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Posted by dshalabi in 23. Dec, 2012, under society, people, and life in Amman
I was thrilled in the morning, when I saw that the sun was up. To me, that just meant that I won’t be soaked while waiting for a cab and that we won’t be walking in mud or sewage water at Gaza Camp either.
After all, I wasn’t in the brightest of moods that morning and I was even feeling a bit under the weather . Never the less, like all Saturdays I put my personal drama aside and I got ready to go once again to Gaza Camp.
Arriving at the Jordan University main gate, I stopped for a cup of coffee and the usual idle chit chat with my friend the coffee guy, and although I had previously said that I was planning to change my coffee order, I didn’t. Instead, I mechanically ordered a three in one again, and the guy smiled and said “I know”, reminding me just how pathetic and predictable I was.
Taking my coffee cup, I then asked him what appeared to be the dumbest question to be asked at 9:30 am. I said “Do you have change for a JD 50?”. Hearing these words, the coffee guy practically laughed in my face saying ”It’s still too early in the morning to have that kind of money, you can pay me next Saturday ”.
As friendly and as sweet as that sounded, my mind just refused the idea of taking a loan from the coffee guy, so I said “No, I will try and find change”.
So, I went to the guy selling accessories next door to him, and little did I know that that man was going to give me a boost to my confidence. Seeing me he said, “Good morning amo, (Uncle) and I smiled at the idea that this guy thinks I am young.
You see lately the stupidity of a few shopkeepers calling me “Madam” had given me a shot in the ego. Let’s face it, I am a girl who likes to feel good about my looks and the word “Madam” just makes me feel old.
Changing the money diligently the guy said “Tikram 3enik ya amar”, which is an expression of beauty, and I must have been hitting an all time low at that point because he got me.
But, joking aside I am not deluded, I knew for sure that I didn’t look beautiful that morning. After all, I was wearing the ripped pair of faded jeans, I reserve specifically for Gaza camp, a big jacket, and a big red sweat shirt with a “ground hog” on it, and my old winter hat, but it felt nice anyway even if it was pure, blatent, fact less flattery. The compliment got me to even buy from him a scrunchy to tie my hair, God he is a good salesman.
After that brief encounter, I then took the money and paid the coffee guy. And, with coffee in hand I arrived at the bus, only to find that as usual I was the first to be there.
After exchanging usual greetings with the driver, I sat in the front seat, and enjoyed a friendly chit chat with him. He told me about his adventures in wadi Rum the evening before., and while he was talking about an original water bottle from the alps, and a cowboy hat which he had inherited from a movie set he was working as a prop driver on, I was enchanted by all the fun this guy has on his job. In fact I was busy trying to remember what I had done the evening before, and It was then that I realized that I had done nothing remotely as interesting. In fact, I just lived in the lives of the characters of a novel I was reading, I watched a movie about the American Elections of 2008 , and I watched snip bits on TV. I even remembered feeling anti social that evening, as I was not up to socializing with anyone.
That was me, yet here was this man doing amazing things in the span of one day, things I couldn’t get done in the span of one week.
With that thought in my head I was also sms-ing the other volunteers, only to find out that out of 5, 3 canceled on me then and there that morning.
A year and a half into this project, I confess that such minor details don’t bother me. By now I realize that it is normal for any volunteer to cancel at given moment in time since he/she is not being paid for this activity. I was even grateful for the fact that we have gotten to the stage where the volunteers would bother themselves to tell me they were not coming, which is definitely a step forward from the pointless waiting and calling with no reply from the volunteer.
Two remaining volunteers were waiting for me at Swaileh, and one called to say that she was going to be late because she over slept.
Her delay, gave me and the driver more time to chat while we waited, and so he went on to tell me about the movie he shot and how he came about owning the cowboy hat in details. Apparently the movie was about Bin Laden, and in it the western production company portrayed Bin Laden as a womanizer. The driver even told me that they shot many scenes in a night-club on third circle and that the hat was just a souvenir from one of the extras playing an American soldier.
Then, full of apologies, the remaining volunteer did arrive eventually, and so we drove forward , picking up the two volunteers from Swaileh. One of the two was a regular comer on the team, and the other was her colleague in university who just wanted to observe. Instantly the new guy fit in, and we all joked on the way.
