What I Wish He Knew: A Response to Sexual Assault

When I left for Amman to study Arabic for the year, I was planning on writing some travel articles for the student newspapers back at home. An idea I had quite soon after arriving was to write about the endless adventure that is getting around the city: the funny chat-up lines used by the taxi drivers, the buses without brakes, the lifts from rich kids driving daddy’s car at ninety. It was going to be a funny article. I suppose it was going to be sugar-coated; I was going to laugh at the taxi drivers’ fumbled advances and ignore completely the difficult side.

But then one day it got scary. I was sexually assaulted in a taxi.

I discarded the article I’d been writing. It wasn’t funny anymore. Now, nearly two months later, I’m going back to it. I’m writing this post, but I’m writing from a perspective I hoped I would never have, and I’m writing with a voice that’s a little more cautious and a little more scared than I hoped it would ever become. Getting around Amman is no longer a game. It’s something I do every day in fear.

Before I write any more, I’ve been going back and forth on how much to share in this post. I initially tried writing without sharing any specific details of my experience but in some ways the absence of detail makes the incident grow bigger. As I read back through what I’d written it felt like I had something to hide, as though the assault is some horrendous dirty secret of which I should be ashamed and about which I should feel guilty. Having said this, there are some things that are too difficult to write down and so I’ve tried to explain myself here in a sort of compromise between the fear of feeling like it’s not acceptable to talk about my experience and the fear of people knowing too much:

One evening in Amman I was coming home from the gym. I got into a taxi and instead of taking me home the driver took me to a secluded and empty part of the city. It was dark and with the car lights off we couldn’t be seen. He kept me in the taxi for roughly two hours. During that time he sexually assaulted me. He did not rape me.

Why am I writing this? There are two reasons. The first is to allow me to take control and to take my voice back. The second is because while this may have happened to me in Amman, Jordan, part of the reason that it happened is the fault of my own culture’s messed up portrayal of women. What happened to me has happened to others and will happen to us again if we don’t change something. I know I can’t change the world with a blog post, but I also know that nothing ever happened when people stayed silent. This is me speaking out.

Speaking out feels good. The day I was assaulted I had my voice taken away. For two hours that man reduced me to a terrified little girl, shaking and begging “Please, no”. He stripped me of my pride and my dignity. I’m never going to be able to show the taxi driver that I’m more than what fear made me, but in writing this I am at least demonstrating that to myself. The taxi driver forced me to beg for freedoms which I should have demanded instead. Begging in desperation is probably the most helpless I’ve ever felt. There is no way for me to show the taxi driver that I am stronger than my desperate words but, again, writing at least allows me to feel that I have some control, that I am not helpless.

It might perhaps be more accurate to say that he distorted my voice than that he took it away. The act of begging itself is not the only thing that hurt – it’s the knowledge that as I begged I said things that I would never choose to say. In Jordan Christianity is generally very well respected and virginity is still considered something to be valued and protected. In a bid to be let go I lied to the driver and told him that I was a good Catholic girl with very strong morals and that I won’t ever be involved with a man before I’m married. It was once I’d finally convinced him of this that he let me go. In desperation I played to beliefs that I consider abhorrent and destructive: mainly the idea that a woman’s worth is inversely proportional to the number of her sexual partners. I wish I could tell that man how wrong he was. That letting me go in order to protect virginity is not a virtuous action. I want him to know that a woman’s worth has absolutely nothing to do with her religious values or with whom she chooses to have sex. I am glad I said what I said in so far as I believe that it is what ended my own nightmare, but I am also angry that I said it.

If it was playing to cultural values that ended my nightmare, it was also cultural values that started it. What happened to me did not happen in a vacuum. It didn’t happen because the taxi driver was driven by some sort of inner evil force. It happened because he knew that I was from the West and he thought that that told him all he needed to know about me. He thought it gave him a right to me. Why did he think this? From what he said to me, I would guess that his attitudes have mainly been formed from American and British films, music videos and porn.

I am not suggesting that this man does not have individual culpability. I am suggesting that the issue is bigger than him. This isn’t the story of what one man did to one girl in Amman. It’s the story of how millions of women are being betrayed by their culture, portrayed as nothing more than sex objects, and how this seemingly little issue that only “angry feminists” get all het up about actually has very serious consequences. The driver spoke no English – only Arabic. He made me translate lyrics from the Rihanna songs he was playing on the radio so that it was like I was saying them to him; he was acting out a little music video fantasy.

