Tag: Jordan


Paper(Strikes)Back!

June 4th, 2018 — 5:50am


It’s time for the PAPERBACK release, my friends!

Updated cover, new author conversation, discussion guide, and excerpt from You Know When the Men Are Gone in the back materials. Hurray!

Events are currently being updated on my website, please check them out (Bethany Books on June 22 and One More Page in Virginia on June 25!)

I have an article about a day in my Jordan life that just ran in Stars and Stripes: 3 blondes in an ancient car in an ancient land. What could go wrong?

I also have a ‘My First Time’ short essay about writing, traveling, and attempting tasks that start hard but are worth every stressed and sweaty minute, on David Abram’s esteemed Quivering Pen blog.

If you’ve missed it, I made my own book trailer (yes, I know, not exactly my lane; you can stop laughing now). Here it is on YouTube.

A friend of mine from The New School writing program wrote an outstanding review of Confusion, here’s Jude Joseph Lovell’s book blog review: https://www.judejosephlovell.com/books

And I’ll be on Army Wives Radio doing an interview LIVE on Monday, August 13, 8:30 PM Eastern time.

Sorry to throw all of this information at you at once, can you tell I am chugging directly from a liter bottle of Diet Coke as I type???

Well, folks, I’m heading stateside in a couple of weeks. Hope to see some of you there!

Thank you, thank you, thank you for loving books.

Happy reading,

Siobhan

P.S. For those of you savvy enough to be on that hip young thing called “Instagram” or maybe the young ones call it “insta,”  I have recently tried my old hand at it. You can find me at @siobhanfallonwriter There’s a give-away going on at the moment so please pop on over before it finishes up on June 7, 2018.

P.S.S. The cat and the kids really, REALLY wants you to spread the word about The Confusion of Languages

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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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The MilspoFAN interview

February 16th, 2017 — 1:11am

This interview first posted on the Military Fine Artists Network, or MilspoFAN, on January 31, 2017. Thanks for letting me repost here!

MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.
Siobhan: The journey has been a fairly scenic one. I met my husband in 2000, while I was bartending at my father’s Irish pub right outside the front gate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. My husband, KC, had just graduated and was staying on for a few months coaching soccer at the USMA prep school before heading to Fort Benning. I was working my way through getting an MFA in Creative Writing at the New School in NYC, and my future husband, hearing this, told me he loved to write. I’d met plenty of West Point cadets and soldiers and officers over the years, but this one won me over with talk of literature.

KC went to Fort Benning, Georgia, and then Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and we were married on the beach in Oahu just before he deployed for a year to Afghanistan in 2004. I’m going to list the other posts we went to after getting married, it’s too exhausting to give a description of each and I have a feeling your readers know the deal: Fort Benning, GA (again); Fort Hood, TX (my husband did two year long deployments to Iraq during our three year assignment at Hood); Monterey, CA; Amman, Jordan; Falls Church, VA; and now we are in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

MilspoFAN: How has your role as a military spouse impacted your work as a writer- creatively, logistically, or otherwise?
Siobhan: Well, creatively each post has been inspiring, and all of them are so vividly different from each other that I usually can’t help but write about them. I like to think that the settings of my work are as important as the characters themselves. All equally determine the story. Perhaps I take the adage “write what you know” a little too seriously? I enjoy examining the different ways people live, whether it be how people are on a military base vs. outside it, or how Western women living in the Middle East blend (or don’t) into a different culture. You Know When the Men Are Gone is set in Fort Hood, Texas, during a deployment of a brigade and I worked very hard to get the real Fort Hood, from the vast, scrubby firing ranges to the clever street names like Tank Destroyer or Hell-On-Wheels, into the stories. I’ve also written about Hawaii: one of the characters in You Know When the Men Are Gone met her husband when he was stationed at Schofield, and my story in the anthology Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, is also set in Oahu. The new novel, The Confusion of Languages, takes place in Amman, Jordan, where my family and I lived in 2011. Of course we were stationed at all of the above, so I feel like the writing that came out of these places were gifts from the United States Army. It’s also helpful that a writing career is portable; I can take it with me no matter what corner of the world the military throws us into.

On the downside I inevitably miss opportunities in America. It’s difficult to do a reading or book signing at an indie book store in Chicago when you live in Jordan or Abu Dhabi. And while planning the release of my new novel this summer, I know I have a very small window of time when I will be on U.S. soil during the school break of my small daughters. Combine that with the responsibilities of seeing family and friends, who I usually only get to see once a year, and my blood pressure starts to rise with thoughts of all the ground I have to cover in a such a short amount of time. I really have to be focused about what I can accomplish in advance, and get the word out as much as possible before I even get on a plane. Naturally, I also participate in fewer panels and conferences than I would like because of the tremendous distance. But every once in a while some generous writing program will send me a plane ticket, and of course there is social media, email, and Skype for staying in touch with readers or book clubs.

