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Travel Story by Helga McGilp

Amman, Jordan

Sun, sea, sand…..for many of us a holiday is an ideal opportunity to unwind and do very little but visiting a Deaf school can, in fact, be one of the most rewarding experiences of your holiday. Helga McGilp, SDA Director reports on her recent visit to Jordan.

“Welcome!” was always the greeting used on arrival everywhere in Jordan. There is a lot more to it, as we found when we experienced a Deaf school’s hospitality and kindness for three hours.

Located twenty miles northwest of Amman, the capital of Jordan, the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf was opened in 1964 by the King Hussein. The school caters for 145-150 pupils aged between four or seven to twenty, of which 120 board at the school.

The thriving school was the first place to offer education to Deaf children and it served the whole of Jordan. In 2001 there was an article in the Jordan Times about the school. A short description follows:

“From the street, it does not really look like a school. But once inside, visitors are greeted by an open space surrounded by cool grey buildings…”

The article was correct in that it does not conform to the usual stereotype of a typical school. However, the surrounding buildings have had a facelift since then and are now painted in blue and white Greek-style. Sponsor banners were on display in the school corridors, including a cheque for £20,000 from the NDCS. Allah Kariem UK is seeking funds to support the work in Jordan.

At reception, we were introduced to Fadileh, the Head of Kindergarten (Nursery), who was one of the first Deaf students to graduate from college in Jordan. She showed us around a sign language unit where four teachers worked on translating books to Jordanian Sign Language (JSL). They showed us how they photographed sign entries and used them to draw pictures of hand shapes on their computers. The next project for this unit is to have all entries accompanied by examples of signed sentences on video, which will be produced on CD. A sign language website is planned for the near future. We realised that the BDA has come a long way since the Deaf Studies Research Unit at University of Durham compiled the world’s first sign bilingual dictionary for BSL-English in 1991. The department also provides training courses in JSL with an average of 100 students per year.

There is also a teacher training programme that teaches sign language and trains aspiring teachers of Deaf throughout the Middle East. There are students from places like Iraq and Yemen. Prospective teachers from the Middle East used to go to Europe for teacher training but this is no longer needed. As a result teacher training in Jordan has become popular not only for Jordan but for the whole of Middle East.

We specifically asked for signs for tourist areas in Jordan. Our favourite sign had to be the one for the Dead Sea. It signed like this: pinch-a-salt, taste-it, describe how horrible it tastes, throw-it-away and then finish it by signing across the neck as if you were killing it. That summed up my floating experience at the Dead Sea, which was a painful one. The JSL expression was spot on. Ironically, the altitude is the lowest in the world and this means you can sunbathe without any fear of getting sunburnt. However, I discovered that applying mud and water to my skin had an adverse effect and I ended up looking like a lobster!

Before having lunch with teachers, a bell was rung, which indicated that it was time for a grace. An English teacher was introduced to us and he demonstrated their sign for England. It’s like signing “sister” but above the lips. I asked why, “Is that because Englishmen have moustaches?” They laughed. It was the opposite, as they thought very few Englishmen had any.

We had a quick tour of six or seven classes where we saw children’s pieces of artwork and needlework. In many developing countries pupils must learn a trade and Jordan is no exception. It is still a very traditional country where boys learn subjects like car mechanics, carpentry, car bodywork and metalwork. Girls learn weaving, machine knitting and childcare and then products are sold to the public.

Some vocational training subjects are taught at the Institute but one subject, in particular, stood out: earmould manufacturing. We were shown impressive earmoulds in all colours and Fadileh explained that Deaf ex-pupils staffed the earmould laboratory, the only one of its kind in Jordan.

We noticed school items like rulers and chemistry flasks were glued on entrance doors. Fadileh explained that the school has a deaf-blind unit and the items were aimed to guide them to subject related classes.

We also visited Israel for a week before crossing the border to Jordan via Eilat. You can easily combine Israel and Jordan for a two or three week holiday. Whatever your interests there is something for every traveller whether it be beaches, the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, deserts or monasteries.

Visiting the region was a risk because newspapers reported that the British Embassy in Jordan was closed due to terrorist threats. It was hard to interpret conflicting advice as governments tend to err on the side of caution when passing on information. We felt Jordan was generally safe but we avoided hotels, restaurants and bars without security facilities at the entrance (i.e. with no x-ray or security guards).

Most tourists head for Petra but I could not shake off the feeling that Wadi Rum, a vast desert valley, 68km north of Aqaba was underrated with guides who looked like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ lighting fires at sunset.

Although the majority of Deaf schools abroad are usually on the outskirts of town, visiting a Deaf school provides an opportunity to learn more about their culture through them. You gain a deeper insight into the country and its people than would be the case when ticking off places on your must to-do list and targeting the usual tourist sights to have your photo taken in front of. It can be a very rewarding and cultural experience.

Date Submitted:
23 Aug 2006

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