Hani’s mother doesn’t know exactly how old she is, but it’s safe to say that she’s over sixty. She wears a translucent white headscarf tied loosely around her neck and a black, ankle-length abaya with red and orange embroidered designs on the sleeves and bodice. A widow, Khulud has been forced three times to flee her home: first to the West Bank from her now-destroyed native village near the Israeli town of Ramla; then east of the River Jordan; then finally to Baqa’a during the 1967 war. Despite all this, her face bears few wrinkles beneath its remarkable, ruddy glow. On her right hand, she wears a gold ring. Her fingernails are the color of opaque, yellow seashells. She holds her lower back as she stands in front of me.

I stand up and smile at Hani’s mother, repeating “Tasharrafna” (“You honor us”), which I’ve memorized specifically for this occasion. Hani had instructed me not to shake her hand. Then I offer her the plastic bottle of New Hampshire maple syrup that Alisha and I have brought, while Hani explains to her in Arabic what it is. She nods in recognition—syrup-drenched pastries are popular among Palestinians—and Hani translates her thanks.

Her

As we enter the house, I glimpse a few women in a back room, but they don’t come out to greet us. They look like Cinderellas in hiding. I don’t know if they are related, hired help, or friends, but before I can ask, Douglas and I are shuffled into a sitting area. One large, brownish floral couch, a loveseat, and a few chairs border the room; in the center sits a glass coffee table. On one wall hangs a red, fringed rug—the kind with a picture of Elvis or a Harley Davidson logo, usually found at flea markets or county fairs. This one, however, shows Jerusalem’s gold-domed Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock.

I sit down on the couch next to Douglas. Everyone else sits in the remaining chairs and on the loveseat. Hani’s mother leaves the room and returns shortly with two glasses of water on a tray for me and Douglas. No one else is offered anything to drink.

A ceiling fan blows dense air on us; one man keeps wiping his sweaty face with a handkerchief. I keep shuffling my skirt to move the air beneath it. My thighs are pressed together under the skirt, but I really want to hike up the garment above my knees. Various family members enter the room, introduce themselves, then exit; I can’t keep track of who’s who and how they are all related.

While listening to Arabic vowels and consonants pieced together in beautiful combinations like humdolallah and hamhamsi, I watch a steady stream of people walk up and down a flight of stairs in the entryway. Then I spot someone bringing a platter of rice down the stairs and realize there must be another apartment upstairs.

After half an hour of mostly Arabic conversation that Douglas and I don’t understand, one of Hani’s brothers announces, “Time to eat.”

I slowly approach the next room, not wanting to be the first to enter. The men and Abra sit on three black and gold patterned twin mattresses that form a U-shaped sitting area on the floor. In the middle of the floor between the mattresses, someone has stretched a thin piece of clear plastic on which to set the food.

Lunch appears from behind a sheet hanging in the doorway between the eating room and what must be another kitchen. This is where I saw the Cinderellas when we first arrived. Several hands—belonging to how many people I can’t tell—hold bowls of hummus, tomato-cucumber salad, pita, yogurt, and a stringy green sauce, waiting for Hani’s mother and sister-in-law to take them. This anonymous hand-off looks like a silent puppet show. I’m not sure if the person, or people, behind the curtain don’t want to be seen, or shouldn’t be.

“Alisha, start eating,” one of the brothers or cousins tells me, and I stop watching the hands.

Him

“Welcome to Jordan. You are very welcome,” Hani’s oldest brother Ali says as he heaps the choicest pieces of chicken on my plate.

Ali, sitting immediately to my right, is dressed more formally than the other men, in brown polyester pants and a button-down shirt. He’s also barefoot and speaks English more confidently.

In the middle of the floor sits a stainless steel platter, at least two feet in diameter, heaped with spiced rice, chicken, and almonds, called maqlouba (“upside down”).

We dig in with our right hands. Unaccustomed to dining cross-legged on the floor, I eat slowly to avoid getting food on my clothes. Whenever I stop for a moment, Hani’s brothers, now three, pile more food on my plate before I can refuse.

Ali seems eager to talk, as most Jordanians do. When I compliment him on his English, he tells me that he spoke English for years when he worked in Saudi Arabia for a multinational company. Like many Palestinians who grew up in Jordan, he sought better job opportunities and higher salaries in the Persian Gulf countries but never felt at home there.

Just as one of Hani’s other older brothers, Hassan, tries to scoop another spoonful of rice on my plate, I manage to say “Thanks, no more.” Seeing that Alisha and I are finished eating, Hani’s mother brings out sweet hot tea in glasses without handles.

We’ll be settling in long enough to get a sense of Palestinian politics as viewed from Baqa’a, I hope. I warm up to the most controversial issues by asking Hassan, a high school history teacher, whether he discusses the Palestinian diaspora in his classes.

“No. The textbooks hardly mention it,” Hassan answers.

“And what about current events in Palestine?”

Hassan says that talking about these is discouraged. Despite knowing that Jordan’s King Abdullah tries to keep a tight lid on Palestinian discontent, I am surprised that the country’s schools so overtly suppress discussion of Palestinian issues. Nearly one-third of Jordan’s six million people are Palestinian refugees.

Hassan and Ali seem willing to talk about anything, though, so I ask them what they think about Hamas and its governing of the Gaza Strip, where many of the camp’s inhabitants originated.

“Hamas is a good organization, but it should not be in politics,” Hassan says, and his brother agrees. They praise the party’s ability to provide needed social services but don’t think Hamas works positively for Palestinian statehood.

Then Ali says, “Mr. Douglas, I think you are very interested in politics. You have been asking us many questions. Can I ask you a question?”

I’m taken aback by Ali’s formal approach but consent, since I can’t imagine what he would ask that I wouldn’t want to answer.

“Do you think the Jews planned 9/11?” Ali asks.

After ten days in Jordan, this is the first time I feel uncomfortable about my Americanness. Not because Ali seems hostile toward me, but because I’m instantly aware of a vast cultural difference about what’s socially acceptable to think and say. And for all Ali knows of me, I could be Jewish.

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