jordan-buildings-so-congested

Honor, Hospitality and Hummus — Welcome to Jordan

Thoughts from summer in the Middle East

By Andreas Haffar

Some say Paris, others say Rome. A few suggest Hong Kong, perhaps Tokyo, London or Barcelona. Me? I’ve been to Europe a few times and it was fascinating — world travel in general is a worthwhile adventure. Yet I have an increasingly robust enthrallment with a different region, mesmerized by the cities of Beirut, Cairo, Damascus and Isfahan. After an all-too-short yet sensational five weeks, I can honestly say, despite the disputes and turmoil of neighboring countries, there are few locations I would have wanted for my study abroad experience more than Amman, Jordan.

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I’m captivated by the path less traveled — an unfrequented road which, upon revealing my early summer plans to the members of my family and community, was met with a mixture of ecstatic, encouraging and pleasant reactions. More prevailing were the responses of concern, perplexity, unease, and sometimes a few that even offended me. That I would even consider embarking on a journey to such a precarious area of the world baffled some individuals who themselves said they’d never even consider it.

Hearing all of these reactions seemed indicative of the varying views of the American people in general. The most common reactions were:

“Isn’t the situation over there getting pretty bad?” referring to what I only assumed to be the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the harrowing civil war in Syria accompanied by the potent threat from Islamic State. Or with a look that said “farewell forever” disguised by an artificial “good for you” attitude, the “Oh my…you better be careful Andreas, Jordan is really dangerous” remark. The more enervating and sadly anticipated response was the belabored, “You know they hate us (Americans) over there, don’t you?” which has resonated with many Americans for nearly a decade-and-a-half. More on these later.

Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of people who were truly concerned about my safety and well-being. My mother, being the caring and protective mother that she is, was without a doubt the most apprehensive about my choice.

Those who know me are aware that in addition to journalism, one of my majors at Iowa State University is international studies, focusing on international conflict in the Middle East and Northern Africa. I did my research. I was well-informed about the possible dangers. I understood the concerns of my loved ones and found them reasonable. I was as prepared as I could be to expect the unexpected, not allowing the threat of danger to hinder this tremendous opportunity and my incessant enthusiasm for traveling, especially to the Middle East. If we let fear and fear alone guide our decisions, we would get nowhere, and the world would be a much scarier place.

I would like to share some of my experiences and what I’ve learned on my trip to “Al-Mamlakah Al-Urdunnīyah Al-Hāshimīyah,” or in English, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

A Familiar Enthrallment in an Unfamiliar Land

After an eventful yet debilitating trip to Amman, which included a lengthy plane delay in Des Moines due to inclimate weather, consequently missing my connecting flight from Chicago to Frankfurt because of it, having to endure an uncomfortable sleepover in O’Hare and waking up to awkward early-morning stares from elderly passengers, a drawn-out layover in Germany followed by a Lufthansa flight attendant sending me into a mild panic after wrongly informing me that I was at the wrong terminal thirty minutes prior to boarding, and culminating with the loss of one of my two suitcases, I touched down in Jordan, nearly collapsing to my knees, from both victory and fatigue. My missing bag, by the way, ended up being a tedious four-hour dilemma three days later because my $20 pair of “high-tech” binoculars inside were in violation of certain security regulations. At least I was able to watch Spotlight on the plane, which, as a journalism major, gave me hope for the future. So not all of it was bad.

It wasn’t until after my taxi driver Abdullah picked me up at the Queen Ali’a Airport late in the evening that the long-anticipated feeling sunk in. We were on the highway, en route to the apartment I’d reside in for the next 30 to 35 days. Despite my weariness, I was still able to absorb my surroundings. What was it that was so familiar? The casual billboards with the Arabic letters I had dearly missed? The graceful mountain tops in the distance concealed by the night?

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It was the driving.

This style of driving would be considered crazy in the US despite Amman being a metropolis. Drivers have little regard for road lanes, if there were any. A stop light appeared every so often, but it was often ignored unless a police officer was present Drivers scarcely ever used their turn signals, and they weren’t afraid to use their horns, especially the taxi drivers. Sure, this may be familiar to folks in New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles. Being a city boy myself, I can understand that.

