Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Arabic in Jordan

I’m from Michigan. America’s High Five. The Great Lakes State. Sometimes people from Michigan argue about whether we should be called Michiganders or Michiganians. I prefer Michiganders.

But one thing we all agree on is how cool it is to use our hand to show where certain things are. Who needs Google Maps?

If you want to see where I live, take your right hand and make your palm face your face. Now place a finger from your left hand on the bottom right part of your palm, where lines going down from your thumb and pointer finger would intersect. Here’s a picture to make it clearer:

A little bit west of that is a town called Ann Arbor, and it’s where the University of Michigan is. In October of 1960, John F. Kennedy, who was campaigning to be President, stopped by the university and made a speech at 2AM, in front of thousands of students.

In the speech, he asked: How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?

Within weeks, he received thousands of letters from young Americans who said they would.
When he was elected President, one of the first things he did was create the Peace Corps, which allowed citizens of the United States to travel to foreign countries and promote world peace and friendship.

Right before graduating, I decided the Peace Corps was something I wanted to do. So, I applied. I waited four months and heard nothing. Perhaps, I thought, this was their way of saying I didn’t get in…. But one day I got an email. It said I’d been nominated for a country in the Middle East, called Jordan. Google Time.

6,094 miles away! 97% desert! Temperatures up to 125°F! And, craziest of all, a 15-hour flight! I better bring a good book and some shorts, I thought.

Before I knew it, it was time to say goodbye to my dog and explain to her I won’t be back for two years. I’m not sure if she understood. All she did was wag her tail.

When the plane touched down in Jordan, I saw something I didn’t really think about when I was in Michigan: Arabic. It’s the National Language of Jordan, and I had to learn it. The Peace Corps said it was “super-hard”.

At first, it looked like confused squiggles and dots.  Thankfully I had a great teacher who helped make sense of them. I learned there were 28 letters, seven vowels, and that your write from right to left (probably the hardest part!).

But it ended up not being as difficult as I thought.

Here, I’ll even teach you some Arabic right now. Two easy letters and one word, that’s all. Promise!
Okay, ready? The first thing that will help with this mini-lesson, is realizing, like cursive writing, the letters connect with each other. The only difference, is that it’s going from right to left instead of left to right. Easy enough. Let’s move to our first letter.

It’s called mim. When you pronounce it, it sounds like “meem.” How it looks, as a letter, depends on how it fits into the word. If it’s by itself, it looks like that rightmost picture below. If it’s connected, it’s one to the right. In the middle of a word? It takes the middle form. And if it finishes a word, it takes that leftmost picture, with the tail hanging from its left side. Check out these diagrams, they’ll help—maybe even try writing out each form of the letter! 

Okay, that wasn’t too hard, was it? We’re halfway done with the mini-lesson. Party’s almost over!
The second letter is called alif, similar to our letter a. It has two forms, a connected form and an isolated form. When it connects to a letter, it looks sort of like an L. And when it’s isolated (or alone), it looks like a lower-case l. Try writing them out!

There, two letters down! Not too hard, right? I bet we could even write out a word. In fact, I know a word that uses only those two letters we just learned. Let’s learn it!

First, start with writing out mim, in the beginning form. If you need it, look at the diagram above for help.

With the mim written, we’re going to use the end form of alif, the one that looks like a capital L. So write that out. It should look like the picture below.

Now do it again, so you have two mim-alif combinations, like that leftmost picture.

Want to know what it says?! Well if the mim sounds like the letter m and alif sounds like a, then we have “ma-ma”! Pretty cool!

Now you can go home and show your mom how to write her name in Arabic! Great job!

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Last week I had a package waiting for me. I hadn’t ordered a package. I didn’t give my new address to any company.

And yet, here was this package: a manila envelope from a company that knew my address, containing something unknown.

It was a book.

One originally written in the 1960s.

Within is a transcribed dialogue between an Indian teacher and a crowd he fields questions from, hitting on various aspects of Philosophy, Religion, and Psychology.

An excerpt: One of the most difficult things in life is not to be bound by an idea; being bound by an idea is being consistent…what does it mean to be consistent? To be consistent is to have a mind that is unvaryingly following a particular pattern of thinking—which means that you must not do contradictory things: one thing today and the opposite tomorrow…it is like a [person] building a wall around themselves and letting life go by.

It’s not a book I would normally read, but friends tend to see parts of us we’re rather unaware of. And if the friendship is healthy, the challenge for the other to better themselves is offered by both sides. We continually grow into the person we’ll eventually become.

In this past year, I’ve called many cities and countries home: Southfield, Michigan; Amman, Jordan; Chisinau, Moldova; New York City, New York and, most recently, San Francisco, California.

