Learning in Jordan: Language, Culture, and Adventure


A page from my Arabic notebook

When learning a new language, our brains try to find ways to connect to language rules we already know, words already in our vocabulary, or experiences we’ve had in order to remember all of the new information and sounds.

This week, for instance, I was instructed by my wonderful Arabic teachers to memorize the days of the week.  

Mish mushkileh (no problem), I thought.  There are only seven of them.  

Then I told myself:

  • Brain Tip #1: Each day begins with an eh or el sound.
  • Brain Tip #2: Most of the days correspond to numbers based on their position in the week.  So, one = waحed which helps me to remember Sunday = elaحad

(By the way, ح is a “ha” sound like “ha ha!”.)

Well, these tips worked for Sunday through Thursday, but I couldn’t memorize Friday because it did not correspond to an Arabic number.  I tried various ways to connect the day with its translation eljomعa (ع is that back-of-the-throat, swallow-the-tongue sound), but nothing would stick!

So, I asked my teacher about it.

“This is the first time I ever thought about this,” she said. “Let me think.  Perhaps because the word is similar to our word for ‘group’ or ‘gathering for prayer,’ this is why Friday is eljomعa rather than a number.”

When she Googled it, she found she was correct!  And now, because of the conversation and experience of rooting out the etymology of the word, I can remember it, and now remember all seven days of the week!

I have had seven weeks of one-hour, daily Arabic lessons (with a two-week break in October because I was out of town), and I have learned the alphabet, am a beginning reader, am a beginning writer, and am starting to communicate verbally at a very basic level.

Yemeni honey from a kiosk at the local market. Yemen is apparently known for their delicious honey!

Today in the supermarket, I was able to ask for cheese in Arabic, and I made connections with a Yemeni gentleman who was selling honey and spoke no English.  It was a fantastic feeling to understand even some of what he was saying. As he tried to explain to us where the honey came from in Yemen, I picked up on the word jabal (mountain). I had come across the word in my research just this morning as I was working on the “Adventure” section of this blog post (see below).  The honey he let us sample was from the mountains of Yemen, he was trying to tell us. He saw the recognition on my face and in my emphatic head nod, and he smiled.  He wanted us to try more types of honey, but I said, “La, hallas. Shukran.” (No, finished. Thank you.)

He smiled, waved, and said, “Mae salameh.” (Goodbye.)

Mae salameh,” I said and returned the smile.


For those who aren’t aware, our work week in Jordan begins on Sunday and runs through Thursday.  The weekend begins with Holy Day on Friday during which many businesses are closed, and then Saturday is a free day.  Because of this, Thursday night is the night to go out!

A short video shot from our building’s rooftop this past Thursday night.

There are even popular songs that welcome Thursday and the end of the week:

One last note about the week comes from Andrew’s reading.  In Reza Aslan’s book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Aslan notes that the reason Muslims observe Holy Day on Friday originates from the pluralist nature of Islam at the time it was founded. Muslims coexisted with Jews, Christians, and any number of pagan religions that were present in the tribal and nomadic region at the time, and the Prophet Mohammad was insistent upon maintaining respect and equality between these cultures. Therefore since the Jewish holy day was on Saturday, and since the Christian holy day was on Sunday, the Muslim holy day was observed on Friday. 

Something else I enjoy about being here is the opportunity to experience a variety of cultures from the region.  There are numerous cultural events each week throughout Amman that include dance, art, music, food, and crafts.

This week, I invited one of my Arabic teachers to accompany me to an art exhibit at Amman’s Orient Gallery.  The exhibit featured paintings by artist Georges Bassil, a Lebanese artist whose work embodied the idea that life’s experiences are “not about the side we see,” but are rather “all about the emotions we feel.”

Not knowing that this was the artist’s theme, I was surprised by how it corresponded so well to an earlier conversation with my teacher.  She typically wears a hijab but chose that morning to show me a photo of herself dressed up for a special event, hair uncovered. “What do you think of this?  Which do you think is better?” she asked me, inviting comparison of her image in a hijab and conservative clothing against the image of her without the scarf, in full make-up, and wearing a beautiful, black lace, ball gown.

My teacher and me 🙂

To this, I responded that I did not think either image of her was better.  I said that rather than comparing the two, I rather consider it this way: that the photo of her with her hair uncovered showed me a side of herself that she creates in the same way actors create characters on stage: they become a visual presentation for others through their costumes, makeup, and hairdos.  This presentation may make them feel more like themselves in a way that real life won’t allow, and it may just be necessary for a particular situation/event. However, when they are dressed in their own clothes, allow their own natural features to show, and are speaking their heart rather than scripted words, more of their true personality (for better or worse) comes through.

My teacher said she liked my analysis of the dual nature many women live. Then, seeing the presentation of women in Bassil’s art whose faces were devoid of color or contour, but whose emotions and memory seemed to burst forth from eyes that conveyed longing, weariness, torment, and sometimes joy — this brought our discussion of the female experience full circle as we discussed the paintings.  

I was happy to discover that this was my teacher’s first time to an art exhibit.  What a wonderful time!

Fortunately, the public affairs office at the U.S. Embassy compiles a list of cultural events and opportunities taking place in an near Amman each week and includes descriptions of each.  The Community Liaison Office (CLO) emails this cultural events newsletter to everyone on their mailing list at the end of each week. It’s my goal to attend at least two of these events per month.  I think that’s an achievable goal — even for an introvert. 🙂


Me standing in the Arch of Hercules at the Roman ruins

Andrew and I recently visited The Citadel, a historical site that sits atop one of the seven hills that originally made up the city of Amman.  Numerous archaeological excavations of the site have shown evidence of occupation since the Neolithic (“New Stone”) Age!  The major buildings at the site are the Temple of Hercules, a Byzantine church, and the Umayyad Palace. There is also a small museum that displays cultural artifacts in chronological order that have been found at the site.

We are so fortunate to have so much history around us!  The Citadel was only a 25-minute drive from our home, the entrance fee was inexpensive with our residency cards, and we spent an enjoyable few hours exploring and learning.  Additionally, we were proud to see that the signage throughout the site was provided through support from USAID.

View from The Citadel looking out over downtown Amman

Our next planned adventure is to make the three-hour drive south to Petra to see the famous “Rose City” — a collection of tombs and temples carved into the pink, sandstone cliffs.  The most famous of these temples is called “The Treasury,” and was featured in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The Treasury
(photo credit http://www.visitpetra.jo/DetailsPage/VisitPetra/PhotoGalleryDetailsEn.aspx?ID=188)

Andrew and I both have sentimental attachments to the Indiana Jones films for the spirit of exploration and adventure they instilled in both of us. Andrew, however, has visited Petra already — an overnight trip while he was on TDY here a few years ago.  This will be my first time, and he is so excited in anticipation of what my reaction will be.

Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp (photo credit: Trip Advisor)

In addition to the “Rose City,” we are also planning on staying overnight in a Bedouin camp.  The Bedouin Arabic-speaking, nomadic people who live in the Middle Eastern deserts.  The camps are run by Bedouin men as a lodging alternative for visitors who come to the various attractions and sites throughout Jordan.  They are romantic and minimalistic, and one feels immersed in tradition and transported through time. … or so I imagine! I guess I will find out next weekend if that is true. 😉

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