The wedding party is more or less over by the time I arrive with my friend Um Jihad. She had to be late, because she’s still in mourning for her father who died two months ago, and the singing and clapping would be a violation of her mourning. So the singing and clapping are over, and only a few exhausted close family members are seated around Um Rafiq’s living room when we enter. The lady of the moment, Um Rafiq’s daughter Asya, has stepped out for a change of clothes and a freshening of hair and makeup, and everybody is enjoying the quiet moment with a cup of minty tea.
They are, of course, thrilled to see us, leaping up and shaking our hands profusely. Um Rafiq’s sister kisses me repeatedly. Finally we all settle down into our plastic chairs, staring at each other or nothing at all, and wait for Asya to reenter.
Finally Asya strolls in, eyes watering from an over-vigorous hair-brushing. She shakes my hand first and says, “Never get married; the hairspray will kill you.” She laughs uproariously as she sits beside me and crosses her legs under her black abaaya. The women in the room congratulate her on her gold and remark on the artistry of the henna applied to her hands. In fact, the henna is very simple and looks as though it were perhaps applied by a small child. It’s an arrow-pierced heart with R and A written inside it – Asya’s husband being named Rami.
One day, Um Shakur asked if anybody wanted to join her going in to Madaba, the nearest city. With my limited language skills, I rarely understood the purpose of her errands. Sometimes it seemed like she was going to Madaba just to buy things readily available in the tiny dukan down the street from her house. Sometimes she visited people whose relationship to her family I couldn’t quite place. Sometimes it was literally just a drive around with no stops at all. Like many aspects of my life in Jordan, it was usually a mystery.
But it was probably going to be more exciting than hanging out with nine bored kids and various cousins, so I said yes. And then I had an idea: I’d realized after arriving in Namus that I was very nearly out of money, and Um Shakur would be driving right past my bank. I asked her if we could stop so I could make a withdrawal.
I am not a haggler. I’ve been lectured by traveling companions, so I know all the arguments: they expect it, the prices are deliberately inflated, if you don’t do it the next tourist will get even more ripped off. I know, I know — but I still get terrible fluttery feelings in my stomach when I have to do it, and I know I’m terrible at it. My poker face and nonchalant shrug need work.
It is with a resigned feeling of apprehension, then, that I find myself in the small-appliances dukan looking for a laundry rack. It has been a long day of shopping occasioned by my move to a new home, and a helpful fellow volunteer and I are laden down with odd purchases like bulky blankets and a mattress. Clearly not tourists, in other words, or so you’d think. So when we rouse the little old man from his contemplative reverie at the front of his store, we are prepared for the odd glance he gives us.
“Welcome,” he says, in English.
“Salaam,” I answer. Then I point to the laundry rack in question and say, in Arabic, “How much is this one?”
It didn’t seem like much when I came into my kitchen that morning. Just a folded piece of paper on the counter under the window, near my keys and some other things I had dropped when I came in last night.
But I didn’t remember what was on this piece of paper, and I didn’t want to forget something I’d promised to do. Or miss a sweet note from one of the girls. Even girls who weren’t my students would occasionally bring me a sadly drooping flower and a folded note swearing undying love for me. I didn’t have as many of these tributes as other teachers, of course, but I enjoyed the Victorian Era teacher-worship now and then.
So I unfolded this piece of paper, expecting it to be covered in teenagery hearts or shiny stickers. Instead, I found a page of careful, tight writing, in English, in a handwriting I didn’t recognize.
I am sorry to write to you but I must meet you. I see you when you walk in Dir Edis and when you wait for the bus and I admire you very much. Please meet me in Irbid. Here is my phone number.
I keep seeing ads for CNN’s new “Crimes of the Century” programs. This week they’re highlighting a woman I remember really clearly: Andrea Yates. And I keep remembering the time, twelve years ago this month, when Newsweek threw me headfirst into another Cultural Collision.
The federal Powers That Be worried that volunteers abroad would be isolated from American culture, thereby limiting their ability to act as cheerful ambassadors of American Awesomeness. Actually, I was kind of surprised at how true this was, even back in 2001 (although I’d imagine the prevalence of mobile devices makes it less true now). I could tell you what happened on “The Bold and the Beautiful”… five years earlier. Occasionally, the Israeli networks would invest in a very nearly new series. But for the most part, our cultural exposure was pretty limited.
It’s not a good day teaching-wise, so I am holed up in the tiny kitchen with my janitor-friends, The Tea Ladies. Joining us for a quick cup between classes is Hiba, the excitable chemistry teacher, and her best friend Yasmeen, the gym teacher.
The Tea Ladies are busy exclaiming over Yasmeen’s new scarf. The scarf is significant because Yasmeen has only just started to cover; previously, she wore a modest long-sleeve shirt and loose slacks to work every day, but after months of gentle harassment from fellow teachers she has arrived today in the coat-dress jelbaab and with her hair covered. All things considered, I think this transition is probably to the detriment of her usefulness as a gym teacher, but as her students are all similarly covered — and, usually, wearing atrocious platform footwear entirely useless for athletics — it probably doesn’t make much difference.
Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable with the subject, as the number of teachers in our school with uncovered hair has now gone from four to three. Miss Sara, the principal, also doesn’t cover, but her social status as our boss and her undisputed purity as a fifty-year-old virgin seem to make this okay. Sana is a Christian, respectably married with children, and as such unlikely to cover or tolerate conversation about it. And then there’s me. The direction of this conversation seems inevitable.
One day I waited for my tutor at her home. I sat on the low stone wall along her garden — one eye alert for the angry rooster — and watched her mother threshing wheat.
Um Asad stood there, improbably sturdy for her frail frame, gnarled hands grasping a flat, shallow basket full of wheat. She threw the grain up into the air.
Shush, the wheat said, falling tidily back, as wispy flakes of chaff blew hither and yon on the olive-scented breeze.