Searching for God

I’m not a Christian. At least, not in the truest sense of the word. Insofar as my upbringing is concerned, I guess I don’t fall under any category other than Church of England, but when the occasional questionnaire gets handed my way, I tick the box marked ‘agnostic’ without a second’s thought. Only if that’s not an option, and it usually is, Christianity gets my vote over the ‘no religion’ box. Why does this matter? Because today I found myself, once again, in a position where it made more sense to come down on one side of the fence. ‘Christian’ simply makes a lot more sense than ‘no religion’. Strong words for a not-so strong belief, don’t you think?

Let me explain (you’d better get comfortable). I was baptised as a Christian. Church of England. Standard fare. I had a fairly regular English upbringing. I attended a Church of England primary school. I went to church every Christmas and Easter, like almost everyone else. The only minor difference was that my parents both had various musical roles in their respective churches, which meant that I probably spent more time in church than most kids my age. It just so happened that one of them was Canterbury Cathedral, where my dad was a lay-clerk. I guess you get a little blasé about that kind of thing when evensong is a biweekly venture. Not to mention all the school carol services held there. It certainly made the local church back home seem a little small by comparison, though I have warmer memories of that. When I was little I went to church every other Sunday, or at least when Mum played the organ. The memories get a little fuzzy sometimes; this is reaching quite a way back into my childhood. I remember only that I used to sit behind the choir near the organ pipes, and you could hear the organ humming long after everyone had filed out of church and Mum took her hands off the keys. Between that and the old gas heater glowing a dim red in the corner, I have this musty image of your run-of-the-mill Church of England parish tucked away in my head. That’s my strongest memory of the early days, at least. Nothing particularly special. I wasn’t even old enough to sit in the choir then, but I knew most of the hymns well enough, especially the ones they used to roll out on the projector at school. Morning has Broken, for one.

Fast-forward on a few years and it gets a little more interesting. Moving back to England from a year abroad in Spain finds me singing in the church choir in my new home town. It’s nothing more than something to do, I suppose, as I have little else to do at the weekends but go birdwatching down at Stodmarsh or Sandwich Bay – I’m still too young to be thinking about girls or going out – but it pays my first wages, and it feels ‘sort of right’. Right enough to take that next C of E step and decide to get ‘confirmed’. It’s not as big a deal as it is over in Spain, with the sailor suits and all the bells and whistles that go with it, but like I said, it seemed like ‘the right thing to do’. And the other kids in the choir were a lovely bunch, too.

Then along comes my early teenage years, a girlfriend and the beginning of a new approach: evangelicalism. She got me into it, I suppose, but it was something I took to with relish. Prayer and worship, spiritual healing, speaking in tongues… It was a brand new world and I loved every second of it. Ever heard of Soul Survivor? That kind of thing. It was a far cry from ‘open your hymn-books to Hymn no. 348‘ or what-have-you, at the very least. I might even go so far as to say that, for a little while, I even believed it. But it was the people that really made it for me, not the spiritual side of it. Just like playing the violin, the practising of which I had come to loathe, it was more the sense of community that went with it that I craved: the orchestra over the recital, and the worship group over the prayers. I guess you could say I built my house on the sand. Little wonder, then, that it all came crashing down with the end of that relationship. Coincidentally, it was raining that night, too.

I wandered for a while. I asked a lot of questions. I even stopped saying prayers at night, realising that most of them had been selfish anyway – especially the later ones. If not selfish, then love-blind at the very least. Eventually I returned, somewhat shame-faced, to my local church youth group, whom I’d abandoned for almost a year and a half. That was where I met Seth and Jenny Cooper, the Walmer Parish, and Katherine, that everlasting beacon, who showed me that there was more to life than a constant search for answers. For a little while longer, I continued to carry the flag, stronger than before. I was happy. But it was not to last. A series of unfortunate events came as the second hammer blow to my faith. I started to read about the Empire, and all the horrors that had been wrought in the name of God. My brother was assaulted on the way home from school. And Katherine, ever the kindling flame, went out of my life. A few weeks later, I gave up altogether.

