A year abroad
By bintarab
Published: December 1, 2008
Updated: February 22, 2011



Part I: I do NOT have a uni-brow. Or hairy arms.
(350 words, minus the title which I chose for lack of better inspiration)



Arwa wanted to remove all the hair from my arms and leave them bare like hers or like those of every other girl living in the dorm. I still don't understand why it was so important to her.

"No," I told her, "I'm rather attached to my hair."

She didn't laugh. Maybe it sounds funnier in English, or maybe she didn't think this was a laughing matter. Even after a year of living in Jordan, I couldn't figure out how to tell a joke or be sarcastic in Arabic; when I tried, no matter how I exaggerated my tone, people took me literally or assumed that I'd misspoken. Dante never imagined such a torturous hell: for a New Yorker, to be deprived of sarcasm is like having one's tongue shredded.

Arwa insisted so much that I eventually gave up trying to be witty about it.

"No," I told her flatly.

She tried a different tack. "Let me pluck your eyebrows."

"No."

Arwa had Greta Garbo eyebrows: impossibly long and rounded, she tweezed them into a thin line that accentuated their expressiveness. The right one moved independently of the left, so she could frown in confusion on one side while the other arched high with surprise. There was no way I could pull off that look.

Besides, I do NOT have a uni-brow. Or hairy arms.

One day Arwa came back to our dorm room after having spent the weekend with her family, and she proudly removed her headscarf to show me the transformation underneath. I gaped. Why would a woman who covers her hair in public have blond highlights put in? Who was she trying to impress? Her arms also confounded me: she always wore long sleeves, so who would ever notice whether they were bare or not?

But Arwa was happy with her new look. She felt beautiful, and it didn't matter that no man other than her brothers or uncles would ever see it; she wasn't doing it for the 'male gaze.' She'd done it for herself.

Made me wonder which of us was the truly liberated one.



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Part II: Never throw water on an oil fire
(350 words)



"How did you know that?" Arwa asked.

I couldn't answer. I had no reason to know it, had never faced that kind of emergency. It was one of those useless bits of trivia that sit in the back of my mind and make up the banal landscape of information called "common knowledge."

Only I guess it was not so common after all.

My room-mate Arwa had called me to the bedroom when I got home to our little suite in the dorm. Something was wrong. The sitting room smelled funny, and shadows cobwebbed the ceiling. I paused on the threshold with the sound of girls hanging out in the TV lounge down the hall coming from behind me. Our suite was quiet and dark. The strangest thing about it was that it should seem so unfamiliar after I'd just gotten used to living there and had begun to think of it as home.

I didn't have time to figure it out. Arwa was calling me, and she wouldn't come out to meet me. When I reached the bedroom, she pulled me in and snapped the door shut behind me.

"I set the kitchen on fire." She was whispering, but so rushed that her words came out in a loud rasp. Frying potatoes…oil in the pan burst into flames… water from the sink nearby…

I tried to pay attention but was distracted by her face. She seemed fine except for the flush on her cheeks. I'd never seen Arwa embarrassed before.

"It exploded and the fire reached the ceiling. Everything's black now!"

I hugged her and laughed so hard I cried. "You could've been burned."

Arwa was more worried about the dorm mistress finding out than about the fact that she'd almost disfigured herself. She wasn't exaggerating either: the soot covering the kitchen walls spread across the ceiling to the sitting room. We couldn't scrub it off no matter how hard we tried.

"Never, ever…" But I didn't need to tell her; she'd figured it out for herself.

"How was I supposed to know? How did you know?"

I couldn't recall.



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Part III: The shoe thing
(350 words minus the title)



The fight wasn't really about the TV. It was about respect and dignity, about money and what money can buy. It was about territory and about who really owns this country, the Jordanians or the Iraqis. Who belongs here and who is entitled?

I wasn't there when it happened. I came home to the dorm and the scene in the lounge shocked me: Jihad and Muna, young Jordanian women, sat at the armchair, pointedly ignoring Azhar seated on the sofa nearby. Azhar had her feet up on the coffee table with her soles facing the Jordanians. For good measure-- just in case anyone missed the insult-- she twitched one foot from side to side.

Muna told me everything later, even acting out the accents of the main characters: Azhar, an Iraqi in her mid-50's, and Jihad, a 24 years old Jordanian from Karak, had fought over what to watch on TV. Azhar called Jihad stupid, Muna said with a frown. Then Jihad got all "Karaki" and gave it right back. They screamed at each other until the dorm supervisor unplugged the TV and carried it away from the outlet.

"Now no one can watch!"

Every day Azhar, a civil engineer, watches the Lebanese version of "Who wants to be a millionaire?". She's tried to get on the show many times; she wants very badly to be a millionaire. Tired of living in exile in Jordan, of working for next to nothing, of being "illegal", and of facing discrimination against Iraqis and against women (a prejudice she claimed didn't exist in Iraq!), she wanted to prove herself and liberate herself with the money. She wanted to be legitimate. She would go back to Iraq and never look back, she vowed.