These places I’ve seen…I’ve yet to decode the urge within me that’s brought me to each one. It’s not articulable, but it seems like a restlessness within my anatomy that produces the urge to travel. I’ve confronted many things I didn’t want to (in a single week: children hurtling rocks at stray dogs; seeing those same dogs dead days later; teachers spitting on those same children), and I’ve become painfully confused about things I once held as truths.

I’ve been given the opportunity to behold different cultures, approaches to life. I’ve experienced acute loss and have been witness to much suffering. And we have all seen even greater suffering brought into the lives of people we’ll never know.

The Paris attacks…I’m not sure what I want to say. It would probably unwise to fully process that on this platform. Emotions are still rampant. I’ll just say it’s heartbreaking, tragic, and all the synonyms that go along with maddening.

Voltaire comes to mind: Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.

My heart goes out to Paris.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Formidable Plans; Tricky Clauses; The Land of Super Heros

I had a class in 7th grade, taught by Mrs. Smith, called College Prep. The class's crux was rather ambitious: have each student plan out the next decade of their life. For most of us, projecting a length of time almost equal to how long we've already lived (I was 13 at the time) seemed daunting, but we trudged along. Some of us finished. 

My plan was this:
  • Bowl four years at Varsity level in high school
  • Attend Saginaw Valley State University and bowl for them (they were #2 in the country when I attended)
  • After two years, transfer to the University of Michigan and get an in-major GPA of 4.0
  • Upon graduating, join the Peace Corps
This plan took me up until I was about 24. And somehow (being fully aware of the difficulty of achieving what one sets out to do) I was able to do every single part of that plan.
A hard-earned smile
The thirteen-year-old in me has been patting himself on the back for some time now, and stopped when I reminded him of something he overlooked, something he took for granted: there was no mentioning of finishing Peace Corps.

Exactly two weeks ago, I decided to leave Peace Corps early--what in PC lingo is called, rather dramatically, Early Termination.

Every volunteer who ETs has a unique reason for doing so--a job elsewhere; urgent medical problems; dissatisfaction with work; pressing family concerns; etc--and the TL;DR version of my reasoning was I felt I could make better use of these next two years elsewhere. The formula that decides what I undertake is basically this: am I helping the largest amount of people I can in a way that utilizes my greatest strengths? And in Moldova, for myriad reasons, the formula popped out no.

Leaving was an easy decision to make but hard to carry out. Saying goodbye to a person I now consider one of my best friends brought us both to tears. But she, and everyone else I care deeply for, gave the support that helped make the ET process manageable.

People I'll truly miss

And now I'm off to NY--Queens to be exact. Enough can't be said of the two cousins I have who've opened their house, allowing me to pursue an opportunity that I feel passes my test.

And this is where the Super Hero Supply Co. comes in. It's the ostensible name of a tutoring center I've accepted an intern position at (http://826nyc.org/). Located in Park Slope, Brooklyn, it offers after-school tutoring, creative writing workshops, field trips, and college-readiness classes, all 100% free of charge. It's part of a network of 826 locations throughout the country that offer the same. The one in Boston is a Bigfoot Research Center. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, it's Robot Repair & Supply. Seattle has the Bureau of Fearless Ideas. Valencia, CA, --the 826 that started it all--peddles its Pirate Supplies to aspiring buccaneers.

For 826MI's Halloween party, I was Peter Rabbit
Starting next month, I'll be helping with the after-school tutoring and writing-specific aspects of 826NYC's programs. It's safe to say I'm nervous, but it's also safe to say that nervousness accompanied the moments when I embarked on accomplishing those things I set out to do in Mrs. Smith's College Prep class. It's just this time there's no long-term plan. But I'm okay with that. I'll spare us all and not invoke cliches. For now, I'll focus on readying myself for the Big Apple.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Cherries, Wine, and Pictures of More

That's us, the 30th group of Peace Corps Trainees to make it to Moldova. After 17 hours of flying, we touched down in the capital, Chisinau, and were greeted by some current volunteers, staff, and eventually each of us was shepherded to our own host family's home.

Mine is occupied by a single mother who has a hard time having "Peter" off her tongue. For now, I'm "Peecher." It's growing on me.

My room is the size of the one I have back home, and is adorned with Jesus and bottles of Alcohol, two things Peace Corps Jordan burned into my head as something NOT to associate with one's service.

I've been spending around 2-5 hours per day on Romanian, the first language I'll have to master before I try my mouth at Russian, probably at the 1-year mark. Coming from learning Arabic, learning Romanian is sort of like going for an evening run after taking off ankle weights you had on all day. It's liberating. Reading and writing on the first day! Cognates out the wazoo! A light at the end of the tunnel!

Another plus: a dog!

This is Gosha. She's probably 10 pounds, and an enigma when it comes to determining breed. Any thoughts?

