Braille Monitor                                                                January 2007


To Live Is to Give—My Experience in the Middle East

by Rebekah Jakeman

From the Editor: Rebekah Jakeman has appeared before in these pages. She is a young wife and mother who lives in Utah, where her husband is in law school. This summer she had another adventure. Here is her account of it:

A Jordanian family invited the Jakemans to share their meal even though they were virtual strangers. Here they are seated on the floor around a low table spread with food. Aliya, Rebekah, and Calan can be seen at the right of the picture. Their hosts are to the left, and Dave Jakeman was the photographer.

Even when my husband came home from law school one day and said, “I applied for a job in Jordan today,” I never really expected to find myself three months later living in an apartment surrounded by fields and sheep in the Middle East. But there I was with my family living in the predominantly Christian town of Hasan, just an hour north of Amman, Jordan’s capital.
My husband wanted to combine his two loves—law and Arabic—in a summer law internship abroad. He obtained a position working for an Arab firm, assisting in an international arbitration case. For him it meant long hours of research and writing. For me it meant living in a country I had never been to, hearing a language I didn’t speak, and being surrounded by people I had never met. It was a lesson in adapting, to say the least.

We arrived in Amman in the middle of the night and rode to our hotel in a bus blaring the latest Arab pop music. It wasn’t exactly the Marriott, but the low beds, unique bathroom facilities, and running water were enough to satisfy us. My welcome to Jordan came as I awoke to the Muslims’ call to prayer echoing over the loud speakers all over the city and then eating a breakfast of flatbread smothered in spreadable cheese.

Later that day we ventured out to find some sort of grocery store where we could buy food. As soon as I heard the roar of speeding traffic and felt the rough, uneven sidewalks, I tried to recall the advice of my cane travel instructor back home. I had asked Nick Schmittroth, one of Utah’s orientation and mobility instructors, if he had any advice for me before I went abroad. He had said, “Remember your travel skills and that most of the traffic rules won’t apply abroad. Have fun.” Now that I was here, I knew exactly what he meant. There were few or no stoplights or stop signs, and for that matter there were even fewer traffic rules. It was every driver or, in my case, pedestrian for herself. Whereas often in America assertive street crossings are the exception to the rule, in Jordan they were basically the only option.

My husband and I began by using a stroller in which we could push or pull our children down the busy streets, but when we realized that this was about as effective as swimming through mud, we opted for carrying the children or holding their hands.

I quickly discovered that I had to do without many things we take for granted in America. It was like learning blindness techniques; I had to figure out other ways of doing things since many commodities were just not available. I had to learn how to adapt. There were no Whirlpool washers and dryers, so we often had to wash and rinse our clothes in the bathtub and hang them out in the arid Jordan heat to dry. The whole country has a major shortage of water, so I learned to turn off the water much of the time that I was showering, washing dishes, or brushing my teeth. Few people owned cars, so we took taxis or walked. Because of the lack of sanitation, we had to bleach fruits, vegetables, and eggs before we ate them. Any time I talked to anyone, I had to have someone translate for me, or if they did know a little English, I had to decipher their words through their thick accents.

Although we had to do without many things, there were many advantages to the Arab culture. One was the standard of hospitality and generosity. Our neighbors invited us over for hummus, a glass of juice, or fresh fruit from the tree whenever they saw us walking in or out of the apartment building. They hardly even knew us, but they were anxious to befriend us.

When my stomach finally stopped doing flips at the knowledge that I would be spending part of the summer in the Middle East, I set a personal goal to find blind Jordanians, befriend them, and share the blessings of NFB philosophy. With this in mind you can imagine my great surprise in discovering that our welcoming neighbors had a blind daughter. Randa Sahanewneh, a friendly, twenty-one-year-old girl, graduated from the local university with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in Arabic during the months I was there.

When I imagined meeting the blind of Jordan, I expected to find homeless or otherwise impoverished individuals who lacked direction and know-how. But just as the sighted members of the American public are often ignorant of the truth about blindness, I discovered that I had a lot to learn about the Middle East, and Randa was a part of that.

