First Excursion

We had a few days in our Madaba hotels before we were divided up and sent to our villages. I think of those hotels fondly now. The Black Iris was luxurious, and our Queen Ayola was quaint and romantic, even if the beds were a little scratchy and the facilities primitive. Already, though, PCTs began to fall like dominoes. One older woman determined on her first day in Jordan that she couldn’t handle the two years of teetotalling that stretched before us, and she went right back home. A tall, elegant mother of teenagers had a nervous breakdown on the second day and was medivac’ed back to the States to be reunited with her family. I felt great sympathy for her, thinking of my own near-panic attack at the airport.
When we found out which of the five training villages we would each be living in for our ten weeks of training, Naureen and I both got placed in the same village, with Jennifer as our LCF. It was a primarily Christian village, but Naureen would be living with a Muslim family. The patriarch of the town’s most important Christian family was hosting Michael, an extraordinarily tall young man who had joined the Peace Corps to learn Arabic before going into the United States Foreign Service. Jesse was a tall, slim guy with an unruly mop of straight dark hair. He reminded me of a lot of the farm boys I grew up with, and I took an immediate liking to his casual, friendly style.

First Words

When we divided up into different groups to learn our first words of Arabic, I was disappointed at first that I wasn’t in Jennifer’s group, who seemed to be the least shy of the LCFs. I was assigned to Rima’s group instead. Like the gazelle she was named for, she was small, slender, energetic and rarely still for long. Her neatly wrapped white hijab gave her round face a puckish intensity. As we repeated words back to her, she would bend towards us, her head on a level with ours, and reach forward with her little hands, as if weaving a spell to draw forth the correct pronunciation. Then she would dance back and cheer us on.

Lynn and Neil were in my group. In her site village later, Lynn’s neighbors would learn not to disturb her after seven at night, because once she had removed her hearing aids and contacts for bed, she was deaf and blind to the world till morning. Neil’s hearing was worse. I used my semester of phonetics training to help Rima explain the non-English sounds they struggled to hear.
We learned SabaH el-khair—good morning, and masa’ el-khair—good evening. These were among the couple dozen words I had tried to teach myself before coming to Jordan. From Rima, I first learned to elide the final consonant of SabaH into the subdued vowel of the article el. Every time I teach someone their first lesson in Arabic, I think back on that first lesson with Rima as my model, trying to capture her exuberant intensity and the clarity of her pronunciation.

First Meetings

Like so many government institutions, Peace Corps loves its acronyms. Pre-Service Training is PST. A PCV is a full-fledged, duly sworn Peace Corps Volunteer, and now I’m an RPCV — Returned Peace Corps Volunteer — but for those first ten weeks, we were just PCTs — Peace Corps Trainees. (And when you’re really official, as our Country Director Darcy liked to say, they’ll give you an LoA — List of Acronyms!) We were divided into five groups, each assigned an LCF — Language and Cultural Facilitator — who would usher us through PST, supervised by Sultan, who had started out as an LCF himself.
That first day, after twenty-eight hours of travel and our arrival in the wee hours before the fajr adhan, we were allowed to sleep late, but in the early afternoon we all assembled in the training center. The LCFs had taken a big empty box of a room with twenty-foot-high whitewashed walls and made it bright and welcoming. They and Sultan with his wide smile were all lined up on the right as we came in, shaking our hands and welcoming us to Jordan. The wall to our left had been festooned with bright floral shapes, cut out of posterboard and outlined in thick, bold strokes of silver marker. Our names were each written on one of those shapes. Mine was a dark red flower with tall, willowy lettering, tulip-like with long tapering petals on a pair of horizontal lotus-like leaves. It was about midway up the wall, well over my head in the middle of a field of twenty-five Peace Corps Trainees, each unique, all elegant.

It was a profusion of bright color in that cavernous white room. It bespoke their excitement to meet us, and reminded me of the optimism with which I had applied for this “hardest job you’ll ever love,” as the Peace Corps slogan goes. I was exhausted and under-caffeinated, jetlagged and displaced. From somewhere under all that, my excitement began to float back up like soda bubbles. The gentle effervescence tickled against my ribcage, rising to flutter in my chest, lifting the corners of my mouth.

I was really here. This was really happening.

After the Hotel Bombings

Reflections Ten Years Later,
Part II
This is still a rough draft of my reflections, but given the anniversary, I wanted to share my thoughts.
As soon as the kids started running back and forth between the neighbors’ houses the next morning, I took myself next door to Umm Hashem’s for breakfast. There was always plenty of bread and mezze at breakfast time, and lots of tea. She even had her daughter make me a thick Turkish coffee. “Of course we have school!” she declared, slipping into headmistress Sid Muna mode. “Abu Selsabeel will be here to pick us up soon.”

I went to school with her as usual that day. On our way, Abu Selsabeel asked about Abu Hashem. “He was in Amman all week,” she said, “and he was on his way home last night when they called him back to his office.”

Like many villagers, Abu Hashem was in the military, an officer in the Air Force. Since Black September 1970, when Palestinian factions in the Jordanian military attempted to assassinate King Hussein from the back of a motorcycle, Palestinians had been barred from serving in the military, and motorcycles banned for all civilian use. Since then, Jordanians of Palestinian descent have built some of the biggest commercial enterprises in the country. So-called “East Bank” or “real” Jordanians, especially from villages and rural areas, feel that they have the best chance of employment with good wages and benefits in the military, police and civil service. Abu Hashem and his brother had both done very well for themselves and their families in the public sector.

