I have been trying to study abroad since I was 16. In every effort to study in another country, I have been plagued with this a variation of the same question, “Do they like black people there/ Are there black people there?” In the age of globalization and information there aren’t too many places left on this earth that haven’t at least seen a black person before. The same cannot be said for interacting with a black person let alone a black woman.
Prior to studying abroad, I have heard stories of being treated like a celebrity or an oddity in Asian countries. However, I knew I was going to the Middle East, therefore I did not expect the same treatment. Fortunately, I am not treated like a celebrity. An oddity? A spectacle? Maybe.
During our orientation week, we were encouraged to keep a low profile while in Jordan. I remember wondering what that meant. Does that mean blend in? Keep your head down? Don’t engage in suspicious activity, or activities that are abnormal for the region?
In a predominantly Muslim country I associate “suspicious activity” with drinking. As someone who isn’t a big fan of drinking that didn’t seem too hard.
Keeping my head down is a natural reflex in the US, so that is doable.
Blend in? Um…
Within my program specifically there are only four black women, including myself. In my experiences walking with them or alone I’ve noticed we attract attention. From people commenting on our hair, wanting to be friends with us or the hollering that comes from men when we are out.
To be fair, Jordanian culture is known to be very friendly and according to some intrusive. Prior to posting this I assessed my experiences and the things I had heard the time that I have been here.
Here are a few experiences since arriving in Jordan that have stuck out to me.
First Day Out at HOME STAY
During my first weekend living with my host family I decided to go for a walk to a nearby café. I briefly stopped at the wrong café at which time a man decided to ask me where I’m going, offer me a rid and partially follow me to my destination. This didn’t seem too odd, we were warned as women things like this may happen. But following this experience, when I arrived at the café a woman approached me and began to describe her travels. One of her most recent vacation locations was Jamaica. My father is Jamaican, so I told her and she told me she approached me because she thought so and proceeded to take pictures of me and with me.
We were forewarned not to stay out past 11 on any day, especially as women. My first day out on with other students from the program, we went to a market on Rainbow Street. This street is known for it’s cafes and pleasant environment for young adults. Around 9:30 one of the other students (another black female) suggests we leave. Due to the late hour, we struggled to find taxi’s back home. We were standing on Rainbow Street well until 10:30, at which point Jordanian women approached us and asked about our hair. Groups of men walked past us and whispered until one of them approached us.
Drive By Occurrences
Since the first two experiences I have noticed that when I am out alone or with the other black females of my program people tend to stare. Regardless of the time. I frequently walk to my destinations by myself or with another student whom is usually a black female student. Though it is normal for taxis to honk to get the attention of potential patrons, last week while walking to get lunch it was more than taxi’s honking. The drivers of these cars were typically men and would honk to get our attention then shout in Arabic, and wave.
This morning, as I walked to meet other students to car pool for class, a car full of people began pointing at me before they pulled up next to me and shouted words unknown to me in Arabic. This exact experience occurred in a different area, the only difference is it happened at night and the car proceeded to make a U-turn back in my direction after shouting. Thankfully I was getting into a taxi by the time they made it to where I was standing
Various times since arriving here people have commented on my hair. (See picture below) When my group arrived at a resort on the Dead Sea, a man working there mentioned that he liked my hair. He was not the first, which drew my attention to the possibility that my hair alone makes me a spectacle. My host brother insinuated that my struggle to get a taxi had to do with taxi driver’s discrimination toward who they pick up after a certain hour. During this explanation, he gestured to my hair.
Since the first experience, I have been paying close attention to black women who appear to live in Jordan. I have seen 3 so far, of which are middle aged with children. This observation led me to consider the importance of exposure to encourage positive attitudes towards those who look or are different than oneself.
Upon further discussion with other students about their experiences with race, I have heard some equally interesting stories regarding blackness in Jordan.
- Maids are black but we may not want them?
A fellow black student within my program has lived in various parts of the world and the middle east was previously her home. She recalled being asked whether she wanted to be a maid when she grew up by a native. This question lies in conflict with a comment a different student made regarding a conversation he overheard from his host family. During this conversation his host mother expressed a desire to hire a maid but shot down a suggestion on the premise that this maid was black.
- Something Funny about being black?
According to another student who stays in a home with children, the default reference to anyone that is black is Sudani. Though there is nothing abnormal outside of the generalization, she also noted that whenever the children refer to someone as “Sudani” it is cause for laughter.
It surprises me that this exposure appears limited in Jordan. Considering Jordan is a refugee hub, with refugees from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Sudan seeking settlement. Even so, it gives me pause to wonder whether exposure truly encourages positive attitudes. The examples listed above have more to do with appropriate attitudes and actions towards those who are different.
At the beginning of my orientation, it was made very clear that Jordan doesn’t have racism. These few experiences have not lead me to doubt this notion, but instead reinterpret it. Jordan does not have institutional racism, but there are possibly racial or ethnic tensions within the society.
I am still unsure what to make of this. This experience has also added another factor to my study of economic and social opportunity in Jordan. Further study of what other social factors exist regarding race in relation to refugee resettlement and economic stimulation in Jordan. However, as I continue my journey in Jordan it has given me more pause to be aware of my surroundings.