Tag: Amman

Behind the Book: The Guard

August 27th, 2017 — 6:02am

In early 2011, my family and I lived near the US embassy compound in Amman, Jordan—so near, in fact, that our apartment was inside the outer guard ring. I was very happy about this situation. Two weeks after my three-year-old daughter and I arrived, my husband was sent to Italy indefinitely to help with a NATO mission. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring was taking root and there were protests outside of the Syrian embassy, protests outside of the American embassy, protests in the rural areas outside of Amman over the high costs of cooking oil and bread, and protestors in Amman demanding political reforms. Then Osama Bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces in Pakistan, which was seen by many as another US invasion of a country’s sovereign territory. Prime-time news was filled with burning American flags.

So you can imagine how much I loved seeing the US embassy guards standing at the gates.

Everyone stationed at the embassy had to attend a Regional Security Brief within a few days of arrival. We were told to change up our driving routines in order to make it hard for us to be followed, to look under our vehicles for explosive devices, to not drive beyond Amman city limits after sunset, and to always let a fellow American know when we went on a trip.

We had also been warned about our Western ways, with a special emphasis on how American women needed to be sensitive to this culture quite different from our own. It was recommended our clothing cover us from wrist to ankle. That we be aware conservative Muslim men would feel uncomfortable shaking the hands of women not related to them. How it was verboten to sit in the front seat of a taxi, the front seat being reserved for the wife of the taxi driver and our presence there could be misconstrued as a sexual advance. How we should try to not touch the hand of a male cashier at a grocery store when he was handing over change, lest he view this as suggestive.

But the embassy guards, well, we did not need to worry about them; they had been thoroughly vetted, many had worked with Western companies in the past, some had even lived in America. Their English was better than the average Jordanian, and they were accustomed to our strange cultural differences, like American women wearing shorts and tank tops to the embassy gym (otherwise we were advised to never wear shorts and tank tops in Jordan).

There was the guard who showed me video of his son’s gymnastic competitions. The guard who handed candy to my daughter, his pockets crammed with single-wrapped mints. The guard who meowed because he’d seen us feed stray cats. I brought them cookies, bottles of water, chocolate bars. I would have my daughter present the treats, and the guards would direct their thanks at her, press their hands to their hearts, say “Alhamdillah,” or Praise God,” pinch her cheek or ruffle her blond hair.

The guard who worked the gate closest to my house spoke very little English, and while I spoke very little Arabic we exchanged pleasantries almost every day. He was in his forties, clean-shaven, wore glasses, and would throw open his arms when he saw us. Most Jordanians said “You are welcome!” This guard would shout, “A million, million welcomes!” Then one of us would inevitably say something the other would not understand, we’d pantomime merrily for a few incoherent minutes, and I’d wave good-bye.

About a month after my husband left, my daughter and I came to this particular gate and found him on duty with another guard, a young man with beautiful green eyes whose English was better than most. The older guard reached into his back pocket as I drew close, produced a carefully folded piece of paper, and handed it to me. I hesitated, knowing this was out of the ordinary.

I opened the letter and began to read, the words in capital letters, the writing painstakingly exact:

You are beautiful. Your smile is the sun—

I looked up, startled, feeling a blush warm my neck. The guard was watching me, nodding. I glanced down to read more just as the younger guard tore the paper out of my hand. He began to yell at the older man in rapid, angry Arabic, pointing at the high embassy wall behind us, then stabbing his finger in the direction of my apartment. I froze, trying to keep a smile on my face and ignore whatever was going on.

The young man crumpled the paper in his fist. He stared with those green eyes into mine.

“He does not understand,” he said. There was something combative about his face, his words. I nodded, chastened, as if I did understand. I took my daughter’s hand and walked toward the embassy. Later, I exited the embassy by another gate, sneaking around to my apartment building without having to pass those guards.

He does not understand.

What could those words possibly mean? And how could I ever find out? He didn’t understand I was married? He didn’t understand it was odd for a near-stranger to tell a woman she was beautiful?

Or he didn’t understand that I smiled and chatted with everyone, that it wasn’t a declaration of affection on my part?


They relocated those guards.

I’d occasionally see the older guard at one of the farther gates. He always welcomed me but he did not put his arms out in the joyful way he had before; he did not say “A million, million welcomes!”

