I hunt for my Jordanian guilty pleasure in Meijer as my roommate looks for the Cholula.
Of course, it’s not here.
Every morning, Baba gave me a cornucopia of foods that aren’t typically consumed for breakfast. From ramen noodles, to oreos, carrots, to halloumi (the Arab equivalent of feta), Baba tried it all on me. Finally, one day he gave me “halawa,” a tahini treat that is surely 90 percent sugar. I devoured my portion every morning without giving it my usual second health-nut thought.
Nope, not here. I keep looking as if I’m going to magically find it hidden behind 10 cans of chickpeas. It’s been a year since my semester in Jordan, and I really could use a reminder of what it was like to consume my interpretive breakfast every morning with Baba, peacefully watching the news and encouraging me to eat his carrots. Unfortunately, the “international foods” aisle has a way of confining the world to an empty shelf of chickpeas. Halawa isn’t even that exotic! At least it hadn’t been in Jordan. Looks like Margot finally found the hot sauce, promptly ending my moment of nostalgia.
My dad always told me I had a chip on my shoulder. It was probably a combination of the lingering baby fat, remedial English classes and feeling like I never fit in. Being French meant that I got weird looks whenever my mom addressed me in a public space. It meant I didn’t get the cool snacks that all my classmates had. It meant I never understood the joke because I wasn’t adept enough at American culture, despite having lived in the United States my whole life.
Ironically, these were all blessings. What I failed to understand as a child was the invaluable exposure I received, and the privilege I had in my ability to claim more than one identity. As a child though, it felt like I had no sense of belonging. The chips on my shoulder would gnaw at my brain like a faulty pipe constantly dripping, but my mother told me I needed to find a way to move forward. I might’ve taken her too seriously because I started walking. I envisioned going step by step, the movement inspiring some sort of emotion, and it stuck.
Now, four years later and in the Michigan fall, I ask myself for the hundredth time why I chose to attend college in a state that doesn’t believe in springtime. Why walk to class when you can ice skate instead, right? No, Mathilde … not right. You hate this. I’d usually be listening to Michael Barbaro, my daily news informant, but I opt for a phone call with Mom instead. She recently watched a video about how French words carry different meanings depending on whether they’re masculine or feminine, and she brings up a word that piques my interest. Péripatéticien. Good god I can’t even pronounce that right. A pedagogue to the core, she instructs me on its masculine etymology, thoroughly unpacking this Aristotelian term.
“So, it’s just someone who walks?” I ask.
“Well, no Mathilde, it’s a man who wanders purposefully.” What is a purposeful wanderer?
“You know … someone who walks back and forth contemplating various philosophical questions, like Aristotle and his followers did.”
“Donc, Je suis une péripatéticienne!” “So, I am a péripatéticienne.” I had almost forgotten the original conversation.
My mom bursts into laughter, eager to share her newfound knowledge. Naturally, a female wanderer who walks back and forth on the street proposes a different connotation. But, by the looks of my empty wallet and clumsy winter movements, I am veritably not a prostitute. Interesting. I wonder if the same can be said for Arabic. I wonder if this is how the Jordanian men perceived me when I had the audacity to do the exact same thing that they were.
While the risk-averse State Department lectured my class on the penalties for marijuana usage, I visualized the potential feasibility of walking home. I was only two days into my semester in Jordan, and I was motivated to do something distinctive for my individuality, such as walking. Maybe this can be my alibi for skipping the gym. What felt like the perfect plan revealed to be the perfect storm, but Mike from the State Department was almost done with his monologue and I was too easily distracted by the recurring “What’s next?” mindset to give the idea of walking home much consideration.
I traveled to Jordan after studying Arabic for three years, unsatisfied by my dose of cultural exposure and veritably hungry for more. I was set on walking. So, while my friends went to the gym, I resolved that I’d walk home with my best friend Stephanie. She conveniently lived two blocks away from my homestay. It worked out well because Baba adored Steph and felt more comfortable with my pilgrimages knowing that we’d keep an eye out for each other.
If Steph was my right-hand man in Jordan, Baba was my left-hand man. My homestay father can be characterized by three things: the news, his jokes and the constant smoke permeating the square mile around him. A retired doctor for the Saudi royal family, Baba is an incredible man whose life is filled with as much laughter as coughing. He fed me more in one night than my grandmother, Petite Mam, had in 10 years and he loved me as much as my real dad does. Besides Stephanie, Baba grounded me. I walked through the door every day, only to see his sheer ecstasy in seeing that I arrived home. His unbridled smile was juxtaposed with my plastered one: mine being prompted by relief and often subdued by the trials of the past hour.
