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.
I didn’t feel that stupid when I’d sent Deanna running home to get me some gas. About twenty minutes later a truck had pulled up right outside my house, as if this were totally normal. Amira materialized next to me as soon as she heard the truck and explained that a new canister was going to cost me twenty-five dinar, but that I shouldn’t be too concerned about the price because it was actually just a deposit on the canister and I could have it back when I left Jordan. After the driver was safely out of earshot, she added that I should pay no more than JD2.10 for refills, no matter what anybody told me.
“Thanks so much,” I said, still cold and wet and eager to get back to my malfoof.
Amira looked like she wanted to say something but didn’t leave. So I tried again: “How did you get him to come?”
“I called him; he’s a member of our family,” she explained, as if that made perfect sense. Which it did. I always forgot that in addition to the beautiful exterior marble siding and ornate oriental rugs that decorated Amria’s home, she also had an actual telephone, one of the few in town.
Finally Amira decided to bite the bullet and said, apologetically, “It’s just… do you know how to install a gas tank like that?”
My first reaction was indignation: how hard could this be? My second reaction was fear: how hard could it be? It could be quite hard! Things that are simple are often really, really hard here! So I assured Amira that I would be grateful for her help.
The setup looked pretty self-explanatory. The heater had a little hose in the jug-compartment that looked as if it would screw right onto the gas jug, but Amira clicked her tongue disapprovingly and said “See, this way is not safe. You need… uh… one like this.” She reached into her jelbaab and pulled out a bulbous metal object with both male and female attachments and screwed the end of the hose into it and then attached that to the jug. “Much better. That is probably safe.”
“Probably?” I echoed.
“Well, you do want to check. These things can be quite dangerous,” she said, bending over and adjusting the new regulator. Then she twisted open the valve of the jug until we heard a hissing noise.
“This is the fastest way to see if it is good,” Amira said, as she rummaged again in her pocket. I was confused — and then horrified — as she extracted a matchbox and used it to light a single match. “Look, you just hold some flame up… around here like this… and move your hand around. If there’s a leak, you’ll know.”
“Because you’ll… die?!” I croaked.
Amira looked surprised and then thoughtful. “Well, do it fast,” she replied. “That’s usually safe.”
I haven’t been cold all week. The heater works perfectly, especially if I seal myself into a room and close the door. If I time it correctly, I can keep my living room nice and toasty all evening, and then roll the heater into the bedroom about 45 minutes before bedtime. As the living room cools down it reminds me to go to bed, and my bedroom is the perfect temperature just as I get sleepy. The heater works best in these two rooms because they have doors, but also because they have some insulation — now. Two weeks ago the insane bird posse alerted me to the arrival of Um Ahmed and her daughters, all loaded down with weird rolls of woven plastic matting. Without waiting for an invitation — I think because they weren’t inclined to listen to me try to argue with them — the three pushed past me into my living room and carpeted the floor with the matting, and then did the same in my bedroom. Then they stepped back and nodded approvingly.
I looked at the ugly matting and couldn’t even think of where to start. Before I could, Um Ahmed said, “Shhh. You need it. Our houses aren’t like your house at home. It is going to get cold and you need these mats. Just wait. You can return them before you go back to America.” Now, as I pad around in my socked feet, I can feel the cold seeping up through the floor in the kitchen and halls, but not in these two rooms, and I am beyond grateful. Sometimes it’s worth not arguing.
But it is starting to get a little cold tonight, because the gas tank is empty. I’m a little dismayed that it only lasted five days, but I suppose it really has been on full-steam every evening, and there’s only so much gas that can be in that canister. And refills are cheap. If, of course, you can find someone to sell you a refill.
And that’s where I’m stuck. I know the vast majority of people in Dir Edis do not have phones and I’m positive they don’t all traipse over to their nearest phone-having neighbor every time they need a canister. There’s clearly a code here, and over the last five days I’ve started to suspect that I know what it is. So I pull on my raincoat — because of course it is drizzling again, on the night I don’t have a heater — and half-roll, half-carry the empty jug out of the main house door and across my courtyard. I place it carefully just outside the metal gate, about a foot from the privacy wall but not quite in the street. And then I return to my living room where I close the door and huddle under a blanket as the temperature drops ever faster.
