Tag Archives: gender

Where Is My Defender?

What I remember most is what he didn’t say.

“You should feel flattered by their attention.”

“Others have experienced far worse.”

“You were wearing bright colors– that’s why you got harassed.”

Some form of each of these statements had been made to me in the past.  But the day after this post, I told this visitor about how my serenity– and my lesson on Lord Byron’s poetry– had been interrupted by a group of male university students heckling me from the hallway, and he simply said: “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

He and two other men from Massachusetts had come to the Middle East, to visit my coworkers and to see our community center.  His compassionate response was soothing.  So was my housemate’s recommendation, that I snap a cell phone picture of the perpetrators, and either show it to campus security or to “guys I know who will make sure NOTHING happens again.”

A situation like this didn’t happen often.  But things that made me feel vulnerable did.  After ten months here, I was feeling stranger than when I first arrived.  I was temporarily staying in other peoples’ spaces, feeling awkward about my ability to speak Arabic, and lacking a feeling of connectedness.  Despite my long sleeves in 100 degree heat, my large collection of scarves, and my long hair being held in a permanent ponytail, I stuck out wherever I went.  I was lonely.  I was an alien.  I was an ajnabia (Arabic for “foreign woman”… I was also the only one working at the university at that time).

And the deeper questions, as I looked at the countries and people around me: How could I ask Him to protect me from some simple sexual harassment when thousands were dying in nearby wars?  How could I expect Him to meet me in the vulnerability of feeling lonely, when others were experiencing the deeper vulnerability of losing jobs, homes, and family members?

I leaned over a sink full of dishes that day, remembering that there was no promise of avoiding suffering… remembering my Syrian student’s description of the dead bodies in his neighborhood… remembering my solo walk up the university stairs, stared at by dozens of guys with cigarettes and no subtlety.  Asking, wondering: Where is my defender?

The Boston visitors had come primarily to see the center.  But two of them heard that E. E. Cummings was next in my class’s series on love poetry.  They wanted to hear me try to explain him; they asked if they could attend.  So when I went up the university stairs the next time, on my left was a New England carpenter, a head taller than most of the students; on my right was a new grandfather, with a quick smile and a ready camera on his cell phone.

I had two defenders.  

During class, the carpenter listened attentively to our discussion on Cummings’ poem somewhere I have never traveled,gladly beyond.  The grandfather jumped up every time he heard any disturbance in the hall that might be harassers, kindly smiling as he attempted to snap their pictures.

They rushed away every time.

The Boston visitors left later that week.  The semester was half over; we started a new unit on nature poetry, and I asked my students to list words that described the outdoors.  “Beautiful.”  “Changing.”  “Powerful.”  “Fierce.”

The troublemakers returned to point and harass through the window in the classroom door.  This time I went myself and opened it.

You cannot bother this class, I said without smiling.

“I don’t English,” one of them answered, backing away.

The hallway quieted, I returned to my class.  Students exchanged glances.  I don’t think they could see my hands shaking.  I told you at the beginning of the semester that poetry is about the soul.  This is not a normal class; here we talk about our souls.  And I am not going to let anyone disturb us.

Over the next several classes, I sent a few more would-be harassers away with stern English; soon they interrupted us far less often.  I was no longer intimidated.

I didn’t notice one day when they returned.

One of my students rose.  “May I go get security?” You can, I answered, surprised at her initiative and assertiveness.  But do you want me to just send them away like usual?

I know that not all injustice can be stopped this side of heaven.  I know that suffering is still occurring, in countries and cities and individuals. And I know that situations will continually arise, leaving us exposed, vulnerable. But somehow the knowledge that my Defender sent two men from Massachusetts to the Middle East to escort me to class, when I needed it– makes a big difference.

It’s not the whole story.  But it’s a glimpse of its culmination.

—–

My student declined my offer of help; she wanted to speak up herself.  The next semester, we simply covered the window with paper.

And we were taken care of.

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The Kiss of Release

She approached me in the middle of the bus.  “One of the girls is crying,” she said.  “She got a call on Miss Mae’s phone, and now she’s really upset…”

I looked forward, where Mae– one of our local teachers with Young Leaders– was leaning over a slump-shouldered fifteen-year-old girl.  Teena.  Her family was the one that set up an accidental (for me) blind date with her brother, shortly after I arrived in the country.  There had been no second excursion with Mohammad, but when Teena applied for Young Leaders, she immediately won our teachers’ hearts.

She had determination, ready laughter, social intuitiveness.  What could have happened to bring about those tears? 

