US mission to Muslims: not easy

Bush has called for the Peace Corps to reach out to the Islamic world.

Peace Corps volunteer Peggy Greene, tall and gray-haired, a self- assured pusher of life's envelopes, left a career plotting five-star vacations for Seattle CEOs to teach English to the children of Jordanian shepherds.

She says it's a great idea for President Bush to double the number of Peace Corps volunteers and ask the agency, as he said in his State of the Union address last month, to focus on "development and education and opportunity in the Islamic world."

But she and Mr. Bush part ways on just who would gain from putting the Peace Corps on a mission to Muslims. The president imagines the agency helping "to lead the world toward the values that will bring lasting peace."

Greene, who has spent 18 months living in this village atop the rounded, sparsely vegetated hills that rise over the Dead Sea, says Americans would be the main beneficiaries. "For the most part, we're not making a difference" in the countries where the Peace Corps operates, she says. "It's the volunteers who have benefited."

The experience of the Peace Corps in Jordan - the agency's only outpost in the Middle East and one of a handful in predominantly Muslim countries - illustrates the paradoxes of America as global leader.

One is that Americans, as the Peace Corps well knows, have at least as much to learn as to teach. A second is that the most welcome ambassador of American values is often someone who doesn't act very, well, American. And a third is that perhaps no country on Earth is regarded as ambivalently as the US, especially in the the Middle East.

Peace Corps volunteers here say they hear the same sentiment again and again when their discussions with Jordanians turn to world affairs: "We hate your government, but we like you."

Jordan is among the most pro-American countries in the Middle East, which is a long way from saying that it is wholeheartedly pro-American. Jordanians admire and partake of American culture, education, and even ideals, but they are unimpressed with US policy, particularly as it relates to Israel and the Palestinians. It is not too much to say that many Jordanians hate America's increasingly ardent support for Israel.

While Peace Corps volunteers and staff members are enthusiastic about presidential support, they are also realistic about the willingness of Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, to host them. "That's one question," observes Peace Corps country director Darcy Neill, "where would we go? Name me some countries."

Created in 1961 by President Kennedy, the Peace Corps has sent some 165,000 Americans to 135 countries in order to provide technical assistance where it is wanted, promote a better understanding abroad of Americans, and help Americans learn about the world. Today roughly 7,000 volunteers live in 70 countries.

The Peace Corps came to Jordan in 1997 and now accommodates 70 volunteers who live throughout this small country of 6 million people.

Half the volunteers are young college graduates, a quarter are over 50, and the rest are in between. About half teach English, mainly in elementary schools, and the rest work on other community-development projects. The program concentrates on promoting education and opportunity for girls and women.

Tuning in the gossip

While working in Jordan offers some modern conveniences absent elsewhere, in many ways it's no picnic. "If you're a woman, you're supposed to be quiet, to be silent," says Nicole Hurley, who also teaches English at a rural school. "Talk behind the person's back, but don't be confrontational."

Most of the volunteers are women and most are single, a status that in Jordan means living at home and waiting for marriage. Women volunteers find they must be very wary of the village gossip mill. Educated in the ways of Western women by reruns of "Baywatch" and the "Bold and the Beautiful," some Jordanians think it is only a matter of time before Peace Corps volunteers go jogging in bathing suits or apply their wanton wiles to local men.

Dressing modestly, studying Arabic, and absorbing the culture all serve as defenses against such misconceptions. So can living with a family, since volunteers become de facto daughters and sisters to a group that can protect their reputations, but the trade-off is a loss of freedom, privacy, and space.

Volunteers say conforming to the culture opens doors and allows them to build the personal relationships that are the heart of the Peace Corps experience. Being in tune with the gossip, and not the object of it, can help a volunteer hear about someone who might be interested in contributing to a project.

But conformity also has its limits. There is one area in which volunteer Elisa Dry says she refuses to adapt to Jordanian mores and expectations: "in my independence, I have to admit." Unmarried Jordanian woman, with rare exceptions, don't live alone, as Ms. Dry does. They also don't "go out after dark and do things, and I will do that."

But maintaining her independence hardly seems to impede her effectiveness as a volunteer. Working at Jordan's top-rated center for girls - a villa in the city of Madaba where some 400 girls can do everything from play ping-pong to learn computers - Dry has won the admiration of supervisor Raghda Zawaydeh. "She's doing great work with us here," says the effusive Ms. Zawaydeh about her American assistant. "She has good relations with the girls, good relations with their families, good relations with the persons who are responsible for the center."

'A vast education'

Greene, a travel agent turned English teacher, says her time in Jordan has been a vast education. "I am very much pro-Palestinian and I wasn't before I came here," she says, as a result of what she has learned about "Israeli aggression."

In a monthly e-mail, she sends to some 300 people back home, Greene has written about the strong family values she sees, the down-to-the-last-morsel hospitality she has received, and a three-day, 25-sheep wedding feast she attended. Among her Jordanian neighbors, colleagues, and students, she has tried to promote water conservation, more creative teaching methods in an educational system built on rote memorization, and an acceptance of mistakes as a necessary step to learning.

She has become a "compulsive" computer-solitaire player during quiet nights in her concrete house, which sits on a windblown hilltop in an area that received electricity in 1990.

Always, there is the line between what Jordanian society asks of her and what Greene is willing to do. She declined her landlord's suggestion that she cover her hair with a scarf. She even wears short sleeves in the summertime. She says: "I tend to push the envelope, and I can get by with it because of my age." Being in her 50s, she enjoys leeway that younger women do not.

But when Greene's school principal asked her to sew up the kick-pleats in her mid-calf-length skirts, she complied.

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