WE LOCKED EYES for an instant, not enough time to guess the young woman’s expression under her black niqab. An intrigued stare through the narrow eyehole.
She pivoted and stepped up, one black gloved hand grasping the banister, into the crowded green bus that idled loudly at the curb. The other passengers parted, careful not to touch her, and an old man rose to offer her his seat. I jogged on.
The dome of the neighborhood mosque loomed in front of me, the light from its sand-colored minaret tinting the sidewalk below neon green. The Kurdish man who sells fresh green almonds, sprinkled with salt water and overflowing from a basket the size of a laundry hamper, looked up briefly and then quickly down again.
“Yalla, Sadeekati!” Hurry up, my friend. Nathaniel waved me forward, whipping back his dirty-blond hair, which he was grooming to look like Russell Crowe’s in Master and Commander for when he went home to sail on Cape Cod. It was at least preferable to the other favorite approach: circling back behind me, putting his hand flat on my back, and yelling, “Sprint! SPRINT MARGOT!!” He has so much to learn about motivating women.
The first time I met Nathaniel, at a program meeting to launch off our semester studying Arabic, was a disaster. He immediately wrote me off as a self-righteous liberal and I pegged him as an egotistical playboy. But running buddies are hard to come by in Syria so we agreed, grudgingly, to go for a jog together the next day.
Stuck with him one-on-one, I realized that communicating with Nathaniel is easy because, beneath my hippie fashion tastes and his ever-present model’s pout, we agree fundamentally on pretty much everything. Our friendship was solidified from the moment he outlined his contingency plan to escape North together into the mountains if ever there was dangerous unrest in Syria. Since then, I’ve done my part to reign in his inflated masculine ego, and he’s dutifully reminded me to remember to floss, stop updating him about the status of my continuously ailing digestion, and otherwise practice socially acceptable feminine behavior.
We talk about all things contentious when we run. In a culture where I am wary of saying the word “Israel” or mocking the President’s clearly ridiculous mustache over Skype to my mother for fear of being deported or labeled CIA, the morning run developed into a sort of purging session.
That day, we’d set out talking about how the Kurdish communities near us were reacting to the President’s offer, which extended citizenship to many of them in exchange for their allegiance to the regime. What enraged us was the fact that they would be registered as residents of various Southern provinces, to prevent them from gaining the voting majority in the North that they deserve. We would probably look naïve, or pretentious, from the outside: two American college kids ranting about the tenuous grasp Syria has on democracy. But at least it made us feel like we were not ignoring issues, like the treatment of Kurds, which were right under our noses but which it often felt like we were expected to ignore.
Heading into University City, the main dormitory area of the sprawling campus, the usual faces appeared in the upper floor windows, staring down at us as if we hadn’t gone by on the same route yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that at precisely this time.
“Oh, sport! Very gooood…” one man called out from a bench, chuckling as he took a long pull from his cigarette. I pictured his eyes on me as we ran on, and I tried, discretely, to inch my tee shirt down lower over my butt.
“It’s not you out running that’s got him thrown,” Nathaniel panted out of the corner of his mouth. “It’s just the fact that anyone’s out before breakfast without a cigarette in their mouth!” He wasn’t done. “Seriously…Get it? SYRIAsly?” I punched him in the arm.
Nathaniel’s pragmatism and cheeky humor form his barrier against self-doubt. It’s not that he’s unaware of the awkward line we walk as foreigners in Syria. He’s probably even more over-sensitized than I am. It’s just that, for him, the consequences seem so much less direct, less personal.
I recall one instance when I got furious at him for pointing out that my pants were too tight around the butt and men leaving the mosque after Friday prayers were looking at us, scandalized. To him it was a casual, and certainly truthful, observation. Hurt that he wouldn’t defend my choices automatically, I insisted that he was acting no better than those creeps on the street who catcall after me.
