July 19, 2005
Oh NOES, it's teh SEE EYE AY!
Being back in Jordan after a two-year absence has proven to be quite interesting. The amount of newly opened American chain stores are quite large, as are the amount of 'alternative' locally-owned bars and pubs. I've frequented the latter group quite a bit this past week, and have noticed an eerie amount of American folks hanging out among the upper-class Jordanian youth.
For instance, I noticed a tall man with a shaved head and well-built body sitting down alone at a table. This man could have been taken straight out of the military had he not been reading a book, cross-legged, while quietly drinking a glass of wine. I walked up to him and asked him what he was reading, and invited him over to our table. He ignored the question but introduced himself and walked over with me anyway. When he sat down I repeated the question, and he said: "I'm a writer." Intrigued, I asked him what sort of stuff he wrote. He responded with a vague answer, something along the lines of: "I write different things, for papers and stuff, and other things too."
Another incident occurred at the Jordanian Film Convention I attended a few nights ago. This man, J., claimed to work with an NGO "dealing with Iraq". He didn't know what NGO he was working for, however, or at least, that was his reponse when I asked him. After talking to a friend I found out that this guy actually interviewed Iraqi prisoners, but again, not much was known about the actual organization he worked for.
Now this is not going to be an analysis so much as a personal observation, or perhaps a 'word from the street' sort of thing. Tonight, another friend mentioned the abundence of Americans "studying Arabic" here in Jordan. Funnily enough, however, it seems that even after spending months "studying", none of these people could speak more than a few words or sentences. Furthermore, young Arabs who live here find themselves casually questioned by these foreigners about what they think of the war, the government, or Islam.
This has gotten quite a few people suspicious, and a number of conspiracy theories have arisen. My favourite one is that these people are actually CIA agents sent from America to monitor Jordanian youth, in order to gain a better understanding of what they think of certain issues, and to quell any pockets of anti-American uprisings. Apparently, evidence for this theory comes from the fact that the majority of these people, men and women alike, walk like the military, and often look and talk like soldiers too. Also, they frequent bars and cafes that often have Jordanian youth who are involved in activism or politics (such as Books@cafe and Amigo).
I'm quite interested in this, and was wondering what some people think about this possibility? Is it really that far-fetched, given the current political climate?
If this is true, could someone contact the CIA and tell them that I'm a part of this "Arab youth" and, for a good price, will totally try and fill them in if I hear something fishy :o).
Thanks in advance.
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"Tonight, another friend mentioned the abundence of Americans "studying Arabic" here in Jordan. Funnily enough, however, it seems that even after spending months "studying", none of these people could speak more than a few words or sentences. "
You've obviously never tried to speak, say, Spanish with the vst majority of Americans who have studied it. :-)
Posted by: evaluna at July 19, 2005 11:25 PM
Bah, so much for my plans to take Arabic in the ME next year. I swear it's legitimate interest in the language!
Posted by: eerie at July 19, 2005 11:51 PM
Sad thing is, I am going to sound exactly like one of these guys, at least until I find some honest work. (And Arabic is a very very very very hard language to speak, especially for monolingual Americans. I've been here four friggin' years and I'm still pretty stumbly when I talk.)
Posted by: Tom Scudder at July 20, 2005 04:28 AM
What do I think.
I think it's a rather typical, poorly thought out Arab paranoid conspiracy theory (which sadly resembles the Bumpkin paranoid conspiracy theories prevalent everywhere in the world).
Knowing Books and Amigo, the reason they go there is quite simply for comfort. It's true also lots of NGO/contractor types like going there as well (some may be Agency as well), but it is for the same reason. Liberal atmosphere, free drinking environment, relativey open and less stiff than Jor culture generally (relative to a single American).
In re studying Arabic, as Tom said, Arabic is a bloody hard language. Only obsession and my typical ability to convince myself I am moumtaz, as well as a genuinely good ear got me up to functional fluency.
