It didn’t seem like much when I came into my kitchen that morning. Just a folded piece of paper on the counter under the window, near my keys and some other things I had dropped when I came in last night.
But I didn’t remember what was on this piece of paper, and I didn’t want to forget something I’d promised to do. Or miss a sweet note from one of the girls. Even girls who weren’t my students would occasionally bring me a sadly drooping flower and a folded note swearing undying love for me. I didn’t have as many of these tributes as other teachers, of course, but I enjoyed the Victorian Era teacher-worship now and then.
So I unfolded this piece of paper, expecting it to be covered in teenagery hearts or shiny stickers. Instead, I found a page of careful, tight writing, in English, in a handwriting I didn’t recognize.
I am sorry to write to you but I must meet you. I see you when you walk in Dir Edis and when you wait for the bus and I admire you very much. Please meet me in Irbid. Here is my phone number.
My stomach dropped. This wasn’t a teacher-tribute, and it wasn’t okay. The handwriting was male. I had no idea where the note had come from, either, and immediately felt betrayed: some girl, or some teacher, had slipped this into my bag at school.
Or had they?
I looked again at the spot where I’d found the note. It was about six inches in from my window, which was of course open. My window, like nearly every window in nearly every house in this country, had security bars, but those bars could be penetrated by a dedicated and skinny arm, as I had learned when I tried to dry my laundry near an open window. But this window was also a good ten feet off the ground, and opened onto the compound garden, not the street. To place the note on my counter someone would have had to enter the compound, climb a plum tree, and violate several very major social norms.
It must have been slipped to me at school.
When I first moved from training to Dir Edis, I had been surprised to learn that there were only two houses in the whole village available for rent. Later, I discovered that this was complete crap. More accurately, there were only two houses available for rent to me. There were a lot of other empty houses whose owners weren’t sure they wanted to stake their reputations on mine. Some of them were standalone homes that would have been perfect if I’d planned on setting up a shady entertainment establishment. Others were floors in compounds left empty for as-yet-unmarried sons, but where any illicit activities of mine could also damage the marriageability of the landlord’s daughters. It made a kind of perverted sense… if you were living in a Jane Austen novel.
But that’s exactly where I was: in a hot, sandy Jane Austen novel. And I had worked hard, hard, my first year to gain my admission into the village drawing rooms. I drank millions of cups of tea with the few women who would vouch for me and met all their friends and tried not to appear too frightening. I got home by sunset whenever possible and the only friends who ever came over were female. When I had to come home late and take a taxi, I had the driver drop me off on the main street, a block away from my home, so everyone could see me returning alone. By the start of my second year, when I had to move, there were a number of homes suddenly available to me, and I was proud of that fact.
I don’t know if I would rather have had the gentleman in question pursue me in a more traditional way. Maybe he had. There were always women offhandedly asking me if I’d like to meet their nephew/grandson/cousin, and I was always definitely not interested. I suppose if he had tried that way and failed, this young man might have been driven to desperate measures.
But what he had done was really inappropriate. He had violated the hospitality and protection offered to me by Abu Jameel, who lived upstairs. He had committed the chivalric and nonsensical act of imagining himself in love with a woman he had never met, which pissed me off. And he had assumed that I was the kind of woman who would welcome such a note, which was either a comment on American women in general or on me in particular.
The next morning, of course, there was another note.
I am sorry to write to you again but you did not call. Please, I must meet you. I am very respectful of you. I admire you so much. I watch you when you go to Irbid. I saw you buy some of our Jordanian bread and eat it like a Jordanian. I love that you love our country. Please come to Irbid so we can meet privately, please call me.
Judge me if you will, dear reader. The me that I am now judges me a little too. In retrospect, with my relativistic hat on, far away from the situation, I feel sorry for the letter-writer. He seems sincere and he might have been a really nice guy. It’s possible I missed out on the whirlwind romance of a lifetime. I absolutely concede those facts, now.
