I keep seeing ads for CNN’s new “Crimes of the Century” programs. This week they’re highlighting a woman I remember really clearly: Andrea Yates. And I keep remembering the time, twelve years ago this month, when Newsweek threw me headfirst into another Cultural Collision.
The federal Powers That Be worried that volunteers abroad would be isolated from American culture, thereby limiting their ability to act as cheerful ambassadors of American Awesomeness. Actually, I was kind of surprised at how true this was, even back in 2001 (although I’d imagine the prevalence of mobile devices makes it less true now). I could tell you what happened on “The Bold and the Beautiful”… five years earlier. Occasionally, the Israeli networks would invest in a very nearly new series. But for the most part, our cultural exposure was pretty limited.
So those same Powers That Be decided to resolve that issue and award a domestic company a plum government contract: every volunteer in service received a weekly issue of Newsweek. The main office suggested that we choose to have those issues delivered to our office mailboxes instead of sent out to our villages, just in case Newsweek chose to put a naked woman on the cover or something. That meant that every time you showed up in the central office you’d have a whole stash of magazines waiting, which was really pretty fun.
On this particular occasion I had stopped by the central office on my way south to visit my host family from training. They had gotten used to my dropping in more or less unannounced. If I showed up in time for a meal, I ate. If not, I participated in the lazy pre-bedtime tea drinking and mosquito-swatting. By 2001, Um Shakur almost seemed not to notice whether I was there or not: I was an extra mouth to feed, but also an extra set of hands to put to work. I loved visiting them and felt safer in their home than anywhere else in Jordan.
This night, I was lazing about on a mat on the floor while Shakur flipped channels. He flipped every three seconds, rotating through the dozen or so options available on their small satellite dish. It drove me crazy, but of course that was half why he was doing it. Um Shakur sat in the doorway, enjoying the coolish nighttime breeze while also using the interior lights to illuminate her sewing. And I was reading the July 2, 2001 edition of Newsweek.
I was never entirely sure how good Um Shakur’s English was. She spoke to me only in Arabic, but she had called me out many times over the years for mistranslating or misunderstanding things. She was a sharp, observant woman with nine children, a job, and her own business on the side, and I think I often underestimated her. I can only assume that’s why I was reading a magazine with a headline like this in front of her.
She may have thought she misunderstood the headline. Maybe she hoped she misunderstood the headline. But she must have understood something, because she asked me, “What did that woman do?”
Another true thing about Um Shakur: I was absolutely unable to lie to her. Or rather, I was always quite sure that when I did lie to her, she knew it. She would look at me and narrow her eyes slightly. Then she would deliberately change the subject, as if she were saying, “I figure you’ll tell me when you’re ready.” It was unnerving when I didn’t know her well and just as unnerving when I loved her like a second mother. I guess you don’t raise nine children if you’re a total fool.
So I just went for it. “She killed her children, ya haram,” I said.
“All of them?”
“Yes, all four.”
She was quiet. Everybody was quiet. Shakur was still flipping channels, but maybe more slowly. It was too terrible a thing to be discussed and lay heavily in the room.
Then Um Shakur said, almost casually, “How did she kill them?”
“She put them all in the bathtub until they were dead,” I said. Then, seized by a patriotic impulse to save American face, I added, “She has to be sick. People don’t do that, even in America. I think that sometimes when you have small children you are sad, and the sadness makes you do crazy things.”
Um Shakur waved her hand dismissively. “Of course,” she said. “Children are very hard. Sometimes mothers are very sad. It happens. Ya haram.”
A dozen years later, this moment continues to shine for me as one of the most profound moments of intercultural understanding I experienced in Jordan. It was a moment of sisterhood. I was not a mother, but I knew Um Shakur’s easy comprehension of this atrocity was rooted in something universal. I don’t know if Um Shakur judged Andrea Yates or what her views were on damnation and forgiveness. But I know she understood.
Eventually, the evening drew to a close. Asra told her younger sister Basma to pour the final cup of tea. Since the oldest daughter, Enas, had married and moved away, Asra had mostly taken over the housework. But she had just finished her college entrance exams and done well, and was now conducting what seemed to be an unofficial handover of household duties to her younger sisters. This is a thing I saw Jordanians do better than I think we often do here: train younger people for duties, and help them move into their new selves and assume new responsibilities.
But several of these particular younger people were still playful children. Or tired children. Six-year-old Hamza came scooting in off the street, legs and face filthy as usual, and tripped over Shakur’s lazily extended legs. Shakur swatted at him. Hamza wailed in affected pain and rage. Seven-year-old Reem asserted her elder authority and yelled at Hamza to be quiet. Suddenly, children seemed to emerge from nowhere, sensing bedtime and drawn by the noise. Asra yelled for calm and quiet, but even her advanced rank couldn’t stop the bedlam as nearly a dozen voices grumbled and bickered their way to bed, or resisted going to bed at all.
Suddenly, through the din, we all heard a voice — raised, but not yelling; calm and confident.
“Go to bed NOW,” Um Shakur said, not looking up from her sewing. “Or I will put you all in the bathtub like the American lady.”