Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Idiosyncrasies....Time For Replacments?

Usually I think of idiosyncrasies as the building blocks of great personalities (usually), but I am starting to notice that some of mine may be a bit unhealthy. Of course everyone has their “thing” or multiple peculiarities, but there is a point to where it becomes a bit much.

Case in point: when someone begins to joke around about themselves in the third person – like John saying to Jim, “Well, how is Jim doing today?” and Jim responding, “Jim is doing awfully well, thank you very much.” Once can make a few people giggle at the absurdity of the joke, but when Jim starts to talk about himself in third person at least once a day, it becomes really lame.

The last example could just be performed by someone with a really bad sense of humor. So let’s say Donald is some 25 year old guy and a huge germophob. At first it just seemed sanitary, and all the girls thought he was different from all the other guys. He kept his room clean, and always washed his hands before cooking. One day, however, after he spent too many years being too meticulous, he refuses to take out the trash because he doesn’t want to touch it. That is going a bit too far.

That is an extreme case, but hey that’s what this generation is all about. All or nothing. One extreme or another.

Anyway, back to my unhealthy idiosyncrasies. Over the years I have groomed a few “things’ into full blown idiosyncrasies and I’m starting to wonder if I can break out of the mold. So let me just list a few…a few that I know myself and others contributed by Alex.

To begin, if I listen to a new musical artist for the first time and find that I enjoy his/her/their tunes then I almost always download/buy the CD and listen to it to exhaustion. How this started I have no idea, probably during my middle school days when I had nothing else to do except ignore my homework and my annoying little brothers.

But this did not stop when I entered high school or even college. In fact it has only gotten worse. For example, Alex introduced me to The Beatles (I know, I know, I got a late start) and I swear I played The Beatles for three months straight. And then I just couldn’t do it anymore. I had to take six months off before I could listen to them again.

A bit more concerning are the days when I get it into my head that I HAVE to buy something. I am not a shopaholic, but sometimes I will convince myself that I absolutely cannot live without something and I go on a rampage until I find exactly it. One week I will decide that I hate every pair of pants that I own, and I spend way too long trying to find a pair that I actually like.

Usually I am not successful, and my shopping kick is more annoying (for Alex and myself) than helpful. Nevertheless, I continue to spend days at the mall looking for something that I don’t actually need.

As for Alex’s first contribution, I get really when we do something new. He has pointed this out to me on many occasions, even though I never notice anything different. Supposedly when I get excited, I start to walk really fast and giggle way too much. When we were living in Beirut and on our way to a Jazz concert, Alex pointed it out to a whole group and I took every effort to conceal my excitement. His observations are correct, but I never notice them until he says something.

As for his second observation, which is probably a bit more annoying than the former, I can be a bit indecisive at time. But not the usual ambivalence that women tend to carry with them. I like to ask everyone’s opinions, to take them into consideration when making a decision, and then can’t make up my mind if there are any conflicting opinions.

Sometimes I am demanding and will only do things my way, but usually I am neutral and just want other people to make the decision. Even if it is just Alex and I, and we are deciding on what to do for dinner, I will ask him what he wants to do. Usually we will both not have a preference, but I will demand Alex make the decision. That goes the same for a group, and that usually creates a problem as I do not care to make a decision.

All these idiosyncrasies are trivial, and do not affect my overall functioning in society. It is interesting, rather, to dissect how I came to have these peculiarities and observe how they will evolve in the future. It’s fun to think about. Maybe I will work on getting some new ones. Hmm…sort of like shopping for new personality traits.

Idiosyncrasies are nothing to be embarrassed of, and I am not having a mid-life crisis that is making me rethink my whole self. But idiosyncrasies are just traits that we have allowed to consume ourselves. If I change my approach to new music I will not lose an overwhelming part of my personality. Maybe my experiment will be more revealing that I imagine it will be. It can’t hurt to make a concerted effort to break out of the mold and try out some new idiosyncrasies….can it?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Traveling, Arabic...and more Arabic

Alex and I have taken Morocco by storm. We are sticking to the same mentality that we had in Beirut, which is to get our shit done during the week and then take off on the weekends. In Beirut we were absolutely successful and we hit all the spots outlined for Lebanon in our Middle East travel guide, and more.

