24 March 2007

the trees get wheeled away.

It's come to my attention that my resident director (hi, Allison!) is under the impression that I'm miserable here and hate everything about this country as a result of reading this blog, and it occurred to me that others out there may be thinking the same. Allow me to clarify (at length, but we all know brevity's never been my strong suit) - the vast majority of my experiences here are utterly fascinating, albeit not always entirely positive. But that goes with anywhere I've been. I'm by no means unhappy, just frustrated beyond belief.

I'm now past the longest I've spent in any other country, and now that I'm "living" here, not merely studying or visiting, I'm getting a much more in depth view of Jordan. The negative experiences I've had stand out because, to me, they represent the greater problem I've struggled to deal with here. Everywhere else I've been, cultural differences have been just that - differences. There was a sense of cultural relativism pervading most of my experiences - although I don't always agree with some aspects of foreign cultures, I've never been outright offended or in complete disagreement before Jordan.

But coming here, I've realized that cultural relativism has its place, and it may well be the trash can. Parts of Jordanian culture are at complete odds with my core values, but I feel as though I'm expected to respect those different from me without that respect being reciprocated. I'm all for embracing diversity, but it's a two way street, and there comes a point where I can no longer smile and nod at practices antithetical to everything I believe.

On the surface, this relates directly to gender relations and sexual repression in the Arab world. As a lifelong advocate of reproductive rights and equality of opportunity (note the obvious absence of the word "feminist"), I can't help but be appalled by gender relations in Islam. When I leave the guys' apartment late (i.e. anytime after dark), Matt or Fleming always walks me down the hill to hail a cab. They'd walk me to my car in the states too, because they're chivalrous men. What gets me here is that their motivation is more than that - it's the knowledge that I alone do not garner respect. They hail the cab, they negotiate with the driver, and as I get in, they tell the driver that I am their sister and to make sure I get home safely. Out of respect for my "brother," only one driver of the many has ever blatantly hit on me or tried to touch me. (On second thought, I'm appalled by my own willingness to accept even one).

Although this surface disrespect for women angers me, it is representative of a greater problem - a lack of personal responsibility. If I am harassed by a man, the fault lies with me - I must have been tempting him. I don't think of myself as unattractive, but I'm pretty confident that I'm not such a prize that men can't control themselves near me. The degree to which women have internalized this (not just Arab women - I've seen it in the westerners here and even myself) frightens me. When I've told others about the other night, one of the first questions I get asked is "What were you wearing?" As if that were even remotely relevant (although I've caught myself justifying my anger by saying I was conservatively dressed). If I answered, "a miniskirt, stilettos, and a low-cut silk camisole," would that make the harassment justified? Others have subtly looked me up and down to appraise if my attire suggests I'm somehow easy. In the states, these same women would be furious at the suggestion that a victim was "asking for it," but here, it seems a perfectly natural response to blame the women. The only people who consistently and fully blame the men are my western male friends (hamda allah!). A tour guide at the Hussein mosque said that Islam mandates women cover because they must be protected and preserved (like valuables in a bank vault, in his words). My feelings on that notion aside, if we're so valuable, how do you reconcile that idea with the reality that we're treated like meat?

But there's a bigger problem - a fundamental disconnect between values and actions, appearance and reality - that is growing more apparent every day. All over campus, I see unmarried veiled women sitting alone with men who aren't their brothers, between cars in the parking lot, under staircases, behind trees, etc. This is absolutely haram. Yet I'm the one who gets accusing glares for wearing something as slutty as a polo shirt and jeans. It seems it is preferable to preach lofty ideals in public and duck behind a wall to violate everything you stand for, than actually start a dialogue on the role of these values in a modern society. This is where I simply cannot assimilate - I have far more respect for those who practice what they preach than for those who profess lofty ideals for others, but don't embody them themselves (herein lies my problem with the Christian right). Devout people from any faith who actually live their values are admirable in my book (my feelings on organized faith aside). In defense of my "heathen" lifestyle, I can sleep at night just fine, and I'll only accept judgement from those who can say the same. If that makes me a racist and Islamaphobe, then I'll wear the badges with pride.

I've discussed this with friends here many times, and it boils down to the entire notion of "in sha allah." If god wills it. Will the water be fixed, will we cover this topic in class, does the cab driver know where he's going, will I see you tomorrow, will men stop treating women as objects? In sha allah. These things are not under the will of god - they are completely within the realm of man's control of his own life. But it's far easier to pass the burden on to god - if it doesn't happen, he didn't will it. End of story, no need to worry. For a girl raised with a profound sense of personal, social, and fiscal (thanks Dad!) responsibility, this notion that people are not actually accountable for their own problems is absurd.

At long last, herein lies my struggle with this experience. I've spent the last few years studying Arabic in hopes of improving my country's relationship with this region. I'm now convinced that both sides are equally responsible, and both sides are going to have to make significant strides towards understanding. I desperately want to be part of the solution to the tension between East and West. Now, I've discovered that I won't, in fact, be able to "change the world" (or even make a dent) unless there's someone on the other side who wants the same thing. This loss of control (of my own destiny and dreams, in a sense), is what's so frustrating. I don't hate or even really dislike Jordanians - I'm saddened that I'm witnessing a culture dig its own grave while clamoring for someone else to blame. I'm also not suggesting that America and the West are innocent here - I'll be the first to admit that our policy in this region has been historically uniformed, misguided, and downright wrong. I think I said this in regards to Israel and Palestine last summer, but if we're both trapped in the same sinking ship, what's to gain from deciding who poked the first hole?

So there you go - I'm not miserable here, Candace and I are actually thinking about staying for the summer. I'm fascinated and confused, as befits my usual state. I miss American food in a way I never have before, and I'm craving the first amendment in a big way, but I wouldn't trade this experience for anything (well, maybe a truckload of good tortilla chips and some hard cider delivered by a caravan of my favorite Gators).

PS. I don't think I've ever mentioned this, but it's great. My doorbell chirps like a bird. Every doorbell in the building does. Someone had a sense of humor.

PPS. Fun fact - we were talking about "watonii (my nation)" in Arabic class, and I had the unique distinction of being the only person who had visited every country represented (Turkey, Belgium, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, although the Japanese guy was absent today). I felt pretty good about myself. Even better, we talked about politics, but shockingly, not in the Middle East - we actually discussed Taiwanese independence and the North/South Korea situation. Still can't go to the grocery store though, but I'm going to do something to address that myself.


Anonymous said...

Bravo Aleki!
This is hard, very hard. The chasms are deep and great. There is a particularly western notion that once you speak, see and "understand" all will make sense and conflict be resolved. Unfortunately, sometimes experience and understanding only means a greater grasp of where and how deep the disagreements are. Keep asking these kinds of questions!

Joey said...

As always, I enjoy your writing. I wish I could be over there to experience all this with you!

From one apparently heathen Gator to another, continue being strong. Don't for a second think that you *can't* change the world.

You rock, Jess.