Kara’s observations of sometimes quite surprising social contrasts, and the sad soundtrack to our hike near Ajloun, in the North of Jordan, near the border with Syria.
1. Ancient city in a modern town
Jerash is a town in the north of Jordan, with ancient ruins dating back to 3200BC. We’ve always been advised to go there, but haven’t made the trip yet. We did however drive through on our way to a hike, and wow did we get a shock. Yes, we’ve been to the temples in Egypt and have seen other ruins before, but this was different. An entire, modern town had been built around these buildings- from the car, it almost looked like houses and shops were built on top of ruins half-buried into the hillside. Oh, and they hold a festival in the ancient Roman amphitheatre each year, featuring popular Arabic singers. Modern music in an ancient amphitheatre- how cool is that?
2. Beggars and BMWs
On a heavier note, the contrast between rich and poor is pretty strong here. Men in tattered clothes walk the streets of nicer suburbs, sorting through the enormous communal rubbish bins and putting materials in the old wooden cart pulled by their scruffy donkey. Homeless families live under scrap metal and tarpaulins in wastelands right next to major shopping centres. And the poorer, but bustling downtown area is right next to the fancier expat and embassy district.
3. Bombs on a weekend stroll
No, nobody is bombing Jordan, but every now and again we are powerfully reminded of how close Jordan is to countries at war. For example, last weekend we went on an awesome camping trip in the forests up north. We stayed overnight and went on a hike the following day. The birds were singing, the flowers were in full bloom- it was so tranquil and silent. Until we heard a not-so-distant rumble, the echoes bouncing across the mountains. Apparently bombs from Syria. Which would make sense, since we were a maximum of 50km from Dara’a, a major conflict zone in Syria at the moment. So our walk was a huge mixture of silence, laughing and chatting, with the occasional explosion in the background. It was quite surreal, knowing how calamitous the situation is just across the border, but how safe and relatively carefree we were on the other side, eating, drinking and exploring the countryside.
There are rude men who harass women wherever you go, it’s an unfortunate fact in this day and age. But men here seem to be a lot ruder to me as a female foreigner, while also being a lot politer in some situations too. Hugging between local male and females here isn’t a thing, but nor is shaking hands in many cases. So, any male acquaintances we might make, such as the grocer, the baker or the university guards, will either shake Sam’s hand or give him an enormous hug, while nodding a polite hello to me. Sometimes that is due to their own preference not to shake hands with women, but knowing them, it mostly seems to be out of respect to me. Letting women go first through doorways is also huge here. Fine, I’ll take it!
What I won’t take so well is men calling out, beeping or otherwise harassing me, even when I’m with Sam. Now this happens in Australia too, don’t get me wrong, but walking home by myself this afternoon I realised just how much worse it is here. Men of all ages beep and stare out the window, others call out ‘I love you!’, while others just whistle or chuckle to themselves as you walk past. But I also realised how lucky I am here as a white woman. I was talking to my South Korean friend earlier today, as she carries a whistle on her keyring for safety. I was a bit amused, until she explained why. See, there aren’t too many people of Asian origin here, and many of those with South Asian roots are prostitutes. So while I put up with some harmless but annoying comments, men yell ‘sex’ and ‘massage’ at her to the point where she actually fears for her safety. This would never happen to a local girl, towards which men are so much more respectful, but is a sad fact purely based on race, and harshly jars with the more conservative parts of society.
5. Niqabs and nightclubs
As with any country, some people are more religious than others. Goes without saying. But the contrast between the most outwardly conservative people and the more liberal folk has been quite surprising. These observations are largely based on how people seem to look and behave, and obviously there is more to it than that. Nevertheless, clothing and subtle behavioural habits can actually be quite informative here. For example, at university everyone dresses conservatively. Some girls might wear skinny jeans or leggings, but most wear hijabs and long coat-dresses that seem to be one of the most popular items of clothing for women. There are also quite a few girls that wear even looser clothing as well as the full niqab. Men are also modest in dress, wearing relatively smart clothes, closed shoes, and they always wear long pants.
The more conservative girls do not speak to men they don’t know for longer than necessary (for example the guards at the gates), and there are certain rules of socialising among this group. Some guys and girls hang out together at uni, but some of my Jordanian girlfriends gave me an interesting insight into their families’ values. Sitting at a café, we saw a guy and a girl in a hijab sitting together, and then taking a selfie. My friends started laughing, quite surprised at what they said is forbidden. For them, guys and girls can’t really be friends, and you couldn’t even do what this couple did with a male cousin, in case you marry him.
Compare this to a night out. Dressed relatively conservatively (I wore jeans and a long-sleeve top), Sam and I wandered in to a swanky bar. It was filled with rich locals, and boy were they different. Girls had several layers of makeup and wore tiny skin-tight black dresses with enormous heels, some with quite scary-looking spikes on them. They all sat closer with their arms around each other, something you never see at university, and chatted drunkenly, mostly to the opposite sex. While there was a lot less PDA (thankfully) than clubs in Australia, it was a shock to see this in Amman, especially having only seen locals interacting at the much more conservative uni. Nevertheless, I don’t think Mooseheads has much of a market to exploit to over here. Pity.