The last time

I will arise and go now for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
– “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” William Butler Yeats

My work in Jordan was unpredictable. I’d catch a ride with the bus-driver who lived above me and we’d be 100 feet from the entrance to the center only for him to realize (with a bus full of students crammed behind us) that he’d lost the school keys. On another day I’d show up to find the school locked with a note on the door instructing me to call for a ride because everyone had gone olive-picking for the day. There were days when we started hours late or ended hours early or days when there was no school at all and plenty of the time I wasn’t totally sure why. But on the days when we did have school, it always ended the same way.

I worked in the spare classroom at the back of the school, next to the kitchen. Our tea lady Um Ahmad usually came in to hang out with me for the last half hour or so while I finished my work. She liked to ask me questions about America or tell me about her sons and sometimes we did crunches on the floor (ever since she’d heard about the women’s fitness classes I’d been teaching she had demanded private lessons).

After maybe 20 minutes the students would come. There were three that unfailingly arrived in my room at the end of the day, sort of my self-appointed assistants. Ahmad, Haneen, and Amer were all in the Autism classroom across the hall and somehow they always seemed to sense when the bus was about 5 minutes away; that’s when they’d come flying in. Ahmad was in charge of my bag. He’d run around the room and find belongings, stuff them in, zip it and hold it out to me as if it were made of gold. Haneen helped me clear all the pencils, pens, and papers from my desk and shove them all into the all-purpose cupboard in the corner. Then she’d close the window that I always left open and carefully draw the fringed gold curtain. Amer was more of a bystander until his starring role at the end: flipping the light switch and closing the door behind us with a slam.

All three of them would herd me and Um Ahmad out of the classroom and down the hall while we shook hands and kissed cheeks and helped various strays with shoes and zippers. We all made our way out the front entrance as one big pile of grasped hands and backpacks and limbs. Ahmad and Haneen always tried to hold on to me as long as they could while the teachers and I ushered everyone out and then somehow there were always more hands to shake goodbye and cheeks to kiss. Then there was the perpetually broken gate separating the courtyard from the stairs that only Sabreen really knew how to open and I’d duck under the olive tree and make my way up the stairs while the little ones stuffed their hands through the bars to shake my hand or grab my coat or touch me one last time before I got to the top, finally just waving, waving, waving, calling out “BYE” at the top of their lungs.

When I think of them now, I think of them standing that way, waving on tip-toes, the little ones pulling on the backpacks of the taller ones to make sure they lasted as long as they could, waving as if their lives depended on it just so I’d know how much I was loved, even as I looked over my shoulder from the road just to see them standing there one last time.

My students

Hala is 18 years old and she loves the swingset. Every day at recess she runs out the door of her classroom past the line of students waiting to buy snacks and down the ramp to the playground, arms stretched towards the swings and a grin stretched across her face. She always sings while she’s on the swing and she makes up the lyrics herself. She uses the tunes from children’s cartoons and then replaces the words with the names of people she loves. The other kids don’t mind Hala’s singing, even though it’s very loud and pretty much unceasing for the full hour of recess. They also don’t mind that on most days Hamza walks around the playground holding a piece of cardboard up to his ear like a phone or that Abdullah talks at twice the volume most people do because he’s hard of hearing. And they don’t mind me either- my funny clothes or my halting Arabic or my strange ideas.

Every day I walk home from school and sometimes my older students walk with me.  One day a few months ago my student Abdullah was walking with me and we passed a group of girls walking from the other direction. They stopped and stared as we passed, and then they giggled and shouted “Foreigner! Foreigner!” at our backs. “What’s wrong with them??” Abdullah demanded. He  turned around,  his chin jutted out and his fists clenched, staring them down as we walked away. “Crazy,” he said, making the sign for it at the side of his head. And it pained me to think of how many people had said the same thing about Abdullah, about all of my students. Especially when I remembered how many times I’d told my friends and neighbors about being harassed in the street and how few of them had ever offered as much support or loyalty as Abdullah, who is fourteen and wears a hearing aid and has probably gets plenty of harassment of his own.

I tell people that I work at a school for kids with disabilities, but sometimes disability seems like the wrong term to me. Because it’s based on the assumption that some abilities are more important than others. The ones that someone has decided my students don’t have. And while I know that the diagnostic process is useful in a lot of ways, I don’t like that assumption. I have never seen people that smile more than my students. I’ve never seen people with more love to give or more capacity for forgiveness or more energy and delight and creativity when taught something new. And all of that from children whose lives are much, much more difficult than most other people’s. My students are some of the strongest people  I have ever known.

