December 19, 2002 - Boston Phoenix: Journal of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan

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Journal of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan

Read and comment on this story from the Boston Phoenix by RPCV Jennifer Warren who provides a day by day journal of her experience in Jordan in the past 6 months with special emphasis on the events leading up to the murder of RPCV Lawrence Foley and the aftermath with the evacuation of volunteers from the country. In one of the most moving passages of her journal she writes:
"The great sadness of this whole situation is that just because two cultures and religions simply cannot accept each other as equal but different, cannot live in the same huge world without interfering with one another, hundreds of people ó neighbors, co-workers, students, volunteers, and friends ó have been affected by this drastic measure to evacuate. Part of why Peace Corps was started in Jordan in 1996 was to show Americans and other Westerners that Jordan is a safe and modern Muslim country. Itís hard to accept that a handful of angry people in Jordan are making this statement untrue, because as volunteers with lives, jobs, and friends there, we definitely did feel safe. Just as much as we do here."
Read the story at:

In a strange land*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

In a strange land

As Peace Corps volunteers with lives, jobs, and friends in Jordan, we definitely did feel safe ó until a US diplomatís assassination forced us to leave


AFTER GRADUATING from the Art Institute of Boston in May 2002 with a bachelorís degree in fine arts and photography, I avoided all the "So what are you going to do now?" questions by joining the Peace Corps. My assignment was to be a special-education teacher in Jordan. I arrived there in mid July knowing next to nothing of the language, culture, and history of the country. I was totally unprepared for the desert heat; my feet sank into my flip-flops as if they were made of clay. In deference to Muslim sensibilities, I wore long-sleeve shirts that I quickly sweated through and which stuck to my skin. Despite the training I received upon arrival (which involved living with a Jordanian family), I still felt that I had merely touched the surface of what I needed to know. I feared that I would be hated for being an American, and looked down upon for not wearing a jelbab (long, form-hiding dress) and hjab (head cover). On top of it all, I was nervous about being the only special-education volunteer in this yearís Peace Corps program, which meant there were no other volunteers in my field with whom I could share and process difficult experiences. As it turned out, my planned two-year stay was cut short by security concerns. Just three and a half months after my arrival, Lawrence Foley, a diplomat from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Jordan, was assassinated. One month later, the Peace Corps ended our programs.

What follows are portions of journal entries ó which, as e-mails, I sent home to friends and family ó from the time I arrived in Jordan until my rushed return to the United States.

Sunday, July 28, 2002

In Al Hiyad, where my homestay family lives, I wait for the bus to Madaba, where my language and culture classes take place. Curious neighbors listen for the crunching gravel of someone walking by, run out to greet me, and test my Arabic skills. I know I am being watched by the trucks full of shebab (young men) rolling by ó their lustful wide eyes fascinated by my light skin and uncovered hair. Eyes on the ground and pushing rocks around, I am also conscious of the staring group of older men hanging out at the nearby doucan (shop). Finally, the bus arrives, and I get on, relieved. But a man chooses to sit next to me, something he would not do with a Jordanian woman. In fact, he would probably be kicked off the bus for doing so. I squeeze against the window and put my feet on the wheel well in order to avoid touching him. But he spreads his legs and arms wider to test me. Trying to start a conversation, he brushes his arm against mine and continues staring at the American girl who wonít answer his questions. Without looking around, I already know that I am the only bareheaded woman on this bus, and it makes me wonder if itís not such a bad idea to throw a scarf on in public. Through just this simple contact with a man (something completely normal in the States), I can understand why some women decide to cover for reasons beyond Islam. I try to concentrate on the gypsy tents in the fields we pass. Are they traditional Bedouin tents, or do they belong to Palestinian refugees? The afternoon call to prayer resonates through the bus windows as I quietly tell the man next to me to give me some space.

