Searching for the "Authentic" Study Abroad Experience in Jordan, One Bathroom at a Time
By: Hannan Ahmed
October 27, 2017
With the first half of my stay in Jordan completed, I have come to a number of realizations about the country that has become beloved to me in the past two months. The most important lesson of these is simple and revolves around one thing: toilet paper.
If a bathroom has toilet paper, nine times out of ten, foreigners frequent the establishment.
For those who have not visited the Middle East, North Africa, or a number of other parts of the world, a water hose (occasionally a watering can) is available in lieu of toilet paper in order to clean oneself after using the bathroom. No, it is not a bidet, but the idea is somewhat similar. The prevalence of the hose, at least in Muslim-majority countries, is the result of a religious mandate to be clean before completing prayer.
The presence of toilet paper, or lack thereof, tells a lot about a coffee shop, mall or store, and even university. One visit to a bathroom and I can most likely guess whether the staff speaks some English, along with the socioeconomic status of the average customer or student. After all, in Amman adopting certain Western practices—and especially speaking English—has become a marker of prestige.
The question of hose versus paper is even more telling with foreigners. It is astounding to me how someone could live in Jordan for four months and perhaps not use the hose once by choice. This is a part of everyday life for the majority of the country. Toilet paper is not only a privilege, it is also an inconvenience; after all, you cannot flush toilet paper here. The remnants of it must be thrown away in the trash can, which someone else then has to dispose. And yet, we—and I am most certainly not excluded from this “we”-- always reach for the familiar, what makes us comfortable.
To me, in some ways the hose is a microcosm for immersion at large. I can say from personal experience that as a foreigner, specifically an American, it is frighteningly easy to live in my own Western bubble. From the malls in which I shop to the coffee shops I frequent, my adventures here are an imitation of my life back at home.
All this begs the question: what does it mean to have a truly immersive study abroad experience? How can I ensure that these last two months live up to their greatest potential, so that I leave Jordan without regrets?
Study abroad programs certainly try their best to assist in that sense, the primary effort being the homestay—theoretically the best way to actively engage in a different culture, as you literally live with a Jordanian family. But for me, it has taken a little bit more than just the home life to understand, or rather feel, immersed.
What I believe it comes down to is the recognition that I should be doing more. This is an issue that is entirely in my hands to impact, each time I leave the house, with each decision I make.
Admittedly, there are some obstacles to immersion, besides the obvious lack of fluency in Arabic. I’ll be stiff with taxi drivers from the beginning to avoid conversations that could become uncomfortable. Or perhaps my friends and I decide against going to a sha’abi (popular establishment for locals) restaurant or coffee shop because those spaces—many public spaces at that—may be overwhelmingly male-dominated.
It is easy to take these specific encounters and immediately dismiss the availability of other opportunities to feel immersed. Sometimes I’ll even be a bit bitter, thinking my male colleagues have more options in where they can experience life here.
But then I will step foot in a mosque and instantly feel this sense of communion. I’ll have a good conversation with an amu (uncle, or any man who is much older) or a taxi driver. I’ll meet girls my age who live a life here in Amman that is beautiful and fruitful but I just am ignorant to.
Most of all, this sense of communion is in each cup of tea I am offered. It doesn’t matter whether a family or a friend offers me a cup of tea. The who is not as relevant as the idea. Here in Amman, togetherness is the main factor in how people spend their time. So long as there is conversation, mutual respect, and shai (tea), the culture is present.
Now, whether this is “authentic” is debatable—but I’m not from here. I don’t want to fool myself into thinking I’ll ever have a purely authentic experience. But I still can choose to exit my comfort zone and attempt to make each outing, each gathering, each conversation as genuine as I can without criticizing my experiences for what they can never be.
My favorite question to ask my fellow classmates and foreigners is, “Have you tried the hose yet?” When I asked this at the beginning of the semester, I received nervous giggles as a response, primarily as a result of confusion with exactly how to use it. I would excitedly explain, saying they could use both the hose and toilet paper and would feel 10 times cleaner.
It’s the combination of the two, where I maintain personal comfort but also take advantage of this amazing cultural fixture, that I find myself most happy. Now it is time to find that same cultural compromise, only outside the bathroom.