Since Jihad was a civil servant, her job was secure from the threat of Iraqi immigrants who worked illegally in Jordan for half the pay as the (legal) Jordanian residents. She had wanted to watch the Tom Cruise movie with Arabic subtitles.

Neither of them got what they wanted, but the rest of us got gossip fodder for days to come.



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Part IV: Kidnapped by a taxi driver
(350 words minus the title)



He wouldn't take me home. It wasn't that late but I still worried about making curfew at the dorm (I had a deathly fear of being locked out). He asked me to come with him right now to talk somewhere and I said no. No niceties, no subtleties. No. Very clearly, very emphatically. NO. He drove me to Airport Road and told me he wouldn't let me go until I sat with him for a while just to talk.

"You're taking me to the airport???"

"That's just the name of the street!"

How could I take him seriously? He stopped obediently at red lights, and I could have jumped out at any time. My New Yorker instincts told me that he was harmless but stupid: subtleties evaded him, and he ignored anything direct. Maybe he imagined that I'd fall in love with him if I could just see him face-to-face, just talk with him. I figured that the best way to discourage him was…

Yes, I told him.

Yes? His tone was incredulous.

Yes. Somewhere public like a café-- I'm not going home with you.

He brought me someplace on Airport Road that seemed deserted on the outside. I relaxed a bit at the sight of the women inside.

We sat at a table upstairs across from a beaded curtain. Where was I from? he wanted to know.

Iraq, I told him. I know how Jordanians hate Iraqis; surely this information would discourage him.

It did not.

But you're American, he insisted. Do you have US citizenship?

He wanted to make sure before pressing his case. He gave me his credentials: he'd been a refrigerator repair mechanic, now he drove a taxi. It seemed like a big step down to me. He was good at fixing things, but he claimed to be making a decent salary now. I studied the other women in the café: heavily made up with permed hair. Not a hijab among them.

You come here a lot? I asked.

Sure.

A couple slipped past the beaded curtain.

Take me home, I told him. Now.

He did.



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Part V: I love you!
(350 words minus the title)



Abeer's best friends at the dorm shared lunch in the little sitting room of our suite. They ate the normal way, that is, the Bedouin way: serving plates with homemade food covered the round coffee table and everyone sat on the floor around it, grabbing a French fry and scooping up hummus or salad with a chunk of pita. No one had their own plate: that would be a waste and besides, it was rude. You take what you can eat bite by bite, and you leave the rest for everyone else to enjoy.

Laila entertained them with her anecdotes; the girl really knew how to tell a story! I'd already eaten lunch or I would have squeezed into their circle. As I edged past them to get to my bedroom, Laila's voice rose and became coy: Somebody loves bint, she announced.

I froze. Who?

Someone.

The girls glanced back and forth between Laila and me.

How do you know? my suite-mate Abeer asked her friend.

Because he called out to her "I love you!" from across the lobby, but she ignored him and kept walking.

It was my turn to laugh. You mean in the shopping center across the street? If I ignored him it was probably because I didn't even hear him.

That building was always raucous and busy. Right at the edge of the University of Jordan campus a few meters from the North Gate, college students killed time between classes by looking through CDs at the over-priced music store or by chatting online in one of the internet cafés. Both diners served arageel and even the female students smoked the water pipes in public. The kitchens sold formerly frozen pizza at prices cheaper than the Pizza Hut around the corner.

It was great for people-watching.

Who was it? Was he cute? Abeer was always eager for romance.

I don't know, but he was very handsome, Laila assured us.

He couldn't have been that cute, I quipped on my way to my bedroom, he didn't even come after me.

Of all of them, Laila laughed the loudest.



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Part VI: Mother's milk
(350 words minus the title)



"You can ask your brother questions like that?"

"Sure!" I laughed at the shock on Arwa's face. "Wouldn't you want to know?"

"Yes, but…" Her eyes boggled. "…I wouldn't ask."

She'd whispered the admission, and I realized that it had cost her a lot to say it. At the time I attributed her propriety to the difference between Jordanian and US cultures-- taboos on what women can talk about or feel-- but I discovered otherwise when I returned to the States. Whenever I told that "Mother's milk" story, I got the same horrified look from people in the US regardless of their age or background. After a while I realized that the real offense was not that I'd asked my brother but that I told the story about asking.

Ask, but don't tell was the etiquette for this situation.

How was I to know? Amaya was my first niece, and I was curious. She was born that Spring while I lived in Jordan. I knew I'd miss the event, but I hadn't realized how much I would miss it: the birth of my only niece, with no nephews for the sake of comparison nor any kids of my own. I couldn't see her in her ugly, newborn, wrinkly phase, and I hadn't changed her diapers. I didn't have vomit stains on my shoulder. I had no bond with Amaya. I hadn't even seen my sister-in-law grow big! I was missing everything.

