Maa Salaama

It’s January 5th, my official COS date; the day I was scheduled to leave Jordan and the Peace Corps.  Thanks to the kindness of in-country staff we were given the option of leaving earlier in order to be home for the holidays, and I was among the first wave of J-15’s (my volunteer group) to depart, emotionally torn and thrown back into a transitional period of life.

So here I sit, writing from among your midst.  In the two weeks that I’ve been home I’ve seen many familiar faces and received an abundance of warm hugs, all of which keep this period of homecoming full and joyous.

But there is the underlying sense of closing and loss and goodbye that lingers in this moment, keeping all of the happy emotions in balance.  Packing up my house in Jordan and slowly descending upon a final day of departure was taxing emotionally, mentally, and physically.  There was, to begin with, an entire home of THINGS to be dealt with: carpets and curtains, pillows and mattresses, piles of clothes, a refrigerator, gas cans, assorted cheesy jewelry and worn out shoes… all needing new homes and loving owners.   I was to come home with only my two big bags and a carry-on, and right up to the day of my departure I found myself shedding odds and ends to get those zippers closed. 

The challenge to emptying out my living space was in my rarely be home with time to do it.  There were many goodbyes to said, lunches to be eaten, cups of coffee and glasses of tea to be shared one last time.  I used my newly learned phrases to express gratitude and a desire to stay in touch, and a wish that anything offensive I’d ever done was to be forgiven or “covered over” (a traditional way of saying farewell in Arab cultures).  I was surprised at how much I just wanted to be WITH people.  To be near them, to laugh with them, to cherish those moments of close proximity and warmth despite all of the frustrations or moments of baffled disbelief in the two years prior. 

I will miss Jordan.  It had become my home and now it is behind me.  The not-so-new questions of “What will I do?” are no longer distant but present and demanding answers.  I was blessed to be in a place that kept me present and focused on my immediate surroundings, a lifestyle that I hope to cherish and allow to persist as best I can.  It is time, however, to forward-think a bit, and therefore I will begin sending out applications to graduate schools around the country with the intention of studying Social Work and continuing in a similar vein to the work that I was doing in Jordan, opening up doors to opportunities in other parts of the world as well, inshallah (“God willing”).

Being home is comfortable.  Everything is bigger than I remembered.  Cleaner, greener, and more peaceful.  The food is exceptional.  I can drink tap water.  My clothes can be washed and dried in one day with minimal effort.  I have a bed.  Everything that’s complicated claims to be easy, and money, as always, can get you anything.  Yet, something within me cringes when I let the water run in the shower to warm it up and there is no bucket to catch all that is being wasted.  I appreciate the dishwasher, but it’s hard to break the habit of washing things by hand.  I miss the challenge and rewards of speaking Arabic.  The silence of small-town streets and still houses is almost spooky… like a community of individuals living in isolation from one another.   

This is the beauty of learning a culture through immersion and time however.  I learn not only one culture, but two.  I have new lenses and perspectives from which to view my own culture and see those things that I never saw before.  Challenging and hard and beautiful.

Well, it is time for me to say goodbye now.  In Arabic we say “Maa Salaama”, meaning “with peace”.  I have loved and been loved through this blog, and taken great delight in sharing the moments that have meant a great deal to me over these two years.  Of course feel free to e-mail or call or touch base with me if you are ever curious or have questions about Jordan.  Ahlan w Sahlan, you are most welcome. Thank you for journeying with me.  May God cover over anything offensive or hurtful I have said in these writings, and may we go each in our own way in peace, with the hope of crossing paths soon.

Maa Salaama!


The goodbye party at my center. Many of the youth that I had worked with came to share in sending me off. Next to me are the two women that I worked closely with every day.


With my “sisters” in the snow. These are a few of those that are what made leaving Jordan especially hard!


The J15 ‘family”, my volunteer group, at our closing conference. An incredible group of people with amazing hearts, creative minds, and open arms.


