Jordan 2005: Looking Back A Decade Later

Monday, August 31, 2015 | Jordan

Petra, Jordan, September 2005. Standing (left to right): Rob Lowell, Ian Lee, Matthew Southard, Andrew Farrand, Ben Jones, Emily Antoon, Jessica Ehresman, Mike Myers, Tom Hojem, Taylor Luck, Hayden Weiler, DeAnna Arabaty, Julia Robbins, Austin Branion, Lauren Gentry, Ryan Lospaluto. Seated (left to right): tour guide, Andrus Ashoo, Craig Hansen, Kristen Nivling, Lindsey Stephenson, Lindsay Zoeller, David MacDonald, Mariam Banahi, Sami Jarrah, Molly Langer, Emily Wright. Not pictured: organizer Sally Shalabi, Morgan Nilsen.
"I cannot put it simply enough: Jordan shaped me into the man I am today. Those few months would later lead to me finding my religion, my profession, my wife, and personal happiness. A semester well spent."

Taylor, a Chicago-born journalist living in Amman, Jordan, wrote those words last week in response to a survey I sent to 26 fellow Americans.

Exactly ten years earlier, almost to the very day, Taylor, I, and the rest of that same group—then just skittish college students—had been sitting awkwardly in the continental breakfast bar of an Amman hotel, sizing each other up out the corners of our eyes during a crash course in Jordanian culture, all the while eagerly awaiting our host family assignments and the start of Arabic classes a few days later.

I had hopped a taxi there from Damascus. Others had flown from California, Florida, Maine, Missouri, or Wyoming. Some would stay a semester and others a whole year, through a study abroad program run by CIEE in conjunction with AMIDEAST and the University of Jordan.

All of us came to Jordan from different backgrounds, shared several intense months together and, for the most part, went our separate ways. As the 10-year anniversary of our arrival in Jordan approached, I was curious to know where we all ended up. And while it can be fun to play "Where Are They Now?", another question intrigued me even more: How did those few months in the Middle East shape our lives?

To mark the anniversary, I invited my companions in Jordan to help me answer that question. I sent them a brief survey, and received responses from over half the group (16 in fact, with an almost even split between men and women, and between those who stayed one semester or a full year). Perhaps not everyone's life was as transformed as Taylor's was, but this exercise—while far from scientific—revealed a range of experiences even more formative, varied, and fascinating than I had imagined.

Part I. Before Jordan

Before asking about their Jordan experiences, I was curious to know where the members of our group had come from. This was where the survey began.

Our widely varying backgrounds—be it regional, political, religious, socioeconomic, racial, or otherwise—had been evident even back in 2005, despite everyone's best post-adolescent efforts to appear "normal". A decade later, in a written survey, the true range is more apparent. Our group hailed from across the US, from Appalachia to San Francisco, lower to middle to upper class, and included a mix of Christians, plus Jewish, Muslim, Baha'i, and atheist members. We were jockish and bookish, naive and worldly, gay and straight, ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative, to say nothing of the intangible cultural differences.

Why were we there? Everyone seemed to have come to Jordan searching for something they couldn't find back home. "I did not have many experiences beyond my own worldview and mindset," says Matt from Maine. "It was was a point in my life where I was questioning my faith, whom I wanted to become and what I wanted to do with my life," says Jessica, who hailed from Philadelphia. "One thing was for sure—I was obsessed with learning languages and was on a mission to get exposed to as many different people and cultures as I could, as I knew it was the time of my life to have the opportunity to do that." Many talk of wanting to leave behind what they knew back home. "I'd always dreamed of escaping Kentucky," says Lindsay (forever known to our group simply as "Kentucky"), "and the scholarship I received to go to Jordan was the first real opportunity to do that."

Some knew nothing of the region, its language, or its culture, but were propelled by current events, like Morgan from Santa Cruz, California, who cites the war in Iraq as a motivating factor: "The Middle East was on everyone's minds. I wanted to fight for the cause of peace and to do that diplomatically I wanted to learn the language and culture of the Arabic people." Others, myself included, had already begun exploring the Arab world, and came hoping to improve our knowledge of the Arabic language and local cultures. New York native Mariam calls her former self "a boring college student trying to say more than 'ana min amreeka'..." Self-described gym rat Taylor (yes, today the Jordan-based journalist), says that at the time he "would at first glance fit more comfortably in the category of 'frat jock' than Middle East enthusiast," but he too "had a passion and interest in the Arab world."

