By Sophie Rieckmann
Warning: This is quite a long read, but hopefully worth it!
There is a bohemian side to all of us, and I decided to embrace mine (as well as my highly nerdy traits) and took off for the whole of July to Jordan (in the Middle East) on my own. I booked a course at a language school in the capital- Amman- sorted out my student accommodation, booked the flights, and off I went. What an ADVENTURE...
If you've never been to Jordan, I HIGHLY recommend a visit, as this is a country with plenty to offer, as well as being an oasis of peace, prosperity and safety in a war-torn region. In order to entice you, here are 10 things I learned and did in Jordan:
1) I learned Arabic.
Well, not the whole language (MSA, by the way), obviously, but I got the basics and am now a certified speaker of the language (feel free to clap). Learning Arabic had been something I'd wanted to do for a while, and whilst it was far more challenging than, say, French, I found that within 3 days I had hacked the alphabet, could read and write basic words, and had a few greetings under my belt. And it gave me a real confidence boost to go and explore Amman, purchase essentials at the local supermarket, and greet people on the street or in a taxi. In fact, I enjoyed learning Arabic so much, that I am continuing my studies, and I'll see where that takes me.
2) The Jordanians LOVE Germans, really LIKE the British and, um, LIKE LESS the Americans.
Having been previously part of a region heavily controlled by both the French and the British (Sykes-Picot Agreement), I expected that most people in Jordan would speak either English or French, and that French would be fairly widely spoken. Wrong. I didn't utter a single word of French during my entire trip (aside from speaking to French tourists), but spoke a lot more German than I had anticipated. Whenever we were out and about in Amman, and began talking to locals, they would ask us (myself and the group of friends I made when out there) where we were from. The response to the answer 'Germany' more often than not prompted a discussion centred around how said Jordanian had studied/worked/ knew someone in Germany, or had a desire to move there A.S.A.P. It seems that the two industries have close ties, so many computer science and medical students in Jordan learn German in order to get a higher paid job than they would for the same job back home.
Many people also looked favourably upon the British- the words 'friendly' and 'nice tourists' were often uttered in response. One taxi driver even went as far as to proclaim that the Jordanians and British are essentially the same people- that might have been pushing it a bit far, but nonetheless, the sentiment of togetherness (sawa in Arabic, if anyone is interested) was greatly appreciated.
Americans, whilst there are quite a number in Jordan and the rest of the Middle East, typically got a cooler reception from the Jordanians. Being a predominantly Muslim country, Trump's travel ban will have certainly chilled relations between the two people- one American I met out in Jordan was booed by the taxi driver!
3) There's a buzzing collection of super interesting expats.
Something that really surprised me was the number of expats I met whilst out in Jordan. Sure, our group from the language school came from all over the world, but we were temporary residents within Amman. However, I met a number of Americans, French, Italians, Germans etc. who were living and working out in Jordan. They were a collection of doctors, Ivy League law hopefuls, linguists, journalists (writing in both English and Arabic), you name it- a highly fascinating group of all ages from every corner of the world, gathered in the Middle East due to an interest in politics and a love for the language and the people. Somehow, as happens in all cities, we formed a network, and after having been surrounded by locals for more than a week, I stepped out one evening onto a rooftop terrace overlooking Jabal Amman (one of the main and most exciting hills the city is built on) into a crowd of expats and locals alike who were drinking, dancing, exchanging opinions, speaking in a myriad of languages, and cross-culturally bonding. Not only was it an extremely fun evening, it was proof that East, West, North and South can congregate- regardless of race or religion- and have a good time whilst peacefully exchanging ideas and opinions on some of the hottest and most pressing topics in all fields.
4) Petra, Jerash and Ajloun really are as spectacular as they are made out to be.
So we all know that one person who goes on a phenomenally exciting trip, only to come back and inform everyone they know that 'XYZ' didn't live up to expectation, and that a Google image search is the most exciting thing in the book. Not so when taking in the Jordanian sights. I'm not a particular Indiana Jones fan (sorry to everyone who is), but standing outside of the Treasury in the ancient city of Petra, and marvelling at what people were capable of all those centuries ago, was one of the best experiences of my life. The history, culture and architecture of Jordan is practically unbeatable, and immaculately preserved for locals and foreigners to enjoy to this day. Jerash, an ancient Roman city, and Ajloun, a centuries-old Islamic Empire castle, were equally as impressive, and each could warrant a blog post of its own. However, if you are looking to take in breath-taking sights without being disappointed, a trip to Jordan is certainly worth it.
5) The food is wonderful, and there is something for every tastebud and dietary requirement.