We often like to think that Western women are so liberated and equal compared to women in the rest of the world, but that is not the image of Western women that people across the world actually see because it is not the image of Western women that we actually present. As scared as I am of the man who assaulted me, his ideas scare me more. I was assaulted in Amman, Jordan, but part of the responsibility lies thousands of miles away in my home country.

When I first got into the taxi I didn’t realise anything was wrong. When we were still heading along the normal route to my home the driver asked if I was scared. He asked me if I was scared of him. I thought this was weird.

“No,” I answered.

Then he asked me if I trusted him.

“Yes,” I said.

“Why?” He asked.

I told him that I trusted him because “I know that most people are good in the end”.

Those were the naive words of a girl who never dreamed that someone might want to hurt her. “I know most people are good in the end.”

I want him to understand what he did to me. I want him to know that he replaced that carefree trusting happiness with a knot of fear and panic. I want him to know that everyday twice a day in the taxis to and from school I feel fear. I want him to know how angry I am that he had the power to take my security away like this. I want him to know that for weeks afterwards I couldn’t eat properly. I want him to know that sometimes I think I see his face and my stomach twists inside of me. I want him to understand that every day since then he has been in my head, and in that sense I feel like I still have one foot in his taxi. It’s as though the assault is etched on me as plainly as any physical scar I may bear.

But more than this I want him to know that I am so much more than whatever he can throw at me. The day after the assault I got straight back into another taxi on my own. It was terrifying but not as terrifying as the idea of letting fear take away my independence. I will not let him win. To him I must have appeared so weak; I wish he knew that I am stronger than he’ll ever be.

Reconciling the Christmas Story with the Real Jerusalem

A couple of days ago I went to my old school’s Christmas carol service. As usual the service included all the key readings from the Christmas story. They were the same as ever, but my relationship to them had changed. I don’t remember the first time I heard the Christmas story but I must have been very young. I must have been very young when I first heard of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but at that time they were places that only existed for me within the Christmas story. They were quasi-fictional cities where it was perpetually Christmas and angels bobbed about in the sky.

This October I visited those cities. Sitting in a carol service singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, it was difficult trying to reconcile the Christmassy Jerusalem and Bethlehem of my imagination with the reality. There are no angels bobbing around. Far from God seeming particularly close in these Biblical lands, it feels more like God and most of humankind have turned their backs on them entirely.

So when school-children all over the UK are, like I did, learning about the magical ancient Middle East with angels and wise men and miracles, I want to take this opportunity to tell three stories that took place in and around the real Jerusalem this October, two of which I witnessed for myself and one of which was related to me by a man I met in the Old City.

View of Jerusalem including the Dome of the Rock, October 2014
View of Jerusalem including the Dome of the Rock, October 2014

The Soldiers and the Women at Lion’s Gate:

For the week I was in Jerusalem I slept on a roof top in the Old City not far from the Dome of the Rock. On my second morning I woke up to hear a popping sound accompanied by angry voices chanting “Allahu akbar”. It later transpired that the popping was a mix of gunfire from Israeli soldiers (shot into the air as warnings, not at the protesters) and fireworks thrown by the protestors at the soldiers. For the rest of the week the entrance to Temple Mount was closed. Tensions were rising.

I decided to go to the Mount of the Olives since I could not get in to Temple Mount and so tried to leave the Old City via Lion’s Gate but found my way blocked by a small temporary barrier guarded by three Israeli soldiers. There were four women standing at the barrier. Three were middle aged and wearing Islamic dress. One was younger and wearing typically Western clothes.

The younger woman was saying to one of the soliders “I need to get through.”
“No, you can’t.”
He didn’t answer. She looked at him for a moment then tried to get through. The soldiers moved in closer. She couldn’t pass them.

“I need to get through.”
“Where are you from?” The soldier asked her.
“You can’t go through.”

Just then the soldier noticed my friend and me. We’re both white.

“Tourists?” He asked.
We nodded.
“Where are you from?”
“You can go through,” he said, without hesitation.