Friday, August 23, 2002

A distant cousin of my homestay family drives a taxi. Every Friday for the past three weeks, he has driven by my home to convince another volunteer and me to take a trip to the Dead Sea with him. Finally, we consent, as long as the entire family of five comes with us. So the eight of us squeeze into his self-owned taxi, and we head off. The family assumes I like Céline Dion (which I donít and donít have the heart to tell them). So we are listening to the tape for the third time. Though our destination is only 30 kilometers away from home, the drive takes two hours, thanks to a winding route through the canyon and eight stops (not all of them necessary) for picnic supplies. In deference to my Muslim family, Iíve covered my wrists and ankles. And this is how I jump into the surprisingly thick and oily water: nearly fully covered. My body is aching from the high percentage of salt in the water, which seems to dry out my skin even as I soak in it. But I convince myself that anything is a relief from the scorching Jordanian sun. I drift out to the middle of the Dead Sea, literally, much farther than the local swimmers. A family member bobs over to lure me in. I can easily see the shore on the other side, and am too close to Israel for their comfort. In the distance, I see my entire Jordanian family rubbing thick gray clay all over their bodies, and decide it is time to come in when the nine-year-old son begins to wash off his clay-covered face with the salty water.

After the Dead Sea, we go on a search for maya hilu (fresh water) and find a serene, secluded spot where water flows over a concrete bridge, making natural slides onto soft green moss. The mother, who has refused even to lift her jelbab and take a dip in the Dead Sea, begins sliding repeatedly down the freshwater chute, miraculously keeping her jelbab and hjab intact. The sun begins to set, and we make a roadside stop for sugary, boiling shai (tea) in thin plastic cups. After the cousin hastily jumps out of the car and picks a bundle of fragrant pink flowers for me, the car nearly drives, unattended, into the Dead Sea. He catches the car, we recuperate, and set up a beautiful picnic dinner on a cliff side: whole cucumbers, pita bread, yogurt, and Coca-Cola. The day ends with the car door propped open and Arabic pop music playing on the radio.

Saturday, October 19, 2002

As part of my training, I visit special-education centers in Jordan. One consists of two rooms filled with men over 40, all with evidence of physical and emotional abuse. Their heads are scarred from falls, beatings, and razor slashes. They leave their assigned beds or chairs only to eat and return to their mind-numbing television, cigarettes, and medication. Another government center, where I complete my two-week training practicum, drugs the physically and mentally disabled children before untrained staff tie them into wooden towers for behavioral problems (namely, trying to explore, get into things, and be a kid). Six-year-old Muhammad cries with his hands roped under his "activity tray." All it takes is for someone to smile and touch his hands to dry his tears. Every chance I get, I untie him and watch him try to move around the room, forcing his atrophied leg muscles to work again. If I leave him alone, Iíll come back to find him tied up again, facing a wall and crying ó which of course sends me home crying.

My permanent center is somehow better than this, because Peace Corps tries to make sure that assignments are bearable for two years. It has 110 adults (men and women with developmental disabilities) who eat, sleep, stare, fight, cry, and watch television ... while the staff sits, sleeps, stares, drinks shai, and smokes cigarettes. There is physical abuse here too, but only when I am not around, because the staff knows I donít approve of it. Unfortunately, that doesnít mean I donít see the bruises and hear the complaints from students. The only stimulation they get is from the art projects we are working on. Hussaam runs up to me clapping his hands quickly, renames me, and yells "Aniisa, Aniisa! Sabah alíkhair, Aniisa!" (Aniisa, Aniisa! Good morning, Aniisa!) Students come up to the art room all day, each one always with something to ask of me. One wants to look at my ring. Another wants a magazine. Another wants to draw. And another wants to know when he can visit my house. They all tell me that they are fasting for Ramadan.

Monday, October 28, 2002

Lawrence Foley was assassinated outside of his home at 7:30 this morning. His wife works with Peace Corps as our psychologist. Peace Corps volunteers know only what the press regurgitates, but we should be informed of more by Tuesday afternoon. This assassination has followed a supposedly unrelated September 27 warning that Al Qaeda operatives are planning to kidnap Americans in Jordan (learned this summer through intercepted materials, which Peace Corps is not allowed to tell us anything more about). We are not on " standfast " orders (to stay in our homes or with a neighbor we trust), but we are asked to be alert, to stay aware of our surroundings, and to change our schedules daily if possible. I have had no personal threats.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

People have been apologizing for the past two days. My neighbors are disappointed and saddened, most especially because of the negative effects that the assassination will have on Jordan ó mainly on the tourist industry and Foleyís USAID projects. There is hardly any news coverage of his death or how Jordanian police are handling it. Body guards are protecting US diplomats and American Peace Corps staff 24 hours a day, and I now have to ask permission for volunteers from other areas to stay with me in Kerak for the upcoming weekend. My request is approved, and the Peace Corps arranges for local policemen to sit outside my house all night.

