Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Portrait #51: There's such a lot under there

She sat down in front of me in one of those chairs that comes with a flat surface to write on, the kind that fill high school and university classrooms. Gently perched on the edge of the chair, she gripped the seat's wooden board. Her face peeked out of a large black headscarf that covered her forehead, chin, and shoulders, reaching down to around her waist. Beneath that she work a flowy black abaya with white embroidery on the sleeves. Underneath the swathes of clothes, she appeared to be all of five feet tall and to weigh maybe a hundred pounds. Her face was tiny, her hands were tiny, and I got the impression that there was a lot more black robing than there was woman.

I'm not sure she knew why we asked to talk to her until we'd all taken our seats. Then we explained that we wanted to understand more about women in Jordan, and that hearing her story could help us do that. She looked from me to her friend then down at her hands and nodded matter-of-factly. She didn't seem thrilled, she didn't seem disappointed.

So I started asking her some basic questions: how old she is, how many kids she has, why she comes to the community association, about her fears. Each question got a simple answer, but each sentence spoke volumes.

She said that she comes to the association for help because she needs cash assistance. Her husband, who apparently weighs at least three times more than she does, is out of work due to health problems, and the only income in their family is from one of her sons who left school to work. So she comes to the centre to ask for help. Right now it's Ramadan, so the aid is more plentiful, and that's why we met her here today. But, she said, many people that she knows won't come because they are shy and concerned about their reputations.

Her husband doesn't let her work. He doesn't think she should be out and about. But she does come here. And she attends Qur'an lessons in the home of a neighbour. And she teaches her children the values of Islam. She looks for a way to get her daughter the surgery that she needs - but her other daughter is a good student so she encourages her to stay in school.

She can't be bothered with politics. But she knows what happens around her. She sees the addictions and the domestic violence, and she recognises that she and her neighbours are usually too scared to get involved in other families' conflicts, even when they see someone suffering. Because everyone's biggest fear is of scandal.

When I asked her if she had any wild, improbable dreams, she said yes: her dream is to be rich so that she can give things to people.

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