Note to reader: This is a very personal story. I’ve only started telling it in the past few years because of how painful it was. Before you read, this is what I want to say — Even in the worst circumstances, you are going to meet people who cherish and love you. As all of this (below) was happening, I found amazing friends. They were mostly misfits of society — Palestinians, Black immigrants, gay men, Iraqi refugees. I loved them and they loved me. But because I didn’t speak Arabic well enough, I couldn’t even really connect with them and gain the deep level of love, comfort, and reassurance that I needed to help me deal with the terrible time I was enduring. And because of that, even though I made friends, I felt deeply alone. I held on to the pain of my study abroad experience for many years and I couldn’t even touch anything Arabic-related. Every word, sound, and reference reminded me of those months of feeling so targeted and alone. If you’re reading this and you’re a Black or Asian woman who cannot pass as Arab, you will likely experience something similar, depending on the country you’re in. I don’t want you to walk away as defeated as I felt. And that is why I want you to read this now, and not after you come back from a study abroad program.
In February 2013, I hopped off a plane from Cairo, to what I thought was going to be the best experience of my academic life — a study abroad program in Amman, Jordan with Middlebury College. Finally, I’d be out a stuffy university classroom and living in the world. I was going to live with a family and drink up the culture every day. I was ready for Jordan. What I didn’t realize was that Jordan had its own plans for me.
When I arrived at my homestay, the entire family was seated in the living room. I only spoke Fusha, and not even that, so I smiled and smiled and smiled and then the father of the house, Abu Muhammad, asked me to come to the kitchen for tea. He spoke broken English, having lived in Chicago for a while as a worker in his brother’s shop. He was the only one in his family who spoke English, so no one behind the ajar kitchen door could understand us. As I dropped a spoonful of sugar into my small clear glass, the conversation took a left turn. He started to tell me about all the women he’d dated in the US. Mindful of my face, I just kept smiling and smiling — the universal symbol of, Please lawd, don’t get me mixed up in no family secrets. What was I supposed to do when the first conversation I have in a homestay is about a husband cheating on his wife? It was past midnight. I hadn’t even met my study abroad program director. I knew no one and I didn’t speak the language. I decided to smile more, stare into my tea, and act like I didn’t understand English either.
Then he said, “You know, the black women were the best.”
Was it the words or was it the sly look in his eye that got me? That look that says, I’m wondering about you without that blouse, without those pants, with the lights on, with you flat on your back, and me hovering over you, and hovering, and hovering, until.
I’m Black. Blackity black black. Blackity black black black. Black.
My homestay mother, Um Mohammad, knocked on my door and entered my bedroom. “Why do you keep closing your door? Is something wrong?” Everyone else in the house, including two other students from my program who lived there, kept their doors open. I must’ve seemed very anti-social to Um Mohammad because anytime I was at home, I went to my room and closed the door behind me immediately. The family lived in an apartment where the front door opened directly to a parlor. Most of the time, Abu Mohammad and the oldest son, Mohammad, were sitting there, watching TV, and smoking. On those days, (which was nearly all of them) when I arrived home and saw them there, I didn’t sit in the parlor and talk with her and her husband, her son and two daughters, or her grandson, Hamoode. Instead, I’d unlock the front door, say hello, pass through to my room, and shut the door.
When Um Mohammad entered my room that day, I could tell that she was slightly annoyed. Maybe she thought I was disrespecting the family or would give them a bad review to my study abroad program? To her question I responded, “Sorry… asthma… there’s too much smoke…*cough*”. I wasn’t lying. I did have asthma — a week-long stint in the hospital in 5-grade could prove that. But only a few months before back on campus in the US, I was smoking cigarettes on the back terraces of house parties. I had genuine concern for Hamoode and the second-hand smoke that he endured daily. But what I didn’t have the Arabic to say was, “Your husband and son are creeps, that’s why”
I stopped talking after my mimed cough. She looked concerned but said nothing more. She shut the door.
Everyone is asleep, so I can finally come out. I opened my bedroom door and took my yoga mat to the parlor for more space. I’m frocked — t-shirt, sweatpants — not an inch showing. But does it matter? Mohammad opens the front door. He must have been out late. I didn’t account for that. He shuts the door behind him and says, “You have a nice body.” My door is too far away.