The thing is, accidents were hardly ever a problem. Abdullah told me that the majority of people have a mutual understanding of how others drive. You simply take the space when you can get it,but don’t give up any space either. Even if there was an accident, as we witnessed two, it involved minimal damage — if it was even reported. One of the accidents my roommates and I saw reminded us of a cordial game of bumper cars. It was as if the collision was the final thump of a round. Two men emerged from their vehicles, neither one injured. They shook hands, saw that there was less-than-severe damages to their respective cars, hugged, and drove off in opposite directions. They dealt with it in the space of 30 seconds. If the thought that “if you can drive in the Middle East, you can drive anywhere,” didn’t register with me during my time in Beirut, it was definitely confirmed during my time in Amman.

After reaching my apartment and meeting my roommates, I finally got my well-deserved sleep. Following our informative International Studies Abroad (ISA) orientation meeting the next day, we had lunch at a restaurant that featured many of the foods my Tatah (grandmother) used to make, sparking nostalgic feelings from when I was a boy and my family would eat at her house. Little did I know that this day in particular held a special significance as it was the 100th anniversary of the Great Arab Revolt.

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In 1916, as the Ottoman Empire was finally reaching its imminent and languishing demise following centuries of power, many Arabs, initiated by the “King of Arabs” Sharif Hussein bin Ali, rebelled against the Turks in an effort to create a new, unified Arab state. Hussein bin Ali was a member of the Hashemite clan, which traces its roots back to the Prophet Muhammad. Due to the Arabs resentment of the Turks, an escalation in Arab nationalism amid Word War I, Hussein bin Ali saw the empire’s exhausted condition as advantageous in their quest for liberation. With the promised help of the British (and Lawrence of Arabia), sons of Hussein bin Ali would seize control of what is today Syria, Iraq and Jordan. While the goal of establishing a single, large Arab state was ultimately not achieved, the revolt sparked events that led to the beginning of Abdullah I’s reign in Jordan and the establishment of the Hashemite Kingdom.

Following our meal, we walked across town to attend the much-talked about parade taking place that evening. The closer we got to our destination, the more visible Jordanian flags had become, and audible the car horns, music and singing were. I can’t remember one person who didn’t have a Jordanian flag in their hand or posted up on their vehicles. As we were approaching the celebration area, a small gathering of people following someone caught our attention. It was a man dressed in a white thawb, a traditional Arab robe, who was marching proudly, holding a majestic Jordanian flag that soared gracefully above him. As we came closer to the street of the parade, the man’s followers multiplied.

Photo by Anna Cobb (University of Kansas)
Photo by Anna Cobb (University of Kansas)

Eventually we lost sight of this symbolic individual, but his image stuck with many of my group members, myself included. The parade itself, at times, reminded me of Independance Day celebrations back in America. Of all the Fourth of July parades I attended, none of them had a noticeable amount of Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln or George Washington images on display, which was perhaps why I found the numerous pictures of Jordan’s current king, Abdullah II, so gripping. There were dozens upon dozens of not only his picture, but his wife Queen Rania’s and his father King Hussein’s. I wondered if the king would be making an appearance. At times, I hoped that he would.

This wasn’t exclusive to the parade. As I would find out, you could find many faces of the Hashemite royal family in taxi cabs, in local shops, on billboards, on the dinar (which wasn’t terribly surprising),and in cafes — it was omnipresent.

There was even a small magnet of King Abdullah II dressed in his gallant military uniform with his collection of illustrious accolades pinned to his chest with the beautiful Queen Rania sitting in a chair in front of him, a glistening tiara situated affably on her head.   king-abdullah-2

Some people would say that they had the utmost admiration for their beloved king. Others would say very little about him. A few preferred to talk about different subjects (usually politics or religion, even to my groggy self at 7 a.m.). Whether people actually revered the king or not, one would not hear an adverse opinion of him in the streets or bazaars.

