Exploring Bias



I have been watching the news here a lot lately, everything from Al Jazeera to the Colbert Report, and its made me reflect on the American agenda in the Middle East. Even before I came to Jordan, I could tell that our government's strategies were not working because we don't know jack s*** about Muslim society. Now that I've lived here, I've become more enlightened about the fundamental bias I carried as an American and how it impacted my thoughts on many global issues.

Something I learned about my personal prejudice as an American is that we perceive faith-based societies as primitive. From our point of view, all human civilizations naturally evolve by following the steps that our society did. In the beginning, religion was predominant but over time it was replaced by diversity, education, freedom, and democracy. This western paradigm of societal evolution sees that in order for progressive freedoms to take place, the old ways of superstitious religions must first be banished. In our world, church is separate from state because we believe modernity cannot be accomplished behind the barrier of religion. This is why Americans see countries like Jordan as simply being behind the West in its phase of the evolutionary process (which we believe must ultimately culminate in democracy). To us, once Middle Easterners learn to throw off the confines of religion and finally separate church and state, they will uncover the orderly path to pluralism and egalitarianism like we did.


However, this is bias in thought- one which I was unaware that I had before I came to live in Amman. As Americans, we typically believe that the presence of religion in Arab society is regressive, holding back things like elections, women’s rights and freedom of speech, and it is our wish to dispel these traditions in order to put them on the same track to development that worked for our country.We must realize that we are imposing our Western model of authority by trying to eradicate the presence of Islam in that society. We don’t understand that for Muslims, Islam is meant to play a role in governance and law and therefore, Americans efforts appear to be trying to undermine Islam itself. Polls taken  in the Middle East have shown that the majority of people want full democratic and religious freedom and yet still want the enforcement of Islamic law in their society. Muslims want progressive politics like democracy, however, they want to integrate them on their own terms, with religion rather than instead of it.


In order for American endeavors to succeed in the Middle East, we must stop trying to impose our ideas of secular governance on a people who do not want it. We have to be able to realize that the world is divided into more than just the West and a bunch of poor religious cultures who haven't caught up yet. A good ruling body can be more than just elections and freedom, even though that is an idea which is nearly incomprehensible for westerners (what else could you want?). Muslims desire a different path for themselves, and we must learn to accept that if our relations with these nations are ever going to improve. The American style of government is simply not the pinnacle of civilized achievement we believe it to be. Perhaps one day all Muslim-majority nations will end up with a government similar to our own, or maybe they won't. But Americans need to stop pushing to tear down the parts of Muslim society that they don't like, and start accepting it as a whole unit. I know most of us don't think that trying to blend liberalism and religion can be successful, but Muslim values are different than our own and we need to have the patience to see that. 

Farewell Amman


Before I came to Jordan I met with a girl who had studied abroad in Amman. I met her because our mothers were friends and thought she might give me advice for my own study abroad experience. I didn’t take in too much of what she said because after talking to her I was pretty sure she must be a bit crazy. She told me that she was supposed to spend a semester abroad, but she had so much fun she extended her time through the summer and then into the next semester so that she ended up spending an entire calendar year in Jordan. I truly hoped that my own study abroad experience would be enjoyable, and at best I would be sad to leave at the end of it. But never in my life did it cross my mind that she was completely right- that after one semester it would be this hard to leave.

I remember asking her what she missed most about Jordan, and right away she told me it was her friends. She said she missed the way people acted and the entire culture that came with living in the Middle East. At the time I nodded and accepted her words but mostly I didn’t really believe it. I mean, there are good and bad people everywhere you go- right? Sure she could have been lucky enough to meet great people while abroad and I could see why it would be hard for her to leave them, but certainly this wasn’t necessarily a defining characteristic of Jordanian life.

JoEllen, I apologize now for not listening to every word you said because you were completely right! As you told me, life in Amman is one never-ending party. Fun comes before work, and having a good time is always more important than anything else. I have never laughed and danced so much in my entire life. I want to thank all of my friends here for everything they have done to make my experience in Jordan so wonderful.
 

