Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Definitely the biggest cultural change for me so far is simply living in a nation that is 97% Muslim. In the US, we talk about separation of church and state, and a lot of times we whine that they aren't separate enough (a la "In God We Trust" on our dollar bill or having the 10 Commandments in a courthouse). Next time someone complains that we as a nation are "too religious," I recommend they come visit a Muslim country. Here, religion is intertwined into every aspect of life; from the phrases you use in every single conversation, to the way you can or cannot dress, to how much you're allowed work during holidays, to the amount of time you can spend with someone of the opposite gender, to when and where you can eat and drink, and the list goes on and on.

The most obvious way that Islam is visible for me is the Adhan, or "call to prayer." Five times a day, Adhan is called out by the holy leader from the mosques over loud speakers. This signals to everyone that it is time for the Muslim's prayers. Its essentially a chant that lasts for about 3 minutes, and there is no place in Amman that this cannot be heard. The reason that it is projected from the mosques so that everyone in the city can hear it (according to wikipedia) is: "to make available to everyone an easily intelligible summary of Islamic belief. It is intended to bring to the mind of every believer and non-believer the substance of Islamic beliefs, or its spiritual ideology." It is essentially a three minute summary of Islamic doctrine, five times a day; and while in the States we might think that this is invasive, offensive, or annoying, I have developed a deep appreciation for this incredibly beautiful chant.

Every time the chant begins, I stop and listen (with the exception of the one that happens every day at 4:15am... then I just wake up really grumpy and wait for it to end). It is so moving, and even though I don't agree with the theology, it is a great reminder of how I should be spending my time and who I should be serving. Five times every day, I use these three minutes to reflect, be still, release my frustrations, and re-set my attitude. I've found that repurposing the Adhan and taking some quiet time has been one of the most helpful things I've done to help cope with the constant stress of living in a radically different culture.

Here is a recording of the Adhan (the first 10 seconds are silent, but it comes on after that). Now imagine this call echoing over the seven hills that make up Amman. It truly is beautiful.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Four days down, twenty one to go!

After four days here, I'm finally settling into a mini-routine. Wake up, eat breakfast, walk the 2 miles to school, Arabic class at 8:30, walk home, family lunch at 3, studystudystudy, dinner at 10, then bed. Arabic classes have been going... well... they've been going. I have a fantastic Syrian teacher named Basima who is kind and patient with me as I stumble over words. Learning a new language definitely doesn't come easily to me, and I've been trying to spend about 6 hours a night outside of class to review and memorize. Because we only have four weeks, the class is very intense, and incredibly draining for me. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and so my natural inclination is to not speak at all because I know that I cannot speak well and I don't want to make mistakes. Luckily, my host family has been very encouraging and tries not to laugh at me when I mess up a sentence terribly, but applauds when I say something semi-decently. Essentially, I feel like a 3 year old all the time, with people oohing and ahhing over my terrible sentence structure and awful pronunciation.

After studying Arabic for a few days, my favorite word so far is "yalla" (which sounds like y'Allah). The best thing about this word, is that it basically means anything you want it to mean. I think the technical meaning is "come on," but people use it when they're leaving the house, when they're arguing, when they're trying to help you out, when they want you to hurry up, when they want you to eat. Basically, its the perfect word for someone like me who doesn't speak the language because I can say it in practically any situation and everyone gets really impressed that I "speak such good Arabic."

Over the past week, I've had a lot of exposure to the Arabic language through my extended host family. A cultural difference that has really struck me is the sheer amount of time that people spend with their families here. There is a sister or a cousin over to visit at least once or twice a day, and every evening this week I've been over to a different family member's house along with at least ten other people. Everyone talks and laughs and argues and eats together. And boy, do these people eat! Every five minutes, someone is piling food on my plate, even after I insist that I can't eat another bite. In the Middle East, eating the food that someone prepares is a huge way of showing respect and gratitude, and not eating it is very disrespectful. After spending the first few days feeling sick from the sheer amount of food that I was expected to eat, I have finally resorted to being rude and just saying "ma biddi shi, 'ana ŝab3aani" (which essentially means "I don't want a thing, I'm full") whenever someone gives me more to eat, and leaving tons of food on my plate. Hopefully they'll forgive me and chalk it up to my ignorant Western ways. 

