Jordan: Managing Fears about the Middle East

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December 8, 2014

By Sabrina Kosloske

Studying abroad is a life-changing experience. However, there are challenges and fears that can get in the way of anticipating your trip and having fun on it. No matter how well you prepare, things will happen that you didn’t plan for. This can be scary, especially the further away from home you go. Still, I want to argue that in most cases, the risk you take will be worth it.

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This past summer, I studied abroad in Amman, Jordan. If you don’t know where that is, think of Iraq and Syria, two of its troubled neighbors. I’m sure you’ve read about them in the news recently. In fact, the terrorist group ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) was en route to invade Jordan within two weeks of my arrival last June.

More threatening to me personally were the cultural and social barriers. Before studying abroad, we wonder: Will we fit in? Will we make new friends? Or will we find ourselves isolated and alone, unable to adapt? In the Middle East especially, we hear about widespread anti-American sentiments, disrespect for those of different religious beliefs, and sexual harassment. This is how many people who have never been to the region portray it.

Undeniably, there is some danger in going to the Middle East, especially as a twenty-year-old American woman. But I would like to focus on several aspects of my experience that mitigated both the danger and the fear I faced.

First, take a moment to realize this: Though the Middle East is dangerous for Americans, so is everywhere else. If you are afraid of terrorists, don’t think you can avoid them by avoiding the Middle East. Terrorists are present in Europe and the United States, too. Like any region, the Middle East has certain areas that are riskier and others that are safer. Choose to study abroad in the safer cities and countries. I did my research and knew that Jordan’s military was one of the best in the region. Researching where you are going will help you face your fears realistically.

You can also take steps to protect yourself no matter where you travel. If anything, studying abroad can help you learn important life skills faster and in a foreign environment. Stay alert to your surroundings, learn local laws, and ask for help from new acquaintances. In Jordan, locals on the street gladly helped me with directions again and again. My new classmates jumped at the chance to explore a new district or restaurant with me so I wouldn’t be alone in the city. Having fun and being safe are not mutually exclusive!

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As for the culture, I will be honest with you. I did face sexual harassment. I did find myself alone sometimes. But these experiences weren’t overwhelming. The majority of the time, I was having fun, hanging out with new friends and learning Jordanian culture. And yes, even in the Middle East I was able to stay out till three in the morning and party it up with locals.

One of my favorite nights was the first night of Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims in which they fast from sunrise to sunset. The sweetest woman invited me into her home where we broke the fast together – despite the fact that I am not Muslim. She welcomed me as a foreigner and allowed me to meet her whole family. I think the Middle East is so special because of people like her, who open their homes and lives to foreigners. Even though we hear bad things, Middle Easterners are some of the nicest, most hospitable people I’ve met in the world.

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Many people I met in Jordan were kind and helpful, but I still dealt with harassment at times. The good news is you can minimize it, because what you get varies based on how you act. I heard comments on the street, but there were many things I never faced in Jordan. Nobody followed me, nobody touched me, and nobody robbed me.

Dressing appropriately is a big thing in the Middle East, but it does not necessarily mean you have to cover your hair. In Jordan I covered most of my skin – I didn’t wear shorts or tank tops because no one else in the country does that. If you want to learn the culture, try to live the culture. You don’t have to compromise your identity. Jordanians are actually quite fashionable and I loved experimenting with it.

Finally, your reactions to challenges you face are as important as the preventative choices you make. To deal with harassment in Jordan, I learned to avoid eye contact on the streets and not to reply. I didn’t take these problems personally, either. The minimal harassment I faced happened after I did everything I could to fit in with the locals, so it was out of my control. I decided to let it go – I didn’t let it bother me and I refused to encourage what they did.

Harassment and general security are genuine concerns, especially when travelling. But if you take precautions and are receptive to new cultures, studying abroad will not be a scary thing. Because of my trip to Jordan, I’ve met some of my most open-minded and intelligent friends, and I’ve learned a million new skills I couldn’t have learned at home.

If you’re worried about travelling to the Middle East for social or cultural reasons, don’t be. You can still have a great time and learn amazing things even though our cultures are so different.

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