Navigation, Amman

By Lisa Lester, B.A. student.

Insight from Amman, Jordan.

I smiled hesitantly at the petite girl, her arm extended expectantly, offering me a piece of cherry gum. Only her eyes were visible behind voluminous folds of thin black cloth that shielded her entire form, from her toes to the top of her head. She even wore fitted black gloves. The girl had plopped down next to me at a coffee shop I sometimes worked at, despite the copious empty cushions surrounding me. It was hard to tell if she was smiling, but her sweet, musical voice seemed the epitome of cheerfulness.

In this moment I appreciated the special privilege afforded to Western women in the Middle East, basking in the glow Jordanian hospitality in public, unexpectedly, from a woman who would almost certainly never have addressed my male friends.  She barely spoke to me after, busily typing on her laptop, frequently interrupted by her constantly ringing cellphone, blasting Rihanna’s latest single.

I had learned during my first few weeks in Amman, Jordan to stop being surprised by the frequent bursts of garish Western culture nestled comfortably amidst the sea of colorful hijabs, black and white abayas, niqabs and floor-length trench coats that dominated the visual landscape. Those hot-pink stilettos! That popped-collar Ralph Lauren polo! Coral nail polish and This Fall’s asymmetrical haircut! From tiny roadside stands to the many towering, high-end, air-conditioned malls dotting the cityscape, passersby were unceremoniously berated by a steady stream of Western material culture assaulting several senses simultaneously. The way that Jordanian women navigated this maze continuously confounded and impressed me.

My friend Maryam* had over 500 photos on Facebook, though only two of them were actually of her. One pictured her with a school group, neat rows of smiling faces without much detail. The other was a rather coy portrait featuring Maryam in a superbly arranged hijab in a deep burgundy, smiling shyly, the picture of Muslim modesty. She also displays a large number of trending Islamic memes, with Quronic quotes or adages about Ramadan. With the obligation for Islamic modesty met, the rest of the pictures covering her timeline show an assortment of Western style fashion pictures. Sultry blond women lounge on beaches in bathing suits, a brunette with a sweeping side-braid sits on a picturesque rock, the hem of her baby-doll yellow dress a full meter shorted than a Jordanian girl would dare. Maryam had selected as her profile picture a portrait of an angelic, cherub like blonde girl with tumbling Shirley Temple curls.

Maryam’s apparent infatuation with quintessentially Western fashion and internet trends seemed unfitting at first glance of the fully veiled, ostensibly well-behaved Muslim girl. During our first lunch together, however, Mayram quickly revealed that there was plenty of excitement beneath the veneer of proper Islamic etiquette. She had a secret boyfriend of more than a year, and she confided that many of her friends did, too. She had a rebellious streak, to be certain. To the horror of her friends, while watching some friends play basketball one afternoon, in a fit of hysterical giggles, she tore her hijab from her head for a brief second, simultaneously exhilarated by her boldness while quickly re-wrapping her hair. The Golden Rule of proper Jordanian behavior, she informed me, is to never, ever, ever mention taboo topics such as premarital sex or dating. Interestingly, though few would openly discuss it, the university campus was littered with young couples sitting discretely under trees or behind buildings, sitting a little too close and chatting a little too animatedly to plausibly appear as siblings (the only appropriate way that unmarried teenagers would be seen together in public).

Maryam confided that her commitment to education, and waiting to get married, are things her father understands. In this she is luckier than most, and plans to pursue marriage only after finishing her studies in Italian and English. Maryam is thus able to take advantage of the best of both worlds, maintaining her all-important honor and social standing within her family and tribe while still enjoying the guilty pleasure of trends and fashion blogs.

Jordan to me often appeared as a blurry mix between Bedouin traditions, modern pan-Islamism, and imported Western commercialism. In the women I came to know, these seemingly contradictory tendencies were displayed simultaneously, dizzyingly, and comfortably. Maryam was pleased to pick and choose the visual aspects of Western cultures that appealed to her, while willingly keeping in line with the Jordanian, Islamic social ideals and traditions that were expected of her. Was this a country in turmoil, with Western media, fashion and internet sites infiltrating and threatening the very foundations of Jordanian society?

Not at all, I decided. Jordan had long been an oasis of calm in a desert rife with conflict on nearly all sides, with a population of roughly three million Jordanians of Bedouin descent, over two million Palestinians, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and increasingly Syrian refugees who had flooded across its borders for half a century. The capital was itself in flux, with entire neighborhoods filling with Iraqis and the annual flood of several million Saudi and Emirati tourists who spend their summers basking in Amman’s relative cool. With the swirling social, political and economic turmoil that undergirds everything in Jordanian society, my two months in Amman gave me a brief glimpse of young women with every confidence in their ability to navigate this seemingly labyrinthine social and cultural landscape. I still have so much to learn.

* Names have been changed


Lisa Lester graduated in the summer of 2012 with degrees in International Studies (Middle East track) and Spanish. She also studied Arabic for three years outside of her major requirements, studying abroad in Morocco in during the summer of 2011 with a Near Eastern Languages & Civilization program.

Lisa wrote this blog post while spending the summer of 2012 in Amman, Jordan with a CIEE program approved by the UW study abroad office, and funded by a Jackson School FLAS Fellowship. She is currently living in Seattle and plans to attend Medical School in fall 2013.