July 25, 2011

Blast from the Past: Desert Chants

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Al-Khasnah viewed through The Siq. Petra, Jordan, August 2007.

For those of you who are not familiar, in my “Blast from the Past” posts I share– for better or for worse– interesting tidbits from my past (pictures, childhood drawings, old school essays, etc.). Below is a Chapel Speech that I gave at Westover School (the wonderful all-girls’ boarding school I attended… yes, I went to fancy shmancy boarding school) back in April 2000 when I was sixteen years old. I ran across a paper version of the speech a couple of months ago when I was packing, and I’ve typed it up for you here. The speech is about the Fall 1999 semester I spent living in Amman, Jordan and attending the Ahliyyah School for Girls. The writing is a bit silly, immature, and ethnocentric at times, but keep in mind that I was very young and just starting to explore the world. I thought this would be interesting to share since my time in Jordan, particularly my visits to Petra, inspired me to study both geology and Arabic. In the text below I’ve interspersed a few pictures taken during my time in Jordan. There are also some 2011 footnotes. Enjoy!

If you want to see more pictures of Jordan, I have two “…in Pictures” albums of Jordan so far:

Petra in Pictures and Wadi Rum in Pictures

Desert Chants

Westover Chapel Speech, April 25th, 2000

By, Evelyn Mervine

I had only slept three hours before I was awoken by a loud, howling chant. I sat bolt upright on my cot, scared to death, not realizing entirely where I was, and looking everywhere for something familiar. My sleep-deprived eyes finally rested on my large, khaki-colored duffel bag, and instantly I felt a sort of calm relief. My senses clearing, I realized I was hearing for the very first time in my life a Muslim call to prayer with its origin at a nearby mosque. The sound, enchanting and mystical, vibrated through the dusty streets of a Middle Eastern metropolis.

Disentangling myself from the thin sheets that were plastered to my legs with sweat, I stumbled to the window. My watch revealed that the hour was only five am, but already a pink light was piercing the sky, and I soaked in deeply the first sight of Amman, Jordan, the city that would be my home for the next four months. The street below revealed nothing in particular: only a few sand-colored houses with white or green painted bars on the windows. Here and there a vine or a pitiful little shrub made a brave stand against the desert heat. However, as I looked between the roofs of the nearby buildings and into the distance, I had my breath taken away. Row upon row of buildings, all beige or sand-colored and seeming almost mirages out of the desert, tiled the softly-rolling hillsides. Three or four mosque towers (1) rose high into the sky. I soon realized why the chanting had startled me so: black speakers dotted the very tops of the mosque towers and blared forth the call to prayer. If three or four mosques were visible out of this one small window alone, who knew how many mosques were blaring the exact same chant all over the city! No wonder the noise had awoken me.

As the chanting slowly died down, I became aware of other noises. In the room next to mine I could hear the sound of prayer rugs being tucked back into closets or under beds. Down below in the street, two men were walking slowly and speaking in guttural-yet-melodic Arabic, a language I had heard for the first time only the evening before. In the far distance I heard small horns, which I assumed to be those of taxi drivers already embarking on another day of business. Having stood there gazing out the window for quite some time, I suddenly realized my legs were wobbling, my head spinning, and my back aching. And so, with a new, exciting world awaiting me, I crawled back on the cot, pushed the sticky sheets aside onto the floor, and immediately fell back asleep.

With my first host family in downtown Amman, Jordan. Fall 1999.

A week later as I sat sipping a soda at the top of an ancient Roman amphitheater in downtown Amman, I reflected on how quickly I was adjusting to life in Jordan. The last seven days had been a whirlwind of new experiences. That first morning when the mosque towers awoke me, I fell back asleep and slept until eleven. I probably would have slept longer had not Mrs. Awqati entered bearing a breakfast tray heaped high with fried eggs, soft cheeses, leban (a sort of sour yogurt), tomatoes, pickles, olives, toasted pita bread, and the first of many cups of sweet, soothing tea.

The next day I began my role as a student. All of the girls at the Ahliyyah School were very welcoming but bombarded me with a thousand questions about my life, home, family, and country. The girls wanted to know everything about my life in America. Girls who did not know me yet would often approach by asking questions such as, “Have you ever been to Disney World?” or “Have you ever seen Leonardo DiCaprio?” or “Do you like Nike?” Yes, I have. No, I have not. And, no, I do not.

