“Control your wife!” Yup, the guy was talking about me. And I have to say, I am very proud of the reason he shouted this phrase at Nellu. I only wish I had a better comeback…
Before I get into the thick of this story, I’d like to emphasize our overall impression of the people of Jordan was very positive. In fact, I would say Jordan stood out because the people there were so wonderful to us. But as we like to say, there’s always a jackass. Sometimes that jackass is a donkey and sometimes that jackass is a person. This time, the jackass was a person.
At the end of our second day exploring the ancient city of Petra, we climb the 800 steps up to the Monastery. It’s a striking building that rivals the better-known Treasury and it absolutely glows in the late afternoon sun.
While I set up my tripod to get a couple of video shots, Nellu wanders around looking for the best picture.
When I finish, I notice Nellu off to the side, talking to one of the local kids who roam the site peddling postcards and necklaces. It didn’t look like he was buying something from her, but she was holding his camera. I walk over, expecting to rescue him from this encounter.
“She actually knows a lot about cameras,” Nellu informs me. He introduces me as his wife, but she’s only half listening.
“Let me take another one,” she says looking down at the controls on the back of his camera.
She does and it actually turned out pretty well. But she’s bugged by Nellu’s fish-eye lens. She doesn’t really understand it and it won’t let her get the picture she wants.
Nellu takes advantage of the interference I am running and turns his attention back to his photography.
“Do you have a cellphone,” she asks me.
“No,” I reply, “But Nellu does. Nellu, let me see your phone.”
“Her sister has an iPhone,” Nellu tells me referring to a past conversation. He hands me the phone he has used more as a music player and an alarm clock on our trip.
“It doesn’t have any service,” I tell our new friend as I hand it over.
She gets really busy pushing a lot of buttons, “Do you have any games?”
“I’m not sure,” I respond. “What’s your name?”
She answers so quickly that I didn’t catch it. She’s clearly absorbed by the technology at hand.
“What is it?” I ask again.
“You speak English really well,” I offer as a compliment. “Where did you learn?”
“School,” she replies not even looking up from the phone.
Taman pushes a few more buttons and the notices my backpack. It’s a simple black Old Navy boys backpack that was showing the wear and tear from months on the road. When the first tears started to appear, we bought a spool of bright blue thread in Thailand. Now the bag had bright blue stitches across most of the seams.
“You did this with a machine?” she asks with a confused expression on her face.
“No. I did it myself. By hand,” I say.
“But I thought Americans just throw things away.” You could see her mind wrestling to reconcile what she heard with what she saw. “Like if your shirt gets a hole, you just throw it away and get a new one,” she states matter-of-factly.
Who teaches kids these things?
“We don’t throw everything away,” I counter, “Like shoes. When our shoes wear out we get the soles fixed.”
“Do you have a lot of shoes?” she asks.
“Like these?” she asks pointing to my dirty hiking shoes.
“No, not really. I have pretty ones. High heels. Red ones, tan ones…” I don’t know why I feel compelled to elaborate.
Nellu returns from getting pictures and I fill him in on our conversation.
We spend a few more minutes chatting with Taman, most of which is spent trying to get Nellu’s phone back.
When we do, she briefly dives back into her pitch “buy something to remember me” before giving up hope of making a sale.
And then she says, “Oh I must be keeping you.” It’s an oddly formal way of wrapping up our visit. She sounds more like an acquaintance you’d run into at the grocery store than the jewelry-peddling, Bedouin pre-teen, we’d spent the last 20 minutes getting to know.
We say our goodbyes and Nellu and I hike up a nearby path to get a better view of the Monastery.
I was struck by our encounter. Taman had a dry wit that could rival any British man and a confidence of someone much older.
On the way back down, we stop at the food stand to get some sweet mint tea and eat cookies we had brought as a snack. Taman walks by.
“Would you like one,” I offer.
“No,” she says as she hurries past, almost acting like she doesn’t know us.
A few feet in front of us there are four guys in their twenties laughing it up over their own snack. They look like locals. We see Taman go over to them. It looks like she might have a crush on one of them by the way she is sashaying in front of them.
One of the guys picks up a small rock and lobs it at Taman as if he’s saying “scram kid.” It doesn’t look like it hurts but he doesn’t stop.