When I got the email announcement I bought two trays of baklawa to treat the girls at the dorm. Each congratulated me as she reached for a syrupy square, and I felt a little like a fraud. After all, I hadn't done anything.

I didn't call right away; I figured my brother and sister-in-law would be too busy between the baby and the well-wishers. When I finally rang my brother I hit a blank after saying my congratulations, so I just blurted out the question: Have you tasted your wife's milk?

He laughed but didn't act like the question was so strange. Not yet, but I will, he vowed.



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Part VII: Homesick (350 words minus the title)



Abeer's swollen, red eyes gave her away, as if the look of misery on her face wouldn't. There was something incongruous about someone being so unhappy on such a beautiful day. Barely 18 and round-faced with a tiny chin, Abeer had a gorgeous, natural look; her genuineness always made me want to laugh with her. Actually, she was too skinny by Jordanian standards and just a little too dark-skinned to be pretty, but her black jilbab hid her lack of fleshiness, and her heavy-lidded dark eyes didn't need makeup.

But her eyes projected a profound sadness that afternoon. I assumed the worst: a death in the family. It turns out that nothing so horrible had happened, except in a figurative sense. When I asked what had made her so upset, Abeer said, "I miss my family."

That was all. That was enough.

Abeer was lonely. It was her first year, and however close she'd become to her new friends in the dorm, they couldn't replace her tight-knit family. She especially missed her mom.

Homesickness struck all the girls in the dorm, especially those living away from home for the first time. Abeer had never been a strong student and couldn't see the point now of staying in school. I hugged her and told her that it was normal to want to be with her mom and family. Everyone felt that way in the beginning; it would pass.

Let yourself miss them, I insisted. Call and tell them how much you love them.

Abeer nodded.

Two weeks later, Abeer thanked me. She said that was the first time anyone had ever hugged her.

I laughed. Oh, come on! Your mom…

No.

Your sister?

No. You made me feel so much better, thank you!

I felt awkward and didn't believe her. She didn't seem embarrassed at all. Then I thought of something. You have to promise me something: when you see a friend that sad, you have to give her a hug. Promise me?

Maybe she thought I was being silly, but she laughed. I promise.

I still don't believe her.



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Part VIII: I chose to wear this
(350 words minus the title)



Arwa waved her headscarf at me. "What do you think of this?"

"About what?" I pretended ignorance. I couldn't figure out what she wanted me to say, and I worried about offending her with a wrong answer. Not all the girls in the dorm wore a hijab or a jilbab (the ankle-length overgarment that looks like a trench coat), but those who did discarded it as soon as they stepped within the all-female boundaries of the dorm. On this day Arwa sat in our sitting room with her hijab in hand, demanding a response.

I hated it when they did that to me, as if being American condoned their anti-Jordanian-society opinion or gave them someone to argue with so they could defend those Jordanian ways. Either way, they used me to bolster an already-formed opinion.

So Arwa, my best friend in the dorm, asked me for my opinion on the hijab. I told her truthfully, "It looks good on you." Much as an individual might resent wearing it, the hijab hid damaged or dirty hair, and the jilbab made a too-skinny woman look fleshier or a too-fleshy woman look slimmer. "What do you think of it?"

She didn't even hesitate. "Some days I hate it, some days I love it."

"Why do you wear it?"

"When I turned 17 my father told me, 'Either you wear this or you're not going outside.' I'm used to it now. But this," she plucked at her jilbab, the garment unbuttoned but still on, "I chose to wear this." She told me about going away to college and realizing that her family couldn't afford fashionable clothes for her. She would look poor. "But I can wear anything I want underneath this and no one would know."

She believed the jilbab equalized her status with her wealthier classmates. She only needed two for the winter and two for the summer.

I didn't tell her that anyone could tell from the polyester material and the workmanship on her jilbabs that they were of inferior quality. They betrayed her social class as clearly as un-fashionable clothes would.



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Part IX: Thieves' market, part one of two
(350 words minus the title)



souk al-Haramiyya: Thieves' market. This flea market fills a lot sunk three feet below the sidewalk right on the edge of the downtown tourist area. It's too busy to make out any individual below; they all merge into one squirming mass, like fish in a net. I had never explored it on my own. What was the protocol of dealing with vendors selling "used" (i.e. stolen) goods?

One day while walking with me through those streets, Fatima looked over at the souk. "I've always wanted to go there." Her tone was so wistful, I knew she was serious.

"Let's go," I urged.

"We can't. Women don't go down there."

"Oh please-- I see women there. C'mon!"

She hesitated, but I pulled her down with me.

Downstairs, Fatima focused on the goods laid out on fold-up tables or on blankets. I looked for a toaster oven while I bumped through the lanes. I'd been craving a tuna melt sandwich for months! I spotted a red one on an old man's table and bent over to look more closely.

"How much?" I asked, even as I worried about the obviously-has-been-repaired cord.

Then I felt it: a hand stuck up between my legs and cupped my crotch. Not a furtive touch, this was a full-on grab. Invasive. Obscene. Violating. I turned to face the offender, but it could have been anyone from the steady stream of people around me.

