ALICE: Want to meet for lunch?
ME: On way back from Namus. Guess what they sent home w me?
Here is what you need to know about Alice: in the wild, I don’t think we would have been friends. In her early 20s, she exuded a tough, cynical kind of confidence that I envied in people but with which I never felt comfortable. And we didn’t appear to have much in common, on the surface. In our three pre-deployment days in Washington, she talked proudly of her time as a head waiter, seeming competent and put-together in a way I definitely didn’t feel. And she traveled carrying a huge book of CDs, one of the really expensive books with a really big capacity, because her CDs were the one thing she couldn’t live without. When she unzipped the book, I didn’t recognize most of the names… but the quieter, more wary-looking guy in the hipster jeans did, and gave Alice a look of reappraisal. It was clear from day one that Alice was too cool to like me, even if that was nearly entirely in my head.
Fate, however, had other plans. Alice was assigned to my training village. Better yet, she was sent to live in the home of Um Shakur’s sister, Um Ali. Um Ali had had volunteers for three years running at that point but my year was Um Shakur’s first time hosting, and it was a competition from day one. There was constant analysis and comparison of the relative speeds at which Alice and I learned Arabic, learned to make tea, learned to sew. In the meantime, whether Alice and I might have been friends in the wild or not, she was around, and she spoke English, and she was having the same bizarre Twilight Zone life I was. And we saw each other so much more often than either of us saw the other two volunteers in Namus. Inevitably, we developed a kind of closeness both shallower and deeper than a friendship.
Hi all! Just wanted to share the exciting news that I’ve bought the domain diaryofthedesert.com and am having all my links forwarded over there from now on. Unless you have bookmarked direct links, you don’t have to do anything — and even if you have, I bought a year of forwarding so you don’t have to do it fast. Just thought I’d share and ask you guys to let me know if anybody sees any bugs or weirdness. It will be due to the fact that the new back end is much more flexible and I tend to break things.
I’ve got some feedback for our debriefing session.
I mean, I always have feedback. Most of us do. This is a new program and things are bumpy. But there’s bumpy and then there’s insane. And packing us off to visit our newly assigned sites for four days, more or less without warning anybody that we were coming, is flat-out insane.
It was going to be nerve-wracking even without the insanity. Last weekend they told us where we were going to live for two years. They painted a big map of Jordan on the playground and had each of us go stand approximately near our villages, so we could see where we were in relation to each other. Then they gave us a cake and pretended they didn’t see the consternation and the several people who were clearly going to make An Issue about their assignments.
I’m not sure how I feel about mine. I really wanted to be in Namus, my training village, but had been told it was too low on the “needs” list. So I’m extra-devastated to discover that a volunteer actually has been assigned to Namus and it just isn’t me. And I’ve heard that the wet, damp winters up nearer the Syrian border, where I’m going, are miserable. But in general I’d rather be cold than hot, and the area is known for its olive groves and slightly wealthier farmers, so it could be worse on a physical level.
I may have mentioned that my parents have some history with this part of the world. My dad followed my mom here, and my mom was hanging out with long-haired archaeologists on a kibbutz. The first generation of post-1948 sabra grownups were digging up their own history and it sounds like it was quite the place to be. My parents, therefore, have always spoken of the area with a bit of a proprietary air, as one does with a dearly beloved second home. And my mother has been excited about coming to visit me for a while.
I was actually extremely apprehensive about this visit. Dir Edis is very, very hot, and very, very boring, and transportation is neither easy nor air conditioned. My mother doesn’t do well with heat. Even when she’s not overhot, she has a difficult time walking. I want to show her my life here, but it clearly wasn’t going to be easy for either of us. But it hasn’t been that bad. She showed up with a clever (if gross) little camping stool-toilet and fairly low expectations of entertainment, and it’s going well.
In fact, our social calendar is completely booked. When my father came there were some obvious complications: my (mostly female) friends had to make sure their husbands and fathers were around to receive him. They did an admirable job, but it was weird for me to be suddenly cast into the formal sitting room and expected to translate for the men while my usual companions cooked and chatted in hidden rooms.
Ever traveled someplace where you totally don’t speak the language? Ever suspected, as you wandered around, that the locals were talking about you? I can’t vouch for every local everywhere, and I suppose the odds are probably in favor of the locals actually having things to do. But I can tell you about the Old City of Jerusalem, and in the Old City? They’re talking about you.
I’ve been to Jerusalem before, and I’m surprised at how much of the layout of the Old City I remember. Better yet, when I get lost, I can just step to the side of the flowing river of tourists and close my eyes and envision the map of the Old City that hung on my wall for my whole childhood. I’ve always thought the Old City looks a little bit like a big, shaggy-haired lion, with the Temple Mount at its nose. I orient myself and move on. It’s not like I’m going anywhere in particular: the city itself is the attraction.
It doesn’t take me long to notice that things are a little different this time. I’m distracted by the difference between the people here and my community in Jordan. Physically they look alike and they are dressed alike, but this is a tourism-based economy and my interactions with the people I meet are vastly different. Nobody is surprised to see me here, nobody is that interested in me as a person, and it isn’t really fair to demand that they treat me like one of their sisters. But it still feels weird, all these men talking to me.
I’m sure that in a philosophical conversation good Muslims will tell you there are redeeming features to Ramadan. But on a daily basis I suspect most of the people around me think Ramadan is a pain in the butt. It’s a month of hungry, crabby, under-caffeinated and under-nicotined grumpiness. And I’m lucky that both of the Ramadans of my service are winter ones, with short and cool days. I can’t even imagine a summer Ramadan.