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Jordan Is No Paris

You’ve seen Sabrina, yes? A young girl goes off to Paris for a year and returns home a young woman; confident and attractive with a nifty new haircut, some fashionable clothes, and a miraculously discovered self-identity. It’s a love story that rates right up there with the Disney princesses and Jane Austen for tugging at the heart of a girl. It is the ideal situation, to experience life in a foreign place while at the same time doing all of your growing up far away from the people who know you. Then you return home and a rich man falls in love with you and the story conveniently ends…
Jordan is no Paris.
I was upstairs at my neighbor’s house, teaching her how to make cinnamon rolls. While we started the dough, a wedding at the event center across the street started up its sound system. Soon we were surrounded by the pulsations of Arabic dabka music, and while the dough was rising we went out on the balcony to spy on the men in the courtyard mingling and dancing. From our second-story perch we had to peer through leaves and branches to see the lights and catch glimpses of figures intermittently kicking up their heels. In that moment I felt like Sabrina, pre-Paris, watching David work a party.
Enraptured by the romance of being in a real-life movie scene I enjoyed myself until it suddenly dawned on me which scene I was reliving. Pre-Paris? Really, that’s all we’re at here? Two years in a foreign country and I’m still in the tree, peering at the action through the branches?
Well, Jordan is no Paris.
This is my last post from inside the boundaries of this Arabian kingdom, where the world is white with the snow and ice of a recent freak storm. These last few days have been a surprisingly peaceful chaos as I’ve said goodbyes, emptied my house, and repacked my trusted suitcase with the carefully selected items that will come home with me. I’ve gone through the motions with hardly an awareness of what was happening, and now, as I sit and wait for plane to carry me away, I can’t quite believe that I’m leaving.
Judging from the scattered mess of my luggage and the haphazard manner in which I pulled myself through security, I realize that Jordan has affected me in more ways than I know. This place has opened its arms and hearts to my clueless entrance and cradled me through to this moment. I gave what I could and it gave back to me its knowledge and perspective on the world in a way that only a lingering time could give. I found a home for two years that kept me on my toes and always looking for what I could never predict.
There is no Louvre to stroll along and there are no sidewalk cafes for the dainty cappuccino with silent reflection, but I’ve lived in the hills and the desert, through hottest summers and coldest winters. I’ve learned to let life be, to let myself embrace the unknown and let it bring changes. I’ve discovered that people anywhere are people everywhere, and at the root of all things we are the same.
I’m satisfied and full and eager to come back to the home that I left two years ago to see what lies ahead, to see what lessons and adventures are next in life. Perhaps my haircut is a little choppy, and perhaps my wardrobe is looking threadbare, but I’ve been given quite the gift in this incredible place.
As I said, Jordan is no Paris.

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Less than one month and I hit the road!   (Actually, the air, but since that is a proven fruitless effort I’ll stick with the old standard cliché.)  Mixed emotions abound, as could be expected, but overall there is an incredible renewing of energy as a very definite deadline looms before us.  Over a year ago I began working with my center on a project to develop the grounds that surround the center, and now, as I come close to the end of my service, it is one of the many rewards to see the physical improvements which will remain after I am gone.

This project consisted of several steps, the first of which involved applying for a small grant (offered by USAID specifically to Peace Corps Volunteers).  Alongside my counterparts we designed a project which would eventually lead to the grounds being transformed into gardens and a vineyard.   Along the way, youth volunteers would be working alongside professionals to learn the occupational skills that were being employed at every step.

The process of adding concrete blocks to the wall to provide protection from passersby.

The process of adding concrete blocks to the wall to provide protection from passersby.

Part of the wall before it's final plastering and painting.  The difference this wall makes is still astounding at times.

Part of the wall before it’s final plastering and painting. The difference this wall makes is still astounding at times.

First we needed to raise the surrounding wall by a couple of feet to provide privacy for those working in and using the area.  Then we bought some new, spiffy plastic water tanks for the center’s water supply, and repaired the old ones to be used as part of the irrigation system.  The center had an underground cistern, but no motor or pipes to make it usable, so we rendered that situation and then set to work laying out drip irrigation hoses.

Here the boys are learning the basics in pipe-work as they help install the new water tanks.

Here the boys are learning the basics in pipe-work as they help install the new water tanks.

Melting the ends of the irrigation hoses to fit them into each other.

Melting the ends of the irrigation hoses to fit them into each other.

We needed 36 Y-shaped trellises for our vineyard.  There were 40 at the scrap yard.  It felt like a steal!