In our couple of weeks in North Africa, we have been able to travel to the mountain village of Chefchaouen, explore the sights and old city of Meknes and tour the Vilubolis Roman ruins. This weekend we will be traveling to the port city of Tangiers. The weekend after Austen, our roommate, will be joining us for an extended weekend in Marrakesh. The weekend after that we are riding on the back of camels into the desert with students from ALIF, for an exciting desert camp out. We have no other plans as of yet, but I am super excited to find out what is in store for us!

I really have no idea what I will do when we return to the States. Of course I have been waiting eagerly for our repatriation, but I know I will miss traveling so much. I have come to realize, however, that I have traveled more outside of America than within. I have come up with a list of places I want to travel, and they include many places on the West Coast as well as Northern East Coast and the Grand Canyon. Sometime soon I need to hit South America and Canada.

The weekdays spent in Fez are no less exciting. My life is now consumed with Arabic courses. I only have two, but I have spent all my free time the last two weeks reviewing the first six chapters of Al Kitab (our textbook), and simultaneously completing all the homework given to us by our two professors.

I absolutely love the courses, and I have two great teachers. Sometimes the studying gets hectic, but it is so worth it. I am excelling in my classes, and I am enjoying it so much. On the other hand, I am beginning to notice a couple of bothersome things. I fall asleep repeating Arabic words and conjugations in my head, and I wake up thinking of them. Last night my Arabic teacher was in my dream, and I distinctly remember that during my dream I was conjugating the noun homework (wajib) with suffix endings. Like his homework (wajibuhu) and my homework (wajibee).

I am sure that it is normal due to my current overexposure to classical Arabic, but still scary nevertheless. In all honesty, I could not think of a better way to spend my time – in the Middle East or North Africa. Undoubtedly all my hard work will pay off.

In other news, I am eagerly waiting to hear back from the universities I applied to for this coming fall semester. I applied to George Washington University, Georgetown University, American University, Johns Hopkins and the University of Virginia. It will probably be an interesting mix of acceptances and rejections – but we shall see. Alex is also waiting for the results of his applications to American, Georgetown and George Washington. Of course when we know, you will know.

I am going to get back to my ridiculous amount of Arabic homework, and will update soon.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Manipulation of Music

A couple of weeks ago, in small town Utah, 30 miles West of Salt Lake City, the Crossfield City Council organized a talent show as a community builder. Crossfield is a town known for its musicians, at least for the neighboring towns whose families travel there on the weekends to hit up the local bars and cafes. It is something straight out a movie. You can go to any hang out place and find a local band or solo musician rocking their tunes, hoping to make it big.

But Crossfield is one place you won’t find Simon Cowell looking for talent. Other than the local musicians, the most exciting part of Crossfield is an imploded mine that has become the hottest hangout for high schoolers looking to party it up, undisturbed. Driving through the center of town you would never guess the city had a thriving night life, because during the daytime it takes on the appearance of an abandoned city perfectly suited for a Stephen King novel or horror film. The streets are bare, the building have broken windows and badly weathered paint jobs, and old rusty trucks line the streets.

What set Crossfield apart from other towns was its diverse population. Each street hosts a different ethnic group, which may contribute to its popularity in music in surrounding areas. On the Western outskirts of the town Mormon and Jewish communities live harmoniously in close proximity. On the opposite side of town you can find a small community of American Baptists, as well as Russian. A bit more towards there center, a mix of Middle Eastern, European, and Amish communities make up the population. Regardless of its small size, it is composed of several ethnicities and religions.

Despite its shabby appearance, the city council announced it was planning to host a talent show. The aim was to end Crossfield’s isolation from surrounding communities, and make a name for it in the state of Utah. The thought was, if the talent show was a success then maybe the next year it would attract people from other communities, or even other states.

