I think we can all agree that “To all the boys I’ve loved before” was a chick-flick with some beautiful truths. Writing letters have been my love language for a while now. To me, they epitomize the idea of letting people know that you love them, especially when you know the relationship is a temporary one, or nearing its end. In the very transient nature of college years, I’ve written many a love letter to people I knew I would most likely never get to see again. People I loved deeply and truthfully for a season, and wanted them to know how deeply they were loved before we parted ways.
I learned it’s ok to momentarily fall in love with strangers through a memoir by Hannah Brencher, who found her purpose while writing love letters to strangers in New York City (my fav book of all time, If You Find This Letter). Sometimes strangers offer you pieces of their hearts through their eyes, smile, or kind words; and I think it’s good to let people know when you’re grateful or when you love them. And it’s ok to fall in love fast.
Sadly, I never got the chance to write love letters to all the men who made my morning commute one of my favorite things about Amman. The men who offered me kindness through their smiles, jokes, ability to avoid traffic, Arabic lessons, and stories. These are some of those stories.
To Bilal, who I forcefully gave my phone number at the end of our ride so that I could tutor him in English. Which, I only did once, on a Wednesday night at Mind Hub Coffee Shop for two hours. It gave me such joy to teach you, but I never did it again. Forgive me, Bilal, for not helping you more.
To Mohammed, the 55 year-old man who made me and my friend Layla sing to Whitney Houston’s “And I Will Always Love You” with the windows down in rush hour traffic. He said, “I don’t know what she is saying, but I love this song.”
To the amazing old man with the nasty taxi who agreed to take all five of my friends across town for no extra charge on a Thursday night (this was a miracle people, believe me).
To Bashir, you said you were from a Bedouin tribe, and then launched into an abstinence talk (completely in Arabic…surprisingly easy to follow), which took up most of our 20 minute ride to my school. You told me that if I wanted to marry a Muslim man, I can’t have sex before I’m married, or even when I’m engaged. It’s just not right, it’s against the Quran. You were very glad to hear that I had never had a boyfriend (lol), and bragged about how beautiful and strong your wife is. You two had just had a baby boy, who you showed me many pictures of. At the beginning of the ride, you asked my name. I told you “Kendall, like *insert Arabic word for candle*.” You said, “This will not do. In my tribe, when there is a woman who is beautiful, kind, and brave like you, we name her Filaa.” The rest of the sex talk and chat about your family was punctuated by pauses in which you would ask, “What is your name?” I would answer, “Filaa!” and you would yell “Yes! Excellent!”
To Mohanned, you had a story similar to many of the men who drove me around this fall. You have a good job with a steady paycheck, but it is not enough, so you work during the day and drive Uber at night. Just like Ali, whose taxi was the sketchiest I ever entered (I swear the axle wasn’t all one part), but was a saving grace after one of the hardest and yet sweetest days I had in Amman. Ali hand-rolled a cigarette in his left hand while steering with his right; I felt perfectly safe. During the day, Ali is a school bus driver and Mohanned is a secret service agent for the Jordanian royal family.
To Ahmed, You picked me up at 5 PM on a Thursday, which was a mistake since everyone goes out for drives on Thursday nights. What should have been a 18 minute ride turned into a 42 minute one, but neither of us cared. You somehow understood my broken Arabic, and bolstered my confidence by not switching to English the entire ride, although you easily could have. You wanted so badly to learn English that you studied 6 hours a day but couldn’t find a language partner, which made it difficult to learn. Everything within me wanted to volunteer as your language partner, but I knew my remaining month wasn’t enough time. When I asked you why you wanted to learn English, you gave me the answer nearly every Arab man I met did, “Opportunity.” You said you just wanted to be able to work in even a coffee shop or restaurant, but needed better English to do so.
To Mohammed, who laughed when I asked his name and said “Guess!”(I guessed right). You made the near-hour long drive from my aunt’s house so much fun as we talked about life, the economy, the rich and poor, and bopped to your workout playlist. You graduated at the top of your class in Civil Engineering and you have your masters degree, but you can’t find related work in Jordan. Instead you wake up at 6:30 and drive Uber from 7 AM- 7 PM before you go to the gym for an hour and continue bopping to your workout playlist.
To Zaade, the first man to teach me the Arabic alphabet. You made me repeat it after you a dozen times on our 45 minute drive (again, tried to go out on a Thursday night, like the fool I am). At the end of the ride, you thanked me, saying that talking with me had made the time pass so quickly.
To Mahar, the young doctor who can’t find a job so he works at an insurance agency part time and drives for Careem part time. Within minutes of getting into the car, Mahar dropped the f-bomb three times and let me know that he had 5 shots of whiskey to get warm the night before and had woken up hungover before coming to pick me up. I said, “Should I be concerned? Should you be driving?” He just laughed and then told me he was a doctor while lighting cigarette #2. “We all have our vices,” he said. Mahar stood out to me because his English was full of familiar slang. He spoke English much more casually than most Arabs. “I watch a lot of movies and YouTube, and all my med school text books were in English. That’s why.” He said.
And to Yousef, my first real taxi driver during my second week in Amman. When I imagined my time in Amman, I really thought I would be able to walk most places and take the bus when it was too far to walk. I was severely disappointed to learn the first day that I would have to take taxis and Ubers in order to get anywhere. I hated getting in the back of strangers’ cars, especially when we would sit in silence the entire ride. I was not yet confident enough in my Arabic to start conversations, and most Uber drivers were young men. They did not want to bother me as their passenger and risk losing 5 star rating. I hated travelling…until Yousef. He didn’t speak a lick of English, but had kind eyes and a generous smile. He asked me how I was and when I answered “tired” in Arabic, his face lit up. We then spent the ride playing a little game. He would ask me questions in Fusha and then teach me how to answer them in Aamiya, making me repeat the lines over and over again until I sounded like him, clapping when I finally got it right. I emerged from that taxi a much more confident woman. He taught me that maybe transportation in Amman didn’t have to be such a miserable part of life there for me.
It’s funny reflecting now…one of my main complaints about Amman early on was that I had to take Careems, Ubers, and taxis everywhere…by the second to the last month, it was one of my favorite parts about life in Amman. Praise God.
That leads me to my last (well second-to-the-last) taxi ride in Amman. I don’t know your name, but I got into your taxi at the First Circle, after saying goodbye to all my friends. It was my last day in Amman, and I was heading home to pack and spend my last few hours with my host family. As soon as I stepped into your taxi, I knew something was up. After the usual chit-chat, you began explaining that you wanted an American wife and you loved America, which were common comments. The way you were looking at the space between my legs in the review mirror as you made those comments however, was not. But this was supposed to be my last taxi ride in Amman, and I was not going to let my favorite Jordan activity end on a bad note. So I commanded you (in Arabic) to stop the car. I said I was done, I’d find a different taxi, and I did. I also found something I had already kind of known. Taking taxis in Amman had made me brave. Brave, strong, and maybe a little street smart. I speak my best Arabic in the back of a cab.