As a true Christian, that was my final chapter. I had another fling with the Church in Uganda – ain’t no party like an African Baptist Prayer and Worship Party – but that was little more than a dalliance. Back in England, on the gap year that seemed like it would never end, faith eluded me. Mum, on the other hand, found her way to the Catholic Church and embarked upon what she has described as the ‘road her whole life had been leading towards’. I coveted that, I suppose. It wasn’t her new-found happiness of hers that I wanted, but that contented state of mind. Structured. Ordered. At peace. At one. Something that I’ve struggled with in all the hypocrisies of my life for the last seven years. Her faith gave her life a new meaning. I’d been looking for that meaning for a while with no such luck. People say that ‘finding yourself’ is the first step on the road to that level of understanding. If I could have ‘found myself in Africa’ as so many jokingly think I did, I’d probably have more of an idea as to where exactly I am right now. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, as God knows how lost I’d have been – I didn’t, and the search continues. Right up until last night, when I found myself sitting in an Iraqi church, listening to a Californian preacher explaining the meaning of John 3:16 whilst a translator conveyed it to the congregation in Arabic. Talk about a new way of looking at things!

Now we come to the heart of the matter. I’m not a Christian, like I said at the start. I might have been once, but for a token gesture or two of late, I’m not labelling material at the moment. I can go through the motions like a mynah bird, of course, but that’s got more to do with habit and observation than anything else. That, and a burning desire to believe, whenever that day comes. Until it does, everything seems false. To pray to a God you don’t believe in with all of your heart, with all of your soul – does that not seem a bit ingenuous? That’s not to say I’m not religious, though. Given the choice I’d rather be spiritual than to disbelieve entirely. I’ll put it this way: there’s a hole in my heart that’s waiting for faith. I just haven’t found it yet.

I’ve had this discussion/argument with Andrew recently. I put it to him that I’d be happier not knowing all the answers; that sometimes it’s better to stop asking questions and to have a little faith in what you can’t see; that some things, like as not, are necessarily beyond our understanding. It goes against a great deal of my character, and I think he took umbrage at that, but it’s a principle I try to stick to, and as far as I’m concerned it’s connected to the most fundamental principle of all: hope. I swear by it. There is no greater sin in my book than despair. I might not have the staying power that others prize – indeed, if something is beyond my capability (or, more often, interest) I’m more likely than not to throw up my arms and walk away – but I never truly give up on the inside. And as long as that’s the case, I’d like to believe I still have a chance.

Faith lies somewhere along the road, of that much I’m sure. Wherever it may be is, for the time being, beyond my understanding. And that’s not a bad thing. I tried to find it out here, but for all the strength of the community and the goodwill of the people, it continues to elude me. Maybe I’m being picky. Maybe I’m looking too hard. I don’t know. I’ve just got to keep trying.

I leave you (and this gargantuan post, which is approaching essay length as the clock strikes twenty minutes to midnight) with the only Bible verse I’ve consigned to heart, as it speaks to me on much the same level as it ever did five years ago, when first I found it:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
John 1:5

I wonder whatever happened to Katherine? I hope her light is still shining brightly for the rest of the world, wherever she is. BB x

Blood, Tears and Broken Glass

It’s a Friday night in down-town Amman, the streets are buzzing and Andrew and Mac are exploring an abandoned hospital. Yours truly chickened out of this particular venture. I guess that means I’m on lookout? Jeez, how lame does that make me sound…

It’s kind of creepy, sitting outside this tumbledown hospital with the sounds of breaking glass and echoed footsteps breaking the half-silence. Not to mention the dim light from Andrew’s phone flickering off the walls between the windows from time to time. Am I missing out? Very possibly. Will I regret it? Almost certainly. I’m not about to abandon my post, though. Call it a brush with foreign police once too often, but I’m calling shy this time. In the countryside, maybe, but not in the middle of the city on a Friday night. And especially not after watching As Above So Below last night. Not on my life.

