Over There, and Back Again

I’ve already been scolded by a friend of mine to ‘stop writing the same stupid article’. So here goes.

* * * * *

Choosing where I studied abroad this past fall seemed interesting at the time, but mainly in a detached way; I didn’t really know enough about anywhere I was looking to discern any true differences. I knew I wanted to study somewhere in the Middle East – and not Dartmouth’s conception of the ‘Middle East in North Africa’. I wanted to go somewhere I thought was the ‘real’ Middle East, and to meet my idea of ‘real’ Middle Easterners. I ended up living in Amman, Jordan for four months.

It’s shocking how simple the picture of the Middle East painted by American media is. Sure, all news coverage is simplification, and international news here is especially narrow in its focus. But we see much less of the Middle East than most places. American ties to the Middle East, at least on a cultural level, are few and far between. Arab music, movies, and television don’t make the jump to the U.S. in the way that Bollywood, martial arts films, and Latin soap operas have. Arab-Americans at last count made up ½ of one percent of Americans.

Arab Muslims are strangers to the American consciousness. How else do we explain the way that we couldn’t even discern the difference between Sikhs and Muslims in the wake of 9/11? We know our idea of Arabs better than we know Arabs themselves. When we see the Middle East, we almost always see violence. Arabs seem an angry bunch living in a scary place; to even cursory followers of the news, the Middle East appears like a web of terrorist-filled caves, burning husks of cars, and oil wells with a cacophony of angry shouts and calls to prayer the only soundtrack.

Images of violence in the Middle East start to infiltrate one’s thought in a subtle, subconscious sort of way. Days before I left the country, I talked to two of my smartest friends about my trip. “Just don’t get into any arguments!” they exclaimed. “You’ll get shot! Or kidnapped.” These two are brilliant and well-educated people; they know more facts about the Middle East and the world than most ever will. It’s easy to think of prejudice as the realm of the ignorant, but emotional instincts often run deeper than thought.

*

The Queen Alia International Airport feels marginally larger than the Lebanon Municipal Airport. My friend and I walked off of our flight after 5000 miles of idle chatter with a sort of anxiety-induced silence hanging almost tangibly between us. We had arrived. When we rolled out onto the curb with our luggage in tow, we were immediately swarmed by strangers in strange clothing and blanketed in shouts of ‘Taxi!’. The dry heat is one of the first things you notice when you step outside. The voices insisting on amazing prices (special, only for us!) weren’t convincing per se, but, overwhelmed on the sidewalk, each seemed to offer respite from the teeming mass. We hustled over to a dingy yellow cab with our shiny rolling luggage looking out of place on the narrow cracked sidewalk. Men in camouflage holding assault rifles lined the roads.

Our taxi ride from the airport quickly progressed from awkward to humiliating, with a brief yet distressing stop at embarrassing along the way. We made a few futile attempts to use our broken words to explain to the driver that we were simple American students. His only response after a few failed exchanges was a series of quizzical looks, followed by outright laughter. This culminated in him mockingly counting to 3 over and over in Arabic, his fat finger jutting into the backseat to the rhythm of his throaty, raspy laughter. Needless to say, we did not yet feel at home.

Thirty minutes into my experience in Jordan, and my worst fears about the language barrier had already materialized. ‘Language barrier’ is an interesting phrase, though. It describes the interactions of two people from completely different places, but only captures part of why they often fail to understand one another. It’s not as much that one lacks the words to describe something familiar for the other as the two don’t share any points of reference; no amount of body language and nonverbal communication can make up for simply not knowing one another’s worlds.

The driver dropped my friend off first. All of the warnings we had received from family and friends came rushing back after we handed the driver a slip of paper with a longer-than-normal number on it and listened to the guttural, alien language he spoke on the phone [1]. We pulled up to the side of an empty lot full of desert brush and a shocking amount of garbage. The driver grunted a word sounding vaguely like ‘here’ and gestured across the street at a tall sandstone building flanked by empty lots of dust. The creeping fears in the back of my head hurried to the forefront – these were the people who had brought down two towers, this the language spoken in grainy videos of blindfolded Americans, these the streets that witness burning American flags… These people shoot guns when they’re happy! I obviously considered myself too educated and enlightened to say it out loud, but come on; of course I was going to think it.

I’d love to think back and say I wasn’t scared or anxious, that I trusted in the people around me and realized that the odds of this taxi driver in a U.S.-backed country risking his life and his employment to screw over a scrawny Asian looking kid were low, to say the least. I can’t, though. All the worries ran through my mind – was my friend going to be kidnapped? Where was I going to be taken? Who knows whom that cab driver had called and what he said? This was the dangerous Middle East full of people that hated our freedom, and now I was living in it.

* * * * *

Sometimes, the world can feel like a very small place. American music and movies span the globe, and long-distance flight has become routine. The Internet connects more of us faster than ever before. A dominant ‘Western’ culture, largely American-influenced, splays out over most of the Americas and Europe, and permeates the rest of the world to some degree.