Mae explained.  Teena had been given permission by her mom to go on this class trip to a desert reserve, but another family member found out about it and responded the opposite way.  He called and demanded that the bus stop at a nearby security checkpoint.  From there, he would pick Teena up and take her home.

“He’s on the way already,” Mae told me.  “Teena says he never lets her go on trips outside of town, with school or clubs; but he did not know about this one until a few minutes ago…”  We told the bus driver to slow down.  We called Teena’s mom to see what she wanted to do.  She instructed us to let Teena go if that was what this relative wanted.  We called him, we begged, we reasoned.

She’s with all of her friends.  She’s worked hard in this program.  She’s already twenty minutes out of town.  We will protect her like our own sister, our own child.  

He refused.

I knew that Teena’s seat in the program would be lost if she did not participate in ALL activities.  So no field trips also meant no more after-school English lessons.

No more leadership-building activities.

No more mentoring from Miss Mae.

A few days after this incident, I called a cousin of Teena’s whom I know well.  I asked her to appeal to the male relative on our behalf: She is a delight everyone in the program.  But if she doesn’t take the trips, we have to give her spot to another student.  Please, remind this relative that your family knows me, and that I will look after Teena like my own sister. 

Then we called Teena and asked her to have her relative come to the center, so we could try to persuade him face to face.  She was thrilled.  She knew we were fighting for her.  We felt a small measure of hope.

The day of the meeting, Mae called to reconfirm.  No one answered.  Teena texted soon afterward: “We can’t have a meeting today.  Our father passed away this morning.”

That night, Mae and I drove around Teena’s neighborhood, until we found the apartment where dozens of women were gathered to recite funeral prayers and support the family (the men– including the relative who had forbidden Teena’s attendance on field trips– met somewhere outside).  Despite her grief, Teena’s mom recognized me right away.  I kissed her cheeks and repeated the consolation my tutor had taught me for such an occasion.

Someone pulled up extra chairs, and the mom introduced me: “She’s American, a teacher.  My daughter Teena is with her in the Young Leaders program.”

With us in the Young Leaders program.  I repeated the words as if to etch them in stone.

On rising to leave, I forgot the phrase I had learned for funerals, so substituted my favorite parting words: “God be with you.”

Despite hearing that the relative planned to withdraw Teena from the program entirely, Mae and I returned to talk with Teena’s mom, and with a friend who had a voice in his life.  We drank three cups of coffee, offered consolation again, and explained why Young Leaders was vital for Teena’s personal development.  We invited all of them to attend the Opening Ceremony.  We sensed that they supported us– but depended on the male relative’s approval for Teena’s inclusion in the program.

On rising to leave, Teena’s mom randomly informed Mae, “We wanted this foreigner to marry our son.”

It made the mom smile briefly.  It also left me needing to explain the story to my coworker.

We discovered, just a day before the Opening Ceremony, that as soon as the friend had approached Teena’s male relative, he knew what was going to be said.  “Don’t even try,” he said.  “I decided she isn’t going anymore to Young Leaders.”  And that was the end of that portion of the story.

We used all the cultural wisdom we could get.

We fought, we visited, we begged.

We prayed.

Still, with the Opening only hours away, she left an empty space.

—–

What is surrender?  Some think of giving up.  Of being controlled by someone other.  Of passive living.  But what if it is active?  What if it calls for us to not be coerced, but consenting?

What if surrender needs to happen even in the moments that we are fighting… visiting… praying… as much as when we are giving a kiss to each cheek and saying, “God be with you,” in releasing with a blessing?

—–

A hasty search of the waiting list.  Acceptance into the program of a new student.  Her face is familiar when she joins Mae’s class at the Opening Ceremony; we realize her sister was in last year’s program.

Our hearts accept it as a little bit of balm.  What is your name? we ask.

Faith.

The Blind Date

Let me tell you about my accidental blind date.  

With Mohammad.

I had been in the country for about six weeks.  A friend from our community center, Khudrah, invited me and my housemate to visit the ladies in her home.  My housemate warned me that Khudrah had been inquiring about my marital status that day, mentioning a cousin who “wants to marry a foreigner.”  Note: Marriages here are often set up by the female members of a household, who research options and then arrange a meeting between the potential couple.

As surrogate family, my housemate had tried to discourage Khudrah, but gently so as not to insult the family.

So I wasn’t worried about the visit that night, and I had my housemate with me to help with any challenging language situations. One of Khudrah’s aunts began telling me about her son, suggesting he could teach me Arabic.

