Photo: Shutterstock/Matthias Kestel

Don't Smile at the Men

by Nikki Hodgson Sep 5, 2013

My irritation with Christie is unfair; I have no right to project my fears onto her. This is my mantra in the desert of Wadi Rum. The lines I repeat over and over, rolling through sand dunes on the back of a camel.

But each time I tell myself to let my anger go, a snapshot flits through my head. Every slur digs into my skin. The man who grabbed my hair in an alleyway, yanking on it hard. The idiots who squeezed my ass on a crowded bus, at a stoplight, in the corner of a market. The man on the Metro in Paris who cupped my breasts and then gave me a thumbs-up sign. The boys in Jerusalem who run past and smack me, shouting and laughing like it’s all supposed to be some sort of game. I dig my fingers so tightly into my palms that my knuckles turn white, my nails leave four little red crescent welts on the palm of each hand.

Christie had only been in the Middle East for three days when she accompanied us to Petra. She kept getting stuck in conversations with men who saw her friendly demeanor as an invitation to expect more than she was intending to give. Sitting on the steps, staring at the wide open Jordanian sky, Aviya and I lazily argued over whose turn it was to go retrieve her.

“I got her out of the hotel bar,” Aviya said while adjusting her sunglasses. “This is definitely your turn.”

I dusted myself off and walked back to the shop where we had left her twenty minutes before. Christie was out in front with a young man who reeked of cologne, his hair pushed neatly off his face. She kept enthusiastically nodding, a Midwestern smile plastered to her face.

This was not a habit I learned in the Middle East; it’s a defensive mechanism of women in cities everywhere.

“Hey, Chris,” I waved as I approached. “We’re gonna go get dinner.”

She picked up her bags and apologized to him for having to leave. “It’s okay,” the stranger said. “I’ll see you at the bar later. I have your number.”

I grabbed her elbow and steered her down the road. “You gave him your number? Are you insane?”

“She gave him her number,” I told Aviya.

Aviya rolled her eyes. “Of course she did.”

We both liked Christie, but after two days of traveling, her naïveté had become taxing and tedious. Aviya lived in Israel; I lived in the West Bank. We understood the two identities we must assume and adjusted ourselves accordingly.

At home and with friends, in the social circle of family dinners and wedding parties, nights out and afternoons gossiping over coffee, I felt free to smile and laugh and flirt. But on the street, I became like a crab, scuttling sideways, waving pincers, a hard shell masking a soft interior. When unknown men approached me, I gave a curt answer, ducked my head and walked faster. This was not a habit I learned in the Middle East; it’s a defensive mechanism of women in cities everywhere. Christie seemed unwilling or unable to adjust.

Walking back to the hostel, Aviya suggested we grab a taxi. Christie opened the door to the closest cab; I yanked her back. “How much?” Aviya asked. He wanted four times the normal price. Aviya laughed, I shook my head. Christie hung back, converting the price into dollars. “It’s not that expensive,” she said, smiling at him and then at us.

Aviya and I kept walking. We hailed the next cab, growling at Christie to keep her damn mouth shut.

When we arrived in Wadi Rum, our three camels were strung out along a dirty rope, their shadows stretching into dramatic shapes on the sand. The guide walked. I wrapped a scarf around my head and squinted, watching the wind blow the sand around his feet, feeling uncomfortable and guilty. We stopped for tea once, the camels groaning as they dropped to their knees. Surrounded by the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Khaz’ali Canyon and its petroglyphs, Mount Um Dami rising from the valley, we had two days to sift through our thoughts. Speaking to one another over the wind was impossible, our camels stayed far apart.

I kept repeating my mantra, stewing over old scenes, and wondering why some men feel that my body is something they can press their fingertips against. My clothes weren’t provocative; nobody could use that tired and infuriating excuse. Was I being smart or jaded by adjusting myself to become a thin-lipped, scowling exterior, marching through the crowded streets with a “don’t fuck with me” glint in my eyes?

I miss that version of me, the girl who hadn’t yet learned to scream.

After two days of shifting uncomfortably on the back of a camel, I realize I am more frustrated with the way my anger consumes me than with Christie’s naïveté. We have established rules, ways of walking through the street, elbows out, gnashing teeth at the men who think a smile is an invitation. And here was Christie, blithely walking through it all as Aviya and I threw out elbows and feet, kicking hard at the groping hands. I miss that version of me, the girl who hadn’t yet learned to scream.

At night in this valley of the moon, we sit around a campfire with our knees pushed up to our chins. The desert stars are so beautiful it makes your heart hurt as you sit struggling to solidify all the ideas in your soul that make you feel bigger and stronger than circumstance. I ask Christie if she thinks we’re too jaded. “I think you’re too afraid,” she says. The answer surprises me. First, because I’d gotten used to thinking of Christie as someone we had to protect. And secondly, because of course I’m afraid.

Anything could be behind the mask of a man’s smile. The open palm of a hand, capable of a caress, is equally capable of slamming down hard on your face, pushing you against a wall and gutting you as the cement digs into the small of your back.

Christie shrugs her shoulders. “I don’t want to assume that everyone is out to get me. It seems exhausting.” She gets up and goes to the tent.

Aviya stretches out, leans back, and lets out a low sigh. “She’ll learn.”

But this just makes me sad. Like staring up at the thousands of stars and seeing only the black abyss of space.

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