Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Talking 'bout Religion

I had a very interesting conversation yesterday with a number of coaches and volunteers on the way to Ajloun (about a 2 hour ride). The main topic of conversation of course turned to religion, which, strangely enough, I really enjoy talking about. However, religion is already a difficult issue to discuss properly and cohesively in your own language, but unfortunately much harder when the primary language in the conversation is Arabic, with attempted translation for the vast majority of it which you don't understand. Also, as I learned, the questions that a group of Jordanians (and for the most part Muslims in general I think) will ask you about religion are frequently quite different from the usual questions that I deal with in the US, where even atheists are rooted in a deeply Christian-influenced culture.

I think the first question was something along the lines of: "Why aren't you a Muslim?" OK, good start. I explained that I was a follower of Jesus and believed in the Bible. They reminded me that Jesus was a prophet in the Qu'ran as well, and pointed people to Islam. They also informed me that Jesus never actually died on the cross (apparently a lie that the Jews came up with), but was saved by God. I went on to describe a bit of my belief in the centrality of the cross in Jesus' message, and told them that I believed in what he taught about non-violence and an allegiance to a kingdom not of this world. They kinda laughed at these last points, especially the non-violent part. "What if someone was hurting your mom? What would you do then?"

I was reminded of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1 about Christ's crucifixion being "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." My friends wondered why God would allow a prophet to be executed and why Jesus would teach his followers to follow his example and be so weak and foolish? Regardless of the language barrier, it is impossible to logically explain how Jesus "disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col. 2:15) except by pointing to the resurrection. Yet if you are talking to someone who doesn't acknowledge either the crucifixion or resurrection, then you are a bit out of luck on this argument. So I was stuck with foolishness, which for a follower of Christ seems like a good place to be.

The conversation moved on to the topic of defending the faith when I asked my friends what they thought about the Dutch cartoons depicting the Prophet or the Salman Rushdie (Satanic Verses) controversy. They agreed that the artists behind these blasphemies should be killed (after being given a firm warning) for their offenses against the Prophet and Islam. Now this shocked me a bit, because most Muslims that I have interacted with in the US tend to be a bit more liberal and favor free speech over "defending" their religion against the horrible attacks of artists in foreign countries. However, as I reflected on this conversation and some of the fundamental differences between our faiths, some of these issues made a lot more sense.

(Preface to the final bit: frequently the Christianity that I am about to talk about has been lost in the desire for political and religious power which culminated in the idea of Christendom. However, I subscribe to the words of Jesus, who spoke of a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36) and who told his disciples that the world would hate them and persecute them, but that this little revolution of love would win over the world)

One of the greatest fundamental differences between the teachings of Christianity and the other main monotheistic faiths (Judaism and Islam) is the fact that Christianity is the only one in which the founder (I'm looking at Moses more than Abraham for Judaism) was not a political as well as religious leader (not that Jesus was not political, but he was not a "political leader" in the usual sense). As mentioned above, Jesus talked a lot about his Kingdom, but made clear that it was not like the kingdoms of this world. He denounced violence and ruling by the sword, and points out that if he was leading an earthly kingdom, then his followers would have defended him (John 18:36 again).

However, Islam, since the time of the Prophet Mohammad, has been both a religious and a political entity. Granted, the political cohesiveness of the Islamic world was never really been a single entity after the time of the Prophet and the first 4 Caliphs (because of questions over who should take up the caliphate after him. However, the connection between Islam and politics has remained to this day in a very tangible way (not exclusive, but important as can be seen by the historic desire to control the caliphate).

The important part here, related to my analysis, is that Jesus prepares his followers to be insulted, despised, and executed for their faith (and the apostles confirm this with their lives), but yet warns them not to resist an evil man, for the Kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world. The Kingdom will not spread through conquest (again, the Church regrettably gave up on this vision and lost sight of their savior for about a thousand years of Christendom), but instead through the love and the blood of these "little Jesuses" (Christian was originally a mocking and derogatory term).

However, the political nature of the Prophet within Islam led to a need for Muslims to physically expand the faith through conquest as an earthly kingdom does. In the same way, Judaism was founded and then required a physical place for the Jewish people to dwell in. So it makes sense that assaults on the Prophet or on Islam in general, wherever they occur around the world, are an attack on Islam everywhere, and must be "defended". While I don't agree with the methods of this defense (I kinda support free speech and productive dialogue and criticism), I can see why the nature of the religion would result in this reaction (compared to say a Buddhist freaking out about a fat Buddha statue).

