Right to Play- {Profile:Muhammad Al-Turkmane}

img_3531 My introduction to Right To Play actually started with a pickup game of football [the kind with Manchester United, not the kind with the Dallas Cowboys]. It was on a brightly lit turf field about 20 minutes away from where I lived in north Amman, that I met Zied Adarbeh. Zied’s an incredibly helpful guy, with the sort of cooperative attitude that makes him appealing to someone like me, given my penchant for profile writing. But this interview isn’t about Zied; it’s about his friend and Right To Play coworker, Muhammad Al Turkmane. Zied’s so helpful that after I explained to him the type of stories I was looking for, he referred me to Muhammad.

I met Muhammad at the Right To Play headquarters in Amman. He’s muscular and has the look of a guy who spends more time wearing Adidas football jerseys, than not. Muhammad’s only just getting a solid grasp of English, just as I’m only getting a solid grasp of Arabic. There aren’t many quotes in this profile. Many of the anecdotes would be quotes had I heard them in English; however I’ve rewritten them in my own words to reach as wide an audience as possible.

I’d like to thank another Right To Play employee, Philmon Haile, for translating during Muhammad’s and my conversation. In most of the other interviews for this blog, I usually


Philmon Haile

found ways to obtain English quotes, to avoid paraphrasing—to truly use the interviewee’s words for a (primarily) English audience. But Muhammad’s story is too inspirational to pass on, merely because of language barriers. I believe the term Zied used was “perfect success story” to describe Muhammad, and in the context of the kind of profile I was looking for, as well as the kind of people Right To Play seeks to help, the “perfect success story” fits the bill.

For context on that statement, it’s important to quickly explain what this organization does. Right To Play is an international group with strong influence in areas that have a large population of kids who need to express themselves outside of the frequently overcrowded classrooms they attend, and specifically with sports play. But Right To Play reaches beyond just the pickup games I joined in for, they feature leadership-intensive training programs. They go far deeper than just the standard “trust fall” variety of team building exercises; these programs are keyed to specifically helping kids who have dealt with trauma because of their growing up in war zones and/or extreme poverty. Amman is a perfect setting for Right To Play to thrive in, as there are hundreds of refugees communities in and around the city.

More than often, these communities are supported by larger organizational aid, perhaps most prominently UNRWA, but the sheer number of people in these communities make it incredibly hard for the children to obtain an outstanding formal education, one that teaches them the leadership skills and the confidence to thrive in an intensely competitive


Muhammad Al-Turkmane

Jordanian job market. “I lived in the Baqa’a camp for 25 years, after that I traveled to Amman…” The camp is located just north of Amman, “Baqa’a camp has different people, from Palestine, from Syria or from Jordan, about 100,000 of them are Syrian [a total of] 250,000,” Muhammad tells me. “I’m Jordanian but my grandfather is Palestinian [Haifa].” Baqa’a is currently the largest refugee camp in Jordan.

Muhammad is the youngest of nine brothers and seven sisters; he smiles as he gives me these numbers. With a family that size, it’s easy to imagine how Muhammad might excel with team sports in general. Even as a kid, Muhammad remembers having to go out of his way to help his surrounding community keep Baqa’a safe. One specific memory involves the lack of sturdy structuring and quality material for houses in refugee camps like Baqa’a. The houses were constructed primarily with thin metal sheeting called ZinCo and was generally sustainable until the rainy season in the winter. Water leaked into the houses and not only ruined owners’ possessions inside, but also occasionally trapped people under water inside of the houses. Muhammad remembers working with his friends to help remove people from their homes safely, as well as attempting to recover as many personal possessions from the flooding as possible. Afterwards, the volunteers also assisted in rebuilding the houses.

Muhammad actually didn’t encounter Right To Play as a kid. He was an adult working in Baqa’a when he was introduced to the organization. “In 2008, I was 21, I worked as a sports teacher at the Baqa’a camp. The Right-to-Play staff came to the camp [for] assessment for CPO’s. They came to me and they told me ‘you can work with us as a volunteer,’ and I said ok… [In 2009] I began as a supervisor, but they’re called field facilitators now. ” Since then, he’s become a program coordinator, helping to train teams of these facilitators to develop programs and relationships with the kids to bring them out of their shells—to inspire confidence and trust. “I love my job. I love sports. And as a
img_3540person who’s from these camps, I like that I’m able to provide these services for the refugees. The last two proposals for Right to Play were ones that I helped write. In the last proposal I was able to contribute some of my experiences from growing up in a refugee camp.”

Muhammad’s also helped with individual cases in Baqa’a as well. He tells me about a boy named Mou’ad,  now 17, who was surviving off of only 50 Dinars a month from UNRWA aid with his family. Moayed’s father was in prison, leaving him as the oldest male (of three children) in the house. Moayed is incredible at football, but because he was on the constant search for work to bring in money for his family, he didn’t have much time to play. One of Right To Play’s functions is to identify individuals like Moayed, who have special skills but are struggling to find opportunities to use those skills in a practical way. The organization singled out Moayed, providing him with outlets to train. He became good enough that when he tried out he was accepted to play for the official Baqa’a football club, which allowed him to play professional soccer for a salary. It was a shift from 50 Dinar/month to 1000 Dinar/month. Muhammad tells me Moayed also had the opportunity to travel to Brazil for the World Cup as part of a specially selected group with Right To Play.

There are some issues between the different ethnic groups and nationalities in Baqa’a. With the growing population of Syrians, as well as Jordanian and Palestinian refugees, there is more tension because the population density has increased dramatically. Muhammad tells me that the proposal he’s been working on , which was just recently funded, is centered on a series of programs geared towards bringing the youth in these groups together, to learn about and understand one another. In his view, another camp, the Zaatari camp in Northern Jordan [not far from the Syrian border], has received a lot of attention in the past few years, directly because of the influx of Syrian refugees. But all of the camps in Jordan have taken in Syrians. Mohammad wants to start a program that worked with these three ethnic groups in Baqa’a specifically using (of course) community football. The project began last January, and thus far it’s proven a tremendous success in the camp. And since then there haven’t been any other peace-building projects in Amman, Right to Play is the only organization cimg_3544currently utilizing with such a program.

The reason Right to Play produces results for the communities it helps is because of the insights and real-life experiences of employees like Muhammad, whose perspective is of someone from the community that he’s now trying to better. His knowledge of what Baqa’a needs has become an important resource for the organization. In the future, Muhammad wants to see Right to Play expand its influence in Baqa’a, unifying the children and camp through sports and the programs that he is working diligently to fund and provide. Now that he’s become an important member in the organization, his success and his community’s success are tied together.

Bedouins of Wadi Rum: {Profile: Zidane Attayak Ali Zalabea}

IMG_3819I meet Zidane Attayak Abdullah Zalabea on the outskirts of the small village of Rum, the Bedouin town synonymous with the Wadi Rum area [for non-Arab readers: Wadi means valley]. He’s got this crooked half smile on his face as we get into his car, which he’s named Shakira.  The reason for naming it [her?] this particular name becomes evident in just a few minutes. As we hit the powdery sand dunes on the way to the base camp, the car and its passengers, bounce accordingly. He turns to me and says with a grin, “Shakira’s dancing.” I have to move a massive speaker system already riding shotgun in order to sit down; the 4×4 has one rear-view mirror on the driver’s side, a set of frayed wires dangling below the driver’s wheel for hot wiring, and a fuzzy pink blanket draped across the dashboard for when it gets too hot. Shakira’s obviously a trooper.


Shakira, Shakira.

Zidane’s been a mountain guide for several years now, his business is called Bedouin Roads. “I like to show the people my desert. Touring, hiking, camping, scrambling, climbing, all the activities for tourists that we meet in Wadi Rum here. I’m very happy to do that and to meet new people all the time… I decided [to be come a mountain guide] in high school. I wanted to do climbing activities with tourists, all of the activities with tourism. Why? Because I love to see different cultures and all these cultures that come [through] and all of the different people. They mix with my culture and then I show them my desert. I decided that because everyone who comes [is] happy, you know?”

