Samantha Sisskind graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2012 with an International Politics major. She spent the fall 2010 semester studying in Amman, Jordan, where she wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network.
The godless poet takes a drag from his cigarette and winks at me. I politely smileI am a guest in his home, after alland I struggle to use what I know of customs of propriety in Jordan to shield my real opinion of him: that he is a total hypocrite. He tells my friends and I that he writes poetry from the perspective of the socially oppressed and downtrodden Arab woman, but how can that be true, I wonder? I picture myself saying to him: How can you really exhibit the emotions of a broken and subjugated woman when here you are, flirting with mea student who is visiting you just to learn from you. You smile and tease me not even because youre particularly interested, but just because I am female. Isnt your feeling of entitlement to objectify a woman the precise attitude you claim to protest in your poetry? Acting on that instinct to sexualize each woman, encouraged by the cultural norms of this country, slices away at her dignity with every cat call, with each prolonged stare, with each button on your polyester collared shirt you unfastened in the bathroom after you realized a female would be joining you for tea tonight. If you really want to save the 'Eastern woman,' you cant just stop at recognizing her plight. The abuse will stop once you start to respect her, and you treat her as you would any man.
The poet has another trait worthy of mention. He happens to be an openly atheist Jordanian. Even as a Jewish woman in Jordan, I would not trade my place for his. In Jordan, you have to express your faith in God in some way, or people will not want to associate with you. Moreover, there is no way to hide your religion. When you meet someone for the first time in the Middle East, the conversation always begins something like this: Where are you from? Oh, America? So, what are you? Christian? If you reject God, it means that you are morally deranged or, at the very least, odd. For example, my friend of East Asian descent is often mistaken for a Chinese immigrant and frequently offered prostitutes or drugs by taxi drivers and waiters. They assume he is Chinese and therefore atheist, so he must be without a moral compass and would of course indulge in such illicit behavior. However, the prevalence of faith in Jordanian and even Arab culture is most evident in the Arabic language. When native speakers remark on my fluency in Arabic, its never because Ive said something particularly intelligent, but its because Ive used a phrase or sentence structure in which I invoke the name of God. You can be a master of Arabic grammar, and you can pronounce each of the letters alien to English correctly, but you do not speak Arabic unless you understand how to respect God in conversation.
The poet lives the only life an atheist in Jordan can live: a solitary and apologetic one. He resides in several romantically lit apartments across the city, he has a daughter but is seemingly unwed and unattached, he writes his poetry alone in the middle of olive groves, and he excuses himself every time he says something that could be construed as blasphemous. Yet he is a poet, and therefore a master of Arabic language. Of course he says the word Allah as ardently as my Muslim professor sitting next to him and employs the image of God elegantly in his poetry, but I know hes a non-believer and I dont know what to make of it. I sat and listened to him talk about the importance of poetry in Jordan, though I didnt speak much because I was so fascinated by his diction and admittedly by the poetic the cadence of his words (also I was afraid I would encourage him to flirt more.) I wonder if he feels awkward like I do when he uses the word. Like this constant spoken reverence for God is as foreign an idea to him as it is to me. I believe that its not. Its ordinary for him. Religion is part and parcel of public life in Jordan as evidenced by the Jordanian national identification cards and passports, which indicate each citizens religion. He was raised respecting God in his every breath. I cant help but feel badly for him: a success but still an outcast. I part with a smile and a laugh when I read that he autographed his poetry book to Al Amreekia Al Jameela (the beautiful American girl,) giving him momentary satisfaction I hope will express my gratitude for his hospitality. On my way out the door I catch one last glimpse of him sitting alone in his chair, pen in hand, encapsulated by a cloud of smoke, while the embers of the ashes glow then fade in the dish before him.
