Saturday, July 14, 2012

Jerash and Naïve Language Love

It's midterm week. How do I know? Because I slept in until almost 10, I'm making time to write the blog post I've been putting off for days, and my roommate and I just scoured the kitchen and bathroom. Please, anything but reviewing lists of vocabulary words...

Yesterday, our school took us on a day trip to the Greco-Roman city of Jerash, about 30 miles north of Amman. One of these cities that puts American history to shame. Apparently it was inhabited in the Bronze Age, thousands of years before Christ. It was part of the Decapolis during the Hellenistic Era around the 3rd century BC and became part of the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. In the following centuries, it underwent a period of decline, as the trade routes that had led to its prosperity became less crucial, but it was revived as a Christian city by the Byzantines. (A few of the Christian churches have been excavated by the archaeologists, and they have beautiful and well-preserved mosaic floors!) In the 7th century, it was invaded by the Persians before being captured by the Muslims. In 790, it was badly damaged by an earthquake. Today, the city is the capital of the Jerash Governorate and has a population of about 42,000 people. Much of it is still being excavated.

These columns have withstood several major earthquakes. Though probably not by design, part of the reason for their structural stamina is that they sway a tiny bit in the wind, like modern-day bridges, etc.

There are three theaters in Jerash. (I think this one is the South Theater, but I forget.) They were used by upper-class Greek families for entertainment purposes. Archaeologists have discovered that the families had "assigned seats" -- you can still read the inscriptions of the families' names by their seats. Every summer, Jerash holds a festival for two weeks in July, during which they hold concerts in these theaters every night. They still use the seat numbers etched in Greek in the stone!
One of the three theaters at Jerash
Here's a big fancy building I didn't listen to the tour guide's description of, probably because I was too busy complaining about the 106-degree heat and trying to find shade to sit in.
The Nymphaeum
In one of the theaters (note the modern sound equipment, for the festival) we were entertained by some Bedouins playing bagpipes and bass drum. And guess what they were playing? Yankee Doodle Dandy, Frere Jacques, and Amazing Grace. Go figure.
Bedouin-style cultural fusion
These are columns at the Oval Forum. The Forum leads to the Roman main street, lined with columns. You can still see tracks in the road from chariot wheels, and names of shops carved in stone. It's amazing to walk down the street and try to imagine what life was like back then.
Columns at the Oval Forum
Cool to see the columns I'd learned about in freshman Art History class.
Corinthian capitals

The Temple of Hadrian, built in 130 AD to honor Emperor Hadrian
After our tour of the city, we got to sit down in the shade and enjoy a re-enactment of Roman Legion battles, Gladiator fights, and chariot races (cheesy, but good for a few laughs). Chariot races were the basketball games of the Roman Empire. They were held every single night of the week, and everyone and their mother came out to watch. If I remember correctly, this stadium could seat 15,000 people. It was packed every night, and the population of the town was only 30,000!
Re-enactment of Roman Legion battles
Thumbs up, he lives. Thumbs sideways, he dies.

After we got back to Amman, my roommate and I promptly took three-hour naps. (Can you tell napping has been a big theme on this trip?) At night, we went to Rainbow Street, a Westernized and vibrant part of Amman with tons of restaurants, cafes, and an overall energetic and fun atmosphere. We grabbed some falafel and a delicious banana and nutella dessert-pastry-thing, then went to Old View Cafe with some friends, where we smoked some shisha outdoors (also, can you tell that shisha is a theme?) while enjoying a beautiful panoramic view of Amman, lit up at night.
Sipping slushies on Rainbow Street
While walking back up Rainbow Street to catch a cab home, after we met the most adorable little Maltese puppy who was also trying to hail a cab, I had the weirdest combination of deja-vu and nostalgia, like I was imagining being in Texas in the fall and looking back on this summer, reminiscing about moments like that moment on Rainbow Street. At first I thought, how silly to preemptively think about missing life here instead of just enjoying life here. But then I was weirdly grateful for the unbidden, awkward, circular feeling because it made me realize I am enjoying my time here. Always fun when you can find that sweet spot, that balance between enjoying the moment and reflecting on it just enough to realize you're enjoying it. If any of that makes any sense at all. I came across a quote the other day: "If you're not happy where you are, how can you expect to be happy where you're not?" Something to think about!

On a related note, I've been having these moments recently where I physically get chills when it hits me that I get to be spending my time studying Arabic (nerdy, huh?). Giggling to myself because, two years ago, I never in a million years would have guessed this is what I'd be doing with my life right now. The other night, I was sitting at my favorite outdoor cafe, contentedly sipping my Turkish coffee, that the servers know I like with medium sugar, and sifting through hadith commentary. Hmm. Here I am, living in Jordan, looking at fucking hadith commentary. Learning to read Classical texts, hundreds and hundreds of years old, in their original Arabic. Totally geeking out on grammar, all the time. Falling in love with the sound of the spoken language every time I walk out my door.

