Camp GLOW

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I know it’s February, but it’s time to talk about camp. Actually, I haven’t stopped talking about camp (more specifically, Camp GLOW- Girls Leading Our World), since last summer, when I hung out with 40 amazing young Jordanian women for a week at Mutah University. Every year these girls apply to camp from all over Jordan and are selected by Peace Corps volunteers based on their English language skills and leadership potential. The camp is conducted entirely in English, and the program focuses on  the leadership skills and dialogue important and relevant to girls growing up in Jordan.

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Camp GLOW has been a part of Peace Corps worldwide since 1995. The program was developed by a group of volunteers in Romania and has since been implemented by 60 Peace Corps countries throughout the world. Every country has a different interpretation of GLOW- in some countries the program runs multiple times throughout the summer and in others it runs for just one week. In some countries girls are educated on subjects like HIV/AIDS prevention and in others they discuss women’s’ development in the workplace or their cultures’ perception of beauty compared to what they’ve seen in magazines or on television. In every country girls and women have different struggles, different challenges, different perspectives on what it means to be a woman in a growing world. What unites GLOW worldwide is its commitment to the development of skills all women need to grow into strong leaders in their communities: self-care, trust-building and teamwork, creativity and perspective taking. and community involvement.

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I was struck by my experience with GLOW last July, and since then I’ve been working with a few other volunteers to expand the program beyond the one week program at a university. Girls who want to participate in GLOW face a number of obstacles- not only does the current program require girls to have excellent speaking skills in English, but they also have to be willing to leave their homes and families and travel to a place they’ve never seen before to spend a week with complete strangers.  Most teenage girls in Jordan have never spent a single night away from their families. For the past few months I’ve been working on a project that will help remove some of the obstacles GLOW applicants face by bringing the camp curriculum to villages around Jordan. Together with a group of volunteers I’ve created a program called Day GLOW, which matches the goals and curriculum used in the university camp, but that can be  led in Arabic by volunteers all over Jordan at a village level. Two weeks ago with the help of four other volunteers, I put the program to the test- and despite a number of issues (we may or may not have conducted the entire camp in another volunteer’s living room, for example), it was a clear success.

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I’ll be spending the next few months taking steps to make the program available to other volunteers- writing a manual, putting together powerpoint slides, and materials and leading a workshop for volunteers who will then be ready to put on Day GLOW from villages all over Jordan. It’s been very exciting to see all of this begin to take shape, especially because I know these girls and I know how much opportunities like GLOW can change lives. In the words of one camper last summer, “I will close my eyes and I will think of my future as a leader, then I will open my eyes and I will realize that it isn’t a dream because I know that women can do everything.”

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America and back

My plane back to Jordan landed directly into a snowstorm. I peered out the fogged windows of the airport and the blurry white haze seemed fitting for my mental state. I had no idea what time it was. I’d been back home for three weeks (actually, to Brussels, Seattle, Portland, and then San Diego), and coming back was like being jarred awake from a very strange and comfortable dream.

I spent my first week in America doing laundry every day, just because I could. I took two showers a day. I ate anything and everything I wanted at any and all times- because I could also drive anywhere I wanted at all times! Around 5pm on the first day I started checking the sky for signs of approaching sunset, calculating how much time I had before I’d need to head home before dark. And then I realized that in America there were absolutely no limits to my travel. I found excuses to drive places at night- the gas station, the grocery store- just because I could.

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I ate waffles. In public.

And then there were the social rules that I no longer had to follow. I realized I was getting anxious every time I entered someone’s house and it was because I hadn’t taken my shoes off at the door. But of course there was no need- no one was praying on that carpeting. I spent the first week flinching at proximity to men and avoiding eye contact, and it occurred to me that in Jordan I hardly ever look anyone directly in the eye. We don’t eat at tables- we sit on the floor in a circle. We don’t sit on couches or chairs- we lean on cushions against the walls. We hardly ever find ourselves directly facing one another, which makes a lot of sense given the less-than-confrontational nature of Arab culture. But in the states confrontation is built into the furniture. Restaurant booths made me uneasy. So did subway cars and kitchen tables. But after about a week I started to get comfortable. True to the 22 years I spent in the states before I became an honorary Jordanian, I put all the rules and habits and customs I’d picked up in the past year on the back-burner and fell right back into a lifestyle that was undeniably much easier than I’d remembered. Within two weeks I was hugging my uncles and leaving my shoes on.

