At 5 in the morning, I sit in a little restaurant booth in the Queen Alia airport, waiting for my boarding call at 6 to summon me to my airplane. It’s time for my two-week vacation from Jordan to the little country of Tajikistan, where my AFS (American Foreign Service, a student exchange program) sister Farah and her family are waiting to receive and give me a tour of the part of the world which few people know much about. When I first scheduled my trip six months ago, my friends (both Arab and Western) were very curious about Tajikistan, and several of them wanted to know “where the city named Tajikistan was.” Farah and I have agreed that it just hasn’t received a lot of international recognition at this time, and most people probably view it as “one of the ‘Stans.” Probably the only ‘Stan that the world knows any “information” about is Kazakhstan, thanks to Baron Sasha Cohen. And frankly, the Kazakhs would have preferred a little less recognition.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, welcoming my new class and starting the now-familiar lessons for the 3rd time, with Wamidh continuing on as my excellent and increasingly knowledgeable translator who is taking more and more initiatives to answer questions for me just from memory of previous questions. It’s nice; I’d really like to be able to hand the class off to him when I leave in a year, depending on how confident he feels, or maybe he would like to team teach with one of my talented students – it’s definitely something to consider.

The new students are a quiet group, older than the first and second class and with a larger percentage of the “conservatively dressed” men in robes and hatta (the keffiyehs around the head with the rope to hold it in place). We’re having a little bit of an attendance crisis right now, but this is due to the fact that on the 5th of May (the first day) Aaron and I had agreed that we would give them that one class there as an introduction, then dismiss them until the first of June so that my two week absence would not be “detrimental” to their memory. However, there were some issues with the “higher ups” and this was modified – we were ordered to get the students back immediately, and then find a replacement for the two weeks I was gone. Of course by then it was already too late – the students had heard the fateful words, “come back in a month,” and now they were essentially unreachable by phone, like they were on another planet. We’ve been slowly migrating in another group of students after giving these ones warning calls, telling them they needed to come back in, but I have a sinking feeling that the 15 new students we’ve brought in since the 5th will be joined suddenly in early June by the original group, clamoring to have their spots back. Such is life in the field of humanitarian aid – you can’t really do anything 100% right.

In my absence, the class will be led by a young computer science graduate named Heashem, whom I only met yesterday. I’ve emailed at least 16MB of documents (including photographs and diagrams obviously) to Aaron, Wamidh, and Heashem as well as detailed lists of what to cover each day. Wamidh and I will be continuously communicating via email (if possible) and I’m hoping that he’ll let me know at least every couple days any questions or issues with the class. Heashem seemed enthusiastic about starting, and when he met the students today, they were very polite and well-mannered – just as a teacher would want them to be for a substitute!

Amro, one of my favorite students from my previous class, had great news for me – he’d been accepted by the UN relief group to relocate to America with his family! He let me know only a few days before the graduation ceremony, and he was simply wild with excitement. He’s a little younger than I am at 19, and he and bonded outside of class as well by going to a mutual friend’s wedding in north Amman last month (which was quite different than the story of my travel to Tibna with Haitham for the dual-son wedding). Weddings are pretty popular pastime here, and Amro and I would often talk with Sadi, the owner of a small shop across the street from the training center. Sadi invited us to his son’s wedding, which was a ceremony with much more pomp and a more-Western style reception with cake and punch. There were still no women at this wedding, but they were in the same building this time, a change from the previous one at which they were entirely isolated.

Amro, Sadi, and I at his son's wedding reception

Amro, Sadi, and I at his son's wedding reception

Anyway! Amro speaks English about as well as I speak Arabic, which makes for a good learning experience for both of us. He excitedly requested as much information as possible about “Sant al-Louise, Mizzoorah” which I gladly gave him. He wanted information on schools there, jobs for his family, and how much it cost to find an apartment. I informed him that from St. Louis he’d only be a few hours away from my home in Wisconsin, and that we’d have to get together for a reunion when I returned to the States. He patted me on the back and officiously invited me to his future home for a tour. He’s a great guy and I look forward to hearing more about how he’s settling in via email – not only for my own benefit as his friend, but so that I can provide information on relocation procedures to the rest of the training center. Although several of my other students have also gone to America since leaving my class, Amro is the one that I’m closest friends with.

