Postcard from Jordan: Cultural Exchange in the Middle East

What I Learned as a Female Traveler in the Middle East

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“There are three genders in the Arabic world: Men, Arabic women, and foreign women.”

It was the night before I was set to depart for Jordan, and I was having drinks with a friend of mine who had just returned to New York City from Lebanon. My bags were packed, my passport updated, and in twelve short hours, I would be on a flight to Ben Gurion International. When I parted from my friend that spring evening, I never anticipated how often I would be reminded of her words over the coming weeks. Although I’d traveled to other primarily Muslim countries—Turkey, Bosnia and Tunisia —this was to be my first time in the Middle East. I was visiting my sister, who was living in the Jordanian capital of Amman on a Fulbright scholarship.  

A market in Amman, Jordan

Vegetable market in Amman, Jordan

The first morning that I arrived in Amman, we explored the shops and cafes of the Old City. Navigating the crowded sidewalks of downtown, I weaved my way through throngs of men who were crossing the street holding hands and embracing one another in front of cafes and restaurants. I watched as they stood together in the market, telling stories and sharing cigarettes, their tobacco smoke gathering underneath the awnings overhead. The shop windows displayed portraits of King Abdullah. My sister was the only other female in my line of sight.

Walking down the street, my sister and I received a barrage of friendly greetings from the men we passed, many of whom offered gifts of tea or flowers. My sister warned me to expect such generosity, aware that kindness from strangers is considered suspicious in New York City:

 “This is a culture of extreme recognition. If you pass someone on the street, not only will they look you in the eye, they will speak to you directly.”

This friendliness was also attributable to our American identities: exempt from traditional gender roles, we could socialize with both men and women. As an American fluent in Arabic, my sister’s access to traditionally male spaces within society was evident in her position as the sole female in an all-male office.

The author (right), her sister, and friends in Amman, Jordan

Yet, though I’d been prepared for this hospitality, the onslaught of attention was initially unsettling: I’d never been more self-conscious about being a woman in a public setting. The absence of other females that morning was startling. 

The only voices I heard were male, their unabashed eye contact and enthusiastic greetings—“Welcome to Jordan! Thank you for coming!”—not shared by the few women I glimpsed on the street.  Quiet and reserved, they minded themselves. Hurrying past us, their profiles were often obscured by hijabs, an additional layer of privacy in public. In contrast, I felt utterly exposed.

Yet, as the trip continued, and I spent more time with families in their homes, I discovered that—although men are more gregarious in public—in private, it is the women who often dominate. My sister introduced me to fellow Jordanian female journalists, as well as matriarchs of Palestinian refugee families. From Bedouins in Wadi Rum, to refugees in Baqa’a, to young women in their twenties on Rainbow Street, I was struck by the strength and command of the women I met, aged nine to ninety. 

I met my sister’s Jordanian friends that first weekend, finding them all impressively accomplished for their early twenties—though spending any extended period of time with a group of Fulbright scholars is likely to make anyone feel slightly unworthy. They frequented Rainbow Street, the cobblestone promenade that is the center of social life in Amman and, like many women in Jordan, they were highly educated (and quite often trilingual). In their professional ambitions, however, they were determined to escape the fate of similarly qualified peers: female employment in Jordan is among the lowest in the Middle East at 15% and, of these unemployed women, 70% have bachelor’s degrees.  The welcome party at my sister’s apartment was attended by both men and women, all of whom socialize as friends—and suffer the attendant romantic complications, the universal conundrums that defy any linguistic or cultural barrier.

The author and her sister in Wadi Rum

After a couple of days in Amman, my sister and I headed to Wadi Rum to embark on an overnight safari in the desert. We quickly befriended our Bedouin guide, who offered to take us to meet his family after dinner had concluded in our tents. Walking through the vast desert, the mountains of sand gleamed underneath the stars—the only source of light guiding us through the endless and unchanging landscape in the dark. We walked for nearly a mile before spotting the glimmer of a bonfire nestled beside a sand dune, sheltered from the wind. 

Upon reaching the campfire, I met a family of nearly a dozen children and adults—all presided over by the guide’s grandmother, a welcoming and jovial presence offering us tea and hot bread. Sitting across from her at the fire, her dark robes appeared to blend into the night sky behind her; her flashing smile the only distinguishing feature against the blackness above and around us. She repeatedly engaged me in conversation despite our language barrier, enlisting her grandson and my sister as translators. She was delighted to entertain guests—though her family never stayed in one place for more than a single evening, their camp unmistakably evoked the atmosphere of home. 

She’s receiving, I thought to myself, watching her entertain her visitors. When I told her that she reminded me of the queen, she laughed and nodded her head. 

“Marouf,” she said. It is known.

Volunteering at a refugee camp

I volunteered with my sister at Baqa’a, the Palestinian refugee camp located just outside of Amman. Tasked with teaching two nine-year-old girls the English words for extreme weather, I was happy to discover they were just as curious (and bossy) as their American counterparts. The timeliness of this lesson in the wake of Hurricane Sandy was impressed upon me when they began regaling me with stories about sharks and octopuses that had washed up on lawns all over the country. Their American friends had written them with the news. Taking my hand, they led me across the room to view the evidence. A large poster board reading “Letters From America” covered nearly an entire wall in the tiny classroom, displaying dozens of misspelled letters written in blocky elementary-school print. They had a lot of friends in America, they told me, with obvious self-satisfaction and excitement. I was just a newer one.

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