The tree branches above her are bowed from the hundreds of soon-to-be picked cherries. And the ground behind her hides strawberries at their prime. Now is time to enjoy the products of Moldova's soil; the winter promises potatoes and cabbage prepared in many different ways.

So these first two weeks have been spent scooping out the language, people, food, and culture of this Moldova 70 of us have accepted as home. Ups and downs find their way into each day, and most of my downs come from thinking about the country I was previously serving in, how much I miss it, and the fact that I haven't truly "gotten over" being evacuated.

These are the volunteers evacuated from Jordan now serving in Moldova. In the middle is Lisa, the current Country Director for Jordan and soon-to-be-spearheader of Michelle Obama's Let Girls' Learn initiative. She (Lisa) visited us this past week to host some sessions on LGL-specific topics, and afterwards the six of us got to catch up and drink coffee together (on the first day of Ramadan no less). The only thing missing seemed to be a Call to Prayer's mellifluous song.

After the what's-new talk and first sips of thick coffee, our guards came down; deeper feelings welled up.

A few days earlier, I read about something called the "Availability Heuristic". It's a theory stating that we have mental shortcuts that allow us to estimate the frequency of something occurring according to how easy it is to think of supporting examples. "I'm (almost) always going to enjoy eating ice cream, because every time prior to now, it's made my tummy very happy."

So it was this concept that rambled in my head while sipping my coffee, chatting with Lisa. And in this new context, the formula seemed to have as its output: I can't have this country win me over, because the moment I'm enamored with it, we're going to be evacuated. Therefore, be engaged but indifferent, slightly above apathetic.

And it truly hasn't been that hard to pull that off. I've been with host families the past 6.5 out of 9 months, learning languages continuously, attending sessions on health/security/teaching techniques/country's societal overview, even attending some sessions for the 3rd or 4th time.... Being on autopilot has almost been automatic, and at times I feel far from autonomous, more like automated.

It's pretty clear Moldova PCVs won't be asked to leave the country, but it's hard not to go down the "what if?" thought-path. Rational thought vs. gut-level dread is warring here, and I know eventually the latter will quell, letting me move on.

So that's a small snapshot of my mental landscape for the time being. Soon it'll turn, and I'll be able to give Moldova all the attention it rightly deserves...it being a motley intersection of paradigms: Post Soviet gloom (and a yearning to return to its USSR past); European culture (I went to a public beach yesterday...which will require an entirely separate blog in itself); Western influence (American clothing and Coca-Cola are big deals); and a heavy drinking culture (#1 in the world!). These all mix together to create sites you'll have to simply see for yourself.

I'll try to give you glimpses when I can.


To the Moon and Back

I'll start with something you probably didn't know about me: I applied to be an astronaut. The general application was open to the public. I put down my applicable experience as "none", my reference was the friend sitting next to me, and my available date as "two years from now, once I finish undergrad."

I've yet to hear from NASA.

But this small setback hasn't lessened my curiosity about what it'd be like, to hear the countdown, "3....2.....1.......LIFTOFF." And the solid thwump of g forces you'd feel on every Cm^2 of your body as you'd race toward the stars...and when that pressure's lifted...the feeling of no pressure at all: zero gravity.

And what about the Earth? What would that look like? Seeing NYC at night as a complex bright dot on a large piece of relatively dark earth. A tropical storm system making its way toward the Philippines. Earth as a blue-green spinning sphere surrounded by nothing in every direction.

What if all the humans gathered at one spot. How big would it be?

Rusty Schwolzkart was a person who did hear back from NASA, and they responded with great news. He was going to space. He felt the thrust backward into his seat. its release, weightlessness; and he saw what I've craved.

Trying to limn the experience with words, he wrote: You look down there and you can't imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don't even see them. There you are -- hundreds of people in the Middle East killing each other over some imaginary line that you're not even aware of, that you can't see. And from where you see it, the thing is a whole, the earth is a whole, and it's so beautiful. You wish you could take a person in each hand, one from each side in the various conflicts, and say, ‘Look. Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What's important?'

I'm writing these words from Moldova, a country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, the fifth country I've visited in as many years. "What's important?" I ask myself this each time the plane touches down somewhere new. And the more I see, the what's important doesn't really change from place to place. Everyone seems to be dealing with the same problems, it's just each culture seems to be going at it in their own way. How to find self fulfillment. How to care for others. What constitutes truth, meaning, import. How to devote your time toward those things. And when these things clash between two philosophies/cultures/personal opinions, we get those disagreements Mr. Schwolzkart wishes he could let us put in perspective with, and against the backdrop of, our seamless, border-less home.

Perhaps those differences we perceive would turn, and we'd all have a new shared lowest common denominator for what makes us human. Peace would (hopefully) shoot up societies' immediate concerns, as would cultural understanding; short- and long-term sustainable lifestyles. Some of these reflect Peace Corps' aims and goals, and are what I'll strive to incorporate into the lives I'll touch these next two years, two months, and day.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Frozen Body, Warm Heart.

