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Living in Sodom or Gomorrah

August 2, 2012

Come closer, my children, and listen to the tale….

If you believe the legends, modern day Jordan contains the ancient sites of Sodom and Gomorrah.  For those of you who haven’t read the old Bible story recently, its tells the tale of Lot, the only holy man in the entire city of Sodom.  And God told Lot through two angels that he should leave his home with his family, as God was going to smite and destroy the two cities.  Lot begged God to stay his hand, and God said that the cities would be spared if Lot could find ten good men in the city.  To make a short story even shorter, God was right: Lot was the only good man in all of Sodom.  And so the walls of the two cities crashed down, and the people burned, with only Lot and his family escaping the destruction, tears in their eyes, packs on their backs.

The physical ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah are technically near the Dead Sea, not Amman itself.  That said, I have come to an unfortunate conclusion regarding their spiritual location.  Though not all men in Amman have demonstrated the casual misogyny that has led me to twitch in reflexive fear when I am on the street, many have.  Right now, like Lot, I despair of the white matchbox city and prepare my leave-taking.

The women of Amman have nothing to prove to me.  I have met many women, hijabed and bare-headed, who I believe are worthy of every respect.  It is men that I take issue with.

Imagine that you are walking down the street, minding your own business.  Imagine it is a nice neighborhood, actually, with mansions and silvery olive trees lining the almost properly maintained sidewalk.  There are gendarmerie all along the street, standing in their uniforms, at attention, protecting their respective embassies and expensive homes.  Now if you please, picture seeing two men, boys really, perhaps 18 or 20 years of age.  And as you notice them, walking towards you on the sidewalk, they notice you back.  And wicked little grins light up their faces, and they flick their eyes carelessly over your entire body, and you are sure, absolutely positive, that when they get close enough, they are going to harass you.  How to stop them?

Men, women-watching.

Walking across the street won’t work; they will raise their voices to make sure you hear what they have to say.  Looking down and passing them quickly, showing subservience to the superior race that is the human being with the penis, only makes them bolder.  Yelling “Ayib!” (Shame!) apparently is hilarious when a Western girl says it.  Any type of interaction thrills the stalker.  And so the only recourse is to continue with your walk, and pretend you don’t know what is going to happen next.

They swagger closer.  You hold your head up high, refusing to be cowed, but inwardly your stomach swoops.  They are right in front of you.  They don’t move or make way for you on the sidewalk, so you step out onto the street, to pass them.  One opens his mouth to speak.

“Hey bitch, suck my dick!”  Laughter.  The other shebab mutters something in a low derogatory tone in Arabic.  You think you hear the word sharmuta but that could just be your paranoia.  You continue on your way, pretending you didn’t hear.  They keep walking, the illusion of a normal sidewalk encounter intact, except they crane their heads back to see if you turn around, if you react in any way, hoping you’ll escalate the situation, give them a moment of your day.  The gendarmerie in front of you has heard everything, of course.  He has the power to discipline them, or scare them off.  And he does nothing.  Just like he did nothing when the man in the pickup truck got out of his car and tried to make you get in.  Just like he did nothing when a man threw an empty beer can at your face and it hit when you refused to answer his cat-calls.  The gendarmerie just stands there, and when he looks you in the eye, he shows no trace of shame.

“They will never actually touch you,” a male friend told me.  “You are safe from being physically molested.”  He doesn’t realize the damage is already done.

This is Amman, for any woman who dares to walk outside without a muscular male escort or a full niqab.  This is daily life in the safest Arab city in all of the Middle East.

“Don’t wear thick belts, like a man.  Don’t wear pants that only start at your hip, wear shirts with high collars, wear shirts that are long enough to cover your entire butt.  Don’t show your beauty by having your hair down, always wear it up.”  I dutifully take notes.  But it doesn’t matter how I dress, it seems: I am harassed on days when the only skin that shows is my face and hands.  Just like I am harassed on days when my shirt is short-sleeved and my skirt doesn’t quite touch my feet.

Every time my roommate showers, as she shuts off her water, she hears a rustling sound.  It is the man next door, brushing aside his curtain to get a front row seat, to watch her as she enters her bedroom and changes.  When she pulls the blinds to cover the window, he makes noises of discontent.

Boys become dangerous as early as ten years old.

“Why?” I ask various male friends and acquaintances.  “Why do men do it?  Why make the world a little bit of a worse place like that?  Do they honestly think that be being rude to me that I am going to say, ‘You are absolutely right, honey bunches, let’s have sex here and now!’?”

