Amman: First Impressions

Carrying three suitcases with only two arms isn’t easy. Crossing the craziest traffic you’ve ever seen in your life with ten other people isn’t easy. Remembering to throw away your toilet paper instead of flushing it, and relearning a language you’ve spent two years studying in a different dialect isn’t easy. But after only two weeks in Amman, I can tell you that it’s more than worth it.

My name is Peyton Day, and I am spending the fall semester of my junior year in Amman, Jordan. I’m excited to share my experiences through Rebels Abroad. I’m a political science major specializing in international relations, and my minor is Arabic. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to visit the Levant, and I believe I am at the perfect point in my life to have this experience. Anyone reading this will probably learn more about me as I continue to post, but I will dedicate this first blog to filling you in on what I’ve learned about this city, country, and culture so far.

I am studying abroad through the CIEE Middle Eastern Studies program, and so far it has blown me away. I am taking three international relations classes, and two arabic classes. My three MES classes are: INRE and diplomacy in the ME, conflict and diplomacy in the ME, and political structure and dynamics in the ME. (I know, they all sound like the same thing. We’ll see.) I am also taking a six hour standard arabic class and a class in Jordanian dialect. All of my professors so far have been absolutely incredible, which is not at all an overstatement. They’re seriously amazing. From famous academics, to influential sheikhs, to former government ministers, CIEE has truly amassed an incredible staff. I feel like I’ve learned more about the Middle East during orientation and syllabus week than I have in my entire academic career. I could write an entire blog post about it, but school has been just a fraction of my overall cultural experience thus far.

I opted to forego the benefits of living with a homestay family (free food and laundry, anyone?) in favor of having more freedom to explore the city at my leisure. CIEE set those of us who chose to stay in apartments up in large, beautiful apartments in one of Amman’s safest neighborhoods. I have a king sized bed and my own bedroom balcony. There’s not much in my area besides hospitals, so the group of us splits the costs of taxis and ubers for our trips to the many open air markets, grocery stores, malls, restaurants, bars, and cafes the city has to offer. Amman is built into seven mountains, so almost every establishment’s rooftop seating offers an amazing view of the city. I have probably spent the majority of my time in Amman on one rooftop or another, including the one on my apartment building, which doesn’t have seating and requires a bit of climbing, but is well worth the sunset view.

The “weekend” in the ME is Friday and Saturday, so Sunday through Thursday we share taxis going downtown to the CIEE center, where we take time between classes to explore the city. The traffic is absolutely insane. There are no lanes, blinkers, or crosswalks. Imagine Business Row at 10am on Monday, but with cars instead of people. The symphony of car horns mixes with the daily calls to prayer from the city’s many minarets, and vendors walk in the middle of traffic selling juice, flowers, and cotton candy through car windows. Police officers and military personnel are posted on every street to control the inevitable fender benders and road rage. 

One day, we couldn’t even make it to class. We walked two miles trying to find an available taxi, and we were walking faster than the traffic. It feels like a lot more than two miles when you’re wearing conservative jeans and blouses in the midday heat and carrying a backpack full of textbooks. Turns out, the entire city was congested because half of the roads were closed for a teachers’ protest. Our absences were excused and we enjoyed our Ferris Bueler’s day off at a Lebanese restaurant, where they washed our hands at the table with rose water, read our fortunes from our empty cups of Turkish coffee, and gave us a free dessert just for being friendly.

That’s just one example of the hospitality that I’ve encountered in Jordan. Americans here stand out like sore thumbs, so everywhere we walk, people lean their heads out of car windows, and say “Welcome to Jordan!” For some, it’s the only phrase they know in English. Jordanians prides themselves on being the “Switzerland of the Middle East”, and it shows. When I am eating my free dessert and practicing my arabic with the nicest waitress who ever lived, I forget that there is a (peaceful) protest going on downtown, or that I’m only thirty miles away from the Syrian border. That’s the Middle East. Americans are extremely protected in Jordan, and any police officer will be happy to escort you anywhere if you feel uncomfortable. I’ve gotten discounted or free juice, spices, paintings, food, drinks, cab rides, and even shisha just for being friendly and speaking Arabic. After only two weeks, we have gotten to know the managers of the establishments we frequent. I had maybe a two minute conversation with the manager of a cafe one day, and a couple of days later when my friends went without me she said, “where’s the girl with the short hair? I love her!”

At the end of the day, Jordan, and the Middle East as a whole, is a community-oriented society. I am aware of my privilege as an American and how it benefits me here and around the world. However, most Jordanians are kind to each other and most strangers. They greet each other on the streets, “habibi” (my friend), and those that are “of tribe” are protected by thousands of strangers that share that common bond. I have yet to see a homeless person. Sixty percent of the population is made up of refugees, and there is virtually no gun violence despite the lax gun laws. Jordan is a hub for medical tourism in the middle east, and hospitals and pharmacies are easily accessible.

That’s it for my first blog post. In the future, I plan on writing about culture shock, acclimation, and building friendships. I also want to write about navigating the city using the language and dialect, and write about specific encounters and situations I have found myself in. I may or may not have accidentally set an entire placemat on fire in one of Jordan’s bars. More on that later. I am, in a word, overwhelmed. But in a good way.

 إلى اللِقاء!


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