I grew up in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, born and raised and I used to think I had a stake in this country, but recently that has ebbed with the tides. I don’t have citizenship, and my father is an Ajnabi (foreigner) so I am not considered a “True Jordanian”. My reply to that rhymes with Duck Do…
My mom and her family represent what I consider to be the honest and propaganda free version of Jordan. For political reasons people of all walks will try to twist our social fabric to suit their needs, either saying its 90% Palestinian (not true) or that only pure Bedouin Trans-Jordanians are the “real” people of this country (not really true either). But history shows us that this beautiful and mysterious place was always a crossroads that produced a fascinating mixed society, one I think is representative of the Middle Eastern story as a whole. I only know maybe one or two people who can claim that both of their parents came from the same place…
I grew up within this atmosphere. My dad is American, my mom is Jordanian. Each of their parents comes from several different places. You can sponsor my therapy sessions for identity crisis, just you know… FYI. Lets stick to my mom’s household. Her grandpa was a Turkish officer, coming with the Ottoman army around the time of the First World War, and he chose to stay, a story that is not uncommon to every Arab country in this region. Her grandmother came on a horse from the Caucasus Mountains, fleeing from persecution. Her story is not uncommon to the Levant in that period, and in Jordan in particular, where Circassians’ played an important role in the foundation of this country! Her paternal grandfather was a bedouin from a tribe that originated from the area that is now Amman (is was basically empty at the time) and wandered between what-is-now Jordan and what-is-now Palestine. Some stayed there, some returned to Jordan. He immigrated to the USA at the turn of the 20th century to make his fortune, ended up marrying a Russian emigrant, and then sent his kids (including my grandpa) back to Jordan. My grandpa and grandma grew up in Amman back when it was just a river with a few hills, within a social landscape now lost to most Jordanians.
So yeah… that just my mom’s side. So when I came along, half-Ajanbi half-Wtv, I was a little bit of an outcast. Actually it was a lot of bit, and that’s a tale for a different day. As an adult, it has not improved. I spend 98% of my time here feeling like a strange breed of alien, even my mom says I am too weird for the Middle East, and she’s like… supposed to lie to me. Yet, I still think I am Jordanian, and I think Jordan would be a better place if it could embrace people like me.
Now that I reside here again, I have had to rediscover what I like about this place. It has been rough. There’s a trail of wine bottles to prove it. There is the nostalgia of childhood, the smell of dust and jasmines, or sunsets over white stone horizons. Yet, that has not been enough to make me feel comfortable and at home in a city that has changed dramatically since my youth. So in order to create new spaces for myself, I’ve had to look back to my past.
The essence of the city is always in its heart, and in the stories of people, cheesy as that may be. One of my favorite things to do is to walk in the Balad, the downtown of Amman, and the original site of the city. This is where my mom grew up so I have a good understanding of its neighborhoods. Treasures are found when one is wandering with eyes and heart open, and only then can you really see a city and its inhabitants.
The balad has many great cultural spots, and makes for fun adventuring. I love wandering through the various souks, which tend to specialize in certain products. My favorite is Souk El- Boukhariyeh, a twisty alleyway that sells all sorts of craft and haberdashery items like lace or beads. Another favorite is the Baleh (Thrift shops) on Shari’ al-Tilyani (Italian street, named after the Italian missionary hospital there). Same goes for Souk El Jom’a, the big used goods open air market that has recently been relocated to Ras El ‘Ein in the balad. The average person also frequents these areas; they’re as far away from the West-Amman glitz as can be. Which is why I like them, because they show a side of Jordan that those in my social circle are largely unaware of, and a lifestyle and way of commerce that’s being wiped out by the advance of capitalism.
I was discussing history with my colleague yesterday (Hint: if I say history in a post you should know it will be a long one), and she said history was boring to her, and she was always suspecting its falsities and propaganda. All true, but also not really. History as we know it is a tale of victors, of big characters and big deeds. But history is woven from the stories of little people, of the average folk, and they’re often overlooked. The Beauty of Jerash (which I covered here) for me lies in the fact that you can actually walk around in this big city like a commoner would, you can run the stairs of the amphitheater or gaze across the domes of the baths like someone from that era. It’s not a palace of the rich, though it is a monument to the powerful.
Speaking of the average person, one must not overlook food! Food is one of my hobbies, and Jordan has a budding culinary scene. While the average Jordanian still eats home cooking, the concept of eating out is becoming more popular. Aside from the truly spectacular Lebanese restaurants (the traditional ones) there are a variety of sushi, thai, pizza, and burger joints popping up, among others. It has been such a pleasure to discover all of these new places alongside all the new cafés and bars. We also have our own craft beer now, which I am growing fond of.
I say and do this in an effort to find satisfaction in the life I am living, rather the one I long for. As I was reading my friend Chelsea’s excellent blog I was struck by her thoughts on the ‘grass being greener on the other side’:
When you spend all your time and energy running back and forth between pastures, you never learn what you actually like about the grass you’re eating now. Sometimes you need to give yourself enough time to experience a place and learn what makes it tick.
Basically I am trying to see my life for what it is, rather than what it isn’t, and to see the good in it.
So yes, it has been challenging living in Jordan again, and being the contrarian that I am, I haven’t found many inclusive spaces or modes of thought around me- to the degree that I have come to believe that I might be slightly unhinged. As I retrace my roots and footsteps though, I am rediscovering the charm of a country that’s always in the middle of everything, every war, every struggle and every change in the region (including the good changes). I hope that while we as a nation ponder the question “where do we go from here?” we can embrace the positives of our past in an effort to pave a brighter future.