It’s of course been much harder to adjust in the other direction- to return to the culture that’s only been mine for a year. I stumble over basic phrases and kiss people too many or too few times and on the wrong cheek. I make accidental eye contact with bus drivers. I keep telling everyone that my body’s in Jordan but my mind hasn’t caught up yet- it’s still in America, or at best drifting somewhere out over the Atlantic. But my friends and neighbors are patient with me, just as they always have been. “Shway shway,” they tell me- “Little by little.”

And of course things do move slower here. I spent my first day back in village covered in blankets on the floor of my landlords’ living room, watching old movies with the family and listening to the wind sweeping against the windowpanes. Today I ventured out to hang up my laundry and found the sun shining. I brought out a blanket and ended up on the roof for most of the afternoon, reading and listening to the music wafting up from the street. After awhile my neighbor’s daughters spotted me from the rooftop where they’d been doing the same. They hopped over the dividing concrete and settled in for the day, the older one reading the Qur’an and the younger ones swinging from the rebar like monkey bars. The sun sank down over the mountains and we practiced making shadow puppets against the low walls of the rooftop.

In that moment it seemed completely impossible that a week ago I was drinking Jamba Juice and driving a car down the freeway, steering with one hand. But I am not interested in living in two worlds at once. I am here now, all of me out on this roof with these children who are my neighbors, our hands determinedly forming the vague shadows of a camel, a rooster and a spider against the cinderblocks. The sun sinks low behind our backs, 7 thousand miles away from where it will set again, 11 hours later, over the town where I was born.

Eid al Adha

Last weekend was the three-day Islamic holiday Eid al Adha (spelled عيد الأضحى, which means “festival of the sacrifice.”). I was here for Eid al Adha last year, but since I spoke about 4 words of Arabic at the time the experience was pretty confusing for me, so I figured I’d wait until I got the details cleared up this year to describe it. Basically Eid al Adha celebrates the story of the phrophet Ibrahim’s (in the Bible, Abraham’s) willingness to sacrifice his son Isma’il (Ishmael) as submission to God’s command. In the story, God intervenes just before the sacrifice and they kill a ram instead. Muslims generally celebrate the sacrifice by killing a sheep, cow, or even a camel on the first day of Eid and then dividing the meat into three parts- one for the family, another for relatives and friends, and one for charity.

I knew we were approaching Eid again this year when I started seeing sections of the sooq in my village and the nearby cities fenced off and filled with brightly marked cattle. At my center we got ready the week before by making these cards:

And by talking about it endlessly.

Everybody gets pretty excited about the whole process and just about everybody comes out to watch the sacrifice in the early morning on the first day of Eid- even the youngest kids. Most Jordanians I know are a lot more comfortable  than Americans with seeing animals killed before they’re eaten, which seems admirable to me (although I was not at all disappointed that my landlord’s family skipped the sheep this year).

I woke up at dawn on the first day of Eid to the chanting of the Takbir (the traditional Eid prayer) that was played over loudspeakers from the mosque across the street from my house. The prayer went on for two hours and it sounded like this. After the prayer ended there was a sermon (also played on loudspeakers) and after everybody finished praying, the sacrifices went down. My landlord’s family didn’t buy a sheep this year, so they got their meat personally delivered by a tiny girl in an impeccable white dress, heels, and frilly socks who came running into the house to hand my landlady a large transparent bag filled with bloody lamb.

At around 9am the family visits started. The procedure for visits on Eid is the same, except that everybody buys new fancy clothes and gets all dressed up, especially the kids. I definitely saw significantly more rhinestones, clip-on ties, and hair gel than usual. The kids run around to all the adults with hands outstretched, because it’s tradition to give out money to children during Eid. The kids then turn around and spend it on huge amounts of candy, chips, and toy guns, which pretty much lays out the entertainment for the rest of the day. I hung out and ate sweets and got wired on Arabic coffee with the moms pretty much the whole first day, and on the second and third days I visited my host family from my training village.

This is what we do.

