Behind the Book: Siobhan Fallon’s THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES

The Guard

By Siobhan Fallon

August 27th, 2017 — 6:02 a.m.

In early 2011, my family and I lived near the U.S. embassy compound in Amman, Jordan—so near, in fact, that our apartment was inside the outer guard ring. I was very happy about this situation. Two weeks after my three-year-old daughter and I arrived, my husband was sent to Italy indefinitely to help with a NATO mission. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring was taking root and there were protests outside of the Syrian embassy, protests outside of the American embassy, protests in the rural areas outside of Amman over the high costs of cooking oil and bread, and protesters in Amman demanding political reforms. Then Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan, which was seen by many as another U.S. invasion of a country’s sovereign territory. Prime-time news was filled with burning American flags.

So you can imagine how much I loved seeing the U.S. embassy guards standing at the gates.

Everyone stationed at the embassy had to attend a Regional Security Brief within a few days of arrival. We were told to change up our driving routines in order to make it hard for us to be followed, to look under our vehicles for explosive devices, to not drive beyond Amman city limits after sunset, and to always let a fellow American know when we went on a trip.

We had also been warned about our Western ways, with a special emphasis on how American women needed to be sensitive to this culture quite different from our own. It was recommended that our clothing cover us from wrist to ankle. That we be aware conservative Muslim men would feel uncomfortable shaking the hands of women not related to them. How it was verboten to sit in the front seat of a taxi, the front seat being reserved for the wife of the taxi driver, and our presence there could be misconstrued as a sexual advance. How we should try to not touch the hand of a male cashier at a grocery store when he was handing over change, lest he view this as suggestive.

But the embassy guards — well, we did not need to worry about them; they had been thoroughly vetted, many had worked with Western companies in the past, some had even lived in America. Their English was better than the average Jordanian, and they were accustomed to our strange cultural differences, like American women wearing shorts and tank tops to the embassy gym (otherwise, we were advised to never wear shorts and tank tops in Jordan).

There was the guard who showed me video of his son’s gymnastics competitions. The guard who handed candy to my daughter, his pockets crammed with single-wrapped mints. The guard who meowed because he’d seen us feed stray cats. I brought them cookies, bottles of water, chocolate bars. I would have my daughter present the treats, and the guards would direct their thanks at her, press their hands to their hearts, say “Alhamdillah,” or Praise God,” pinch her cheek or ruffle her blonde hair.

The guard who worked the gate closest to my house spoke very little English, and while I spoke very little Arabic, we exchanged pleasantries almost every day. He was in his forties, clean-shaven, wore glasses, and would throw open his arms when he saw us. Most Jordanians said, “You are welcome!” This guard would shout, “A million, million welcomes!” Then one of us would inevitably say something the other would not understand, we’d pantomime merrily for a few incoherent minutes, and I’d wave good-bye.

About a month after my husband left, my daughter and I came to this particular gate and found him on duty with another guard, a young man with beautiful green eyes whose English was better than most. The older guard reached into his back pocket as I drew close, produced a carefully folded piece of paper, and handed it to me. I hesitated, knowing this was out of the ordinary.

I opened the letter and began to read, the words in capital letters, the writing painstakingly exact:

You are beautiful. Your smile is the sun—

I looked up, startled, feeling a blush warm my neck. The guard was watching me, nodding. I glanced down to read more just as the younger guard tore the paper out of my hand. He began to yell at the older man in rapid, angry Arabic, pointing at the high embassy wall behind us, then stabbing his finger in the direction of my apartment. I froze, trying to keep a smile on my face and ignore whatever was going on.

The young man crumpled the paper in his fist. He stared with those green eyes into mine.

“He does not understand,” he said. There was something combative about his face, his words. I nodded, chastened, as if I did understand. I took my daughter’s hand and walked toward the embassy. Later, I exited the embassy by another gate, sneaking around to my apartment building without having to pass those guards.

He does not understand.

What could those words possibly mean? And how could I ever find out? He didn’t understand I was married? He didn’t understand it was odd for a near-stranger to tell a woman she was beautiful?

Or he didn’t understand that I smiled and chatted with everyone, that it wasn’t a declaration of affection on my part?

***

They relocated those guards.

I’d occasionally see the older guard at one of the farther gates. He always welcomed me but he did not put his arms out in the joyful way he had before; he did not say “A million, million welcomes!”

And he never wrote me a letter again.

How I wish I had held on to it, read it in its entirety, studied the intentions and misspellings. It could have been nothing more than a show of friendship, Jordanians often being more effusive than Westerners. I had strangers tell me I was like a daughter to them. Once, I spent a few hours with a woman and she yelled as I drove away, “I love you! I love you! I love you!”

He does not understand.

So I started writing a short story about Jordan as a way to figure it out.

That story became a 300-page book, The Confusion of Languages, and it could have been much longer. All those endless opportunities for miscommunication.

I lived in Jordan for a year. While I never wore a tank top or sat in the front seat of a taxi, I’m still not sure exactly what I understand—not just about the Middle East, but about men and women. About people. About the ways we get one another wrong every day, about the moments that seem small but for some reason linger.

