Saturday, July 30, 2011

391 meters below sea level

Today I visited the Dead Sea. This extraordinary body of intense blue water, polished smooth like an oiled skin on a windless day in winter, is a sea like no other. The water is 9 times as salty as that of the ocean – 31% to be exact; and, it makes for an almost intolerable environment for all but the most microscopic of life forms. At one point I was relaxing at the edge of a trendy resort infinity pool, surrounded by locals swimming with their prayer beads and foreign couples engaging in insinuating acts of public displays of affection, and I peered out over the horizon and simply gazed at the calm blue water and salt dunes in awe. In that moment I was overwhelmed by gratitude for the adventures I have been able to embark on thus far in my life.

Interestingly, the concentration of salt has nothing to do with the Dead Sea being below sea level; rather it comes about because of the high evaporation rate. The water’s oily minerals also contain healthy properties. I read that German health insurance covers periodic visits to the Dead Sea for psoriasis patients to visit and luxuriate in the healing waters. It made me wonder if Kaiser will reimburse me for my visit when I get back home. Although the Dead Sea is 3 million years old, it has shrunk by 30% in recent years due to evaporation and the demands of the potash industries from Jordan and Israel.

While swimming in the salty waters, the first thing I noticed was every minor cut on my body. After the sting subsided I was slightly annoyed by the water that had managed to get in my eyes and mouth. But, a few moments later I was acclimated and blown away by the sensory experience of “swimming” in the Dead Sea. The best part about it was that I was actually bobbing rather than swimming. You literally float on the top of the water and at one point I watched a local man covered in mud literally float while he read a newspaper. It appeared as if he was sitting in an invisible lounge chair. The other interesting thing I observed was swimwear made for the women in the region. A nylon cotton combination of fabric covers women from head to toe. Although it may have been the novelty of it for me, but I have to admit I found these prudish suits to be much more enticing and alluring than the two piece bikinis I saw many French, Germans and Danish swimming around in.

My departure for and arrival to Jordan was filled with many emotions. While on the one hand, I was touched and honored to have been asked to help with this very interesting and meaningful program aimed at offering mental health services to Iraqi torture survivors, I was also in the midst of processing some pretty intense recent events and I wondered how the two would mix. My contract will have me in Jordan for one brief month. I am already well aware that this is not enough time to do justice to the work or the experience. Fortunately, it appears this trip has indeed been good for my mind and my soul and each and every day I seem to heal a little and learn something about this very interesting country and its people while still being able to process my own material and recent events.

The first thing I noticed about the country was the chalky white gestalt of the buildings laid on top of the hills and in the cracks of the valleys of Amman. It’s as if an elaborate city has been drawn on a chalkboard and the fragility of the beauty could be erased with one foul swoop from an angry God. The suspected vulnerability of it makes it all the more breathtaking.

The next thing I noticed was how much is going on here beneath the surface. Jordan has sheltered millions of refugees in recent decades which have changed the demography of the country forever. Palestinians now account for the majority of the population and their struggle, their beliefs and their desires have seeped into every element of the culture here. Clearly, there is much I am not seeing or understanding and, yet, what I am seeing suggests that nationality and religion are only a few of the unique threads that bind Jordanian society.

Alomst every single person I have met has wanted, maybe even needed, to tell me that they are Palestinian. They may be second generation Jordanian, born in the UAE or America, but each one of them has taken the time to tell me that they are first and foremost Palestinian. Just last week I asked if there were any museums in Irbid, the town I am living in (which is also the second largest city in Jordan), and I was informed that while yes, there was, and I could get directions easily, a few of my female staff members quietly told me they could not accompany me to this museum because their Palestinian families would be confused, or maybe even upset, by their child’s expressed desire to visit a Jordanian historical site.

While first generation kids in America often report they are in fact American because they were born there by the time they turn 10, third generation kids in Jordan will proudly report they are Palestinian with a Jordanian passport. Nationality here is defined by the father’s blood and thus there is a continuous chain of passing on Palestinian nationality to children. Therefore, it appears Palestinian immigrants altogether avoid the overt process of assimilation while integrating with ease. There is much the American immigration movement could learn from the Jordanian situation as it appears Jordanians are confident enough in themselves and their country to not be insulted by refugee or immigrant national pride with their home country and Palestinians feel connected to both identities, forever and always. In many ways the conversation has been changed from an issue of giving up the old and accepting the new to accepting the new and holding on to the old.

The first thing I noticed about myself since my arrival to Jordan was that that time and space opened up once again for me to be reflective and thoughtful. While it is painfully hard to be in another new country where I do not know the language, it is strangely freeing to have such a huge bubble created around me where I am not influenced by the passing comments of strangers. The most pervasive and looming thoughts I have been having about my time in Jordan thus far have been about gender.

In just a few short days one thing has become glaringly evident to me. The impact of gender permeates everything. Interestingly, every travel book and memoir I have read about the region in preperation, including a memoir writing by an American called Live for Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East, were all undoubtedly written by men and did nothing to preapre me for this simple fact. While educational and instructive, nothing in these insightful books, aside from a few “warnings” for the female traveler, speaks to the experience of being a lone woman navigating a Middle Eastern County.

The experience is difficult to capture with words. I had come here thinking that with my dark features I might be able to “pass” as an invisible Jordanian mute. That, as long as I wasn’t asked to say anything, I could simply watch and learn in the moments of quiet exploration on the streets and remain unremarkable. I was however gravely mistaken. Excluding the fact that I have not been covering my head (which is somewhat uncommon here), there appears to be something about the way I walk or the way I carry myself that outs me to every man, woman, and child on the street. Every single moment that I have spent on the streets of Jordan (which admittedly is much more than the average woman or man because my dog Tuesday has taught me to be a lover of the long stroll), everyone around me has been fully and evidently aware I am not from here. Male taxi drivers drive up, honk and slow down, assuming I must be looking for a ride because no woman in her right mind would walk alone here on these relatively safe streets. Restaurant staff appear baffled by my bold attempts to engage, discuss and connect. I know some of this is cultural, but the feminist in me struggles to control herself as there are times where I can tell I am being judged for being self-assured. Over the course of the day, it gradually starts to wear on me and I start to intentionally make eye contact with men or attempt to talk and engage with women and children while I explore alone because the strong, confident, feminist in me wants men and women in this part of the world to know that WE are indeed equal and should, in fact, be treated that way. A few times these encounters have ended wonderfully with young teenage boys and girls laughing and asking if they could practice their English with me. Other times it was less clear what the impact was.

While I know some readers may be thinking, ‘but Gwen you are in a foreign country and it is good to respect the norms and values of the country you are visiting.’ To that I shake my head in agreeance and nod solemnly and promise to check myself and try and control my assertive feminist streak; but, mark my words, the minute I get back out there on the streets and I notice some gesture of inequality or injustice towards women, my thoughts and feelings will go unchecked and I will proudly start acting like a woman empowered. For example, just the ohter day I noticed a basketball/football court near my all women’s apartment complex and I boldly stopped to watch the men play a pick-up game. No one else was watching and the men kept looking up to see if I was still there and what I was doing. My first thought was I could hold my own with them, if only they would let me play. When I told Lorenzo about this thought, he laughed and said you better be sure to make sure every inch of your skin is covered before you step out there to play. I love that he laughed and I love that he didn’t say ‘no you can’t!’

Right or wrong, being a assertive, sporty, playful woman is simply who I am and I only hope that a few women here, maybe the ones who have been blocked from studying abroad simply because they are women and their brothers got first dibs, or the ones who are forbidden to drive or get a job, will see me and smile secretly under the veils and whisper – one day.

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