As travelers, it’s always a good idea to learn about the local cultures of the countries we visit. In the Middle East, a region very different from the rest of the world, it is extremely important.
On my latest trip to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan I spent some time at Jordan Inspiration Tours, one of the leading tour companies in the country, to talk to owner Sami al Hasanat about what travelers should know about Jordanian culture.
AN EXPERT IN JORDANIAN CULTURE AND TOURISM
Sami al Hasanat has been in the tourism industry since 1993, and he founded Jordan Inspiration in 2001. Educated in the West, he has a solid understanding of both Western and Jordanian cultures.
Sami is also a former member of the Jordanian Parliament. While working on his Ph.D. in Germany in 2010, his tribe called on him to become a member of the Parliament. All Jordanians are members of tribes, and the name of Sami’s tribe is the Bani Laith. “I didn’t have a choice,” Sami says about serving in Parliament,” because I had to comply to the will of my tribe. Jordan is a tribal society. And the loyalty of the individual is an unswerving loyalty to his tribe more than any political party.” Sami served as a deputy in Parliament for the seat of Petra until 2012.
Shortly thereafter, he finished his Ph.D. in tourism and crisis managent: “Tourism, Politics, and Social Change in Petra Region, Jordan – A Community in Crisis 1994-2014.” Tourism and crisis management may sound like an odd combination, but in the Middle East they are topics which fit very well together.
THE IMPACT OF GEOGRAPHY ON JORDANIANS
Jordan is bordered by Syria (currently at war), Iraq (recently at war), and Israel (frequently at war). So although Jordan is never at war, overcoming its geographic location is a perpetual challenge for the country’s tourism industry.
“When people look at a map of Jordan, they think it is a very small place and it is impossible that it’s safe when every place is burning around it,” Sami says.
Indeed, travel to Jordan has never thrived to the extent it could if the region had a better location. Most people, although not all, do not want to travel to countries which have wars raging right across their borders.
Residents of every country in the world are affected by the region in which they live. When a country is at war, it is always a concern for their neighboring countries. Jordan hasn’t had a war in several decades, but the insecurity and instability of their neighboring countries do understandably have an impact on how the Jordanian culture thinks and feels, as it would for anyone in any country.
“Tourism is one of the most flexible fields. It’s very easy for tourists to paint everything with the same brush,” Sami says. “They think all the Middle East is insecure because of what is happening around us. But our country is a small piece of cake amongst a lot of eaters.”
If you travel to Jordan, keep in mind that Jordanians do unfortunately have some underlying tension and stress on their minds and in their lives because of their geographical position. Most people in the world never have to deal with what the Jordanian culture lives with every day. It can be hard to understand, but do be aware that their location in the world is very difficult.
THE IMPACT OF THE ARAB SPRING ON JORDANIANS
Tourism in Jordan has been in crisis since the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012 altered the region drastically. The Arab Spring was a period of several months of anti-government protests which took place in many Middle Eastern and North African countries. The people of some of these countries overthrew their governments. Protests in other countries were minor and didn’t result in any major change. The Arab Spring in Syria was completely catastrophic, morphing into the civil war which rages on still today.
Before the Arab Spring, Sami says, around 870,000 tourists traveled to Jordan every year. Now the number hovers around 200,000 and is continuing to decrease.
The war in Syria has had a huge impact on tourism. Syrians used to come in large numbers to Jordan as tourists. Now they come as refugees. As the Syrian refugees poured into Jordan, tourists from around the world poured out.
Most tourists have even abandoned Petra, which is the most popular sight in Jordan as well as Sami’s area of expertise.
Petra is a city which was carved into the mountains of southern Jordan 2,000 years ago by a nomadic tribe called the Nabateans. The tribe later migrated or fled, leaving the stone city lost and forgotten for centuries. Finally a Swiss explorer found it in 1812, and slowly the world became aware of and then fascinated by Petra. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and named one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007.
Tourism is huge business in Petra. Or was. The day I spoke with Sami, I first took a tour of Petra with his nephew and my friend Muhammad al Amrat, who is a tour guide with Sami’s company. Tour guides take turns leading people through Petra. Muhammad had to wait several hours before it was his turn because only a few tourists trickled through.
Sami blames the world media for the current state of tourism in Petra and all of Jordan. “The big exaggeration is in the media and the news. Because bad news is good news. When anything happens in the world, we [the country of Jordan] are influenced by that, affected by that.”
The long-term decline in tourism as a result of the Arab Spring means in Jordan many people’s incomes have dropped significantly. This is true not only for people in the tourism industry. Taxi drivers, shopkeepers, everyone who earned any income from tourists, have suffered. Struggling for money is stressful, and travelers to Jordan need to keep in mind that Jordanians have been dealing with this struggle for several years now.
THE IMPACT OF RELIGION ON JORDANIANS
Before traveling to Jordan, “you should read something about religion,” Sami says, “because religion is the most ticklish subject.”
Jordan is one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East. But, like all the Mid East, it is much more religious than the rest of the world.
Religion is the most important thing in the Middle East. Religion permeates the region.
Almost everyone in this part of the world is Muslim. You will hear the call to prayer ringing out from mosque loudspeakers five times a day all over the Middle East. Five times a day is the number of times Islam requires Muslim people to pray, and you may see people praying even in public. The word Allah (God in Arabic) is used constantly in everyday conversation. Alhamdullilah or thank God is the typical response to How are you. Insha’allah, which means God willing, is used in almost any situation and is probably the phrase spoken most often in the Middle East.
