On April 12, 2020, the Government of Jordan announced it will extend the general curfew through Thursday evening, April 30, 2020. Small grocery stores and pharmacies are expected to continue to operate within the hours of 10:00am-6:00pm daily unless otherwise announced, while some larger stores may open for limited hours. Government entities, public institutions, schools and universities will remain closed. For emergencies call 911.
As a reminder, the Government of Jordan announced on April 4 that borders and airports will remain closed until after Ramadan, which is expected to conclude around May 23. U.S. citizens in Jordan should be prepared to remain in Jordan at this time.
It’s been a decade since I left Jordan, but I still receive periodic emails from American Citizen Services at the embassy there. For several years, I tried to get myself removed from this list, concerned that in a crisis, the embassy might think I was in Jordan and in need of rescuing, but none of my efforts stopped these intermittent missives. Eventually I decided that I liked my irregular updates from the beloved little kingdom I had called home for those four amazing years. It’s another little thread keeping me connected.
This is what Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr., and President John F. Kennedy wanted when they created the Peace Corps, sixty years ago next year. Americans would go abroad, would spread a message of democracy, share their skills to improve lives in other countries, and bring their experience back to the United States. In Peace Corps,we call that last part the Third Goal, my obligation upon my return to educate the American publicabout Jordan, or at least my family and friends. I’ve also always considered it part of that Third Goal to keep my lines of communication open between Jordan and America, to continue to cast an occasional eye over the situation there, our role as Americans in it, and how we continue to effect lives there.
My family and friends have bought into that Third Goal right along with me. Because I once lived there, blogged about it, and some of my friends and family even visited me, articles and news reports that mention Jordan catch their interest more than some other Americans. From time to time, they even reach out to me for updates about what hasn’t made the news, and especially about my neighbors inFaiha’, the village where I taught English for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
I’m sheltering in place from COVID-19 in Maine with my parents, who met most of my Faiha’ neighbors when they visited me in 2006, at the very end of those two years. One recent evening over dinner, while we were speculating about our own new pandemic normal, my mother asked, “What is this like for the people in your village, do you think?”
It was a question I had been asking myself, as well. “My guess is that they’re actually pretty safe as long as they stay in the village,” I said. “There’s still a question of getting food to the village, of course, but if all other businesses are closed, then no one is working.”
Her question, though, conjured memories from the two years I lived in Faiha’, a hilltop hamlet of a couple thousand farmers and shepherds, teachers and military men. I knew from the embassy emails that Jordanians were confined to their villages to protect them from the pandemic, so the three buses down to the nearby northern cities of Jerash and Irbid wouldn’t be running. No one would be going to jobs as teachers, car mechanics, bus drivers and chauffeurs; students wouldn’t be going to university. Without jobs or classes to leave for, Faiha’s wind-scoured ridge of hilltops is quite isolated, with plenty of space between homes, lots of disinfecting high-UV sunlight, and plenty of air circulation from the wind blowing constantly across the Jordan River Valley from Israel. But they wouldn’t be doing their grocery shopping down in Jerash and Irbid, either.
We’ve spent a lot of time around the dinner table in Maine talking about the supply chains here in the U.S., the constant scarcity at the grocery store, vegetables being dumped in the fields while food banks can’t keep pace with demand, and the meat packing plants where COVID is ravaging the workforce. “We don’t usually think about the food supply chain,” my mother keeps saying, “or how fragile it is, but when the restaurants aren’t buying, and the trucks aren’t running….” What was happening in rural Jordan, I wondered, where families in isolated hamlets like Faiha’ got most of their groceries from larger towns and cities?
A decade ago when I last visited, Faiha’ had a few dukaan—little cinderblock, cement-floored shops just a few meters by a few meters in size, what we would call a bodega in New York City. They typically had one freezer chest for ice creams and slushy pops, and otherwise sold chips, chocolate, cookies and candy, cigarettes and a small quantity of staples like sugar, tomato paste and rice. Would they expand their offerings, find a way to provide vegetables, bread and Tetra Paks of milk? I think of Jordanians as experts at leveraging their waaSTah—their personal, familial and professional networks, especially when their families and neighbors are in trouble.
