Passports

Dispatches from Abroad

Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010 9:33 a.m.

Meet Elise, studying in Amman

Photo courtesy of Elise Chen

Elise Chen | Junior | International Affairs | Amman, Jordan | University of Jordan

The first rule of living in Amman, Jordan is: don’t smile. Seriously. Smiling at a cab driver or a sales clerk is haraam (forbidden), implying a degree of familiarity so close as to be vulgar. There is such a huge divide here between friends or family and strangers. What never occurs to you in the States is that, unless a cab driver is being overtly inappropriate toward you, you smile at him when you get out of his car. Not so much in Amman. It has been consistently drilled into us over the past few days of orientation that smiling at a service worker is tantamount to a breathy-voiced invitation of mutual congress. And so over the past few days the cab drivers of Amman have been witness to the unique spectacle of me consciously semi-scowling in an effort to keep from giving my host family a really bad reputation.

It’s tricky, though, because the intense-personal-distance rule does not apply to everyone or even most people you come into contact with. I got a good taste of this on my flight over. You see, I’m a guarded traveler. I expect my plane seatmates to give me the appropriate amount of distance to keep our very American personal space bubbles intact.

I read in the compulsory “Understanding Arabs” handbook that, to paraphrase, Arabs have no sense of personal space because mentally burying the individual allows for much greater population density. I’d mainly blown this tidbit off, partially because it seemed condescending and assumptive and partially because the author is on the Georgetown faculty. And when I got on the plane, preliminary observations indicated that I was right not to take Margaret K. Nydell’s guidance seriously. My seatmate did not smile at me and did not even seem very inclined to allow me to scoot past her into the window seat. She had also wedged her pillow and fleece blanket into her side of our mutual armrest, creating even more space between us. Perfect! We started idly chatting, asking each other where we were from, why we were going to Amman, etc. We even bonded a bit over our shared annoyance at the sheer number of babies on the plane.

In retrospect, I believe that was the point at which I switched from being simply a conveniently small seatmate—i.e. a stranger—to a known person. Because that’s when the physical contact started. At first, it was just an elbow over the armrest. I let it go because she was asleep. Then she woke up and the elbow remained while she watched some back episodes of “True Blood.” Then it was some low-key footsies while she readjusted after taking her shoes off (although, to be fair, they were heeled, over-the-knee boots; anyone would need to wriggle around after wearing them). At this point, I was feeling a bit put-upon due to the airborne expectations I’ve noted above. But then the other thigh-high boot dropped. She got up to get a drink and asked me if I’d like one too. When I said, “yes please,” she responded, “Okay, habibti,” smiled, and chucked my chin before heading out to find a flight attendant.

She chucked my chin! Who even does that? I think I saw James Bond do it once in a movie. Perhaps John Wayne too. Everyone in Disney’s “Robin Hood” does it, but they’re anthropomorphized woodland creatures, for crying out loud. It threw me off guard. So, while my new friend was very kindly requesting a soda on my behalf, I tried to consider, Margaret Mead-like, why that gesture had startled me and what kind of cultural significance it has.

Why don’t Americans like to be touched? It’s kind of weird, actually. The awkward jockeying inside a crowded elevator or at a urinal can’t be good for our mental health. But before I had time to work out the answer, my new friend came back with a cup of soda for me and settled back into her invasive (to Americans) or friendly (to Jordanians) posture. So I let it go and started the long and strange process of adjusting to life as an American in an Arab society.

  • Gina Cocchiaro

    fantastic article, elise! :) gw’s lucky to have someone so articulate dispatching from abroad. i hope you’ve been enjoying your time in amman– i checked out your pictures the other day and it looks amazing!