Randa (right) teaches Rebekah Arabic Braille using Rebekah’s BrailleNote.

She was spunky, had a go-get-’em personality, and was content with her life. I rarely found her sitting around at home. She was either off playing the organ for the local Baptist church, tutoring students in Arabic, teaching at a local private school, or studying at the university. I discovered that I had to set appointments with her if I was ever to get to know her better. Until that point I had only heard Arabic spoken, and as a visual learner I was anxious to see something written down. So I asked Randa to tutor me in Arabic Braille. Using my notetaker, Randa would type different letters and words, and we would practice pronouncing them together. I thought it was interesting that letters in the Arabic Braille alphabet are actually words in the English Braille code. I would laugh as I tried to get my throat to make the Arabic sounds. I would try to practice the few phrases and words I knew as I spoke with taxi drivers, neighbors, and friends. One of my favorite phrases was “Ilhamdu lillah,” which means “Praise to God.” It is used in response to the question, “How are you?” and expresses utter happiness at being alive. This was something I found in Randa; she was happy to be alive and wanted to make the most of her life.

Randa had become blind because of a rare skin disease her mother was exposed to during her pregnancy. Before Randa was a year old, her parents found out about an organization in Switzerland that helped disabled infants and children. Wanting their daughter to regain her sight, they permitted a Swiss family to adopt her. This family then helped fund a series of operations to improve Randa’s vision. But in the end they discovered that there was no cure for Randa and that her blindness was permanent. The Swiss family had grown so attached to her that they wanted to keep her, but her parents felt it would be best if they took her back. A family friend advised Randa’s mother that she raise Randa like any of her other children and not treat her differently.

Randa was enrolled in Amman’s school for the blind when she was six years old. She then returned to her hometown for middle school and high school. Since blind people do not have many career options in Jordan—just telephone operator or schoolteacher—Randa was limited. She chose a career in education and started student teaching after her sophomore year. She told me that, when she begins teaching full-time, she will teach Braille, music, and religious studies to blind and sighted students.

When I asked Randa about herself and her blindness, she said, “I don’t like to sit.” Her sister seconded that by saying that she has a strong personality and likes to keep busy. As I got to know her better, I found Randa had what I consider an NFB-heart. She wanted the best out of life and to contribute to society. More often than not I found her helping others. Even though I did my best to share my knowledge and skills of blindness with Randa and her family, I was constantly learning from her example what it means really to live as a blind person.

It’s not enough just to receive; we need to give back. As Americans and as members of the NFB, we have been given many privileges and opportunities. This means, as Randa commented, that we shouldn’t “like to sit.” We need to be busy—busy sharing with others what we have learned. Randa showed me that as she took time to teach me Arabic Braille. I felt inspired to follow her example. When my family and I flew home to Utah by way of Vienna, Austria, I was fortunate to meet a Russian girl who was blind. In the few moments we had, I shared with her what I could about the NFB and the benefits of the long white cane.

Another opportunity to share presented itself a few weeks later when I met a blind Chinese woman. She is here in America learning English and has just recently lost her vision. I immediately gave her my phone number, and we arranged to meet again. Since then she has come to my home several times, and I have tutored her on how to use JAWS with Word and on the Internet. My hope is that a better knowledge of JAWS will help her learn English faster. In this small way I’m just passing along what many others have given to me. The skills we learn as blind people don’t just open doors of opportunities for us; they open doors for all those we interact with. NFB philosophy rings true because it is compatible with basic human behavior. We share what we learn, not just to better our own lives, but to better the lives of others.

Whenever I tell people that I was in the Middle East this summer, they seem somewhat horrified. They mention that they are glad that I’m home safe and alive. What they don’t know is that it took my going halfway around the world and interacting with people like Randa to be reminded as a blind person what it really means to be alive. Ilhamdu lillah.