Mosaic of the modern & traditional: a peek into Jordanian culture

26 days.  Stretching them out as much as I can…

I am continuing to put off packing by doing anything else before this trip… studying for the GRE, working, writing these posts, and trying to keep up my Arabic as much as I can.  In addition to trying to practice speaking and listening daily, I’ve also been trying to review some of the most important grammatical structures I’ve learned.  It is so difficult to keep in practice with a new language!  But hopefully my hours of studying over the years & my daily reviews will help me to communicate at even a basic level in Amman – and hopefully this experience will increase my language skills exponentially.

However, this post will be more about the things that usually fascinate me the most about travelling: learning more about local history, traditions, fashions, expectations, cuisines, social behaviors, family relationships, etc.  These things just scratch the surface of how a deep and rich culture of a country like Jordan’s manifests itself day to day and is obvious to an outsider like me.  I hope that by researching and writing about these things before I might experience them will help me to be more aware of the motivations & reasons behind them and my own reactions to them as an American.  I hope that this will help me to gain a more meaningful understanding of the parts of Jordan’s culture that I will observe, as well as deepen my awareness of my own culture, and how it affects my perspectives.


Jordanian Culture

Jordan’s geographic position at the intersection of three continents has contributed to its development of a diverse and rich culture, characterized by Arab & Islamic influences as well as exposure to Western ideas and practices.  This diversity of culture is particularly visible in Amman, as over 60 percent of Jordan’s culture resides there.  Other populations include the Bedouins, a semi-nomadic group of tribes who have historically inhabited the Levantine deserts, and share a common culture.

One of many sources of Westernization in Jordan can be traced to the heavy political and economic influence exercised there by the United States as well as the United Kingdom, through important trade links as well as interests in Jordan’s relationship with its neighbors; namely, Israel, Palestine, and now Syria.

However, as seen in my last blog post, Amman of course has its own long and proud legacy of historical prominence and culture, which has not been lost, and continues to permeate national consciousness and pop culture.


Language

Language use in Jordan is diglossic: Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the official language, though Jordanians primarily speak the Jordanian dialect of colloquial Arabic, also referred to as Levantine Arabic, as it is variably understood throughout the Levant.  Jordanian Arabic can be further dissected into three varieties: Urban Jordanian (in Amman, other cities), Rural Jordanian (spoken in southern Jordan in rural villages; Hauran and Moab Arabic), and Bedouin Jordanian (spoken by Bedouins in the eastern desert).   However, English is also widely spoken among upper classes.


Traditions

Jordan has many traditions, new and old.  For example, an ancient tradition is a marriage contract between the families of the bride and groom, which persists today but can range from being a formality to being an important point of drawn-out negotiation.  The contract encompasses what the bride and groom will contribute to their future (ie., house, job, education), and what happens in the case of a divorce – similar to an American pre-nup.  Read more here.

Some of the most historic traditions of Jordan are still practiced today by Bedouins: goat and camel herding, traditional music, poetry, dance, tent knitting, and camping (perhaps bedouinsindefinitely) in Jordan’s deserts.  Camels and goats made up the main traditional livelihoods of Bedouins: herding, milking, shearing, and of course using the meat in various dishes.  Camels were also their main form of transportation; camel races are a cultural tradition at weddings or religious festivals.  Bedouin oral poetry was their most popular art form, and being a poet was highly regarded within their cultural tradition; it was also used as a form of social and historical control.  The largest Bedouin tribe in Jordan is Bani Hasan (1 million people); the government provides them with many services, but have not been without conflict.  Read more about Bedouin customs here.  sand bottle

Apart from the Bedouins, Jordan also has many other traditions, such as ceramics, mosaics, embroidery, glass-blowing, sand bottles, and weaving as traditional handicrafts.  Jordan’s musical tradition, apart from Bedouin poetry, is based on a five-tone scale, with
elaborate rhythms: “Songs often tell stories of family, honor, love and death. Most instrumentalists accompany a vocalist rather than playing on their own, and improvisation is common” (source).

