It's an overcast spring afternoon and I'm struggling to move a ridiculously awkward backpack-on-wheels through a noisy swirl of families inside Jordan's Queen Alia International Airport. Yes, I'm cranky. Yes, I haven't slept in 24 hours. Yes, I want to escape the smoky airport into the fresh air as soon as possible. I glimpse an opening in the crowd, dart toward it, and smack right into a middle-aged Jordanian man.
I freeze. The man turns and looks at my face. Then down at my luggage. Then back at my face. Then slowly, his face cracks into a wide Chesire-cat grin.
"Welcome to Jordan!" he says.
His warmth is not at all what I expected. But then, what am I expecting? I've never been to the Middle East, and when I told friends I was coming here their reactions ranged from mild concern for my safety to churlish suggestions of what songs I'd like played at my funeral.
But I wasn't worried about my safety. Jordan, though it's located--as they say--between Iraq and a hard place, is like the Switzerland of the Middle East. It's peaceful, and relatively progressive. Instead, what kept me up at night were questions about how to interact with Arab men.
Now, I normally don't worry about how to interact with men. I've been voting lesbertarian since my twenties, which means I haven't found myself in the same polling place as a man for a long time. But here, it's different. Here, I actually have to think about being a woman, and how men might perceive me, and frankly, I'm a little rusty.
The guidebooks warn that Arab men consider western woman to be loose and without morals. (Thank you, Paris Hilton.) They say: don't look men in the eye. They'll think you want sex. Don't go out with wet hair. They'll think you just had sex. Don't wear tight clothing. Sex. Shorts. Sex. And whatever you do, don't show the nape of your neck. The nape of my neck? Indeed. The nape is considered particularly erotic in this part of the world.
So how do I apologize to this man I've just bludgeoned without looking him in the eye or showing him my nape--especially since I'm not exactly sure what a nape is?
I do it like any other American: by ignoring him, picking up my luggage, and strutting through the airport as if I own the place.
I spend the first afternoon in Amman, Jordan's lively white limestone city, walking through busy streets lined with dress shops and shoe shops and small stands selling baglawa, a thin, flaky pastry layered with pistachios. The traffic is heavy and the smell of baked sugar mingles with hot fumes of exhaust. I pass several clusters of men talking on the sidewalk, sharing hookahs, calling to each other from shop doors. But I see few women, and those I do are covered from scalp to sandal in cloth.
I wander into an open-air fruit-and-vegetable market and pass a young man standing behind a plastic bin of glossy green cucumbers. He's got that cocky attitude of all teenage boys who haven't yet been rejected by enough women. I stand to the side and try to discreetly take a photograph. But he notices me - an obvious westerner with short sleeves and dyed blondish hair. Encouraged by my interest, he quickly turns around and grabs two shiny round oranges from a crate behind him. He extends the oranges in the air toward me, and when he's certain he's got my attention, squeezes them suggestively.
Suddenly, worries about my neck are replaced by concerns over two decidedly more tender parts of my anatomy.
Leaving the market, I meet up with Adam, another writer on the trip, and together we wend our way through the maze of downtown streets.
A group of four men beckons us from the doorway of a mobile phone shop. I'm hesitant. Even though I've only been here a day, I'm feeling this weird vibrating force field that separates men from women, a force field that separates me from the kind of conversation I would easily have back home. But Adam, an affable everything-is-groovy Southern Californian, has no need for such hesitation. He ambles across the street toward them, and I follow.
The men invite us into their shop, and we're instantly presented with a tray holding two glasses of sweetened Jordanian tea. Adam and I each take one.
Like the tea? they ask.
Very much, we say.
Having exhausted their English vocabulary, the men silently watch us drinking our tea. Then one of them leaves and returns again - this time, carrying a keffiyah, the traditional red-and-white Jordanian headscarf. He wraps Adam's head in the scarf in the Jordanian way - tight across his forehead, with a long flap down the back.
Because I'm a woman, I don't get similar treatment. The guidebooks didn't say anything about the protocol involving an Arab man touching a western woman's head, but I imagine the equation would go something like this: Scarves = head. Head = brain. Brain = thoughts. Thoughts = sex.
But the men must notice how envious I am, because after a few moments of quiet deliberation, one of them leaves and returns with another keffiyah - this one for me. He unwraps it from a crinkly cellophane package, and I bend forward as he tightens the scarf around my scalp and cinches it into place.
Afterward, I insist that Adam take a photo. I stand between the four men - two on my right, two on my left, and forgetting everything I've read, place my two American arms behind the backs of the two Jordanians next to me. They tense and scoot sideways. Adam takes the photo. In it, the men and I are standing so far apart we look like a string of paper dolls.