I was a little bit worried about how I might get to the airport for such an early flight. Tajikistan’s only airport is in their capitol city, Dushanbe, and there are only two flights per week going between Amman and Dushanbe, both of them in the middle of the night, and both of them with 10+ hour layovers in Istanbul (not Constantinople). Yesterday evening was spent pouring over guides to the old city of Istanbul: if I was going to spend that much time there, it definitely was in my best interest to see some of the most famous sites like the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia church. I had (and still have) this nervous feeling in my stomach completely unlike when I went to Syria; the part of me that’s shouting “You’re going to a country in which you don’t speak any of the language! Run!” When I went to Syria I felt completely normal, like I was going to another state – I knew I could understand them (with difficulty) and vice versa, but in this case I’m having worries about me trapped in a street corner in suburban Istanbul staring at signs in Turkish with idea of how to find my way back to the airport for my second flight.

I can only speak positively about the Al-Moumayez taxi service from Amman to the airport. Al-Moumayez is a new pickup and ferrying company that only opened 6 months ago in Amman with the goal of “modernizing and standardizing” the industry. There are thousands and thousands of regular, privately owned and contracted taxis here in Amman, but they are unorganized and have no real central management. Al-Moumayez (which means “special” or “unique”) aims to change that with satellite monitored, prompt taxis which have pickup, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: in other words, the perfect thing for a non-Arabic-fluent traveler trying to get to the airport in the middle of the night. And best of all, they will not rip you off or try to get a flat fee like regular taxis to take you to the airport. Those taxis will charge you upwards of JD15, at least, for the service – but Al-Moumayez is 100% metered and therefore from Jebel Amman to the airport, a 45 minute drive, was only JD8.5 – even at the slightly more expensive per-meter rates they charge. The driver, Jafa’, was an Egyptian who made history in my eyes be being the first person to ever find my house without needing to call and ask for directions a second time – those satellite GPS systems might have helped, but he told me he’d been driving for 12 years and he knew the streets of Amman here like the back of his hand. He didn’t speak any English, but we talked about his 6 kids back home in Egypt, and of course, politics. I have a son about your age, he commented, What are you doing here so far from your home and family? He was impressed with my ability to speak to him, saying normally when I drive Americans, it’s a long, boring ride without much talking.

Here at the airport, I got similar service from a caddy named Louai who led me about the airport, shouting orders to the luggage handlers and the baggage check people. He told the checking officer that I was a teacher in Ayn al Basha, and the handler then quizzed me on its location. His colleague in the booth next to him commented, He speaks Arabic better than you do! at which I laughed and said the requisite, “ya rait!” which means “I wish!” Louai and the handlers laughed at this, and they led me to the front of the line for the Turkish flight: if you’re a Westerner, speaking Arabic in Jordan will almost always gain you a little wasta compared with everyone else.

I had a surprise just a moment ago as I sit here typing this – apparently there’s a hole in the roof here because a bird just flew past me and sat on the table next to me, which was rather unexpected. I had just been thinking “Wow, how odd I can hear the birds from outside in here in this cafe,” and suddenly I see the source of the birdsong sitting next to me. Only in Jordan! Insha’allah, I’ll find a way to update the blog with stories about my travels – first to Turkey, the Tajikistan, then Uzbekistan, then the Pamir Mountains, and perhaps even a corner of Afghanistan (the non-blowing-up part). I’d better wrap this up, as it’s now quarter to six and almost loading time – the line is forming next to me, and I’d better join it!