WHAT IT'S REALLY LIKE TO LIVE IN THE MIDDLE EAST AS AN AMERICAN
Have you ever had a moment in your life where you've met someone and you're like "wow this person is way cooler than I will ever be in my entire life?" That's who I'll be introducing you to today.
At the time when I met her she was 19 and in her junior year of college because she went to community college early and later transferred to my university where we luckily crossed paths during a study abroad trip in the Balkans.
When I met her, she had already lived and worked in Jordan, traveled to various places around the world, and learned Arabic. Not to mention the fact that she's incredibly knowledgable about history, politics, and international relations. Anytime I talked to her, I walked away learning something I'd never known about before and having my mind blown in the process (though she never made me feel like an idiot which says a lot about her cause she totally could have!)
I learned so much from her that I wanted to share some of her experiences on my blog here. Read on to discover what it's really like to live in the Middle East as an American with Alli Nowaki as your guide. . .
1. Where are you from?
Binghamton, New York. The city you’ve probably never heard of, but can immediate tell what it’s like when you learn we’re the hometown of Rod Sterling, creator of The Twilight Zone. Let’s just say he had plenty for inspiration.
2. Where do you live now?
Amman, Jordan. A fabulous place filled with the nicest people I’ve ever met… also really good falafel.
3. What initially made you want to go to Jordan for your co-op?*
I studied Arabic for two months over the summer, and loved every minute of it. Two months later when I was choosing where to go for co-op, it was an obvious choice. Some of this may have had to do with their (essentially non-existent) drinking age, but I admit nothing.
All jokes aside, Jordan is just such a wonderful place to live and I made far more connections and friendships here than in anywhere in the US.
**Co-op is what Northeastern University students call their internship experiences, they're typically 6 months and occur instead of classes.
4. What made you want to go back? Was it the people you met, how the society was run, or anything else in particular?
Is all of the above an option? I feel like I’m getting repetitive here, but the people and the lifestyle are just so wonderful and definitely suit my personality, more so than say, Boston.
Everyone I’ve met has been so friendly and fun, that it’s hard NOT to have a good time while you’re here. My life is far less stressful, aside from wondering how I’m going to lose all this weight I’ve gained here by binging delicious food all the time.
5. What are the people like there?
They’re different, just like everywhere else. I can sort of describe the people I interact with based on three environments I experience daily: work colleagues/professionals, debaucherous young people, and your average Jordanian (or Syrian, or Iraqi) in public.
My work colleagues are some of the greatest people ever. We treat our company like a big family, and everyone knows each other and have relationships outside of just nagging each other to finish their portion of a project. I’m the only foreigner at my company, but I never feel any different than any of my coworkers. My Arabic isn’t so great right now although I can use the basics, but the other day our office cleaner (who also makes coffee, brings us food, and that sort of stuff) learned how to say “Allison, do you want coffee?” in English JUST FOR ME, and I almost cried. Everyone is good people, and always trying to help each other out and genuinely caring for each other.
My fellow debaucherous young people are my friends that I go to the bar with at night, and in general the other people there. Whenever someone in the States makes a comment about the “scary, extremist Middle East” I just laugh. Walk into a bar on a Friday night and you’ll see us all doing shots and teasing each other about our love lives. Actually, walk into a bar ANY night and that’s what you’ll see people doing. We drink at bars, we drink at home, we park and drink at pretty overlooks, and yeah… my budget has an “alcohol” category. A lot of my friends are atheists, although we have a lot of Muslims and Christians sitting at our bar table too. It’s just a big mix of people who love each other and want to have a good time together.
The people outside of my friends and colleagues that I interact with in public are probably your general image of someone living an average life here in Jordan. The people buying their groceries, working at a bank, driving a cab. Again, all around nice folk. Everyone is focused on living their life and supporting their families, for the most part, just like anywhere else in the world. People are friendly, and will definitely stop and lend a hand if you need help. There’s a huge value for family and friend relationships here, which I think is pretty great. People will go to cafes in the evenings to sit and talk with their friends for hours. Dinner can be 4 hours long and last until 1am, and that’s just a normal way of spending time together.