When I was studying chemistry, I very rarely had those moments where I reflected on what I was doing and felt deeply glad that I was doing it. I just did it because, well, it was just what I did. I was good at chemistry in high school. My teacher said, "You're going to major in chemistry in college, right?" I didn't have any better ideas, so I decided yeah, okay, I'd be a chemistry major. After my junior year, I started doing quantum mechanics research, for something to do with my time. My advisor said, "You're going to apply to grad school, right?" Again, I didn't have any better ideas, so I started applying. When I got into Berkeley, I thought it would be pretty silly not to go. Not to say I was forced into it, but I just kept taking the next step on what seemed like the logical, rational, sensible path. It took two years of a Ph.D. program to realize I was completely miserable doing the research I was doing. 

My story with Arabic has been just the opposite. Maybe if you're reading this, you already know about why I started studying Arabic, and how I'm deeply indebted to alphabetical order. One semester in college, I had space in my schedule and wanted to take a language. Something new. Something not a Romance language. So I got online and went to the class registration page. I hit the drop-down menu under the "Department" tab, and, thanks to the alphabet, Arabic was the first language I saw. It looked fun, so I signed up. I enjoyed the class, but I just saw it as something fun to do in my spare time to get my mind off of chemistry (haha, red flag, maybe?) and I laughed off my TA's many suggestions that I apply for Master's programs in the language. I went two years without taking another Arabic class, which apparently was enough time to forget all but the basics. Then I don't know what got into me, but in my second year of grad school, I decided to give Arabic another shot. I didn't even register until after the first week of classes. I withdrew mid-semester. I wasn't planning on taking a second semester, but again decided to register after the first week of classes. I quickly found myself spending almost as much time on Arabic as I was spending on chemistry. After I'd decided to leave grad school (for tons of other reasons), I had no plan for what to do next, but I had a vague idea that I wanted to study something related to Arabic. I found out about a summer intensive program in San Jose and applied the day before the deadline. After the program ended in August, I sort of knew that I wanted to study more Arabic, but I was planning on taking a year or two off before applying for grad programs. For reasons I don't really understand, I applied at the last minute, got accepted at the last minute, and decided to go at the last minute. (I'm even arriving in Austin at the last minute. A matter of hours after my flight lands in Cleveland, I have to hop in my car and drive to TX, to get there a matter of hours before orientation.) Adding to the chaos, my Jordan trip was canceled at one point, then reinstated, then canceled again, then reinstated again. And it was fully funded. At the last minute. All this to say, this whole journey has been a random walk. The next step has always been unlikely, or at least unpredictable. 

How do you know if what you're doing really makes you happy? Even if you're lucky enough to be doing what you love, you're probably not going to feel like you love it a hundred percent of the time. Even the best of all possible Leibnizian worlds doesn't feel like it's the best all the time, right? (Isn't that the point?) If you're unhappy with your work sometimes, is it because it's just one of those days, and everybody has those days, or is it because you'd really be much happier doing something else? Maybe you never know. But I like to think sometimes you do. I don't know why I get to do this thing I love. I don't know why life sometimes takes people on crazy paths, why we end up doing things we never really planned to do, things we never expected. But I'm learning that it's much easier to enjoy life when you give up the illusion that you have control over it. I'm figuring out that sometimes you just have to be patient when things don't seem to be working out. If it's supposed to happen, it's going to happen. 

And if not... you learn to deal. 

Argh. Vocabulary time. Believe it or not, loving grammar is compatible with hating memorizing lists of words, especially when one of the words on the list is "laxative."

(Do you like the naivete of this post? Ask me how I feel about this in two months, when I'm back in grad school...)


  1. Just knowing you're happy—in the moment and in anticipation of the future—makes me so happy. And I don't think this is naive. What it is is a lack of cynicism, which is something to after your chemistry experience.

    I take issue with the "if it's supposed to happy, it's going to happen" business, though. These things are happening because you took the necessary steps to make them happen. YOU made the choices.

  2. I love your post, especially when I get to read things about you I didn't know already. It's a bit different talking to you in person and reading your thoughts on the web. You should tell me more of your wise thoughts, like "if it's supposed to happen, it's going to happen" or "learn to deal with it." But in a nice way please, love you miss you. Thank you

  3. thanks queeny :)

    mom, you're right, i did make the choices that got me here. i guess what i meant is all i can do is try to put myself in a position where good things are likely to happen, and try to make wise choices, but after that, i don't have control over what the outcome is. and sometimes what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, doesn't actually turn out to be the best thing.

  4. A wonderful reflection, Katie. I feel very blessed to be doing what I love, what I would want to do even if they didn't pay me. Those who can do that are most fortunate. When I was in Israel in 2009 I visited one of the other Decapolis cities--it's had several names, but now goes by Beit She'an. It has many of the same characteristics as Jerash. Beyond fascinating.