I assume the government would step in, too. Jordan’s kings have always derived their power from the support of smaller Bedouin communities like Faiha’, and Arab leaders have always borne great responsibility providing for the health and safety of their tribes. The leader’s responsibility to the communal well-being is also deeply ingrained in Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence; as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Jordanian kings have also taken those obligations very much to heart.
In particular, I had seen that rural nutrition was of acute interest to the current King Abdullah II. When I taught in the Faiha’ school, we got regular deliveries marked with the king’s seal, so that every first, second and third grader would get little Tetra Paks of Vitamin D-fortified milk, iron-fortified biscuits and a piece of fruit every morning on their first break of the school day. I didn’t doubt, in this emergency, that the diwan—the palace advisors would have been tasked with making sure bread, rice and vegetables made it to the people.
The more I wondered about vegetables, the more I thought that perhaps this might not actually be so much of a problem. In my time in the village, little Datsun pickup trucks piled high with mounds and boxes of vegetables would circulate almost daily through the village, tapping on their horns, and housewives would send a small child up towards the main road to flag them down. The pickup truck, or bickum in the local dialect, would pull into the foreyard, and the driver would get out and begin haggling with the mothers.
In the evenings, when broad extended families would gather at the patriarch’s house to visit, talk often turned to food. “Today I made a big batch of baamiyah”—okra stewed in tomato sauce.
“So did I! Baamiyah was cheap today on the bickum!”
Assuming that the government let the bickum run, and that vegetables were still being harvested from the floor of the Jordan Valley, or imported up from Saudi Arabia with all of Jordan’s borders closed, the bickumcould do quite well in this time of COVID.
I knew the schools were all closed, too, after a month-long teachers’ strike in September had students already behind in their curricula; I read an article about a small Jordanian startup called Abwaab that had been doing initial trials of an online teaching platform, and was suddenly handed millions of dollars by the government to get the whole country’s schoolchildren online in a matter of weeks. Throughout the Arab world, it’s common knowledge that if you want an IT project done right, you hire a Jordanian to do it, but I also know that access to computers, smartphones and the Internet is incredibly uneven across the kingdom.
When I worked there in 2004, our school in Faiha’ had a computer lab with about twenty-five computers, provided like most public school computer labs by the generosity of the U.S. Agency for International Development. It was only the second year that the Faiha’ school had computers, though computer classes had been required curriculum for several years. Then in 2005, shortly after the end of the Iraqi Oil for Food program that had been providing all of Jordan’s fossil fuel needs at free or cut-rate prices, additional austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund led to deep government cuts. The Ministry of Education couldn’t even pay our school’s phone bill, let alone for a connection to the Internet in our computer lab. Still, I considered our students lucky; a fellow Volunteer had converted her school’s computer lab into her own personal English classroom because they not only didn’t have a phone line into the school, they didn’t have an electric hookup, either.
It had been our habit as Volunteers to go down to the Internet cafes in cities like Irbid for a weekly check of our email accounts. When the global economy crashed in 2008, just as I was finishing my Masters in Arabic, I returned to Amman, Jordan. Meli, a Peace Corps Volunteer that I met at that time, was aghast. “Oh, no!” she exclaimed. “My neighbors told me that I absolutely could not go to those Internet cafes – it’s all shabaabwatching porn.”
“Oh, yeah, we knew that,” I shrugged. But we were also guests in the community and loyal customers, and we were confident that the men who ran our favorite Internet café would shield us from any untoward behavior by other customers.
“My upstairs neighbors ran a cable out of their window,” said Meli, “down the side of the house, and into my living room, so that I could use their Internet connection at home.”
A few months later, when I was finally able to return to Faiha’ for the first time, some of my neighbors proudly showed off their home computers. In those second two years that I lived in Amman, the capital of Jordan, I frequently visited my best friend up north in Faiha’, Umm Tareg who had taught me so much of the Arabic I knew. When her eldest daughter sailed through her tawjihischool-leaving exams and was accepted into university, at the same time that I had just had to buy myself a new laptop, I had my old one reconditioned and gave it to her as a graduation present.