6. What is the biggest misconception about Jordan and the Middle East you wish you could change people’s minds about?
Just one? This is one of the things that drives me insane about Americans. Not everyone, but especially those who watch Fox News and are suddenly experts on the Middle East.
One question I do get from pretty much everyone when they find out I live in Jordan is, “Do you have to cover your hair when you’re there?” Which I always find surprising that is the first question they ask! I definitely don’t, and I would say the amount of Muslim women who do is 50/50. Since I’m not Muslim, people would probably look at me like I’m insane if I started covering my hair… it just doesn’t make sense! The only countries in the world where it’s mandatory for all women to cover their hair are Iran and Saudi Arabia. And even there, women will always find ways to bend the rules and show how stylish they are!
7. What is the best thing about living in Jordan?
It’s hard to think of a “best” thing about living in Jordan in general, because that’s something that is going to be different for everyone. If I had to speak generally, I would say how laidback everything tends to be here. You definitely notice a slower pace of life compared to the States. People aren’t focused on doing tons of activities and spending a lot of money to make their social media look cool. A great night out can be just going to a café or bar with friends and smoking shisha (hookah) and chatting for a few hours.
8. What’s the hardest thing about living in Jordan?
The traffic. And I think that’s a universal answer. Amman wasn’t designed to be a city like say, New York. The roads are small and windy, and there’s 4 million people living here! It could be resolved by creating public transportation, but the way the city is built there’s just no where to put the infrastructure.
It’s a mountain city that just kept adding on as population grew, and I don’t think it will ever see a subway system. Now they’re started to redo some of the highways and main roads to create a “fast bus” that will have its own lane and designated stops, but that’s still years out and will be limited to where it can reach. Luckily the city is pretty condensed, so you can go from one end to the other in 40 minutes without traffic, and maybe an hour to an hour and a half during rush hour.
9. Were you ever nervous about living in the Middle East? Was your family nervous about you living there?
I wasn’t, but that was because I did spend time here before I moved permanently. My dad is well-educated in world history and politics, so he never worried about me coming to Jordan and has been a huge support.
People like my grandparents who don’t know too much about the region aside from what they see in media were worried, but as I spent more time here and told them about it they realized its totally different from what they heard. My grandfather even got a book from the library about the history of Jordan just to learn more, and I thought that was really cute!
10. How affordable is it to live there? What is the typical amount for a place to rent?
This is a complex question and the answer is… kind of sad. As a westerner, I make a much higher salary than most locals living here. And that means Jordan is REALLY affordable to me. I pay about $600 USD for a two bedroom, furnished apartment. I spend maybe $250 on groceries, $35 for internet with 220GB of data/month, $15/month on my cell phone which is basically unlimited talk/text with 15GB data, and $35/month for electric/water which includes A/C and heat.
It seems REALLY cheap for us, but an average Jordanian salary here for someone entry-mid career is around $875 USD/month. I can live comfortably because I make over 2x that. But otherwise I don’t know how I would manage. That is also part of the reason why people here live with their families until they’re married, because it’s very difficult to support a household on your own.
11. What work did you do for your co-op and what do you do now?
So I actually came back to work for my co-op full-time after I graduated. I work at two companies that are sister-companies and owned by the same person. One is an engineering company, and the other is an educational and technical training company.
I mostly work on our projects related to the businesses, such as: advertisements, websites, contracts, policies, business plans, etc… A little bit of everything! I’m the only native English-speaker between both the companies, so a lot of my job is proofreading all our important documents and materials.
12. What are the biggest differences between living in Jordan and living in the US?
One of the biggest differences is that everything isn’t as “on-demand” like in the US. That’s something I miss sometimes. We have Uber now and a delivery app similar to GrubHub, but things like that aren’t as widely used as in the US. It’s definitely starting to grow, and I just found a grocery store that will let me order online and will deliver to my home which is something I missed the most in terms of convenience (I work 6 days a week, don’t judge).
