Oh, Amman, how do I even begin to describe you? There is no way some paragraphs, an essay, or a whole encyclopedia can do you justice. Each day I spend in your city limits brings something new intermingled in the fabric of everydayness. From the towering minarets rising from a sea of small beige buildings, to the herds of sheep holding up traffic while patiently strutting down the streets, to the syrupy piece of Heaven that is a kunefe portion from Habiba, to the mesmerizing call to prayer that I have learned to use as an indicator of time, some things never change. However, you never fail to impress me. Whether it is a new coffeeshop in bustling Rainbow Street, an overwhelming souk awaiting Downtown, a stranger with an amazing story to tell, or a hidden antique shop in Paris Square, there is always something to discover every time I wake up.
My time in Jordan has been everything I expected before coming, and much more. Thanks to my multiple Arab friends and my personal interest on the Middle East, I had significant knowledge of what I was getting myself into when accepting my offer to study abroad in Jordan. I knew about Arab culture, the history of the country, the challenges it faced, and more, but having theoretical knowledge is not the same as experiencing things first-handedly. Because of that, I did have my few reservations and worries before arriving, as anyone who crosses the ocean on a 14-hour flight for the first time does. Nonetheless, I only had to set foot in Jordan (and Qatar, which served as my layover destination) for all those mental constructs to go away.
I never thought a country besides my homeland, the Dominican Republic, would embrace me the way Jordan has. It definitely feels like a second home to me. I found it surprising how easily I adapted to the Jordanian lifestyle due to some key differences between the customs and upbringing of an average Jordanian and myself. Being born and raised in Latin America, I grew up to be “freer”–a word I don’t really like using in this context but couldn’t find a replacement for–when it comes to the way I dress, dance, speak about certain topics, relate to members of the opposite sex, and other things such as drinking alcohol. Also, I am Catholic, while Jordan is a Muslim country.
However, I will never forget when I was having a conversation with Abdullah, one of my friends from Iraq, comparing Arabs to Latinos/as. After discussing some interesting points, he said: “bro, if you guys were Muslim, or we were Christian, we would be the same thing.” That, to be honest, could not be closer to the truth. Besides the differences mentioned above, everything is almost the same. Hospitality is innate in every person, the people are extremely warm, our barbers are amazing, there is no such thing as having too much food, and family structure is important to the culture. The most important similarity, nevertheless, is how Arab and Latin American moms can be the best intelligence agents in the world. Think you can get away with a late night out, sneaking out of your house, or pretending like a mess in the house wasn’t your fault? I’d recommend you think twice.
Those similarities have definitely played a role in the way I have adapted to Jordan and how I feel being here. Something that adds to the situation is the fact that I physically look fairly Arab, especially when I wear the traditional keffiyeh/red and white scarf. Before I came, my Arab friends taught me how to greet others and introduce myself. After those two basics, their instruction was exclusively limited to bad words and insults, as you can expect from any true friend. This combination of looking Arab and speaking little Arabic has set me up to have some very interesting and funny experiences. I lost track of how many times, while waiting for the bathroom at a restaurant or bar, other Arab men have tried to guess which Arab country I’m from (so far Qatar is winning, but I’ve gotten Morocco, Egypt, Jordan itself, and everything in between). Their reactions when I say I’m Dominican are priceless. Another time, at the sauna in a gym, a guy and I were talking and when he realized I didn’t speak fluent Arabic he asked me where I was from. After I told him I was from the Dominican Republic, he straight up said “bro, I’m going to be honest, you look Qatari as f**k.” At the same gym, which I go to with some friends from the program, we were in the locker room and a man pulled me aside (my friends were speaking to each other) to talk about them and their American accents, as if I wasn’t with them. Again, when he found out, his reaction was very funny. These interactions go on and on, whether it’s people stopping me on the street to ask for directions in Arabic, people speaking super-fast Arabic because they assume I’m fluent, or someone who once told me “if I took you to my house, you could literally blend in as one of us. Just keep that keffiyeh on and you could get Jordanian citizenship soon.” This has added a very interesting angle to my experience in Jordan, as it has allowed me to connect to the culture in a deeper way, it has given me more chances to practice my Arabic, and also allows me to experience Jordan without being always regarded as a tourist. Jordanians are welcoming and nice to everyone, but being treated like a local, at least from my point of view, feels like a privilege.
All those things aside, what I have done in Jordan so far, in terms of visiting places, has been great. Here in Amman, I’ve dedicated significant amounts of time to explore the city. Trying new coffeeshops, enjoying some shisha while drinking tea and having great conversations with friends, and exploring souks are all things I really enjoy doing in my free time. I’m also fond of talking to people I meet while simply walking around (taking certain things in mind, of course). Everyone is very open to talk and give you recommendations of places and things to try. Outside of Amman, I’ve been to the Dead Sea, where the feeling of floating effortlessly is simply unbelievable. I’ve also visited Ajloun, a city up in the mountains, Umm Qais, where there’s a place from which you can see Syria, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine, and Jerash, a massive site holding some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world.
My time in the Middle East and specifically in Jordan has been nothing but amazing. However, being here does not only mean visiting cool places and trying out something new every day. Whether it is the refugee crisis caused by the Syrian Civil War, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the rising tide of Islamophobia and its effects on Muslims, I have had to come very close to several issues that are very significant worldwide. When I met my host mother and she was showing me around the house, she said something I will never forget: “I am Muslim, but don’t worry, I’m a good Muslim, not like those you see on TV.” The fact that she felt the need to say that in order to make me feel safe or welcome really broke my heart. It reminded me that I’m here in Jordan not only to have a good time and educate myself through experiential learning. I’m here to take that knowledge and spread it as much as I can in order to target many psychological constructs that, sadly, create divides among humankind that constitute the roots of multiple issues we have faced for a long time, and still face today.