Life in Jordan – From Cats to Kings

Every day when I walk to Qasid in the morning, two cats follow along with me for most of the way, asking me for pets and attention. These cats have become my good friends here in Jordan and I will miss them when I leave in a few weeks. There are many such cats living in the nooks of Amman, and they are generally a tough lot that are used to surviving independently. Jordanians may leave food and water out for them, but cats in this country hardly enjoy the privileged status that they enjoy in a place like Turkey. The cats, much like the citizens of Amman, have to fend for themselves.

The cat friends I have made here have given me cause to think about the nature of Jordanian society. For it is not uncommon for one to see homeless and impoverished individuals sitting quietly on streets and on bridges, sometimes attempting to sell a couple of vegetables or junk jewelry in little stalls. Cab drivers here will often attempt to charge foreigners double or triple fares and houses can fall down due to being built with inferior cement. Like the cats living amongst them, it often feels like Jordanians from a lower socioeconomic status are competing for scraps.

Every society in the world has to deal with the challenge of poverty. I have seen homeless men shouting at pedestrians in Harvard Square and know what it means to struggle with money in both the West and Indonesia. But in Amman I found that it is different, for here the gaps between rich and poor is imprinted in the very colours of the city.

For the majority of Amman, where the cats and the cab drivers live, the primary colour is brown. The sands and dust of the desert have taken hold, and most plants that grow are either weeds or twiggy bushes and trees. The stores are crowded, the clothes simple and the buildings are for the most part simple grey concrete blocks.

But there is a slim quarter of Amman that is different. The primary colour is green, with well-groomed parks and plants marking the places between western chains like Zara and the Body Shop, with malls that could easily be mistaken for any of the malls in mid-western America. And it is in here, in these strange slices of North America, that one can find the King and the rest of the Jordanian elite.

American society is deeply flawed, but there is a powerful national myth in the country that one can ‘pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps’ and go ‘from rags to riches’ somehow. Even if this myth does not often stand up to scrutiny, the driving force behind it is meant to motivate citizens to strive for their own betterment. And I wonder, here in Jordan, where that same motivation can come from? When the city itself is painted in such colours as to vividly display the King living in an entirely different sphere of existence to the common man. And unless one is a child of King Abdullah, those are heights that the citizens cannot even conceivably reach and, indeed, it is impossible for a citizen to even so much as enter the green space the family has cultivated without direct permission from the government.

The motivating power of a national mythology can be invigorating. Young people from every walk of life need to have something to aspire towards. Without that, it becomes more and more difficult for a society to improve itself. With a very deep gap of socio-economic conditions, I cannot help but feel that the ordinary Jordanians are essentially forced to live like the cats that accompany me to school. No matter how much they strive in school or in business or in their chosen field, one cannot rise above a select few who are able to take refuge from the reality in the blissful ignorance of the opulent malls of Amman.

It is this thought in particular that makes me grateful that Suharto (the notorious ex-President of Indonesia who was deposed from his seat by the people in 1998) resigned and my home country of Indonesia is now free of its ‘king’, and that I need to fear no such ceiling as I continue to forge my own life and destiny in North America.

The Color is Brown: A crowded corner of Salt City, a suburb of Amman.
A Heaven for the Few: A resort in the Dead Sea where the riches of Amman usually spend their weekend with the family. A dinner for one in this place costs 25 JOD (36 USD), a number that cannot be reached by ordinary Jordanians.
A Western Luxury: City Mall is one of the most luxurious malls in Amman where you can find anything from H&M to Armani, minus any local brand. Upper-middle class Jordanians come to such places to shop and dine almost everyday.
Al-Dajjaj Kentucky: One thing about the upper-middle class Jordanians is that they love American fast food chains so much. You will not find local food in any mall’s food court (save for fast food shawarma chain). But you will easily find any American fast food chain that you like. From McD to Subway, they’re all there.
The Cat of Amman I: As this cat, people who work in the unskilled industries in Amman are forced to stay in their place. A janitor, for example, would need to sit in the restroom area during her/his work shift all the time because he/she needs to clean the restroom every time a person used it.
The Cats of Amman II

Life at the Qasid Institute

Although there are many challenges for a student living in Jordan, I have been consistently impressed with the Qasid Institute’s approach to language instruction.

My typical day at Qasid is divided in two.

In the morning, I have to wake up bright and early to go to my skill class, which typically focuses on speaking, listening and writing in Arabic. My instructor, Huda al-Bayoumi, is an extremely kind woman who is very understanding of the struggles that students go through here in Jordan. In times when I have been sick or unwell and missed a class, I have found that she is very understanding and always ready to help me catch up.

