بالجنة

 

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Taking a walk on the campus of the Jordanian University

Since I posted late about last week I don’t have a lot to report on this week.  Or rather, plenty has happened but most of it was generally within the sphere of normal.  Speaking appointments, class, presentations.  Heading up to the university a few times to talk to people.  Going to the gym in the mornings before class.  Occasionally going out with friends to see shops and attractions in Amman.  Lots and lots of Arabic.  It’s been a good and productive week.  I am having such a great time here.  I feel insanely blessed.  Not only do I get to have all these great experiences and improve my Arabic (so much) but I am surrounded by great people.  My friends and classmates, my instructors, and even random people I meet on the street sometimes.  There are so many gifted, talented, brilliant, exemplary people everywhere I look.  As I think back on my life, this has always been the case.  How have I always been so lucky to be influenced by so many quality people?  

So today I went to church here in Amman.  There was a special priesthood meeting for Arab priesthood holders (which I wasn’t allowed to attend), so members from the al-Husn branch were down here, which meant there was no reason for us to go to church up there (the girls still went to be with the sisters up there).  Elder Price and Elder Kacher, who are area authority Seventies, were here for the priesthood meeting.  I really love going to church here.  I really love going to church in Arabic.  There’s just something about hearing the message and doctrines of the Gospel in Arabic that really gets to me (Language learning side-bar: One of my great frustrations right now with Arabic is how far my speaking ability is behind my comprehension.  In most situations – like at church – I can understand most everything that’s being said, but when it’s my turn to open my mouth and speak… it’s not so great).  The Gospel is beautiful in every language.  And I really feel that in Arabic.  

After church today there was a baptism.  The brother of the branch president of the Arab branch here in Amman and his wife (at least I’m pretty sure what the relation is.  Sometimes I have a hard time following family relations in Arabic) got baptized.  It was… so great.  Seriously, I know I’ve been to about a bajillion baptisms in my lifetime, but this one was particularly sweet.  Maybe I’m romanticizing it a bit.  Or maybe I’m not.  It may seem like a simple thing, but it’s one of the highlights of my time here in Jordan so far.  I dunno how to explain it.  When I heard that baptismal prayer in Arabic and saw those people come up out of the water, I just… it was amazing.  

Tomorrow morning we’re heading out to visit the baptismal site at the Jordan river, followed by taking a swim in the Dead Sea.  So, you know, just another day, right?  Y’all have a great week!  🙂

Better late than never

So I’m late getting this posted.  It was a busy week and then as I was writing this last night our power went out, and with it our wifi. Better late than never, right?  This last week, classes started up at the Jordanian University just a little ways up the road from where we have our classes so I went up there a couple of times to find people to talk to.  It was really great.  Lots of people close to my age who are eager to talk to a weird American kid who’s trying to learn Arabic.  Also, it’s a lot closer than many of the other places I’ve been going to get in my speaking hours, and I can get up there very easily on the bus, which is a fraction of the cost of the taxis I’ve been taking to get most places.  Win, win, win.  

Oh yeah! I never wrote about going to Wadi Mujib last Saturday.  That was SO fun.  A large group of us rented a bus to go out to this – I’m not quite sure what to call it – slot canyon type thing that empties into the Dead Sea.  It was basically an hour-long hike up this really narrow, steep canyon with a river (stream?) running through it.  At some places the water was only ankle deep, at others it came up past my waist.  Along the way there were a handful of small waterfall type things we had to climb up and over and around.  The hike ended at a fairly large waterfall, and then it was back down to where we started.  On the way back, some of the waterfalls we had climbed up turned out to be pretty sweet water slides going the other way.  Also, at a lot of parts you could just lie down in the water and let the flow carry you a good ways.  As it was extremely wet, I did not take any pictures.  But here‘s a google image search for Wadi Mujib to give you an idea of what it looked like.  The walls of the canyon were so narrow and steep I didn’t even have to worry about getting a sunburn.  It was seriously so beautiful, and it was sooo nice to get all wet!