Zidane, 26, has shoulder length hair that begins wavy and descends to his shoulders in large loopy curls. If he gave a shit abut contemporary fashion this would be considered a man-bun; his hairstyle is  accompanied by a beard, of course. For most of the time we’re together he’s wearing dark shades. His camo-pants are synched up at mid-calf and he sports scandals with thick rubber bottoms. He’s not big, but he has obviously wiry and muscular arms and legs from ascending summits. Essentially, he looks like a climber. “When I was like 15, I started to try rock climbing. I started to go into the mountains when I was really young, 6 years old, and after that it was like a hobby for me, you know? I loved it… I started rock climbing like 15 years ago with some tourists. They took me with them to climb and they didn’t believe it wasIMG_4029 my first time climbing.” He’s not lying about the latter bit, the guy’s like an ibex when we go up Jebel Burdah, a famous mountain in Wadi Rum which features a 300-meter high natural rock bridge.

Zidane’s an extremely easy guy to get along with. I really only decided to find a guide for climbing in Wadi Rum so I didn’t end up like James Franco in that one movie with all the hours. I’m studying abroad; I don’t have that kind of time to spare, nor to lose an arm. But I’m glad I stumbled upon his website, not just because of his easy-going personality, but because Zidane’s a native of Rum, he’s a Jordanian Bedouin. Camping with Bedouins in this country is the only way to do it. “With theIMG_3768 Bedouins, when you come with somebody [from Rum] it’s a different experience, they’ll know the area very well and he’ll share his culture with you. It’s more than just someone who will just come for business and for the money, you know? When you come with me, I’ll show you my desert, my place, and make fire and food with you. It’s different from somebody who knows nothing.”

By ‘someone’ who knows nothing,  Zidane’s talking about his main competition, tourist companies from outside Wadi Rum. Wadi Rum is the largest natural protected area in Jordan and it spans over 50,000 sq. kilometers of mountains and desert on the Jordanian-Saudi Arabian border. Naturally, it gets a lot of tourists: hikers, climbers, campers or just people who dig riding camels. These outside touring groups have become a cancer to the Bedouin community in Wadi Rum, which depends on  tourism money.


Wadi Rum stars

The outsiders are often international tourism businesses and have a lot more money to spend in order to make sure they’re the first result seen on Google. “People become rich, you know, they make a lot of money from making business {advertisements} with other people and take our business. We are not rich like them to pay to be first on Internet [searches]. Now, with the money, you can be first on the Internet, so it’s not nice. But, you know, for us, I like it to be a full experience. People have the experience with us, they give us excellent reviews about everything we do here and they feel that it’s more interesting from the money.”

It’s another reason I’m glad I found out about Zidane’s website. My timing for this trip was in some ways perfect.  An NGO group actually just helped him with re-designing his website in order to keep up with the competition. The Bedouin community in Wadi Rum has been suffering economically for some IMG_3886time now. The Jordanian Bedouins are the indigenous group in the area, and given ownership of the area by the government as a token of thanks for assistance against the Ottoman Empire in the Great Arab Revolt in 1917. If you don’t know anything about the history, do yourself a favor and go watch Lawrence of Arabia. The way Zidane sees it, this is his land, and these outside touring groups need  regulation. “The government should come and stop these people who take the business from us. The big camps come in with a lot of money and do things [like] open bars, they’re not allowed to do that it’s not legal, you know, they should stop that. Sometimes, you find with people who have the money, they have IMG_3753.jpgthe power too, you know… It’s a shame, it’s our land since a long time ago, we work here.”

The Bedouins are a largely independent and scattered population; many in Wadi Rum are actually nomadic. They have little political representation in the Jordanian government, or any government in the Middle East or North Africa. But Zidane has plenty of opinions concerning the government’s treatment, or lack thereof, of the people of Rum. “We don’t need much help except with the business… They should take care of the village more… there’s [often] no water, no electricity; it’s not a good life for the people that live here. The government doesn’t take care of them you know, they just take the money from here… Wadi Rum is one of the famous villages in Jordan, you know, it has a many IMG_3871people coming in and visiting. They should make the village an example, you know, it’s a nice village. Especially because the village brings a lot of money for the government. This is our government, but they don’t take care of that.”

It’s a vital aspect of eco-tourism that is often overlooked. While environmental consciousness is a vital principal to follow when visiting any foreign area, particularly a nature reserve such as Wadi Rum, it’s important to also make sure that the community indigenous to that area benefits from outsiders coming to visit. The specifics Zidane gives me on problems in the Rum village are shocking. “They promise, but they’re lying, lying all them time. Lying, for example, about doing things for the village that they didn’t do. They say, ‘we will help,’ [but] they don’t help, you know? [They say] ‘We’ll stop these people from IMG_3925.jpgoutside that make these big camps’ then they don’t do. They didn’t do that, and they didn’t fix the village. The streets are broken, and people don’t have enough water… and the electricity breaks too. You see people digging in the streets to take water from the pipe, because they don’t get enough water, so they break the streets. People fall in and get hurt sometimes, old people that want to go to the mosque early in the morning or at night.”

We camp on the summit of Jebel Burdah. Zidane tells me that this has been a slow time for his business. He likes being a guide; he’s been all over this area of Wadi Rum and  tells me
that he knows all of the good routes. The way he says it, it IMG_3784.jpgsounds less like a boast and more like a fact. But if things continue the way that they have  for the Bedouins in Wadi Rum, the future for professional guides like Zidane is uncertain, and local experts are one of the economic cornerstones for this community. “I want to make my business more strong, and have more guides for scrambling, hiking and climbing,” he assures me. “I wouldn’t want to bring someone in who knows nothing here”

In addition to interviewing and writing about Zidane,  I agreed to get footage of him for some additional free advertising for his business while we climbed.  Below is a promotional video for Bedouin Roads. 


Knives!- {Profile: Abed Muhaisen}

IMG_4061It’s a marvel to see how quickly Abed Muhaisen can whittle leafy designs through the thin metal sheet. He bends over the scabbard of the knife like a classical guitar player plucking  an intricate tune. His left hand clasps the end of the hilt firmly while twisting the metal scraper rapidly with his right wrist. He leans from one side to the other as he urges the tool along the metal plating, creating curves resembling a sprouting vine that begins at the base of the scabbard and branches outward to embellish the entire silver plate. Actually, it’s not silver, but a combination of zinc and brass. Abed likes to use recycled materials, but that’s neither here nor there. My main focus while watching him is a fascination in how he carves these designs with such ease.

Abed stops for a second, looks up and grins at me. It’s a great grin; the guy’s got a winning smile, coupled with the energy of a man half his age. He’s 55, and he’s been designing knives since he was a teenager.  Given this, it’s not surprising he makes it look easy. He creates 8-10 daggers a day, along with his business partner; I haven’t done the math, but suffice to say that he’s made a lot of these things. His store is located next to the Roman IMG_4047Amphitheater in the heart of Amman, Wast al-Balad, which is the central and historic market area of the city.

Abed comes from a family who has designed daggers for over a century. “Making the knives has been a family business since 1850… In the West Bank, in Palestine at first, before there was any border, it was just the Bedouin area. As a knife maker, [we made] a very important tool to the Bedouin people. So it has been five to six generations of this, my father, his father, his father and so on. As for my son, I don’t know, he’s still a kid [7], and nowadays it’s a different culture, he has to go to school and has different things to do, Internet and television. In our days, there is nothing like, it was just helping your father. ”

Naturally, Abed got his start in knife creation by helping his father; it took him years of observing and helping out before he was able to  start training in the craft. “As an Arabic family, sons always help their fathers with their work. I have seven brothers and two sisters, and all of the seven started helping starting from seven years old. So each day you learn something new. At 15, I made my first knife… I was in school and after school I was helping my father. In the summer I was helping my father. Because it’s a family business, all of the family works and helps each other. Because of this, it’s not difficult to learn, because you see him at work and doing things.” It took Abed about 4 months before he successfully made a good knife.

