Darth Vader Goes Vegetarian

August 18, 1999

Hey guys!

The big highlight of my week is that yesterday I got to help cook something. Normally I’m not allowed in the kitchen, which is really starting to get old — I feel like a guest in a situation where everybody else is overworked, and it makes me unhappy. There is an aunt who lives with us but who never speaks and just seems sort of… simple, in a very Victorian sense, and she seems bound and determined to keep me out of the kitchen, although she’s very polite about it. Eventually we’ll have to see about that. But yesterday she wasn’t home and there were these green things that needed to be hollowed out. I think they were zucchini, but Um Shakur kept saying “okra,” and since I’ve never seen an okra in the wild I just don’t know?

We each had a long sharp tool and the trick is to hollow out the vegetable without piercing the end or making the walls so thin they break. Continue reading “Darth Vader Goes Vegetarian”

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. Continue reading “Black Thursday”

Let’s try doing this chronologically.

Monday, August 2

I found an internet cafe! In fact, I opened an account, so I can log on each time I’m in Madaba — which will be about one night a week, after this week.

We got our homestay assignments today. I’ve been assigned to a city called Namus, a couple miles south of Madaba. I like the person who will be our language teacher, and I think I like the three other girls who will be with me for training for the next three months. Wow, three months. It didn’t sound like that long when they send us the pre-arrival materials, but this training is the same as a trimester at college! I’m nervous about living with a family of complete strangers for that long. Really, really nervous.

So it turns out there are actually neat things to do in Madaba. You know that famous mosaic of Jerusalem that’s on all the t-shirts in Israel? That’s here! Moses’s tomb too, and we’re going to see that on Friday. Continue reading “Let’s try doing this chronologically.”

The Turkish Bath

Thursday, June 21, 2001


Alice and I are in Istanbul, and we want to take a bath. A real bath, not a sanitized one at a hotel. So we have been wandering around the charming streets of the former Constantinople at the direction of our Lonely Planet guide. The first bath we found was full of men and also seemed really gross. The second was also full of men and smelled like mildew. This one is our third try: a “hidden gem” the guide says is popular with locals and is women-only, and which seems tidy and presentable from the outside.

So we bravely open the door and discover a flight of stairs so abrubtly inside it we almost tumble down. At the bottom of the stairs there is another door, and behind it a curtain. Then across a little vestibule there is another flight of stairs. It’s already a bit of an adventure and we’re not even anywhere yet! Finally at the bottom we discover someone who appears to be in charge. She is also stark raving nekkid, as one might say. She seems totally unconcerned both by her own nudity and our unexpected arrival.

Continue reading “The Turkish Bath”


A lot of what they tell you about this experience is crap, just flat-out. And even more of what they don’t explicitly tell you is crap. So I’m grateful, in retrospect, for the few scraps of great advice I got from people who have been here and done this. My recruiter, for example, who told me “It is going to be really hard. And it is going to be stupid stuff that’s really hard, like just getting through your day. And you are going to have to push yourself to get the most out of the experience. It’ll be really, really tempting to just hide in your house.”

It really, really is. There are times when it just feels unfair that everything from laundry to groceries is A Thing That Requires Major Effort. It’s very tempting to leave that all outside and refuse to go out. I succumb more often than I should.

Continue reading “Dying”

Enas Gets Married: The Reckoning (Part 3)

Okay, I don’t want to leave you in too much suspense, Dear Reader. There was actually no reckoning.

Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein and her husband sign their marriage contract. (Stolen from her website.)
Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein and her husband sign their marriage contract. (Stolen from her website.)

In fact, the post-wedding evening was pretty anticlimactic. After our cake and cleaning we all went to sleep just like usual. In the morning, newly-married Enas made breakfast and managed her siblings just like she did every day. Presumably her new husband was, somewhere else in Jordan, also going about his regular business. It was all a little peculiar, in fact, as nothing at all had changed. Enas was a bit richer and we were all a bit sleepy. That was all.

Continue reading “Enas Gets Married: The Reckoning (Part 3)”

Enas Gets Married: Part 2

(How the night began.)

It feels like I’ve only been asleep for minutes when I feel a toe discreetly, if not quite gently, poking me in the ribs. It’s Shakur, looming over me with a piece of plywood and a hammer. “Get up,” he says, as he would to any of his sisters. “We have work to do and you are in my way.”

I blearily rub my eyes as I sit up and look across at Asra and Enas. Asra looks like she could use another couple of hours of sleep herself. Enas, however, springs up from her mat and begins her normal breakfast-making and child-wrangling with a spring in her step. Sleep deprivation is no match for the excitement of an actual wedding.

Continue reading “Enas Gets Married: Part 2”

Enas Gets Married: Part 1

Alice and I have been summoned to Namus. It is unusual for the Namus families to use the phone, so they only did it once: they called Alice, and asked her to call me and tell me the big news. Enas is getting married! At our last visit there had been significant eyebrow-raising and nodding in her direction, so we’re not completely surprised, but we are relieved: she didn’t finish high school and didn’t go to college and, at twenty-three, is a bit older than most other unmarried women. But we love her and want the best for her, and here, that’s a good husband and a solid household. Now here we are, grubby and dusty but bubbling with excitement, walking the last several blocks to Um Shakur’s house.

Technically, this weekend isn’t the actual wedding. As far as I’ve been able to work out, weddings go in two stages. First, a groom expresses his intent and is approved by the bride’s family. Then there’s an “engagement” party, at which the legal marriage document is signed, dowry gold is exchanged, dancing occurs, and a sheep probably meets an unfortunate end as a plate of mensaf.  Thereafter the bride and groom are technically married, but they don’t move in together. They can, however, get to know each other a bit better without anybody’s reputation being damaged. In more progressive areas they can even do scandalous things like go out to dinner, hold hands, and even kiss. For most of my acquaintances, this period appears to have lasted about a year, during which time the groom stockpiles household goods, with or without his bride’s input. At the end of the year, there’s another party with the same gold presented again, more dancing, and more sheep meeting unfortunate ends.

Continue reading “Enas Gets Married: Part 1”