What is the question I have received most regarding my trip to the Middle East? “Did you ever feel threatened?” That question generally took on 3 contexts – 1) Did I come across a terrorist or extremist, 2) How did the people feel about me being an American, 3) Did the events we see on the news carry over into Jordan?
Asking if I came across any terrorists is like asking a visitor to America if they came across a white supremacist. We know they are out there, but they are such a small part of the actual population that the chances of coming across one is very small. Coincidentally, who do Jordanians think they will run into if they visit the states? The Mafia. They have the same source of information we do – TV. Jordanians think the shows they watch on satellite TV are a microcosm of America. Based on that, it looks to an outsider like our society is full of crime, and organized crime. It doesn’t help that America is providing them with the perspective they have on our society. How could they think differently if they don’t travel to the US and find out for themselves? No, I did not see a terrorist, an extremist, or even a protester in Jordan. I did meet countless wonderful Jordanians who were just trying to have a nice, peaceful existence, and were very interested in trying to understand me better.
What about being an American in Jordan? Did that work against me? Americans are often shocked at how much military presence we see in other countries. Jordan has quite a military presence. You might get randomly stopped along the road, and asked what you are doing in that area. The trunk of your vehicle will be searched when you enter any parking structures in Amman. This is to avoid any Oklahoma City kinds of bombings. Did I feel singled out? Yes. I felt I was given the royal treatment by all military and security personnel. When they saw my passport, or saw that I was an American, I was expedited or moved to the front of the line. The message was clear – I was a guest in their country, and I was not the problem.
I also think there is a large military presence because Jordan has a problem with unemployment. A normal rate of unemployment is 20% in that country, and it often gets above 30%. In my opinion King Abdullah is doing what he can to keep his people working, and to help them retain their dignity. This is also why we had to see 6 people and get 4 signatures at the post office just to pick up 1 package. On that note, you will not see beggars in the streets. The poor will sell you something, maybe as little as a box of tissue, but they will not beg. They would rather starve than degrade their sense of honor.
Remember also that up until 1999, when King Hussein succumbed to cancer, Queen Noor served along side King Hussein. She was American-born, and made a wonderful ambassador on behalf of us, and to this day is beloved by the Jordanian people. She released an autobiography in 2004, which many Americans would find quite eye opening.
Last is the question of whether events from other parts of the region spilled over into Jordan. At the time we were in Amman, there was a political uprising in Tehran over the recent presidential election. The distance from Amman to Tehran is about the same distance from Seattle to Los Angeles, and in between the two is Iraq. So what about Iraq? The distance from Amman to Baghdad is about the same as the distance from Detroit to New York, with a lot of open, waterless desert in between. In addition, back in 2003, when the US led invasion of Iraq was about to start, those Iraqis who had the means got out. Many of them relocated to Amman, which has always set itself up as a haven for those who are threatened in their own homeland. The Iraqis are grateful to Jordan for being so willing to take on this extra burden, which only caused a strain on the resources of Jordan at the time.
What about the events in the West Bank, which does run up against Jordan? Back in 1967 when Israel won their war against Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine, many Palestinians fled to Amman. Today, around 50% of the residents of Amman are Palestinian. Jordan was the only nation to give Palestinians citizenship after these events. In the 1990’s, Jordan became the second country in the region to sign a peace treaty with Israel, and to recognize Israel as a sovereign nation, at great cost to their relationships with other countries in the region (Egypt was the first to do this in the 1970’s). Because of this delicate balance, Jordan is seen as a friend to both Israel and Palestine, which makes it a target of neither.
I will end by pointing out that I saw a lot of Christians in Amman, and particularly Madaba (33% of its 250,000 people are Christian). Jordan’s 7 million people are only about 6% Christian, but I felt I was running into them everywhere. This is not something you will see portrayed in the news. In addition, I did visit several mosques, and I did talk with Muslims about faith. Never did I feel like I was supposed to convert to Islam or leave behind my Christian beliefs. Instead, I was treated like a brother in the faith. Muslims call Jews and Christians “children of the Book.” The Book being the Torah or Bible, and since we share so many of the same prophets as Islam, we are considered believers if we adhere to the faith as it was given in our holy book. Again, I feel the media portrayal of Muslims is skewed in this regard. Because of this, I encourage people to reach out to Muslims in your own community, and just try to understand them better. I also recommend visiting a Muslim country, where your eyes will be opened to more than you ever imagined.