Fatima carried on as if she hadn't seen anything-- she probably hadn't, and anyway what was there to see? My red face and gasps? I couldn't think, couldn't speak or move. While I gaped, the vendor pushed me to buy the toaster oven with an irritated tone. Unexpectedly, unbelievably, I felt the crotch-grab again. I whirled and whacked man behind me. He continued on a few steps, and like magic, people cleared a space around us. He grunted a protest; I grunted back.

And then he was gone.

The empty space closed up, and the vendor called out to me, "Forget him. Let's finish this."

I grabbed Fatima's elbow. "Let's get out of here."



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Part IX: Thieves' market, part two of two
(350 words minus the title)



Afternoon sun angled over the balcony. Noise from the crowded shawarma place on the street sounded just outside the windows. The people sounded busy and removed, as if I was hearing them from inside a glass jar.

How could such an ugly thing have happened on such a beautiful day?

As soon as we got back to the dorm, Fatima changed into her nightgown and plopped herself on the lounge sofa in front of the TV. We had hours before sundown and even more until curfew, and it annoyed me that the girls lazed in their pj's, rarely leaving the dorm except to go to class. It annoyed me that they rarely studied, except for the night before an exam. It really bothered me that they could do so many things for free in Amman-- in safe, proper venues-- but they always complained that they had no money to go out. I was just plain annoyed.

"We were downtown!" Fatima told her friends on the next couch.

Older than the other dorm residents, Fatima worked full-time at the government-run Jordanian TV station, so she had more cosmopolitan experience than most. Watching her talk in excited tones, I started to relax. Maybe if I changed out of my outdoor clothes and hung out with them for just a little while…

Fatima stopped me as I headed for my room. "The next time that happens, just act like it didn't. Don't say anything. Don't do anything." I knew exactly what she was talking about; how could I forget? I still felt that guy's hand. "Hey, you would have done the same if it had happened to you!"

"No, I wouldn't have."

"Yes, you would have-- Fatima, you don't know what happened."

"No," she said firmly. "I wouldn't have."

That's when I realized: it probably had happened to her while we stood together in the souk al-Haramiyya, and I just hadn't realized. Someone-- maybe even the same person-- had grabbed Fatima the way someone had grabbed at me. She just wasn't ever going to say anything about it.

And it was my fault.



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Part X: Green
(350 words minus the title)



First Khulud then Munal. Then Mona asked me about it in a tone of just wanting to know. I'tidal figured it was a quirk of Americans, and as she spent the next few months applying to schools in Australia, she wondered if Australians were the same. Anwar decided it came from having grown up in a country where water was so plentiful that they wasted it on growing grass and taking showers every day. One by one, the girls in the dorm who'd seen my room cornered me and expressed concern:

Don't keep those plants in your bedroom-- and so close to your bed! They'll use up all the oxygen and suffocate you while you sleep!

Whatever happened to the rigor of a Jordanian high school education? Had those science and math track students truly learned nothing after four years of biology? At first I tried to explain. Eventually I got tired of the impromptu lessons in photosynthesis that I had to teach over and over again, but how could I find fault with people just trying to look out for me?

Thank you for worrying about me, but no, I'm not in any danger. Yes, I know what I'm doing. Really.

I suppose I got it from my mom, this love of green things. After six months of living in Jordan, I'd finally broken down and bought my first plant. The kid at the flea market got to know me since I bought a new one from him and his grandfather every week after that. The time that I came to their stall after having been out of town for a spell, the boy expressed his disappointment.

"You didn't come last week!"

Ah, green! Surrounded everywhere by the sandy native stone they use for buildings-- the same color of the dirt roads and the dust that dulled the spindles and bark of the ubiquitous pine trees-- my room became a place where I could rest my color-starved eyes. It wasn't until I'd covered every shelf and table surface with a potted plant that I started to feel at home.



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Part XI: A salad by any other name…
(350 words minus the title)



I became famous in the dorm for my salads. Jordanian salad included just tomatoes and cucumbers chopped in big pieces with vinegar and a little salt: tasty enough but boring. Still, lettuce was too expensive-- too water-intensive? Instead, I bought red cabbage and shredded it to form the bulk of my salad.

Then followed any fresh produce I could afford: carrots, onions, peppers, tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers… I left the skin on the cucumbers. It all had to be finely sliced; according to my mother, everything tastes better when cut paper thin.

Oh, and canned goods: tuna, corn, beets, kidney beans, chick peas… Spices joined the vinegar: ground cumin, cayenne pepper, salt, garlic… I'd make a whole meal out of a bowl of it, another sign of my weirdness. Jihad always joined me for dinner if I tempted her with a salad. Once Arwa insisted I make a batch so I'tidal could try it. Anwar just smiled and shook her head. Like a typical anthropologist, I had become the spectacle.

