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.”
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’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.
I’ve scored the perfect situation on the bus. I got the window seat, so I don’t get brushed by everybody else as the bus fills up. And it’s not the window seat over the wheel well, which requires sitting in an extremely unladylike position because of its lack of legroom. Better yet, the outside seat has been taken already. In theory, women fill up the seats next to or near each other on the buses to help avoid the awkwardness of an unacquainted man and woman having to sit next to each other. (Some men will also avoid sitting next to a woman they don’t know, even if it’s the only seat left on the bus — and here, that’s the nice and respectful thing to do.) But sometimes if the empty seat is next to me, women who don’t know me well will opt to sit elsewhere. You never know.
I’m feeling moderately better by the time I hear Abu Aiman’s truck puttering outside my window Sunday morning. He waits a polite ten seconds before honking to let me know he’s there. If I don’t appear within 30 seconds after that, he’ll leave me behind and let me find my own way to work. But today I’m ready and drag myself out of my house, through the garden, and out of the compound to squeeze myself into the back of the extended cab with three other teachers.
This driving service seemed ludicrous when we all taught at Dir Edis’s old girls’ school, which is two blocks from my house. I had been pressured into agreeing to let Abu Aiman drive me by my colleagues, who were horrified at the concept that I might walk to work unescorted. Now that I’m a bit more jaded about the shocking notion of a woman walking, and a bit more familiar with the weather, I might not agree if I had it to do over.
But now that we’re all at the new girls’ school at the very base of Dir Edis’s hill, I’m very glad to have Abu Aiman. Especially this morning, when I’m still not entirely sure I’m not going to pass out. I spent most of last night slumped sweatily on the couch, watching programs in at least two languages I don’t speak and not even caring, trying to force myself to drink the noxious rehydration punch I’d made out of my medical supplies. Yesterday morning I barely remember. There was the tail end of the overnight vomiting, and I think I spent some time in bed, and some time just lying on the floor praying for a breeze. It was not my best weekend.
The wedding party is more or less over by the time I arrive with my friend Um Jihad. She had to be late, because she’s still in mourning for her father who died two months ago, and the singing and clapping would be a violation of her mourning. So the singing and clapping are over, and only a few exhausted close family members are seated around Um Rafiq’s living room when we enter. The lady of the moment, Um Rafiq’s daughter Asya, has stepped out for a change of clothes and a freshening of hair and makeup, and everybody is enjoying the quiet moment with a cup of minty tea.
They are, of course, thrilled to see us, leaping up and shaking our hands profusely. Um Rafiq’s sister kisses me repeatedly. Finally we all settle down into our plastic chairs, staring at each other or nothing at all, and wait for Asya to reenter.
Finally Asya strolls in, eyes watering from an over-vigorous hair-brushing. She shakes my hand first and says, “Never get married; the hairspray will kill you.” She laughs uproariously as she sits beside me and crosses her legs under her black abaaya. The women in the room congratulate her on her gold and remark on the artistry of the henna applied to her hands. In fact, the henna is very simple and looks as though it were perhaps applied by a small child. It’s an arrow-pierced heart with R and A written inside it – Asya’s husband being named Rami.
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.
It’s not a good day teaching-wise, so I am holed up in the tiny kitchen with my janitor-friends, The Tea Ladies. Joining us for a quick cup between classes is Hiba, the excitable chemistry teacher, and her best friend Yasmeen, the gym teacher.
The Tea Ladies are busy exclaiming over Yasmeen’s new scarf. The scarf is significant because Yasmeen has only just started to cover; previously, she wore a modest long-sleeve shirt and loose slacks to work every day, but after months of gentle harassment from fellow teachers she has arrived today in the coat-dress jelbaab and with her hair covered. All things considered, I think this transition is probably to the detriment of her usefulness as a gym teacher, but as her students are all similarly covered — and, usually, wearing atrocious platform footwear entirely useless for athletics — it probably doesn’t make much difference.
Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable with the subject, as the number of teachers in our school with uncovered hair has now gone from four to three. Miss Sara, the principal, also doesn’t cover, but her social status as our boss and her undisputed purity as a fifty-year-old virgin seem to make this okay. Sana is a Christian, respectably married with children, and as such unlikely to cover or tolerate conversation about it. And then there’s me. The direction of this conversation seems inevitable.