At my old house, I hung the laundry on the roof. I had a huge roof with nothing between it and the sun. In the summer the first things I hung up were almost dry by the time I finished hanging out the load. I had to do the laundry while being closely observed by the teenagers at the private boys’ school, of course, and that was never particularly fun, but I developed a system of hanging big blankets up first along the “spare” line and then doing my other work behind them. This didn’t quite conceal my underthings, so I had to hang them under other articles of clothing. It all worked out in the end.
Now at my new house the laundry situation is a bit different. I’m sure they’d be happy to let me hang my laundry up on the roof, but the thought of having to ask for permission every time I wash something is daunting. Plus I’m not entirely convinced that they would let me just go up and hang out my laundry; I suspect I’d have to sit and have several cups of tea along the way, and that in fact they might even try to convince me to let one of the little girls do the work for me. I’m a fan of handling my own underthings and after handwashing an entire load of clothes I’m usually far too sweaty and tired for visiting. Laundry is a workout when it’s by hand!
Fri, 2 Jun 2000
My current landlord stopped by today to discuss the details of my moving out. He doesn’t seem sorry for any of the financial issues, but he did bring me a bundle of hummus, which actually is Arabic for “chickpea,” not the paste made of the chickpea. We eat them green, just like we eat everything green; it is a wonder anything ever ripens here. They can also be thrown, still on the stalk, into a bonfire, and then eaten once they’re charred.
So I was walking back across the patio with this bundle of chickpeas when I spotted Deanna, Amira’s 4-year-old girl, on their balcony watching me. I invited her over for chickpeas but she said she couldn’t come over because her parents weren’t home. I said she was welcome any time and went inside.
Two hours later my doorbell rang and I went outside and there was Deanna with her 2 year old brother, totally unaccompanied. They came in and sat down in the living room like this was a normal occurrence. I fed them chickpeas and fruit and asked them if they wanted chips… Deanna declined, Yusuf said yes. I asked them if they wanted tea… Deanna declined, Yusuf said yes. Yusuf has about 3 words in his vocabulary other than “mom” and “dad,” and they are “la,” “ah,” and “bai” (no, yes, and a mispronunciation of “water”). Deanna asked him, “Where’s mom?” He pointed exactly the wrong way. They played this game about 5 times, and even though Deanna showed him his house — complete with several sisters on the balcony spying on us — through the window, he still insisted the house was the other direction. It was like, since my house is north of his when he sees it, it follows logically that his house would be north of mine.
Anyway, Yusuf demanded water after finishing off his tea and two whole apples. After the water they collected several more bags of chips and left. It was kind of surreal!
Hello and welcome to Diary of the Desert, where I am retroactively (very!) deconstructing my Peace Corps experience. If you’d like to start at the beginning, this is the first post of the blog — but the stories aren’t in chronological order. They’re just in whatever order they fell out of my brain and/or diary. They are all true stories in the sense that they’re my real memories. They are all fiction in the sense that they were written after the fact, sometimes immediately and others over a decade later, and that in a lot of cases I’ve attributed stories to the wrong people because I wanted to keep the character roster down. I have changed all names of people and smaller places.
I desperately hope not to offend anybody and offer these stories with love and genuine homesickness. They’re just my experiences. Please enjoy them.
Sometimes, when we complain about feeling under- or mis-utilized, our overlords tell us that half of what we’re doing in Jordan is Setting An Example. We’re supposed to be the friendly face of American foreign policy, I guess. And in this country, we’re also supposed to be strong, independent women who manage to get things done without a family structure to lean on.
The problem, of course, is that most of the time I don’t manage to get things done without help. And I have this conversation with myself every time I come to the point of asking for help, especially if I suspect that the question I’m about to ask has a really, really obvious answer and I’m going to look like an idiot.
That happens a lot.
Tuesday, February 27, 2001
I made sun tea two days ago in a big glass jar I bought. Um Jameel came and rang my doorbell and asked me if I was aware that I’d forgotten my tea outside and it was getting cold. I said no, it was actually getting HOT. She was thoroughly grossed out. I offered her some later and she said no THANK you, she preferred her tea hot thank you very much.
This afternoon I went in to Irbid with two things on my shopping list: a heater and a wool shawl. Shawl wasn’t that hard — I simply went into all the stores on Eidoun Street that had pretty shawls in the windows. Wool was a bit harder, since I don’t actually know the word for that in Arabic. I could tell that the pervasive shawls are mostly synthetic and if I’m going to spend that much of my limited funds on an article of clothing I really wanted wool. In retrospect this seems silly, but the little things start to mean a whole lot to you here, and I was just bound and determined to have wool, damnit. So, yeah, I ended up traipsing into and out of every women’s clothing store in Irbid and, yeah, bleating like a lamb and doing sheep-charades. But hey. I left with a wool shawl, thanks.
December 9, 1999
A few nights ago I was on my roof, and a donkey went past in the road. He was going at a pretty good clip, but he was utterly riderless. It reminded me of when one of the dogs will suddenly stand up and make a beeline out of the room (or into one) as if she had an errand to run. I don’t know where this donkey was going but he thought he was late!
I visited Cairo once before, with my parents and younger sister. It was a difficult trip even before my sister started throwing up into every trashcan she saw. It was summer, it was hot, and Cairo is a really overwhelming city. But the tourist economy meant that we could hire a guide, check off the appropriate tourist activities, and mostly stay out of trouble.
It’s been different this time. In a fit of motivation, we decided to do the whole trip from Amman in one day. This kind of plan is much less fun on a backpacker’s budget than when your parents are working through a travel agency. By the time we disembarked in Cairo proper we were all teetering on the edge of completely losing it. It was one of those moments in traveling in a group when things can get said that make the rest of the trip difficult. So it may, in the big picture, have actually been fortunate that just at that moment a young boy — probably not even a teen — biked past our little huddle and, as he passed, casually grabbed my breast.
Thinking of joining the Peace Corps in a country whose language you don’t speak?
Let me sum it up for you in one paragraph I just found in an old letter to my parents.
For some reason school got out an hour early today. Nobody ever explains anything to
me. I just noticed that everybody was leaving, so I left too. Sometimes I feel like I’m
living in the Twilight Zone.
There you have it, kids.
I’ve mentioned before my special relationship to biting insects, who come from miles around when they hear I’m outside and available. Despite this special relationship, I’m not especially scared of mosquitoes and gnats. I’m more goosey around stinging insects, who also find me attractive (sometime in my next thematic collection of embarrassing stories I’ll tell the one about accidentally kicking off my sandal into a professional tennis game while flailing to avoid a bee). Ironically, it’s the class of insects least likely to harm me that causes me the most terror: things that skitter.
My homes in Jordan had their fair share of roaches, of course. It’s the desert and we had no screens on our windows and our doors were open more than half the time. If they weren’t running rampant it was probably mostly because too many people were around. I’d quickly learned to keep the kitchen very clean and take the trash outside at least once a day. I also kept a pair of shibshib slippers next to my bed and didn’t ask questions at night if I felt something crunch on the way to the bathroom. I won’t say I became used to the roaches, but we seemed to come to a place of acceptable mutual avoidance, which is how you really want it to be with insects.
So I was totally floored when I came out of the shower one night, walked down the hall toward my bedroom, and found a tarantula* in my living room, regarding me calmly out of its many eyes.