Three wives, 10 kids, and a wealthy man: the day I met my host family in Amman, Jordan
As soon as I put the last stuff back in my filthy backpack, I walked towards the border to get back to the bus. I was the last to board because I refused to take my things out at the Israeli border control. Where I am from, it is highly discouraged to take your stuff out in an airport or immigration because people can plant illegal stuff in your luggage so I always remember what my mom told me: no matter what, do not open your luggage in airports.
Everyone were looking at me in a what-the-fck-took-you-so-long kind of thing. It was June and weather in this part of the world was extremely unbearable. They weren’t surely happy about waiting that long.
“Shukran,” I told the driver. As soon as I took my seat, we crossed the King-Hussein Bridge, the least busy border crossing I’ve ever done in my life. Signs in Hebrew and Arabic stand tall on the side of the highway. On this side, I can still see the young Israeli soldiers, guns hanging on their shoulders. They waved back as we finally paved our way to Amman.
Ammann wasn’t the way I pictured it. I expected to see ruins the moment I enter the country but there were tall and modern buildings, rotondas that look like you are in Buenos Aires or Madrid, and of course, a chain of 5-star hotels next to each other. I arrived at my stop, The Sheraton Amman where I was instructed to wait for my new boss at the lobby. “Shukran jazilaan,” I told the driver again. I don’t know any other words in Arabic and I love how it sounds. Plus, I say it very well. Should I stay here longer, I will definitely learn how to master this language. He nodded and pointed to the entrance of Sheraton. It didn’t look like a hotel. It’s not even a building per se. It looked like a massive house of a very wealthy Arab.
I never met Sayed Ameer in person. When I was looking into traveling Jordan, I found this restaurant that was looking for social media savvy people to stay with them for a few weeks, or maybe a few months. I’ve always fantasized about going to Jordan. I am so intrigued by their culture, how they treat their women, the dynamics of each household. This was the best opportunity for me to get to know all this. Sayed Ameer came to me as I was sitting on the lobby’s sofa. I expected for someone wearing Dishdasha or Thoub, a one-piece full-body covering dress for men in Jordan. This country was still very traditional when it comes to traditional clothing. But Sayed Ameer was wearing a coat and tie, like a Westerner.
Assalamualaikum, I greeted him as I stood up. He looks way younger and informal on his profile picture on the volunteering website but I was sure it was him.
“Wa alaikum salaam. Welcome to Jordan, Trisha.” He responded.
The Latina in me thought to give him a hug and a kiss but I suddenly remembered I was in another country where there are many rules about physical contact between a man and a woman. I already had lots of trouble with my Latin customs when I was in Egypt so I made sure to avoid the hugs and kisses when greeting someone who is not related to you.
“How was your trip? How was Israel?” he asked.
“It was fine, I really enjoyed it,” I responded. At this point in time, I am new to the Middle East and I had no idea how much I can say to Arab people when it comes to Israel. I don’t want to be surrounded by Arabs discussing my non-existent political views or the bitter relationship between the Middle East and Israel. It’s such a messy topic and nobody wins at the end of every “conversation.” But he didn’t seem like it matters to him if I chose to travel to Israel before coming to Jordan. I feel like Sayed Ameer is one of those guys who don’t have the time to say sh*t about Israel. And that made opened my eyes to a modern Arab world. I realized that there are some who don’t want to spend their energy in this never-ending war.
“We will pick-up some gifts for the kids and then I will take you to the house. Please follow me.”
We went to the Sheraton entrance to find his grey Mercedes-Benz S-Class. His driver took my stuff and opened the door for me. Sayed Ameer entered the back seat while I was instructed to sit in front. We drove to Zahran Street where I saw famous American food chains like Popeyes. There were lots of modern coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. There’s even a KFC and massive shopping malls! Little by little, I was getting to know Amman and I am beginning to like it. It’s so modern it wasn’t exactly what I expected to see.