Temple Grandin is a scientist, writer, and advocate for people with disabilities. She has Autism and is a strong proponent of diversifying education to meet the needs of every type of learner. One of her most frequently quoted phrases is “The world needs all kinds of minds.” I think about that a lot. I once had a student who had memorized the entire weekly train schedule for our county and could tell me which train I had taken and from where based on the time I arrived at work. I have a student now who can draw, in impeccable detail, the view from the front seat of our village bus. I have students who have learned words in English with perfect inflection just from listening to me answer my phone. Every day I bring them art projects and the examples I create for each lesson are basic and predictable. But the art they produce from those examples makes me grin. It is wild and strange and colorful and done with incredible focus or incredible freedom and it is entirely theirs. I once gave my students sponges cut into shapes and asked them to paint whatever they wanted. I painted a house with green grass and a yellow sun. Moath painted purple mountains with red birds and a dark gray sky. The world needs all kinds of minds.

The playground is my favorite place to be and my students feel similarly. Every day I’m out there pushing Hala and Hamza on the swings and looking out at these age-old mountains and I know Hala and Hamza will be here every day for a long, long time. It breaks my heart that I won’t be here too. But today Hala is singing again and I hear her chanting, over and over, “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie” with each upward swing. And pretty soon a teacher will probably yell from the window that she should quiet down but I know that she won’t. And thank god for that. Because in just a few months I’ll be gone and there won’t be anyone pushing Hala on the swings anymore, but I love to think that every day she’ll  still be here, still looking out over these mountains and shouting the names of the people she loves at the top of her lungs. And right now it feels like a gift to be one of them.

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The haircut

I sat down and she looked at me. I could feel her eyes raking my profile as I stared straight ahead, waiting for her to make up her mind. I play this game, when I’m feeling obstinate. Finally I turned and said it: “I’m a girl.”

She stood up. She searched the rest of her bus with her eyes, found the last empty seat next to a man in the back and then pointed, asking, “Can you move?”  I just looked at her. A woman can’t sit next to man. The man in the back knew me- most of the bus knows me most of the time. I live in a village of 5,000 and people know about the foreigner. He piped up, “She’s a girl, it’s okay.” But she kept looking at me. Finally I said, “You move, if that’s what you want.” And she gathered her shopping bags, stepped around me into the aisle, and commanded a little boy to move next to the man and give her his single seat. I put my headphones in and waited for all 25 passengers to stop staring. It took a long time.

Sometimes people are mean to me when they don’t know me. It’s the hazard of being any kind of foreigner in an insular place, let alone one whose gender presentation is a little outside the box. Jordanians are used to girls with long hair and women in hijab. I don’t have either, and I don’t do the things my disparaging neighbors suggest again and again: “Pierce your ears! Wear jewelry! At least wear pink!” I can’t do those things. I’m not going to dress up for a part I don’t want. I don’t like being insulted every day and I don’t like being stared at. But what makes up for it is the loyalty and support I get from the people who have been brave enough to see past what’s different.

Most of my friends in my village stared or whispered when they first saw me. They almost always admit it later, over coffee, in their kitchens: “When I first saw you, I thought you were a boy!” and they hold out their hands for me to slap- the Jordanian high five- because we’re both in on the joke. I went to a Special Education conference last semester with one of my closest friends, Wala’a, and when I got up to use the bathroom she came with me. We walked in and the stalls were full, the area beside the sinks crowded with giggling university students. I felt their eyes on me because I always do. I’m almost used to it now. I took the first free stall as fast as I could and when I came out Wala’a was arguing with them. “Shame on you, Allah says to love all people. She’s a girl just like you!” I washed my hands and avoided eye contact, but when we left I hugged her. “They wanted you to leave!” she said angrily. “I know, Wala’a, that happens a lot.” She was upset about it the whole day.

I get upset too, and I don’t like that I make people nervous. My work depends on the trust I build with women in my community and that’s not easy when I my appearance puts people on edge. Sometimes I think I should wear pink too. Maybe that’s a small price to pay for people to like me. But as hard as it is to be different, there’s something satisfying in seeing people’s opinions change over time, their prejudices erode a little as they let their guard down. Most girls in my village have been given only one picture of what a woman can be. But of course there are all kinds of women, all kinds of ways a person can feel drawn to express who they are, given the freedom. I’ve had the incredible luck of growing up in a place where that freedom is a given. Most of the girls in my village have not.