I do not mean for these observations to be perceived as a value statement, but simply as some of my thoughts on a few of the differences between Islam and Christianity and the way that these different beliefs and points of view have come up during my time here. I am painting in broad strokes that obviously miss a lot, and again my argument is contradictory to a lot of Church history (which does not follow what I would define as the message of the Gospel) in the same way that I am sure much of modern "Islamism" is contradictory to what many Muslims would describe as the original message of Islam.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Change Makers, Gender Issues, and No Time to Breathe

In typical fashion for me, I have managed to go from having very little to do here (talking primarily of my internship) to nearly overloading myself with commitments and not taking a full day off from some sort of work in the last three weeks. Granted, I am still only working a bit over 40 hours a week (in office at least), but there has not been a full day off in quite a while now, which starts to take it's toll on you. Part of the problem is that the work week at my organization and at the camp I am helping with are a day off from each other. So after working Sunday - Thursday at the camps, I frequently have to come in to observe or help with some sort of training on Saturday (when Ruwwad does a large part of their community projects because people are off work and out of school).

However, a big reason for my never ending work week is that I continue to make life hard for myself by coming up with new ideas (which are a very dangerous thing). I talked a bit in my last post about how the organization I am working with has asked me to observe everything and give them advice on how to improve some of their programs. With my couple classes in social entrepreneurship, I have begun to see wasted opportunities and resources in organizations more clearly, and really get a kick out of figuring out how to put those inputs together to make useful outcomes.

On Wednesday, I presented a few of my ideas on how to utilize the wasted time of some volunteers and the need for critical thinking development (and not just sports skills) for the students. I was somewhat surprised to be given the go ahead to implement a new program within the summer day camps starting this upcoming week. The program I created, Change Makers, focuses on cultivating the critical thinking and problem solving skills in kids to help identify and propose solutions to problems that they see in the world around them. In general, the focus is less on solving everything than it is on thinking seriously about these issues and working together to address problems. I had Thursday and Friday to actually draft up the program (goals and methods and a lot of the daily plans), and this morning got to train about 10 volunteers to implement the program at all 4 camps that we are running. I'll try to post an update next week detailing how week one of the program goes (only 3 weeks left). It will be very interesting, especially trying to track progress and successful implementation from the Arabic group discussions.

Also, I have had a lot of very interesting interactions with the female volunteers this week after spending last Sunday in Salt (the only all girls camp). When the volunteers are all together, the boys and girls very quickly separate. Occasionally, a few of them will actually talk briefly to someone of the opposite sex (greetings and such are common of course), but it is very rare to see a boy and girl engaged in a longer conversation. At first, I thought the girls were just all very reserved and quite. However, on the bus to Salt, I learned that this initial impression was not true at all. As soon as we got on the road, the music turned on, and the back of the bus turned into a bit of a dance party/sing-along. They got very excited when I started clapping along for a bit. However, this was only possible because the only boys there were the bus driver and myself. Later in the week, I noticed that in a co-ed bus the girls were incredibly quite, and when I tried to get one of them into the music she said "only in Salt, not here."

Besides the bus ride, I was able to start talking to a number of the female volunteers (and a couple of the very talkative and curious students) for the first time last Sunday. The conversations were all in Arabic, most of the volunteers speak very little English, but we were able to communicate a decent bit. The interesting thing is that as a foreigner, it is more appropriate for me to talk to the girls than for most of the guys here. I'm not sure how much of this is me just not being required to be as sensitive to the cultural gender divisions (as a foreigner you have a bit more leeway, but don't try to go too far) and how much is the fact that many times the boys contribute to the division by segregating themselves from the girls and refusing to really talk to them.

It is interesting that Ruwwad has a fairly female led leadership and that men and women work constantly with each other in the office, but for many of the volunteers the division is still a bit deal. I'll keep sussing this out, no conclusions to be made, but many more questions starting to formulate. Wish me luck implementing my program this week. It's gonna be quite an experience!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Out and About

Looking back, I'm not sure I left the city limits once during my first month in Amman. However, this last week I have gotten out nearly every day for my job and for some random adventuring around Jordan. I've posted some pictures of both: camp activites in Zarqa, a couchsurfing picnic in Zay, and a trip to the Roman ruins at Jerash. Granted all of these places are within a couple hours of Amman and I still have a lot to see in Jordan, but I realize that I have 7 months and would love to not burn out by going to Petra 4 times.

