An interview with Haley Barbour, a student from Drake University who studied abroad and participated in service-learning with ISA in Amman, Jordan.
My name is Haley Barbour. I am going into my junior year at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. At Drake I study Political Science and International Relations. My region of focus is the Middle East. In my free time I watch a lot of sports, spend time with my friends and sorority sisters, and hang out with my little sister in Big Brothers Big Sisters.
I knew that I wanted to spend the spring semester of my sophomore year abroad. Being in the Middle East was ideal for my Arabic and my International Relations major. I began researching countries and programs. I quickly found out that Jordan was one of the last places you can study right now. So once I narrowed in on Jordan I looked into different programs. I ended up deciding on ISA because of the opportunity to do Service-Learning along with school. I knew that I wanted to venture out of my comfort zone and engage with the community. The ability to get credit for the Service-Learning really sealed the deal for me.
The best way to get around Amman is by taxi. They are more expensive than buses, but much more reliable. While I did hear stories of taxi drivers being inappropriate, I was never in a situation that made me uncomfortable. The most annoying part was the occasional driver asking if I was married or had a boyfriend. Most of the time I just answered yes. Otherwise, I found that the taxi drivers were an excellent resource to practice Arabic, especially Ammiya (the dialect spoken in Jordan).
Talk to us about language and classes. Did you go abroad knowing any Arabic? Did you take any interesting classes?
I had taken three semesters of Arabic before going to Jordan. I had no experience with Ammiya, the only dialect I knew was Egyptian. I only took Arabic for half the semester, and spent more time at the NGO the other half. The combination of living in Jordan and Arabic classes really helped improve my Arabic. Out of my other classes my favorite two were Arab Israeli Politics and U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East. Arab Israeli Politics was fascinating. The professor does an excellent job portraying both narratives, and it was especially interesting for me to get the Palestinian perspective on the conflict. It was so beneficial that I could take what we were learning in class and speak to almost anyone in Amman about their family’s experience. I liked U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East because of the specific focus on the region I was studying. We also got into some pretty entertaining debates about issues that are so multisided.
There are so many images and stereotypes of people from the Middle East in popular Western media. What was it like interacting with the people in the city? What can you say about the stereotypes that many Americans hold to?
The week I was leaving for Jordan, King Abdullah declared war on ISIS. So while dealing with my own fear, all of my family members were calling to confirm that I had cancelled my trip. I was determined to go and learn about this culture and this region that the US is going to continue to be intimately intertwined with for the foreseeable future. Once I actually arrived in Amman–through a sandstorm I might add–I could see that the perception was nothing compared to reality. From the airport to our apartment I saw car dealerships, fast food restaurants, banks, corporate buildings, gas stations, skyscrapers, and anything else I would have expected landing in the capital of any European city. The architecture and landscape are different, but all the basics are there.
I think the most striking thing that I found while interacting with people was despite everything happening in the Middle East the people in Jordan were just trying to live their lives. They want to be successful in their jobs and in school. They want their neighborhoods to be safe, and their grocery stores stocked. Maybe the easiest to relate to is the parents, they love their children the same way everyone else does. What I found from the group of friends I made was that Americans are extremely welcomed. People were constantly inviting me out and to their homes. When I finally asked, my friend told me that he “loved Americans, and loved America,” he wanted to live here one day, “but he hated American foreign policy.” That was the sentiment I got from almost everyone I met. That ability to separate people from policy is something I believe a lot of Americans could stand to learn.
When I was speaking to my Arabic teacher about the treat ISIS posed she told me she had no idea what she would do. Her family does not have dual citizenship anywhere. She would have nowhere to go, just like the countless Syrians and Iraqis dying every day. I thought a lot about what it must be like to live in Jordan, Israel or Kuwait or the other surrounding countries and fear for what could very literally happen in a day. As Americans we don’t face such a constant threat of war at the hands of people that don’t even follow natural laws let alone the rules of engagement or international law.
As far as stereotypes, I didn’t find them to be true. I found Muslims to be people of faith and good character. I also found Jordan to be extremely tolerant of other religions and ideas. There were churches next to mosques and night clubs and bars downtown. That is not to say that there aren’t bad people, and bad governments throughout the Middle East, but anyone watching the news in America can find bad people at home too.
1. People don’t smile at each other on the street in Amman, it easily identifies you as an American.
2. Separate checks at restaurants do not exist.
3. Water is extremely valuable and running out. Using a lot is wasteful.
4. Don’t plan to do much of Fridays. It is the Muslim holy day, prayer is longer and during prayer nothing is open. Also, the call to prayer happens five times a day every day at every mosque in the city.
5. People hang dry all of their clothes, there are no clothes dryers.
Many students and their parents are asking about safety in Amman. How did the ISA Staff prepare you? What, if anything, changed about your daily life when you moved to Jordan?
Amman is a very safe city. I was nervous as a woman and the ISA staff held a webinar before we left to address what life was like for western women living in Amman. We also talked about safety once we got to Amman during orientation. There are more men out at might then women, but in Amman it is not uncommon to see women out, some Jordanian women, but mostly foreign women. Safety was common sense, the same rules I follow at home. I didn’t go out by myself at night. I was always with friends. A lot changed in my daily life. I drive everywhere at home, in Jordan I walked or took taxis. In Jordan I spent very little time on campus, I was mostly just there for classes. I also got really good at hand gestures since my Arabic was far from fluent.
So did you have to cover your head? Can you explain the changes you made to your wardrobe and your thoughts about dress?
I did not ever have to cover my head. Some of the women in our program who were not Muslims themselves choose to cover their heads at times to blend in more. I did dress more conservatively that I normally would at home. I wore pants and capris and had my shoulders covered when I was out of the apartment. It was cold most of the time I was in Jordan, so the wardrobe really didn’t bother me. It’s important to know that you can wear shorts and tank tops if you want, but I made the choice not to because I already stood out enough. There is no government-mandated dress like other countries, so what I chose to follow were simply the cultural norms.
Besides our ISA excursions, I spent most of my time in Amman. There is a lot to do in the city. The British and French institutes have public lectures weekly on a wide variety of issues. I had a group of friends that all lived in the city, so they took me to their favorite places. I went to a food festivals, rooftop lounges, outdoor shopping festivals, art gallery openings, the mall (Taj was my favorite) and the movies. The weekly events that we get emailed to us are so helpful in finding restaurants and events to go to. I ate at The Lettuce & The Fish a lot. It was my favorite restaurant in Amman.
Why should students choose Jordan?
Jordan is a perfect place to become introduced to the Middle East. Amman is a Middle Eastern city with some western perks thrown in. It is more “traditional” than a city like Dubai. But I was able to see movies in English and go to Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, and American restaurants. Jordan also gives you easy access to cultural landmarks like Petra, Wadi Rum, and Mount Nebo. It’s also easy to travel to Israel, which is such an opportunity to learn about the Arab Israeli conflict. Turkey, Oman, and Europe are all accessible in Jordan, as long as you don’t mind a short plane ride.