A New Look at the Middle East


I thought I should include a post that could start to show you what the Middle East looks like. First of all, its pretty much the opposite of everything you have ever seen on the news. To me in fact, Jordan is more like going to Florida during spring break. There are beaches, palm trees, parties and amazing views, with a fun young generation determined to make the most of it all.
Amman


The 777 bridge

Kitties everywhere



Buffalo Wings
Fast food


Stopping on the drive to the Dead Sea

Checking out the countryside



Religion, Women and Dating


All right, so I think that all Americans have this image in their head that all Arabs are super-religious. I think some points need to be clarified about this. It’s true that the majority of Arabs will define themselves as Muslim, even if they do not follow any of the teachings of Islam, simply because in the Middle East you have to be something. You absolutely have to identify yourself in some way (it’s information necessary for voting, taxes, etc.). So yes, much of Arab life does revolve around the teachings of Islam (for more information, see my post on Islam) but it is in no way like what you have pictured in your head (I can say this because I know that I once thought about the Middle East the same as you do now). Women are not helpless or oppressed in any way. In fact, women in Jordan are generally in a much better position than in the United States. They are self-confident, educated, sassy, and respected by men.

THE HIJAB

Okay, I want to take a minute to tell you about the hijab. Before I came here, I thought that it was disgusting thing. Part of me is a very strong feminist and I thought that making a girl cover herself was absolutely barbaric. If a girl wants to walk around dressed like a hoochie, she should have every right to do so and no man should have the power to tell her otherwise. However, what I learned here has taught me so much

Ladies, have you ever had a man check you out in a way that disgusted you? Of course you have. I doubt I’ve ever met a woman who would say otherwise.

I want to share something with you about Islam which may go against everything you’ve ever thought about Muslims from what you’ve heard from our government on the news. The Quran intends women to be valued for more than just their beauty. It commands Muslim men not to look lustfully at women (other than their own wives). Female gorgeousness is tempting to men who might only see them for their looks and not for their personality. Islam claims that this is wrong because men need to respect women for more than just their physical appearance, they should appreciate them for their minds as well. Unfortunately, men are not always capable of this and so the Quran tells women to be modest by covering their hair and their body to their wrists and ankles. This way, men will not be overcome by a woman’s physical beauty and respect her more for who she really is.

I feel that many Americans pity hijab women. However, most hijab women actually feel sorry for western women because they know that men often treat us as nothing more than disposable, physical objects. In a culture full of one-night stands and strip clubs, I really can’t deny them this point. But here, women are generally respected and treated in such a superior way that I truly can’t describe it to you. And the hijab women here know that when a guy likes her, it’s because her really likes her for her personality and not just for looks. Imagine what it would be like if you met your next boyfriend, not while wearing heels and a miniskirt in a bar, but out in your ugliest clothing- and he was crazy about you anyway.

So the next time you see a women with her hair covered, don’t think that she is some creepy-religious, oppressed female. Most likely she has more self-confidence than any other girl you know. 

 PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF AFFECTION

People in Jordan aren't all being forced into marriages like a lot of westerners may think. In fact, learning about the dating scene here was some of the best times I’ve had in Jordan. Something that is different here though is that PDA is not allowed, which was really strange for me to understand. Getting caught making out in university could get you expelled, and a couple sitting alone in their car is likely to be interrogated by the police. Since all of my friends live with their families, they really can’t just bring their date to their house, and with school, cars, and all public places off limits, couples really have to get creative just to be alone. Hearing stories about this was pretty much the only time where I really thought: I’m so glad I’m American. Not that I think it’s a good thing that in the States you have things like middle school kids making out against lockers in the hallway left and right, but I just think that if you have two twenty-something year olds who want to share a nice cuddle, then no one should be able to tell them otherwise. 

LOOKS

I've said before that only difference in appearance between Jordanians and Americans is that the Jordanians are much more stylish. I have to repeat it because I know that this goes against everything westerners have pictured in their heads about Arabs, and I believe that this is where stereotypes come from. Prejudice is created when we think that there is some sort of difference between types of people, that there is even such a thing as 'types' of people. So I want to make it very clear that if you took any one of my Arab friends here and put them with a group of Americans you would never be able to pick them out. Sadly, its only by talking to them and realizing that their English vocabulary and knowledge of U.S. history is better than your average American, would you realize that they were foreign.