Nathaniel has the luxury of blending in superficially if he wants to: in his pleather jacket (bought especially for this purpose) with his near flawless Syrian street dialect, he’s good to go. Ultimately, he knows he loves Syria, knows he tries his hardest with it, and doesn’t waste time with guilty feelings. And while I envy this confidence, I can’t help feeling resentful of how effortlessly he balances cultural deference with self-affirmation.
By the side of the road, three old men in tracksuits had set up a breakfast picnic on plastic chairs. They dunked bits of pita into olive oil and zaatar, a blend of thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. The coffee street seller, cradling his tall silver pot, squatted near them. He clinked three small ceramic cups, recycled from patron to patron, in one hand thoughtfully. They looked up at me, surprised, as I passed by.
I grinned and raised a hand in a quick unthinking “hi”, then blushed and dropped it awkwardly. I have to rub in, I chastised myself: “Yup, just out for a morning jog. GOT A PROBLEM?” That’s just how they envision female athletes in the West – ostentatious and brash. Even Nathaniel never does things like that. Excellent, well, good work. Tomorrow I’m bringing an ipod.
They stared for a moment, their faces blank. Yes, now I’ve truly done it. Then, their faces cracked into smiles. One had three teeth, two on the top, one on the bottom. He waved back, a big swooping wave from the elbow, then returned his attention to the backgammon board. I passed by and the smell of cardamom and coffee grounds washed over me.
Nathaniel pulled ahead again, preparing to dive into the two-lane traffic in front of a swiftly approaching minibus, a little morning agility training. Syria is only dangerous, Syrians love to tell me, when you cross the street. “B’issm Allah al-rahman wa al-raheem,” we panted as we pushed off from the curb. In the name of Allah, the beneficent and the merciful.
We finished at a sprint (“SPRINT! SPRINT, MARGOT, LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT!”). I bent over, grasping both knees with my hands. A group of young men in bleached jeans and studded pleather jackets eyed me as they passed by, and I dropped my eyes without thinking.
My long-sleeved t-shirt was stuck to my stomach and I could feel tracks of sweat running down my calves under the black sweat pants. I decided I’d strangle Nathaniel, in his light white t-shirt and basketball shorts, if he commented on the alarming dying animal noises I was producing.
“Aahm staaahving. Oy ain’t ‘ad nuffing but maggi’y bread in free stinkin’ days.” When the right words are not at hand, Nathaniel turns to Lord of the Rings. He gave me a quick fist pound and bounded upstairs, where the early bird is usually the only one to get the hot water.
I was left alone on the beige stone steps of the “Dar Al-Diyafaa,” the House of Guests, my dormitory. The university spilled down a swell of land on the edge of the city. Through the smoggy morning air, the Aleppo citadel was just visible in the distance, a crumbling structure perched atop a raised disk of land at the heart of the city. Two men nibbling on boat-shaped cheese pastries strolled past hand in hand, totally normal behavior, although cross-gender handholding is a big taboo. Voice after crackly voice joined the call to prayer and the haunting song settled over the city.
My breath began to return to normal. I wasn’t feeling self-conscious, or even bitter. Maybe it was just the runner’s high, or maybe it would last a little longer. I started to run through my presentation for Arabic class in my head, on the pro’s and con’s of foreign intrusion in Libya. People passing by didn’t seem to notice me, at least for the moment.
I jogged up the steps and inside to start another day in Aleppo.
I came to the Middle East for the first time to grow up. My plan was to spend a gap year working at King’s Academy, a new coed boarding school in Jordan that needed recent high school graduates as interns and mentors, and emerge sophisticated, well traveled, and fluent in Arabic, of course. A quick adventure and then back to reality.
By the middle of the year, the romantic allure of the tourist sites had worn off and I was still no closer to feeling rooted in Jordan. I stayed cooped up on campus more often, and when I went out it was mainly to American bars and restaurants. Finally, I asked a young Jordanian man who worked at my school out on a casual date. The concept of dating as I viewed it, I learned, was unfamiliar here. An abrupt, frightening escalation followed – from love letters, to teary phone calls, and ultimately an invitation to “spend the rest of our lives together.” Something as benign as a date proved to me how little I understood Jordan, and how little it understood me.
