A Sex-Tape is a Step Too Far

I think the title needs a little explanation.

In addition to the mid-term exam, our Arabic teacher set us the task of coming up with a five to seven minute presentation on a topic of our choosing. It took me until the morning to come up with something I could realistically rattle on about for that amount of time (no, seriously), but after stumbling over my words as usual, I ended up putting Andrew up to a bet whereby he had to talk about Kanye West. Naturally, Andrew tried to make his presentation somewhat relevant to what we’d studied so that he could activate the vocabulary, or whatever buzzword you want to use. The result was an exploration of the modern wedding through the Kimye phenomenon, complete with all the gory details, ego, sex tape and all. Highly entertaining, of course, but our teacher took umbrage at the subject, claiming that it was ‘hardly suitable’ for class, and debarred us from asking any questions so as to bring the topic to a decided halt. Still, the man did a good job, and he held his ground in spite of all the criticism, so I held up my end of the bargain and rustled up a pretty neat lentil and vegetable stew for him and Andreas, as promised.

To kill some time in the post-class hours, Andreas took us to an underground church in West Amman to help him to teach English to a group of Iraqi refugees. Just a couple of hours in a church not too dissimilar in style from a Worth Abbey chapel, which made me smile almost as soon as I set foot in the place. John 3:16 was up on the wall behind the lectern in golden lettering; it was pretty clear from the first four words, even in Arabic. Beautiful stuff. The Iraqis themselves, Christians from Basra, were just about the nicest bunch of people I’ve met here in Jordan yet. Andreas and his teaching partner Jason assigned Andrew and I four to teach, and we discussed hospital related vocab to get the ball rolling. Whilst we worked, the children of our students scampered about the church at full pitch. I haven’t seen such unfettered happiness in a while. One of our group was a lot quicker on the draw than the others when it came to learning all the new words and expressions, but Raja’, the oldest of the group at seventy-one years old, was an utter delight to teach, especially when she came out with a flawless sentence at the end of the session, primarily because she was so shy. It kind of reminded me of how I must have been earlier down the line. Boy, but it was good to be teaching again, though. Getting back into practice for my assistantship in two months’ time. Better still, Iraqi Arabic is the closest to fusHa out there and a joy to listen to. Basra sounds like a beautiful place, as if Iraq needs anything more to make it more appealing. Land of the Abbasids! Home of Abu Nuwas! Man, why can’t I spend my Year Abroad in Iraq?

Wait, on second thoughts, don’t answer that one.

There’s a lot to be said for this religion malarkey. With any luck, one day the moment will come and I will believe. Warm fuzzy aside, I’ve got to say that those two hours were a godsend, no pun intended. All of my frustration and anger from the past week simply disappeared. I have Faras and his friends to thank for that, for being so friendly and eager to learn; and of course Andreas, for giving me the chance to get in on the project. All is well with my heart once again. I’m still going to fight for the chance to go back to Morocco next year, but I know now that I can and will survive another month out here. I can do this.

Hold the phone, according the beeb there’s a storm coming. Rain. You have no idea how happy this makes me. That it’s going to be 41 degrees at the peak of the storm is beside the point. Bring on the rain, I say. Bring it. BB x

  

Ad Break

Well I just failed that exam bishakl kabiir. I don’t even need to see it marked to know that. I blame several things, but chiefest of all I blame myself. That’s how it goes.

But I’m bored of being underfoot, so I’m going to change tack today and talk about something that makes me happy, even if it brings a tear to my eye to think about it.

Ever heard of the Edinburgh Fringe? I hadn’t; at least, not until this year. I knew it was something arty in Edinburgh, but not a great deal more than that. But for those who understand more than I do, it’s surely one of the world’s greatest gatherings of amateur and professional talent in one city. That’s why it’s famous. It’s one of those bucket list things for several people, myself included. I might have had the chance this year but, as things pans out, I had it snatched from me through decisions of my own. So this is my chance to lay down the line for anybody with time on their hands: go to Edinburgh Fringe 2015. You only need one reason this year and it’s Durham’s very own Northern Lights A Cappella Choir.

