The Baqa’a Times

It makes no sense that my best friends in the world are currently a group of ~25-30 kids between the ages of 7 and 12 who live in Beqa’a camp, but lets move past that and realize how awesome they are. On this blog, which Julie put together, we’ll be posting all of our students work. Right now, you can look at their Earth Day clean-up project, Selsebeel’s autobiography, Hashem’s photo essays and a lot more.

Selsebeel, a shy, polite Iraqi-Palestinian twelve-year old whose English is miraculously, incredibly, unbelievably perfect, always comes to our Saturday program and stays for both classes. Sometimes, when it’s really busy, she’ll help us teach, working through the ABCs with a 7 year-old. Last week, she revealed to me that she’s been teaching herself Hindi, because she loves Bollywood.

Who is this prodigy? Let her tell you herself: this week, she started her autobiography, which all of the advanced students will soon start working on.  She wrote a small novel, and typed up the following section:

My Mum

She is Hiyam and she is 54 years old. She is from Iraq. She is fat and short and in the past, she had long hair but now she has short hair. She is very nice and she hates wrong things. She can make nice food. She has 2 sisters and 3 brothers. I love her so much. She watches every thing on the t. v. She can’t use all things on the computer or phone. She always loves facts.

My Dad

He is Zuhiar and he is 60 years old. He is from Palestine. He is skinny and tall. He has long hair and in the past, he had a moustache. But now he has a moustache and a beard and he wears glasses. He is like my mum because he doesn’t like wrong things. He can make nice food better than my mum. He is an artist and he can draw anything he wants. He is always happy. He loves action movie and he loves animals so much that he had six dogs and ducks and cats and also birds. He always loves the truth. 3 years ago, he had something painful in his body. After that, we found out he had low blood sugar. Then we knew it was cancer and he lived for 2 years and then he died.

My Brother Ahmad

He is Ahmad. He is 34 years old and he born in Iraq. He works in Iraq now. He is engineer and he is very fat and short. He loves to eat all things like fast food, healthy food, juices, tea, and coffee. He doesn’t marry. Still now he can’t cook. He has a facebook and yahoo. He has friends, they love him so much. He came 4 years ago, to Amman and he was happy so much and also he loves facts. He is very smart and intelligent. He knows lot of information.”


Selsebeel and Julie

“We will toast to peace drinking Taybeh beer.”

In February, I went to Taybeh, the last fully Christian village in the West Bank located about twenty minutes outside of Ramallah, with my good friend Nadine who was shooting a mini-documentary on the town and its brewery. Watching her video, “Brewing for Peace,” will, in the words of a friend, “make you cooler and smarter.”

It’s easy when we read four-inch headlines about the century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict to forget that daily life continues on the ground, that people and families move forward. We often see only the stagnant peace process – continued settlement building, negotiations in unknown conference rooms about whether or not to negotiate despite that settlement building – and fail to recognize that people continue to struggle despite diplomatic impasses.

Nadine’s video does an awesome job of tracing Taybeh’s modern history, of representing people who live under occupation through the story of a unique company succeeding under the harshest of business conditions almost twenty years after the Oslo Accords. I can tell you that Taybeh’s beer is really, really good, and will hopefully arrive in the U.S. soon.

Watch the video, check out their Facebook page.

Note: Taybeh is definitely worth a trip. Check out the brewery and the town’s fantastic new restaurant there, Peter’s Place. You can enjoy a Taybeh beer and a great meal sitting on the verandah of a beautifully restored building overlooking the West Bank’s hills. if you’re going to Taybeh, you can take a 13 shekel bus from the main station in Ramallah.



Nadine, the diligent journalist, captures sunset in Nazareth, the night before we headed to Ramallah.

a shot fired in Germany echoes in Amman

Amman is a small city. I often feel that it moves in waves, all at once. It is an early weekday morning, and we are in Douar Daklhliyeh on our commute. It is Friday morning, and we are all asleep until noon. It is a cold April day, and everyone is shivering at once.  It is late in the afternoon on Friday, and we are all eating a huge lunch.  It is the first beautiful Thursday night of spring, and we are all outside. It is Wednesday night in my neighborhood, water is bursting through pipes and we are taking long showers, cleaning our houses, watering our plants, washing our cars.

Amman’s tidal movements – which are perhaps a result of its homogeneity – are reflected in the noises of the city. Only the squawks of those misplaced urban roosters are audible Friday morning, beeping horns echo endlessly all of Thursday afternoon and water drips onto our balcony Wednesday night.

Of all of those distinct urban, communal sounds, though, there is one that I’m certain will never recede in my memory. One of my first nights here late last summer, I was sitting on my porch, savoring a warm night, when from next door, a window diagonally across from mine, I heard a sharp whooping. A half second later, spontaneous applause echoed from the hill across the way, and then from everywhere around us. My neighbors, and everyone else in this city, were watching Barca.

I can’t explain why Spanish soccer is so popular here, I will only tell you that the city stops when the teams play and erupts with every goal. When my Arabic fails and a conversation can go no further, it seems that everyone in this city can discuss Spanish soccer.

