I was dutifully typing away at my computer when all of a sudden, the door burst open and everyone yelled, “Surprise!” Then Yasmine walked in with a luscious-looking cake that was gushing strawberries. I was speechless, which was really bad timing because as I stood up, everyone started chanting, “Speech, speech, speech!” What to say? I had no idea. Fortunately, after I stammered out a few words in Arabic, everyone turned to my boss. He liked the idea of giving a speech even less than I did, but he thanked me for my time at INJAZ, and presented me with a small gift. As I gave my final hugs and exchanged emails with everyone in the office, I felt so sad to be leaving. My time working at INJAZ has been truly amazing. I’ve worked on all types of assignments from the mundane (putting together a huge Excel document of information about INJAZ’ financial partners) and the challenging (designing a plan/budget for INJAZ to run a USAID program and filling out the entire program application) to the crazy (putting together the invitation for Oprah to come speak at an INJAZ event) and the inspirational (writing narrative versions of student success stories). I’ve really liked working in the office, and now I’m sure I want to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector. And maybe, someday I’ll work in Jordan again.
As I pinned Melissa’s arm to the table, the chorus chimed in: “Melissa is weaker than Stacy. Stacy is stronger than Melissa.” I flexed my arm muscles in victory while Melissa fake-grimaced in pain. We were teaching an English class, and Melissa’s lesson plan was about opposites and comparisons. To demonstrate, she had thought of an impromptu arm wrestling match between the two of us.
Technically, I was the English assistant in the class. With only two weeks left in our program, the CEO of the building where we take Arabic classes had asked two students to teach an English class every day after our classes finish. I didn’t feel qualified, but when one student took a day off, I volunteered to fill in as an assistant. There are always opportunities to teach English around the world, and I thought I’d find out if I liked it.
My conclusion: teaching English is not really for me. It feels too much like performing, and I have never felt so tired in my life as after that one class! But, I have to admit–it’s really fun to meet all the students and see the ones that are clearly excited about learning. This group, made up of mostly 10- and 12-year old boys, was particularly passionate. They loved answering questions and being in front of the class. (As a result, I taught them Simon Says and let them take turns being Simon.) When we started asking them questions, they wanted to talk about soccer, television, Justin Bieber and for one particularly daring student, his secret crush. I doubt that I’ll ever teach English in the future, but after that day, I understand why some people really love it!
On our last free weekend in Jordan, we decided to go on a hike in one of Jordan’s famous wadis, or valleys. My roommate had recommended Wadi Hasa, a valley that has a natural stream in the middle. As a guide book described it, “It’s like Petra, but with water.” We booked a guide, and after three days of logistics snafus (welcome to Jordan), we finally had a spot on a bus. The hike lasted eight hours, and it turned out to be amazing. We got to climb down miniature waterfalls, jump off huge rocks into clear pools, slide down a natural water slide and, at the end, we found hot springs next to a cold pool. We made tea while sitting in the water and just enjoyed it for a hour. On our way back up to the bus, we were ambushed by a herd of goats that had stopped by the stream for a drink.
By the time we paid for dinner at our restaurant, it was dark and everyone and their mother wanted to find a taxi. After five minutes, we finally flagged one down, and hopped in. Al-mustashfa al-ordon, we directed. Jordan hospital. He thought for a minute and we repeated, al-mustashfa al-ordon. How could he not know where it was? Every taxi driver in Amman knew the hospital. Finally, he seemed to have a lightbulb moment and started driving. But we noticed that the meter was already at .95 JD, about four times as it should have been. Al-adad, lowsamat, we said and pointed at the ticking meter. The meter, if you please. Al-adad? He asked, as if he’d never heard of a meter. Nam! Al-adad! we repeated emphatically. Al-adad hamsa wa ashreen fee kul taxi kul eeoom, we pressed. The meter is .25 JD in every taxi every day. He played dumb. La, la. Al-adad kwayis. No, no. The meter is fine. That was all we needed to know about this taxi driver. Hone, lowsamat. Ma bidna hada taxi. Here, please. We don’t want this taxi. He pulled over right away and we got out. But as we clambered out the door, he pointed to the meter and said hamsa wa tisaeen. 0.95JD. We fumed. La. No way were we paying that. He insisted that we had to. Safely on the street, one of my friends yelled ma salaama loos! and we walked back down the road to the restaurant. Goodbye thief, indeed.
We caught taxi number two slightly before reaching the restaurant. He looked slightly more promising, but when we got in and looked to check the meter, we couldn’t find it. Sometimes, drivers place the meter on the floorboard next to the passenger side, so we asked, wain al-adad? Where’s the meter? Ma fee. Mus mushkila. There isn’t one. It’s not a problem, he replied. We weren’t about to get ripped off so we repeated, ma bidna hada taxi. Bidna taxi beeadad. We don’t want this taxi. We want a taxi with a meter. He was less grouchy about letting us go than the previous driver, and we started our hike back to the restaurant for the second time.
