(due to security reasons, I have to keep group pictures low-res)

(due to security reasons, I have to keep group pictures low-res)

It’s hard to believe that I’ve finished my nine-month stint with Entity Green Training and will be saying goodbye to Ayn al Basha as a part of my daily life. The morning car rides through the dusty desert on the edge of Amman, coffee, constant hand-shaking with a dozen hopefuls, all wanting to get into the next session, joking with them in Arabic as best as possible…it’s weird that it’s over almost as soon as it’s begun. The final session, my last group of 16 students, received their certifications in the Yohm al-Tukhreej, or Day of Graduation.

I had been looking at photographs on the wall in my classroom last week, looking at the graduations for the previous students that had come and gone over the past year. With my first group I was wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, for the second I was wearing a tie and slacks. What to wear for the third and final one? I remembered Philip’s gift to me back in January after I had returned from Christmas vacation in America, a long, blue flowing robe, called a thobe in Saudi, or a dishdasha here in Jordan. Why not? When in Rome…

The days leading up to the graduation were like the others; each time we do it a little better and a little more efficiently than the previous one. This time we had all of our certificates printed out, stamped, signed, and bagged early, and our office administrators seemed confident that things might go smoothly. We’ve added three new sessions since November ’08, for a total of about 8 graduating at one time, and we had to take into account that each class’ ceremony takes about 20 minutes to do. With everything prepared the afternoon before, all that was left for me to do was to bring the dishdasha from Jebel Amman over to Wajih’s house.

To be honest, I was a little unsure of how to present myself. Several of my students over the year have been shiookh, (plural form of sheikh), which could be roughly translated as a scholar or devout Muslim. They grow their beards long, wear the traditional cap, and a long, flowing dishdasha – they’re never without these items, and they stand out on the campus since the majority of Iraqis would not be considered shiookh; that’s the Gulf countries you’re thinking about. So what would be their reaction to me, a tall, essentially-beardless white guy, dressed in the clothes that have traditionally belonged to the Followers of Mohammad? I didn’t want to offend anyone. But then there were the students who I saw wore the dishdasha for comfort in the hot summer weather. After all, no one knows how to live in the desert like Arabs do, and the dishdasha is designed for cooling purposes if worn properly.

For that matter, I fretted, what is the normal way to wear it properly? Jeff had told me that down in the Ghor Safi region where I had met the Sheikh Suleiman last year, men tend to not wear too much underneath the robe, merely underwear – or less. However, some shiookh worn full undershirts and short trousers, too. I decided to split the difference and forgo a shirt, but wore regular khaki shorts below, as it seemed like the safest route. I realized I could have posed this question to my class, but Iraqis tend to get very excitable and love to debate, and even a debate on what to wear under a dishdasha might take 2 hours to bring to a conclusion. I can only imagine the look on Aaron’s face if he wandered by the classroom and heard people shouting about the benefits of nudity beneath a robe.

When Aaron and Jeff arrived to pick me up from my usual spot near 6th circle that I’ve used since coming to stay at Wajih’s, they grinned, cracked the window, and asked me who I was and if I had seen Zach. They also asked me the “what’s under the dishdasha” question, which I truthfully answered for them: nothing for you to fire me over, gentlemen. My students, as they began arriving in their best suits and clothes an hour later in Ayn al Basha, roared with pleased laughter upon seeing me. “Why are you wearing that Mr. Zach?” a few of them asked me, and I explained the Western world’s tradition of wearing robes on graduation day – it was as good a reason as any! Mahmoud, the chief shiekh of my class, nodded solemnly his approval behind his thick black beard – we were lucky to have him with us briefly that day, as his wife was in the hospital that day having their first child.

As you can probably imagine, it’s hard to walk in a dishdasha, no matter how easy the Arabs make it look with their years of practice. I found it much easier to sit outside in the warm breezes with my students after the ceremony than to try to fight gravity’s wish to trip my feet in the flowing blue robe. We sat outside, sipping Pepsi (or Beebsi, in Arabic’s “p”-less alphabet), and talked about Jordan, Iraq, and America, and finding work in all three of those places.

Me with all of the other teachers after the graduation ceremony

Me with all of the other teachers after the graduation ceremony

I needed to return to Amman before 3, as the usual post-graduation party was settling down. Late last month I acquired a contract with an organization called PTEE near third circle to do tech support work with them, and I had a meeting to attend. Magid gave me a ride back to the city, but he needed to drop me off still several kilometers from home. I assured him that I could catch a taxi from there – or so I thought. I ended up walking the entire route from University Street to third. There was almost no empty taxis available for me, and strangely enough, the two that did stop for me took one look at the hooded, shade-wearing, backpack-carrying man in a blue dishdasha and then drove off again. I didn’t know what could possibly cause this reaction, until I arrived at PTEE and Dick, the organization’s founder and president, looked at my dusty and sweaty dishdasha and explained that the blue color of my clothing was common in Egypt than anywhere else.

I hate to have to make the comparison, but unfortunately it will simplify things. It’s a sad but true fact that the stereotype of the “Mexican in America” brings to mind a certain level of education and skill set. Racism affects every country, and Jordan and the rest of the Arab world are no different with the Egyptians. Egyptians are expected to be building guards, drivers, and construction workers, and they’re certainly not assumed to be rich enough to afford a standard “yellow” taxi (as compared with the other common forms of transportation in Amman, the “white” taxis (neighborhood-specific local transport) and the bus system. With my hat and dark glasses on, I was given no more than a disinterested passing glance at the color of my clothing before being passed over. If they say that racism means being no more than skin-deep with your judgments of people, than what do you call racism merely based on the color of your robe? It was a disappointing thought for me – after all, Arab nations enjoy calling themselves al-Allum Arabeeyeh and al-Umma, literally “the Arab World” and “the Mother.” This sort of racism seemed a far cry from the kind of brotherhood and camaraderie that I think they would prefer to be known for.

The fun with the dishdasha wasn’t finished yet. After work I briefly stopped by my usual residence at Philip’s. There I found a new tall, black gate with a shining gold lock on it that certainly hadn’t been there two weeks ago when I last stopped by. And here I was, without the key to my own home and wearing a garment that definitely wasn’t going to make my usual Mario-esque wall jumping any easier. I went next door long enough to greet Marwan at his grocery store (who greeted me with his usual “Mr Zach the teacher! Welcome Marwan’s Shop”) and let him know that if any of our other neighbors asked why a strange Egyptian was climbing over Mr Philip’s wall, he should reassure them on my behalf. Then I hitched up my dress around my hips, tossed my bag onto the top of the wall, and then scaled over the side into the welcome dust that eased my landing. I was very, very glad I had decided to wear something under the dishdasha.

I dropped off some paperwork and put the dishdasha back on its hanger in the corner of my room. It was an strange experience to use it: both physically for the feel of its cold, smooth silk around my ankles but also the reactions that it brought me, both the good and the bad.

I’ve started so many posts with “It’s hard to believe that…”. Ever since I first arrived in Amman almost a year ago, there’s at least a couple things every day that makes me think or say that phrase – some great, and some less wonderful. Although the main reason I came to Jordan was to help people that had lost everything in their flight from their terrorized country, it’s also just as true to say that I came to the other side of the world specifically to find things that I’d find hard to believe.