Sharing Bedouin Tea in Jordan's Dana Biosphere Reserve

Sharing Bedouin Tea with guide Mohammed Difalla and shepherd Muhammad Aoran in Dana Biosphere Reserve

The Country of Jordan, the Middle East & Our Culture of Fear

 

“Shukran.” If there’s one Arabic word you absolutely must learn before visiting Jordan, this is it. It means “thank you,” and it will come in handy dozens of times every day, because the Jordanians are an EXTREMELY generous people.

 

We learned the word (and so much more) from our exceptional guide, Ali Abudayeh, on our first day in the country. Ali, a charmingly laid-back 20-something from the town of Az Zarqa, would always respond to our gratitude with a warm smile, saying “You are most welcome.” Which, in our experience, could very well be Jordan’s official tourism slogan.

 

In the travel business, Jordan is renowned for its forward-thinking social media strategies and eagerness to work with bloggers. But, to those outside our sphere, it’s just another country in the Middle East– a region the corporate news media frequently portrays as hostile, fraught with turmoil and violently opposed to Western culture in general and America in particular.

 

When we announced we were heading there, we received numerous messages from friends and family concerned that we were putting ourselves in an inherently dangerous situation. But, after 10 days in Jordan (many of which were spent very near the borders of countries such as Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), I can honestly say that I felt safer and more welcomed there than I often do back home in America.

 

Having lunch in a typical Jordanian home

Having lunch in the Jordanian home of Tahseen Amer

 

We could all take a few tips from Jordanians when it comes to hospitality. Ali explained a Bedouin tradition in which, if a stranger lands on your doorstep, you’re expected to provide food, water and shelter for 3 days, with no questions asked. On the third day, they ask how they can help you: if they can help, they’re obligated to do so, but if not they send you on your way. Though the Jordan Tourism Board ensured that we never lacked for anything, we nonetheless found the nation’s citizens to be remarkably gracious hosts.

 

On our second day in the country, we stopped for lunch at the home of Tahseen Amer in the town of Azraq, right down the street from the black basalt fort where Lawrence of Arabia famously stayed during the Arab Revolt of the early 20th century. As we sat on colorful floor cushions and dined on Kabseh (a chicken and rice dish with almonds and black pepper), we learned that Jordan has a remarkably open immigration policy for refugees from the conflicts in Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, and that Amer’s family was of Syrian and Lebanese descent.

 

Amer was full of nationalist and religious pride, with Jordanian flags, quotes from the Koran and photos of Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein on the walls of his living room. But unlike American nationalism, which can often feel like exclusionary “We’re #1!” braggadocio, Jordanian pride seems to come from a place of welcoming communal spirit. Wherever you go, you’re made to feel like a member of the family.

 

With our guide, Ali Abudayeh, above the Treasury in Petra

With our guide, Ali Abudayeh, above the Treasury in Petra

 

Arguably our favorite of Jordan’s cultural traditions was Bedouin tea, which takes the British notion of “tea time” to a whole different level. Where in America you might meet someone new and immediately exchange business cards, in Jordan it seemed as if everyone you meet offers you tea in the spirit of fellowship.

 

We had Bedouin tea spiced with fresh mint at the ancient Roman ruins of Jerash. We drank tea and smoked “Hubbly Bubbly” (flavored tobacco) from a hookah with a young Bedouin named Maher al-Bdool at the top of a mountain overlooking the famous Treasury in Petra. We even drank Bedouin tea with sage cooked over an open fire in the middle of the Dana Biosphere Reserve, where our naturalist guide Mohammed Difalla ran into a shepherd friend of his father’s named Muhammad Aoran.

 

Even the poorest of Bedouins seemed to have tea-making supplies on hand at all times, and one of our favorite Jordan memories is of playing with Aoran’s donkey, drinking tea and sharing snacks (he had pita bread, we had protein bars and apples) in the shade from the harsh midday desert sun, miles from any signs of civilization.

