We tried kicking the ball around in a street too narrow at one end and too wide at another, steep and crooked, paved in some parts, and just dirt in another. Someone had stepped on a piece of glass shrapnel last week, making the road out of the question. It didn’t help that we would have to pause the game every time the vegetable truck came down the road, loud speakers blaring out the daily selections available. My friends and I would mimic the truck driver’s silly mnemonic songs about his watermelons, childishly bending sounds to create nonsensical jargon about spring onions and figs; my Palestinian dialect softened their abrasive Jordanian. My grandmother would come running out of the house, shawl loosely wrapped around her hair, grey strands peeking out, and bills in her hands as she stopped the pickup truck to inspect the produce. I would grudgingly help her carry the bags into the house before running back outside. We walked around the neighborhood, looking for flat land on which to kick the ball, angered at the difficulty of finding a play area.
Down the road from my grandmother’s home in Az-Zarqa, or “The Blue,” a thirty-minute drive outside Amman, lies a huge plot of land attached to the mosque. The same plot where they buried my grandfather; flat dirt with no markers or headstones to indicate the hundreds of bodies buried below. Darker colored soil meant someone had been buried recently. Cultural and religious norms meant no graves could be marked, bodies could be buried atop each other, and no planting on top of them, making the plot of land virtually useless. Although still kids, we had all taken the same scripture classes teaching us one step on a grave would make us hear the body’s torturous screams as it burned in hell. We had secretly tested this theory many times and found there is no hell.
So now nine kids, some of us orphans, most of us Jordanian, and me, “the English girl” had decided to play soccer in the cemetery. We could play barefoot with no fear of getting hurt. The adults had grown too superstitious to loiter around, and the other kids too scared. We started a mini revolution on the street by choosing that place, but we had had enough of playing on the uneven slope of the sad excuse of a street. Our feet grew calloused and rough, accustomed to the tiny pebbles and rough dirt of the country—the climate inhospitable to grass—just the rough dry red dirt that emits heat and burns the pads of one’s feet.
They assigned me goalie at one end, a curse because it meant the least amount of movement and more time for heat to scorch my feet. They often picked me for the worst roles in games, and I suspected it had to do with wearing my sneakers the first day. I had just come from New York City. Though not a particularly glamorous place, people generally wore shoes in the street. But to the Jordanian kids it translated as a sign of superiority, that and my pale face all the proof they needed to call me out as a foreigner. They get a lot of those there, students on study abroad or humanitarian workers, all with pale faces and wearing shoes. I ran back home and threw my shoes over the veranda walls, embarrassed that I was the only one wearing shoes and clean clothes.
To the left of my grandmother’s home lay an alleyway leading to side rooms in the wall. I would later learn those were the homes of the three orphan girls that played soccer with us. The first day I met them they had taken out their English workbook packets from school, and asked me to read to them. The simple sentences I read left them awed and amazed, giggling and screaming in excitement at my accent. I remember feeling bad I could read it so easily, and they could not, as if knowing English meant I was destined for a better life.
The Blue City lacked any real parks. Random lots of dirt and sand dominated the landscape to create the closest things to public spaces. There were markets and malls, schools and mosques, but no parks like the one my parents would walk me to back in Brooklyn. Occasionally, there would be the abandoned swing and slide set, rusty and ready to fall apart, a remnant of the blooming 1970s in the Middle East. Kids would play on the sides of roads pausing every so often for a smoke, trying to imitate the way their uncles, fathers, and brothers would lean on sides of buildings, and puff.
Now that we had created a playing field from a cemetery, we celebrated finally having flat even land. It’s a bit unsettling how easily we accepted it, how easily we had to accept it. How we didn’t find a problem with running over the freshly dug plots, how we would still scream “goal” when the ball went past me, and how we would sing and cheat.
I haven’t played soccer since I left Jordan though I’m sure my grandmother still runs after the truck every morning. I’m sure there are still the girls that live in the alley who want to learn English, there are still kids playing barefoot in the road, and there is still no green space for them to escape to.
I haven’t visited Jordan in five years, and now my feet have softened and the callouses are long gone. I am left with nothing but vague memories of the many matches I played on top of the piling of dead bodies.
“We had secretly tested this theory many times and found there is no hell.” Chilling! Love reading your style, this was great! 🙂
I love the map at the top and this lovely portrait of another place and culture. Great job!