Jessica in Jordan

Jessica is working for the National Center for Policy Analysis’ debate institute, “Debate Central.” The NCPA will be holding a debate camp in Amman, Jordan, along with General Tommy Franks, The King’s Academy and Oklahoma Christian University’s Institute for Leadership and Liberty. Jessica travels to Jordan in July to instruct debate and public speaking with the camp, as well as educate the students there on the debate topic, which addresses the Middle East peace process. Jessica also is serving as managing editor of the White Rock Lake Weekly, a Dallas-area newspaper whose editor-in-chief is an SMU graduate

A trip worth taking

After the tournament was over, we took all of thejessica2.jpg students traveling around Jordan for three days. It was an extremely amazing experience.

The first day we took a bus to Wadi Rum and camped in the desert. The Royal Court made all of our travel arrangements, so the people who set up our camp sites set it up as though the King would be there. It took them two days to set up our camp site, and it was absolutely amazing. There were several tents that slept two people, and each tent had a cot that was essentially an actual bed, a night stand, a lamp, full bedding, and was carpeted. At the top of the camp, they set up a large tent with several couches and tables. Jessica4-1.jpgEach table had candy, nuts, water bottles, and basically anything a high school student could have wanted if they happened to be camping in the desert, so needless to say the kids were pretty excited about the entire thing. (PHOTO: tent, right)

The people who set up our camp also cooked us dinner, and when I say dinner I mean feast. They roasted goats in the ground, grilled lamb, chicken, and beef, and had bowls upon bowls of vegetables and sides. They also had an entire table of desserts. I am not exaggerating when I say that this was the best meal that I have had in my entire life. It was completely dark when we ate, and the stars were outstanding. I have never seen that many stars. We woke up early to see the sunrise, and that was breathtaking. Jessica5.jpgWatching the sun rise over the rock formations was something that I will never forget. (PHOTO: camp dinner, left)

After Wadi Rum, we went to Petra. Petra was a lot of fun. You have to walk into the city through a walkway that winds through rock. The walk takes at least an hour, and there are donkeys and horses that you can ride down, but we chose to walk. It was definitely worth it. We stopped along the way to climb rocks, take pictures, and admire the carvings that were still visible. When you finally get through the trail, the first thing you see is the treasury that this ancient city carved completely out of rock. Jessica8.jpgIt is gorgeous. I can’t even believe that it is possible for people to create such things.

We kept walking and when we got to the end, we decided to ride donkeys part of the way back. Evidently I am a good donkey rider, because every time I passed one of the workers they said, “Good riding! Good riding!” We actually raced the donkeys through part of the city, which was a lot of fun.

When we got off the donkeys, we took camels back to the treasury. Camels are not allowed to take you all the way back, so that is as far as we could go on them. The other lab leaders and I had made riding a camel our goal for the trip, so it was really exciting to get to do that. Now I can say I rode a camel through Petra! (PHOTO: sunset, right; camel riding, left)

The day after Petra, we went to the city of Madaba to do some souvenir shopping. Madaba is a primarily Christian city, so I was able to get rosaries for my parents made out of olive wood from the Holy Land. Everything is so cheap there. I was able to get a small, handcarved chess set made of marble for my boyfriend for the equivalent of about 20 American dollars, and I got some handmade scarves for some friends for about 3 American dollars.

The shop owners in Madaba were so friendly. I walked into one shop with three other lab leaders and the owner sat us all down and gave us tea and cookies and talked to us about our lives for a while. When I tried to buy something from him, he said, “No, you might find something more beautiful somewhere else. Come back at the end of the day and buy it if you still want it.” He said that he was a banker who just opened the shop when he retired so he could meet people. He buys sewing materials and gives them to the local women to sew pillow cases, dresses, and bags, and then pays them for their labor and sells their products Jessica9.jpgin his shop. It was really interesting to know where the things you are buying came from.

Madaba is called “The Mosaic City” because the Eastern Orthodox Church in the town had an ancient mosaic all over the floor that took an estimated 11,000 hours of work to accomplish. The mosaic was beautiful. It cost one dinar (or about $1.50) to get into the church, it was easily the best $1.50 I’ve ever spent. (PHOTO: floor mosaic, left)

After we finished in Madaba we went to Mount Nebo. Mount Nebo, according to the Bible, is where Moses was given the view of the promised land that God gave to the Israelites. If you stand at the top of the mount, you can see everything from the Dead Sea to Palestine. It is a really amazing view, and it was really interesting to be there.

