A Weekend with Bedouins in the Wadi Rum Desert

Three weeks before returning to the U.S. my entire study abroad group including our Jordanian roommates and language partners and I ventured to the Wadi Rum Desert along the Saudi Arabian border of Jordan.    After a long 6 hour plus bus ride to the Wadi Rum Desert we arrived to the gate of the Bedouin Camp.  Bedouins are tribal families who historically live off of the desert as nomads.  This group of people is commonly found in the deserts in Saudi Arabia and the surrounding areas.  We were greeted by a large group of Bedouins whom proceeded to cram all of us into a few “desert” trucks.  For the next forty five minutes we stumbled and bumbled around the desert eventually reaching the camp site.

Image   Wadi Rum Group Pic Two pictures of my study abroad group, including the Jordanian roommates (on the right).

I jumped out onto the sand without any shoes intensifying the cool and smooth sensation on the bottoms of my feet.  The sun was beginning to go down and the sand was hardly cool, but cool enough to ignite the relaxed sensation.  After inspecting our assigned tents, separated by gender a group to respect Jordanian society.  My friends (Bj, Nate, Hothaeyfa, and Rasha) and I found this small mountain/hill near the campsite.  As we reached the top of the hill it finally struck me just how spectacular the Wad Rum Desert is.  The five of us laid next to each other on the top of this big red rock as a cool steady breeze pushed back my hair.  For the next two hours we stared at the beautiful stars and picked out constellations with the echo obscene jokes in Arabic flying about.  When I stared into the never ending abyss of Space, the stars covered the sky like an artist had intentionally speckled the sky on a canvas.  It was difficult for me to take everything in because the deserts beauty was surreal.  A portion of us Americans became well acquainted with Arabic obscenities because learning to joke in a foreign language relaxes the mind and lowers owns worries.  Since I was in such a placid environment I felt obligated to meditate.  I began to meditate for one hour by myself on top of this angular rock that rose above the rest of the hill by seven feet, which amplified the feeling of peace and quiet.  My Jordanian friends did not understand what I was doing or why but I can faintly remember them “poking” fun of me.

Mazen, our program director from Syria, yelled our names and said it was time for dinner.  We got down to the campsite and approached everyone who were intently waiting around a circle looking at a big hole in the ground.  Seven feet under the ground was a bed of hot coals and a metal drum filled with rice, vegetables, chicken, and lamb.  The metal drum was covered in sand creating a sand oven.  This traditional Bedouin dish is called “زرّب” or “Zirrib,” immediately followed by cigarettes and coffee.   You know you are in Jordan when after you eat a meal everyone takes out a cigarette and you find yourself unable to breathe because of the toxic second-hand-smoke.  Note to the weary traveler, do not travel to Jordan if cigarette smoke bothers you.  You may even have to smoke a cigarette with a family at some point in order to show politeness.  After dinner a couple of the Bedouins began playing music.  One played the “Oud” (an instrument that looks similar to a guitar) and a “Tabla” (more or less, a bongo).  They began to play a relaxed Arab song that had a desert-like quality to it.  My friend Abood (his name means “slave” in Arabic but suggests that he is a slave/servant to Allah) and I got up and began to dance.  I loved dancing with Abood because he moved his hips like a woman.  Every time he danced I was amazed, it was like watching an Arab belly dancer.  I attempted to mimic Abood and received encouragement in the form of laughter and enjoyment from the audience.  I hope after graduating from UC Denver, I have the opportunity to return to the Bedouin camp and live with this family for six months.

Bedouin Camp Pic  This is a photo of the dining tent in the Bedouin Camp.

Clearing A Personal Misconception

I have been interested in the Arab culture and Islamic faith since High School when I realized learning Arabic was my number one goal in life.  When I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Denver with an Army ROTC scholarship I witnessed overt “Islamophobia” from soldiers returning from the Middle East.  Hearing words such as “towel head” have encouraged me to learn more about the Islamic faith and Arab culture because I understand that people are all people.  No matter where you travel around the world you will always meet good and bad people.  Growing up, I naturally developed some misconceptions towards the Islamic faith and Arab culture because of the culture I grew up in and my media selection.  My determination to learn the Arabic language on top of opening my eyes to a new culture led me to join the most intense study abroad program for Arabic and cultural immersion in a high risk area.  I wanted to immerse myself in a completely foreign culture, rarely speaking English, and correcting personal misconceptions.