Halfway through the program, a white man arrives from Middlebury College in the US to check in on the program. We all meet in an empty apartment, where cookies and tea are laid out on a kitchen table. I’m hungry, but don’t eat. I’m getting skinnier, but I only have one friend in my program, Ella, so I don’t know if anyone notices. I’ve only just met her, so I’m sure she doesn’t either.
We’re seated on couches and the white man stands in front of us. He asks lots of caring questions, How are things? How’s Jordan? The program? Then he asks, How’s the sexual harassment? The women in the program, all of whom are white except for me, one Thai-American girl, and an Indian-American girl who is my housemate, say different variations of, It’s here but manageable. Not so bad.
I say, It’s really bad for me. It’s really hard. Silence.
My Indian-American housemate breaks the silence, says, Well, some of us dress more conservatively that others.
I break. First inside. Then because of the silence. Because of the no one sticking up for me. Because I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt and a scarf over my non-existent cleavage just like the rest of the girls. Because the white man came all the way from America and has nothing to say to this. Because slut shaming. Because nigger. Because the white girls in the group are looking at me now and my afro and now are telling me that when they pull their hair back in a ponytail, the harassment is better. Fuck your ponytail. Because my housemate, what a bitch move. Because the silence. Because now the Thai girl is speaking up about the same thing happening to her, and I realize I’m not the only one being called a prostitute when I walk out on the streets. Has she been solicited for sex by taxi drivers too? Did the boys by the supermarket tell her that she was only worth 20 dinars? Did young men throw rocks at her? Did they surround and circle her and trap her in so she couldn’t leave? Was she afraid to go to class, or the shop, or the coffee shop, or anywhere if there wasn’t someone white with her? Did women and children point and laugh at her when she walked in the streets? Did she know the Chadian hair stylist who worked in my neighborhood and who I locked eyes with on the way to school? The one who didn’t speak much English, but who, in our first coffee chat, looked at the Jordanian patrons staring at us and said, “I hate white people.”
The conversation moves on to the next topic. The case is closed. Verdict: Guilty of being a Black slut in needs of ponytail.
The white man pulled me aside at the end of the meeting and said, “I’m sorry about your experience. A lot of Black women who have been in that program, have experienced the same thing.” He chose to validate my experience, the moment that most of my classmates had filed out of the apartment. Fucking punk, I thought.
My Indian-American housemate was gathering her things still. I pulled her aside in the stairwell outside the apartment door. I cried. I told her all the harassment I was enduring, and that she needed to understand. I wept and wanted to think the best of her — maybe she responded in that way because she didn’t understand? I wanted her to apologize, to notice my pain and me with it. But she was unmoved. She didn’t flinch. I don’t remember what she said, but her eyes were cold and her eyebrows arched, as if to question the validity of my experience. She did not apologize. She did not even touch my shoulder in false sympathy. The last thing I remember feeling before stepping slowly down the steps was the winter day’s light coming through a stairwell window. Even the light had no warmth.
I’m bald now, thanks to my Chadian hair stylist friend. I thought if I shaved all of my hair off, people would notice me less, because I’d look like a boy. In a way, this was turning out to be true. When I walked down the street, I didn’t catch people’s eyes so quickly. I ate lunch alone most days at a Yemeni restaurant near the university — I brought raw carrots and a boiled egg from home, and then ordered a simple meal of beans and rice. Most days, that was all I ate. Focus on what you can control, they say, right? So if I controlled what I ate, my body would disappear too.
I liked the Yemeni restaurant because they looked Black like me. I was never harassed or laughed at or come onto. Maybe they knew I needed that. Maybe they just wanted to make sure customers were happy. Bald, thinning, I took impromptu weeks off from school — hopped across the border to Palestine, found cheap flights to London. I’m not sure what I told my program, other than the fact that that I would just be gone.
A few weeks before the program is over I go into my program director’s office. I have to leave that house, I say. Why, she asks. I explain the harassment I’ve faced everyday for the past 5 months living in Jordan. I explain how uncomfortable I feel every time Mohammad and his father look at me. The program director says, But why didn’t you mention this before?
