“It’s Jordan’s hottest weather in sixty-seven years,” a radio weatherman says as we drive to the Baqa’a Palestinian refugee camp, where my new friend Hani grew up. In the back seat of Hani’s Mitsubishi sedan, I am squeezed between two sweating women, a baby, and an overloaded diaper bag. My red, ankle-length skirt—which I bought specifically for visiting the conservative refugee camp—feels like a wet Band-Aid in the hundred-degree heat. Before leaving this morning, I ripped out the lining of the skirt. Even that sheer silk felt oppressive in the heat. My skirt is no doubt cooler, though, than the dress pants Hani and my boyfriend, Douglas, are wearing.
As a woman in Jordan, I am automatically relegated to any car’s back seat. But the fact that Hani’s wife Abra [the names of Hani’s family members have been changed in this essay] sits here with me on the way to Baqa’a tempers my visceral reaction against the sexist allocation of car seats. After knowing Abra for just ten days, I’ve learned that she makes her own decisions, like choosing not to wear a headscarf over her shoulder-length, auburn-highlighted black hair. I also know that Hani chose to marry Abra because, in his words, he “wanted to be with an equal.” This statement made me immediately like Hani, whose constantly dirty glasses and prematurely graying hair lend him an endearing seriousness. Hani’s belief in the equality of the sexes has been calming the vocal feminist in me since I arrived in Jordan, where I’m beginning to see the possibilities for self-expression created by gender differences, instead of just the restrictions.
This doesn’t change my sweltering in the shared body heat of the back seat, though. Abra sits on my left, holding her one-and-a-half-year-old son, Nabil. Jane, Abra’s nanny from the Philippines, presses against my right side, the diaper bag in her lap. As we descend from the Jordanian capital, Amman—where Hani and Abra live—toward the Baqa’a camp, the stifling wind blowing through the open windows becomes too much for Abra. She insists that Hani turn on the air conditioning, which he had kept off to save gas, and he rolls up the windows just as we leave the highway and enter the refugee camp. The glass panes accentuate the differences between our eclectic posse in the car—three Palestinian Jordanians, two white North Americans, and a Filipina—and the people on the street.
Inside the camp stand rows of uninterrupted, sand-colored buildings. Kids in flip-flops and shorts play soccer in the street and wave at us. Men peer into the car windows. Women avert their eyes. I stare at all of them.
From an altitude of fifty miles, the Baqa’a refugee camp is recognizable on Google Earth as a gray, angular realm of concrete northwest of Amman, Jordan. The camp, as its residents call it, sits in a broad valley in the mountains of Biblical Gilead. To its south, the Amman suburbs bleed down from a high plateau. From twenty thousand feet, the camp’s straight edges, grid streets, and tin roofs grow more defined against the surrounding villages, olive groves, and open fields. By five thousand feet, the camp nearly fills the computer screen and becomes a world.
The camp’s artificial geography results from its sudden creation in 1968, when the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) resettled twenty-six thousand Palestinians displaced by the 1967 Arab Israeli war into tents at Baqa’a. The camp is now the largest in the Middle East outside of Gaza. More than one hundred thousand people pack into 14.1 square kilometers, and each family lives on an area of 96 square meters.
Among these thousands are my friend Hani’s mother, three of his four brothers, three of his four sisters, and tens of in-laws, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Though all of Hani’s siblings are older than twenty, six of them live at home with his mother. Hani, thirty-five, considers himself fortunate to be able to afford an apartment in cosmopolitan Amman.
In a country where institutionalized discrimination against Palestinians is common, Hani’s escape from Baqa’a is extraordinary. He scored the highest of all Jordanian men on the country’s general secondary exams, earning him a Fulbright Fellowship for graduate study in the United States, where he and I fast became friends.
During our two years together in graduate school, Hani often acted as both ambassador and host. He cooked feasts of homemade hummus and dish after dish of difficult-to-pronounce main courses while speaking with soft-spoken humility about his people’s horrific recent history. After dinner, as I sat beneath a map of Palestine that dominated one wall of Hani’s apartment and sipped sugary black tea boiled with mint, he would make thin pancakes called katayef and stuff them with cheese and pistachios. After dessert, regardless of how long we smoked fruit-flavored tobacco from Hani’s Jordanian water pipe, or sheesha, he would always ask why I had to go so soon.
Six years later, after Hani returned to Jordan to teach, he and I reunited to feast again. This time, though, Hani ordered the food at an Amman restaurant called Farujnah (“Our Chicken”), where we went directly after Hani and Abra picked up me and my girlfriend Alisha at Queen Alia International Airport. Over fried chicken, lamb kabobs, and a table full of mezze, we discussed destinations for our three-week visit.
As Alisha and I had hoped, Hani’s mother invited us to her home in Baqa’a for lunch after Friday prayers. I knew that a visit to the camp could only provide a momentary, fixed glimpse of life there, something like a satellite view from fifty miles above the earth. Nonetheless, such a firsthand view—like the immediate detail of Google Earth—might allow us to imagine daily life in the camp.
It would be difficult to drive through Baqa’a at over ten miles per hour without hitting something or someone. The streets are barely wide enough for two cars to squeeze through side by side. Add parked cars, pedestrians (there are few sidewalks), and children playing in the streets, and driving at a crawl becomes a necessity.
The rows of concrete houses in Baqa’a appear as if they’ve grown in fits and spurts. Hani explains that there were gardens next to many homes when he was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. These were destroyed, though, as people enlarged their prefab shelters or built new concrete-block houses to accommodate their growing extended families. As many as four generations now live in most houses. In Hani’s mother’s home, there are three.
When we arrive at Hani’s mother’s house, we are greeted by his youngest brother, Farid, and his twenty something cousin, Dawud, on the steps of her front door, which opens onto the unpaved street. They both wear T-shirts and jeans and are clean-shaven, with wavy, close-cropped black hair like Hani’s.
Hani, dwarfed by both men, approaches first and shakes their hands. Abra follows up the uneven steps in four-inch black heels, holding the baby. As Alisha meets Farid and Dawud, each of them says hello and slightly nods. Hani told us before we arrived that the men would not greet Alisha with a handshake, a culturally inappropriate breach of the barrier between the sexes. He didn’t want her to embarrass herself by unknowingly extending her right hand, only to be met with stares.
After I shake hands with Farid and Dawud, they immediately lead me to a couch in the sitting room adjacent to the house’s entryway, which is scattered with shoes. Then Hani’s mother, Khulud, walks in, and Hani introduces her as “living history.”