The Starting Pistol: Running to Take a Stand
The gun fell. The policeman bent to pick it up. He cursed me and yelled, “Kunte Yuserfli. Eredt mlbsi. You distracted me. Put on some clothes!” His angry shouts faded into the dust as I turned the corner and stopped at the small white and green house where I was staying. When I went to the kitchen to get a glass of water, Jen asked, “You went running outside in that?” Her reaction surprised me. I guess she hadn’t noticed that for the past two weeks I had swapped my previous long black tights and long sleeved shirt for cooler clothes, ones more suitable to the sweltering desert climate. Even though I was only renting a room, Jen’s motherly instincts often set in. She had spent the past eight years trying to raise three young boys with American values while conforming to the necessary Islamic and traditional norms. The fact that I ran in Amman surprised her.
Running is rare in Amman. I did not see anyone, certainly no lone women, running outside during the two months that I was there. In fact, lone women walking were rare. I still remember one of the only lone walking women that I ever saw. Young, she looked professional, and nodded her head at me as I ran by.
This is how people usually treated runners in my hometown, New York. There, runners make up such a predominant part of the backdrop, that I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a new line of post-cards with photos of them. I can even tell you the prototypes; there’s the working mom who runs five miles by five AM. There’s the male CEO who’s done the same three miles for the past ten years. There’s the teen girl training for track. There’s the male college athlete keeping in shape out of season. Women and men run all day long, especially in the park. It’s a cathartic release, a way to deal with the stress of the city, work, and life. But it’s also a way to move, and it might be a New York thing, but at the Reservoir you get the sense that these runners can get anywhere that they want to go in life.
And they have a distinct corporal language between each other, and the rest of the city. Runners nod, smile or respectfully ignore each other matching each other’s expression. Non- runners make room for them on the path, sometimes make eye contact, but rarely say anything. For his intense efforts, his motivation, the runner deserves respect. No one would dare sideline or distract her. Tourists take cue from the locals and make way, with reverence, for this special species called runners, and are often surprised that more of them are women than men. And these women, with grace and cadence in their step, seemed like goddesses of the modern era. The lady runner juggles everything; she is healthy, she is strong, she works hard, she benefits society. Like the women whose portraits hang in newsstands and on the television screen, these women cast a spell. No one stops them as they stride through the city. No one stops them as they stride through life. Her streets and her life become her territory.
I quickly learned, that running in Amman would be a different experience. July 2nd, my nineteenth birthday, I arrived. It was 36 degrees Celsius. From the hotel lobby, all I saw were cars uplifting dust and dust nearly uplifting cars. No one walked, and there were no other buildings in view. The hotel gym called: Aching for the familiar, I started to run on the treadmill. It was an uncomfortable space, no larger than an American sedan, and several men passed through it to go to the “massage” room. One man stopped. He came over, looked at the stats on the machine, and said, “You… very good runner. How old are you?” I politely said thanks, and somewhat resentfully, said that I was thirty, hoping the man would sense my blatant lie and leave me alone. He continued, “Where are you from? What are you doing here?” He took my phone from the treadmill’s cup-holder, as if to put his number in it. I stopped running. He asked, “Are you married?” “Put my phone down. I don’t want to marry. I want to run.”
I saw, from the get-go, that this concept of respecting women runners, the whole culture built around them in the States, did exist everywhere. I asked the two Russian women working in the gym if they ever ran outside. One answered poignantly: “I can’t. I’ve been here eight years, but I can’t take the men— nasty— they just shout at you. If I even go to market alone, they bother. They think women belong to men. We cannot be alone.”
By the time I moved into Jennifer’s house, this attitude had gotten under my skin. There was something itching, crawling inside of me, making me want to run, but not the usual restless leg syndrome or spring fever, something else — a curiosity. Could it really be that hard to run here? So with a few days remaining before my internship was supposed to begin, I went for a run.
The weather burned, especially since I wore leggings and a long-sleeved shirt to respect cultural customs. I followed a swerving road down the hill from the house. The Ramada Hotel on the left had a line of policemen standing shoulder to shoulder. As I passed, the orderly line broke into frantic motion and speech, none of which I understood (at first, that is). Mixed expressions of disgust and awe spread across their faces. As they shouted after me, I was not sure who was more startled, they or I. Continuing, the smaller road merged onto a larger one filled with cars. One slowed down. Another slowed down. There was no stoplight, or crosswalk, but they kept slowing down. Then a window rolled open. A head, with bulging, capricious black eyes popped out: “Ente jemila ekthr. hayatii. sharifah.” I did not know what he was saying, but it sounded unpleasant. I kept running, thinking that I would get ahead of this moronically slow car, or it would drive off. It did drive off, but another came. And another. And another. As they endlessly shouted unintelligible phrases at me, I realized that I had run straight into culture clash.
But this experience did not stop me. Just as I could not, initially understand what observers shouted at me, I could not understand why they seemed to disprove of my running. So I kept going.
I started watching my “watchers”: Who exactly noticed me running by? Who shouted? Who didn’t? First I saw the men, the ones whose deep voices carried across streets that were four cars wide, the men in the front seat who would pull over the car, the men who sold Quran’s on the street corner every day. Men filled the streets.
And then, I noticed the others. From the back seats of the cars, from window shutters peeping open, from front doors propped to let out the steam from the kitchen, I saw many beautiful black eyes. With quiet mouths, their eyes seemed to listen. It was like my footsteps were a ring at the doorbell, someone coming by whom they had never expected. Some women seemed as offended by my runs as the men, but others, looked with nonjudgmental wonder, as if they never knew it had done before on the streets of Amman. It was these looks, the looks of other women that made me continue.
I wanted them to see me. I wanted them to know that now, in Amman, it is possible to move freely, to dress comfortably and as you wish. Religion dictates what many of them wear, but still, now, under Jordanian law, women can choose what to wear. They can choose what they believe. I wore shorts and tee shirts, and they were all bright (my mother had recently handed down all her too-bright-for-a-fifty-year-old clothing). The contrast was stark; their bodies and heads covered, voices demure, eyes soft and my skin bare to the chaffing desert win, eyes intense with anger and persistence, and my voice loud with the comeback phrases I had learned in Arabic. “You have a sister too” and “Watch it, I’ll run over and tell your mother” were among my favorites. The men’s comments built up, and I ran around the city fuming.
Amani society was moving away from its conservative past in many ways; public strip clubs had appeared all over the city (in the past these were kept more hush-hush), drinking alcohol was a norm though banned by Shari’ah, men gambled while playing cards and smoking shisha all through the night no matter what day of the week. If society could move away from Shari’ah law in these ways, ones that catered, almost exclusively to hedonistic males, what was wrong with a little running? It was progressive, for sure, but beneficial for society— healthy, happy mothers lead to healthy, happy families.
I never came to fully understand Amani disproval of my running, but I can theorize. Maybe it was simply that my clothes made people uncomfortable. Maybe the values of female independence and strength challenged conservative Muslim traditions of patriarchal protection. Maybe I made them think too much of “westernization” and “American culture”. Regardless, I only cared that women saw me, that women saw that we too, can run.
On one of my last days, I remember running by the Ramada Hotel. The police were used to me at this point. They didn’t bow down, or cheer me on, but they didn’t freak out either. They stood, respectfully. The one at the end of the line tipped his hat.
At the end of my run, as I neared home, a little girl who looked about seven, started to run with me, dry dust spewing from under her bare, tiny feet till we got to the next crosswalk.
The finish line was far, maybe some would say impossible, but I had found another member of my relay team, and passing on the baton was all that mattered.