We also went to the Dead Sea, and that was really interesting. There were puddles of water that had splashed up from the sea, and as they evaporated you could see the salt that had crystalized from the water. A student and I tasted the water (which I’m going to tell you right now you should never, ever do) and it was the saltiest thing I have ever tasted in my entire life. It was awful. The water felt almost oily and took quite a while to dry off your skin. Jessica3-1.jpgThere were people swimming in it, which I can’t imagine doing. If that got in your eyes it would hurt for hours. (PHOTO: Jessica and lab leaders, right)

It was an amazing trip. I am so fortunate to have done that, and to have done that for free. When I tell people, “Oh, I actually got paid to do this,” I can’t even believe it. I am so grateful to the NCPA for giving me this opportunity and trusting me enough to teach high school kids about public speaking, debate, and the Peace Process. I learned so much while I was there that even if I didn’t get paid at all it would have been worth it, hands down.

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A first-place finish!

The first four days of our camp ended in a debate tournament for the entire camp, and one of my teams took first!

jordan-%20jeris%20and%20britt.jpg My first place team was made up of Jeris, who is a King’s Academy student, and Britt, a home-schooled student. They won every round they debated, and even when the rounds were paneled with more than one judge, no judge ever voted against them. (In photo: Britt, left, and Jeris receive their first-place award from General Tommy Franks)

The finals round was made up of “celebrity” judges. They included a senator from Jordan, a professor from the King’s academy, Robert Jordan (the former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia), the debate coach from the University of Texas at Dallas, and one of the leadership speakers from the week. All of them voted for my team, so that was a really exciting way to end the tournament.

The topic was as follows: Should the United States support a comprehensive agreement between Israel and Palestine based on four principles: two sovereign states, whose borders and security are recognized by the countries in the region, economic liberalization, minority right protection and cessation of violence.

The teams have to debate both the affirmative and the negative, and each lab group wrote cases together. My lab’s cases were constructed like this:

On the affirmative, we argued that the United States should condition aid to both Palestine and Israel so that we could basically commandeer them into instating a two-state solution. The agreement would have included the cessation of violence and the default protection of minority rights due to lessened violence and established borders. We would also recommend loosening such things as the blockade and the high tariffs and trade agreements that make Israel and Palestine less economically free than the rest of the world.

On the negative, our counterplan was to pull all aid from the region. The logic behind this was that the money that we are giving the region fuels the violence, and even if we conditioned our aid the powers that be in both Israel and Palestine would not listen to us. We argued that if the Israeli Defense Forces were to give over power to Palestine, Hamas would simply take over like they did in the Gaza Strip, causing more turbulence.

jordan-%20group%20photo.jpg The tournament included three preliminary rounds for each team, and the four teams with the best record went to semis, and the winners of those rounds went to finals. The final round was debated in front of all of the celebrity judges, as well as the entire camp and General Tommy Franks. Needless to say, my team was very nervous when they were sitting up on stage, but after some encouraging words they felt confident and were able to clearly win the round. (In photo: All of the camp participants)

Jeris and Britt were by far my hardest-working lab group, which says a lot because every single one of my teams worked so hard. I don’t think Jeris or Britt ever used any of their free time to do anything but prepare for the tournament, and it paid off. The winners of the tournament were awarded a $2,500 scholarship to the college of their choice.

I am extremely proud of everyone in my lab group, and I couldn’t be happier with the amount that they forced themselves to learn. Debate tests your knowledge on a given subject more than just about any other form of communication. Given that, they had to know the facts and figures they were presented with like the back of their hand, and they did.

Teaching kids in the Middle East about the Middle East Peace Process is an amazing thing. You could tell that the Jordanian students felt so empowered by everything they were learning because now they understood what was going on. American foreign policy, while it does have an impact on the lives of Americans, has more of a direct impact on the people in the areas where we are instating our policies. Because of this, the Jordanian students were much more interested in the implications of what each different plan advocated by different teams would have on their part of the world.

