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Spacetime, Arabizi, and Metaphor over Amman

December 5, 2010

I took this picture while driving to my flat in Amman. That ought to scare everyone!

Remember that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), you know the one where Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) looks like he’s 10,000 years old sitting at a breakfast table somewhere in space eating a bowl of corn flakes.  Freaky right?!  Like uh-hum, he doesn’t know he’s 10,000 years old and the corn flakes he’s eating are way past their expiration date.  Imagine the smell.  Then in the last scene in the film, Dr. Dave’s back in the womb about to being reborn in the USA (it’s Hollywood, after all) and he’ll undoubtedly grow up and vote Republican.

That’s what happened to me.  I don’t mean I was reborn, nor will I ever register to vote Republican.  But I’ve been sucked into a time warp just like Dr. Dave.  Consider the similarities: Dave was living abroad, (me too).  He was trying to learn a new complex language he didn’t understand, (same here).  He was living alone (moi aussi).  Because no one was around to say, “Hey deadbeat, 10,000 years just swooshed by while you were eating breakfast,” Dave let a few things go, like his fingernails.  While I’ve not let my personal hygiene run amuck, I have let a few things slip, — this blog, some half-dozen other articles I was supposed to have finished two months ago (whereby my friends are now gnashing their teeth and sending emails filled with words like shi*.)  You know the word.  Then there’s my novel.  I’ve promised that I’ll have a draft finished before I leave Jordan in June.  Yikes.  Now I’m biting my nails. In my defense, I can only say, “Hang it all, I’ve been busy!”

Excuses 101:

Found a mysterious, obviously artificial, artifact buried on the moon and, with the help of the intelligent computer HAL, I’m working on decoding it . . . No wait, mish hak, not right.  Stanley, please excuse me for plagiarizing from the movie trailer.

Arabizi. I’m learning a mix of Arabic, English.  Bankers, candlestick makers, electricians, clerks in all the shopping malls speak Arabizi.  Day-by-day I lose more and more English.  Amman’s taxi drivers are my best teachers.  King Abdullah II should know just how lucky he is to have a jillion cabbies in Amman teaching foreigners about the city, Arabic language, and about Jordan. Once you get in the cab conversations often go like this:

From where?” asks the taxi driver, swerving through bumper-to-bumper traffic, while turning around to look at me.

Min Chicago?”  I always say Chicago.  It’s the closet city to Urbana-Champaign, where I teach at the University of Illinois.  Most Jordanians know it.

Ahlein. Welcome to my country,” he says, still looking at me while honking at a pesky driver who’s just thrown his car in reverse and headed right for us.  My cabbie swerves just in the nick of time.  Honks. Honks. Honks.

He turns back to me. “Why to come, Ordinea?” He’s driving. Still honking. Now he lights a cigarette to calm his nerves from the last near head-on collision.

“Ana doctora Jama Ordinea.” (FYI, in case you can’t tell, all my words in Arabic are tragically misspelled.)

“Wayne hatha?” I ask, pointing toward the streets ahead and the buildings. “Where this?”

“Sweihlah,” he says, answering his cell and turning to me so I’m re-assured that he understands my pitiful Arabic.

Ah.” I say.

He looks concerned. “You go Sweihlah?”

“La,” I say, trying to flick my chin upward  to emphasis the word, “no.”   I add in English. “Just asking.”

“Shoo?” “What?” Between chatting on the cell phone, driving, and talking to me, I can see we’ve hit a roadblock in our cross-cultural communications.  My fault, my fault.   Also, I think he must be talking to his children, because every few words are Babba Taabani. “Father tired.”  I don’t know for certain though, I’m handicapped by my inability to truly ease drop on the conversations of Arabs on cell phones. . . something I do all the time with Americans.

“La-la-la.  Sorry.” I say.

“No problem,” he answers.

What’s happening to me is that I’m trying to ingest survival Arabic.  It’s a strange phenomenon to hear oneself speak broken English, broken Arabic, with someone else’s accent. One of my friends here is a professor from New York’s Suny Geneseo.  She and I were laughing about how we’re losing English.  What does that say about cross-cultural exchanges?  Maybe because we have no one around to speak English with on a daily basis, not at home, not at work, not everyday, the loss of language happens much faster.  This might be insight as to why American Indian children such as my great grandparents, grandparents, my birth mother, lost their language so quickly at boarding schools.  I’ve only been in Jordan for three months and wallah, don’t have, I forget words.

Notes on Amman – Part 1


What the hell am I doing here?  I shouldn’t have come. The end.  Grrrrgh.  Yesterday was a bad day.  Today is starting out not much better.


That cartoon summer.


My dear friend, Ken Bordeaux died in a rest home somewhere in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I grieve.


A bee committed suicide today in my kitchen.  He flew directly into a tub of Clorox water.  Why?

Ooo Baadan.  And then later at a restaurant.

“Biddee hi, — shooishmoe — agua, la, mishhak, water, Maiyi.  Maszboot. Maiyi.”

“I want this. . . . what is it, agua, that’s Spanish, no, not right. Water. Correct. Maiyi”

My friend and I started to laugh. What’s happening?  We lose English.  It’s a good thing Jordanians are so tolerant, I’ve butchered all words, male, female gendered speech, everything, all the time.  Many times a taxi driver will say, “Talk English, I understand.”