If you happen to be a fan of John Stewart, you might know a film he shot in Amman, Jordan, Jordan’s capital, called Rosewater. When describing the filming, he mentioned that the people he met were aggressively hospitable. That they’re so nice and welcoming, you might feel uncomfortable with how receptive an atmosphere you’re in the moment you walk through their door. Usually in the States this sort of over-eagerness to please is observed through commercials or Snake Oil sales pitches, and the assumption that there’s an ulterior motive is something you quickly have to rid yourself of here. You realize here it’s authentic and, indeed, overwhelming.

It’s not the case in every country Peace Corps serves in, but in Jordan volunteers get their very own house. And while the Peace Corps does the work of finding you a place to live in for the next two years (along with a place to work and community to serve in—no small task for 35 individuals), they can’t guarantee that that house will be furnished with, well, anything. Some volunteers got even the kitchen sink. Others got a place with lots of…potential. But then it becomes a canvas. Yes, of course a hammock can go here. Why not buy a used back seat from a BMW and make it a couch over there? Now...that PC-issued mosquito net would give the bedroom a certain bohemian flair. And, finally, let’s put a face on that space heater: eyes here; mouth around the flame—it kind of looks like a dragon. There, that’s more like it.

So for the volunteers who have a house full of potential, this is the sort of thing we’ve been either bringing to life or playing with in our heads since we moved to site ten days ago. That’s not the only thing we’ve been doing, however. Some have been meeting with community members to plan clubs and camps for this freshly minted new year. Others have been shown off to their respective towns (Peace Corps urges us to champion the “Golden Trophy Monkey” affect we adorn as Americans). And some have even, believe it or not, made snow men with some of the snow the northern part of the country’s received. I bought a bike and Nutella. Sometimes it’s the small things.

(this is before the snowpocalypse...see below)

Obviously if we’re receiving snow, it’s pretty darn cold. Is the weather achieving a Michigan/Montana/Moscow-level cold? No. We’re looking at 20-degrees Fahrenheit, with maybe some small negatives registered of felt-temperature when it’s gusty. But one thing you’ll find ubiquitous in Michigan/Montana/Moscow that you won’t here: central heating. My house gets cold. We’re talking a see-your-breath-in-the-air, frost-on-the-inside-of-the-window type cold. The cold where you need to go to bed clothed for an arctic expedition. The cold that keeps you in under sheets, leaving only for the bathroom. The cold that threatens to redefine cold.

(worst snow storm the country's seen in a decade)

Thankfully Jordan’s place in the world makes winter a concentrated but brief affair, setting the stage for a summer that’ll make you forget cold even exists.

But for now, it’s summer that will never seem to come. Days are spent huddled around a space heater in the host family’s house, watching the news report everyone’s cold and huddled around a space heater. Conversation might revolve about your family in the states; maybe you’ll have to mention that you actually don’t have the power to grant Visas; or perhaps if the crew’s hungry, you might even learn how to cook a traditional meal or two. New words are learned, new connections established. Maybe maybe maybe, you, even after all your fancy hammock-hanging, bohemian-bed-making, house-personalizing achievements, will begin to confuse which house to call home. And perhaps it’ll take a whole year to figure it out. There are much worse thought-paths one could go down, though; at least you’re not thinking about the cold.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sometimes it's the Small Things

One of the first things you realize when writing Arabic is that, mirroring English, it moves from right to left on the page. This can be a little disorienting at first. For a while it seems like perennial opposite day. Twenty-three-year-old habits can't be tossed out the window. But if you're left-handed, like me, there's an odd comfort in this newness. No longer will you smudge letters; you finally mesh seamlessly with something in this right-hand-dominated world.

This first month in Jordan had a lot of these oddity-turned-comfort moments. A few: drinking so much sugared tea your teeth hurt, swearing it off, then craving a sugar-fix twenty minutes later; greeting a mosque's call to prayer at 4:30 AM every single morning, then, staring at the darkness, realizing the hard-to-place beauty in the rhythms and tones; after arriving, being reduced to a baby with advanced motor skills and no language--conversing requires complex body movements, exaggerated facial expressions, and a whole lot of time. But then you learn the word for bathroom, water, please. A new world starts to unravel from your tongue. Routines get established; social boundaries defined; your host family opens up. And before you know it, a month's passed.

All the mental energy and space used for week-one limitations has been freed for newer challenges. Your host mother, after preparing a SERIOUS dinner, in Arabic that you can by some small miracle understand, lets you know that she, it turns out, is your new mother, her sons your brothers, her family yours. And you smile pretty darn wide, because in that moment you get a glimpse at how far you've come.