Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Meeting the PM

The Harvard Glee Club, in which I sing, arranged a series of exciting meetings for me today. HGC is traveling to the Middle East in winter 2011-2012, and one of their stops is Jordan. HGC leadership decided that, as long as I am in Jordan, I should do some of the legwork with regard to meeting alumni, scouting out venues, etc. So I threw on a suit and spent a little over an hour with Zaid Al-Rifai, the former Prime Minister of Jordan, and then had dinner with a US diplomat based in Amman.

The Al-Rifai meeting was quite an experience. I was told that he would be sending a car. What he didn't say is that the driver would be in a military uniform. The driver showed up at Qasid while I was still in class, and said he was looking for Marshall. Qasid administration pointed out the other Marshall, who was understandably terrified when a Jordanian soldier unexpectedly approached him and asked him to "please come with me." Luckily this was all cleared up, and I followed the driver to a very nice late-model Mercedes. Doors were opened for me, traffic cops saluted as we drove past. All in all, a very nice way to spend an afternoon.

The meeting itself was at Al-Rifai's home; we sat out in his marble courtyard, next to a beautiful fountain. I introduced myself, and after a short discussion of my experience in Amman, we dove into Glee Club details. Rifai is a Harvard alum, as is his son, the current Prime Minister. The man has considerable influence, unsurprisingly, and given his connections to Harvard, he is very eager to see the Glee Club travel to Jordan. He promised some very generous help with various aspects of the tour, which I reported back to HGC leadership. I may soon be dispatched to Egypt and the UAE to meet with our contacts there, though I sadly can't expect a similarly posh reception.

In the evening, I met with a Public Diplomacy officer stationed at the embassy here for advice on the logistics of bringing the groups here. He was full of information - venues, seating capacities, publicity issues, possible local groups to include in a joint concert, and the like. He also suggested a few of the restaurants I had to make sure not to miss while here for the summer. We also discussed his path in the US government and my interest in the field after graduation, though I didnt want to turn a Glee Club meeting into an informational job interview and so tried to keep that discussion short. He is beginning classes tomorrow at Qasid, so I may bump into him more often.

So two decently successful meetings in a single day - the luggage space I devoted to a suit and dress shoes is already worth it! The future likely holds a few more meetings as well... too bad I only brought one tie. While I wont be in the Glee Club when the actual tour comes around, I'll see if I can mooch off of leadership enough to get myself a free seat to tag along...

Monday, June 28, 2010

Nuclear Jordan

Interesting op-ed in today's New York Times. Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli official, argues that the US should allow Jordan to enrich its own uranium as part of its push to produce nuclear power.

Israel, despite having warmer relations with Jordan than with any Arab state, fears that in-country enrichment will give its Hashemite neighbor the expertise needed to produce a nuclear weapon. Never mind that Jordan has the right to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (which Israel has not signed). Never mind that Jordan is closely allied with the US and other western countries. Ignore the fact that "the king has continuously affirmed his willingness for transparency on all matters relating to the production of nuclear power plants." Regardless of context, Arabs + uranium = unacceptable, in Israel's eyes. Mr. Beilin wisely argues against this paranoid view of Israel's security situation. 

On almost every issue, I agree with Mr. Beilin. Jordan has the right to enrich uranium, and given the large reserves recently discovered in the country (11th largest in the world), buying other people's uranium seems a foolish waste of money. More generally, if Israel isn't comfortable with nuclear power in Jordan, of all places, then my hopes are pretty dim for any meaningful Israeli cooperation with its Arab neighbors. Israel should support steps (like reliable electricity) that will stabilize its moderate, peaceful, pro-western neighbor. 

