Experience from a German-Jordanian Youth Exchange
I wanted to travel to Jordan with my mind free from prejudices, but I failed. Stereotypes and prejudices are being established too easily and too wildly in Europe. “The Middle East” is associated with the center for chaos and violence, the people are characterized as loud, fundamentalist and almost barbaric. Forgotten is the rich cultural heritage of the region which spread all over the world before the area was reduced on resources and crises.
Before departure I had a picture in my head with varied aspects, and I did not know what to believe of it and what not, hence I was excited to get some life to it. I wanted to broaden the picture, to paint it more beautiful, fill it with reality. I was even prepared to paint it all over and begin a new one.
I told everyone in the utmost excitement about my travel plans. “Are you not scared?” Everyone asked. I was not scared, I did not even have an uneasy feeling in my stomach, but I was thrilled by the idea that my picture of the world would be challenged once again.
On the first look Jordan was above all dusty and dry. The first morning I woke up by the prayer call of the Muezzins and left bed to the sound of the triumphal national hymn out of enormous speakers. Outside my window the city of Amman welcomed me in all kind of sand-like colours. In the course of the day the sky became bluer and bluer, hence the contrast between the sandy, dull world and the beaming sky intensified. The city remained as it was. I have never in my life seen such a variety of dry, brown, yellow-white-ish, ochre and beige colours. Looking at it from a mountain above, surrounded by the impressive 360 degree sound from all mosques, it was not very appealing, rather dreary, only freshened up with some red and green dots of flapping flags or lonely trees and bushes and the clear blue of the fantastic sky. Despite all it was wonderful to see how all the equal blocks behind, before and next to each other fitted into the hilly panorama.
During my visit I have only seen a spark of Amman, and just a tiny part of Jordan. We drove in an old, bright yellow school bus through the city and could only through dirty windows catch a sight of the hustling life in the streets. In the evenings we were free to float through the city and to discover the districts in all the different circles. We could wander hill up and hill down and watch the bustle which increased during dusk. People from all countries of the Arab world filled the streets minding all kinds of businesses, until one store after the other shut down. Only some smoky bars remained open and the streets where empty except for construction workers at all street corners in white vests. Silence came onto the city with bright lights and allowed a traveller to feel some kind of fantastic atmosphere sparked by stories from 1001 night.
The streets of Amman snake their way through the districts, car-lined and narrow. In box-like buildings people live upstairs and work downstairs. Long stairs with trodden steps connect ways on one level with another, leading to the hidden entrances of houses and buildings in mid-levels. Cars race honking through the neighbourhood, passing slow pedestrians, groups of playing kids and tangled cats. Out of them sounds music quietly or loudly, all about love and loss, the driver sings along and he or she plays with the phone, from the windows crawl curious kids almost onto the streets. Above the heads lies a smell of exhaust gases, drought, spicy perfumes, oriental food and shisha. On steps and benches sit young men, following women with their looks and whistles. Police officers and security guards hold their weapons tight and nod politely for a friendly greeting. Young women in pairs with bright head scarfs or dark flowing hair giggle and pass small stores with packed show windows. Wild music with drum sounds lies in the air.
I spent the first two days in Amman and I did not know what to think of the city. Amman presents itself at every corner with a new face: splendid or shabby, clean or dirty, clear or packed. The greener the trees, the chicer the quarter. Big American jeeps with young men showing off their wealth queue in the traffic with tiny rusty trucks blowing black exhaust from their tailpipes. Worlds lie between them, but in the daily traffic jam there is no difference between them, and if only at this moment of the day. Did I like Amman? I surely did, just how much exactly I cannot say. I was delighted by several small kiosks selling old and new books. I got lost in the display of tiny boutiques selling everything from souvenirs, illegal media (CD’s, DVD’s), food, household ware up to clothes in Arabic designs like sparkling robes with hundreds of shimmering pearls. Everything one could want, snip after snip. I obviously cannot know a city after just two days, but my first impression spoke neither against nor in favour of Amman and until today I do not have clarity.
Though, I can speak about the fascination for this place, maybe especially because I do not really know how much I like it. But what I know for sure is that I enjoyed the city. I liked the cafés and bars where people smoke too much, but at least the non-alcoholic drinking menu always offers great choices. They all have their own individual touch, let it be modern and simple or with interior in traditional design. I easily felt in love with the uncountable little bookstores, packed up to the ceiling with books from all over the world. During a midnight stroll I came to discover creative street art on walls and buildings. I enjoyed the friendly get-togethers at all places. And obviously, I loved the food (even though it is always too much).
