Unhinged in Jordan

Dominick Giovanniello spent the entire 2016-17 year studying abroad in Amman, Jordan, participating in CET’s intensive Arabic language program. He shares an experience navigating social norms.

In an effort to compensate for all of the carbs I’ve been eating and the hookah I’ve been smoking, I decided to get a gym membership a couple of months ago and to my surprise, I’ve found that I actually really enjoy it. The gym I go to is called Troy 24/7 even though it doesn’t open until 5PM on Fridays and Saturdays. It sits on the main street, right on top of a hookah store and a barbershop staffed entirely by Syrians. The gym itself can politely be described as worn…for example, all of the pads on the machines are ripped and several pieces just seem to be held on by black electrical tape. It’s not the cleanest gym in the world, and the owner’s attempts to spruce it up, like painting blue triangles on the wall, only serve to emphasize that fact. Nevertheless, the staff are super nice and helpful, and the gym members – a weird assortment of foreigners, mostly Koreans; out-of-shape older men, and tattooed gym rats – have become a familiar community for me.

The other day when I went to the gym; however, I had a weird experience that left me a little wiser. And although I generally tend to hate blog posts where X-encounter taught me Y-valuable lesson about myself/culture/life in general, I really want to talk about it since it helps me simply articulate a concept that I’ve been struggling with.

Usually when I go to the gym, I bring a bottle of water; however, this time I forgot and so I went to the front desk, paid for a bottle of water, and watched as the owner used his fingers to unscrew the hinges on the door of the broken refrigerator where the water bottles are stored. No big deal. The next time, I also forgot to bring a bottle of water, so I put some money on the counter, went to the fridge and started to unscrew the hinges. The employee on duty, Abu Noor, an Egyptian working in Jordan because the economy is better (which tells you all you need to know about how awful the situation is in Egypt), saw me as he was walking past and cried out, “Stop! What are you doing? You can’t do that!”

He marched up to me and I started to explain myself, but he cut me off, “No you can’t do that. It’s not your place. When you go to the store and there’s something you want but can’t reach, you don’t climb the shelves, do you? You ask whoever’s working there.” Abu Noor kept getting more and more agitated as he tried to explain this concept to me. “You weren’t doing anything wrong. But it’s not your fridge, just because Muhammed (the owner) did it doesn’t mean you can!”

At this point, I was extremely confused and could not figure out what he was getting so worked up about. I’d apologized, it was an innocent mistake, and not even a big deal to begin with! Realizing this, Abu Noor grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “I know you’re a respectable guy, studying Arabic, and that you want to learn as much as you can. But you need to know that when you study a language, you’re actually studying three different things: language, culture, and behavior.” It then dawned on me that he wasn’t actually mad at me, rather he was offended by the way I had just assumed that I could go about something, which in his mind wasn’t my place to do.

Although those words aren’t innocent, particularly “behavior” in a patriarchal society, I think that they’re really insightful. Learning a language, especially when you’re overseas, isn’t just about grammar and vocabulary. The ultimate goal of language learning is to be able to use that language to communicate with and connect with other people. Additionally, every word, phrase and interaction is shaped by an enormous amount of implicit cultural, historical and social knowledge. We take it for granted, but every time we interact with someone else from our own culture, we’re drawing on an entire lifetime’s worth of interactions and operating within a very firm, defined set of social norms. It’s a reminder that you need to get out of the classroom to gain a full understanding, and it doesn’t just apply to language learning, but to every field of academic learning.

First impressions of Jordan

Dominick Giovanniello is currently studying abroad in Amman, Jordan participating in an intensive Arabic language program. Below is his initial post while abroad.

Nothing compares to the feeling of stepping off the plane in a new country. It’s a strange cocktail of relief, exhaustion, trepidation, and most importantly, excitement. Right off the bat, you’re confronted by new sights, smells, and sounds. From the signs in a different language, to the accented English of the customs officers, to the building itself, everything is just familiar enough for you to navigate, but so foreign as to overwhelm you and key you into what’s about to come.

This isn’t my first overseas adventure. I was born in Germany, lived in Mexico and Bolivia as a young child, and spent my middle school years in Italy. But this is the first time I’ve lived overseas on my own, and the first time I’ve ever been to the Middle East (it’s also the first time I’ve tried writing a blog post).

It’s hard to say what exactly compelled me to exchange my friends and life at UVA for nine months of living and studying in Amman, especially considering that I’ve never been exposed to Arab culture or the Middle East outside of the classroom. However, as much as I love UVA, I was hungering for an adventure and I know there’s no better way to master a language than to actually live in a country where it’s spoken. So…for the next nine months, I will be studying Arabic full-time at the University of Jordan with CET Academic Programs and calling Amman, Jordan my home.