Holidays in Jordan include many diverse religious and historical traditions, including Jewish, Christian, and Muslim celebrations, as well as Jordanian Independence Day (May 25th).  Additionally, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, as with most of the Arab-Muslim world.


Etiquette

Of course every culture has its own rules of social interaction and engagement: what is appropriate to say or do and when, what lines should never be crossed, and how daily exchanges are carried out.  This is what I have learned so far from reading about Arab culture and speaking with those I have met who have experienced it; I hope to learn much more when I actually experience it myself!  This site has been quite helpful to my personal research.

handshakeAs in America, a handshake often accompanies an introduction or greeting in the Arab world as well.  Men shake hands with other men, and women with other women; however, between the genders, it is up to the woman to offer her hand first, as some Arab women prefer to avoid contact with men they don’t know well.  As in Europe, it is also customary for women who are friendly to kiss each other on the cheek as a greeting or goodbye.  It will be interesting to me to observe how close people normally are when speaking and greeting, as in America most people prefer to have a large “bubble” of personal space and don’t appreciate it being violated.  However, I noticed in Europe that this personal bubble was much smaller for most European people, especially in situations like public transportation or a concert.

In Jordan, it is also quite common for people you meet for the first time to ask you many personal questions about yourself, including about your profession, salary, personal life, and age.  While these would often be considered rude to ask a stranger in America, in the Arab world it is not; furthermore, it is not considered rude to ask the price of a present one receives.  It will be an interesting experience for me to see what the boundaries of rudeness are in Jordan as compared to America, where I’m sure some of the questions I am used to being polite may be considered rude.

When addressing people, the friendly and polite way to refer to them as “mother,” “father,” “sister,” or “brother,” in Arabic (Um, Abu, Ukht, Ukh), or in a more formal setting as “Hadji/a,” similar in meaning to “sir” or “madam.”  I love how familiar this is and the sense of family and care that it conveys.

Hospitality and generosity are the cornerstones of Jordanian culture, and as a guest or visitor one can likely expect to be overwhelmed by offers for more and more tea and coffee.  JordanJubilee.com recommends a few strategies to politely decline:

“It is polite to accept a second glass: if you don’t want it, then you should smile and have a reason for not accepting (“I’ve been drinking tea all day, I shall have a problem tonight!” is usually very successful, it brings smiles of understanding). You can refuse a third glass if you want to, put your glass back on the tray, and when somebody prepares to pour you some more, place your hand palm down flat over the top of the glass.

If people insist on pouring anyway, then just don’t drink the tea! If you do, you will have the same problem a few minutes later. If pressed, you can relent and drink it in a couple of swallows just before you leave.

If you are offered coffee by anybody Bedouin related, in which I include the whole population of south Jordan, you should ‘shake the cup’ when you give it back. Not doing so is considered to mean that you want some more! Just tilt it two or three times, slightly and quickly from side to side, holding it between finger and thumb.”

turkish coffee
Turkish coffee.

Furthermore, when offered coffee as you first enter a hotel or other reception, the polite thing to do is quickly down the tiny cup at once and return it in the same manner described above.  If you are invited to someone’s home, as in America is polite to bring a small gift for the household, such as flowers (but only in odd numbers) or sweets, but nothing expensive.  Such gifts should be quickly given without much show to the women or children, and no thanks should be expected.  This is quite different from American culture, where even the smallest gifts are usually greeted with a lot of showy thanks.  However, maybe this indicates an inverse relationship with the actual amount of gratitude felt by the receivers?

In Jordan, for meals, when eating with your hands, only use the right hand.  In the Arab world, the left hand is traditionally understood as “dirty” and inappropriate to eat or greet with.  JordanJubilee.com recommends:

Try to be neither the first nor the last to finish eating, it is a good idea to take small spoonfuls and eat slowly. When you are full, say so (pat your tummy and say you couldn’t fit in another crumb!). Add a compliment or two and everybody will be pleased [no need to burp!] In general water is offered only at the end of the meal, there might be a common glass here as well, so drink it down quickly and hand the glass back! When people have finished eating, they will usually get up immediately to wash hands and mouth, without waiting for everybody else to finish. If this happens when you are still eating, then take your time! After that, everybody lies back on the cushions, the men will get out cigarettes and the conversation will begin.