Yeah, so I’m biased because I used to be one of them. Well, at least being stuck out here means I’m a little less biased, right? …right? Ok, so it changes nothing, but seriously. It’s sure to be a stellar performance (sadly I’m not responsible for that wonderful pun). The Northern Lights have done so much this year, in this their second year of existence; competing for the first time in the International Collegiate A Cappella semifinals, recording a single, performing at University College’s infamous June Ball and even for TEDx (see video below – yes, that numpty in black at the front is me). It was a thrill ride all year from start to finish, and compared to the workload rising up on all sides like the Red Sea, it never got quite too much for me. The things you love can never overwhelm you entirely if you’re having a good time, and because of them this year has been without a doubt the best year of my life so far. So if it can have that kind of effect on a loner like me, imagine what it must look like live! Seriously, if you can, get yourself down/up to Edinburgh for their show. It promises to be something truly magical. You’ll get to see the one-man show that is Luke Hill, the charming charisma battery called Sam Arrowsmith and the soulful tones of Harrie Aldrich, and that’s just for appetisers. Now more than ever I find myself wishing I could be in two places at once. But don’t let me go overboard – why don’t you see for yourself?

For more information on the event itself, have a look here.

Guys, if you’re reading this, I love you all so much. Mush over. BB x

Cracks at the Seams

The slump returns with greater force. Amman has clawed me back from that wonderful week of traveling and spewed me back up into the noise.

Andrew’s using my laptop. I don’t even know why; frankly, I’m past caring. He went out for an ice cream with a couple of the girls when we got back from downtown and took the keys with him, so I guess I must have been waiting outside the apartment door for half an hour or so, by his watch. I wasn’t counting. I might have done had I known, but I’d chosen this particular sortie to leave my iPad at home for once. Mistake.

Much against my better judgement I was led away from preparing for tomorrow’s exam and press-ganged into checking out a cafe in Abdali this evening; Amman’s posh district, with open-top restaurants sitting high atop the glass monoliths that shadow the soulless five-star hotels below. We ended up in just such a place: one of those £3.45-for-a-lemon-and-mint establishments. You’ve got to agree with me, that’s bonkers, right? And that’s without factoring in the 15% VAT and the standard fare compulsory bottle of water that you have to pay for wherever you go. For a country with a chronic water shortage, they don’t half throw the stuff around like it’s worthless. But that’s besides the point. Who pays that kind of money for a drink? Do I look like I’m made of money?

Breathe, Ben. Breathe. I admit that I’m none too good around classy venues. It brings out the spikey anarchist in me and he’s not much fun to be around, trust me. When people start flashing their wallets and eyeing up resort hotels and all that I get all jittery and feel the need to rave about how nobody needs to spend when it’s so much more fun to rough it. I guess I get so into it that I put people off; heck, I wouldn’t want to be around me in that kind of situation. It’s just awkward. Thus, we return to that class on personalities and how much we all love our own, right? <ugh> Of course right. You just keep telling yourself that.

The trouble is that we’ve hit the four week stage of this venture. Make that five, as we weren’t exactly studying during Eid al-Fitr. That’s about the point when things usually get rocky, and you only need a cursory glance to notice that. My city angst must be getting on everybody else’s nerves just as much as it gets on my own. More and more I find myself wanting to retreat to the flat and work on the novel, which would be no bad thing, but everyone else is opening up and wanting to explore. I guess I just don’t work like that. Different strokes for different folks. ‘But you just have to force yourself to try these things’, they say. I disagree. I’ve been forcing myself to try city-living for a month now and I can tell you in no uncertain words that it and I are not made for each other. But you know that already. It’s not like I’ve been talking about much else for the last few weeks and, like Morocco, I’ve been trying to keep a lid on it. Shame, then; if I’d kept my mouth shut earlier, I might have been able to talk about this situation tomorrow, but I’ve already done two presentations on what I think about this place, so I guess I’ll have to move on to pastures new.

The good news is that a dear friend with a heart of gold will be visiting this weekend. That’s a ray of sunshine through the gathering clouds if ever there was one. It’s not all doom, gloom and majnuun here, of course, but it is Amman. Oh Durham, hear me if you can; please let me try somewhere else next year. Two months here is trying enough. Another two months next year and all the expense that will entail just seems ridiculous, especially when I get less and less keen to go out there and practice my Arabic with each passing day. Isn’t that the point of a Year Abroad? Quite apart from being ‘the best year of your life’… Morocco, please. Or even Egypt. How about Yemen? Anywhere but here. October just can’t come fast enough. BB x

  

Old Habits

One month down. One month to go.

Life rumbles on in Amman. Compared to the whirlwind adventure of the last three posts, I’m afraid this one is a rambler, but I promised to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so it’s just as important to remind yourself that things truck on in distant lands in much the same way as they do back at home. Eloise mentioned yesterday that it was sometimes hard to imagine that other people – even our own classmates – are already taking their own year abroad in France, Italy, Cuba and the like. If you thought Durham was a bubble, jeez, you should see Amman. It might be a capital city, but the Ali Baba crowd is a select one, to put it lightly. That, too, is divided along the same lines as the kind you might expect to find in college, even amongst so few (uh-oh, Ben’s got his social goggles on again – watch out world).