We’re into our sixth week in Jordan. Three school weeks remain, and after that – who knows? I took out another two hundred and fifty dinars this morning. The goal is to make that last until the end. With any luck, that should just cut it, travel funds and all, although I have been known to be a little over-optimistic about this kind of thing. Jordan’s bus service may be criminally cheap, but the Amman taxi system is draining my resources at a ridiculous speed. And there’s no avoiding them either, and believe me, we’ve tried. Google Maps gave us an estimate of two and a half hours. We scoffed at that and called it one and a half. Turns out it was a three-hour job. We won’t be walking to down-town again any time soon – not when there’s shopping to be done. And I thought that living twenty minutes’ walk from any shops in Durham was problematic! Something to think about if you plan on staying in Amman. It wouldn’t be a problem if you lived down-town, of course, but up here in Tla al-Ali, it’s a different story. Please don’t buy my fervent dislike for the place, that’s just me and my city angst, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the cost of all these taxi rides – two dinars a throw – racks up fast. I’m looking forward to living in a town where everything is within walking distance.

Now that the end is in sight, though, it’s a lot easier to stay positive. I’ve got it into my head that I’m not coming back next year and that thought alone is keeping me going, no matter how hard I’m going to have to fight to make it so. Hence a slightly less bitchy, more reserved tone this time around. It’s a lot easier with the midterm depression out of the way. Any and all lingering ill tempers were successfully vented this afternoon with The Green Mile. Tears all round, as it should be. There’s no better way to get it all out than with the greatest tearjerker of them all. Next stop, 12 Years a Slave! (There’s a bit of a theme going on here…) Films aside, I’ve plenty of books to keep me going between now and then, thanks to the wonder that is iBooks and all the free material on offer. Best of all, I even stumbled across a book of Arabic short stories penned by none other than our very own Dr. Daniel Newman, which I simply have to get my hands on the next time I swing by Books@Cafe. For the time being, I’ve at least another twenty Henry Rider Haggard books to wade through, including the full Quatermain saga. Excellent stuff. Perfect travel fuel, too.

Although I’m swung to thinking that perhaps Ethiopia might be wiser than South Africa for potential backpacking. It’s just a hunch. Further research needed. BB x

Not All Those Who Wander Are Flossed

It’s just taken me about an hour and a half to wade through the latest Arabic text for tomorrow’s class. With a night of karaoke at the Marriott Hotel on the cards for this evening, I don’t exactly have the ‘I’ll do it later’ gambit at my disposal.

First off I want to apologise for a very rocky week or two of bipolar posting (some of you noticed, I gather…). The mid-term fury is over and things have settled back to the way they were before, helped along the way by much meditation, H.R. Haggard and Karl Jenkins. Ouch, that’s a painfully middle-class sentence. Life in Amman rumbles slowly onwards, the daily Arabic homework’s still coming in thick and fast and the Versailles branch of the British Council still haven’t told Andrew where he’s going. Business as usual. I took an entire weekend out to deal with my restless psyche and it seems to have paid off. It meant missing out on a couple of parties, but for the sake of my bleeding heart, it was worth it. So if you were feeling the strain of my sine-wave posts over the last week or so, fret not; the dust has settled. It should be a little easier on the eye from here on out.

