October 6, 2011 § 1 Comment
Three weeks is really the maximum amount of time one can cling to the title “visitor” before becoming a “resident,” however temporary that residency may be. As I contemplate the relative permanency of my stay in Jordan, I realize that the thing I’ve learned most is, likely, restraint. I am sitting smack in the middle of a fakhir (posh) outdoor restaurant, and while all the Arabs around me drink, smoke arghileh and laugh ostentatiously I am conspicuously typing on my computer with Al-Kitaab open in my lap, feeling more and more like a foreigner. It’s a funny thing, in the States I often go out alone–to cafés, shopping, on a walk–and I delight in the feeling of anonymity and escape. Because for me, too often the burden of simply being is remedied best by not being–and outside in the world, I can be anyone. That possibility of reinvention (a strictly American pastime, if you ask me) is always present, constant, and more than anything else–accessible. I’m finding that here it’s quite the opposite–the public space is not for escape, nor reinvention nor slipping into any individual identity, rather the public space is where individuals undertake the burden of public identity and its ensuing consequences. Here, the place for escape is where one is out of public sight: inside, in the home, and away from the mutually reinforcing public code of expression.
I have never found this to be the case in America. Go to the grocery store in your pajama pats, treat the world as you wish–I think it has to do with the internet or development of something. It seems to me that American private lives play out across stages, devoid of wings or curtain call or intermission, and each interaction takes place between a performer and an audience. The only way to exit stage left is to stop interacting; escape into the public sphere where anyone can be anything. But the Middle East is a horse of a different color: the public sphere is interpersonal, and requires constant interactions in which roles are already prescribed, and successful connection prohibits ad-libbing. Once intimacy is established indoors, or in a place off-stage, behind loosely closed doors, the scripts are burned and suddenly people are free.
Western culture demands public, genuine expressions of some inner identity, but our country has become a consumer machine and the only logical explanation must be that we’re empty. I, as an American, have freedom of speech, of dress of thought of action of expression, but I wonder if sometimes we don’t need a little structure. If one has nothing to push against, is there any possibility of true expression? The idea is yes; an expression is literally the conveyance of either an emotion or a thought, both things that are individually sensed before they can be communally shared. But sometimes the barrier between “individually sensed” and “communally expressed” crumbles, and I wonder how much of interaction is expression, and how much is just reaction to outside stimulus. How genuine can one be if one if constantly performing? To be a full person, one must be both fully internally developed, such that there is an essence of a person that is indistinguishable, unchanging and translatable across any medium, and be able to express this self across a thousand different mediums–starting with the personal–emotions, facial expressions, mannerism and dress, and spanning to the abstract: can you tweet yourself well enough to express who you really are? can you post it on a wall? can you blog intuitively, effortlessly translating this fully developed self to the rest of the world? Of course not. You need some sort of mutually understandable code for everyone to agree upon. In the West, this isn’t defined. It’s up to you to find a way to express the infinite in a finite way. Here, it’s very defined. There is not the same freedom of expression, of thought, of dress. Instead in outer world the methods of communicating are limited.
It’s a funny thing, men in the Middle East. In our amiyya class, we spent an entire hour and a half class discussing harassment and how to combat it like a native. Most of the phrases are the standard, “Let go of me,” “Get away from me,” “I’m going to call the police,” but then there are others: “I am a guest of yours in Jordan,” “Don’t you have sisters?” and “May God curse your fathers.” As Tawfiq, our professor said, “You need to appeal to a man’s morality, his sense of self.” So there I am, sitting in class and growing more and more suspicious of all Arab men, the day before our big trip to Aqaba. The next day, we all get up at five a.m., unwillingly witness shorouq al shams (the sun rise), and head off towards Al-Aqaba, one of the touristy-ist spots in Jordan where I am constantly reminded of the fact that I am really just a visitor who is quite dependent on sporadic help from men. At one point we walked past the shatra a3ma (public beach), where men seemed to prowl while covered women (some in burkinis and others just in full coverage on the shore) dotted the seascape. In desperate need of a good tourist experience, Ayane, Rabab, Rena and I searched high and low for Aqaba’s best snorkeling. After a few phone calls and a little sleuthing, we figure out that we actually need to be at the Japanese Gardens, a strip of beach about 10 minutes away by taxi, where Arab families congregate in small groups allowing for relative privacy. We figure out that to snorkel, we need to rent the equipment and then leave our bags with a man named Waseem, who runs the snack shop. As I handed my all-purpose brown leather hobo bag to a very over-eager looking man, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would see my camera again. Can I trust him? And even more importantly, how important is it for me to snorkel–maybe I could just go back to the hotel and not take the risk? But, in the end I donned my mask, fins and snorkel and handed over the bag. As we’re trying to find the best place to enter the water (sans burkini and with webbed contraptions strapped to our feet) a man who approached us earlier, trying to offer us another deal on kamama, tries to tell us that we’re entering the Red Sea incorrectly and come, come with him now, and he will show us the right way. Growing more and more annoyed by this man’s seemingly profit-intentioned offer, I tell him no, thank you, we are just fine and we’ll not be in need of his services. And just as I say this, my rubber-capped heel slips on a rock, and I plunge my hand into the water to balance myself–getting stung b a kunfuth al-bahar (sea urchin) in the process. So, of course, the man comes running with even more offers of lighting a cigarette to get out the stingers, or going to the Clinic or perhaps just swimming with it anyways, and as I’m standing in the shallow coast of the Red Sea in my black bikini, full snorkeling gear and with an acute pain emanating from my fingers, I look around at the growing crowd of Arabs and this man who, for all his possible annoyance is possibly just trying to help. So I give him my hand, decide to trust for a moment and waddle (for that’s really the only movement you can do in flippers) in the direction he’s pointing to.
And the snorkeling was phenomenal. We swam through schools of fish, saw more sea urchins (from a distance, thank god) and basked in the freedom of the Sea. After a slightly embarrassing and attention-yielding walk back from the dock to the snack shop, I got my bag back, with all of its contents safe and sound inside. I was feeling so good about things that I didn’t object to the idea of hitch-hiking back to the city center, which we did be-belash (for free) in a nice Aqabian man’s car. The rest of the trip was even more stunning–we drove from Aqaba to Wadi Rum, a desert valley that houses incredible rock formations and a thousand great spots to watch the ghoroub al-shams (sunset). It’s an interesting thing, being a young foreign woman in Jordan. It seems that simultaneously some public activities–like walking to the gym at dusk–is much harder, replete with stares, unwanted attention and the knowledge that just by being out in public in a certain time and place renders you conspicuous, a public entity ripe for the consequences of public interaction. Yet at the same time, to be a foreign woman is to be in the constant clutches of Arab hospitality (not quite comparable to that of Iran, but still!), and to always be the recipient of local generosity and general good will. All the cat-calls, whistles and impaling stares I’ve gotten on the streets of Amman are equalled only by the number of times I’ve been helped by a relentless taxi driver who will not give up until I’ve reached my destination, or offered discounts from shop keepers and been given extra hummus at Sefeen. And perhaps that’s just a consequence of being undeniably foreign, but sometimes I wonder if that’s not a consequence of living in a place where the public sphere is not for individual advancement but for communal advancement, where each member is subjected to the human emotions of its components. Bi shakl a3m (in general), the idea of this social arrangement scared me at first–I’ve been taught to be cautious of widely-accepted truths–but I’m beginning to see that perhaps there’s a sort of communal protection, a safety in being known.