Their answers differ.  Some say that men do it because they fear women’s increasing societal power, and push back against it by asserting their masculine power over women when they can; a subtle ideologically based war against women’s rights.  Others say that’s it’s because men can’t* have sex until after marriage, and getting married is increasingly difficult.  Thus angry, sexually frustrated men cruise in cars on Thursday night, lashing out blindly at women because of their sex withheld, because women remain an unknown.  (*Please note that though men are supposed to wait until marriage if they are a good, little Muslim, many don’t, especially if they are at university, where there is very little supervision and many girls willing to mess around anally or orally as long as they can claim that they are technically virgins afterwards.  They have to still be virgins, see, because in Jordan, husbands to be are legally allowed to have a doctor check if their bride is a virgin, and if she isn’t, they are allowed to not marry her, with no penalty.)  Other men-folk speculate that the reason Jordanian men are such persistent harassers is because they are unconsciously trying to establish a sense of their own power in a country where they are poor, have limited opportunities, but have a satellite connection so they can see on TV just how much they are missing.  And while I agree that all three of these theories have merit, I believe there is a powerful fourth force at work.

These men think it is fun.  It’s a game for them.  Who can succeed in getting the strongest blush?  The biggest reaction?  Who is man enough to make a woman cry?  I don’t see any capacity for empathy in their eyes.  They make the streets feel unsafe for women, and god, do they enjoy it.

It took going to Israel to come to this final conclusion.  At six in the morning when I left to catch the bus to the Jordanian border, a car with two men in it actually went around the block three times to have three chances to yell “pussy” at me, throw gum wrappers at my face, and lick their lips suggestively.  They spent significant time and gas to hunt me, as I walked to the main intersection, trying to hail a taxi.  And I wondered, after I was safely in a cab, tremors running through my body from the aftermath, as much in fury as in fear, why?  What were they doing in their car at six in the morning?  Simply cruising for women to bother?  And why do none of the men on the street seem to care, say anything to these assholes?

Later that day I crossed the border to Jerusalem, a city only 42 miles away from Amman, but a different world nonetheless.  Here I can wear T-shirts and skirts, here I can say I am Jewish without the furtive glance and decision on whether to trust the other person.  Here, I am free.

On my last day in the Holy City, I went to Yad Vashem.  It affected me strongly, as holocaust museums always do.  I can all too easily imagine my own family being gassed, my little brother torn from my side so I can’t protect him.  But I was struck by two aspects of the museum in particular on this trip.

The first was a sign, near the beginning of the exhibit, which detailed the establishment of the ghettos, and the culling of the Jews from the gentiles.

The sign I saw on the wall.

No one objects when these Jordanian men choose women as their victims.  For the watchers aren’t women, after all.  And women are already marked as an ‘other;’ they need no yellow star stitched upon their clothing.  A simple silhouette is enough of a tell, and almost impossible to disguise.

The second thing that struck me was a photograph of two high-level Nazi officials, next to a brief transcript.  I unfortunately didn’t have the forethought to snap a photo of it, but I can roughly remember it as a discussion about speeding up the schedule of genocide, interspersed with one man asking the other about his wife, and her disapproval of her husband working too hard.

What horrified me about this conversation was the casual acceptance of brutal and inhumane acts; the interweaving of their little domestic life dramas, caring about a wife while unthinking and unrepentant about the genocide of thousands of other men’s wives.  And I thought to myself, that I could easily imagine my tormentors in Amman as being men like these: eager to inflict their dominance over others, and able to easily compartmentalize.  Compassion and mercy and the precepts of Ramadan of charity towards others applies to one group of people, and swift punishment and pain is how one treats the other group of people.  Nazis were just men, men who had been organized and focused to attack select groups.  These youth, these bored and listless and opportunity-less men of Jordan, their hatred and amusement and lack of empathy towards those weaker than them….

Women and men at the Abdali market.

After all, it’s not like humankind erased all aspects that lends itself towards cruelty after 1945.

So, I empathize with Lot, I really do.  I want to prove to myself, if not to God, that these acts are done by a minority of men, not the majority.  I want to thank those good men of Jordan, who do exist, for not making the streets a dangerous place for women.  I want to encourage them to be even more vocal when they witness harassment on the street, as they must, every single day.  But in my heart, I fear that I might lose this battle.  That though I have met some wonderful Jordanian men, (and please don’t misunderstand me, I have indeed met a few deeply good men) perhaps there aren’t enough to save this city for me, at this age, in this time.