I declined the offer.

That Thursday night, Khudrah invited just me out for coffee.  I told myself that there was no way the cousin would show up– culturally, that would be really, REALLY weird.  But the discomfort persisted…

Until I got in the car, and saw just Khudrah and a single aunt of hers sitting there.  I need to be okay with not controlling all the details, I reminded myself.

So I didn’t ask where we were going.  We parked in a busy downtown area, and I noticed the people in the car next to us– three women, some kids, and an infirm-looking older gentleman– and thought, Why is that one lady waving at me, smiling so expectantly?  Have I met her before?

Khudrah grinned: “This is the coffee shop, owned by my cousin Mohammad!  There’s his dad and my aunt– his mom– in the car beside us.  You remember her, right?”

I spent the next two and a half hours trying to make small talk with the women of the family, in my excruciating Arabic. Trying not to make small talk with Mohammad, who would emerge from behind the counter periodically, smoking cigarettes and attempting to ask me questions in English.  Trying to be clear with Khudrah, drawing her aside, saying, I’m here to hang out with you ladies, not with your cousin.  Trying to be polite when the aunts commented that I was “shy” around Mohammad, and Khudrah informed them, “She doesn’t talk to men.”  Trying to figure out if being reserved made them more or less interested in me as a future daughter-in-law.  Trying not to laugh at the awkwardness of the situation.

I found out later that an initial meeting is often all that a potential couple has to go on, before they decide whether to get married.  Sitting with my housemate the next day, I told her, I think I just went on this culture’s version of a blind date.

“Yes,” she said, after hearing my story.  “Sounds about right.”

I waited for the awkward follow-up conversation, but it never came; Khudrah and I became close with other people, and we didn’t see each other much outside of the community center’s exercise classes.  But, just last week, she invited me to a wedding.

Weddings here involve lots of music and dancing, and almost no interaction with the opposite sex.  The women celebrate by themselves, and the groom enters with the bride to dance, cut the cake (with a sword), and present the bride with her dowry of gold jewelry.  I knew Khudrah’s female cousin had just gotten accepted into the Young Leaders’ program, and that I would probably see some of the other ladies from her family, so I accepted her invitation.

On the way over, I asked who the bride was.  “I don’t really know the bride,” Khudrah replied.  “I’m related to the groom.  Remember Mohammad?”

I’ve been in the Middle East under 18 months.  Like “Part II” of a novel, when enough has changed that the author feels it necessary to give you a blank page so that you can catch your breath, a good many things have shifted this spring: the level of my friendships, the people who are my coworkers, the definition of a “hot” day (anything under 95 doesn’t qualify for me anymore), the things I pray when I sit in quiet, the job I do at our community center.

But then there are the things from “Part I” that were incomprehensible then, or stories that I didn’t know how to tell, that are resurfacing later in the book.  Last Tuesday, at the graduation ceremony for our Young Leaders, I saw 100 “parts” ending; 120 new students will begin next week in their place.  Parts ending, parts begun.  All unfinished.

No one but the author knows how the stories will be woven together.

Last night, amidst the strobe light and the bubbles from the bubble machine and the smoke from Mohammad’s signature cigarette, this young couple danced out of “Part I” and into “Part II” of their stories.  He made her giggle as he pulled every woman over 50 onto the dance floor with them.  He made the aunts blush as he kissed his bride in public– twice– and sang along to the ear-splitting music.  He took the mic from the DJ and said, “Everyone should get up and dance, since this is my first wedding, and my last!”

Some friends from New York recently caught up with me on the shifting happening in the stories here.  I don’t know which parts of old stories will resurface in the pages ahead, and a thousand new stories are launching on an unknown trajectory, but I’ll heed their good advice: “Be present. Stay patient and enjoy the good parts.”

On that note, off to brownies and a game night, with good friends, who are present in this part.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Press In

“Do you think we’ve visited long enough?” she asked me, quietly.  Flashed across my friend’s forehead was a wrinkle of concern.  I blinked back my surprise.

Full two hours earlier:  

Nine-year-old Hamza sprinted down the bannister-free stairs and into her arms.  “Miss Joanne!  Miss Joanne!”  His exuberance was equivalent to a winning goal-scorer in a World Cup finals match.

He seized her hand, leading his teacher– and me– proudly up to the second-story apartment (amidst her, “Be careful, Hamza– you don’t want to break your arm again on these stairs”), pausing at its broken-concrete threshold so we could slip off our shoes.  We entered in to kisses from mother, warm welcome from father, shy hello from sister.

