It was 2004, not long after the United States began occupying Iraq. In the neighboring Arab kingdom of Jordan, sid Muna was the headmistress of the girls’ school in the northern village where I would soon be teaching English. About mid-way through my Peace Corps training, she came down to our training center in Madaba, Jordan, to meet me. She was tall and statuesque, in a long, loose olive green duster coat called a jelbaab. We had a list of questions Peace Corps staff had given us to ask each other.
“Tell me about your family.” Sid Muna had a husband and five children, a small family for Jordan. My parents had four children? Allah kareem—Generous God, that was a large family for an American!
How big was sid Muna’s village? A couple thousand, she thought. That would make my new community twice the size of the closest town to my rural Pennsylvania childhood home.
What did people in sid Muna’s village do for a living? Mostly farmers and shepherds and some military families. That was also not so different from my Amish and dairy farming neighbors growing up, where a few years in the military was a common way to pay for college.
I don’t know how it was for the other Trainees, but as we went from one question to the next, sid Muna’s answers seemed perfectly calibrated to put me at ease. I knew her people, had grown up with sprawling extended farm families. Back home, they raised cows and farmed corn. In my new community, they raised goats and grew olives, but I felt reassured that I would find commonalities there, touchpoints for mutual understanding.
Two weeks later, I visited for the first time the village where I would spend the next two years teaching, improving my Arabic, and integrating into the community. I spent two nights at sid Muna’s home, next door to the little house where I would soon live.
I was sitting in sid Muna’s dimly lit living room after dinner that first night, tiny glasses of hot, sweet black tea with sprigs of fresh mint set out before us on her worn Persian rug. A cold rain lashed the windows. Her second daughter Samira brought out plates of apples, oranges and little cucumbers. Her husband, eldest son Alaa, and eldest daughter Safaa were chatting with me in a mélange of English and Arabic, while the youngest son Hashem did homework in the corner.
I had only just realized that I hadn’t met all of sid Muna’s children when a dark mop of hair on a wind-burned face popped around the corner, tall, with thin cheeks and bright dark eyes, asking his mother for something.
“Maryah!” exclaimed Alaa, a big grin on his broad face and an elder brother’s glint in his eye. “Look!” he said, pointing at the head peering around the corner. “The enemy! The enemy! It’s your enemy Osama, ya Maryah!”
Poor Osama flushed red and his head snapped back out of sight. For months, although I would sometimes see him at dinner, he would avoid eye contact, eat faster than anyone I have ever seen, and head immediately back outside. We never spoke.
“Every time we pass a herd of goats, you turn your head to look!” said sid Muna.
Since I had moved to her village, the headmistress would occasionally take me with her to the Jerash Directorate of Education, just to remind them that she had a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching in her school, the only one in the governorate. At least, I assumed that was her reason.
On this particular day, returning from the Directorate, we were driving through our little village around the time of ‘aSr, the mid-afternoon call to prayer. This is also when the shepherds returned with their herds, lines of goats and waddling fat-tailed sheep trotting single-file down the road, but not following their shepherd. The shepherd sauntered casually at the back, clucking and tsking at his flock, who responding by going left or right, stopping or moving faster.
Like sid Muna, everyone was amused by my fascination with goats, but it was what finally allowed me to have a relationship with her second son Osama.
The first time I saw someone herd goats like that was on my first visit to the home of Umm Tareg. She was a close friend of sid Muna, who introduced us not only because Umm Tareg was an English teacher like me—a professional resource—but because she was also the best candidate in the village to continue my Arabic language lessons. I had a little money from Peace Corps to pay herto be my tutor, but she was even more important to me as a cultural interpreter … and a dear friend.
The first time I visited Umm Tareg in her own home, four houses down from mine, she made me thick, sweet Turkish coffee, and we talked about how we would schedule our Arabic lessons. “I’m not going to teach you that Standard Arabic they speak on TV,” she warned me. “And I won’t teach you what sid Muna and your neighbors up the hill think you should learn, either. I’m going to teach you the real Arabic, like the Bedouin speak. With ‘ch’ instead of ‘k’ and all the rest.”
“Good!” I would sound like a hick on my periodic trips into the city, but I would sound like all the other shepherds and farmers and car mechanics in our little village.