Still, just because she is kind does not by any means mean that the class is easy. Our teacher encourages us to talk about the places we come from and even have debates in Arabic. Though it is quite challenging, in this class I have had the opportunity to give presentations on my country, and talk about my beliefs, values and religion. By making things interesting, the skills class has made it possible for me to learn in a supportive environment and I think I have improved my language and expanded my vocabulary vastly over the last few weeks.

After a long lunch break, which I typically spend by going back to my home in order to have lunch and then either do some homework or take a badly-needed nap, I return to Qasid where I have my ‘sciences’, which focuses on Arabic syntax and morphology. By far the more difficult of my classes, the science class is taught by Faraz Malik and is quite intense. It focuses on the complex ways in which Arabic words can have different meanings depending on their conjugation and paradigms. There are tests in almost every single day and an enormous amount of homework, but the course does a very good job of hammering home the fundamental lessons of Arabic.

It is this class in particular that causes me to often spend the better part of my evenings at my desk, memorizing rules of syntax and morphological patterns of the words. Classical Arabic is well-known as one of the most complex languages in the world, and mastering its nuances in the space of eleven weeks is not easy, but I do enjoy the challenge and take particular satisfaction in acing Malik’s tests after staying up late the night before.

The student body at Qasid is quite diverse. You have many students who are like me, PhD students from America, who need to learn Arabic. These students, who come from places like Harvard and Georgetown, tend to be a bit competitive, but are nevertheless determined to get the most out of their stay at Qasid as they can in order to advance their careers.

But there are also students who have come here for non-Academic purposes. These students, hailing from places like the Zeytouna Institute in California, have made the trip to Jordan in order to learn Arabic for no other reason than to enhance their personal understanding of the Qu’ran. For them, it is not their careers that cause them to be here, but rather their desire to achieve a higher level of religious piety. Sure enough, however, these religiously-motivated learners can be just as competitive as their academic brethren.

Still, this competitive atmosphere tends to push everyone to work harder and make the most of our time here in Jordan. The two groups mingle together in Qasid in a friendly way. Everyone wants to be at the top of the class, but we still support each other and keep our spirits up even as the demands of Qasid and the pressure of living in Jordan weigh down.

There are often weekly excursions out into the desert, including hiking trips to live with a Bedouin tribe for a night, eat their food and hike through the desert. It is these excursions out away from the insanity of Amman that I like to focus on, for here one gains insight into what Arab culture was like in days before colonization and westernization took hold.

Thus, in spite of all the challenges that I have faced in Jordan, I do think that my learning experience here has been very positive and would like to thank Qasid for being of such great help to me with my Arabic.

Ajloun Fort: Me and Sister Patricia, a beloved Ph.D friend from the Theology Department in one of our trips with Qasid to the Fort of Ajloun.
A Night in the Desert: The male Qasid crew danced to the folk Bedouin song. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no possibility for women to participate in the dance.
Desert Hiking: I sang and laughed with the Qasid teachers and crew on our pick up truck that took us to the hiking locations in Wadi Rum.

“Where is Your Lady?”: A Note on the Racist-Classism in Amman

“Excuse me, but where is your lady?”

These are words I have rapidly become accustomed to during my stay in Jordan, and it has taught me much of the racial nature of inequality in this country.

Typically speaking, when one sees an Indonesian (or Southeast Asian in general) woman in Jordan, she is there because she is employed as a maid or helper for a well-off Jordanian family. I began to see many of these women once I was settled in Jordan. In malls, these domestic workers can often be seen walking just behind their employers, holding their bags and pushing their strollers for their wealthy patrons. I remember watching one such of these ‘classy’ women trying on a variety of designer shoes, asking her maids for their opinions as she modeled her expensive shoes for them.

The assumption then when Jordanians see me in public places is not that I am a PhD student from Notre Dame pursuing a study of Classical Arabic at the Qasid Institute, but rather that I am also one of the maids brought from Indonesia to change diapers and scrub floors. The career I have spent so many years building is invisible to the people here, for apparently Jordanian culture has written the word ‘maid’ on my face. I have often experienced Islamophobia or other forms of racism while living in the States, but these were a new set of micro-aggressions.

This is a prejudice that does not trouble every foreigner, but rather is specifically aimed at women from Southeast Asia (a female friend from Thailand at the Qasid Institute also experienced the same case of racism). At restaurants, I often dine with my two housemates and find that waitresses will often hand menus to my Japanese and British-Pakistani peers, leaving me with nothing until I am forced to ask. Apparently, the idea of an Indonesian being able to eat in a restaurant is quite unusual for Jordanians and they thus assume that I have no need for one. And even when I pay with my own credit card, the card will usually be handed back to my peers instead of me, showing once again that Jordanians think I am simply there as a helper for other students.

