Sometimes, bad decisions turn into farces. If you’re unlucky, they can turn into tragedies; if you’re lucky, they become life lessons. I am, it seems, both lucky and unlucky.
Last week, the Jordanian Tourism Ministry issued a warning advising visitors to avoid wearing Jewish garb or performing Jewish rituals in public. It was a sad reminder for me of my own experience there. In 2006, I joined the Peace Corps, beginning a two-year stint in Jordan. The organization does not have any official rules about discussing religious identity, but during a pre-service orientation session in Amman, the trainer recommended that Jewish volunteers wait at least a year before sharing their backgrounds with locals, to get a full sense of what the response might be. A Jewish volunteer who’d served in one of the first groups to go to the country suggested that I tell anyone who asked that I was Christian.
The problem with this strategy became obvious when I showed up in my assigned village, where I would teach English to elementary and middle-school kids for the next two years, and found it brimming with Jordanian Christians as well as Muslims. Could I convince people of both faiths that I wasn’t a Jew?
Early on, in an effort to ease into village life and build social bonds with my new Muslim colleagues and neighbors, I tried to fast for Ramadan. I abstained from food while the sun shone and broke the fast most evenings at a Muslim teacher’s house. This confused the Christian teachers, though—none of them seemed to join the Muslims in their observance—so, in an effort to balance things out, I decided to attend the local church service on Christmas Eve. Alas, this did little to shore up my credibility as a Christian, since I didn’t know the words to the hymns and didn’t even know exactly how to cross myself. From this inauspicious start, it was clear that this was a misguided ruse of my own invention, and yet I felt I had no choice but to keep it up—for as long as I could.
When I was in college, I dreamed about working in the Middle East. I took Arabic courses in school, spent summers learning the language in Beirut and Cairo, and attended London’s School of Oriental and African Studies during my junior year abroad. Feeling idealistic about the region and my place in it, I joked that I would someday be the first Jewish U.S. ambassador to the sovereign state of Palestine. I thought two years in Peace Corps Jordan would mark the culmination of my studies.
Even though the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is more than 90 percent Sunni Muslim, the village where I served bore unusual signs of diversity: two mosques and two churches. There were no Jews, though—except for me. I had hardly mentioned Judaism in the village, and still stupendously weird conspiracies about a Jewish hand in world affairs popped up on a regular basis. I learned that Pepsi allegedly stood for “Pay Every Penny to Support Israel,” and that Israeli intelligence officials were, for some reason, assumed to be involved in the death of Anna Nicole Smith. I ignored it or laughed it off; I didn’t want to stir up any trouble. When Israel came up, I found myself defending the Jewish state—but subtly enough so that I wasn’t pegged as Jewish. I cryptically referred to Israel in my Peace Corps blog and emails as “Indiana,” in case anyone, even other Peace Corps volunteers, read them.
No matter how much I avoided the subject, though, Jewish affairs found their way into normal conversations. On a warm summer day about 10 months into my two-year term of service, I had lunch with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer and his Jordanian neighbor in a different village not far from Amman, the capital. It was a quiet Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and our host wanted to chat—not about Israel or religion, thankfully, but about what I thought might be an innocuous, neutral subject: Charles Dickens.
“Have you read The Pickwick Papers?” asked the man, leaning on one of the mattresses that hugged each wall in the chairless guest room. He was in his early 50s, bearish and affable, wearing a traditional gray dish-disha robe.
“No, I haven’t,” I replied.
“It’s very good,” he said, going on to explain the plot, including his favorite scenes and dialogue. My friend and I were impressed.
“You know,” he continued, “Dickens hated the Jewish.” (Many native Arabic speakers say “the Jewish” instead of “the Jews.”)
“Yes, it’s clear from his books. Have you read Shakespeare?”
“Yes, but not all of his plays.”
“He also hated the Jewish.”
“Is that so?” I asked.
“Of course! My favorite work of his is The Merchant of Venice,” he said. “It tells the truth about the Jewish.”
He paused for a few seconds. I hoped the pause might allow us to change the subject, to talk about something besides anti-Semitic themes in great literature. And then he continued:
“Have you read Tolstoy?”
By the end of the first year, most of my American friends in the Corps knew I was Jewish. I had also come clean to three of the Jordanian Peace Corps staffers, after sensing trustworthiness and getting to know them well in more social settings. Their reaction had been warm. They had known virtually no Jews and were genuinely interested in learning about Judaism.