It’s a subculture craft with a deep history throughout the Middle East. Dagger design has an important traditional aspect for many Jordanian communities today, as well as once being a cornerstone in Bedouin society. “In Jordan, there are two families that make knives. One is my family and the other is Hushan family in the north of Jordan in Irbid. The local name for the knife is the shabaria, and the shabaria is a very important tool for the Bedouin society. It was something important for the younger people and older people as well. It was for defending yourself in the desert against wild animals or against enemies, it’s [also] like a kitchen knife and a defense tool.”

Not all of the knives are designed in the same way. Different designs are designated for different cultures, Abed explains. “When you see a knife, like the Jordanian knife,


Typical Jordanian-style blade at different stages of production

you’ll know it’s Jordanian because of the design, straight on one side, and curved slightly on the other. The people in Jordan are of different groups, some are Kurdish, some are Sarkisian, from the Caucuses, and each group has their own knife. In [traditional] Jordan they have the shabaria, in the Caucuses they have a slightly longer, straight blade, in Turkey they are curved. Each one has a different design.”


That said, there are signature traits that Abed applies to his dagger designs. For example, he prefers using olive wood to any kind of ore or metal for his hilts. He likes the lightness of woods, paired with a surprising sturdiness and strength. It’s also easier to carve designs out the hilt, for example the head of a camel or a horse. The nature of the knife has changed over the generations–it’s acquired a more ceremonial role in the time since he’s taken up the mantle of the business. “After the ‘60’s, last century, [note: I love that he must clarify which century],


Typical Jordanian style blade at different stages of production.

things started to really shift, there were more rules… the police force was there protecting people from different things, so you don’t need it to defend. So it became smaller, to hide under your clothes… Now, if you want to eat meat, you can go to the butcher and buy a lamb already cut, before you would have a big lamb and cut it up yourself.”

The year 2016 is a time long past the slice-up-your-own-lamb days, so Abed is able to take some greater artistic leaps with his designs. He keeps a variety of different types of knives, some simpler for practical use, while others are extremely elaborate. There are a few rules he abides by, for example not etching any animal designs into the blade of the knife itself, as that goes against Islamic practice. While I watch him work, I ask what happens if he screws up the design.  He states that he primarily sticks to plants and vines, which he tells


Divine vine design

me are easy to work around. The real catch is when he etches someone’s name into the blade for a custom design that then is rejected. “Sometimes if you put a name in the side and [the customer] comes to you and says ‘I don’t want this knife,” so I take the name and make it into a design so the customer doesn’t know what it is.” It’s kind of like when people get a tattoo of their soon-to-be ex and then pay to have it redone as a leprechaun or something. Except with a knife, it’s much more elegant.

Abed spends a lot of  time making knives for tourists now, though most of his customers are Saudi Arabian, where the Bedouin culture is still strong and the knives serve greater traditional roles. He’s traveled all over the Gulf area selling customized daggers IMG_4058in spots like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar. His knives also serve as excellent gifts for government officials in the Middle East. He doesn’t sell as many to Europeans or Americans anymore. “After the planes hit the towers, security at the airports began to be more intense. I had many tourists who didn’t want to buy knives. They would think ‘Oh, if I got this knife I wouldn’t be able to take this onto into an airport because the security will think I will be trying to hijack it.” He rolls his eyes while he tells me this.

Because of the intensified airport security, paired with the greater tourist value versus practical use of knives, Abed has expanded into making all sorts of IMG_4060different things: coasters and clocks, as well as some stunning ceramic work. He explains that a knife builder requires the skill set of more than one trade, like aspects of carpentry and blacksmithing. Abed’s mantra for his most recent expansion from dagger creation to other items is plain and perfect: “If you work with your hands,” he says simply, “nothing is difficult.”

Working With Refugees- {Profile: Bidour Al-Rawi}

crp2Bidour Al-Rawi stands at the front of over 25 refugee kids without revealing the slightest sign of being overwhelmed. She has a commanding edge in her voice when speaking to these refugees from Iraq, Syria and Yemen (ages 5-14). This authoritative presence is always accompanied with a smile, the kind of smile adults make when they see cute kids doing ridiculous things. Bidour is a counselor this summer at the Collateral Repair Project [CRP], a small start-up refugee center located in Al-Hashmi Al-Shamali, an eastern neighborhood in the city. Her job:  to keep these kids entertained as well as to teach them English and basic math skills.  If it doesn’t sound like an easy responsibility–you’re right, it’s not. There’s nothing easy about managing a small army of kids screaming in Arabic. Occasionally one of them will come to me with a request that I can’t understand, so I get help from Bidour. In this respect, she takes care of me as well; it’s what she does.

Bidour is the oldest of three in her family. “It’s kind of been a thing that I’ve been doing since I was a kid. If two other kids were crp4.jpghaving a fight, I’d try to break them up, if they had an argument, I’d try to solve it.”

Bidour left Iraq with her family in 2005 and moved to Jordan for five years, leaving once again for Canada as she entered high school. The decision to leave her home country came when her mother was shot in the leg by American troops. “I remember her coming home with her legs bloody and all wrapped up, and I remember asking ‘what happened?!’ they told me ‘your mom was shot,’ and I just didn’t believe it for like a whole week.” Bidour  was in the third grade. Her mother is fine now, but after that incident, her family decided to move to Jordan.  They then applied for immigration to Canada a year after arriving in Amman. In the mean time, Bidour was enrolled in the New English School, a small private institution that helped Bidour learn English. “The only [English] words I knew were ‘book,’ ‘small,’ and ‘capital,’ and ‘capital’ at that time I thought was the opposite of ‘small,’ because I was thinking of ‘capital letters,’” she says, laughing, “so it was hard the first year, but it got better.” She was placed in an intensive tutoring program at the school, but in just one year gained enough grasp of the language to attend regular classes at the school.

Bidour was 14 when her family moved to Toronto, her first time out of the Middle East. “I was sad leaving my friends and the school I got used to,” she recalls, “I didn’t want to be the new kid again. But I actually really love Canada, I consider it more my home than I consider Jordan my home.” She quickly fell in love with Toronto. She finished high school there and now studies Life Science at the University of Toronto. She’s always loved science, it was her strongest subject in grade school and she usually got the highest marks in the class. She plans to go to medical school after, focusing on dentistry, a dream she says she’s had since the 7th grade. “Before then, I wanted to be an engineer, but after cpr3.jpgthat I really liked the medical field more, because you get to help people and do work with your hands… otherwise I might get bored.” She just finished her second year of undergraduate work at Toronto. She loves the environment there; there are no mean Canadians.

Bidour usually comes to Jordan for the summer to visit family and friends, but she’s also here to volunteer. “I figured I’d come for a bit longer this time to do something helpful, make something productive out of my stay here.” Along with her work as a counselor at CRP, Bidour volunteers her time at both the Jordanian and Iraqi food bank. The latter of these two doesn’t actually have an office, so she spends her time delivering food to families around Amman. “It’s a very eye-opening experience because I get to see some of the conditions some of the families are living in, and it was heart-breaking, honestly, it changed my perspective on life.” It’s  experiences like this that have made Bidour consider incorporating philanthropic work with her future dreams as a dentist, possibly working without pay for kids and patients who are in serious need. “I want to dedicate maybe every summer to go help with an organization or something.”

Bidour’s strategy when working with kids is simply to get them to think of her as their friend. Working with refugee kids is a little different from a standard camp counselor. They often have a more independent streak which comes  from moving around a lot, while at the same time, living with parents who are constantly in search for work. “A lot of them I feel like spend their time on the streets here, so they need to learn some of the discipline aspects. For example, whenever we want to start a game and we tell them to make a line, no one stands in line… so it’s all of these simple little things that I feel like no one has taught them before that we need to focus on…” she says. “A lot of the time, they’ll take things as a threat, like someone will bump into them crp5and they’ll just start a fight with them.” But the benefits of working with these kids easily outweigh any hardships. “I just want them to see me as their friend… I love it when the older kids will want me on their team when I come over to watch them play soccer,” she says. Bidour also notes that the older kids in the camp are especially thoughtful when it comes to taking care of their younger siblings, always asking for two cups of water instead of just one when they’re thirsty, for example. “I feel like I went through a similar thing [growing up],” she says, “When I see them, I feel privileged, I feel thankful for what I have, I feel thankful for what I’ve been through, and at the same time I try to help them out as much as possible.”


