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.”

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Images used with permission from Thaer Nahed Fahmawi

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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?!’”

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

 

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