AFTER GRADUATING from the Art Institute of Boston in May 2002 with a bachelorís degree in fine arts and photography, I avoided all the "So what are you going to do now?" questions by joining the Peace Corps. My assignment was to be a special-education teacher in Jordan. I arrived there in mid July knowing next to nothing of the language, culture, and history of the country. I was totally unprepared for the desert heat; my feet sank into my flip-flops as if they were made of clay. In deference to Muslim sensibilities, I wore long-sleeve shirts that I quickly sweated through and which stuck to my skin. Despite the training I received upon arrival (which involved living with a Jordanian family), I still felt that I had merely touched the surface of what I needed to know. I feared that I would be hated for being an American, and looked down upon for not wearing a jelbab (long, form-hiding dress) and hjab (head cover). On top of it all, I was nervous about being the only special-education volunteer in this yearís Peace Corps program, which meant there were no other volunteers in my field with whom I could share and process difficult experiences. As it turned out, my planned two-year stay was cut short by security concerns. Just three and a half months after my arrival, Lawrence Foley, a diplomat from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Jordan, was assassinated. One month later, the Peace Corps ended our programs.
What follows are portions of journal entries ó which, as e-mails, I sent home to friends and family ó from the time I arrived in Jordan until my rushed return to the United States.
Sunday, July 28, 2002
In Al Hiyad, where my homestay family lives, I wait for the bus to Madaba, where my language and culture classes take place. Curious neighbors listen for the crunching gravel of someone walking by, run out to greet me, and test my Arabic skills. I know I am being watched by the trucks full of shebab (young men) rolling by ó their lustful wide eyes fascinated by my light skin and uncovered hair. Eyes on the ground and pushing rocks around, I am also conscious of the staring group of older men hanging out at the nearby doucan (shop). Finally, the bus arrives, and I get on, relieved. But a man chooses to sit next to me, something he would not do with a Jordanian woman. In fact, he would probably be kicked off the bus for doing so. I squeeze against the window and put my feet on the wheel well in order to avoid touching him. But he spreads his legs and arms wider to test me. Trying to start a conversation, he brushes his arm against mine and continues staring at the American girl who wonít answer his questions. Without looking around, I already know that I am the only bareheaded woman on this bus, and it makes me wonder if itís not such a bad idea to throw a scarf on in public. Through just this simple contact with a man (something completely normal in the States), I can understand why some women decide to cover for reasons beyond Islam. I try to concentrate on the gypsy tents in the fields we pass. Are they traditional Bedouin tents, or do they belong to Palestinian refugees? The afternoon call to prayer resonates through the bus windows as I quietly tell the man next to me to give me some space.
Friday, August 23, 2002
A distant cousin of my homestay family drives a taxi. Every Friday for the past three weeks, he has driven by my home to convince another volunteer and me to take a trip to the Dead Sea with him. Finally, we consent, as long as the entire family of five comes with us. So the eight of us squeeze into his self-owned taxi, and we head off. The family assumes I like Céline Dion (which I donít and donít have the heart to tell them). So we are listening to the tape for the third time. Though our destination is only 30 kilometers away from home, the drive takes two hours, thanks to a winding route through the canyon and eight stops (not all of them necessary) for picnic supplies. In deference to my Muslim family, Iíve covered my wrists and ankles. And this is how I jump into the surprisingly thick and oily water: nearly fully covered. My body is aching from the high percentage of salt in the water, which seems to dry out my skin even as I soak in it. But I convince myself that anything is a relief from the scorching Jordanian sun. I drift out to the middle of the Dead Sea, literally, much farther than the local swimmers. A family member bobs over to lure me in. I can easily see the shore on the other side, and am too close to Israel for their comfort. In the distance, I see my entire Jordanian family rubbing thick gray clay all over their bodies, and decide it is time to come in when the nine-year-old son begins to wash off his clay-covered face with the salty water.
After the Dead Sea, we go on a search for maya hilu (fresh water) and find a serene, secluded spot where water flows over a concrete bridge, making natural slides onto soft green moss. The mother, who has refused even to lift her jelbab and take a dip in the Dead Sea, begins sliding repeatedly down the freshwater chute, miraculously keeping her jelbab and hjab intact. The sun begins to set, and we make a roadside stop for sugary, boiling shai (tea) in thin plastic cups. After the cousin hastily jumps out of the car and picks a bundle of fragrant pink flowers for me, the car nearly drives, unattended, into the Dead Sea. He catches the car, we recuperate, and set up a beautiful picnic dinner on a cliff side: whole cucumbers, pita bread, yogurt, and Coca-Cola. The day ends with the car door propped open and Arabic pop music playing on the radio.
Saturday, October 19, 2002
As part of my training, I visit special-education centers in Jordan. One consists of two rooms filled with men over 40, all with evidence of physical and emotional abuse. Their heads are scarred from falls, beatings, and razor slashes. They leave their assigned beds or chairs only to eat and return to their mind-numbing television, cigarettes, and medication. Another government center, where I complete my two-week training practicum, drugs the physically and mentally disabled children before untrained staff tie them into wooden towers for behavioral problems (namely, trying to explore, get into things, and be a kid). Six-year-old Muhammad cries with his hands roped under his "activity tray." All it takes is for someone to smile and touch his hands to dry his tears. Every chance I get, I untie him and watch him try to move around the room, forcing his atrophied leg muscles to work again. If I leave him alone, Iíll come back to find him tied up again, facing a wall and crying ó which of course sends me home crying.
My permanent center is somehow better than this, because Peace Corps tries to make sure that assignments are bearable for two years. It has 110 adults (men and women with developmental disabilities) who eat, sleep, stare, fight, cry, and watch television ... while the staff sits, sleeps, stares, drinks shai, and smokes cigarettes. There is physical abuse here too, but only when I am not around, because the staff knows I donít approve of it. Unfortunately, that doesnít mean I donít see the bruises and hear the complaints from students. The only stimulation they get is from the art projects we are working on. Hussaam runs up to me clapping his hands quickly, renames me, and yells "Aniisa, Aniisa! Sabah alíkhair, Aniisa!" (Aniisa, Aniisa! Good morning, Aniisa!) Students come up to the art room all day, each one always with something to ask of me. One wants to look at my ring. Another wants a magazine. Another wants to draw. And another wants to know when he can visit my house. They all tell me that they are fasting for Ramadan.