I’m in Amman, Jordan. I’m here to teach social science methodology to Jordanian civil servants. It’s part of a “Global Centers” project of Columbia’s. I have some mixed feelings about these centers, but that’s for another post. So far, the course has been really fascinating, and rewarding. It’s quite an experience to talk to policy makers and bureaucrats about how to best evaluate evidence/social programs/etc.
I’m hoping they’re learning something, but I’ve learned a tremendous amount more from them. And being in Jordan, I’ve also experienced just how wrong-headed my assumptions about this area of the world can be. Some examples:
On my first night, I was exhausted. At around 7 I walked out of my hotel and ended up in a restaurant in the neighborhood. It was a nice place — it seemed a pleasant spot to grab a quick bite (and a beer!). At 8, as I was just about to leave, the scene completely changed. Suddenly I was surrounded by Russian sex workers (all women). I tried to go into ethnographer mode, but quickly learned that asking questions of these women was neither appropriate, nor was it wise (it suggested interests I didn’t have). I did learn that most of these women were from the same area (Ukraine), and that they worked mostly, if not exclusively at the place I was at.
I wandered home shortly after, tired, and confused. I was expecting to find such sex work so obviously out in the open. The restaurant was a normal place. It had no outward signs that it would turn into a brothel. And it was in a very nice neighborhood in town. It was near my hotel, but there aren’t lots of hotels in my area. Judging by some other men who were arriving as I was leaving, it didn’t just serve travelers. I couldn’t tell if these women were part of human trafficking or something else. They were all clearly in their 20s and 3os (which was heartening). I’d love to learn more about the place, but I couldn’t really stomach going back, and I’m not here long enough to develop a rapport that would make learning anything possible.
In addition to such sex work, I was surprised to find that there is alcohol just about everywhere. Not just in tourist hotels, but for sale in stores, in most restaurants, etc. And many people drink. I think part of the reason this is such a surprise is because on my first day I was reminded of Pakistan — as I entered my hotel I immediately hear the call to prayer, and have heard it, 5 times a day, ever since. This made me think that Jordan must be a very religious country. And perhaps it is. But these Muslims drink. And that’s not the case in Pakistan. I think a big difference is that Jordan has no formal (or allowed) role for religious leaders in politics.
Finally, Last night I went into a neighborhood pharmacy after dinner to buy some water/snacks and saw that right on the counter (and not behind it), next to the chapstick and gum were condoms and lubricant. Again, I was shocked.
Initially I thought, Jordan’s full of contradictions. But as I think about it, I don’t think that’s what it is. It’s that I have a very limited imagination of life in Arab countries. (Though I must admit that Jordan isn’t typical.)
Next stop: Israel. I’m giving a series of talks there at universities — one in Palestine. The Palestinian issue is more keenly felt here in Jordan than I imagined. They have 2,000,000 Palestinian refugees, out of a population of some 7 million. And a new group of refugees — Iraqis — have been creating additional pressures on the state since the war. I’m going to try and visit a Palestinian refugee camp before I leave. More to follow…