It’s been a fairly productive couple of days, which means we haven’t had that many adventures; but that’s no bad thing. I saw our first clouds in a month or so the other day, and what a sight for sore eyes that was. You’d be surprised how uplifting it was to see a speck of grey on the horizon for once. Blue skies are lovely and all that, but when you’ve had temperatures balancing out over the high thirties for almost three weeks without cease, a cool breeze is a welcome miracle. There was supposed to be a thunderstorm, which we all got super excited about, but it never came. Instead, the sky went a very queer shade of brown and a mild sandstorm swept through the streets. No rain. One of the strangest weather phenomenons I’ve ever seen. We got the full force of the stifling storm heat, though; the temperature soared up into the mid forties. My insides felt like they were being cooked every time I stepped outside and there was a weird charge in the air. Mostly we found ourselves retreating to our various homes to sit like idol-worshippers before the air-con until the sun decided to call it a day. Even then it often carried on long into the night, that stuffy, all-pervading heat. The blankets had to go. How they’ve lasted this long is anyone’s guess. BBC Weather’s been getting an unnatural number of hits from our flat, at any rate. They say there’s a 51% chance of precipitation tomorrow. Good news takes the strangest forms…

I finally got around to sending off an email to the school I’ll be teaching at in Extremadura. I’ve had it written for the best part of a week and a half, but for some reason I never hit the send button. I guess I wanted to be dead-certain on the grammar, but in the end I just had to be happy with what I’d written, bite the bullet and hit SEND. With any luck, I’ll get a reply at some point before I arrive in September. So that’s pretty cool. In the meantime I’m keeping my teacher senses trained with this project of ours at the Iraqi church Andreas got me in on last week. The last session must have gone down well enough, because we had double the numbers this time. We’ll have to call in reinforcements at this rate. Parts of the body this week, following on from the previous lesson on going to the hospital. Getting the groups to use the vocab to compliment each other was a great idea, and also highly amusing. Apparently eyebrows are a valuable commodity. Or maybe they were just trying to get their heads around the pronunciation. I’d like to believe the former. Having to explain the difference between diarrhea and constipation in the politest possible way is definitely going down as one of the most entertaining moments of my teaching career. Something along the lines of ‘let’s say you eat a bad falafel, and it goes right through you… and for the other one, well, it doesn’t quite go right through you…’. British humour. It never gets old.

This church is just about the best thing that’s happened to me out here, though. It’s the one thing I’d return to Jordan for, given the chance. Maybe this is the beginning of a spiritual journey, maybe not. I hope so, at any rate. I’ve been waiting for my chance for so very long now, ever since I left that world behind almost six years ago… I’ll be dropping by three times a week from now on, twice for class and once for the service, so things should start to look up. And that’s a real slice of good news.

Bummer, I’m out of toothpaste. Looks like I really will have to resort to this weird Arab brand I picked up in the corner shop last week. At least it smells nice. After Morocco I’m none too keen to follow up on any of these traditional Arabian dental practices. BB x

The moment we thought Andrew’s placement might have come through…

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

  

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

  

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

Bureaucracy is a Terrible Beastie

Go to the Police Station over in Sweileh, they said. It’ll be a simple procedure, they said. Simple my arse. This is more old-school bureaucracy than an entire flotilla of ICPCs.

If I didn’t appreciate the orderly British queueing system before, I certainly do now. Arabs, it must be said, don’t do queues. It’s a total free-for-all here in the visa extension office of the Sweileh Police Station. Behind the crush for the three front desks, of which only one is currently manned, a Syrian woman is snoozing in one of the chairs whilst two of her excitable children race around the pram of a third. That Sudanese guy who keeps pushing in front is wandering about with a cheeky grin on his face. Half of the staff behind the glass look as if they’re somewhere far away – Fiji, perhaps – and Andrew is at breaking point, cussing and swearing at every wrong turn. What with the amount of wrong directions, backtracking and blue-stamping we’ve had to go through to get here, I don’t blame him. No, you need the blue stamp, right corridor, last door on the left. Yes, we need to renew our visas, not buy exit ones. No, you don’t need to wait. ‘You just have to keep asking,’ says Samir, an electrical engineer turned maths teacher with flawless English. He, like almost everyone else in this room, is waving a passport that is most certainly not Jordanian; in his case, it’s Kenyan, though I’ve seen examples of Thai, Philippine and Tanzanian as well. Immigrant labour, I don’t doubt; I’m told that cheap household workers are often brought here to pitiful salaries. What a world…

Yalla yalla yalla. At least the guy in the back of the room is actually looking at our passports now, albeit with just about the same interest a five-year old might show to an issue of The Economist.