The third taxi driver seemed nice enough. When we settled into the back seat and saw the flashing red display, I sighed in relief. Adad heloo iktheer. What a beautiful meter! Our drive back was fast, and we were charged the correct amount. For us, the third time really was the charm.
As part of my seminar class on Jordanian history and culture, I’m writing a short research paper on the hijab–or head covering that Muslim women wear–in Jordan. There are hardly any scholarly articles written about the hijab in the present-day Arab world, and even fewer that focus on Jordan, so I decided to supplement my research with personal interviews. Below is a partial transcript of two of my interviews with muhajabes, or women wear the hijab. Both are recent graduates of the University of Jordan and both wear the hijab. For privacy’s sake, I’ve changed their names.
If you had to define “hijab” for someone, what would you say?
Rabab: For me, hijab is about modesty. It’s not about you have to wear it. It makes you more modest. In all religions, people wear hijab. There’s a verse in the Bible and also the Jewish book. I forget what it’s called. But nuns cover their hair. [Hijab] is how you dress also. I can’t be wearing a hijab with tight, tight jeans and a tight, tight shirt.
Amira: Do you know the meaning of “fard?” In Arabic, it means “obligation.” The first thing that comes to my mind [when I think about hijab] is obligation. It’s difficult to explain. A woman who is not Muslim and converts is not going to understand hijab at first. That’s not what will attract her to the religion. But after entering Islam, she will finally recognize the idea of hijab. I have a hard time defining hijab for a non-Muslim. In general, I believe it’s an obligation [to] God, not just as a protection from men. [A woman who wears hijab] is helping society to be more conservative. I think woman’s duty is that she is given the job of protecting society. It’s not like, “Poor her.” It’s a bigger meaning. The body of the women is more attractive than the body if the man, so it makes sense. Hijab says arms and face showing, cover the whole body. It can’t be tight. Hijab is the idea of not being tight, not being. It’s about not bringing attention to you.
I’ve noticed a lot of young women who cover their hair but wear very tight jeans and tight shirts. What do you think about this type of hijab?
Rabab: They wear it just because they have to, or they want attention. It’s like, ‘I’m cool, I’m wearing tight stuff.’ If you wear hijab, you should like it and then wear it. Religion is between you and God. I don’t need to cover my hair. In my opinion, if I’m wearing hijab with tight, tight clothes, I’m not respecting it. No, this is not hijab.
Amira: That’s not good in Islam. That’s showing off. You’re wearing a scarf for modesty. Just the black one. If you have this big huge bump, everyone’s talking about you and admiring you. If this is what you want, you are not honoring hijab. Fashion is a big deal every single day. I want to scream at them, ‘for God’s sake take off the hijab.’
Would people think it was weird if a Muslim girl didn’t cover her hair?
Rabab: People wouldn’t think it was weird if a Muslim girl didn’t cover her hair. As I said, it’s between me and God. I can’t say: ‘That girl’s bad because of wearing hjiab or that one’s good because of wearing hijab.’
Amira: It is mandatory in Islam for a woman to have hijab. Some people wear it because it’s obligatory, some people wear it because they want to. I take the opinion that if you can wear it, it’s better. And what does better mean, it mans you get extra “points” [with God].
When did you first start wearing the hijab?
Rabab: Well you know that girls start wearing the hijab when they get their period. I started wearing it when I was a senior. I decided with my friend one day. We went shopping and then decided to wear it together. But then I forgot and she wore it and I didn’t. I was so sorry! Then, I was going toSyriafor the weekend, so I said, ‘I will wait until I get back and then start wearing hijab.’ She said I was cheating! (laughs) When I first started wearing it, I wore it but still sometimes I forgot. One day, I forgot and I was wearing hijab [the headscarf] with short sleeves. I thought, ‘Oh no! I should go back and change!’
Amira: In eighth grade. It’s hard to wear at first! I used to play taekwondo. My biggest fear was that all the girls would be judging me [when I started wearing hijab]. The first week everyone is telling you all their opinions. I was really proud of [the hijab]. I’m not really ashamed as you think I am.
What does wearing the hijab mean to you personally?
Rasha: It’s something special. You feel special. No one sees it.
Amira: Just the fact that I’m applying something that people think is hard makes me proud. I’m carrying the whole religion on me all the time. Outside, you might face some situation, face some people, be at some places that are dangerous other than your peaceful home, you’re still applying Islam. You’re carrying your message on your head. For me as a women, I have all kinds of friends who wear the hijab, don’t wear the hijab, wear a half hijab. [Wearing hijab] doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. It means she has something special. I think a woman should use the hijab to say that I am a happy woman.
What do you think about girls who show their legs in the street?
Rabab: It’s a personal freedom. Unless you’re hurting people, you’re free. For example, if I see half-naked girl in the street, is she hurting me? No. So she’s free to do whatever she wants.