My jaw dropped. Obviously I knew that the Israeli army oppressed and persecuted the Palestinians, but I expected this persecution to be something they would try to hide. I did not expect to see it carried out so shamelessly.

The anger boiled inside me and my blood rushed to my head. For a second, little black spots clouded my vision.

The young Palestinian woman looked at me. I looked back. I don’t know what she was thinking.

“If they can’t go through,” I said to the soldier, “then we can’t go through.”

Soldiers at Lion's Gate where the women were barred from passing, October 2014
Soldiers at Lion’s Gate where the women were barred from passing, October 2014

The Man at the Checkpoint:

This story was related to me by a man I met at my hostel. He agreed for me to tell his story but asked that I do not give his name.

This man is Czech. His last name is Arabic but he speaks only Czech and some English. He was staying in Jerusalem but had gone to Ramallah in the West Bank for the day. On the bus on the way back to Jerusalem he had come to a checkpoint and Israeli soldiers had boarded the bus asking to see passports.

When the soldiers came to him they thought he was Arab and spoke to him in Arabic. When he did not understand them they grew suspicious and asked him, in English, to get off the bus to be checked more thoroughly.

The soldiers told him to go to an office and he set off in the direction he believed that office to be. After he had walked a few paces he heard angry shouting behind him.

He stopped immediately and turned round.

There was an Israeli soldier behind him. The soldier’s gun was pointing at his head.

“I’ve never been so scared in my whole life,” he told me.

It turned out he’d walked in the wrong direction.

When finally he was given the all clear and was allowed to go through the checkpoint he asked where the bus was.

“It’s already left,” they told him. All of his stuff was still on the bus.

The border crossing I passed between Jerusalem and Ramallah, October 2014
The border crossing I passed between Jerusalem and Ramallah, October 2014

The Woman on the Mount of the Olives:

I wanted to go to the Mount of the Olives in Jerusalem to watch the sunset. My friend and I reached the top of the hill just as it was getting dark. We saw a woman at the top who looked to be having some sort of breakdown. She was sobbing, wailing, clutching on to a railing with both hands, walking but almost collapsing as she did so.

We decided to go and see if we could help. Before we reached her, though, a car pulled up alongside her. Three men jumped out and began pulling her and forcing her towards the car. She cried out and fought against them but before long they overpowered her. They bundled her inside and drove off at high speed.

My friend and I memorised the car’s number plate and I called the police. The woman who was abducted was Muslim and the neighbourhood was majority Palestinian but we had to call the Israeli police as there are no Palestinian emergency services in Jerusalem.

The woman who responded to my emergency call spoke limited English. We weren’t getting anywhere so I said “I speak Arabic”, thinking that we might go faster this way.

“No. No Arabic.” She sounded almost offended that I’d suggested it.

I was stunned – perhaps naively. How can you have an emergency response team that speaks no Arabic in a city where roughly one third of the residents are Arabic speakers, the majority of whom do not speak Hebrew?

I didn’t believe this phonecall had helped anything so I spoke to some policemen on the street. At first they were keen to listen and to help. Their interest, however, died when they realised the woman was Palestinian and not a tourist as they had first thought.

By this point I had very little hope. If something awful was going to happen to that woman, it would probably have happened by now. Still, I wanted someone to listen to what we had seen and to take it seriously. I wanted someone to care about that woman.

As a last effort we went to the police station just outside of the Old City. To get into the police station you need to first explain why you are there to a security guard outside. The security guard, however, speaks no Arabic. Unless you are a Hebrew speaker, it is very difficult to report a crime. We waited half an hour before they found an Arabic speaker to translate into Hebrew for us. Eventually we were let into the police station. One policeman listened to us and took us seriously. The rest were unconcerned. Nothing was done. The security guard was laughing at us.

When I got back to my hostel in the Old City I told the man at the reception, a Palestinian, what had happened. I asked if there was anything else I could try, someone else who could help.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “The police are the police. It was a Palestinian area; they aren’t going to do anything.”

I left Jerusalem the next day. On my way to catch the bus I passed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified. The image of the woman crying so uncontrollably as she was forced into the car was still playing on my mind. The way that no one cared said something horrible about our ability to dehumanise one another so effectively that the suffering of others becomes unremarkable. I looked at the church as I passed and wondered whether we’ve come anywhere since we hung a man up to die on the cross, or if through the suffering of others that crucifixion continues.