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Above all other laws and regulations, it was made clear to me that there are two things you should abstain from doing, at the very least in public. One was insulting the king. Regardless of your feelings about his choices or decisions, you were not to insult the man or speak unfavorably about him. There did appear to be a bit of a gray area when it came to deciphering what constituted an insult or if it was circumstantial, as I wanted to refrain from saying something that could be perceived as slanderous. I was told by a Jordanian friend of mine from Amman, who attends Iowa State, that it needs to be “clear cut” and one should basically avoid throwing shade at the king and royal family. Such a move could land you in prison for up to three years. While the vast majority of folks did seem to hold King Abdullah II in high esteem, it was difficult to measure just how high with the threat of discipline hovering over their heads.

The other law was against insulting Islam. The state religion of Jordan is Islam and the country governed accordingly. More than 92 percent of its citizens are Sunni Muslims. While there is still a significant amount of Christians living in Jordan, the price one pays for demeaning Islam is just as heavy as demeaning the royal family with three years in prison being the likely punishment. I never encountered any issues with this, but from what I could gather, exceptions of this rule were few and far between.

Grand Husseini Mosque, Downtown Amman (Andreas Haffar / Ethos magazine)
Grand Husseini Mosque, Downtown Amman (Andreas Haffar / Ethos magazine)

Another prominent commemoration took place while I was in Jordan. The annual worldwide observance of Ramadan began only three days after I made it to the country. I used this example upon arrival: You can read as much as you can about riding a bike, but it’s different than actually riding a bike. I knew what this holiday consisted of, but I had never experienced it. Even as a non-Muslim, I still felt involved.

For those who don’t know, Ramadan is the ninth month on the Islamic calendar. It’s a month devoted to fasting and practicing self-discipline. It is one of the five pillars of the religion,obligatory for all capable and healthy adult Muslims. The fasting period lasted daily from dawn to dusk, with massive pre-fast (suhur) and post-fast (iftar) meals. If the sun was in the sky, Muslims weren’t to eat, drink, smoke, have sex — none of that. They were to cleanse the self and soul during this period.

It was a commitment that deepened my respect for not just the Muslims I met during my sojourn, but for Muslims living in America. While fasting in Jordan is tolerable, but not burdensome, the temptations aren’t as tantalizing as they may be in countries like the United States, especially for those employed in the food industry. The vast majority of people in Jordan were observing Ramadan, thus in a neighborly way kept one another accountable.

We study abroad students, inadvertently at first, were following the fasting schedule as well. Of course we knew to be mindful of those around us, especially our professors who were fasting too. With the exception of water, even though we were told we could, we all decided not to eat in the classroom. Were we hungry? Sure. We did have our own private student lounge to have lunch if we’d like, but we only had small snacks, if anything. Was respecting those around us more important than satisfying ourselves? For most of us, yes. it wasn’t a problem. We felt accustomed to it after the first few days, which made iftar that much more of a worthwhile festivity. My friends and I went out practically every evening to break the fast. At larger communal restaurants, we received mixed responses from Jordanian families, but the majority of acknowledgements seemed tolerable because we were respecting one of the traditions and cultural norms. My one regret was heading home only days before the conclusion of Ramadan called Eid, or the “breaking of the fast.”

Arabic dinner on the night of the first iftar. (Andreas Haffar / Ethos magazine)
Arabic dinner on the night of the first iftar. (Andreas Haffar / Ethos magazine)

Ramadan was a more benevolent time too, which is indicative of Middle Eastern hospitality in general. Many of the Jordanians would say “Ramadan kareem,” which means “Ramadan is generous,” for a wide variety of things. I heard it when crossing the street as a cab driver would allow me to pass or when I was at the market and the man at the register didn’t charge me for an extra apple.

Hearing the azhans on the loudspeakers throughout all of Amman, knowing that this call to prayer would be heard and understood at multiple places permeated around the world sooner or later, was tranquilizing. It put me at ease to hear the prayer caller’s (muezzin’s) booming voice echo in the empty streets with a resounding articulation of Qu’ranic verses. To envisage that the call to worship united so many people synchronously was a spectacular thought, and I looked forward to it everyday.

There’s more to it than the grades.

Like I said, I was studying abroad, so I did take classes. That’s all thanks to International Studies Abroad (ISA), the wonderful professors and the great staff on hand. From Sunday to Thursday (Friday, al-jum-ah is the equivalent to their Saturday, and is the major day of prayer), I had a foreign policy class and a 300-level intensive Arabic class. However, it wasn’t the learning in the classroom that I’ll remember. It was the knowledge I acquired outside of it, in the streets and shops chatting with people in the everyday hustle and bustle of Amman.

