مرحبا عليكم!

I study languages.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Shout or be lost in the shuffle.

As I get older, one of the most repeated sentiments I notice is “I don’t want to grow up. I still feel fifteen.” I don’t agree, and don’t think I ever have. Adulthood is all of me there is; if there was ever a child, she died yearning to be taken seriously. Some of her immaturity may flash to the surface every so often; her jealousy, judgment, petulance, or pickiness bubbles up maybe more often than I’d like, but I’m used to pushing down her ill-defined ghost in favor of logic, my new muse. My decisions are rational, legal, and always thought through. I wear contact lenses, and ironically, the prescription on my box tells me I’m nearsighted. In reality, I’m almost painfully hyperopic, used to forcing my life’s stream through a pinhole to achieve ends that won’t pay off for years. I don’t play or joke or even laugh gratuitously. I’m quiet when someone else is talking, and I’ve never understood those who continue conversations in flagrant disregard for words someone else has prepared. I like to think it’s because I respect a speaker's ideas, but maybe it’s because I have nothing to say, which is not uncommon. I’ve become used to allowing my opinions to occupy only the confines of my sulci, and where I used to challenge or debate I now murmur and accept. I allow others to keep their own opinions, even when I know they’re wrong. I don’t step in to correct; I simply don’t care whether they’re wrong anymore. I know they’re wrong, but don’t care enough to defend the fact that I’m right. I could produce a textbook page, quote Herodotus—shut them down with a pillar of fire, but I don’t. I think I’m simply sick of self-promotion.

Even here, people search me out because they’re bubbling over and know I’m skilled at catching the overflow. If I were to pick a life theme, this would be it: because I don’t speak, I listen. It’s not a choice, it’s a default option I’ve learned to run with. I used to wait for moments in conversation when I could contribute, where I could offer a story or comment to let the world know I was me. Now I let my work ethic speak for itself. If others want to know me, they can examine what I produce, because in all honesty, I’m not much more. I’ve met 79 classmates here in Jerusalem. Time and time again, we introduced ourselves to each other. I’m fine with questions that have an answer. Where are you from? What do you study? What’s the composition of your family? It’s the others that get me. Tell an interesting fact about yourself. I have around five pithy comments I keep on hand for just such an occasion, but here, they exhaust themselves all too quickly and I am left to reconcile myself with my own empty shell, superspecialized already. The list of things I do is embarrassingly short. I maintain a perfect GPA. I do lab research. I fall into bed exhausted every night after short exchanges with my roommates. Sometimes I participate in social events, but the few I select come infrequently. How, then, am I to explain my life in just a few casual sentences? I could tell them about my research, and maybe at one point I would have done so, but the comfortable ruts of technical vocabulary I would fall into are grounds for alienation. I could tell them the truth, that I live in my test tubes and books, but then I sound absolutely un-friend-able. Telling them my ambitions sounds pretentious and unfounded; telling them I can water-ski and wakeboard sounds fake. So instead I say nothing. Instead, I revert to an almost seventh-grade self-consciousness. Back then, I knew the middle school gossip queen, and I saved up until I had twenty dollars to bribe her with so I could get some idea of how other people saw me. I’m grateful I never got up the guts to give her the money. At that point, I may not have recovered. I remember one day in ninth grade, when I asked my friend to be perfectly honest about where I fell on the spectrum of fourteen-year-old looks. “Well, you’re not pretty, but you’re not, like, incredibly ugly,” she told me, and I thanked her for her honesty.

I’ll end quoting Adah Price from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible: “Silence has many advantages. When you do not speak other people presume you to be deaf or feeble-minded and promptly make a show of their own limitations. Only occasionally do I find I have to break my peace: shout or be lost in the shuffle. But mostly I am lost in the shuffle. I write and draw in my notebook and read anything I please. It is true I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell.”

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Something I like about Arabic is the way the words seem to have an intrinsic purpose. Culturally ancient, their very shape and tone seem to complement their meaning. Already, simple Arabic words can make my easy English seem so hollow; too often, my lips have shaped the shells of sentiments I don’t mean, and my endless strings of recursive signifiers have been subject to more than a little superficial regurgitation. It’s my opinion that the empty constructs of vocabulary-for-its-own-sake naturally devolve into a series of sequentially smaller circles until, driven so far into itself, language disintegrates entirely. In this way, entropy applies to words just as well as molecules.
This makes me wonder if the Arabic literary aesthetic has the deconstructive concept of trace. Quite honestly, I wonder if it’s necessary, because I can feel humility and sincerity in shukran and warm, accommodating contentment in its mirror image, afwan. One has to smile to say aywa, and its binary, la, is tight-lipped and curt. Of course, my experience with the language is still painfully shallow, so maybe I’m drawing immature conclusions from a skewed confidence interval. Regardless, I like what I hear.

Monday, May 25, 2009


I took over 250 pictures in Egypt.