But all of that was more than ten years ago. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I have no idea how accessible it is for students in Jordan’s villages today to finish the school year online. What I do know is that my networks of American teachers, parents, social workers and professors are deeply engaged in conversations about how uneven access to the Internet and online learning is for students K through college in the United States. I have to imagine that’s even more true in Jordan.
A few days later, I suddenly got a message from the youngest daughter of my friend and teacher Umm Tareg. Over the last year, I had been hearing from her daughter Hadeel at irregular intervals on Facebook Messenger. Knowing her family as well as I do, I suspect that their access to internet and smart phone technology fluctuates with the family’s irregular income, so I always wait for her to contact me.
Hi! How are you?
I’m fine. What about you?
I’m doing okay. I’m at my parents’ house out in the countryside. How’s your family doing?
We are good. We are at home and we can’t left it.
We are also at home and can’t leave.
How is everyone? Healthy?
We are all fine. Mom misses you.
I miss you all, too! I’ve been following the virus news from Jordan and worrying about you, and my parents have been asking about you, too.
I wanted to press her for more information. Like my mother, I wanted to know the details of her day-to-day. Were they restricted only to their homes, or were they able to visit the neighbors, who were mostly their cousins and uncles? But our intermittent Messenger chats have always been tentative, surface conversations — she constrained by her English skills, me constrained because she seems to always reach out when I’m on my work computer that isn’t Arabic-enabled. I didn’t want to intimidate her with big questions she couldn’t understand or answer, because I crave these irregular updates from the place I called home for those wonderful years.
Still, when I think of Jordan and especially of my village Faiha’, if I’m not thinking about Umm Tareg’s family, I’m thinking of my neighbor Abu Saleh. Three of his sons were also my neighbors, and would come every night with their wives to sit on fershaat—wool ticks on the floor along the walls of Abu Saleh’s one-room house, drinking sweet black tea with mint or thyme, and shots of sharp cardamom-laced Arab coffee, and eating oranges, apples and mini Persian cucumbers. Abu Saleh’s couple dozen grandchildren would drift in and out, the littlest ones eventually falling asleep face-first in their mothers’ laps or wedged between two aunties’ generous hips.
There’s no word for privacy in Arabic, no tolerance for solitude. All my neighbors were certain that I must be terrified to live alone in my little house. They were never alone, raised with a desert-dweller’s existential fear of being cut off from the support of tribe and family. When dinner was served, mothers included whichever nieces and nephews happened to be in their home at the time. When potatoes and eggplant were especially cheap on the bickum, they made extra-large batches of magloubeh and sent their children with platefuls to all the neighbors to share in the bounty.
Jordanians, especially in the villages and rural communities, know how to come together, how to support each other in a time of need. That hospitality in support of communal good is a deeply rooted Arab and Muslim value. “Me and my brothers against my cousins,” the old Bedouin saying goes, “but me and my cousins against the world.” I can easily imagine families and tribes pulling together to defend each other against this pandemic, and King Abdullah II has leaned heavily on this message in his televised pleas for Jordanians to stay at home. What I can’t imagine is an end to those evenings in Abu Saleh’s tiny box of a house with the even tinier lean-to kitchen, or the grandchildren no longer running together across the rocky ground, no longer drifting from one auntie’s house to another throughout the day.
Later, I found myself in conversation with a Jordanian-born Palestinian friend. Now an American citizen, she had just been to stay with her father in Amman early in the new year, and has a lot more connections there than I do after ten years away.
Umm Tareg’s youngest daughter is on Facebook Messenger; she says they’re stuck at home and not allowed to leave even in the village. I’m super curious what the day-to-day is like in Faiha’ … so is my mother. I really wanted to push her for more details, but I don’t think her English is good enough to really get into it.
What are you hearing from Jordan in all this mess?
They are on a strict curfew every day. Allowed to move about in their neighborhoods between 10-6, and on the weekend, they aren’t allowed to leave the house from Thursday midnight to Saturday midnight. Sirens go off at the start of the curfew. In Amman, streets are empty. People are not allowed to drive. I think they’ve even decided that if an area has someone with coronavirus, then that whole area isn’t not allowed to move about.