In other news, I'm completely covered in bug-bites. Like literally, head to toe. I have at least two dozen that I've gotten in the past four days here. No one else seems to be suffering from this condition, so either its my sweet American blood that draws the mosquitos, or everyone else has a trick to keep them away that I haven't figured out yet. Its really annoying, but its nothing compared to the heat here. Because the buildings in Amman are so old and made out of stone, there is no air conditioning. This means that during the day, the temperature INSIDE is usually around 85-90 degrees. I've been spoiled by the 70 degree year-round indoor temperature in the States. Luckily it gets a little cooler at night (between 75-80) so its a bit easier to sleep.

Speaking of sleep, its after 1am here, and I have class at 8:30 tomorrow morning. Allah yisalliimak!

Saturday, August 20, 2011


WE MADE IT TO JORDAN! Barely. Our flight out of Dulles was super delayed, so by the time we got to London, we had to be escorted through the airport (and got to skip all the lines) in order to make our connecting flight to Amman, Jordan. But make it, we did! With a few moments to spare. We made it to Amman after 24 hours of travel, exhausted but happy.  Because we got in so late last night, we stayed in a tiny little Jordanian hotel. From the rooftop, we had an incredible view of Amman. Here are two pictures from opposite sides of the roof: 

I will be in Amman for 4 weeks of intensive Arabic classes before I head to Palestine. We got our books today, and I'm already a little overwhelmed. Arabic is an incredibly beautiful and complex language, and while I'm thrilled to begin to study it, I'm also nervous that I wont catch on. Luckily, I'll be taking these classes with two other girls who have placements in the Middle East, and one of them already speaks a little Arabic. She was so helpful while we were going through customs, and she's already helped us learn a few words.

While I'm in Jordan, I'll be living with an incredibly wonderful Christian host family. Luckily for me, they all speak fantastic English, and are being patient and helpful as I learn more Arabic. My host mother, Rula, has told me over and over that I should think of their (amazingly beautiful) home as my home, and their family as my family. Rula works with the Women's Christian Association here in Amman. Her husband, Emad, is the head of surgery in the Queen Rania Al Abdullah Hospital for Children, the only children's hospital in Jordan (which is actually an incredibly beautiful, 2 year old hospital that is shaped like a boat). He is an incredibly accomplished surgeon, and is a fellow of both the American College of Surgeons and The Royal College of Surgeons (in the UK). They have two children; Zaid who is almost 22, and Amer who is 19. Zaid is studying Accounting at the university here in Amman, and wants to move to the US after graduation because he's bored of Jordan.  He says that Jordan is super expensive, and people don't make much money (for example, as a starting accountant here, he'll make just $6,000 Jordanian Dinars a year, which is equal to about $4,250 American Dollars). Amer just graduated from high school despite his developmental & social challenges, and while he spends all his time staring at me, he absolutely refuses to speak to me even though his English is great. His parents say that it takes him a few weeks to be able to speak to a new person, so I'm hoping that eventually he'll warm up to me.

One of the first things that struck me about Jordan is the seemingly overwhelming love that these people have for their king, the head of their constitutional monarchy. I have only heard King Abdullah referred to as "wise," "kind," "intelligent," and other flattering things. As a Westerner, I always kind of assumed that everyone under a ruler with such power must be miserable, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. Everyone especially raves about the equality that the Muslims and Christians both have in Jordan.

