Today we’re not going to Our Lady of Peace, which is a bit of a relief. When I arrive at the office Akram get ups from his chair and says, “Yella!” which means “let’s go” in Arabic. He has something to show me. We go out the door and around a few corners to another office space in the building. Walls of opaque aquamarine glass surround it. We walk through the glass door into a big gutted office suite. The whole place is empty except for some wires dangling out of a few holes in the ceilings. It’s dim because no lights are installed, so all we have is sunlight that’s had to bounce through a few rooms to get to us. A layer of fake plastic woodgrain peels and ripples off of the dusty floor. “This is going to be our new rehabilitation center,” Akram says, beaming.
Michael told me about this place. It is going to house a new wing of ADT that will train in and conduct physical- and psychotherapy. It will have its grand opening on August 22nd, which is both exciting and daunting to imagine. Akram gives me the grand tour. He shows me the empty room by the entrance where reception will be. He shows me the empty room where the offices will. He shows me the bathrooms whose walls will be knocked down to install a new handicap accessible one. He shows me the empty room where female patients will receive physical therapy. He shows me the empty rooms where trainees will listen to lectures. In the back, he shows me the empty room where one-on-one therapy sessions will take place. Finally, he shows me the huge empty room in the center of it all with big windows facing out towards the street. This will be the communal therapy room. Akram describes it being filled with therapy machines, paintings by the patients, and a great big ADT sign across the windows so that everyone on the street can see. He also talks about installing some sort of kinetic painting-displayer contraption he’s thought up, but I don’t quite follow that part. It is exciting to hear Akram describe all of this, to project his imagination onto this blank canvass. As we walk out I ask Akram when the work is going to start on the new center. “As soon as we get the money for it,” he says. Amen.
I am conducting another interview today. This one is with a refugee who has been with ADT and Polus for some time, about 4 years. His name is Sami Farraj. He is a victim of conflict, an amputee and a prolific painter via the art therapy program. He is precisely the type of person that I have been sent here to interview.
This time, instead of us going to Our Lady of Peace, Sami is going to come to the ADT office and we’re all going to have lunch together. But first, Mahmoud and I have to buy some art supplies for Sami to take back to the Zaatari refugee camp where he lives. Mahmoud and I get in the car and drive across Amman. We hit heavy traffic traffic, so Mahmoud turns on the radio to pass the time. The melody and the singing style of the music is Arabian in the stereotypical sense, with those fast, polyrhythmic lines that return to the note they started from, but the beat is four-on-the-floor, somewhere between techno and marching music. The song is very dramatic, with a call-and-response between the lead tenor and a huge male chorus. I ask Mahmoud what they’re singing about. The refrain translates to something like “victory to the Jordanian army”. Apparently there are whole stations devoted to this kind of thing, where the songs are about national pride or how glorious the king is. This sets off a whole bunch of my Jeffersonian red flags, of course, but then I consider the values that American radio espouses.
Our time to the art supply store is not a very interesting event. We go there, point at the supplies we want and then wait for what feels like an usually long period of time for them to get bagged up. Fortunately, the art supply store is also a toy store, so Mahmoud and I amuse ourselves by playing with a dart board they have on display. When that gets dull, I wander around the aisles and notice how all of the dolls and action figures are white. Then that gets dull so I just dangle a slinky in front of my face for a minute or two, which amuses Mahmoud more than it does myself. Finally, the supplies are ready, so we get the hell out of there.
Once we’re back at the office and we’ve organized the paint supplies, Mahmoud heads out to buy the lunch food while I stay with Akram to talk about the imminent interview. I ask Akram about my biggest hangup with the interviewing: how to ask people to talk about the violence that’s been inflicted them in a unpresumptuous manner. Akram talks to me about building trust with the patients and developing relationships with them where you start to feel like family to each other. This all sounds nice in theory, but how to actually do it is beyond me. Fortunately, I’m about to see it with my own eyes.
