Saturday, January 10, 2009


It wasn’t what I expected. But, then again, life is funny like that. If our existence traveled along unerringly along a path of fulfilled expectations, then it wouldn’t be life. It would be…predictable. If you had told me a week ago that a ‘random’ Danish man named Jesper would be sleeping in Kathy’s (abandoned for America) bed, I might have laughed. However, had you told me a war would ignite between Hamas and Israel, I would have believed you. I suppose a few things are, indeed, immutable.

Life is changing, once again. The weather is mercurially temperamental, switching from sullen to sunny in a scattering of moments. The voices of my teachers have silenced, at least for a month. The season of strawberries is upon us, pushing the last shriveled dates off the shelves. Friendships are altered, separating what was by the distance of oceans. Black and white scarves have appeared around the necks of Amman, a symbol of solidarity. Images of blazing rockets, death, and helplessness splay obscenely across the TVs in every café and restaurant.

Yet light perseveres. Life insists. Despite the war becalming all celebration in Amman, I attended a somewhat raucous engagement party a week ago. My colleague, Noor, whose name means light, invited us to witness the ceremony of engagement between her and her fiancé. New Year’s was a publicly subdued affair, with most of the parties and celebrations being cancelled due to the calamity afflicting Gaza.

On New Year’s Day, however, I awoke to wavering beams of sunshine and a sleepy Romanian with tousled hair protesting the intrusion of Jessica at an unholy hour of the morning. So, the sleepy Romanian was our female friend contentedly slumbering in the extra bed in my room, and the ‘unholy’ hour was actually 10 am. But still…There’s a reason New Year’s Day is an official holiday. After breakfast, and a sleepy goodbye to Corina, Jess and I visited the salon. Though I rarely bother to brush my hair, let alone style it, Noor’s engagement precipitated a veritable makeover of my usually unkept self.

To the salon we went, finding Noor and bridal party under similar duress, with curling irons wrapped around their locks and straightners subduing natural waves. Salons (often transliterated as ‘saloons’-clearly these people have never witnessed the Wild Wild West) in the Middle East harbour a peculiar atmosphere-unveiled, for one. I opened the door and was confronted by a tangle of mesh draped over aperture, necessary to deter the gaze of menfolk. The receptionist pushed aside the curtain and ushered us in, seating us in chairs next to a TV blaring Arabic pop music. While we waited, we chatted with a few of the bridesmaids, all beautiful Iraqi girls with cascades of shimmering black hair artfully arranged and dark kohl highlighting their limpid eyes.

When I was finally summoned to the haridresser’s chair, the woman asked me, “Straight or curly?” Well, since my normal (i.e. unbrushed, still damp from the shower, and otherwise disheveled) ‘style’ is fairly straight, I replied, “Curly!” And endured her administrations without complaint, slightly concerned as everyone in the salon exclaimed about my new look. Finally, it was finished. Hmmmph. I thought I looked a bit poodle-ish, at first, but the manicured curls swiftly grew on me. The price, however, did not. From other salons (and this one was no nicer), styling only costs 5 JD, so I rather asininely assumed the same amount. I did not realize that curling, everywhere, costs more. When the receptionist asked for 20 JD, I gulped, but could not well return a head full of golden curls, so I pledged to enjoy the expensive do.

Jess and I rushed home, applied a bit of make-up (truly, this was a momentous occasion), attired ourselves in dresses, covered up our bare shoulders, slipped into high heels, and took a cab to the party location, a discreet building not far from our home. I tottered out of the cab, up the stairs, and entered the chamber, for a chamber it was, white satin and silk adorning the walls, gilded accents molded into the wall, and a dais at the front, with a (still empty) chaise lounge beneath an arch of twinkling lights and sheer mesh. Hmmmm….not your average engagement party.

Unsure of how to proceed, we waited until a few of our other colleagues espied the foreigners and ushered us to their table, where we drank a bitter glass of coffee and settled in. Perhaps I should mention this party was restricted to females only. Although a few women wore veils, the vast majority had cast off their coverings to reveal actual hair and the occasional bared shoulder. Never one to be bested, I slid out of my jacket and sweater to my knee-length, sleeveless dress. Someone needs to uphold the stereotype of American decadence.

We chatted in a mixture of Arabic and English with our colleagues as more guests arrived, swelling the room to near capacity. The lights quieted, and the chatter settled into stealthy whispers. Noor appeared in the doorway, her arm held by a older man. Her father, I wondered? Nope, that would be the fiancé, I swiftly realized. She was radiant, in appearance at least, a tan, sparkling gown revealing her feminine figure, her hair caught up in an elaborate bun sprinkled with small rosebuds. Stricken is perhaps the best adjective to describe her countenance, at least beautiful in her distress. Perhaps she was merely nervous. They slowly promenaded down the aisle, stopping for the photographer to capture the happy expressions. On the dance floor they paused, exchanging words, vows I suppose. He took her in his arms, and they slowly danced, officially fiancé and affianced.