For the wave of young, middle America students flowing into Arabic studies (probably yes with CIA in mind, mind you), Jordan is a "safe" place to study. The counter problem is of course with a large community of English speakers - esp. Jordanians like yourself for example - it is doubly difficult to get anywhere unless one is rather disciplined.
Given the United States has what I might characterise as a highly indifferent history of language training and learning, and given many are learning more reading and writing than speaking due to the Mod Stan Arabic teaching that tilts heavily to formalism..... Well don't be suprised if they speak Arabic so indifferently as to make a camel piss in shame.
The "military" bearing is a complete misread, I should add- having known Agency people (friends and the like), the real deal and not mere poseurs either- they're not shave headed types.
Rather the Jordanians are mistaking Mormon and Mid West American nerdiness for military bearing (of course in the context of the sorts that the Books and Amigo crowds were used to in the past, this batch of Americans is far less hippy or leftish, far more straightlaced and rightish, again making them seem strange to the past crops - I saw the change over while I was there).
Finally, having amigos in the real Agency, I can attest directly that they haven't the bloody manpower to do such a thing, and the real Agency understands what an utter waste such monitoring would be, above all since the Jor Moukhaberat do it for them for a fraction of the cost.
They need people to interact with Jor Moukh., not people to monitor Books....
Posted by: The Lounsbury at July 20, 2005 08:18 AM
Oh, a note to eerie: don't worry about it. Only white guys get to be (imagined as) CIA. Everyone will assume you're 2nd or 3rd-gen Palestinian or Jordanian-American (or Canadian) come back to find her roots.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at July 20, 2005 09:47 AM
"Oh, a note to eerie: don't worry about it. Only white guys get to be (imagined as) CIA. Everyone will assume you're 2nd or 3rd-gen Palestinian or Jordanian-American (or Canadian) come back to find her roots."
They may not imagine her to be CIA, but she will be presumed an informer of some kind.
Posted by: matthew hogan at July 20, 2005 11:26 AM
"Given the United States has what I might characterise as a highly indifferent history of language training and learning..."
Which, I would hasten to say, extends even to English-language learning; the number of American native English speakers, even educated ones, who have a truly poor understanding of the structure of the English language is absolutely terrifying. My college Russian professor, who also taught at an intensive summer immersion program, said she had to spend the first week of the program teaching English grammar (and she was a native Russian speaker) before she could even touch on Russian grammar; how can you figure out how to decline a word if you don't know what role it's playing in the sentence? And that was longer ago than I care to think about, but I imagine linguistic instruction in the U.S. hasn't exactly improved since then.
Not that I speak Arabic or anything, but I imagine there would be analogous issues in teaching any foreign language.
Posted by: Eva Luna at July 20, 2005 12:08 PM
Oh man, you just reminded me of my HS English teacher, who was hilarious. He looked at us once, after we'd given him an especially hard time, and said "Most of you are studying a foreign language too, so you can be illiterate in TWO languages."
Still makes me smile thinking about it.
Posted by: pantom at July 20, 2005 01:09 PM
Tom/Matthew: I can deal with being an informant if it decreases the number of marriage proposals offered in a day.
Lounsbury: You should hook up with your "boy in Baghdad" again. The "ain't no pimp" line was priceless.
Posted by: eerie at July 20, 2005 02:13 PM
"Tom/Matthew: I can deal with being an informant if it decreases the number of marriage proposals offered in a day."
It won't; it'll only increase them. ("Not only did I marry an American and get a green card but she works with the CIA, we have it made. And of course she's probably really Jewish.")
Sad, to say the above is not really satire.
Posted by: matthew hogan at July 20, 2005 02:36 PM
Yeah, maybe you could be the Canadian Femme Nikita.
Posted by: Eva Luna at July 20, 2005 03:40 PM
CIA has its own language programs.
Posted by: praktike at July 20, 2005 06:14 PM