Unsurprisingly, it is Tom, our group's beloved plain-speaking Oregonian, who seemed to sum up the essence of everyone's answers. When he arrived in Jordan, he says, "I was a child."

Part II. During Jordan

What was that experience like for all of us, uprooted from all that was familiar back in the United States, thrust into the homes of traditional Jordanian families, into Arabic classes, and into long field trips through the desert?

Unsurprisingly, experiences varied widely. Few rated their overall experience negatively, though equally few offered universal praise. When I asked what words my companions would use to describe their time in Jordan, "eye-opening", "enlightening", "life-changing", "fascinating", and "challenging" recurred frequently. (Tom wrote one word: "magical." Ten years later, it's often still hard to tell when he's joking and when he's not.)

A question about "particularly funny, influential, or memorable moments" brought forth a flood of rosy recollections. Floating in the Dead Sea, camping in the southern desert with the Bedouins, idyllic Friday lunches with the host family, reading and sipping tea at Books@Cafe, playing in the university soccer league, praying together with fellow Americans over Thanksgiving dinner, even "eating Kinder Bueno about every day and getting really fat."

On the less rosy side, many mentioned the hotel bombings that marred that fall in Amman.

Quite a few recalled the multi-day group excursion to the desert; my fellow Maryland native Kristen recalls "watching the sun set and turn the sand shades of orange that don't have words." She also remembers "sneaking a Coca-Cola behind the school building during Ramadan," and "the cake we ordered from the school for our last day that was meant to say 'Goodbye, American Students' but appeared to say 'American Shederf Goodby.'"

Christelle, a French student who was unofficially adopted by our group (and, on that basis, was invited to complete the survey) remembers "afternoons spent lying on the tile floor of the flat, playing Sudoku, waiting for the heat to stop", "the smell of coffee with cardamon seeds", "the huge posters we hung in the living room to learn vocabulary", "our cat Hercules", and "haggling in Petra for the anklet I'm still wearing today." She also remembers cutting the cast off Mariam's wrist with a kitchen knife on their rooftop. (So does Mariam: "My wrist still gives me trouble.")

Some memories swung toward the bizarre. Lindsay from Kentucky will never forget her taxi driver Muhanned, with "his break dancing and questionably long finger nails." (Side note from Ryan from Rhode Island: "I had heard that Muhanned named his son after me after I left.")

By far the most frequently cited memory, however, took place at the Halloween party, or maybe the toga party, when our favorite Louisianan leprechaun Mike "got his lucky Irish eyebrows singed by the exploding oven", in the words of fellow chef David from Philadelphia.

Our time in Jordan was also a challenging one, and pushed the ability of many of us to adapt and cope. Christelle remembers it being "excessively hard. I don't remember a day without being harassed or 'victim' [for] being a woman and a foreigner." Morgan, who had not previously traveled to the Arab world, says he also found the environment difficult: "Personally, this was the first time I really felt uncomfortable in my skin. People openly stare at foreigners. Some people were openly hostile while others were incredibly friendly."

The kindness of strangers figures in many memories. Lindsey from Georgia (known forever to us as "Georgia"—how else were we supposed to tell Lindsey and Lindsay apart?) remembers one early mistake: "In my first few days I flagged down an empty school bus thinking it was public transportation. The driver still took me all the way to the university."

For Lindsey, who came from a conservative environment in rural Georgia, "My first home stay was a crazy experience. I was not used to sharing everything," she says. "I had no privacy (except in the bathroom), and no space that was 'mine.' I remember being so shocked that my host sister would use my things and that they would eat any leftovers I put in the fridge." For a picky eater like her, Lindsey says, this was a particular problem, though not an insurmountable one. "My host mother finally found something that I liked to eat: hard-boiled eggs. So she would make several and leave them in the fridge for me to grab in the morning before school. Then one day I got the idea to heat one up, which ended in a huge explosion and bits of egg everywhere. My host mother came running into the kitchen to see what happened, and then started dying laughing. 'George Bush bombs the Muslims and you bombed my microwave!' she said."

Many of us learned about ourselves: "My Jordan experience was a chance to learn about myself as much as it was to learn a new culture, religion and country," says Taylor. And many confronted jarring revelations about the world around us. One respondent, who preferred to remain anonymous (an option I offered to all), recalls meeting a Jordanian medical student: "And at some point we are talking and he tells me he knows he is gay; I am surprised at his honesty, but I think he suspects I am gay too so feels comfortable; He tells me he can never come out and will marry a woman and have children because that is what is acceptable where [he] is from..."