I'd gone to Jordan to ask the international female students what it was like for them to live in a foreign Arab country. What did they miss? What was hard to get used to? What caused the most problems? What did it feel like to be an Arab girl in an Arab country and still a foreigner? I hadn't expected that food would matter so much to them, although as an anthropologist I should have.

Munal told me that tomatoes and cucumbers didn't taste right in Jordan. The other Palestinian girls agreed.

Sana complained that green beans weren't really green, unlike the ones in Yemen.

Fadhl and Miriam told me that Jordanian food was too bland compared to Mauritanian cuisine.

Luna couldn't care less; her mother was a doctor back home in Algeria and didn't have time to cook every day, so Luna thought that cooking was a waste. "It's just food."

The Jordanian girls didn't complain, but they looked on my concoctions with puzzlement:

"What is it?"

"It's a salad."

"How do you make it?"

"You're kidding me, right?"



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Part XII: You're very religious, aren't you?
(350 words minus the title)



Ubiquitous posters sported cartoon drawings of a dripping faucet against a purple background. The caption read "Save water"-- if Arabic had capital letters, I'm sure the Ministry of Water would have used them. Jordan has few natural resources, and water is not one of them. Neither is an attitude of conservation.

I met a young manager from the Ministry of Water at a nightclub; the way he talked about the government wasting money to bring water to farmers shocked me. "There's no reason we even have farms-- it's just traditional. It would be cheaper to import food than water." Disgust overflowed in his voice.

Despite the posters our dorm mistress dutifully hung in the halls, she did nothing about the leaks in the communal kitchen. Crud caked the base of the pipes, and they'd turned a brilliant brown from rust. Whenever I read in the lounge next door, that steady drip hammered at my skull. The best I could do was turn the TV off when no one was watching it.

"Save electricity" signs hung side-by side with the "Save water" ones.

No matter how many times I complained to her about it, Arwa always left the lights on. One day, I used my sweetest, most sarcastic voice when she exited the private bathroom in our dorm suite. "Oh, was someone in there with you?"

"Of course not!"

"I thought maybe you'd left the light on for the person who was in there with you."

She got frustrated with me, perhaps because this was an old argument between us. "I don't understand you-- you don't pay for the electricity, the owner does. So what do you care if the lights are on? Why are you trying to save her money?"

"I don't give a damn about her! But this is your country-- why don't you care about saving electricity here? Why do I care more than you?"

She looked me over. "Come to think on it, you're very religious, aren't you?

In the midst of all that waste, I had become a fanatic about conservation and was proud of it!



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Part XIII: No one calls me anyway!
(350 words)



Fatima got sucked in. She finally bought a cell phone. Everyone had one. Well, everyone except for me and Fatima. Then it was just me. Cell phone culture repelled me just a little.

Yes, I understand that it meant freedom and independence just like getting your driver's license in the US: a rite of passage that connected the cell phone owner to the world. Much, much better than land lines. Years before cell phones had become popular, young men would dial random numbers hoping to get a girl on the phone, someone to talk to. Someone to flirt with. She could be ugly or engaged to be married, but that didn't show on the phone, so who cared? Every girl felt beautiful, every boy debonair.

Then cell phones hit the market. Girls had their own phones: their families weren't screening calls, dorm supervisors weren't listening in on private conversations, and people kept their phones on constantly.

All day.

All night.

Everywhere.

I'd met up with Fatima at the Royal Jordanian Cultural Centre. That night, the Algerian embassy had sponsored a folk dance performance that I'd been looking forward to for weeks. The big draw wasn't the acoustics or the red, plush seats; it was the free admission. We waited in the crowded lobby. Even the idea of "General Admission" didn't put me off-- I knew where the best seats were.

Fatima checked her phone in case she'd received a text message in the half hour since the last time she'd checked.

"Turn your phone off," I reminded her.

"No, it's ok."

"Just for the performance."

"No, nobody calls me anyway."

"Then there's no problem with turning it off."

She refused.

I insisted.

I threatened not to sit anywhere near her unless she turned the phone off.

She told me I was being stupid. "No one calls me!"

"So just turn it off!"

Then her phone rang. She answered.

I pushed my way through the crowd to get to the doors. We ended up sitting together anyway. I didn't ask, but I'm sure she had her phone on the whole time.



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Part XIV: How much time do you have?
(350 words)



Bookstores and newsstands throughout Amman stocked Arabic translations of Che Guevara's book; his brooding face looked askance from black covers with that famous photo of him in a beret with a fine line of a moustache. I almost bought a copy at the airport while I waited for my mother to arrive from New York, but history's not really my thing.

Which makes it even more ironic that I ended up giving a lecture on the US Civil War in the internet café across the street from the dorm. It was my favorite internet café, and I spent hours there daily. A young Iraqi man named Usama worked the front desk from 5 pm until 9 in the morning on weeknights and all weekend. He didn't complain about the long hours or about his flimsy salary; as an illegal resident of Jordan, he was lucky to land a job.

