After Half a Year in the Middle East, Reflections on Going Home

Wednesday, January 4, 2006 | Amman, Jordan (map)

Andrew in Petra, the amazing red rock city in southern Jordan.
Although it is hard for me to believe, after seven challenging, fascinating, and often frustrating months in the Middle East, I'm finally going home. I'll be taking with me a lot more than just neat trinkets (though I've amassed plenty of those). These past months have been a life-changing learning experience. I left home with some fairly standard notions of life in the Middle East, shared with many Americans, but my understanding of life in the region has since changed drastically.

For example, most Arabs have never ridden a camel, a fact which—I'm sad to say—surprised me a bit when I first read it.

Once you spend some time in the Middle East, however, you understand how it could be true. The geography of the region necessitates that most people live in cities; rural areas are too inhospitable to support many people.
In sharp contrast to the Western view of Arabs as camel-riding desert nomads, the region’s overwhelmingly urban character has really dominated for centuries. To a resident of Damascus—a city built over 3,000 years before I arrived there—the idea of seeing anyone ride down the street on a camel is as foreign as it would be for your average Washingtonian to imagine seeing a feather-bedecked Native American galloping bareback on his steed along the National Mall.

My perspective on the Middle East, and the romantic, Orientalist visions I had of the region, proved to be built on colonial narratives—the tales of T.E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger—rather than on any modern, well-informed, locally knowledgeable source.

* * *

Back in June, I had set out for Syria with the intention of spending a year here in the region. Syria proved to be an unforgettable experience; I learned more Arabic, made more friends, visited more ruins, and had more fun than I ever could have imagined.

After the best summer of my life, it was rather disappointing to arrive in Jordan, a country which, compared to Syria, seems like an over-sized American strip mall where nobody speaks Arabic. In truth, Damascus did look authentically Arab in an unadulterated, isolated way (just as my Arabic professor back at Georgetown had promised), though there were incursions of Western consumer culture evident at other levels. But Jordan was tragically familiar on many more levels, including the visible ones. McDonald's, KFC, and Burger King signs were all around. Arabic was not.

Although I had planned to stay in Amman for a year, a few weeks in I decided the place was far too boring and westernized to merit staying longer. (Since then, to be fair, I have come to appreciate another side to the country—a deeper, traditional one that coexists with the Americanized fa├žade.) I looked into other options and seriously considered going to France for the spring semester. But it's hard to be away when my family back home needs me, as they do. And why spend another semester away when I've got Georgetown waiting for me back there?

I've had an unforgettable experience in both Syria and Jordan—even if they are both memorable for different reasons—and even got to cap off this period with a great week in Lebanon with friends. My hope is to be able to return to the Middle East next summer. I would love to be back in Syria, staying at Raife's and studying with Boshra again. A Danish friend here in Amman has also talked up the Arabic program he did last summer in Yemen, which is a tempting option.

* * *

A few weeks back, our study abroad program dragged us through a "re-orientation" session. As you can imagine, an afternoon's discussion about how to go home and return to your family and friends is quite stupid, and I wasn't very into it. I'm not expecting to have huge problems "re-integrating" myself into my own society.

But the session did remind me about one of the main lessons I've learned from travelling: it changes you, sometimes a lot. And the weirdest part is, you can't even tell.

Every time I've gone on a trip of any length I've felt the same the whole time, never really sensing any change even as I saw and experienced and learned more. But it does change you. You don't realize that until you come back home, and see the same familiar things and people and places, but notice how they look different. It's sort of like not looking in a mirror for a year, then finally looking and realizing how your face has aged and evolved.

So coming home from what has been by far the longest trip I've ever taken will undoubtedly reveal to me quite a few changes in my personality and identity. I guess what I'm saying is this: Friends, the changes may be obvious to you from the second you first see me (as in the noticeable pounds I've put on by eating all this delicious food here) and in the first few days when I'm back. Don't be shy: let me know what you think!

It has been an incredible ride, and I'm looking forward to more to come.

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