Ahlan wa Sahlan! Welcome to Jordan! These words are ubiquitous, seeming to rise from nowhere and suddenly surrounding you, engulfing you in both a wave of hospitality and strange sense of unease.
I am living in an apartment in Amman and commuting to the University of Jordan daily by taxi-driving is the only option, albeit terrifying. Walking would be silly. The rolling hills and poor city planning have left a lot to be desired-including level sidewalks that don’t have trees growing out from the center. Ugh…Ahlan wa Sahlan, the land where shoes bite the dust.
The University of Jordan is the country’s largest university, and surprisingly, overwhelmingly female. Out of 32,000 students, 24,000 are female. Walking down the tree-lined corridors of campus, students cluster together in groups. The women are perfectly coordinated, from their hijabs down to their amazing shoes. Men hang around the famous “clock tower,” greeting each other with hugs and a kiss on the cheek. Very rarely do you see the sexes intermingle.
I walk through campus not nearly capturing the essence of Muslim fashion. Even though I bought shoes here, I just can’t seem to coordinate them with an outfit! As a Western woman, I know I am having a different experience than some of the American men on our program. Wearing appropriate attire is a must. No cleavage, no shorts, really nothing revealing. I was expecting to wear a scarf over my neck everyday, but I rarely do. It’s too hot.
Arabic students will stare, as if I am something of a novelty. Some come up enthusiastically to greet us. Ahlan wa Sahlan, What are you studying?
The pulsing youth culture beginning to emerge in Amman, and much of the Muslim world, has put the religion squarely at odds with modern trends. Although drinking is still frowned upon, and is forbidden in Islam, liquor stores are abundant. Simply walking into a store, shopkeepers greet you with Ahlan wa Sahlan, you’re American, no?
Rainbow Street is the hub of nightlife in Jordan. There are dance clubs, chic bars, and fancy restaurants. Centrally located is the oft-referenced Books@Cafe, an absolutely charming ex-pat bookstore/café/bar. The owner of the café is one of only two “out” Jordanians. Mentioning that I had been there to my peer tutor, she exclaimed, “We Jordanians don’t go there; it’s where the gays and lesbians go.” Ahlan wa Sahlan, Jordan: where everyone is straight!
The best and most delicious welcoming tradition of Jordan, however, is the food. It may be one of the reasons I never go home. Bedouins offer tea on the sides of mountains. Shopkeepers want you to sit and take lunch with them. My landlords live a floor above me, and about twice a week, we have dinner with them. Food is abundant. Rice, stuffed zucchini, curries, falafel, fried potatoes. Everything is delicious. The tell me “eat more, don’t you like it!?” Alhan wa Salhlan, you will eat until you’re stomach explodes, but it’s ok.
Welcome to Jordan, indeed.