I've spent the past three months living in Amman as part of a study abroad program that brings students to the University of Jordan to take classes, learn Arabic, and learn about the Jordanian culture. I've always wanted to study abroad somewhere that was completely different from what I've grown up with in the US, and after studying Arabic in college, Jordan seemed like the ideal place to study. I think I also chose Jordan in part because there was an air of mystery about it. Not very many people know very much about Arab culture in the US, and after doing my best in the past few years to read books, articles, and newspaper articles about the region, I finally realized that if I actually want to learn as much as I can about Arab culture, then I simply have to immerse myself in the middle of it and absorb as much of the experience as I can.
Before arriving, I thought I was pretty confident about my knowledge of the Middle East. I'd taken Arabic language classes for the past two years as well as classes about Islam, Arab history, and daily life in the Middle East, so I felt relatively comfortable about my knowledge of the region and its history. However, no class I took could teach me what I've learned about Jordan its culture in my stay so far.
I guess you could say my cultural exchange began before my plane's wheels even touched down in the middle of the arid Jordanian desert. My seatmate, a former heavyweight boxer, grew up in Jordan and was flying home to visit family. I don't remember his name, but I do remember his excitement to be the first person to welcome me to his country. He immediately offered to drive me to my hotel, and if I didn't have a hotel, I was more than welcome to stay at his house for the night. I was surprised and somewhat flattered at this candid offer. I'd never experienced such an open display of hospitality from an absolute stranger before, and if I hadn't already arranged a pick-up from the airport, there's a good chance I might have taken him up on his proposal.
After three months in Jordan, I can happily say that my interaction with the airplane boxer was in no way unusual. For the most part, all Jordanians, or all Arabs, cannot be described using just one word or just one sentence. However, the one thing that has been a constant in nearly all of my interactions with Jordanians is the earnest desire to welcome complete strangers into their country.
Each day, after taking taxis and buses to and from class, work, and the gym I return home to find my pockets full of phone numbers and business cards from taxi drivers, people I share a seat with on the bus, and strangers who I bump into on the street. Each time I meet someone new and introduce myself to him, without fail, he smiles, looks into my eyes, and repeats, "ahlan wasahlan." Welcome. More often than not, my new friend proceeds to ask me about my life, tell me about his life, and then invite me to get coffee or tea.
In addition to being invited to tea, I've been taken on tours around the city. I've been brought to someone's house for dinner. My new friends have offered me rooms in their houses, and I can easily list three or four different people who are more than willing to help me practice my Arabic whenever I want. Strangers have given me everything from cookies, coffee, and tea to CDs, hats, and ski gloves, and what's more impressive, they all do it without expecting anything in return.
These generous displays of hospitality catch me on my heels each and every time. After traveling throughout different parts of the world and getting in and out of a variety of sticky situations, I'd like to think I'm able to put on a pretty intimidating don't-mess-with-me face. However, Jordanians have a knack for persistently cracking through my shell and forcing a smile out of even my meanest travel face.
At first, I tried to refuse these offers of hospitality, because I thought they were too good to be true and there had to be something attached. Or maybe, I thought, they were trying to take advantage of me. Initially, I tried to keep up my guard in order to avoid being ripped off or conned, but I quickly learned that I was being foolish, because a Jordanian offer to tea is almost always entirely genuine, and, in fact, I've learned that sitting down for 10 minutes to chat and get to know someone is a great way to break down barriers between cultures, get to know someone as an individual, and take a break from my hectic schedule to sit back, relax, and enjoy a cup of sweet, Arab mint tea.
Matt Liston is a student at Colorado College and led trips in 2010 and 2009 for Camp Manito-wish. He was also a former Camper.
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