“We also have a woman chauffer” the manager explains proudly, “so you
won’t be obliged to move around with a man”. I laugh, because it seems
a silly point to make. And “No problem with a chauffeur (male)”, I say.
We want to go to Jerash, it’s a free day after Adnan’s wedding. I don’t
call Shadi, the party ended very late, they will still be sleeping. “We
can manage with a taxi”, I say, “but I’ll ask the concierge”. They
direct us to the Hertz office in the hotel lobby. A little bargaining,
80 dinars for Jerash and Ajlun (“it’s a castle near there “ they
explain ”it’s worth it”).
And so is Rana, her chief’s pride. She turns up smiling. Blond hair
tied back (a hint of white regrowth), black trousers, t-shirt and flat
shoes. Very well-groomed, but light make-up, compared to local habits.
She is quite a few years older than what her young looks indicate, I
think. “Where are you from?” ritual question. And so she tells
the story of an Italian friend of hers. “Carlo doesn’t walk” she says.
Maybe sixty-five years old. She accompanied him to Wadi Rum, a desert
of red sands, “vast, echoing and God-like”, as Lawrence of Arabia
described it. “When I saw him on the wheelchair I started” she tells
us:”how would he be able to move in the desert?”. But when they reached
the red sands he left his wheelchair and wasn’t ashamed of dragging
himself on elbows and knees in front of the other turists. “And he kept
on asking me to take pictures!” Rana laughs. “Because he wanted to
prove to his wife that he had even managed to ride a camel!” “So I felt
like dying” she says, when she found the camera in her car, after she’d
taken him to the airport. “But I managed to send him everything” she
laughs again. And they became friends from that time. Then she receives
a call, she calls back, she has a gentle, conciliating tone of voice.
“It’s my youngest son, thirteen years old” she explains ”he would like
to stay with me. Because his brothers are going away and he doesn’t
want to stay alone” ”And why doesn’t he come?” “Because I’m working” is
the foregone answer. “Oh, come on!” I object. “Really?” Rana makes sure
quite a few times “In that case I’ll call him and we’ll pick him up!”
An older boy opens the door. Sixteen years old, like his twin sister.
They are leaving for a mini-tourneè just outside Amman, with a
theatrical company. He proudly shows us the photographs of the show on
a local newspaper. Then he says goodbye. And Mohamed appears. Delicate
features, light crew-cut hair. “He looks like a European child” I
think. He introduces himself with a “grown-up” greeting, shaking hands.
He can speak a little English. But he seems to be more interested in
understanding, in catching every sensation, every feeling. He sits
behind his mother, too thoughtful and attentive for his 13 years.
Rana points out the University of Jordan. “It’s very good” she says “a
lot of foreigners come, too, and not only for Arabic courses” she
satisfies my curiosity ” many courses are held in English”. I recognize
the road to Jerash. I was here four years ago with Rami. The northern
outskirts of the city, a less well-to-do area. I can’t remember the
name in Arabic: “It means tent” Rana explains. Because this is where
the Palestinian refugees came. And for a long time there were tents
here, not even these simple houses. “And doesn’t it look like Siria
here?” she says. “Everything is so old, so static, just like in Siria!”
she repeats ”there is none of the modernity, of the growth
of the centre of Amman”. But, coming from China, the comparison is
pitiless (for me). Everything in Amman also seems to be motionless,
like four years ago. There are none of the districts that have been
done over, reborn, built from nothing, like in Shangai. No new subway
lines, crowded at all times. Men who talk dispiritedly. And even the
traffic seems less alive here. Rana asks about my job, my constant
travelling. “And which is the city you like most in the world?” she
asks. But what she wants to talk about is something else. “It is so
important not to close one’s self off” she says” to see how others
live, how they think”. “I told my daughter that before getting married
she must travel, understand, and then make the right choice. I told her
not to marry an Arab man, because the day you get married to an Arab
man you die”. She’s odd, Rana. I don’t dare ask her about her own Arab
man. “Well, it’s unlikely she’s divorced” says Chiara ”they wouldn’t
have let her keep the children”.
But it’s obvious that she’s alone: the very close relationship with her
son (sometimes he seems an attentive elder brother), no ring on her
finger (but maybe here they don’t use them). And then this
unusual job. “Maybe she’s a widow”, Chiara comments, “or maybe her
husband works abroad”.
The sky is perfect in Jerash. Rana and Mohamed stop at the restaurant
at the entrance, “You’ll find us here when you’ve finished”. The arc of
triumph at the entrance is imposing, a reminder of Hadrian’s visit.
