About a week after dinner at dar Hajji Salem, I was headed north to the city of Irbid for my usual Saturday Internet and shopping trip, and my regular rendezvous with a few other Peace Corps Volunteers. I had caught a ride in a neighbor’s pickup down the hill from town, but he was headed south to Jerash, so I was standing on the northbound side of the highway, waiting for a bus from one of the area villages to pick me up, about a hundred meters up from Imam Salem’s house. Sometimes when I was waiting in this spot, a car would stop instead of a bus, offering a ride, but unless I recognized them, I always waved them on.
That morning, a boxy bright banana yellow minivan pulled over where I was waiting on the side of the road, full of about half a dozen young men in tight t-shirts and excessively gelled hair. Without even making eye contact, I raised my hand to wave them on, until I heard my name, in a perfect York accent.
“Hey, Maryah! It’s Ahmed! Going to Irbid? You need a ride?” Shifting his attention to the guy riding shotgun, he jerked his thumb towards the back and switched to Arabic. “Hey, bro, get in the back.”
“No, no,” I said, also in Arabic, watching the friend jump in the back with the other twenty-something guys. Shebaab is the Arabic word for young single men like them, and when we Peace Corps Volunteers said shebaab, it was not often complimentary. “That’s all right. I’ll wait for a bus. It won’t be long. They come by all the time.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Ahmed, and I’m pretty sure he did, “but it’s not like that. These are my boys. They’ll be respectful. Just pretend they’re English blokes. Come on.” He reached across the console and bucket seat to push open the front passenger door. “Just get in.”
So I did. After all, I knew practically his entire extended family. Not only did they have a stellar reputation in two villages, but they thought very highly of me.
The boys were raucous chain smokers with a lifetime of shared inside jokes, clearly excited to have Ahmed home again. They made polite conversation about who I was, how I knew Ahmed, and what I was doing in Jordan. Then they lost interest. While they carried on in Arabic in the back, Ahmed and I chatted in English in the front.
Ahmed was equally comfortable in both languages, and confessed to being very glad of the opportunity to keep up his English in the Jordanian countryside. As we both knew, no matter how well you learn a foreign language, if you don’t keep using it, you quickly lose it. Even your mother tongue can get rusty with disuse. When my parents visited me after I had lived a year in Switzerland, I infamously announced that we were “going to the Bahnhof — you know, where the trains are,” because I couldn’t recall the English for “train station.”
Ahmed and I made small talk on the way into town about the challenges of travelling between Jordan and the West. His reverse culture shock returning home had a lot in common with my culture shock as an Anglo in Jordan. For one thing, he missed his social life in York, and the anonymity of it. In Irbid, he had cousins everywhere and they gossiped unapologetically, male and female alike. There were no secrets in Jordan, and no word for “privacy” in Arabic.
As we came to the edge of Irbid, Ahmed asked where I was going. He did not, however, invite me along with the shebaab, and I was grateful I didn’t have to find a graceful way out. He did drop me off deeper into town than the bus went, midway between McDonalds and the Internet cafes on University Street, two of my most common Irbid destinations.
* * *
There was a pattern to my Saturdays in Irbid that had become established very early in my Faiha’ life. In those days, there was no Internet in Jordanian Peace Corps villages. Now it seems to have become rather common, particularly for female Volunteers, for villages to provide Internet so the girls didn’t have to sit in Internet cafes with the shebaab.
When I arrived in 2004, I had plenty of options in Irbid. University Street had achieved a certain fame in the Guiness Book of World Records for the most Internet cafes in a single mile of road. We had quickly settled on one at University Circle that seemed less sketchy than others, and less popular with gamers, who could hold up a computer station all day. Of course, we were no better, spending about four hours each Saturday morning catching up on a week’s worth of email and news.
Once we had our fill of the Internet, we would go get lunch together somewhere. In the first few months, it was just three of us who met up in Irbid: Naureen and Ibrahim, both Muslim and he a native speaker of Palestinian Arabic, and me. We preferred a little shawerma place next to the Internet café, where the three of us could eat together in the family section upstairs, so long as Ibrahim was discreet. The flavorful chicken shawerma there was wrapped tightly in thin, stretchy shrak bread, and we discovered the unexpected pleasure of the potato sandwich: soft, salty, thick cut French fries in a white bread roll with lots of ketchup. Ibrahim was right when he said after his first bite, “It’s a lot better than you might think!”
After a few months, though, we were joined in the Irbid area by a number of new Peace Corps Volunteers in special education and youth development. There were few places we could respectably meet in such a large co-ed group, and Pizza Hut and the Al-Joude hotel restaurant had slow service. We usually ended up at McDonalds, across the street from Yarmouk University. Some weeks in Faiha’ I ate so much chicken and lentils that I could hardly wait for a beef patty, even if it was from McDonalds.