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I had the privilege of exploring Amman, which is one of the most flourishing metropoles in the Middle East with a growing population of four million, considering the influx of Palestinian refugees. With the calamity in bordering Syria, there’s also been an influx in Syrian refugees seeking to escape the war-torn country. The refugees have impacted Jordanian society, notably with jobs and food. I even had the fortune of meeting a Christian gentleman who fled from Iraq once ISIL roared into the spotlight. He recalled the three ultimatums ISIL gave him; fall under the rule and pay a yearly tax to them, succumb to certain death or leave and ditch everything you have and know to live to fight another day. Evidently, he chose the latter.

I also found it intriguing that many taxi drivers or shopkeepers made it a point to identify themselves as “Palestinian Jordanians,” which told me that these people were proud of their roots and it reminded me of myself and a lot of Lebanese friends, who will most likely reveal their “Lebaneseness” within the first few sentences of any given conversation.

I was made aware of one important distinction by nearly everyone I talked to on a specific matter. There was indeed an unmatched level of disdain from the population toward Israelis. I say Israelis and not Jews because to insist that the long-standing Arab-Israeli dispute is one conceived and fought along religious lines is wide of the mark. While the vast majority of people in Arab countries jordan-flags-multipleare Muslims, and in Israel are Jews, the grievance is primarily territorial with political, economic, humanitarian fires igniting afterward. It’s not to say that there was anti-Israeli propaganda on display all over the country. When I spoke to Jordanians about it, their statements were made out of passion and animosity. I could feel the deep aversion in every word they spoke. This distinction is at a paramount for people to understand the long-standing bad blood between Arabs and Israelis. Sure, there are countless books, articles, reports, and resources on this notorious conflict, but hearing it directly from the mouths and hearts of the everyday people living through it for several generations, hit a different chord for me.

jordan-below-sea-levelDuring my stay, I visited all of the Jordanian hotspots and prominent landmarks. I floated on the hallowed Dead Sea, otherwise known as the Salt Sea and not by sheer coincidence. I swam and snorkeled in the Red Sea and descended down it on a boat, seeing Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia from a distance. We stayed in deluxe five-star hotels, some of which were the most sumptuous that I’ve ever been to (or maybe ever will).

I explored the ancient Nabatean kingdom city of Petra, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and saw one of the seven wonders of the modern world — the treasury. It was awe-inspiring, as were the ruins of this world-famous spectacle. The time it took to carve out such meticulous and robust structures baffles me. Words and pictures hardly do it the justice it deserves.

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I also visited many holy sites, including Mt. Nebo, where according to the
Hebrew Bible, Moses was granted a view of the promised land, i.e. Israel. Some Christian and Muslim traditions claim Moses was buried on the
mountain, but no concrete proof has jordan-map-on-mountainsurfaced to buttress this. At the peak of Mt. Nebo, we could see cities such Jericho, Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jerusalem.

In addition, I spent the night in the desert of Wadi Rum, where I learned is a popular location that moviemakers select to film scenes portraying the planet Mars like the Martian and Prometheus. Was it what I thought Mars would be like? Slightly.

One of my goals prior to embarking on this trip, and during extracurricular expeditions, was to finally check “riding a camel” off of my bucket list. At Wadi Rum, not only did all of us get to ride camels (mine’s name was Shaliya and donned a colorful muzzle over her mouth and nose), we rode these “ships of the desert” as the sun serenely descended from the sky and vanished behind the mountains in the distance. What a blissful end to an enduring day.

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wadi-rum-camels

With the short-lived luxurious living, one could be remiss in failing to detect the contrast in lifestyles. As dazzling as these places were, I witnessed the opposite within the span of a single weekend. My experience was at Petra, where we encountered many young, wide-eyed bedouin children and teenagers dressed in long-sleeved neutral colored shirts with beige or gray pants, with a handful of their heads covered by red or black keffiyehs

Photo by Adrianna Vazquez, Luther College
Photo by Adrianna Vazquez, Luther College

(headscarves). Several of the older boys wore kohl, or eyeliner, which is an age-old optic cosmetic. There were even two or three “Jack Sparrow” look-a-likes, which I found to be more fashionable than anything.