I knew first-hand the value of a local speech pattern. I knew how my mother’s misplaced New England ‘r’s stood out in Pennsylvania Dutch country where I grew up. I knew, from giving up my studies of High German in Bern to immerse myself in Swiss dialect, that sounding like my neighbors could help me integrate into the community faster than anything else. That’s what I wanted in Arabic—to be able to simulate belonging right down to the shape of the last vowel on my tongue.
Once that was settled, she called for her daughter to make us a pot of strong, sweet black tea. Umm Tareg started telling me about her father’s British friends, who were frequently in their home as she was growing up. She had learned English from them, then gotten her university degree in English, and I believe she could easily have gotten a scholarship to go to England or America for graduate work. I think her family would have supported that.
Then Umm Tareg fell in love with an older Bedouin man with a coveted stable government job. Against her father’s advice, she chose to pursue a childhood dream. Just as I had longed as a child to be Sacagawea or Laura Wilder, so she had longed to be Bedouin. It was a dream she never claimed to regret, though it led her into poverty, and aged her well beyond her years.
We talked for a couple hours that first day, until Umm Tareg yelled for one of her daughters to clear the tea and little glasses away. To me, she said, “I want you to meet my husband. He’s out with the goats, but should be coming back soon. Let’s walk out to meet him.”
Umm Tareg and I walked the rest of the way down the big hill at the end of town, and up the next big rise, where the first goats of a herd had just begun to appear in a single-file line from beyond the crest. Last of all came Abu Tareg, a short, leanly muscular man in a long white robe, the pale ochre dust irrevocably ground in. He wore a faded red- and white-checked kufiyah wrapped fully around his head, neck and the lower half of his face, protection against both sun and dust. He pulled the tail of it down beneath his chin to greet us.
Introducing us, Umm Tareg said, “My husband Abu Tareg was the postmaster here for many years. Now he’s retired.”
Abu Tareg spoke rapidly in Arabic, looking earnestly back and forth between his wife and me. I thought I heard a name I recognized. She laughed, a long, uninhibited outdoor sound that revealed a deep sunburst of joyful lines radiating from the corners of her eyes, creasing her temples and half her cheeks, lighting up her round face. It was impossible not to smile back, even though I didn’t know the joke yet.
Turning to me, Umm Tareg said, “He wants you to know that he is like President Jimmy Carter. At the end of his term, the president was coming out of a fancy hotel, and a reporter asked him, ‘Mr. President, what will you do next?’ And Mr. Carter said, ‘I was a peanut farmer before, I’ll be a peanut farmer again.’ That’s Abu Tareg. He was a shepherd before, and he is a shepherd again. Never retired, always a busy, working man.”
Abu Tareg nodded emphatically at me, rapping blunt fingertips against his chest. “Jimmy Carter.” I grinned and nodded enthusiastically, understanding that he was building a bridge between America and Jordan with his considered anecdote. It was the work that I had come to do, too.
Following his flock, Abu Tareg hurried back ahead of his wife and me. We had the perfect vantage point to see how the goats seemed already to know where to go, half peeling off into Abu Tareg’s pens, the others continuing on to the pens where his young nephews were waiting to feed their father’s flock. In two years in the village, I would never lose my fascination with the flocks peeling off in seamless formation and filing home in the waning afternoon light.
Goats were something Abu Tareg had promised his wife years before in their marriage contract. One day, he said, he would buy her goats and they would raise them together. Over the two years I lived in their village, I was able to watch Umm and Abu Tareg negotiate goat husbandry together. He had experience from his childhood, but she had never owned animals.
At first, there were no baby goats, but after the first kids were born and sold, I would follow Umm Tareg down to the pen after the goats had come home. Milking the nannies was a two-person job. Abu Tareg held them by their ears, and Umm Tareg squatted behind, milking between the hind legs into a big bucket that, when milking was still new to her, sometimes she couldn’t protect from being kicked over.
As I grew ever closer to their family, I would come to recognize that, while Abu Tareg framed his continuing work as an endeavor of the heart, noble and post-presidential, it was also a necessity. Goats didn’t just bring milk, but a greater variety of dairy products than we have words for in English. Alongside the occasional slaughtered goat, this was often the only protein he and Umm Tareg could provide for their six children. Other times, small excesses in production could bring in a paltry income from the neighbors, too.
