Your experience of Jordanian people and is likely to be that they are, almost without exception, decent, honest, respectful and courteous. It seems only right that you should return some of that respect by showing a grasp of some basic aspects of Jordanian customs, Arab and Muslim culture.
The culture of Jordan is based on Arabic and Islamic elements. Jordan stands at the intersection of the three continents of the ancient world, lending it geographic and population diversity. Notable aspects of the culture include traditional music and clothing of Jordan, and interest in sports.
More than 90% of the population lives in the metropolis of Amman, concentrating the culture of Jordan in that city. Clubbing and partying culture are present in Amman, especially in the Western half of the city. Amman is consistently declared as one of the most liberal cities in the region. Malls, global-brand stores, and hotels are important elements in Amman‘s urban life, especially in the Western side.
English is understood and even spoken in lieu of Jordanian Arabic among Jordanians in the upper class. There’s a notable foreign influence on the nation’s political life and foreign affairs. In addition, many people from nearby countries have been immigrating to Amman and calling it their new home in the past few years. This increased trade links with the world and has reshaped the culture. The Cuisine is shared with surrounding nations such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.
Islamic tradition has crystallized five fundamental observances, or “pillars,” that are as important as faith in defining Islamic identity and strengthening the common bond that ties all Muslims together. They are Confession of Faith, Daily Prayer (five times per day facing the holy city of Mecca), Fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Almsgiving, and Pilgrimage to Mecca.
Visiting tourists who wear shorts on the street give roughly the same impression that they would wandering around Bournemouth or Baltimore in their underpants. Long trousers are essential in the city, the country and the desert, whatever the weather – clean and respectable light cotton, denim or canvas ones in plain colors (not flimsy, brightly patterned beach-style trousers). If you must wear shorts, go for the loose-fitting knee-length variety rather than brief, shape-hugging athlete’s shorts. Any top that doesn’t cover your shoulders and upper arms counts as underwear. Wearing a T-shirt is acceptable, but a buttoned shirt tucked into trousers broadcasts a sounder message about the kind of value you place on cultural sensitivity. Jordanian men never, in any situation, walk around in public topless.
To interact as a western woman in Jordanian society with some degree of mutual respect, you’ll probably have to go to even greater lengths than men to adjust your normal style of dress, although it is possible to do so without compromising your freedom and individuality too much. Loose-fitting, opaque clothes that cover your legs, arms and chest are a major help in allowing you to relate normally with local men. On women, shorts appear flagrantly provocative and sexual, as do Lycra leggings. T-shirts are also generally best avoided. The nape of the neck is considered particularly erotic and so is best covered, either by a high collar or a thin cotton scarf.
Hair is another area where conservatism helps deter unwanted attention. Jordanian women who don’t wear a headscarf rarely let long hair hang below their shoulders; you might like to follow suit and clip long hair up. To some people, women with wet hair are advertising sexual availability, so you may prefer to dry your hair before going out. If your hair is blonde, you must unfortunately resign yourself to a bit more inquisitive attention – at least when walking in more conservative areas.
Social interaction in Jordan is replete with all kinds of seemingly impenetrable verbal and behavioral rituals, most of which can remain unaddressed by foreigners with impunity. A few things are worth knowing, however.
The energy which Jordanians put into social relationships can bring shame to westerners used to keeping a distance. Total strangers greet each other like chums and chat happily about nothing special, passers-by ask each other’s advice or exchange opinions without a second thought, and old friends embark on volleys of salutations and cheek-kisses, joyful arm-squeezing or back-slapping, and earnest enquirers after health, family, business and news. Foreigners more used to avoiding strangers and doing business in shops quickly and impersonally can come across as cold, uninterested and even snooty. Smiling, learning one or two of the standard forms of greeting, acknowledging those who are welcoming you and taking the time to exchange pleasantries will bring you closer to people more quickly than anything else.
People shake hands in Jordan much more than in the West, and even the merest contact with a stranger is normally punctuated by at least one or two handshakes to indicate fraternity.
There persists a perceived difference between people whose origins lie in families long resident on the east bank of the River Jordan and people whose families originate on the west bank of the river. All are Jordanian citizens, yet Jordanians of Palestinian origin are estimated to number between half and three-quarters of the total population. Roughly seven percent of people in Jordan are expats, including guest workers – many of them Egyptian, Sri Lankan and Filipino – alongside a sizeable population of Iraqi, Libyan and Syrian refugees.
Personal space is treated rather differently in Arab cultures from in the West: for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist. Queuing is a foreign notion, and in many situations hanging back deferentially is an invitation for other people to move in front. Jordanians also relate to the natural environment rather differently from westerners. Sitting alone or with a friend in the most perfectly tranquil spot, you may find someone coming up to you blocking the sunset and eager for a chat. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to convey your desire to be alone.
More than a third of Jordanians are under 15. This is one of the best-educated countries in the developing world: almost everyone you meet will be able to hold some sort of conversation in English (and possibly French, Spanish and German too). Students from all income groups and social backgrounds mix freely at the universities, where the traditional emphasis on engineering and the sciences – Jordan is a world leader in medical fields including ophthalmology and cardiology – is giving way to new technology.
A tribe is an extended grouping of families who cultivate a distinctive tradition of history and folklore (mainly oral) and assert ownership of a particular territory. Not all tribes are desert-dwelling – there are many whose background is rural, and others who have become urbanized. Tribal territories, which predate nation-states, often extend across international borders. Some tribes are made up of clans and branches which have taken on tribe-like status; others have banded together in larger, often pan-national, tribal confederations. All these concepts are rather loose, but for a lot of Jordanians, tribal identity is at least as strong as religious or national identity.
Within tribal identity, many people make a distinction between two broad social traditions. The bedouin originate in families who are current or former desert-dwellers: they may once have been nomadic, but are almost all now settled. Some still live in tents in or near the desert, following traditional lifestyles, but many do not: a police officer in Amman or a marketing executive in Aqaba might be as bedouin as a camel-guide in Wadi Rum. By contrast the fellahin originate from a settled, rural, farming tradition, often in the north and west of Jordan. They frequently have strong historic links – often of family or tribe – to rural communities across the borders in Syria and Palestine.
Here’s a quote from a Jordanian involved in rural tourism development: “People underestimate how much of an invasion of privacy taking pictures of women is.” He was talking about bedouin women in the desert – but the rule applies pretty much across the board, in towns and cities nationwide too. Always ask permission before you photograph women in any context, even in the street – and, if you’re in or near a family house or tent, ask permission of the men too. Some people don’t mind, others do. Any refusal will be given graciously and smilingly, but perhaps a little diffidently – ask twice if necessary to be sure you don’t mistake a no for a yes.
Elsewhere, the obvious caveats apply around military installations and international borders, but otherwise there are few issues.
Couples travelling together need to be aware of Jordanian social norms. Put simply, public displays of affection between men and women are not acceptable. Even if you’re married, walking arm-around-waist or arm-over-shoulder, touching each other’s face or body or kissing each other are likely to be viewed as deeply distasteful – as if you were bringing the intimacy of the bedroom into the public sphere. It is possible occasionally to see husbands and wives walking hand-in-hand, but it’s rare.