Another fascinating thing is that because we are in Ramadan (a month-long period of time when Muslims do not eat or drink from dawn until dusk), and about 97% of Jordanians are Muslim, it is ILLEGAL to eat or drink in public. If you eat or drink on the street (or on your porch, or on the sidewalk, or in your front yard) you could be fined, or even arrested (although thats apparently very uncommon). It's really fascinating. At 7:20pm when the fast was over for today, the streets were absolutely empty because everyone was at home eating. We were literally the only car on the road.

All in all, I'm loving being in Jordan. The weather here right now (at 11pm) is about 75 degrees with no humidity. Even when it gets quite hot during the day, the dry heat is quite manageable. The people are kind and hospitable, and while I've talked enough about American politics to last me a lifetime, I know that I'm going to truly enjoy my time here.

In Jordan, it's normal to stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, but I'm definitely still an American in that its 11:30 and I'm about to pass out. Goodnight, or as we say here in Jordan: تصبح على الخير (tisbah `alal-khair).

Thursday, August 18, 2011


So our flight from Harrisburg to Dulles was supposed to take approximately 20 minutes. We ended up being on that plane for two and a half hours due to bad weather. We land, jump off the plane, and make a mad dash from Terminal A, to the train, to Terminal C, and run past all of the other C gates to get all the way to the very end, gate C1, where we're supposed to take off. We get there, look at the sign, and realize that our plane had been delayed until 11:45. Here's hoping we actually take off then... otherwise we'll miss our connecting flight from London to Amman. Life is such an adventure. Keep us in your prayers!

Off to Jordan!

As I prepare to begin my journey from Pennsylvania to Jordan, where I'll have language training for four weeks, so many things are running through my mind. I'm nervous to begin studying Arabic; I'm sad to leave Orientation and this group that has become like a mini family; but mostly, I'm excited to begin this new adventure.

The second half of orientation was simply wonderful. There was singing, dancing, and lots of laughing. With so much in common, striking up conversations with people we hadn't met before was really easy. And between all of the shared meals and the break time, we had plenty of time to get to know each other. 

My favorite part of the week was the "talent show" on our final evening together. So many people got up and gave us a peak into their culture through songs, poems, ethnic dances, and so many other things. One of the highlights of the night was an NSYNC dance done by four SALTers and an IVEPer. Albert, the dancer on the far left is from Kosovo, and part of my Middle East/Europe core group. I've included the video for your viewing pleasure! (OH, and the woman they're singing to is Eva, the director of the entire program).

Fantastic, right?! Don't deny it. 

Anyways, I just finished up my packing (and hopefully got both my bags under 50lbs). We leave Akron today and fly from Harrisburg to London to Amman, Jordan. We leave here at 5:30pm, and hopefully arrive in Amman by 9pm tomorrow, local time. Definitely a looooooong trip, and because of the 7 hour time difference, I know that I'll be completely thrown off. Please be praying for safe and smooth travels!

Next stop: JORDAN!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Orientation: Part 1!

Well here I am in Akron, PA! With the first half of orientation complete, I'm feeling much more relaxed about my trip. All of the paperwork for my Israeli visa is now officially in, and I'm hoping that it comes through quickly and without any more issues.

Orientation is going really well. I'm not typically a "get-to-know-you games" kind of girl, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed them. I've already met some really incredible people, both SALTers and IVEPers.  Mennonite Central Committee holds a joint orientation for the SALT (Serving and Learning Together) program and IVEP (International Volunteer Exchange Program). Basically, SALTers are Americans or Canadians going to other countries, and IVEPers are coming from other countries to volunteer in either the US or Canada. Each SALTer shares a room with an IVEPer from the region of the world where they will be going. Its a great chance to get the "inside scoop" on where you'll be living, have someone to answer questions about the area, and, for many, get a head-start on learning the language.  Because the Middle Eastern program and the Eastern European program are both so much smaller than the African, Asian, and South American programs, they are combined into one region.  I have a wonderful roommate from the Ukraine who will be spending the year in Ohio. We have a lot in common, and we've already become great friends.