We needed 36 Y-shaped trellises for our vineyard. There were 40 at the scrap yard. It felt like a steal!







Along one side of the center 36 grape vines were planted and trellises installed, courtesy of the scrap metal yard just across the way.  Perhaps my favorite part came in June, when we spent several days hitting up every nursery inthe area to price their basil, mint, sage, thyme, lemon verbena, and

Plants and trellises in the ground.  Except that they put the "Y's" facing the wrong direction for installing the wire that would connect them!  It led to one of our major sessions of problem solving.   Things pretty much just stayed as you see them.  But with lots of wires stringing across.

Plants and trellises in the ground. Except that they put the “Y’s” facing the wrong direction for installing the wire that would connect them! It led to one of our major sessions of problem solving. Things pretty much just stayed as you see them. But with lots of wires stringing across.

jasmine plants. Slowly we made our purchases and got things into the ground, just before I left for vacation.  When I came back 5 weeks later… Mashallah!… the garden was looking incredible!  The young men who had been helping with the work got to learn one more lesson about trimming and cutting the herbs, and now we are in the midst of prepping things for winter.

I glimpse of the land and irrigation system before herbs were planted.

I glimpse of the land and irrigation system before herbs were planted.

The guys learning how to trim back the rampant basil.

The guys learning how to trim back the rampant basil.

My role in this whole process was mostly administrative.  I did the writing.  And kept track of finances.  And made lots of noise when things weren’t moving along as I thought they should.  In the end, however, I have been delighted to find that the garden still needs lots of care, and people constantly are headed out to help me with weeding or trimming or watering.  There has been a lot of investment and pride in this endeavor, and I can only hope it will continue to thrive over the years to come.


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BenuDhif Il-Shuwara’

Cleaning Up the Streets

September.  Election Day.  A new mayor is sworn into office for our local district.  He immediately proves himself to be a guy with ambitions, vision, and humor, not to mention connections.  “Illak willa dh’ib?  (Is it with you or the wolves?)” I asked him when my garden project ran out of money and we needed a backhoe to move dirt over a wall.  He laughed and laughed.  “Kessat il-dh’ib (Screw the wolves),” he responded, and the next morning when I arrived at the center the dirt was moved.

But really this story isn’t about the mayor.  It starts with him; he’s the initiator.  Or maybe the roaring fire under a boiling pot.   At any rate we spent a week in meetings at his office in order to plan out the first “Hemla Nth’afah (Clean Campaign)”, and he most likely spent equal time on the phone lining up cooperatives.  The campaign was meant to take place in each of the five villages in the district (on separate days) and involve not only trash pick-up and street sweeping, but also re-painting the curbs with black and yellow, and then covering one central and visible wall with murals of drawings and statements about keeping the town clean.  It was exciting to see such initiative from not only the mayor, but also a wide selection of community members and youth.  As the week of planning neared the actual event, a sense of energy was coursing high throughout our little towns.

I was pulled into this via my center and the youth committee.  It was not at any point a project that I instigated or fueled, but was part of the planning and for some reason was especially appointed to help paint the murals.  I have often fantasized about how that decision was made:

“Who’s going to do the drawings on the walls?”

“There is a foreigner at the Princess Basma Center, she can do it.”

“Have you ever seen her draw before?”

“No, but she’s American.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“Well she’s not Jordanian…”

“Good point.  We’ll bring her in tomorrow.”

I don’t mean to completely belittle the art skills of Jordanians, but it is not something that is particularly taught (be forewarned declining education systems of America!).  In the end I worked with two painters who were very skilled at what they did (natural talent), which all the more begs the question: what was I doing there?!?!

Day of Campaign #1:  I arrive an hour and a half early.  (I should’ve known, 7:00am Jordanian time.)  When things finally get underway, I find myself dropped off with a pile of paint cans and brushes in front of an eternally long stretch of fresh white wall.  Two teenage boys show-up to help me out (yes!) and immediately clarify that they DO NOT draw (no!). So I draw out lines and give instructions and begin working on a second picture feeling trepidatiously phony.  I’m halfway finished with the second painting when other people start arriving.  Many comments are stated, many suggestions made, many observations verbalized that should perhaps have not been so.  And soon I’m not feeling so phony, but rather tired and angry/hungry.  Cue the falafel and professional artists.  The rest of my day is spent watching all my work be embellished with spray paint.