After an hour, I’m really starting to think I’ve made a mistake. My hypothesis should have had a flock of insane birds arriving by now. I really want some heat before bed. Maybe I should just swallow my pride and go ask Amira for help again.
I’m giving myself a pep talk as I slip on some shibshibs and open the house door. And then I stop in surprise. There, just inside my gate — which is tidily closed — is my gas canister. It’s still empty, but it has decidedly been moved, by someone who didn’t ring the doorbell and didn’t do anything else to either harass or help.
I’m so confused. I really had started to think that the gas canisters I’d observed perched along the side of the road were like raised mailbox flags back home, a summons to the trucks driving past. I was a little apprehensive about trying it, because I don’t want to lose my deposit… but I really want to figure something out, all on my own. I could really use the win. And I’m disappointed that I seem to have gotten this one wrong.
But what’s the deal? Was it rude to put it in the street? Did my landlord drive by and see it and get upset that I was littering? My impression really is that nobody cares much about the streets around their houses. Inside the privacy walls your reputation is on the line, which is why the nice tiling and fountains and planting all goes on inside. But outside it seems to be a free-for-all of dust and detritus, chickens and half-eaten zaatar sandwiches (because throwing out bread is a sin). And I’ve seen an increasing number of gas canisters recently around Dir Edis. It’s hard to believe that my single one would devalue the neighborhood that badly.
It’s still drizzling and cold, so as I ponder I roll the canister back into the house and close the door. I stand in the hall, chewing on a strand of hair and considering thoughtfully. It isn’t just that nothing happened when I put the gas outside. Something happened. It came back inside, and not by itself. What does it mean?
Fortunately, I don’t have to wait long to find out. Unfortunately, finding out involves the damn doorbell. I jump two feet into the air. When I collect myself, I open the door-window to see a man I’ve never seen before on the other side of the courtyard gate. He ducks his head and immediately starts apologizing in Arabic, over and over. But when I open the gate he takes a deep breath and says, in English: “Sorry! Sorry, Miss! Uh… very sorry!”
It would be mystifying except that over his shoulder I see his big, beautiful pickup truck full of shiny and presumably full canisters of gas. “Thank you so much,” I exclaim, delighted both at the prospect of warmth and at the fact that I got something right. Best evening ever! I prance back into the house and quickly roll the canister towards my visitor, who rushes to help me. We trade off and I hand him two one-dinar coins, grinning all the time like an idiot.
My new best friend looks down at the coins in his hand and looks troubled. “Uh, Miss…” he begins, but he quickly realizes his English skills are not up to the task. So he goes for the Universal Idiot Tourist Translation Method: speak louder and more slowly and they’ll understand. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a tiny ten-gersh coin and holds it carefully up in front of me as an illustration as he over-enunciates “Kam! Wahad! Zay! Heyk!”
It all catches up to me in a second: this man clearly knows a few things about me. He knows I speak English, and he knows I don’t have a man to help me out. His every signal has been that of a decent, conservative man trying hard not to embarrass a woman in dire straits. And I’ve been so busy mentally congratulating myself for solving this mystery that I have failed utterly to put him at ease. Now I watch him visibly relax as I say, in Arabic, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Of course I have more, I knew it was two-ten, hold on, I’ll be right back.”
I should say he both relaxed and dropped his jaw open like a cartoon character. When I return with the required change, he grins at me and makes eye contact for the first time. “Nobody told me you speak Arabic!” he says, cheerfully.
I roll my mental eyes at the admission that of course people have told him other things about me. But I only say, “I do! So can you tell me, did you put this bottle back inside my gate before?”
He laughs appreciatively and nods. “I did! I drove past and saw it, but I didn’t have any full ones. I knew I’d be right back, so I put it inside.” He doesn’t need to explain that he was trying to keep my business for himself, in case another truck drove past in the interim. But he does suddenly look a little abashed. “I hope it didn’t upset you… I was pretty sure you didn’t speak Arabic and I couldn’t explain, so it was all I could think to do.”
I rush to assure him that no harm was done and we grin at each other stupidly as he bows himself out of the courtyard. I’m quite sure this is going to be the tale of the evening in his living room, and I don’t even care. We’ve made each other’s day.