But, as I’d been advised, during that first year I hadn’t told any of the locals in my village, including the teachers at my school. I wasn’t afraid of a violent reaction, but I had to live and work there, and by opening up without being absolutely assured of the reception, I put many things in jeopardy: the kids I’d taught, the relationships I’d built, and the standing of the Peace Corps in the village that would host a new volunteer once I left. Also, I wasn’t sure how it would go down when it became known that I had been lying for an entire year. The damage to my professional life, not to mention my personal life, could have been irreparable. I chose silence. I was saddened by the choice, but I knew I would never tell a soul in the village.
As my second year in the Corps began, I was teaching an eighth-grade English class. Strolling through the rows during an exercise, I stopped next to a student carving a swastika into his desk with a pen. He looked up guiltily as if he had been caught drawing cartoons. I took a piece of chalk and drew a large white swastika on the board, pointing at it repeatedly amid a scattered historical lecture about the Holocaust, World War II, and Hitler’s mustache. I left the room early and believed I had made my point. The next day, I bounded up the stairs to my classroom to find two words scrawled on the door in thick, red marker: Ghurfat Hitler: Hitler’s room. I pushed the door open slowly, and my eyes drifted to the blackboard, which several students had peppered with small white swastikas. I scanned the silent room for perpetrators. Everyone was grinning. I wiped the board clean, shrugged off what appeared to be a prank, and began teaching the lesson as if nothing happened. But when I went home that day, I called our Jordanian security officer and asked for guidance. He told me that to many people in Jordan, Hitler is considered a hero. I said it was wrongheaded history but avoided telling him that the swastikas had bothered me so much because I was Jewish.
I withdrew from social interactions, and the quality of my service in the Peace Corps rapidly deteriorated. I started taking sick days from school. I isolated myself on the weekends and avoided villagers who knocked on my door. I started to turn down invitations. Then the invitations stopped coming.
Situated in the hills, my village afforded sweeping westward views of the Jordan Valley, flat and hot as the bottom of an iron. At night I could see the headlights of cars across the border, winding around roads in Israel. It was around this dreary period of my service that I decided to take a trip there. I wasn’t seeking solace among the company of Jews in particular; I just wanted a break from Jordan, and taking a taxi to the border was the quickest way out of the country. But instead of vacationing, I spent the entire time fretting about what to do once I got back. The Peace Corps requires that volunteers check in upon returning. I sent an email saying I was back in Jordan when I wasn’t yet. Having told so many lies in the past year, did one more untruth matter? In this case, it did. I returned a day after the appointed time and was summoned to the office. Apparently, our security officer contacted officials at the border. I was busted. It was a fitting note to make an exit on. A trip to “Indiana” ended my failed experiment as a secret Jew in Jordan.
I left right after my 25th birthday, about 10 months before my stint was due to end, and have regretted it since. At first I thought this feeling stemmed from not serving out the two-year term, but a more gnawing self-doubt bothered me. I started to think I’d lost touch with that idealistic version of my previous self. Or maybe I was never that idealistic, and the greatest lie I told about myself was to myself. In Jordan, I had this great opportunity, this perfect opportunity, to show a group of decent people who had never met a Jew that Jews could be decent people. I never got to say what I wanted to in the moments when it mattered most, and I never gave the Jordanians in my village a chance to respond because I was too busy holding back, assuming the worst. I should have taken that leap of faith. It could have been beautiful. It could have been terrible. Now I’ll never know.
When I talk about the Peace Corps with the friend who invited me to his village for lunch—and also knew I was Jewish—we return to the Jordanian man, his beloved Dickens, and specifically to his anti-Semitic take on literature. But that’s not all that happened that day. After talking about Tolstoy’s distaste for the Jews, we all went out on the veranda for dessert. We ate kenafah, a Jordanian treat that is a kind of soft cheese between two sweet pastries. We drank Pepsi, pronounced “Bebsi” since “p” is not in the standard Arabic alphabet.
The sun was setting. I took a bite of the dessert and swigged my Bebsi. Our host squeezed beside me on his swing. After sitting for a minute, enjoying the dusk, he put his arm around my shoulders, pulled me close, and smiled.
“Isn’t it great to talk about books?” he asked. “I feel when we talk this way that all the stars are out and I can see every one of them, shining in the sky.”
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