I mean, that makes sense from an epidemiological standpoint. If people are able to move about in their neighborhoods, but may not show symptoms for two weeks, then one known case suggests there are carriers in the neighborhood.
My dad’s wife hasn’t left the house in a month, and my dad only goes out to get groceries. That’s been their life.My friend said it’s like we are at war, given all the restrictions.
Except they’re really taking wartime measures, not just bragging about being a wartime President like Trump… I’ve always said that, while it has many detrimental effects, Jordan being a police state has certain advantages.
Exactly. So far, they have had only 400 cases. I think they are really doing a good job with containing it, and I think it’s the only way to contain the situation.
I think of myself as a liberty-minded democrat, someone who prizes freedom, egalitarianism and self-determination as a matter of social justice. So, it’s a very strange position to be in, admiring the Jordanian police state, even almost wishing I were there instead of here. As a proud social democrat since long before most Americans knew Bernie Sanders’ name, I do believe in extensive government regulation of markets and protection of vulnerable populations, but I don’t like to think of myself as someone who advocates for authoritarianism.
This is something I’ve struggled with for well over a decade. When people find out that I did my Peace Corps in Jordan, sandwiched as King Abdullah II likes to say, “between Iraq and a hard place”—by which he means occupied Palestine, as well as Syria to the north, and right in the flight path between Israel and Iran…. A lot of Americans locate Jordan on the map and their first impulse is, “Weren’t you afraid? Was it safe there?”
“It’s the safest place I’ve ever lived,” I always say, “and I was even an exchange student in Switzerland!” That’s not hyperbole. I may have had my moments of panic from time to time, a few incidents that frightened me, justifiably or not, but overall, nowherehave I ever felt safer than I did in Jordan. On more than one occasion, inadvisable as such things are in any country, I had walked or taken a taxi home alone after several drinks in Amman bars, with minimal concern for my safety.
Jordan is a police state. It was commonly estimated, when I lived there a decade ago, that roughly a third of the kingdom’s cab drivers were either directly or indirectly in the employ of the mukhabaraat—the secret police. The country had, effectively, only one Internet Service Provider, because all internet traffic was routed through the servers of the mukhabaraat. Though on more than one occasion I considered taking the tour guide exam in Jordan, I was told that I wouldn’t be able to get a job, because the mukhabaraat only allowed Jordanian citizens to work as tour guides, since they regularly report back to the government about their clients. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we had known that our phone calls were being monitored, and that there was at least one person in the community designated by the mukhabaraat to keep an eye on us. I feel pretty confident about who my minders were, and even took some comfort in their watchful eyes.
In fact, I can’t say for sure if any of these things were actually true, but they were common conventional wisdom when I lived in Jordan. I do know that, while Jordan has strong networks of waaSTah—nepotism, cronyism and similar corruption, it also has an exceptionally low crime rate. Everyone knows that they’ll get caught, saturated as the population is with the eyes of the mukhabaraat. As a German minor in undergrad, I often liken Jordan’s police state to the East German Stasi, with eyes everywhere and no one unobserved, and I understood that this was not an unmitigated good for the people of Jordan, even as I took some comfort in it for myself.
We also understood as Peace Corps Volunteers that it was in the Jordanian government’s particular interest to watch us and other Westerners particularly closely. They weren’t worried about what we might do, but rather, about what might be done to us. Most of Jordan’s national budget came from grants and loans from the United States, the European Union, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The last thing the kingdom needed was for one of our faces to appear on CNN in connection with some terrible crime. It would risk the whole fragile national economy and the stability of the government itself.
This was an intensely disconcerting position to be in as an employee of the U.S. government abroad, and I was even more acutely aware of it when I returned to Jordan on my own during the 2008 economic collapse. I was able to find work there when none was available in my own country because I had a great deal of unearned privilege just by being a native speaker of English, which earned me an embarrassment of riches relative to my Jordanian neighbors. Likewise, as a Westerner in Jordan, I was protected by the mechanisms of the police state at the same time that such authoritarianism was hurtful to so many Arabs in the country.
