An Unexpected Trip

Travel Stories: Katherine Lonsdorf went to Jordan to broaden her views. An assault by a cab driver changed her perspective forever.

04.16.10 | 11:57 AM ET

Photo courtesy of Katherine Lonsdorf

I remember the moment before the first punch. He was looking down on me, his fist clenched, his eyes angry and clouded, his arm pulled back. I was in Amman, Jordan, and the hot desert sun shone behind him to create an eerie silhouette. I screamed, eyes wide in disbelief. I don’t remember if I braced for it or not. I don’t think it would have mattered.

The rest of the punches all blend together; after the first, 10 more aren’t all that distinct. I don’t remember pain or blood or the feeling of my face breaking in three separate places. The touching, the grabbing, the clawing, the choking, the screaming: clouded and surreal.

What’s vivid is my reaction. It was the first time I have ever proven to myself that I wanted to live, that I valued my existence; the first time I have actively recognized my rights, my complex role as a woman, and the sacred ownership of my body. I took it all for granted before that day. I’ve thought about it every day since.

This all happened during my junior year of college. I’d gone abroad to challenge my views—and on the 16th day of my life in Jordan, my perspective of myself, of social roles, of the world changed forever.

American women abroad—especially in the Middle East—all seem to find themselves trapped by the same stereotype, at least to some degree: easy, promiscuous, inviting, and naïve. Nearly everywhere I went in Jordan, in Syria, in Egypt, and even in Qatar, the stares, the shouts, the touches all confirmed my unwavering place in society: as an object first, and a person second. It became clear to me that being a white, blonde woman in the Middle East seemed to mean two overarching things to the men around me: easy sex, and the possibility of a green card.

For most foreign women I knew, this was something that sank in slowly. The first weeks were too overwhelmingly exotic for many of the cultural and social norms to make themselves felt. Then began a gradual but gnawing realization that with every blatant stare, rude comment, provoking grab, or lack of acknowledgment, we were different. This wasn’t America, and we were nowhere near equal. What’s more: The majority of the population seemed to accept this, even expect it.

But my initiation was sudden, fast and painful. There was nothing subtle about it. In the second week of my life abroad, I was abducted by a taxi driver on my way home from the grocery store. It was broad daylight, in the western, trendy Abdoun neighborhood of Amman. But that didn’t matter—I didn’t know much Arabic and I was obviously foreign. I smiled too much, I laughed too loud, I talked and made eye contact.

As I got into the cab, I gave a sloppy Arabic explanation for where I was headed. He asked where I was from. “Oh, Ameeeeerica.” He replied almost theatrically. “Big,” he said in English, drawing that word out too. “America, good!” He gave a punctuated two thumbs up. “You, me, friends?” He asked, in English again, his eyes wide in the rear view mirror. I don’t remember how I responded, suddenly uncomfortable. I realized I wasn’t headed home when it was much too late.

We ended up on a dirt road on the outskirts of Amman, no houses or people in sight. Those same eyes in the rear view mirror suddenly turned cold. “Oops,” he said, with terrifying flatness. In one swift motion the driver locked the cab doors and hurdled over the front seat to pin me down in back, and my clothes were ripped and torn. I managed one call on my cell phone before he threw it to the front seat, and we were alone. I screamed, he punched. I kicked, he choked. I bit, he hit. 

It probably lasted all of 10 minutes; I blank on most of it. I just remember an intense will to live, coupled with outrage and disgust at the injustice of being so violently objectified. Ultimately, I remember the look of astonishment in his eyes when he realized I would not submit.

Between the Paris Hilton images and the Britney Spears music videos, my individuality had been lost in translation. My personal empowerment, my self-reliance had never been part of his consideration. I was not the easy American woman, the promiscuous American woman, the inviting American woman; I was the enabled, proud, and independent American woman. 

Thanks to him, I am also now a much less naïve American woman.

He stopped and I jumped from the cab. I grabbed my groceries. I demanded my phone. He offered to give me a ride home, and I almost laughed between sobs. I looked him straight in the eye as he slammed his door and barreled away. 