Tombs on the Mount of the Olives, where the woman was taken. October 2014

In Damascus / في دمسق

Great translation!! (Not mine — reblogged this!)

The Edinburgh Arabic Initiative

Inspired by this hauntingly beautiful video by Waref Abu Quba, I’ve taken it upon myself to translate the full poem by the brilliant Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish.


In Damascus
The doves fly
Behind the silk fence
Two by two.

في دمشق :
تطير الحمامات
خلف سياج الحرير
اثنتين اثنتين

In Damascus
I see my entire language
On a grain of wheat, written by a woman’s needle
Revised by the Mesopotamian partridge.

في دمشق :
أرى لغتي كلها على حبة القمح مكتوبة
بإبرة أنثى
ينقحها حجلُ الرافدين

In Damascus
The names of Arabian horses have been embroidered in gold threads
Since the age of Jahiliyyah
Until judgement day or beyond.

في دمشق :
تطرز أسماء خيل العرب
من الجاهلية حتى القيامة أو بعدها
بخيوط الذهب

In Damascus
The sky walks on the ancient streets
Barefoot, barefoot
So what need does the poet have for inspiration, metre and rhyme?


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Reclaiming My Body: Dancing in Amman

I’m not a good dancer. At all. I generally find that I can either coordinate my legs or my arms but that coordinating all four limbs together is too much for me to handle. In spite of this, on a whim, I signed up for belly dancing (or “eastern dancing”/“al-raqs al-sharqy” in Arabic) in Amman, not really knowing much about what it entailed beyond wiggling your belly. I certainly didn’t realise that it would be such a powerful way to feel free from the harassment.

As it turned out, the first thing I learned was that your belly isn’t so crucial. It’s all about the shoulders and the hips. The second thing I learned was that it’s incredibly sexual, to the extent that, by comparison, most of the dancing you see in UK clubs looks practically Victorian in its level of prudishness. I left my dignity behind on the first day when, with somewhere around fifteen faces staring at me expectantly, I had to basically thrust the air and shimmy with my bum.

The sexuality of the dance defines the class, in a way. The class is all girls, mostly Jordanian nationals, and the class consists of little blushes and awkward giggles until one of us manages to pull off the move with an acceptable level of sass. For that second the girl basically becomes Beyonce and there is a little round of applause in acknowledgement of the sexiness of the moment.

The interesting thing is the context in which we dance like this. Who are we dancing for? Before the lesson starts we cover all the windows with material so that no man can see. At least half of the women in the class wear headscarves; once the windows are covered they can remove the scarves and we can all start dancing.

There is something peculiarly liberating about this – dancing in such a sexual way knowing that men are not allowed to watch. The liberation comes not from the fact that men can’t watch, but from the fact that we’re still dancing like this even though men can’t watch. We’re dancing sexily just for us, for ourselves. The issue of what a man might think is a million miles from our minds. It feels like a celebration of female sexuality for itself.

In Amman I live in an apartment above a family with three daughters. Sometimes they invite me over to dance with them in front of Arab Idol. When the girls’ father comes home they quickly rush over to him and pull him into the other room because he’s not supposed to see me dance. If a man unrelated to them came into the room, he would not be able to see any of us dance. Again, there’s a peculiar liberation in this because it begs the question: whom am I dancing for? And the answer is definitely not men.

I describe this as “peculiar”, though, because I believe that rules separating “male” and “female” in such a binary sense and implying that there is something potentially wrong with dancing together or in front of one another are not at all liberating for anyone of any gender. Had someone told me in advance that my dance lessons would be so hidden from men, I would probably have retorted that I would like to be able to dance in front of whomever I choose to dance in front of.

In some kind of paradox I’m finding liberation within a convention of gender roles and restrictions that ultimately I don’t agree with. I don’t entirely understand how it’s possible to feel so free and so confined all at once. I just know that, when I’ve had a tough day of street harassment, dancing with a group of girls knowing that men are not allowed to watch feels like I’m reclaiming the body and the sexuality that those harassers tried to claim for themselves.Featured image

Who says who’s free?

