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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Laundry Day

At my old house, I hung the laundry on the roof. I had a huge roof with nothing between it and the sun. In the summer the first things I hung up were almost dry by the time I finished hanging out the load. I had to do the laundry while being closely observed by the teenagers at the private boys’ school, of course, and that was never particularly fun, but I developed a system of hanging big blankets up first along the “spare” line and then doing my other work behind them. This didn’t quite conceal my underthings, so I had to hang them under other articles of clothing. It all worked out in the end.

Now at my new house the laundry situation is a bit different. I’m sure they’d be happy to let me hang my laundry up on the roof, but the thought of having to ask for permission every time I wash something is daunting. Plus I’m not entirely convinced that they would let me just go up and hang out my laundry; I suspect I’d have to sit and have several cups of tea along the way, and that in fact they might even try to convince me to let one of the little girls do the work for me. I’m a fan of handling my own underthings and after handwashing an entire load of clothes I’m usually far too sweaty and tired for visiting. Laundry is a workout when it’s by hand!

Deror avi/Wikimedia

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Diary Snippet: The Visit

Fri, 2 Jun 2000

My current landlord stopped by today to discuss the details of my moving out. He doesn’t seem sorry for any of the financial issues, but he did bring me  a bundle of hummus, which actually is Arabic for “chickpea,” not the paste made of the chickpea.  We eat them green, just like we eat everything green; it is a wonder anything ever ripens here. They can also be thrown, still on the stalk, into a bonfire, and then eaten once they’re charred.

So I was walking back across the patio with this bundle of chickpeas when I spotted Deanna, Amira’s 4-year-old girl, on their balcony watching me.  I invited her over for chickpeas but she said she couldn’t come over because her parents weren’t home. I said she was welcome any time and went inside.

Two hours later my doorbell rang and I went outside and there was Deanna with her 2 year old brother, totally unaccompanied.  They came in and sat down in the living room like this was a normal occurrence.  I fed them chickpeas and fruit and asked them if they wanted chips…  Deanna declined, Yusuf said yes.  I asked them if they wanted tea…  Deanna declined, Yusuf said yes.  Yusuf has about 3 words in his vocabulary other than “mom” and “dad,” and they are “la,” “ah,” and “bai” (no, yes, and a mispronunciation of “water”).  Deanna asked him, “Where’s mom?”  He pointed exactly the wrong way.  They played this game about 5 times, and even though Deanna showed him his house — complete with several sisters on the balcony spying on us — through the window, he still insisted the house was the other direction.  It was like, since my house is north of his when he sees it, it follows logically that his house would be north of mine.

Anyway, Yusuf demanded water after finishing off his tea and two whole apples.  After the water they collected several more bags of chips and left. It was kind of surreal!


Hello and welcome to Diary of the Desert, where I am retroactively (very!) deconstructing my Peace Corps experience. If you’d like to start at the beginning, this is the first post of the blog — but the stories aren’t in chronological order. They’re just in whatever order they fell out of my brain and/or diary. They are all true stories in the sense that they’re my real memories. They are all fiction in the sense that they were written after the fact, sometimes immediately and others over a decade later, and that in a lot of cases I’ve attributed stories to the wrong people because I wanted to keep the character roster down. I have changed all names of people and smaller places.

I desperately hope not to offend anybody and offer these stories with love and genuine homesickness. They’re just my experiences. Please enjoy them.

Getting Gas, Part 2

 Part One

Sometimes, when we complain about feeling under- or mis-utilized, our overlords tell us that half of what we’re doing in Jordan is Setting An Example. We’re supposed to be the friendly face of American foreign policy, I guess. And in this country, we’re also supposed to be strong, independent women who manage to get things done without a family structure to lean on.

The problem, of course, is that most of the time I don’t manage to get things done without help. And I have this conversation with myself every time I come to the point of asking for help, especially if I suspect that the question I’m about to ask has a really, really obvious answer and I’m going to look like an idiot.

That happens a lot.

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Snippet: Sun Tea

Tuesday, February 27, 2001

I made sun tea two days ago in a big glass jar I bought. Um Jameel came and rang my doorbell and asked me if I was aware that I’d forgotten my tea outside and it was getting cold. I said no, it was actually getting HOT. She was thoroughly grossed out. I offered her some later and she said no THANK you, she preferred her tea hot thank you very much.