A Secret Jew in Jordan
When I was in college, I dreamed about working in the Middle East. I took Arabic courses in school, spent summers learning the language in Beirut and Cairo, and attended London’s School of Oriental and African Studies during my junior year abroad. Feeling idealistic about the region and my place in it, I joked that I would someday be the first Jewish U.S. ambassador to the sovereign state of Palestine. I thought two years in Peace Corps Jordan would mark the culmination of my studies.
Even though the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is more than 90 percent Sunni Muslim, the village where I served bore unusual signs of diversity: two mosques and two churches. There were no Jews, though—except for me. I had hardly mentioned Judaism in the village, and still stupendously weird conspiracies about a Jewish hand in world affairs popped up on a regular basis. I learned that Pepsi allegedly stood for ‘Pay Every Penny to Support Israel,’ and that Israeli intelligence officials were, for some reason, assumed to be involved in the death of Anna Nicole Smith. I ignored it or laughed it off; I didn’t want to stir up any trouble. When Israel came up, I found myself defending the Jewish state—but subtly enough so that I wasn’t pegged as Jewish. I cryptically referred to Israel in my Peace Corps blog and emails as ‘Indiana,’ in case anyone, even other Peace Corps volunteers, read them.
No matter how much I avoided the subject, though, Jewish affairs found their way into normal conversations. On a warm summer day about 10 months into my two-year term of service, I had lunch with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer and his Jordanian neighbor in a different village not far from Amman, the capital. It was a quiet Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, and our host wanted to chat—not about Israel or religion, thankfully, but about what I thought might be an innocuous, neutral subject: Charles Dickens.
‘Have you read The Pickwick Papers?’ asked the man, leaning on one of the mattresses that hugged each wall in the chairless guest room. He was in his early 50s, bearish and affable, wearing a traditional gray dish-disha robe.
‘No, I haven’t,’ I replied.
‘It’s very good,’ he said, going on to explain the plot, including his favorite scenes and dialogue. My friend and I were impressed.
‘You know,’ he continued, ‘Dickens hated the Jewish.’ (Many native Arabic speakers say ‘the Jewish’ instead of ‘the Jews.’)