It was about that time that I began to hear rumors about Abu Hashem. Maybe he and Sid Muna were a little too well off for civil servants, even a headmistress and an officer of his rank. “You know,” people would say to me, “he’s got to be in the mukhabbaraat — the intelligence services. Haven’t you noticed that whenever there’s a terrorist threat, he gets called to Amman?” Of course, military personnel of all kinds were on high alert across the country at a time like this, so that was hardly a determining factor.

On the other hand, I was well aware that Jordan is a police state on the scale of Stasi East Germany. There’s very little crime in Jordan, because anyone could be mukhabbaraat and you’re sure to be caught, which in most ways makes it the safest place I’ve ever lived in the world.

Hotel Bombing

Reflections Ten Years Later,
Part I
This is still a rough draft of my reflections, but given the anniversary, I wanted to share my thoughts.
Out of sheer exhaustion, I slept like a rock every night in the Peace Corps. Even after a night at dar Abu Radhi with gahwe saade, a pot of black tea, more gahwe saade and a Turkish “goodbye coffee,” I could still go straight to bed and be asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I have never slept so well in my life.

If there was a catch, it was that I woke at sunrise every day. It might have been the chickens, the donkeys, or the sounds of children’s voices running between the neighbors’ houses. Maybe it was just the light, because it didn’t matter whether I was home, in an Amman hotel or on my interlude back home in Maryland. I woke at sunrise local time every day. Even when I was up till four in the morning and sunrise was at five thirty, I was up at five thirty. But until sunrise, I slept like a rock.

That’s why it’s hard for me to conceive that I was woken at two that morning by Ben’s text message, the tall, handsome Ethiopian-American from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was in the cohort of Volunteers six months behind mine. I’m not even sure why he texted me. This might have been around the time I was trying my best to flirt with him, but I’m a terrible flirt and I never thought that he realized what I was doing. For whatever reason, I was probably one of many people Ben texted that night, “Do you have a TV? Do you know what’s happening in Amman?”

First Glimpses

That first night, absorbed in my jet lag, culture shock, anxiety and underlying embarrassment, I couldn’t have told you what the weather was like. All I knew was that it was warmer than the snowstorm we had left in Washington, DC. We stumbled onto the big tour bus waiting outside the terminal and collapsed into the well-worn bucket seats.

On the bus, I thought I would surely fall back into that fitful half sleep of the trans-continental night flight now behind us. Yet, now that my feet had touched down on Jordan tarmac, I was filling with nervous, excited energy. I was really here, the biggest adventure of my life yet. As much as I wanted to rest my temple against the curtained window, I found myself compelled to hold back the curtain and watch the landscape flash by in the dark.

The palm trees, flashing past hip-high on the median, had always been for me a tell-tale sign of exoticism, of warmer climes and romantic getaways. The curb was distinctive, sometimes the height of cinderblocks laid lengthwise, sometimes cinderblocks standing shoulder-to-shoulder, always in half meter long alternating blocks of black and bumblebee yellow paint. I recognized the rows of squat, round olive trees from that summer I studied in Greece and was so deeply moved by the sea of rippling silver olive leaves stretching across the valley beneath us at ancient Dephi. Single story cinderblock buildings were romantic in the silver moonlight and golden street lamps, and the occasional red tile roof was exotic Mediterranean flair. My nose pressed against the glass all the way to Madaba in excitement, even as my forehead leaned against the window in exhaustion.

Landing In Amman

constellation of Orion over the hills of Petra

At Queen Aliyah Airport in Jordan, it’s common for flights from the United States to arrive in the wee hours of the morning. I’ve spent many nights in that arrivals lounge, sipping a latte from the World News Café and waiting for someone to emerge from customs: a friend, my aunt, my brother, my parents. There’s even an Arabic word perfectly suited to the experience: sahira, to stay up all night, usually with friends or family, a storied tradition in many parts of the Arab world.

That first night was different, though. We had been travelling for about twenty-three hours, and the day room in Frankfurt hadn’t been as restful as I had hoped. I was nervous, and trying not to admit it to myself. Sure, I was only twenty-two, I told myself, barely out of college with a degree in English literature, but I wasn’t like other liberal arts grads my age. I had already lived in three foreign countries, and spent weeks at a time in as many more. I had been studying up on Jordan — primarily Queen Noor’s compelling memoir, Leap of Faith — and had taught myself the Arabic alphabet and a few words. I was an experienced traveler, and there was no reason to feel nervous. My mother calls this stubborn refusal to be nervous the “stoic Maryah act,” and mostly it works … until suddenly it collapses.

Queen Alia Airport was different then. You didn’t stand in distinct lines to pay fifteen dinar for your tourist visa. You elbowed your way in, and if you were aggressive enough, you got one before the next flight deplaned. We got to skip that step, thanks to the plain manila envelope in my hands as we got off the flight. I had volunteered to carry the group visa we were all travelling on, and the responsibility had steadied my nerves some. I handed the documents over to Samir, the local Peace Corps security officer responsible for getting us through passport control. He was a small man, dark and compact with close-cropped hair, and he radiated calm authority. Passport control was slightly more orderly, in accordance with its official nature, especially since we were being shepherded by the implacable Samir.

Then we were suddenly through, and I was adrift and overwhelmed.