One day, on my way out, I passed four people by the reception desk waiting for a free computer. Usama surprised me with his question:

"What was the US Civil War about?"

It was such a random question I had to ask him to repeat it, but then I was at a loss for an answer.

A young man sitting beside us asked, "It was slavery, wasn't it?"

The other three men looked up at me. Two were college age, the one who'd spoken was in his late twenties, and the graying, paunchy man looked to be in his fifties.

"Well… not really."

Usama shook his head. "What then?"

I mumbled something about agricultural vs. industrial economies.

"I knew it!" The older man nodded. "It's always about money!"

"Well… it's not that simple."

"Will you tell us?" Usama persisted.

The others looked intense too. History's not really my thing, and I knew it would take a while to explain…

I checked my watch. "How much time do you have?"

After two hours I'd only given them the barest outline, but my voice was cracking and I had to stop. They'd have to buy the book for the rest of the story.



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Part XV: Chivalry is not what it's cracked up to be
(350 words)



White plastic bags ballooned and flew across the streets until they joined packs at the base of buildings. Newspaper sheets, cast-off sandwich wrapping and plastic straws crowded into a comfortable co-existence there. Jordan really needed a commercial of a wizened Bedouin man crying a single, lonely tear at the sight of all the garbage people toss on the roads.

At the front of the long buses, hand-written signs urged riders "Please keep the bus clean." A driver and a fare collector staffed each vehicle, waiting at the start of the route in the city center for the bus to fill with passengers before they'd leave the downtown station. By early evening most people had already gone home, and the bus had too many empty seats. One darkening day a plump lady sat ahead of me on the bus facing the sign. She ate from her paper sack of lupini beans, one by one, and threw the bean husks at her feet while she chatted with her friend. In New York I'd have read her the riot act; in Jordan I bit my tongue.

The fare collector said nothing though he'd surely seen her. The wiry young man scanned the empty seats on board then jumped out of the bus to call out the final destination, trying to bring in more customers.

Some buses were vans tricked-out with extra rows of seats. I learned to avoid them in the dorm area by the university because the streets flooded every afternoon with students wanting to get home. Bus drivers ignored women trying to flag them down-- the ironic result of courtesy. A woman could not stand on a bus-- unheard of!-- no fare collector wanting to show his face in public would allow it. If the van was full, the collector would tell the driver to stop for men (who could crowd into the tiny aisle) but to bypass the women.

On the sidewalk, I stood with co-eds who threw their empty soda cans in the street, waiting for the crush to subside so we would no longer fall victim to chivalry.



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Part XVI: Usama is a beautiful name
(350 words)



My sister-in-law had her first baby that year I was living in Jordan, and neither my brother nor his wife wanted to know the baby's sex beforehand. They'd picked out girl names that would work in both English and Arabic, but trying to come up with boy names stumped them for months. 'John' and 'Joseph' were good ones, if a bit plain; at least they both had equivalents in many languages. Arab Americans usually picked something like Samir (shortened to 'Sam' for school) or Salman (the nickname 'Sal' worked especially well in Italian neighborhoods in Brooklyn). But the parents-to-be didn't want a name that had to be shortened to be palatable in English-- they just wanted something that sounded good in both languages.

I liked the name 'Ramzi'; it means 'symbolic.' I know that sounds sterile and academic, but it comes off as very romantic in Arabic. My brother wasn't impressed. I asked the girls in the dorm for ideas, though I didn't like their suggestions.

"Usama!" Arwa had a warm, fuzzy tone in her voice when she said the name.

I laughed.

She got defensive. "What's wrong? It's a beautiful name."

"Are you crazy? Who would name their baby 'Usama' in the US now?"

"Why not?" She seemed sincere.

"Um, remember 9/11?" I think she'd genuinely forgotten the association.

She wasn't the only one; whenever I asked, 'Usama' was the first name the girls in the dorm suggested. Since the name Osama bin Laden had been in the news for months, that probably put 'Usama' near the surface of people's minds (same name, more accurate transliteration). Was it part of a name fad, like 'Ashley' for girls born in the eighties in the US? Maybe it had deeper political implications: A sign of allegiance? A form of anti-Americanism?

The name means 'handsome.' Rather innocuous, when you think of it like that. It may be a beautiful name, one easily pronounced in English, but there's no reason to invite trouble for some poor kid growing up Arab in America.

It's a good thing my sister-in-law ended up having a girl.



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Part XVII: What every brother wants for his sister
(350 words)



Shops in downtown Amman carried identical inventory, so the key to making a sale was to ensnare the customers before your competitors did. An employee stood outside each shop entrance to pitch a hard sell to wandering tourists. "Come in, come look!" For a few dollars (depending on your haggling skills), you could buy a mat woven by the Beni Hamida tribe or a blue glass pendant that would repel the evil eye. Or how about a wall plaque with Arabic engraving?