Whoah, too much introspection. I blame yesterday’s class. We took an hour or two on discussing personalities in Arabic, which turned into a pretty intense therapy session for me (my apologies Andrew). What makes you angry? What makes you sad? If you could change one aspect of your personality, what would it be? Do you even like your own personality? Questions of that sort. It could drive a man crazy, especially one still struggling to pull together all ten aspects of his personality into one tangible construct. Maybe I’m thinking this one through too much. Introspection. I did warn you.

In other news, we decided to do something vaguely cultural the other day and took a trip to the Royal Cultural Centre to watch a Jordanian film, Theeb. All in all, a pretty fancy affair for a cinema outing; guards at the door, a full-body scanner in the entrance hall and men in traditional dress stepping out of chauffeured cars. Not exactly your regular Vue jaunt. The reason became clear as the film drew to a close: it turns out that the entire cast of the film were sat just two rows in front, for whom the organisers had set up some kind of awards ceremony in the most eloquent classical Arabic I’ve heard out here yet. Classy. Almost as classy as Andrew and I sipping from orange mirinda all the way through the film. Theeb itself was a seriously good film. You might have heard of it; that 2014 award-winning film about a Bedouin boy who loses his family in a raid and ends up befriending his brother’s killer. Heavy stuff.

But perhaps I should tell you about the Jordanian cinema routine which, I should point out, is a very different kettle of fish. To kick things off the national anthem play and everyone stands in solemn salute – just about the only moment when nobody is talking in the whole affair. Once the film’s under way, it’s a free-for-all. The hero did something impressive? That’s a round of applause. The villain got his comeuppance? That’s always applause-worthy. A tense moment? Yeah, a bout of hysterics from the audience will stop that right up. Oh, and why not add to the soundtrack with that made-for-frustration smartphone whistle ringtone whilst you’re at it? I don’t get it, Jordan. I don’t get it. Or maybe the British are just too hesitant when it comes to the movies. Haven’t you ever felt the need to applaud midway through a film?

Jamie Woon’s Lady Luck is playing in my ears as the clock hits 11:00 on the dot. Class. I’d better get going. BB x

  

Sunstroke

I’ve never felt so spent. More than once today I felt myself on the edge of what I could stand. Dana almost defeated us all, but it was the Sun that dealt the coup de grace.

I find myself collapsed in the shade of a fir tree halfway up the mountain on the winding path back to Dana. Andrew’s gone on ahead to get water. He’s been a real hero, egging me on up the mountainside, but I’ve slowed to such a dreadful crawl that to keep him waiting would be nothing short of torture, what with the Sun enacting merciless fury upon us all. I can only hope he doesn’t think too little of me for my lack of staying power. Working out may be a new thing for me, and true to form I’ve been none too quiet about it in my usual late-to-the-party mode, but this is something else. I can’t even see where the others have got to; MacKenzie shouldn’t be all that far behind – he was trailing us by just one bend a little while back – but there’s no sign of Kate and Andreas. I do hope they’re alright.

My heartbeat has slowed to a beat every half-second; it was pulsing like a war drum when I crumpled under the tree about ten minutes ago. Before that I’d been desperately seeking shade like some kind of wretched insect, curling up head-down behind woefully inadequate slabs of sandstone to dip my head beneath a foot or less of cool shadow. Frodo’s climb of Erebor might not have been too dissimilar; in my dehydrated insanity I even considered crawling some of the distance, when my legs felt like they might give way and my head started spinning. It’s not even the sweat that’s the problem, I’ve gone beyond that. Even here in the shade, it’s the lack of water that’s choking me. I’m drowning in hot air. Every breath feels like sandpaper in my throat. You can’t see it, but the air is full of dust, thrown up from the desert rolling out to the horizon at the foot of this canyon, some six or seven kilometers to the southeast. The mountains take their own prisoners, but desert mountains are in an especially villainous league of their own.

McKenzie just passed by. He’s still soldiering on, despite having free-climbed the cliff wall with Andreas just over an hour ago. How he has the strength for this I’ll never know. Christ, I’m out of shape. And to think that the original plan was to strike out for Petra from here. It beggars belief. I suspect we’d need a lot more than just two bottles of water to keep the five of us going. Ugh, water. It doesn’t bear thinking about. My mind can only picture two things at the moment: intense heat or gushing cold water. Both, as you can imagine, are tortuous in the extreme.

