My Time in Amman: A Short Reflection

If you’ve been following me for some time, you’ll know that I spent the last nine months studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan. I planned to stay for eleven to thirteen months, however, my trip was cut short by the Covid 19 pandemic.

Before I moved to Jordan, my experience in the region was limited to my time in Iran. I had never even been to an Arabic-speaking country, save for a short trip to Egypt. I didn’t know how to speak Arabic, and I hadn’t spent more than a few months away from Michigan since I moved back from Iran in 2015.

After a day or two of exploring Amman, I attended my academic orientation. I remember when the speaker asked how many students how planned to stay in Amman for more than two semesters: Of the hundreds in attendance, I was among the very few. The extent of my commitment made me uneasy, and I began to feel alone. I didn’t speak Arabic, I didn’t know Amman, or anyone living there.

Alhamdullilah, I was able to find many good friends — both locals and fellow students — who were able to help me explore Amman and enjoy my time there. My daily Arabic progress motivated me further, and I began to feel more spiritually and socially fulfilled than I had in years. I fell in love with life in the Levant, and I stopped missing the United States.

At first, I doubted my decision to stay for a year. After the halfway point, I began to regret staying for so little. On the night I left, I was lamenting my sudden departure, without a chance to say properly bid farewell to a city that was just beginning to feel like home.

Week 3: Diglossia, ‘Amiyya, and Jordanian Arabic

Diglossia (from the Greek ‘bilingualism’) refers to a phenomenon of two languages or two registers of one language spoken for different purposes. In some cases, the dialect of a cultural center or dominant group becomes the ‘standard’ version of a language, and thus the lingua franca for speakers of all dialects. This is the case for Italian and Chinese, which are thought of as single languages, but are actually language families united by their Florentine and Mandarin (Beijing) dialects, respectively.

Literature also has a standardizing effect. Dante’s Divine Comedy helped establish Florentine Italian as the standard flavor of Italian, which was previously thought of as a vulgar dialect of Latin — therefore not suitable for serious writing. Similarly, Sa‘di Shirazi’s Gulistan became a standard for eloquent Persian. Religious scriptures have had a standardizing effect on languages as well — though Latin was replaced by Dante’s Italian, the Catholic Church has kept it alive. The Quran had the same effect on the Arabic language.

As Muslims migrated from the Arabian peninsula to Iraq, the Levant, and North Africa, they began to Arabize indegenous populations, who spoke Arabic with influences from their native languages. In North Africa Amazigh, Coptic, and other African tongues influenced Arabic. In the Levant, Aramaic, Assyrian, and other languages left their mark, while in the Gulf and Iraq and the Arabic took on a distinctly Persian influence. In the colonial era, Arabic was influenced by French, Spanish, and English.

Though the many dialects have diverged quite a bit, Arabic isn’t going the way of Latin. With the notable exception of Maletese, no Arabic dialect has diverged to the point of being classified as a separate language. A common maxim in linguistics is that a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy. In simpler terms: the classification of a language is dependent on the collective will of the people speaking it and their power. In some cases, two groups speak the same language, but consider it different due to historical issues (Serbian and Croatian) and in other cases, two groups speak a different language, but consider it the same due to a sense of proximity (Moroccan Arabic and Iraqi Arabic).

Arabic speakers tend not to see Arabic as many dialects or languages, but as Standard Arabic (“The most eloquent Arabic” al-logha al-‘arabiya al-fus’ha) and Colloquial Arabic (‘amiyya), which is thought of as a corrupted version of al-fus’ha. Although this understanding of Arabic is not linguistically sound (‘amiyya came first, fus’ha was standardized later on) it forms the basis of how Arabs view their language, and it explains why Moroccans, Iraqis, and Omanis consider themselves speakers of the same language, even if they can’t understand one another.

The understanding of Arabic a single, eloquent language, and ‘amiyyas as a corruption of that language is why Arabic remains classified as one language. To better understand: Imagine if Latin had never fell out of use, but remained as a single literary language across Europe, and the individual Romance languages today were thought of as dialects (Italian Latin, Spanish Latin, French Latin, Romanian Latin).

I first saw the complexity of Arabic diglossia in action when a Moroccan and Lebanese speaker were conversing in a mix of French, and English with some Arabic phrases, because it would be cumbersome to speak Arabic alone. They could have opted to speak fus’ha, but it would be too formal, and their respective ‘amiyyas were too mutually incomprehensible. Similarly, when my friend Ali — a native speaker of Lebanese Arabic — began working at a Shawarma place, he opted to communicate with his Yemeni coworkers in English, as it was odd to communicate in fus’ha and cumbersome to speak their considerably distant ‘amiyyas.

