Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A series of conversations on gender in Jordan and Iraq

My work here doesn’t focus on gender, but it’s a topic I’m interested in. By asking questions about how men and women, girls and boys experience life differently, you can understand much more about a community’s opportunities and vulnerabilities. Sometimes I ask about it specifically, and sometimes it just comes up in conversation. Here is a collection of these thoughts:

An Iraqi Colleague:
My friend just forwarded me an announcement that Iraqis who worked for American companies are eligible to apply for refugee status to the US. I worked for an American company in Baghdad for three years, but I don’t know what to do. How hard is it to find work in America? And are the schools co-ed? When you live in Iraq, you feel like you are in a prison. You cannot go to the north (the Kurdish region); Syria and Jordan do not give you visas. I want a better life for my kids, but I don’t want them to totally lose their culture. To go to co-ed schools, this isn’t what we believe.
(Yesterday she was beaming. Her husband and kids were finally granted a visa to enter Jordan, three months after her arrival here).

An Iraqi (referring both to his nationality and expertise) political analyst: Female empowerment is key in (a specific region of Iraq). Women are second class for sure, and not very educated. For example, if she were cleaning that desk there, she wouldn’t really know what clean is, what the meaning of “perfect” is. But she is strong, like a donkey, I’m sorry to say it like that. If you were to give her some education and a few more rights – it would change the living conditions for the whole region.

An United Nations staff: the recent report on gender-based violence in Iraq surprised us all. I had no idea there were so many reported cases. And I say that knowing that the vast majority of cases are not reported, and that the vast majority of cases that were reported are from the north (the Kurdish region) where we have much more access to information, so who knows the rates in the south . . .
(Approximately 21,000 incidences of GBV were reported from May 2003 to June 2008, including: domestic violence, rape and sexual violence, serious burns linked to oil-stove explosions, and ‘honor killings,’ when a woman is killed because she has brought dishonor to the family).

A Jordanian colleague: I wrote my thesis ‘honor killings’ in Jordan (when a woman is killed because she has brought dishonor to the family). They happen more in the poor areas of Amman and the rural areas outside Amman. I interviewed fifty judges, all educated in the US and Europe, and they nearly all said the equivalent of “she deserved it.” It’s the mentality. It’s accepted, so the men guilty of the murder are given light punishments and celebrated for saving the honor of their families.

A democracy specialist on Jordanian politics: The new generation could change things. In the last election, we had one woman elected above the quota for female parliamentarians. Yes, seven compared to fifty is not much, but still, to go beyond the quota system is something.

A Scandinavian social scientist: The Filipino maids who live in the apartment above me eat with me every day, as their family doesn’t feed them. I want to organize a research project with my Filipino maid – interview maybe 200 Filipino maids to document exactly how widespread is the mistreatment and harassment.

A Jordanian helping me figure out how to get a visa: His father's Lebanese, then no problem! Oh, it's his mother? (Laughing) Mother's don't count; we don't care about the women.

An American who has worked here for years: The more I learn about Jordanian and Iraqi cultures, the more secretive I become. You might expect that you let your walls down more with people, but I find I just raise them higher.
(Ok, this one has less to do with gender but I thought it very interesting).

Friday, July 11, 2008

Two-year reunion

I left Ethiopia on July 2nd, 2006, after a little over two years. Just a little over two years later, I returned for the first time. My boyfriend is there for the summer, and I couldn’t resist the chance to both visit him and reconnect with old friends while I’m such a short flight away. It was just three days, but was so lovely. I visited my old offices, my old house, saw friends, ate delicious food (and got a little sick from some food), and went to new and old haunts. One day, we escaped the city for a newly finished lake-front lodge. I’d actually visited it when it was under construction two years ago, with a friend who is close to the owner. She’s to be married there in October, and I find myself searching for flights, wanting to be there, connected, part of their life, part of life in Addis. . . a thought for later. For now, it was lovely to be somewhere that I know well – a culture and language I came to understand in some way over my time there. It reinforced my desire to live in the Middle East for longer – to be connected to a country here like I’m connected to Ethiopia. Another thought for later. . .