There is one detail Mr. Beilin omits, and this is where America's position becomes complicated. The US recently completed an important nuclear deal with the UAE, giving Abu Dhabi civilian nuclear technology in return for a waiving of its right to enrich uranium domestically. Israel would like to see Jordan also waive this right, which Jordan understandably wants to retain. However, if America signs on a deal that gives Jordan the technology while allowing it to retain the right to enrich, it could sink the UAE deal. From the June 12 Wall Street Journal:

The Obama administration views the U.A.E. deal as a model for its nonproliferation drive. American experts say it would be virtually impossible for the Emirates or any other nation to develop atomic weapons without the ability to produce highly enriched uranium at home. 
The White House has good reason to stick to its guns in its talks with Jordan: the U.A.E., in its agreement with the U.S., won the right to negotiate a new deal if another Mideast country concludes a nuclear pact with the U.S. on more favorable terms (emphasis added).
Here's America's dilemma. If we force Jordan to renounce its right to domestic enrichment, we anger a strong ally and possibly force it to get its technology from other nuclear powers (like Russia, China, or Pakistan). If the US does the right thing and gives Jordan nuclear technology without forcing it to waive its right, the UAE deal gets scrapped. The deal is an important part of the framework we are constructing in the Gulf now to isolate Iran and its rogue nuclear program, and its collapse would be a serious blow to that effort. The deal is also essential to the UAE's energy security. 

America has a good reason to seek Jordanian renunciation of enrichment - but it has nothing to do with Israeli security. If we continue to ask Jordan to waive its treaty-given rights, make sure the request is framed as an essential step to save the important UAE nuclear agreement. If our request for renunciation is seen as "the result of Israeli pressure," as Beilin suggests, we've done something wrong; it's about honoring our agreements elsewhere and continuing to isolate Iran. 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Weekend Adventures

This being my first weekend without early arrivals and a crippling time change, I went back into central Amman to do a bit of exploring.

Amman, though much cleaner and more organized than Cairo, is far less fun to wander around. I'm further from the downtown, so any trip in requires paying for a cab. Amman is a much newer city - it didnt become important until the 20th century - so there's very little historic architecture aside from the few ancient ruins. In Cairo, there was always a chance that I'd wander into an old market, or a 1,000 year old mosque, or the towers of the ancient city walls. I wont find any of this in Amman.

I started at the Souq Jara, which is a weekly open-air crafts market near first circle. It was clean and well-organized: nothing like Khan al-Khalili. I found a cool stand that was selling old Arab coins. I browsed extensively and ended up buying some from Mandatory Palestine and Syria, and also from Lebanon and Hashemite Iraq. The stand also had packs of old Arab-Iranian postage stamps, which I bought, along with some old Saddam dinars from Iraq (I bought the latter as a curiosity, and not out of any respect for the former leader, just so we're clear).

Afterwards, I did head into Downtown - the Balad - and spent a couple hours wandering. The atmosphere is markedly different from the western half of the city. It was crowded and hectic on Friday, and I ran into the fruit and vegetable market as well as a huge street market selling shoes, clothes, jeans, and used furniture. I felt lots of energy, crowds, and hustle and bustle - all of which is absent from the area where I live. It was interesting to see, but there really wasn't anything "cool" - no old sights, or mosques, or monuments, or anything that would bring me back a second time.

I ended my walk by the Roman Theater downtown, which may be a venue for the Harvard Glee Club's tour to the Middle East in a few years. In total, I spent four hours and about fifteen dinars. I also finally saw the truth of my roommate's warning that "there's just nothing there" in Amman's downtown.

Having milked Amman for most of its touristic value, I'm putting together my to-do list for the rest of the summer:
  • Day Trip to Salt, the administrative center of the region during Ottoman times. Supposedly, this city has all the old architecture that Amman lacks
  • Bus trip to Wadi Rum, a beautiful desert area in the south of the country
  • Rent a car and visit the crusader castles of Karak and Shobak, via the King's Highway
  • Weekend at Petra, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. People are already making plans for trips down, so I may just join up and make some new friends. 
So, hopefully the most exciting excursions are still ahead of me. The thrills of downtown Amman certainly set a low bar...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Day 2 of Classes

Classes started Wednesday, so I've now experienced two days worth of instruction. I remain wary of making any premature judgments, but so far I am very happy with what I've encountered.

