My Heart Hurt

by Erin Morrell, reprinted with permission

When I asked my Syrian colleague today how she was doing in the aftermath of the Paris attacks she looked at me and said, I am sad because now everyone looks at my country like it is a horrible place. We are not bad people, we are good people, and there are those posing to be from Syria who are causing these problems and people think my country is a bad country. Her pastor suggested that people in her congregation who felt like they could answer peoples questions should do so but if it would invoke anger within themselves they should remain calm and remain quiet until their angered passed. This made my heart hurt.
I served on the Syrian border in Jordan for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. Many of the people who I lived with had their families split between the border when the Middle East was demarcated into different countries, so I have always felt a kin-ness with the Syrians I have met to my families in Jordan. While I was there these people cared for me. They invited me into their homes. They shared their stories and their secrets. They taught me that there is a way to be with people who are so different from you in so many ways - that love can transcend language and culture, history and politics.

Pets and Other Critters: Pets

Part 1: Houseguests | Part 2: Pets | Part 3: Goats and Chickens

Naureen fell in love with a tiny orange kitten with a nearly tragic past. Found on a roadside, a cut on his forepaw had become gangrenous, requiring amputation. The first surgery cut the bone on an angle, leaving a sharp edge that prevented it from healing and required a second amputation. While the shelter paid for the surgeries, the rest was up to Naureen, who named the runt kitten Simsim—sesame seed in Arabic—and rebandaged his tiny stump morning and night for months.
On those Saturday nights when I, unexpectedly or deliberately, had missed my bus home from Irbid and ended up at Naureen’s instead, I fell in love with Simsim, too. He would come right to me for a snuggle, and after I had left, Naureen told me, he would sit on the fersheh where I had slept and mew at Naureen, looking about for me.
A few weeks after his second surgery, though, Naureen was travelling to Morocco to vacation with her cousin and best friend. In Jordan, there’s not kennel to leave your cat at while you travel. A cat-sitter was needed, and I could not resist temporary custody of little furball Simsim.

Pets and Other Critters: Houseguests

Part 1: Houseguests | Part 2: Pets | Part 3: Goats and Chickens

Peace Corps can be a lonely, frustrating, thankless job, and the unconditional love and affection of a pet can be just what the psychologist would have ordered … if there were a psychologist in your remote village. A later Arabic classmate who joined Peace Corps because of my stories had a pet fish at her site in Mozambique. Not as cuddly as a cat, but I could see the simple, low maintenance appeal of a fish for company.
My “pet” was just as low maintenance. I had a gecko. Or perhaps a series of geckos. It was hard to tell; they all look alike, and we had a very casual relationship. My gecko was pink, about as long as my hand, and generally preferred the top-most eighteen inches of my walls. Sometimes, when I was blessedly home alone, he chittered to me in a little sound like the clatter of tiny teeth. Sometimes I tried to chitter back with teeth and tongue. Once we got to know each other better, I sometimes talked to him in my own language—unloading about my day, inquiring about his, exchanging one-sided pleasantries about the weather. He was not always there, though, and sometimes I did miss his company.

Habibi, Himar, Hummer

Last April, actress Lindsey Lohan made an unfortunate mistake in Arabic. As with this poor Coalition soldier in Iraq before her, traditional and social media, in their usual way, flashed it across the world as a terrible act of stupidity. As a fellow student of Arabic, I am sympathetic. I have had a few memorable mistakes of my own, like every time I stumbled to remember whether the appropriate response to a sneeze was yarHamulkum allah [God bless you] or yaHramkum allah [God damn you].
I want to tell you one of my stories, which happens to actually have a donkey in it just as Ms. Lohan's does, and to give some advice to Ms. Lohan and all language learners, Peace Corps Volunteers, world travelers and the rest of us.

Quiet Ride on the Nile

One of my favorite memories of Egypt, even now, is on a sailboat.

It was April 2009. I was staying in Cairo with a friend, and had booked sleeper train tickets to Luxor and back, with about fifteen hours between to see as much of the archaeological wonders of ancient Egypt as I could. A little haggling at the train station got me a driver for the day, and at a price I actually thought was surprisingly fair after my time in Cairo.
He dropped me at the massive ancient city of Karnak in the thin cool early morning air, but by the time we crossed the Nile and got to the Valley of the Kings, the heat was really beginning to build.

My driver was a middle-aged high school math teacher. I have had my share of Don Juans, Chatty Kathys and creepers as cab drivers, even one groper who was not at all impressed by my threat to call my uncle/father-in-law* in the secret police if he did not pull the cab over right now! I have ample reason to recognize an exceptional cab driver almost immediately, and my Luxor math teacher was exceptional.