So Thursday night was the priesthood session of a district conference, and then yesterday there were two general sessions of the conference, one in Arabic and one in English.  I went to all of them and in between the Arabic and English sessions there was a potluck lunch for everyone, both the English and Arabic members (it was seriously one of the best potlucks I’ve ever been to in my life).  The district president was here from Beirut, Lebanon.  So the district president, Kareem Aswad, lives in Beirut and one of his counselors is here in Amman while the other lives in Cairo, Egypt.  Pretty cool huh?  I had obviously never met President Aswad before, but he is so cool!  All of the meetings were just so amazing.  On Thursday night as I sat at the beginning of the priesthood meeting I was struck with the significance of the fact that I was sitting in a priesthood meeting in the Middle East.  I was repeatedly impressed with the fact that the spread of the church in the Middle East is actually happening, slow though it may be.  I’ve had a lot on my mind since then, contemplating just what the future has in store, for this region generally and for me specifically.  I think it’s brought up more questions than it’s answered. 🙂

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Yesterday morning a group of us traveled out to a place called Wadi Seer.  Wadi Seer is a small fertile little valley a little ways outside of Amman.  It’s basically a small village that is set up the way small villages have been set up around these parts for centuries.  In the village are the ruins of an old castle, Qasr al-‘Abd (see above), which is believed to have been built in the second century BC by Hyrcanus of Jerusalem, who was the head of the powerful Jewish Tobiad family (they were pretty well-known in the Maccabean period).  In the hills just above the village were a handful of caves, some of which used to be the homes of wealthy Jewish families.  Some even had Hebrew inscriptions carved into the rock.  It was cool!

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Bring on another week of Arabic!

Mt. Nebo, Food and Word Fun

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It’s been a good week.  As I mentioned last week, this past Saturday we took a half-day trip out to Mt. Nebo and Madaba.  I really liked it, though in some regards it was less exciting than past adventures (mostly just in the fact that there was less to see than, say, Jerash).  If you, like I was, are unable to immediately recognize which of the manifold hills mentioned in the Bible was Mt. Nebo, let me tell ya a little about it.  After traveling through the wilderness with the Children of Israel for forty years and just before their entering into the Promised Land, Moses stopped them to give them his last sermon, which is found in Deuteronomy.  If you look at the picture above, the more fertile looking land there is likely where the Israelites camped during that time.  After his sermon, Moses climbed up onto Mt. Nebo where the Lord showed him the Promised Land immediately before the end of his mortal life.  

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Our trip leaders, who had been there before, said we were super lucky because it was the clearest day they’d ever seen and we were able to see more and farther than usual.  It was really cool.  The picture above, as with most of the pictures I take, does rough justice to the view in real life, but as you can tell we were easily able to see the Jordan River, Dead Sea and Jericho.  We were told that Jerusalem was just on the other side of the ridges above Jericho and, though the city itself was out of sight, we could see the smog floating over it.  I had this song stuck in my head all day (we’ll get to spend a full day out there at some point in the next month or two!).

While we were on Mt. Nebo enjoying  the view, our program director, Dil, said something to us that I found rather salient and profound.  I’m gonna have to paraphrase a bit here.  Essentially though, he talked about Moses finally making it to the border of the Promised Land and going up to Mt. Nebo to see it.  With just your bare eyes, even from Mt. Nebo, the view is perhaps underwhelming considering all the trouble that was taken to get there.  Really, it mostly looks like more desert stretching away into the distance.  Yet, Deuteronomy says Moses saw the Promised Land in its fulness, even up to the Mediterranean Sea.  So obviously, we’re talking here about a vision (cuz even on our incredibly clear day there was no sign of the Mediterranean from where we stood).  From Mt. Nebo you really don’t see much more than desert.  But in all honesty as you get closer to the Mediterranean, the terrain really does change and become a fertile “land flowing with milk and honey.”  Through vision, Moses was able to see that.  To liken this to us, in regards to learning Arabic and all the hoped-for future opportunities that come with it, or really in regards to any major goal we set for ourselves, sometimes after working hard to accomplish something you come to the edge of achieving that goal and the view before you might be discouragingly underwhelming.  Once you see the thing for which you’ve worked so hard you may wonder why it is you wanted it and if it was really worth it.  Maybe you studied Arabic for two years with these dreams of making a good career for yourself and perhaps (hope of all hopes) someday being an instrument in God’s hands to build His kingdom in the Middle East, but then you show up in the Middle East and find stinky, garbage-lined streets crowded with honking cars and everyone you talk to blows cigarette smoke in your face and because you’re living in a desert you have to conserve water so you only take miserably short, cold showers maybe twice a week.  Or maybe you worked super hard at being a good person and dated a lot with these dreams of falling in love with someone and sailing off into wedded bliss, but then once you’re married you realize that this other person is far from perfect, and, dang it all, you sure are too, and wouldn’t you know it but now you have to live with this person for the rest. of. eternity.  Or maybe… maybe I won’t belabor the point too much.  The point is, looking forward with only your natural eyes, things may sometimes appear bleak.  But looking forward with faith, with eyes full of vision and inspiration, you can see past the deserts in the foreground to find the true Promised Land waiting behind it.  And ya know what?  That is something I really, really believe.  

