Looking from the Outside-In: An American In Amman During a Summer of Tumult
To those who espouse such ill-informed views, let me take you to another part of the world. I am talking about Amman, Jordan- a city where demanding social equality or protesting against police brutality might mean security officials snapping a photo of you; a still frame that could very well lead to an unwelcome knock on your door in the middle of the night. Or Beirut, Lebanon- where a Syrian refugee who couldn’t have been much older than my sixteen-year old sister insisted on shining my beat-up Nikes, pleading with me in Arabic, “I need money for food; I haven’t eaten in days.” So, the next time you hear Americans voice such misinformed statements remember this: for all of the United States’ faults, be unabashedly proud that you live in a country where protesting against social injustices is possible.
While I travelled to Beirut during a break from Arabic classes at the end of Ramadan, the primary purpose of my trip was to study Arabic at the Qasid Insitute in Amman. Prior to this summer, I spent three years studying Arabic at the University of Florida followed by a year of translating open-source materials for my job at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). My research and publications have primarily focused on the Syrian civil war and Sunni-jihadist organizations including the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Thus, my traditional vocabulary slowly atrophied; I could still wax poetic about the “courageous lions’ raids on the Sahwats’ den” or the “fearless Green Birds ascending to Jannah (Heaven)” but I probably couldn’t tell you where to find what you were looking for in your kitchen- that is unless you’re in need of a suicide belt.
This summer I was lucky enough to reconnect with the less vile parts of an incredible region, language, religion, and culture. I’ll never forget the experiences I had and the friends I made- the group of young military conscripts who insisted on paying for my food after we talked Middle Eastern politics over dinner, the cab driver who invited me to share Iftar dinner with his family of twenty-two, and every random Jordanian who stopped me on the street to remind me what too many of my peers seem to have forgotten, “I love America. You live in the greatest country in the world.”
What is the best day you had on your trip?
As I’ve immersed myself in the literature and open-source material spewing out of the first “socially-mediated war” in Syria, I’ve come to appreciate just how much the civil war has transformed the Middle East, in particular Lebanon, a country of unfathomable beauty still shaken and bullet-ridden from decades of warfare. My best day this summer was my birthday, July 20th, when I went with a friend from American University in Beirut, her boyfriend, and their professor to tour Southern Lebanon. The area is a traditional stronghold of the political parties Amal and Hezbollah, the latter of which has now lost more counterinsurgents fighting as President Assad’s proxy than it has in its decades-long military struggle against Israel. While I understood on an academic level how Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria has changed the “Party of God,” polarized Lebanese politics, and tarnished its image as a pan-Islamic vanguard, driving through the south allowed me to feel just how much the intervention has transformed Hezbollah and Lebanon. “The cult of martyrdom” followed me down every hilltop and roadway I explored; young and naïve men were immortalized on green billboards. Unlike in the past, these militants did not die fighting against Israeli soldiers; they perished as Assad’s cannon fodder. Even in Southern Lebanon, most individuals quietly expressed their convictions that Syria’s civil war was “another man’s fight;” when I returned to Beirut the criticism was louder and more adamant. Talk of the need to prevent takfiri jihadists from infiltrating Lebanon was dismissed outright; instead, these war-weary civilians worried that Hezbollah’s actions threatened to tear the country apart at the seems, pitting Sunnis against Shi’ites, fulfilling Hezbollah’s fears of emboldened Sunni jihadists gaining influence and strength along the border with Syria, and plunging the fragile country back into the darker days of its recent history.
How have you changed after this experience?
My summer in Amman has been an eye-opening experience for me. Too often Americans get caught up in the whirlwind of sensationalized media coverage and willfully accept Orientalist depictions of Middle Easterners as backwards, aggressive, and opposed to anything and everything American. Yet after my summer I can confidently tell my peers; don’t buy into every “analytical piece” that you see on CNN or read on the front page of the New York Times. I’ve come to know and fall in love with people who yearn for nothing more than respite from the fighting and violence that has characterized the region in recent years- people who oppose the machinations and policies of their political and military leaders. Despite my run in with the occasional conspiracy theorist or bigot (something you can easily encounter on most college campuses or in every big U.S. city), nearly every individual I met expressed their hope that peace will come to the region- that Jews, Muslims, and Christians will one day live side by side in harmony.
Even more rewarding was seeing just how much the people love the United States and respected me for taking an interest in their lives. There was the incredibly intelligent Jordanian cab driver and retired military officer who invited me to dinner with his family, repeatedly praised U.S.-Jordanian military and intelligence cooperation on counterterrorism issues, and chatted for hours about the Islamic State, even showing me his copy of a letter that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s own brother penned condemning the deceased al-Qaeda in Iraq leader’s butchery and backwards interpretation of Islam. Or one of my Arabic tutors who told me every day, “Ryan, you are not my student. We are brothers. We are friends.” We laughed together and frequently at each other. When he would say in broken English, with a purposefully exaggerated accent, “Ryan you are very ssssssmmmmart,” I could not help but break down laughing. He would only crack a smile and reply, “What? I am just like you- made in America!” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that everything from my shoes to my shirt was actually made in China.
Show us a picture of your favorite meal. What is it?
My close friends like to joke that I’m an obese child trapped in a fitness-obsessed man’s body. So one of the most exciting parts of my travels was experiencing new culinary treats. And, like most everything in the Middle East, culinary history is hotly contested. The Israelis and Palestinians, for instance, have an ongoing spat over which people can lay claim to hummus, the insanely popular chickpea dish. Yet one thing that most Jordanians quietly admitted to me is that Lebanese cuisine is by far the most unique, refined, and delicious. After my trip through southern Lebanon, I spent my birthday night enjoying a delicious meal with friends at Zaitunay Bay, an upscale area of Beirut where the rich and famous dock their yachts. By far, the best meal that I ate during my entire summer was this kibbeh, a fried Levantine dish traditionally made with bulgur, minced onions, Middle Eastern spices, and finely ground lean beef or lamb. Yet this Lebanese twist on the dish, stuffed with shrimp, lobster, and fish was better than any variation I’ve ever tried. Perhaps it was the seafood so fresh that I could’ve sworn it was caught that morning. Perhaps it was the great company I shared. Or most likely, perhaps it was the seemingly endless drinks after a trip, literally and figuratively, through Hezbollah’s backyard.