"Ten years already?!?!" That's what I said to myself earlier this year when I realized that it would soon be a decade since I left my family and college friends back in the US for unknown adventures in Syria and Jordan.
I quietly recognized the first of those anniversaries—that of my arrival in Syria—with one post mourning the country's recent disintegration ("In Syria, Humanity and Heritage Suffer War's Irreparable Devastation") and another reflecting on the difficulties of contributing to solutions from afar ("In Taking Action for Syria, No Easy Answers").
The second anniversary I reached this summer—that of my joyless arrival in Jordan, after spending the summer of my life discovering neighboring Syria—excited me far less. As my friends and longtime readers of this blog know well, I was no fan of Jordan nor of my experience there. Frankly, I was miserable. (Don't believe me? Go back and read my entries from Jordan.) Sure, today it's clear that I was surrounded by a fascinatingly diverse crowd of people, and living with a warm and generous host family that wanted nothing more than to ensure I enjoyed Jordan. But with its Starbucks and strip malls and abundant English speakers, in my eyes Jordan didn't hold a candle to Syria's isolated exoticism, and I spent my time there lamenting my decision not to stay back in Damascus. With that lousy outlook—which was compounded by simultaneous family troubles back home—I set myself up for a bad experience.
Yet my Syria-to-Jordan transition, while painful for me at the time (and probably much more so for those around me), left me with an invaluable life lesson. It will forever serve as my quintessential, hard-earned example of how travel—and life more broadly—gives you back what you put in. My widely divergent experiences in Syria and Jordan were different precisely because of my differences in attitude.
I must have been the most surly, sour, and unapproachable of our 27-member group of American students in Jordan. So I imagine that more than a few of my American study abroad companions were surprised last month to receive my e-mail inviting them to contribute to a 10-year retrospective by completing a brief questionnaire about their Jordan experiences.
The idea had come to me earlier in the summer, as I reflected on who I was back in my Jordan days, and how the experience had led me to where I am today. First, if I'm being honest with myself, the survey was an effort to atone, at least in part, for spending four months being an incorrigible dick to my companions. But most importantly, it was an attempt to understand how Jordan had impacted their lives. I was curious to hear, in their own words, how our time in Jordan had shaped their identities and influenced their path in life. I had kept in loose touch with some members of the group, so I knew that we had Middle Eastern history PhD students, journalists across the Arab world, translators and language teachers. And I knew we also had others whose life paths were less obviously linked to their time in Jordan, but I suspected that they too had nonetheless been influenced by their experiences there. What had those months in Jordan meant to each of us, and how had they led us to where we are today?
It soon grew into one of those ideas that I just couldn't drop, and the plan was launched.
It was a fascinating and fulfilling project, and one I would have forever regretted skipping, had I done so. I was pleasantly surprised to read the many memories and emotions that my companions still carried with them. I learned for the first time about the inner struggles of many of my companions. (Maybe that shouldn't have surprised me; at that age, how many of us were willing to share our inner lives with strangers?) There were touching remembrances: "I remember Hayden wrote a song at the end of the first semester about everyone. I wish someone had recorded that and kept it." and "When living with Mariam I remember how incredibly kind and selfless she was. She used to pack lunches for me some days and taught me how to cook some Afghani dishes that I still make today and feed my son." There were hilarious anecdotes: Lindsey hopping a school bus to the university, Mike losing his facial hair to an oven inferno, or Lindsey again, this time bombing a microwave. And there were wounds that evidently still hurt: "I will forever remember crying on the pavement after a taxi driver took off with my groceries in his trunk.", plus "all the bad looks in the street, the constant attention received, and the constant fear of doing something wrong."
Much of the feedback I received after publishing the article was just as interesting and poignant as the original submissions. Strangers wrote to say how they appreciated reading about our group's experiences. And members of the group themselves shared reflections, many of them positive. Another wrote with a sobering critique: "It seems overly positive. I would hate to give future students such a rosy picture. Perhaps we didn't write so much detailed info about the horrors we experienced." She mentioned the frequent sexual harassment she experienced in Jordan ("it really scarred me and made me suspicious of even the most mundane interactions"), plus the case of another student sexually assaulted on a city bus. "Personally," she wrote, "I try to give people—especially women—a picture of some of the difficulties that not many talk about so openly."