Bedouins, particularly this tribe the B’doul, are often depicted as semi-nomadic, desert-dwelling Arabs with tribal leadership being a predominant characteristic. Additionally, OneWorld Magazine described them as “the best adaptation of human life to desert conditions.” The bedouin acted as tour guides, offering services like entertainment, donkey and horse rides and items from Petra which included packets, coloring books, jewelry, beads and scarves. The entirety of the ancient city of Petra was far-reaching and they were generally located near the treasury, while many were scattered near the entrance of the Petra exhibit with horses, camels and donkeys to ride up and down the steep mountains. Some elderly women were positioned on the mountains as you ascended up, selling anything from beads and jewelry to water and food. From sunrise to sunset, this was their daily routine.  

I enjoyed chatting and playing around with some of the younger ones, once they understood I had no plans to purchase anything. I truly did want to buy something from each kid, even though they sold the same items. While many of us were sympathetic, we were told beforehand not to give false hope to anyone — the longer you conversed about the sale, the higher their hopes stretched. Seeing how other tourists treated some of the younger kids was aggravating. They didn’t take “no” for an answer, and understandably so, but there was a limit that I saw both sides cross. I even witnessed negotiations go awry with a middle-aged German couple and a bedouin teenager. On the carriage up a mountain, I heard the driver attempt to swindle the tourists by doubling the price of a donkey ride halfway up, to which the German man took major exception.

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Photo by Adrianna Vazquez, Luther College

With Petra being a frequently-visited tourist attraction, we were informed that many of the bedouin were deprived of educational opportunities due to the heightened success of Petra once it was officially proclaimed to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1980s. This isn’t to imply that because they are underprivileged by modern standards that they are lesser people because of it. I found a lot of them to be bright, curious and witty as I chatted with some during our free time. Perhaps some have a feeling of attachment to the area. Maybe there’s a sense of inertia from generations previous. Increased excavation in Petra could mean an immense spike in tourism, which may be projected. Reading on Cultural Survival Inc., a UNESCO report states that the B’doul “realize the tourists trade is not forever a viable economy,” and suggests that agriculture may prove to be a more gainful alternative. What’s clear is that they are doing what they can to get by. My hope is that good fortunes come for them in the future. This was yet another case not taking anything for granted. You’ve read this once and you’ll read it again. 

Having been to Germany, Ghana and Lebanon and various places in the United States prior to Jordan, I can unquestionably say that I’ve never felt like a foreigner. I’m acclimated to the melting pot that is America, where there’s a trove of disparate racial, religious and ethnic groups. This is especially true in urban areas or sizable universities. Personally speaking, if I see, for example, a Chinese man, or a homosexual couple, or a Muslim woman with her hijab on, I don’t think twice.

In Jordan, I felt as if I caught a glimpse of what it was like to be a foreigner. There were scarcely any people in Jordan that weren’t of Arab descent. While my appearance and demeanor hints at a speck of Arab heritage, my fashion-sense reeked of “American.” Walking around by myself didn’t propel nearly as much rubbernecking as it did when I was roaming about in noisy groups of three or more people, not to mention groups with beautiful women in them.

Most of the folks we met were welcoming. Often times, because we resembled your typical foreigners, we would hear “Welcome to Jordan” and based on the me-in-petratone of the comment, it sounded sincere. Not all things apply across the board or course, and there were exceptions to everything. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel an explicit sense hostility sent in my direction on more than one occasion. One taxi driver attempted to argue about cab fare and take advantage of one of my roommates and I. 

There are a multitude of reasons, founded and unfounded, that people loathe Americans worldwide. Many of you know the stereotypes: we’re obese, we’re lazy, we’re greedy, we’re materialistic, we’re power-hungry and the “typical” American only speaks one language (this one is more or less true). Some still speculate that the Americans are continuing the “imperialistic nature” in the Middle East that was formerly at the hands of the British and the French. There was a salient mix of American influence too, with some store signs in English, selling American-made products. In fact, I think I saw more Kentucky Fried Chickens than I’ve seen in Iowa, at least in recent years.