Something I will miss about Jordan is being noticed for my eye color. I doubt a single one of my American friends could tell you I have green eyes, but here it's the first thing people notice. I'm glad I at least have this going for me because I certainly don't have the fashion to compete with any of the girls here. One of my Iraqi friends showed me a video of a comedian who joked that you can always tell who the American is in a group of Jordanians because he's the one who is dressed like he's homeless, and that's totally true.

STARING

Okay, this was probably the most difficult thing for me to overcome in Jordan. The staring- it never stops. Arabs simply don't have a taboo on staring like westerners do. They will gape at you, mouth open. They will stop what they are doing to stare at you. They will point openly. If you make eye contact, they will keep on staring. If you yell and scream and curse at them, they will keep on staring. It's really weird. 

But now that I've lived here for a semester I've trained myself to get used to it. As I said before, men and women alike will stare no matter what you are doing. I found early on that even if I went to get groceries in boots, sweatpants, a hoodie with my hood up, a baseball cap and sunglasses, basically showing no skin but my jaw and looking as unattractive as humanly possible, I still got stared at. Back home, a butt-naked person walking around buying groceries would have gotten less stares than I did here (not an exaggeration). 

So, since I was getting stared at no matter how I dressed, I did the only thing that made sense to me- rather than try to be invisible and avoid the stares I would just flaunt the hell out of being foreign and dress as blatant as possible. Pink dresses and blonde hair flying, I just wish I had brought an American flag with me cause I'd have worn that too. 




The Dress Code

It's obvious that one of the biggest misconceptions Americans have about places like Jordan is the dress code.

Occasionally you will see a woman who is fully covered in the traditional black dress and veil, however, this is not typical of Jordan. Mistakenly, Westerners call this a 'burka' (the correct term is niqab) and believe that all women in the Middle East are forced to wear them. In places such as some areas of Saudi Arabia the rule is certainly enforced, but this is definitely not the way of life for all Arabs.

Honestly, for me the only difference in appearance from the people here and the people back home is that the Jordanians are MUCH more stylish than us. Seriously, they are way ahead of us in terms of fashion. If I could go back in time while I was packing my suitcase, I'd tell myself to bring jeggings, high heels and all of my party dresses.

In Jordan I go to class in jeans, boots and a ball cap- which is my best effort at dressing up for school since back home I wouldn't even get out of my pajamas to go to class. My female classmates though, are a completely different story. They come to school with flawless makeup, skin-tight jeans, four inch heels or thigh-high boots, hot pink fingernails, aviators, and a black leather jacket. Their fashion is not deterred just because some of these women wear the hijab (head scarf/conservative dress), since they have scarves in every imaginable flashy color and pattern that only enhance their outfit as an accessory, like a stylish hat.

What we think Arab women look like:


What Arab women actually look like:

Even the guys here are more stylish than American boys. Gelled hair, designer's shades, vests, shirts saying "Ducati", and dark Levi's, my classmates look more like they've just stepped out of GQ than anything.

What we think Arab guys look like:


What Arab guys actually look like:

What I learned: I realized that the image I had in my head of Arabs before coming to Jordan was based off of what I had read in the newspaper and from other people's opinions. I came here because I wanted to meet people who were totally different from Americans. So far, I haven't met anyone who fits that description.

Exploring Jerash


Jerash, located in northern Jordan is considered one of the most well-preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world outside Italy. Architects have found ruins that indicate human settlement in this area for more than 6500 years. The city reached its peak under the days of Alexander the Great and Roman rule as one of the ten cities of the Decapolis.



In modern times, an emergency camp was set up in 1968 to harbor refugees of the Arab-Israeli war. The Jerash camp initially sheltered 11,500 Palestinians and over time the original tents were replaced with poorly constructed shelters. Today, the Gaza refugee camp in Jerash is home to 24,000-34,000 Palestinian refugees. For photos of the camp, I recommend this site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/einkarem1948/sets/72157620424425144/