Ancestry and Identity in Jordan

By: Paige Harouse

October 23, 2017

As my professors often quip, Jordanians are nosy people. At a time when fewer foreigners, especially Americans, are traveling to the Middle East, people are even more curious about who you are and why you’re visiting. I experienced this questioning early in October, when my program spent a week learning about life in the reef (الريف), or countryside, in Shobak.

Shobak isn’t known for being an international hub. While non-Arabs are common in Amman, in that part of the country, a group of foreigners attracts attention. People want to know who you are, and, more importantly, what you are. It does not help that many have a pre-formed stereotype of Americans as white, blonde, blue-eyed, and Christian. Those Americans who fail to meet that image receive even more questions. During our time in Shobak, we volunteered at a local elementary school. For some of the students, we were the first American faces they’d seen. We painted the school and then practiced one of the greatest forms of diplomacy: football. On the ride back to our homebase, Najeh, my program director, informed us that we’d be visiting the mudeerah’s (مديرة, head of school's), house the following day. He was ecstatic, as he had spent several years building a relationship with the school and this was the first invitation to her home.

We arrived there and were greeted by the extended family. After a round of pleasantries, characterized by “How are you?” (kaffiks) and “Praise be to Allah” (al’hamdulilahs), we began to talk. One of the older women in the room, a relative of the mudeerah, shared her life story and background. She then asked us students where we were from. “America,” we said before answering her real question: “من وين أصلك؟”

The question, literally meaning “Where are your origins?”, is a go-to question in Jordan. In a country where many of the residents are immigrants and refugees themselves, it’s a conversation starter as much of a geography game and history lesson. The woman first turned toward two students and asked them where in Africa their family was from. Satisfied with their answers of Ethiopia and Eritrea, I was surprised when she turned to me. “You’re not American, are you?” she asked in a doubtful tone. “No, I’m American,” I said, wondering why she doubted my nationality, out of everyone in the room. “But my family’s from Germany,” I said, giving her my practiced answer. It’s a partial truth, but easy to share as I speak German and studied there. She turned to the next person, and I sighed, happy she accepted my answer.

Her question unsettled me, bringing up memories of elementary-school “ancestry” projects. My father’s family is Eastern European and Ashkenazi. They left at a time when the borders were beginning to be rewritten. As a child, I was told to pick countries from modern-day Eastern Europe to stop teachers' questions. Am I Ukrainian? Am I Russian? Neither would recognize me as an “ethnic” citizen. Yet the culture I grew up with was heavily influenced by Eastern Europe.

How do you answer the question of what your origins are when your family fled persecution and civil unrest? While the “Old Country” might seem picturesque when viewed through the lens of Fiddler on the Roof, history disrupts nostalgia: pogroms, show trials, Stalin, Hitler—and that’s the abbreviated version. I like to think many Jordanians relate to having a turbulent relationship with their heritage, as it’s estimated that at least half of Jordanians have Palestinian ancestry [1]. It’s a story distinct from mine, yet tangentially related, and possesses similar themes of displacement and discrimination. From my modern standpoint, it’s hard to estimate how much of a choice my family had in leaving without risking being a revisionist. They wanted to live in a country that afforded them more rights and recognition; leaving was a necessity. The odds they would have survived through the twentieth century are slim, between revolutions, uprisings, famines, and genocides.

I keep returning to a question I am pondering a lot this year: how can I use my story to act out of kindness and understanding? It’s a question I continue to grapple with, thinking about it each time someone asks me what my origins are. For the rest of my semester, I’ll continue to share that my origins are German. I don’t have much of an alternative. To say I’m Russian or Ukrainian would suggest I’m a prostitute. To say I’m Ashkenazi might insinuate I’m some sort of spy. So I say I’m German and smile. At least I haven’t received a Hitler joke yet.

[1] Mudar Zahran, “Jordan is Palestine,” Middle East Quarterly 19, iss. 1 (Winter 2012): 3-12, Proquest Ebrary.

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Ancestry and Identity in Jordan