If sitting on the ground or floor, it is very insulting to show the bare sole of your foot towards someone; sit cross-legged or cover your feet with a blanket.  I sometimes wish that this was also the cultural norm in America.


Food

Jordan is one of the largest producers of olives in the world, and as a result, they are widely consumed, and olive oil is the main cooking oil.  Za’atar and Sumac herbs are indigenous to Jordan, and are widely used in Jordanian cuisine, as are garlic, onions, tomatoes, and lemons.  Other popular ingredients are okra, bulgur (dried cracked wheat), lamb, rice, and Freekeh (Arab cereal food).

breakfast

Yogurt is commonly served with many dishes, as well as being a popular ingredient, especially in Jameed (dried yogurt).  Jameed is a crucial ingredient in Mansaf, which is the national dish of Jordan and a symbol of generosity.  Mansaf is lamb cooked in fermented dried yogurt sauce, served with rice or bulgur.  Of course, hummus is quite popular and common, as is falafel.

mansaf
Mansaf.  Source.

Zarb, or Quzi, is a Bedouin delicacy, prepared in a submerged oven, made up of slow-cooked lamb, nuts, raisins, and rice.

A typical mezze (selection of small plates served as appetizers, or breakfast!) includes baba ghanoush (like hummus, but made with eggplant), tabbouleh, olives, pickles, koubba maqliya (kind of like a breaded meatball), and labaneh (strained yogurt/Greek yogurt).

mezze
Traditional (but fancy) mezze spread.

Jordanian desserts include baklava, seasonal fruits (like figs and cactus pears), as well as knafeh (cheese pastry soaked in syrup) or halva (kind of like cake).  Turkish coffee and mint or sage tea are extremely popular, while Arabic coffee is more formal.  Araq, a traditional Levantine aniseed spirit,  is also sometimes consumed with food.


Media & Pop Culture

Jordan’s pop culture has been deeply influenced by the West: movies, music, and fashion from Europe and America are all very popular among Jordanians, expressed by the presence of multiple shopping malls, stores of Western brands (such as American Eagle, Forever 21, Timberland, and Flannel Bay), and the popularity of Western music and partying culture.

mecca mall

Jordan has extensive media outlets which influence its popular culture, including newspapers in both Arabic and English, as well as thriving radio and television production.  The two most widely read newspapers are Ad-Dustour and Al-Rai; the daily English paper is The Jordan Times.

The Jordan Radio and Television Corporation (JRTV) is one of the primary media companies in Jordan; owned by the government, its mission is “to provide meaningful national information devoted to freedom of expression and opinion within an atmosphere based on jrtvindependent and responsible expressions of all classes and sectors of the nation,” and it advertises its primary values as “loyalty to the country and the king, neutrality, and transparency.”   Watch online here!  Jordan’s first independent TV channel was ATV.

Furthermore, Jordan has the Royal Film Commission – Jordan, which encourages film-making within the country and trains Jordanian film-makers; the Amman Filmmakers Cooperative has the same goal, and its films have reached international prominence.  Jordan promotes itself as a place where Middle Eastern cinema artists can freely collaborate with others.  Many Western movies have been set in the Jordanian desert; notably, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, filmed in Petra, and Lawrence of Arabia, filmed in the Wadi Rum desert.  

It will be very interesting for me to note what types of media, brands, or music I find familiar in Jordan.  So far I had been expecting a lot of culture shock, but the more I research the more I think I will find a lot of familiar places – like Pizza Hut.


