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real life, up close.

January 30, 2011

For those of you who have been patiently waiting for a post…ahem, I know that’s all of you…here, have some really long rambling:

Friday night, I was a dinner guest at the house of two lovely ladies who live on the other side of town. Like waaay on the other side. West Ammanis to the core. As with so many of the situations I find myself in here, this was one produced by random connections: Rana is an English student of my friend and upstairs neighbor, and Tatiana is her Ukrainian sister-in-law. I got to meet these hilarious and kind-hearted women during some downtime over the holidays, so I was thrilled to be included in their invitation (less thrilled that I started feeling really sick while I was there, but that’s a story for another time).

Something interesting came up over the course of our conversation, though: when my friend told them they were welcome to visit her in our neighborhood someday, Rana grinned and said, “Of course, I would be happy to visit you as long as you are living there. But if you are not living there…I will never, ever go there.” Ha. Because, you see, we live East Amman, which might as well be a different world from West Amman. There you have fancy cars and shiny coffeeshops and central heating. Here you have trash in every open space and dirty buildings and cramped, cold homes (just ask my freezing toes). And just as some of the teen girls I know had never touched an escalator until a group outing last fall, women like Rana have never really ventured into this part of town…and probably never will.

I also recently learned that many study abroad programs here forbid their students from going into East Amman, because it is…I don’t know, dangerous? Volatile? Too dirty? It’s hard for me to get it, and it makes me feel a little defensive. Life here is gorgeous and raw and far from unsafe, and people who never see it are missing out. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that my experience of Amman is any more “real” or “authentic” than that of people who live in the West. The West Ammani lifestyle might be more Westernized and privileged, but it’s still an everyday existence for the people who live it. They have needs and heartbreaks and dreams, just like everyone else. But for me, right now…I wouldn’t want to be anywhere but here.

See, I’m learning so much from living in East Amman (and I live in a relatively “nice” part of it, really). Even though we’re in a city, life still chugs on with something of an old-school, village mentality. There are pros and cons to this…as I’ve mentioned before, it does mean you’re really thrust into others’ lives, whether you like it or not. Combine that with what happens when you strip away the protective barriers of money and privilege and shiny clean facades, and suddenly you find yourself smacking face-first into the messy parts of other people’s existences.

Take, for example, when I visited my friend Aseel last Monday. When I walked into her house, I could tell something was off, because even though she had called me that morning to confirm that I was coming, she seemed surprised to see me. And there were several little kids running around that I’d never seen before. Still, she welcomed me in, so I followed her to the couch, where she turned to me with a dazed expression. “I’m sorry the house isn’t ready for you. My husband is out. These kids are my neighbor’s niece and nephews…she had a terrible accident and she’s in the hospital now with her sister and my husband. I stayed to watch the children.”

“What happened?” I asked, a little confused.

“She was lighting her kerosene heater. Because of the kids—to make things warm for them on their visit. But she forgot to turn it off completely before lighting it, and it exploded in her face. Her whole face, her arms, were burned. All I heard was a terrible scream, and then when we went out to see what happened, her face was—” She gestured, unable to describe it in words. Her fingers pulled at the air around her cheeks and chin.

I was speechless. And also kind of horrified. My instinct was to get up and leave, to reschedule my visit for a time when things would be back to how they were supposed to be. Normal. Calm. When all the rules I’d learned about visiting would apply again. Because I felt awkward now, like an intruder. This wasn’t my tragedy to deal with; I didn’t even know this girl.

But I did know Aseel, and she was sitting across from me now, clearly rattled and making no indication that she wanted me to go. So I stayed. And I listened. She talked about how she was afraid she’d have nightmares that night, how she had just been drinking coffee with her neighbor and co. that morning, how her neighbor—22, both parents dead, living with her younger brother and working full-time—had struggled to find  job in an unfair market that placed a premium on personal appearance. She’d been passed over for positions because she wasn’t “pretty enough,” never mind that she was fully qualified for them, before finally finding her current one. And now she’d likely be disfigured for life. All of these things poured out of Aseel’s lips in no particular order. She was just processing. And the whole time I sat there, breathing a silent, desperate prayer. For…everyone.

“How are you?” I said finally.

“I’m scared. I’m scared to turn on our heater, even though I know it’s not the same kind.” And then, after a beat, she added with a wistful sigh: “Alhamdullilah that we are healthy and strong, that our bodies are in good shape, that we are whole. Alhamdullilah. We must remember to thank God for everything.” I murmured my agreement.

When she got a call saying that everyone (except the neighbor, of course) was coming back from the hospital, I stayed behind to watch her boys while she took the other children to get their coats and shoes next door, and I thought about how off-script we’d gone. She’d offered me no tea or coffee. She’d left me alone in her house with her children…to answer her doorbell when it rang. Apparently, this was no time to be a polite guest. It was a time to be a good friend.

Later, after everything was more or less sorted, the whole family and I walked over to my conversation class together (I’d asked some friends to babysit so both parents could attend). Little M asked me to help him put on his shoes and falsely believed we were going to my house for a visit, thus growing way too excited. Big M pointed out the sunset out with the kind of awe I still have when I see the sky lit up like that: “The sun, the sun! Look at the sun,” he kept saying. I felt…complicated.

We had a great evening, but as I said goodbye to my students I couldn’t help but still feel the weight of the afternoon on my heart. It made me think—why do I feel like I’ve bumped into more heart-wrenching situations in my four months here than in the rest of my life combined? From this accident, to the friends who lost a relative in the Iraqi church bombings, to the two girls whose father abandoned them in favor of his second family with Wife No. 2, to my teenage friends who have been orphans since their mother’s death two years ago…And it goes on and on.

I don’t think it’s really a matter of more tragic things occurring here, although the nature of my community (poorer, often refugees, etc) does mean bad things sometimes occur on a more basic human level. The people in my home community endure trials and tragedies too. It’s just a lot easier to keep my distance from them. To be too busy. To be distracted. To avoid probing into people’s histories because of the messy stuff you might dig up. But here…need is more evident and more inescapable. And when you run into it, there are arms extended, ready to pull you in.

And then, I guess, the ball’s in your court. Do you walk around with your eyes closed, keeping people at arm’s length? Or do you let yourself be drawn in, even if it’s inconvenient…and uncomfortable…and awkward…

So I guess what I’m learning is that there are worse things in the world than feeling awkward. (I know…really? But this is kind of an important revelation for me.) That is my nugget for the day. Hooray for learning.

On a final note to this epically long post. Yes, the Middle East is in a bit of turmoil at the moment. Like everyone else, I’m watching closely to see what happens in Egypt. Things are crazy. I am praying, and would love it if you would too. But for people who have expressed concern–I am totally, totally safe. No worries. Much love.

totally unrelated picture to cap this off: the citadel.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Hei-Jung permalink
    February 2, 2011 1:05 am

    Not easy to get involved in people’s lives up close and personal. But worth it. You are such a blessing. God is surely stretching you to become a woman of God who understands the pain and God’s goodness. Loving others, blessing others, the best way to live… Love You.

  2. Brian permalink
    February 6, 2011 7:59 pm


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