Madrasati Summer Camps:
After drafting forms and going over details all last week, we got to start implementing everything this week at the summer camps in Zarqa, Jerash, Ajlun, and Salt (cities relatively near Amman). It was definitely a week of mixed results: from a somewhat rough start and miscommunications in the beginning to a fairly seemless operation by Thursday. However, one problem that has become apparent is that the number registered for the camps is nearly twice the daily attendance, meaning that we prepared for a lot more kids than we are actually serving.

One very interesting problem that this highlights is the difficulty of providing free services that require registration. The kids were able to sign up and attend the camps free of charge, but many do not actually have access to transportation to get to the schools where they are held (and live as far as 10km away). However, there is no penalty to signing up and then bailing, so of course these kids will sign up and decide later that they can't actually go. My theory is that including a small fee in the registration process would reduce the number of initial registrations, but would greatly increase the correspondence between registration and attendance. Unfortunately, it is a little late to do that this year, so we will have to look into other methods to solve this problem, or more likely just continue to receive way too many sandwiches every day. In many of the case studies we looked at last year in my entrepreneurship classes, social entrepreneurs commented that one of their mistakes was offering services free of charge when a small fee would greatly increase their own effectiveness while not being a burden to most of their clients.

Also, this week has seen a couple very nice changes in the nature of my internship in order to incorporate a bit more of my study of social entrepreneurship and not just my skills in English and photography. Currently I am looking a bit into the difference between community development and organization (I would love any input from those of you more experienced in these fields), and will be helping a bit as Ruwwad looks to alter some of their programs and incorporate an emphasis on socially entrepreneurial practices in both their structure and in their teaching programs. However, it is difficult walking the line between observing and consulting on one hand and giving culturally biased advice that will not be easily implemented or accepted on the other. I have heard stories about businesses in the Middle East bringing in consultants to help improve their business practices, but the changes suggested were too drastic and in the end nothing was changed at all. So I understand that while I do have some skills to offer and an outside viewpoint which can be valuable, I still have a lot to learn and will try to be careful to tailor my recommendations to the realities faced in Jordan in terms of cultural norms, development level, and current business practices.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On the Job

Speaking of changes: I started work this week at Ruwwad and moved in this morning to my new apartment (one hill away from work, or about 30 minutes on foot). I've always thought that work is difficult enough when you speak the language, but here I find myself in Jordan spending my days in a fully Arabic work environment, mostly flying by the seat of my pants as I try to figure out what exactly I am supposed to be doing for the vast majority of my time between various tasks that I am given.

My primary task for the week has been creating report forms for the camp counselors and directors, in Arabic of course. Which means that I get to draft an idea of what I think should go on the form, attempt to translate it into Arabic, type the whole thing up, and then get told that asking questions like, "were there any problems that were not solved?" on a final report is too likely to get an honest answer that will get people in trouble. So I've had to scale down my scope of questions a bit and make stuff nice and vague, and figure out how to be tactful in Arabic (mostly people here just tell me what to write and I type it up). After nearly 3 days of work, I have 4 forms to show for my time. Which is impressive considering that I can barely get by on my Arabic in a real conversation, but seems like a bit of a waste of time considering that I could have drafted up all these forms in English in about an hour.

Another interesting dilemma is that my computer isn't fully compatible with the computers here, so I have to finish everything and then save it in pdf format so it can be read, which means the proofreading process is unnecessarily tedious. The good news is that we start the camp next week, and I will be able to get out of the office and see what is actually going on at the camps, which will keep me occupied. Also, while being surrounded by Arabic is confusing at times, it is also the best way to learn it. So shwaya shwaya (little by little) I'm improving, but still a heck of a long way to go with that.

I finally got a chance to get my camera out some this week. The top one is from the roof of the building I'm living in. I have a studio apartment, but the roof top terrace has a wonderful view. The middle picture is from a scenic overlook at the Dead Sea, and the bottom one is from a concert that I went to with my former roommate, Ryan, the singer is Yazan al-Rousan, a Jordanian artist who sings in Arabic but plays music that sounds like a bit like Arabian ska.

Posts to come:
- Back to where it all began: Christianity in the Middle East
- Trashed: what would it take to get people to stop throwing their crap everywhere?
- Economics of Jordan: is it really profitable to drive around all day playing ice cream truck music and selling gas canisters?
- and many, many more