In Jordan it is as simple for me as it might be difficult for many other people to enjoy life. It depends much on where one comes from, hierarchy goes through all spheres of public life in Jordan. Coming from Europe, Jordan does not seem to offer much at first sight: both politically and architecture-wise. An authoritarian system is embedded in a monochrome, dirty and noisy country. But it is part of the Eurocentric ignorance speaking from those words. And luckily I and my opinion were put right in Jordan.
For inexplicable reasons Jordan was not as foreign to me as I had expected it to be. The harsh, but melodic sound of the Arabic language was somehow familiar, just like the chaos in the streets, the market criers and the haggling customers. The markets selling vegetables, fruit and spices in narrow alleys between buildings looked just as I thought they would and even foreign smells were not as strange. I felt safe and I felt comfortable at any time of the day. I cannot say why it was like that, because Germany and Jordan are two different worlds. Very different are the looks of the countries as well as the mindsets of the people. If one travels from one country to the other and back, life in the other country seems to be a staggering story. But given the contrast between those two worlds the unfamiliar delights, it is thrilling. If one would come with an unclouded mind and very naïvely to Jordan and would spend a few hours in the company of a Jordanian, one would easily think to visit the most harmonic culture of the world. Strangers become friends just like this, problems being declared for null and void in a short intense chitchat and then laughed away – a clap on the back and a cigarette and everything’s grand. Half the country is from the same family anyways and if one is looking for special treatment in one place or the other there is always a brother, a cousin or a friend of a friend to call. Life is flowing steadily, with ease to the sound of drums and percussion just as quickly as one likes it to go.
Obviously, life does not look like this in Jordan, not even through rose pink glasses. The reality is closer to the dusty-dry, wither look. The before mentioned hierarchies determine the classes and the everyday life, the success and failure of individuals and the political nature. Unemployment and poverty, fear for the own economic survival and a constant confrontation with the conflicts from all neighbouring countries impact Jordan. Racist sentiments draw through society especially towards thousands of refugees. Politicians are being overtaxed but not willing to admit. Blatant differences between the genders strongly discriminate women in all parts of life and young people have difficulties to establish themselves and their ideas in society. Conservative thoughts influence structures in the society and an institutionalized religion complicates innovation and progress. But still, Amman as a city and Jordan as a country impress, or more so the people living there. Jordan’s economy is disastrous, but compared to the region Jordan is a fairly stable and secure country (considering the struggle of the area though I don’t know how convincing this argument is). Most of all, and this is what I find significant, Jordan at least seems to be a country where optimistic hopes are not being nipped in the bud. It seems to be a country where the young generation – maybe yet only the more privileged part of this generation – want change and believe in this change. It is a country where I met young people speaking freely and critical about the world we all live in and we want to live in. Many people have a general trust in the good of their state and their police.
I write this article as a young person who throughout her entire life has only been little involved with the Middle East. I have my knowledge from media and little additional literature. I write this as a person who associated with the region firstly colonialization and imperialism and then conflict, war and refugees. A person who regrets the – through all these crises – loss of the magic spark set into my mind through poetic authors from the region. I write this as a person who also regrets the prejudices I brought with me to Jordan. I write this text after one week who went by like nothing, but still feels like an eternity to me. I had expected to overthink my picture of the Middle East, but now I am busy to renew with wild strokes my entire picture of the world. It was probably never as difficult for me to write a report about a country. Never before I had the feeling to do so little justice to a country, a society and a culture. Therefore, I don’t want to tell any kind of truth, I have just decided to present my surficial impressions – the alternative would have been not to write at all. I write about a country presented to me by courteous, charming and joyful young Jordanians who outdo each other in hospitality and friendliness. Who not only take the best from life but try to give back to the society.
I take a canvas and I paint on it people, because it is the people who made it difficult for me to leave Jordan. It is the people who at least tried to open my eyes for Jordan, for the cities, the language, for cultural subtleties and also for the political reality. The background is painted in brown, beige, ochre – just all kinds of sand. Far away men strike olives from endless rows of olive trees and even further lies the Dead Sea in a hazy valley. Above rocky mountains sets the sun in intense colours to brighten up the picture. My head is full of questions a picture cannot give answers to. I suppose I won’t find the answers any time soon, but it is fine just like it is. I am thankful I have returned from Jordan with such a pleased feeling.