I am so blessed to have had this experience, and it is something I will always remember. I have learned so much from being here, that I’m not sure any international relations class could have taught me anywhere near this much information.

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Debate coach

Jordan is absolutely beautiful. I have included in this post a view from my window. How amazing is it to wake up to that every morning? I can’t wait until I can wake up to the view from Wadi Ram when we go camping in the desert.

The King’s School is such an interesting place. It is amazingly beautiful. It is sprawled out on several well-landscaped acres, and all of the buildings are made of white stone and wood. None of the rooms except for larger gathering spaces are air conditioned, but that’s fine because it never gets above 85 degrees here and it is not humid at all.

My dorm room is extremely small; it has a bed, a desk, a set of drawers and a small armoire, and maybe a total of six square feet of walking space. It also has no air conditioning, but if you open the window the temperature is perfect. (PHOTO: view from my window, right)

The school is also very, very progressive. In the country of Jordan itself, you can be punished for debating Christianity, but at the school they offer the study of Christianity as a class you can take if you choose to opt out of the Islam classes. The school will even drive its Christian students to the few churches in the area on Sunday mornings if they students ask them to. Every student on this campus speaks English, and the classes are held in English. jordan-%20kings%20academy%20sign%20-1-1.jpg All students are required to take Classical Arabic, but everyone must speak fluent English. (PHOTO: King’s School, left)

I have seen very few women wearing hijabs. This actually surprised me, as I was told that I should expect women to dress extremely traditionally. I have actually seen no woman under the age of 40 wearing a hijab. Most women dress exactly like women in America do, especially the students. The girls in my dorm wear short skirts and tank tops during the day, and spend more time than the American students putting on makeup and doing their hair. I am obviously more comfortable with the clothes I brought, since they are about five times more modest than the students’ clothing. I actually feel a little out of place in my long pants and high necked shirts.

This country actually stuns me. Since the current king, King Abdullah, began his reign in 1999, he has basically transformed this country. He has made it a true constitutional monarchy, and reduced his own power to put more democratic power in the hands of his people. He has opened up the free market here, making it one of, if not THE, fastest growing country in this region. He has also transformed the educational system. The literacy rate is the highest in the Arab world, and there is an outstanding 99 percent literacy rate among children here.

I would not think twice about sending my child to school at the King’s School. It is more open-minded than many American private schools I have been to, and certainly better equipped. They have selected teachers from all over the world. One look down their faculty list and you’ll see teachers from the U.S., South Africa, England, everywhere.

dorms.jpg The program I am with, Four Star Debate, seems to be going really well so far. The students are (mostly) receptive to the information we are teaching them, although their are some Palestinian students who are extremely militant in their views against Israel, which often makes it difficult to teach them anything they don’t already agree with. We don’t have any Israeli students here, so I can’t speak for them, but I would imagine that if we did they would have the same issues. (PHOTO: student dorms, left)

Teaching students in any part of the world, much less the Middle East, about the Middle East peace process is a difficult thing to do. Students from America have heard so much about Israel in the news that they have formed their own opinions just like the Middle Eastern students have. The outstanding thing is how much misinformation both sides have.

There is so much propaganda coming from both sides of the issue that it is very difficult for students to sort out what is fact and what is opinion. While I am confident that every piece of information we have given them is 100 percent accurate, the students are having a difficult time accepting that sometimes what they understand to be true is, in fact, completely false.

The program has brought in several very qualified speakers from both Palestine and Israel that are making it easier for the students to come to terms with the reality of the situation. So far the students have heard lectures from Dr. Mahmoud Labadi (a former spokesperson from the Palestinian Liberation Organization and current editor of the Palestinian Bulletin) and Dr. Nouh El Harmouzi (the Editor-in-Chief and General Coordinator of the Minbar Al-Hurriyya Project, the Arabic project of The Atlas Global Initiative for Free Trade, Peace and Prosperity and Cato institute in Washington).