By far, these acts of racism have been my greatest difficulty throughout my stay in Jordan, for it has permeated every aspect of my life here. Even when I am going for groceries, I am often bombarded with ridiculous questions from random strangers about “where is my master?”. And even a few days ago, a middle-aged man literally rammed me with his shopping cart for not getting out of his way quickly enough. Combined with the sexual-street harassment I face, it is abundantly clear that Jordanian culture sees people that look like me as inferiors who are not worthy of even the most basic level of courtesy.

It seems that I am constantly being reminded of my place in the racial hierarchy here and it is very clear that Indonesians (and Southeast Asians in general) are not welcome here unless they want to work in kitchens or carry bags.

When my significant other visited, this prejudice took on new forms. Refusing to kowtow to Jordanian prejudices, my SO (who is a Pakistani-Canadian that could potentially pass as an Arab) would hold my hand in public and insisted on carrying every bag we happened to get while shopping. Still, while it was amusing to not conform to these racial expectations and flaunt our interracial match, Jordanian racism still followed us.  For the sight of an Arab-looking man carrying bags for an Indonesian woman attracted stares and giggles no matter where we went.

If this is my experience being an international student in this country, then I cannot begin to imagine what life must be like for actual domestic workers living here. To be at the beck and call of a culture that clearly and unashamedly regards one as an inferior is incredibly demeaning, and it would take the patience of Job to endure it. Thus, now more than ever, do I have more admiration for those women who have stood up and spoken out in the media against the rampant physical and sexual abuse that inevitably occurs as a result of the pernicious racism against them.

But it is these women we must look to for inspiration. For every time they speak out against this systematic discrimination is another step towards ending it forever.

Where Our Kids Play: The picture shows a roller-skate ring in one of the most luxurious malls in Amman. In the weekend it is full with Amman’s rich kids on their roller-skates, while their nannies are standing outside of the ring, keeping them safe.
Waiting for the Masters: Three Indonesian domestic workers are standing outside of the railing, while their ladies are enjoying their afternoon teas at Paul, a high-end French bakery/cafe chain that is very popular among the upper-middle class here in Amman. The railing aptly symbolizes the different worlds that those women occupied (master and servant), and the racism and classism that sustain it.

A City of the Dead

One of the highlights of my journey to Jordan was my trip to Petra.

Petra is a ruined city hidden away in a valley just three hours away from Amman. Much like the Citadel of Amman, this ruin has a rich history encompassing Arab, Roman and Ottoman periods and is quite literally a city of the dead.

The ruins of Petra are composed firstly of graves and tombs carved into the sandstone mountains of Petra. These ornate tombs were meant to be the springboard for rich individuals so they could arrive in the afterlife with style. The graves range from simple hollowed out caves to ornate mini-palaces with statues carved into the rock. Thousands of slaves had to have been employed to build these house-sized graves over the course of centuries.

It is amazing to me that these ancient Nabateans spent so much of their wealth and energy in preparation for their death. Seeing an entire city that the people of Petra made to forge their tombs and glorify their dead is simply awe-inspiring. In a way, this belief system is not entirely dissimilar to that of Islam, for Muslims are also taught to spend their life here preparing for the life that comes after (although of course Muslims are told to do that preparing by doing good deeds, rather than constructing elaborate tombs).

In any case, the largest structure that seems to be intact is the Treasury (Al-Khazneh) in the heart of Petra. It is a massive structure in the heart of a huge valley in the middle of the dead city. We traveled there when we first arrived and it is absolutely huge building with Greek gods and goddesses depicted alongside it. On the way there, aqueducts were carved into the mountainside, which the ancient inhabitants of this land used to keep themselves supplied with water constantly. This treasury was the entry point into this mysterious city and showed how the people that lived here wanted everyone who visited to know of their opulence and might of their city.

Later, we climbed up a mountain path called the ‘thousand steps’ to reach the Monastery top of Petra (El-Deir). This name turned out to be somewhat inaccurate, as the ‘steps’ were so badly eroded and cracked that they were hardly steps at all, and I am pretty certain that there were far more than a thousand.  Exhausted, we eventually had to ask some Bedouins for a donkey ride in order to get all the way up the towering mountain. The Monks that once maintained the monastery up there must have been quite reclusive indeed if this was the only way for a visitor to reach them.

Atop the mountain, we found that unfortunately most of the Monastery was either ruined or closed off to the public. In this case, the journey became more important than the destination. A reminder that our focus in life is supposed to be on the ‘learning process’ and not on the ‘result’.

