It’s Not Your Fault You’re American

by

10/15/2001

157 Montague St, Brooklyn, NY 11201

Neighborhood: All Over, Multiple

Israel, Jordan, and the Sinai Peninsula suffered through a heat-wave during the summer of 2000. In countries where July temperatures normally venture into the 100’s, a heat-wave may seem like a redundancy, but nevertheless that summer even the hardiest residents were miserable. By the end of July, Eilat, the southernmost city in Israel, was regularly recording temperatures upwards of 110 degrees. Touching the pavement with bare skin resulted in second degree burns.

In Petra, the famed Jordanian archaeological site which was used as the hiding place for the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a group of American and Canadian tourists wandered around the old rocks and marveled at the Bedouins standing in the shadows, dressed in wool. “They are used to it,” the Arab tour-guide said. “The heat.” The tour-guide urged his visitors to buy bottled water from the Bedouins as selling water was the Bedouins’ livelihood. The tourists hid from the sun in the ruins of temples and homes, and wished that they could see the site more clearly, but the glare was leaching out color from Petra’s famously crimson stones, and anyway, it was hard to stand outside without squinting.

Most of the tourists, after finishing their day in Jordan, were all too happy to board the bus back to Israel. Israel is, after all, a supernova of luxury compared to most of its Arab neighbors; even “modern” Arab states such as Jordan seem like little more than backwaters when compared to their relatively lush and wealthy neighbor. Israel has, in abundance, powerful air conditioners, public swimming pools, Italian restaurants, cold beers, and flush toilets. It has electricity and the Internet. Its women wear bikinis, carry guns, go to war. Ideologically (and unsurprisingly) it is as close as the Middle East gets to America.

However, one tourist was eager to see more of Jordan. A 24 year old Jewish-American graduate student, the tourist had never been to the Arab world before and was eager to explore as much of it as possible before returning to the relative safety and familiarity of Israel. She asked the tour-guide to let her off the bus. “You are not dressed for this,” he said to her, gently. She was wearing a t-shirt and shorts and had a bandanna in her hair. She insisted. She gave the tour-guide some money.

He sighed, and asked the driver to pull the bus over.

The town of Aqaba, in Jordan, is located on the Red Sea; Eilat shimmers Vegas-like across the water, and, if one looks far into the distance on a clear day, one can almost see the shores of the Sinai, in Egypt. The Jordanian government, which boasts friendly ties with the U.S. and a sincere desire to join the first world hopes to turn Aqaba into a genuine tourist destination. One can already find a few western-style hotels there, and even a couple shops selling alcohol. In an Arab Islamic country, these are no small things.

The tourist got off the bus in Aqaba and found herself standing alone in the shimmery afternoon heat. There was a pension across the road that the tour-guide had pointed out to her; he would be staying there that evening and would be glad to show her around town, if she wanted. The pension seemed run down, though, and the tourist thought it might be nice to check out one of the fancy hotels by the water. She began walking in that direction, but soon found herself scared to keep going. Men had stepped out of the surrounding buildings. They were staring. Some were hissing.

The woman tied her bandanna over her long brown hair. “You are not dressed for this,” she said to herself. The men continued to stare, some in amazement, some in glee, but most with disgust. She turned and hurried to the pension that her tour-guide had pointed out. Once she locked herself into a small, neat room, it occurred to her how little she knew. Around midnight, the tour-guide arrived as promised and took the tourist out through the windy streets of Aqaba. With him, she felt more like a curiosity than an affront – men still stared but the tour-guide brushed them off with a few words of Arabic. “What are you saying?” she asked him.

“That you are American,” he said. “That it’s not your fault.”

He brought her to a rug merchant’s and a magazine store, he bought her pita bread with lamb and showed her where to buy a long scarf she could wrap around her legs. The stores stayed open deep into the night, because the temperatures fell into the 80’s and 90’s and both shoppers and merchants could breathe. The tourist saw a few women, too, dressed in long black robes, heads fully covered. Some of them wore lipstick. A few of them were dressed in more modern fashion, and did not seem afraid.

At three in the morning, the tour-guide brought the tourist to the beach, where they sat at a table and ordered a hookah pipe and, as a special treat, bottles of Sprite. They sat quietly together at a plastic table and smoked from the hookah; they were surrounded by screaming babies, playing children, and even some men and women sitting together. There was a carnival feel in the air, as the hookahs burned sporadically, like fireflies. Soon the tourist heard splashing in the water, and then more, and then laughter heading in with the wind. Dark shapes like dolphins rose into the night and pitched themselves back into the sea.

“What is that?” the tourist asked.

“The women,” the tour-guide said. “They are swimming.”

Dressed entirely in their chadors, heads still wrapped in scarves, the women laughed and swam together in the warm Red Sea. The tourist thought back to a few days previous, when she had suffered in a bikini in Eilat, surrounded by other women in bikinis, everyone being watched, free in some respects and shackled in others. The tourist knew that Jordan was a modern country, and she suspected that many of these women’s peers in Saudi Arabia, say, or Iran, would be physically brutalized for swimming in public. But she also knew that there were possibilities for joy even in the strictest traditions, and that some women, at least in Jordan, could find freedom in the very rules that seemed to harness them.

As dawn neared, a strange man sat down with the tour-guide and the tourist. In English, he said to the tourist, “I heard that you were here, and I am glad that you’ve come to see Jordan, but next time I must ask you to dress modestly and respect our traditions.”

The tourist, sweaty and tired, wondered how the man knew she was there. She promised him that she had already learned her mistake, and that she would make a respectful return.

The tourist was no longer a tourist on September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center was attacked. She was standing on the Brooklyn Promenade, a boardwalk which juts out over the East River, providing perhaps the best of all possible views of lower Manhattan. The tourist lived a few miles from the Promenade and had gone there that morning to drink coffee and watch the boats in the harbor. By the time she arrived, the second plane was pirouetting around the second tower. She heard the sound, saw the smoke, dropped her coffee. As both of the towers collapsed over the next hour, friends of the tourist died.

At no time have Westerners with even the best of intentions known how to respectfully engage with the Middle East. Westerners with the worst of intentions have never even tried. We have visited in our shorts, and sat tanks in their holy places. We have introduced products and values that they consider corrupt. We have supported tyrannical regimes, and we have funded guerillas. We have done of some of these things because we think they are morally right, and some of these things because they suit our strategic needs. In the past, perhaps, we have been willing to engage in some debate about our course. But, as George W. Bush recently reminded us, there will be no more debate. Whatever hope there might have been for some brokered understanding between East and West crumbled with the towers. The foolish and fiery terrorists killed 6000 people and any hope for American compassion. After September 11, there will be no respectful returns.

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