Gah! Just as it looked like we were done here, our visa guy just dropped the passports face-down on the desk behind the glass and sauntered back to his desk. Very helpful of you, bud. Samir has left us, leaving us to face this sulky crowd of office workers and timid maidservants-to-be on our own. Come to think of it, we really are alone; everyone else seems to have concluded their affairs. The last African woman left the room a minute ago. It can’t take more than five minutes or so to sign a form or two, right? Especially when we’ve already filled out half of it… What the hell is taking our guy so long?

My bad. Our passports have been ready to collect for the last ten minutes. Turns out all we had to do was ask – just like Samir said. No papers, no waiting, not even any additional stamps required – just plain human interaction. Oh, bureaucracy. BB x

Zulu Dreams

We’re into the third day of recording this wedding present for Grace’s friend and that means the bedroom’s been turned into a makeshift recording studio once again. If that doesn’t raise a few eyebrows, try to picture it: we’ve opened the cupboard and rested the two mattresses against it, draping a duvet over the top as a mock-up boom and shut all the windows and doors. The result is actually pretty decent – as far as mattress-fort recording studios go. Grace is in the cupboard recording hers now so I’m in the next room with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade in my ears, trying to quell my recurring bouts of city angst. Replacing one noise with another can only do so much good, but I think I found a better solution.

Bit by bit I’m building a clearer idea of where I want to make my next adventure, and funnily enough it’s not a remake of Archie’s enviously-exciting Central American backpacking adventure. That ship has sailed. If the chance arises again one day, I’ll take it of course, but somehow I doubt it will. Lightning never strikes twice. As for me, I have my eyes on somewhere else, a place I’ve been orbiting, as it were, for the last seven years: South Africa.

Did that come out of left field? Probably not. The more you know me, the more rational a conclusion it is. For starters, this Cairo to Cape Town jaunt I’m so obsessed with was always going to end there. The only stage I’ve ever really been able to envisage is the last leg, cresting the veld and staring, at last, at the crystal waters of the Indian Ocean after a year or so on the road. I see myself throwing off my rucksack and racing into the water to fall, knees first, in the sand. That would be worth all the mileage, border bullies and nightmarish bureaucrats that’ll plague me along the way. It’s a scene that’s been playing on-and-off in my mind’s eye for years. That’s one reason.

I’d like to say Haggard started this. I’ve been reading one book of his after the other and I’m hooked. But it goes further back than that. My first girlfriend was half-Afrikaner. That’s where it really all began, I guess. Yes, it must have been; I remember talking to her aunt about her time as a game driver and falling in love with the place through words alone. Sure, that didn’t all pan out so well in the end, but like a flower in the ashes, I stumbled upon Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One (the film) a week after the breakup. No other film has ever affected me so strongly. It could have been the music, it could have been the red-haired heroine, or just as easily the people and the places. More likely than not, a combination of the lot – but especially the music. There’s something otherworldly about it. Amazulu – from the Heavens. How about Ukuthula, the Zulu spiritual that never fails to move me to tears? Or Miriam Makeba’s African Sunset, which is playing in my ears right now? Don’t forget the Circle of Life. I put so much of my heart and soul into the Zulu solo with the Northern Lights that I go weak at the knees whenever I hear that one, too. Fun fact: I was born just four days before The Lion King came out. It’s a sign, baby! At least, I’d like to think so.

I could point the finger at so many other reasons: a family connection to Steve Bloom; the film, Zulu; the Drakensberg; the Zulu language itself. Yeah, by this point I’m pretty damn-near decided. The main question is when and how. I reckon I should have saved up enough after next year’s teaching. If only I were going to Morocco and not Jordan next summer; I could save so much money towards it (quit complaining about Jordan and just deal with it, kid). It also means I can dedicate myself to learning Zulu on the side next year. I’ve always wanted to learn an African language. Arabic is just a means to an end. Zulu – now we’re talking. We’re talking Africa and talking Africa is the surest way to my heart. And it always will be. BB x

Humdrum

‘Hope you’re having a lovely time, I know Amman has been less than ideal.’