Each weekday has 4 hours of instruction, from 8AM-noon. We switch teachers at 10, getting exposure to different teaching styles. My class currently has eight people, but enrollment is still fluctuating so that might change too.

As I mentioned, I placed in the lower of the two possible classes. As a result, I'm reviewing material that was already taught during my Arabic class at Harvard last year. This is proving immensely beneficial, since all of the vocab that has slowly slipped away is being quickly reintroduced and reinforced. I get to work on the drills again with the vocab already memorized. Last time around, I was juggling too many balls with memorization and grammar and drills (and three other classes!), and so didn't get the most out of each unit. As an added bonus, I'm using the same textbook, and so some of the homework is already done. We'll eventually move forward into brand-new material, but this review is good.

But regardless of placement, the instruction and academic atmosphere is fantastic. Class is almost entirely in Arabic, with only a few English sentences emerging each day. Our first teacher confided to us that he doesnt speak much English at all, which is another added incentive to stick to Arabic. He speaks in Arabic for two unbroken hours, and both days, I've understood almost everything, both spoken and written. He's of course using easier words and a slower pace than he might use with native speakers, but the fact that I'm holding my own in Arabic for two solid hours is a surprising, and encouraging, development.

I'm doing less well in the second session of class. I've decided that class consists of a good cop/bad cop routine: the first teacher comes, encourages you, and makes you feel great about your progress, while the second kicks your ass and shows you how much work you still have to do. I'm understanding less in the second half and am often in need of more explanation, but again, it's all in Arabic and I'm still holding on. Our teacher is also wonderfully sweet - just because she's the bad cop doesn't mean she's mean about it. The attitude is very encouraging inside and outside of class. Even the Qasid staff and administration - fully bilingual - will patiently humor us while we try to discuss any housing, billing, or other issues in Arabic in the spirit of immersion.

The Jordanian workweek is Sun-Thurs, so I'm ready to enjoy my weekend! Found a decent running path around the American Embassy (which works until I'm arrested for suspiciously stalking out the compound, haha), and maybe even a gym. I'm heading downtown in search of the fabled Friday Markets, so we'll see if I have any luck!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

World Cup and Pan-Arabism

This afternoon is the World Cup match between Algeria and the US. Being American, I know nothing about soccer (or "football"), and care even less. But the conversations I've had as the match approaches shed interesting light on the always fun issue of pan-Arab relations.

My conversations with a few cabbies can hardly be representative of 6.5 million Jordanians, or 300+ million Arabs, but it's all I have to go on for now. But Algeria, as the only Arab country with a team in the World Cup, commands the loyalties of many of the Jordanian's I've spoken to about the ongoing tournament. My driver today was taking the afternoon off to watch the match, and didn't mind dissing the American team in front of a passenger who had already identified himself as American.

But head over to Egypt, and the situation is different. Egypt and Algeria fought a very nasty qualifying tournament last fall, causing not only bad blood, but also a minor international incident. The Egyptian government, in a "bread and circuses" move, exploited historical tensions with Algeria during the qualifiers to distract the population from the more pressing failures of Egypt's leadership. Riots broke out, Egypt recalled its ambassador from the Algerian capital, and the Arab League had to get involved to try to patch things up. I'm really not sure where many Egyptians would come down on an Algeria-Israel matchup. So, while I'm not in Cairo to watch the game, I'd expect to see more American flags than Algerian over there tonight.

Then, there are the outliers, like the cab driver who told me yesterday that he's rooting for the Argentinean team. Go figure.

I'm Famous

My story was just published on the Qasid Summer blog. I noticed a few minor changes and embellishments - "forest" was changed to "pristine forest," for example, but I think it stays pretty faithful to the genius of the original.

Ajloun, and placement

We traveled to Ajloun, north of Amman, today. I was asked to write a blurb about it for the Qasid website, so rather than describing the same event twice, I'll just copy it below (I'll link to the website if/when it ever gets posted).

