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Being Lahalee

May 20, 2012

Amman to the left, a solitary mosque to the right. It stands alone, proud, and a little green in this fair city. It’s a metaphor.

There are certain personality traits that are considered universally good to possess, regardless of the culture you belong to.  Kindness, for instance, or generosity, or intelligence.  These are good traits to have, no matter whether the possessor is Chinese, British, or from Christmas Tree Island.  And until I came to Jordan, I would have added another trait to the list: a capacity for independence and the ability to do things by one’s self.

“Who are you in Jordan with?” is a common question I field from taxi drivers.  They seem confused by the concept that I am here working for a company that is Jordanian and in no way affiliated with the United States, and that I live here without my family, husband, or children.  When I describe plans for the weekend, as prosaic as going grocery shopping or as elaborate as exploring another city or the Dead Sea, I am always asked, “M’3 mean?” which means, “With whom?”   If I say, “lahalee” which means literally “by myself” or alone, they then ask, “Why?”

No one is ever alone in Jordan.  Young Arab adults almost never rent a flat of their own, or even share with friends.  Unless the parents and the entire extended family are dead, or live far away, that’s who an unmarried adult lives with.  Until recently, a single person looking for housing was viewed with suspicion: he must be into drugs, or a bad son, or recently in prison to have been cast out of his own community and left to founder on his own.  Here, being alone is not something one ever chooses: the only people that are alone are those that for some reason lost their community.  Even my flat-mates, two Lebanese sisters, have never lived with someone who wasn’t family until me.  Likewise, people never want to do activities by themselves.  Whether it is smoking shisha, or gardening outside, or watching TV or wandering around al-Balad for shopping.   It is not common to see a man traveling in a pack of one, and extremely rare to see a woman do so.  “It is more fun with friends!” is the common sentiment, but I believe it more deeply ingrained than that.

A sparrow at Jerash, living out its little birdy life.

Arab community is very tight-knit, in a way that is strange to the Western sensibility.  At work, emails are often addressed to me with “Habibiti” (sweetheart) from men and women alike; I have been kissed on both my cheeks by total strangers and invited to tea at their homes.  When I was ill, I was admonished by people I barely knew for not going to them for help.  Men warn me not to trust other men and tell me they’ll look out for me like I am their little sister.  Here, the clear cut relationships of the West become muddled; teacher/student, boss/employee, storeowner/customer… all of these roles blur, and are mutable, turning into people just interacting and relating with other people.   I never know what to expect.

This is lovely in many ways; there is a warmth to many interactions that have become cold and rote in the States.  Going to the grocery store can make you a new friend and I had a lovely and strange conversation in broken Arabic with a taxi driver once about our favorite hobbies (I probably misunderstood him when he told me he likes eating sharks every weekend).  But this sense of community is also disconcerting; it not only obscures for the un-initiated Westerner what is genuine Arab kindness and what are disingenuous attempts at taking advantage of you (of which there many, oh so many), but it becomes smothering.  Enduring weeks of people telling me it is strange to want to be alone has made me all the happier on those rare occasions when I am actually, completely, by myself.

I was on a large group trip out to the Dead Sea area a few weeks ago.  I enjoyed the 90 person camaraderie for the entire day as we hiked up a fast moving stream, jumped off of waterfalls, dried off, and had dinner.  When the group ascended to watch the sunset on a cliff side, I sat down on a rock a little ways from the group to reflect upon the day, and watch the sun disappear over the horizon.   I wasn’t alone long however- one of my friendly acquaintances from the trip soon came over to ask why I wanted to watch the sunset by myself, and not engage in the revelry and dancing that was taking place.  I tried to explain about the spirituality of the sunset, and wanting to think, and about the need to be alone to rejuvenate from constantly talking all day.  He didn’t get it.  I tried to explain that “wahid moo nafsil waheed” which is probably terrible Arabic but translates roughly to “one is not the same as lonely.”  No dice.  Finally, I managed to get him to let me be, after assuring him I’d return to the group in five minutes.  He left, still not understanding the need for introspection.  Does constant social contact preclude even the desire for deep thinking?