As our stay continued, the diminutive amount of hostility subsided. Perhaps we were growing more comfortable, which was a shame because just as I had settled in and established a routine, my time had expired. We ignored the irritating glares and intermittent swear words lobbed aimlessly in our direction and went about our business. We also didn’t behave like the “quintessential” jordan-girl-with-animalsAmericans depicted in media outlets or reality TV shows. We were there to learn. We were there to absorb as much as we could. For someone to come to another country, oblivious to their surroundings, is not only discourteous but frustrating too. I’m glad most of us were disciplined and civil. We respected, appreciated, even embraced, a culture divergent from our own.

Jordan is a conservative nation, You won’t see public displays of affection, nor will you overhear conversations about another man’s wife. You won’t see someone eating with their left hand because it’s deemed the hand for “dirty tasks.” You will unquestionably never observe someone directing the bottom of their shoe at another. It’s considered the filthiest part of your entire body, as if to say “you are beneath the dirt I walk on” or “you are the lowest of the low.” Some may recall the journalist who threw a shoe at President George W. Bush just as his tenure was coming to a close. While these may seem like unimportant cultural components, they can make all the difference between a warm-hearted greeting and an troublesome predicament. Knowing these facts beforehand not only garners respect and a positive reception when you travel abroad, but it speaks volumes of your character and cognizant ability to establish rapport.

It was upsetting to see that gender inequality remained a translucent issue — but the future of women’s empowerment is forthcoming and it’s looking bright.

Women in the public sphere were still viewed through a masculine, patriarchal prism. Our study abroad director gave us the low-down on what to expect in Jordan and what to refrain from doing when it came to men interacting with women. For instance, not to try to overwhelm a Muslim woman with persistent flirting. You wouldn’t be in as hot of water and she would be. Why? It’s about the sense of pride, and this reflects the cultural and societal norms. A lot of the discernible oppression stems from the pride of families. In the past, women were even subject to honor killings from male members of the family.

Some of the concepts were hard to grasp. On my way to classes in the early mornings, I casually saw men about and we exchanged the conventional “As-salamu alaykum” and “wa-alaikum-salaam,” which means “peace be unto you” and “unto you peace.” However, I was initially hesitant to say this regularly to

Women's rights issues publicly displayed, urging women to open their eyes to the injustice (Andreas Haffar / Ethos magazine)
Women’s rights issues publicly displayed, urging women to open their eyes to the injustice (Andreas Haffar / Ethos magazine)

women. It’s not that I’m shy, far from it in fact. It was that I not only feared for my well-being, but theirs. I didn’t want to gamble on the idea of this woman could be construed as shameful by reacting to something I said or did. While my viewpoint was well-intentioned, I had much to learn.

During my second to last week in Amman, we were visited by a professor, author, editor and the co-founder of the Women’s Studies Center at the University of Jordan, Dr. Rula Quawas, who taught and advocated for women’s rights in Jordan. She taught a class on feminist theory and posed the imperative question, “Am I enough?” to her students. The responses were then edited and arranged in a book titled “The Voice of Being Enough: Young Jordanian Women Break Through Without Breaking Down.” Many of the women (and men) in this groundbreaking book shared feelings of resistance, ambition and the desire for their voices to be heard. The feeling of “being enough” and individual empowerment along with combating emasculation were the central themes of the engaging discussion. The topic of the hijab was also mentioned. She told us that it is not always suppressive, and that for a lot of women, it is their key to acceptance into the public sphere.

This woman had a vigorous aura about her. Her optimism was infectious. Her words were captivating. Today she remains a pioneer of the women’s rights movement in Jordan and an outlet for the many disenfranchised voices. Their opinions were previously tangential but with the guidance of Quawas, the liberating movement continues to gain momentum.

There is still gender inequality in Jordan. There were cafes and restaurants that were strictly for men. I saw taxis filled with men and filled with women, but never the both. There’s no way I could write this article without discussing the cat calls. The girls in the group were upset at first and some felt violated. I myself thought it was reprehensible and some things were outright grotesque. Once Ramadan commenced, the cat calls diminished.