I often wonder how Baba is doing now that I’m back. I’ve sent him a couple of messages, but I haven’t gotten a reply. I try to put the worst thought out of mind, but it inevitably boomerangs right back. This daily meditation is clearly doing wonders. I can’t help but speculate if he “found out” about me. Does he know what my wardrobe actually looks like? Has he figured out that I drink alcohol? As long as he doesn’t discover how much happier I am now that I’m home, I don’t care what he finds out. Am I happier? God, I don’t even know. Whatever. Baba always preached about my one-way ticket to Hell anyway. He often joked about how I embodied his favorite Nestle three-in-one: a liar, selfish and crazy! That was an inside joke between him, Steph and me. It didn’t make much sense beyond the fact that he loved to tease whoever was around. He could never say that without busting a quick smile; he loved me so much, and I really loved him too. I still do. I’m sure he’s just boycotting the computer, not me. Right?
Walking in Jordan kicked my adrenaline into gear. I often found myself side by side with the cars on the street while navigating my way through a country that didn’t value walking as much as my impetuous self did. Sometimes it was the massive plants that were clumsily placed dead center on the sidewalk, preventing me from walking without feeling like I was going through the jungle. Other times, I preferred hedging my bets against the cars rather than the men frequenting the cumbersome sidewalks.
During my first time walking home, Steph and I had eaten a particularly heavy lunch that only Baba would’ve been proud of. In an attempt to compensate for the extra falafel, we opted to walk home. It was pouring rain, and mashallah (God willing) there must’ve been something in those chickpeas, because we could not stop laughing. In retrospect, the rain served as a shield, repelling all the men who would otherwise be on their usual prowl under the hot mid-sun day.
In that moment though, Steph and I reveled in our fantasy. We were in a country where hospitality and generosity were paramount and rambunctious Arab family gatherings guided our social lives; the thrill of the culture shock was as deafening as rapturous, especially with Baba embodying Mr. Congeniality. Soon enough, I’d be laughing and coughing just as much as him.
A pattern developed. I met Steph in the morning to take our usual cab ride to the building across from the British embassy. We’d fight with the cab driver about the price when he assumed we were impressionable foreigners, and oftentimes repel any advances he would make.
“So, where are you beautiful girls from?” he’d ask.
“Funny you should ask! We are part of an all-girls Canadian band going on tour,” I’d say.
“Do you need a guide while you’re in Amman?”
“Can I get your phone number, habibti?”
“Are you looking for a husband? Your eyes are mesmerizing”
Steph and I would laugh uncomfortably the whole time. What else were we supposed to do in that situation? As foreign women in a man’s country, we couldn’t overstep. He drove the car. He was in control.
Every day after classes ended, Steph and I would meet to embark on our odyssey. The journey wore us down as the months progressed, but I refused to give it up. I had made a decision that I would walk every day, and like hell, I wouldn’t let my privileged discomfort stop me. In fact, I thrive on spite! I wanted to prove to myself that I was strong, that feeling weak out of vulnerability did not make me so, and that walking was my means of proving it.
I gazed at the gorgeous mansions that left my mouth gaping, and then my eyes would wander to those of the armed men fantasizing about what could penetrate my unguarded wonder and gaping mouth. They repressed everything but their true souls, which were given away by the looks in their eyes. Could I say anything to them? No. They were pious men. I watched them pray with their guns still on their shoulders during lunch every day, so I knew this for a fact. They wouldn’t prey on me, not really. But if you could see what was in their eyes. If only you could understand that looking into their eyes meant inviting yourself into their fantasy of undressing you.
I didn’t feel it physically, but in some ways, I felt it harder mentally. These men were armed with AK-47s. They wouldn’t do anything, but they could if they wanted. Powerless. I felt powerless. It was fucking scary. The roles had reversed since my first day of walking, and these men had exchanged my fantasy in the rain for their own erotic deviancy. It distressed me to feel no agency, to have no sense of control or ability to make them stop. Stop. Howling like an animal internally, but keeping to myself externally.
I stopped looking at houses and kept my head down. I didn’t see the wonder, but I didn’t feel the pain either. I put one foot in front of the other and moved forward. They wouldn’t prevent me from walking because I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of submission. I felt like I was undertaking a task of revolutionary cause, when in reality I fed their fantasies, adding myself to their repertoire of imagination and entertaining their repressed dreams.