One of my friends left Jordan on Monday, after Foley was gunned down, and she called me from the Peace Corps office after overhearing our director talk of evacuation plans. In my mailbox, she leaves me a protection cord blessed by the Dalai Lama. Foley was close to Peace Corps staff, and most of them live near his house in the expatriate community of the capital, Amman. The risk is much higher for official Peace Corps staff than it is for the lonesome volunteers out in the middle of nowhere.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Nothing more has been said about evacuation since Foleyís death, so we figure that things have finally calmed down. We all assume the killing was an insolated incident, and not something that warrants closing all programs and uprooting 35 volunteers.

Still, due to a combination of the added security for US personnel in Amman and the nearby unrest in Maían, Peace Corps is concerned about a gap in our local security forces. In Maían, located about an hour and a half south of me, military and police forces are searching for people who might be responsible for Foleyís murder. Peace Corps does not have volunteers in the town because for a long time it has been an Islamic militantsí stronghold. Roadblocks were set up around Maían, and all the local telephone lines were cut to prevent possible communication among members of the militant group. So far, five people have been killed in street riots there, including two of the local Kerak policemen sent to help. The Jordanian military has detained at least 50 suspects and uncovered rocket launchers, among other weapons. We are all fine and feel safe in our small communities, but I am beginning to understand why Peace Corps officials in Washington are concerned.

Since the September 27 kidnapping warning, I have had to call an on-duty Peace Corps officer on my security-assigned cell phone every time I leave my site overnight. Itís not the normal Peace Corps experience by any means. With Palestineís struggle for land, Lebanonís struggle for water, and UN sanctions in Iraq, things are already bad enough in this region. During every bus ride, I hear the news proclaim: " Bush, " " Amriikiia " (America), and " haríb " (war), and wonder whether or not I should shrink down in my seat.

Friday, November 22, 2002

The Jordanian military still has not found the people responsible for Foleyís assassination. Over the past few weeks, American fast-food-chain restaurants in Lebanon have been blown up. Two marines in Kuwait were shot and wounded yesterday. An American missionary in Southern Lebanon was shot in the head yesterday at her workplace. She had been there for a year and a half.

Peace Corps has decided to evacuate all volunteers, and I am packing my bags. Jihad, my neighbor upstairs, has offered to help. She consoles me and gives me her husbandís prayer beads to keep me safe. I am in a mad rush, making piles of things for Peace Corps, my neighbors, and my students. My site mate is on vacation, so I have to do the same thing at her house as well, packing bags in her absence and guessing what she would want to take or discard. At four in the morning, I hear the daylight call to prayer and breakfast before the daylong Ramadan fast begins. I have six more hours to pack and say good-bye to everyone.

Saturday, November 23, 2002

I am in a rented Mercedes with two fellow volunteers and everything we own. We can take only two bags each. Staring out the window, I can hardly believe what is happening. There is complete silence as we speed by the desert landscape. The only things that run through my head are the hasty way volunteers were forced to say good-bye to everyone we lived and worked with (we had 15 hours to pack up and say good-bye), every project we began and didnít get to finish, and all the disabled students at my center who will never understand that I did not want to leave them.

My forehead resting on the window glass, I try to concentrate on the paper-thin moon following me out of Kerak and the mysterious black cloud resting next to it. A moving figure in blue holds a childís hand; theyíre looking toward bundles of Bedouin tents settled in a sea of sand. Scenery changes so quickly here, from the smallest concrete home on a hill of dust to rows of olive trees surrounding a grandiose mansion. Should I absorb everything I can, watching each object that passes by the car window, since itís probably the last time I will ever see it? Or should I close my eyes, pretend this isnít real, and try to focus on still being in Jordan?

