In March of 2010 I had the great luck to journey to the Middle East and visit Jordan, while acting as a group leader for the student exchange organization Middle East Excursion, along with nineteen other university students from America and Germany. The purpose of this exchange was to breakdown stereotypes between western and middle eastern cultures. It was an unbelievably enriching personal and educational experience, full of touching moments, unforgettable faces, and memories that changed the way I perceive Middle Eastern cultures.
My journey began at Denver International Airport on a Sunday evening along with one other participant of the excursion from Denver. Filled with excitement and anticipation, we prepared ourselves for what would be a twenty four hour long day of travel and boarded the plane.
A day later we were descending on Amman, Jordan at two in the morning, seeing the city lights from above, not knowing what to expect or who was picking us up. The landing at Queen Alia Airport went smoothly and suddenly we were on the ground, in Amman, in the Middle East, looking for two guides holding a sign that read Middle East Excursion. We spotted them immediately and were greeted with warm welcomes and smiling faces by two men named Abu Rashed and Fuhad.
We received our visas without any problems and headed to the car, taking our first step into unexplored territory for us and glimpsing Amman and Jordan for the first time. We piled into the car with Abu Rashed and Fuhad and zooming through the night, felt the thrill of the two weeks that lay ahead of us.
The first few days were full of excited conversation, getting to know each other within the group and preparing ourselves for our trip to the sea city of Aqaba, the Wadi Rum desert, and Petra. We barely had time to get to orient ourselves in this city full of astonishing traffic regulations (better said, lack thereof) and identical white brick houses before we were laying in the sun at the Red Sea, able to see Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt across the Mediterranean Sea and go snorkeling to discover an old war tank at the floor of the sea. We stayed in the Garden Village Hostel that was charming, comfortable, and a minute walk from the sea. The weather was unbeatable and we basked in the sun, in awe of the beauty that a region so full of conflict had to offer.
We made a day trip to Petra, one of the wonders of the world. We hiked through a narrow gorge, the Siq, that seemed endless until all of a sudden it opened up and there we were, standing at the treasury of Petra, a mighty palace carved into stone. Camels, donkey drawn carriages, and bedouins (the natives to this region) paraded the open area, and it truly felt like a completely different world. We ventured on a 20km hike to Mt. Hor, the shrine of Aaron (Moses’ brother), scaling mountains and climbing rocks in the sweltering sun. On the way, we came across small bedouin children that lived in caves, boy scouts on a nature expedition, police guarding the mosque at the top of the mountain, and goats that freely roamed the paths. After an exhausting day on foot, we collapsed in our beds with our minds full of the treasures of memories, people, and feelings we had taken in.
The next leg of our journey led us to the desert of Wadi Rum, with its vast, open spaces, its majestic stone formations, and its peaceful solitude. We were hosted by bedouins that taught us about their way of life, grandmas that taught us how to make bread, and of course our friends Abu Rashed and Fuhad. We climbed dunes, zoomed through the desert with pickups, walked barefoot through the soft sands, made music with the bedouins, slept outdoors on mats, smoked hookah, drank tea, and feasted on lamb and rice with our hands.
However, we ran into some trouble on our last evening. One participant fell ill with a high fever and throat inflammation. He was in a daze and fearing for his health, we got in a pick up and took him to the nearest hospital. We arrived at a small clinic with one doctor, who immediately saw him. The doctor took his fever, examined his throat, and offered an antibiotic vaccine right away. He administered the shot, charged 1 JOD (about $1.50), and lit up a cigarette in his office. I was, quite frankly, astonished and the situation quickly became humorous for all of us. The antibiotics worked rapidly and the participant was back on his feet. We had successfully survived a sticky situation!
After Wadi Rum, we headed back to Amman for our week of lectures at the University of Jordan. We attended classes on water management, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the educational system in Jordan and the Middle East, and the religion of Islam. After each lecture, our group was discussing issues, brainstorming solutions, and asking what can we do? We met with Jordanian students studying foreign languages and heard their perspective of the Middle East conflict and learned from them what being a student in Jordan is like. During our free hours, we strolled through Amman, visiting spices shops and the market full of fruits, vegetables, and even a cow head with its tongue hanging down (quite the gruesome sight!).
We also visited the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the Diplomatic Institute of Jordan, where we met with the ministers and diplomats and had the opportunity to gain insight on specific topics. The president of the Diplomatic Institute had a wealth of information and knowledge that he shared with us, informing us what necessary measures needed to be taken before peace could be achieved. It was intriguing and eye-opening to learn about this issue from his perspective.
After our highly educational week of lectures, we spent our last days visiting the Dead Sea and the northern part of Jordan. We spent an entire day at the beach at the Dead Sea letting the salty water carry us, basking in the sun, feasting on a buffet with traditional Jordanian dishes, and of course rubbing our bodies with the healing Dead Sea mud.
The tour of the north led us to the ancient Greco-Roman city of Jerash, which was a hands-on history lesson. We were humbled by the presence of the Corinthian columns and their fascinating history. After Jerash, we visited the city of Umm Qais and grilled at a spot overlooking the Jordan River directly on the Jordan-Israeli boarder. This was a deeply moving and reflective moment for all, to be so close to the area of conflict and the disputed territories, yet be surrounded by playing children and joyful families sharing an afternoon together.
The next day we sadly packed our bags and had tearful farewells. Throughout the two weeks, we had become incredibly close as a group, including Abu Rashed and Fuhad and our faithful bus driver Mohammed. We had made friends with students at the University and bedouins in the desert. It was hard to imagine that we were already leaving and that we didn’t know when we would see our new friends again.
However sad we were to be leaving, we were grateful to have had the chance to forge these ties and build these relationships that stand for cross-cultural understanding and friendly, diplomatic relationships. The trip had changed the way I see the world, specifically the way I see the Muslim world. I made friends with bedouins wearing turbans, something that I previously (and unintentionally) might have only associated with the Taliban or terrorists. I gave candy and high fives to children who live in caves and have no idea about the world beyond their simple existence.
Now that the trip has passed, and I have had time to reflect, the most significant thing I learned was to overcome stereotypes and generalizations that are created out of fear. In America, Islam and Muslims are often presented negatively in the media. Muslims, just like Christians, have strong inner values and enduring spirits of faith. I learned that there are many more shared values and similarities than issues that drive us apart. It is possible to have peaceful relationships with people and ethnicities and to make a difference just by setting an example of diplomacy and mutual respect. In the course of two weeks, I was deeply inspired to commit myself to the values of cultural understanding and awareness and passionately will continue to follow through on these causes.
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