Everyday here poses a new challenge and a new adventure. Whether it’s learning how to play Jordanian card games, having an in-depth political discussion with my professors after class, getting a haircut, or simply ordering food, I’m constantly pushed out of my comfort zone and forced to set aside my own habits and ways of thinking. I may seem like a total idiot most of the time, but I’m gradually becoming more comfortable speaking, moving around and engaging with Jordanians. Just the other day, for example, I was literally pulled off the street into the wedding celebration of a random stranger. The man noticed me and my friends photographing the gaudy glowing tent that had taken over the street, but rather than chasing us away, he welcomed us into the party, where we listened to live music and dubke-ed (the traditional Arab dance) hand-in-hand with a large circle of men and boys until the late hours of the night.

More than anything else, it’s these small interactions (and occasional victories) that making living overseas so fun and rewarding. Not only do these experiences provide a window into the cultural differences and unique perspectives of others, but they also illustrate the universal normality and mundaneness of everyday life across the globe. Oftentimes, our only exposure to other cultures and ways of life comes from the news, and we don’t realize that beneath all the problems and conflicts, most people want the same things from life, even if they conceptualize them differently. At the same time that living overseas exposes you to other cultures, it also makes you more aware, critical and appreciative of your own.

In this blog, I’m going to try to record my experiences in Jordan and my impressions about Jordanian culture. I don’t want this to be a journal or a litany of my activities, but rather more of a place where I can grapple with and hopefully articulate the contradictions, challenges and joys of being immersed in a foreign land.

UVA in Jordan: Coming Home

Katharyn Gadient is a 3rd year student majoring in Middle Eastern Studies. She is studying abroad on the UVA in Jordan program.


After 2 months gallivanting around the Middle East, I’m finally back in the United States, a little worse for wear but doing well overall. It’s all so surreal. I feel like I’ve been imagining returning “home” for ages. And, now that I’m here, I certainly excited to be home and visit with friends and family… but also can’t get rid of this nagging itch that won’t let me settle in comfortably. Most especially, I have to keep reminding myself not to speak in Arabic, because people will look at me like I have three heads (I’ve figured this one out from a slip-up at the Wendy’s at JFK Airport, but I digress…).

More and more, I find myself mulling over my experiences from this summer, trying to make sense of it all. Over the course of this summer, I certainly completed everything on my “Things to Do Whilst Studying in Jordan” list… I can chat in MSA and even throw-out Jordanian slang when the situation comes up. I’ve made some amazing friends. I’ve tried more than my fair share of tasty Middle Eastern cuisine. I’ve traveled to places I’d been planning to visit and places I’d only dreamed I’d get to see someday. And on top of all of this, I’ve had many surprises throughout my trip that have forced me to grow and mature as a person.

Whenever someone asks anyone how their study abroad experience was, the automatic answer is “Great!” This is the case for my study abroad experience as well. It’s been “Great,” but to be honest, great is only the tip of the iceberg. I hope this blog I’ve kept over the past two months can give you some deeper insight into what it means to study abroad, to experience new cultures, and to interact with new people. As Carl Fredrikson would say, “Adventure is out there!”, so go have some adventures of your own!

UVA in Jordan: Traveling Outside of Jordan

Katharyn Gadient is a 3rd year student majoring in Middle Eastern Studies. She is studying abroad on the UVA in Jordan program.


I returned yesterday from my week in Istanbul. It was an incredible trip, and I could go on and on about how amazing Istanbul is. However, I’ll go ahead and cut myself short for all of our sakes! I think the most important (and most relevant) thing from this trip is that I now trust myself to be a somewhat savvy traveler. I figured I’d go ahead and share some advice on traveling around the Middle East and surrounding areas in general!

  1. Try Something New- Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone. If someone had told me I’d be looking off the edge of Galata Tower a week ago, I would have laughed in their faces. But, when the time came, I decided I wasn’t going to let my fear of heights get to me. I not only conquered my fear but got some pretty awesome pictures as well!
  2. Take Some Downtime- As young adults, I feel like we’re always on the go. But, some of my favorite memories from Istanbul are sitting in a cafe for an hour or two and taking in the sites. Give yourself some time to breathe!
  3. Language Barriers aren’t Absolute- I don’t speak a word of Turkish. But, with some nifty hand motions and a few English words thrown in here and there, I was able to navigate Istanbul with only minor glitches.

All in all, I would encourage anyone who studies abroad to take the time to travel outside of their country of residence. It’s a great opportunity to see new places, meet new people, and learn more about yourself!

UVA in Jordan

Katharyn Gadient is a 3rd year student majoring in Middle Eastern Studies. She is studying abroad on the UVA in Jordan program.