Religion makes the Mid East tick. This can be difficult for those of us from the outside world to understand because most of our cultures are primarily secular. At the same time, it is difficult for Middle Easterners to understand people who are not very familiar with religion. If you travel to Jordan, realize that the way the Jordanian culture thinks about religion and the way we think about religion is the most important difference between our cultures.
THE IMPACT OF SEX TOURISM AND PROSTITUTION ON JORDANIANS
How people dress in the West versus how people dress in the Middle East differs drastically.
Many travelers to the Arab world know to dress more conservatively than elsewhere because the region is primarily Muslim, and most Muslims – both women and men – dress modestly. Of course, dressing conservatively is most important for women. Most western women do not want to hear this, but this is the reality. “If a woman walks around Jordan wearing immodest clothes such as short shorts and tank tops, “that would be perceived as disrespectful,” Sami says, “to our religion, to our culture.”
The purpose for modest dress for women who travel to Jordan is not only to respect the Islamic religion and Jordanian culture but for another reason as well.
There is sex tourism and prostitution all around the world, but most people don’t associate this with the Middle East. Unfortunately, sex tourism and prostitution are not uncommon in Jordan. “There is sex tourism here, but it’s absolutely hidden,” Sami says. “It is not allowed, it’s forbidden.”
“Most women do not come here for romance,” he says. “But hundreds of women do.” There are men in Jordan who want to mess around with female tourists. Sex tourists and prostitutes who come to Jordan either in part or for the sole purpose of hooking up with local men negatively impact the mainstream female travelers who come for the normal purpose of simply exploring the country.
Because of women who travel for the purpose of sex, some men might think other legitimate, normal female tourists are there for this purpose as well.
How can local men know the difference between women who are in Jordan for romance and sex and women who are in Jordan for travel, business or any other legitimate reason? The easiest and most effective way to immediately convey your intent is by dressing modestly – simply covering cleavage, shoulders and legs. Conservative attire is what the Jordanian culture is accustomed to seeing, it is what they understand, and it will help greatly in erasing any ambiguity in anyone’s minds.
It is no fun to be mistaken for a prostitute or a sex tourist anywhere in the world. It is far better to cover up a bit in Jordan than to be harassed by men who are confused about what you want and what kind of traveler you are.
CULTURAL DISSONANCE AND JORDANIANS
The primary underlying issue behind all of the above is the cultural dissonance that exists between the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Cultural dissonance is an uncomfortable sense of discord, disharmony, confusion, or conflict experienced by people in the midst of change in their cultural environment.
The values, beliefs, and behaviors of the Western world are extremely different from that of the Arab world. It can be so difficult for our two worlds to understand each other.
At home, of course, we don’t pay attention to Arab news and television or listen to Arab music. Likewise, neither do the people of the Middle East have much exposure to our news programs, television or music. People naturally gravitate towards the media that they understand.
It is human nature to surround ourselves with what is comfortable and relatable to us, so this is what we do.
Once we’re inside of a country very different from our own it’s not an ideal time to begin finding out from scratch what it’s all about. Guided tours can provide an informative introduction to local cultures so that interactions can flow pretty smoothly. If you are a solo traveler or traveling with people also new to the region, the ways of the Arab world can be a bit of a shock.
Unfortunately there is almost nowhere to turn to learn the kind of information that is really important for travelers to know about Jordanian culture and other Middle Eastern cultures. But many Jordanians do wish tourists would learn about their culture before they come, in order to avoid misunderstandings.
“Our guests [tourists] should be prepared by the Jordanian Embassy in their countries, they should be prepared by tour companies,” Sami says. “They should be informed of our culture to avoid any clash.”
Some travelers contact Sami’s tour company before traveling to Jordan to ask what it’s like, what the people are like, what they can expect. While I talked with Sami, Muhammad and several other tour guides sat at their desks focused on answering emails from future tourists.
“We became more tolerant of other cultures because of tourists. Now tourists need to become more tolerant of the cultures of the countries they visit,” Sami says.
Certain Jordanians in the tour business learn about foreign cultures from Sami. At Al-Hussein bin Talal University near Petra he teaches tour guides about behaviors and types of communication they can expect from the people of different cultures visiting Jordan. “That helps us avoid many conflicts or clashes between the tour guide and the tourist.” However, Jordanians not in the tourism industry don’t take these courses and, like most travelers to the country, haven’t learned about cultural differences. “With ordinary people [not in tourism] you can’t control this,” Sami says.
Disconnection from other countries and cultures is a problem all over the world. Most of us know nothing about Jordanian culture or cultures from anywhere in the world from the perspective of the people native to those regions.
We have our perspectives. They have their perspectives. Our perspectives are not right or wrong. Their perspectives are not right or wrong. They are just perspectives.
“Be open minded,” Sami says. “If you see something you dislike or something unfamiliar to you, do not try to fix it, because that’s the way it is. It might be wrong in your culture, but on the other side it might be absolutely right from their own perspective.”
If you decide to travel to Jordan, remember that the Jordanian culture is very different from you in many ways for many reasons. The better we as travelers understand and accept the people of cultures very different from ours, the more we can enjoy our travels and the more we can accurately understand the world.
Written by: Sabina Lohr