It's a point I willingly concede—she is absolutely right—though I wondered why the picture seemed so "rosy"? First, ten years' passage is enough to allow many of us to forget the petty frustrations that drove us mad so often in Jordan. (The taxi driver charged me double because I'm foreign! The dry cleaners shrunk my sweaters! The internet café's internet is down... again!) This might be why, when I asked my companions what they regretted about their time in Jordan, few had much of significance to share. Also, as a man in Jordan, my experience was immeasurably easier than many of my female cohorts'. Though I included a quote or two on the subject of street harassment, perhaps I didn't give enough prominence to the hints of those hardships that they had shared. Perhaps some of the female respondents didn't share as much in that category as elsewhere, preferring not to revisit the daily humiliations of life in a sexually repressed society. Whatever the case, the point is well taken, and an important one for anyone—particularly a woman, I am sad to say—considering relocating to this part of the world.
(On a separate but related note, I was glad to have been able to share the candid accounts of one respondent who vividly described his hardships as a gay man living in the Arab world.)
While they should give pause, these challenges should not necessarily prevent would-be study abroad students from coming to Jordan or the region. As I wrote in the original article, our group had a wide spectrum of experiences, from the most joyful to the most miserable. Most of us inhabited every part of that spectrum at some point, though inevitably some found themselves more consistently to one side or the other.
As I've contemplated all that my companions shared, I've also continued to reflect on my own experience in Jordan, which, like everyone else's, was uniquely diverse. In their survey responses, nobody mentioned Hurricane Katrina, which for me remains one of my most vivid memories of Jordan. (More specifically, I remember sitting alone on the cool tile floor of my new host family's basement, long after they had gone to bed each evening, watching flood waters surge over New Orleans on BBC World News.) Arabic class was another enduring part of my experience—the teachers, the students, our jokes, the vocabulary words, who sat where—for some reason, much of it stuck with me. Our international soccer club at the university was a highlight, though it leads quickly to memories of the day my wallet (but, miraculously, not my passport) was stolen from my backpack on the sidelines of a game, and my failed efforts to reclaim it. Snorkeling in Aqaba, hiking through the canyons at Petra, floating on the Dead Sea (and then screaming when the salty water got in my eyes), scarfing down handfuls of spicy Yemeni food at the restaurant near campus... so many images are still engraved in my memory.
In particular, I carry innumerable challenging, wonderful, baffling, joyous, maddening, rich, intense memories from the home of my host family, the Haddads; few of my fellow exchange students elaborated on their experiences with host family life, but judging by how many said they were still close and/or want to return for a visit, I suspect this was a central element of many of our experiences. I, too, miss mine, and feel guilty that I haven't returned in the last decade to visit them.
My companions also shared many wonderful insights that I had never considered. Yes, now that you mention it, I did learn a tremendous deal about my own country by spending four months in close quarters with compatriots from across America's many cultural, geographic, racial, religious, economic, and philosophical borders. And no, I hadn't really thought about how different those months in Jordan would have been for a gay person. And as I already discussed above, it's obviously true that the women students' experience was so much harder than mine. Through reflections like these, this project enriched my own views of my time in Jordan.
My time in Jordan left me similarly changed. It was a different, deeper change than the quick jolt of dropping into Syria, where I rarely sat still long enough to experience the kind of existential struggles, daily routines, close personal relationships, and exhausting social challenges that Jordan presented me. In many ways, these mundane, everyday struggles to find my place in Jordan provided much more enduring lessons than my Syrian adventures. Those lessons have served me ever since—in travels around the region or daily life in Morocco or my current home, Algeria—and I know they will continue to do so.
It was a pleasure to learn more about the experiences of my companions in Jordan, and to reflect anew on my own experiences there. Again, my thanks to all of you who contributed. Safe travels.