I distinctly remember the moment before the first punch. He was looking down on me, his fist clenched, his eyes angry and clouded, his arm pulled back for momentum. I screamed, eyes wide in disbelief. I don’t remember if I braced for it or not. I don’t think it would have mattered.
The moment of impact is black. The moment after flooded with emotion—anger, confusion, acceptance, detachment, strength—all in one rush of adrenaline. The rest of the punches all blend together; after one, ten more aren’t all that unique. I don’t remember pain or blood or the feeling of my face breaking in three separate places. The touching, the grabbing, the clawing, the choking, the screaming: clouded and surreal.
What’s vivid was my reaction. It’s the first time I have ever proven to myself that I wanted to live, that I valued my existence. It’s the first time I have actively recognized my rights, the complex role of being a woman, and the sacred ownership of my body. I took it all for granted before that day. I’ve thought about it every day since.
I went abroad to change my views. On the sixteenth day of my year-long life in Amman, Jordan, my perspective of myself, of social roles, of the world changed forever.
American women abroad – especially in the Middle East – all seem to find themselves trapped by the same stereotype: easy, promiscuous, inviting, and naïve. Nearly everywhere I went in Jordan, in Syria, in Egypt, and even in Qatar the stares, the shouts, the touches all confirmed my unwavering place in society: an object first, and a person second. It became clear to me that being a white, blonde woman in the Middle East seemed to mean two overarching things: free sex and the possibility of a green card.
For most foreign women I knew, it was something that slowly sunk in. The first weeks were too overwhelmingly exotic for much of the cultural and social norms to appear. Then began a gradual but gnawing process realizing that with every blatant stare, every rude comment, provoking grab, or lack of acknowledgement, we were different. This wasn’t America, and we were nowhere near equal. What’s more: the majority of the population seemed to accept, and even expect, it be this way.
However, my initiation was sudden. It was fast. It was painful. And there was nothing subtle about it. In the second week of my life abroad, I was abducted by a taxi driver on my way home from the grocery store. It was broad daylight, in the western, trendy Abdoun neighborhood of Amman. But that didn’t matter. I didn’t know much Arabic and I was obviously foreign. I smiled too much, I laughed too loud, I talked and made eye contact. I realized I wasn’t headed home when it was much too late.
We ended up on a dirt road on the outskirts of Amman, no houses or people in sight. In one swift motion the cab doors locked shut, the driver hurdled over the front seat to pin me down in back, and my clothes were ripped and torn. I managed one call on my cell phone before he threw it to the front seat, and we were alone. I screamed, he punched. I kicked, he choked. I bit, he hit.
It probably lasted all of ten minutes; I blank on most of it. I just remember an intense will to live, coupled with an outrage and disgust at the injustice of being so objectified. Ultimately, I remember the look of astonishment in his eyes when he realized I would not submit.
Lost in translation between the Paris Hilton images and the Britney Spears music videos, my personal empowerment, my individuality, my self-reliance had never been part of his consideration. I was not the easy American woman, the promiscuous American woman, the inviting American woman; I was the enabled, proud, and independent American woman.
Thanks to him, I am also now a much less naïve American woman.
He stopped and I jumped from the cab. I grabbed my groceries. I demanded my phone. He offered to give me a ride home, and I almost laughed between sobs. I looked him straight in the eye as he slammed his door and barreled away.
Three young Jordanian men happened to drive by soon after, finding me bloody, in shock, and crying in the middle of the road. Without realizing it, they offered me the first in a series of second looks at a culture I almost dismissed. They called the police, bought me water and ice, stayed with me for an hour to wait for help. In broken English, they managed to string together one sentence: “No worry, it will be okay.”
The next two weeks were spent between hospitals, police stations, and Arabic classes. I was contacted by the American Embassy, the UN, the royal family. Everywhere I went, with my battered face and my known story, it seemed someone wanted to apologize, to excuse, to sympathize.
An old Bedouin man found me soon after the attack. He took one look at me, shook his head, and said sadly, “There are good men, and there are bad. In the whole world. This man, he was bad. But we, we are not all bad. You understand?”
A woman, her face covered and her head down, came up to my translator as I waited at the police station for a medical exam. She said something in Arabic. My translator turned to me and said flatly, “She wants to know if your husband is beating you too.”
Everyone stared, and it was a much different stare than I received before or after my face was healed. The women stared with understanding and pity, the men stared with a mix of shame and anger. I realized that I was in no way the only person struggling in my story. While my pain may have been more recent, my situation more extreme, I was only a piece of a continuous, daily strain on society—man or woman, American or Arab.
Going back to America never really crossed my mind; in fact, three days after the attack, I petitioned my home school to let me stay abroad the full year, instead of the one semester I had planned. I wanted to make sure that awful cab ride was the beginning of my time in Jordan, and not its definition. I consider that one of the best decisions I have ever made. The resulting year was one I’ll reflect upon indefinitely.
Still, throughout the year, my feelings about being a woman—an American woman—only became more distressing. The catcalls, the grabs, the assumed inferiority never stopped. I learned to keep my eyes down, to smile less, to speak to men only in Arabic and only when addressed.
In taxis, I used the same story every time: I was Lebanese and I had moved to Amman with my new Jordanian husband. As best as I could with my blonde hair and white skin, I assimilated.
It wasn’t until about six months in that I began to realize that my stereotypes, my assumptions of the average Jordanian woman were just as misplaced as my attacker’s thoughts of me. It took time, but I allowed myself to take another look. What I found were some of the strongest women I have ever met, women who had realized their rights and empowerment in a society where it was not an easy find. From filmmakers fighting harassment to journalists reporting honor killings; health care professionals teaching sexual education and female college students aspiring to study law in America, Jordanian women also proved that social norms and stereotypes are different than definitions.
That’s not to say I necessarily felt more empowered myself; coming back to America was a giant and much needed breath of fresh air. But I realized that I was not at all fighting the feminine fight alone. In fact, most of the time Jordanian women were fighting much harder than me.
Coming home, I was suddenly surrounded by things that had been taboo—short skirts, tank tops, male friends, individuality, and an expectation to be an independent woman with a job, a voice, and my own life plan. I felt like I was handed every social freedom for which those women in Jordan fought every day, but for the first time in my life I could fully appreciate them all.
They never found that cab driver, despite the hours I spent looking at lineups, mug shots, and impounded taxis. With over 10,000 registered taxi drivers in Amman, and probably thousands of others unregistered, it’s not surprising he disappeared.
I spent a lot of time being angry about what happened. Part of me still is, but a much larger part of me has tried to transform the experience into something meaningful, if not positive. That incident forced me to open my eyes early in my time abroad, and I don’t think I would have gained as much insight otherwise. America may provide me independence, but Jordan granted me awareness.
I probably won’t ever live in Jordan again, but I would visit tomorrow if I could. Jordan managed to become part of my identity, and I think it always will be there. Once a place is home, it’s home.
A previous version of this piece was originally printed in Abroad View magazine.