My brother had come to visit me in Jordan and did most of his souvenir gift shopping downtown. He bought a water pipe and negotiated to have extras thrown in: two hoses, rubber gaskets for sealing the connections, and a spare terracotta cup for the coals. He bought banana-flavored tobacco, some keychains and brass wall decorations, but he couldn't find the right gift for one friend in particular.

"Maybe a scarf," he mused. "She always wraps her head in a white turban."

We moved on to more genteel shops in a nearby neighborhood, but I discouraged him from buying a white scarf. "She probably has exactly what she wants, in the size and style she likes. Get her something different." I pointed to a pistachio-green scarf-- my favorite color!

He was not impressed and looked over the other offerings-- there were a lot to choose from. Clothing stores carried scarves that a woman could use as a [i]hijab[/i]: square ones and rectangular ones, embroidered or plain, polyester or cotton. I kept coming back to the green one that had first caught my eye and convinced him to buy it.

He escorted me back to the dorm and then handed me the bag. "It's for you."

I showed it off to the girls in the dorm. "Look what my brother got for me! I had no idea he was shopping for me the whole time."

Khulud nodded. "Yes, every brother wants for his sister to wear a [i]hijab[/i]."

"No, you don't understand--"

But according to Khulud, I was missing my brother's loud and clear message, his hard sell.



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Part XVIII: We don't serve people like you
(350 words)



Maybe they worried about zealous brothers and didn't want trouble for admitting a Muslim woman to a bar. Maybe they didn't want to scare off their expat customers with the sight of a woman in a hijab. Whatever the reason, they turned us away at the door.

It happened like this: an American friend let me use her apartment so I could treat each of my Jordanian friends to a night out and say good-bye before leaving Jordan for good. We stayed overnight at the apartment without worrying about curfew at the dorm. After a year of dealing with dorm rules and unfamiliar social expectations, I was anxious to get back to the US.

But the dorm wasn't the only place with strict control over Jordanian women.

I asked Anwar where she wanted to go on our night out. "Someplace you've always wanted to go."

She didn't hesitate. "The Irish Pub in Abdoun."

We made plans: we'd take a taxi to the upper-class neighborhood of Abdoun and have dinner at the pub. I'd been there before: wood paneling (a rare luxury in Jordan) covered the walls and gave dimly-lit rooms a warm glow. Customers could eat fish and chips at the full bar or at one of the leather-covered booths. Expats loved the place, and you could hear more English than Arabic inside.

A long ramp from the sidewalk led to the entrance. We got halfway up before a bouncer stopped us. "You can't come in."

"Why not?" I didn't understand right away. Other patrons freely entered the double doors at the top of the ramp.

Anwar pulled on my arm. "It's okay. Let's go."

The bouncer shook his head; he gestured toward his own shaved head and nodded at Anwar.

I finally got it: Anwar wears a hijab, and so we weren't allowed in. I didn't know whether to laugh or be furious, but Anwar brought me back down the ramp. We ate at the Blue Fig restaurant in that same chic neighborhood, a place also popular with expats but with no policy of excluding women wearing a hijab.



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Part XIX: Music, like fear, is infectious
(350 words)




"This is better," my friend Norma assured us. "We're right next to the band, but no one else can see us."

She'd invited me to stay the night with her in her apartment so I could join her for a concert without having to worry about the curfew at the dorm. Ilham al-Madfai, an Iraqi folk singer who lived in Jordan, was performing with his musical ensemble. Norma brought other friends too, all Americans, and we took a table by the bar. No one else sat in that part of the restaurant because they'd all chosen tables under the speakers.

We had that whole floor to ourselves.

Al-Madfai's music makes you want to dance; even Norma's friends joined in and copied our Arab dance moves. Hips swinging, hands twirling, all of us laughing-- we had a blast, with no disapproving looks to hold us back.

At intermission, Norma caught her breath. "Did you see? The musicians were watching us. They fed off our energy as much as we fed off theirs!"

Al-Madfai passed us on his way to back the stage, and Norma greeted him in Arabic.

"I'm a huge fan. I've introduced all my friends in the US to your music and they're fans too! And look--" Norma pointed at me "--she's Iraqi!"

Ilham eyed me. "What's your name?"

He frowned at my answer and fired more questions at me: What's your father's name? Your mother's? Where's your family from?

I explained that my dad is Shi'a from Najaf and my mom is Sunni from Baghdad. I take it Al-Madfai wasn't satisfied by my answers because he just turned and left. Truth is, you can't tell from my name what tribes we belong to, and I think it bothered Al-Madfai that he couldn't figure out whether my family members were Saddam-loyalists or Saddam-haters. Saddam's men would assassinate opposition even in other countries; Iraqis wouldn't risk their lives by speaking against the man in front of people with unknown loyalties.

Though he chatted with Norma again after the concert, Al-Madfai ignored me. It was for the best.



