Navigating Jordan

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat


In September 2002, my husband and I spent ten days in Jordan. For him, it was a business trip; for me, vacation. In preparation we bought Lonely Planet Jordan and took our linen shirts and sandals out of storage. But I spent more time than usual reassuring my parents that I would be careful. And on the advice of the State Department, I applied for a second passport–limited in use and duration, purely for the Jordan trip–because my passport bears Israeli stamps. We flew via Amsterdam, where I used my “real” passport. In Amman, I secreted that one in my waist-pouch and withdrew the new one instead. The subterfuge felt exciting, a little bit like James Bond.

The one piece of advice Ethan’s employers offered was, “Don’t tell anyone you’re American.” We would inevitably stand out as Westerners, but we were advised to claim Canadian citizenship if anyone asked. And my family hinted that I shouldn’t be obvious about being Jewish, either. I wasn’t sure what that meant. I don’t usually wear a mogen David (star of David). But did they mean that I should pretend to be Christian, as my husband is? Would that make me “safer,” or was this whole line of reasoning paranoid?

It was already clear, in those days, that President Bush would attack Jordan’s neighbor Iraq. There was some comfort in the notion of claiming to be Canadian–it absolved us of responsibility for, and connection with, our nation’s foreign policies. But another part of me resented our plan to lie. Wouldn’t it be good for international understanding if even a few Jordanians met a self-identified interfaith American couple who openly disagreed with American policy? Couldn’t that help prove there’s more to America, and to Judaism, than the monolith they see in the news?

I had promised my parents that I would hook up with a tour once I got to Amman, but I had no intention of following through. I like exploring at my own pace. I did find a guide for my first day, though: an out-of-work Palestinian teacher named Rebhe. He greeted me at the ruins of the Citadel downtown when I got out of the taxicab, held up his ID, and asked if I wanted a guide; I said sure.

Rebhe left the West Bank in 1967, married a Jordanian woman, and has lived in Amman ever since. He explained the archaeology of the ruins downtown. He took me through the hidden vegetable market: a riot of grapes, pomegranates, and sheaves of dates still on the branch. And he took me to the King Abdullah mosque, where I rented a robe and doffed my sandals to step inside and marvel at the gilded calligraphy. Rebhe read me some of the different names for God; I caught ar-rakhman, and without thinking made a linguistic leap from foreign to familiar. “Just like Hebrew: Ha-rakhaman, The Merciful,” I said.

Instantly I regretted it. Would Rebhe react badly? Would he resent my Jewishness, blame me for Israeli policy? But my fears were unfounded. “Yes, exactly,” he said, smiling, and went on to point out something else. How . . . happily anticlimactic.

On day two, I explored the city on my own, braving the thick traffic of Amman’s many rotaries. I wandered downtown amidst rug merchants and sellers of tin pots. I bargained with a Palestinian vendor for a child’s embroidered dress; before I knew it he had sent a messenger boy for hot mint tea, and had engaged me in conversation about my family. I held up a hand to show how tall my niece is, and he told me he has a daughter about that size. Without thinking, again, I said my niece lives in Boston. Whoops! I was supposed to pretend to be Canadian! But the man beamed: “Your first trip to Jordan? Welcome! More tea! I have a sister in Chicago, do you know Chicago?” So much for the need to hide my nationality.

In the evenings, when Ethan got off work, we walked around the city together. I showed him the Roman ampitheatre, lit by the orange glow of street lights, and he bought me a vial of custom-blended perfume from a street vendor without a single word of shared language. I told him stories about my days: the adventure of taking a bus to Jerash, getting lost on foot in Madaba. He told me stories about his: discovering tech culture at a range of Jordanian start-ups, trying to figure out how his nonprofit could work with Jordanian businesses.

Muslims and Christians work together in the tech sector without batting an eyelash, he said. Interfaith cooperation seems to be the norm. One day Ethan met with the man behind a new Arabic-language search engine. “What if I sent you a Jewish colleague to help with your project?” he asked. “That would be great!” the man enthused. “We could talk about linguistics, make our search engine work in Hebrew, too!” Not exactly the reaction we’d been warned to expect.

Jordanian society is clearly stratified by class, education, and culture in ways I could only barely grasp. The visible range was dazzling. I saw businesswomen in pinstriped short-skirt suits; I saw merchant women in chadors selling cigarettes. I assumed most people I saw were (Sunni) Muslim, and that was probably true. But 6 percent of Jordanians are Christians, and 2 percent are “other” (Druze and Shi’a Muslim). About a quarter of the population is Palestinian. My unskilled eye couldn’t gauge who was whom. But everyone I met was friendly, even (or especially) once they found out where I was from.

One night, Ethan and I went to the Al-Sendebad coffee shop, on the roof of a cement-block building, atop four darkened flights of stairs. We were the only Westerners there, and I the only woman. We ordered sweet mint tea; we smoked molasses-scented tobacco in a nargil (water pipe). Around us, men in checkered keffiyyahs played backgammon, smoked, and talked on their cell phones. Again, we told our waiter where we were from. Again, we were met with delight. Not many Americans travel in Jordan these days, and we appeared to have gained the eternal affection of everyone we met, just for showing up.

Ethan and I experienced travel in Jordan differently. Because he was working and I was playing; because of our gender (pressing against strangers on a crowded bus was different for me than for him); and because of the baggage our two faiths give us. Although Christian/Muslim violence does happen (think Philippines, Nigeria, Indonesia, Bosnia and Turkey), in the Middle East the troubles are between Arabs and Israelis: largely Muslims and Jews. (Lebanon may be the exception to that rule.) Our expectations and experiences of travel in Jordan were colored by our different religious traditions and our different relationships to the State of Israel. We had different expectations of prejudice (as crystallized in my parents’ suggestion that I play down my Jewishness) . . . but beyond that, Jordan made me aware of my own unconscious fears, which I trace to prevailing attitudes in mainstream American Judaism.

I don’t think of myself as a racist. But it’s hard to grow up Jewish in America without internalizing some fear of Arabs, Palestinians in particular. I don’t think most American Christians have those fears. I don’t want to be prejudiced, and before this trip I would have said that I was not, but my surprise at the friendliness of the Jordanians and Palestinians I met strikes me as proof of the prejudices I didn’t know I had.

On our last day there, Ethan took the day off and we went for a float in the Dead Sea. I had been in the Sea before, on the Israeli side, so I knew what to expect: the bitter water that stings cuts and abrasions, the weird sensation of floating at the top of water that doesn’t quite feel wet. But neither of us had bargained for our driver insisting that we experience the sea his way: instead of paying for towels and showers at a spa hotel, we went to a local beach where Jordanians and Palestinians relaxed under tents made out of black tarps, and where all the other women swimming were fully dressed.

I had my last moment of fear there. I was wearing a conservative aqua tank suit, but my limbs were exposed, and I couldn’t submerge them underwater. What if I offended someone . . . ?

Three fully dressed women splashed slowly over to us, one carrying a toddler in her arms, but when they got within ten feet, they broke into smiles. “Welcome to Jordan! Where are you from?” “America,” I said, and they smiled even wider.

“Welcome to Jordan, from America,” they said.


About Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, ordained by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, MA. Since 2003 she has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Her most recent book is 70 faces (Phoenicia Publishing, 2011), a collection of Torah poems.