When the driver pulled over King Abdullah II Street, Sayed Ameer went down and entered a store called E-store. The car was very quiet since I boarded and I wasn’t sure if it is customary for a woman like me to be in a car alone with a man, or let alone be chatty with him. I am a very chatty person but being a first-timer in Jordan, I needed to adjust a little bit. I did not say anything and I bet my sister is laughing her ass off while reading this. She’d be like, “you stopped yourself from talking? I wonder how difficult that might have been for you.” She’s right. It’s difficult for me not to chat but I kept my cool until Sayed Ameer came back with 5 grey paper bags that say “E-store: an authorized Apple reseller.”
What is in those 5 bags, I thought. Though Sayed Ameer is a very outgoing man, I didn’t want to ask questions right away even if I am dying of curiosity. What did he buy the kids? Please don’t tell me these are brand new iPads for 5 children? I was dying to know but I kept my mouth shut. We drove the same direction, back to the Sheraton, right to another street and finally, arrived at Sayed Ameer’s million-dollar home. No, I don’t know the exact price of the house but it looked like it cost a lot. The house is very modern, like a luxury estate in some tropical country. The driver handed me my backpack and I said thank you. He then pointed to the door on the right and gestured for me to follow Sayed Ameer. There were 2 doors outside and I’m guessing the left door is the entrance to the family’s private home, the other for household staff like me. I followed Sayed Ameer where he directed me to my room aka ‘the pool house.’ How terrible it would be to have this pool and I can’t even wear a bikini in Jordan, I thought. The pool is separated from the big house so there was guaranteed privacy for me.
The room? My mouth gaped open when I saw where I am going to stay for the next 2 months. There was a bed in the middle, a mini desk to serve as my office, a mini-bar (oh God!), lots of towels, and a bathroom with a tub. My room walls were glass but there were curtains for privacy.
“This will be your room. When you’re ready, the children are waiting to meet you in the living room.” Sayed Ameer left and I lay down the soft bed with fancy Middle Eastern sheets.
Ah, the children. I am not only going to hype Ameer’s restaurant’s social media presence but I am also here to practice English with his children. I’ve done this job before in Cordoba, Argentina in the same setting. Though I am a certified English teacher, the families only hire me to keep the English language present in their household. This way, the children will learn to be able to practice and make English their environment. I wanted to shower but I scheduled it for later because I want to stay long in that tub. I don’t want to rush. I removed my jacket and went to the main house. I had jeans and a black shirt on. I remembered to take my scarf to cover my head. It is not required for foreigners in Jordan but through my time in the Middle East, I learned how many women get uncomfortable with Western women like me who show too much skin. Plus, I don’t know them yet so it’s better to dress properly.
As I opened the glass door of the main house, I saw lots of children gathered around the living room, each holding a box from the e-store. He got them iPhones!!! From the outside, I couldn’t see how many children were there nor how many iPhone boxes were but I am sure it was an iPhone.
“Assalamualaikum”, I greeted. It was only Sayed Ameer and a bunch of children. No other people were present but the housekeeper who was pouring tea. I sat down and drank my tea. There were also lots of cookies and sweets on the table. The housekeeper gave me a small plate with luqaimat, a very popular Middle Eastern pastry which is soft fried donuts saturated in sweet syrup. The first time I had this was in the Palestine territories.
While I was attending to my sweet fix, I turned my head around and counted how many children there are. In total, they were 8, probably between ages 4-12. That’s a lot of children! I wondered if these were all his? Seeing that each one of them was holding their brand-new iPhone6, it is very obvious that all of these kids were Sayed Ameer’s. But what I noticed is that he had more daughters than sons. There were only 2 boys! One is sitting on Sayed Ameer’s lap, about 6 years old, and the other is a big teenage-looking boy, probably about 12 or 13 years.
“Children, this is Trisha. She will be your English teacher. From here on, everyone will speak English in this house while Trisha is living with us.”
There was a soft sound of protest. They started speaking in Arabic and I couldn’t pick up.
“No excuses. And I said we are all going to speak in English. Including me and your moms.”