Before we could sip the first cup of sweet tea, Hamza– from his position of love and honor at Joanne’s side– asked what they would be doing in school tomorrow.  “You have two more WEEKS of vacation,” Joanne laughed.

Hamza grinned.  “So what are we doing in two weeks?”

Last year, in a community center just a few hours away from my basement apartment, an informal “school” began with Joanne and three other teachers.  They provide free education to 30 displaced children, whose families dwell in apartments across this border town; the concrete of these homes is cold in the winter.  But it is better than the tents of the refugee camps, where most of them started out.  The war not only removed people from their native lands but also ravaged routines, like going to school.  So Joanne’s second-grade class includes students as old as 12.

Others have no place to go.  One mother arrived at the center on “registration day,” seeking help for her household, which included her 15- and 16-year-old daughters.  I asked if they were able to attend a school.  “They have not been in school for a year and a half– since we left home.”  She suddenly began to weep.  “Their future is gone.”

Just like I witnessed last summer, local leaders still fill trucks with mattresses, blankets, gas bottles, stoves, and now heaters.  Then they empty them, little by little, into the homes of the displaced.

IMG_4162One of the leaders, Baha, asked me to come with him for “distribution.”  Culturally, men should try to avoid going by themselves to a female-headed home (culturally, Baha also felt that as a woman i should not lift anything heavier than a blanket into the truck… but that’s a second story).  Many of those who registered for help, like the woman with the teenage daughters, have homes that fit this description; the husbands either remain in war-torn areas, or are dead.  So with another volunteer– to guard the truck while we were inside peoples’ houses– we headed out.

Since the temperatures had lowered in December, the sense of urgency had heightened.  During distribution, whenever we finished emptying a little bit of relief into one family’s home, several new families would gather around Baha to voice their requests.

Their cries would become more urgent, and their bodies press closer, as he climbed into the truck.  “Baha!” “Baha!”  I understood more of their stories than I had last summer: descriptions of the coldness of houses; urgent requests for Pampers or pills or preference over others already registered; reports of the number of children they had at home, in need…

Once in the cab, Baha did the opposite of my expectation: he rolled down the window.

He listened to each of them.  He recorded their needs and phone numbers in a notebook.  And he sang to himself as we drove away, mentally preparing to do it all over again at the next house… as he has been doing for four years.

Back at Hamza’s house, I tried to reassure Joanne that we had visited long enough.  She is hoping to see each of her students during school vacation.  But she knows that most families are not allowed to work; that they are separated from their relational networks; and that presence, that listening, matters.

So she takes her time.

How do you stay full inside when emptying yourself, over and over, into an ocean of want?  How do you listen when the stories pound like waves, individual surges of the same substance, over and over, threatening to wear down or drag under?

Hamza’s mother re-entered with a bag of spongey, pancake-shaped bread.  Half an hour more.  She filled a dish with thick cream and sugar.  Then she showed Joanne and me how to put a spoonful of filling in the middle of each pancake, crimping the edges by pressing them together.  “You have to seal it completely,” she cautioned us.

IMG_4167

My word for this year is “full.”  A week up by the border, and I am reminded that the only way to stay full is to press in deeply.

Because as I learned making this dessert… if you don’t fully press in, all you make is a mess.

Love Poem

Blue eyeliner framed her brown eyes, complimenting the vivid blue scarf that outlined her face.  The brightness of those colors and the youthfulness of her features were striking, especially in contrast with the seriousness of her expression, and the dullness of her tone, as she answered me.

I had told her and her friend that we would be doing a unit on “Love Poetry” at the university.  Would they tell me their thoughts on romance, men, love?  What are you looking for in a husband?  

What do you think men are looking for in a wife?

The first question drew dreamy looks, produced smile lines at the corners of their eyes; these vanished rapidly when they came to the second question.  “They want someone beautiful… dependent… to listen to them…”

Dependent?  I asked.

In a low, flat voice, she said, “They don’t want us to be strong.”

A couple of days ago I was in the middle of teaching one of our center’s English classes, when I was interrupted by surprising news from home.  A moment later, I was announcing to twenty Arab women and men something that most of our friends in the US hadn’t heard yet: my sister’s baby had arrived early.  It was time to celebrate.

They sang “Happy Birthday” in Arabic and English.  One went and bought sweets for everyone, and a cake, with the inscription “Happy Birthday Eveln.”  Not exactly how her parents spell it, but he tried.IMG_3839

I felt the joy with my students, passed the congratulations of the community center on to my sister, and went home and cried because I was not with them physically.