One of the ways in which Ramadan complicates my life is transportation. Everybody gets fed up with life in the middle of the afternoon and starts closing up shop so they can grump along home and get ready for dinner as soon as the sun sets. Buses stop running at some nebulous time in there too. Some buses will resume trips for a couple of hours after sunset, when everybody feels human again, but even that seems to be at the whim of the bus owner and not entirely predictable. There’s no way to get anywhere if you’re trying to do it during iftar — or the key hours before and after it.
A secondary effect of this bus shortage is that it actually gets harder to get on a bus, even when they’re running. The drivers don’t love the fares they lose with the shortened days, and the best way to make fares up is to cram as many people as possible into every busload. Technically, standing on buses is illegal, but I’ve never actually seen a bus driver cited for letting people do it, and during Ramadan the practice is rampant. And because this involves cramming as many people as possible into a finite amount of space, it has a direct effect on women. Normally, if a woman has been waiting for a while, the bus driver or some other courteous man will help make sure she gets a seat in the scrum for bus real estate. But during Ramadan, a woman’s personal space means wasted inches. During Ramadan, bus after bus comes and crowd after crowd of men stampedes onto it and the few miserable women who have the crazy notion of wanting to get anywhere get more and more frustrated.
One of the puzzles of my life in Namus is the family’s relationship to the master bedroom. It was mine during training, because the terms of the family’s contract with our organization demanded that I have my own room. But it was “mine” only partially; I slept there alone, and I had an end table and a wardrobe all to myself, but the other end table and two more wardrobes were still in use by the family. So I could wake up any given morning to a line of girls busily arguing over who got to wear which ishaar to school that day.
During training, I felt a little bad about having so much space when I was just one person. But after training, I noticed something weird: nobody sleeps in the guest bedroom on a usual basis. The kids all pile into the only other bedroom, and by “pile” I do mean mostly literally. The bigger kids will pull farsha mats out from under the beds and sprawl out on the floor, and the little kids just pile up like puppies on one of the twin beds. The other twin bed is for their unmarried aunt Noor. Usually, at least one or two people will sleep in the living room or sitting room. When it’s especially hot, the boys will move their mats upstairs and sleep on the roof. In general, everyone just seems to fall asleep wherever they are at bedtime. The only time the master bedroom is used is when Abu Shakur comes back from wherever it is he works… and then they close the door.
I’ve scored the perfect situation on the bus. I got the window seat, so I don’t get brushed by everybody else as the bus fills up. And it’s not the window seat over the wheel well, which requires sitting in an extremely unladylike position because of its lack of legroom. Better yet, the outside seat has been taken already. In theory, women fill up the seats next to or near each other on the buses to help avoid the awkwardness of an unacquainted man and woman having to sit next to each other. (Some men will also avoid sitting next to a woman they don’t know, even if it’s the only seat left on the bus — and here, that’s the nice and respectful thing to do.) But sometimes if the empty seat is next to me, women who don’t know me well will opt to sit elsewhere. You never know.
The taxi is clean and neat. On the dashboard is taped a bright, multi-colored card with decorative Arabic writing. I recognize the phrase “God is great” repeated several times. From the rear-view mirror hangs a sturdy black set of Muslim prayer-beads. And I notice something else: the taxi driver looks at me in the rear view mirror every few seconds. I ignore him, having learned my lesson a long time ago. Chatty taxi drivers can get awkward. As the taxi speeds east, the little grey-haired man grips the steering wheel tighter and looks at me more frequently. Finally he can help himself no more. “Are you American or British?” he asks.
The recent political situation would indicate that lying is in order – Americans are extremely unpopular just now. But I’m tired of lying. I lie about everything and this man looks harmless. “American,” I say, cautiously, and am relieved when he nods and says, “Welcome to Jordan.”
But then he takes a deep breath. “I am a Palestinian,” he says, and pauses slightly. Palestinians in particular aren’t very fond of Americans just now. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say. Fortunately, nothing is expected of me. The man continues. “In 1948, when the Jews took our land, I was eight years old.”
I’m feeling moderately better by the time I hear Abu Aiman’s truck puttering outside my window Sunday morning. He waits a polite ten seconds before honking to let me know he’s there. If I don’t appear within 30 seconds after that, he’ll leave me behind and let me find my own way to work. But today I’m ready and drag myself out of my house, through the garden, and out of the compound to squeeze myself into the back of the extended cab with three other teachers.
This driving service seemed ludicrous when we all taught at Dir Edis’s old girls’ school, which is two blocks from my house. I had been pressured into agreeing to let Abu Aiman drive me by my colleagues, who were horrified at the concept that I might walk to work unescorted. Now that I’m a bit more jaded about the shocking notion of a woman walking, and a bit more familiar with the weather, I might not agree if I had it to do over.
But now that we’re all at the new girls’ school at the very base of Dir Edis’s hill, I’m very glad to have Abu Aiman. Especially this morning, when I’m still not entirely sure I’m not going to pass out. I spent most of last night slumped sweatily on the couch, watching programs in at least two languages I don’t speak and not even caring, trying to force myself to drink the noxious rehydration punch I’d made out of my medical supplies. Yesterday morning I barely remember. There was the tail end of the overnight vomiting, and I think I spent some time in bed, and some time just lying on the floor praying for a breeze. It was not my best weekend.