 

Horse carriage ride in Petra, Jordan

Catching a ride from Petra guide Abdallah Al Hassant

 

There is this terrible, often-perpetuated notion that people in the Middle East hate Americans, but in Jordan we found people were delighted to learn we were from the U.S. and eager to engage in open-minded discussions about life, culture, politics, religion and any other subject we cared to bring up.

 

Jordanians are highly educated– nearly everyone we met spoke English fluently– and spoke of their issues with their own government just as a readily as we spoke of issues with the regrettable foreign policies of the Bush era. They spoke honestly of their issues with those policies, but clearly blamed the politicians and not the American people. And, for what it’s worth, their opinions of America in general seemed to have improved greatly with President Barack Obama in office.

 

Even people who had no idea we were journalists, from shop owners and fellow travelers to Petra horse carriage guide Abdallah Al Hassant, greeted the revelation that we were Americans with warm smiles (Al Hassant even offered us a discount on our previously agreed-upon price for a ride to the Petra entrance). They seemed impressed that American travelers would venture to the Middle East, and genuinely curious about our lives, customs and impressions of Jordan.

 

Sunset in the desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan

Sunset in Wadi Rum with Ali and Desert Guide Hasan Zawaideh

 

Everywhere we went, Jordanians were eager to extend a hand of welcome and peace, providing a stark contrast to the culture of fear propagated by the mass media and the corporations/politicians who stand to benefit most from continued military action in the region (war, after all, is EXTREMELY profitable). Much like sharks, wolves and any other number of species that have been demonized by Western mythology over the centuries, the Middle Easterners we met exhibited absolutely no animosity or aggression towards us; only curiosity and a willingness to engage where mutual respect was on offer.

 

Thanks to the increased financial burden of refugees and lower tourism revenues, the nation’s economy has been hit extremely hard by the Middle East instability surrounding last year’s Arab Spring uprisings. There’s no doubt they would greatly benefit from more open-minded Americans exploring their country. And, with more than 50% of Jordan’s population made up of Palestinians, they could seriously benefit from a bit more political support from the U.S. as well.

 

But, even if you leave sociopolitical and economic ramifications out of the discussion, the conclusion we came away with after 10 days in Jordan is that more Westerners should really visit this amazing Middle Eastern paradise. Not only for the impressive historical, cultural and ecological tourism offerings it offers, but for the warm spirit of its people. We’ll be talking about these offerings in detail over the next few months, sharing a few of our favorite stories, photos and videos from our time there.  In the meantime, we urge every American to reconsider what they think they know about the Middle East. –Bret Love

56 Responses to The Country of Jordan, the Middle East & Our Culture of Fear

  • Albena says:

    This is amazing! Jordan has always been my dream destination (almost exclusively becuse of Petra), but this makes me want to see and explore it more in depth :)

    • It really is worth exploring in depth. Hotspots like Jerash, Petra and the Dead Sea are, of course, awesome. But we really enjoyed exploring the mountain forests of the Ajlou and Dibeen Reserves, the wetland marshes of Azraq, the ancient Desert Castles, the waterfalls at Wadi Mujib, and snorkeling the Red Sea in Aqbar. It’s incredible to see such a small country with so much biodiversity!

  • Such a great article and it makes me even more excited about going to Jordan tomorrow!

    • Thanks, Cate! Let us know if you’d like any insider tips while you’re there. We’d highly recommend seeing some of the lesser-known sites such as the Azraq Wetlands, Desert Castles, Wadi Mujib, etc.

  • Mary says:

    I am so glad you had such a wonderful experience and that you have this platform to encourage people out of their fear state!

    In all my travels I have yet to meet a person against Americans, even when they were staunchly against American policy. Nice to hear first hand that the same is true in he Middle East!

  • Andrea says:

    Wonderful description of Jordan – we loved it there too!

    • Thanks, Andrea! Seems like everyone who’s been there comes back raving about it. Wish it would get more attention from mainstream media in America. They really do deserve the economic boost increased tourism revenues could bring.

