I’M RIGHT HERE

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.

It is getting dark, and quite honestly I’m surprised there are any other women standing with me here, in the gloomy and rapidly emptying bus depot in Irbid. But there are three, none of whom I know, dressed professionally in a way that makes me suspect they’re teachers headed home after work in other outlying villages and slowed by their own Ramadan transportation problems with even getting in to Irbid. They glance at me occasionally out of the sides of their eyes. I’m competition for the scarce bus space, so we wouldn’t want to get too friendly, after all.

After the sixth bus since I’ve been here leaves, packed so tightly with men I can’t even imagine wanting to actually be on it, I’m ready to cry. I’ve missed the sweet spot at which I could give up and just pay for the luxury of a taxi home, because even the taxi drivers have packed up for the afternoon. I’m going to have to hike to a more heavily trafficked road and hope for the best, and I may well be stuck here until after iftar, when a few enterprising bus or taxi drivers return to work. I’m just pulling my backpack up over my shoulder when one of the ladies approaches me.

“You’re the foreigner who lives in Dir Edis, right?” she asks, in Arabic.

“Yes,” I say, miserably. I want to snark “That’s why I’ve been trying to get on the Dir Edis buses,” but I decide to be polite.

“We’ve decided to chip in and get a taxi. We’ll never get home otherwise. Would you like to come with us?”

I’m thrilled, but unconvinced. “Where are we going to find a taxi?”

“Hala’s cousin is a taxi driver. She called him and he’s on his way. But he’s charging a whole dinar to get to Dir Edis today, so that’s what we’re going to split up.”

This is twice the going rate for the trip to our village, but I don’t care. And split four ways it’s actually not bad. I’m in, and I gratefully say so. In Arabic.

Eventually, Hala’s cousin pulls up in a beat-up taxi looking exhausted and ill-tempered. He tells us to hurry as we all cram ourselves into the back seat. I think for a minute about offering to sit in the front, in the seat that is tantalizingly vacant. But none of the other ladies have offered to do so, and if they’re not willing to sit next to Hala’s cousin, neither am I.

It is a relief to be on the way home, and we all relax perceptibly. I’m always a bit shy with new people, so I squirm as far as I can into the door and don’t say much. The other three ladies talk amongst themselves at a tasteful, ladylike volume, and I almost tune them out.

Then I hear the lady in the green ishaar say, “Who is the foreigner?”

I look up and make eye contact with her, hoping to show that I have understood. She looks away just as the woman in the knockoff Louis Vuitton scarf says “She’s the schoolteacher who lives with Abu Jameel. Surely you’ve heard about her?”

“Oh, that one,” Green Ishaar says. I think: Yes, as opposed to the dozens of other foreigners scrambling to get back to Dir Edis before nightfall.

“She teaches my cousin,” says the woman all in black.

I’m getting uncomfortable, so I turn to the last lady to speak and start to ask who her cousin is. But before I can even get a syllable out, Green Ishaar says “And are we sure she knows she’s paying a quarter of a dinar?”

“I told her we were splitting it,” says All In Black.

“How long has she been in Jordan?” Louis Vuitton asks.

This time I’m able to move fast enough. I say “A year and a half, although I’ve only been in Dir Edis for a year.”

You could hear a pin drop. All three ladies gaze at me, mouths semi-open. A brash feeling of success spreads through my gut and I have to try not to grin.

Then Green Ishaar says, as if I hadn’t spoken, and definitely not to me, “Do you think she knows where to get out of the cab?”

I give up, and ride the rest of the way home without speaking.

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