Crossing Genres, Arab and Latin Fusion- [Profile: Laila Sabbagh]

Using the term sensual is an understatement in describing Laila Sabbagh’s music. For a significant portion of the time she’s singing, she smiles slightly and her eyes are closed. Her hands wave slowly in the air like she’s playing a floating, invisible piano, except for the times she pushes her curly black hair away from her face.

Laila’s voice has the ability to transform the chic, contemporary Maestro bar in the Webda neighborhood into a scene from a 1950’s movie set in Cuba. Her Spanish weaves around the guitar, cello and congas like an undulating thread. Laila and her band of the past 3 Maestro8years, the Candeza Group, worship the intimacy of the ¾ time signature all evening, and the patrons in the bar sway dutifully to their sound. Afterwards, Laila speaks smoothly but quickly when I talk with her; it’s clear the adrenaline coursing through her from being on stage hasn’t completely dissipated as we speak.

Laila, 27, was born in Galilee, in northern Palestine. She started singing when she was three. “Since I was a little girl I listened to Latin music. We had no Internet, nothing, it was 25 years ago. There was a program on the radio that played world music, and whenever they played Latin music I recorded it on a cassette. So I had a small repertoire of about 20 or 30 songs [on tape], it was a lot at that time. So after that I was dreaming all the time.”


Maestro is located in the Webda  neighborhood

As a student, Laila decided she wanted to study medicine; it’s the kind of decision that would thrill any parent. “The good girl, the smart one who has high marks in high school,” she describes herself. “But I just couldn’t make it, I didn’t like it. I didn’t start [Medical school] even.” It was one day before her University exams when she decided to cancel everything give her dream a shot. That’s the kind of decision that’s better summarized as a leap of faith. “I could imagine myself only on stage… but I’m so lucky to have parents that are so open-minded, they trust me [and] they know I’m a strong woman.” Laila was 20 when she decided to dedicate herself to a career in music.

Laila worked to make her dream come true, taking baby steps. She began working as a music teacher, but the experience quickly became quite enough for her. “Because if I’m a music teacher I have to be committed to the school, university or the college, so it’s not so easy to travel around the world, only on the holidays. Music needs so much sacrifice, so I just quit my job as a teacher and I’m performing now.” She describes her first two concerts as nerve-wracking, but she experienced the excitement in the crowd, it gave her the strength to continue and give more with each performance. “As an Arab woman, it’s not so easy to be a professional singer. Working at night, dancing on stage and singing, maestro2especially to be a musician it’s not easy… It’s a nice thing that Ammani people are so open to the word music…. I’m trying to be more flexible with the mentality of the new generation and to hold on to the traditions that we were taught.” Sabbagh has performed all over Jordan in numerous festivals. She’s performed in Norway, Romania and Spain as well. She quips: “The only Spanish singer in the Arab world… I think.”

Spanish flamenco and Arabian music are tied because of historic Islamic influence in Andalusia. “They have three scales, in Arabic it’s called nahawand and there’s kurd and hijaz as well. And these three are used in Spanish music. But the Latin music has nothing to do with Arabic music, it’s so distant, she says. “But as a salsa and Latin dancer– I’m a dancer too– my passion was taking me more to the Cuban and Latin music, not the Spanish one. The Spanish music was because I’m more similar with it; it’s closer to my Maestro1music. I was a classical Arabic singer at the beginning. I started singing with an orchestra of 40 or 45 people playing music behind me. Then I chose to make this mixture between the Latin, Spanish and Oriental music into something that looks more like me.”

Laila’s personality reflects the cultural crossroads she now strives for in her music. Everywhere she’s traveled, she’s had to fight for her music. It’s taken enormous patience and stubbornness to continue her dream of making and performing her hybrid music, and she’s done it with tact and charm along the way. “I’m a fighter, but I’m smooth. A smooth fighter,” she says, laughing.“I’m not aggressive… as an Arab woman that has chosen to perform only, in the Arabic world… I have to be respectful at the same time. This is the hardest part.”
She describes her main struggle as being an artist attempting to open doors in a closed musical and cultural environment.

Laila released an album rooted in Arabic music last year, Ayqithini. “It’s an album with classical Arabic with a bit of maestro3fusion… the rhythms are a bit of a mix between the old classical Arabic and the new generation.” Currently, Laila has two singles “under construction”’  one of the two is a collaboration with a Danish-Palestinian friend who is also a composer. He’s written English lyrics while she’s written Spanish ones. The description alone sounds spectacular. “As we say in Spanish, soy una mujer Palestina con un alma Latina, it means I’m a Palestinian woman but with a Latin spirit. So I’ve tried to make this make this mixture between both and people started to like it, to accept it and to ask more and more.”



Tea – [Interview with Gabriel Piamenta of Halita’tea]



Halita’tea is located on Hillel Street

Arabs call it Al-Quds, Israelis call it Yerushalaim and the rest of us just call it an expensive place to shop. Jerusalem is like that funny, beautiful person at a party. Everyone thinks they have a special relationship and that relationship gets more complicated and strained as each person realizes everyone else at the party feels exactly same way. It’s a city that holds prominence in every century; its very name is synonymous with both holiness and tension, regardless of ethnicity or religion.

While sitting outside for a half-hour, I’ve seen two Arab street vendors arguing–over what, I’m not sure, they were speaking too fast– but I summarized the conversation from their exaggerated hand gestures. After them followed a small pack of Orthodox Jews, complete with fashionable black hats and rectangular glasses. Then there was a Japanese family posing for a picture holding their hands up in support of either peace or the number two. Oh, and an Australian couple–but those people are everywhere. In short– it’s a great city for those who love people-watching, which is why I’ve spent the past few days here while on break from classes for Eid Al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

It’s hard to talk politics in Jerusalem; that sentence feels like an understatement. I’ve gotten strange looks from Israelis when I bring up that I’m studying Arabic, and strange looks from Arabs when I tell them I’m Jewish. That’s why I decided to pursue a subject to write about that everyone in this noisy, beautiful region can come together on. Because of the weather here, that either means coffee, juice or tea. I found a good subject with the last of the three.

Ben Yehuda Street is great place to find a place to drink, whether at a bar, a café or Halita’tea, located just off of the artsy pedestrian-only boulevard, in a little concave on Hillel Street. Halita’tea fits Ben Yehuda Street perfectly. It has an open patio that’s slightly tucked away, complete with wooden lounge chairs and shade (!), a small vintage-looking radio inside that has an actual Bluetooth speaker system placed directly on top of


It’s a nice setup featuring unnecessary fun hats!

it and a coat rack full of colorful hats, none of which appear to belong to anyone. Aesthetic
plays a huge role here, as owner Gabriel Piamenta explains.

Gabriel, 30, is a 12th generation Israeli. The son of a highly ranked IDF [Israeli Defense Force] officer (the actual position doesn’t really translate into English). He moved all over for his father’s work, but he was born in Jerusalem. After serving his time (the Israeli military has a mandatory draft), as a special operations officer, Gabriel returned to Jerusalem and obtained a Masters in Business Management and International Strategic Consulting. He originally thought of climbing the corporate ladder at McKinsey Israel, an enormous and prestigious business advising firm based out of Tel-Aviv. That never happened.

It’s not as though Gabriel was averse to the hipster-millennial nightmare of working for the man (#wftm), in fact he describes the initial idea of working with McKinsey as attractive. Corporate skillsets run in Gabriel’s blood. His father is a major operator in the IDF, which, though military, Gabriel describes as, “also a big corporation,” and his uncle is the CEO of Samsung in Israel. “But I wanted to maybe start something of my own, since I was going into working for the big man. And I had all kinds of ideas and tea attracted me not because of the tea itself or the type of tea itself, but because of the atmosphere around the tea… The kind of music that would be in a tea-house, the kind of people that would show up there, and I kind of just went for it, I said, ‘ok, let’s start with that and if everything goes bad I have a masters and I can go work for someone.’” He was 26 when he decided to create his own corporate ladder.