The day after talking to my Palestinian friend, I got another email from the U.S. Embassy in Amman:
Event: Comprehensive Curfew April 16-18, 2020
On April 14, 2020, the Government of Jordan announced it will impose a 48-hour curfew from midnight April 16 (Friday 0:00) through midnight April 18 (ending Sunday at 0:00). No one should move outside the home during this period. For emergencies, call 911. Grocery stores and pharmacies are expected to open again on Sunday, April 19 at 10:00am per the normal restricted schedule.
“Normal.” It’s stunning how quickly a drastic measure like a sixteen-hour daily curfew can become “the normal restricted schedule.”
That afternoon, I got another chance to gather some impressions of curfew from Hadeel. She had gotten online so I could say hello to another former neighbor.
Do you remember Ayat?
I do! I was literally just wondering how Ayat is doing!
I had actually been writing about Ayat earlier in the week, working on my memoirs of the Peace Corps. When I had been her neighbor, Ayat had come every school day to my house with her cousin. Sometimes we ate together, or they helped me with the dishes. Then we would sit cross-legged on the floor doing English homework for hours. When I returned to visit Ayat when she was nearing graduation, she couldn’t stop talking about how amazing her new English teacher was and how much Ayat wanted to study English at university.
She is ok. Just miss you.
I miss you guys, too! So, you’re able to go visit each other in your houses still? Earlier this week, my mother was just asking me if you were able to visit your neighbors in Faiha’. I’m glad that you can do that, at least. What’s Ayat doing these days? Last time I saw here, I think she was still in school.
No, she has a job now. She is a teacher.Computer science
That’s wonderful! But of course, the schools are closed now, right? because of the virus?
Yes, everything is closed.
Again, I wanted to know so much more, but wasn’t sure how or if I should ask. No matter how seldom we’re in touch with each other, I love these people. They were my family for four glorious years, and changed me so much more profoundly than even I can grasp more than a decade later. Here I am, stuck in my parents’ albeit spacious home in Maine, with only snippets of new stories, these tiny conversations, and a whole lot of imagination to tease me with visions of what a time of pandemic might mean in Jordan. It’s even more of a mystery than attempting to wrap my mind around how COVID will reshape life here in my own homeland.
And when I think of Jordan, I think, too, of Nigeria, Mozambique, Palau, Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Philippines … all the places where other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers I know have served. Even as I’m immersed daily in contemplating the uncertain future of my own country, I’m also seeking out and soaking up every snippet of news I find from these distant places. What will this pandemic mean for them? How will their leaders and their people respond? What havoc will COVID wreak on their families and friends? What local ingenuities and cultural quirks will sustain them?
Of course, this is exactly what Shriver and Kennedy imagined. Not a pandemic, perhaps but a world where we see each other, across continents and oceans, as family. It’s a world where two years that I spent in an obscure Arab village connects my college dorm neighbor to the people of Petra. It’s a world where my ex-boyfriend knows to greet a Muslim customer picking up a quarantine Iftar pizza with “Ramadan kareem!” because after we broke up, I went halfway ’cross the world to Jordan. And I still believe that it is exactly this shrinking of the world that is going to save us. When one wedding in Irbid doubled Jordan’s COVID caseload, a billionaire in China shipped ventilators to Amman. Now that Jordan doesn’t need them anymore, King Abdullah II has sent those ventilators and a load of medical equipment to the U.S.
It makes my own isolation here in Maine a little easier, knowing that Hadeel and I, her mother and mine,Ayat’s students and mine, are all in this bizarre new world together, however far apart.
Maryah Converse was a Peace Corps educator in Jordan, 2004–2006, and was studying in Cairo during the 2011 Arab Spring. She has written for publications including New Madrid Journal, Silk Road Review, Newfound, The Matador Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review, and has twice been nominated to the Best of the Net collection. Maryah works in fundraising for refugees, and teaches Arabic as a foreign language in the New York area. She is currently finishing an essay collection, Lessons from the Desert, and a memoir, Trusted With Their Children.