My husband is very supportive and there are times we can work in an extra trip stateside for me, as long as we can balance childcare and travel expenses with his long work hours. So yes, the distance and unpredictable nature of military life does make it more difficult. You do what you can. We military spouses know how to roll with the punches, and my family and I have been pretty darn blessed with some excellent locations. So like everything in life, it’s a trade off.

MilspoFAN: Of your 2011 work, You Know When the Men are Gone, the New York times wrote “This lean, hard-hitting short-story collection outshone some of the year’s most imposing doorstop-size novels.” How does your writing style and writing process for your first work of short stories compare to your upcoming full-length work, Confusion of Languages?

Siobhan: A novel is a pain in the ass. Honestly, I didn’t think I had any idea how hard it would be. I thought going from stories to novels was a natural progression, something that I’d be able to do without much effort, especially after I practiced so much by writing all those lousy novel drafts that are still lurking on my old hard drives. Right? And everyone was always telling me that my stories read like small novels, and that they wanted more. So I thought I’d just write, you know, more, as in a really, really long short story. HA!

You can read a short story in one sitting. Of course there are things that happen off the page, but the author can keep track of every detail in thirty pages, sometimes to the point where I remember whole snatches almost word for word. You can sit down and sip your coffee and read and say aha! I need to change this and this and then go get another cup of coffee and come back and make those changes. Thirty pages is a small town with a no name grocery store. But three hundred pages! I could never get my mind around the three hundred pages. Three hundred pages is New York City on New Year’s Eve. You can’t possibly keep track of what made it into the novel or not in one sitting, especially after all the editing and rewriting and gnashing of teeth. There are notebooks and index cards and piles of drafts taller than your four year old daughter of everything you deleted and reinserted and deleted again, how can you possibly remember everything?

But you do it. It takes time. Painstaking editing and screaming at your children not to come in and disturb Mommy again for another damn cup of apple juice! You feel like the worst writer (and mom) in the world and the biggest failure and no one will read you and those who do won’t ever be able to look you in the eye again because now they know you have absolutely no talent—and then you write the most beautiful paragraph you have ever written, or figure out why one of your characters behaves in a certain way, or how this one very important plot line can tie seamlessly into another. And that epiphany keeps you going. And when all those terrible thoughts seize your brain again, amazingly enough another epiphany will smile at you.

You need to remember that the things you want to say are there on the page, black and white and real, and it’s worth all the self doubt and agony and hangdog looks of your poor neglected children. Tomorrow you will take the kids to the park, you promise! Writing should be hard. Readers are going to dedicate hours and hours, days maybe, of their precious lives, reading what you have penned, letting your words fill their heads and linger in their thoughts. Those words better be your best.

MilspoFAN: What’s next for you?
Siobhan: The new novel, Confusion of Languages, will be out June 27, 2017. It started as a short story I wrote in Jordan in May of 2011. That means it’s taken me about six years. Dear God, that’s the first time I’ve done the math. SIX YEARS!! Plus more rewrites than I could even count at this point. I’d started each rewrite from scratch– I’m talking blinking cursor on a blank computer screen, five, six, seven times. I would work from a draft that I printed out (300 $%#@ pages!) next to my computer, but I would retype everything all over again because it felt like the only way to really be in the story, to allow myself to write new material and edit/ catch every nuance of the material I might want to reuse/retype. When I just cut and paste, I feel like I am less critical, I don’t get seized by words in the same way or see the story as something malleable that I can drastically change if need be.

That said, now I’m taking a little bit of a break. It feels good to let new ideas sort of well up in me again, rather than focusing so completely on The Confusion of Languages. I’m writing some non-fiction essays about life in Jordan, thinking about ideas for future projects, letting this incredibly weird and wonderful world of Abu Dhabi inspire me. But it’s nice to not be caught in the thrall of something as overwhelming as working on a novel, if at least for a little while.

