, anywhere you have made a space for yourself to be and become.

But really, there is no place like home. Home.

img_4034

Since I left home, the only constant in my life has been change. New friends, new perspectives, new sensibilities, a new language, and even new countries. But it doesn’t matter how much of the world I see, or how cultured I sometimes think myself to have become. Home draws me into its familiar rhythm. When I visit my family, it takes almost no effort to remember where I come from.

I am still that girl from southeast Michigan, embedded in a net of family and extended relations and loved ones that delight in simply passing the time together. I am still the Lebanese-American daughter of a father from Dearborn and a mother from Caracas.

I am still the student of my high school teachers; the neighbor of the family that lived next to us throughout my childhood; the niece of more aunts and uncles than I can keep track of; the teammate from a handful of volleyball, debate, and tennis teams; the kid who still dreams of big cities and maybe writing a novel one day.

I will walk into my room, and even though my sister inhabits it these days, I will still find my collection of books overflowing across two bookshelves; titles stacked vertically and horizontally, critical theory books intermingling with novels.

I will still remember how to drive and navigate the sprawl of metro-Detroit even when the streets are wintry slick, even after I have spent months solely taking buses and trains and taxis.

I will still joke with my brother and sister as if we have spent the last six years under the same roof, rather than scattered across different states. We will still double over in laughter together, occasionally annoy each other, but ultimately delight in each other’s company.

I will still wander into the Plymouth Coffee Bean and the Northville Barnes and Noble whenever I need a quiet moment to read, write, and reflect.

img_3986

And yet…

Though I fall into the routines of home, I am still my changed self, the collection of all my experiences since I have left.

Little things: I can speak Arabic at home now, whereas in the past I stuck to English with my step-mother and theatrical gestures with my step-grandmother. And I now have a few friends to visit in Ann Arbor that I met in Chicago, while in college. Oh, and although I do love that Barnes and Noble that I basically grew up in, my book-purchasing loyalty and book-lover’s heart now belongs to independently-run Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor.

Big things: I cannot help but see my home-world through slightly different lenses, now that my eyes have been sharpened with the contrast of the bigger-world that’s out there.

And I would be naïve to think that home didn’t change while I was away, either.

My childhood neighbor now has a beautiful, big-eyed baby boy. My teachers are teaching new subjects and even exploring their professional interests outside of the classroom. My littlest cousins are now adolescents on student councils and basketball teams. A lot of my friends from middle and high school are pursuing careers we didn’t even know about before parting ways for college. My siblings are forging their own paths in life and I love hearing their stories even more, now that we are all adults. I find myself seeking out the stories of my parents, too, these days. I collect their memories and wisdom like pearls, to keep them safe and admire them in the future.

Even the social and political conditions have changed. So much so, that I actually participated in my first protests in Michigan. I stood with my siblings in Ann Arbor for the Women’s March, and with my father at DTW airport in opposition of the ban on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. It was amazing to see that thousands of people showed up, from families with children to elderly activists, to peacefully and publicly voice their opposition.

img_3998img_3808

Going home for a short period of time after months abroad can be difficult for some, refreshing for others. For me it was a bit of both.

I went home for just enough time to fall into old rhythms. Just enough time to notice the changes in a place that is so familiar to me. Just enough time to share quality moments with my family, and now miss them terribly upon my return to Jordan.

img_4067

This coming and going feels sudden and somewhat bittersweet. But I remember where I came from, and I remember that I am living the dreams of a girl who wanted to see the world from beyond her overflowing bookshelf in southeast Michigan.

So here I am, back at Charles De Gaulle Airport after thirteen days, this time on a layover en route to Queen Alia International Airport.

And there is still so much world to see.

[Originally published on Andrea in Amman blog, February 2017]