The Middle East @ Work

No place for a woman

Richard Core Mar 3, 2008

“No, I can’t take you there,” Yusra, my Iraqi translator told me. “It’s not acceptable.” I wanted to go to one of the coffeeshops in Amman’s downtown where Iraqi refugees like to hang out. The reason? I’m a woman.

I was skeptical. Yusra’s a liberal 40-something divorcee, who says what she thinks, and would never consider covering her head. Plus, she had lived in Baghdad through much of the worst. Could a coffeeshop really be worse than suicide bombers?

So I asked Rana, my secular Jordanian friend if she’d take me. “No,” she said. “You could go there because you’re a foreigner. But I can’t.” The most I could get out of her was that it would raise serious doubts about her reputation. And bring ruin to her family if anybody saw her.

I didn’t want to be rude, but the idea still seems almost funny to me. I tried to think of a place in the U.S. where I simply can’t go. There are places I’d be afraid to go. Or places that I can’t imagine wanting to go. But can’t go?

But I got a hint of what she and Yusra meant the day Rana and I went to interview Egyptian day laborers on a bitterly cold January day. We’d barely made it out of the car when we were surrounded by what felt like an enormous crowd of men. All staring at us.

I felt like I was in the middle of a pack of wild dogs — with a coat full of raw meat. Which I guess is maybe what I was in their minds — despite a decidedly unrevealing outfit of several sweaters, jeans and hiking boots and an ankle-length wool coat, I’ve never felt so naked in my life.

I tried to remember to keep my eyes down. Which is hard to do when you’re trying to do an interview. And even harder when you’re feeling like you’re on display. I kept sneaking looks out of the corner of my eyes, wishing I’d thought to wear sunglasses. But in every direction there were eyes, just staring, staring, staring. (I thought it would have made a stunning photo, but I was afraid of starting a stampede.) In the end, we got the interviews we needed and made it back into the car safely. But I did keep plotting exit strategies in my head. (Would the attendant from the adjacent gas station have come to our rescue if I climbed onto the roof of the car?)

I thought about an off-hand remark a source had made about her husband being a good man. Because, among other virtues, he didn’t look other women’s wives in the eye. Suddenly I understood how having somebody avoid eye contact could be a positive thing.

At the end of my trip, my husband met me in Amman. At our first breakfast together, I noticed that one of the waiters who’d been very friendly to me for the last three weeks was suddenly ignoring me. At first I thought maybe he hadn’t seen me. Then I thought I’d offended him somehow. But when he very politely asked my husband if there was anything else we needed, it suddenly dawned on me . . . he was just being polite!

— Alisa Roth

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