Also from Jerash. Look at that community of pillars!

Maybe if I had grown up in such an insistently social culture, I wouldn’t need to have space, have time and serenity to do my best musings.  I wouldn’t prize the ability to self-soothe, or problem-solve equipped with only a pen and paper.  Maybe I simply wouldn’t value the kind of soul-searching that can only occur alone, and be content with the apparent outline of things, without a deeper mental plunge.   It is hard for me to imagine I could be like this.  So much of who I am involves this sort of intellectual feed-back loop, involves a need to prove to myself constantly that I am an independent being first, and part of a community second.

There is a story my father loves to tell about me when I was months old.  Not yet able to talk, or crawl, having barely mastered the ability to hold up my head without help, my father would cradle me to his chest and hold me, his moody black-haired firstborn.  How disconcerting it was for him, when I would push against him with my feeble arms, my chubby hands scrambling against his chest to physically distance my body from his.  How he marveled at this strange personality trait, which he ascribed as a need for me to be my own person before I felt safe being protected by another.  I stopped striving against his arms when I gained the ability to crawl.  I liked cuddling once I could leave to do my own thing when I liked, no longer trapped into affection.  Can culture override something that seems so innate?  Or are there secret people here who need alone-time and I have, for obvious reasons, just not met them?

“But I’m still having fun and I guess that’s the key, I’m a twenty-something and I’ll keep being me.”

And for some reason, I still have a fear, deep down, that I am not independent, capable, adult or good at navigating life’s little quirks.  I force myself to demonstrate my capacity for independence, for initiative, and  I like accomplishing things alone so when I succeed, I can feel secure that it is my own victory and no one else’s.  Travelling around Europe by myself, missing trains and finding hostels and travel buddies and monuments without maps thrilled me, because I felt powerful.  Shit goes wrong in life- a fact like death and taxes- but there I was, dealing with it, solving problems, taking names, and enjoying myself in the process.  I think that is one of the largest issues I have with a culture that prizes community closeness over independence: I don’t see how you can derive a sense of your own efficacy without being able to founder and shape and experience the world through your actions.

So I live my life here in Amman, toeing the line between community and self, lahalee when I need to be, with others when my secret baby self is secure enough in its own power to surrender independence for a while.  I try to dull my suspicious and cynical nature when people treat me like their best friend after meeting me once.  I try to accept their grace with some of my own.  I cannot be all of who I am here, when with others: simply having my hair down and free is enough to excite desperately unwanted male harassment, not believing in God is a dangerous admission to make, and being assertive is seen as being aggressive.  It is exhausting to be with others while eclipsing parts of myself.  It is exhausting trusting people who I don’t know, every day, though I have no choice but to do so with my limited language skills and dearth of cultural know-how.  I simply pray that they have mercy on me, and often, but not always, these strangers do.  The dance between being immersed in the community and true to myself two-steps on, and will hopefully become more in sync before the song ends.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2012 1:04 PM

    So how *do* you distinguish between genuine kindness and attempts to take advantage of you? That was a problem I remember when I went abroad.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    May 22, 2012 3:35 PM

    Found this very interesting…
    much love,
    your fellow lahalee traveler,
    mom

  3. May 23, 2012 4:20 AM

    Betsy,

    Unfortunately, I have not yet gotten attuned enough to know when it is a stranger being kind or taking advantage. I now, for better or worse, assume they are trying to take advantage of me and am admittedly rather cold and closed off until I can actually ascertain their intent. It is not ideal.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    June 4, 2012 9:58 AM

    Hi,

    I’m hoping to move to Jordan and was wondering how did find a job there. I would love to find a job in Amman Jordan.

    • June 5, 2012 2:35 AM

      You have to look into work visa requirements for your specific nation of origin. Then approach companies in the sector you work for, resumes et al. I’d honestly recommend moving here first then finding a job, as everyone does everything here just by dropping and phone calls, not online.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    June 5, 2012 9:07 AM

    Hi, I dont need a work visa because I have a dual citizenship, a US and a Jordanian. So did move to Jordan first and than found a job. I was just there for a month vocation with my wife and kids visiting the family.

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