Nick Shaker graduated from Georgetown College in 2012 with an Arabic and English double major. Originally from Seattle, Washington, he spent the 2010/2011 academic year in Amman, Jordan, where he wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network.
October 31, 2010
Religion constituted a significant portion of my childhood. My family went to church every week and prayed before meals and bed. Being Catholic was a major part of my identity, but my entire concept of being religious changed when I arrived in Jordan. Ninety-two percent of Jordanians are Sunni Muslim, six percent are Christian and the other two percent are Shia or Druze. There is no population of people identifying as agnostic, atheist or without religion. This came as a major surprise, especially since I come from a city where less than 40% of residents identify with a specific religious organization. However, soon after my arrival I learned that this demographic is true and apparent in daily life.
To start, Arabic speakers employ religious phrases frequently in their everyday speech. When I tell a taxi driver my destination, he responds God willing. When my professors ask how I am, I respond thanks be to God. And at the top of many car windshields and over many doors are the words in the name of God or what God wills. These examples show that religion infiltrates even the most mundane aspects of daily life.
Along the same lines is the music choice of many cab drivers. When I get into a cab and the radio is on there is a small chance that music is playing. Most likely the radio is playing readings from the Quran. If I am in a cab when the Call to Prayer starts, I can expect that my cab driver will turn off whatever music is playing, change the station to the broadcasting Call to Prayer and all talking will cease for five minutes while the prayer takes place. There may be no conversation of religion in the cab before or after this event, and the driver may be my age and wearing a Rolling Stones shirt, but religion ensues. This all goes to show that religion plays a larger role in peoples routine lives here than in the United States.
Another example of this is my host family. My host parents are Evangelical Christians, representing a small sect of the Christian minority. When I first learned this I expected them to be seriously religious like most Evangelicals I know, but nothing could have prepared me for the extent of their devotion. Every piece of art, every calendar, every notebook and book in their house has to do with Jesus. When the television is on, it is tuned to religious programs, most of them discussing Islam and Christianity. Adding to this, most of my conversations with them revolve around Christ or Christian theology. When I came home from my first day of classes they asked my professors family names to see if they were Christians or Muslims. It is clear that religion is the dominating factor in these peoples lives.
At first, this obsession with religion really turned me off, but with further meditation, I am learning to accept it. I realize that we do the same thing regarding other facets of identity. In America we obsess over political leanings, sexual orientation, race and ethnic origin. These would be equally important in Jordan except that politics are usually aligned with religion, racial and ethnic diversity are somewhat non-existent and sexuality is not discussed. In essence, religion seems to be one of the only major differences between people here. Although there are varying degrees of diversity, the easiest way to distinguish people here is by their religion. Because of this, it is what makes people different from or the same as others and occupies a huge place in their lives and their perceptions of others.
I am not sure whether these strong social associations follow from strong faith or the other way around. Either way, Jordanians take their religion very seriously both in social and religious senses. From public displays like car décor to private observations like dinner conversation and church going, religion plays a major role in Jordanian life. Due to Jordans somewhat homogenous population, religion emerges as the major divider and therefore strengthens its importance. Witnessing religious life in Jordan has made my childhood seem completely secular and forced me to re-evaluate the standard American idea of identity.
COMMENT FROM ZAYAN PEREBOROW - NOVEMBER 11, 2010
Nick, it is interesting that religion plays such an instrumental role in the daily life of Jordanians. From my experience going to Catholic school my entire life, I have been accustomed to attending weekly Masses and praying before meals and even class (encouraged by the schoolâs nuns). On the other hand, I know that in the U.S. public schools, teachers and administrators are prohibited from either encouraging or discouraging religious activity and participating in such activity with students. Being that public schools are not permitted to provide religious instruction, I am surprised that your professors respond to you with âthanks be to God.â I agree with you. Even though the United States is considered to be fairly religious, I would deem the majority of our country secular in comparison to the devout religious Jordanians. If you think about it, approximately 76 percent of Americans are affiliated with Christianity, but how much of that percentage actually going to Mass every Sunday?
February 18, 2011
I live in a country on the verge of a political revolution. In fact, the entire political cabinet was replaced only a few weeks ago on a whim. Bedouin leaders in the South are threatening the King, pressuring him to pull his wife out of the public eye because of her Palestinian heritage. Furthermore, every headline article I see about the Middle East these days mentions Jordan as a country walking a thin line between peace and total collapse. You would think that life here is incredibly tense, but I haven’t noticed a thing.