MilspoFAN: Is there anything else that you would like to share with MilspoFAN readers?
Siobhan: Reach out to other Military spouses who are in the arts as much as possible. There are more of us than you think. And we are pretty freaking fantastic! Read Andria Williams most excellent blog Military Spouse Book Review (https://militaryspousebookreview.com/),every word that lady writes is brilliant (you should see her Lego creations) but Andria also shares the space with other mil spouse writers who chime in to review books or write blogs of their own on her page. It always feels good to know we’re not the only ones who worry about these insane mil lives of ours. For something a little more ‘highbrow’ but definitely worth being aware of, I recommend Peter Molin’s blog Time Now (https://acolytesofwar.com/), which reviews all military related arts, from photography to film to writing to dance to theater productions. Molin is incredibly supportive of mil spouses as well as female vets, so it’s not just a list of macho men war novels, if you know what I mean (I’m sure those of you who married to infantry men like me know exactly what I mean).

I want to thank you, Jessica, and I also want to thank all of you who are reading. We need to support each other, and this site is doing that beautifully. We are far flung, we don’t have the natural support system of the home town neighborhoods where we grew up, the libraries and churches and cafes and town halls where we could gather and spread the word about our different projects, so we have to improvise and create our forums online, in places like this. So let’s spread the word and support each other here, and show everyone how much mil spouses have to offer, how we’re not at all the way stereotypes paint us to be, how diverse and talented and amazing we can be.

MilspoFan: https://milspofan.wordpress.com/
Time Now https://acolytesofwar.com/
Military Spouse Book Review https://militaryspousebookreview.com/

Learn more about Siobhan’s books at: http://siobhanfallon.com/books.html

Excerpt from You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon

Three a.m. and breaking into the house on Cheyenne Trail was even easier than Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash thought it would be. There were no sounds from above, no lights throwing shadows, no floorboards whining, no water running or the snicker of late-night TV laugh tracks. The basement window, his point of entry, was open. The screws were rusted, but Nick had come prepared with his Gerber knife and WD-40; got the screws and the window out in five minutes flat. He stretched onto his stomach in the dew-wet grass and inched his legs through the opening, then pushed his torso backward until his toes grazed the cardboard boxes in the basement below, full of old shoes and college textbooks, which held his weight.
He had planned this mission the way the army would expect him to, the way only a soldier or a hunter or a neurotic could, considering every detail that ordinary people didn’t even think about. He mapped out the route, calculating the minutes it would take for each task, considering the placement of streetlamps, the kind of vegetation in front, and how to avoid walking past houses with dogs. He figured out whether the moon would be new or full and what time the sprinkler system went off. He staged this as carefully as any other surveillance mission he had created and briefed to soldiers before.
Except this time the target was his own home.
. . .
He should have been relieved that he was inside, unseen, that all was going according to plan. But as he screwed the window back into place, he could feel his lungs clench with rage instead of adrenaline.
How many times had he warned his wife to lock the window? It didn’t matter how often he told her about Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, who had gained access to his victims through open basement windows. Trish argued that the open window helped air out the basement. A theory that would have been sound if she actually closed the window every once in a while. Instead she left it open until a rare and thundering storm would remind her, then she’d jump up from the couch, run down the steps, and slam it shut after it had let in more water than a month of searing-weather-open-window-days could possibly dry.
Before he left for Iraq, Nick had wanted to install an alarm system but his wife said no.
“Christ, Trish,” he had replied. “You can leave the windows and all the doors open while I am home to protect you. But what about when I’m gone?”
She glanced up at him from chopping tomatoes, narrowed her eyes in a way he hadn’t seen before, and said flatly, “We’ve already survived two deployments. I think we can take care of ourselves.”
Take care of this, Nick thought now, twisting the screw so violently that the knife slipped and almost split open his palm, the scrape of metal on metal squealing like an assaulted chalkboard. He hesitated, waiting for the neighbor’s dog to start barking or a porch light to go on. Again nothing. Nick could be any lunatic loose in the night, close to his unprotected daughter in her room with the safari animals on her wall, close to his wife in their marital bed.
Trish should have listened to him.
. . .
This particular reconnaissance mission had started with a seemingly harmless e-mail. Six months ago, Nick had been deployed to an outlying suburb of Baghdad, in what his battalion commander jovially referred to as “a shitty little base in a shitty little town in a shitty little country.” One of his buddies back in Killeen had offered to check on Trish every month or so, to make sure she didn’t need anything hammered or lifted
or drilled while Nick was away.
His friend wrote:
Stopped by to see Trish. Mark Rodell was there. Just
thought you should know.
That was it. That hint, that whisper.
Mark Rodell.