Do you know anything about the history of the hijab?
Amira: The hijab in the past was a cover. It’s not only Islamic in this area. Also the Christians and the Jewish had an idea of covering their hair. Islam just came to make sure that people know the hijab with more rules. It’s not a piece of cloth you put on your head anymore. In Islam, there is a question about the feet. How do we decide [whether to cover them or not]. Sheiks gather and come up with this hadith. At the meeting, two groups might have a different opinion. If each have support from the Koran, then you’ll apply one of them and God will know you tried your best. For me, I think [toenails] are attractive to males so I don’t show them.
Queen Rania doesn’t wear the hijab. What do you think about that?
Amira: It’s very sensitive. When she speaks, she speaks to the whole country. Oprah asked her why she doesn’t cover. Rania just said one thing. She said it was a personal choice. Personal choice means the country doesn’t force you to. People will say there’s no verse [in the Koran] that says that you have cover your hair.
We could feel the electricity in the air as the small boy stood on the edge of the pool with the ball in his hands. When he squatted down and threw it as high as his little arms could manage, there was a chaotic outburst of cheers and splashes as we all jumped and jostled to catch it. Chelsea was victorious this time and emerged from the broiling bunch of arms and legs with a wide smile on her face and the small round ball grasped tightly in one hand. She threw it back to the boy and the game started again. We’d been at the Dead Sea five hours, and after lathering ourselves with mud and salt and baking in the hot sun, we had decided to return to the resort pool to relax for a bit. After finding a small ball in the water, a group of five of us started playing various keep-away games until a small Jordanian boy kidnapped our ball. It turned out to be a good thing he did. We had been playing a competitive game where one person throws the ball high in the air and the rest of the group competes to grab it. After a player has caught the ball two times, he or she becomes the new “thrower” and everyone else tries to catch it. The boy had caught on and all he wanted to do was to throw the ball for us. So he did. Again and again and again. Apparently, he didn’t get the concept of trading off, but we decided it worked better that way. Pretty soon, the whole pool was watching us (either because the girls were wearing bikinis or because they were interested.) A boy named Mohammed came over and introduced himself and asked if he could play. Of course, we said. Five minutes later, half of the pool had joined in. Several other girls tried to play, but by that point, the game had gotten quite rough and the only people who could keep up were those with natural aggression or previous sports training. Unfortunately, we all had to go home too soon, but it was a fun day to relax and have fun with people regardless of what language they spoke.
Two weekends ago, we took an excursion to visit the SOS Children’s Village, a large orphanage in Amman. The orphanage houses 345 children, who range from infants to 18-year-olds. Islam entreats society to care for orphans, but adoption is slightly different than in the United States. Family, specifically family roots, are very important in the Middle East, and as such, orphans may not take their adopted parents name. For this reason, adoption usually does not work the way it does in the United States; the adopted child is raised more as a foster child than as a de facto son or daughter. At the orphanage, children live in family units of 4-8 “siblings” with one “mother,” a woman who is employed for a minimum of 10 years. House mothers undergo two years of training and must remain unmarried while they work at the orphanage, primarily to avoid risk of sexual abuse. Our mission for the afternoon—interact with the children for one and a half hours. We decided to break into three groups—games, music and art. I signed up for games and brainstormed how to teach with the basic Arabic we knew. Duck, duck, goose became bata, bata, jamal (duck, duck, camel) and we finally decided that we’d just demonstrate how to play tag. It turned out that we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
To begin with, our group was only boys, and when we arrived, they were intensely engaged in a cutthroat game of soccer. After a foul, one boy pushed another and yelled something about his mother. I didn’t understand the exact meaning, but I suppose that as an orphan, that’s about as insulting as it gets. One volunteer told us that these were the most competitive boys in the orphanage and we got the picture that these boys were not going to be the least bit interested in playground games. What could we do? We joined in the soccer game. And what a game it was! They fought often, but broke it up themselves before we needed to intervene. They ran circles around us and laughed, and they bounced right up after falling on the hard concrete. Eventually the game dissolved, not because of lack of interest, but because of severely unequal teams. The goalie on my side was one of the boys’ favorite volunteers and she had been quietly recruiting boys to join our team until it was 12 boys against 8. The other team had no chance of getting a point. We rounded up the remaining boys and took them to the music group where we found a cacophony of drum-banging, recorders-whistling and general squabbling. Apparently, controlled music making was not the order of the day. The addition of the soccer boys made it worse since they were bigger than the other children and tried to fight to get the instruments. Eventually though, we got them into a circle and got them to sing. As a closing song, we taught them the hokey pokey. They’d all recently learned body parts in their English class and they loved putting their right arm in, taking their right arm out, putting their right arm back in and shaking it all about. We danced around until our bus arrived and then we waved ma salaama and left the children’s orphanage.