Two days later, after a hard afternoon of touring, I decide to rest at the hotel's Hammam, which is a Turkish bath. I've never been to a Turkish bath before, but I picture a large green communal pool, women on one side, men on the other.
I don my bathing suit - cover it with a long-sleeve, knee-length white robe -- and head to the Hammam.
There are three men standing just inside the door. I assume I'm on the wrong side.
Women? I ask.
A shirtless young man with blue-green eyes and a towel around his waist leads me inside the women's locker room where he waits next to me as I hang my robe. He then leads me to a small steam room and points to a white marble bench where I sit in the humidity and marvel at a country where one cannot make eye contact, but where shirtless men can escort women in bathing suits to their own private baths. Maybe Turkish baths are like some sexual demilitarized zone where the usual customs don't apply. Maybe when the Islamic elders drew up rules concerning the sexes, they generously put in a long list of exceptions. There'll be no public displays of skin except for inside of Turkish baths, on Tuesdays, or when America has invaded neighboring countries.
After several long hot minutes in the steam room, the man with the blue-green eyes returns. But instead of leading me to the glorious pool I've been envisioning, he leads me into a large tiled shower stall and gestures for me to sit inside with my back against the wall.
He then drops his own towel and follows me in.
Okay. Now I'm getting nervous.
It's not that he's a man and I'm a woman and we're in a shower together and I haven't done this kind of thing for a while. It's not that he's a man and I'm a woman and we're in an Islamic country and I want to respect the local customs. It's that, well, he's a man and I'm a woman and I'm kind of shallow and will do anything to fit in.
So I sit against the wall.
He picks up an oversized sponge and starts scrubbing my legs with salt crystals. Then he scrubs each arm. Then he sprays me off with a long silver hose and I begin to feel like some old Nova he's getting ready to sell.
After I've been rinsed, the man motions for me to turn around. I pivot on my butt to face the wall.
"No, no, no..." he says. He scoots across the floor toward me and as he does I accidentally look down and notice his wet black bathing trunks are sucked tightly against his skin. Oh my! Those haven't changed much over the years, have they? Embarrassed, I stare back at his face and realize that what he wants is for me to lie on the floor, face down.
So now I'm lying flat on the tile with my right check smushed against the hard wet surface. He grabs the left strap of my swimsuit and begins to pull it down over my shoulder. I pull it back up, thinking he just meant to adjust it. But nooooo. He wants to scrub my back and since I'm wearing one of those middle-aged numbers with the modesty panel to shield my mid-section, he wants the top off.
Of course, taking off a sopping wet bathing suit is not easy under the best of circumstances. This is not the best of circumstances. So what do you do? You tell yourself you're an adult, and adults, when uncomfortable, can refuse to do things. You can thank him for his time. You can say you forgot to tip the maid this morning so Gosh! Sorry! You really must be going! You could say these things but instead, you meekly wriggle out of your top, lay your bare white chest on the tile, and allow him to wash your back.
He soaps and he scrubs and he rinses and he pushes your hair out of the way and gives your shoulders a meager little massage and then he rinses again and turns off the hose and you pray he won't ask you to turn over.
You hear the steady drip, drip of the faucet. You hear echoey male voices from somewhere else in the Hammam. You smell the strong herbal smell of the soap. You know he's waiting for you to get up. But you can't. Instead, you lie there, face down, hair splayed about like some corpse that's washed ashore.
Gently, the man taps your shoulder. Without getting up, you begin to slap the wet floor searching for your suit. You pick it up, hold it to your bare chest, and your composure - such as it is - returns. You tell the man to wait outside while you inelegantly wriggle back into your suit and wonder why it is you've started talking to yourself in the second person.
That night, in an effort to reintegrate back into my first-person self, I tell my traveling companions about the experience at the Hammam.
Adam listens quietly to my story. And when I finish, he says, in his everything-is-groovy way, "But that didn't really bother you, did it?"
"Nahhhh," I say. "It didn't."
And as I say this, I realize my answer is not entirely a lie. Yes. It bothered me at the time. But I've since learned three other people had the exact same experience at the Hammam, including one woman, although her assigned shower valet was female.
The discomfort is just how it goes with new experiences, experiences in which you don't know what to expect. The discomfort is a sign of boundaries being stretched. Of misperceptions crumbling. Of growth underway.
And when Adam asks if I'd do it again, my response is sincere and immediate: "Not on your life."
Shari Caudron is the author of two books: Who Are You People? and What Really Happened. Her work has also appeared in anthologies such as The Thong Also Rises and The Fourth Genre. Read about her new book at www.WhoAreYouPeople.com.
Books from the Author: