I’m a tall blond white American, and when I lived in Jordan, I got stared at a lot. It wouldn’t be fair to say that everyone stared at me because some people didn’t. But very many people did, more so than did in the US or Israel or Europe. To someone who’s not used to getting stared at a lot, the staring is a shock. At first you know it’s a cultural thing and that Arab society is ingroup-outgroup and that strangers occupy a sometimes reviled place. So it’s no big deal that most everyone you pass on the street stares at you.
But after a few months of telling yourself this, you start to question if it really is the culture you’re in and wonder if maybe people aren’t staring at you because of you or because of something you did. You start to think, is there something wrong with me? In Jordan, The Staring can make you hyperconscious of your external appearance, and if you don’t consider yourself vain before you go, you might after a few months of being stared at.
Staring struck me as a worthy topic because after I came back from a weeklong vacation to Israel, the moment that my being back in Jordan really sunk in was when a little boy standing in front of me in the customs line stared at me. And stared. And stared. His eyes didn’t leave me except when he turned to tell (or warn?) his mother about me. She turned around, looked me up and down and turned back around only when her eyes met mine. She didn’t crack a smile.
The next morning I went to get breakfast, and everyone I passed on the street was staring at me. I was not in Israel anymore. At the little restaurant where I picked up my fava beans and falafel, college-age girls in hijabs were pointing at me and giggling. College or middle school? I thought. Did they think I was cute? Did they think I was funny-looking? What was making them laugh? I could have smiled or talked to them or showed some emotion, but in a society where keeping your cool is the very essence of being a man, I wasn’t about to break fly.
On the way back from the little restaurant, kids from the school across the street were staring at me. Sometimes they would throw rocks at me. The white-guy-getting-rocks-thrown-at-him scenario reminded me of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank getting rocks thrown at them and how violently some of them react and how the international community gets outraged by soldiers arresting little kids for throwing rocks. But how jarring it is to be hit by a rock! And how helpless you are when the people throwing the rocks are half your height and, compared to you, powerless! They’re so small, and after all they’re just a bunch of kids having some mischievous fun. Didn’t I used to throw rocks at people when I was a kid? Well, actually, no.
Later that week I was walking back home from an Arabic lesson, and two guys I recognized from the neighborhood were walking in front of me, and they turned around, stared straight at me and charged, and I thought they were attacking me or something. Until I realized that they were trying to flag down a truck that goes around the neighborhood delivering natural gas canisters. You know, it’s one of those trucks you have to aggressively flag down.
Things were getting out of hand. The staring was driving me crazy, and I had to keep my cool. In order to do that, I had to understand where I fit in in my new community.
On my street, I was “Wilyaaaamz” to the people who knew me, with four as and a z. But to Jordanians who didn’t know me, I could be many things: a foreigner (ajnabi), stranger (gharib), neighbor (jar) or guest (def). In Arab society, the guest is protected and a source of the host’s honor. Hosts defend guests with their lives and increase their honor by hosting them. And in Islam, like in Judaism and Christianity, the neighbor is sacred.
If neighbor and guest have positive connotations, stranger and foreigner don’t, not even in English. The word “stranger” in Arabic is etymologically related to the words for “wonder,” “astonishment,” “odd,” “West” and “violence,” so you can imagine how Jordanians might regard strangers with a measure of suspicion. Similarly, the word “foreigner” is related to words for “ritually impure,” “avoid,” and “not belonging to the tribe.”
Of course there were always people who called me other things that they thought described me based on the assumptions they made about me given my external appearance, like Westerner (gharbi), Christian (nasrani), infidel (kafir), Jew (yahudi), gentleman (sayyid), etc. But these four words–foreigner, stranger, neighbor, guest–were what most told me about where I fit in.
Arab culture has its roots in the desert, or so goes Jordanian street wisdom, and the attitude toward the stranger really came home to me when I read about an old Bedouin practice regarding strangers. If a Bedouin saw a passing stranger from afar, he would ride out after him and offer him a cup of coffee. If the stranger accepted the cup, he would become a guest. If the stranger denied the cup of coffee, he would become an enemy, and his refusal would be tantamount to a declaration of war. You’re either with us or against us. We will either host you or treat you as hostile. (Interestingly, host and hostile come from the same Proto-Indo-European root. The ideas run together in Greek too, where the word for host, guest and stranger are all the same.)
So, in this new cultural milieu where I was and had to be different, the cause of my anxiety was that I could never really become an Arab or a Jordanian the way a foreigner could become American by working hard, getting lucky, trying to assimilate, maybe failing, having kids, having them assimilate, having them be president (here’s looking at you, Barack Obama Sr.). It’s disquieting to feel like you could never belong no matter how hard you try. So I stopped trying to belong and got comfortable as a guest when I got called a guest and a stranger when I got called a stranger.
At the end of my time in Jordan, I was still more than a little fed up with not belonging, of not being able to just exist as me, on my own terms.
I got an idea.
If the little kids were going to throw rocks at me, I was going to say “shalom” back. If people stared at me like I was an alien, I was going to show them that I was an alien, at least according to their educational curricula. If people were going to look at me funny, I was going to smile at them and intone in the heartiest voice I could muster a kind and welcoming “shalom!” If they weren’t going to accept me as I was, then I would challenge them to make sure they wouldn’t accept me. No more half measures.
To be fair, most people in the neighborhood knew me by that time and probably thought I was crazy. What is Wilyaaaamz doing speaking Hebrew in Amman and acting like he’s Jewish? And why is he grinning like a fool?
I’m happy to report that not once did my saying “shalom” get me a beating. It got me some “strange” glances and some “wonder” and “astonishment”–“Did he say ‘shalom?!’” I would hear some people marvel after I passed.
Once on a trip with some friends to Wadi Dana, we went to an overlook to enjoy the view of Wadi ‘Arabah and southern Israel. Two Jordanian guys who were enjoying the view started staring at us as soon as we arrived, so I gave them a big “shalom.” They both smiled and said shalom back.