Cultural difference is a strange thing. I always thought that it would be something that would jump out to me, blindside me in a way. Maybe not in Europe or Mexico, but you know, somewhere different, somewhere really different, I assumed it would be shocking. In sort of a Narnia-esque way, I mean, like stepping into a world completely different from my own.

Amman is fairly ‘Western’, as far as places in the Middle East go. It’s littered with Starbucks-esque coffee shops, McDonald’s (simply ‘Mac’, in the local speak), and ex-pats in shiny American cars. Listening to popular music there is a time warp of sorts; I never expected to hear so much Akon again in my life. Apart from the Arabic script spelling out ‘soo-per-mar-ket’ phonetically and the ubiquitous beige sandstone, though, Amman didn’t look too different from small cities I had seen before.

*

It ended up being the little differences that took me by surprise. Crossing the street required some courage. Convenience store clerks often smoked cigarettes behind the desk. The school week started on Sundays. For the first few weeks, the call to prayer woke me every morning at 5 AM, sharp. Occasionally, buildings would run out of water altogether as the tanks sitting on the roofs ran dry.

I once showed up to my first day on a job in shorts. I was supposed to help run a gym session for children and maybe play some soccer. So I wore shorts. It was my first time in East Amman, the less westernized and poorer side of Amman. When we showed up at the orphanage, our American contact met us with a smile and a poorly accented greeting, but I saw the disappointment when he glanced at my clothing. He asked me to arrive wearing pants next time. Surely I had somehow offended with my slightly-below-the-knee shorts, broken some taboo. I flushed red with embarrassment as I apologized profusely. He laughed and told me that my shorts weren’t offensive at all. “The kids just won’t respect you,” he explained. “Only children wear shorts around here.”

I’d love to say that there was more to the story, that some kids ran by loudly ridiculing me in my shorts while I stood in shame or that a policeman accosted me, shouting ‘Shorts?!’ I expected something like that to happen myself, but it never really did. Most of the differences were much quieter than that.

* * * * *

My best friend in Jordan was a Muslim. Average height by Jordanian standards, he was a few inches shorter than I was and sported a shaved head and bare face. He was lanky with long arms and a pale complexion, the type of withdrawn kid that’s quiet around strangers and much louder around friends. He liked to travel, make fun of friends, and play video games. In a lot of ways, he was remarkably similar to me.

His name was Mohammad. He was very religious, even by Jordanian standards. He drank no alcohol, had no sex, smoked no shisha. In a lot of ways, he was nothing like me at all. Perhaps it was a product of his natural introversion, but I didn’t realize how religious he truly was until, months after we met, he stepped alone out of the kickoff of his soccer game one night in order to pray.

It wasn’t really something that ever jumped out to me, his religion. He invited our group of students over for dinner at his house. I was served food by his mother and sister, played ping-pong with his younger brother and then his father, and sat around with the whole family as everyone chatted over tea and played with his infant niece and nephew. It wasn’t until we were leaving and they politely declined the handshakes of the girls in our group that I remembered where exactly we were.

I went out with Mohammad and his friends one night. We played cards and video games late into the night. Hungry at 3 A.M., we did exactly what I would’ve done at home and found some fast food. The group at the restaurant was Mohammed, a friend I had never met before, and myself. I could tell the new guy was a joker from the first time he spoke. It started with good-natured ribbing about my poor Arabic – clearly my friend was no good at teaching me!

After a bit, he started going after my friend. ‘How’s the girlfriend?’ he asked several times, each accompanied by a scornful laugh. Mohammad took it well, but this didn’t appear to slow down the newcomer at all. He proposed we go get drunk and go clubbing, always making sure with a smirk to ask my friend his opinion on the subject. He offered my friend cigarettes as we smoked, knowing full well what his answer would be.

‘Oh sheikh!’, he exclaimed with sarcastic glee – the word meant king, but here was a term for the strongly religious, normally respectful. The interrogation grew more direct. Mohammad was clearly becoming frustrated, in his own restrained manner. The conversation turned my way as he asked me what I thought about my friend, his religious choice, his way of life.

As Mohammad drove me home, I struggled to find the words I needed. How did he put up with that guy? Didn’t he find him irritating? His answer was simple, for the most part. He had gotten used to it.

An odd and uncomfortable thought later struck me. Were I to describe these two people to my friends from home and have them guess which was my friend, the quiet devout Muslim and the brash sarcastic debaucher, most would probably pick the newcomer. He smoked, he drank, he believed in doing the things I did. My friend Mohammad was the strange and scary foreigner.

“Every person can do as they like,” I answered in awkward Arabic. “I don’t care.” “Exactly!” my friend exclaimed with a grin. Maybe we lived very different lives, but I don’t think we were that different, he and I.

[1] The program liked for students to ‘find their own way’ to their new homes.