But this heat, though… It must be pushing forty. What could drive a man to seek adventure in this merciless heat? It’s dizzying enough without the climb, and there’s precious little cover, what with the Sun bearing down with unfettered ferocity on this face; just a couple of boulders and trees on the way up are tall enough to offer fleeting sanctuary. I’ve never been so exhausted, spent in every way, from my toes to my eyes. If I could put a name to it – other than a very bad idea from the outset – I’d call it sunstroke. Thick wooly walking socks and a swollen toe from this morning’s roof-jumping escapades didn’t help matters. If it weren’t for Andrew’s breathing exercises, I’d have just about given out, I reckon. Again, the man is a hero.

I hear footsteps in the distance, running. Ah – here comes MacKenzie again, bottle of water in hand. Salvation! The five thousand weren’t more grateful for all that fish and bread than I am at this sight. Enough, cruel Sun, I concede defeat; I’d quite like to return to Dana alive, if just to put an end to this despondent surrender. Over and out. BB x

Multiple Personalities

My stomach hurts from laughing so hard. The view of the night sky from the roof of the Dana Tower Hotel is really something special, Milky Way, shooting stars and all – and yet I’ve spent the last two hours face-down on my mattress choking on laughter. And all because of the wonderful invention that is Psychiatrist.

Today has been, without a shadow a doubt, the most ridiculous series of adventures yet. I’m all fired out from the mind games we’ve been playing, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg – the last of a long sequence of madcap antics since waking up at Nancy’s this morning. The family rustled up a wonderful breakfast for us in much the same line as the night before: energy food galore. Andrew and I crept away to write the family a thank you letter and packed our bags into a corner of the room to go. The family came in and served tea, and there we were, in what can only be described as a hospitable but highly awkward state of siege. We wanted to get on our way, but at the same time we kept being denied the opportunity; on our second attempt, just as we’d reached a decision, we were invited to join them for mansaf, which we couldn’t really deny, seeing as they’d already started. Then followed several rounds of ‘the Moon is in the Spoon’, which only the father of the family could get his head around, and he didn’t even play a single round with us. Another hour and a half later it was pushing three o’clock and they looked to be after a second night, which had to be postponed if we should ever get to see Dana at all. We had four oranges we could have given them as gratitude but it seemed more awkward a gift than none at all, paltry as it was. So having got them out, we packed them back into the bag and made our broken farewells before finally crossing the threshold and striking out for the road, though not before receiving another invite should we ever be in Tafileh again.

The next half hour was a world away. From the almost entirely female household of Nancy’s world we moved on to a minibus carrying half a platoon of Jordanian soldiers on their way to a wedding party, though it could just as easily have been a stag night, for all I know. It certainly sounded as much. The ringleader tried to press cigarettes on us all in turn whilst a guy in the row in front of me kept slapping his chest and yelling “sniper, sniper – best in Jordan”. Climbing aboard was a bit of a rogue move, since we didn’t really know where it was going, but it ended up to be heading our way, and it was totally worth it for the experience. When we were finally dropped off in Ar-Rashādiyya, we were well and truly worn out. The following minibus ride to Dana was notable only in that I lost any and all feeling in my legs; the driver loaded the five of us plus one of the grunts into his ride, kitted out with a very inconveniently placed sub-woofer, so that I had to endure a twenty minute drive sat sideways with my legs crushed between the dashboard, my bag and the grunt’s physique, with the driver ramming the gear stick into the small of my back every few minutes. By the time we got to Dana I felt like I’d been amputated.

Dana is beautiful, though. Maybe it’s because we’re here in the lowest of low season, but it was almost deserted. Not a modern construction in sight and plenty of scrambling opportunities; almost stone for stone the way I wanted it to be. We scrambled up the mountainside for a killer sunset over the canyon before dinner, which was well worth the extra dinars, though being stuffed to the gills with Nancy’s mansaf we were hard-pressed to do the chef justice. So to kill time (and an unusually full stomach) I introduced the team to Psychiatrist. Chaos ensued, as it invariably does with that madcap thinking game, but at least I saw it played properly for the first time. The lack of alcohol really does help.

Sounds like everyone’s kipped out. Andrew and Andreas stopped talking a few minutes ago. I guess I’d better follow suit. Early start tomorrow. My walking boots are so ready for this. BB x  

Beautiful People

Dear Jordan,

If I doubted you before, I must apologize now. I judged you by the opening couple of pages and now, as I look out across the golden hills of Tafileh, I see just how wrong I was. There’s no constant rumble of cars here. No horns, no screech of brakes. Not even the sound of the megaphone call to prayer. Just birdsong: roosters crowing at the dawn, sparrows chittering away in the scrub and that oh-so African call of the mourning dove. And this isn’t even Africa.

