America and back

My plane back to Jordan landed directly into a snowstorm. I peered out the fogged windows of the airport and the blurry white haze seemed fitting for my mental state. I had no idea what time it was. I’d been back home for three weeks (actually, to Brussels, Seattle, Portland, and then San Diego), and coming back was like being jarred awake from a very strange and comfortable dream.

I spent my first week in America doing laundry every day, just because I could. I took two showers a day. I ate anything and everything I wanted at any and all times- because I could also drive anywhere I wanted at all times! Around 5pm on the first day I started checking the sky for signs of approaching sunset, calculating how much time I had before I’d need to head home before dark. And then I realized that in America there were absolutely no limits to my travel. I found excuses to drive places at night- the gas station, the grocery store- just because I could.


I ate waffles. In public.

And then there were the social rules that I no longer had to follow. I realized I was getting anxious every time I entered someone’s house and it was because I hadn’t taken my shoes off at the door. But of course there was no need- no one was praying on that carpeting. I spent the first week flinching at proximity to men and avoiding eye contact, and it occurred to me that in Jordan I hardly ever look anyone directly in the eye. We don’t eat at tables- we sit on the floor in a circle. We don’t sit on couches or chairs- we lean on cushions against the walls. We hardly ever find ourselves directly facing one another, which makes a lot of sense given the less-than-confrontational nature of Arab culture. But in the states confrontation is built into the furniture. Restaurant booths made me uneasy. So did subway cars and kitchen tables. But after about a week I started to get comfortable. True to the 22 years I spent in the states before I became an honorary Jordanian, I put all the rules and habits and customs I’d picked up in the past year on the back-burner and fell right back into a lifestyle that was undeniably much easier than I’d remembered. Within two weeks I was hugging my uncles and leaving my shoes on.

It’s of course been much harder to adjust in the other direction- to return to the culture that’s only been mine for a year. I stumble over basic phrases and kiss people too many or too few times and on the wrong cheek. I make accidental eye contact with bus drivers. I keep telling everyone that my body’s in Jordan but my mind hasn’t caught up yet- it’s still in America, or at best drifting somewhere out over the Atlantic. But my friends and neighbors are patient with me, just as they always have been. “Shway shway,” they tell me- “Little by little.”

And of course things do move slower here. I spent my first day back in village covered in blankets on the floor of my landlords’ living room, watching old movies with the family and listening to the wind sweeping against the windowpanes. Today I ventured out to hang up my laundry and found the sun shining. I brought out a blanket and ended up on the roof for most of the afternoon, reading and listening to the music wafting up from the street. After awhile my neighbor’s daughters spotted me from the rooftop where they’d been doing the same. They hopped over the dividing concrete and settled in for the day, the older one reading the Qur’an and the younger ones swinging from the rebar like monkey bars. The sun sank down over the mountains and we practiced making shadow puppets against the low walls of the rooftop.

In that moment it seemed completely impossible that a week ago I was drinking Jamba Juice and driving a car down the freeway, steering with one hand. But I am not interested in living in two worlds at once. I am here now, all of me out on this roof with these children who are my neighbors, our hands determinedly forming the vague shadows of a camel, a rooster and a spider against the cinderblocks. The sun sinks low behind our backs, 7 thousand miles away from where it will set again, 11 hours later, over the town where I was born.


2 responses to “America and back

  1. Haunting, Maggie.

  2. Loved this. Thinking of you as you settle back into your life. xxoo

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