Eslam's Cousin Ahmed

You may want to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.
About a week after dinner at dar Hajji Salem, I was headed north to the city of Irbid for my usual Saturday Internet and shopping trip, and my regular rendezvous with a few other Peace Corps Volunteers. I had caught a ride in a neighbor’s pickup down the hill from town, but he was headed south to Jerash, so I was standing on the northbound side of the highway, waiting for a bus from one of the area villages to pick me up, about a hundred meters up from Imam Salem’s house. Sometimes when I was waiting in this spot, a car would stop instead of a bus, offering a ride, but unless I recognized them, I always waved them on.
That morning, a boxy bright banana yellow minivan pulled over where I was waiting on the side of the road, full of about half a dozen young men in tight t-shirts and excessively gelled hair. Without even making eye contact, I raised my hand to wave them on, until I heard my name, in a perfect York accent.

“Hey, Maryah! It’s Ahmed! Going to Irbid? You need a ride?” Shifting his attention to the guy riding shotgun, he jerked his thumb towards the back and switched to Arabic. “Hey, bro, get in the back.”

“No, no,” I said, also in Arabic, watching the friend jump in the back with the other twenty-something guys. Shebaab is the Arabic word for young single men like them, and when we Peace Corps Volunteers said shebaab, it was not often complimentary. “That’s all right. I’ll wait for a bus. It won’t be long. They come by all the time.”

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Ahmed, and I’m pretty sure he did, “but it’s not like that. These are my boys. They’ll be respectful. Just pretend they’re English blokes. Come on.” He reached across the console and bucket seat to push open the front passenger door. “Just get in.”

So I did. After all, I knew practically his entire extended family. Not only did they have a stellar reputation in two villages, but they thought very highly of me.

The boys were raucous chain smokers with a lifetime of shared inside jokes, clearly excited to have Ahmed home again. They made polite conversation about who I was, how I knew Ahmed, and what I was doing in Jordan. Then they lost interest. While they carried on in Arabic in the back, Ahmed and I chatted in English in the front.

Eslam's Grandfather Salem

You may want to read Part 1 first.
In my second full year of teaching in Faiha’, the headmistress made a very different decision in scheduling. I don’t know if she gave up on the idea that I would enrich the top tier of the classroom, or if she recognized some value to my whole classroom approach, or if she just decided that this was where I would do the least damage. She didn’t owe me an explanation, and she didn’t give me one. She just announced one day that I would be teaching English to the first, second and third grades.

My eighth graders all became ninth graders. There were no more of my unorthodox teaching methods: no more assigned seats, no more enforced cooperative learning. But they didn’t forget me, from Wafa’ right on down to Eslam. I saw them every day. They greeted me in the morning, shared their chips and chocolate with me at snack time, and often walked to and from school with me.
That fall, though no longer my student, Eslam and her family still wanted to thank me. Her mother — whom I knew only by the informal kunya of Umm Eslam, “mother of Eslam” — invited me to dinner. Even knowing how poor the family was, I agreed to go. In the Bedouin culture of the desert, there is no higher imperative than hospitality. In the desert, if you’re alone, you die. Helping a traveler becomes a sacred expression of compassion and humanity. Turning down Umm Eslam’s invitation to dinner, no matter how ill they could afford it, would be an intolerable insult.

Even so, the dinner almost didn’t happen. After I agreed to come across town to join them after school one day, Umm Eslam had a baking accident.

Eslam, the Forgotten Eighth Grader

Part 1 of 3
I decided to try something every American teacher does and no teacher in my Jordanian school ever had, or so it seemed at least from the reaction of my students. I decided to assign seats, but in a precisely calculated way. I listed out all the girls in my eighth grade class, in order from the strongest student, a saucy know-it-all named Wafa’ with a strut like the Bantam roosters I had grown up next door to, down to the weakest, a petite girl named Eslam.
If I had not assigned seats to that class, with all that followed as a result, I would not even remember Eslam. If she was remarkable at all, it was because her clothes were more faded and ill-fitting than most of the other girls, her face and hands more chapped and ravaged by the effects of poverty and malnutrition. Less than half of the girls in the eighth grade wore hijab, and even those who did were not always consistent, but Eslam was never without her head covered. It was usually the same amira-style hijab, a tube of pale green cotton-poly knit that pulled over the head, with a little half-moon of material across the forehead to make sure her hairline was hidden.

Women in the village wore these as “work clothes,” doing yardwork or hanging laundry. They often kept a hijab amira near the door, in case they had to run out for something, but most women had a slicker, more sophisticated look for going to work or school, a long scarf of polyester weave with flowers or paisleys, maybe some metallic glitter. Eslam’s monochromatic hijab amira, dotted with the fuzz of repeated washing, was a sign of poverty greater than that of her classmates. Her total consistency in wearing it, though, hinted at a devotion to her faith that was stronger than the commitment of her classmates.