After lunch, we all went by Safeway for some grocery shopping. The prices were higher, but we didn’t have to bargain and wonder if we were paying too much, and we could buy American comfort foods, like the boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese that helped me through the bad days.
* * *
Then it was back to the bus station, to catch the afternoon bus back to Faiha’. It usually left around four o’clock, but sometimes the bus was full before then, or the driver Abu Firas was over-eager to get home, so I tried to be there not long after three. I liked sitting in the safety of the bus for some people-watching in the hustle of the bus station.
People came through there from all over: families with small children visiting relatives in another village, fathers doing the grocery shopping, fashionable girls with good jobs as pharmacists and nurses,
And there were lots of shebaab. That was why I liked doing my people-watching inside the bus. If the shebaab or anyone else decided to disrespect me, they would get an earful from the bus drivers, both Abu Firas and the drivers from neighboring villages who knew who I was.
From time to time, someone would get on the bus or lean in through the front door, jerk their chin in my direction, and say, “Who’s the ajnabiyah? What’s a foreign girl doing on the bus to Faiha’? There’s nothing to see up there, nothing but peasants.”
“That’s no ajnabiyah!” Abu Firas would admonish them. “That’s Maryah Beni Hassan, our daughter.” The drivers of the Faiha’ buses to Jerash always said exactly the same thing. For them, as for Umm Hashem, I wasn’t just a guest in their village, teacher to their daughters. I was family, and they protected me as they protected their own daughters.
Sometimes, though, I was running late or the bus left even earlier than usual, and by the time I got back to the station, Abu Firas was gone.
* * *
Not long after Ahmed and his boys brought me into Irbid, I missed the bus to Faiha’. I could see through the chain link bus station fence that the bus was gone, so I bought a couple thick, round pieces of bread the size of a dinner plate from my favorite baker across the street from the bus station. That bought me some time, too, to consider my options.
There were a couple options. I could head back up north of Irbid to Naureen’s house for the night and catch the first bus in the morning with some other teachers at my school. That meant leaving Naureen’s at five in the morning, though. Other times I took a bus from one of five or six villages closer to Jerash, whose drivers were all friends of Abu Firas and knew me. They would drop me on the highway below my village, about where Ahmed had picked me up, and I would hope to catch a bus or hitch a ride up the hill to Faiha’.
I hesitated on the sidewalk, deciding what I was going to do. The Tetrapak of irradiated milk in my bag wouldn’t spoil, but the butter and vegetables wouldn’t keep well if I slept at Naureen’s. On the other hand, when I thought about hitchhiking up the hill to Faiha’, just the thought was exhausting.
As sometimes happened, I heard my name called from the street. I was known by sight or reputation in at least half a dozen villages between Irbid and Jerash, where family of my teachers and neighbors lived. Sometimes when I had missed a bus, or when I just didn’t feel like waiting, I accepted rides from someone who knew my name, confident that my adopted Beni Hassan tribal connections would keep me safe. Then again, I would have to make small talk in Arabic the whole way home. That, too, seemed exhausting.
Nevertheless, I turned around. There was that unmistakable bright yellow minivan, with Ahmed at the wheel. “Hey, Maryah! How are you?” This time he was without his friends.
“I’m good, but I’ve just missed the bus.”
“That’s okay. I’ll give you a ride.”
I liked Ahmed, and trusted him, but there were more reasons than Ahmed himself for me to hesitate about getting a ride home alone with a single young man. “It’s okay, there are a couple other buses I can take … Gafgafa, Kufr Khal. It’s early, I can still catch the Jerash bus up to Faiha’. I don’t want to take you out of your way. It’s no big deal,” I lied.
“I’m actually going to visit Umm Eslam in Faiha’. It’s not out of my way at all to take you home. Really, I’m happy to do it.”
The truth was, I liked Ahmed’s company. I felt safe and comfortable around him. We had a lot in common, and conversation came naturally. So I jumped in the yellow van with my backpack full of Safeway groceries and the promise of half an hour when I could be more or less myself, let my guard down. I knew about Ahmed’s atheism, of course, and he must have suspected that I wasn’t the Christian I let everyone believe I was. No doubt, there were other things he wasn’t telling his family about his three years in England. He could surely guess that I was keeping similar things from my neighbors: drinking, significant others, a generally impious lifestyle. With these assumptions about each other, we had an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” arrangement.
Whatever we talked about, it wasn’t memorable. The best part was that he knew the questions an Anglo girl wouldn’t want to answer, and those weren’t questions he was interested in, anyway. Ahmed was interested in light, unencumbered conversation. He wanted company, and he was good company in return.