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Part XX: What did you order?
(350 words)




How useful can "kitchen Arabic" be? I mean, it's such a sliver of the language that us kids learn at home from our immigrant parents: "pass the salt" and "clean the dishes." We learned the command forms of verbs because that's what we heard most often. We learned words for "banana" and "milk." We learned the tone of voice parents take with their kids, and we learned the real meaning of phrases like "inshallah" (don't believe the Arabic teachers-- it doesn't mean "God willing," it means "No, and don't argue with me about it").

But we didn't learn the nuances, like that while Iraqis prefer their tea with milk, other Arabs don't. It's a dead giveaway. Once, in Brooklyn, a Palestinian man saw me put milk in my tea and nodded. "The British way," he said. "Like a true Iraqi."

Jordanians don't put milk in their tea, not even little kids.

When my brother came to visit me in Jordan, I took him to a tourist café with outdoor seating. I thought the fixed menu prices and the sound of English around us would help him relax. So much in Jordan seemed aggressive to him: taxi drivers who honked incessantly at pedestrians to pick up a fare, shopkeepers who changed their prices by the second, always trying a hard sell…

As it turned out, it was a slow night, and we were the only customers sitting on the patio. No people-watching options. I left him for just a moment to go to the bathroom, but when I returned, he was sipping something.

"What did you get?" I asked.

He put the glass down. "Not what I ordered."

"What did you order?"

"Well, I thought I was ordering a water pipe with banana-flavored tobacco and tea with milk…"

I frowned at the tall, slim glass on the table in front of us. Nope, definitely not tea with milk, that much was obvious. And that certainly wasn't a water pipe.

"So, what is it?"

"I think it's a banana milkshake."

I laughed so hard I almost fell out of my seat.



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Part XXI: I wouldn't be caught dead in that!
(350 words)

My aunt took my remark the wrong way. I'd blurted it out, not even thinking about how she might interpret it. It's just that I was operating from my world and she from hers.

And she'd misunderstood me.

My aunt-- this aunt, this middle-aged mother of three young adults-- is an open-minded woman. She'd been a painter in Iraq but had given up her art career to be a full-time homemaker when she married a fellow artist. The family had escaped the sanctions on Iraq seven years earlier to live in Jordan where her husband taught art at a local university.

My aunt and I had been walking toward her home for dinner when someone jumped out ahead of us from a cab stopped at the curb, a young woman with honey-brown hair and blond tips. The short, chic hairstyle gave it away: this woman had money. In Jordan, women's hairstyles get shorter and their hair blonder the more money the ladies have.

It was the pants that made me comment. "No woman in New York would ever dress like that!"

"Really?" My aunt was incredulous.

The polyester clothes in that summer heat were barely forgivable, but the skin-tight pants left the girl's panty lines in stark relief. Sure, plenty of women in New York wear tacky clothes, but not someone who obviously has money. Yet that girl wore the latest fashion for upwardly mobile Jordanians who wanted to emphasize their secular orientation and Western sensibilities: too-tight bell-bottom pants and a cap-sleeved shirt that showed off the flesh of her upper arm.

Later that day at dinner, my aunt described the girl from the cab.

"Bint says that women in New York don't dress like that," she told the other guests.

I didn't mean that New Yorkers don't wear tight clothes, or that they don't like to show off flesh or nice round butts. My point had fallen into the cultural gap and emerged on the other side nearly unrecognizable. But I didn't say anything to correct my aunt; American girls get enough of a bad rap in Jordan.

 

 

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Part XXII: My almost-career as a narrator of documentaries

(350 words)

 

In Jordan, I came this close to launching a career as a voice-over actress. I could have been the voice of Jordan's future!

But as it turns out, Jordan's future doesn't have a high-pitched voice.

I'd been talking with the administrator of the Fulbright program in Jordan when he got a call from a Jordanian filmmaker who wanted referrals: he needed native English speakers to do the narration for a documentary. The film enticed Western businesses to open factories in Jordan. The Fulbright administrator took down the filmmaker's contact information and turned to me. "Would you be interested?" he asked.

After some phone tag, I finally got to speak with this filmmaker to make an appointment for me to come in to the studio for an audition.

"You don't have an accent, do you?" the Jordanian man asked in fluent English.

I didn't know how to answer; I mean, we were talking in English, so couldn't he hear my Brooklyn-Italian accent? Or if he couldn't, wasn't that proof that my speech would suffice? Over the years, I've dropped a lot of the more obvious signs of my New Yorker accent, but it's still evident in my prosody and how fast I talk, in the quality of my vowels and the way I pronounce words that end in 'R'… but unless someone knows what to listen for, they might never notice. In fact, one of my linguistic anthropology professors here in Austin told me that I sounded like I could be from Berkeley, California, his hometown. But then we got to talking about what it was like growing up in Brooklyn, about pizza and the subway, and my professor said, "Oh, I hear it now."

In the end, though, it wasn't the accent that did me in; it was my girly voice. I ran through the script he gave me, but he asked me to try speaking with a deeper pitch, a more authoritative tone; it sounded goofy even to me, and he asked me to do it again in my normal voice.

After that audition, he never called me back.

 

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To be continued ...