It started with a photo.
Standing in the Dead Sea with a huge grin on my face, my eyes were squeezed shut because I had accidentally opened them in the saltiest water on earth and gone temporarily blind. The water was blue, the sky was clear, the rocks shone brightly with flecks of salt reflecting the midday sun. My outfit was tactically conservative; black pants, shoes and a sports bra. After all, I was at a public beach in a Muslim majority country so I wanted to be respectful.
It was a quintessential Dead Sea photo…perfect, depending on who you asked.
A couple of months after that euphoric photo was taken, I was team-teaching 10th grade at an all girls’ school in the Jordanian countryside. Our lesson would be about the Dead Sea. I told the girls I had some photos I could show them, I had just swum there!
All of the students, and the class teacher, laughed when they saw my face. One girl said, “Teacher Jaala, it is too salty!” “Don’t open your eyes!” I told her it was too late, it already happened and I learned my lesson.
A moment later, the vice principal walked into the room. She wanted to make an announcement, but as soon as she saw my computer, she asked me to close the screen.
The girls seemed shaken.
The vice principal left and told me to come to the office with the other teacher.
I sat down and waited.
The class bell rang and all the girls rushed out of the building into the school yard.
The Principal spoke directly to me, “Please do not show the girls such photos.”
I wondered what she meant. I asked, “The one at the Dead Sea? Why?”
She said, “We do not dress or act that way here.”
I still didn’t understand.
I told her okay, no more photos.
I thought the conversation was over, then the vice principal muttered something in Arabic. It sounded like she said, “Saddam Hussein would kill her.”
I walked out of the office with the other teacher, then asked her if that was what I heard.
She said yes. I asked her what was wrong with the photo. She told me that nothing was wrong with the photo, but that something was wrong with the vice-principal. She offered no further information, grinned weakly, and ceased talking about the situation.
Later in the day, when I was done with class and heading back to Amman, I wondered why the vice principal mentioned Saddam Hussein (he had been dead for a decade), and why a picture of a mostly clothed women’s body would be a bad thing to show a class full of girls who were about to be women.
More importantly, why would Saddam have hated my outfit enough to kill me?
I looked to history to understand what Saddam had to do with the girls’ school.
In 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference, when the Arab Revolt ended and modern Jordan’s borders were created by the British and agreed upon by Emir Faisal, lines drawn in the sand didn’t matter much to the tribes who lived there. Faisal was given Iraq and his brother Abdullah was given the land between Iraq and the East bank of the Jordan River, known then as Trans-Jordan.
Almost 100 years later, tribal affiliation is still more important than national borders to many people in the Jordanian countryside. Even though Saddam Hussein was Iraqi, it doesn’t change the fact that some people in Jordan are part of his tribe and related to him by blood.
In addition to the historical tribal relations, a segment of this population is a remnant of his reign. In 2003, after Saddam was removed from power, many Iraqi Baathists and Hussein loyalists fled to Jordan. With them came the extended connection to a regime that believed Americans were the cause of their downfall and forced exile.
Opinions aside, the fact is that Americans and allied forces did invade Iraq without approval from the United Nations. The subsequent destruction and upheaval in the country was directly related to actions taken by all allied forces. In essence, the invasion caused a forced migration of the Iraqi people. Thousands have since died and are still suffering; the war continues.
Could the vice-principal be part of this complex web of geopolitical events? Did my outfit really matter?
When I returned to the school after the photo incident, things were markedly tense. Many times, I invited the vice principal to my class to observe and always made it a point to greet her whenever we met. I tried to get to know her as an individual. Our relationship didn’t seem to improve. Before I left the school for the year, I gave her a chocolate bar, kissed her cheek, and said, “God bless your family.”
For all I knew, her anger towards me had nothing to do with me personally. I could have just been a scapegoat, something physical that represented her opinion toward a nation and people whom she believed were responsible for her possible displacement, her suffering.
Life went on and I moved to other schools. Surprisingly, I saw photos of Saddam all over the Jordanian countryside that spring. I constantly wondered about the “why” and “how” of this reverence towards someone who I believed to be one of the most reprehensible humans of modern times. So many people, Iraqis, Americans, and others had died to bring down his regime. Countless Iraqis and Americans continue to die because of this tyrant’s legacy and terrorists associated with him. Seeing Saddam’s image made me sick.
What could I do to change the vice principal’s perception of Americans; what could I do to further understand her point of view?
Though it seems counterintuitive, I decided that I could say nothing to change her mind about Saddam, or America. What I could do was show her what a true American was like, without arguing for or against anything, without even saying a word. I, in turn, would give her a chance as a fellow human, to make me understand where she was coming from.
Eventually my year-long teaching fellowship in Jordan ended. I wasn’t quite sure how I had affected the schools, but I knew I had done my best.
As luck would have it, the embassy invited me back this year to follow up with all of the teachers I had taught before. So, for the last couple of months, I have revisited most of the schools I worked with last year.
When it was time to return to the “school Saddam built” as I lovingly refer to it, I was nervous. Though I had stayed in touch with the teachers, I was not sure how the vice principal or the students would receive me.
My car pulled up to the school and I got out. The wind blew my jacket open as I walked into the school yard. I struggled to button it shut, and as I did, 30 children started shouting at me, “Jaala! Jaala! Hello!” “I love America!” “We love you!”
I almost cried at that welcome.
Then the vice principal stepped into the yard and looked my way. I walked towards her, stuck out my hand, and said, “Salam Alaykum, Keyf Halek! Shu Akbarek!” (Hi, How are you!) And kissed her cheeks. She returned the greeting and said, “Ahlan was sahlan,” (Welcome).
She came to my class to observe.
After class, I assumed that she didn’t want to see me, but she took my hand and led me back to the office. I braced myself, waiting for a lecture. It didn’t come. What did come, for the first time in her presence, was coffee, cookies, and laughs. Today, she didn’t mention Saddam, or the war, or evil America. She told me she was happy to see me.
It turns out, my outfit had nothing to do with that awkward day last year when I showed the photo.
The reason why the vice principal was angry is debatable, but I think it had to do with misperceptions and generalizations. She had never met an American before, but had possibly been displaced by the war so she held a fear and dislike towards anyone from the United States. Her fear had nothing to do with what I was wearing, but where I was from.
The vice-principal warmed to my presence only after I had left. I later learned that in my absence the students asked about me and the teachers requested for me to return.
I never learned about the vice principal’s background, but as we got to know each other we were able to laugh and talk and meet each other on the same, human level. We became friendly acquaintances.
When I originally left that school, I wondered:
How can we fight ignorance, fear, and the perpetuation of misinformation?
How can we win against tyrants and their ghosts?
This is what I know now:
Sometimes, we must fight these battles without words; we must fight with conviction, intention, and strength in character. I’d venture to say that we must fight with love, but I’m older now, and know that love cannot always win.
Today I fight by example and through friendship.
I smile bigger. I wave to people in the village when I am driving. I carry my little American flag and remind my students of who I am, and where I come from. I give the best hugs. I speak Arabic and drink coffee and wear conservative clothes and respect my friends’ beliefs. I use the squatty potty and sometimes pee on my own shoes in the process. I fret when there is no water to wash my hands, but know that things could be worse. I laugh when the power goes out in the middle of lessons. I eat cookies with my friends huddled three to one desk in the teachers’ room, and show them photos of my smoking hot husband, a true hero and my favorite American. Most importantly, I try to understand the lives my teachers lead as individuals and at the same time show them who I am in that process. I live life passionately and flex my muscles at any opportunity.
Through mutual understanding and respect, we can fight the ghosts of the past who haunt the present.
This is how we win everyday.