Many also recount profound challenges to their faith during their time in Jordan. For David, "The main thing it did was put a stake in the religious Christian part of me. I saw that religiosity in a Muslim society played the same role and meant the same things as in the Christian society I'd come from. That made Christianity seem a lot less special and religion seem a lot more arbitrary, i.e., a function of the place of one's birth." Another member of the group described undergoing a "crisis of faith" at the same time as a first bout of Major Depressive Disorder, then still un-diagnosed. "In the meantime, un-medicated and unsupported by any kind of counseling, I thought of my situation in purely spiritual terms. I felt 'sinful', isolated, devastated, alone."

My companions' reflections on the many months we all spent in Jordan point to how each person's experience was not only unique, but also incredibly varied, with extreme highs and lows. One theme, however, was present throughout: We weren't in Kansas anymore. This place was different, and it would mark us all for years to come.

Part III. After Jordan

Many of our study abroad organizers' decisions that fall earned eye rolls from our group, among them the decision to cap our semester with a seemingly interminable "re-orientation" session designed to ease our reentry into American culture. Given the difficulties that many describe having with reentry, however, perhaps that session was worthwhile after all. Jessica remembers feeling depressed after returning to the US, "because I wasn't accustomed to being so 'by myself' all the time. No one wanted to be in my business or sit and talk for hours." She also had a rude reintroduction to the uglier side of America upon her return: "I went to a dry cleaner's to dry clean some of my clothes and the dry cleaner owner asked me how they got so dirty. I explained I had just returned from Jordan and the streets are very dusty and he refused to clean my clothes and said 'I'm not cleaning Jordanian shit off of your clothes.'"

After a few months in a new place, recognizing how it has shaped you can be difficult. Upon her return, Lindsey (a.k.a. "Georgia") sometimes counted on friends and family to show her the differences: "I had come from a pretty poor background and we rarely ate fruit and vegetables. So being exposed to so many different and new foods was really difficult for me at first, but totally changed the way I eat now. I remember coming back from Jordan and making my family a salad with cucumber, tomato and onion. My mom was shocked because I had never eaten any of those vegetables before I left for Jordan." New perspective on the world can also change your friendships, as Lindsey also discovered: "Unfortunately, after Jordan it was very hard for me to be able to relate to my previous friends (except those who had also spent semesters abroad, even if it was France or the UK). In fact, the new people that I have become friends with since Jordan all have some connections outside of the US."

Since the end of our study abroad days, we have all spent years processing the experience. Many felt—and answered—the pull to return to the Arab world. Taylor returned to Jordan, David moved to Yemen, Austin studied in Syria, Mariam completed a Fulbright scholarship in Egypt and Lindsey did the same in Kuwait. Others chose life paths that did not lead them back to the Arab world, but describe their Jordan experience as formative all the same, albeit perhaps in less immediately visible ways. For Tom, it was "one of those visceral experiences that added texture to my education." Morgan, who today teaches in a bilingual school in San Francisco, found that Jordan gave him "a lot of insights on how the life of an exchange student is, which is valuable for an ESL teacher." And after surviving her crisis of faith (described above) in an unknown land, another member of the group found her calling "as a hospital chaplain to people of all faiths and all walks of life."

Some in the group concluded that living in the Arab world—or elsewhere abroad, in some cases—just wasn't for them. Christelle says, "I am proud to say that I lived a year in the Middle East, even if it's not an accomplishment so to say. It is one at my level." Mike from Louisiana found his time in Jordan similarly clarifying: "Even though I had a great time in Jordan overall, I think the biggest takeaway was that I realized that I did not want to live abroad for any extended amount of time."

Others did hope to return to Jordan or the region. "I wanted to come back," says Ryan from Rhode Island, but "Other life circumstances took off upon returning. I settled down, you could say." An anonymous member of the group struggled with his desire to center his life in a region where he did not feel welcomed: "I briefly thought that after graduating from college, I would go on to study Islam. I even applied (and was accepted) to SOAS at the University of London. I then thought about the huge cost and what my life might look like if I actually worked in that field. I felt that as a gay man I would not be able to live the life I wanted, with a husband and a family one day, openly in the Middle East any time soon. So I moved on from the idea." But another part of his Jordan experience—a visit to a health clinic in the Baqa'a refugee camp north of Amman—ultimately steered him to a better alternative, he says: "That stuck with me and helped to guide me toward a career in public health and healthcare."