I tire of city living. I guess having my three-day escape to Egypt pulled out from under my feet threw me off target, but I seem to have sunk back into one of those despondent ‘I could be doing something so much better with my time’ moments. Maybe if I set a few things straight, the affair might make a little more sense.

I never really wanted to go to Jordan. I didn’t have much of a say in the matter – you can blame international politics for my limited options – so I just went along with it as a necessary next step in my language degree. I had my eyes on Syria way back when I started my course, before al-Assad, the civil war and the chaos that ensued. I then turned my attentions onto Egypt, and then there was all that palava was Morsi and the army shooting people on the street. One more magical destination to be crossed off the list. I guess I fell in love with Morocco shortly after that, it being the only other feasible North African destination; doubly so after two weeks’ travelling in the kingdom over the Easter Holidays. So when I was told I had no option but to spend four months in Amman, bookending my assistantship with the British Council, it was a bit of a bombshell. In my department’s defence I didn’t put up much of a fight – what could would it have done? There’s not a lot I can do to solve the political cat-fight of the Arab world, if just so that I could spend a couple of months in a country of my choice. Whatever the weather, that’s all I have: two months apiece. So it’s not so terrible a loss.

The primary concern is the apathy that this place instils me with. Had I been able to go to Damascus, Cairo or Fes, places I’d hungered after for years, I might have been able to overcome my city angst – maybe. The trouble with Amman is that I just find myself wanting to be somewhere else all the time, and that does no wonders for my Arabic. I can’t even say it’s a general problem either, since it doesn’t seem to be affecting Andrew, Kate, Katie or Eloise in the slightest. Maybe they’re just hardier human beings than I. But I’m seriously feeling the absence of a green space. Andrew asked an hour ago whether I knew if there was anywhere outside we could go and sit to read/study in peace. The truth is, there isn’t. The cars are always blaring. Music’s always playing. People are always shouting. The peace I’m looking for is to be found far out of town, and at this time of year, that comes at the price of dry, dusty emptiness. That’s the biggest problem of all; the countryside around Amman isn’t even worth escaping to because it’s a dust bowl.

Whinge whinge whinge. Andrew’s right, I’m not exactly in the best of moods today. I want to be in Spain already, settling into my job in a location that’s not more than a stone’s throw from open country and mountains – mountains. Rivers. Life. None of this city nonsense. Town mouse, field mouse, remember? One of the main reasons I set myself to the study of languages was to challenge myself to overcome one of my greatest fears, and that’s talking to people. In retrospect, that was a very costly challenge. I could have done an all-essay subject and come off the better – perhaps. Similarly, I tried to console myself before coming out here that maybe a couple of months of city living might cure me of my disdain for that kind of environment. In truth it’s only consolidated my belief that, whatever happens to me in life, I will never be living in a place like Amman – by choice or by force. Somewhere that can sap me of even my desire to travel can be doing me no favours.

On the plus side, I’ve discovered that if I sit on the end of my bed with the window open, I can access the WiFi from the school across the road, so I won’t need to pay to go to a cafe to send emails anymore. That’s a plus.

Chin up Ben, life’s not so bad. I just find myself wishing, as ever, that for something as important as the year abroad, which is supposed to be a life-changing chance to throw yourself into the culture of a different part of the world, I’d had a hand in the throwing part, rather than being sent out here.

But there’s a silver lining to every cloud. All of this has convinced me (along with all the reading I’ve been doing of late) that I want nothing more from life than to be a writer, and I’m arming myself at long last with the reading to better my craft. Per ardua ad astra, and all that jazz. BB x