(Click here for Part I and an explanation of why I suddenly had a preteen child.)
This time Reem and I aren’t alone on the bus. When she awoke yesterday, Reem hadn’t even mentioned going home, so we went into Irbid. We met Alice at McDonald’s, a place we rarely go but to which we felt it was essential that Reem be exposed. How can we call ourselves true Americans if we don’t spread the gospel of McD’s? Besides: Happy Meals. And it worked exactly as planned. After making sure that we were sure that the beef was halal, Reem plowed through her burger and fries and settled back to be delighted by her toy while Alice and I ate.
We were in the middle of some companionable venting about our students when Reem interrupted us. “I need to go to the bathroom,” she said, a little apprehensively.
There are probably a dozen dukan in Dir Edis. By and large, I don’t shop at any of them. This is something we learned in training and from more experienced volunteers. It’s true that the tiny shops in the villages are much, much more limited in stock than their equivalents in Irbid or Madaba. But there’s also always the risk of offending someone by shopping at one person’s cousin’s shop instead of another’s cousin’s shop. And there is a 100% likelihood that whatever you buy will be reported and analyzed adnauseam in village gossip. I have little enough privacy. So I do my shopping in Irbid, thank you very much.
Today, however, I have miscalculated. I had a lot of stuff to carry back from Irbid, and I decided to buy my eggs closer to home. But after dropping off my packages and picking up exact change, I discovered that the dukan I usually use in a pinch, the one nearest the mosque, is closed. Apparently its owners have gone on the hajj and won’t be home for a month.
So here I am, eggless, with “eggs” definitely on the menu for dinner.
ME: On way back from Namus. Guess what they sent home w me?
ME: For a week. Help!
ALICE: Hahahaha. I'm coming in to Irbid. Let's take her to Pizza Hut!
I look over at Reem. I’m pretty sure the passing landscape and the novelty of being on a big Hijazi bus wore off about half an hour ago, but she is doing an admirable job of keeping the squirming to a minimum. She is swinging her plastic bag against her legs and humming to herself. I wonder if she’s humming to bolster her courage, or if she’s even thought through the fact that she’s been entrusted to me, and what that entails.
The plastic bag contains a change of shorts, two t-shirts, and one pair of underwear. Asra packed it in the space of about thirty seconds, handing it to me and saying “This should be enough! Bring her back whenever.” I think Um Shakur may have slipped Reem half a dinar too. Otherwise she has nothing between her and the big wide world but me.
It all started as a sort of joke. I went to Namus yesterday because summer vacation is ending soon and I wanted to get some quality time in with the family. The last time I visited, there had been strong indications that Enas might soon be engaged. It hasn’t been that long since my last visit, but apparently the groom-to-be has decided he needs to abbreviate the engagement and do both it and the marriage as soon as humanly possible. Asra says he’s worried that money in hand gets spent, and since he has the dowry in hand right now he’d like to close the deal right now. This is unusual, but he’s a cousin and a police officer with a steady income from the state, so the family is making allowances.
I can do this. I’ve had several sessions now with fifth-graders. How much harder can seventeen-year-olds be? Besides, they’re essentially my peers. I was seventeen fairly recently!
We stare at each other for a beat too long. On one side: the American, full of bravado, or trying to appear that way. On the other: thirty pairs of eager eyes focused with rapt attention.
“So. This is the tawjihi class, right?”
There are nods and giggles. Fortunately I’ve gotten used to the notion that everything I say, in any language, is funny.
“So… okay! Tell me about what you’re learning in English!”
Heads turn; girls look at each other. I’ve seen these classes operate and I know that one or two girls will be designated the speaker through a mysterious and invisible pack process. Finally one girl says, “Miss, we don’t want to talk about English.”
Note: this has been published elsewhere at other times. It’s definitely mine, and it’s pretty much a true story.
It is hot, and I am tired. I am the kind of tired I get when I have to pack – the frustrated, anxious tired. Tired of having to think, make decisions, process, plan. It has been a very long week, fraught with social tension. The weight of my leaving hangs over me at all times like a gloomy raincloud, every bit as likely to burst into rainy tears at any moment.
Keep going, I encourage myself. Pack a little more. If you can focus for thirty more minutes, you can take a break. If you can focus, you can sit for half an hour and watch “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
This is a real motivation. It’s not so much that I’m addicted to the daily soaps, and I’ve never watched this particular show before moving here. But it is broadcast every weekday on Israeli television, and the local ladies never miss an episode. It disturbs me that the machinations of the powerful LA fashion world are equated with typical American life, but in watching, I share a powerful common bond with my neighbors. And today, the distraction is welcome.
Another day shopping in Irbid, another awkward bus moment.
As soon as I get to the Valley bus station I run into Um Bashir and her sister. It’s getting dark, so I’m glad to see a woman I know. And Um Bashir is awesome about keeping our conversations at a level I can handle. I don’t know if this is how her conversations would normally go or if she’s keeping things simple for me, actually. Either way, I’m totally keeping up as we discuss what I bought (a pie pan, which they’ve never seen before), what they bought (spinach), the best way to cook the aforementioned spinach (with or without chopped goat), and the fact that women trying to get on the bus in the afternoon turn into crazy people and end up fighting in an utterly unladylike manner with one another.
An older gentleman has been loitering behind us at a respectful distance, but one which still permits his obvious eavesdropping. Finally he approaches Um Bashir and says, “She really speaks fantastic Arabic!”
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.