Then the suggestive oval square, an unusual shape to make the axis of
Zeus’ temple converge with the cardo maximus. But what interests most,
these days, is the overlapping of temples, churches, mosques. While the
Jordan times writes “Pope voices regret over Muslim anger?”. A green
valley, towards the castle of Ajlun. Built in the XII century by one of
the nephews of the Saladin. “It’s a popular place for local people”
says Rana “in summer the temperature is pleasant, a few degrees less
than in Aman. And then you can find delicious fruit and vegetables”. We
stop on the way back, in one of the coloured markets. Mohamed
remonstrates in Arabic, he does’t want to. “ He is jealous” Rana says,
“here in the market men look at you, they point at you”. “Crazy people”
Mohamed says briefly. A policeman smiles, he indicates that yes, she
can park. “All the police know me” Rana laughs “because I’m the first
woman chauffer”. We have fun, in the din of the market. Unusual fruit,
extremely tasty. She explains a few local recipes to me. She buys an
enormous bag of some herb, it looks like mint. “You can’t find it again
until next season” she says “I put it in the freezer, it’s perfect for
rice with chicken”.
She feels like telling us agout herself. “I’ve been doing this job for
two years” she says “I used to work as a nurse for the princess, king
Hussein’s first wife. It’s amusing and beautiful, at the royal palace.
But the salary is what it is”. Every two weeks for one year she
presented herself to take the test. “And they refused to even test me”
she still gets angry “ And do you know why?”. “Because -you’re a
woman!- it seemed to be a sufficient explanation for everyone”. “Then
nobody wanted to give me a car to drive” she adds.” I would have liked
to drive one of those yellow taxis. It looked like a dead end. Then a
friend suggested I try the international companies, rent a car. I
thought I would get the same answer -No, you’re a woman-. But instead
they said ok, let’s try”.
I translate for Chiara, who doesn’t understand English much. And now
the Hertz manager says “ If we had another woman like you we could fire
all the others” Rana laughs “because I work much more than they do, I
never complain, sometimes I get home exhausted, but I’m always ready to
start again, I want to be unassailable”. And many people now call her
directly, without the intermediate step of the office. “So my male
collegues don’t talk to me, they are not just jealous, they are dying
of envy”. She says this as though she’d got her own back. And gossip,
slander, and isolation are the price to pay. “And to my parents I said:
if I don’t go to work, will you keep us, with the children? No!- they
answered. And so what should I do? They would like me to leave the
children to their father and to marry again. But I wouldn’t leave my
children even for five minutes. And I have no intention whatever of
I ask her about her sisters. Two, I think. And a brother. “And they
don’t speak to me either” she says. “Their husbands prevent them from
talking to me. Although I am convinced that they, my sisters, are
jealous of my freedom, in the end.” Even the cousins are not allowed to
meet her daughter. “They are afraid she might infect them with
her ideas, with her way of seeing things. They say I am raising her
like a whore, just like me. But all I told her was that yes, she could
go out and have a coffee, she could talk to a boy, but to only do what
she felt was right, openly. Because if you are ashamed, it means that
in the end you know that a thing is not right.” Mohamed watches her,
with absolute attention, occasionally he asks for explanations. Then he
wants to talk about his homework, he forgets about his role as “tutor”
and becomes a 13 year old boy once more.
“But they let you keep the children?” I now dare to ask. “It wasn’t
easy” she says “ because here the children go to the father when there
is a divorce. And here it’s the man who divorces. And it was me who
asked for a divorce”.
She says this with pride, to lay claim once more to her strength, to
her courage. “The father is rich, very rich. But they don’t get
anything from him. They signed a declaration to that effect” she smiles
proudly, stroking Mohamed.” They gave up villa and swimming pool. And
if he does not pay for their upkeep, he can’t take them away from me”.
Then she has a moment of despondency. “All this would just be normal,
in you land” she says “ while here you have to be dreadfully strong.
But I even ended up on the papers” she laughs. “ And my children are
grown up now” she adds, looking at Mohamed “and next summer I would
like to send them abroad for a couple of weeks. As guests of people I
have met and became friends with. So that they might have a different
vision, might understand that there is no explanation for a thousand
impositions, so that they might understand that thousands of
prohibitions we have created ourselves”. And “I am muslim, you know”
she adds, almost absentmindedly. “You know”, I say smiling, “I think
that we also, maybe most of all, in the west, need stories like yours.
Because you can be afraid of those who want a frontal encounter, wall
against wall. Those who -as you told me- arrive at the airport scared,
afraid that every Arab person hides a terrorist. But –maybe- you can
fear more those who don’t want to see. Those who, armed with hypocrisy,
or maybe even with good will, candour, I don’t know…don’t want to see
that some values we must challenge….and that it isn’t intolerance….but
extreme love of tolerance… to say that what is intolerable for us
cannot be tolerable elsewhere”. “Yes” she laughs” you must know that
there is nothing against Islam, nothing racist in shouting out how
difficult it is to be a woman chauffeur, in 2006, in moderate Amman”.