Coming of Age, From Baghdad to Amman

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2004

My American hips weren't cooperating. Iyad, the hunky Jordanian taking pity on me, could see this. My Iraqi translator could see this. In fact, I was certain that everyone in the downtown Amman disco could see that I was a dancing disaster, as Iyad tried to guide me in rhythm to the pumping beat of Arabic pop filling the dark, smoky nightclub.

Everyone else was swaying in graceful circles, shoulders and waists swinging melodically like wind chimes in a gentle breeze. See, like this, my translator instructed, her body moving in a sensual blur of tight blue jeans and sleeveless black top. She placed my hands on her hips so I could feel the motion. No go. I was still somewhere between Michael Jackson and Doris Day.

My translator, Luma, whose last name is being withheld for her safety, had come with me to Jordan from Baghdad on the quintessential coming-of-age road trip. We were both on a Middle Eastern journey through Jordan for the first time. It was the kind of trip I had taken many times in the United States as a young adult. A friend in the passenger seat. A Big Gulp from 7-Eleven propped up against the gearshift. A bag of peanuts and a six-pack of beer in the back seat. I was 19 when I tasted freedom for the first time, riding off to college without a parent on a southern Illinois highway in my beat-up Honda Civic hatchback.

Luma had to wait until 28 to find her freedom in a rented Nissan on Wadi Araba Road to the Dead Sea.

Until last year, Luma, a vivacious hopeless romantic with an innocent smile, had known life only under deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, who restricted travel outside the country. She had never been on a trip without her mother or a male relative. She had never worn a bathing suit at a beach with both men and women. She had never been to a disco that served alcohol, never swapped telephone numbers with a dance partner, never cranked up the tunes in the car and wasted the cool air-conditioned air with the sunroof open, just because. She had never had a hotel minibar beer.

Taste of Freedom

The first night we were in the Jordanian capital of Amman, she opened the refrigerator of our 10th-floor room at the Four Seasons hotel and discovered a shelf full of beer. We should have one, she declared. No, no, no, I objected. Minibars are really expensive, and the accounting department will see this, and really, we just worked out in the gym. I looked at her eager face, a face that said, "But we're on vacation without our mothers!" We each grabbed a cold one, turned off the lights and sat on the floor to watch the moon rise over the twinkling city.

Jordan is about a four-hour flight from Paris, an easy trip into the well-worn but modern Queen Alia International Airport. In spite of post-9/11 fears about traveling in the Middle East, Jordan is still a welcoming place for Americans. Most young Jordanians speak excellent English, and cab drivers know enough to get you where you want to go. If you get lost in your rental car, however, and your Arabic-speaking translator is pretending she is from Spain and will not let you pull the car over to ask directions because there are religious-looking men on the sidewalk and she is wearing a revealing top, you might end up driving around for two hours in maddening, disorderly traffic unwittingly teaching your translator your best road-rage swear words.

The only option for civilians to fly out of Baghdad when we traveled last month was the expensive ($1,100 round trip), twice-daily Royal Jordanian flight to Amman, 90 minutes away. (Iraqi Airways just began daily service to Amman for about $750 round trip.) A week before we left, a plane was fired on by a surface-to-air missile, and the airline temporarily suspended flights. We were on the second flight out since the ban had been lifted. A passenger moving through the security screening banged a piece of luggage against a fiberglass panel. I immediately ducked, as did about five beefy contract workers. Luma didn't miss a beat in the story she was telling. "Don't worry; it wasn't a mortar," she assured me before picking up where she left off.

This was Luma's first airplane ride, her first exposure to the indignities of the war-on-terrorism airport search. A week earlier she had bribed the woman at the checkpoint to our Baghdad hotel with diet pills to stop touching her "in a bad way." (She also asked her to "stop touching the little one, my friend, the one they call Jackie.") At the airport, Luma set off a walk-through detector. When a security worker asked her to take off her shoes, Luma wouldn't budge. "I know how it is," she told him. "First you ask for the shoes, then the pants! I will not." They waved her through.

In Jordan, I found myself reliving my youth through Luma. We hung out at the food court at the large Mecca Mall in downtown Amman, drank beer in the afternoon, danced until dawn. I indulged her need for Burger King and "American" experiences. She indulged my need for historic sites and the quiet countryside. The beauty of Jordan is that it offers all of the above.

By the Dead Sea

Our main destination in Jordan was the Dead Sea, a place where we could relax and forget about life in Baghdad: the violence, the kidnappings, the car bombs, the translators who have been targeted because they work for Americans. In Iraq, Luma is scared every time there is a knock at the door.

One night when we were hanging out in the swimming pool at our Dead Sea resort, Luma turned to me beaming and asked if I felt happy. "Happy? No, better than happy," I told her. "I feel safe." She nodded, and we leaned our heads back against the tiled pool wall and watched the sun drop behind the mountains in Israel.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company