By Sophia Jones
The night is crisp, an unfamiliar feeling for June in Amman. A young blonde woman sits next to an elderly Jordanian woman on a dark green bench in Paris Circle. There are children playing with a slightly deflated soccer ball across the square. Five old men in grey suits cram together on a single bench.
They stare at the foreigner, wondering why a blonde woman is sitting with the locals, wondering where she came from, and possibly, wondering if she’s a Russian prostitute. But she likes to believe they are just admiring the beautiful night and not her neckline. She ties a light blue scarf around her neck and ignores the men’s stares. Some foreign women take these stares as a great compliment, as it makes them feel beautiful, but she knows they are merely staring because she is blonde. But occasionally, she has to remind herself of this.
The old woman watches the children play and occasionally, she cracks a smile and touches the blonde woman’s arm to give her chocolate pieces that rest in an ornately decorated box on the bench. She’s wearing a white hijab and a long black dress and there are deep valleys of wrinkles under her eyes.
When she smiles, they all crease up in a moment of excitement. Her teeth are stained with age, but she has one of the most remarkable smiles the young woman has ever seen. The two women don’t know each other, but both are equally enamored with the other.
One carries a book on Middle Eastern history in her purse while the other remembers her father’s tears when they fled Ramallah in 1948. The old woman knows no English, and the foreigner can only keep up a simple conversation. How are you? What’s your name? Where do you live? After these questions are asked, the foreigner sits, scrambling to remember more of her basic Arabic vocabulary.
She finally gives up and just smiles at the old woman. And somehow, this is better than any conversation, so the two sit and smile, eating chocolate and watching as the circle dances in the cool night air.
A Woman in a Burqa
There’s a woman in a black burqa sitting next to another woman who is eating a large vanilla ice cream cone. She eyes the ice cream, wondering the last time she had a lick of something so simple as vanilla ice cream. Only her piercing, dark eyes are showing, but they tell more than one would imagine.
The blonde woman watches as her eyes scan the square, eying the children, the old men in suits, the ice cream and the blonde woman. And the foreigner wonders what this woman thinks of her. Her pale forearms and blonde hair are showing and she wonders if this offends the conservatively dressed woman.
She smiles sweetly at her, expecting to be ignored. But the woman smiles back, with her eyes. She folds her gloved hands in her lap and continues to smile under her burqa. She will never forget this moment.
The blonde woman looks away, distracted by a young boy cat-calling her, but she glances back, marveling at the woman, wondering if she’s beautiful and if her husband finds her beautiful, wondering if she’s ever felt the cool air blow through her hair on a night like this, wondering if she herself, as an agnostic American woman, will ever feel the intense spirituality that this woman does.
The foreigner once had a long talk with a woman in Cairo about the burqa, admitting that she had some issues with it when women are forced to completely cover up, against their will. And the Egyptian woman turned to her and said, “This is true for some but not most women. And my daughter will never be date raped at a frat party.”
And she laughed at this when she realized how true the statement was. The woman’s daughter will never be date raped at a kegger, but then again, will she ever feel the sun on her face?
The mother of her close friend was in a convent when she was young, and one day as she was walking along the shore of Lake Michigan, she took down her long, dark hair to feel the wind blow through it.
And at that moment, she realized she could never become a nun, for the simple feeling of wind blowing through her hair was too beautiful to never feel again. Perhaps this is not a credible comparison to the woman in Paris Circle dressed in a burqa, but it comes to her mind on this windy evening.
Every morning the American woman sits in a Parisian café next to Paris Circle in Jebel Webdeh, Amman, and drinks a cappuccino while watching the circle from the café window. The small statue in the middle of the circle doesn’t quite resemble the Arc de Triomphe in Charles de Gaulle Etoile in Paris, but she often forgets that she is actually smack dab in the middle of the Middle East when an atmosphere such as Paris Circle surrounds her.
Heathen, Arab-hater, CIA
Paris circle is her escape from the Amman she sometimes can’t handle. Certain days, simply walking down the street can be a feat. People see her blonde hair and her foreign features and they label her: a whore, a heathen, an Arab-hater, an imperialist, a CIA-agent. She’s heard them all.
Sometimes, the ‘Can I fuck you?’ comments from young men in the streets make her furious. Some days she walks out of her apartment with her dark sunglasses on and her headphones in and she pretends like she can’t hear any of it. Some mornings she doesn’t want to even leave her apartment.
But it all makes her stronger, whether she realizes it or not. Some women travel to the Middle East and they leave bitter and even more closed-minded than when they first arrived.
It takes a certain kind of woman to put up with the negativity and remember the beautiful things as well, and wake up every morning with the hope of changing the world for the better, even if it’s as simple as sharing a smile with a woman in a burqa.
Nights in Paris Circle make her remember why she loves the Middle East. Apart from a sub-culture of harassment, she feels more at home in Jordan than back home in the States. Some days are unbearable, but others, she feels more alive than she ever imagined.
The call-to-prayer resounds above the cream colored city. She looks over to the local mosque, glowing in a green haze as the yellow taxis drive round and round. Most of the drivers hold a lit cigarette out their open windows, the smoke following the taxis like a synchronized dance around the circle. Groups of young men link arms and walk through the center of the circle. One young man even has a tattoo on his arms. The older women give him disapproving looks. Maybe it’s fake tattoo.
At 10 p.m., the women scatter and only the shebab, or groups of young men remain. It’s the woman’s cue to leave. She ties her scarf a bit tighter. As the women in their hijabs and burqas clutch their young childrens’ hands and walk away from the circle, they glance at her, some disapprovingly, others kindly, but mostly just curiously. To them, she is both a threat and a beautiful anomaly.
One woman wishes her goodnight and her little girl stares at the foreigner intently as she is led away, probably wondering why this strange, pale woman has ‘yellow’ hair. She stares back at the small child, wondering if she’ll grow up to sit in this same circle on nights such as this, just like her mother, wondering if she will eat vanilla ice cream.
The family living next to the foreigner’s apartment lost their cat and their daughter walks the alley for an hour cooing, “Chat, où êtes-vous?” over and over in a thick Lebanese accent.
Sometimes, if she closes her eyes, she can imagine herself sitting in a lavish apartment in Paris, but then hearing the ice-cream-truck-like jingle that the propane gas seller plays throughout the winding streets of Jebel Webdeh, she remember exactly where she is. This young, American woman is in Jordan, bordered by Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Palestine.
Two Jordanian flags fly high above Paris Circle and the smell of hookah smoke circles the square with the wind. It’s one of those memorable nights that make the young woman forget her bad day and make her smile for absolutely no reason. She can’t find this sort of solitude back home in the states. She can’t find this kind of simple joy. In the years to come, she’ll remember this small circle and close her eyes to retreat back to the dark green bench next to the old woman.
She’ll keep a small box of chocolates next to her bed and remember the burqas and the ice cream and the men’s stares. Maybe she’ll even miss the stares a little.
Sophia Jones: is currently studying foreign development and Arabic at the George Washington University. She has been traveling the world solo since she was 16 and hopes to never stop exploring. Currently, Sophia is raising funds through her nonprofit ‘Help Sophie’s Kids’ to build a school in Darkuman, Ghana as well as fund the educations of several children in Nepal. After graduating, she hopes to pursue a career in international journalism and humanitarian affairs.
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