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Have I mentioned that I really like it here?  I hope nothing I’ve said would give an indication otherwise, because I’m having a great time, despite the occasional challenge.  Cigarette smoke really is one of my least favorite things in the world and EVERYONE here smokes.  But I still love it here.  This week I’ve come down with something of a cold, where I’m mega congested all the time and can’t stop coughing (I suspect a correlation between this and all the cigarette smoke/traffic exhaust I’m constantly around).  But I still love it here.  I get to study Arabic every day.  I get to experience a foreign culture and interesting people every day.  I get to eat Arab food every day.  Food.  Yes, I love the food.  Yesterday our teachers at Qasid (the Jordanian institute where we have our classes) made us a big traditional Jordanian feast for lunch.  It was awesome.  I would have taken some pictures to post here, except I didn’t think about it cuz I was too busy eating and enjoying the food. And really, words are hollow shells incapable of adequately expressing the joys of food.  So I’ll just say it was amazing.

Speaking of our teachers at Qasid, my teacher is really great.  So I may have mentioned before, there are somewhere around 30 BYU students on this program (not counting spouses and babies) and for two hours a day we’re divided into 4 separate classes for what we call our “Issues Class” which is taught by a Jordanian teacher.  My class has 7 other guys and our teacher is a guy named Fadi.  Fadi is the man!  Not only is he hilarious, but he also is insanely good at describing things in a way that we can easily understand.  What I mean by that is, as we discuss various topics about the Middle East there are often words he’ll use with which some or all of us are unfamiliar, and, without a word of English(usually), he can help us understand exactly what the word means.  I love being in his class.  Also, he LOVES BYU students.  He thinks we all have this amazing musical talent.  He’s been working with students in our program the last couple of years and he showed us a couple of videos he took of former BYU students here in Jordan singing hymns.  Though we didn’t find anything extraordinary about their singing he thought their harmonization of different parts was just out-of-this-world beautiful.  He asked us to sing, so the eight of us – all guys – sang Nearer My God to Thee, just with a melody, bass line and tenor line, and he thought it was amazing.  I feel like if he ever were to see the Tabernacle Choir perform live he’d keel over dead (though in his defense, I’ve seen MoTab live and it really is powerful).  We found out that he has something of a special kind of talent himself.  Fadi is a muhafedh, which means he has the entire Qur’an memorized and has been trained in reciting it.  If you don’t know anything about Qur’an recitation, I don’t think I could adequately explain it in a brief manner.  Suffice it to say, it’s more involved than just standing and saying memorized words and it’s a pretty big deal.  You can watch a couple minutes of this to get an idea of what I’m talking about.  I really love Ustadh Fadi though, he’s a great guy.

So much happened this week.  I can’t do it all justice.  Today I went to church up in al-Husn again.  I love going to that branch!  Two days ago I got a call from the missionary couple up there asking if I’d be willing to speak in sacrament today.  So today I gave my first church talk in Arabic.  Being here in Jordan is really the first time I’ve been exposed to a lot of the gospel-related vocabulary in Arabic.  My topic was the Restoration, which I’d never even read about in Arabic before yesterday.  Luckily, I had an Arabic copy of Preach My Gospel to help me out.  After speaking, I went up to the Elder’s quorum president, Mar’ad, and asked him to be brutally honest with me, what did I say wrong or what sounded weird?  He said there was one thing that made him laugh.  He opened up his Bible and showed me something.  So in James 1:5 in Arabic you could translate it as “let him ask God, who gives to all with generosity.”  The word generosity there is “sukhaa'” (سخاء).  When I read it though I pronounced it “shukhaa'” (شخاء).  Please look closely at the Arabic letters there and understand how similar the letter for the “s” sound is to the letter for the “sh” sound.  Unfortunately, it turns out “shukhaa” is a colloquial term for “to pee.”  When Mar’ad explained that to me, one of the other brothers standing there said to me in English (and this is an exact quote), “Thanks God everyone was sleeping at that point!” And then he busted up laughing.  Thanks God indeed.