The schoolwork not being very difficult, I had plenty of time to explore and reflect while I was in Jordan. I jumped at every opportunity to go anywhere, meet anyone, try any new food, and try any new experience. To tell of every excitement and wonder I encountered while in Jordan would probably take me the entire weekend. Thus, for the sake of time, I shall recount only a few of my many spectacular experiences.

A posed photo at a shop in Amman, Jordan. I’m wearing traditional bedouin clothing. Fall 1999.

A second posed photo in Bedouin clothing. Amman, Jordan, Fall 1999.

One of my first outings led to my gazing upon the holy city of Jerusalem. About an hour’s drive from Amman is the slightly more rural city of Madaba. At times I was not quite sure what made Madaba any more rural than places in Amman. In both cities herds of sheep can be seen grazing next to shopping centers, and Bedouin tents are often pitched next to five-star hotels (2). However, I was quickly told that in Amman the slaughter of chickens is prohibited. In Madaba, however, the front of every grocery shop is piled high with wooden cages containing live chickens. Customers simply indicate which bird they like, and the shopkeeper takes the bird to the back of the store to meet its death. A customer receives first the noise of frantic squawking in her ears, then a freshly decapitated bird in her hands. The banishment of “street chicken slaughter” seemed to be a primary distinguishing characteristic of Amman’s worldly sophistication (3).

Anyway, I had been staying at my friend Rawan’s house for the weekend and, to speak truthfully, not particularly enjoying the experience. Rawan’s five younger sisters were constantly running through the four rooms of the small apartment whining and screaming, and Rawan’s mother kept trying to prepare Western dishes for me, all of which turned out terribly. I would have much preferred a traditional rice dish or even a pita and cheese sandwich, but not wanting to seem rude, I gulped down the charred hamburgers and burnt onion rings and forced myself to smile. I was greatly relieved when Rawan’s parents offered to take me on a trip to Madaba. I had heard of the many beautiful mosaics there and also would have gone anywhere to get away from the screams of Rawan’s youngest sister. As I skipped down the stairwell and into the car, I realized that the entire family was trooping out the door behind me. Apparently, all nine of us– Rawan’s parents, Rawan and her five sisters, and I– were all going to pile into the family’s ancient two-door Toyota.

Despite having a nine-year-old piled on top of me and Rawan’s elbow in my stomach, the drive passed quickly. Because all of the museums in Madaba had closed earlier in the day, Rawan’s parents instead drove us past the town of Madaba to Mt. Nebo. Mt. Nebo is of great Christian importance as religious scholars believe that this is the final resting place of Moses, who gazed upon the Holy Land of Israel from the mountaintop just before he died.

One of the most mystical, beautiful churches I have ever entered is built upon Mt. Nebo. The church, called Siyaga, was was built in the IV century and then enlarged in Byzantium times. Inside are crumbling, yet somehow holy (4), columns; intricate, colorful mosaics depicting everything from saints to camels; and a few simple wooden benches. There is also an ancient cross-shaped basin once used for baptism, a small sandpit near the altar where candles lit for loved ones may be stuck into the holy soil, and a small tourist shop in the back where one might buy a Mt. Nebo postcard or an “I’ve been to Mt. Nebo 2000” t-shirt.

However, the view of the valley below is what really makes one feel holy. Except for the modern-looking iron cross which has been erected at the top of the mountain, I found myself looking at the very same view Moses himself must have seen so many centuries before. I stood on the rocky mountaintop and gazed below at the small Israeli towns– so close, and yet politically so far away– and at the distant, glorious city I knew to be Jerusalem. Never had I gazed upon hills such as those that then surrounded me. The sand-covered hills, covering the land like a wrinkled skin, were almost devoid of vegetation. On and on stretched the sand, here diving into valleys, here darkened by shadow, here lit brilliantly by the setting sun. As vivid pinks and purples began to fill the sky, I turned to leave and, this time, smiled as Rawan’s sister again crawled into my lap in the overstuffed Toyota.

With a classmate in Petra, Jordan. Fall 1999.

Hanging out with some sandstone in Petra, Jordan. Fall 1999.