I went to several girls’ schools around Jordan in the Spring to recruit applicants to Camp GLOW. I gave them information about the camp, handed out applications, and talked to their family members. At the end of one of the sessions, one girl stayed behind. Her friends were crowded around the door waiting for her, but she said, “Miss, can I talk to you alone?” We went outside. She fidgeted with her hands and looked down. “My name is Anuwar. Can I take your phone number? Not for the camp. Just to call you sometimes, to talk.” Anuwar calls me a lot. She comes from a tiny village in the middle of a desert and sometimes she likes to be reminded of how big the world really is.

A few months ago I came home from getting my hair cut and my landlady, Mais, was sitting on the front steps. I knew what she’d say and she said it: “Why did you cut it again?!” And I said what I always say: “Because I like it this way.” But then, after she’d finished touching it and rearranging it and lamenting how short it was in the back she said something strange: “I wish I could be like you, Maggie. I wish I could not care what everyone says.”

It would be easier for us all if everyone said less. If everyone judged less.  There’s so much tension and resentment that runs as an undercurrent in the lives of people who keep themselves confined in roles that don’t fit. Of course I do care what everyone says. It’s what everyone says that makes me so weary of walking the streets as myself every day and still so sure that I must. I wouldn’t bother if it weren’t for Mais, if it weren’t for the women who’ve shown me  how much one person’s honesty can change.

Six funerals

Om Yazzim put out her cigarette (she always smoked while I ate) and got up to stand at the window. I asked her why. It was my first day at site, a year and a half ago, and my Arabic was so bad I had to ask a few times before she understood. “I’m waiting for the cars,” she said. The window faced the long stretch of road that led from Ramtha to the other two bordering villages and, eventually, Syria. “What cars?” I asked. It was 3pm and it seemed like everyone in the world must be eating or sleeping. “My uncle’s son died today,” she explained.

I got up and stood with her. We waited. The cars started to come. They flew by in clusters of two and three, the horns jarring and loud. Om Yazzim cried and I did too, I’m still not sure why. I didn’t know her cousin. I barely knew Om Yazzim then. I’m not even the type of person who cries very much at all, let alone in front of other people. But we stood there, deafened by horns and watching the most tremendous demonstration of grief I had ever seen in my life. And I think maybe it’s just impossible to see so much pain all around and not feel it too. We waited until the last car disappeared, the noise fading into an echo that rang in my ears.

I had only attended two funerals in my life before I came to Jordan. In America our tribes are smaller I guess, and life expectancy is longer. But a few weeks ago I went to my sixth funeral in little over a year and a half. A sixteen year old girl shot herself in the stomach while she was playing with her dad’s gun. She thought it was unloaded.

Salam lived in the village next to mine, where I led a day-camp for girls last January. She was a beautiful, lively kid, always the first to speak and the loudest to laugh. She came to camp 30 minutes early every day, bearing tea and bread and once, a bright pink perfumed scarf that she insisted I put on immediately. We made road-maps of our goals and decorated them with pictures cut from magazines. Salam demanded two extra pieces of construction paper to accommodate all the pictures she’d found for her future career as a fashion designer, or a teacher, or a doctor. She was the kind of kid no one forgets, and I hope that no one will.

I went to the funeral with another volunteer who lives in Salam’s village. In Jordan funerals are separated by gender and consist of three days of family sitting together, mostly in silence, and drinking coffee. Sometimes they eat dates. The women in Salam’s family had strung together several sets of prayer beads that flowed across four women’s laps. They chanted and moved their fingers over the beads and cried. My friend and I shook hands and kissed cheeks and said “Allah yarhamha,” (“May she rest in peace.”) We were the only non-family members there and I guess we should have felt awkward about that but we didn’t. We were there because we’d lost someone and we were sad, just like everyone else.

And I guess that’s why I’m writing today about my six funerals in Jordan- because it’s not just that people die more often here, it’s that I am more aware of it. Because being connected to a community has exposed me in a very honest way to every part of life-births, weddings, graduations, illnesses, and death. When someone dies here everyone knows. You hear it from the loudspeakers at the mosque. You hear it in the screaming horns from the cars flying by. You hear it because your friends tell you, your neighbors tell you, strangers on the street tell you, and they go to the funeral with you. If a student I’d known for a week died six months later in the U.S. I’m not sure that I would ever find out. There are just so many people in the U.S. Sometimes it feels like we intentionally structure our lives in order to create distance from other people. We don’t want to reveal too much. God forbid we wear our hearts on our sleeves.

