Finding the Way Back from Zero in Jordan

He took his eyes off the road and wrote on a sheet of paper. The weather was nice, and I could feel the wind finding its way through the individual strands of my hair as I rolled down the window. I started staring out the front of the car in the hopes that he might do the same, but instead my taxi driver pointed to the numbers he had written down, slightly deformed by the bumps and turns we had come across while driving. He pointed to each one individually, kindly waiting for me to read them one after another. “Wahid, ithnan, thalatha…” I read them slowly, each time his eyes smiled while he looked up and congratulated me, encouraging me to read the next one.

In many ways, when I traveled to Jordan, I also traveled back in time. My vocabulary was back to zero, and I relied on people who had been in this world longer than I had to teach me how to simply speak. I had little experience in this bubble that exists between Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia; like the walls of a bubble, I could see things more clearly.

The buildings there stand beige and perfectly geometric, dry reflections of the sandy ground below them. In Amman, at least, the buildings are left largely unpainted, their monochromatic facades only interrupted occasionally by red pharmacies and lusciously stocked fruit and vegetable stalls.

While the country has been largely spared the political and military turmoil of its neighbors, it has willingly shared in their burdens. Although the country may have argued that welcoming refugees would drown it’s already treading economy and make the country more vulnerable to extremism, an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees live in Jordan, according to a World Bank report, and over two million registered Palestine refugees live in the Kingdom, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

While life for Syrian refugees still remains less than easy in Jordan, sometimes as a result of feeling unwelcome in the Kingdom and the fact that it is notoriously difficult for refugees to find work, it remains notable to me that in a period of fear and uncertainty, Jordan nevertheless welcomed, as opposed to shunned. What’s interesting as well is that many of the negative predictions have come true; the rate of unemployment has not stopped increasing, and the country is relatively vulnerable to extremism, likely due to dormant ISIS cells.

Still, maybe, at the end of the day, people are worth it.

Although the country’s Google search optimization might not be number one (since Michael Jordan’s shoe line came into existence), Jordan is the first country I traveled to outside of the U.S., and is the first place where I experienced what being a journalist is like.

While there, I wrote mainly about refugees and economy. My editors were incredibly kind, and let me write about my interests; I am truly grateful for this opportunity. Mostly embassies and people outside of Jordan read the Jordan Times, as it is an English-only newspaper. Because of this, it is a great way to reach individuals who can actually offer some sort of aid when confronted with issues in the country. I had the opportunity of interviewing the President of the UN General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, as well as covering events with various embassies, and doing some reporting at a refugee camp. Overall, I had experiences that I might not ever have been granted 15 years into my career in the U.S.

Definitely the biggest challenge I faced while there was street harassment; women who are not Muslim are not expected to cover their hair, and despite attempting to be respectful in the way I dressed, I still attracted a lot of attention. It was so bad at one point that I was offered money when walking with some of my friends at three in the afternoon. On any given day I would be catcalled; sometimes people would follow me in their cars, and sometimes in person. I think the best thing to do is to constantly be aware of your surroundings if you are a woman, and realize why going out might take a bit more energy than you would otherwise expect. I spoke to one girl there about whether or not street harassment is faced by many women, and she said that it can be bad for Jordanian women as well.

Overall, life in Jordan is very similar to life in the U.S., and I even felt much safer there than I did on the Ave in Seattle.

However, there were a few idiosyncrasies which I found particularly interesting. First, Mohammad is such a common first name in Jordan that you can call a storekeeper, “Abu-Hmaid,” or father of Mohammad, if you don’t know his name. Second, when there’s an emergency, you may hear ambulance sirens from most any country in the world, because the Kingdom imports all of its cars. Third, most of the police are from a specific tribe in Jordan, which, while potentially resulting in corruption within the justice system, is kind of crazy when you see police in different places in the country and the city, and realize that they are all probably related.

At the end of day, I owe so much to this country and the people I met there. Jordan, you are beautiful.

By Liz Turnbull