Campaigns #2 & #3:  Streets are swept clean early in the morning, and several classes of school children are brought out to help pick-up trash (I especially liked that part).  In all three of the campaigns, the majority of time and attention is actually spent on painting the curbs, which adds a very fresh touch to each place.  I wisened up significantly for these second two and arrive fashionably late, just in time to help out the artists with a few trees and some ideas for sayings.  We take pictures and give interviews and proudly sashay around in silk sashes proclaiming “Throw it Right” or “Beautiful Kittah” courtesy of my safety scissors and sharpies.

By the time campaign #3 rolls around, however, I notice that the crowd had dwindled significantly and it seems more attention is given to breakfast than the actual campaign.  Given the general location this was most likely the unavoidable and natural course of events, so I give myself credit and say I’m not surprised in the least.  Three villages are looking cleaner and brighter with their splashes of color, and the movement to throw trash away is starting to take hold.  Spirits are running high and people are proud to be involved.  It feels like a revolution, and I’m grateful to be part of the action.

(Campaigns #4 & #5:  To Be Determined)

The paint cans and one of the boys who got to "fill in the lines".

The paint cans and one of the boys who got to “fill in the lines”.

As this was also the International Day of Peace, I made an effort to include "peace doves" wherever I could.

As this was also the International Day of Peace, I made an effort to include “peace doves” wherever I could.

Some of the youth working hard at repainting the curbs.

Some of the youth working hard at repainting the curbs.

The  crowd that came out for the day!

The crowd that came out for the day!

Many hands makes... many branches!

Many hands makes… many branches!


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Mansef for Two

I Think You Should Do This 2013 044

“No easy ways!” I yelled over my shoulder at Tomas, who was taking surprise at my sudden burst into sprinting as we crossed the road and entered the dirt furrows of the hay field. I chased Leo to the opposite edge, then scooped down to nuzzle my nose into the top of his furry white head. I came up with a wet face of sweat and slobber.

From our position at the junction of the fields, Tomas and I surveyed the hill before us. We could see the black hole of the cave off to the left and the ridge of rocks leading up to the yet-visible climax directly in front of where we would normally begin the ascent. But this time was different. This time we were in search of The Climb. In search of the ways that require thought and effort and skill. No easy ways. We had time and ambition. So we began by heading to the left and down into the valley.

Our adventure took us in spirals, dancing around the cave and skipping across the tops of ancient boulders. Around the back side of the mountain we began the first of many a “real” climb. Navigating the nooks and crannies to reach ledges and chimneys, searching above for safe holds and watching below for signs of loose rock; I was free and flying. We were conquering the mountain.

And so the afternoon continued. There was a steep canyon to explore and more boulder fields to scramble across, with the final reward being a plunge into the refreshing waters of the lake before beginning the trek back home. The normal way.

From then on we never looked at the mountain in the same way. We knew the insides and upsides and downsides. We knew the paths never taken. The routes never traveled. The plants and caves and trees never seen from the main trail or the usual vistas.

I thought it would be impossible to leave, to return to Jordan and resume my spot in the moving sidewalk of life. But immediately I found myself in the usual open arms and spending the evenings over coffee with my landlady. At the second session she invited me over for lunch the next, which was promised to be mansef, the traditional Jordanian meal. And lucky me, my landlady make the BEST mansef in Jordan!

I arrived the next afternoon expecting to undergo the usual rigors of a traditional meal, but to my delight and satisfaction, it is just the two of us dining, sitting down to a reasonably sized platter of rice and chicken, with full bowls of the spicy yogurt sauce to pour over the top. The conversation, naturally, is in Arabic, but for the most part we are constantly chatting, the big awkward silences are not so daunting as when I first arrived. The topics of our conversation, likewise, are of a much deeper and personal nature. A year and a half of pushing to communicate and live life close together has given us this relationship, this ability to be open and share opinions without fear of judgment. We talk about the conflict in Syria and what the US should or should not be doing. We talk about the house they are beginning to build in response to the demand from refugees. We talk about the difference between women in different Islamic countries, and about the difference between those women and women from America or Europe. We talk about my leaving and make plans for what will happen to my things.