Art, Music, and Sports

Amman houses the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, as well as multiple other art galleries & centers, such as Dar Al-Anda.  Furthermore, the King Hussein Foundation has established the National Center for Culture and Arts (NCCA), which is “an internationally recognized institution that promotes social development, human rights, and cross-cultu
ral understanding through the performing arts.”  The NCAA also annually hosts the International Arab Children’s Congress (IACC), which “brings together young people from around the world for one week of travel and learning designed to promote cross-cultural understanding, tolerance and solidarity.”

rania art
Queen Rania appreciating the “Hussein Madi in Amman” exhibit in the JNGFA, May 18th, 2015.  Source.

Many universities in the area offer higher education in the arts, and there are plentiful spaces for art appreciation.  Furthermore, the influx of refugees from throughout the Arab world (Syria, Iraq, Palestine), has changed the art scene in Amman positively: Jordanian artist Ghassan Abu Laban told al-Jazeera that “[s]eeing their work in Amman’s galleries really pushed local artists to new limits” (source).

Jordan also has a thriving original music scene, as well as a long tradition of creating, performing, and valuing local music.  Rural zajal songs are perhaps the most traditional form of music in Jordan today: zajal is a type of folk poetry (also popular in Lebanon –

instruments
Reed pipe, Mijwiz, and Arghul.  Source.

listen here) where lyrics are sung to the same music or chorus repeatedly.  Traditional Jordanian musical instruments often accompany this type of music, including the reed pipeMijwiz, Tablah (goblet drum), Arghul, Oud (similar to a lute), as well as the bagpipes (known as Gerbeh).

However, modern Jordanian music reflects the diversity of Jordan’s culture today: top music stars genres reflect the fusion of peoples and backgrounds.  Internationally popular Jordanian band RUM is primarily New-Age-style music with traditionally Arab influences; the same practice of fusing Western melodies with Arab lyrics and instruments has made other Jordanian performers popular as well.  Jordan boasts many popular musicians of various genres, such as: Sign of Thyme, Omar Al-Abdallat, Diana Karazon, Toni Qattan, and Hani Mitwasi.  Furthermore, today’s youth in Amman have become increasingly interested in rock, heavy metal, and alternative music – today, JadaL and Tyrant Throne are quite popular.  On the rise in Jordan is electronic music, indie rock, and post-rock.

Roba Al-Assi, a Jordanian writer, described the upcoming post-rock genre in Amman today as having “intense melodies submerged in haunting sounds, making it truly different from most other sounds coming from the region. The bulk of their tracks [sound like] nightmares [and reflect] the tough realities of an Arab world that is corrupt, polluted, and seemingly hopeless” (source).  She named her favorite band as El Morabba3, and her favorite rapper as El Far3i.  I am really excited about listening to more Jordanian music and trying to understand the lyrics.

Finally, sports are very popular in Jordan, especially football (American soccer), rugby, basketball, self-defense, swimming, diving, tennis, equestrian sports, skateboarding, and biking.  Football is by far the most popular, and Jordan’s national team has recently improved significantly.  All professional football teams in Jordan are within the Jordan League, also known as Al-Manaseer Jordanian Pro League.


Fashion

My fashion section here will focus on women’s fashion, as is most relevant to me and on the whole more diverse within Jordanian culture!  JordanJubilee.com says “[a] woman should normally wear fairly loose-fitting clothes and cover her upper arms, as well as her shoulders and her knees. Oddly enough, this can be more important than covering her head. Muslims know and accept that non-Muslims go about with the head uncovered, but the rest of it comes under the category of “modesty” and it truly isn’t a good idea to be considered immodest.”

Other quick tips I’ve picked up from my research on what a Western non-Muslim like me should be wearing in Jordan:

On the whole, I think Jordanian fashion is what I have been able to find the least information about and what I am most interested in finally decoding once I arrive!  So stay tuned.

fashion
A lot of fashion diversity in Jordan on display in this article, also the source.

Famous Jordanians!


Hope you learned as much as I did from this post!  Stay tuned for last-minute updates before I leave!

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