There are innumerable things which I do not know, and I shall hardly make a dent before I am done trying. But I find that a thirst for knowledge should be humble and easily sated, if not ever permanently satisfied. Thus I am content to learn what it is I am meant to learn, and leave the rest to others who are better suited to such things. I shall never know all there is to know about Jordan, and it seems unlikely I should even come close to such a thing. Yet, even as I find myself overwhelmed with the idea that I am expected to have learned anything at all of such a foreign culture in so short a time, I reflect and find that I have learned far more than I had dared to hope.
An unqualified, incomplete and surely ignorant appraisal is all I can provide, but a traveler – especially one so new as I – must be blind not to notice the peculiarities of Jordan. Not that Jordan is necessarily different from any other place, and a foreigner would likely find my home just as strange as I find it here, as the new is always so. And though all I have seen is rather obvious to any sighted person, an outsider’s view can be interesting and insightful, if not the most correct. In all that follows, I had set out to tell something I had noticed about the people and culture of Jordan, but I wonder now if its character and content reflect more on me than on they, and whether this is all that can be hoped for in such a thing.
Though there is much which has given me pause in Jordan, having never traveled to the Middle East (or anywhere at all, in fact), the most obvious is still the most shocking: the fusion of old and new. Or I suppose I should phrase it as traditional and Western, as I’m sure the “new” of Middle Eastern culture is buried somewhere out of sight beneath the coke bottles and smartphones, beyond my sight. I had not expected to walk into a country of farmers and tent camps, but neither had I thought of businessmen and skyscrapers. I was wrong on both counts, however, as I have seen both quite readily, side by side.
Just getting off the airplane, I saw men and women dressed as I imagined the first followers of Muhammed to have dressed, walking beside and in groups with people I might have seen in an advertisement for an American department store. When we rode through towns, we saw old shops with Arabic script we could not decipher, if they had signs at all, directly beside pictures of Caucasian women modeling face lotion with English titles. I looked out my window at a shepherd with his flock and imagined that they were pasturing in the same place generations of his family had led them, yet he wore jeans and a t-shirt. I sat around a fire with a Bedouin man in traditional dress who made us coffee from the bean right before our eyes; he bore a large watch and checked a smartphone from time to time.
This fusion, this grand dance of the ancient and the imported, is everywhere. One cannot escape the Nike t-shirts any more than one can women whose eyes are the only thing visible. I was taught how the traditional coffee is made, but then told that most use an electric kettle these days. The call to prayer is heard five times a day, as it has been for centuries, but it now comes from the Mosques out of speakers and I wonder if it is a recording rather than a live man who sings. Men wear kafias or baseball caps, women dresses or skinny jeans.
To some extent, in the world in which we find ourselves, this is to be expected. One can hardly travel anywhere without expecting to be able to buy a coke and potato chips. So perhaps it is not the fact that Jordan has so much American in it that surprises me, but that there is anything of Jordan left. I’m naturally more shocked to find sheep blocking the road than I am to eat pizza in Amman, yet is this because I am accustomed to my own way of life or because I had thought the world had no longer any old ways in it?
Jordan is not fully modernized, it is not fully traditional. It is a mix of the two, yet one can find easily the purest examples of either form on the streets of any town or village. And at first, it made me sad. What right had America, had the entire modernist culture, to drive out a traditional way of life, even as our customs and traditions are being killed to make room for what men call progress? It is far more convenient to boil water for tea over a gas stove, yet how dare we quench the fires of hospitality which have burned longer than the short memories of modern men? The companies which have painted their logos on every flat surface of the West, not satisfied with all they had conquered, turned to virgin soil to crush the sheep and goat herders with frozen burgers and foreign-fried chicken. How dare we destroy Jordan in favor of a cultural colony of the new world.
So I sought everywhere we went for the real, the traditional, Jordan. I searched for one little corner in the sand which had withstood the flood and stayed true to whatever creed or custom made these people distinguishable from others, though I should not have known such a thing if I had found it. It mattered not, for I looked in vain; even ruins of ancient men had graffiti, and not one inch could I find that had been left alone.
But slowly, slowly I began to wonder what I meant in saying Western ways now stood beside those of the “real” Jordan. What was Jordan, and who was to determine such a thing? How am I to say that my coworkers, driving pickup trucks and checking Facebook, are any less Jordanian than their grandfathers? Whether this fusion, this adoption of some ways of the West and retention of others of a more Eastern and ancient character, is natural, healthy or even good is not for me to say. Just as I do not have enough knowledge to say what once was Jordan, I have none to say what she has become. I can only say that the people seem far better adjusted to the Jordan of contrasts and mixing modes of life which give travelers such pause. And if it is more delicious to eat shawarma with French fries, shall we accuse the West of too long a reach or lament the degradation of the “truer” Jordan, or simply shake our heads at questions too high for us and enjoy?