Got placed in level 3, the lower of the two options. Class from 8AM-12PM every day, starting early tomorrow.


            Yesterday was everyone’s last free day before diving into intensive Arabic classes for nine weeks. Qasid staff took that opportunity to arrange a day trip to the Jordanian towns of Ajloun and Jerash for sightseeing, lunch, and pre-class bonding.

            After a twenty-minute search for a taxi, I finally arrived at Qasid in time to catch one of the buses. We hit the road and headed north. I landed in Amman only three days ago, so this trip for me was actually my first glimpse of the Jordanian countryside. The dense urban landscape I had grown used to began to fade away. Within just a few kilometers of the city, I started to see farms, trees, and – to my surprise – vast stretches of greenery and forest. My impression of Jordan as an expanse of unbroken desert was cruelly shattered.

            After riding on some of the steepest, most winding roads I have ever traveled, we finally arrived at Ajloun. The town’s most famous site is the 800-year old castle perched atop one of its mountains, built by a nephew of Salah ad-Din in the time of the crusaders. We were treated to a guided tour of the site. Though I didn’t take notes, the history went something like this: originally the site of a Byzantine church, the hilltop was fortified against the crusaders in 1184. It passed hands several times, including to the Mamluks, who used the building as a medical college. Ottoman garrisons were also stationed here, until earthquakes in the early 20thcentury left the castle in ruins. Jordanian authorities were actively working to repair and restore the site.

            The damage to the castle almost made it more interesting to an architecture buff like myself. Collapsed sections of roof exposed the underlying vaulted arches and made visible the various additions and expansions made over time. The damage did not prevent us from scaling to the very top of the castle and enjoying the spectacular views. Though we suffered from hazy weather, we could still make out the Jordan River and the Golan Heights in the distance – our guide assured us that, on a clear day, the Dome of the Rock was visible from the top of Ajloun Castle.

            After Ajloun, we retraced the winding mountain roads back to Jerash for lunch. We had all been briefly introduced to Jerash by the reading passage of the Arabic placement exam, and so knew something of its Roman heritage. We saw the ruins of the gate and hippodrome before sitting down to a lunch of bread, hummus, babaganoush, and a great pepper-meat-potato dish that I had never tried before. After lunch, it was back on the bus and back to Amman to enjoy our last few hours of freedom before the start of class at 8AM the next day!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Orientation, and Al Marshallan

My first taste of the Qasid Institute came during our orientation session this morning. We took a 2-hour placement exam, got an intro to Amman and to the language program, and had a brief oral interview. I feel fine about the tests - I didn't get everything, but since it's a diagnostic, I guess that's only natural. I get my final placement tomorrow.

According to Qasid's descriptions, I'm right between class levels. Either I skip about three chapters to jump ahead to Book 3, or I fall back four chapters and spend some time reviewing. At this point, I'd prefer the latter; I could really use the review, and I'd worry that such a big jump forward would require tons of homework and extra tutoring on the side. If I pick the lower class, I'll have a few lighter weeks at the start... not totally objectionable during the summer. Maybe use the extra time to hit the Dead Sea again?

While I have yet to try the instruction, I continue to be very impressed with Qasid itself. Their publicity materials were polished from the start, and pre-arrival communication was great. I got several packets of information at various stages of my application and travel, all of which were thoughtful, helpful, and showed that someone is clearly thinking these issues through. Qasid can help to find housing, rent you a cell phone, put you up for a couple of days if you need housing when you get in... they really have had their sh*t together from day one (especially compared to some other academic programs I have tried in this part of the world...)

This continued today. Exam questions were clear and weren't just taken straight from the textbook. The facilities themselves are attractive, clean, and organized. We met the director of the program and the student affairs coordinator, both of whom gave brief, funny, and helpful introduction sessions. It's also right across the street from a really good and cheap falafel place. That last fact is perhaps the most pertinent. Again, hard to judge a place on day one, without having experienced the teaching. But I like what I see so far.

