Cohen-Mor, Dalya. “Out of Jordan: A Sabra in the Peace Corps Tells Her Story”, Skyhorse Publishing, 2015.
Can This Be?
Dalya Cohen-Mor claims to be the first Israeli-born Jewish American to be sent as a Peace Corps volunteer to a closed Arab society. Even though I just wrote that sentence, I find myself reading it again and finding to be incredulous. While this is supposedly the story of a Jewish worker in an Arab country and not just any Jewish worker but an Israeli, I want to know how this happened. It is inconsistent with both Israel’s and Jordan’s policies regarding each other and knowing what I know as an Israeli citizen, something like this would have had a very hard time getting through all of the red tape in both countries.
Dalya Cohen-Mor, a Sabra-born American woman, volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps and went through a lengthy and highly competitive application process. She was accepted, and was sent to serve in the predominantly Palestinian country Jordan. Upon arrival in Jordan, Cohen-Mor was instructed by Peace Corps supervisors to conceal her Jewish identity, use an alias instead of her real last name, and pretend that she was Christian so as not to compromise her safety and efficacy as a Peace Corps volunteer. (I find this statement highly suspect as I doubt that she would have even been placed in Jordan given her background. I find it even harder to believe that the United States government would allow her to lie about who she is or even that the government would allow something so risky to happen—but then this is Cohen-Mor’s story). This is a really good story and whether it is completely true or not does not affect the way it is told really.
Cohen-Mor was forced to navigate new territory, rethink and redefine her values and attitudes, and discover what it means to be perceived as the other. She lived in the household of a Bedouin host family in a remote village in the eastern desert of Jordan where she taught English at the village girls’ elementary school. As she traveled around Jordan, she often found herself in delicate, complicated, and dangerous situations (Something I am quite sure the Peace Corps never would have allowed to happen). After three months of hard work in the Peace Corps, Cohen-Mor says that she was accused of being involved in intelligence activities and sent back home. Although she lost her dream to serve in the Peace Corps, she feels that she discovered her core identity and sense of self.
In the book we get an interesting look at contemporary life in Jordan and gain insight into the complexities of a closed Arab society with respect to family life, women’s roles, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and how America is perceived by the ordinary Jordanian. Cohen-Mor says that this is an honest and courageous look at her journey and at the realities of two nations who are enemies with conflicting national identities.
As I was doing some extra reading about the author and her time in the peace corps, another person who volunteers with Cohen-Mor has stated that since Cohen-Mor was unable to complete her service then she did not “serve” in the Peace Corps. This volunteer goes on to say that “if anyone, Jordanian or volunteer, were to have discriminatory tendencies towards Israelis, she would never have known, as she misrepresented her background. Other than that, I have few memories, as Dalya mostly kept to herself, and tended to be quite closed when dealing with host families or Jordanian Peace Corps trainers”. Then comes the clincher; “In retrospect, her behavior may have belied her desire to simply stay long enough to write this “tell-all” memoir. Admittedly, I have only read sections – I’d rather not give her time or money – but the sections I have ready have varied from “misrepresentation of the truth” to “that did not actually happen at all.”
The rest of the group served 27+ months in Jordan. That volunteer goes on to say, “Dalya, I am sorry that you did not complete your service (whether it was your decision or that of the Peace Corps). I am sorry to say that I do not recall a moment that you interacted in any kind of open or honest way with the country that was so welcoming to you. I am sorry that you decided to misrepresent the Peace Corps, your fellow volunteers, and to disrespect the generosity of your Jordanian trainers and hosts. I know you don’t understand the sadness that this has caused us all, because you didn’t stay and contribute to the family that we created”. The rest of the comments ask us not to buy the book or to buy it and return it so that Cohen-Mor will not profit from the untruths she has told here. The story is obviously not over yet but we must remember that all publicity is good even if it is not positive.
In closing, another volunteers notes the following; “Jordan is a closed, dangerous Arab country? I thought that was Saudi Arabia. Aren’t the first two months of Peace Corps service spent in a training community? So technically, this writer spent 1 month in the community she was assigned to. I also know that when a volunteer feels unsafe in his or her community, that volunteer has the option of being reassigned to another community. I’ve met several Jordan RPCVs, and they all seem to have had a great experience over there”.
It should be interesting to follow this.