Your experience of Jordanian people 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, Arab and Muslim culture.
If it’s possible to generalize, the three things that most annoy local people about foreign tourists in Jordan are immodest dress, public displays of affection and lack of social respect. In this section we try to explain why, and how to avoid causing upset.
As you travel through the country you will doubtless see dozens of tourists breaking these taboos (and others), sometimes unwittingly, sometimes deliberately. Nothing bad happens to them. Jordan is a relatively liberal society and there are no Saudi-style religious police marching around to throw offenders in jail. Jordanians would never be so rude as to tell visitors to their country that they are being crass and insensitive; instead, they’ll smile and say, “Welcome to Jordan!” – but still, the damage has been done. You might prefer to be different.
Incidentally, you may also see Jordanians acting and dressing less conservatively than we recommend here. That is, of course, their prerogative – to shape, influence or challenge their own culture from within, in whatever ways they choose. Tourists do not share the same rights over Jordanian culture. The onus is on visitors to fit in.
Outward appearance is the one facet of interaction between locals and Western tourists most open to misunderstandings on both sides. A lot of tourists, male and female, consistently flout simple dress codes, unaware of just how much it widens the cultural divide and demeans them in the eyes of local people. Clothes that are unremarkable at home can come across in Jordan as being embarrassing, disrespectful or offensive.
Jordanians and Palestinians place a much greater emphasis on personal grooming and style of dress than people tend to in the West: for most, consciously “dressing down” in torn or scruffy clothes is unthinkable. In addition, for reasons of modesty, many people expose as little skin as possible, with long sleeves and high necklines for both sexes.
Male dress codes
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 colours (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. Wear a T-shirt if you like, but a buttoned shirt tucked into your trousers broadcasts a sounder message about the kind of value you place on cultural sensitivity. Jordanian men never, in any situation, walk around topless.
Female dress codes
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 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 behavioural 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 five-minute volleys of salutations and cheek-kisses, joyful arm-squeezing or back-slapping, and earnest enquiries 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.
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.
It’s almost inevitable that during your time in Jordan you’ll be invited to drink tea with someone, either in their shop or their home. It’s quite likely too that at some point you’ll be invited for a full meal at someone’s house. Jordanians take hospitality very much to heart, and are honestly interested in talking to you and making you feel comfortable. However, offers tend to flow so thick and fast that it would be difficult to agree to every one, yet people are often so eager it can also be difficult – and potentially rude – to refuse outright.
First and foremost, whether you’re interested or not, is to take the time to chat civilly; nothing is more offensive than walking on without a word or making an impatient gesture, even if they’re the twentieth person that day to stop you. If you’re invited and you don’t want to accept, a broad smile with your head lowered, your right hand over your heart and “shukran shukran” (“thank you, thank you”) is a clear, but socially acceptable, no. You may have to do this several times – it’s all part of the social ritual of polite insistence. Adding “marra okhra, insha’allah” (“another time, if God wills it”) softens the “no” still further, indicating that you won’t forget their kind offer.
Below, we’ve gone into detail about what to expect if you’ve been personally invited to a private gathering. However, if you’re attending a “bedouin dinner” as part of a tour-group itinerary, the event is commercial: you’re paying for the experience, so the same social norms and values don’t apply. In this situation, your bedouin hosts will be tourism professionals, probably with good English anyway.
Before the meal
If you’re invited to eat with someone at home and you choose to accept, the first thing to consider is how to repay your host’s hospitality. Attempting to offer money would be deeply offensive – what is appropriate is to bring some token of your appreciation. A kilo or two of sweet pastries handed to your host as you arrive will be immediately ferreted away out of sight and never referred to again; the gesture, however, will have been appreciated. Otherwise, presenting gifts directly will generally cause embarrassment, since complex social etiquette demands that such a gift be refused several times before acceptance. Instead, you can acknowledge your appreciation by giving gifts to the small children: pens, small toys, notebooks, football stickers, even picture-postcards of your home country will endear you to your hosts much more than might appear from the monetary value of such things.
It’s worth pointing out that you should be much more sparing and – above all – generalized in praising your host’s home and decor than is common in the West, since if you show noticeable interest in a particular piece, big or small, your host is obliged to give it to you. Minefields of complex verbal jockeyings to maintain dignity and family honour then open up if you refuse to accept the item in question. Many local people keep their reception rooms relatively bare for this reason.
If you’re a vegetarian, you would be quite within social etiquette to make your dietary preferences clear before you accept an invitation. Especially in touristy areas, vegetarianism is accepted as a Western foible and there’ll be no embarrassment on either side. Elsewhere, it can help to clarify what seems an extraordinary and unfamiliar practice by claiming it to be a religious or medical obligation. All their best efforts notwithstanding, though, veggies should prepare themselves to have to sit down in front of a steaming dish of fatty meat stew and tuck in heartily, while still looking like they’re enjoying it.
During and after the meal
This section outlines some of the things which may happen once you sit down to eat with a family. It may all seem too daunting for words to try and remember everything here. The bottom line is, you don’t: you’d have to act truly outrageously to offend anyone deeply. Your host would never be so inhospitable as to make a big deal about some social blunder anyway.
