Week 8: Not Tourists

This past week has made me simultaneously feel both immensely out of place and more integrated into Arab culture than ever before. This is largely because two paramount events took place: our excursion to the south of Jordan, and the end of Ramadan, or Eid. We were on a sort of “vacation” from our regular work with the organizations, and the break from the previous rhythm was a cause for reflection on how “assimilated” I feel after spending almost two full months here, but removed from my established monotony of wake, work, eat, and sleep.

The first test was our trip to the south, including Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba/the Red Sea. It was a measure for whether I felt like an American tourist bumbling around iconic sites under the guise of “volunteering,” or whether I was simply a local wanting to get to know my home better. Truth be told, I often felt like the tourist, especially in my weak efforts to order water with my nonexistent Arabic, or when I spent an afternoon lounging around in a bikini between four Middle Eastern countries (Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia), or even just when I was running around with my phone in front of my face, trying to capture everything on camera. The trip was incredible, but there were moments where I had trouble reconciling my wish to serve Jordan as wholly as I can, while still wanting to appreciate the beautiful country I was in through, for a lack of a better word, sightseeing.

The second test was the transition out of Ramadan, and participating in the Muslim holiday of Eid. Ramadan had been fascinating to witness (and briefly partake in—I fasted for a grand total of 3 days). The streets were empty by day, the work hours were shorter. My schedule adjusted to include hours of just lying in my bed, then iftar (the meal to break the fast), and then a transition to lying in front of the TV with the host family. It was very calm, and I witnessed none of the horrors of cigarette- and food-deprived citizens that I had been warned of. The night life flared up, and the few times I left the house after iftar, the streets were filled with everyone who had been sleeping away their hunger through the day. Being that we were still transitioning at the beginning of our trip to Jordan and therefore were never fully integrated to the lifestyle then, Ramadan began to feel like the regular Jordanian life, and I came to forget what life had been like before. However, as Eid was approaching, people began traversing by day more, as they shopped for Eid outfits and began preparing for family visits. The buildup was palpable. Even leaving Amman for three days for our trip south didn’t deter my building excitement for the end of a time of quiet reflection and unity among Muslims into a time of celebration. Finally, Eid arrived, and after all the hype and surrounding buzz, I felt—nothing. The first day of Eid, I just spent all day with my host family playing card games, smoking shisha, and eating snacks. While I enjoyed myself immensely, we didn’t dress up in new clothes and go visit every member of the family as I had expected. It felt like a regular day off. Maybe because I hadn’t fasted, or maybe because I’m not Muslim, but I didn’t have the holiday thrill I do on Christmas or my birthday, and because of that, I felt very isolated from the Jordanian community.

But as I mentioned before, I came to appreciate that, despite my initial uneasiness, both of these events were truly where I felt the most united with the culture around me. I realized that I was simply too self-conscious of the fact that I, a white girl with an offputtingly loud voice who’s taller than most of the people in this country and continuously dons an “American smile” (quote from a taxi driver), was characteristically different than everyone else in a way that I could not help. But to make sure you don’t leave this article without a strong dose of cheesiness, I wanted to bring up a moment in both of the pivotal tests that made me effortlessly feel one with everyone around me. First, in Eid, when I was walking by a park in my neighborhood. Following Ramadan, in which this park was dependably deserted at all times, I immediately noticed the gales of children laughing and people talking, and was stunned at how many people had used the beautiful day to go outside and spend time with their families and complete strangers alike (I have noticed Jordanians don’t like leaving their houses for leisure activities). They were all absorbed in being around each other, and didn’t even have time to stare at the obvious American walking by. As the joy of everyone around me and the sun and clear skies began to take hold of me, I forgot how much I stuck out, and was able to bask in the enthusiasm that everyone else was feeling, giving me the Eid excitement I had been yearning for and a sense of connection to everyone around me. The second moment, that actually came before but left an even greater impact, had actually been in Wadi Rum. We had spent all day driving around, climbing sand dunes, and just generally enjoying ourselves within the vast emptiness of the desert. Having been around oceans and in the Alps, I was familiar with the feeling of insignificance that such great products of nature can instill, and it therefore didn’t affect me in the desert… until the night. After dinner, we were taken out to lay in the sand and stargaze, and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Back home, my backyard is filled with trees that bother your periphery, the sky is often filled with clouds, and there is always light shining nearby, so I could never feel bothered to look at the sky at night. This night, however, we were isolated from anyone else in the middle of the desert, and with the new moon approaching, there wasn’t even the moon’s light to distract us from the stars. It was one of the most beautiful sights that I had ever seen, but despite still wishing I could print the image of the sky in everyone else’s brain as well, I didn’t take a single picture. I forgot that there were people around me, forgot any Western sightseeing trivia that made this desert relevant to tourists (i.e. that the Martian had been filmed here), forgot how long I had been here or when I was leaving. I lost all feeling of significance, and felt one not only with every person, but even the land, stuck between infinite sand and infinite sky. It was a feeling that I now associate with a comfort with the country around me and my ability to absorb myself in my surroundings, allowing me to fully dissociate from the feeling of foreignness I had initially arrived here with.

– Julia

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