Best 25 JD I’ve Spent

Last night's adventure was a concert in the Roman ruins of Jerash. A series of beautiful Algerian bands, the crowd on its feet, lights and shadows, sound, night stars – all in a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. It was pretty incredible. Diana Krall played the other night in Amman’s Citadel. When the call to prayer rang out, the stage lights went down and the band stood silent.
This week's been full of adventures. Monday: dinner with two guys who've been working on Iraq since 2003, for a series of different players. They've both grown pretty cynical of all parties' intentions. Tuesday: drinks with a Scandinavian woman married to a Syrian. She was full of advice on Syrian and Jordanian culture and how cautious to be. Wednesday: dinner with an American woman, dating an Iraqi, full of stories of his family here. Thursday: the concert. Tomorrow, hiking in a wadi near the Dead Sea. Next week: dinner with an Iraqi colleague and a Palestinian colleague. I'm spoiled, though it's amazing how easy it is to forget that sometimes.


I have never been to Iraq, and so have no real sense of how it differs from my present surroundings. Some days as I leave work, having thought and read about Iraq all day, surrounded by Iraqi colleagues and maps of Iraq covering the walls – some days, I forget where I am. I once passed a line of people waiting in front of the US embassy, and caught myself assuming they were Iraqi. I might work on Iraq, but once I leave my office compound, I must transition back to Jordan.

But what I know of Jordan is limited as well. My friends visited last weekend, full of questions on Jordan, and we set out to discover them together, as I certainly wasn’t a source. I’ve pieced together some things, from reading and asking questions of Jordanian friends – mostly though, from what you absorb by living in a place. But I miss having that strong overall frame, in which you can insert each piece as you gather it. And so I’m stuck between worlds, with little sense of the country on which I work and of the country in which I live. I am building that frame slowly though, and it’s exciting. And to be fair, I have only been here a month. . . a summer is much too short.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Taxi Drivers

I’m told taxi drivers are more talkative to male passengers, but I’ve rarely sat silent during a ride. They ask me where I’m from, and then I ask them the same. The answer is invariably "Palestine," sometimes in reference to areas in the West Bank, sometimes beyond. They’ve come from 1948 on and tend to have family as dispersed as mine – some still in the West Bank, some in Kuwait, some farther afield – Brazil, America, Canada. Few have returned – it’s easier for their families in the West Bank to visit them here than vice versa. They hold Jordanian citizenship but are clear that home is on the other side of the river.

I’ve grown accustomed to discussing Palestine on my taxi rides, and so was surprised today when one of my taxi drivers revealed that he is Bedouin, from the South. I had been at a hotel for a workshop, and as I was leaving, the hotel clerk offered me a taxi for four times the meter price. I declined and stood on the street corner, waiting. The same clerk pointed to a taxi coming out of the parking lot and said – there, a metered one. So I got in, and started chatting. Soon, it became apparent that I was, in fact, in the hotel taxi and there was not, in fact, a meter. The driver said double the meter price so I said stop, I’ll get out. And he said: Fine, one dinar – good? Yes, I responded, one dinar would be good. Half a dinar – good? I laughed, the tension dispelled. We returned to talking of geography and family. He said his father had sixteen children, laughing, that he was busy. I asked if they were all of the same mother. Yes he said, so I laughed that it was his mother that was busy. He has eight children himself (also busy), and loves Amman – the safety of it, the freedom. He had had a good day – two long drives that brought in good money – and he seemed carefree (I suspect he seems that way on slower days as well). Today, he didn’t want to talk about money but of what he loves in life – he listed out his vices. Few people here ask me my religion; he did, but then said it didn’t matter – he loves them all! And when we reached my destination, he refused my dinar and said next time.

I’m still learning the rules and expectations around money here. On a trip to the North yesterday, the taxi driver insisted on paying for lunch and letting us reimburse him later, so that we would get the “Arabe” price. This came up in a conversation with my Iraqi colleagues, who said that the same thing happens to them – the price increase is for foreigners, not just non-Arabs. They advised me to go to Syria with an Arabic speaker, and if that was not possible, the next best option was to avoid buying anything. That was essentially my experience traveling alone in Egypt, a few years ago. I must get my Arabic good enough to bargain.