Now, I trudge through the snow in Ann Arbor, looking for safe places to step. I stroll through the Diag contemplating what I need to accomplish for the day, and incorporate ludicrous dance moves into my walk. I don’t even give it a second thought. I don’t mind the people around me, and I don’t feel insecure about who I am. I wear what I want; I eat what I want; and alhamdulillah (thank God) I no longer have a 10 p.m. curfew at the age of 21.
But I still don’t feel in control or at ease. All the materialistic things I thought gave me agency just masked the assumption that I had authority over my life. I’m clearly quite impressionable. I’ve confused autonomy for equality and this mirage has recently been shattered. It’s easy to blend in when everyone looks like you. How does a hijabi feel walking around Ann Arbor? Does she get stared at as much as I did in Amman? How does she find a way to maintain her autonomy in a community of Western conformity?
By mid-March, Steph and I knew the drill. We marched through the streets, stomping through the roundabouts and heedlessly injecting ourselves into the traffic. The cars surrounded us like in the movies, but it was exciting. The masochist in me lived for the thrill of potential danger. I liked going straight into that lion’s den. Maybe my amygdala is defective.
The increasing normalcy of my life was comforting too. Our classes were invigorating and purposeful; I knew what I was doing in Jordan and I found solace in that. Studying the refugee crisis was characteristically heavy material, but walking gave me the ability to navigate through all that mental traffic. What omnipotent power had blessed me with privilege? Baba would say God. My dad would say karma. I’m jealous of their certainty; I can’t relate to that feeling.
Steph was worrying about her future as a doctor as I savored in the uncertainty of what would be next. I would figure it out. Hopefully … The fear of failure wouldn’t hit for months to come, when I’d start feeling the withdrawal symptoms of being aimless. What’s the point of walking if you don’t know what direction you’re going? I had a path in Amman. I knew the path like the back of my hand. I didn’t like unrequited attention, but I tolerated it. Women are gifted at tolerating things they shouldn’t.
It became so much easier once our routine integrated the men’s harassment. I was scared but I didn’t understand why. I knew they wouldn’t lay a hand on me, but I still felt unsettled at the idea that I relied on their mercy for my safety. And that’s not only indicative of Jordan; that’s a woman’s reality. Their flagrant gazes tore down the neatly arranged curtain that had been hung up in front of me my whole life.
I had spent my adolescence impulsively walking through Chicago at night, and I didn’t want that taken away from me. Safety precautions notoriously tarnish anything fun. Walking in Amman had me questioning my pedestrian experiences in Chicago. Maybe I just didn’t notice the unwanted ogling. Maybe, I was oblivious. Nonetheless, my routine in Amman fostered comfort, and with comfort came the desire to push the edge. Steph and I found our own means of staging mini coups. What better way to repel men than to dress more provocatively? We thought we were so clever. We were not.
I say provocative like I wore mesh and ripped jeans, but provocative meant that I was wearing white, an ironically innocent color. Provocative meant that you could visualize my form as a woman. Provocative meant that my shoulders were covered but my arms weren’t; my legs were covered and my shirt was loose.
Then one day, Steph got pissed. There had been a group of men who were around our age, acting seemingly harmless as usual. But they started following us, so we went into a store to throw them off. One of them clearly didn’t appreciate our defiance and went into the store with us. He followed us around and laughed at our fear. What do we do? We left the store and he emerged, right behind us. We tried going faster but still, he was there. Caught between my fight or flight instincts, I could hear my mom telling me I should act like the graceful woman she had raised me to be, and I could hear my muscles laughing at my delusion. Eventually, his friends made him back off and he disappeared. Thank God, because I could feel myself riding the line of cultural insensitivity, screaming crudely in the middle of the street.
We were fine. Of course. Steph and I always were. I always was. I was blessed enough that my recklessness never cost me my safety, and my risks had always paid off. But that was a risk Steph wasn’t willing to take anymore. So, I started walking alone. I couldn’t help but wonder when the day would come that I wouldn’t be so lucky as to have my imprudence be rewarded with the luxury of immunity.
Maybe I can find my halawa on Amazon. Will that make me happier? I thought that coming home would be liberating, but I feel stuck. I can’t seem to find motivation or purpose. What the hell am I doing? I learned and experienced so much, only to come back to Ann Arbor and sit on my couch, doing the exact same things I did before my semester abroad.
I’m more of an outsider here than I was with Baba and Steph. I embodied my identity better when I was disguised as the good Christian girl Baba craved me to be. She doesn’t have tattoos. She doesn’t expose her shoulders. She’s a virgin. They knew a utopian version of me. Well, utopian for them. That version of myself felt pretty dystopic in my nightly water-filled eyes, but it somehow felt more real. Contradicting, right? Maybe it was the sense of purpose. I’m scared to lose myself, but I can’t even resolve which version of myself I’m hoping to keep. I don’t know what I want. What if I don’t figure it out? Seventeen dollars for a pound of sugar-free halawa. I want it.