My personal struggle – to find a place in a culture where I had nothing to root myself in – transformed into an outward battle: Margot vs. Jordan. By my final month in the country, it was if I’d developed an allergy. Every minor annoyance or difficulty – a bureaucratic inefficiency or a catcall, even a bad driver or a surly waiter – confirmed in my mind that I was fighting for my sanity against all odds.
Blending in, learning Arabic, and making Jordanian friends felt futile – my pale skin and blond hair immediately identified me as a foreigner and characterized all of my interactions. I stopped worrying whether my shirts were too low-cut or if I went out with my hair wet (seen as haram, forbidden, by many of my Muslim friends), and I began doing my morning runs in baggy shorts like my male friends rather than more conservative sweatpants or leggings. What difference did it make if I tried or not?
I promised myself when I came to Syria that I would balance caring for myself with respecting the expectations the culture put on me. I was more mature, more self-aware, and I would not fall into the Jordan trap again.
I’d mentally prepared myself not to run at all when I got to Aleppo. It was only four months, not the rest of my life. Besides, I’d find some way to be active. And maybe somewhere in Aleppo I’d even find a treadmill with my name on it. But then I met Nathaniel – cool, confident, and utterly rational. He had concluded on the running front that it was obvious.
“Running is good for you,” he reasoned. “That’s not cultural, that’s a fact.” He didn’t ask, “Should we run?” He asked, “When should we run?”
I never quite reached Nathaniel’s level of mental zen, but mental zen is difficult to achieve when you’re ninety percent certain that your butt is getting visually groped. I may be paranoid and overly self-conscious, but I couldn’t find a way to run that didn’t make me feel hypocritical and selfish. Hypocritical because I professed to be so careful in all my interactions with Syrian culture. Selfish because I ultimately placed my own mental and physical health above being certain I wasn’t offending anyone.
I wore long clothes, yes, even a wedding band, and I was careful never go out without my male escort. But really, all of that was for me and my own piece of mind. No matter how careful I was not to announce my presence rudely or rub my differences in everyone’s faces, athletics in Syria is not for women. Period. I couldn’t fully justify to myself shocking all of Aleppo, rebelling against every societal norm known to Syrian women, in exchange for a few lousy endorphins.
But time went on, and our run developed to fulfill more and more of the things we both needed – freedom, challenge, perspective, and friendship. I banged on Nathaniel’s door every morning at 7:10. We were usually both dazed and grumpy, and hardly said a word as we pulled on our sneakers. If he went to the bathroom, I’d fall asleep on his bed. We went out in the drizzle, watched students march past us with flags when the Arab Spring movement began, and always, always made coffee when we got back. We gave one another foot rubs, did side-by-side planks, cooked healthy food, and described the favorite runs we’d show one another when we got home.
Meanwhile, I realized that I’d never be quite as happy watching yoga videos in my room as I am watching the world whiz by me thump by thump of sneaker on pavement. And, when a male classmate approached me to say that if I played in the campus soccer game people might feel uncomfortable, I realized I could honestly tell him that that didn’t bother me so much. In fact, I could accept it. I could accept that no matter how crowded the taxi, women do not sit in the front next to the driver. I could accept that people would always refer to Nathaniel by default in conversation.
These things didn’t enrage me in the way they might have in Jordan, didn’t cause me to call home and vow that I was going to start learning Chinese instead. Giving one thing to myself seemed to free me to cut life in Syria some slack and to avoid the kind of bitterness that eventually caused me to shut down in Jordan.
I still feel a tinge of guilt spying the red dust that has permanently stained my sneakers. But so often, too, I remember the feeling of warm Aleppo mornings, Nathaniel’s shaggy head bobbing ten feet ahead, when I slowed down enough to see what was around me.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]