Gabriel began his business, avoiding importation, and focusing on high-end teas specifically found in Israel. But he had a naturally innovative attitude towards tea in
general, and, “after about a year and a half I started making my own blends, because we did want to keep it more user-friendly and not just have high-end tea,” he explains. “So we’ve kind of branched out in both directions, we’ve had the ones that we manufacture and design and then there’s the special blends that we bring in for more high-end tea.”

Part of Gabriel’s decision to create new blends comes from his admitted lack of shameless obsession towards the beverage. “I’m not a tea fanatic, but I really like it,” he says, with a brief pause. ”Actually I’m drinking coffee right now…” he tells me as though it’s an admission of guilt to a minor crime. “Because there’s a lot of competition between tea people and coffee people, or whatever, there’s a lot of companies abroad that are very into tea and don’t allow anything else. There are companies in Europe that don’t let their employees drink coffee… but we got into it with a user-friendly [and] laid-back attitude. We wanted to make it so that it was cool option, a nonchalant option that you can drink
every day.” Gabriel started teaching staff his methods and even started giving specialty lessons– including for five different bachelorette parties. He now also holds lectures on


They have rugelach too if tea’s not your thing. Get both.

tea mixing to teach others how to create the special blends that he’s developed over the past few years.

His business mantra is, fittingly, ‘making it accessible for everyone.’ Along with the location off of Ben Yehuda Street, Gabriel has opened a tea bar (yes, he said “bar,” – he’s developed tea-beer) in Tel-Aviv. The location in Tel-Aviv is actually being moved so he can open yet another space there. “I’m kind of in a blue ocean, I don’t really have competition because I don’t really compete in the same area of coffee houses or restaurants because we offer more of an atmosphere and a whole experience.”

Gabriel has taken a leaf (pun slightly intended) from both European and Arab tea cultures. “Mediterranean tea is usually not even tea [plant]. It’s usually an herbal blend that comes from local herbs like mint, sage and thyme and stuff like that. And European culture [has] a tea culture that’s very old, and they import from China or India… They have a tea culture that’s base off of importing high quality tea [leaves] that’s very special. And Israel doesn’t really have a tea culture, in my mind, we created a tea culture… at least I like to think so,” tea2he says, laughing. The difference between herbal blends and tea is actually quite intense in other areas of the world. Gabriel describes a company in Germany where one floor of the business is dedicated to herbal blends and the other to tea leaves specifically. Workers on one floor aren’t allowed to cross over to the other. It sounds like a very German approach to the whole thing.

But Gabriel embraces the ambiguity of it all; his views about tea are fitting for the city he started in. Jerusalem is a city with so many different cultures that perhaps no one should have such a strict view on the drink. “We have a very modern approach to tea… people come together to drink tea the same way people come together to drink a cup of espresso, but tea is more intimate, you won’t share a cup of coffee the same way you would share a pot of tea… sometimes the tea house is full of very different people like gays and lesbians, very religious people and businessmen, and they all feel at home there. They don’t mind  each other and respect the place and the conversation,” he says. “It is like beer [or] coffee but in my mind, tea is very intimate, because it’s a slower experience… girls will talk to me about how they like it here because their husbands [or] boyfriends won’t talk to them in a bar, they just sit and drink… but when you drink tea, it’s compulsive that you have to wait awhile, so you kind of have to talk.” Politicians, take note.



Identity- [An interview with Rabbi Neil Blumofe]



Rabbi Neil Blumofe

Personal reflection, at least for me, is painful. When done properly, it never ends with one big answer, wrapped in a bow. Instead, I end with more little pieces of myself than when I started. We all work with certain limitations when talking about controversial topics–those limitations are parts of our identity. I sat down with Rabbi Neil Blumofe, Senior Rabbi of Agudas Achim [Austin, TX] this past week to discuss whether personal and communal identity is a savior or an inhibitor of greater societal change. We also ate some kanafeh.

It’s always fun meeting other Americans in foreign cities. But to visit with my Rabbi while enjoying a brief vacation in Jerusalem feels like double points. Rabbi Blumofe was
attending a discussion at the Shalom Hartman Institute when he agreed to meet with me. The discussion centered primarily on Donniel Hartman’s [President of the Institute] Putting God Second, a book that grapples with where religious zeal turns into what Hartman calls ‘religious intoxication.’ To put it briefly: how does one allow personal beliefs to help guide without allowing one to be guided exclusively by personal beliefs? What is the difference between allowing one’s opinions shaped by facts, versus having facts shaped by their opinions?


Discussion at the Hartman Institute

Towards the end of the discussion, Rabbi Blumofe and I left to walk through one of Jerusalem’s most interesting social scenes, the First Station. First Station is located in the Bakaa, or Geulim area, a neighborhood that was once a military zone (1948) and has since developed into a primarily Jewish neighborhood with an interesting and interweaving mixture of secular and religious characteristics that flow seamlessly through it. The First Station itself features multiple bars, restaurants, and side shops, as well as a center stage performance area. We visited on Thursday night, which for Westerner context, is the Friday night of the Middle East. Young couples and groups of varying size and sobriety strolled passed, as Rabbi Blumofe and I discussed what it means to be an individual in the 21st century.

It was an unusual interview for me. My questions, loaded with existential angst, were more than that of a standard personality profile. Just in the past month, while studying in Amman, I’ve struggled with how I discuss pieces of Israeli/Palestinian news with Jewish and Muslim friends. The names Alton Sterling and Philando Castille just became Twitter topics for the worst reasons. One attack in Baghdad a week ago left more dead than the blumofe6combined attacks in Paris, Orlando and Brussels and the world responded with a fatigued shrug; it feels like everyone just expects that from Iraq. “You can only change the filter of your profile picture so much,” Rabbi Blumofe summed up perfectly.

And that’s just it. It feels almost inevitable that Black Lives Matter, for example, will cease to be the vital issue it is now and next week we’ll be talking about something else, like GMOs or women’s health. Blumofe and I talked about this in context of the nature of social media. “It’s from a place of strong identity that one can actually have the moral and ethical strength to go out and try to address the needs of the world. If one considers themselves a Universalist, I think you’re much more challenged to get some traction to try and do something… Today we’re worried about Gun Control or Black Lives Matter and all these things are very important, but beyond voicing support it’s very hard for us to get to a tipping point towards doing something. We do care about [these problems]… but not for any sustaining period.”

Identity projection has become just as important, if not more so, than interaction. It’s difficult to tell which is more important now. It makes sense that activism for issues have adopted an approach towards outward appearance over action. But can that kind of protest effectively prevent police in America from targeting black men, or assure equal treatment for women worldwide, or prevent climate change from destroying our world? Rabbi Blumofe, meanwhile, sees this all as a step in evolution. “Well what else are you going to do? If it’s not in public view it doesn’t exits. To take it from a different perspective, how many weddings have I done, where that night the couple changed their [Facebook] status? That’s the night you got married! And lately, the past few weddings I’ve done, the bride and groom told me independently to make an announcement [at the ceremony] ‘everyone please put their phones away, that’s not what this is.’ Because I think the fatigue has caught up to people… I’m not saying it’s bad it’s just something we’ll learn to navigate… it’s a new technology relatively. I think its stages of growth and of self-awareness.”

Such self-awareness however, is built on for/against–now. We define our identities based on the same way we root for our favorite team. Blumofe thinks that’s because complication is scary for an age that craves simplicity. “Our understanding of what is real and authentic is so diffuse because there’s so much to deal with…” he begins. “A lot of people don’t know how to actually face their death either, and I’m not saying that’s bad,
blumofe7.jpgit’s hard to do, but what are you going to do about it? Especially in this region… We say we care, because that’s the right thing to do, but how many other problems are there going to be? In Baghdad or Karachi or, you know, name your place.”