Honestly, walking alone was easier. I turned my music up, as loud as possible, muffling the obscenities (as well as busting my ears) and keeping my head down. I couldn’t reconcile how I felt as a woman in Jordan even though I had purposefully prepared for certain limitations about what I could wear and where I could go. I hated how much it affected me. I often fantasized about my return to Chicago, imagining how fresh the green grass would look.
I had held my breath for four months. I went between Paradise Lost and the Garden of Eden, unsure how to resolve anything I was feeling as I grappled with the different yet perfected subtleties of misogyny in the United States. In Jordan, I’d walk home at night (more like sprint, if I’m being honest) and be asked whether or not I was a prostitute. Actually, je suis une péripatéticienne. But in the United States, you’re roofied and brutally raped only to be further defeated by the statute of limitations.
I couldn’t stop crying. I could not for the life of me stop crying because I couldn’t understand what I felt and it petrified me to assume that I had lost all control over myself, over my body, over my choices, over who I thought I had been. You can’t have agency if you don’t know who you are. But where the fuck will I get those answers?
I followed my routine, but I was not moving forward. I was stuck in limbo, not making any progress. And one beautiful April day, it hit me like a Mack truck. I came home and promptly prepared for my daily news debrief from Baba, amped for my afternoon smoke (Baba was furious if I refused an afternoon smoke). I made my way to the bathroom after downing my rationed bottle of water and thought about laughing in the streets with Stephanie, remembering what it had been like during our first walk. Baba knew something was wrong. He always did. I stayed a little quiet, but, after what felt like an eternity he said:
“You know Mathilde, sometimes I worry about you.”
“Why? Ha ha.”
“Well,” he said, “You’re a smart girl, but I worry that you are too weak. I can tell when you are upset and you must learn to cover that up. You must hide how you feel because it will make other people think that you are weak too. You will not be successful if you are weak.”
At this point, he was poking the already vexed bear and I quickly rebuked “I am not weak,” I said.
He let me be, but the thought of him knowing I was losing myself became maddening.
I think about this conversation all the time. I wish I hadn’t shut down. I wish I had asked for his help. I wish I had understood then that my impotence and angst had likely preexisted my semester in Jordan, and most definitely outlasted it. Baba wouldn’t have understood the struggles of womanhood. He didn’t even consider me a woman because I wasn’t a mother. (I didn’t realize one was contingent on the other, but he’s the doctor.) He’d know how to help, though.
I want that time back with him. We’d talk for hours every day and he made me feel safe. Now I’m back home. I hold back tears in class, but I can’t articulate why I’m upset. I do what I want, but I don’t like what I’m doing. I can’t complete an assignment without having an immature meltdown, terrified at the thought that I won’t achieve success, frightened that I won’t find purpose. I am horrified when I think there is a possibility that I'll never see Baba again. And all I can hear is him telling me that I cannot be weak.
I spent so much time seeking strength from my defiance, assuming that the steps would help me move forward without realizing that I was actually perpetuating my state of limbo. I was not moving forward; I was standing still and letting it happen. These walks occupied space in my mind without proving to be efficient. I wasn’t truly crusading because I wasn’t doing anything about it, and, truth be told, it really wouldn’t have been my place to anyway.
My lack of control did not stem from how the Jordanian men treated me, but in realizing how I feel as a powerless woman in this world. How I feel like I am expected to prove that I’m smart enough, tactful enough, witty enough, just the right amount of assertive enough to justifiably contribute to a conversation and have it be equal to any man’s words or thoughts. How I’m too scared to find out that I can’t. What would Baba say?
He’d click his tongue against the roof of his mouth and say, “Have a smoke and eat halawa.”
I’m not sure that would help, but it’s still comforting to reminisce. Sometimes I feel like control is its own mirage. Who really has control anyway? Perhaps control is the capacity to find stability in the instability. Everything is a contradiction. Like a purposeful wanderer.
I bet I won’t ever feel in control. I’m not convinced anyone ever does. Walking through the streets of Amman was difficult. But it opened my eyes to the world of my own repression, which in turn clarified the expectations I had for myself. I want to be decisive. I need to know that I can keep moving, even when everything else feels frozen in time. I am not weak. I am strong.
Moi, je suis une péripatéticienne. The recalcitrant kind.