Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How not to speak Hebrew... and Jordanians!

Soroka Medical Center
Hebrew Ulpan with MSIH first-year students

August 1-12

Part of the administrative day mentioned at the end of the last post was spent breaking the class up into different skill levels of Hebrew. There was no question, as I did not take the repeated advice of Mike Diamond to get familiar with the Hebrew alphabet before I left, that I would be in the basic beginner class. We spent the last week in July starting our Hebrew Ulpan.

We started slow, just learning "hello," "how are you," "I'm OK" -- that sort of thing. But things ramped up, or at least they felt like they did, rather quickly. It makes sense -- this is really the best time for our teachers to cram a lot of Hebrew into us since they have us for almost 4 hours every morning during the summer. Soon, we'll only have Hebrew something like three times a week for only an hour at a time.

My initial feelings, which I recorded optimistically in a mass email to my family and friends, were positive. I was (according to the email) "pretty excited" and thought it would be "fun being able to communicate in another language." By the second week I was not "pretty excited" anymore. And since I could say little more than, "Hello! How are you? My name is John. I love you," I was not finding it fun trying to communicate.

I was upstairs visiting Justin (the same from the last post) and as I was leaving his apartment an elderly woman opened her door and smiled. Then she started speaking to me in Hebrew. It sounded fast. I was immediately flustered. I wanted to ask her to slow down, but then I realized she could go as slowly as she liked, I would still have no idea what she was saying. There's that, and the fact that I didn't know how to say "slow down." The intonations of her words told me she was asking questions. She wanted answers. I nervously stared at her and tried to remember how to tell her I didn't speak Hebrew. I knew the words but they would not come to me. Sweating ensued. Her husband appeared. More sweating. I finally remembered something. In my relief, and to my horror, I nearly yelled, "Angleet (English!)!" at the poor woman. She recoiled slightly, but then smiled and said "no." Her husband nodded, telling me he also could not speak English. We exchanged some noises and smiles, and in my newfound calm, I remembered how to introduce myself. The three of us, we clung to it and we shook hands and made more noises indicating positive feelings.

The next day I was riding the elevator in the hospital during a break in Hebrew class. A hospital worker got on the elevator with me and said something to me. I gave a noncommittal nod. He seemed to accept the gesture, relaxing against the back wall of the elevator next to me.

I have to interrupt the story for a moment to let those who don't know that the elevators at Soroka, at least some of them, like to do their own thing. You can push a button for a floor, and you will get to a floor but it may not be the one you asked for. To go from the sixth floor to the ground floor, you might have to make a stop in the basement first.

So, there we were in the elevator. It decided not to go to the ground floor, which both the humans inside wanted. The man looked at me and made some frustrated sounding comments to me. I shrugged and gave him a look that was supposed to communicate, "Hey pal, what do I know about this crazy elevator? I'm just some guy." He seemed to understand what I was offering him and so excitedly turned to the call buttons and pressed the ground floor button several times. He said something else over his shoulder to me and I may have grunted. When the elevator continued to arrive on floors that neither of us were interested in, he turned to me again and, with animated gesticulations, he started to speak quickly in Hebrew. It seemed as though he expected more from me than just a shrug. I started sweating. My nerves went south and my brain refused to give me that one phrase, "I do not speak Hebrew." The man was asking questions. Like the old woman before him, his face said he wanted answers. I had none. Like a computer gone haywire, giving out the wrong information, my brain spit out some words and, again nearly yelling, I said (in Hebrew) "I am no Hebrew."

He stared at me for a moment then went back to lounging against the wall of the elevator. The silence that was left in the wake of my "Hebrew" speaking was icy. The man looked disgusted, as if I'd been lying to him for most of our mad trip on the elevator. Maybe he thought we were sort of bonding over the experience. Maybe he'd been saying, "Hey man, this elevator? It's crazy. But we're here together. A coupla dudes just trying to get to the right floor." But then, with my verbal vomit, I destroyed the bond. Yes, I told him all he needed to know about me.

I should have taken the stairs.

And now for something completely different... the Jordanians! With the beginning of August came two things, our Emergency Medicine course and the Jordanians. There is a group of Jordanian students that have been studying to become paramedics at BGU, and two of them have joined us for our month long EM class. Now, their presence here is a special thing in and of itself. From what I've gathered in the news and from the Jordanians themselves, the basic scenario is that there are no paramedic programs in any of the Arabs states, save for one in Amman, Jordan. However, this program is woefully under funded and so can not support a proper education at this time. In what might be called a little Middle Eastern ping-pong diplomacy, BGU accepted these Jordanians into their paramedic program. I don't want to go into the politics but anyone who knows basically what things are like here can probably guess that this is somewhat unprecedented, and that there are all sorts of touchy situations that could arise because of it.

In the center of all those potential sticky situations are these students, only two of which have joined us for the EM class. As an added bonus to Justin and me, they are our roommates. They are both named Khaled. Initially, I was afraid things would be awkward. I wasn't sure if we'd be able to communicate and I was doing so much adjusting outside the house, I wasn't excited at the possibility of having to keep adjusting even as I was trying to relax at home. I underestimated my roommates. True to what one hears about Arab culture, they are the warmest, most gracious and considerate roommates I could have asked for. On their second night here they cooked dinner for Justin and me and would not be satisfied until we were obviously too full to continue eating. Coffee and food are constantly being made and it is hard to say no to them. The coffee is excellent and the food more so. Almost every night since they've been here, they have invited us to eat with them.

Of course, we're not so shallow as to have good food be our only criteria for liking someone. I have enjoyed sitting with them both after meals and talking. And nothing is off limits. We discussed Middle Eastern politics, music, food (according to them the best falafel is in Jordan, though the falafel guy down the street says the best is his product), history, healthcare, and more. They are keen to learn English and have family members in America that don't live all that far from my hometown. We're all around the same age and we're all trying to get to the same place, which is basically in a position where we can help people and make a difference. The truth of cliché is evident: we're from two completely different places, but, as men, are not all that different. 

Some of the conversations I've shared with my new Jordanian friends are versions of a common theme I've noticed since I came to Israel. OK, when you live in New York City, you talk about apartments and rent. When you live in DC, you talk politics. When you live in Boston, you talk about the Red Sox. Wherever you are, you always end up talking about the business of the place. In Israel (or at least the little bit I've experienced) the business is religion and everyone talks about it. In fact, the first night Justin and me ate with them, one of the Khaleds pointed out that we were two Muslims, one Jew, and one Christian, having a peaceful and happy meal together... a hopeful picture. This being Israel, religion and politics are bled together and such conversations have the potential of blowing up in your face. But the Jordanians and I have been able to discuss things as levelheaded folks, just wanting to understand each other.

And we're all excited for that: to understand. We are all curious about each other and the places we come from. Not just the big things. The small ones too. Like, did you know that Jordan has Fuddrucker's? That's just one of the things I've learned from them. I've also learned that if a Jordanian wants you to eat another piece of pita covered in the rice and meat he just made, even though you've already had your fill, you must eat it. They, on the other hand, were excited to find out that Baba Ganoush is readily available in America and were quite impressed that I knew who King Hussein was.

It has been a blessed twist in my first few weeks here. They will be going to Jerusalem with us in a few days. They told me that if we have time, they want to go to Al Aqsa Mosque together so we can pray. I am looking forward to it.

Really, I don't wish I'd taken the stairs. If you take the stairs through life, sure, you're getting some good cardio and maybe you get a nice butt for your trouble. But, you don't get to yell poorly formed Hebrew sentences at people or live with paramedics from Jordan that take care of and feed you. That's my Ferris Bueller thought of the day.