You can traverse some extremely dark roads with that line of thought. But at its core, identity acts as a balm for the world being a more complicated place than any one individual, which is comforting and frustrating at the same time. “All of these issues are nuanced, but self-interest comes first and we don’t always even recognize what our self-interest is. Maybe, just for argument’s sake, it’s in the self-interest of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government to keep the status quo as it is… Because neither side, for whatever reason, can imagine a paradigm different than the one they’re in. Maybe the so-called ‘solution’ is what it is.”

You can copy and paste that example for almost any conflict in play today. All communities possess irritating flaws because the people in them do as well. The real issue today is that there are too many communities who choose to paint themselves as victims and who represent an absolute good. While others they conflict with are brushed with the stroke of villains and who represent an absolute evil. What would be helpful is not a blind acceptance or rejection of outside groups, but a greater insight into our own complexities as individuals—warts and all. When that happens, our self-interest might change.

The new mission becomes an interest in changing ourselves rather than attempting to change others. No matter what groups one might affiliate one’s self with, it’s inaccurate to assume such groups are inherently right or wrong in their struggle, because people, as individuals, are not inherently right or wrong. Instead of trying to figure what we actually want, we like to tell others what they’re doing wrong and that rarely works out. “Pride in your own identity is a jumping off point for affecting real change in any situation. You have to know who you are to know where you’re going,” Rabbi Blumofe explains as our waitress clears our table.

As Rabbi Blumofe and I wandered around First Station for a bit afterwards, I found myself without an answer to the single greater problem, my young adult angst unquenched. But that’s fine: ultimately there is no one right answer to any of these problems, but the important thing is to act as there is. We can’t find the absolute solution, but we can always find our approximations to a better one, to be closer than before. That approximation can’t come from any Internet commentary, poll or quiz, it has to be a personal one. That approximation is what true identity is.

Nuance is not a thing my generation deals with well. Social media craves big answers wrapped in bows and brash statements about who’s right and who’s wrong based on shared links on Facebook. Real change begins with looking at your own good and bad qualities and working outwards from there. Don’t take the flaws of those you disagree with as justification for your own virtues. Don’t assume you owe your community anything other than yourself– it’s your community. Embrace your ambiguity, you’ll be surprised to find that most will follow suit.



Hip Hop in Amman: [Profile: Thaer Nahed Fahmawi]

Names don’t always fit their owners. But “Thaer” [ثائر] translates as “Revolutionary” in Arabic, and this is probably the best place to start when describing the man who calls himself The Beatbox Elephant.

13392185_657336754415436_7295313669299932892_o.jpgIn my phone, he puts his name as ‘Tee’- it’s what everyone calls him, and by everyone, I mean a substantial chunk of Amman’s social scene- he’s got a lot of friends.
When he’s not getting paid to make drum machine noises with his throat, he works as a bartender at Cafe de Paris, located in the Weibdeh neighborhood [جبل اللويبدة]. He’s the musical curator for the place, as well. During happy hour he can be seen swaggering around, mouthing the words to Biggie, Nas and a multitude of other 90’s legends that play in the background as he socializes and gets orders for customers, simultaneously. He’s got a natural presence to him; it’s not hard to notice when Tee’s entered a room because of all the people who flock to say hello to him, where ever he goes. He’s a self-described social butterfly, but more accurately a born hype man;  maybe it’s fate that he’s one the first hip hop names on the scene in Amman. For most of our conversation, a cigarette sticks out of the corner of his mouth; a progressively thickening cloud of smoke swirls around us as we talk about where he found his love for the movement.

Thaer, 25, is the oldest of three and has the vibe of the cool big brother who’s had to help take care of things in the past. He lives in Amman, but identifies as Palestinian. His grandfather moved from Jaffa with his family in 1948, after the Israeli occupation. It’s two generations back, but it provides an important backdrop to who Thaer is. He never met his grandfather, but praises his hard work. He was a man who opened up multiple small, independent businesses in Amman, selling primarily women’s accessories [makeup, jewelry, etc.] and who paved the success for the future. A lot of the businesses his grandfather owned are still around, scattered about the old downtown area. His dad is a taxi driver and speaks 4 languages- French, Italian, English and, of course, Arabic. It’s a family making something out of nothing, a theme that carries on with Tee.

Politics are also deeply infused in Thaer’s persona- a trait he says he picked up primarily from his mom.  I picked up on his views as a Palestinian early on after meeting him. I was talking with a friend about my plans to visit friends in Israel the night before our conversation, when Tee weighed in suddenly- saying t2.jpgsomething along the lines of “Israel doesn’t exist man, it’s always been Palestine.” I understand that’s a common perspective in this area, and so I  decided that night not to share with him that I’m Jewish, coming back with the lame response, “Hey, I’m just here for the beer not the politics.” But the following afternoon, I decided to get into it a little more with him.

It turns out my faith doesn’t really matter to Thaer. Politics and religion are, of course, related in the Middle East. But from his perspective, they don’t directly mix. He’s not Anti-Semitic, just proud of his roots. “There’s a difference between a dude that supports what’s happening in Palestine and a dude that doesn’t,” he explains. “Because for me, if you support it, then this conversation is over, but if you don’t we can talk. Because you, [being] a Jew, I don’t give a fuck… you have your religion and you practice yours the right way and I practice mine the right way… Religion is the way you treat people.”

It’s an interesting, nuanced perspective for someone to have in 2016. Times are heated- we’re having this conversation just a day after the attack in Istanbul. But part of Tee’s whole mission is to take his politics and translate it into a non-violent forum, thus his love of music and hip-hop culture in general. “The message I’ve want to deliver is to get the culture, not the violence, out of Hip Hop. And so I took the culture and did it my way. Mixing the techniques with the Arabic flavor, did this and that and boom now my community is big. We throw a competition every year, for young beatboxers to go on stage  and to win that title, the king of the beat… I love that you can express your feelings through an art.”

Thaer’s cousin got him into rap music when he was 6; he was 12 when he first got into the beatboxing aspect of Hip Hop. “A homeboy a mine showed me a song with beatboxing,  and I was like, ‘what’s this?’ and he said ‘it’s beatbox, just watch it’ and I watched it and I literally fell in love with it. It was Justin Timberlake’s Rock Your Body-remember that?”
He figured out how to mimic the beatboxing perfectly after listening for about 30 minutes. “When I started off, I had a partner, he quit now, he was 13319789_1098659100207754_135971468763155940_n.jpglike ‘there’s no potential’ and I was like there is, and I kept on going with it. And now I’ve got all these shows and I’m the official MC of Redbull Jordan now.” He tells me he was the first beatboxer in Amman and that now there’s a community of 44 and growing.

That expansion didn’t come without struggle. Thaer and two of his friends were actually taken to prison for a day, before getting bailed out by his family. He was 14. “We got locked up at 7, and at 9, our parents got us out. Because we were just kids, why would you lock kids up? Because we were dancing? There’s no law for that. You can’t say no to someone because they were breakdancing or beatboxing or rapping. We weren’t even doing it for the money, we were just having fun… We had the confidence that we weren’t doing anything wrong. It was good days.” He has a reminiscent look in his eyes and a smile on his face when he tells me this. “I just fought for it, I was just against everybody. My family wasn’t for it, my mom didn’t like it, and then I took her to a show and was like ‘this is what I do,’ after that, she was like ‘do your thing,’ she got convinced.”

The culture’s gradually more accepting in the past decade, with the help of a stubborn attitude and hard work. “We used to get locked up back in the days for doing this. It was like ‘you’re a beatboxer? you’re a breakdancer? you’re a rapper?’ they would lock you up, because they didn’t know the culture.  And after royalty here started looking us up and then being like ‘yo, we want you for a show,’ everybody knew what we did. Because we
don’t rap in English, we rap in Arabic, we rhyme in Arabic. Because rhyming in Arabic, that existed way back… We don’t talk about cars or money or whatever because we don’t have it, we talk about issues and about what’s happening about revolution and stuff.”