Arriving at Gaza Camp me and the new guy stopped at the stationary store to buy coloring pens and paper. Going with a guy is so much better than going alone for me, since I just don’t like dealing with the sheikh behind the counter who hates me . I am an apparent sinner in his eyes, or a girl so filthy that I am not worth looking at. That morning, and true to form, the sheikh directed all his conversation to the guy, making me even feel invisible.
However, he must have given us the evil eye or something, because a few meters outside his store, our bag with paper and colors ripped open at the bottom, sending all our newly bought stationary to a gutter filled with muddy murky water, and forcing me and the new guy to drop on our knees and picked up the stuff from the pool of mud. After salvaging the stationary, we wiped the stuff down with tissue, so that by the time the volunteers arrived to class the stationary looked anything but new.
Meanwhile, in the adult classes I arrived to the center only to find that as usual the classroom was locked and the students are not around. The reasoning behind the low attendance was that it was winter and that it was too cold, to come to class. Waiting for the genitor to get me a key for the classroom door, I sat in on a 9th grader’s English lesson. The teacher, who is also one of my students, was revising a few grammar points with her students for their end of semester final exam.
While listening to her teach, I finally understood why students across the country receive high marks on their Tawjihi English Exam yet they fail to form a coherent sentence in English.
For starters, the teacher was teaching most of the lesson in Arabic. She was trying her best to make the students learn when to use the terms “some”, “a few”, and “many” by linking these three words to systematic grammatical formulas. She kept asking the students when each term was used and they simply sited grammatical rules without even bothering to understand what the actual words meant. Not wanting to argue with her in front of her students, I kept to myself and while I was listening to the lesson, I remembered that I never took a grammar lesson myself. Instead, I was taught to speak the language and as a by-product I learned good grammar in the process. Those students probably know more grammar than me but what good is grammar when we can’t even speak.
I then spoke to the teacher about this point later and she said “Our students should learn grammar to pass in the system. This is why you are here , you can teach us to speak and we will teach the students to pass their exams.”. I couldn’t help but wonder what value is there to passing anything if we don’t learn anything new, but then again, such a change is beyond me as it requires a change in a decedent educational system.
Finally the classroom door was opened and we took a class where my students learned to read an article, and after reading I asked them simply to tell me in a sentence what the article was about. To my horror I found that they looked for their answer in the page.
At that point, I lost my temper, and I asked them all to turn the page and not look at it and to simply tell me in their own words what the article is about, and it was only when they were forced to think on their feet that they were actually starting to talk.
My students are all good, but they have been so used to looking for answers in passages, and to memorizing things word for word, that the bigger challenge isn’t teaching English but rather teaching them to think for themselves.
The bigger challenge is to get them to answer a question in their own words, and to be willing to say their opinion openly about something. My bigger shock was when I asked them if they did or didn’t like the article and why, and to answer this opinion based question some of them started looking in the article for an answer. I seriously don’t blame them for doing that, if they learn English in Arabic and they are taught to link every aspect of the language to a rule. It is this need to stick things to rules that make people in such societies think that rules apply to everything in life. The rules they come up with dictate that, all girls should get married, all women should wear a hijab, no girl should work, men should not mix with women. This could have been a simple grammar lesson, but it reflects a lifestyle where people are conditioned to follow rules without thinking. If I want to throw a student off balance, I learned to simply ask them “What they thought”, In one of my classes one student even refused to talk about the Quran because she was simply taught that it is a great book we shouldn’t talk about. She was shocked when I asked her “Why is the Quran great.” And while she was bewildered I went on and said “ God never told you not to think, in fact God wants you to know why the Quran is great. Think about it and come back to me next class with an answer” .
In other classes I told the women there, “what if you don’t get married?” and I realized that not getting married was not even a remote possibility for them. I ended up telling them “It is a possibility right, and this is exactly why you should work on yourself, and that is so you have a choice in life. If , God Forbid, you don’t get married, you won’t starve to death. If you are divorced you won’t be forced to starve, and if you are in a bad marriage you won’t be forced to stay.”
Maybe next class I will be told never to come back, because I am simply telling people to think, but we will wait and see. The simple grammar lesson was an eye opener to a way of life, a way of life that is governed by not thinking and blindly following. Maybe such societies are built on this way of life because people don’t know better, or maybe it is a form of anesthesia from a colder harsher reality or a situation that is too difficult to change.

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