Well, the town council members were probably not expecting that their first attempt to gain a bit of recognition would send shockwaves throughout the whole of Utah. Only ten contestants, all residents of Crossfield, entered the contest. They were split equally between male and females, but the music genres ranged from American folk to modern Arabic music. The judging panel was composed of the five music teachers living in Crossfield. Five days of competition later, a Lebanese native emerged as the winner.

Ali Hussein, a quiet young man studying in the local high school, won by a small margin, followed closely by an older Russian woman whose genre was classic rock. The judges’ reason for giving Hussein the first place title was that he was an extraordinary singer in several different genres. One city council member, who preferred to be unnamed, said Ali was “one of the best vocal artists Crossfield has ever produced.”

The famous actress Glen Close, a former resident of a town neighboring Crossfield and well aware of the musical community, publicly endorsed Hussein as the representative of “America’s new generation of music.” All of the attention given to Hussein was certainly putting Crossfield on the map.

There was only minimal criticism from the audience toward the judges’ decisions, and any of it came from the friends of the runner-up. That is, until Hussein turned his success into an opportunity to speak out on behalf of his formerly unknown affiliation to Hizbullah.

During a televised interview with News Channel 5, which is broadcasted in over half of the greater Utah area, Hussein revealed his love for music began during his childhood in Lebanon. As part of the Hizbullah choir, an institution funded by Syria and Iran, and organized under the guidance of top Hizbullah officials.

It seems as though no Crossfield community member ever suspected the family’s ties to the group, labeled by the US and several other countries as a terrorist organization. When asked about the shocking news, a resident speaking under anonymity said, “ The family was generally a nice, quiet family that participated in all community events. Everyone liked them. They never hung flags, spoke about politics and I never even saw them step out on Sundays to go to church.”

In several follow-up interviews, Hussein revealed the inner working of the Hizbullah choir and how it helped to create the person he is today. “We are not really supposed to talk about being in the Hizbullah choir. It is a secretly run branch of the party. The boys are selected through an application process and series of auditions, and then we are placed into the level which best suits us. For the more advanced, they go on to compete internationally. But of course not under the Hizbullah banner.”

He went on to say that being a Hizbullah choir boy taught him unity with his fellow Hizbullah brothers, as well as discipline. “I wouldn’t be the great musician I am today, or even the person I am today, if it wasn’t for my mentor Nasrallah,” he said. Apparently, he was one of the few students able to intern under Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, as he still holds the top honors from the choir.

Only hours after Hussein’s revelation, the Crossfield community president as well as Glenn Close both issued public apologies for endorsing Hussein. Within a few days of the event four West Coast states – including Arizona, Nevada and Idaho – introduced bills to their state legislatures allowing intensive background checks for any applicants into local or inter-state talent shows.

So what does this mean for the international music world? Are terrorist organizations now trying to infiltrate the realm of music, and then use their success for a platform on which to base the ideology? In the 21st century, music has proven that it breaches international borders very quickly. We see it as a form of freedom of speech, but could the manipulation of our beloved form of entertainment by people like Ali Hussein make it something we fear?

*This piece of literary journalism is completely fictional and for the entertainment of my blog readers. I am not trying to deface Hizbullah so much as point out the absurdity of such a report. Thank you.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A Sort of Literary Venn Diagram

Our adventures have taken us from the Levant and into the Maghreb. Alex and I are now as settled as we can be in Fez, Morocco and are beginning to enjoy the Moroccan culture. If you can call my adaptation to the Lebanese way of living culture shock, then Morocco has turned my world upside down. Moving from one country, with its own set of customs and way of life, to one so different has been quite the experience and kind of fun…so let me give you my detailed comparison of life in Beirut with my observations of life in Fez.

Unlike the Western-mimicking city of Beirut, Fez does not have a large community of English speakers. In fact it is hard to find anyone who can communicate, even on a very elementary scale, with me in English. Alex is a real godsend on this trip, because everyone here speaks French (and Alex really paid attention in his French courses). The Lebanese colloquial I studied in Beirut is also not helping me, as the Moroccan dialect is much different.

