Answering Questions About Amman: As Told by Real Housewives of New York
BY: Kristina Perry/Contributing Writer
When I tell people I’ve lived in Jordan for a half a year, I get mixed reactions. While the majority of reactions are positive, I find myself fielding the same range of questions about the Arab world. There’s nothing wrong with asking these questions, as they are all a result of the representation of the Arab world, as shown on most media outlets. The misrepresentation of the region, the people, and religions has lead to a global misunderstanding of Arabs as a whole, and those who have spent time in the region often return to find themselves acting as ambassadors. Here are the answers to the most common questions I receive about my time in Jordan, with a little help from the RHONY crew.
“Did you tell people you’re American?”
People frequently ask if I told people I’m American, and the answer is yes. I experienced no anti-American sentiment while living in Jordan, and many of the people we interacted with were excited to be speaking with Americans, having been to the States once or twice or having family in one of the major cities. Jordan is one of the U.S.’s closest allies, coordinating military exercises and exchanging intelligence to combat regional and global terrorism. When I was looking for presents to bring back for my family, a shop owner gave my friends and me lapel pins that had the Jordanian and American flags crossed. American fast food restaurants are on every corner, and the response to “I’m from America,” was always greeted with “Welcome, I love America.”
“What did you wear? Did you have to dress differently?”
“Did you have to…wear the. . .” my hairdresser stopped cutting my hair to motion around her head, and then motioned covering her face, “the…what is this thing?” I’ll admit that I let people dangle while they try to come up with words for the hijab, burqa, niqab, or any range of Islamic fashion. There is an assumption that all women in predominantly Muslim countries must wear a head covering, mostly due to Saudi Arabia’s well publicised dress code laws, but that is the exception to the rule. In my experience, roughly 60% of women in Jordan wore the hijab, and 40% chose not to. Ultimately, it is the woman’s personal choice, which is another misconception people have about Muslim women. While women might be influenced by peer pressure and social norms, that is no different than Western women being influenced to wear Birkenstocks again. I did not wear a head covering during my time in Jordan, and I never felt any pressure to change that. I did dress somewhat modestly, avoiding tank tops and short shorts, but my decision was influenced by trying to avoid looking like a tourist as much as possible. When I went to the beach, I wore a bikini, and I was not the only one.
“You must have been so scared!/Don’t go anywhere by yourself/Don’t go out at night”
Not to scare my mother, but I walked around by myself at night several times. I walked a block down my street around 11 PM to go get dinner or a fresh smoothie. I ran into the small convenience stores to get bottled water. Some nights I just walked around to enjoy the evening breeze. While I attracted a few looks and occasional harassment, I received less harassment than what I have experienced on my own American college campus. I took taxis by myself, and in the total six months that I lived and traveled around Jordan, I only had one negative experience. This isn’t to say that harassment doesn’t exist, or that my female friends and I didn’t experience it, but that harassment in Jordan normally consisted of hearing a variation of, “Hello, how are you, welcome to Jordan” from a passing car. This is much better than what I hear from passing trucks packed with fraternity members in broad daylight.
“Did you tell people you’re Christian?”
There is a significant population of Christians in Jordan, especially in Madaba, where some of the world’s most impressive and oldest Christian mosaics are located. Roughly 3-6% of the Jordanian population is Christian, and there are many historic and modern churches located throughout Jordan. The number of Christians now living in Jordan may even be greater now, after the influx of Syrian refugees. My friends attended church while in Amman, and the service was done in Arabic, English, and Korean. The misconception that Christians and Muslims don’t get along or have always lived in constant conflict with each other in the Middle East is just not true. As younger generations travel and communicate on a global scale more frequently, stereotypes and singular worldviews are dissipated.
“Experiencing that culture must have really been something”
I was so excited to go back to Jordan for my semester abroad that I dreamt about the food three nights in a row. Jordan, and the Arab world at large, is home to perhaps the most welcoming and friendly culture in the world. It was impossible to meet someone and not get invited to their house for a meal, or delicious mint tea. If you complimented someone, they would insist you take whatever it is. Going out to eat with someone? Expect a fierce argument over who was going to pay. I once witnessed a mother and daughter I met for lunch spend 20 minutes arguing, truly arguing, over who would pay for the entire meal, my food included. Arabs are of the most generous, hospitable people you could ever have the good fortune to live amongst. In many ways, the Arab world is very similar to the American South. There is a pride in hospitality, a cultural connection to faith and religion, grandmothers that will insist you haven’t eaten even after finishing a third plate, and a sincere love of fried food. But the Arab world isn’t great because of its similarities to America, but rather its distinctiveness.
The Middle East is not what many people understand it to be. Amman alone has four million people living in its governorate, and is only one piece of a region that is simultaneously more similar and more distinctive than can be imagined. When listening to the 24 hour news cycle, it is more important than ever to remember the age old advice to not believe everything you hear or read, especially regarding one of the most diverse and multi-faceted regions in the world.