Still, climbing this historical marvel and looking down at this vast city of the dead (and Petra truly is huge – a real city of tombs and graves) was magnificent, though afterwards my legs felt like blocks of wood. Hiking in a desert is much more difficult than hiking in Indonesia or out in America. The oppressive heat rapidly drains your energy and even if you have a constant supply of water you will soon feel quite exhausted.

A visitor like me thus can’t but feel a sense of wonder when seeing the Bedouin, who live in makeshift tents throughout the path going up the hill underneath the sweltering heat. Like their ancestors from Petra, these Bedouin live in the desert with a certain joy and seem to take pleasure in galloping back and forth across the desert paths that mark the dead city, sometimes even happily living and sleeping inside of the looted tomes.

My trip to Petra was thus one of my most memorable moments in Jordan, for it showed me a unique window into how religions and traditions can shape entire civilizations.

Journey into the After-Life in Style: One of the most ornate tombs of the Nabateans. The Obelisks showed how many people were actually buried in the tomb.
Al-Khazneh From the Bab al-Siq: Despite the name, al-Khazneh is not a treasury. It is a mausoleum built during the 1st century AD under the reign of Aretas IV Philopatris.
The Treasury: The name comes from a myth that ancient pirates hid their loot in the stone urn located up on the second level of the gate. Another version of the myth tells us that the treasure in the urn was of one of the Pharaohs of the Ancient Egypt.
Bedouin Trinkets: Such makeshift booth can be found along the hiking path in Petra. The Bedouin sells almost anything you can imagine in there. From jewelry to stones from the ancient ruins. Their division of labor goes along gendered lines. Wives and daughters take care of the stores, husbands and sons take care of the donkey and camel ride businesses.

Jabal al-Qala’a: The Seat of Civilizations (A Note From June 30th-July 8th, 2017)

Temple of Hercules: A memento of the Roman Civilization on the hill.

The intense schedule at Qasid leaves students with little time for leisure, but one of the first things I did in Jordan was make some time to see the Roman Citadel that dominates the center of the city. It was an extremely hot and sunny day when we made the trip, and I could not help but wish that we had brought an umbrella to shield ourselves from the sun. In retrospect, I probably should have used more sunscreen.

Whatever the case, the Amman Citadel (or Jabal al-Qala’a, lit. The Mountain of the Citadel) was clearly chosen by so many ancients for its location, for it is situated on a high hill from which one can see Amman in its entirety. Our tour guide pointed out various parts of the city from our vantage point, from the long strips of green trees of the King’s palace to the dusty marketplaces of the heart of the city. Everything is laid before the Citadel, and we spent a lot of time simply admiring the vista.

But the ruins atop the hill are the main reason I went up. A crossroads of civilization, the citadel has Roman and Byzantine roots, with the remains of Hellenic temples interspersed with early Christian churches and Umayyad masjids.

The giants of both Western and Eastern civilizations have passed through here, and I found it interesting how this hilltop, which was a symbol of dominance for centuries upon centuries, is now hardly being used at all and apparently of little interest to the Jordanians themselves. For there were only a few small groups of tourists on the grounds of the citadel and most of the Jordanians we saw there, save for a hijabi art student who was sketching the pillars, were only there to serve as tour guides. While the ancients, be they Roman or Arab, may have been using this spot to lord it over the common folk, but now the descendants of those same common folk could now care less for their citadel.

But while the indifference Jordanians have towards their Citadel can be considered amusing, it is unfortunate to see that that indifference also translates into neglect. Everywhere we looked, be it the pits used by the ancients to form cement or the hands of Hercules, there would be discarded water bottles or cigarette boxes simply left lying there.

Indeed, it often felt like very little effort was being undertaken to preserve the location. Our tour guide told us that twelve guards were meant to be stationed at the Citadel on a round the clock basis in order to protect the gathered historical relics. As we walked around the Citadel, however, no such guards were anywhere to be found. While we were walking in the old Church ruins, we watched as a group of tourists were casually climbing up on top of the old Church walls in order to take a few selfies. No one seemed to care as they desecrated these ancient ruins (while also, incidentally, put themselves at great risk of breaking their necks) all in the name of having another photo to upload to Facebook.

An argument could be made that not every country has the resources to preserve its historical sites, but Jordan is most certainly not a country without resources. The opulent, western-style malls filled with the very latest Hollywood blockbusters, designer clothing and lavish body care products are evidence enough of Jordan’s wealth. So why is it then that the Citadel is left to its own devices?

