16 May 2007


What is a human worth? Yesterday, the 15th of May, is the day that Palestinians remember as the Nakba. It is the day in 1948 that they suffered an injustice for which there has been little comfort. It was also my birthday. It was a day I spent in Amman with a Palestinian friend who was born in Kuwait, came to Jordan during the first Gulf War, and has never been permitted to visit Nablus. It was also a day he and I drove around West Amman and saw cars filled with young folks waving graduation caps in the air. It was raining, but young men and women were nevertheless squished out of windows and sunroofs screaming and smiling. It was a day that I could not stop thinking about the Emirates flight from Dubai to Amman on which I watched a man head for first class while he sent his wife and children to economy class. It was a day during which I wrote an uninspired account of my time in Iran. It was uninspired because there was so much more I should have told you. I should have told you that the women were as kind as feisty, and yet they live in a country where the cash-value placed on their lives is 50% of the value for a man. I should have told you that Iran didn’t seem exotic at all to me, and that I didn’t look at the U.S. State Department [of irrational fear] Travel Warnings for the Islamic Republic of Iran until today. And when I did look, I laughed out loud. Yesterday was a day that a friend and I jumped out of a moving Ammani taxi because the driver kept yelling “Bedoun falouse!” at us, and we told him “I7na aydon! Hella, khlass!” But he didn’t khlass, and I don’t feel obliged to be a bank, or sit in economy while my husband sits in first class, or to scream from inside of my car just because it’s raining, or to pretend that my life may only be worth 20,000 USD if my husband’s is worth 40,000 USD. It was a day that J and I stood in the street between Abdali and the Balid laughing at her ability to attract the most insane taxi drivers in this country. It was dusk, we needed to find another ride, we had no macaroons, and we would not have wanted it to be any other way.

The suffering I have seen here has taught me that my life is worth what I say it is, ‘cause Allah knows no one else should be expected to value me. One Jordanian woman who went to Iran with me is a widow who acted like an obnoxious child for much of the trip. I was intrigued with her immediately, and I spent two weeks trying to understand what motivated her. Here is what I think: In addition to the fact that suffering seems to be feminized in Jordan (it seems to be both required and encouraged in women), it is also for many women the only (or the most affordable?) form of female agency. Complaining is the one thing a woman can control, and it is an effective negotiation strategy. As a widow, this woman has no husband to listen and try and accommodate her desire for a different hotel room, or a different meal, or more A/C. And in a world where we can be sent to economy class, and where we are worth literally half that of a man, she needs to be loud to be heard at all. Did she get on her own nerves? I doubt it. Did she get everything out of the trip that she wanted? I reckon she did. Mabrook ya Okhtee.

I grew up in a society where people get recognition even when they do not merit this. Where all the kids on a baseball team get a trophy, even if the team totally sucks. I guess it is a place where our self worth comes from external sources. Only one Jordanian has ever praised me, and only once. She told me I pronounce the ‘ain well for a foreigner. I almost began to weep. Until that moment I had only been told bad things about me. I think that power comes from this quotient; it is derived from this weird space where what we want to be valued for butts up against what others value us for. We have to negotiate this. How do we do this? Why do we do this? I’m bent out of shape because people won’t drop it with the not-having-kids thing. Yet, I didn’t have to leave my nice apartment with 3 well-tuned air conditioners one morning in Kuwait and come to Jordan and begin a life as a very poor and unwelcome taxi driver. Sometimes I mistake Luck for Worth.

Then I think about Justice. I had to wear the Hijab in Iran. I wore modest clothing. I thought that men would not say things to me they should not, as frequently happens in Jordan. Jordanians have lined up to tell me that if I wore a scarf I “would get respect, and feel more comfortable.” So, I wore the scarf, and a few men still said stupid things that horney men sometimes say to women. So, I complained to the Jordanians on this trip, and they revised their argument and told me that I will never get much respect because I’m an American, and “look at Shakira.” Who? Now that’s power. Shakira has the ability to determine my level of respect in Tehran and Amman. (She’s still only worth 20K, just like me.) But, is this really a lack of Justice? Or is it only if I let it become that? When dealing with inappropriate men in Jordan I take Foucault’s advice and opt-out. I ignore them.

But some things cannot be ignored. Just as I laughed last night, and enjoyed falafel, and coffee, and lightening, and being surrounded by happy people who had at least one evening to feel like their future is bright, I have seen a lot of sadness for which there are neither appropriate words nor excuses. I saw a woman endure a difficult birth in her own bed because her husband refused to take her to a hospital even though he had money. I am watching a woman be disowned by her family because her husband will take a second wife against her family’s wishes (and, frankly, against hers as well). I sat with a 20 year-old who wept when her parents told her that she would marry “a good man.” When her and I were alone she begged me to take her to the States because she said that she will be in the Naqab after marriage, and she said this is not her desire. I watched a taxi driver get into an accident that was obviously not his fault, but the rich person who hit him insulted him and insisted he would never give the taxi driver a single Dinar. I cannot even count how many men and women I have met with M.A. degrees who live in the Camps here.

And yet, most Jordanians have taught me the importance of loving the little things, and deriving my value on my own. Now, my worth is self-contained, if self-generated. I have also learned to see dignity and beauty where it is least likely to blossom. I sat with a family in one of the Camps here recently, and we had tea (that was all they had for dinner), and watched kids play soccer and beat the crap out of each other. An upcoming wedding was planned (for which there really is very little funding). One girl practiced her English with me, and later called me to tell me that she passed an important exam (though her mother told me that because she is Palestinian they can’t afford University tuition). Act as if you have dignity, and perhaps you do even when all the Earthly world seems to be acting against you. Derive pleasure from watching kids play soccer, or having an awesome falafel sandwich from a shop on Marka Street, and perhaps your day will seem just fine.

Worth isn’t a thing. It’s a coping skill. And it is one that people here have mastered.


Blogger Weeping Sore said...

Too bad about women being worth half what men are in Jordan. I take smug comfort that here in the USA, women are valued at 80% of a man's worth. How's that for enlightened Western thought?

4:22 AM  

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