Thousands of people have gathered in downtown Amman in the past weeks, protesting public policies and corrupt leaders. I watch it on the news every night with my host family, but in my daily life at my house, school and gym, I see no signs of strife. Even when I go hang out in cafes near downtown there is no evidence of thousands of people gathered to protest. From my interactions with people, I can sense almost no sense of urgent change. In taxis, where the topic of conversation always goes back to politics, there is no discussion of the looming changes in Jordan.
It seems odd to me that when the New York Times makes it sound like all hell is about to break loose, I can not see the signs on the ground. Maybe I am not looking well enough, or maybe the signs are there and I am just missing them. But what I do know is that coming from America, we are much more sensitive to political change and upset than in the Middle East. In the last ten years, most Middle Eastern countries have experienced a major political change. Sometimes this manifests itself in war, other times in moderately peaceful revolutions, but wherever you look, power is shifting and alliances are being redrawn. After all this, many Arabs have grown accustomed to drastic changes and learned how to live their lives unaffected by the political atmosphere.
My host parents are a perfect example of this. Originally from Palestine, they moved to Jordan after 1948, relocated to Kuwait after Black September, and returned to Amman with the outbreak of the Gulf War. Amazingly, while experiencing all this, they raised a family, kept their jobs, and sent three sons to university. When looking back on it, they laugh a little about all the places they have lived and the chaotic times when they moved. From an American standpoint, I can’t imagine having to move because of war three times in my life and then reminiscing about it lightheartedly and with no apparent hard feelings.
When I asked them about Israel, they gave me a similar reaction. Both of them are pro-Israel and don’t seem phased by what is going on in their hometowns – Jerusalem and Jaffa – right now. They seem resigned about the whole peace process and shrug it off as something for the politicians to deal with and not something they want to get involved in. Again, from an American standpoint, this is unheard of. Americans are incredibly sensitive to any changes, such as a power shift in the Senate or another one of Lieberman’s party switches. The moment we hear about a protest against the government we get nervous and expect (appropriately) for Anderson Cooper and other popular news sources to cover the topic extensively. This nervousness is simply not a part of most Arabs’ lives.
At first I thought this overreaction was a general issue with Americans, but looking back at my life, I remember a few exceptions. When I was in fourth grade, the World Trade Organization had a conference in my hometown of Seattle. There were massive protests, hundreds of arrests, and extensive vandalism. But during that time, I went to school normally, went to extracurricular activities, and saw no signs of any chaos. Most of my experience with the WTO protests of 1999 is what I learned from the movie Battle in Seattle and what I saw on the news during that time. In the same way, my experience with the Jordanian political shuffles of late is largely based on the New York Times and Al-Jezeera. Who knows, there could be a major revolution here and I won’t know a thing about it until David Brooks tells me so.
COMMENT FROM MICHELLE SAKS - MARCH 30, 2011
Nick’s letter mirrors my own difficulties comparing media coverage of the revolutions in North Africa and the realities of daily life. Overwhelmed by news’ headlines, friends and family constantly flood my inbox with concerned emails and inquiries, fearing that political unrest will reach Morocco. Meanwhile, I attend classes, travel each weekend and sit in coffee shops with friends. Just like Nick, I feel that I am missing something. Every time I read the news or speak with family and friends about the political situation, I look out the window expecting to see people sprinting through the streets, screaming at the top of their lungs. Instead, I find life progressing as usual. Media coverage of student evacuations from Cairo, ridiculous in it of itself, further highlights this contradiction. After spending four months in Egypt this Fall, I returned to Cairo for the start of another semester. Evacuated three days later, dozens of news outlets reported the dramatic and frantic departure of foreign students from an increasingly tumultuous situation. In reality, I was not chased out of Cairo by tear gas, sticks and screams of panic. I was walked to the university dorm by my flat-mates and shuffled into a bus holding an AUC-prepared lunch bag. A few hours later, I made my way through a chaotic airport and landed in Doha, pampered upon my arrival by Georgetown faculty and staff. Although it was inconvenient that I had to begin a new program in Rabat a month late, I cannot help but imagine how much worse my situation could have been. Furthermore, I am still quite disturbed that the news media documented the story of student evacuations from Cairo rather than focusing its attention upon the fate of the Egyptian people.