About all the fragile messages we want so desperately to share with another human being, only to find the distance is just too far, and it’s too easy to lose the words before we ever get the chance to read them.

***

For more of Siobhan Fallon’s essays and fiction, photos of Jordan, or to order her new novel, The Confusion of Languages, please see her website: www.siobhanfallon.com

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THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES explores female friendship amid cultural conflicts in Jordan

The Confusion of Languages

By Siobhan Fallon

Putnam — June 27, 2017

$26.00, 324 pages

Siobhan Fallon made a huge impression on me with her debut story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone (2011), about the experience of military wives living at Fort Hood, Texas, and the men who leave them and later return in a range of challenging mental and physical states.

Fallon, who lived at Fort Hood and now resides in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, returns with her first novel, The Confusion of Languages, set in Jordan during the Arab Spring uprising in May 2011. It is the story of two American women whose military husbands work at the U.S. Embassy in Amman. Cassie and Dan Hugo have been in Jordan for a while and are asked to serve as mentors to a newly-arrived (and newly married) couple, Margaret and Creighton (known as Crick) Brickshaw. Cassie has mixed feelings about mentoring Margaret, but she soon decides that a new friend, with a baby in tow, would be a good thing so far from home.

The plot is set in motion when Margaret and Cassie are involved in a minor rear-end car accident. Margaret is astonished the local police officer ‘s brief, on-the-spot investigation concludes that the accident was her fault. Cassie’s explanation that in Jordan the woman is always at fault, as a legal and cultural matter, falls on deaf ears. An embassy guard, called to the scene by Cassie, explains that Margaret simply needs to go to the police station to complete some paperwork admitting fault, and the embassy will take care of everything after that. It’s Jordan, and they do things differently here. Upset, Margaret decides to go home first so she can change, feed her baby, and then go to the police station while Cassie babysits. But the hours pass and Cassie does not hear from Margaret, nor does Margaret respond to Cassie’s increasingly perplexed and agitated texts. Cassie begins to worry about her naive and emotional friend.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. 

Before long, the plot of The Confusion of Languages becomes as much a thriller as a cultural exploration and character study. Fallon tells the story through Cassie’s first-person narrative over the afternoon and evening of May 13, 2011, and Margaret’s journal, which Cassie discovers and then reads while she waits for Margaret to return from the police station.

Cassie soon learns that Margaret has a secret that could change everything.

Margaret is as complex a character as one is ever likely to meet. Slender, blonde, and pretty, and seemingly extroverted, she is in fact carrying two heavy burdens. Margaret is loquacious, effusive, kind-hearted, and curious, the classic naif in this “fish out of water” tale. But, as we soon learn from her journal, she is also introspective and something of an intellectual.

She is struggling with her mother’s recent death from cancer and an oppressive childhood. She has placed all her hopes on her new life with Crick and their baby, Mather. Crick, the ultimate warrior, is trying to fulfill his sense of duty toward Margaret despite complications in their past.

Can this small-town girl find her way as a military spouse in the Middle East? She finds life in Jordan chaotic and difficult to understand. So, at the same time she is studying Arabic, she is also obsessed with the meaning of words in English, writing their definitions in her journal. She attempts to impose order on the chaos of the world and her life, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan’s complicated culture are often met with stubborn resistance and her determination to do things her way.

Cassie is coping with her own sense of loss in not being able to have a baby, and it is driving a wedge between her and Dan. Cassie is methodical and reasonable where Margaret is impulsive and unpredictable. Their friendship is erratic, moving from a developing intimacy to perplexing distance without any pattern.

Cassie’s efforts to guide Margaret through her transition to life in Jordan and to teach her about Jordanian culture, especially expectations regarding male-female interactions, are often met with stubborn resistance and Margaret’s determination to do things her way, without concern for Jordanian and Muslim customs. Margaret is certain that her warmth, kindness, and American “can do” approach will be sufficient in every situation.

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions.

But she is mistaken. Her innocent attempts to form friendships with Saleh, the maintenance man in her apartment building, and Hassan, a widower who works as one of the entrance guards at the embassy and who teaches her words and phrases in Arabic, lead to confusion and misunderstandings that go beyond “the confusion of languages.”

Cassie and Margaret may speak the same language, but they frequently misinterpret each other’s words, actions, and intentions. Margaret eventually rejects Cassie as her guide to Jordan, preferring to find her own way and place her trust in her new father-figure of a friend.

The Confusion of Languages probes the ramifications of these misunderstandings and the characters’ good intentions gone awry. Both Cassie and Margaret are good people, but they are flawed and deeply human. Here, as always in good fiction, that is what makes for a memorable novel. Although their alternating perspectives create a rich, insightful character development, I was occasionally distracted by the nature of Margaret’s journal, which seems overly sophisticated and literary for a journal but, admittedly, does make for a more compelling read. Fallon is reportedly now at work on a novel about foreign laborers in Abu Dhabi, so she appears to be carving out a niche as the novelist of the expat experience in the Middle East.