Friday, November 21, 2008


Ahlan wa sahalan. I live in a nation of welcomes; every time I walk into my local grocery store, through the university gates, into the kitchen at work, I hear this phrase, ahlan wa sahlan. Welcome. My chocolate man who lives around the corner, and whose establishment I frequent with unseemly dedication, never fails to procure a welcome as I step into his store. The Creepy Arab Man, who must have millions of brothers throughout the Middle East, often accosts me on the street, “Welcome in Jordan! How are you?” Quite lovely, thank you, as I brush past him silently on my path to school. It is impossible to feel unwelcome in Jordan.

My giraffe carpet even smiles at me, dancing blithely under my feet. If a psychedelically-colored giraffe could talk, it, too, would say, in a deep, ponderous, voice, “Dude, ahlan.” Perhaps it’s best that my carpet giraffes remain silent. Long-necked, garishly spotted animals aside, I live in world so full of hospitality, one must wonder if there is room for something different. Because I know I am not always welcome. I know my neighbors think my lifestyle is haram, forbidden. I see it in their eyes as they watch me climb to the top floor, and I hear it on their lips as they caution me to be careful about visitors. “They will talk about you,” the Palestinian Christian woman below warned us, after she saw Kathy with Fadii, after she saw the almost constant stream of visitors flowing in and out of the apartment.

I decided it was unnecessary to inform her that they have been talking about us since the day we moved in. And that I, at least, returned to the Middle East fully equipped to absorb such unspoken accusations. Kathy wishes everyone would like her, and doesn’t always understand when I tell her religion and cultural values overpower even the most charismatic personality. Sometimes love truly does blind a person, at least to their own reality. But just as often as the false smiles precedes a mendacious ahlan, so too does a genuine smile accompany a warm welcome.

At church last Thursday, I sang hymns of halleluiah in Arabic, listened to a sermon (in Arabic, of course) on grace, and offered to prayer to God…in Arabic. After the service ended, I met some of the members of the congregation who were some of the kindest people I have yet to meet. Their church is a simple affair-smooth white stone, grey tile, a single window pane of stained glass, uncomfortable wooden benches- but the community they built around it is richer than the most sumptuous cathedral of Rome. Perhaps it was merely refreshing to see a whole herd of unveiled women, but I returned home that night more content than I have been in a while. After grabbing a reward of potato wedges from the local Snack House (which lived up to the anticipation, btw), I settled into my desolate apartment to enjoy a movie and fall asleep. Although before I snuggled into bed, I switched on lights in the kitchen, firmly closed my door, and curled up next to the luridly orange heater. Seriously, this place can get creepy at night.

The absence of roommates does have a few advantages-the next morning, I was able to take a deliciously long shower, shave two appendages that desperately needed it (ewww, I know you really didn’t want to know that) and enjoy lavish indolence for most of the day. Perhaps here is a good point to mention the debaucherous moments of the past few weeks. Kathy, dear Kathy, came to me one evening with a request. “Ummm, Laura,” she asked quite timidly in opposition to her forceful personality. I cocked my head, quizzical. “Do you ummm, have you…I need to buy condoms, but I’m too scared !!!” A few minutes later, we walked out of the house together, giggling rather uncontrollably, and marched into the local pharmacy, where I strode up the counter, asked the two potentially Creepy Arab Men behind the counter, “Do you have condoms?” without a trace of reticence. Kathy later described it as ‘totally awesome’. I’ll confess, I was far more amused than was decorous, I suppose. But I’ll be damned if I let the Arab world shame me for buying an innocent sheath of latex. We proceeded to also visit the fruit and veggie man in the circle, veritably skipping home with cucumbers, apples, chocolate, Diet Coke, and condoms swinging happily along. What a perfect evening…

Sometimes I spend so much time hurrying past life that I fail to pause and absorb it. There is much that is beautiful, both hidden and salient, in Amman that I oft forget to appreciate. At night, my own traffic circle spotlights a pool of jetting fountains that merrily froth water, oblivious to the congestion swirling around it. Couples sometimes sit on its edge, equally ignorant of life rushing around them, as they gaze chastely into each others’ eyes, or, perhaps, even daring to hold hands. Then there are the hills of East Amman, floating into view (6 days a week!), as my taxi crests a certain rise on Istiqlaal Street. Building after white stone building climbs up the hills, like a crescendo of sound peaking at the summit, the outline of tilted apartments and poorly-constructed offices somehow blending harmoniously into the blue vault of sky behind. And then, of course, there are my children, tumbles of them, boys and girls, veiled and unveiled, teenage and still in the innocent bloom of childhood. As every teacher has known, they are both a source of joy and ceaseless frustration.

One of the older girls, 15, Sahuur, is both strikingly beautiful and endlessly eager to learn English; after class she will come to me or Jess and talk until we are evicted from the office. We were perusing an atlas of the world yesterday, chatting about the globe’s numerous nations, and every once in a while Jess or I would exclaim about a country we visited, and she was amazed. She leaned over to Jess, smiled with sparkling wonder, and breathed softly, “You are so fortunate!” And, indeed, we are, to be able to look at a map of the world and point out our many travel destinations.

Although travel has been temporarily postponed for me, due to job, sickness, and lack of funds J This weekend, all three factors be damned, though, I’m going to Syria. On Thanksgiving, no less. My Thanksgiving feast may consist of a few slices of dried turkey from the duty-free while I wait at border control for 8 hours for my visa to be processed.

So, I’ve been sick. I suppose it had to happen sometime-but I woke up last Saturday with a sniffly nose. On Monday the sore throat started, and on Tuesday I gave up on school and slept all day. The fact that I was engaged in Brisingr, an 800 page novel, didn’t contribute to a desire to attend classes, either. Most nights I spend in the embrace of an adorable male who holds me all night long... Well, sort of. You see, the blanket I selected (after much deliberation) bears the effigy of Pooh, somewhat appropriate, since both blanket and bear are warm, soft, and cuddly. And nights in Amman can be rather long without someone to keep you warm.

On Tuesday I ate at a wonderful restaurant downtown, Jafra, quintessentially Arab, accessed through a shadowy alleyway, a creaking set of wooden stairs, and a dark hallway. But once you’ve arrived, the ambiance pervades and you settle back to enjoy the experience-Bedouin rugs, painting, and other handicrafts across the room, long couches conducive to lingering along the walls, succulent scents of food mingling with the fruity smoke of sheesha and the harsher scent of cigarettes wafting through the air…And, afterwards, fully sated, we (I, Jess and the ubiquitious boyfriend) waddled downstairs, through the sketchy alley, into the street, poked into a pirated DVD store, and found a copy of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants II! For 1 dinar, I did not consider it too much a splurge…

I cannot believe I have been here for 2.5 months…the more I seem to grasp at time, the swifter it melts away. Thanksgiving is one week away!?! Christmas a mere month!?! How is this possible, when just yesterday I stepped off a plane into the scorching desert of Amman, and tomorrow it seems I will climb back on...But time is rarely my friend. It laughs when I stand on the cliffs of Santorini, close my eyes, and wish I could remain a statue here forever, and mocks me when I am stuck in a cab with Creepy Arab Man, making the minutes drag on like hours.

Before this weekend, too, slips away unbidden, I think I shall go. I am looking forward to Indian take-out tonight and work tomorrow…As my freshly French-pedicured toes brush across my dancing giraffe carpet, I bid you ahlan wa sahlan. You are always welcome.