And he never wrote me a letter again.

How I wish I had held on to it, read it in its entirety, studied the intentions and misspellings. It could have been nothing more than a show of friendship, Jordanians often being more effusive than Westerners. I had strangers tell me I was like a daughter to them. Once, I spent a few hours with a woman and she yelled as I drove away, “I love you! I love you! I love you!”

He does not understand.

So I started writing a short story about Jordan as a way to figure it out.

That story became a three-hundred-page book, The Confusion of Languages, and could have been much longer. All those endless opportunities for miscommunication.

I lived in Jordan for a year. While I never wore a tank top or sat in the front seat of a taxi, I’m still not sure exactly what I understand—not just about the Middle East, but about men and women. About people. About the ways we get one another wrong every day, about the moments that seem small but for some reason linger.

About all the fragile messages we want so desperately to share with another human being, only to find the distance is just too far, and it’s too easy to lose the words before we ever get the chance to read them.


For more of Siobhan’s essays, fiction, photos of Jordan, or to order copies of her new novel, The Confusion of Languages, please see her website: www.siobhanfallon.com

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A Tale of Two Countries

January 31st, 2012 — 12:06pm

I’m an Army spouse and therefore I am used to moving around. In eight years of marriage, my husband and I have moved seven times, the most recent being our transplant from Amman, Jordan, to Falls Church, Virginia. None of the moves are easy. Right now we are hanging around our rental house, sitting on folding chairs, waiting for the furniture we brought to Jordan to wend its way back to comfort our backsides sometime next month. We have researched new schools, dentists, doctors, gyms, grocery stores, local dives. I have had to buy all those things you take for granted in the back of your pantry: salt, flour, sugar, cinnamon, parsley, multi-vitamins. The cats, Jordanian refugees who have never seen a squirrel, let alone a deer, sit on the window sills all day in mute amazement.

We are as settled as we can be. After nearly a month of hotels, movers, and airplanes, I am happy to have a home again, even though we have been complaining about our house ceaselessly, like, who the heck did this so-called paint job? And what professional cleaner left gunk in our freezer, goop that my husband adamantly claims is mucus dripping down the closet walls, and blood on the floor boards? Hmmm, perhaps our eight moves have set our expectations too low?

Lest you think I have forgotten my last year abroad, here is my list of all the…

Things I will miss about Jordan

Stray cats (of course).

The food.

People riding donkeys at rush hour. Or camels.

Seeing Beduoin camps in the middle of the strangest places, like on a rocky hill, along a stretch of lonely desert highway, or just glimpsed behind a row of nice houses. There would be the tattered tarp, perhaps a Toyota Hi-Lux parked outside, a few goats, a camel. Very Spartan except for the satellite TVs.

Fruit sellers on the corner, offering fresh figs and pomegranates and peaches for next to nothing.

Hijab dolls, cereal, candy, etc.

Random strangers telling me my four year old daughter is beautiful. Arabs genuinely LOVE children.

Being able to hop in our car, drive 30 minutes, and see something literally biblical (Bethany-on-the-Jordan, Lot’s Cave, the Dead Sea).

Feeding a family for four dollars (though you might have some intestinal problems for a few days afterwards. However, if we are talking about the incredible shwarma from the small town just outside of Petra, then the two days of diarrhea was worth it).

Climbing all over thousand year old scupltures, ruins, mosaics (just about whatever you damn well please, even if it is all roped off, and you are usually urged to do so by the official tour guide/guard)

The weather: six months of cloudless blue sky and temps in the 80s.

Pictures of King Abdullah (sometimes with his father and son) EVERYWHERE.

The friendly customer service, from MacDonalds to gas stations, felt like four start treatment.

All the interesting people, American and various other expats, who also found themselves in Jordan during the Arab Spring.

Things I will NOT miss about Jordan

Stray cats (especially when they wound up in my house for some kind of surgery).

Seeing the food before it looked like food (and suddenly understanding why it might give you intestinal problems).

The driving. Each day I took my daughter to preschool could have been my last.

Feeling like a total floozy because I was wearing a short sleeved shirt in the summertime.