“I like English. No problem if I speak English all the time in the house,” the smallest girl who seemed to be Sayed Ameer’s favorite for her badassery spoke. She came close to me and touched my hair. “Your hair is very nice,” she remarked.
“Shukran,” I said. Then I remembered the new house rule. “I mean thank you.” I reverted.
Sayed Ameer introduced the children one by one. The teenage boy is called Omar. He is 13 years old and has the right-hand man vibe. Next are Noor and Ghena, both 11 years old. Farah, 9. Besan, 8. Joud, 6. Ahmad, the little boy is also 6 years old. Then finally, the little one who told me I have nice hair, Tala. She is 5 years old. They all seem to be very nice kids but I had a feeling I will have trouble with them being spoiled. I hated spoiled kids!
I started teaching English to kids because the pay is higher. As opposed to teaching adults, I can get 3x the pay in regions like Southeast Asia and Latin America. My agreement with Sayed Ameer is that I work for the restaurant as a social media manager and live with them to “teach” the kids. No lessons, whatsoever. I just need to talk to them a lot in English – something that isn’t so hard for me. In exchange, I get to live in a fabulous house with unlimited meals. Plus I get a weekly stipend of $275 USD per week for anything I may need during my stay. This was a great deal for me so I will do my best to meet Sayed Ameers’ expectations when it comes to the jobs assigned to me. We didn’t discuss a lot about my working hours in the restaurant but I feel like Sayed Ameer was more focused on his children speak English if not fluently, then frequently.
2 grown women entered the house. They looked at me for a little bit but went straight to the e-store paper bags to get their iPhones. They were so covered I wonder if one of them is the wife.
“This is Sadeen and Mayar, my older daughters.” I greeted them and they greeted back. They seem to be more interested in their iPhones. They didn’t pay attention to the foreign girl their age that their father brought to the house. I was about to grab another luqaimat when Sadeen stops me. “Sweets, not to good for you. Come with me and Mayar, we will have a nice late lunch. We’re also very hungry. Hala, please prepare food for us!” she commanded to the housekeeper.
Hala pranced to the kitchen with a massive tray that can hold over 20 teacups. We followed her lead.
Sadeen and Mayar were 24 and 22 years old. I was only 25 then so we didn’t have that much of an age gap. I feel like I am going to hang out with them for the time that I am staying here. We sat down at the kitchen counter while watching Hala prepare our food.
“My father says you are from Asia and your job is to travel the world, is that correct?” Sadeen asked. I have no idea how much Sayed Ameer talked about me but she seemed curious about what I do.
“Yes, I am a travel blogger. I mean, that’s my job. I travel, take pictures, and sometimes teach English.” I then explained the job that I do. That I will take any job as long as it keeps me traveling. I also told her how I love staying in local families like theirs. Mayar who was still configuring her new iPhone on the far end side of the kitchen counter remarked, “so you’re just staying with people even if you don’t know them?”
I didn’t know how to answer. Sayed Ameer and I did not talk about what I can discuss or what I cannot with his children, especially her daughters who have the same age as me. I tried to sort of sugarcoating the words until I gave up. I don’t need to change my ways to these ladies. They don’t look conservative to me at all and with the way they are speaking to me, they are probably just curious. I also don’t like limiting the learning of these young women about the world. Though they lived comfortably with a wealthy father, they should know that there’s a different world out there.
I told them about how I studied abroad in Italy, how I backpacked Southeast Asia and Latin America for long periods of time. And how I arrived in the Middle East to start my journey in Israel. They didn’t react much when I said Israel. But there was a little sharpness in Mayar’s looks.
“Did our father tell you about our moms? Or our set-up in the house?” Sadeen asked.
“No, I just arrived today and I’m afraid that I haven’t been told anything but to speak English with the little ones all the time,” I replied.
“Oh, well, you are in for a ride. We are a big family and for the next few weeks that you are staying with us, you’re going to get so involved. There is a lot of drama in this family.” Mayar chuckled.