Enter students of the Arabic language, completely confused by this multi-dialectal system. After learning the basics of Arabic in fus’ha, most students begin learning a dialect in tandem, but the question is, which dialect should we learn? Egyptian and Levantine Arabic are the standard choices, because of their intelligibility and large speaker base, but I think these are poor reasons to study these dialects. One should choose the dialect that they will speak the most, but students usually don’t know that ahead of time.

I didn’t speak any ‘amiyya until I moved to Amman and found out how useless fus’ha is in day-to-day life. The adjustment was challenging, and I was frustrated after putting hundreds of hours into learning MSA, only to realize I couldn’t really speak it anywhere. I began by learning words like ‘bidi’ (I want) ‘weyn’ (Where) and ‘rouh’ (To go) via immersion. Then in the Fall, I began studying ‘amiyya and fus’ha with CET at the University of Jordan.

Many locals I meet find the thought of studying ‘amiyya odd. It conflicts with the Arab understanding of what ‘amiyya is. It’s an unruly, corrupted version of fus’ha — something one picks up in the street, not in the classroom. When students ask questions  about ‘amiyya grammar, professors often reply that “There is no grammar.” Though that isn’t technically true, it’s reflective of how Arabs view diglossia. 

After eight months of study and speaking ‘amiyya regularly, I feel that I am more comfortable speaking ‘amiyya than in fus’ha. Similarly, I find it odd when new students speak fus’ha in everyday situations. Ultimately, one of the most difficult parts of learning Arabic is navigating the diglossia, and learning when to speak ‘amiyya or fus’ha, and how to tell them and their respective contexts apart.

Week 2: Welcome to Amman

With a population of over four million, Amman is the Levant’s largest city. Despite its size, Amman keeps a low profile. The city prefers to remain calm and drama-free in a region where many places are known for the wrong reasons.

Amman’s safety and stability have made it a center for Arabic study abroad programs. In 2011, students studying in Egypt and other nearby countries found refuge in Amman when the Arab spring began. Since then, Amman has emerged as the main destination for Arabic study abroad students from the west.

Amman has also become a center for intra-Middle East migration. Many Egyptians, Yemenis, Iraqis, and Syrians now call the city home, joining the Jordanian-Palestinians who moved here in centuries past, and the native Jordanians who have called this place home since antiquity.

The recent waves of migration have made Amman the most cosmopolitan city of the Levant. In my neighborhood, one can find a diverse group of people, and they’ve brought their cuisines as well: Indian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Yemeni, Chinese, and American restaurants all line the streets of Jubeiha.

My program, CET Jordan, is located at the University of Jordan, which is the country’s largest and most prestigious University. The surrounding Jubeiha neighborhood caters to students, so it’s walkable, diverse, and full of life until the very late hours of the night, unlike the average Amman neighborhood, which is residential and family-oriented.

Amman’s historical city center (Wasat al-Balad, literally: Center of the Country) features ancient Roman and Islamic monuments, souks offering traditional wears, eats, and gifts. Nearby one can find Souk al-Jumuah, a weekly second-hand market.

Slightly northwest are neighborhoods catered to affluent Jordanians and expatriates: Rainbow street, which features high-end cafes and restaurants, along with much of Amman’s nightlife. Nearby is Jabal Weibdeh, an area with a sizable Christian population with a mix of traditional eats and international, expatriate-oriented restaurants.

In the following blogs, I’ll be giving you a look into life in Amman and the various neighborhoods.

Week 1: Pre-Departure Reflections, The Journey So Far

I remember when I first considered studying abroad in Jordan. I was a prospective transfer student researching the Arabic program at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. I had taken two semesters of Arabic at the Dearborn campus, where the program was smaller, MSA-only, and didn’t offer study abroad. The possibility of learning colloquial Arabic while living in Jordan convinced me to transfer from the University of Michigan’s central campus in Ann Arbor.

After transferring to Ann Arbor, I spent my first three semesters on campus taking eighteen credit semesters. I wanted to complete my on-campus coursework as quickly as possible to free up my final year to study abroad. I was also applying to a dozen scholarships — my sophomore and junior years were spent making the year abroad a reality.

In the second semester of my junior year, I nervously awaited the results of my applications. As the weeks went by, I calculated the program costs over and over again. I was counting on getting the scholarships, as I had already committed by paying the program deposit. Then one day I received an email: I was awarded a grant for both the summer and academic year. I couldn’t believe it — I was going to Amman for a year.

Though I was initially relieved, I grew more worried as the departure date came closer. I had never lived in the Arab world, and I didn’t know Arabic that well, let alone the local Jordanian dialect. I also saw the opportunity cost of my decision when my friends and classmates were preparing to begin internships and full-time jobs.

In May 2019, I took my last economics final and left Ann Arbor, never to return as a student again. Shortly afterwards I departed to Amman, an unfamiliar city that would become my home for the next year.