Black Thursday

Friday, 8/6

Busy couple of days! Two days ago a small group of us went to visit Mount Nebo, where Moses is supposedly buried. You know because of that thing where he hit the rock instead of speaking to it politely he was banned from ever getting into the Holy Land, but because God is basically a nice guy he decided at the last minute to let Moses see the Holy Land before he died. Well, now I’m not sure if that was a joke or not. You get to Mount Nebo and there’s a plaque thing set up at the edge of the cliff with arrows pointing to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, what have you, all of which are supposedly visible from that point. But you will remember what the horizon of the Judean desert is like. You can see the east coast of the Dead Sea, and that’s about it. Maybe at night? Or maybe if God was in an extra-good mood he made the haze go away. Or maybe it was supposed to be Moses’s last act of faith, believing that there was a lovely land out there in the haze for his people.

Whichever: the last time I saw the Dead Sea I sure didn’t think I’d be looking at it from this side!

So, on to more sober news. Something bad happened yesterday, and it’s kind of complicated to explain. It starts with training, which we’re all getting tired of. You can tell the Peace Corps staff has had lots of training themselves, about Keeping Learners Engaged and Different Learning Styles and Small-Group Work and so forth, but I think we’re all just tired and hot and still a little jet lagged and it’s just not fun. I would like to know what time the bus leaves tomorrow to take me to my new home, and I don’t know that, and that’s frustrating, and I don’t need to do a skit about it, you know?

Anyway, about skits. Director Dick was in charge of a session today for which he invited all the J2s, the people who got here last year. I think we were all interested in this concept because we thought these guys might be able to tell us the down-low on what living with a host family is really going to be like. And maybe they did! But not in a nice way.

Dick divided us up into groups, with the J2s all in their own group. Each group was supposed to act out a skit based on an assigned aspect of what living with Jordanians was going to be like. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that we haven’t done that yet, right? In order to address this problem, perhaps, Jack had also assigned to each group one of our trainers, all of whom are Jordanian (PC lingo alert: we call them HCNs, or host-country nationals; these particular HCNs are also LCFs, language and cultural facilitators). So those are the details of how this really useful exercise was set up.

I don’t even remember most of the skits, but the last one was the J2s. They had been assigned “what happened when I first arrived.” One J2 played a Volunteer and the others were the host family, and the skit was supposed to be from the Volunteer’s perspective. So most of the dialogue was gibberish (because she didn’t understand them) and the dialogue that was in English was in very poor English and involved asking her incredibly rude questions, like was she a virgin and proposing to her and so forth. There was a very little groping but a lot of personal space invasion, people touching her hair and going through her suitcase and stuff. It was really overwhelming, which I think was probably their point.

I think most of us newbies laughed at the skit, although I know for me personally it was also making me really nervous, because I’m nervous enough about tomorrow already. I don’t know when we all realized that something had gone very, very wrong. The LCFs were losing it. The women LCFs were crying. The LCF who seems a little angry and snappish stood up and yelled for a while, including things like “You’ve lived in our families, eaten our food, and we have considered you our brothers and sisters. But today you have demonstrated that you are not only unworthy of being considered a Jordanian and a member of our families but you aren’t even worthy of basic respect.” The head LCF, who may be one of the sweetest, gentlest guys I’ve ever met, couldn’t even speak, he was crying so hard. It went on for a while, with the LCFs just kind of unloading, and then they all got up and walked out. They had today off anyway, which is convenient in terms of awkwardness, but it was very dramatic.

So that’s the mess, in a nutshell. And I’m of several minds about it, and I think there are lots of lessons to learn here. I think it was poorly handled, and maybe a bad or insensitive idea to begin with (I bet Dick does NOT use this exercise again!). Dick didn’t jump in during the skit — I don’t think he even thought about its being offensive until it was over — and afterwards he kind of went after the J2s about exaggerating and scaring us. But… that’s what they were there for. And while I’m sure all those bad things didn’t happen all at once, they are all things that happened and that the J2s wanted to prepare us for, and that’s really valuable institutional knowledge. It seems unfair to be mad at the J2s for sharing what they experienced, and for the LCFs to feel like it was an insult to their entire culture. Somehow I suspect that’s going to be an ongoing problem with this training. It’s already been an issue, like in our safety sessions, it feels like they’re trying to assure us that nothing bad is ever going to happen because they don’t want to think bad things about their fellow Jordanians — but as far as I’m concerned I’d rather have the worst-case scenario info. You know?

In true Peace Corps fashion, there is a debriefing session scheduled for tomorrow so we can all process our feelings about this debacle. But you know what I still don’t have? Any actual information about the logistics of tomorrow. I’m not convinced it’s ever going to happen.

We did get to spend a little time with the J2s, all of whom were some combination of angry and dispirited and dejected, but there was some camaraderie and laughter. One J2 told us about her boss, whom she calls the “Pants Nazi,” because she won’t let any of her staff wear pants (although pants are not forbidden by law or even explicitly by Islam). Another guy talked about how he had just gotten back from the US where hot water comes out of a tap and how miraculous that was. Also apparently while he was there he had the first solid poop he’s had in in a year and a half. I can’t wait until I’m at the point in my adjustment where I talk about poop as if it were a noteworthy and totally public subject.

Love, me

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