I LOVE THE DESERT. Please. Click. Enlarge. Enjoy. Now--imagine it all around you.

Giza Plateau...ENOUGH SAID!

Yep, I'm riding a camel! Wearing what they call "genie pants." Haha!

The infamous Hypostyle Hall in Karnak Temple. AMAZING! Enlarge it and check out the Bedouin guy who poked his head in at the last second.

Luxor Temple...ahhhh!

What I like best about Egypt is the sheer volume of STUFF left over from the ancient world. There's so much to see, and most of it is in stunning condition. Honestly--I could spend YEARS there and never see it all. I mean, in just over one week, I climbed Mount Sinai for the sunrise; rode a camel; sailed the Nile; took a sketchy sleeping train from Luxor to Cairo; mildly contracted a parasitic disease; was verbally assaulted in a Luxor street market; had an impromptu dance party in the Cairo Hard Rock Cafe, filmed by the entire Egyptian audience; saw thousands of Egyptian relics, large and small; climbed deep into stuffy underground tombs in the Valley of the Kings; skinny-dipped in the Red Sea late at night; crawled into the burial chamber at the Great Pyramid; and much, much more.



Hello, world! I'm still alive!
I think this is the longest I've gone without posting since I started blogging.
But, it's worth it...I've been in EGYPT!

Highlight pics imminent.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A few pictures!

I always thought I'd let my words speak for themselves, but Jerusalem transcends anything I could ever say. Enjoy my first attempt at posting pictures!

Here's some of the scenery around here. Beautiful doesn't even begin to describe it. Click to enlarge; really, it's worth it!

This is the perfect afternoon I described a few posts ago. You can see my book and backpack in the shadow of the first arch. I meant to cut it out, but I decided it gave the shot personality. :-)

Here's the Dome of the Rock. It's right outside my window, and every time I look outside, I have to do a double take.

And finally, here I am! And no, the road sign does not read "Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies;" it reads "Mormon University." XD

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rock of ages.

The rock face seems impenetrable, but tufts of green still manage to extend their tendrils between the ancient bricks. It’s an impossibility, but then so is this wall. Birds grow here, too. They duck into spaces too small for my fist, into nests formed from the text of prayers.
The entire wall is alive with people in Sabbath dress, the men in sharp black suits and dark fedora hats and the women in black dresses and head coverings. Finally, it is my turn to touch, and I place my hand on the Herodian stone in front of me and look up. The wall seems endless against the evening sky, and through its cracks small pieces of paper protrude like fine hair. These stones hold the prayers of millions and the tears of twice that. Their power overtakes me, and I stand in awe of the Jewish religion, of their devotion to their faith and the long-suffering of their people. I rest my forehead against the wall, as so many around me are doing, and tuck my own prayer safely into a rare unoccupied fissure. I pray to become articulate, to find my voice in a world full of voices.
The Jews believe that prayers placed in the Western Wall are answered first. I can only hope that’s true. Either way, touching these stones is an electric link to the ancient cries of millions, and I feel the weight of their religion in my fingertips. You know, no prayer written here is ever thrown away. The wall is cleaned every so often, so others can find space to place their hopes and dreams inside, but every single scrap of paper they recover is kept, collected, and buried on site. The Jewish people can’t destroy anything that contains the name of God; ergo, my prayer will be buried in Jerusalem until time erodes the lines of Sharpie marker that shape my name.


My Arabic professor told me I had “frozen eyes,” and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t referring to their color. Frozen eyes. I wonder what that means. I don’t think it’s a compliment. Nothing he says seems to translate quite correctly, but I’m still disturbed. What does it mean if my eyes are frozen? They can’t move? They’re glazed over? Maybe they’re focused on something so far away it makes them hurt. Maybe that something is so small and so specific that they miss out on the other beautiful things that surround them. Maybe my world isn’t all there is.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Close your eyes and picture this: you are on your stomach, lying on a patch of grass in a semicircle of warm Middle Eastern sunshine that gleams through a massive, white limestone arch. Behind you is a glass-walled auditorium that attracts the attention of international musicians just for the experience of playing before one of the most breathtaking views in the world. In front of you, the Dome of the Rock glints at the center of your field of vision. The time-worn wall of Jerusalem’s Old City surrounds it, cascading over rocky terrain until it breaks suddenly at ancient gates you can recognize and name. There are flowers lining the nearest walkway, and roses and tulips and carnations and everything beautiful blooms just inside your periphery. The set of steps to your far right are rough, white limestone bricks that ascend into a paradise of dark, cross-hatched olive wood canopies covered in things that grow. The sun warms your skin as you look over Jerusalem, smiling without even realizing it takes effort. There’s no way you can concentrate on your book. The aesthetics that surround you consume all possible interest. You breathe, and the dry air of the Middle East dusts your lungs in limestone atoms, in religious fervor, in conflict and cooperation and just trying to live a decent life. It’s four o’ clock. The call to prayer is sung from every minaret within hearing distance, and you close your eyes and listen to the discordant, resonant cries. Trust me: There is nothing--NOTHING--better than this.