A month ago my vegetable man died. A stranger told me in the street as I was walking to work. I went to the funeral alone and two of my neighbors and my landlady were already there. We spent an hour sitting under a blanket with his wife, drinking Arabic coffee and assuring her that her husband had been a kind and generous man. “He always gave me more fruit than I paid for,” I told her, “and when the men in the street harassed me he made them stop.” Those were small memories that I gave her, just pieces of one long and very complicated life. But they were experiences that connected us, and at a funeral what more do any of us have to give than that? Before I left the funeral I shook her hand and kissed her cheek. She said “Thank you,” with tears in her eyes, and she said it in English.

The girl who stood up

“Girls,” we asked, “do you think you have the same rights as boys?” They all nodded.

It was the end of a long week and the room was at least eighty degrees. Forty-five girls were slouched together in a semi-circle around the projector. We were in the middle of an afternoon session of Camp GLOW, a week of intense leadership training at a university campus for Jordanian high school girls. We’d just finished watching a TED talk focusing on the work of Sakena Yacoobi, the director of the Afgan Institute of Learning- an organization that created underground schools for girls in Afganistan when girls’ education was banned by the Taliban in the 1990’s.

My friend Alexa was facilitating the discussion and battling the 4pm lull.

“Girls, do you think you have the same opportunities as boys?” They all nodded again. I raised my eyebrows at the other counselors.

“Malak,” I said, pointing to one of the nodders, “What kinds of opportunities do boys and girls both have in Jordan?”

“We can all go to school,” she stated simply.

“And we can all play sports,” chimed in Hiba.

“What else can both boys and girls do in Jordan?” Alexa asked. We got a lot of examples: driving a car, going to college, deciding what to study, choosing a career.

“Alright,” Alexa said, stepping closer to the group, “I want you to stand up if you think you would be allowed to do some of the things I’m about to say, okay? And you can stay sitting if you don’t think you could do those things because you are a girl.” The girls nodded. They follow directions well.

“Most families in Jordan would send their sons to study in America if they got into a university there. Stand up if your parents would let you go to university in America.” Two girls stood.

“Stand if your parents would let you live away from home before you were married.”

“With a relative?” asked Ensam hopefully.

“No, by yourself.” One girl stood.

“Okay. You can play sports in school, right? But boys can play soccer anywhere they want, even in the street. Stand up if your parents would let you play soccer in the street.” No one stood.

“But wait,” said Ensam, “I don’t want to play soccer outside.”

“Why don’t you want to play outside, Ensam?” I asked.

“Because I would be embarrassed. Everyone would look at me. It’s better in the school where it is only girls.”

“But Ensam,” I tried to explain, “if all the girls played soccer in the street, just like the boys, no one would look at you.”

She shook her head. “But girls don’t want to play soccer in the street.”

People in the States say that women in the Middle East are oppressed.  And before I lived in Jordan, I might have said the same thing. But for some reason now, I balk at that word. Maybe it’s because of what Ensam said. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived with these women and I’ve seen their strengths, their skills, their courage. Maybe it’s because when we ask girls here if they have the same rights as boys, they nod. And I think in a lot of ways they’re right- most girls in Jordan are not oppressed. There’s a reason girls don’t play soccer in the street and it’s not because their parents say no. It’s because they don’t want to.

Girls in Jordan don’t play soccer in the street because they don’t want to make a scene. They don’t want to cause a problem. Standing up and being a leader means being looked at. It means being different. I haven’t met very many Jordanian girls who are comfortable being different.

Gender roles are deeply cultural and, for most Jordanians, very closely tied with religion. It is not my job to tell anyone that their perspective is wrong and if I did, I’d be a hypocrite. I’m an unmarried 24 year old with a boy’s haircut and baggy clothes. What do I know about gender roles? Yet somehow 45 Jordanian families have agreed to put their daughters in my care for a week. The very least I can do is respect their perspective. Still, the annual UNICEF report from 2012 showed that the number of Jordanian women who believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife under certain circumstances is 90%. And despite being known as one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East, Jordan has one of the highest rates of honor killings in the world.

These are the problems we are trying to begin solving with Camp GLOW.

“Okay,” Alexa said, “I want to ask you another question now. The girls that Sakena Yacoobi knew in Afganistan were not allowed to go to school, or to even have books. But she helped them go to school anyway, even though it was against the law. If she had been caught, she could have been killed. Why do you think she did it?”

Malak stood up. A crowd of young girls in hijab looked up.

