My Own Look Back: Jordan, A Decade On

Thursday, September 10, 2015 | Amman, Jordan

Andrew pondering life's mysteries at Dana Nature Reserve in Jordan. (Original photo by J. Ehresman)
This post is a more personal follow-up to my previous entry, "Jordan 2005: Looking Back, A Decade Later".

"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.

Tom, Sami, and Andrew on camelback in Petra, Jordan.
Filling out my own survey and interspersing my own opinions throughout the blog post on our Jordan experience would have cluttered the article and drowned out the voices I was most interested in—my companions'—so I focused on them. For those who haven't yet read it, the result is here: "Jordan 2005: Looking Back, A Decade Later".

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 cafĂ©'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.

What, you were expecting more camels? Andrew snorkeling in Aqaba, Jordan.
As I read my companions' responses and developed the retrospective article, I was encouraged to see how much of an impact our Jordan experience had on everyone. Nearly half of the (very un-scientific) survey's respondents have lived or otherwise spent substantial time in the Arab world since Jordan. And contrary to what those of us who have returned to the region might sometimes imagine, most of those who resettled back home in the US still describe the memories and lessons of their Jordan experience as being present and influential in their lives. In a sentiment that many share, one of the respondents said his time in Jordan left him "more open to the world, knowledgeable about different cultures and regions, and shapes how I view the world".

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.


Andrew G. Farrand said...

Hat tip to Lindsay from Kentucky for sharing this recent piece that adds further food for thought to our Jordan experience:

The surprising effects of study abroad
"Rather than fostering a sense of shared international community and warm realizations of “we are the same,” cross-border contact may instead encourage a form of “enlightened nationalism”—a sharper sense of national difference, and pride in that difference, tempered by tolerance and the realization that such differences need not be threatening."

Mariam said...

Thanks for making a gesture to some of the violences we experienced while studying abroad; however, I would also ask that we try to avoid inflicting our own violences upon the Jordanian and Palestinian families and individuals who hosted us, who we came across, and who we lived among.

I would like to think that we have moved a bit beyond the simplistic logics of those such as Patai and not attribute the (sexual) violences we experienced as the result of "life in a sexually repressed society," as you call it. I hoped that living in Jordan for a semester, a year, or even longer might afford some more nuance.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Mariam, I'm sure that in the couple hundred words I dedicated to the topic of sexual harassment and assault above, I certainly didn't cover all the nuances, but I'm unclear how my characterization constitutes "inflicting violence" or what makes you feel it's so off the mark.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, I didn't post that to incite you, but to add that it is simplistic to simply name the harassment as emerging from sexual repression. I understand that this is a blog, but brevity is not a defense. You could have also chosen not to project some kind of societal ailment for the prevalence of sexual harassment, instead, you chose to name one cause for your readers.

If one reads your posts and identifies some of us as living and studying in the region, as well as dedicating our lives to challenging this kind of discourse, don't you think it's a bit problematic to be attributing it to repression? Your characterization inflicts violence by projecting the actions of an anonymous group of individuals onto all of Jordanian / Arab society...something that (neo-) Orientalists have done well for centuries. In addition, your inability to acknowledge or recognize such violence is telling.

Please add a disclaimer that ensures that your views are not conflated with those you asked to complete your survey (if you don't already have one). Alternatively, I would be fine if you removed any reference to my name and identifiers (profession, status, pictures, etc.)

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Sorry Mariam, life got in the way these last weeks and I haven't gotten back to this, but I did want to close the loop...
Based on what I have experienced, seen, heard and read in my life, I do believe that communities that significantly restrict sexual contact are somewhat at odds with the basic realities of human biology. We are hard wired to reproduce. I know of no scientific reason why young people in one community would have different hormones than in another. And so communities that drastically restrict outlets for those hormones often leave their young people feeling frustrated, their biological urges repressed. Some of those young people manage that frustration better than others, but I do believe that it pushes some of them act out, make aggressive advances and harass, and generate troubling incidents like those I allude to above.
Again, that is my view based on what I know. Causality is hard to prove, and I haven't gone searching for academic studies to support my view (though I would certainly be interested in reading more on the subject).
Thanks for sharing your point of view on this. I think my text, your dissent above, and the title of the post make it clear that my view on this point is my own and not representative of others.

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