So yes.  I sincerely love it here.  Isn’t life grand?

A Quick Aside

If you’ve read my other post from today and tried looking up the location of Al-Husn, you may have noticed how close it is to the border with Syria.  One of the first questions one of my roommates who didn’t go with us up there asked when we got back was, “So could you hear any shelling or gunfire?”  I want to briefly say something about that, realizing as I do so that my mother will read this and possibly be even more worried about me going to church for the next few weeks up there.  

I am far from oblivious to the current international hubbub surrounding my present neighbors.  I’ve had a couple of people contact me from the States and ask if I’m worried about being so close to such a volatile situation.  And in all honesty, I am not.  I am in the one country in the Middle East that has managed to maintain a respectable measure of stability and peace in the modern era of history.  If you look at the history of the Middle East over the last century, anytime there is war or strife in the Middle East Jordan is the place that refugees run to for safety.  Even our cavalier president in his last visit to Jordan was quoted as saying he had no need to visit the other countries of the Arab world because they’re all here already: Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, etc.  Jordanians are proud of maintaining positive relations with nearly everyone in the world, including both the Syrian regime and opposition.  

Some of the other students, especially since the news that non-essential personnel were removed from the Lebanese embassy earlier today, have been speculating if we’ll have to leave Jordan.  Obviously I can’t guarantee that won’t happen but I’m personally pretty skeptical that the situation will deteriorate to the point that a group of students in Amman would have to leave the country.  Despite having in common being a neighbor to Syria, the differences between Lebanon and Jordan are exhaustive in length.  

Suffice it to say, should you feel so inclined, don’t worry about me.  Worry and prayers will probably be better directed on behalf of the Syrian people and the leaders of our and other countries.  

And I’ll stop there before getting too much into politics.

Jerash and Al-Husn

The problem with posting on here on Fridays is that, with weekends here being Friday and Saturday, the most exciting part of my week happens right after posting and then by the time I get back on to write something new the memory isn’t as fresh.  Oh well! Friday afternoons are still when I’ll have the most spare time for this.

So, last Saturday was one of the few Saturdays where we don’t have planned trips to visit other cities here in Jordan.  So of course several of us took the opportunity to visit another city here in Jordan.  Jerash is just about a 45 minute drive north of Amman and is home to one of the largest and most intact ancient Roman cities available just about anywhere.  I was really excited to go check it out so I read up on it a bit the night before we went. Hopefully y’all are ok with a bit of a history lesson.  I just thought it was so cool!

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So Jerash in antiquity was known as Gerasa.  Gerasa is in northern Jordan, which is the Biblical land of Gilead (one of my friends was joking that while we were there he should try to buy some lip balm).  While it’s believed that small groups of people have been living around Jerash since Neolithic times the first real city was built in the Third Century BC by Alexander the Great, who settled it with older Macedonian soldiers.  The name Gerasa comes from the Greek word for old people (think geriatrics).  Pretty cool, huh?

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The city really hit its peak under Roman rule, when it was part of the Decapolis, a conglomeration of cities mentioned a handful of times throughout the New Testament (it wasn’t until I was reading about Jerash that I learned Amman used to be the Roman city of Philadelphia.  Little did I know, I’m living in the original city of brotherly love!).  A giant triumphal arch (seen in the first picture above) was built to celebrate the visit of the Emperor Hadrian at one point.  The city’s hippodrome once seating for around 20,000 people to come watch gladiator fights and chariot races (a group of Jordanian special forces soldiers puts on performances in the hippodrome each day, reenacting gladiator fights and chariot races. I really wanted to stick around for it, but everyone else in the group either didn’t want to pay the extra 20 dinar to see it or was anxious to get out of the sun and go home. It’s one of my greatest regrets after leaving Jerash).  There are two amphitheaters in the city, a larger one that was used for performances and another that was primarily used for government meetings.  When the Roman Empire converted to Christianity a lot of the pagan temples were cannibalized to build Christian churches but the ruins of the Temple of Zeus and Temple of Artemis are still prominent features of the old city.  The remains of several Byzantine churches are scattered throughout Jerash.  One of the most impressive sights is the main road running north-south through the city which is lined on each side by these great big pillars (partially seen in the picture above with the Temple of Artemis in the left background). In places along this road you can still see ruts in the ground, worn from centuries of passing chariot and wagon wheels.

