Out of sheer exhaustion, I slept like a rock every night in the Peace Corps. Even after a night at dar Abu Radhi with gahwe saade, a pot of black tea, more gahwe saade and a Turkish “goodbye coffee,” I could still go straight to bed and be asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I have never slept so well in my life.
If there was a catch, it was that I woke at sunrise every day. It might have been the chickens, the donkeys, or the sounds of children’s voices running between the neighbors’ houses. Maybe it was just the light, because it didn’t matter whether I was home, in an Amman hotel or on my interlude back home in Maryland. I woke at sunrise local time every day. Even when I was up till four in the morning and sunrise was at five thirty, I was up at five thirty. But until sunrise, I slept like a rock.
That’s why it’s hard for me to conceive that I was woken at two that morning by Ben’s text message, the tall, handsome Ethiopian-American from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was in the cohort of Volunteers six months behind mine. I’m not even sure why he texted me. This might have been around the time I was trying my best to flirt with him, but I’m a terrible flirt and I never thought that he realized what I was doing. For whatever reason, I was probably one of many people Ben texted that night, “Do you have a TV? Do you know what’s happening in Amman?”
It was almost identical to the text my sister’s German friend sent me while I was in Dresden on September 11, 2001. “Are you watching what’s happening in America right now?” I had been touring the Semperoper that day with the man who is now my cousin’s father-in-law. I had no idea what was happening that morning in New York City until I got back to my host family’s empty house and turned on CNN just in time to watch the second plane hit.
I was equally clueless when Ben texted in the wee hours of November 10, 2005. He began to fill me in. Three hotels in Amman had been hit in coordinated suicide attacks. The Grand Hyatt, Days Inn and Radisson SAS were all luxury five-star hotels favored by foreign diplomats, businessmen, and tourists of means. They were also popular choices for the engagement parties and weddings of the Jordanian elite. In fact, the only non-Arabs to die that night were three Chinese military delegates at the Days Inn and an Indonesian.
At the Hyatt, Syrian-American movie producer Moustapha Akkad and his daughter were killed. To Americans, he is probably best known for his “Halloween” slasher films. In the Muslim world, he is probably more widely known for “The Message,” chronicling the life of the Prophet Mohammad and starring Anthony Quinn as the Prophet’s uncle Hamza in the English version. Rather than dub the film in Arabic, though, Akkad actually filmed two separate simultaneous versions, with two complete casts doing the same scenes on the same sets in different languages, Arabic and English. It was both controversial and famous.
At the Radisson SAS, a husband and wife team targeted a Jordanian wedding with hundreds guests, killing the greatest number of people, including the fathers of the bride and groom. Of the would-be suicide bombers, however, the wife’s belt failed to detonate. She was at large for a few tense days. Once apprehended, she found herself in one of those Jordanian prisons to which the CIA extradites alleged terrorists who can’t be tortured on United States soil.
When her confession was broadcast on national television, she looked so small and plain and humble. I felt sorry for her, but also mystified at her possible motivations. I would spend years crafting and re-writing a short story that attempted to find a motive for such a thing.
All of this would come to light over the course of the next week. In the meantime, I was texting madly into the dark of the wee cold hours of that November morning. At first it was Ben and I, then Oren and Naureen. No one had heard from Peace Corps staff, so we speculated on whether we would get the order to “shelter in place”—confined to our villages—or to “consolidate”—gather in fours or fives in the homes of predetermined Volunteers.
Would we be evacuated? It was always a consideration. The J5s and J6s, the cohorts before us, had been evacuated after the assassination of a single United States embassy accountant amidst the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. This felt like a more present danger than that.
Around five-thirty, my phone rang. It came up as an international number, which generally meant my mother, and that was unusual. For one thing, it would have been ten-thirty at night in Maine, past her bedtime. For another, when I’m living abroad, she and I tend to prefer letters and email, speaking about three times a year—Thanksgiving, Christmas and my birthday—and she had actually missed my birthday that summer because it was the day they moved from Pennsylvania to Maine. I answered the call.
“Hi, Rye. Where are you? Are you okay?”
I was glad that Ben had texted and I knew what had happened. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Are you in Faiha’?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “It’s a school night!”
“Did I wake you? I wasn’t going to wait until you were awake, but I finally decided I just needed to pick up the phone and call.”
“No, no, I’ve been up texting with the other Volunteers,” I assured her. “You didn’t wake me, it’s okay, really.”
“I wasn’t going to call at all, actually,” Mom said. “I know that when you’re in your village, you’re perfectly safe. Your neighbors watch out for you and take good care of you. But I know that it’s around the time of the Eid vacation, and I thought you might have been in Amman with your friends for the holiday.”
There are a lot of things I could have been feeling at that moment. To my surprise, what I felt was impressed. The Islamic calendar is a strictly lunar calendar, not a modified lunar calendar like Jews, Christians and the Chinese follow. Twelve phases of the moon gives Islam a calendar approximately eleven days shorter than the standard Gregorian calendar. As a result, Islamic holidays cycle through the seasons over time. Sometimes the Ramadan fast happens in the long, hot days of summer. That year it had fallen across most of September. On that November night, it was about a week before the highest holy day of the Muslim year, Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice of the Prophet Abraham’s eldest son. I was impressed that my mother was paying attention and had such a good sense of the Muslim calendar.
I was also impressed at how calmly she was taking the whole situation. Sure, she had called in the middle of the night—hers and mine—but she didn’t seem panicked. This has been a hallmark of my mother’s reaction to all my adventures and misadventures abroad. When I was unemployed in Amman three years later, she counseled me consistently to stay there, where my job prospects were much better, even amidst large and sometimes violent protests across Jordan against the Israeli Operation Cast Lead, than in the 2008 economic collapse back home. When revolution broke out in the middle of my year in Cairo, my mother called me as soon as cell service was restored. “Don’t worry,” I said, “you can remind everyone that I’m essentially chickenshit.” I could hear her smiling when she said, “I’ve been telling them that you always operate out of an overabundance of caution.”
Around that time, people asked my mother how she wasn’t more worried about me. “Well,” she would say, “which of my children do you think I should worry about most? The one in the middle of the Egyptian Revolution? Or the one who packed all her worldly possessions in a U-Haul trailer and drove it alone across the country to Colorado, where she doesn’t know a soul? Or the one who’s a professional rock climber and climbs trees with a chainsaw for his day job? Or the one who just bought a motorcycle?”
Another time, Mom said to me, somewhere between bewilderment and dismay, “Dad and I tried our best to raise kids who weren’t afraid of a challenge. I think we thought that meant graduate school.” And I did that, too, after Peace Corps.
No doubt, my mother was far less sanguine below the surface. She only trusts my powers of self-preservation so far. Perhaps better than anyone, she knows how much of a pendulum I swing between caution and careless obliviousness. For many years she warned me that I would have to find some way to make a living as a guru on a mountaintop with someone else to cook and clean for me, because I would starve to death otherwise. Everyone in Faiha’ must have known that I didn’t clean and barely cooked more than soup. I love soup, especially now that the weather was getting colder, but to them it was an indicator of my helplessness.
This time, though, that wasn’t going to be a problem. We heard from Peace Corps in the morning, advising that we shelter in place for the time being. As soon as the kids started running back and forth between the neighbors’ houses, I took myself next door to Umm Hashem’s for breakfast. There was always plenty of bread and mezze at breakfast time, and lots of tea. She even had her daughter make me a thick Turkish coffee. “Of course we have school!” she declared, slipping into headmistress Sid Muna mode. “Abu Selsabeel will be here to pick us up soon.”