Maybe there is hope for future: not that the men will change, but that the women will.  As more and more women in Jordan leave the domestic sphere and take jobs, join the government, and become a visible force causing change in Jordan, perhaps they will no longer condone the actions of these men.  They will no longer be apologists (telling me things such as “View the harassment as a compliment, it means you are pretty!”) and they will no longer be tolerant.  The women of Jordan have the power to de-mystify themselves, and show men that they are not victims, and that there will be consequences to men’s bullying actions.  I hope one day that women will be able to move freely in Amman, go about their day’s tasks without duress.  That walking down the sidewalk won’t be an emotionally fraught event.

As I get ready to leave this city in a few days, I realize that I have failed to find the symbolic ten good men necessary to save Amman from being my Sodom or Gomorrah.  But I have to hope, someday soon, that the women of Amman will manage to do so for themselves.

A Walking Club Jordan group, men and women, together.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2012 2:06 AM

    I just came across your post doing research for a tour I am doing in the Dead Sea area next week. Your writing is really enjoyable. I come from a very different world view than you, but I find it refreshing to read about some of the same experiences that I have had, through a very different set of eyes.

  2. Shahzad permalink
    August 4, 2012 2:17 PM

    Mortifying. Hard to imagine how a woman living there could keep her personality from being eroded under that constant abuse. And in Ramadan? Shameful, as someone observing it right now (you’re not even supposed to make lustful glances at anyone).

  3. Arwad Khalifeh permalink
    August 6, 2012 1:22 PM

    OK. So I am a woman who was born in Jordan and lived there until I was 14 (I’m 26 now living in London) and I know what you mean about men shouting out stupid flirtatious phrases at you, and making you feel really uncomfortable with their sickening looks at you.

    I visit Amman regularly and I have to admit that I have never ever had anyone throw anything at me or get out of a car and try to get me to go inside it! I dress in Amman in a moderate way, but similar to how I dress in London. No one believes I’m Arab when I go there because I look Italian or Spanish, and yet I do not get harassed as a “White woman;” therefore it is mystifying to me as to why YOU would get this level of harassment.

    I would, however, like to point out that such men, Jordanian or not Jordanian, exist EVERYWHERE in the world. I have experienced such harassment in India, Turkey, America, England and Hungary and many other countries I’ve visited.

    I’m afraid you have represented Amman from a totally extreme perspective, as I know many, and I mean many, women who have travelled there on holiday and were not faced with what you have been faced with.

    If you look at the way Amman women, and men, dress, and their lifestyles then you would really think that you are in Beirut or Istanbul. It is liberal, joyous and to some extent free.

    And just for the record, regarding what you said about Muslim men not being able to have sex before marriage and taking out their frustrations on women this way, I would like to remind you that the same applies to good little Jews as well, and I can assure you that many of them behave in the same way that some of those Jordanian men behave. Not saying that I condone their behaviors of course. Also, some other men who can and do have sex before marriage behave in this way too.

    In addition, you said that you can wear a skirt and t-shirt in Jerusalem without being harassed; well isn’t that hypocritical of the supposedly conservative culture Jews are meant to have in the first place?

    You say men in Jordan are poor with limited opportunities, well that doesn’t mean that the only thing they do for “fun” as you say, is to go out and harass women. No my dear. I personally know and know of tens of Jordanian men who use their time by developing their technological abilities, or musical abilities, art, culture etc and just for the record there are plenty of amazing things that I have found in Jordan and can do in Jordan that I didn’t find in London. So hey, Jordan isn’t bad after all, is it?

    I find your article contradictory as at one point you say you can’t find 10 good men in Jordan, then you go on to say that you’ve met 10 good men, and then you end your argument by saying “I have failed to find the symbolic ten good men necessary to save Amman from being my Sodom or Gomorrah.”

    I can list you more than 30 good Jordanian men that I know of who would not in a million years tolerate the behaviour of the men you have experienced.

    Furthermore, I find it hypocritical for you to feel sickened by the Nazis and the Holocaust, when the Israeli Army is the modern version of Nazis with what they are doing to Palestinians in their own land today.

    I do feel bad for what you have experienced, and it is a real shame.

    I’m not sure whether you will post my comment on not, but regardless of that, I hope that you are open-minded about other people’s views and will take them on board or even reply to them through a healthy debate.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    August 9, 2012 3:39 AM

    likening jordanian men to nazis? disgraceful.