Though I’m not too knowledgeable on European soccer, I’ve spent a fair number of Tuesday or Wednesday nights in packed cafés full of men smoking shisha watching Barca or Madrid as they’ve moved into the semifinals of the Champions League. Last week, I watched Barcelona get massacred 4-0 by Bayern Munich, in a packed café evenly split between downtrodden Barcelona fans and ecstatic Madrid fans there to support Bayern Munich.

The next night, I didn’t have to make it out to watch Real Madrid play at Borussia Dortmund to follow what was happening in the game. Judging solely by the noises of the city – by the periodic eruptions of the Barcelona fans who live all around me – Madrid was also faring poorly on their trip to Germany. Everyone twenty minutes, it seems, the city went nuts all together. Madrid was crushed 4-1, and I didn’t even have to watch.

Hejaz Railway

Jordan’s most famous former resident, at least in the American cultural psyche, is certainly T.E. Lawrence, the British agent who helped foment the unsuccessful World War I Arab revolt and was later immortalized in the Oscar-winning “Lawrence of Arabia.” Though I’ve never actually seen the movie, I take enormous pride in emailing my parents that T.E. Lawrence wrote his memoirs in my neighborhood, back when Amman was a tiny city of 30,000. Lawrence’s actual prerogative, in World War I, was to weaken the Ottoman Empire by helping to organize an Arab guerrilla revolt, and his primary tactic was to attack the Hejaz Railway, a partially completed railroad from Damascus to Medina that the Ottomans had built to unify their far-flung, linguistically foreign, long-held territories.
Earlier this year, it came to a friend’s attention that said-Hejaz Railway still exists, as a tourist destination for Jordanian families who ride the train out into the countryside and picnic on Friday mornings. For 4 JD, I felt like I was back on a commute under the Hudson River, except that the train occasionally slowed to a walking pace as it snaked through crowded neighborhoods in East Amman, greeted by dozens of waving toddlers enjoying their weekly viewing of Thomas the Tank.

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Lonely Planet is really missing out on this one.

a birthday gift from beqa’a

I will probably never receive a better birthday present than the one Julie, Vicki and the all stars of the Beqa’a Saturday English program gave me earlier this week. I turned 23 on Sunday, but not after a fantastic surprise party Saturday night.

Our Saturday program at Beqa’a is always the highlight of my week, and I knew something was up when I walked into the library to see Julie sitting with Moatessim, a precocious, casual, brilliant seven year-old, who both immediately hushed when I entered the room. Moatessim looked down, looked up at me, shoved some drawings with my name on them in my direction and mumbled “kul sena wa inti bkheir ya miss biff” (may every year bring you happiness/happy birthday, miss biff). a minute later, i’d returned to tutoring in another classroom when moatessim peeked in and hissed at me “tijish ila maktaba!” deep slang for “don’t you dare come to the library again.” when I received some artistic Playdoh structures with even more creative spellings of my name, i figured i had discovered the extent of the surprise. when julie and vicki unveiled this gem of a video at a surprise party later that night, i was reminded of how thankful i am to have such a great community in amman.

I spent most of my actual birthday at a much more exciting celebration: my friend Nisreen’s engagement party. her fiance, Moussa, is an engineer in Saudi Arabia, and will next be back in the country for their October wedding. This was my fourth engagement party or wedding of the year so I’ve now been to more weddings in Jordan than I have been to in the U.S. I’ve become accustomed, I guess, to gender segregated weddings, and also to my embarrassing inability to dance Arab style, with my wrists and hips. In one of my most truly out of body experiences in a while, Nisreen planned for her foreign friends to dance-off against her Arab cousins, a beautiful plan until her Arab cousins failed to choreograph a dance. The result? Six American foreigners dancing alone to Pitbull i, front of 150+ Palestinian and Jordanian woman. Great friends, hypothetical cultural exchange, 23rd birthday.



Will Syrian Refugee Crisis Drain Jordan of its Water

There has been a recent spate of good reporting on how Jordan is handling the Syrian refugee crisis, and this article is definitely worth a read. To put the numbers being tossed around in context: the 365,000 Syrian refugees already in Jordan already constitute about 5% of the nation’s population, and if this year’s pace keeps up, with 3,000 Syrian’s crossing into Jordan a night, the country will receive 1,000,000 Syrians this year.

I often have trouble connecting with those macro numbers, though more visceral stories often pierce through. I buy my fruit and vegetables from the stand on my block from easily one of the nicest men in this city, who my roommates and I refer to as Abu Fuakeh (father of fruit). He’s always smiling – buying three onions is a ten minute affair – but one day last month he seemed deflated. After some small talk, he showed a picture on his cellphone of his cousin, a Palestinian refugee in Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. Palestinian refugees constitute more than half of Jordan’s population, and Yarmouk, a large Palestinian refugee camp in the suburbs of Damascus, became a major battleground a few months ago after staying relatively peaceful for the first years of the war. The day before, Abu Fuakeh explained, his cousin had been martyred in Syria, leaving behind his pregnant wife. Seventy-five cents for the onions.

Even so, I’m often insulated from the heavier stories of the conflict. Last night, reading a tragic article in the Atlantic about the rape crisis in Syria, I was stunned by the story of a family devastated by a gang rape, two of whose victimized sister’s had now found work in Amman.