Although she has not yet managed to return, Jessica finds her experience in Jordan to have been useful both professionally and personally. "The mention of my semesters at the Jordan University on my resume never fail to impress and raise questions. It helped me show my employers that I am willing to take risks, that I am curious and that I am determined. ... In any case, it catches attention." In addition, she says, "There have been instances where I have met Muslims living in the US who felt misunderstood by westerners and felt shut out. I am so happy to have had the opportunity to have met them and make them feel at ease showing my understanding of their religion and culture."

Those of us who stayed in the region, or at least who keep coming back, have our own relationships with our time in Jordan. A journalist working in the region says of it, "You can't put a price on language, culture, experiences, and relationships made during that time. It made me a better journalist." Indeed, many centered their career on the skills they developed in Jordan, like Austin from Georgia, who says, "My entire post-graduation career has required the use of Arabic language and cultural skills." Mariam credits her time in Jordan for pushing her to pursue a PhD.D. in anthropology on the region, and for making her strong enough to withstand the challenges of her Fulbright months in Egypt.

"After Jordan," says Lindsey from Georgia, "I realized that there was so much I still wanted to know. The world was a totally different place than I had previously thought." While a broader perspective helped propel her academic career (she is currently pursuing a PhD in Middle Eastern History), it also caused tensions at home. "Jordan was really a new beginning for me in a million ways. So much so that my parents constantly say that they wish they had never let me go because it is a huge marker of my transition to the person I am now. Three years after arriving in Jordan I became Muslim. My conversion didn't specifically involve anyone I met in Jordan, but it was certainly informed by my 'post-Jordan worldview.'"

And what of the Last of the Mohicans, back in Amman? "Oddly enough, all my friends and contacts from that semester have all drifted away—although I essentially stayed in Jordan," says Taylor, the Amman-based journalist. "I am not going anywhere," he adds. "Through my time in Jordan I have found my religion (Islam), my wife (a proud Karaki) and my higher purpose (to disseminate the true image of Islam and the Arab world). ... I wear a thobe [traditional robe] every Friday and off-day and speak almost exclusively Arabic in my daily life. If you go by the early Islamic definition of Arab—one who speaks Arabic and follows the tenets of Islam—my identity is culturally Arab, and more specifically, Jordanian."

While everyone in our group describes discovering elements of a new culture in Jordan, many respondents also mention how much they learned from their fellow Americans. "The other Americans I met while in Jordan were probably just as important in shaping my perspective as Jordan itself," says Lindsey from Georgia. "In some cases they made observations that I disagreed with until years later." David from Philadelphia calls getting to know the group "the best part" of his time in Jordan: "It broadened my perspective of the world, but also of America, given that I'd only experienced my narrow slice of the country up to that point."

Whether it was time with host families or with fellow American students, Arabic classes or desert sunsets, Ramadan fasting or chocolate bingeing, inner struggles with faith or public adoption of new identities, everyone who responded to the survey ascribes important life changes to their months in Jordan. For Jess, Jordan is "a huge part of who I am." For David, it was "my first time traveling alone... it forced me to be self-sufficient." For Austin, "an absolutely crucial juncture both in understanding more about the world at large and forming my identity as a global citizen." For another member of our group, it was a learning experience that taught "how different and similar other parts of the world are to each other, and also how crucial travel is for a life well lived."

A decade ago, we arrived naive, and left perhaps a little less so. We had come in search of someplace new and different, and we had found it.

My sincerest thanks to those of you who took the time to contribute to this piece by sharing your reflections on your time in Jordan and its effects on your lives.

Note: In this entry, I tried to avoid interjecting my own opinions, preferring to let my companions speak for themselves. Next, I will share some of my own reflections on my Jordan experience, ten years later, as well as a few reactions to my companions' many insightful, candid, surprising, and perceptive contributions.


Mike Myers said...

I must make a correction, the "Incident" was indeed a Halloween Party (the Toga party was weeks later), and despite Georgia's assassination attempt of leaving the gas on and asking me to light it 3 minutes later, my eyebrows remained intact, it was my eyelashes and attempt at a Trucker Mustache that did not survive the explosion.

Peter Shoemaker said...

What a gift to give, Andrew. A very nice read.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thank you to Mike's eyebrows for that correction :)

And thank you, Peter. Very glad you enjoyed, and hope others do as well.

Julia said...

Great piece! Thank you for putting it together.

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