It’s so natural and easy at this point! I love my relationship with this woman and look forward to our meetings, casual or planned. My heart, in fact, aches a little when I think of the day when she will no longer be my neighbor. Is it appropriate to call this relationship an accomplishment? Is it too harsh to say I feel like a conqueror to be able to call this woman my friend? That’s how it is though. We come from two entirely different worlds: mine of freedom and independence, hers of devotion to honor and religion and respect for the boundaries of culture. If I say that I felt like I was in prison when I first arrived, it is nothing to what her life is actually like with her responsibilities to husband and home. Their family is perhaps the most conservative of those that I visit, and it is because of this that I found myself so challenged at first in building the relationship. In so many scenarios I had no idea of what was appropriate or expected, and I didn’t know how to ask! I remember the long long dinners of mass family gatherings, the room filled with either rapid Arabic or awkward silence as I wondered if they were laughing at me and when I could leave. I didn’t know how to return dishes appropriately or how to knock on the door and see if she was free for a coffee visit. Whenever I had guests she would bring down homemade treats and meet them – with me trying to translate and carry on the conversation while wondering if she cared that they were wearing shorts or if I should be making coffee or tea…


No easy ways. That’s what life has been to this point, and as hard as it may be, I hope it’s what it continues to be. No easy ways means the better adventure and the deeper beauty.

I Think You Should Do This 2013 053

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Marra min marra

Once upon a time…

… there were two friends.  A small black stone with three white speckles and the Hundred Year Winds.  They played together when they were small, dancing and twirling about in the sands of the desert.  But soon the stone grew settled into its place and the winds were strong enough to travel.  And so the winds left and the black stone sat in the desert, shimmering in the hot rays of the sun by day and shivering as the cold moon in the freezing nights.

As such a hundred years passed and the winds returned.

“Stone!”  They cried.  “We have traveled around the world; blown up every mountain, whistled through every tree, harassed every country and stirred up every sea.  Have you only stayed in your spot for these hundred years?!”

“My friend,” said the stone, “I cannot move as you do, and I am content where I am.  But do not torment me with your stories, it is enough that you have returned and we can play together again.”

So the winds blew and the stone sat and the friends were reunited.  In their natural course it came time for the winds to leave again, and the night of their departure they decided to give their friend a gift.  As they left, they kicked up the sand so that it covered the stone, protecting it from all that may seek to touch or hurt the stone.

The stone did not shiver that night, and the next day it did not feel the burning rays of the sun.  It did not shimmer for absorbing the heat of the day and when night came, it stayed warm beneath its blanket.  As time went by the stone could hear new, strange noises and felt the vibrations of footprints and earthquakes.  But beneath the sand there was nothing to see or feel.  And so the stone soon cursed the wind for its gift of protection.  It was a gift of boredom, of non-life.

The Hundred Year Winds returned again in their time to the desert of their childhood and searched for their friend.  They kicked up the dunes and stirred the sand and sifted the grains, but their friend the stone they could not find.  There was only a large sandstone sphere, melded into the ground, and though the winds blew so fiercely that all the sand was pulled away from around the stone, still the sandstone remained.

The winds realized what they had done, and began to weep for their friend the small black stone, now trapped inside layers of hardened sand.  And weeping droplets of the wind ran along the ground, loosening the sandstone from its place.  The blowing winds caught the loosened sphere and began to push it along the desert with increasing joy.

“Come, my friend!” they called out, “I am sorry to have trapped you, but perhaps now I can take you with me to see the world!  It is as I have always wanted, a friend to keep me company on the long journey.”

And so the winds pushed the stone along the desert, to the edge of the desert, and to the edge of the land.  And before they could stop (for really they couldn’t) the stone had rolled over the edge of the land and dropped down, down into the waiting sea below.  And in the sea the stone sank, sank to the very bottom, far from the reaches of the wind.

And for a hundred years the winds did not stop weeping.


This is a story about people, about culture, and about what we sometimes do to each other.

Is there fear beneath these actions, or only ignorance?  Could the fate of the stone have been different?  And the fate of the wind?