Coming June 27, 2017:
Excerpt from The Confusion of Languages, Siobhan Fallon

We are close, so close, to Margaret’s apartment, and I feel myself sink deeper into the passenger seat, relieved that I have succeeded in my small mission of getting Margaret out of her home, if only for a few hours. The day is a success. Sure, I
had to let her drive, something I usually avoid. Margaret is always too nervous, too chatty, looking around at the pedestrians, forgetting to put on her signal, stomping on the brakes too late. But today I actually managed to snap her out of her sadness.
I have done everything a good friend ought to do.
It’s not until we reach the intersection at Horreyya and Hashimeyeen that I realize my mistake. I’ve misjudged the time, something I never do. Friday prayers have already let out. We’d stopped by the ceramics house to pick up a box of pottery I’d
ordered and Margaret, being Margaret, sat down for too long with the hijab-ed women at their worktable, letting them touch Mather, pinching his cheeks and thighs, rubbing silica dust all over his tender baby skin. Now the intersection ahead is congested, chaotic. I see men strolling from the mosques, climbing into the cars they triple-parked along the main road.
I sit up straight, the seatbelt pressing against my chest. The traffic light turns yellow as we approach and cars alongside us speed by. Margaret could step on the gas and easily make the light but both of us see a man on the sidewalk, waving his
entire arm in the air.
“Just go—” I urge, but Margaret shakes her head, slowing the car, the corner of her mouth turning up.
“It’s uncanny how he always spots me.” She says something like this every single time and I usually reply, The man’s livelihood depends on his ability to spot the softhearted suckers. But today I am silent. Mather shouts from his car seat but she ignores him too.
Her window is down before we’ve come to a complete stop. The man reaches into the cluster of dented white buckets at his corner-side stand, pulls free a few dripping-wet bouquets, then dodges traffic until he’s at Margaret’s side. He leans through the window, wearing a red and white checked kaffiyeh around his throat. Margaret’s wallet is on her lap, ready.
“Hello, baby!” the man shouts at Mather, avoiding looking at both of us women with our loose hair and bared elbows. His flowers are spread perfectly across his arm, inches from the very face he will not to peer into. The car fills with the scent of crushed rose petals, exhaust, and his sweat, a faint mix of onions and soil. I do not point out that most of his offerings are wilted, tinged with brown. I notice the cluster of pristine white blossoms at the same time Margaret does, fragile, lacy blooms on very green stems, and she nods toward them, holding up her money. It takes only seconds.
As he passes the chosen bouquet to Margaret through the window, Mather yells again from the backseat, wanting something; that child is always wanting something. The man turns to the baby but he doesn’t stop there; he lifts his face and stares behind our car, his brown eyes widening with fear as he stumbles backward. Before I can look around, there is a ripping scream of brakes and our car leaps forward with a thud of crushed metal. Our heads rock on our spines and there are flowers in flight across the dashboard, white blossoms spread open like tiny, reaching hands.

#confusionoflanguages

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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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The Curious Incident of the Cats on the Table

July 24th, 2011 — 11:35am

"Fixing" my cat problem

Imagine the American Embassy in Amman. You may have trouble, and I can’t help you out with an image because no one is allowed to take any pictures, but, trust me, it is SOLID. As impenetrable as something civilian/non-war zone can look. Smooth stoned creamy walls, squarely set upon each other, small windows that call to mind the slits in ancient fortresses just big enough for an archer to aim out of. But beyond the placid stone that separates the embassy from the world outside, there are road barriers, uparmored Jordanian military vehicles with helmeted soldiers sitting in turrets behind glossy machine guns, civilian guards in uniform manning gates, dogs sniffing under vehicles that enter (and this doesn’t even include the inner sacrum of the embassy, where the US Marines stand behind bullet proof glass with their hands on Battle Star Gallactica key boards that activate alarms, automatically close doors, and do all sorts of high tech things I can’t even make up).

Now imagine two women, one American with hair blowing into her eyes, wearing jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt, one Jordanian in her hijab and long trench coat covering her from ankle to wrist. Both are about 5’2, and one holds a long, unweildy metal trap, the other an animal carrier that seems large enough to hold a class of kindergartners. They are crossing the barriers and saying hello to the guards, walking into the bomb proofed entries and banging their cages through the metal detectors. And the guards actually let them in. About an hour later, now sweating and reeking of tuna fish, the women depart the embassy, back through the metal detectors, past the two separate guard shacks that check IDs, past the two parked uparmoured vehicles with the bored soldiers peering out. This time there is a howling, scratching, incredibly angry cat in each cage.