So I had a blast running all up and down these ruins for a few hours despite how blazingly hot it was (despite drinking about 2 liters of water while I was out there I had a dehydration headache the following day).  One of the super fun things to do was in the amphitheaters finding the exact spot where your voice perfectly amplified.  Seriously though, it was mind-blowing!  You could stand a single step to the side of that sweet spot, say something and not notice anything extraordinary, but if you took that one step over and spoke it sounded, even to you standing down there at the bottom, like you were talking into a microphone.  So. Stinkin. Cool.  There were these guys hanging out in the south theater.  One of them asked us where we’re from and when we said America, he whipped out a (some?) bagpipes and started playing Yankee Doodle.  Another guy got up and started banging on a drum in accompaniment.  It was nuts! But so fun.

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Most of the rest of the week was not quite as adventurous.  Sunday – Thursday was filled with speaking, writing, presentation appointments, class and venturing out into Amman to meet people and get in our 10 hours of speaking with a native.  Back in Winter semester when I heard we’d have to get 10 hours of speaking a week on our own, I thought it sounded like a lot.  It’s really not as hard as it sounds though.  Once you establish a relationship with an Arab, the hard part isn’t getting him to want to talk to you enough, it’s finding an excuse to get away from him so you still have time to do your homework.  An ongoing joke among us back at the apartment at nights is how establishing and maintaining a relationship with our Arab “habeebs” is a lot like dating a clingy girl.  Personal relationships carry a significance in Arab culture we don’t often assign to friendships in the West.  It can be a bit overwhelming at times.  One girl in our program reported in class on Wednesday that over a two or three day period an Arab friend she’d made called her 138 times.  Sooooo, yup.  Haha.

Today has been really cool so far.  So, there are two LDS branches in Jordan: one here in Amman (really there are two, one in English and one in Arabic, but they basically meet together so I count them together) and one that meets about an hour bus ride north in a town called Al-Husn.  I guess in past years a small group of students in this program went to the Al-Husn branch instead of the Amman one and, though the members up there loved it, once the students left there was an almost crippling effect on the small branch.  So this year, while they still would like BYU students to go up to the Al-Husn branch, they want to change up throughout the semester the students who go.  I was selected to be in the first group to attend in Al-Husn throughout September so today the six of us headed up.  It was so great!  The branch really is pretty small.  Including us there were maybe around 25 people in sacrament meeting.  But the branch president is a local Arab, as are the Elder’s Quorum and Relief Society presidents.  Five or six of the Arab members are returned missionaries, and one sister in the branch recently received a call to the Temple Square mission.  There’s a senior missionary couple from Arizona serving there and the Elder was telling us that he believes the Al-Husn branch is the only one in the world run by all local Arab priesthood holders and in which all the meetings are conducted in Arabic.  The only time English was used was to help the missionaries (or us) understand something.  It was sweet!  The EQP is a young guy who got off his mission to San Bernadino, CA in 2012 and I had a really good time talking to him about life as an LDS Arab in the Middle East.  It was exciting to hear about his proselyting efforts in Jordan (as a white guy I’m not allowed to do that, but he can!).  Though no one has been baptized as a result of his invitations he told me about a number of friends who, after learning about the church, say it’s exactly what they believe and look for in religion, but as Muslims conversion is out of the question.  That is so exciting to me.  Seriously, two of my favorite things together: missionary work and Arabic!

So, week 2 is on the books.  We have a mandatory program trip scheduled for tomorrow to go see some famous mosaics in some Byzantine churches in Madaba and climb up Mt. Nebo.  Should be fun!