Tee believes Hip Hop in Amman maintains a purer form than the current American rap culture of “Money, cars and bitches, y’know or whatever,” He credits this to keeping the message specifically about making a stand for the culture rather than using the culture to  make a name for himself. “When you take it and you put your culture into it, it’s different. The roots we know, the homework we’ve done. It’s a different concept, you can’t rap commercially if you don’t have ‘It,’ if you don’t have the supplies. You can’t be rapping about how you’re riding in a Ferrari if you don’t have it.” He sees Hip Hop in Jordan and the region in general getting bigger, and while he does worry about the money 1907463_775362655850200_95815869717117752_n.jpgin the music industry potentially watering down the message, he keeps working to develop
it into the culture he loves.”In the Middle East in general [Hip Hop] is getting big. I hope it grows bigger and goes in right path. I hope so. I don’t know what’s going to happen when
there’s more money. Today, we don’t have record labels so we record our own stuff and pay for our own studio hours. It’s fucking hard to be honest. But for the passion, for the love, we keep going.”

We talk about our favorite rappers for awhile and some of our least favorite, though the conversation wraps up as more people walk into the cafe. Customers of Thaer’s are also usually friends of his too, so I wait and watch him while he schmoozes. But after our talk, I see his humor and zeal through a different light entirely. Beneath Thaer’s extroverted persona, there’s a gritty dedication to Hip Hop and his own identity-over time they’ve melded into one and the same. That dedication has allowed him to build his world. “Now, my strength when I go on stage is when the people scream. I was afraid of that when I first started. And then, after that, the second time, third time, fourth time, I was like ‘I wanna hear them scream!’… And now when I’m out in the street, whenever I’m walking somewhere I get people coming up to me like ‘hey man, I saw you at this,’ ‘you’ve been there,’ ‘hey, what’s up man.’ It’s cool, I like that.”



Images used with permission from Thaer Nahed Fahmawi


Arabic in the New Millennium: [Khaled AbuAmsha, Ph.D.]


There were about a dozen knocks on the door, five phone calls and three separate times when someone simply walked in while I was talking with Dr. Khaled AbuAmsha.

He’s a very important person with a lot to do, if it’s not apparent from the numbers above. For better context, we only spoke for about 35 minutes. That means someone’s trying to get his attention at least every two minutes- usually less.

A little over half an hour is a generous amount of time for him to give to me because Dr. Khaled is the Academic Director of the Qasid Institute. This summer alone, Qasid has about 440 students, including myself, as well as 82 teachers on payroll. The school’s goal is simple: to introduce students from all over the world to the Arabic language and culture through intensive 4-hour classes and, of course, immersion in an Arabic culture by living in Amman. The word ‘Qasid’ itself is explained on the back of his contact card- ‘a person who strives forward with a direct and specific intention.’ It’s a good name for an Arabic program and it also serves as a good description for Khaled himself.


Dr. Khaled as an adorable child (on left)

Dr. Khaled, 43, was born in in 1973 in Palestine. He remembers the first Intifada during his high school years and, for the most part, “I can remember in the last year of my school- we just started one semester, we couldn’t finish the rest of the year,” he says, “… they multiplied the grades from the first one to the second one. So whatever we got in the first semester, they considered that for the whole year.” By that point, Dr. Khaled had narrowed his goals to attending medical school and focusing on Arabic studies. The former accepts only straight-A students, which Dr. Khaled was-up until his final semester of high school. He was still making good grades, just not quite medical school level. He never had the opportunity to raise his grades in the second semester and college admissions only pay attention to the performance of a student in their last year of high school. “I promised my parents that I would achieve [their] dream and still become a doctor, just a doctor in Arabic and not medicine,” he says. They were happy as long as he was.

It was probably for the best, because by then, Dr. Khaled had developed a love for Arabic poetry and novels. He describes himself as an admirer of the language. Occasionally he works on his own prose even today- called nether. He would go on to study it deeply at the University of Jordan.   Amman served as a point of return for him after that. “I obtained my Masters [in Applied Linguistics] from Malaysia, I stayed there for 3 years, then I came back and worked at the University of Jordan, then I moved again to Saudi Arabia and spent 4 years. I came back to Jordan and then I left to work in America and then decided to return to Amman.” He’s been to many other countries and cities besides these, but for shorter periods of time. He loves traveling, if that isn’t obvious. He lists his two favorite cities as Istanbul and Paris, in that order. “Istanbul for me is like the city where the East meets the West and where history meets modern culture… I used to stay up late and wake up early to watch the ships and listen to sound of the birds…and Paris, it’s peace and art…” he trails off, so I add some filler. “It’s Paris,” I say. He grins and nods in agreement.

drkhaled3He taught for a year at Brigham-Young University. He planned for only one year because he didn’t want to lose the work and connections he had built in the Middle East, but he thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He likens the Mormon community to the Arab community. “In many ways I think Mormons are the closest to the Arab community. We are really close in several ways, in how they dress in more modest clothes, they don’t drink, and relations before marriage are not as accepted, big families with lots of kids. There are many things we can share together. I liked my time there, they were very generous with me and my family,” he says. I’ve never thought of a link between Arabs and Mormons up until this interview, but in how he explains it, it makes perfect sense. “I remember one thing, which I always tell people about, that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. When I was in that neighborhood, they took care of us like we were guests… for three weeks, from around 1-2[PM], I would find lunch left in front in front of my door for me and my kids. I thought this would happen for the first day or two, but it went on for three weeks, I haven’t seen this anywhere else in the world,” he says. Later, I think of any time I’ve seen this kind of welcoming behavior, and the closest for me comes from the Middle East, so maybe he has a point.



As his pursuits in academia have carried him around the world, Dr. Khaled has
accumulated both amazing connections as well as a stunning resume. He simply states that all this has bloomed out a love for reading, writing and, especially, teaching. “That’s where I can find myself,” he tells me. He leans forward as he talks about his interest in the learning process and how great it can be to work with both beginners and advanced students. Both find the fruits in their efforts on an almost daily basis. He’s written, independently and with colleagues, more than 30 books on linguistics and has participated in educational conferences all over the world. In two months, he will defend his second PhD in Applied Linguistics. The greater context of his work provides context for his extensive list of accomplishments. “After 9/11, everything has changed. Arabic used to be viewed as somewhat a dead language, like Latin… Since that time, a lot of things have changed in different levels. Now most schools around the world, even in the States, now have programs for Modern Standard Arabic [MSA] instead of just Classical Arabic. People feel like they need to communicate with the language, not just to read,” he explains.

Dr. Khaled has been a pioneer in this re-thinking of how Arabic is taught. “We don’t hear
as much now about how Arabic is difficult, because the way that we teach it now is completely different… If you just look in the last five years [at Qasid] most of the students that came to study were at beginners’ level, we used to have 12 classes for level 1, now in this summer, where we have 440 students- the most students we’ve ever had- we have a class for each section… so already you can see a big change,” he says. He believes Arabic will once again become one of the most important languages to learn.

But with his understanding of the importance of Arabic and how teaching it has changed over the past decade-and-a-half, also comes an understanding of the importance of cultural connection. Maybe this, more than any other aspect, defines Dr. Khaled and it’s why I got my 35 minutes with him. He exudes warmth that comes through in his voice, and his eyes light up and crinkle excitedly as he describes the places he’s been and people he’s met. The most touching is a final anecdote of how he met his wife, Amira.

Dr.  Khaled was working in Saudi Arabia in 1997; he was 25. He wasn’t even interested in marrying at that point. “My older sister set up the appointment with [Amira’s] family, why I don’t know, I wasn’t planning on it at all…” In these arrangements, it’s considered very rude to back out, and so Khaled agreed to meet for a short and sweet visit. “I went there and I said to my sister ‘We’ll get a cup of coffee and talk for just 15 minutes and then leave,’ and among the things we do in such visits is [the family] leaves you with her to talk and ask each other questions privately for a few minutes. So I said ‘just leave us for five minutes’… so what happens indeed is that I started to talk with her… and my sister comes and says, ‘you’re the one who wanted to stay for five minutes and now we’ve been here for three hours! Do you want to go home or continue with this?!’”


