So let me first remind you that I’ve been to Syria three times on my Jesusland passport. Each time I had no visa. Each time I waited for hours. Each time I was eventually granted a visa. Since then, I’ve been asked by several Americans to explain this process. The latest group was on Wednesday. Two Texan women asked me. I began my speech, and they cut me off pretty quickly. In about two minutes I realized that they are the kind of folks who ask questions, and have no intention of listening to answers. So, I sat there mute for the next 45 minutes while they talked about dating mishaps, nursing, and Republicans. I really thought they would not try to go to Syria, as I took their behavior to indicate lack of interest rather than inability to listen for more than one minute.
Let me pause here and tell you that these two women are with a group from Texans who oppose the war in Iraq. These ladies self-funded to come to Jordan and talk with Iraqis about how much the war sucks. They disclosed to me that their neighbors said awful/stoopid things to them about this trip including: “Those people [Muslims] are heathens, and they need to know the lord, and this war is necessary to civilize them,” and they rightly told their neighbors to go pound sand. They mean well. But, as a graduate student once reminded me, so does cancer. So, here they are in Amman, and they speak no Arabic, and have not a shred of cultural competency, and good intentions won’t fix the latter issue.
This brings me to my general observation about foreigners, mainly Westerners, in Jordan. Generally, there are just a few types of Americans and Europeans that come to Jordan. I watched one subset at Books@Café this morning. They are mostly European, wear jewelry made from large wood beads, smoke, and want the experience of living in a developing country, but without actually engaging directly with any serious and icky issues. Then there are academics who come here because they really care about the serious and difficult problems in the region, and they want to do something about it, but they are in over their heads cultural/linguistic-competency-wise. I read one's blog regularly, and frankly I’m often embarrassed for her at the way she uses dramatic language to politicize a cause that needs no more of that. I’ve met my share of these folks. They like to sit with their Western friends and talk about how many times they’ve been to Jordan, and how they know how to take taxis here, and how once they even went on that tour of some of the camps in Amman, and Gosh, it’s so sad how people live here… What I will call Misery Tourism is both an important component of Western street-cred here, as well as a standard Westerner-in-Jordan right-of-passage that makes no difference to the people who are on display for us to gawk at. And, there are people like my Australian friend who came here to live abroad for a year and try to learn some Arabic. She is low key, grateful and gracious about her time here, but realistic about the problems with this place. I’m no bead-wearing European, but I reckon I’m a combination of the rest.
The Texas ladies are your standard Misery Tourists. They are here for two weeks, and in that time are supposed to glean information about this region and the political problems. For reasons I don’t understand they hired a taxi driver who speaks no English to take them around to tourist sites here. The day after they talked to me, I was having breakfast and one of the Texas ladies, we’ll call her Texan Lady 1 (TL1), came to me accompanied by the taxi driver and asked me to tell him that the following day they wanted to go to Um Qeis and then to the Jaber border crossing into Syria. He was to drop them off there, and how much would that all cost? The follow up question from TL1 was if he understood that this was to be “tomorrow.” Bukra! Mashee! Now let me have my coffee! The following evening my comrades here and I discussed how late they would return to Amman once they failed getting visas.
Well, today I was in the kitchen heating up Maglooba when Texas Lady 2 came in at around 17:30 and said, “I want to talk to you!” You see, they should be at the Jaber border hella. TL2 told me that something weird happened. Before I tell you what she said, I’m going to pause again to mouth-off. This is always the moment that makes me cringe. It is the moment when normal-seeming, nice people suddenly realize that even though there are KFCs and Burger Kings in Jordan, we’re not actually in the States. Misery Tourists, who come here prepared for quality misery, are initially disappointed when they decide that Jordan is pretty “advanced.” Later, and usually as quick as whip-lash, they realize that they were wrong in their initial assessment, and they panic and instantly become professional Orientalists ready to diagnose Jordan’s problems. I feel uncomfortable about these conversations because they are racist, and banal simultaneously. Why, yes, I do know that people eat with their hands here; Oh, yes they don’t usually shut off the engine while getting gas; Well, You go pick up the trash if it pisses you off so much. So, I’m holding my bowl of Maglooba, and TL2 tells me that the driver obviously didn’t understand something. This driver has a Syrian passport, and was going to go see his family, she said. But, they went to a restaurant (in the Ghour?) where people came to stare at them, and everyone ate with his hands! Even the waiter put more veggies on the table with his hands! I assured her that hand-washing was not new to Jordanians. But, then they went to Um Qeis, and met a Palestinian man who told them that they were looking at the Golan Heights, and that this is land illegally occupied by the Israelis. And, now, here is the punch line for me: she told me that she has very different opinions from this man, and that in her opinion the Israelis won that 1967 War fair-and-square, and the Palestinians need to just shut up. Now listening to her through my bleeding eardrums, she went on to tell me that she didn’t tell the Palestinian this directly. Suddenly, the two Texas Ladies sensed tension between them and their driver and the Palestinian. They asked to leave, and the driver began to head to the border. He passed a turn-off to Amman, and then they realized that while hand-washing may be a recent colonial gift to Jordanians, or whatever, ESP has not penetrated the Middle East. They kept screaming “No! Amman!” at the confused driver, who eventually did bring them back to “Amman!”
Now, I am not chronicling this simply to make fun of them. Like I said, and like I mean, they really do mean well. I guess I’ve been at the receiving end of these conversations for too many months now not to vent about it. Cultural misunderstandings are remarkably uniform in their tragic paths:
1) Foreigner sees McDonalds; foreigner feels s/he is in (place American city here).
2) Foreigner goes to Books@, Blue Fig, Wild Jordan, has epiphany that Jordanians are actually a little “developed.”
3) Foreigner takes taxi to the Balid for an authentic Jordanian experience. Taxi driver: a) doesn’t use meter, or b) goes to the Balid via Ma’an. Foreigner feels bad and stupid for being swindled.
4) Foreigner focuses on: a) trash, b) women in hijab, decides that Jordan is backwards and wants to go home ASAP.
Thinking they have learned about Arabs, they fail to see that the real lesson is about us foreigners and our own world-view. Culture has this amazing ability to make us think that everything we do is natural and timeless. While it makes us feel comfortable at home, it makes us have freak-out moments abroad. Perversely, the initial focus on our similarities actually makes the pill harder to swallow. I think that’s because we are not focusing on similarities as much as we’re actually focusing on our shared shallowness.
My Culture Shock experience was only painful to me because all of the Jordanians I know failed to dramatically change their cultural standards and live as I do. That is true. But, it’s also true that expecting such a thing is idiotic. Working though culture shock, for me, was having this obvious lesson reinforced. Why are we foreigners, including myself, still spending time and money on this? How can we make the time and money we spend here have some purchase? I have been pondering this for some months. Is there any way to cut out all these intermediate steps I’ve just detailed and get right to cultural competency and effective activism?