I’m hoping my comments do not aggravate anyone.  I am just being 100% honest about my ignorance towards the Islamic faith and Jordanian culture before I travelled to Jordan.  Before arriving to Jordan I didn’t believe it was possible for an Imam in the Islamic faith to be open minded, because while growing up every time I would see something about an Imam (a Muslim professor of faith/priest) it usually was in a negative connotation in reference of terrorism or “hatred for America.”  This is probably because in High School I loved watching Fox News for some reason, a media outlet widely known for its unfair depiction of the Middle East and specifically the Islamic faith.  There is no doubt I was affected emotionally from the 9/11 events, which also contributed to my misconceptions.  Also, during my freshman year at the University of Denver I visited an Imam at a local Denver mosque for my Islamic Studies class.  My negative experience with this Imam and specifically his views on women rights imprinted a negative image in my head.  However, this was before I was able to wrap my head around the fact that “Feminism” is a Western created concept, also I believe there was some language barrier.

However, my opinion on Imam’s in the Islamic faith vastly changed when I lived in Irbid.  My neighbor in my student apartment at Yarmouk University was the head of Sharia law at the school and the Imam of the mosque on campus.  One evening, less than a month into the program, my American friends and I were drinking and listening to obnoxious dubstep, in order to help remind us of our “Americanness.”  During the period when we began to gradually increase the volume of the music and our voices, we heard a knock.  It was my neighbor an Imam, Dr. Abdel Raoof Kharabsheh.  He asked permission to come inside, to my surprise he didn’t mention anything about the music, he’s just small talking and getting to know us (all in Arabic because he did not speak English).  After twenty minutes of “chatting” Abdel mentioned that it would be polite for us to turn down the music because the walls are thin.  He made a point that he loves music therefore he didn’t care, but he was worried about the other families living around us.  I was blown away by how calm and seemingly open minded this Imam was.  Here is a Jordanian man who is a professor of Sharia law and an Imam who is in room with a couple empty liquor bottles and three females.  This is an epitome of a cultural enigma because according to Jordanian society, unrelated men and women to be in the same room in a residence.  I ended up becoming closer with Dr. Abdel and was blown away by his ability to recite the Quaran.  Sometimes we would play this game where he asked me, “Rich, give me a page number any page number.”  I would say a random number and this man would begin reciting the Quran word for word as I followed by reading the Holy Quran.  Maybe I’m just ignorant but I was blown away by how open minded and non-judgmental Professor Abdel was.  The best feeling in the world is realizing when you’re wrong.  I love a constant reminder of humility.

Image This is the Imam, Dr. Abdel Raoof Kharabsheh

Autostrad: Jordanian Funk

Once I arrived to Irbid, Jordan I immediately began to investigate the “music scene.” I was desperate to find a place just to play a guitar. To my disappointment I discovered the “music scene” in Irbid was non-existent because Irbid is a primarily conservative Muslim city. According to Irbid’s interpretation of the Islamic faith music is considered to be “haraam” (forbidden by religion). This was an aspect of culture shock that what difficult for me to deal with at first. Music is very important to my life. I love listening, playing, and dancing to music every day. Eventually I purchased an Oud, which is a Middle Eastern instrument slightly similar to a guitar. The Oud is the “cousin” of the Spanish Flamenco guitar because while the Arab Moors occupied Spain for hundreds of years they culturally diffused the Oud to the gypsies in Spain. The gypsies then created the Flamenco guitar. I also began using my Italian friend Flavia’s guitar. This, on top of, listening to music frequently and going to the International Cairo Jazz Festival when I traveled to Egypt, beckoned my thirst for music.

When I traveled to Amman for the first time I realized this is where the “music scene” of Jordan existed. After searching YouTube and with the help of my friend Haley Edwards we discovered this band, Autostrad. Autostrad is a six person band based out of Amman, Jordan, consisting of instruments such as bass guitar, electric guitar, drums, saxophone, keyboard/synthesizer, percussion, rhythm guitar, and more. This variety of instruments creates a high energy funk/jazz/reggae fusion sound with Eastern style synthesized keyboard overtones. This music is usually fast paced and up beat. This is unique for the “underground” Jordanian music scene because most of the other “underground” music like Hip Hop is very serious and political. Autostrad likes jamming out and singing to enjoying life and doing what they love, while at times poking fun at serious topics like unemployment in Jordan. Autostrad also likes to frequently mention smoking “hash” which is an extremely controversial topic in Jordan because of the strict legal penalties. When I listen to a song like سافر , the video I submitted on this post, I feel and tingling sensation that immediately warms my heart and makes me want to play music and “jam” along. However, when I don’t have instruments there is no other choice but to get down, dance, and get funky. Their cunning musicianship effectively blends Western and Eastern styled music. This is no easy feat because these styles derive from completely different music theory and operate on different number of octaves and scales. For instance, Eastern music has 24 octaves while Western music plays in 12 octaves.

