It’s probably June, 2004. The phone rings in the middle of the night, waking me out of an exhausted sleep. I grope for it, check the display. It’s about three a.m. and I don’t recognize the number. I mute the ringer and try to go back to sleep.
The phone rings again. Same number. I’m pretty sure I know what this call is, but there’s an outside chance it could be someone from Peace Corps Jordan or the U.S. Embassy. I’m a warden, which means four other Peace Corps Volunteers would consolidate at my house in the event of political unrest or natural disaster, and I would be responsible for calling them all with the consolidation order. Just in case, I pick up. “‘Allo?”
“Hello-oo! What your name?”
“None of your business. Don’t call again.” I hang up.
My phone immediately rings again. Same number. I mute the ringer and save his number as DoNotAnswer3. It rings again. I let it ring till it stops, then it rings a fifth time. I grab a notebook and start a tally. Six. Seven. On the eighth call, I pick up but don’t speak. I’m cross-legged on my comforter, phone by my knee, but I can still hear him.
“Hello? Hello? What your name? Hello? Hello? Why you not talk me? Hello?” The phone goes dead.
He calls again. I hit the green button but leave the phone on the bed. “Hello? Hello? Why you not say hello? Hello?” After a few more tries, he hangs up and calls again.
In Jordan, it doesn’t cost me anything to receive a call on my cell phone, but it costs him money if I pick up. I hear him getting angry. “Hello? Why you do this me? Hello? I spend money this call. Why you not talk me? Hello?”
All told, he calls me thirteen times in under an hour. The moment he or I hang up, he calls back. It’s four a.m. on a Wednesday, and I have to leave for school at seven to teach, but I’m not angry. Not this time. I’m actually pretty pleased with myself, because I had never thought of picking up without answering, running up his phone bill. It feels inspired, and it feels righteously vindictive.
I have only recently begun saving these numbers in my phone as DoNotAnswer, so even though I’m calling this one #3, there have been dozens. They usually happen in the middle of the night. Sometimes, though, we Peace Corps Volunteer girls get these calls when we’re with a Volunteer who is a native Arabic speaker. He’ll take the phone and demand, “Who do you think you are, calling my sister?” That number, at least, will never call again. A male relative’s authority carries extra weight in Jordan, where honor killings happen about a dozen times a year.
Before I leave for school, I call Samir, the Peace Corps security guy. I tell him what happened and give him the number of DoNotAnswer3. Samir says he’ll take care of it, and I trust him to do the culturally appropriate thing. Peace Corps trusts Samir, and the U.S. Embassy trusts him, so I trust him more than any Jordanian man I know.
Samir is a small, compact, nondescript man. He’s quiet, soft-spoken and gentle. I don’t always notice when he’s in the room. He doesn’t talk about what he does for us, except to say, “I’ll take care of it.” Word gets around, though.
“Now, brother, is that how we treat guests in our culture? Is that the culture of hospitality the Prophet Mohammad taught us? Shame on you, brother!”
* * * * *
It’s nearly midnight the next night when the phone rings again. It’s DoNotAnswer3. I ignore it, but by the fourth ring, I am getting angry. “What do you want?”
“Why you tell him about me? I just want be friends.” When I hang up, he calls back, again and again. This time, I don’t bother to run up his phone bill. I just cancel the calls as they come in. I text Samir and tell him DoNotAnswer3 is calling again.
* * * * *
Friday morning, I’m yanked out of bed by a very angry gut. I spend more than an hour in the bathroom with food poisoning, and then collapse back into my bed. The phone rings, and I pick it up without looking. “‘Allo?”
“Good morning, Maryah. I’m in Faiha’, and I’m coming to see you.” It’s DoNotAnswer3, and this time he knows my name and the name of my village. From somewhere below my heaving stomach, I find the strength for outrage, and fear. I call Samir and tell him everything. He tells me to stay home and keep my door locked. I’m too sick to go anywhere anyway.
* * * * *
That afternoon, Samir calls. “The plainclothes police are coming to get your statement,” he says. “They say they’re in Faiha’, almost to your house. Just tell them what you told me.”
I can see the nondescript beige sedan pull into my neighbor’s driveway, up to the gate of my garden. I come out on the porch as two men get out of the car. I can’t invite them in, as a single woman living alone, and in fact they come no closer than the middle of my yard. They want me to explain what happened, but my Arabic isn’t good enough and they don’t speak English. Finally, I call Samir and pass the phone down so he can explain again for me.
We’re three or four meters apart: I, standing up on my porch and they, standing down in the yard. All around us, the neighbors have come out on their porches, staring shoulder-to-shoulder, making no secret of listening to our conversation. It makes me feel safe today, knowing that my neighbors are watching out for me.
After the police return my phone and leave, the headmistress of my school sends her 18-year-old son to find out what’s going on. I explain as well as I can, since her son doesn’t speak English, either. When he understands, he grins and shakes his head. “You didn’t have to call Peace Corps! You should have told him to come on over.” He plants his fist in his palm with a loud slapping sound. “We would have taken care of him!”
* * * * *
DoNotAnswer3 is arrested the next day. They don’t need me to press charges. He had already been arrested five times for the same harassing behavior.
Often, when Peace Corps Volunteers gather, we swap horror stories. Male Volunteers had their own kinds of horror stories, but they frequently ended theirs with, “But it’s so much harder to be a woman in Jordan!”
One day, a married Volunteer pushed back. It was much harder for her husband, she said. It is the imperative of the woman to ignore her harasser, protecting her reputation by not responding, and her security by not further antagonizing him. Men, on the other hand, are compelled to respond. If her husband didn’t confront every epidsode of misogyny with outrage, she explained, then they both lost their respect in the community. Her husband is a reticent man, quiet and gentle, and it was extraordinarily troubling for him to have to react with anger and implied violence every day.
Jordan has the highest attrition rate in the Peace Corps. It seemed to me that more men than women cited gender-based harassment as their reason for leaving. Their empathy for our experiences impressed me from the very first week on the ground. They took every misogynistic statement or action seriously and personally. They regularly called out their male colleagues and even strangers on the street. “Is that how you would want me to treat your sister?”
Looking back, I think it was harder for the men in Peace Corps because they weren’t prepared. No one was talking about “rape culture” in those days, at least not where I could hear them, but I had internalized it like all the women I know. Before we even arrived in Jordan, we women had already developed some of the defense mechanisms we would need to ignore misogynistic micro-aggressions. We had developed the internal monologue to refute what we heard. “I’m not a baby, my worth doesn’t depend on your sexual needs or aesthetic preferences, I’m not a bitch just because you’re not getting what you think you deserve.”
The men we served with likely didn’t see these micro-agressions as often as we did back home. They had the luxury in America of choosing whether to get involved. I don’t blame them for that. I think it made it all the harder for them to become the powerful feminist men they became in Jordan, among the strongest voices speaking against rape culture on my Facebook Newsfeed today.
I thank them for their support.