A block from my house is a row of shops where I’ve become a regular. There’s a local falafel and hummus joint that’s always packed. I go sometimes alone, with a book, and sit. The food is delicious and cheap, and I feel surprisingly comfortable there. The waitor is always the same, and he laughs when I arrive. The guys who work at the small market laugh when I come in as well. I find myself there often, buying a few items at a time. Next door to the market is the DVD store, where they sell copied DVDs for $1.50. I splurged a little while ago and bought a lot, feeling inspired to catch-up a bit, at least on last years movies. I realized I really never will watch a few that the shopkeeper had suggested, so I brought them back. “I haven’t watched them and realized I won’t; can I exchange them?” “Yes, but it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen them or not.” “I just didn’t want you to think I’ve taken advantage.” “That’s not how we work.” Living in Ethiopia taught me just how American my business culture is, and I’m reminded of it here. I’m still learning the Jordanian (Bedouin, Palestinian, Iraqi) business culture.

And then of course, how gender plays into it all. My friends visited this past weekend, and we took a day trip up to the North, driven by a taxi driver I'd met. We stopped for a short hike, in the midst of a forest (such contrast to the deserts of the south). As I negotiated the price with the nature reserve, I would ask a question, and the staff member would direct his reponse to my male friend. My friend quickly changed the scenario by stepping outside, so that the staff member was forced to answer me directly. Later that day, we dropped my friends off to return home before the taxi driver and I set off for the two hour drive back to Amman. I continued to sit in the front, since that’s where I’d sat all day. The driver – a 50-something man with a substantial belly - kept glancing at me and I kept thinking of the stories I’ve heard of taxi drivers groping foreign woman. He asked me if I was ok and pinched my cheek. I decided it was in a fatherly manner. He’s married, but said in his culture he can have another wife. But you don’t, I said. Not yet, he responded, laughing, and proceeded to tell of a Belgian tourist who had thrown herself at him. I was uncomfortable that he felt so comfortable telling me all the details. So I changed the topic to Arabic and we passed a good period with him teaching me new phrases. If I fell silent, he prompted me to speak, and this was how we passed the two hours into Amman.

A post-script: The taxi driver just called me, two days later, to make sure my friends made it back safely.

Monday, June 23, 2008

It’s a Wonder

Five of us headed to Petra for the weekend: two men in their 50s, one Palestinian, one American; one American girl working with the State Department; one Canadian/Sri Lankan doing public health research; and me. We found the perfect approach to discovering one of the new Seven Wonders of the World: stay at a Bedouin campsite, hike for hours through Petra, and then cool down with the five-star hotel's swimming pool and gourmet ice cream. I visited Petra eight years ago with my Grandmother - we spent long enough to get the highlights, and for my Grandmother to shock the Bedouin driving our cart through the Siq when she understood their Arabic curse words. My Arabic's not there yet, but I am getting the letters down. Sounding out words never has quite the same effect though.

We took our time exploring, absorbing both its vastness and its detail. We climbed the 45 minutes to the High Place of Sacrifice, with the carved altar overlooking a panoramic view. On our way down, I saw in front of me an older Bedouin woman. She was obviously struggling to maneuver the stairs with her cane, so when she moved to the side to let me pass, I extended my hand. She ignored it, so I passed. I turned back to watch, and offered my help again, and this time she accepted it. We walked like this for about five minutes until she paused, removed her glasses, and pointed to her two eyes - one blind, the other opaque from a cataract. She put her glasses back on, and we proceeded. Her English was ok - enough to understand that she lives in a nearby village and has 10 children. I couldn't quite get an answer for what she was doing at the top of the High Place, but I think she has one of the many jewelry tables you pass along the way (often quite unguarded). My answer to her "do you have a husband?" must not have been satisfactory, as she asked it, over and over, as we descended. At one point, we took a turn that did not seem intuitive to me, and I wondered just where she was leading me (and did that have anything to do with my not having a husband?). I called my companions (yes, cell phone service is everywhere) and they too were lost. Rather, they were lost. I was with a Bedouin woman. She got tired of my being on the phone and said, yallah, Petra, yallah, yallah. So we continued, arriving not to long after to exactly where I wanted to go. She gave me a kiss on both cheeks, and then went on, to her village.

