On my hitch-hike back to Amman from Bethany-beyond-Jordon I was picked up by a man driving a cross-breed 4×4 / Hummer. He was eager to ask about my impressions of Jordon. I gave it some thought and was about to speak when he told me that Syria was much poorer, much less Western, much more unforgiving. I was about to agree when he interrupted:
“You can do anything here! Here the scarf is a fashion. The girls want to wear it – it’s decoration. We have beautiful girls in Jordon.”
He gestured outside where a group of girls were wearing skirts that finished just above the knee.
His name was Yasir (‘wealth’ he said with a wink) and he had a lot to tell me about how much money he spends: $60,000 gambling one night in Las Vegas (but he’s a winner – he got it back the next trip), $1000 for one night’s hotel room in Lebanon, $2 million on his daughter’s birthday party (the king was invited). I took a lot of what he said with a pinch of salt but decided that yes I would join him for dinner that evening, if I could find a fellow traveler to fill the role of husband.
I don’t know this man’s background. I know that he owns a construction company which (if I’m to believe everything he said) is building half of Jordon. I don’t know his motives for taking us to (his words) ‘the most expensive restaurant in town’. And I don’t know if it really was. I think that he wanted to take us from the shambolic and messy ‘downtown’ to the clean white facades and palm-lined avenues of the new town. He was generous in the amounts of questions he asked and the mountains of food that he bought.
Yet his desire to be like a westerner and spend like a westerner dissolved into contradictions that confused me, a western woman, when he started to tell us what he was certain about: Infidelity is inevitable so to be allowed four wives is to make something that should be illegal, legal, and therefore to make it less of a bad thing. Al-Qaeda does not exist but instead is an Israeli conspiracy to take over the Middle East.
Sat in the most expensive restaurant in Jordon, listening to a man talk up his spheres of influence it was his denial of history that I found most chilling: “you know who I pray to? You won’t believe it! Sadam Hussein – he was a good man, a martyr.”
Depending on the year and the political administration of the US, the West has had various and contradictory dealings with Iraq and Sadam’s rule. It’s not difficult to see how a Jordan-ian might dismiss our reading of Middle Eastern history as defined by propaganda. When the West supports and deposes in just one generation, a country’s stance towards that man looks to depend on real-politik and hidden agendas rather than the atrocities that happened under his rule. It makes our stance towards atrocity too ambiguous,but it shouldn’t put into question the truth that orders were made and thousands killed. “He didn’t kill anyone” said Yasir, “he was just.”
Yesterday, in the hitchhike from the Israeli border I was reading a book given to me by a couple who are cycling from London to Israel. It’s a book by Devla Murphy called, ‘Through the Embers of Chaos’. It’s a brilliant book and worth buying today. She write this after listening to Serb children spread myths about the ‘evil Croats’:
“Truth being the first casualty of war is, I suppose, inevitable; but unless the truth is afterwards revived and exposed, propaganda continues to poison the atmosphere and endanger the peace.”
During that expensive dinner I nodded and smiles a lot. I wouldn’t have heard so much if I’d done anything else and to bother would have been a thankless and pointless task. But still it’s rubbish not to challenge when you know that someone is wrong, and dangerously wrong.
I was elated when I climbed into the truck that would end up taking me to Tel Aviv. I’d crossed the Eliat/Aquaba border anticipating hours of Israeli interrogation because of the Syrian stamp in my passport. Instead gorgeous army girls, bored with big guns, teased me for the size of my bag; asked me my grandfather’s name a couple of times then winking told me to enjoy Israel and the all-over body tan. I walked 200m in 49degrees heat before a very pregnant woman on her way to a Kibbutz picked me up. It was the first time since Germany that a woman has offered a lift.
Simon (pronounce Shee-mohn), the truckdriver, stopped just in time for me to finish the ice-cream that the woman had bought for me. I’d been aiming for Jerusalem but it was the hottest day of the summer and the prospect of getting stuck on the side of the road spelt sunstroke; so that when Simon put his thumbs up and said “Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv!” I smiled and gave him a nod.
At first the man seemed a little creepy but that could have been the language barrier and my assumptions about all truckers. Without a common language he didn’t have much room to maneuver out of my ‘trucker’ stereotype.
We had ten minutes of international hitch0hiker’s chat. I explained that I’d come from Jordon, that I was excited to be in Israel, that I’d traveled a long way and that England was doing pathetically in the World Cup.
When he heard I’d traveled from Jordon he made a face, then the outline of a woman with his hands, then pointed at his exaggerated wide open eyes and stuck out his tongue. “Muslims bad” he said. I laughed, shook my head and said, “men bad”. He shook his head angrily, “neh – Muslims, bad Muslims.” I thought, we’ll see, but I also relaxed into my chair. Whether he was a good guy or would just be a good guy today to prove his truths about Muslims, I was happy that today I might not have to say no to the point of exhaustion.
We drove, I pointed at the scenery, he smiled and I did feel at ease. He took me to a junk-yard, motioned that I’d be safer in the truck, showed me how to lock my door and then unloaded his truck and made his business. He came back with a can of coke and we were on the road again. As it approached six he asked whether I was hungry. I was a so we stopped and he bought me a feast before setting off, as the dusk settled, to Tel Aviv.
We turned off the motorway just as the sky was getting too dark to read. At this point in the journey I began to operate on two distinctive levels – trying to figure out which was best was confusing and unsettling. The first was exultant pride at my independence and excitement for my imminent arrival to Tel Aviv. The second was unease at my perceptions: that we should have taken a later turning off the motorway, that when I tried to communicate that fact to Simon he just smiled, motioned to his truck and then said “near, near.”
Damn my exultant pride. We turned through streets of empty lots filled with apparently empty trucks. All the while I was confused as to whether I should wait and see and trust or roll out of a very high truck door leaving my bag behind and me in the middle of nowhere. I’d made it clear by this point that I wanted him to turn around and that I was scared. He’d just nodded, kept driving and said, ‘near, near’.
We pulled into an empty lot and I stood up from my chair, pulled it forward, took my bag, opened the door and jumped down. I started to walk quickly away. he jumped down and followed me and so I ran. He caught me, put his massive arms around me and kissed my face. I struggled, shouted ‘no’ and ‘bad’ but we were in the middle of nowhere and so I thought about what might happen and cried.
He stopped kissing me and looked confused. He ushered me to get back into the truck; shook his head, said ‘ana’ (which means ‘I’) and ‘no’. I didn’t know what else I could do so I climbed in. I forced myself to keep on crying, now as a tactic as much as anything else. In twenty minutes I was on the motorway hailing a taxi into Tel Aviv.
I’ve been here two days enjoying walking around without needing to hold my head low to avoid people’s stares.
I was going to leave this story from my blog. Nothing awful actually took place and I don’t want to put people off hitch-hiking. For an adventure, in Europe, with a friend, I still think it’s the best way to travel. I was also going to leave it out because I like to rose-tint the stories I tell about my life. And because with men wanting women there’s the inevitable back thought of where does the blame really lie: a girl hitch-hiking alone in the Middle East, what else would you expect? I hope that I’ll continue to expect more, and to open the space that allows for more to happen. For now, however, do any of you know anyone needing to get from Italy to London? Any time after 11th July?…