For those not familiar with the BYU Jerusalem Center, here's a pretty picture of it at night. Here's a close-up in the day. The experience I just described took place under one of those big arches you see. Here it is again in black and white, and here is what it looks like inside. I'll post my own pictures when I can get a bandwidth large enough to do so (my links come courtesy of Google image search).

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


Today a young Palestinian boy threw a rock at my face. It hit me just below my right eye, and in shock I quickly turned, hand fast at my stinging cheek. My crime is my existence, my blonde hair worn long and loose. Not an hour after the rock, while walking in the Old City, a teenage boy snuck up close behind me and blew into the side of my neck. It scared me half to death, and I felt my whole body flinch. He smirked and ran off with a group of his friends. On both occasions, I felt uncharacteristically violated.

I thought I had a decent grasp on the conflict in the Middle East, but I'm realizing that I am painfully deficient compared to many students here. During class, I revert to the role of Sponge. I soak everything in, and can't question or challenge because I don't yet have an intelligent basis for argument. I listen to others debate specifics, and my mind remains quiet. This scares me. Am I empty? Am I stupid? I have to remind myself that this isn't my area of expertise, that others have had extensive previous exposure to this subject matter. It's still discomforting. Similarly, the fact that I feel like I have no time to do homework (my classes are surprisingly intense, and for me, the material is all new) makes me nervous. I thoroughly enjoy my classes (Ancient Near Eastern History; Old Testament; Arab and Islamic Civilization/Culture; Judaism, Zionism and the State of Israel; and Arabic, which I start tomorrow), but I'm really going to have to buckle down and stop spending every free moment in the Old City. Understandably, I can't resist.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Fifty days of wind.

The desert whispers here. Only, it isn't really desert. I don't know what to call it, and memories of ninth grade biomes aren't doing anything for my image of this place. It falls outside familiarity, even outside what I've seen in textbooks. Things grow out of walls here. There's a balcony outside my bedroom window, and outside it, I can watch the young olive tree in my courtyard bend itself to the wind. Air rushes through my bleached limestone corridor, cleansing it, and the slow erosion of wind and time knocks another few molecules from its contours. This is khamsin, חמסין ,שרב ,خمسين, and the migrating desert dust obscures my view of the Old City. The Dome of the Rock blurs with cloudy, gray sand, and though it's midday, the sun is gone. In my country, though, wind doesn't speak. Here, the ancient breeze murmurs Arabic and Hebrew together. For centuries, it has flowed through the lungs of Arab and Israeli citizens alike. And now it flows through mine.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


I'm not going to turn this blog into a travelogue, but I've realized that typing things takes far less time than hand-writing them, however pretty the personalized journal is that I brought. Hence, I created a travelogue blog for all the little Jerusalem details I don't expect anyone else to care about. I've linked to it, if any of you are interested in reading about what I'm doing when bored at 4 AM.

I'll reserve this blog for insights/stories/etc, and try to make posts more universally relevant (if I get any time at all for creative writing here!).

Basically...I'm really busy.
Basically...I'm loving life.

More soon.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Guess what?
I can post!

Actually, I've known I could since I got here. I've wanted to catch up on my time here, though, and I'm realizing I never will. Don't worry; I'm thinking of something to write and will write something cool here soon.

Suffice it to say that living in Jerusalem(!) is more amazing than words could possibly describe. The Center is in the Palestinian part of the city, so I'm getting to know their culture and loving every minute. The Old City (the traditional, walled part of Jerusalem), too, is beyond gorgeous, with narrow limestone streets lined with hanging tapestries and carts of food. Women covered from head to toe in dark robe outfits line the streets, and I can see orthodox Israeli men with forelocks and kippas, traditional Arab men, Armenians I don't know much about, or devout Christians depending on what quarter of the city I'm in. The whole scene looks like it comes straight out of Aladdin (which is actually the name of our money-changer, but you pronounce it al-adeen'). My classes are awesome, and my professors are absolutely brilliant. Being in the Holy Land with expert scholars as professors makes everything fascinating. I only wish I knew more. Many of the students here are majoring in Middle Eastern Studies, Ancient Near Eastern History, or Arabic, so I feel like I should know a lot more than I do. I feel like one of them would if they came into my molecular biology class without any background. Names, dates, and linguistic and ethnic divisions are talked about as if we should already know them. I'm not used to being in a class where the professor asks a question and the entire class (except me!) can say the answer in unison. I toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with a classmate who explained the sequential changes in architecture and what they would have meant to the different religions that claim space there. I've never understood the motivation behind majoring in a qualitative discipline, but I'm coming to appreciate the things they learn and esteem them as I do my science background. I can already tell that this experience is going to be extremely intellectually expansive. And imagine spending a full semester with the same 79 classmates! We live, eat, tour, and study together, and I can already tell that we're going to be great friends.