It’s nearly three weeks into my studies abroad, and there are many major differences to be noticed between my home state of Nebraska and my new city of Amman, Jordan. The ones that stick out are the often subtle peculiarities of everyday living in a world between the modern and traditional.
In Amman, “supermarket” is the colloquial term for what we in the states might call a convenience store, such as Seven Eleven. They generally appear the same in Amman as their American counterparts, but upon purchasing soda or other snacks an American will immediately notice differences. For instance, in the States we always form a line—an organized way to determine the order of purchasing goods. In Amman, however, you must be assertive and quick if you want to handle your shopping in an expedient fashion. While one patron is paying for her ramen noodles, another grabs his desired items one at a time from their shelves, places it on the counter, then goes back to get another item—thus securing his spot— as opposed to first picking out everything he needs and then standing in line. In fact, lines seem uncommon in these stores, and to an outside observer these situations generally give the appearance of comprising two transactions simultaneously. This intense assertiveness is seldom found where I come from, and I feel like most Nebraskans would be appalled at this behavior.
Another difference between American and Jordanian culture is the use of formal and poetic language. In Ammiyeh (the dialect of Arabic found in Amman), there are many common phrases used in greetings and compliments. There are predetermined responses in these phrases, many of which are rather lovely. For example, when you make a purchase, the vendor may congratulate you with Mabrook! The expected response would be Allah yabarak fik (God bless you!). I made a friend at a downtown clothing store and I asked him if he would recommend some good places to eat in the area. He mentioned one shwerma place that he especially loved and told me (in Arabic) go eat there and make a prayer for me. A personal favorite is given as a compliment when you greet an acquaintance who is looking particularly sharp: Shoo ha al helu? (What is this beauty before me?) and the appropriate response: Ayounek al helwane! (It is your eyes that are beautiful!). I love these flavourful idioms and phrases—I think they really add a wonderful ingredient to communication and I try to employ them whenever possible. My attempts have, so far, always been met with a smile.
Some of the greetings in Arabic come from past traditions, and have been shortened for modern usage. Ahlan wa sahlan is a common phrase to welcome someone, but it has its roots in Bedouin (Arab nomadic) tradition. It was originally said to guests that had stayed in one’s home, and when it was time for them to leave, the elongated version of Ahlan wa sahlan was a warm send-off telling the guests to be well as they leave from the host’s home and hospitality. I would like to see these phrases remain in the Arabic language and refrain from becoming even shorter. Fortunately, they are deeply rooted, and it is highly doubtful that they will disappear any time soon. By comparison, greetings in the US appear informal and cold (hi, hey, what’s up), and while Amman is quickly becoming full of American (and European) fast food chains, brands, and styles, this is one aspect in which I hope our culture does not leave a noticeable impression.