Thursday, May 5, 2011

My Big Jordan Oops!

Me on a Good Day
When I told my Muslim friend I was going to Jordan, he gave me an interesting description of its citizens. “Jordanians are beautiful on the inside and outside,” he said. “It is a small country of good-natured people who love their old ways but won’t judge a foreigner harshly. They are respectful and welcoming.” 

My husband and I landed in Amman on a hot September morning. The moment we set foot outside the airport, we were sizzled by a blistery cloud similar to the whiff that sears your face when you hover over a barbeque grill. By the time we reached our hotel, it was noon, and the gray asphalt was so hot, the goat shepherds could cook their stews on it instead of on a wooden stove. I could feel the bottoms of my shoes getting soft and gooey.  

We were staying in an inexpensive hotel, but it was reasonably well air-conditioned and the shower worked. After a quick refreshing rinse, we ditched our jackets, changed, and got ready for a trip to downtown Amman. Ramadan had just finished followed by another Muslim holiday, Eid, which celebrates the end of the month-long fast by a big feast. Families were going out to celebrate, eat, and be merry. It was a cultural event not to be missed. 

I always deemed myself an experienced globetrotter who knows how to respect the local traditions and the dress code. I knew better than to wander into Amman’s city center in shorts or a tank top.  In a country where women wore thick long cloaks and swathed their heads with layers of cloth, I had to do a bit of planning to fit in. Even in the desert heat – and a good chunk of Jordan is desert – I made sure my arms and legs were covered. I pulled on a shirt that covered my arms up to my elbows and a long pair of traveler’s pants with a dozen pockets.  I left my hair loose, skipped the make-up, and stuffed a short little cardigan into my pack, conditioned by the American obsession of over-cooling their restaurants. Just in case we’d find one that praised itself on freezing tourists to death.   

I felt I was ready. I wouldn’t expect to pass for a local like I often do in Istanbul, but I figured I’d do OK on the morals test. Unlike Saudi’s Mutawas, Jordan does not have religious or values' police so no girl gets arrested for wearing tight jeans or lipstick, yet the majority of women still don their colorful headscarves. 

We grabbed a cab at the hotel entrance and twenty minutes later climbed out in the heart of the downtown market where upscale jewelry stores neighbored shoeshine shacks, and little working tanneries co-existed with family restaurants. The place was packed with people: parents taking their big families out to dinner and older couples herding grandkids. I dove into that picturesque sea of humanity, taking in its every bit. 

In about twenty minutes, I became aware of LOOKS. 

The stares weren’t dirty, offensive, or judging. But they weren’t simply curious either. I was used to being a Western tourist in a third-world country, which means you get a lot of studying looks, but there was something else to the people’s stares – as if they were trying to tell me something.

I checked my zipper. I inspected my butt to make sure I hadn’t ripped the thin cotton fabric. I asked my husband to give me an all-around check. All appeared in to be in order. 

Only when a middle-aged couple passed by while staring at my chest in sheer amazement, my faux pas finally donned on me. In my New York naiveté, I had covered my arms and legs, but completely omitted such important item of a lady’s wardrobe as a bra! Really, if I ditched that uncomfortable nylon undergarment in the Big Apple’s muggy summers, why would I encase myself in its sweaty bind in Jordan’s beastly temperatures? 

Well, the natives certainly thought differently. And they were trying to deliver the message to me without mocking my blissful ignorance. 

As much as I enjoyed the downtown, I didn’t think I could find comfortable underpinnings in its market. Neither was I sure that a male store owner would be happy with my request to try it on. I needed a better solution or I had to come back to hotel and I wasn’t up for the journey. Well, there was a non-nylon, yet still a sweaty solution. We never found a restaurant cold enough for me to don my short little cardigan, but for the rest of the evening I wore it anyway, tightly buttoned in front.


  1. I had a similar experience in Jordan. I was travelling alone, I was the only woman on the street and men were actively following me, beeping their horns and trying to chat me up. I became really uncomfortable, especially when they followed me all the way back to the hotel. Like you, I was covered all over, and I had my hair up in a bun under my hat. What no-one told me was that smoking was the sign of a very immoral woman!

  2. Hi Julia,
    Wow, it’s not that often that I find people who traveled Jordan, especially a woman and alone! What brought you there? I loved the country, by the way. I found people very welcoming indeed and quite tolerant of outsiders. I also think the Jordanian king and queen are one of the few monarchs who do care about their people. I was also surprised to find out how much effort was being put into the eco-healthy agriculture; they are trying to fix the overgrazing damage, bring water from the sea, and turn the desert into a fertile land it had once been. One my ambitions for my retired life (that is not any time soon) is to go back to Jordan for a few months and plant trees along their Desert Highway. Definitely coming back!

  3. Had a giggle at your "braless" look! Jordan sounds interesting but I'd be reluctant to go there alone. As you know, I'm traveling to Istanbul, for the first time, later this month. I think I'd be more relaxed there. The Queen of Jordan is gorgeous. Do Jordanian women forgo make-up and fashion?

  4. Hi Tanya,
    actually, no, Jordanian women forgo neither make-up nor fashion. Even heavy make-up is acceptable as long as it is feminine and especially if the headscarf is on. As to fashion - their idea of it different. They would wear embroidered and embellished gowns as opposed to tight shirts as a fashion statement. And the color of their headscarves would match the color of their shoes, purses or eye shadow. The young ones wear jeans and even short skirts… but then there’s usually a pair of pants underneath… in that hundred and ten degrees weather…

  5. Oh, Lina, what a story! How wonderful the Jordanians were so polit and tried to give you the hint without being rude. It sounds like a country full of some lovely people.

  6. I bet that's not a mistake you made twice, Lina. :) But think how much hotter it would have been under an abaya. Do they wear them in Jordan, or just scarves and long coats?

  7. Yes, it was a lovely place! I was only on my own in Amman for a day or two before I headed down to Petra with a bunch of people.

    If I went back, I'd spend a whole week in Petra. I loved that place! :-)