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.