Frowns and Bidets

The Gilman Program gives me a topic to write about for each post (sorry if you were mislead about the level of my creativity before now, this is literally just guided rambling), and this week’s is, essentially, about friendship.  Coincidentally enough, I’m writing you from the bedroom of the first friend I made in Jordan!  Who… isn’t actually Jordanian.

She’s a Palestinian, living here to attend college.  She’s funny, clever, and loves to read.  We talk about Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes (we both like detective novels) and guys and chocolate (come to think of it, we have a lot of common interests).  I’ve spent the past seven hours here, with her refusing to let me leave when I ask if I’m overstaying my welcome, because Arab hospitality is no joke.  We ordered Chinese food and watched American television and talked about a Turkish novel we’re reading together and dipped German cookies in our English tea.

So, you know, it’s been pretty perfect.

I’m not particularly surprised I made a Palestinian friend before any Jordanian ones: partially because approximately half the population of Jordan identifies as Palestinian (with over 2.1 million registered refugees from there) and partially because of al-Keshra al-Urduniya (الكشرة الاردنية), the Jordanian Frown.

I have a friend from school, Shurouq, who has lived here and campaigned pretty heavily for Jordan when I was picking my study abroad program.  Whenever something strange happens, I’ll often message her to ask, “3aadee?” “Is this normal?”  The first week she helped me figure out better ways to hail taxis; a few weeks later she explained the great mystery that had been bidets (want to talk about super duper cultural awkwardness?); and in the fifth week I asked her why all the nice people I’d met turned out not to actually be Jordanian.

I met someone unbelievably sweet who invited me to her home for a meal later that week, and during dinner with her family, I learned about their forced migration from Syria.  A hilarious taxi driver, who literally had me in tears of laughter by the end of my half-hour ride, shared his own struggle to find some place safer to live than Palestine.  A British tourist, of all people, saved me when my infamously terrible sense of direction got me completely turned around at Petra.

I was sure plenty of nice Jordanians existed, especially considering that my host family and teachers are all great.  But judging only by initial interactions with strangers, by the time week 5 rolled around, every single person I’d labeled as “nice” wasn’t actually Jordanian.  So I went to Shurouq to ask, “3aadee?”

“Oh!” she answered. “Didn’t I tell you about the Jordanian Frown?”

Apparently, Jordanians are famous for their unhappy appearance.  Shurouq sent me a comic about it: titled “Jordanian Expressions,” it showed the same frowning face four times, labeled in turn as “sad,” “angry,” “happy,” and “the peak of happiness.”  After the topic came up in my Arabic class one day, the teacher gave us a listening exercise on a segment from a Dubai news channel investigating why Jordanians seem so outwardly unfriendly.  (They finally decided that “Jordanians’ smiles are on the inside.”)

Coming not only from America– we learned in our cultural orientation that a solid portion of the world finds Americans obnoxiously and overbearingly friendly– but from the treacly-sweet, tip-your-hat American South, I found it rather difficult to accept the sheer number of people literally averting their face as we passed each other.  It’s one thing to leave all your friends at home to study abroad; it’s another thing entirely to feel unwelcome when you do.

And so it was with great relief that I met Haya, whose outward appearance is as welcoming as her personality turned out to be, completely by chance in a coffee shop.  We giggled and exchanged phone numbers, met up to practice English and Arabic, and at some point quit pretending to have “lessons” because we really just wanted to eat those cookies and watch TV together.  (The upshot: if you want to avoid all the awkwardness of figuring out, “how do I make friends?” then language partners are the perfect excuse to meet with someone and chat and pass that weird proto-friendship stage.)  I was so happy to finally have someone to look forward to hanging out with, even if her nationality had me asking Shurouq what was up.

In the time since, I’ve made Jordanian friends too.  I figured out where the girls on campus hang out between classes, and have become close enough to some of them to not feel awkward just showing up.  The Peer Language Assistant for the study abroad program and I have gotten to where I meet him to practice Arabic, sure, but also to joke around and gossip like old ladies (Jordan’s national pastime).  I’ve slowly gained a community that I know will welcome me and a friend who’s willing to let me hang out in her room for seven (or make that eight, now) hours, and that makes everything exponentially better.

It’s true: Jordanians are smiling, even if it’s only on the inside.  I still ask gregarious taxi drivers where they’re from, since I have yet to find one who answers Jordan, but knowing more Jordanians makes me not mind the hard expressions so much.  It isn’t a reflection of who they are or how they feel about having you around, it’s just one of those cultural things– initially tricky but no worse than my earlier dilemmas of taxis or bidets.

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Filed under Charlotte in Jordan, middle east

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