The women will take those cats to the American’s house in an effort to neuter, flea dip, give them shots, check for bites and wounds and random cat diseases. First they will try to inject a sedative through the cages but inevitably that doesn’t work, which means they will have to get each cat into a soft black fabric bag, tighten it until the cat is a hissing ball stuck at the bottom, unable to move or bite, and give it the shot. But of course this is never easy, and one or both cats will manage to escape and run through the American’s home, knocking down family pictures and plants and eventually hiding behind the couch, where it will occasionally vomit from whatever knock-out drug made it into its system before it escaped. But when it is finally unconscious, the vet will stretch it out on the dining room table, perhaps tying up its little paws, spread eagle, and she will operate right there, scapel and scissors, gauze and rubber gloves.

You see, the vets in Jordan do house calls.

Let me backtrack a bit.

For those of you that don’t know this, I am a crazy cat lady.

I have had a weakness for strays, from the flea bitten to the off-kilter human variety, my entire life.

When I was living in Texas, during my husband’s most recent deployment to Iraq, there was a time when I was feeding and housing seven cats. But, through a combination of kindly neighbors coerced into adoption, coyotes, and an untreatable brain tumor, I was down to a more manageable two cats by the time my husband returned.

He was relieved. I was slightly disturbed by the high feline turn-over, doubting whether I was doing these poor animals any good if the majority seemed to die on me. But since my husband was adamant about the two cat limit, I promised I wouldn’t try to ‘save’ any more strays.

Then we came to Jordan, and in the process of moving had to leave our two surviving cats with families in the States.

One of the first things I noticed about life in this new country was the stray cats (of course). Every dumpster you walk by has some wretched little animal mewing and digging for food. At night the howling of cats can resonate as clearly as the loud-speakered call to prayer.

And then, a mere two weeks after my daughter and I arrived, my husband was sent to Italy to wage war with NATO, leaving me and my little cat problem alone and unchecked. When the man deploys, I collect cats. An army wife left to her own devices can get into worse trouble, no?

Embassy Strays

There are a group of strays that reside in the embassy. They have their own little bowls that kindly employees fill daily with food and water. The embassy cats had it pretty good, lots of free wheeling tom cat debauchery and unbridled kitten making.

Until I came along.

At first I just pet the cats when my daughter and I happened to be there for some kind of appointment or play-date. Then I started carrying a ziplock bag of cat food around in my purse, making a point of going to the embassy when I couldn’t think of anything more entertaining, as if it was my own personal petting zoo: “Let’s go feed the kitties!” Then, I swear to God, one of the smaller cats, just out of kittenhood, started waiting for me each day. I would see her sitting at the gated entrance exactly as I had left her the night before. When we left, she would try to follow me through the guard rooms with their metal detectors and I’d sadly shoo her away. When I tried to touch her, she would crawl up into my lap and nuzzle my neck, purring like a maniac. That’s when I noticed her ear was bloody. That’s when I knew, embassy or not, she wasn’t safe from those Toms.

So I brought her home. My husband returned from his Italian deployment a few days later (did the threat of a cat invasion bring him home early? Perhaps.)

The embassy recommended a vet, the lovely Dr. Faiza (who surely had no idea what she was getting into with me). Now every couple of weeks, she and I go to the Embassy and catch cats. We bring them home to my apartment and she operates on my dining room table. They sleep off their meds in my guest bathroom and usually my poor, beleaguered, infinitely kind husband has to help me bring them back onto the embassy grounds a day or two later for release. Each time my husband has to try to explain that we are not randomly releasing strange cats into the embassy, but that these are the same mangy animals we snatched the day before, new and improved and neutered (not an easy task to explain in arabic).

We still only have one cat (at least living in our current home, I know that technically that brings our totally up to three when we are reunited with our cats in the states, but come on, I think this is a step in the right direction for me!).

Cats eating the hard boiled eggs I had originally packed for my family to eat during a hike.

One of our friends refers to our home as The House of Cat Horrors. I have also had more than one friend say to me, “Oh my God, please don’t tell me the vet operates on the same table where you just fed us lasagna.” Uh, yes, the dining room table is just the right height for ball removal, sorry folks. So glad you liked that lasagna, come back again real soon.

Cat's view of The Monastery, Petra. Best seat in the house.

And cats? They tempt me where ever I go. They tried to crawl into my backpack when we were in Petra last week and I took more photos of the Petra kittens than I did of my daughter in front of the ancient Nabatean site. My husband wasn’t happy that I fed them his coveted Slim Jims, but I know he was relieved I didn’t even try to take one back with us to Amman.

MORE SLIM JIM!!!!

I am learning. I came, I saw, I neutered. But I will not take them home (well, except for the one)…

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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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