The girls gravitate toward me, and one of them, Hani’s youngest sister Amal, speaks to me in perfect, confident English. Amal tells me that she had been asked to take the children out to create more space in the house for the “visitors.” I’m happy to have this whole entourage of girls to talk to, but as soon as we get back home, they all disappear into a room that I haven’t been in yet, leaving me to sit with the men on the mattresses.

Him

Wilted from our walk, we plop down where we ate lunch to drink more tea. Hassan and Ali are there flipping through the TV channels.

We quickly grow bored with the government-run channel’s endless images of Jordan’s archaeological treasure, Petra—the ornate tombs and temples of a two-thousand year-old Nabataean Arab city carved out of red sandstone cliffs. Farid complains about the tens of thousands of dollars being spent to promote Petra in the global election to determine seven new wonders of the world. VOTE4PETRA billboards and tents full of computers for free voting line Jordan’s roadsides. A beauty pageant that crowned a seventeen-year-old “Miss Petra” was even held to draw attention to the site’s candidacy.

Farid argues that the money spent on the Vote for Petra advertising campaign would have been better used to boost needed social services. Several men quietly agree, but the topic doesn’t spark a discussion. Instead, Ashlee Simpson grabs everyone’s attention.

The channel surfing has stopped on an English-language entertainment show chronicling Simpson’s career. Seen from Baqa’a, the actress-turned-singer’s ups and downs seem more laughable than ever to me, but she holds the men’s gazes.

Most households in Baqa’a, like most Jordanian homes, have a TV, and often receive up to three thousand channels via satellite from all over the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. This abundance of information from diverse locales helps explain the easy familiarity people in Baqa’a have with Americans and their celebrities. And as with American TV, the reality presented on Arab stations is not usually the one in which most Palestinians live—it’s more affluent and powerful. By extension, no one in Baqa’a talks to me as if I live like or am associated with Ashlee Simpson.

Her

While the men watch Ashlee Simpson, Amal pokes her head out of the adjoining room and asks if I’d like to join the women. I jump up, curious to know what’s taking place behind the door.

Inside the room sit fifteen women, teenage girls, and a boy, all of them talking and laughing. The room itself appears to be a bedroom. Mattresses have been placed on the floor along the walls, and one side of the room has a built-in closet from floor to ceiling. The closet holds clothes and more mattresses and heaps of blankets. It seems that everything gets pulled out only at night for sleeping.

One of the girls gives me the only chair in the room. I feel uncomfortable sitting above everyone, like a librarian about to read to children. The one fan in the room is turned toward me, and I try to protest that we all need it, but they insist.

I survey the people in the room, still not sure how everyone is related. Amal satisfies my curiosity.

“These two and I are Hani’s sisters. Those two are the wives of Hani’s brothers. Her husband”—she points—“is in the United Arab Emirates—and this one’s husband is…”

Before Amal finishes her sentence, I make a gesture to suggest ‘the one with the big belly,’ and everyone laughs in recognition.

An older woman with dyed red hair sits in the corner reciting the Koran. I ask if she made the food for lunch, since I had only just seen her. Amal nods and explains that she didn’t eat with us because she is fasting this Friday. I realize it was her hands that I’d seen passing through the curtain.

Three older teenage girls introduce themselves as Hani’s nieces. Several more girls and one young boy later, I’ve officially met everyone in the room. Then Amal, an English teacher, becomes the official interpreter as they ask me questions.

Someone points to the silver rings on my fingers. “Do you like silver more than gold?”

“Do you and your husband have children?”

Though Douglas and I aren’t married, only Hani and Abra know this. I go along with the question and just say, “No.”

“What do you do in America? How long are you here?”

“I’m an English teacher. We’re visiting for three weeks.”

Then the most common questions: “What do you think of Jordan? Before you got here, did you think that we all rode camels?”

I assure them that I’m enamored with Jordan and that I never expected to see them riding camels. Then the conversation shifts to Amal’s upcoming wedding. She is soon to be married to a social studies teacher in the school where she teaches. Though it is not an arranged marriage, as is customary in some Palestinian families, preparations for the wedding are still a family affair, involving a series of meetings between the parents to approve or disapprove of the marriage and the dowry. The bride-to-be is eager to show everyone the gold jewelry she’ll be wearing at her wedding. She passes around a red felted box of bracelets, earrings, necklaces, and rings for careful inspection. Giggles fill the room.

“Isn’t it more fun in here than out there with the men?” Amal asks me. “We prefer to sit in here with each other; it’s boring out there.”

I agree, feeling a sense of freedom in the separation. For the first time today, the conversation is not serious or merely a series of questions; it feels more like sharing.

Why don’t any of you wear your headscarves in this room?” I ask her.

“We never wear them in the home, but since your husband is here, we have to wear them in his presence, so we’d rather just stay in here.”

“What about in front of the men in the family?” Every so often one of the cousins or brothers had entered the room, but none of the women bothered to put a scarf on.

“They can see us without our scarves; they’re family.”

Just then, a young boy comes in and starts dancing with one of the girls. Someone suggests having a dance party—at least this is what I understand from Amal. The girls start putting on their headscarves, anticipating the walk past Douglas to the radio in the front room.

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