Arab cuisine, in general, is a fair mix of dishes from all over the Arabian Peninsula and beyond, and the food in Jordan is no different. A fusion of traditional Arabic food and Mediterranean dishes, Jordanians mix rice, meat, fish, vegetables, couscous, soup, yoghurt and much more to create varied and beautiful menus. One of the most prized dishes in the country is Mansaf (Spiced rice with lamb and a flower/yoghurt sauce), and every local will ask you if you've tried it yet. If meat is not really your thing, there are a variety of broths and soups, and the ever-popular stuffed vine leaves (filled with rice), which are divine, and you can eat yourself full on them for 1 Dinar. A friend and I went to the first ever Jordanian Food Week, from which I picked up a few recipes. One that has gone down particularly well with family at home is known as Galayet Bandoora- a type of tomato-based stew, which is seen as a comfort dish for all times of the year. Perhaps I'll share the recipe with you at some point, as it's a simple yet brilliant dish.
6) A very large proportion of Jordanians you meet will introduce themselves as Palestinians.
The question 'where are you from' bounces around in every tourist spot in the world, but in Jordan, you may not get a typical response if you ask a local. An estimated 25% (minimum) of Jordanians are actually of Palestinian descent, as many left Israel Palestine and were welcomed on the other side of the border. Currently, due to the political climate, now 1/7 of the population is also Syrian. I reckon around 75% of taxi drivers (taxi is the way to get around Amman) were from Palestine, as well as my Arabic teacher, my friend's host family, and many more. To these people, they have 2 identities- one from their old home, and one from the country in which they now reside and may have been born in. It's a beautiful demonstration of neighbourly behaviour, and is a keystone of Jordanian ethics- other Arabs are brothers and should be helped at all times when possible.
7) For a Muslim country, there is a lot of religious freedom.
Religion is an oddity for female non-muslim travellers when first arriving into Jordan. Most of the country is (as mentioned previously) Muslim, and so it is the norm to see the majority of women walking around fully covered and wearing headscarves. The one thing I found difficult to adjust to was, as a white and evidently Christian female, being stared at by Jordanian men. Whilst there is a Christian population within Jordan, and it is not mandatory to wear a headscarf (unless entering a Muslim place of worship), you are more easily spotted in a crowd, or on the street, if you do not have your hair covered and you are not wearing traditional dress. And, for those reasons, Jordanian men have a tendency to stare, and I mean STARE. It is a cultural trait- you look different so you attract attention, and believe me, there are far fewer uncovered women out on the streets of Amman than there are covered women out and about in the UK. Nevertheless, the staring, once you get used to it, is nothing to worry about, as so long as you are sensibly dressed (no short sleeves, shorts/ short skirts/dresses/ tight clothing), you become simply a cultural oddity rather than a symbol of immodest behaviour and desire.
8) The majority of academics in Jordan are female.
Whilst in the UK, or indeed anywhere else in Europe we often expect there to be a fair proportion of men working as Professors, lecturers, teachers etc., in Jordan, these posts are almost exclusively occupied by women. Studying in a language centre (Ali Baba international centre) opposite the main gates to the University of Jordan, I was able to observe this first hand. Practically everyone I saw walking in and out of the University was female, and almost every member of staff in the language centre was also female. My teacher had an explanation for this phenomenon: 'the boys, when at school, get far more distracted than the girls, who spend far less time outside and doing activities. Because of this, the girls are more studious and, therefore, do better in exams, thus occupying more university places and teaching posts.' It seemed like a fair explanation, particularly as teaching is considered to be a naturally more 'feminine' job in Jordan (yes, there are still these sorts of boundaries).
9) Jordan is expensive, even by UK standards.
If you think that a trip to the Middle East will be cheap, think again if you're heading off to Jordan. Estimated to be the most expensive capital city in the region, Amman is not excruciatingly expensive, but it's not cheap either (and the current exchange rate doesn't help). If you want to do lots but pay little, going on organised trips (i.e. travel companies) will save you a lot of money. Furthermore, if you get your visa in advance, you can get the 'Jordan Pass', which gives you free entry to places such as Petra and Jerash, saving you 55 Dinars!
10) Jordanians are generally very warm, friendly people.
Jordan prides itself on hospitality and the wish to make all visitors feel as if Jordan is a 'second home', and I certainly bought into the concept. From taxi drivers, to landlords, to teachers, shop owners and locals out-and-about, Jordanians tend to be up for a conversation and are around to lend a hand when necessary. Home is where the heart is, and there are many hearts in Jordan. You can only feel welcome in a country in which you are warmly welcomed, and Jordan does just that. So much so, even, that I'm busy recommending it to all people I come across, and can't wait to go back and explore further!