Once I return to Jordan after I graduate from UC Denver I will see Autostrad, no doubt! I hope you enjoy the video.

The Food of Gods: Mansaf

Mansaf is a famous traditional Jordanian dish that I had the pleasure of eating many times during my study abroad experience in Jordan.  Mansaf can be made of lamb or chicken, which is cooked in a yogurt sauce called “jameet” (which is fermented yougurt) with yellow rice.  Often pine nuts and some green herbs are laid upon the top.  This dish is primarily served in Jordan but can also be found in Palestine, Syria, as well as parts of Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.  Mansaf has a very unique and strong taste that often is not compatible with Western pallets.  However, mansaf became my favorite Jordanian dish.

Mansaf is a very important traditional dish that has roots to the Bedouin (desert nomad) culture.  The Bedouin culture is strongly tied to the Tribal culture of Jordan and Mansaf plays a key role in the society.  Mansaf is served on special occasions such as weddings, births, graduations, and/or when honoring a guest.  It is also served on major holidays such as Eid ul-Fitr, Eid ul-Adha (during Ramadaan), Christmas Day, Easter, and Jordan’s Independence Day.  Mansaf has been used as a diplomatic device between rival Tribal families.  Mansaf is of the utmost importance to the Jordanian culture.

Not only does Mansaf serve a special purpose, there is also a “proper” way to eat it.  Mansaf is cooked on a big platter which is placed on a plastic table mat by the wife of the house.  If you want eat serve Mansaf according to the guidelines of tradition there should be a lambs head in the middle of the dish, which is then either given as food to the servants of the house or the neighbors.  All of the guests sit around the big platter and wait for everyone to be seated.  Before eating, you say “bisma’ Allah” (which directly translates to “In the name of God”).  Mansaf is traditionally eaten by hands, however, recently younger generations have moved towards eating with a spoon.  Women have always used spoons because it is considered impolite for the women to use their hands.  Next I will explain exactly how to eat Mansaf with your hands:  First, make sure your hands are clean. Second, after the Lebna (yogurt sauce) is poured over your section of the big platter you will take your right hand and proceed to take a section of the food making it into a ball.  The lebna will help the rice and meat stick together in a ball shape.  Third, once the food is in the size of a small ball you then throw the ball in your mouth and eat.  Fourth, make sure to eat as much as you possibly can because it is considered rude in Jordanian culture to not finish your food when you are a guest. Fifth, enjoy the Mansaf.  Sixth, if you are a male you are obligated to smoke a cigarette or two with the male members of the household, after you have said “Il hamdu Allah.”

For many Mansaf is something they are told to stay away from but, ignore the critics.  Mansaf is an extremely rich and heavy dish that will keep you full for an entire day.  As I begin to use my hands to form the Mansaf into a ball, a feeling of joy jolts through my bloodstream releasing an animal-like instinct.  While eating Mansaf I morph into a primal being, with food as its only destiny.  Never has food changed me into an animal, but Mansaf is another story.


This is a photo of my friends and I while we ate a traditional Mansaf meal at my language partner’s household in Irbid, Jordan.

***Interesting fact:  The husband in this family has two families one in Jordan and another in the United Arab Emirates where the husband has his job.  Since, the Jordanian economy is abysmal it is very common for men to work abroad in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, etc.  Also, both families are perfectly okay with the fact that their father has two families.  Talk about cultural differences!