One, two, three, four rocks and without even thinking I’m on my feet.
As I approach the men yelling, a rock launched by Nellu, whizzes by me. “How do you like it,” I hear him mutter.
“You do not throw rocks at children,” I scold.
The man doing the throwing looks up, taken aback. “I am her brother and she should be in school,” he says defending himself.
Now I am the one taken aback. “Well yes, she should,” I stammer. “But you don’t throw rocks at little girls.”
I can see the anger well up in his face. “You should mind your business. You’re in the Arab world now,” he says irritated and now standing. He looks at Nellu. “Control your wife!” he says threateningly.
I am dumbstruck.
I had been so good, so culturally sensitive in this male-dominated world. And most Jordanian men cut foreign women some slack. You’re not required to dress differently or even cover your head in most places. I wasn’t going to flaunt that. But I just couldn’t let Taman see us – her new friends – just sit by and watch as she was humiliated.
I’m sure Nellu responded something to the effect of “I don’t need to control my wife” but I just stood there shocked.
Another man, who appeared to be the guide for a group of tourists a few benches away, intervened. He spoke in Arabic but by his demeanor we guessed he told the rock launcher not to start trouble. Our bully turned away from us, sitting back down.
We backed away too. All I could do was emphatically restate my initial argument. “You do not throw rocks at children.”
Taman had retreated from this whole scene and we could see her sitting on a hill some distance away, crying angrily. We didn’t go over to her.
I sat stunned on our bench as Nellu quietly lectured me about starting trouble. “You need to be careful. You’re going to get me killed,” he told me. I think I muttered something ridiculous like “we could have taken them.” We finish our tea and snack.
When we get up to leave, Taman gets up too, taking the long way around to meet us on our way back down the path.
“Are you okay?” we ask as we approach.
She nods through her mad and embarrassed tears. “You know he lied,” she says. “He’s not my brother. And you know, I saw him drinking alcohol. I’m going to tell my father. I am going to tell the police.”
I was happy to know that she could tell her father.
“That guy is a jackass,” Nellu says, “You can call him that.”
“Definitely don’t call him a jackass,” I say, “Stay away from him.”
Taman fiddled with the armful of necklaces she had to sell. “Can I have a cookie now?” she asks.
We ate all our cookies but we had some chocolate. “Just give her all of it,” I tell Nellu. I also give her a pen. On our trip, I’ve actually made a point of not giving kids little trinkets like pens because it just teaches them to beg. But I felt so bad for Taman . She would likely have to deal with the jackass and the repercussions of my little culture clash long after we were gone. I probably would have given her my phone if I had it on me.
“You should be in school though,” I say. “You’re smart and you should go to school.”
She changes the subject by making one last attempt to sell us a necklace. Seriously, this kid is all business. We say our goodbyes one more time.
We didn’t see her or the jackass again as we made our way out of Petra.
The confrontation began to slowly eat at me the rest of our time in Jordan. I began to notice how marginalized women are in the society. Jordanian women seemed to have some flexibility in their dress relative to other countries, only wearing head scarves and rather than abayas or niqabs. Some women in Amman wore none of the above. But I began to notice that you really don’t see women in a lot of places.
The cafe where we went to get baklava and mint tea was packed… with men. I was the only woman there. In fact, all the cafes were packed but only with men. None of the stores were staffed by women either. Even at the Forever 21, a cheap, fast-fashion chain that employs giggling teenage girls in the States, had only adult male sales clerks at the mall in Amman. I like to think of that as poetic justice.
Then there’s the duality.
The shop owner we had befriended in Wadi Musa bragged proudly about his wife expecting their first child and in the same breath shouted cat calls at a foreign woman walking by in a tank top. Not only was she not even cute – she was pretty busted – but it was definitely not warm enough for a tank. I said nothing.
And I did control myself when the man from the Bedouin camp where we stayed seemed incapable of talking to me in the first person. He would instead ask Nellu what I thought, did, or wanted even though I was right there.
Even as I write this post, I am still conflicted by this experience. Was it only that guy who was such a jackass? Was I so shocked because Jordan is relatively progressive? I wonder how Jordanian women feel. I wish I got the opportunity to ask.