Another call to prayer, the second of five every day, yanks me back into the unfortunate reality of my quickly fading time in Jordan. I stop at the petrol station to fill up the Mercedes, and, feeling sick, I run in to find the porcelain hole in the ground. The man in charge of the shop is kneeling down in prayer, so I slip back out and again try to come to terms with the shock of my departure. The saddest part of all this is leaving the people who need Peace Corps the most: the disabled population of Jordan. Seeing these centers firsthand, and knowing that the people served there are the luckiest 10 percent of all disabled Jordanians ó it blows my mind. They donít look lucky to me.

Iím driving now, and I take a wrong turn, heading us toward Saudi Arabia. Our journey is weirdly reminiscent of a post-high-school road trip, except that I am not coming back. I am going to the States, my home, but itís a place from which I now feel somewhat separated. Neighbors donít know each other, people donít appreciate an unexpected visit, and you donít wait for a welcoming cup of shai or thick and bitter Arabic coffee or a piece of freshly made cake. The blur continues as I am put on a plane, land in Paris, get on another plane, and reach America.

Monday, November 25, 2002

Right now I am watching the sunrise from a luxurious hotel room in Washington, DC, thinking about what time it is in Jordan ó 1:45 p.m. I would be getting out of work right now. I would be washing paint brushes, scrubbing scabies germs off my body, heading home to cook and eat secretly during the Ramadan fasting hours, and get some time away from the shebab that surround me at work, on the bus, and at the souk (market). I have not had one nightís sleep since Friday, when I got the " pack your bags " call. That was three days ago. I am still waiting for this bad dream to end, placing me back in my house on top of the hill, across from 60 chickens that eat my leftovers. However, the sun is still rising, and I think I have already woken up.

Now what? seems like an appropriate question, but I am still working on the idea that I exist in Kerak, not Boston (where I went to school), or my home town of Houston. And now what? mostly pertains to the next minute and hour, not next month, next week, or even tomorrow. Suddenly I can drink from the tap again, afford to call my family (although now I have a new family in Jordan, and calling them racks up my telephone bill), and have the luxury of being in a place where everyone speaks my language. But I will not have the pleasure of seeing the buses and taxis decorated inside like a holiday party, with plastic plants, tassels, curtains, photographs, and hanging CDs. I will not work in a place where there is no doubt in my mind that the students need me. A vegetarian, I will not smile secretly and selfishly at the luck of being able to buy tofu at the shop by my house that caters to the Chinese sweatshop laborers down the street (tofu is otherwise available only at the Safeway in the capital of Amman, two and a half hours away). And I will not be thinking and dreaming in Arabic for very much longer. I have not yet decided if it is good to be " home, " but here I am.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

I have been back in the States for almost three weeks now, and have just received an e-mail from a friend in Jordan with the news that Jordanian officials have captured the men believed to be responsible for Foleyís murder. Apparently the Jordanian military and police have known about the two Al Qaeda members since December 3. I am trying to piece together the reasons why we were evacuated so suddenly, and wondering if this has more to do with it than a potential war. Itís possible that the US embassy, aware that the assassinsí capture was imminent, was concerned about problems arising because of the arrests.

The great sadness of this whole situation is that just because two cultures and religions simply cannot accept each other as equal but different, cannot live in the same huge world without interfering with one another, hundreds of people ó neighbors, co-workers, students, volunteers, and friends ó have been affected by this drastic measure to evacuate. Part of why Peace Corps was started in Jordan in 1996 was to show Americans and other Westerners that Jordan is a safe and modern Muslim country. Itís hard to accept that a handful of angry people in Jordan are making this statement untrue, because as volunteers with lives, jobs, and friends there, we definitely did feel safe. Just as much as we do here.

Jennifer L. Warren can be reached at
Background on the Peace Corps in Jordan

Read background on the Director's visit to Jordan at:

PC Director visits Jordan
Peace Corps Director arrives in Jordan 17 December 2002

Jordan arrests two in murder of RPCV
Jordan arrests two in murder of RPCV Laurence Foley 14 December 2002
Jordan expresses regret at Peace Corps pullout 24 November 2002
Peace Corps Suspends Program In Jordan 23 November 2002
Diplomat and Returned Volunteer Larry Foley murdered in Jordan 27 October 2002

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