The notes that lurk at the end of the daily passages in the journal I kept during my sophomore-year semester as a Young American Abroad (Y.A.A.) in Amman, Jordan, read like the numerical ravings of a conspiracy theorist who’s absolutely convinced that he will find some “disparity” in the “data.” “Cab to downtown: 1.50 dinars. Falafel: 0.65. Water: 0.30. Total: 2.45.”
Things were not going so terribly at that point: I had been in Jordan for about a month, and had since fallen into a general rhythm regarding my travel route across the city. I’d created positive vibes with my fellow Y.A.A.’s, improved my Arabic to the point where I could have rudimentary conversations with cab drivers, and had a pleasant, if rather food-centric relationship with my exceedingly hospitable Jordanian host family (though, from my experience, most Arab families are exceedingly hospitable).
Which is why it came as such an unpleasant shock to me when, meticulous hoarder that I am, I did find a disparity in the data, as presented to me by my wallet. I added a new section to my journal, “Unaccounted for,” to which increasing sums of money were added daily. Day by day, bits of my weekly stipend were going missing; I always had less than I remembered. Gradually, over a few weeks, I came to the conclusion that someone in my host family was methodically stealing nominal amounts of cash from my wallet either when I was sleeping or when I went to take a shower. All told, it was probably twenty or thirty dinars, about thirty bucks, but it was the principle of the thing that got to me.
The family was of Palestinian background, the portion of the Jordanian population that the other half fears will rise up and displace the monarchy. Palestinian in the sense of the “Palestinian” rapper with an Arabic name who had come to our hyperconscious liberal college campus in Indiana last fall and invigorated our own Palestinian students by rattling off a list of Middle Eastern foods—“DO YOU REMEMBER THE KHOUMOS & THE FALAFEL & THE TAHINE & THE MUSAKHAN?!” (this was the extent of his Arabic.)
When enough was enough, I decided that in order to forestall conflict I would wrap a slip of paper around the money in my wallet bearing the warning: “Stop stealing my money – [heart] Simon.” I would count funds pre- and post-shower.
Went to take a shower. Upon my return: 1.50 missing, warning slip in place, ignored. I grew rather angry.
I remember sitting in my room that morning in February, girding myself for the confrontation with my host family. I was listening to Black Flag, and as Henry Rollins sang about “jealous cowards” and “society’s arms of control,” I scrawled the following note into my journal: “Waiting in the preproom for the suspect to lumber into the living room so I can confront him indirectly, in the presence of his mother.”
Retrospectively, I’m sure there were other, more reasonable courses of action.
But I was furious and indignant—at nineteen, there’s no match for that—and I had a mission: I was out to protect the wallets of future Y.A.A.’s. This injustice had to stop!
Seething, I marched into the living room, journal in hand. Mama Faridah was sitting on the couch, watching the latest hundred thousand protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The eldest son, Ahmad (built like and with the hirsute hide of a gorilla) was ensconced in his usual chair, coffee and cigarette butts arrayed around him, warming his hands with the space heater. At 24, he was the de facto male leader of the household because Daddy was away, a guy I figured would probably never leave the maternal nest. He was also my prime suspect (mostly because I didn’t like him).
“Look,” I said, holding out my journal, full of tiny print that most native English speakers can’t make out, as if presenting evidence. “We’re given a certain amount of money each week, to pay for taxis and lunches. And I’ve noticed over the past few weeks that I’ve been missing money, a little bit each day.” Followed by my final, unequivocal sentence: “And I know someone is taking it.”
All at once, every ounce of goodwill I’d built up over the past month—via American chocolates, second helpings, general pleasantness and genuine curiosity about their culture and language—evaporated into thin air.
“Go and pack your bags,” the gorilla-son said.
“Go and pack your fucking bags!”
The day before, I’d been advised by a Jordanian that if I confronted the thief in front of his family, he would feel tremendous shame for bringing disgrace to the family and the thefts would cease. This strategy backfired completely. In seconds, both Mama Faridah and Ahmad were shouting at me—how dare I accuse them; “We’re rich, our bellies are full, why would we steal from you?” “20 dinar? We would give you 20 dinar!” etc.—switching into Arabic when they couldn’t express the extent of their outrage in English.