Taboo: Making Friendships with the Opposite Sex in Irbid

First, I will clear up some cultural misconceptions on the relationship between men and women in the Middle East.  For instance, it’s forbidden to hit a woman in any kind of manner according to the Islamic religion.  It is also forbidden by faith to kill.  However, according to Tribal Law until recently there have been rare cases when honor killings can be carried out in an attempt to “retain family honor.”  There is no doubt that women are not treated up to “our standards” in the West, however, I think it is important for people to consider that “our standards” are just the cultural norms in America and is not the same across the entire globe.  But, I believe that the sexual regression from strictly following the Islamic religion (and making it illegal to have sex before marriage) can influence this segregation of sexes.  Often I found young Jordanian men clueless on how to socialize with women because of the segregation.  I believe outlawing sex before marriage has severe psychological impacts on the population of Jordanian society.  Sex is a natural act of life, but in Jordan people aspire to become married and then have sex frequently.  Therefore, making honest friendships with people of the opposite sex in Jordan can be quite the challenge.  I should reiterate that I was living in a very conservative Muslim city.  The conclusions I make can only be acquainted with the city of Irbid.

Not until the last two months of my program in Irbid was I able to make female Jordanian friends.  One day my friends Nate, BJ, and I decided to teach many of our male Jordanian roommates at Yarmouk University how to play Frisbee.  The young men were very intrigued by this foreign game.  It was slightly difficult to explain how to throw the Frisbee exactly in Arabic therefore we acted it in a slow, dramatic fashion.  One day a group of female Jordanian students seemed very curious by this game.  My friend Fuad said to the girls “yella, ma fe mshkla” (meaning “let’s go, no problem”).  When these girls joined us to play Frisbee I realized just how amazing this was.  Guys and girls would never think of playing a sport together in Irbid and here are these young ladies who defy this cultural norm.  Defying cultural norms is not very common in Irbid.  The group of girls named Hadeel, Asaala, Aseel, and Sara began to play Frisbee with us every Thursday and Sunday.  After a few weeks I became close with this group of girls.  I began to see these girls about four times a week and would walk around campus with them, eat at restaurants, and receive extra help in Arabic as well.  Not only did these ladies become great friends it also was the main catalyst for my rapid improvement in Arabic because these women did not speak any English.  A casual relationship between a man and woman in Irbid is very difficult because of the cultural values and the laws.  I feel very honored to have made friends with these girls because of the harassment they and I dealt with when we were together in public.  I wasn’t sure if the other Jordanian students were jealous, immature, or etc. but we would constantly have to ignore verbal harassment from “shababs” (young guys) on campus.  I continue to stay in contact with these girls and hopefully will meet up with them in the future either in America or Jordan.Image

A Jordanian Connection

Leaving the bustling music scene of Denver, CO I was initially worried about being homesick. However, after the first week of immersing myself in the unique Jordanian culture it was easy to leave Denver behind. The only other culture shock I’ve experienced and can relate to is when I lived in a tent in the Rocky Mountain National Park for an entire summer. While living in the woods and living in Jordan are two very different settings I can relate the two by a principal I’ve always believed in. That is, being very open with people and making new friends. In my experiences I have made friends with very diverse people whether they are homeless or at the opposite end of the spectrum.

By the end of the first week I had met a local Jordanian named Fuad. He approached me and asked in Arabic, “Do you want to be friends?” Never have I been so lucky to make a friend like this because Fuad and I have become very close. At first we met in cafes and restaurants to get to know each other better. After a few weeks I went to his house for coffee and tea; the next day he invited me and a number of the people from my study abroad program (CET) to meet his entire family. We were all amazed with their beautiful house. I found the architecture with its ornamental arches and golden leaf chairs to be quite different than homes in the United States. My friends and I were also invited to Fuad’s house to have a traditional meal called “mansef.” This was the first time I had ever eaten with my hands, aside from chicken wings, and it was very delicious.

When I first arrived to Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan I realized my Arabic skills were sub-par to everyone else’s, however, after becoming friends with Fuad and consistently studying very hard I quickly gained ground.   After a few months I became acquainted with many of Fuad’s friends in Jordan.  By the second to last month of my program I began dreaming in Arabic, it was at this point I realized I was meeting my goal of reaching fluency.  Once I began dreaming in Arabic constantly I always thought in Arabic and felt as if I began improving every hour of the day.  When you reach the ability of constantly thinking, speaking, and dreaming in a new language you start having difficulty with your native language.  This is why I believe the key to having a successful language and cultural study abroad experience is making a close connection with local people. I believe I have marked the right impression on Fuad as a person and where I study because he is now in the process of applying to the University of Colorado at Denver. I am extremely thankful for making a connection like this because we will now always be friends.



This is a link to the exact study abroad program I attended, CET Irbid, Jordan Intensive Language and Cultural Immersion Program.