I can’t believe I’ve been in Jordan for almost two months! What is it they always say about time flying? And, with this two month benchmark, I’d say it’s time for another list! I’ll leave the “Words of Wisdom” list for later, so for now here’s my list of “Touristy and Not-So-Touristy Things You Should (and Should Not) Do in Jordan….”

DO….

  • Visit the Nature Reserves- I consider myself an indoors kind of person, but my trips to Wadi Rum and Wadi Mujib are some of my favorite memories from Jordan thus far.
  • Climb the 800 Stairs to the Monastery at Petra- Did I mention I’m an indoors person? Yeah, let’s just say this hike was not easy. But, with a little (ok, a lot) of motivation from my friends, I made it all the way to the top and was so, so proud of myself. Plus, the views at the top of the cliff are absolutely stunning.
  • Haggle- It’s scary to try to haggle, especially when you’re just starting to learn Colloquial Arabic and still getting over Culture Shock. But, haggling is not only a great way to save money but also to practice your Arabic. Even if you can only haggle someone down 1 JD, the experience will be well worth it.

DON’T….

  • Tour Sites in the Afternoon- The afternoon sun during the summer in Jordan is hot. You’re much better off getting up early and taking a nap later on in the day. We were up at 5am to get to Petra and when we left the park at 1pm, the temperature was already 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Eat Out before Sundown during Ramadan- First of all, the stores will probably all be closed. But if by some chance you find an open cafe, let me tell you from experience there’s nothing worse then getting stared down by people as you eat your sandwich. Just don’t do it.
  • Put Your Head Underwater at the Dead Sea- The water in the Dead Sea is very salty, which is cool because it makes it easy to float. The salt also makes your entire body feel like it’s burning in after 10 minutes or so. Now, imagine that same water getting into your eyes… So, float in the Dead Sea, but don’t expect to do any serious swimming.

Well, that’s my touristy advice for Jordan. I head off to Istanbul in two hours for our Eid break, so expect some advice on traveling outside of Jordan soon!

UVA in Jordan: Arabic Class…in Summer

Katharyn Gadient is a 3rd year student majoring in Middle Eastern Studies. She is studying abroad on the UVA in Jordan program.


When I told my friends that I was studying abroad in the Middle East this summer, they were all very excited for me… until I told them I’d have Arabic class for four hours a day. “Why would you do that to yourself?” they’d ask. Well, after being in class for almost a month and a half now, I can say that Arabic class in summer is actually better than it first sounds. Here’s a few reasons why…

  1. Time to Focus on Arabic- During school, I felt like my time was constantly devoted to things other than Arabic, so much so that it felt like my Arabic stagnates from semester to semester. Here in Irbid, I  have time to study Arabic in its entirety, which I realize now is a rare treat.
  2. Studying Arabic Outside of the Classroom- Even though I could spend all day studying in my apartment, I feel the best practice I get is whenever I explore Irbid. Conversing with residents in particular has forced me to get over my fear of speaking Arabic in public. Now I feel comfortable having full conversations in another language, even if I don’t always know vocabulary words or grammar constructions.
  3. Perfecting Skills- This may be specific to this program, but the classes here are skill-based, such as a “Listening” class, a “Reading” class, et cetera. In my opinion, this is the best way to teach and learn a language in a classroom setting, but unfortunately this set-up just isn’t possible with a Western university style of scheduling classes.

All in all, devoting your summer to studying Arabic may seem worse than going to the dentist, but the advancements you make in your language make the work well worth it. Trust me.

UVA in Jordan: Dancing Dabka

Katharyn Gadient is a 3rd year student majoring in Middle Eastern Studies. She is studying abroad on the UVA in Jordan program.


After two intense sessions of “al-nadi al-thaqafa” (Culture Club), I am proud to announce that I can (kind of) dance the Dabke! Granted, my Dabke looks more like an awkward hop-step-kick than the effortless shuffle of more experienced dancers, but I’m still proud of it!

The “Dabke” is a traditional Levantine line dance. There are many, many variations from different regions in the Middle East and even different versions for each of the sexes. The one for men is very rowdy and includes some jumping, whereas the one for women is more demure. I, of course, learned the one for women, and it was hard enough! Dabke is especially popular at weddings, and I was lucky enough to see some of the shabab dabke at the zafaf I went to a few weeks ago with Maha.

In Culture Club, we learned other traditional dances as well, such as those from Iraq and Kurdish tribes. I think it will take a bit more time for me to get these down, but practice makes perfect, right? Still, I think these were my favorite sessions of Culture Club so far!

Check out some videos of Dabke on YouTube and try it for yourselves! But, let me warn you- it’s a lot trickier than it looks!