Then I texted Zaina.  She hears others’ stories differently since she lost her job, her homeland, and her security in a neighboring war.  She listened to my good news and my grief, offering words of blessing for the baby, congratulations to me as an auntie, and consolation in the challenge of being far apart.  Her capacity for compassion is strong within her sorrow.

On my niece’s birthday (although I didn’t know it was that at the time), my university class had analyzed Sylvia Plath’s poem Metaphors.  They tried to follow each clue:

I’m a riddle in nine syllables, 

An elephant, a ponderous house,

A melon strolling on two tendrils.

“Pregnancy!” they guessed, correctly.  The poem finishes with some less whimsical metaphors:

…I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.

I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,

Boarded the train there’s no getting off. 

The speaker seems to have lost her own identity; she has no meaning except as a “means” for the new.  What gives a person identity?  I asked.  What makes your life valuable? 

Hanna, a top student (and also the mother of three teenagers), answered, “Maybe her society told her that her worth was only in having children.  Maybe she didn’t like it, and that’s why she wrote this poem.”

Society often tells us what would make us valuable– whether it’s having kids, possessing lots of stuff, getting some prestigious education… I said.  But it doesn’t always give the right answers.  

What do YOU think?

“I think it is not about what we produce,” said Hanna, “It’s not about producing kids, or about work, or about money.  It’s about doing our purpose.  When God made Adam and…” She faltered for the English name; her holy book has a similar story of creation to what I know.  “Eve.  He gave them… both… a purpose.

Hanna knew that worth is defined by something more profound than opinions or circumstances.

Men– women– society– all sing loudly about what gives us value. Their melodies can be alluring, promising acceptance in exchange for acquiescence to their demands.  These demands can contradict, but sometimes, amidst all the dissonance, we can’t hear any other voice.

But there is an anthem, begun before creation, and its rhythm is restoration.  It’s a ballad of weak ones strengthened, lost ones found, distant ones brought close, lonely ones placed in families, grieving ones granted joy.  A carol of deeper identity than whom we can please, how we can protect ourselves from hurt, or what we can produce.

This is the song I want my students, and my new niece– and you– to hear.  The song I resonate with in new ways, every season.   A love poem set to music.

Listen.

Testing Our Courage

Exam grading at the University:

My friend has a tall hair, and a green eye. 

Talking with my students about why this sentence is incorrect led me to a deeper understanding of how difficult English can be.  Last week, we went over the most frequent wrong answers, to this and other questions on their midterm.

The students want so badly to be perfect. I try to affirm them for taking risks with the language, for trying different things when still unsure of their use of words.  (Like the student who, when asked about her interests during the spoken exam, grinned and said, “I love evil.”  I broke in at that point: “Excuse me– could you repeat that?”  She replied, still grinning: “Oh yes.  I love eevviil. Eeevviiil Tower– Paris– right?”)

But my students are still gripped more by what they missed than by what they accomplished.

As is our practice each time we meet, we reviewed quotations.  The students have learned a new quote every week, and have practiced explaining the thought behind each of them, quotes like:

  • Experience is a hard teacher, because she gives the test first and the lesson afterward. –Vernon Law
  • It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving. –Mother Teresa
  • Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it. — Helen Keller

Last week I found out, minutes before my class was to begin, that there would be a university-wide seminar on “violence against women.”  I reminded my students that some of our conversations about speaking up– or our quotes– might relate.  We went to the auditorium together.

Injustice and inequality were portrayed in the stories of four women, in a well-made film by Half the Sky; the power of educational opportunities for women was emphasized.  When mediator opened the floor for comments, a young man stood.  His words prompted the student on my right to murmur disagreement, shaking her head.

“What did he say?” I asked.  Among other things, she translated, he said that women could avoid being hurt by simply staying at home.

Fire in my stomach.  The mediator responded; another student, one on my left, reached for the microphone.  She trembled, but barely.  “If a man and a woman make the same mistake,” she said, “the woman is treated differently.  This is not fair.  I have had this happen to me.”

By the end of the discussion, the young man had gently backpedaled on his statement.  Several female students had told their experiences, perspectives, and passion for change to be made.  They had not waited to make their every word perfect.  They had no knowledge of how he would respond.  But they spoke anyway– and the world spins a little more justly today, because of their words.

May we have their courage in the small things, not just the seemingly big moments.  And may our tastes of justice create hunger to know the One who made us, to live in shalom with with Him, the self, the creation, and each other.