I didn’t want to meddle with their family affairs but I was curious on what Mayar and Sadeen were pertaining to. “What do you mean?” I asked. Hala laid three plates on the counter and a pyrex with Mansaf. I didn’t have Mansaf in a while and I was really enticed to dig in. I paid attention to Sadeen while helping Hala set the table.
“My father has three wives. My mom, Mayar’s mom, and Ahmad’s mom. It’s a bit complicated. But what you need to know by now is that Mayar’s and Ahmad’s mom live in the same part of the house, while my mom lives in the biggest part of the house, separate from the two other women. They have their own entrances to their private homes and my mom never crosses paths with Mayar’s and Ahmad’s mom. It’s just the way they are. It will be world war if they came across each other. This is why my father designed this house like this.” Sadeen started.
Sayed Ameer is a wealthy man. I wondered why he didn’t keep his three wives (wait, three?! I didn’t know there were three til I arrived!) in different places. It’s easier that way and I am sure he can afford it. But I see Sayed Ameer loves his children so much. I guess he didn’t want to be away from any of them even if living altogether means it will trigger a war between the wives.
Under traditional Islamic law, not just in Jordan but in the Middle East, a wealthy man like Sayed Ameer can take up to 4 wives and an unlimited number of concubines. A concubine is a woman who lives with a man but has a lower status than his wife or wives. So far, in this house, I didn’t see any. A woman can only marry one man and child marriages are allowed. From my time as an ambassador for Girl Rising, 8% of girls in Jordan are married before the age of 18. In countries like this, child marriage is acceptable in compelling circumstances. Though I do not agree with this and I keep putting girls to school all over the world, I am in a different culture now and I should not judge this family’s values because it’s theirs. It’s not mine. The problem will only come if their beliefs are imposed on me.
However, I was silently wishing that Sayed Ameer does not have a young wife. I mean, a wife that is less than 18 years old. I am starting to like my first day of stay here and I am not sure if I will still continue my work with this family is Sayed Ameer is married to a minor. It is against my values but then again, everywhere in the world, everywhere I went to, culture and religion are the hardest things to tackle. There seem to be no right or wrong when it comes to these two subjects.
“Shukran, Hala. The meal was so nice.” Mayar quickly translated for me and Hala gave me a big smile.
“Omar is the eldest man in this family. Though Mayar and I are 10 years older than him, he runs this house. All the siblings follow his lead. He will try to boss you because you are a woman and a foreigner. He will treat you like a servant because that’s how he looks at people in service.” Sadeen continued. He warned me so much about Omar and his very macho upbringing. I also can’t believe that they are way older than Omar but they follow him. If my youngest brother bosses me around, I will freak out and not comply at all. This culture is not new to me. I know about women, gender, and society in Islamic countries like Jordan. It just felt so different when you’re experiencing it first-hand. I never thought it would be that real.
“Where are they? I mean your moms?”
“Hmmm. somewhere in the house.” Sadeen said. This house was so big, “somewhere” was vague for me. I mean, what does she mean “somewhere?” They don’t go down to eat, or what? But then I realized that could be the case. They probably have their own suite with kitchen and everything they need in their part of the house, so much that they don’t need to go to the common rooms like the children. They also have housekeepers so they are not required to attend to any house chores, like a normal wife in the Middle East. On top of that, they are avoiding each other so maybe they’re really just “somewhere” in the house. I am so curious to meet them. I know there’s a lot of drama in this kind of household but I never met three women ith one husband before. I was so excited to pick their brains.
I excused myself for a nap and a hot bath that I’ve been wanting to do since I arrived. Sadeen and Mayar were very nice and modern girls. I am glad I was making friends right away on my first day.
“Tonight, we are going for a ride around Amman with some of our girlfriends. Would you like to join us?” Sadeen asked. Mayar looked at her like it wasn’t a good idea.
Rich Jordanian girls driving around the city with a Mercedes? “Hell yeah, I’m coming,” I responded.
“Alright then, we’ll leave after dinner! Don’t forget to bring a jacket. It can get chilly here at night.” Sadeen added.
“Sure, thanks!” I responded as I walked out.