The closer we got to Faiha’, though, the more uneasy I got. It had nothing to do with Ahmed himself. He was just an English bloke, a perfect gentleman. He was an attractive man, but if he felt the same about me, he gave no indication. It wasn’t Ahmed but the gossips who worried me. If Ahmed was seen too often with me, if they suspected anything was going on between us that shouldn’t be, it would be all over the village by the end of the day.
I got a lot of leeway as the American girl. High school and college boys could spend an hour or two alone in my home with me for English help, and no one thought twice. I also knew that they watched me through my windows. Riding around in cars with boys was an entirely different matter. A lot could happen in Ahmed’s van, entirely unseen, that the good Muslim fathers of my students wouldn’t approve of. If they only suspected impropriety, that would seriously compromise the trust they put in me to teach and tutor their daughters.
In the middle of the village, there was a quarter mile stretch of the main road with no houses along it where a side road cut across to Umm Eslam’s edge of the village, so I asked Ahmed to drop me. “I’ll walk from here, it’s not very far, and you can head across town to Umm Eslam’s.”
“It’s okay, we’re barely a minute from your house. I don’t mind.”
I took a deep breath and flattened my palms on my thighs. “Listen, Ahmed, I appreciate it. I like your company, and I appreciate the rides, I really do. But if my neighbors see us alone in your van, they’re going to get the wrong idea.”
He shook his head. “It’s not a big deal. It’s just a ride. I drove you home from my father’s the other day, no problem.”
“Sure, but Eslam and her mother were in the car.” I sighed. “Listen, you’ve been abroad for a while, and maybe you don’t quite remember what it’s like, but my neighbors watch me. They see everything, and I have to be more Arab than the Arabs to be trusted to do my job. You’ve got to let me out here.”
Ahmed pulled the van over. “At least let me give you my phone number. If you ever need a ride, give me a call. If I’m around, I’m happy to do it.” I put his number in my phone, but I never called him. I never saw him again. It was just a complication I didn’t want to take on.
* * *
Other Peace Corps Volunteers did. Friends of mine dated our Arabic teachers, a landlord, a neighbor’s son, a hotel receptionist. Some of those relationships have led to marriages and beautiful children, and most of those marriages seem headed for happily ever after.
I didn’t have the courage, and I was already running short on trust. Despite the sanctuary of the bus, those Saturdays in the Irbid station were a gauntlet. In college, I had read feminist literary theory about The Look, that objectifying gaze men use on women to put them in their place, reduce them to their component body parts, make them into commodities. I had thought then that it was hyperbole, feminism gone overboard. I had never really felt it in America or Europe; it was probably there, but I had been oblivious to it. At the Irbid bus station, though, I felt the full force of The Look, and the catcalls, too.
One day, touring my favorite Greek ruins at Umm Qais, some of the Peace Corps guys tried to teach me what the things meant that the shebaab were saying as we walked past. “You should know what they’re saying about you,” Wes insisted, as we climbed a mound of toppled granite blocks near the North Theater, “so you can defend your honor.” The male Volunteers were taught in Training that insults had to be addressed, in order to maintain your respect in the community.
As girls, we had been taught in Training that we had to ignore everything, told that making a scene would do more damage than good to our reputations and our ability to complete our projects in the villages. Believing that was probably true, I told Wes, “It’s easier to ignore what the shebaab say if I can pretend they’re saying, ‘What very nice pants!’” And I meticulously forgot all the dirty words the guys tried to teach me that day. (Well, except for one particularly nice phrase: “Kiss my ass!” I liked to mutter it under my breath when the shebaab really pissed me off.)
For half a dozen years, I swore I would never date an Arab man. When I finally made an exception to that rule, it was for a man not that different from Ahmed. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I had not ended my friendship with Ahmed so quickly.
It had occurred to me even then, still living in Faiha’, that Ahmed met the five minimum requirements I had developed to protect myself from proposals. His studies in England, his degree, his perfect York accent. I did not know his views on polygamy, but it was no real stretch to guess that his years in the West might have left him with views more like mine than his father’s. After getting to know Ahmed, every time someone told me that I would never find anyone who would agree to give my children their pick of world religions, I thought of him. His atheism, such a joke to his sisters, suggested to me that he did not share the belief commonly held by many of his countrymen that all children follow their father’s religion. Every time after meeting him when I said, “I’ve known men who met all five requirements,” I was thinking of Ahmed.
When I look back on my past relationships and wonder how my life might have turned out if I had done things differently, I often think of Ahmed. It would have been another secret to keep from my neighbors, more lies and half-truths to balance. I don’t know if I could have done it. The dishonesties I was already wielding weighed heavily enough on me.
But the question remains. What if I had called Ahmed?