The whole experience is pretty overwhelming (albeit delightful), and after three days of marathon visiting and way too much caffeine I was about ready to return to normal life. But even so, when I sat upstairs with my landlady and her daughters, just talking and watching the kids run around (and shoot plastic guns) I was struck by how quickly they’ve become my family in the past two months and how readily they welcomed me into this tradition that means so much to them. So Eid mubarak (happy Eid!), everybody.

One year in

A year ago at 2am I stepped off the plane with a crowd of strangers in business casual who would become my co-workers, my confidants, my comiserators, and my closest friends. We drove from the Queen Alia Airport in a bus completely covered in gold fringe, velvet hearts and flowers, and photos of King Abdullah II. Back then that seemed strange. I remember craning my neck out the window to make out the shapes of houses and tents and cars in the darkness. I saw families crowded around fires, giant neon-lit gas stations, men smoking hookah on the side of the road, and at one point, a fully armed tank. I’ve spent the past year wandering this strange and beautiful land and I’ve become something new in the process.

These days I am a bus-monitor, an artist, a therapist, a camp counselor, an environmental educator, an English teacher, a builder of playgrounds, a dreamer of project after project after project. I am vastly unqualified for most of the work that I do here and that’s something I’ve grown startlingly comfortable with. These days when anyone asks me for anything I say yes out of reflex and trust that my lack of experience will be balanced out by endless enthusiasm and the ability to Google what I don’t know. I have, of course, failed or been shot down many, many times. There have been plenty of occasions when I’ve tried and failed, when my assumptions have been proven wrong, when I’ve looked around me and wondered how in the world I ended up in this strange little village in the middle of a desert. There are moments every day when I know for certain that I will never understand this place completely. But living in Jordan has only increased my willingness to accept what I don’t know, to say yes, to offer what I can and to be glad for what I am given.

I learned from the start that I have to trust the people around me. How can I live any other way, with all these mysteries around me every day? Why did school start an hour late today? Why do all the falafel shops close at night during Ramadan? Why do we leave cats in the garbage cans and hand-feed the pigeons? Why did my bus driver bring me pistachio ice cream at 7:30am  this morning? Why is everyone so obsessed with John Cena and Titanic? And of course, whenever I am invited anywhere- Where are going and who will we see and when will we get back? Most of the time no one has an answer for me. A year ago this was a problem, but lately I’m okay with it. The difference isn’t that I’ve gotten better at Arabic or that I know more about the culture or that I’ve built stronger relationships with the people around me (although I’m happy to say that all of those things are true). The difference is that at some point during the past year I stopped needing an answer. These days I put on my shoes and grab my bag and get in the car- because I’ll find out where we’re going when we get there.

So happy one year anniversary to all my fellow J15 volunteers. Here’s a photo montage so we can all get sentimental.

 

The first rain

The rain started while I was on the bus home, the clouds breaking over the humid day with a thunderclap that made us all jump in unison, grinning like fools as we watched the world turn wet again. I was soaked by the time I got home from  the bus stop, but I ran up to the roof with my neighbors to gather up the laundry. I waved to the little girls next door and the women across the street, all on their roofs doing the same. We ran laughing down the stairs and dumped the clothes out unceremoniously on the living room floor and then gathered at the window to watch the rain. It came down hard, running over hard-packed dirt in the streets, washing away dust we’d forgotten was even there. We breathed it in. Om Yassar murmured verses from the Qur’an while her daughter explained to me that the first rain after the summer was something holy, something to be revered. And as I stood there watching it I knew exactly what she meant. We leaned as far out the window as we could get and waved at our neighbors in the houses all around us, all gathered at their windows grinning and taking it in.

It was a long, dry summer. We saw tremendous joy and tremendous pain. We worked in 100 degree weather and fasted during the longest days of Ramadan in 33 years. We watched as the riots and war and fighting broke out all around us and, like everyone else, we tried to do the best we could. But today we threw our heads back and were soaked in the rain of the new season and it felt, just as it always does, like a benediction.