Getting honked at by every single taxi that passed by, whether I was dressed like a floozy or covered head to toe.

Random strangers telling me my four year old daughter is beautiful, then grabbing her, kissing her, throwing her up in the air a few times, even if she looked terrified. Then handing her a piece of bubble gum, which she would inevitably put in her mouth and swallow before I could stop her. Maybe Arabs love children too much.

The Israeli border crossing, which was so prohibitively slow, confusing, and frustrating, even with our diplomatic passports, that we only dared to cross the border into Israel/Palestine twice. (I actually took a photo of the border crossing but am afraid that if I post it, the Mossad will hunt me down and seize my computer.)

Absence of sidewalks. If there is a sidewalk, you can be assured that it was put there so someone could plant a tree on it or park their car. Sidewalks are mostly decorative and not meant to be a walked on. Just ask all the people that like to walk in the street during rush hour even when there is a treeless sidewalk directly parallel to them.

A barrage of gunfire in the middle of the night, indistinguishable from either a wedding/funeral celebration or the US Embassy under siege.

Public toilets, especially at the above mentioned biblical sites.

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Farewell My Flower Man

June 19th, 2011 — 4:44am

When I first moved to the Middle East, my family in the states were a bit worried. Not that I could blame them. But I was moving to Jordan! Jordan with its smiling King Abdullah who was a guest on The Jon Stewart show TWICE. So what if Jordan borders Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Israel, regions either beset by long wars or tackling protests? Jordan’s Queen Rania looks like a supermodel. Surely, I thought, I have nothing to fear.

When I arrived in Amman, I attended a security briefing at the American Embassy that taught me the correct embassy evacuation routes, how to shield myself when the “Duck and Cover” alarm is broadcasted across the sound system, and emphatically advised to never stick to a ‘routine’ in case someone decides I’d make a good kidnapping target. Then I was shown a series of grotesque photos of blown-up cars and blood-stained sidewalks whose only discernable value was to scare the hell out of me.

Very interesting, I thought to myself. I some took notes during the briefing, planning on somehow using the most shocking details in my writing, but otherwise I wouldn’t let myself get too freaked out.

However, I soon learned that there is one thing that could strike fear into the depths of my being, one thing that would keep me cowering in the safety of my house until there is absolutely no food left in the fridge, one thing that made me dread getting behind the wheel of my car and venturing out…

Street hawkers.

Each day I drive two miles to my daughter’s pre-school. Two miles that seem to have been designed by the roadside hawkers themselves, full of traffic lights and roomy medians where whole gangs of Jordanian youths wait until my car appears and then descend upon my geriatric Land Rover.

Paper boys are the worst.

There is one in particular, a diminutive young man who always wears a tight white and black striped shirt. My mental nickname for him is Toulouse-Lautrec because he seems half midget, half angry mime. He runs to my window and starts rapping on it, demanding my full attention, pressing his newspapers against the glass. When I try to wave him away, he removes what looks to be a coupon for diapers from his pocket, motions as if lifting a full spoon to his lips, and starts shouting “Baby!”

There is another paper boy, a handsome youth with gelled back hair, snug jeans, a ready smile, who salutes my car every time I pull up at that dreaded red light. I made the mistake of buying a newspaper from him one morning. The price is 500 fills, which I gave him. He looked at the change in his hand in disgust and told me I owed him the same amount again. I pointed at the price stamped on the paper, 500 fills in black and white print, and, surprised by my resistance to hand over more money, he quickly pulled out a coupon similar to the dwarf’s and started the hungry-baby routine with me. Call me crazy, but someone trying to coerce me, charmingly or not, doesn’t rate on experiences I’d like to repeat, so I haven’t bought a paper from him since.

The Charmer

Though I do have to admit a grudging respect for these men and the skill involved in these non-skilled jobs. These savvy traffic entrepreneurs know when those lights change as if their hearts beat in stop lights, stepping to the side just as red changes to green, dancing between the moving vehicles like fearless acrobats. I just wish the fearlessness didn’t extend to the window banging. I know that many people in Jordan have only seen Americans acting badly on television and therefore I want my behavior to reflect positively on all of my countrymen, so I usually try to seem as kind and generous and friendly as possible. I’m convinced I exude an American niceness even with the window up, the doors locked, shaking my head in a most definite NO. But this self-proclaimed American niceness only seems to incite more window banging, which I counteract with a feebly apologetic wince while staring straight ahead and praying the red light will turn green.