I turn around and see a young Syrian boy getting wheeled into Akram’s office by an older man. The boy is Sami Farraj. Sami is fourteen, so his shoulders are beginning to broaden out, but he still has a young face. His eyes have that youthful glimmer, especially in contrast to his short, pitch black hair. Akram is suddenly transformed by Sami’s presence. His energy level goes from four to eight as his demeanor goes from thoughtful mentor to fun uncle. He exclaims something joyfully to Sami as he goes over to him gives him a high ten and then tickles his belly. I’m sure he would have given him a nuggie if that were an established practice in Jordan. Sami laughs and makes some return jabs at Akram. I, with my New England upbringing, feel utterly incapable of meeting this level of social energy while sober. The best I can do is smile and shake hands with Sami and the older man. Akram points out that we’re both named Sam (roughly speaking) so we get to have a little moment with that.
After everyone’s seated Mahmoud shows up just in time with the food. He unpacks it on the table between the couches. Meanwhile, Akram whispers a series of jokes to Sami that, judging by their faces, have to do with farts or something like that. I’m unsure whether I’m supposed to help unpack the food or not, but soon Akram lets me know. “Sam, get off your fucking ass and help Mahmoud!” he tells me, and then translates this for a giggling Sami. There’s an incredible amount and variety of food. There’s a big aluminum tray of orange rice, another one of grilled chicken and french fries, a container of hummus, a stack of pita loaves, a bunch of little containers of yogurt and of tomato sauce and a Fort Knox-style pile of these gooey, blondie-like sweets called basbousa. I have been living off of a steady economy diet of eggs and weetabix in my apartment, so this is my first proper introduction to Jordanian food.
It’s something I’d learned before, but it’s worth relearning: the incredible bonding power of communal meals. By communal I don’t just mean that people eat together. I mean the kind of meal where everyone starts with an empty plate and the table is covered with dishes that get passed around and asked for and traded with each other. These kinds of meals give rise to countless little interactions and negotiations that get immediately reinforced by the food. It’s perfect operant conditioning for social bonding. Everyone’s laughing and enjoying each other at our table and and, for a nice change, I don’t feel like it matters that I don’t speak Arabic. All of the relevant communications take place through hand gestures and eye bulges since everyone’s mouth is full. I feel like I get what Akram was talking about before. This does, at some immediate level, feel like a family, even though I still don’t know the old guy’s name.
The food is fantastic too. I don’t know how to describe flavours, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it. They don’t let you have an empty plate here either. After my fourth piece of chicken Akram, seeing my chicken-less plate, shouts, “Why don’t you eat chicken! What is wrong with you!” as he tosses more pieces onto my plate. Even Sami gets on my case when I’ve finished my rice, prompting Akram to shovel more of that on as well. It takes a few firm refusals before they stop giving me more.
Once we’re done eating and everyone is in a digestive euphoria, it’s time to kill the mood with a depressing interview. In all seriousness, this interview goes the best of all of them so far. The bonding we’ve just done works wonders to mitigate the awkwardness of the whole process. We reuse the strategy of asking for a fluid story from before the war to today, which again makes it feel more like a natural conversation.
Sami grew up in Ihnken, a village in the governorate of Daraa (Daraa is both a city and a “governorate”, which is similar to a state), with his parents and his older brother. They had a family farm and his father was also a trader. He lived a normal life in Ihnken, going to school and playing football with his friends. Then the war started, and the Syrian Armed Forces entered the village, burning houses and hunting down the young men. Sami and his brother fled to Jasem, a nearby village where his uncle lived. Sami stayed there for a time with his uncle, his uncle’s wife, his uncle’s three children and his grandmother. For a while Sami even went to the school in Jasem. But one day, after Sami had come home home from school, an airplane flew over and dropped a bomb on his uncle’s house. Two of Sami’s cousins were killed by the explosion and Sami’s legs were badly injured. He had to be transported to a nearby hospital set up in an abandoned school. There, in what used to be a classroom, his legs were amputated: left above knee, right below knee. Sami traveled across the Jordanian border to the Ramtha hospital with his grandmother and his cousin to get corrective surgery on his stumps. After the surgery he returned to Jasem. One day he began feeling shooting pains in his stumps. Because of his pain, and because there was no telling when the Syrian Armed Forces would return, he and his brother traveled across the border again.