  • Beth says:

    I have spent considerable time in Jordan, and had many similar experiences when telling friends or family I was going to the Middle East. I love Jordan and it has really become my second homeland. I loved it so much I married a man from there! I am going back this summer to start work on my Thesis, and I cannot wait to get back over there!

  • Loved reading this post. While I haven’t been to Jordan, this summarizes my experiences in many countries – the perceptions from the media aren’t the same as real life experiences. So glad to see that the people of Jordan are friendly and welcoming. This doesn’t surprise me at all. Frankly, I abhor politics and try and stay out of all discussions so I will refrain from any comments on that aspect. However, I love connecting with the people and it seems the Jordanian people love connecting with tourists.

    • It’s funny, we actually wound up having quite a few political discussions during our time in Jordan. About U.S.-Middle East relations. About the forthcoming elections in the U.S. About how more than 1/2 of Jordanians are from Palestine, and the ongoing struggle their homeland has with Israel. About the fighting in Syria and Libya, and their impact on Jordan. So while I understand wanting to stay out of politics, be willing and able to talk openly about it allowed us to find great common ground with people, which allowed us to establish deeper personal bonds.

  • We’ve been really glad to see travel bloggers covering Jordan, as, like your piece, the coverage reveals so many positive aspects of travel in Jordan. It is so important for all of our smaller, independent media outlets to push against the fear-mongering mass media coverage of ‘the Middle East’ as this singular, scary place. Enjoyed this piece a lot!

    • Thanks, Jess. Just wish America had more open-minded travelers who were willing to see and experience things for themselves instead of trusting every single sensationalistic news item spoonfed to them by mass media.

  • Ava Apollo says:

    I’ve heard so many good things about Jordan now. I think I’m going to have to go…

  • Wouldn’t it be great if everyone who had a fear of the Middle East visited there for just one day. I’d say every single person would change their views of the area. So glad you had such a great time. I travelled through Israel, Egypt and Jordan on my first solo backpacking trip years ago and I can truly say it was one of the best times of my life. Such beautiful people.

    • Yeah, that would be an awesome cultural exchange program! That’s why we always encourage everyone to travel more, and to step outside their comfort zone as often as possible once they do.

  • Great photos, looks like you visited some stunning places. I have heard the people of Jordan are very friendly, its great to hear you felt really welcome and safe there. Jordan has always be on my list so it was nice to read about it.

  • Angela says:

    Seriously, this propaganda thing that in the Middle East they hate Westerners is just this, a propaganda thing. How sad. I’ve been to different Mideast countries, I’m yet to meet someone who hates me.

    • I’m guessing there are some people somewhere in the Middle East who DO hate Westerners, just as there are people in America who genuinely do hate Middle Easterners. But I do not believe that these fanatics are anywhere near a majority. Unfortunately, the few bad apples (like the moron who made “The Innocence of Muslims”) have a way of ruining it for everyone.

  • what really stops me from exploring this part of the world is my security. We heard it over the news how chaotic middle east is and after reading your post i realized that Jordan is still safe after all. Hope to visit Petra and explore Jordan soon.

  • Natalie says:

    I get Americans asking me the same questions about Turkey. Are they going to be safe? Does it make a difference they are American? Must be horrible to think those things. The more we bridge the gap the better. At the end of the day people are people and 99.9% of us are just trying our best to exist in harmony.

  • Angie Away says:

    Aww looks like y’all had an amazing trip! I loved Jordan, too – some of the warmest, friendliest people in the world. Can’t wait to hear more about it!

    • Thanks, Angie! It was truly amazing, especially seeing the forested areas of Ajloun, the wetlands of Azraq and the majestic canyons of Wadi Mujib. We didn’t know much about those areas before we went, so it was great to see so many different ecosystems in such a relatively small country.

  • Audrey says:

    I loved reading about your experiences there. It’s nice seeing someone talk about the genuine hospitality and the interactions they had with locals, as opposed to just covering the attractions. :)

    • Thank you, Audrey. We usually spend a lot more time on our own, out in the middle of nowhere on our travels. But everywhere we went in Jordan there was lots of socialization, and that ultimately wound up being one of our favorite things about the trip!