Here are some of the things I have seen sold in the middle of the very busy intersection: just about every fruit and vegetable, kites, angel wings, Dora posters, coloring books, chicklets (A LOT of chicklets- this seems to be the item of hawking choice for children, old men, and anyone who has a limp), reflector shades for your car, cowboy hats (yes, cowboy hats, more like caballero hats, I swear they even had tassels, and the only person I have ever seen wear these hats in all of Jordan is the guy who is unsuccessfully trying to sell them), strange little bobble headed chickens on a string, metal looking flowers that spin when the wind blows and seem capable of lobbing of the fingers of children, Jordanian flags, soccer flags revealing the strange Jordanian passion for Barcelona and Real Madrid, and flowers, flowers, flowers.

Flowers, indeed.

One day, in my vaguely smiling way of trying to not buy anything, a flower man ripped the bud off a rose and pointed at my child sitting in the back of my car. “Bebe! Bebe!” the man shouted. I reluctantly rolled down the window, he handed me the rose, and I thanked him. He did this for three days in his calm manner, to the point that my daughter would wave him down and expect some delicate bud. And that’s when I started buying his flowers. How can you not buy flowers from a man who gives them to your child? Who smiles at you? Who, miraculously, doesn’t bang on your window? Thus a relationship began, my buying his wares once or twice a week. For the first time in my middle class life, I had fresh flowers in my house every day. Flowers for NO REASON—not just the rare Valentine’s Day or anniversary bouquets from my husband. Incredible. Perhaps wasteful. But for an average of 4Jordanian Dinar (or $6 US), how could I resist not acting like a good American when here was this man smiling at me, waving at my daughter, passing cellophaned red roses through my window fresh and cool during the mid-afternoon sweltering heat?

My friend, the flower man.

And on this same intersection as my flower man, I found my ideal paper boy— a youth completely indifferent to making any kind of profit whatsoever. He leans against the cement divider and calmly watches the cars that pass, occasionally fanning himself with a newspaper. He only has an English paper on-hand to sell me about once a week, smiling and winding his right arm in a circle, claiming, “Bukra!” or tomorrow on the days he does not. Once a week suits me just fine. It takes me roughly that long to read a newspaper, nonfiction not being quite my thing, but a weekly paper keeps me just connected enough to world events that I can hold an intelligible conversation without sounding like a total idiot.

The last week of my daughter’s preschool, I bought flowers almost every day, full of guilt, not having the words in Arabic to tell my flower man that I would no longer be driving past him each morning and afternoon. I cherished each time he waved at me, each time he saw my car and came over with his arms full of color. I cherished that someone in this city recognized me, that I had established a connection with my limited words and gestures and wallet.

But now summer break has started. I have spent an entire week with my car languishing in the garage under my apartment building. My fresh flowers died, the vases have been washed and put away. Each day I go from my apartment to the embassy where my daughter plays in the shady park or swims in the jewel-like pool. Otherwise I try to hide. I do not want to drive down Hawker’s Lane and feel the pressure of being someone’s idea of an American. I do not want to think of what the paperboys who bang on my window see, this American woman safe her big car, with her long hair uncovered and her averted eyes, immune even to their desperate entreaties to feed real or imagined babies, all of us knowing that I have dinar in my pocket. That drive, even when I buy flowers or a newspaper, even when I buy a package of sun-warmed strawberries or a Jordanian flag for the dashboard, makes me feel like a lousy American, and I am happy to keep my guilty self at home.

But not to worry, reader. Every once and awhile I will brace myself and shop at that grocery store on my flower man’s street. I hope that he will still raise his arms when he sees my car in the distance, that he will still hand me velvety red roses, smile, and give single buds to my daughter in the backseat.

And when the summer is over, my daughter will start a new pre-K, with a new route to learn, new window bangers, new flower men, new paperboys weaving through traffic as newsprint flutters in the breeze. I will figure out my favorites and the ones whose eyes to avoid, and try to seem like a kind American with my windows rolled up, doors locked, unspent money weighing heavy in my purse.

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