Welcome to Jordan, from the depth of my heart. 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.
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.
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.
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 five-minute volleys of salutations and cheek-kisses, joyful arm-squeezing or back-slapping, and earnest inquiries 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.
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 joking to maintain dignity and family honor 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 sociability 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 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 enquirer 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 anargileh. 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.