Everyday, however, I am learning small similarities between the two dialects of Arabic. For example, instead of putting a “b” in front of every verb, Moroccans put a “k”. So “bashrub” for “I drink” in Lebanese becomes “kashrub” in Morocco. Or so I am told.

The overwhelming language barrier, however, is making everyday life extremely difficult. In Lebanon if someone did not speak English very well, they could easily find another in the immediate vicinity who could translate. Here, that luxury does not exist. Fortunately the names for fruits and vegetables are the same in Lebanese and Moroccan Arabic and I can at least grocery shop on my own.

Although Fez has much of the same elements as Lebanese suburbs, or even American suburbs, much of their native culture still exists. They dress and behave very North African-ish (quoted by THE Alex himself). Men and women alike all dress in Jelabas. This is a long robe, covering the ankles, which is usually made of cotton and has long sleeves. The men’s robes have hoods, whereas women have the option as most of them already accessorize with a hijab, or head scarf.

Although not everyone wears the Jelaba, I would say about 95% of the population in Fez rocks the Jelaba. I’ve seen fifteen year old girls skipping around in pink Jelabas, and 80 year old men shuffling around with their pointed hoods up. They wear them to work, to shop in, to go out in, and probably to bed – although my last hypothesis is not yet confirmed.

The remaining 5% are part of the younger population who are perhaps getting tired of the monotony of the Jelaba. But then again, everyday there may be a consistent 5% that usually wear the Jelaba but just want to be daring and switch it up.

In any case, this is the extreme opposite of the flashy and skimpy clothing Lebanese women love to clad themselves in. If you choose any random closet of a Lebanese woman, you would probably find no less than ten shirts with animal prints and sparkling sequins. Every shirt and pair of pants would probably be at least one size too small, and the shoes with ridiculously high heels. And those who wore observed the Muslim tradition of the hijab usually sported the same kind of wardrobe, with just a bit more covered up.

As for their daily schedules, all of Fez shuts down between the hours of noon to three. This is for none other than their daily lunch rituals. Even the center where we take Arabic courses officially shuts down. We can meander in and out of the garden or building, but there are virtually no employees to help a disoriented student.

I am not sure how this aspect of their culture came about, but it is really inefficient in my opinion. There is no way to conduct business during these hours. And that is a huge chunk of the work day. Just ask Alex, who is constantly trying to get ahold of big Moroccan figures during the day for his interviews…and who always seem to be on their lunch break.

Speaking of lunches, Moroccan food, which is quite tasty, is also very limited in variety. Dish number 1: Couscous with either vegetables, chicken or beef. Dish number 2: Tagine with vegetables or meat (tagine refers to the bowl it is cooked and served in). Dish number 3: Shish kebabs of vegetables or meat. And these dishes usually served with either a Moroccan salad or soup.

Thus far I have had pretty decent experiences with the food, but the day that I exhaust all the possible variations of the dishes is very near. And one can eat only so much couscous and tagine before they hate it. So what do I do then? There are only a few restaurants that serve other kinds of food, and the nearest one to us is McDonalds. And as an American used to McDonald’s dollar menu, I am not about to spend the outrageous prices of McDonald’s here, because then I can’t even enjoy the money I’m saving on a meal while simultaneously taking years off my life. If I have to pay a lot of do damage to my body, it’s just not worth it. A Big Mac here is like four bucks, and that is unacceptable.

As much as Alex tries to persuade me that he will not miss Lebanese food, I know he is already putting his foot in his mouth. I was rather pleased by Lebanese cuisine, and now I would give anything to have their variety and flavor. Beirut also had a nice array of restaurants, with everything from Middle Eastern and European to Japanese.

More upsetting was my run-in with an older man on my first attempt to jog in a residential area. Fully covered in black sweat pants and a black long sleeved hoodie, I was jogging on a fairly empty street when I was verbally harassed by a man walking past, on the opposite side of the street no less. I am not quite sure what he was yelling, but I heard “haram,” which refers to that which is prohibited under Islamic Law.