I arrived in Jordan with the firm belief that life would be less free here than it would be back in the UK. This belief was, in fact, so ingrained within me that I didn’t even realise I possessed it, let alone think to question it.

Indeed at first I saw nothing to prompt me to question it. Even before I moved to Jordan I began to feel incredibly claustrophobic. I’d been reading the guidebooks: don’t show skin, don’t wear your hair down, don’t smile at men, they told me. I went shopping for appropriate clothes and a year’s supply of hair ties: it didn’t feel like me and I felt restricted in a way I’d never really felt restricted before.

Once I arrived I felt trapped by the street harassment which prevented me, at first, from venturing out alone after dark; I felt trapped in the heat by the need to keep covered; I felt trapped by the lack of any real public transport which left me searching for taxis to get around; I felt trapped by the inappropriate questions aimed at me once I’d found a taxi (do I drink, have sex, have a boyfriend, want a husband). On the 15th September 2014 I wrote in my diary: “I want to write that I’m feeling exhilarated and full of the spirit of adventure, but actually I’m feeling very fragile, a bit on edge… It’s hard because I can’t do what I normally do when I feel like this: I can’t go for a run, or go for a walk by myself without hassle, or take a long, hot bath”. (Water very limited in Jordan.)

As I settled into life here, however, my perspective began to change, or at least become more complex. Is life less free in Jordan than in the UK? Or does my own life here only feel less free because of the specific freedoms that I have been conditioned to value most highly?

It was a conversation I had with a nineteen year old Jordanian girl that really prompted these thoughts.
“I’m hoping to go and study in Germany,” she told me. “But I’m worried it’ll be really strict there.”
“Oh no, it’s definitely much less strict than life here,” I reassured her. “It’s more like the UK.”
“But what about time?” She asked me.
“What about it?” I was confused.
“It matters so much in Europe. Every minute.”

She was thinking about freedom so differently from me. Time in Jordan matters, obviously, but she’s right that there isn’t the same obsession with it as in the UK, and she’s also right that an obsessive need to keep to time could well be considered a restriction of freedom.

“You can wear what you want in Germany and people are less strict about alcohol and clubs and all that kind of thing,” I said.
“Yes but there are so many rules,” she responded,  “like about where you can or can’t go, how fast you can drive, wearing a seat belt, health and safety…”
(FYI, Jordan has speed limits but they generally aren’t enforced.)

Again, she was right, and if she values freedom of movement and freedom from bureaucracy more highly than freedom of dress (which she’s perfectly within her rights to do), then I do not doubt that she would find life in the UK far less free than her life in Jordan. Moreover, I’m sure that she would not be the only Jordanian to think this way and my smug assumption that my own country had freedom mostly sussed began to fray at the edges.

On top of this, I became increasingly aware that some of the greatest restrictions on my own freedom in Amman are not evidence of a general lack of freedom among Jordanians or Jordanian women; they are specific restrictions faced by Western women, or women who look “typically” Western. Walking down the streets, minding my own business, I have been followed, touched, spat on, kissed at and proposed to. In taxis I have been treated as nothing more than a sex object. This is not freedom. At first I believed this was the experience of most women in Amman, but eventually I realised that this is (in general) the experience of women who don’t look typically Arab.

Who’s to blame for this restriction on my freedom? Obviously, each offending man must bear some responsibility, but in general they are acting in accordance with a stereotype of Western women promulgated by my own Western culture — by the music videos, the magazines and the porn films produced by the culture I was born into. When I’m sitting in the back of a taxi and the driver seems surprised that I’m not willing to have sex after chatting for five minutes, or when I’m walking home and a middle-aged man pulls over in his car and seems offended when I refuse to climb inside, I wonder why the hell they ever thought, indeed expected, that I would be so willing. Is it because my own culture never gave them any indication that I would or even could say no? So yes, I may feel significantly less free in Jordan, but how far is my own culture to blame?

This post is obviously not intended to offer any conclusive opinion about whether life in the UK or in Jordan is the most free. It’s just an illustration of how my views and values are being challenged and questioned. I arrived in Jordan with a sense that I was free in the UK and would not be free in Jordan and that that was an uncomplicated issue. Now I wonder why it is that I feel more free in the UK than in Jordan and whether the same culture that I consider to be free is really the driving force behind the harassment obstructing my freedom in daily life in Amman.