But I think the most interesting experts that the students have heard from so far have been speakers from One Voice Palestine and One Voice Israel. This organization is one of the biggest supporters of peace in the region and works to spread the truth about what is happening there.jordan-expert%20debate-1.jpg They work jointly, so it was interesting for the students to hear from people who have no misconceptions about the other side and look rationally upon the situation. Both of these speakers where young, and so they related well with the students. It was refreshing to hear them talk about progress that was being made, and the work they were doing to attempt to banish the lies that both sides tell about the other. (PHOTO: One Voice Palestine and One Voice Israel, right)

My official title at this camp is a “lab leader,” which is basically just a debate coach. I have a lab group of eight students: four from America and four from Jordan. There are five other groups just like mine. Students debate in pairs, and each pair has one American student and one Jordanian student. My group of eight continue to astound me. They have taken in so much information in the past two days, and they have processed it and can speak about it openly and intelligently. We had our first round of practice debate yesterday, and they needed very little help from me at all.

To be fair, at first they were very disinterested and very lazy. After I gave them their first assignments, they simply did not do it. When they came back when the assignment was due and I found this out, I was extremely disappointed. I am very assertive, and I think I may have shocked them when I told them that not accomplishing their assigned tasks was unacceptable and a waste of time. Once I got through to them that they were basically robbing themselves of a fantastic opportunity to learn, they stuck it into high gear and got everything done. They work during meals, and I hear them working late at night in the dorms. They have really turned themselves around, and I am extremely proud of them.

jordan-%20keyboard-1.jpg So far I have only had two embarrassing experiences here, and for me that is a bit of an accomplishment. Very few of the cleaning staff at the school speak English, so when they ask you things you have to kind of guess. I had left my computer in a room that the cleaning staff had locked, and I needed to get it.

After doing very elaborate sign language to ask them to open it again, the woman said “You Colombia?” I thought she was asking me if I was from Colombia, so I said “No, United States.” And she just looked at me funny, and I couldn’t figure out why. It turns out that there is a group here from Columbia University, and that is what she was asking me. But I didn’t find that out until sometime later, and then I immediately understood why she looked at me strangely. (PHOTO: Jordanian keyboard, left)

Then yesterday I was concentrating on sending an e-mail on my phone, and walked straight into a concrete bench and proceeded to fly forward, hit the bench flat and roll off of it. I did this in front of about seven students from Four Star Debate, who first were concerned for my well being and then broke into a fit of laughter. While I am fine (I only walked away with a few scrapes), I feel like a complete idiot. I’m sure I looked like something out of a cartoon. I literally flew.

But, other than that I am having a fantastic time!

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Early culture shock

I am getting ready to leave Oklahoma Christian University to head to Chicago so I can hop on a plane to Amman. The American students going with us just went through cultural training, and I think a lot of them are overwhelmed. Many of the students are homeschooled, so this is very much out of their comfort zone. When they were told that speaking about Christianity in public is illegal, there was a bit of a stir. I feel like they will probably get used to it quickly, but they are really uncomfortable about it now.

I have gotten several different stories about what is and is not ok for me to wear, so I’m hoping that my jeans, t-shirt and scarf are all right for when I get off the plane in Amman. We’ll see!

I’ll be spending the next 24 hours on several different planes and preparing to teach these kids about peace in the Middle East, which is intimidating. I have hundreds of pages of information on everything I need to know, and I’ve been studying this for months, but for some reason I am still unprepared to teach students about the Middle East Peace Process while I am in the Middle East. But hey, maybe this will help me in my international relations class I’m taking in the fall!

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A look at the weeks ahead

I’ve just gotten all packed for my trip to Jordan! Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving for Oklahoma City to meet all of the American students that are flying in from all over the country to attend the camp. All of us will then fly to Amman, with a short stop in Chicago.

Today at work at the NCPA we finally finished compiling the evidence for the camp and packed everything we would need to teach debate. Hopefully we remembered everything, but I’m sure we’ll be making several trips to the closest thing to a Wal-Mart near the King’s School in Jordan.

I just found out today that we will be going sightseeing for the last three days in Jordan. For the first day, we will be going to Wadi Rum in the dessert and camping in tents, the second day we will be touring Petra, and on the third we will go to Mount Hebo and the Dead Sea. I’m concerned about the camping, but everything else sounds really great.

I am very excited about diving into a new culture and learning about the Peace Process. I know that I am extremely fortunate to be doing this, and I am really looking forward to all of the knowledge I will be able to bring back.

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