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.
(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.
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.
There are probably a dozen dukan in Dir Edis. By and large, I don’t shop at any of them. This is something we learned in training and from more experienced volunteers. It’s true that the tiny shops in the villages are much, much more limited in stock than their equivalents in Irbid or Madaba. But there’s also always the risk of offending someone by shopping at one person’s cousin’s shop instead of another’s cousin’s shop. And there is a 100% likelihood that whatever you buy will be reported and analyzed ad nauseam in village gossip. I have little enough privacy. So I do my shopping in Irbid, thank you very much.
Today, however, I have miscalculated. I had a lot of stuff to carry back from Irbid, and I decided to buy my eggs closer to home. But after dropping off my packages and picking up exact change, I discovered that the dukan I usually use in a pinch, the one nearest the mosque, is closed. Apparently its owners have gone on the hajj and won’t be home for a month.
So here I am, eggless, with “eggs” definitely on the menu for dinner.
ME: On way back from Namus. Guess what they sent home w me? ALICE: Olives? ME: REEM!!! ALICE: Seriously? ME: For a week. Help! ALICE: Hahahaha. I'm coming in to Irbid. Let's take her to Pizza Hut!
I look over at Reem. I’m pretty sure the passing landscape and the novelty of being on a big Hijazi bus wore off about half an hour ago, but she is doing an admirable job of keeping the squirming to a minimum. She is swinging her plastic bag against her legs and humming to herself. I wonder if she’s humming to bolster her courage, or if she’s even thought through the fact that she’s been entrusted to me, and what that entails.
The plastic bag contains a change of shorts, two t-shirts, and one pair of underwear. Asra packed it in the space of about thirty seconds, handing it to me and saying “This should be enough! Bring her back whenever.” I think Um Shakur may have slipped Reem half a dinar too. Otherwise she has nothing between her and the big wide world but me.
It all started as a sort of joke. I went to Namus yesterday because summer vacation is ending soon and I wanted to get some quality time in with the family. The last time I visited, there had been strong indications that Enas might soon be engaged. It hasn’t been that long since my last visit, but apparently the groom-to-be has decided he needs to abbreviate the engagement and do both it and the marriage as soon as humanly possible. Asra says he’s worried that money in hand gets spent, and since he has the dowry in hand right now he’d like to close the deal right now. This is unusual, but he’s a cousin and a police officer with a steady income from the state, so the family is making allowances.
I can do this. I’ve had several sessions now with fifth-graders. How much harder can seventeen-year-olds be? Besides, they’re essentially my peers. I was seventeen fairly recently!
We stare at each other for a beat too long. On one side: the American, full of bravado, or trying to appear that way. On the other: thirty pairs of eager eyes focused with rapt attention.
“So. This is the tawjihi class, right?”
There are nods and giggles. Fortunately I’ve gotten used to the notion that everything I say, in any language, is funny.
“So… okay! Tell me about what you’re learning in English!”
Heads turn; girls look at each other. I’ve seen these classes operate and I know that one or two girls will be designated the speaker through a mysterious and invisible pack process. Finally one girl says, “Miss, we don’t want to talk about English.”
Note: this has been published elsewhere at other times. It’s definitely mine, and it’s pretty much a true story.
It is hot, and I am tired. I am the kind of tired I get when I have to pack – the frustrated, anxious tired. Tired of having to think, make decisions, process, plan. It has been a very long week, fraught with social tension. The weight of my leaving hangs over me at all times like a gloomy raincloud, every bit as likely to burst into rainy tears at any moment.
Keep going, I encourage myself. Pack a little more. If you can focus for thirty more minutes, you can take a break. If you can focus, you can sit for half an hour and watch “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
This is a real motivation. It’s not so much that I’m addicted to the daily soaps, and I’ve never watched this particular show before moving here. But it is broadcast every weekday on Israeli television, and the local ladies never miss an episode. It disturbs me that the machinations of the powerful LA fashion world are equated with typical American life, but in watching, I share a powerful common bond with my neighbors. And today, the distraction is welcome.