Back in May I got the chance to spend a month in the Arabic nation of Jordan. When not sightseeing, the group I travelled there with lived in a small apartment in the West Side of Amman, the capitol city. To get anywhere in the city meant hailing a taxi and somehow communicating where we wanted to go. If we were lucky, the taxi driver would have spoken a bit of English, if not, we had to rely on our group’s meager grasp of Arabic. One conversation with a taxi driver in particular illustrated the difficulty of getting around without knowing what you were saying to the poor driver. We had been told that if we wanted to get back to the street where our apartment was located, we were to tell the taxi driver to take us to “mujamma mahatta lil-basat” which apparently meant something to the effect of “the bus station in mahatta district.” We however, forgot about the “lil-basat” part, which confused the driver.
Me: “Mujamma Mahatta?”
Taxi Driver: *blank stare* “Mujamma mahatta….?” (You want to go to a bus station?”)
Taxi Driver (in Arabic): (“Which bus station?”)
Taxi Driver: (“You want me to take you to a bus station, but I need to know which bus station you want to go to.”)
About here, one of my friends realize that “lil basat” hadn’t gotten into the conversation and began saying something that sounded like “little basalt” to the taxi driver. Now realizing my mistake, I looked at the poor taxi driver and said as clearly as I could. “mujamma mahatta lil basat?”
The poor man smiled as though someone had just shone light into a dark prison cell he happened to be sitting in, and cheerfully drove us straight where we wanted to go. I tipped him extra. Later in our journey, after making sure we memorized the whole phrase which would get us home, we hopped into a taxi at the end of a long day and asked the driver to take us home. The driver cheered up considerably when we realized we were American. Contrary to popular belief, most Jordanians like Americans just fine, regardless of what they think of us politically. In fact, this particular driver, though he spoke no English, apparently though Americans like us held the keys to all coolness, and he was going to prove that he was worthy of them.
He started this unexplained trial by American fire by roaring off the curb as fast as he could to make the tires squeal, followed by his best imitation of how people drive in Hollywood car chases. We of course, had no idea of what was going on, and simply held on for dear life as the taxi weaved between buses and other cars (the terror exacerbated by the fact that there are no lines on the roads in Amman, and thus, chaos holds court on the streets). About 3 minutes into the drive, the taxi driver realized something else he could do to be cool. He rolled the windows down, turned on the English language music station on his radio (which he’d installed bass woofers into) and cranked it as loud as he could.
I should probably take this moment to explain that as we were driving crazily around Amman, windows down, blaring Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R” at extremely high volumes, it was Jordanian independence day. Imagine the reverse situation: an American taxi driver in D.C. on the Fourth of July is driving at unsafe speeds blaring Arabic music out the windows and turning around every few seconds to see if the uncomfortable Arabs in the back seat think he’s being cool.
And that is the story of how I lost 4 years of my life to a young Arab man who wanted nothing more than for me to approve of him.