As you'd expect, spending the week with 100 people from about 40 different countries has been a little overwhelming, but it has also been a really incredible experience. The sheer number of languages spoken and cultures represented here has been really amazing to see. Everyone is in the same boat right now; we're all away from our family and friends, and we're all getting ready to begin our year-long adventure. One of the staff members pointed out that there will be few times in our lives when we'll sit in a room with 100 people and have so much in common with every single one of them.

The different orientation sessions have been very helpful; they cover everything from living with a host family and how to adjust to a new culture, to how to set goals for your time there and the history and mission of MCC. The director, Eva, leads most of the sessions, and she sure doesn't sugar-coat anything. She spends time addressing worst-case scenarios, which is nerve-wracking but helpful. She has been the director for 11 years, and definitely understands the process of this SALT year, so she can speak to things like culture shock and give us an idea of what we'll be dealing with. Some of her most helpful advice has been on lowering our expectations. She keeps encouraging us to set reasonable goals for ourselves, and to realize that we won't change the world in a year. Overall, I feel like I am much better prepared now than I was 4 days ago.

One of the best parts of orientation so far has been meeting the other people going to the Middle East.  There are four of us: two to Palestine, one to Jordan, and one to Egypt. We all seem to be very different, but I think that we'll really enjoy our time together. Orientation goes until Thursday, and then we fly to Jordan for language training! Next up: Orientation, part 2!

Monday, August 8, 2011


It's hard to believe that after months of planning, I am actually getting ready to begin this journey! I begin orientation on Thursday - three short days away!  I have no idea where my summer went, and now it's crunch time. Because I am planning on going to law school next August, I decided to organize and pack up everything into moving boxes before I leave so that when I get back on July 25th of next year, I don't need to spend my precious time at home getting ready to move, and can instead see friends and family. In theory, this was a fantastic idea... in practicality, not so much. I've spent every spare moment going through everything I've ever owned and either tossing it, giving it away, or packing it up.  I'm only about 75% of the way there, and with three days left, I'm desperately trying to just shove everything into some kind of storage container and be done with it. My poor family is tripping over boxes that have spilled out of my room and managed to migrate all over the house. I figure that if that's my only problem right now, then I'm in pretty good shape.

And packing really is the biggest issue I'm facing right now. Hard to believe, right? Things have been going surprisingly smoothly, and I'm half expecting some huge roadblock to appear.

As of tonight, through one-time gifts and monthly pledges, I have officially raised more than my minimum contribution to the SALT program! This is such a huge relief for me.  I have been getting weekly fundraising updates from the SALT program since June, and for the first month and half they always said something like "Hi Meredith... still no funds raised," except way nicer. After stressing out about it, God finally told me to relax and let Him handle it. And ya know what? He did. Over this last month, I have had overwhelming support. Thank you so much to everyone who has supported me thus far, whether financially or through prayer. It truly means the world to me.

Everyone who donated is already on this list to receive a prayer card from MCC once I am in-country, but for anyone else who would like one (or a few), please send me an email with your mailing address and how many cards you'd like, and I'll put you on the list. PLEASEEEEE! Whether we're close or just acquaintances, or even if we don't yet know each other yet, I would love to know that you are praying for me while I'm abroad. The card is pretty basic; it'll have my fantastic (I'm sure) mugshot on it and some specific prayer requests. Plus, you'll get mail. Who doesn't love getting mail?! Don't worry, you won't be put on a mailing list. I promise! Your address will just be used to mail you a card. DO IT!

One thing you can definitely be praying for right now is my Visa situation. Last week, Israel changed its Visa policy from "just show up in-country and buy one in the airport" to "we're gunna need a doctor's note, passport pictures, and a hundred other things before we'll think about giving you a Visa." After the initial mad dash of getting all my paperwork together and overnighting it to Israel, all I can do now is wait. Please be praying that the Visa process goes smoothly and quickly.

Thank you all for your continued support. Stay tuned for Operation: Orientation, coming Thursday to a blog near you!