Also in the US, we’re able to easily import foods from around the world, and have access to any produce we like regardless of the season. I’m someone who likes to experiment with cooking, so not having that here is something I miss. It’s almost winter now and I would kill for some good strawberries. So don’t take those things for granted! (And maybe thank Mexico instead of talking about building a wall but that’s just me).
13. What is the general consensus people in Jordan think about the U.S., its citizens, and the president?
People here love Americans for the most part, and most people I meet talk about wanting to move to the US (I usually try to open their eyes to the fact it’s not just streets paved with gold where everyone is free and equal).
Trump is a joke everywhere in the world, including here. People love Obama, though!
14. What are the biggest issues Jordan is facing? Is the refugee crisis effecting Jordan? Does it affect you during your everyday life in Jordan?
The biggest issue in Jordan right now is the economy, hands down. People are having a really hard time making a living and supporting their families. The public educational system needs a lot of improvement, but again, it’s not the primary focus when people are trying to make sure they have food on the table.
The refugee crisis is a part of that, because it does have a substantial impact on the economy. In the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis, economic aid was given quite generously to Jordan. Now though, the flow has slowed to a trickle. Jordan is filled to the brim with Palestinian, Iraqi, and Syrian refugees, but the international community tends to forget that… and western countries are more focused on keeping refugees out of their borders. Europe cries that they’re drowning in refugees when they have less than a million, meanwhile countries like Jordan and Lebanon have millions each. Meanwhile Jordan is the size of Pennsylvania and Lebanon is like New Jersey.
It doesn’t affect my life personally, aside from the occasional little girl/boy coming up to me in the street selling roses or gum. I like to give them some money when I can, but I also focus on donating to organizations like the UNHCR or International Rescue Committee that are able to actually build infrastructure and support networks for refugees.
15. Will you try to become a Jordanian citizen? Do you think you will settle down in Jordan or the Middle East?
I’ll probably get married some day and take the citizenship so I don’t have to continuing paying $60 for a visa every 3 months!
I do think I’ll stay in Jordan, because I really enjoy living here. I went home this past month for a visit, and it solidified my decision that I couldn’t handle living in the States at this time. The social and political climate has changed so much, and most of what is going on right now just infuriates me to the point where I think it actually affects my blood pressure. I’m also thinking about things in terms of the future, and how between healthcare, living expenses, and childcare costs, I don’t know if I could afford to raise kids in the US while working full-time and living comfortably. Here I could have a much higher standard of living for a lower cost.
16. You’ve traveled to other places in the Middle East (besides Jordan) do you have a favorite place or country you’ve been to?
I absolutely adore Lebanon, and go there yearly for holiday. It’s a beautiful country and really amazing place. I love mountains and I love the sea, and in Lebanon you have both! I would definitely have considered living there, but the economy is worse than in Jordan and it’s difficult to find work. Also the traffic is a nightmare! You can spend an hour and a half in the car to move 10 miles. I can’t live that life!
17. How do men treat women in Jordan? If it’s not great, does it scare or bother you and how do you combat it in everyday life?
Depends on the person and the way they were raised, mostly. In my experience, girls are treated like delicate princesses in general. Men want to protect women and put them on a pedestal. Some girls love this; some girls hate it. Sometimes it’s nice that people always want to do something for you, but other times I just want to do things myself without anyone trying to help!
Of course there is catcalling here too, but I actually find Boston and New York to be much worse than here. I think some foreigners have a tendency to overreact about the extent of it, because they’re in a new, foreign place and that makes it a bit scarier. I think also when you first go somewhere new, you don’t automatically tune it out as much. Sadly, it’s a part of life everywhere.
18. How long did it take you to learn Arabic? Do you speak it fluently now?
This question made me laugh… no, I’m nowhere near fluent. I studied for 3 years in university, but the formal Arabic that you study is almost a different language than the spoken Arabic.
