At Queen Aliyah Airport in Jordan, it’s common for flights from the United States to arrive in the wee hours of the morning. I’ve spent many nights in that arrivals lounge, sipping a latte from the World News Café and waiting for someone to emerge from customs: a friend, my aunt, my brother, my parents. There’s even an Arabic word perfectly suited to the experience: sahira, to stay up all night, usually with friends or family, a storied tradition in many parts of the Arab world.
That first night was different, though. We had been travelling for about twenty-three hours, and the day room in Frankfurt hadn’t been as restful as I had hoped. I was nervous, and trying not to admit it to myself. Sure, I was only twenty-two, I told myself, barely out of college with a degree in English literature, but I wasn’t like other liberal arts grads my age. I had already lived in three foreign countries, and spent weeks at a time in as many more. I had been studying up on Jordan — primarily Queen Noor’s compelling memoir, Leap of Faith — and had taught myself the Arabic alphabet and a few words. I was an experienced traveler, and there was no reason to feel nervous. My mother calls this stubborn refusal to be nervous the “stoic Maryah act,” and mostly it works … until suddenly it collapses.
Queen Alia Airport was different then. You didn’t stand in distinct lines to pay fifteen dinar for your tourist visa. You elbowed your way in, and if you were aggressive enough, you got one before the next flight deplaned. We got to skip that step, thanks to the plain manila envelope in my hands as we got off the flight. I had volunteered to carry the group visa we were all travelling on, and the responsibility had steadied my nerves some. I handed the documents over to Samir, the local Peace Corps security officer responsible for getting us through passport control. He was a small man, dark and compact with close-cropped hair, and he radiated calm authority. Passport control was slightly more orderly, in accordance with its official nature, especially since we were being shepherded by the implacable Samir.
Then we were suddenly through, and I was adrift and overwhelmed.
Porters swarmed the baggage claim. No sooner would I reach for my suitcase on the carousel than a young man would reach for it, too, eager to help. I had always been adamant when travelling about never letting my bags out of my sight, and certainly not out of my hands, so this made me very anxious. Over their objections, I hauled my own backpack and wheeled duffel off the conveyor belt and onto a luggage cart I had grabbed for myself. The porters wanted to push my cart through customs for me, but in addition to my reluctance to let anyone else handle my bags, I also knew I didn’t have any Jordanian currency at hand to tip them. All I could do was hold up my hand and use some of the very minimal Arabic I had taught myself. “La, shukran! La, shukran,” I said over and over. “No, thank you!”
Our bags went unchallenged by customs, doubtless also thanks to Samir’s steady presence. The customs agents, in their ill-fitting dark uniforms, just waved us right on past them towards a long, tall white wall, curved towards us like the inside of an eggshell. In fact, there were two walls, curving together, more like the last bend of a great nautilus shell ushering guests into the kingdom. I barely noticed as I — blearily, wearily — focused on getting the wobbly wheels of my luggage cart to negotiate the gentle curve. I was one of the first Trainees to emerge, apprehensively, from the great white gates of customs.
The terminal was mostly empty, just a few men scattered across the expanse of pale tiles. As I see them in my pre-dawn, jet-lagged haze of memory, they were at least seven feet tall, brawny and imposing. Their long beige and brown caftans bulged over the thick folds of baggy sweatpants. Three of them had white shawls with that distinctive black webbing pattern, wrapped around their heads and faces so that little more than their eyes showed. My pulse spiked and I felt my chest tighten with a sensation I had felt for the first time just thirty-six hours earlier at our Washington, DC, staging — the first symptom of a panic attack.
I had seen these guys, these scarves wrapped just like this, on television. These were the youth who throw stones at Israeli tanks, the young mujahedeen brandishing Kalashnikovs against American troops in Iraq. What was I doing here? What was I thinking?
Even as the television images and questions flashed through my mind, though, I was already ashamed of myself. I knew better. I was here, stepping out of customs at this very airport, precisely because I knew better. I breathed deeply, trying to banish both my panic and my shame.
Then the fourth giant of a man, his dark face and short-cropped black hair uncovered, stepped towards me. I felt my shoulders come up and forward. His round face broke into a wide smile that folded deep parentheses into his plump cheeks. “Welcome, Maryah. I’m Sultan.”
Over the next ten weeks of Pre-Service Training, I would get to know Sultan well, our training coordinator. He was indeed tall for a Jordanian, but six feet instead of the seven he and the others seem in this memory. He was an affable, gentle jokester. Sultan’s broad smile came to signify the safe space and lightness of being that characterized our bi- or tri-weekly gatherings in the Madaba training center, and later our monthly Saturday visits to the Peace Corps office in Amman.
I had barely understood that Sultan was a staff member when someone appeared at my other elbow. “Here, let me help you with your bags,” he said with excellent but accented English. Like the porters swarming the baggage claim, he was about my height and wiry, with a full black beard cropped close to his chin, and a sharp nose.
“No, I’ve got it, thanks,” I said, thinking he must be another porter I couldn’t tip.
“It’s okay. This is Mohammad,” said Sultan as Mohammad took charge of my cart. I would get to know him well, too. Mohammad would be my TEFL Trainer (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) and supervisor until he was awarded a Fulbright to teach in Arizona. He was also a valuable early resource for my understanding of Islam and how it was practiced in Jordan, someone I could always count on to answer my questions thoroughly and without judgment. He was a devout Muslim, religiously conservative like the mother he adored, who covered even her eyes in public to satisfy her personal understanding of the Qur’an. At the same time, Mohammad was socially and politically liberal and staunchly feminist. Like my mother and I, his feminism was about choice, about the right to choose the traditional life of his mother as much as to choose the modern life of his female colleagues in the Peace Corps office.
Mohammad handed my cart off to one of the turbaned giants who had triggered my anxiety. It was suddenly clear that they were our bus drivers, trusted by the full complement of Peace Corps staff who had turned out at two in the morning to meet our flight.
That night, absorbed in my jet lag, culture shock, anxiety and underlying embarrassment, I couldn’t have told you what the weather was like. All I knew was that it was warmer than the snowstorm we had left in Washington, DC. We stumbled onto the big tour bus waiting outside the terminal and collapsed into the well-worn bucket seats.
Looking back, I don’t know why I never checked the CIA Factbook online, or even the outdated volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica in Mom and Dad’s living room, for the average temperatures for Jordan. Arabs live in the desert, and deserts are hot. Everybody knows that, right? Peace Corps’ introductory packet had a packing list that included sweaters and long underwear, but I wasn’t the only Trainee to scoff at the idea cold in Jordan. We didn’t come prepared for snow.
Madaba and our training villages never quite got an inch that first winter, but a foot or more is not unheard of in Amman. While we were in training, the community in the southern mountains where one Volunteer would serve got so much snow, they had to airlift basic staples from the Kerak plateau below. Later, I would realize that our bus drivers had wound their Palestinian hattah around their faces for warmth.