COMMENT FROM ALYXIE HARRICK - OCTOBER 16, 2010
I knew that religion was quite prevalent in Jordan, with prayer taking center stage in daily life, but I never realized that it dominates society so much to become as normal a question as âWhere are you from?â But what strikes me the most in your letter is how Jordanians assume Chinese immigrants are immoral because of their so-called atheism. As a student studying abroad in China, itâs strange to hear China referred to as an atheist society. Although at first glance it does not seem religious in the traditional sense of the practice, the population is certainly guided by a set of spiritual beliefs (as Gary Li eloquently describes in his letter on Religionâs Subtle Yet Dynamic Presence in China.) Your letter sheds light on how religious conflict so easily stems from misunderstanding. I hope the rest of your time in Jordan continues to be enlightening and I look forward to hearing more!
COMMENT FROM ELENA LIEN - OCTOBER 16, 2010
Lovely post, Sam! What an interesting experience. As someone studying in Egypt, I can definitely see what you mean about atheism being an unacceptable outlook in the Middle East. Religion is a constant visual and auditory presence both in public and private. As you note, this means that even people who are atheist evince something of a religious outlook based on the culture in which they live. I would add that I have seen a general lack of tolerance for non-Abrahamic religions in addition to atheism in the Middle East. It was only last year, for instance, that Egyptians gained the right to list their religion as âotherâ on government-issued ID cards. Some of my Hindu friends here also complain about intolerance or ignorance of Hinduism amongst Egyptians they meet.
COMMENT FROM JESSICA SCHIEDER - OCTOBER 19, 2010
Samantha, for starters, I really loved your letter. Your descriptions of people's connotations and expectations in speech were excellently written.
I'm dealing with some similar, although, much less extreme issues with religious references in speech here in Germany. In the southern German dialects, invoking God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the devil, etc. is expected. It's a red flag when someone avoids such a comment--the 'Foreigner' sign starts flashing above my head. What I love about your letter is that you really questioned people's intentions in invoking such religion-specific terminology. Do people--even very religious ones--mean "Praise God", every time they greet someone? And, if I don't want to actually introduce the biblical figures behind the slang into my conversation, can I still use such invocations, if only to fit in?
It's a hard line to draw, and I just wanted to give you a shout out for so masterfully taking on such a big topic.
November 10, 2010
Sammy pours me a cup of hot tea and soaks my feet in warm water. She has spiky black hair and is wearing a black T-Shirt with baggy blue jeans. She laughs as we chat in Arabic about our families and bond over our common nickname, and I grasp that she is sweet but quiet. Her meticulous, intimate, and lengthy manicure is nothing like the quick thirty-minute shape and lacquer job you receive in an American salon. Sammy's sister Fatima bursts through the doorway to the salon like a gale force wind chattering away about how her daughter stole her keys making her late. Fatima is delighted to have a customer and impressed that I know some Arabic. She starts speaking to me slowly in Modern Standard Arabic, and I try to tell her that I understand her dialect. Fatima loses interest and prances away in her heels when a new customer enters. "Why does your sister wear a veil, but you dont?" I ask Sammy. Sammy looks down and mutters, "My sister is married. I have no desire to marry." "No man is right for you?" I ask playfully. "No," she says sternly, "No man at all. I know its not typical behavior for women in Jordan, and my mother and sister do not approve, but I am happier this way." I gather that she is talking about her sexuality, and I realize shes the first openly homosexual Jordanian I'd met. I am surprised, and at a loss for words. I don't know how to react and express my empathy for someone who on a daily basis deals with disapproval and rejection of a character trait beyond her control. I manage to blurt out, "I'm sorry. And thank you. You're doing a great job." The color is lovely. She smiles and asks, "Hows your tea?"
"Would you like another scoop of sugar?" Oum Ahmad asks me. I politely decline and she takes a seat on the cushion next to my female friend and me. While the men sit and talk outside about the hard economic times in their small farming village, my friend and I are invited inside the house to meet our host's wife, Oum Ahmad, and daughter, Sarah. I love being a foreign woman in a Muslim country. It affords me with the unique position to talk with men, but also to be invited into the concealed world of women. We laugh about the TV show Tom & Jerry and ask her daughter about classes and her interests. Oum Ahmad tells us her daughter is very smart, and she knows because she was her daughter's primary school teacher for her first three years of education. Oum Ahmad is the sole teacher at the villages school for girls for the first three years of their primary schooling. She laments that she doesn't have enough desks and books for all the girls, and that hardly any of them attend university from this village because they marry quickly after high school. She wishes she could do more for them. I wish that I could do more for her. I ask Sarah about her plans after high school. She says she'd like to study mathematics at Jordan University, which brings a smile to my face. She asks, "Would you like another cup of tea?"