Another interesting development - I met another student named Marshall in the program. For the first time in my life, I have to deal with another kid named Marshall in my classes. I have to introduce myself as "one of two" Marshalls, and be sure to give my last name. I turn around every time someone calls for his attention instead of mine. Calling out "Hey, Marshall!" to someone else is a weird experience. Arabic has a specific form for the dual - add "an" or "ein" to the end of a word - so I guess that makes the two of us "Al Marshallan" for the summer...

Tomorrow is a day trip to Ajloun. No idea what or where this is - people tell me it is the site of a castle built by Saladin about an hour north of the city. Sounds like a fun way to spend a couple of hours. It'll be our last bit of fun before classes start on Wednesday.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Got into Amman at 2:30 this morning, on a much delayed flight. My ride from the airport was also significantly delayed, so I didn't get to my apartment until 6AM or so. The time change was killer, but with half a bottle of Tylenol PM, I should be over it soon.

Still getting my bearings in this city. The drive to my apartment wasn't a great orientation. I am staying between 5th and 6th circles, very close to the American embassy (to the delight of my mother), on a street that has no name. I'm renting a room in a beautiful house, which is quite a step up from my accommodations at AUC in Cairo. Seems like a very ritzy area - lots of Mercedeses and BMWs parked in driveways, all of the houses have big gates and grand facades. I can't believe I'm paying as little as I am to be in this area. It requires a cab ride to and from school, but even with that factored in each day, I'm saving a bundle over the apartments that Qasid rents.

After sleeping for a few hours, I unpacked and showered before heading into the city to explore. Seisei, the woman who is renting me my place, gave me a brief overview and sent me on my way. I hopped a cab to the first circle (closest to downtown) and walked around a bit, grabbed a meal in a local cafe, and walked along some main streets before hiking up to the Citadel.

Already, the city has made a good impression on me. When I compare it to Cairo, the only other Arab city where I've lived for a considerable period of time, the contrast is certainly a positive one. I'm staying in a ritzy area, but even downtown, things were cleaner and in better repair. Taxis are metered (and cheap!), and the cars themselves were in much better condition. Traffic was light (though it is the weekend), especially compared to the chronic congestion all over Cairo. Stop lights work and are respected. Street signs are prominent. If one compares the Cairo and Amman Citadels, the latter seems far better maintained. Signs are accurate, entrances and guardhouses are new and clean, and I wasn't harassed by anyone looking to sell me tourist crap. Cairo definitely beats Amman when it comes to the views at its Citadel, with the pyramids in the distance and the Muhammad Ali Mosque. But Amman, though blessed with a less architecturally inspiring site, certainly seems to take better care of what it has. These are, of course, impressions from a single afternoon of wandering. By next week, I may have changed my views completely.

Overall, I'm getting a very strong Jerusalem vibe from this place. It's very hilly, just like Jerusalem, and much of the building stock is boxy/rectangular and covered with the same beige stone. People leave you alone when you walk down the street. Omnipresent pictures of the King don't let me forget where I am for too long, though.

With regard to Arabic, I haven't gotten much practice. I asked several times in Arabic for specific directions to "Jebel Al-Qalaa," the Citadel, and everyone answered in English. I guess I'm pretty obviously a tourist. Considering that my speaking skills are my weakest linguistic link, I'm hoping this changes - I need the practice speaking!

I still need to stay up another hour before going to bed, so I deal with the time change correctly. Orientation for the Qasid program starts tomorrow - time to get busy!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

First Post

Leaving for Jordan in less than 24 hours. I will spend nine weeks at the Qasid Institute in Amman, studying Arabic language. My last foray into the Arab world (Cairo, Jan-June '08) was catalogued with mass emails; instead of spamming dozens of inboxes again, I figured this time I would post things online and let interested parties check up on my news when they felt like it.

I'll be a bit more verbose in my next few postings - I just wanted to get this thing started now before I got too lazy/busy to start things up.