My company is international so everything is done in English, and my significant other and all my friends speak English. I use Arabic if I’m in a cab, go to the store, go out to eat, or things like that. But I definitely struggle. I would like to take classes, but I’m too busy with my job to have time. I hope to take classes sometime soon, but it’s hard to find the time.
19. What was the culture shock like?
I’m not someone who really gets culture shock because I travel so much. I usually get reverse culture shock when I’m back in the US though, and people don’t just immediately know what I’m talking about whenever I bring up something from Arab life.
20. What is your favorite food there?
21. How many Americans/expats do you come across? Do most of them move to Jordan or the Middle East full time like you have?
There are a lot of Western expats in Jordan… A LOT. Most people who want to study Arabic come here because it’s so safe, and then you have a lot of people in academia doing research… particularly on the refugee crisis. Also, there’s tons of NGOs here that employ a lot of westerners. I don’t meet many Americans working in the private industry, aside from teaching English at private schools.
22. Do you interact more with the local Jordanian people than expats/Americans?
I definitely interact more with Jordanians. As well as lot of Iraqis (my company is half Iraqi). The Americans here tend to just be passing through. If they’re students, they stick to their own student groups usually and are very “green”.
The last time I was at the bar and decided to socialize with a group of Americans there, they ended up all being military bros stationed at the base here. They were fond of their commander-in-chief and were very shocked that life here is normal and not everyone runs around like barbarians. Suffice to say I wasn’t a fan.
23. What’s the party scene like? Jordan does not legally allow alcohol – are you still able to drink there? Is there an exception for travelers/people who live abroad?
Oh Oh ohhhh…. Jordan certainly allows alcohol. It’s totally legal here! The only exception is during the month of Ramadan, where only specially licensed bars can stay open. Those ones have to be popular with tourists and receive a “tourist permit”.
My significant other works for a company that distributes liquor to stores, and we spend a lot of nights at the bar. A lot of people here drink, not just foreigners. There’s a liquor store and/or bar on pretty much every street. They (unfortunately) don’t even have strict laws against drinking and driving… it’s like a hundred dollar fine if you get caught and they decide to ticket you.
24. Are you considered an expat?
Yes, because I’m from a western country. It’s messed up, but westerners are “expats” and Egyptians/Syrians are “migrants”. It’s something that really needs to change, but there is an inherent bias here that’s hard to change amongst the whole population.
25. Do you experience any racism/issues with being American?
Definitely a sort of positive racism like I mentioned above… which is really frustrating to me. Of course I’m not going to turn down being offered a good salary (hello 70k in student debt!), but I don’t understand why westerners make so much more than locals when it really should be based on education and experience.
At my job, it’s one thing because I do something that no one else can do (write materials with native fluency). But I hate to see NGOs that overpay their expat staff instead of paying Jordanians fair wages. These are non-profits whose entire mission is to aid the community, but instead they hire from outside the community and most of their overhead goes towards expat salaries. For every expat on their payroll they could probably feed a family of 8 for a year. People definitely treat westerners favorably here.
26. Overall, if you could “repeat” this experience is there anything you would do differently from the get-go or warn yourself about?
I would probably have tried to find a job where I don’t have to work 6 days a week, and would have time to do things like take Arabic classes.
However, the economy is competitive here so I am very lucky to have the job that I do have. It’s difficult for me because I find myself exhausted easily, so I don’t have much energy for activities outside of work.
There you have it! What it's really like to live in Jordan. If you're curious to learn more about Jordan or the Middle East or traveling there, check out some of these sources below:
Drew Binsky which includes: All over Middle East (highly recommend his videos on YouTube (or Facebook) about the Middle East, and especially recommend checking out these ones in particular: Afghanistan, Pakistan video 1 & Pakistan video 2, Lebanon, Iran, Kurdistan & lots more.
Nomadic Matt which includes: Dubai
The Blonde Abroad which includes: Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, & UAE
Lonely Planet which includes: Egypt, Iran, Dubai, Jordan, Israel, & more
'Till next time! 👋 Much love.