We were supposed to be waking up in Dana Biosphere Nature Reserve this morning. For all intents and purposes, we might as well be. I’ve seen more kinds of birds in the last five minutes than in the last three weeks in this country; from my post on the edge of a rise just in front of the house, I can see finches, wheatears, larks and doves in abandon. There’s even a rather gorgeous sandy-coloured shrike that keeps coming over for a look-in; I’m not sure what she is, but I’ll bet she wouldn’t be averse to a breakfast of one of the little scorpions I’ve seen lazing about. Oh, and here come the bulbuls, like the coda to the symphony. I’m in seventh heaven. Forgive me the nature nausea for this slice of paradise, as I intend to get very drunk on it.

A little back-story; I have some explaining to do. After all that sirri-mirri at the police station yesterday, we hurried back to the flat to grab our bags and hit the road. Five of us – Andrew, Andreas, Kate, MacKenzie and I – decided to spend a night or two at Dana, a nature reserve in the mountains to the south. Most everyone else had an afternoon spent lounging at the Dead Sea on their minds, and I don’t blame them for even a second. We got to the bus station in time for the second-to-last bus for Tafileh alright, but it was pretty packed, so the driver put us on the next. This turn of fate, and having the ever-resourceful Kate Brocklesby with us (read about her experience here), contrived to produce the miracle sitting before us, and I’m not talking about the kettle of piping-hot tea (although I could, and at length). During the three-hour bus ride out of Amman, where we all had ample opportunity to practise our Arabic, Kate got practically ‘shotgunned’ by a group of young women who were keen to try their English, one in especial, Nancy. I don’t know how, but as we pulled into Tafileh and braced ourselves for a tough search for an ongoing minibus to Dana after dark (there are no places to stay in this town), Kate told me that we had an invitation for dinner from her new friends. I’d also had a streak of luck with the driver who had arranged a very cheap minibus for us, but sometimes you just have to decide between two good offers and, after a few seconds’ thought, the answer seemed pretty obvious.

That’s how we ended up sitting around the garden a few hours after sundown, discussing animal noises with the hookah bubbling away in the background. I’d imitated owls, doves, monkeys and gazelles before the night was up. I haven’t had a more entertaining evening in ages. Nancy, the oldest daughter of the family and an aspiring tour guide, served us tea and coffee before treating us to a feast of a dinner: bread, labneh, tomatoes, olives, cheese, and even an omelette or three. But, at last, no hummus. I could have cried for the beauty of this change in repertoire. Seven they were in total: three daughters between nineteen and thirty, two younger children aged five and ten, the mother-in-law and the father of the house. For the first time, a very woman-orientated homestay. And a homestay it was too, for when they learned of our plans they offered to put us up for the night and even help us on our way the next day. How could we say no? How could anyone say no? Even if I did have to serve as Andrew’s flak-shield/reverse wingman for the first half of the night. Year Abroad Leaderboards aside, an unexpected marriage proposal would be a very awkward, not to mention inconvenient affair (mudhik, just kidding!).

Nancy said her sisters thought me wasīm, which apparently means handsome (but don’t ask me why, as I haven’t shaved properly in weeks and have this weird DiCaprio goatee going on). Worse, I’ve been selected as the ‘most beloved one’ (whatever that means) because of – would you believe it – my blue eyes, my nose (arrrrghhhh) and the fact that I look like “both a boy and a man at the same time.” As Andrew put it, I was “complimented and emasculated in one sentence.” As for why I took the fire, I don’t know, but I suspect it may or may not have something to do with Andrew breaking ranks and talking volubly about his girlfriend; the final line of defense. They, at least, are beautiful people as far as I’m concerned, inside and out. White-hearts, as a woman in Morocco once put it to me. Here’s that true Arab spirit I’ve been searching for for so long. As ever, you simply need to put a few miles between yourself and the capital. Tafileh may be the butt of many a yokel joke in Amman, but I’d back this place over the capital any day. I had the chance to meditate last night – much to our hosts’ amusement – beneath a canopy of stars in a silky-black sky and I feel so much the better for it. Here is a family I will try to remember in case I should return; such silver generosity is hard to come by and I should like to repay the favour some day, as I promised myself with dear Abd el-Rahman Rajji, the Berber. My faith in this country and its people has been restored and not before time, too.

All my love,
BB x