"I swear I cant have another!" I tell Souad. Souad lives just a ten-minute walk from Oum Ahmad and is much younger. She invites my whole group (male and female) into her home, serves us tea, and the party guests start piling in. All of the woman are veiled and dressed in very conservative clothing. Both men and women, and all ages from toddler to elderly are represented. After ten minutes, the whole room is filled with family members and neighbors listening to our exchange about her recent engagement. Souad, a thirty-year-old woman from the village had accepted a marriage proposal and was about to wed the next weekend, and everyone was teeming with excitement. We talk to her about engagements in America, and she tells us about her engagement period, which began about a year earlier when her betrothed asked her and her family for permission to marry her. After the decision had been made, Souad, her fiancé, and her family met on several occasions to get to know one another, and confirmed the engagement. She explains the Henna decorating celebration where all of her female family members and friends gather the night before the wedding and decorate her arms. When she spoke, she appeared honored and positively thrilled. Her smile is infectious, and though I am uncomfortably full from tea from Oum Ahmad's house, I am blissful, too, and I relent accepting her offer for tea and proceed to gulp down the last remaining drops of tea in my glass happily.
The five young girls giggle and bring around the teapot filling a paper cup with tea for each of us, which is such a welcome treat on this brisk fall evening. My class and I had been invited to dine with this family at their home in a village close to the Syrian border and in the far Western part of Jordan. I begin talking to the girls and I bond with them instantly over Twilight and Oprah, and about our home lives. The girls seem to take to my friend Leslie and me effortlessly and invite us as well as our female professor Sandy to a second house away from our male cohorts. We finish our tea and are dragged down a jagged pathway where three older women are sitting. Two are middle-aged, one is especially pretty, and the third lady is older and clearly the matriarch of this family. She is called Oum Khaled. More young women zoom outward from the house behind her, and she reminds me of the large-skirted Anna from The King and I, as children seem to burst out from her clothes. Oum Khaled sits quietly and listens to us talk about our language education and gazes on proudly when her granddaughters and nieces present us with gifts. I am rendered speechless by their generosity and their thoughtfulness. I feel like part of this family. We are about to leave when Oum Khaled starts to speak. "You remind me of girls I knew when I was young. When I lived in Palestine. I left after 1948. I've lived here ever since. I can see the hills of my old village from my garden, but I've never been able to go back. Inshallah, you will return echos from everyones lips in the group." It's a dream she had instilled in her children, and her children in theirs. It's the tie that binds them. Our professor calls and it's time for us to leave. I exchange e-mail addresses with my new friends and we kiss goodbye. I approach Oum Khaled. I kiss her and I tell her it's been my favorite evening in Jordan since my arrival. I tell her she has a beautiful family and I thank her for her hospitality. "Come any time." She kisses my cheek again. "We'll have tea."
COMMENT FROM NICK SHAKER - NOVEMBER 21, 2010
What amazing experience, Sam! You seem to have penetrated Jordanian culture to the most intimate core. Being in the Middle East, I have been amazed by people's willingness to sit and have a cup of tea with a stranger. In Syria, I was invited several times to drink tea with shop keepers. At a border crossing in Jordan, the immigration official told me to call him when I would be coming through again so that he could host me at his house for tea and cake. Even taxi drivers stop in the middle of a fare and buy my coffee or tea. Jordanian hospitality first surprised me. I assumed that everyone wanted to swindle me into buying something but I have found that most of my tea encounters do not involve financial gain. Last week, in Turkey, a woman helped my friends and me when we were lost and insisted that we have tea with her after she had reestablished our bearings. She finished the evening by giving us her phone number and e-mail address and repeatedly insisting that we call her if we had any questions or wanted breakfast the next morning. It is encounters like this that really show you the true culture of hospitality in the Middle East.