Now I was used to the occasional awkward stares of soldiers toting huge guns, and catcalls from the local Lebanese men, but nothing prepared me for the Moroccan man’s blatant disapproval of me jogging. I may have continued if it was not for the numerous honks from cars passing by on the street, or the woman who made no attempt to do her staring discreetly. So five minutes into the run, I was done.

I spoke to Alex about it that night because it really bothered me. At least in Lebanon I could partake in my Western habits, even if the Lebanese didn’t do or understand them. Alex, who is on his second visit to the Maghreb, said the Moroccans are much more closed-minded than their Levantine neighbors. Of course, being the respectful visitor that I am, I will probably not do any jogging in and around my apartment…maybe I’ll look for a nice gym to join.

Morocco, however, has its beauty as well. It is about 68 times the size of Lebanon, which is only a little over 4,000 sq miles. On our trips in and around Lebanon it took only a couple of hours to get anywhere. To travel from Beirut to Damascus it was three hours. To travel from the north of Lebanon to the South was no more than one hour and 45 minutes. In complete contrast, it took us four hours to travel from the airport in Casablanca, Morocco to Fez. And that spans only a fraction of the country.

This weekend we took a trip up to a small mountainous village, called Chefchaouen, and the travel time was a little over four hours by bus. The travel time did not, however, affect my overall enjoyment of the trip. It may have, in fact, heightened it. We mostly traveled through the countryside, and it was one of the most beautiful regions I have traveled through.

Alex had taken the trip to Chefchaouen three years ago, and swore that he didn’t remember it being so green and lush. I may be wrong, but it was probably because he last visited during the hottest and driest months of the year.

This time, however, it was one green mountain after another. With fields of orange trees and wide, still lakes scattered throughout the valleys. We passed countless fields, where young children were herding sheep or helping out in the fields. Women carried small stacks of hay on their backs up the road, and older sheepherders could be seen taking an afternoon nap under the sun while their sheep grazed. Everything about the scenery was relaxing and beautiful.

The village, Chefchaouen, was a sight itself. We made our way through the medina, in and out of a maze of alleyways lined with shops filled with trinkets and textiles from Spain to Mauritania. In the center there was a cobblestone square, surrounded by little cafes and restaurants. There were American tourists, a lot of Spanish backpackers, and other tourists from around the world. Refreshingly, the menus at most of the restaurants included seafood and burgers.

Today, we took a trip organized by the ALIF institution we are studying Arabic at and toured the Volubilis Roman ruins, which had the most beautiful mosaics floors that were surprisingly preserved. Of course I will post the pictures as soon as possible.

We also visited the city of Meknes, where there is another American center for students wanting to learn Arabic. We were able to jaunt around the medina, but after spending a lot of time in Fez we weren’t so impressed. It was a bit more touristy and all the shops in the souks looked as though they had imported all their goods from China. Fez’s medina kadima (old city) is filled with very Moroccan textiles, paintings, trinkets, rugs and leather goods. And most of it is made in the city or from surrounding areas.

Anyway, to wrap up my comparison of Beirut to Fez…I am pretty content here. Other factors that I should mention are that Alex and I are rooming with three other students studying at ALIF. That is quite different than our living situation in Beirut, where we had a furnished apartment to ourselves, with daily maid service. Now we are re-accustoming ourselves to doing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, living with other people, and having to buy and hook up our own butane tanks to heat water and use the stove.

I wouldn’t exchange my experiences in Lebanon for anything, and I am already quite fond of Morocco. The most exciting part, of course, is the intensive language courses I am enrolled in. Everyday I have four hours of classes, and in all my spare time I am studying. One of my professors thinks I have a future in the Arabic language, and I am learning so much so fast. It’s such a great experience and I would recommend this program to anyone wanting to study Modern Standard Arabic, or even just wanting to travel.