I visited Umm Tareg more often than I visited sid Muna, though the headmistress was my closest neighbor and we often traveled to or from school together. I would occasionally join her family for tea or dinner, though, especially when she was hosting extended family or other guests she thought I should meet. Sometimes, too, sid Muna would summon me to her house to help her roll grape leaves, stuff cabbage, help with the olive harvest, or paint the wrought iron fencing around her porch together.
From time to time in honor of some special occasion, Osama and his father would slaughter one of their goats. I would usually be sitting on the porch, drinking tea and visiting with out-of-town family members or other guests, while the animal’s throat was cut and it was strung up by its hind legs from the back side of the little shed where the goats sheltered at night. Osama and his father would slice open the center of the torso, remove the organs, carefully peel off the skin in a single piece, quarter and carve the carcass, all just beyond my line of sight.
Osama always made a point of parading past me with the severed head cradled in his hands before him, its eyes rolled up and tongue lolling, neck still bloody around the edges.
I always winced and looked away.
He would find some flimsy excuse to walk past me with the head again, and again, until his mother scolded him to “stop fooling around and get back to work.”
These were the only interactions Osama and I had. Thanks to his elder brother’s laughing introduction that first night, Osama mostly avoided me.
One cool, crisp April day after school, passing sid Muna’s goat pen, I saw fuzzy new kids staggering around on their knobby little legs. I jogged home, dropped my bags, and came right back with my camera. I squatted patiently at the wire fence, waiting for the resting newborn goat babies to stagger onto their hooves for another try.
When he came home from school, that’s where Osama found me: hunkered down beside the goat pen with my camera. He grinned from ear to ear, looking me straight in the eye with obvious pleasure and pride. Everyone loved my camera, the only one in the village, and Osama loved goats. It was the perfect combination. He vaulted nimbly over the wire fence into the pen, crowded with bare, gnarled olive branches.
He picked up the kids, cradling first one, then both in his big palms. Their little heads and pointed shoulders leaned against Osama’s ribs, their spindly little legs dangling down from either side of his long fingers and bony wrists. He posed this way and that with them. Putting one back on its belly, he set the other on its little hooves and urged it with little pats on its rear to take wobbly, mincing little steps towards me. I snapped away with my camera.
As we went along, Osama chattered on and on about the life of goats. I didn’t understand most of it, but I grinned and nodded. This was more than he had said in all the time I had known him. I learned that, though his parents wanted him to go to engineering school, he wanted more than anything to be a shepherd when he grew up—with any luck, a farmer as successful his Uncle Mohammad, whose opinion was valued across three governorates.
After we had taken photos for a while, the shepherds began to return with their long lines of sheep and goats along the hilltop road at my back. When his own family’s goats peeled off towards their shed, Osama didn’t open the little holding pen, with its fencing of piled up, denuded olive branches pruned during the last harvest.
“Come on, ya Maryah! We’ll take more pictures.” Osama leapt nimbly out of the pen. With a shepherd’s clicks and sharp syllables, he led the family’s goats away, and with a sweep of his arm, he led me, too.
I followed Osama and his goats towards my little neighboring house, over the disintegrating dip in the low wall around my landlord’s orchard, and into my own backyard. In the deepening emerald grass of April, under drooping trees dripping with long, lacy strands of short-lived little white flowers, Osama stalked, chased and grabbed this goat and that for a portrait.
They were unenthusiastic models, more interested in the grass than the camera. Osama wrapped his lanky arm around their necks in a wrestling hold, or straddled their skinny ribcages with his long legs and held up their heads with two hands around their long ears.
As the other kids came home from school, they wanted to have their own pictures taken. That was fine with Osama, who had lost his interest in my camera and was just wrestling playfully with his beloved goats.
After that, I found myself receiving Osama’s gracious, grinning help whenever I had to lug a new propane tank for my cookstove from the delivery truck down to my house, and even occasionally the bashful request for help with his English homework.
His older brother’s teasing was finally forgotten. “Osama the enemy” was gone, and Osama my little brother took his place.
MARYAH CONVERSE was a Peace Corps educator in Jordan, 2004–2006, and was studying in Cairo during the 2011 Arab Spring. She has written for publications including New Madrid Journal, BLYNKT, Silk Road Review, The Matador Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Gulf Stream Literary Magazine nominated her work for the 2017 Best of the Net collection, and she has twice been an honorable mention in the New Millennium Writing Awards. Maryah holds a Masters in Near Eastern Languages, teaches Arabic and English as foreign languages in the New York area, and blogs at bymaryah.wordpress.com