A stay of only ten days in a country that is as different from the US and Western Europe as Jordan is yields random impressions.
More important to me than the facts I learned (those which I remember) are the still vivid emotions I felt, and so I will say something about my feelings first. The people are beautiful: warm, welcoming, with peaceful smiles; poised in their bearing. They are polite and self-contained, gentlemen and ladies.
And oh so poor by our standards – poor in economic or financial terms, and poor in resources. Above all, in water. Jordan is the third most arid country in the world. Our guide, who surely would be considered one of the educated middle classes, told us that where he lives – a new condo development outside Amman – they are allowed running water only two days/week. The rest of the week they depend on cisterns.
We arrived at the Amman airport at night and were driven by bus to our hotel in the city, a trip lasting about 40 minutes. We passed several small groups of people sitting on blankets in the highway medians in the dark except sometimes for a small fire in the center of the group. Our guide said they were “picknicking.” Ten days later, when we drove to the airport to begin the trip home it was pitch dark (about 3 am), and as our bus’ headlights rounded a curve, I saw a parked car on the shoulder and three people sound asleep on mattresses beside the car.
Jordanians are educated people, wise in the ways of the world thanks to a two thousand-plus-year history, often tumultuous, whose dignity is intact despite such material adversity. How could one not feel tenderly for them?
A few facts now. Many of the people we met spoke at least passable English – some, like our guide Ra’ed Hammouri, are completely fluent in English and speak it with a British accent. Instruction in English is mandatory in the public schools, and boys and girls are required to stay in school until a fairly advanced age (I think we were told until something comparable to our 11th grade).
The population of Jordan is about 6.5 million persons, 60% of them under 25 years-old. 2.7 million live in the capital, Amman.
Jordan is home to many refugees of MidEast turmoil. At least 50% of the population are of Palestinian origin; they are all Jordanian citizens. Since 2003, a sizeable immigrant community of Iraqis has also developed. These groups put a strain on the country’s limited resources.
Although it is predominantly a Muslim country (approx 92% of Jordanians are Sunni Muslim), for over 400 years, Christians of various denominations have also lived in what is now known as Jordan and make up about 6 % of the population today.
Tribes and tribal identity are important forces, often as or more important than religious identity. Our guide described his typical walk through his village, as a young man on his way to university classes, as a short distance that required about two hours of his time in order properly to greet, and share news with, his many “cousins.”
As for the Muslims, visually, one has the impression that there are a wide variety of degrees of fervor with which the Koranic rules of modesty are practiced. Traditional dress is worn by a lot of women but I saw a number of young women who wear a scarf closely wrapping their foreheads and hair, while wearing western clothes below the neck. The extent to which they allow themselves color in their attire also varies widely.
There is very little alcohol consumed (unlike what I saw in Turkey), but there is a lot of cigarette smoking, primarily but not exclusively by men. [A reminder about photos: hover over middle of photo for title; click on photo to see larger version.]
We were told that Jordan is the safest country in the MidEast – safe both in terms of political unrest and in terms of crime. Indeed, we experienced neither.
We traveled the length of the country, north to south, and often saw Bedouin tents at some distance from the highway but Bedouins today, even if they live in tents, often own land and rarely are true nomads. Our itinerary included a few hours in a jeep in the Wadi Rum desert (traversed by T. E. Lawrence - “Lawrence of Arabia” – on his way to do battle for Aquaba in 1917 as part of the “Arab Revolt” against the Ottomans), with tea in one Bedouin encampment and lunch in another. Both clearly set up for tourists.
We had supper one night in Amman in the home of an upper-middle class, professional, Christian family whose members all spoke good English. The father of the family, a man probably in his mid-40s, is a close friend of our guide (our guide is a devout Muslim).
The food was delicious, as was almost all the food I ate in Jordan, and the conversation with the father of the family was stimulating. When the comment was made to him that Jordan’s history – and present – appeal to us as evidence that people of different religions can co-exist in the MidEast, he said it is “much more” than simple co-existence. In this part of the MidEast, he said, history has taught us that we are one community: “We are all Arabs first, Christians and Muslims and Jews second.” He insisted that as a Christian, he has no fears of being discriminated against or persecuted by any of the people in his country – nor do his Christian friends in Egypt, he said. “We are all Semitic people.” It is only government regimes, or political parties or organizations, which sometimes are dangerous for minorities. Our guide agreed. There was also clearly a sense that current national boundaries are mostly artificial creations by the Western European powers after WWI and WWII.
I’m ending with a photo of the wife and youngest daughter of the family we visited. And don’t you agree about the smiles?