Friday, March 26, 2004

Yarmouk University

My 2001 trip to Jordan was as a student in this Arabic program at Yarmouk University. (Here are pictures, but from a later year.) My first e-mail home was a description of the campus and surrounding neighborhood. Having been on a couple of campuses, I freely admit they are prone to bits of legend, so a couple of points here might have been embellished slightly by my sources; however, the core of it is probably good. It has been slightly edited in terms of content.

"Greetings from Jordan, the Apollo Internet Cafe to be precise, on the second floor of a sort of small mall clustered around a grocery store and a Subway in Irbid, Jordan. Things here are going fairly well - it's been good to hear from people, though I admit I haven't been the most regular of repliers lately. Perhaps the stock of e-mail I've sent in the past will make up for it.

"Yarmouk University is the second largest university in Jordan, with about 15,000 students, mostly from Jordan and Palestine. Boasting a nice campus with streets lined with olive trees and sunny weather almost all the time, it was founded as an arts & science school in the 1970s so as to aid in the development of Jordan and plug the "brain drain" that too often afflicts the world's developing nations. As described in the handbook, its primary purpose is excellence in teaching, its second is community service, and its third is the promotion of research. About 1980 there was an attempt to expand into so-called "modern fields" with the introduction of engineering and medical programs; however, after a few years they decided it wasn't working out, and these programs now form a separate school, the Jordan University of Science and Technology which I think is just outside of town. Still, Yarmouk is in a constant state of flux. The one change I've heard most about is the abolition of on-campus housing. The story is that the women's townhouses were located along the path where the President used to walk. Apparently he was not a popular man, because either the last winter or the one before the female students in the dorm began pelting him with snowballs as he walked by. He then decided students should not live on campus, and the offending building now holds the offices for the faculty of law and Islamic jurisprudence.

"All of this puts us in faculty housing near the South Gate, with the men and women in separate buildings. The route from our residences to the Language Center where classes are runs through a small evergreen forest next to a construction site for the expansion of Yarmouk's model school program, past the meteorological observation center, a small white building with a black cylinder outside, and up a closed-off street to the third floor of the center which houses classrooms on the first and the "English Village" for students of English on the second. Last year classes were held in the classrooms, but the students became a sort of tourist attraction with people always peering in the windows, so we're now in what I think are either seminar or meeting rooms near the professor's offices. (There is, however, a story about how last year a group of girls began perpetually watching the Upper Intermediate class, and one of them began leaving anonymous flowers and notes on the desk of one of the students each morning.)

"Right now I'm in class for five hours a day, with separate classes in Reading, Writing, Grammar, Listening, Conversation (focusing on important social situations, etiquette, etc.) and the spoken Dialect of Jordan, the last of which will end after sixteen days. All the professors are excellent, and I find I can learn more in a day here than in a good week back in Madison.

"Past the language center, one walks for a short ways down a street past the archeological museum and jumps down a small wall to cut across a parking lot before arriving at the Street of Love, so called because this is where the various couples of Yarmouk meet "out of the way" to do whatever it is they do. This ends just before the West Gate, which opens on the university drag, which is basically Yarmouk's equivalent of State Street in Madison, filled with pedestrian traffic going to all the various shops, restaurants, and internet cafes along its half-mile length. After walking around a giant pit where they are building a new underground tunnel for pedestrians and shops to releive the pressure on street level, you quickly come to the 'Ash al-Hana restaurant
(ed: that transcription from my first week there doesn't go with the name I remember - hard to say which is right), which with its maroon and purple plastic chairs on the outside patio has become our major place of eating, and is located just opposite the beautiful university mosque. We quickly became regulars there, and the waiters stopped bringing menus after about three days. A couple days ago they noticed that after eating at least one and sometimes two meals a day there for most of a week, no one in our group of over twenty had ordered anything besides felafel and shawarma, and let us try some small samples of different foods. Our diet has since expanded.

The shops around campus are generally not considered as classy as those downtown, as you might imagine; here, they seek to appeal to youth, which apparently means lots of American themes. It seems common to just slap an American (or Canadian) name on anything, which results in combinations like "Pokemon Coffeehouse," "Atlanta Internet Cafe," "The Big Taste of America," "Toronto BBQ," and "The Flavor of America." This American culture-worship gets kind of cloying after a while.
(minor deletion) The prototype for this may be the clerk in a store where some people bought notebooks the first day here (with Titanic on the cover), he kept offering to give us discounts on stuff just because of his adulation of American culture. He would to well to talk to the flight attendant on our Royal Jordanian flight over, a woman of about 30 from India with a masters in Russian literature who talked to a friend of mine and I at length about the false dreams of America in the world, with people from places like India hearing the success stories of people who make it rich in medicine or computers and yet go over there to find that in reality there's plenty of unemployment or low-wage work to go around, not to mention cultural issues that arise once the second and third generations are born into a world far different from the one their parents left.

"Perhaps the clearest illustration of this type of illusion can be seen in the gender interaction here around Yarmouk, which bears a strong resemblance to the sort of Hawk/Tilo issues raised in Chitra Divakaruni's The Mistress of Spices. The shopkeeper with the Titanic notebooks prefers to give one of the girls free stuff, and we're sort of waiting for the marriage proposal any day now. It is a common desire of young Jordanian men around here to want to marry an American girl, and affection based on the image of American culture and nothing else. This gets a little worse with the groups of unemployed college grads or dropouts who just sort of hang out around campus causing trouble. They frequently harass any women who walk by, but the stereotype of Americans as exciting and having loose values makes them especially tempting targets. This apparently was at its worst last year.
(minor deletion) Last year the various whistles, comments, and types of physical harassment directed at women in general and American women in particular became so bad that the city of Irbid flooded the university drag with plainclothes police officers whose sole purpose was to watch for and stamp out sexual harassment.

"It would be a mistake, of course, to read all friendliness with this cynicism, there are plenty of people around here who are nice just because they're nice, and these range from the professors in the Language Center to most people on the streets to the girl who shouted down "Hello, foreigners!" from a window of the chemistry building to a friend of mine and I as we were walking somewhere on campus. Yarmouk, like the rest of Jordan, regards hospitality as an important virtue, and one person who is on the program for the second year can hardly walk down the street without running into some old friend from last summer.

"All of these people, and the "West-struck" young people and "Street Dogs," and we in the program, and the people who seem to glare automatically whenever they see one of us somewhere, stand together at a time in history charactized by an unprecedented seeping of cultures and images of which the American is the most hegemonic (in the Marxist sense), and all dance together to turn the wheel of time as it moves along its inexorable, unexplored path. Perhaps, even as we walk the same ground, those of us found on the streets of Irbid today are no different from the merchants of the Biblical Beth Arbel, the Greek craftsmen of the Hellenistic Age, the people wandering to the Roman baths in the days of Arbila, the converts and missionaries of first Christianity and then Islam as the city became known by its present name, the Arab young people imitating Mongol garb in Mamluk times, or any other group in any other place down through the ages."

Unfortunately, I don't have a server to host the relevant pictures right now. Maybe in the future.


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