  5. anon permalink
    January 5, 2014 5:49 PM

    I liked your previous posts regarding Israel, but this one was ridiculous in the extreme; you honestly compare your harassment (which I’ll admit was bad and I’m certainly not downplaying your sense of belittlement) to the victims of NAZI GENOCIDE? That’s an insult to the actual victims of genocide. I lived in Jerusalem for a while, and I experienced similar harassment, but I would never compare it to torture and death by gas chamber. Also, you felt “free” in Jerusalem? Obviously then, you’ve never visited the Orthodox Jewish sectors of Jerusalem, where there are actually SIGNS posted by local orthodox men warning that women who wear “immodest” clothing will be subject to derision and stoning. And yes, this is a major problem; women who’ve worn skirts that show their ankles and short sleeved shirts have been victims of stone-throwing, and harassment by orthodox Jewish men. ALSO, considering the rampant underground sex trafficking prevalent in Tel Aviv, where the number 1 clients are orthodox Jewish men who solicit prostitutes* because they believe it’s “better” to have illicit sex with non-Jewish women, I think you’re showing a VERY, VERY one-sided picture here.

    I’m not dismissing your experiences or the extent of sexual harassment in the Middle East, but the fact of the matter is, you don’t really know the reasons that underlie this problem and to automatically assume it’s a product of SADISM and that these men would also happily torture and murder you just because they threw some gum wrappers at you is illogical, to say the least.

    Did you ever stop to consider sexual street harassment is a byproduct of deeply-ingrained anger at Western neo-imperialism (which has caused widespread poverty, socio-economic devastation, and corruption) which may cause the impoverished and ignorant members of the society to sublimate their rage through harassing innocent western women who visit their countries? And when that anger is directed at their own women, it’s because they feel emasculated by their political disempowerment?

    To simply blame their behavior on “sadism,” your re-iterating tired Zionist tropes of the “savage and sadistic Arab monster” who is no more than a 1 dimensional cartoon villain that needs to be beaten into submission by the “heroic” IDF and their western sponsors. Arab men are PEOPLE, people who lash out when suffering through severe psychological strain. That’s not to excuse their behavior (no one should suffer any form of harassment), it’s to point out the underlying cause of problematic anti-social behavior.

    I believe we call that….psychology.

    *(often poor Russian and Eastern European women who’ve been kidnapped and sold into the underground sex slave industry)

  6. Luciana permalink
    February 1, 2014 6:03 PM

    I think some of the comments here are a bit extreme… I understand that the article is not necessarily “politically correct”, but why is the focus now on the author being Jewish with “Zionist perceptions”?? How absolutely ridiculous.

    Author, I have read some of your blog and appreciate the honesty in your writing, even if it will attract criticism from people who disagree. I am soon to move to Amman for a few months and basically do what you did, and having been to Morocco I can completely understand how extremely disgusting and frustrating men’s behaviour can be. I am just hoping Amman is not so bad for me.

    I find it entirely ridiculous when people start defending the harassment, or spouting out things about deep psychological reasons for their behaviours, neo-imperialism, your unconservative dress sense (because there’s no other reason why the men would act like that to YOU but not to ME!) etc. as reasons for their sexual harassment. I particularly find it annoying when the blame shifts to YOU. As Arwad says (before launching into her own completely biased, irrational and racist attack on Jews), “it didn’t happen to me, they are all so great to me, so it must be YOU!” Maybe you are actually just more attractive than Arwad. I am just being provocative with that by the way. Really, who knows and who cares why you seemed to get attention more than her? Completely irrelevant.

    Anyway, point of this all is that I can very much sympathise with you. I hope you will continue your interest in the Middle East anyway and rise above it all. I chose to turn my anger at my treatment in Morocco into appreciation for my own country, where I can walk out on the streets as a woman and be completely at ease.

    And don’t ever make excuses for their behaviour. I have noticed in ME circles that we are supposed to entirely appreciate and accept ME culture. But I personally at least will never accept that attitude towards women, regardless of whether it is coming from the Arabs or the Orthodox Jews, and I hope you won’t either.

  7. February 3, 2014 1:07 PM

    Thank you all for your comments. Most of them are extremely thoughtful, and I appreciate receiving them, though many (most?) disagree with the message in this post. I agree with you that my language in this post is extreme. I was, and am, angry, frustrated and scared by the way I was treated in Jordan. That said, comparing misogyny- even systematic, violent misogyny- with Nazism is certainly inflammatory. If I were to write this post again, the content of it would not change (all of these incidents I relate to you occurred, are true, and I will not be victim shamed into not relating them) but I would couch it differently and use a less polarizing framework.

    Interestingly enough, the reactions and messages I have received due to this post sometimes have been equally or more extreme (death threats should I return to the Middle East via email, anyone?) than the initial incidents I experienced. I am attacked on cyberspace for speaking out against misogyny, just like I was intimidated in situ. This indicates that we still have a long way to go towards promoting a dialogue about this emotional issue.

    Thank you all again, and i hope this comment has reassured some of you that I am not merely a crazy Zionist was despises Arabs, etc. etc., but also someone who genuinely wants a less messed up world. Inshallah.

    -Luca

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