Having just left the Ahliyyah School for Girls on the First Circle, beaming with pleasure at a lovely concert I had just attended (Thanks to the wonderful Dozan wa Awtar Singers), my friend Kariman and I embarked on what soon proved to be the most stressful drive in recent memory for the both of us. Apparently, we had not been warned that Rainbow street and all its side streets, were to be avoided at all costs on a Friday evening. To reach the Second Circle, which normally takes 3 minutes, took us exactly 1 hours and 30 minutes (from 9.20 pm until 10.50 pm. I can prove these numbers). Now having grown up in Beirut and still driving there quite often, I have to admit I’ve been through traffic like this, many many times, before. This was not the problem.
The problem started at the beginning of our journey, on Mango street, where Books@Cafe stands. Our windows were rolled down as three men approached the car from the driver’s side, where Kariman was seated. One of the guys started blabbing silliness like “I really like you. What would you say if I asked you to marry me? Will you marry me?” His friends started laughing and encouraging him. It was really awkward because there was nothing we could do. We were stuck in non-moving traffic and ignoring him seemed stupid because he was just standing there, really really close. So Kariman turned to him and said, “What is your problem?”, which in retrospect was not the best course of action. He just replied “Can I ride with you? Why won’t you let me ride with you?”, leaned over and opened her door. She immediately closed the door, yelled at him and rolled up the window. The guy and all his friends burst into laughter and walked away. Of course after that, we realized that the entire street was filled with people like this lovely gentleman, from other drivers who would stare at us and try to make conversation to kids prancing around and beating our car with their hands as they walk by.
Now to tell you that we felt threatened or frightened during this ordeal would be a lie. We weren’t. There were lots of people around, and all we needed to do was scream once and many will surely jump to our aid. But the discussion I had with my friend was truly eye-opening. It started off with talk of how sexually frustrated men are in this country and how this problem needs to be solved, but then Kariman noted that it wasn’t just that. She told me about a male friend of hers with blond wavy hair, who was walking past a construction site the other day and heard the following from one of the workers, “Shoo hal sha3rat el 7ilween? (What beautiful hair)”. Soon after, many stories started coming back to us, of other females commenting on our wardrobe or hair or manner of walking. And it dawned on us: As long as you are in a public space, people here feel that they have the right to voice their opinion of you, even if they don’t know you. Village style. And the easiest people to pick on are the more vulnerable: The woman, the foreigner, the homosexual, and of course, whoever seems “different”. So last night, in the First Circle in Amman, Kariman and I were sitting ducks to whatever crossed anyone’s mind when they looked at us, be it pent-up sexual frustration or just disgust at the way we were dressed or the fact that we were smoking. We were public property.
And this brings me to the social contract that I must have unwittingly signed by being part of this society. My parents always say that they prefer oriental societies to western ones because of the “human relations” that are non-existent in the latter. They believe that people in the Arab world take care of each other in a way that westerners don’t. But I think that comes with a price, which is to allow them access to yourself and your behaviour. It gives them the right to interfere with every decision you make (that they are aware of). I did not sign this social contract. I opt for a different one. What I want from society is to protect me from any wrongdoing by establishing and enforcing laws aimed at my protection, and in return, I agree to abide by these laws. Is there anything more simple than that?