I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, let alone make a case for myself. It was a contest of volume that I wasn’t crazy enough to try and win. I tried to remain levelheaded. “I have an issue, and I’m just trying to talk to you about it.”
“You’ve done enough talking! GO!”
In Arab society, the family is the be-all end-all, and by leveling my ridiculous accusations I was accusing not only one person in the family, but each and every one of them, the entire goddamn house. It was their duty, therefore, to respond in kind, to protect their reputation. Insults are taken collectively. They arose together in honorable rage to shout me down.
“Ayib! Ayib!” Mama Faridah cried—in English, “Shame! Shame!”—the word with which women respond when men grope them inappropriately on the street. On top of it all, I’d molested my host mother.
“Get your bags before I kill you,” the gorilla-son said. Bits of ash from his cigarette dropped onto the carpet. I hoped fleetingly that the house would burn down.
“I’m trying, just let me call Bruce.” Bruce was the benevolent director of my college’s little program in this country.
“Call your Bruce! Call the embassy! Call your president!”
I went into the bedroom, stared at the wall, and started cramming stuff into my suitcases. I did not call the embassy. I did not call the president. Instead, I called my Bruce, weepy-like, and told him to come and get me.
As I packed up my suitcases, like a grotesque parade or some sort of brutal sketch comedy routine, the members of the family who hadn’t been present during the initial confrontation crashed into the bedroom one by one (three sons, one daughter, one mother) to shout at me some more, in Arabic (which I couldn’t understand) and English (ditto, mostly).
Even sweet-tempered Amjad, summoning all of the honor-rage possible in her mushy nineteen-year-old frame, burst through the door to shout: “YOU FUCKING JEWISH, YOU STEAL OUR LAND AND THEN YOU ACCUSE US—!!”
Gorilla-son returned and tried to attack me, but he was restrained by his slightly less irrational mother (he did successfully nail me with a shoe, though).
At long last, Bruce arrived, and my now ex-host family backed off. I heard soft rumblings from the echo-ey front room used exclusively for prayer and hosting guests as they discussed me and my accusations. Meanwhile, I had a tear-stained conversation with Isa, the Indonesian maid, who had watched sadly from the kitchen as the whole ridiculous scene unfolded:
“Crazy [plural],” she said, shaking her head.
“The world is crazy,” I said, referring specifically to this one Jordanian family, my Arabic only approximating my thoughts.
“No,” she replied. “Not all of the world. All of Jordan.”
Given the state of things at that point, I was hard-pressed to disagree. (Later, I learned that of all the students this family had hosted, Isa liked me the best, because I made my bed and folded my clothes. A minor triumph.)
Bruce gave me pep talk in the bedroom (“You didn’t bring up the embassy, did you?”) and convinced me not to go out swinging. “They mentioned a lawyer,” Bruce said, “but that’s because it’s what they see on American TV.” They also see a lot of Nicholas Cage on TV. I’ve seen six of his movies since I’ve been here.
Lugging my two suitcases and a black plastic bag that held my still-drying laundry, trailing my gracious program director, I made my way out of the house. “Sorry,” I muttered to the assembled family, at Bruce’s advisory, not very convincingly.
“TAKE YOUR SORRY TO THE… eh…” The word escaped Ahmad.
Within a few hours all of the siblings had de-friended me on Facebook. I thought this was hilarious.
Sequestered in the hotel where I spent the next four days while Bruce scrambled to find me a new host family, I decided in my time of need to put aside my bootlegged copy of True Blood (thanks Rhea & Kelly) and write to sagacious Henry Rollins for guidance. I composed a lengthy email that explained my situation in great detail. The subject line read: “Ravings from A Student Studying Abroad/Fan Letter.”
And, to my amazement, three days later he responded. “Obviously mom was covering for someone,” he wrote, “perhaps it was her. The violence of the reaction is quite a tell. I hope you get another dwelling. I admire the chances you are taking to expand your horizons, that’s the real stuff.”
I thought to myself: Hell yeah, Henry Rollins, and then went out into the thick of the Arab Spring to find myself a new home.