Once you arrive for a meal, you may be handed a thimbleful of bitter Arabic coffee as a welcoming gesture; down it rapidly, since everyone present must drink before sociabilities can continue. Hand the cup back while jiggling your wrist: this indicates you don’t want any more (if you just hand it straight back, you’ll get a refill). The meal – often a mansaf – may well be served on the floor if you’re in a tent, generally with the head of the household, his adult sons and any male friends squatting on one knee or sitting cross-legged around a large communal platter; Western women count as males for social purposes and will be included in the circle. As guest of honour, you may be invited to sit beside the head of the household. Even if wives and daughters are present, they almost certainly won’t eat with you, and you may find that they all stay out of sight in another part of the tent or house for the duration of your visit. If they do, it would be grossly impertinent to enquire after them.
Once the food appears (generally served by the women), and the host has wished you “sahtayn!” (“[May you eat] with two appetites!”), you should confine yourself to eating – strictly with your right hand only – from that part of the platter directly in front of you. Reaching across is not done. Your host may toss over into your sector choice bits of meat – probably just ordinary bits, but perhaps the tongue, brains or, as an outside possibility, the eyes – which, if they land in front of you, it would be inexplicable to refuse. It’s possible that everyone present will share a single glass of water, so if the only glass visible is put in front of you, it’s not a cue for you to down it.
While eating, locals will be careful not to lick their fingers, instead rolling their rice and meat into a little ball one-handed and popping it in from a short distance; however, it takes ages to learn how to do this without throwing food all over yourself, and you’ll have enough social leeway to subtly cram in a fistful as best you can. It’s no embarrassment – in fact, it’s almost obligatory – to make a horrible greasy mess of your hands and face. People do not linger over eating, and rarely pause to chat: you may find that everyone chomps away more or less in silence.
Stop eating (or slow down) before you’re full, partly because as soon as you stop you’ll be tossed more food, and partly because no one will continue eating after you – the guest of honour – have stopped (so if you sit back too soon you’ll be cutting the meal short). Never finish all the food in front of you, since not only does this tag you as greedy, it’s also an insult to your host, who is obliged to keep your plate well stocked. Bear in mind, too, that dinner for the women and children is whatever the men (and you) leave behind.
When you’ve finished, your right hand over your heart and the words al-hamdulillah (“thank God”) make clear your satisfaction.
Everyone will get up and walk away to wash hands and face with soap, before adjourning to lounge on cushions, perhaps around the fire. Coffee will be served in tiny handleless cups; take three before returning the cup with a jiggle of your wrist. Then there’ll be endless glasses of sweet, black tea, along with bonhomie, conversation and possibly an argileh. It’s your host’s unspoken duty to keep the tea flowing whatever happens, so after you’ve had enough – or if you don’t want any at all – stem the tide by saying “da’iman” (“may it always be thus”) and then simply ignore your full glass.
People will be genuinely (and innocently) interested in you as visitors, and their questions may flow thick and fast. Aside from “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?”, you’re likely to be asked about how many children you’ve got, what their names are, why you don’t have more, and so on. If you have none, lissa (“later”) or masha’allah (“according to God’s will”) are two respectful, comprehensible ways to say so. Having a few photos to pass around (even if they’re digital images on a phone or camera) of children, parents, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces can break the ice, should any ice need breaking. However, note that men never enquire after another man’s wife – not even her name: the conversation should stay strictly on work and kids.
If you’re travelling as an unmarried couple, saying “We’re just good friends” means little and merely highlights the cultural divide. Being able to show a wedding/engagement ring (a cheap fake will do), even if you have no nuptials planned, makes things instantly clear and understandable. For a woman travelling alone, a ring – indicating an absent husband – is a powerful signifier of respectability.
Although you can talk about most political issues freely, locals will not want to embarrass you, or potentially raise hackles, by embarking on political conversation in anything but the broadest terms. You can, though, feel free to ask questions of your own; once you do, you’ll find most people aren’t backward about speaking their mind on issues surrounding Israel, Arab affairs, domestic reform or the wider world. Let them make the running: if they wish, for instance, to criticize the king or royal family – which can be a criminal offence – be sure not to follow suit. The same goes for religion: people are generally free to practise their religion unhindered, but since it is illegal to proselytize or encourage anyone to convert to any religion other than Islam, it is prudent to avoid initiating debate on religious issues.
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: displaying affection
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.
Sexual harassment of women travellers in Jordan is extremely rare. As we’ve outlined, the single most effective way to stop it happening at all is to understand the Jordanian concept of modesty and to dress accordingly.
Most harassment never goes beyond the verbal – perhaps including hissing or making kissy noises – and unless you’re sufficiently well versed in Arabic swear-words to respond in kind (worth it for the startled looks and the apologies), it’s ignorable.
A tiny fraction of incidents involve groping. If you take the fight to your harasser, by pointing at him directly, shouting angrily and slapping away his hand, you’re likely to shame him to his roots in front of his neighbours. Accusing him of bringing himself and his country into public disrepute – aayib! is Arabic for “shame!” – is about the most effective dissuasive action you could take. Onlookers are likely to be embarrassed and apologetic for your having suffered harassment. Unmarried or unrelated men and women do not touch each other in public (apart from possibly to shake hands in a formal setting), and any man who touches you, even on the elbow to guide you, has overstepped the mark and knows it.
More serious harassment – blocking your path or refusing to leave you alone – is even less likely, and assault is virtually unknown. In Jordan strangers are much more likely to help a foreigner in distress than might be the case at home, and in an emergency you shouldn’t hesitate to appeal directly for help to shopkeepers or passers-by, or to bang on the nearest front door.
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