This is what I’m beginning to see around me, this sense of fear of the other, of the unknown.  It is multi-sided and subtle, and the differing worldviews are colliding, crashing, over “culture” everywhere I look.

For the most part I have felt much like the stone, trapped and protected and bored.  But then I break out with the wind and find myself in new places, around new people, in new situations.  In one place I cannot bare skin above my neck or below my ankles.  Four hours south (same country) I am in a bathing suit, swimming among flounders as they weave through coral reefs.  With some people I guard every look, action, word and smile.  With others I am free to be as I am.  In some situations I feel powerless and overlooked because I am a female.  In others I feel unquestionably respected and capable of authority.

The simple title of “Jordan” is no longer enough to describe this complex hot spot of mixing ideas and people.  We are the safe zone and the welcomers to all who seek refuge.  The land of hospitality absorbs not only warm bodies, but also the myriad ideas and backgrounds that fill those minds and bodies.  Everyone is facing the question of what will happen.  What will happen to the booming generations that are coming of age?  What will happen as the outside world closes in through technology and aid?  What will happen when crucial decisions demand conclusions?  What will happen if the fighting gets any closer to home?  What will happen if the fighting comes to an end?  What will happen?  What will happen?

And so instead of getting easier to be here, it’s getting harder.


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The Drivers

A week ago, this blog was going to be about changes.  The changes that I see in the types of fruit that are pressed into my hand as I walk down the street or the life changes that are happening as friends get married, have babies, find jobs, buy cars, graduate, etc.  There are the changes that I’ve witnessed in prices and fashions and government personnel, and there are the changes that I’ve experienced in my own personality and worldviews and perceptions.

But as I said, all this is what I would’ve written a week ago.  Today something happened that made me change my mind.  I decided it was finally time to tell you about something near and dear to my heart.  The Drivers.

These guys have made it for me here.  The Drivers (a name I call them in my mind) live on a corner in town (well not technically, but that’s where I always find them) and they have cars that can get me straight from the middle of the market to my doorstep.  Lovely, lovely cars.  And what’s best is that it is their job to know people and where those people belong.  So, by now, most of them know me, and we can do little more than exchange a word and a nod and I’m pointed toward a vehicle.

The operation is essentially a shared taxi, as the drivers fill up the seats in their car with people heading to their destination and charge the usual taxi-fare divided by the number of seats in the car.  Everything is unmarked, heightening the importance of who you know and who knows you.

The catch is that these guys are not exactly government-ordained transportation.  Catch #2 is that there is a sparse handful of government-ordained transportation to my village.  Though I wouldn’t like to necessarily label it as such, yes, The Drivers are somewhat illegal.  Thus their business cannot be conducted in blatant openness or the police crackdown.  The exchange generally goes something like this:

Me:            Walk to the corner and make deliberate eye contact with the group of men standing  there.  Try to see if I recognize any of them.

Driver:      Make eye contact and nod in my direction.  “Kitteh?”

Me:            Nod.  “Kitteh.”

Driver:      Turn and walk toward where his car is parked.

Me:            Follow him.  Nonchalantly, of course, lowering down the dark sunglasses and pulling on a hat if necessary.

Ha!  Well, moving on…. about today.  The exchange began as usual, but instead of him turning and I following, he just handed me the car keys and said, “It’s down below.  Red.  Avanti.”


I actually (I’m a little bit proud of this) didn’t even miss a beat.   Nodded, took the keys, found the car, threw my stuff in, and then waited in the nearby shade until the driver came down with the other passengers.  He was pleased I’d found the car. :)

Talk about changes.  Changes in my own perceptions and perspectives.  Changes in how I am perceived.  Changes in the levels of comfort and trust that are being achieved.  Changes in the ways that I can be surprised!  (Is that possible, actually?)

I can tell the seasons are changing by the fact that apricots and mulberries are replacing the loquats and almonds that I used to receive by the handfuls.  I can tell that tensions are changing as the Great World around Jordan inflicts its pressures.  And I can tell that lives are changing through the very rituals and elements that are common to humanity.

But am I changing anything?  And am I being changed?  That, I suppose, remains to be seen…

“All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which is taking place every instant.” 

–Henry David Thoreau, Walden


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