Perhaps part of the reason why this occurs is the obsession Jordanians seem to have with becoming Western. Throughout the roads of Amman, I’ve seen so many Jordanians driving ‘high status’ cars, be it the BMW, the Mercedes or the Priuses. There is a very real drive here to indulge in all of the petty opulence that ‘the West’ has to offer, and as a result it often feels as though the Jordanian identity itself is being eroded.

Sadly, it is not enough to be connected with the storied past of three magnificent civilizations that laid roots here in Jordan.  For many Jordanians, pride seems to stem more from what one can possess now, be it the cars they drive or the clothes they wear.

Perhaps attitudes will change in time, but for now I left the Citadel wondering just what those Roman Patricians, Byzantine Emperors or Umayyad Caliphs would think knowing that one day their awe-inspiring citadels would simply be a passing curiosity to a city that is far more interested in emulating someone else entirely.

A view of Amman from Jabal al-Qala’a. The only lush area is where the Royal Palace located.
Me in front of The Umayyad Palace: Inside we can find proofs of Umayyad’s commitment to inter-religious harmony in the form of crosses on the wall.

Men Sit in Front, Women Sit in the Back (A Note From: 15-24 June, 2017)

Seven Dinars ‘Feminism’: Such T-Shirts with empowering messages are easy to find in Malls in Amman. However, the society is yet to absorb the messages.

From the very moment that I landed in Amman, I was struck by the inferior place that women are regulated to in this society. To be sure, last week the Jordanian Parliament repealed the Article 308 from the national constitution (an article that pardoned a rapist as long as he married his victim and stayed with her for at least three years) and it was a great news for the Jordanian women in general. However, the ‘Arab Machismo’ culture, that becomes the main root of the rape cases in the first place, is not going away anytime soon.

Indonesia, from which I come from, is a Muslim country where women may wear hijab and certainly experience sexism in their daily lives, but women are nevertheless able to exercise some level of agency independent of men. They can go about their business in the cities, be it at work or while shopping or at school, without feeling unsafe or victimized. I thus was expecting a similar situation in Jordan.

But as soon as I landed I began to learn that there are a different set of rules here. On my first night while walking home from the Qasid Institute (the place where I got my Classical Arabic training from) after dark, a man started to follow me for no reason down the street. He offered me a drink and was incredibly persistent, to the point where I feared for my safety. After getting home, I learned that women did not typically walk the streets alone after dark here. That was considered unusual and men saw it as an invitation to harass any such woman. The fact that I am Indonesian and do not look like anyone else here made me a particular target for these harassers.

This was my first encounter with the culture of sexism and patriarchy that is very much alive here in Jordan, and I would soon learn the other ‘rules’.

For instance, it is considered risky for a woman to get into a cab by herself. Horror stories abound about cab drivers driving women off to who knows where when they do so. This means that I, as a woman, am left with few choices in terms of mobility. I can either travel with a man or go with groups of other women. Travelling by myself, as I regularly do in Indonesia and America, is simply not an option if I want to avoid harassment

More than that, rules and etiquettes concerning gender dictate all aspects of Jordanian society. When travelling with my significant other, it was a rule that he should sit up with the cab driver in the front seat while I had to remain at the back. He did not speak a word of Arabic of course, and found this to be very annoying, but a man had to sit up front. That was the rule and not following it could result in conflict.

By violating these ‘rules’, it seems many Jordanian men think that I am inviting comment and harassment. For instance, I have learned to change the route I take when walking between Qasid and my home. This is because when I walked on the main street, men would approach me and say things like ‘how are you sweetie?’, often quite aggressively. The presence of a woman by herself, even in broad daylight seems to paint a target in the minds of these men, which indicates the fact that male power is more or less unquestioned here in Jordan.

No man seemed to fear that they might get in trouble or suffer any repercussion at all when engaging in this behavior. Indeed, it seemed that the only time they were deterred is when I happened to be walking with another man. This means that I, as a human being, was dependent on the presence of men in order to simply go about my business unharassed on the streets.

For some of the Jordanian women, street harassment seems to have become a part of their lives. I have seen Jordanian woman respond to crude and demeaning comments shouted at them from cars and random men on the street with smiles and patient indulgence.

To me, this is the most discouraging aspect of my experiences living in Amman. Many cities, from Jakarta to Chicago, have problems with men who think they can degrade women, but in those cities there are at least some potential social consequences to behaving in such an idiotic fashion. In Amman, however, this idiocy and indecency is the norm and has come to dominate the public sphere. Women here thus have a significant uphill battle to change this behavior and reclaim the streets.

Still, what this teaches us more than anything is that the feminist struggle must continue until behavior such as this becomes unacceptable, no matter where one walks on the globe.