But at the time, my hands shook. My stomach hurt. I felt violated. I had been violated. I had worked hard for over a year to show this village that I both knew and respected their norms and that I wanted to be treated like one of them. I didn’t meet strange men in either Dir Edis or the more freewheeling university district in Irbid, because I knew that even in the city everything I did was monitored and made it back to my home. Jordan is a very small country, in many ways, and I had been so careful and so respectful.
And this isn’t even exactly about stereotypes of western women. I’d met a tour guide in Egypt who had asked me, up front, to have sex with him. When I declined he said, “I don’t understand; what’s wrong with ME? don’t American women have sex with anyone?” I genuinely believed he was serious and I couldn’t decide whether to comfort him or punch him in the nose. But this was different. These people had had over a year to observe me and my every action had tried to telegraph that I did not want to be treated any differently than they’d treat their sisters. Most of them seemed to have gotten the point and allowed me in, and that made me more effective in my job and safer and happier in my home. This guy was threatening more than just my self-respect.
So I followed my first impulse and did the thing I knew a Jordanian woman would do, if somehow an insane single Jordanian woman had ended up living alone in a compound not belonging to her family.
I went upstairs and handed both notes to Um Jameel.
I don’t think Um Jameel was ever quite convinced I was a good idea. She liked the rent money I handed her every month, but she was never as warm to me as many other women. She had a half-dozen daughters and she watched me very carefully. But on this day, I was one of her own, her outrage bubbling up as her oldest daughter translated the notes for her.
I was given tea and something to eat and pushed down in front of the television. There was bustling and whispering. A few minutes later I was ushered into the formal drawing room, the one with real chairs and heavy drapes, the one usually reserved for visitors and men. Abu Jameel and Jameel sat on one side of a table. On the table were my two notes.
“Tell me where you found these again,” Abu Jameel said. As I retold the story, his face turned red.
Jameel put one hand on his father’s arm. “I’ll take care of it,” he said. “I don’t know this number immediately but it will be easy enough to find him. I will make sure he doesn’t bother you again.”
I thanked them both and as soon as I could ran back downstairs.
A few minutes later I heard a knock at my door. I opened the window in the door and saw Jameel standing back at an appropriately respectful distance.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said, “But I have to make sure of one thing. It is important that this is very honest.”
For a fleeting second, I wondered if Jameel thought I had invited this, somehow. Or if I was framing a jilted lover. Or so many other things. I was never fully prepared for the inventiveness of small-town gossip.
Jameel looked me directly in the eye so I could not mistake him and spoke very slowly and clearly. “If I go talk to this man, after that, he will not want to marry you. You need to understand that if you might want to marry him, I should not go.”
“I — don’t — understand,” I stammered. “Of course I don’t want to marry him. I’ve never met him! I just don’t want him leaving notes in my kitchen and climbing your tree!”
Jameel looked relieved. “Okay,” he said, “I’ll go now. I just wanted to make sure that was what you wanted.” He strode purposefully out of the garden.
There are still so many things about this whole situation I don’t understand. What else could I possibly have wanted Jameel to do, other than make my suitor go away? Did they think I’d brought the notes upstairs to show off and brag? Was my Arabic that terrible? What had I done, or failed to do, that could have communicated in any way that I would want to marry my tree-climbing friend?
I still don’t know. And I still struggle with my instinct to run to the men of the family to fix the situation for me. It was absolutely the right thing to do, in terms of my existing in Dir Edis with anything like a support system. It wasn’t a very feminist moment, though.
Jameel was a slight, intellectual man, still in graduate school and gentle with babies. It didn’t occur to me until that evening that even Jameel might have meant something more physical by “talking to” than, well, talking to. It occurred to me while I was telling the story to my tutor, Lina, that evening. She nodded pragmatically.
“You did the right thing. Next time, you can also bring the notes to me. I have lots of brothers.”
“Just out of curiosity,” I said, “What would your brothers do, exactly? What do you think Jameel did?”
Lina was already bored but flapped her hand in my direction. “Hit him, what else?” she said. “He shouldn’t have left you those notes.”