Three Jordanian young men, driving by soon after, found me bloody, in shock, and crying in the middle of the road. Without realizing it, they offered me the first in a series of second looks at a culture I almost dismissed. They called the police, brought me water and ice, stayed with me for an hour to wait for help. In broken English, they managed to string together one sentence: “No worry, it will be okay.” 

The next two weeks were spent between hospitals, police stations and Arabic classes. I was contacted by the American embassy, the UN, the royal family. The police were committed to finding the cab driver, and they called me every day. Nothing like this had ever happened in Jordan before, they told me—at least, not to an American. Everywhere I went, with my battered face and my known story, it seemed someone wanted to apologize, to excuse, to sympathize.

An old Bedouin man found me soon after the attack. He took one look at me, shook his head, and said sadly, “There are good men, and there are bad. In the whole world. This man, he was bad. But we, we are not all bad. You understand?”

A woman, her face covered and her head down, came up to my translator as I waited at the police station for a medical exam. She said something in Arabic. My translator turned to me and said flatly, “She wants to know if your husband is beating you too.”

Everywhere I went, people stared, and the stares were much different stares than I received before or after my face was healed. The women stared with understanding and pity, the men stared with a mix of shame and anger. I realized that I was in no way the only person caught in this story. While my pain may have been more recent, my situation more extreme, my experience was part of a continuous, daily strain on everyone—man or woman, American or Arab.

Going back to America never really crossed my mind; in fact, three days after the attack, I petitioned my home school to let me stay abroad the full year, instead of the one semester I had planned. I wanted to make sure that awful cab ride was the beginning of my time in Jordan, and not its definition. I consider that one of the best decisions I have ever made. The resulting year was one I’ll reflect upon for the rest of my life.

Still, throughout the year, my feelings about being a woman—an American woman—in Jordan only became more distressing. The catcalls, the grabs, the assumed inferiority never stopped. I learned to keep my eyes down, to smile less, to speak to men only in Arabic and only when addressed. As best as I could with my blonde hair and white skin, I tried to assimilate.

It wasn’t until about six months in that I began to realize that my assumptions about the average Jordanian woman were just as misplaced as my attacker’s perception of me. It took time, but I allowed myself to take another look. What I found in my teachers, my Jordanian classmates, and in my daily life around the city were some of the strongest women I have ever met. From filmmakers fighting harassment to journalists reporting honor killings, health care professionals teaching sexual education and female college students aspiring to study law in America, Jordanian women also proved that social norms and stereotypes did not define them.

One of the women I met in Jordan had recently made a documentary about sexual harassment in Amman. She told me that she worked hard to “humanize” men in her film, to condemn their behavior but “not who they are as people.” Since then, both while in Jordan and after I returned home, I’ve thought about what I could do to help “humanize” American women abroad. Once I was more comfortable in Amman, while other Americans were claiming Canadian citizenship, I refused to excuse my nationality. I strongly believed, and still do, that the only way Americans can shed stereotypes abroad is by traveling with pride, respect and cultural awareness—and making it less likely for Americans to be defined by satellite images and sound bites.

Coming home—first to Wisconsin and then back to school in Los Angeles—I was suddenly surrounded by things that had been taboo—short skirts, tank tops, male friends, individuality, and an expectation that I was an independent woman capable of having a job, a voice, and my own life plan. I felt like I was handed every social freedom for which those women in Jordan fought every day, but for the first time in my life I could fully appreciate them all.

They never found that cab driver, despite the hours I spent looking at lineups, mug shots and impounded taxis. With more than 10,000 registered taxi drivers in Amman, and probably thousands of others unregistered, it’s not surprising he disappeared. 

I spent a lot of time being angry about what happened. Part of me still is, but a much larger part of me has tried to transform the experience into something meaningful, if not positive. The assault forced me to open my eyes early in my time abroad, and I don’t think I would have gained as much insight otherwise. America may provide me independence, but Jordan granted me awareness.