  • Andrea says:

    It’s sad that people lump the entire Middle East together and don’t understand how varied the people there are

    • Agreed. But I think the same could be said for some people in the Middle East and their opinions of the U.S. Sadly, I don’t think closed-mindedness knows any geographical boundaries.

  • Ali says:

    I would love to go to Jordan someday. It seems like such a fascinating country, and I love hearing about how warm and friendly the people are. It’s so sad how many people are afraid to travel to certain countries because the media portrays those countries as dangerous. Most of the world is not as scary or dangerous as we are led to believe.

    • It’s funny: After reading so many different bloggers posting about Jordan last year, you’d think we’d have seen and heard everything there is to know about Jordan travel. But we saw and experienced so many incredible things that surprised us, it’s really exciting to be able to share it with you guys!

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  • Yet another example (in addition to Vietnam, Pakistan, etc) of people who are able to understand the difference between a government’s actions and the merits of that country’s citizens who much each be considered individually, not as some sort of extension of his or her government. If only US citizens could extend the same courtesy to citizens of countries whose governments we may not agree with.

    • It’s so true. Just last night I sat down at a friend’s birthday party with a group of people who asked me if traveling was scary, and wasn’t I afraid of those people in the Middle East. It just goes to show that the small-mindedness expressed by so many U.S. politicians if reflective of our populace, and it’s a shame that people like that have made this an increasingly divisive country to live in.

  • Laurence says:

    It’s amazing how different a country can be to our perceptions, or what we have read in the mainstream media. People are usually just welcoming and kind. Travel is so awesome for breaking down these fears and getting the real story behind the headlines. Delighted you had a great time!

    • Thanks, Laurence! I think a lot of credit must go to Jordan’s Tourism Board for reaching out to bloggers like us and extending invitations to visit and write about their country. They have a very progressive approach to marketing that reflects their progressive approach to international relations. Wish more countries would follow their lead, on both counts…

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  • This is what Middle Easter “People” need! Also , it’s what exactly people in travel business need to survive. As a tour guide who has got several clients from North Europe, North America and Australia, I tell you that I’m leaving to guide a group in a few days time although many think Iran isn’t a safe place to travel to!!

    Rahman Mehraby
    Destination Iran Tours & Travel

    • Rahman, glad you liked our post. We feel that travel is a great way for people of different cultures and backgrounds to meet, share their unique perspectives, and hopefully gain a deeper understand of the things that unite and divide us all. I’m not sure we’d feel comfortable traveling to Iran anytime soon, but if we do, we’ll definitely look you up!

  • Katie says:

    It’s nice to hear you had such a good time in Jordan! I spent 7 weeks living in Madaba, Jordan back in 2004 as an archaeologist. I fell in love with the country then and found the Jordanian people to be some of the friendliest and most welcoming I have ever met. I hope to make it back some day :)

    Cheers

    • That’s fascinating, Katie! Would love to hear more about your experiences as an archaeologist there. Seems like it would be a dream destination for someone in your field. We made it to Madaba towards the end of our trip, and will have a post about that coming up in just a few weeks. Thanks for reading!

  • Thanks so much for this post – we need to see more articles like this published in order to break down some of the ridicuolous biases that people have towards other cultures

  • Turtle says:

    Fantastic story. I don’t think you really understand a country until you go there and experience it for yourself. It must have been really nice to hear what the people had to say about the US. Hopefully you’re able to now return the favour and tell people back in America how wonderful the Jordanians were to you.

    • Agreed, Michael! A friend of ours last night suggested we should visit her native home of Lebanon, and we had such a great time in Jordan that we’re considering it if we can find a way to fund our travels. Loved the Middle East!

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  • Cameron Landels says:

    This was a great article to read in my opinion. I currently live in Jordan and the Jordanian people are welcoming and friendly towards me! :-) I hope more Westerners will take a trip to Jordan – it has so much to offer.

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Co-Founded by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett, Green Global Travel is an ecotourism, nature / wildlife conservation & cultural preservation magazine. More about us.

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