They now have 7 kids together, 4 girls and 3 boys; the oldest is entering 10th grade and the youngest is three. It’s only at the very end of our conversation that he unloads the greatest factoid I could hope for: “Today is our 16th anniversary,” he says laughing. I almost drop my pen. His explanation for what he saw in her is so simple that it’s beautiful: “I liked how she looked, how she spoke and how she deals with things, and so, like that, I said ’this is the woman I want to marry.’” As for what ‘Amira’ translates to: “It means in English, like, ‘Princess’,” he says, glowing. I didn’t even have to ask.



(Photos provided with permission from Dr. Khaled)


Taxis- [Profile:Mohanad Thahr]

In Amman, it’s said that about 20-25% of all of cars are taxis. About 100% of the drivers of these taxis are characters out of a TV show.

Perhaps the most important thing to do when visiting any country is to sample the cab service. Cabbies get it. They have to cart around foreigners who don’t know where they’re going, drunk millennials who are trying to escape Ramadan for the night, assholes who have a naturally snobbish attitude towards anyone in the service industry and sometimes, God willing, all three of those wrapped into one. It’s a job designed for a very particular person: the kind who can have the same conversation upwards of 100 times a day while sitting in the same spot and dealing with the lawless anarchy that is Amman traffic.

Every city has its own unique sounds. In Amman, these include the Shami [شامي] (Levantine dialect) Arabic of street vendors, the call to prayer that echoes around neighborhoods at various points throughout the day, and a truck that has what sounds like a haunted ice-cream siren and supplies petrol tanks for houses and apartments. But the sound that takes the greatest adjustment is actually just the liberal use of car horns.


The blurriness indicates chaos.

The car horn is the preferred form of communication in Amman. It rivals any language or dialect in the region. In this city, drivers honk to say hello, goodbye and any other touch-point in between those two bookends of conversation. From a visitors’ perspective, it feels like they honk to tell you that they’re from Amman and, more importantly, that you’re not. While that can sound unpleasant, one builds a calloused attitude quickly to the sound of the horn. Now it’s almost endearing.

Taxi drivers are really the only valid form of transportation in the city for outsiders. Yes, there’s Uber, but that’s generally more expensive, plus it’s better to hunt down your transportation when you’re visiting a country, as it’s a much more rewarding and validating experience. There’s no subway and I’ve never bothered asking any of the city Bedouins for a donkey ride. Besides, as mentioned before, a conversation with a foreign taxi driver in any language is a gift unto itself.

Taxis here come with rules. Women should generally sit in the back, while male passengers ride shotgun- it’s not a rule set in stone but otherwise you’re liable to attract strange looks from other car drivers and pedestrians. Street names don’t really matter in Amman, and most drivers don’t care about the GPS coordinates you’ve staked out on your phone. It takes at least a cursory knowledge of landmarks to get around: hospitals, universities and major markets. Cabbies usually speak enough English to cooperate with flustered foreigners. As mentioned before, it’s a job that must inherently come with a pliable attitude.  The cab driver I decided to interview about his job spoke in very broken English and, fittingly, I responded in even more broken Arabic. We made it work.


Mohanad Thahr has been a cab driver for five years now.

His name is Mohanad Thahr (محند ظاهر), and he’s only been a cab driver for 5 years. Many have worked in the taxi industry for well over a decade- the longest I’ve heard is 19 years. I gave Mohanad 10 Dinar to drive around and talk about his life; it was a request he was thrilled to meet. He was excited while answering my questions, he says he’s never had a customer who just wanted to ask him about cab culture. Whenever we reached the end of a conversation he would exclaim, “Next question! Next question!” It’s a high stress job and I think I provided him with a 25 minute break in his day. In return, he gave me the dirt on his job- it was a pretty fair trade.

Mohanad is 27. He’s slender and clean-shaven, with a voice that carries well–a good skill to have when yelling at other drivers in his way. He’s from Amman and lives with his family close to where I do, in the Jabal Al-Hussein neighborhood, not far from the University of Jordan. It makes sense that he picked me up on what’s called University Street {شارع الجامعة}. He says that most drivers generally try to stay near the area they’re from, it’s a good way to save on gas. As a result, he knows a bunch of the other drivers in the area. Taxis here will honk and wave to each other like they’re neighbors, because some of them practically are. “My brother is also a taxi driver, he drives around here,” he tells me, “we could go visit him right now,” he laughs, half-joking.

Mohanad hasn’t lived in Amman his entire life; he recently came back from being a cab driver in Cairo-his dream city. He loved it there, the culture and more importantly, the lower prices. But after the revolution in 2011, it became too dangerous to keep his job there and logistically it was a too far from his family, all of whom are in Amman.  He describes it as a series of little reasons that made it impractical for him to stay in Egypt. But to me family and revolutions aren’t small reasons at all,  perhaps because I’m from a country that takes both too much for granted.

Mohanad doesn’t love being a cab driver here. Firstly, he talks about the stress that comes from driving in a city that refuses to take lanes, stop signs and pedestrian crossings seriously. He tells me in Arabic that it’s a city that’s easy to get into an accident in. That’s fair, and maybe an understatement.


Jordanian traffic police hang around the busier areas like marketplaces to make sure no one parks there- and also that no one gets steamrolled.

He blames the traffic problems on women drivers. When I ask how exactly, he says they don’t know the rules. I wasn’t aware there were any, but he doesn’t embellish beyond this. He then turns to a critique of the traffic police in Jordan, which can issue tickets of 20 dinar for parking in any area that features a blue sign with a red X. I start counting the number of red X’s we pass, I stop after about 3 minutes because there are so many.


The ever-present blue/red X signs that plague the taxi community of Amman.


This is another reason why cabs honk their horns to attract customers; often times they only stop or slow to a crawl if there’s genuine interest, marked by eye-contact and a nod from pedestrians. If they hang around, it’s a financial liability for them. Cars parked in these areas always have people in them, and they never remain long.

Beyond the stress of the traffic, there’s also the matter of money. The coveted yellow and green cabs that mark legitimacy in the city cost around 60,000 dinar. Mohanad is on a rented payment plan with his cab, 25 dinar a day- sometimes he’s only barely able to break even. It’s a competitive atmosphere and sometimes he has to do battle with customers over rates. “I’ve had to take people across town and sometimes they’ll argue with me over the meter, it’s absolutely craziness, {مجنونة جداّّ}” he says. But most shocking are the hours he has to work. “I’ll put in about 17 hours working, it leaves me with around 6 hours rest.”

With this in mind, it makes sense that Mohanad doesn’t always want to be a cab driver. He has a passion for Italian food, “Pizza! Pasta! You know?!” he says, nudging me. He gets excited just talking about it. He has a small pizza joint in the southern area of the city that he rents out for extra money as he doesn’t quite have the funds to start up the business right now. “I want to move back to Cairo and open an Italian restaurant there one day[…] it’s just difficult for me to do this right now.” His restaurant dream isn’t the only limitation that comes with money, Mohanad would love to get married. “At this point I’ll be an old man by the time I can have a wedding, maybe I’ll just get married after I’m dead,” he laughs.

As we return to the University area, he thanks me for being so friendly-he really loved talking about taxi life. I get the impression he does most of the listening when he talks with customers. He offers to give me his phone number if I have any other questions, which of course I accept. In my phone, he puts his contact name as ‘Mohanad Taxi,’ so I had to ask for his family name for clarification.


Contact name: ‘Mohanad Taxi’

He laughs as I try to scribble it down in my terrible Arabic handwriting, but applauds when I actually manage to get the spelling right.

It was a bit of a trip for both of us- I can tell because he thanks me three different times as I get ready to leave and also because I reach down to unbuckle my seat belt- only to remember that there actually wasn’t one in his car. After I get a picture of him, he forgoes the obligatory departing statement of, ‘masalaama [مع سلامة]’, exchanging it for the far more colorful, “See you later, alligator!”