One week in

Every morning I get picked up by a tiny school-bus where my students cram in on top of each other. A 12-year-old girl with a hearing impairment is the appointed operator of the halfway-broken sliding door. She crouches next to me as I climb in next to my mudiera and lift an 8-year-old with autism onto my lap. We crane our necks back and stare out the window as the bus-driver (one of my landlord’s many sons) races around the twisting mountain roads. He pulls to a screeching halt in front of another house and we shift the children around us like tetris pieces to make room for another student to climb in and everyone shouts good morning. I spend the day running from classroom to classroom, working with whoever happens to need it the most at the time. The teachers are new and many of them are not used to working with students with special needs. They need help with lesson planning and classroom management and with understanding their students’ behavior. And they really, really want my help. So I’m jumping in- with the same energy and enthusiasm that I’m seeing from the people around me. I catch myself grinning as I sit on the floor teaching letters to a kindergartner or pushing a 9-year-old on the swings.

Every day after work I go upstairs for lunch and visit with whoever happens to be there at the time, playing with their children or helping them with their English homework. I live underneath the kingpins of the village- the former mayor and founder of the special education center where I work, his wife, and their thirteen adult sons and daughters, some of whom live in conjoined apartments and others who live with their husbands or wives in other parts of the village or in nearby cities. They cycle through the family compound with their husbands, wives, and children, and I still have yet to meet everyone in the family or to figure out who exactly lives where. I smile and kiss cheeks and memorize the names that I can, and I’m welcomed by everyone I meet. A few days ago I walked out to the street to take out the garbage and a little boy ran up to me in the dark, handed me a pomegranate, and ran away. These are the kinds of things that happen to me now.

We sit for hours drinking tea and eating fresh fruit from the grape vines and fig trees and most of all we talk. My village is filled with people who love to learn, and because my center is run by Abu Yassar and his children, the whole family is very invested in the work I’m doing here. They want to know what I think of special education in Jordan and how it compares to the U.S. They have question after question about my impressions of the center and my ideas for the students and teachers. And just as much as they love asking me questions they love making me a part of their lives. Last night we sat for hours on the roof picking the stems from a crop of raisins as the sun set over the mountains. They laughed as I stared out at the sun setting over the valley. It’s normal to them of course- this beauty all around them. But I’m the foreigner and so I sat there stunned as I have so many times before- the call to prayer echoing over the valley and the trees and the mountains red in the setting sun. You know it happens every night, they say laughing. It happens every night, and I’ll be here to see it for another year.

Welcome to Jordan

Okay, so I’ve done some wallowing, and some venting, and a fair amount of glowering since I was evacuated from my site last month. It’s been a frustrating, scary time and thanks to everybody who’s hung in there while I produced some kind of depressing posts. But yesterday I had a moment that made me remember why all of this is worth it. So here’s what happened to me yesterday on the bus.

I’ve been wandering a lot these past few weeks, and this week I’m helping out with a friend’s Brain Camp in her village in the south of Jordan. It’s about a six hour trip total from the site where I’ve been staying to my friend’s village, so I was in for a long day. I got on the bus, found a window seat, crammed myself around my backpack and the seat jutting backward into my knees, and settled in to a solid iPod bus-daze. Just before we were about to leave a woman in niqab sat down next to me with her two-year-old son on her lap. He was about the age where a kid can only handle being in one body position/location for about three and a half minutes, so as soon as we’d pulled out of the station he had squirmed out of her lap and out on to the aisle of the bus. He spent the next hour or so roaming from seat to seat, touching peoples’ various limbs and bags with the perfect indiscretion of a toddler. Pretty soon he was being casually passed from lap to lap, and he ended up in the arms of the passenger in front of me, an older man dressed in traditional bedouin thobe who was perfectly content to bounce this stranger’s child up and down on his knee and feed him date cookies.

I’ve been watching this kind of thing happen for ten months now and I guess most of the time I’m used to it. To be honest, lately I’ve been in my own head so much I haven’t noticed much of anything at all. But right then I sat there awestruck by the community around me, these people who in 100 degree weather on a cramped, dirty bus will open their arms to a stranger’s child covered in cookie crumbs. I sat there on the bus as the olive orchards and mountainsides passed me by and stared at that old man and that little boy and I fell in love with this country all over again. I felt a tap on my arm and turned to find his mother pouring out a plastic cup of water from the liter she’d taken from her purse. She held it out to me and then I heard her murmur the words I knew she’d say, the ones I’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands of times in the months that I’ve lived here: “Welcome to Jordan.”