I tell her the honest truth: I didn’t know it was abnormal. If you’re a woman studying Arabic, one of the first things you learn about is that you will face sexual harassment. I had studied in Morocco and traveled in Egypt before coming to Jordan, so I thought this would be the same experiences. I thought I’d be fine. I thought I could handle it, like I’d handled everything before. At first when the harassment started in Jordan, it didn’t bother me so much. I took a fuck them attitude, and felt like, Oh they’re definitely the problem, not me. I held my head high for as long as I could. Until one day I was walking with my head down, bald, eating carrot sticks and beans, and thinking — If everyone’s treating me like this then maybe I’m the problem. I must be the problem. I don’t know when the shift happened, but it happened. I didn’t speak up before, but here I was now, and I needed help.
The program director says, You should have told us earlier. The harassment is normal. You just have to learn to deal with it like everyone else.
My saving grace is that one of best friends was studying in Irbid, Jordan at another program and finished her studies before my program ended. She was moving to Amman for the summer and was renting an apartment. I asked if I could sleep on her couch. She saw that I broken; she said yes.
My only regret is leaving Um Mohammad without giving a proper explanation. We’d become friends of sorts. She’s confided in me about her life, and how she felt abandoned raising her children alone while her husband spent years in the US. Um Mohammad never hurt me. But when I began packing the night before leaving, when I told her I’d be leaving, but did not tell her why — I could see that I had hurt her. The next afternoon my best friend came to pick me up. I rolled my two suitcases into the parlor. The last artifact I have in my memory of that home is seeing Um Mohammad’s forced smile as I walked out the door and pulled the suitcases toward me. Her cheeks rose toward her eyes, but she did not open her lips. Her eyes had questions, but because she did not speak them into existence, the questions landed on the far corners of her mouth, which she remembered to turn upward when then fell back down again. Our final encounter was something I’d never need my pocket dictionary to translate — a smile that spoke to me in the one language I’d come to understand.
Many people attend Middlebury College’s language programs because Middlebury has a language pledge, meaning that you can only speak Arabic throughout the program. No matter how well or how poorly you speak, no English is allowed. This was a useful requirement for me. One Jordanian university student I was friends with told me, You’re the most improved speaker in this program. Although you’ve seen on this blog that I don’t believe output is a useful strategy to acquire a language, it was a useful strategy to get me comfortable sounding like the hot mess that I was.
Still, because of the harassment, I began to hate Arabic once I left the program. I hated Jordan. I resented that I’d spent so many years and time learning a language of a people who hated me too. The desire to learn the language was still there, and I think that was largely due to the wonderful friends I was able to gain. Their presence reminded me that the world is full of gems and of shitheads. Yet, learning Arabic felt like pressing on an open wound. I didn’t know how I could continue.
I hit a very low depression when I returned to college the next year. I lost track of reality. I was deeply paranoid and anxious and angry. When I talked to professors about my experinence, they didn’t believe me. Friends empathized, but didn’t understand. My grades suffered. I just needed to graduate. I didn’t begin to think I could learn Arabic again until 2018 when I was still living in China. I made a Jordanian friend and decided to tell him everything. He listened until I finished and said, “I’m so sorry that happened. That sounds like what people would do in Jordan. That’s how we treat black people.” He was the first person to ever validate and affirm my experience. And in a lot of ways that healed me. But that was 5 whole years lost: 2013 – 2018.
What I wish for my 2013 self, is that I was armed with language. I wish I could have had the language to really speak back to the people who were harassing me, and also the language to express my pains to my friends and the language capabilities to spend more meaningful time with them and their families. I think I would have been able to handle it better, if I simply had a ability and chance to voice my feelings. Because of the language pledge, I couldn’t talk to anyone in my program about my experience, and because I didn’t speak Arabic, I couldn’t express my thoughts to any Jordanians.
I think of how now, I live in the South (of America) where many of my colleagues and neighbors are racist. It’s tough, but I can commiserate with my Black girlfriends here, let it all out, be affirmed, and get back to work.
The reason I don’t think study abroad is best first step for a language learner is: You really don’t know how people in a country are going to receive you. There will be good people, but you may not find them initially or at all due to language barriers. So focus on what you can control — the language barrier. Don’t go until you feel comfortable with that country, or until you feel ready to hold your own there no matter who tries you. You can create a study abroad environment, right from home. (I’ll cover that in another blog post.)
Start there and travel later. I don’t want you to waste the same 5 years I did.