Sami and his brother ended up in the Zaatari camp. It was there that he encountered ADT. They moved him to their Al Bader Center. There they provided for Sami to get two further surgeries for his painful stumps and began the physical and psychological therapy to prepare him for prosthesis. Through the psychological treatment, Sami discovered his love of painting. He has produced many paintings since then. Many of them are dark depictions of violence and trauma, but some of them depict family, love and even hope. Sami says that working with the colors of the paints gave him the first feeling since his injury that his life was worth living.
After completing his first round of therapy Sami got fitted for prosthesis at Our Lady of Peace. His prosthetics only need the cosmetic covering applied before he can start wearing them regularly. Of course, because he is young, Sami will have to get refitted several times. In the meantime, Sami continues to find his joy in painting. He also loves the theater, and he has performed in several productions at a theater in the Zaatari camp. His dream is to become a lawyer, a painter or a theater artist.
We wrap up the interview It’s time for Sami to return to the Zaatari camp. The older man offers for us to have lunch with them in the camp sometime. We politely accept the offer, even though taking him up on it would be illegal. The older man and Mahmoud go ahead of us to retrieve the van while Akram and I take Sami down to the street to meet them. I push Sami in his wheelchair while Akram continues to crack jokes to him. Once we reach the ground floor and Sami starts wheeling himself it’s clear that my assistance was not necessary. Sami wheels himself up to a curb, leans back, and propels himself over it. As he’s speeding over to the car, Akram shouts something at him and Sami does a 360 in his chair while keeping his forward momentum. Akram looks back and winks at me. Sami pulls up the passenger door of the car and yanks himself into the seat. Mahmoud packs his wheelchair in the backseat and then we all wave goodbye to each other as they merge into traffic.
Akram and I talk for a while about building relationships with patients. He talks about inviting Sami to have dinner with his family so that he could demonstrate to Sami that he treats him the same as his own children. Akram also tells me that when he first met him Sami would only stare down at his stumps and cry. It’s staggering to imagine the progress he’s made from then to now, when he can laugh and paint and make tricks with his wheelchair.
My biggest challenge since coming to Amman other than interviewing the patients has been finding a social group outside of work. I love Mahmoud and Akram, but they have families and friends of their own, so I need to find some group that I can explore Amman with in the evenings. There are a number of difficulties there. The first is that my Arabic sucks, and that’s unlikely to change to any socially lubricating degree by August 28th. The second is that I came to Amman by myself. Going to a bar or a club alone is uncomfortable enough in English-speaking environments. I’d like to find some American or British expats that I can hang out with. It’d be nice to compare notes on my experience with someone and I’d also like a break from being the sore-thumb everywhere I go. I’ve made a few attempts to find a group. I heard there were some Bard students doing an exchange program in Amman. I contacted them and they told me that their program had just ended that day and that they were flying back to the states. I found some websites that try to connect expats, but everyone on them was middle aged. This hasn’t been a pressing issue so far because ADT only recognizes a one day weekend, but it was still depressing spending last Friday with just my books and my music. I have a few more strategies to meet people that I haven’t tried yet. If they don’t work, I guess I’ll try on the enthusiastic-American schtick at a local club. Or maybe I’ll just hang out with the middle-aged people.
This blog is written by Sam Copeland, an intern with the Polus Center and Asia Development Training, about his time in Amman during the summer of 2017. It is meant to be read in a linear manner, so scroll down to the bottom and then go up for the full experience.