Yet now more than ever, there are women enrolled in college, employed in the workforce and represented in the Jordanian parliament (which is still low). After a while, I met many Muslim women who wore the hijab and they did talk to me. They were friendly and understood my concern but so many Jordanians, particularly the younger ones in school, were working together to diminish gender inequality and improve the status of women in their country.

The group of hoodlums that embarked on this journey with me (otherwise known as friends) were outstanding. Many of them hailed from Texas and

Photo by ISA Study Abroad Jordan
Photo by ISA Study Abroad Jordan

Kentucky, while others were from Kansas, Florida, California and Tennessee. Only one other was from Iowa. It was my pleasure to have met them.  

I also gained a considerable amount of respect for my peers, especially during Ramadan. Many of my group members were Christians who were strong in their faith. The decision to travel and study abroad is typically made by those with personalities ranging from the moderately curious to the wanderlust diehards. The degree to which my peers were gracious and considerate regarding the Islamic faith surprised me.

My surprise didn’t speak to the individuals as much as it spoke to me and my preconceived notions of Christianity, having been raised a Catholic. Before the trip, I carried an explicit image of unyielding, ultra-conservative Christians preaching about hellfire and brimstone. It took me a few days to comprehend that I needed to confront this view. On a sunshine-filled, cloudless day, as I was smoking arguile (shisha or hookah), which I smoked customarily (when in Jordan, right?), remembered that people have this frame of mind with Muslims as well. Not all Christians preach eternal damnation, just as not all Muslims are radical extremists. Do both exist? Of course. Are they emblematic of all of their religious counterparts? Of course not.  

I felt foolish. If I ever needed an illustration to show me that there’s always room to learn, I’m content it was delivered to me in this form. There’s the cliche about study abroad encounters having tremendous life-altering impacts. My life-changing moment occurred in Lebanon; it was there I finally decided I would go to Iowa State for journalism. I’ve come a long way in nearly five years. I think every travel experience can be a lesson, be it large or small.

Lastly, I’ll address what everyone has been waiting for, and that’s the weather. When you think Middle East, you probably think it’s hot. The temperature was high but, thank God (alhamdullilah), it was dry heat. I’ll take that 100 percent of the time over the disgustingly, unbearable humid summers I’ve spent in my home state of Iowa.

“He’s back alive!”

Two words to sum up my travels: nostalgia and invigoration. A part of me wanted to leave and a part of me felt like this was where I belonged. It goes without saying that my experience will differ from the next person’s. After all, having been the this part of the world four years prior when I visited the remarkable city of Beirut, and looking like a passable Arab (yet still clearly American), I may have adapted effortlessly compared to someone who has just left the familiarity of home for the first time.  

In the most extreme case, it was as if choosing to study abroad in the Middle East meant I was being shipped to an abysmal wasteland where I would undoubtedly be made an example of for my poor decision and meet my demise at the hands of the notorious men in black, with their symbolic black flag tyrannically waving over my head.

No one in their right mind would send students to such a hazardous and erratic area. People are worried about things they don’t know about. What many of those around me failed to consider was that their “unknown” was not my unknown. No one seemed to know enough about Jordan to realize how powerful it was nor that it wasn’t as mercurial as its neighboring nations.

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Photo by ISA Study Abroad Jordan

Never did I feel unsafe. Sometimes downtown was a little too crowded for my liking, traffic could be annoying and occasionally scary depending on your taxi driver, and nerves could run high when it was getting close to iftar on a long, hot day. In fact, the scariest part was when I was a part of a cultural demonstration where I got “married” and “divorced” within the span of two hours. Talk about a roller coaster ride.

When citizens in the United States hear “Middle East,” many automatically think of terrorism. The Islamic State definitely is threatening and a cause for concern. There were two terrorist attacks in northern Jordan that were handled promptly and efficiently. Seemingly more incidents transpired in Turkey than in Jordan, as many were concerned about connecting flights in Istanbul following the explosion in the airport. What many people that I have met fail to consider is that there is danger all over the world jordan-final-pictureand that you must know how to carry yourself. Life is about risks and I will not live my life in fear.

These lessons that I’ve learned and experiences that I had are ones I’ll cherish forever. I bring back with me not only memories, but an enlightened attitude and an enriched worldview. I anticipate returning to that part of the world again because I firmly believe it’s a risk worth taking.