Worlds Not Colliding At All

(Click here for Part I and an explanation of why I suddenly had a preteen child.)

This time Reem and I aren’t alone on the bus. When she awoke yesterday, Reem hadn’t even mentioned going home, so we went into Irbid. We met Alice at McDonald’s, a place we rarely go but to which we felt it was essential that Reem be exposed. How can we call ourselves true Americans if we don’t spread the gospel of McD’s? Besides: Happy Meals. And it worked exactly as planned. After making sure that we were sure that the beef was halal, Reem plowed through her burger and fries and settled back to be delighted by her toy while Alice and I ate.

McDonald's_French_fries_Potato_(01)

We were in the middle of some companionable venting about our students when Reem interrupted us. “I need to go to the bathroom,” she said, a little apprehensively.

“No problem!” I hastened to say. I didn’t want her to be afraid of interrupting us because fundamentally our talking in English was rude. “It’s over there, and we won’t go anywhere.”

She gave me a slightly-too-long look but stood up and slunk off in the direction I’d pointed with the air of one sentenced to punishment.

I looked at Alice. “Any idea what that’s about?”

Alice shrugged. “Absolutely n–”  She paused, french fry poised but unbitten. “Do you think she’s ever used a western toilet before?”

“She must have,” I brush the idea aside. “That’s silly. Isn’t it?”

We stared at each other for a second as we mentally ticked through all the places in the world we knew Reem had definitely been. None of them had western toilets. I don’t know if Reem had figured out that McDonald’s would, and that was the source of her consternation. But she certainly was in there with them right now, and I was immediately filled with panic on her behalf.

I was halfway out of my seat when Reem came bounding out of the bathroom, hands freshly scrubbed and with a wide grin on her face. She plopped down next to Alice and grabbed a french fry.

“Everything… okay?” I asked.

“Yep!” she said. Whatever fear had worried her had clearly been conquered. “What else are we going to do today?”

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In the end, it was an excellent day. We wandered across the Yarmouk University campus and ended up at Irbid’s tiny amusement park. We were very fortunate to discover a gaggle of friendly teenage girls there; the amusement park was frequently full of only teenage boys. The diversity meant that we could let Reem run more or less wild and find her own companions for each ride. Alice and I sat on a bench in the shade and watched her purchase as much adrenaline as you could possibly expect to get for a couple of dinar.

We wandered back down the hill towards the Valley bus stop and stopped again at ZamZam for breakfast fixings. Then the three of us took an afternoon bus back to Dir Edis so that Reem could get in some quality little girl time with Noor before sundown. Um Jameel invited all of us up to the roof for tea and fruit, and by bedtime we were all ready for sleep.

This time, however, Reem was both wide-awake and quite articulate. “I had a very good day,” she began. “But I think I would like to go home tomorrow.”

I asked if she were sure. She was sure. She wasn’t upset or angry or desperate. She was just ready to go home. And that was that.

So here we are, pulling into Madaba’s dusty bus station. All bus stations are dusty in this dusty country, but the Madaba station always seems especially dusty to me, somehow. And Madaba is always another kind of decision crisis-point: to walk or to taxi? It’s a small town, and the walk from the bus station to the minibus stop that will take us to Namus is only about a fifteen- or twenty-minute trip. But it’s almost completely uphill, and it is very, very hot.

Finally we decide to compromise and take a minivan-bus for a few girsh to the top of the hill. It drops us off not quite where we want to go, but near an internet cafe. The internet is always attractive. It’s a bad habit, but it’s our only contact with “reality,” and we can rarely pass it up when we know it’s nearby. But I’ve made poor Reem wait twice already this week while I checked my email, so she and I sit on a bench down the street a bit while Alice is online.

I am idly toeing the dirt when I realize the pebble with which I’m playing is oddly square. I bend and pick it up, considering it in my palm. It’s the size and shape of a die and a cloudy blue color. Very odd. I look around a bit more critically at the old, overgrown yard behind us and I realize that it must have once been a church and that the pebble in my hand is a hand-cut mosaic stone. Because these things happen in this place, which has so many more centuries of history than my home.

“Hey, Reem, look at this!” I say, holding out my palm.

But Reem is looking across the street, where a group of tourists is congregating. I’m guessing they’re Italians. The women are very tall and very, very tanned, and their tans are perfectly enhanced by their very white tank tops and very short shorts. They’re magazine-model gorgeous. But I’ve been here long enough, and trying so hard to blend in, that my only thought is about how much skin they are showing.

Reem doesn’t remark on the aib dress. She just stares, and says to me, “Why is that church more important? There are lots of churches in Madaba, but there are always tourists outside that one.”