The second place worth describing is the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, a sandy, monotonous, three-hour drive from Amman. The ancient city is at first hidden by gigantic rock mountains, and only the modern city of Wadi Musa can be seen. However, a short horseback ride to The Siq, or the tiny crack in the mountainside which is the only entrance to Petra, and immediately one is transported into another world. Petra is entirely encased in tall rock mountains, which form a sort of valley through which a river once flowed. The Siq alone would be enough to draw me as a tourist. The towering cliff faces are lined with strips of color that look very similar to the rock patterns found in America’s Grand Canyon (5). The countless murals and decorations, painstakingly carved out of the rock so many centuries ago, enhance the natural beauty of The Siq walls. Just before reaching the city of Petra, The Siq narrows, turns sharply, and suddenly a thin strip of what must be one of the most awe-inspiring temples in the world becomes visible. When I saw the pink facade of Al-Khasneh before me, I did not know whether to run forward or stand still forever in the hope that I might one day die with such an extraordinary view before me (6). For those of you who have seen “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” you probably remember the temple where the Holy Grail was finally found. That temple was no movie set; it was Al-Khasneh.

Although I found no Holy Grail in Petra, I certainly found something else. Something more abstract, something more personal, something more valuable. In a way I found myself. Being surrounded by not only Al-Khasneh but also by  hundreds of similar facades and carvings seemed to breathe life and hope and spirit into every moving, working cell in my body. I could almost feel my mitochondria doubling their efforts (7). I was once told while in Jordan that to see Petra thoroughly takes sixteen days. I was blessed to spend three days in Petra and could spent three years describing my short experience. However, I will stop at Al-Khasneh. Transform this robe (8) I am wearing into jeans, a T-shirt, and hiking boots (10), put me on the top of camel surrounded by men wearing their hattah (9) headdresses, put the Al-Khasneh facade at my back, The Siq before me, and you have what, to this date, is one of the most satisfactory moments of my life (11).

Jordan brought me not only this thrilling moment, but also many others. Jordan also brought me new ways in which to observe and judge the world around me. Although I still believe that I harbor a great amount of American ethnocentrism, I believe that my trip to Jordan helped me shed at least a few of my cultural biases and, perhaps, helped me realize that American is often not as bad or as wonderful as I think it is. For four months I was immersed in an environment with a culture and society so different from my own. Under such circumstances, how could I not adapt, change, and acquire new knowledge? Impossible. Thus, I tried to accept the task wholeheartedly. Many days were far from easy. However, what I learned from these more difficult days is just as important as what I learned from my more pleasant experiences. When I recount some of my more trying experiences, some people ask why I bothered to go to Jordan at all if I knew this sort of thing might happen to me. Usually I smile and say something difficult to argue such as, “I didn’t go to Jordan to be in America. I went to Jordan to be in Jordan.” This is not really a complete explanation. I think I would be more truthful if I said I was driven by adventure and wanderlust. However, reflecting back on my experience I realize that satiating these two desires was only a minute piece of my unusual trip. What I learned about life and the world is much more permanent and satisfying. I imagine that my wanderlust and sense of adventure will lead to many more travels. I can only hope that I am able to glean as much knowledge and insight from my future travels as I have from this one short stay in Jordan.


2011 Footnotes:

(1) Mosque towers are known as “minarets.”

(2) I wonder if this is still true in 2011.

(3) This passage sounds horribly condescending, now that I am reading it years later.

(4) When I was sixteen, I considered myself a Christian. I now consider myself an atheist of Episcopalian heritage. I no longer believe in holy things, but I still enjoy visiting historical churches.

(5) I must be speculating here since I did not visit the Grand Canyon until 2005.

(6) Don’t worry- I’m just being a melodramatic 16-year-old here.

(7) Science metaphor for the win.

(8) Robe? Maybe they made me wear something special for Chapel. Normally, we went in our dress class clothes, which were formal Laura Ashley-style sailor uniforms (I kid you not. If you ask nicely, maybe I will post a picture).

(9) Definitely my preferred outfit, especially compared with Chapel robes and sailor uniforms!

(10)  A hattah is also known as a kuffiyah.

(11) Definitely still up there on the list, though I’ve seen many more amazing places.