“Because she knew she was right.”

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Although Peace Corps Jordan is currently working to make GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) a more economically sustainable project, the current funding for our camp is obtained almost entirely through donations from family and friends. We are very close to reaching our projected goal of $7,749, which we need to raise within the next two weeks. Please consider supporting our work here in Jordan by donating at

https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=13-440-001.

The vegetable stand

Normally I buy my tomatoes from the other side of the street. There’s a guy there who knows me now.  His wife is my friend- I eat lunch at her house at least once a week and sometimes on a slow day when she’s working the vegetable stand I’ll sit inside with her for awhile. She feeds me cucumbers while she waits for customers and we watch the buses go by. But today I was late coming home from work and I needed tomatoes, so I went to a different stand.

It felt a little risky, which I guess is ridiculous. But I’ve become protective of myself lately- sticking to the families I know and the routines that I trust. Maybe it’s the gradual wear from a year and a half of being the foreigner, but I guess at least part of me knows now that there’s risk in going to a different vegetable stand, just like there’s risk in sitting in a double seat instead of a single on the bus, or saying hello to a stranger on the street. Some days people are kind and they say hello back. Most days the people in my life are supportive and generous and unbelievably good to me. But on some days strangers look back at me with fear and even anger. Some days they laugh at me. Some days they say things in Arabic that I wish I didn’t understand.

But I’m not making any new friends by sitting in the single seat on the bus and by going to the same vegetable stand every time, so I was glad today when I put my tomatoes on the scale and the man working said hello. I told him that I am American and he told me that he is Syrian. He has lived here for six months. He lived his whole life before that in Dera’a, a place that has now become famous for being the first city to protest in the Syrian uprising. I told him that I used to live in Ramtha, which is 6 kilometers from Dera’a. I used to wake up in the night to the sounds of shelling in his city.

I don’t know what to tell someone whose home has been destroyed.  I told him that I am sorry- something that has never been useful in any culture. But he undercharged me for the tomatoes. His home has been destroyed and he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to go back and he undercharged me for my tomatoes.

I am astonished by the strength that I see around me when I am brave enough to look.

The dukan club

I am sitting in a plastic chair on a concrete floor covered in sunlight. Today is one of those strange spring days, clear and bright one minute and gray and cold the next. It’s the kind of weather that pulls the rug out from under your feet. The sunlight, when it comes, is as immobilizing as hope. I sit here in the late afternoon warmth, surrounded by women at least 40 years older than I. We are the sole operators of the neighborhood corner-store, known by all as the “dukan”- an establishment that deals mainly in chips, candy, soda, gum, and on a good day eggs and clothespins.

I’m here because I was walking home and they demanded that I sit. This happens regularly in Jordan- among strangers, friends, and family alike. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to live in the states if neighbors, grocery store clerks and bus drivers all felt equally comfortable inviting a stranger in for tea. And if the strangers said yes.

We eat cookies and gossip and wave to everyone who walks by. Eventually another member of the club passes by, a hadja with the traditional face tattoos and a heavy embroidered scarf wrapped around her head. My landlady throws out the order- “Taali agrode ma na, tali hone” (“Come sit with us, come here.”) The hadja grumbles, “Lo esh?” (“Why?”) But she’s already through the door. I try to give her my chair but she slaps me on the ass and sits on a crate instead. She is at least 75 years old.

I have an English lesson to teach, grant forms to submit, and laundry to do, but I have no problem sitting here for an hour with these women. This is something I have learned to do, to recognize a good moment when I see it. Maybe it’s because every day here is so filled with extremes- one minute I feel so discouraged or angry I might scream; then a beaming five year old with Down’s Syndrome takes me by the hand and leads me to the playground to push her down the slide. These are the moments that I live for and I think it’s the contrast that really makes me really stop and take notice. To wonder at the goodness, to throw my head back and grin.

The four o’clock call to prayer echos through the streets and I ask my neighbor how her week has been. “Shu akhbarik?” I ask- “What’s the news?” “Hamdilulah,” she says, “Praise God.” She’s my favorite neighbor- always grinning at me and forcing me into her house for cookies when I walk by. A few months ago her husband died unexpectedly of cancer. I visited her a few days before his death and I saw her kiss the top of his head as she walked past his bed. She stayed in the house for 40 days of mourning after his death, but now that spring has come she is out under the blue sky with the rest of us. She turns to me and says, “Alei birda bayeesh.”- “Whoever is content will live.”

We turn our faces up to the sun.