Back at our Bedouin campsite, we sat on mattresses and rugs and sipped sage tea as we chatted with the other guests, surrounded by the mountains and stars. A number of them were foreigners working in Sinai, Egypt, with the Bedouin there, trying to help them maintain their local customs as development - mostly private sector - brings change. They said the Bedouin in Petra have done a really good job of engaging in the tourism sector while still protecting their traditions. It turned out our campsite even had a one-room museum, with photos, stories, and a collection of herbs.

Find Your Tribe

It was the advice of an American 20-something, sitting at NoodAsia in a swanky part of Amman. We were five at dinner, but each of us knew only one other before the meal began. I love gatherings like that. The three of us newbies sat enthralled as the other two described their impressions of life here, pieced together over a few years of exploring. I welcomed their insight, with only two months to piece together my own picture.

“Find your tribe,” she told us, “get yourself adopted by a Jordanian or Palestinian family.” (It’s estimated that 70-80 percent of Amman’s population is Palestinian). She described days spent hanging out at her family’s home, learning the rhythms and unspoken rules.

I liked her advice; as it's really why I came to the region in the first place. My family’s roots trace to Syria, but long enough ago that we’ve lost all connection beyond names, food, and faint stories. People hear my name and ask where my family’s from, unsatisfied until I claim Syria. It happened here, at the border. They asked where my father was from, and I answered the US, knowing full well that wasn’t what they meant. “No, but really, where is your father from.” “Syria.” “Ahh, yes.” And then they looked after me during the interminable wait for the bus.

I claim this heritage that I really know nothing about it. So I’ve come to explore – Syria a little, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. I started my summer in the region on a Lebanon Immersion Trip with thirty other students, organized by two Lebanese Harvard Kennedy School students. We spent two weeks exploring Lebanon as we met with top politicians. It was fascinating – the access was incredible, and as students, we could push on quite difficult questions. The Immersion Trip also included two days in Damascus, which involved a three-hour Q&A session with Assad. Imagine – I am the first of my family to return in over 60 years, and I enter with a Presidential escort. Our tour guide wanted to celebrate Syria's religious heritage, and so took us to a mosque, a church, and a synagogue. The synagogue is full of the icons collected from the 30 or so synagogues that were once open around the city, and is maintained by the head of Jewish communities in Damascus and Aleppo, and his sisters. The rest of their family left by the 90s, but they stayed - I didn't quite gather why. They don't have children, and, when asked of the future of the community, and the future of such spaces as the synagogue (which certainly isn't on the traditional tourist route), they said they take it day by day. I plan to return to Syria in a few weeks, and will this time make it up to the city my family is from. Inshallah.

My base for the summer is in Amman, working with the UN Iraq’s Information and Analysis Unit. It’s a new interagency effort to use the information available on Iraq to strategically guide humanitarian and development programming and policy. I’ve been put on a few really interesting projects, including a trends analysis of key indicators in Iraq over the last 30 years, and developing district-level profiles of the political and social situation. I’m in search of a topic for my thesis, so hope one of these will evolve into that. For now, I’m reading whatever I can and talking to anyone who will take a few minutes. It’s fascinating.

A post-script: The American who gave me the advice has been here two years, which was how long I lived in Ethiopia before I started grad school. She described the range of emotions she’s felt here, as it becomes more and more her home. They were the same that I felt in Ethiopia, and it helped us both to think of them not as unique to our countries of residence, but more to our own adjustment process. I will return to Ethiopia this coming weekend – my first visit since I left, almost exactly two years ago. I’ve heard it’s changed a lot, but still I find I imagine myself in all my old haunts as if nothing’s different.