Although the romantic glow of the light afforded me but a slight glimpse of their expressions, I caught only the flicker of a smile as he gently twirled her in front of the guests. Soon, the lights brightened, and the crazy Iraqis with whom we work dragged us onto the dance floor. “Let’s party!” The beat quickened, and many of the younger guests flocked to the dance floor, surrounding the couple with writhing bodies, shimmying bosoms, and bawdy winks. Hello, Middle East. I rather felt like the Blonde Behemoth, towering over most dancers by a head, my now coiffeured hair a solitary island of blonde amid a sea of black and brown. But, I danced, and attempted a poor emulation of the far more skilled Arab women surrounding me.

Quite suddenly, the dancers quit their gyrations, abandoning the couple, again to a solitary existence in front of hundreds of gleaming eyes. Noor and her fiancé had discreetly seated themselves on the couch, but they arose and walked toward the center of the room. A cake somehow appeared, with two sparking candles resting in it. They cut the cake, as one, both trembling slightly as their knife sliced through the frosting. After this, they exchanged drinks of mango juice (at least that’s what Noor thinks it was; afterwards, she told me it was such a blur of emotion that she can’t really remember), offering each other a glass, their solemn expressions perfectly mirrored in the other’s eyes.

And then it came time to purchase the bride, or at least to provide a dowry. With much ceremony, her fiancé led her up to the dais and clasped necklaces around her neck, rings upon her fingers, and earrings through her earlobes. As her fiancé fumbled slightly with an earring, I caught the ghost of a smile flit across her face, and I wondered how much nervousness was contributing to her dire exterior.

Thereafter, the music returned, the fiancé left, and even more women flooded the dance floor, enveloping Noor in a reassuring circle of friends and family. With the official ceremony completed, she, too, relaxed, even allowing a smile as a bevy of beauties flitted around her. To take a brief respite from dancing, Jess and I greeted Noor, also resting upon her throne. As I embraced her, I felt the faintest tremor in her body, and realized how terrified she was. A reserved person by nature, I understood that 3 hours of unrepentant attention, whether gladdened or saddened by the occasion, induced transpicuous terror in her. What her true feelings are on the upcoming nuptials, I may never know. Though her mother-in-law, a fairly homely (I apologize, but it’s true) village woman who retained her embroidered robe and veil throughout the night, was quite ecstatic. Several heads shorter than me, with several prominent teeth missing, she even pulled me into an erratic dance and cackled, quite literally. To be fair, I probably was her first blonde dance partner, ever!

“The men are coming,” one of my colleagues hissed in my ear, and a scurry of movement from the dance floor to the tables ensued, women rushing to cover their naked shoulders and hair with scarves and jackets. The masculine half of the family and friends entered, eyeing the flushed party of women with amused, and occasionally lecherous, bemusement. For a fleeting moment, I grasped the hidden, but no less complete, world of Muslim women- of laughter, of dancing, of curtailed beauty meant only for your husband. For once, I was privy to an experience my males friends will never have, and I coveted it even as I covered my own shoulders against the glances of men. And I realized, amidst the continued dancing of my crazy Iraqi colleagues, that I had managed to grasp a small morsel of culture, to exchange my Western mindset for a Middle Eastern one.

Just as one shakes off the flight of snowflakes from an upturned wrist, I shook off my thinking for the comfort of my American practicality. Why shouldn’t men and women celebrate, together, one of the most important occasions of life? But I suppose a small seed of cultural exposure remains, and the ‘secrets’ behind the veil lie a bit closer to grasp. For the first (and probably only) time in her adult life, Noor stood unveiled before men outside her immediate family, the nervous tremble returning to her actions. We still danced, albeit a bit subdued, until the party ended, and everyone flooded into the street. We bid them good-bye, and returned to our home. Jess, much to my surprise J logged onto her computer to chat with the boyfriend. I, however, refused to waste my 20 JD hair on the cold apartment, so I spent a most enjoyable evening at Books@, chatting and sipping hot chocolate with some of my favorite people.

Our apartment officially fractured on Wednesday, as Kathy whirled out of my life in much the same manner as she entered it. The night before, we went out to Books (I know, I know, I should really just move in…) and spent our final evening together, quietly reminiscing and talking about the future. When it came time to finally depart, however, Kathy flew around the apartment, half an hour late, packing her final gifts into overstuffed suitcases and offering hasty good-byes. Just as she had arrived to me, 4 months ago- running towards me in downtown, in front of the Hussein mosque, bubbly, blonde, brilliantly scatterbrained, quintessentially Kathy- she left me, hastening out the door, leaving me becalmed but bereft. It will be awhile before I can watch Arabic music videos and not wish I had Kathy to evaluate them with me, or sit on the balcony, in the chilled evening air, and have a surprisingly erudite discussion on the latest topic.

I decided to add to the eccentricity of my room décor earlier this week. Despite the multitudes of galumphing giraffes upon my carpet, I added yet another long-necked denizen to the room-Melman, a plastic kid’s meal toy from McDonald’s. After work the other day, Ahmed, Ghadeer and I decided to have dinner at a cheap restaurant in town-that being McDonald’s, of course. Cabbing to Abdoun, we entered the familiar aroma of succulently greasy food and exclaimed (well, I did, anyways), over the latest happy meal toy. I opted for a salad and fries, but later ended up purchasing Melman, much to the chagrin of my companions. He even makes noises. It may be awhile before I’m invited to join them again J

I think I am going to end my thoughts there for the day. You will have to wait and hear about the random Dane another time, I suppose. Until we meet again, dear readers…