I pause a moment in shock. We are six or seven minutes — on a bad day — by bus from Reem’s village. She has come here to shop and to visit her extended family at least once a week for her whole life, I estimate. Madaba is her back yard. How can she not know what that building is?

“That’s the Church of St. George,” I say. “You know, the one with the… the…”

Alice appears in front of us just in time, but it turns out that Alice too has no idea how to say “mosaic” in Arabic. I try holding out my pebble and saying “You know, a floor, made out of these!” but Reem just looks confused. I explain the situation to Alice and we quickly decide that there’s only one thing to do. So we bundle up our backpacks and bags and pack Reem quickly across the street and into the incense-filled gloom of the Basilica of St. George.

It isn’t just that all the tourists to Madaba come here. This mosaic is famous. It’s a map of  the Holy Land, highlighting Jerusalem, so it’s duplicated on posters and tourist crap across Israel too. And it’s beyond doubt one of Jordan’s finest treasures. The map stretches across the church floor so that darling little features are hidden under smoke-darkened pews. The church is still in use, so the scantily-clad tourists tend to huddle in the back and photograph the floor from there, although the basilica has other delightful pieces of art. But I guess it’s like all the wonderful art in Rome, and how you still need to see The Pietà most of all.

The one thing that’s certain is that you can’t visit Madaba and not come here. If I had thought about it, it would have seemed to me an essential component of a local education. I would have envisioned classes of schoolchildren being dragged here every year, bored and tired of having to see this again. It never occurred to me that they wouldn’t come at all.

In fact, it takes Reem about three seconds to figure out what’s going on. “Oh, the fesifusa,” she says, as if that were obvious. “I know what that is.”

We must now, of course, take a few seconds to repeat the word “fesifusa,” which may be the funniest Arabic word I’ve learned yet. Reem watches us with a bit of a superior expression while we both say “fesifusa” over and over and giggle. Finally we settle down and I manage to ask, “So you have been here before?”

She shakes her head. “No, but this thing is famous. It’s in our schoolbooks. I just didn’t know that it was in this building.”

She seems pleased to see it in person and wanders appreciatively around the edges, although she does not venture deeper into the church. I tell her that it’s okay, that we’ve paid, that she can go inside and look at the icons if she wants, but she shakes her head and says she’s ready to go home. So we thank the grave monk at the door and exit back into the bright sunlight.

David Bjorgen/Wikimedia

David Bjorgen/Wikimedia

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One of the things I love best about showing up in Namus is that they never seem surprised to see me. They’re just unflappable. And they’re no more surprised to see me coming back with Reem than when I come alone. They’re always glad when I arrive, and this time they seem delighted to see Reem too, even amidst the wedding planning and other chaos in the little house.

In fact, Reem is something of a conquering hero. She is currently sitting cross-legged on Um Shakur’s new couch, soberly handing out goodies from her now-full plastic bag. Her little sister is literally hanging off the edge of the couch in suspense; her older sisters are trying hard to pretend they’re less curious. She hands out candy, nail polish, chips, and even the toy from her Happy Meal. As she distributes the goodies, she talks so eagerly and so fast that I can barely keep up with her recital. They are most interested in hearing about her new pen-pal, Noor, and in passing around the letter full of vows of lifelong devotion Noor pressed into Reem’s hand this morning.

Finally, Reem tapers off with a big, contented sigh. Then she remembers something. “Oh, also, you’ll never guess where we went today! In Madaba!”

Everyone looks at her expectantly, but she looks at me and says “You say it” with a big grin.

“Fesifusa!” I exclaim, happily. I’m neglecting the glottal stop at the end, and Reem has to repeat it before they all understand. They don’t seem nearly as enthused by this as they were by her stories of McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. But Um Shakur nods and seems pleased to hear that we went.

It’s only then that it occurs to me that I might have done something wrong. “It’s okay, isn’t it?” I ask Um Shakur. “That I took her into St. George’s? All the tourists go in, it wasn’t a ceremony or anything. I didn’t even think.”

“Of course it’s okay,” she says quickly. “I’m glad she saw it! It’s part of our heritage. She should see it.”

I’m relieved. “That’s exactly what I thought! But I don’t understand. Why don’t they take all the kids and show them that? Why doesn’t everybody go?”

She shrugs and shakes her head. “Maybe the church charges too much and won’t make a deal. Maybe there are too many parents who would think going into a church is haram no matter what. Maybe nobody’s ever thought of it. Who knows?”

“But then why doesn’t your family just go? I’ve seen Muslims there in hijaab. They won’t turn you away, if you pay to go in. Take the kids and go! It’s right there!”

She shrugs again, but says wryly, “Yes, it’s nearby. But we’d be so uncomfortable. It just doesn’t seem worth it.”

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