I’m considering that I might be undergoing a complete personality overhaul.  Not a bad thing, I know.  I could also be experiencing a change in my social skills, too.   Not a good thing.  Here, I smile too much at complete strangers, (my home training) a cross-cultural mistake. For example it gives some in Amman the wrong idea.  “I’m easy.” “A simpleton.” “Lose woman.”

In Ada, for example, I talk to everyone on the streets, in stores, hospitals, movietheaters. We tell our life stories to the grocery clerks at the checkout counters.  They reciprocate.  I once had a heartfelt conversation with the CableOne technician outside in my backyard about the trouble he was having with his teenage son in the ninth grade.  I tried to help him by making suggestions. Listening.  We were complete strangers, but we talked sincerely about his son – what to do.  We trusted.  I’ve never seen him again, nor do I know his name, but I remember his story.  In Ada, especially among Natives, it is considered rude not to look at people, chat with them, and smile.  Be open to strangers like the tiger lilly blooming at dawn.  Always open.  (Probably another reason American Indians have vulnerability to foreign diseases.)

I also think when there are two languages floating inside one’s head, time stands still, slows down.  In a culture different from our own, we must learn new rules, new physical routines and gestures, just as we once did as babies.  Open, close.  Open.  Remember how time dragged on when we were young children? I’m convinced it’s the physical embodiment of new gestures that intervenes, disrupts our mental and physical aging processes.  Hence time slows down, even reverses itself.  Living abroad we become newborn.  Perhaps this explains how it’s possible to feel 10,000 years old, and yet still be in the womb.  Just like Dr. Dave Bowman.

Notes on Amman – Part 2


Four Jordanian men including the guard at the gate at the University of Jordan help us read a map so we can get to our formal dinner on time.  They bring help from their friends.  All seven men are talking at once and earnestly giving advice on how to negotiate our journey outside of Amman.  I can’t understand a word.  Eventually one man waits with us in the dark to flag down a taxi so he can tell the driver where to take us.  He will not leave two women alone on our own.  What a kindness to behold.  I feel renewed.


“The family is the atomic building blocks of Arab tribes,” says Jim Wilson.


I stop at Al Qutrana rest stop off Highway #15 heading south when I see President Barak Hussein Obama driving a Petra bus.  Swear to God.  He is quite handsome dressed in a blue bus driver’s uniform.  I wave.  I am a nationalist after all.

While it looks like a small desert road, over the hill is the great Crusader castle at Al-Shawbak. A memory. 1993.


I find the Jordan we knew in 1993, it exists on the little road to Shawbak Castle. (I’m incognito, driving myself, I pass unnoticed.)


Today is begging day.  The ladies in black are back knocking at my apartment door.


Tonight my Mom is watching TV in the living room of my flat.  I heard her sniffling as I type this.

Metaphor over Amman

Then at dusk

the heart of the world showed up

looming large over my balcony in Amman

like a circulating ship,

its two great arteries pumping oxygen,

sacred rain

the color of blood.


Taybet Village. 18th century village, outside of Wadi Musa where friends live.

Left.  Taybet Village in southern Jordan. 18th century.  I drove there myself.  YAH! All over the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan by myself.  YAH!

Pictured far below, right, Rasha Shaher, and a curator at the Old English Church in Salt, Jordan.  Rasha is my TA this semester at the University of Jordan.  We went to find the The Old English Church and the English hospital, a site in my latest novel, and part of my research here in Jordan. Construction began on the hospital in 1869.  Medical work to the public, 1873.  Christian Missionaries often came to Beirut first, then made their way to Salt one of the leading trade centers in Bilaad Ash Sham.

Below-below, right.  I’m invited to a wedding during EID al Adha.  Eman Ghanayem, my student at UJ, invited me to come to her cousin’s wedding.  An honor, truly. The food was great, the cake was gorgeous as were the bride and groom.  There must have been 300 people in attendance from all over the Middle East.

PS:  The Flamboyant One Lives.

PPS: I will write this book.  Hekano!  (Choctaw. The last word.)

Rasha Shaher and the curator at the Old English Hospital, Salt. Newly restored to the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf.

The bride entering the hotel where families have gathered.

Fatima Ghanayem, me, her daughter Eman Ghanayem. I'm invited to their families' wedding.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2010 11:27 am

    The whole, be open to strangers, chit chat, make polite conversation was something I noticed when I visited Oklahoma — so you are not too very far from home. 🙂 Thank you for the update, I love reading about your adventures.

  2. Patrice permalink
    December 6, 2010 2:27 pm

    Great travel narrative! Thanks for sharing, LeAnne.

  3. LeAnne Howe permalink
    December 6, 2010 4:22 pm

    Hey, thanks you two for reading and commenting. I’m trying to tell people that I’m still alive and well. hahaha

  4. Kirstin Squint permalink
    December 28, 2010 11:46 am

    It is wonderful to hear of your cultural encounters, perambulations, and transformations. Keep those words coming! All best from North Carolina. 🙂

  5. LeAnne Howe permalink
    January 3, 2011 5:05 am

    Tks Kirstin: I’m just now getting back to Amman from trekking in the desert in Wadi Rum. Looking forward to reading your article in Melus.

  6. Abdul permalink
    April 18, 2015 5:23 pm

    Great. You were been with my relatives I live in Louisiana

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