Trying to be diplomatic yet honest, I say I don’t think that such a diverse group of people could unify to organize such attacks, and I don’t know why they would anyway.

Ali continues by insisting that Israeli and American Jews direct all American foreign policy.

“There’s no other explanation,” he says, pointing out that policies ostensibly meant to promote democracy often seek to destroy it, as in the case of Palestinian self-governance.

I agree that U.S. foreign policy is an incoherent set of double standards, especially in relation to Palestinians and the Middle East. I seek more neutral ground by emphasizing the connection between U.S. foreign policy and American corporations’ desires to grow their markets around the world.

This makes sense to Ali, and he nods repeatedly, but before he can ask me anything else, his wife brings us slices of watermelon.


After eating, Hani and his brothers lie down on their sides. Douglas and I remain sitting with our backs pressed against the peeling, whitewashed walls.

Judging from Hani’s brothers’ body language, I’m not meant to be a part of the conversation they’re having with Douglas about Palestinian politics. Though it’s unlike me to not want to discuss politics, I don’t care to be involved. If I were in the United States, I would interject my thoughts to ensure that a female voice is heard. But on this day, in this country, with this generous family who has welcomed us into their home, U.S. gender politics don’t seem to matter, and I decide not to try and prove anything—intelligence or equality. Instead I take pictures of Hani’s mother doing what grandmothers everywhere do: playing with her baby grandson.


Though it’s still uncomfortably hot at five in the afternoon, the voices of neighbors emerging from their houses cue Hani to rouse his youngest brother and cousin. They want to take Alisha and me on a walk through the camp.

As we leave the house, Hani—having overheard my conversation with Ali—tells me that Ali’s belief in a conspiracy between Jews and the U.S. government is very common among Palestinians in Jordan’s refugee camps. Walking the labyrinth of Baqa’a makes it easier to understand many refugees’ need for a theory that explains their plight.

Baqa’a isn’t the poorest place I’ve ever visited. Daily anxiety over obtaining food and shelter was much more apparent to me when I visited Guatemala and Peru, where it’s common to see people digging through trash cans in search of a meal. I don’t see food stress like this in Baqa’a, though I’m sure it exists. Here, the everyday consequences of poverty are more obvious in people’s lost potential.

This is what saddens Hani the most. The camp’s limited economic, educational, and transport opportunities—like those of American ghettos—inhibit most of its residents from fully utilizing their talents and pursuing their potential. Poor living conditions and the chronic health problems that also result often drain the inhabitants’ initiative and financial stability.

In an international effort to alleviate these problems, aid and volunteers steadily trickle into Baqa’a. As we walk the camp’s streets, Hani points out a bakery donated by Japan, a school paid for by China, and a forest on a nearby hillside planted with Scandinavian trees. We also pass the walled enclosure of the UNRWA camp services office, with a lone pine tree in its courtyard, and a sign memorializing West Germany’s donation of the camp’s first prefab shelters.

“All the world meets here,” Hani quips.

Given the influx of international aid to Baqa’a, it seems ironic that the sixty-year-old problem of Palestinian homelessness still persists. Though the younger generation at Baqa’a is now focused on getting ahead in Jordanian society, Hassan told me at lunch, the older generations still feel very much like they’re waiting to go back home.

When we pass a paved schoolyard, this contrast appears writ large in the camp. A dozen teenage boys wearing European football jerseys are playing soccer. One of the boys sees Alisha taking a picture and waves at us. In the cloudless sky above him, a kite painted with the black, white, and green bars and the red triangle of the Palestinian flag hovers like a bird waiting for its flock to migrate.


“I feel like Angelina Jolie,” I say sarcastically as we step into the street full of children. This has become an ongoing joke with Douglas and me when we travel, ever since Angelina started receiving international press for pursing her luscious lips next to disadvantaged children around the world.

I wonder if the children think we’re aid workers, volunteers, or journalists, here to promise something new. I’ve felt this awkwardness before while living in Kenya and in Guatemala. But worse for me than awkward is the power of TV to represent—and misrepresent—people’s lives. Without me ever saying a word, the children can imagine, or at least think they can imagine, my life back in the States because of Angelina or Ashlee. I, on the other hand, can’t imagine a single day in Baqa’a. TV dramas on life in a Palestinian refugee camp don’t exist. I doubt I’ll ever see “Survivor: Baqa’a,” with Western women forced to go shopping wearing black abayas in 100 degree heat and men playing shoeless street soccer. Americans don’t watch reality shows about reality.

Wandering through the camp, we pass barber shops and CD stores pulsing with Arabic pop. It’s Friday, the Muslim holy day, and many shops are closed, with dilapidated metal blinds rolled down over their windows. The paint on the buildings—if they’re painted at all—is mostly chipped or faded.

When we turn onto the street with the daily outdoor market, plastic bags and black banana peels blanket the pavement. Hani’s brother immediately apologizes for the mess, stating that trash doesn’t get collected on Fridays. He’s embarrassed, which makes me sad, the way I used to feel when my grandmother—who never had much money—gave me five dollars for Christmas every year.

The market itself is protected from the sun by blue tarps and strips of corrugated tin. Open stalls spill out into the streets. Men in Western-style clothes and in ankle-length dishdashas sell everything from bras to bootleg DVDs. Hani tells us that normally the market is so crowded that you can’t drive through it, but since it’s Friday most people are home with their families.

After walking for nearly an hour, a group of seven girls and one boy—ranging in age from five to twenty-something—approach us, laughing and holding shopping bags. Hani’s cousin, Dawud, who’s been walking with us, jokes with the new arrivals. Each girl wears a hijab but not the long abayas that Hani’s mother and sister-in-law wear. These young women look hip in their tight jeans and short-sleeve T-shirts worn over long-sleeved shirts, which assure that their arms are covered all the way to their wrists.

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