10 Things I Learned from Living in the Middle East

Published July 18th, 2019 - 09:36 GMT
My life in Jordan is one I will never forget. /AFP
My life in Jordan is one I will never forget. /AFP

 

My life in Jordan is one I will never forget. It pushed me. It challenged me. Sometimes, it even scared me. But I am convinced that not only travelling but living in another culture has taught me valuable life lessons that have filtered into my personal and work life.

My life in Jordan is one I will never forget. It pushed me. It challenged me. Sometimes, it even scared me.

Here are the 10 most important skills I picked up from my time in Jordan.

  1. Patience

Ah, how ambitious we are in our youth. Everything's a competition. Get the best grades, finish first. I was fresh out of my MA with a strong thesis subject and the respect of professors and classmates. Then I moved to Jordan, and I found that my theories didn't mean a thing.

When you can't speak the language, when the call to prayer interrupts your routine, when cab drivers refuse to take you where you want and you're trying to renew your visa in a smokey room staffed by friendly but armed police officers, you realise that your learning process has just begun.

When you can't speak the language, when the call to prayer interrupts your routine, when cab drivers refuse to take you where you want and you're trying to renew your visa in a smokey room staffed by friendly but armed police officers, you realise that your learning process has just begun. You learn to accept that the rules are different. You learn to take your time so that rather than rushing through everything, each day you are actually, well, learning about and experiencing the culture you have chosen to visit.

2. Breaking my Comfort Zone

Each year I spent in Jordan had its own challenges. I would never have risen to them if I hadn't made a conscious decision to do things that I wasn't used to. I can't even begin to count the number of cab drivers I argued with to ensure I didn't get ripped off. Worse was how vulnerable I felt when I started learning Arabic and began trying to speak this alien tongue with no familiarity.

Each year I spent in Jordan had its own challenges.

But speak it I did and today that experience has helped me bond with my wife and her (or rather our) family. It is helping me in my PhD research and has given me insight into Arab culture I otherwise would not have.

3. While Knowing my Limits

Living abroad is not always glamorous. If it was, what would you learn? I spent my first winter in Jordan's capital, Amman with only a propane-driven portable heater for company (a heater that would not be legal in Europe). I had good days and bad days. And I learned when to take a break from it all. Some weekends I would visit a cinema just to be exposed to English for 2 uninterrupted hours.

I had good days and bad days. And I learned when to take a break from it all. Some weekends I would visit a cinema just to be exposed to English for 2 uninterrupted hours.

I learned when to admit that continuing to work under 40 degrees when everyone else was going home would be a bad idea. By getting a feel for when the culture shock (or heat waves!) were too much, I was able to take a break before I burned out. The result: my research became more enjoyable and I quickly published a few articles from my projects at the office.

4. Creativity

There is nothing more frustrating than the language barrier. During my first year, our NGO was granted observer status at the Jordanian parliamentary elections. I attended with my boss at the Royal Cultural Center, headed back to Jebel Webdeh for lunch and only then realised that because our boss had driven us from the Webdeh office to the center, I wasn't sure how to get back. I stopped a cab and tried to explain in English where I thought the Center was.

Being stuck in a foreign country with no support forces you to think of solutions.

He stared blankly and kept shaking his head. Being stuck in a foreign country with no support forces you to think of solutions. I quickly remembered that I'd been issued an ID card for entry. It had my photo, name and date of birth, along with some other information. All in Arabic. I showed it to the driver. And thankfully, that 'other information' was the address for the center. I made it back in time for the first press conference with former PM Abdullah Ensour and Amman's Chief of Police, who happily revealed that the only security issue they'd experienced thus far had been the wife of one candidate beating up the wife of another candidate.

5. Accepting Differences

This point links back to culture shock and also links back to breaking your comfort zone. If you're going to work in a foreign country, you learn to accept that there are times when things are going to be different in your host country, and there is nothing you can do to change it.

If you're going to work in a foreign country, you learn to accept that there are times when things are going to be different in your host country, and there is nothing you can do to change it.

Arabic is different from any other language I've studied. The dry heat of Amman's summer means that, like everyone else, I had to reduce my physical activity and embrace the friendship of my new air conditioner. Having Friday as your weekend and being at work Saturday and Sunday (without it being overtime) become the norm. If you can accept differences, while acknowledging your own personal limits, you can adapt and work anywhere.

6. Discerning the Familiar

Where there are differences, there are always similarities. No more did I feel this than when I visited the Arab world and took from Jordan its greatest treasure: my wife. I got to know her family. Thanks to my marriage, I now have 3 beautiful, kind sisters, a wonderful brother and Mama and Baba.

No more did I feel this than when I visited the Arab world and took from Jordan its greatest treasure: my wife. I got to know her family. Thanks to my marriage, I now have 3 beautiful, kind sisters, a wonderful brother and Mama and Baba.

At a time when the West's media focuses so much on ISIS, the refugee crisis, terrorism, civil war in Syria and God knows what else, I am very happy to announce the obvious: most Jordanians, Iraqis, Kuwaitis and other Arabs want exactly what you and I want. They want to live in peace. They want to love their families and see their kids do well in school. My (wife's) sisters love video games, American Dad, a trip to the movies and Pizza Hut. This might sound like a very naive thing to say, but I suspect that unless you spend enough time in the Middle East as an expat, you may focus on only the differences rather than the similarities.

7. More Patience

Arab work etiquette is very different to the West's. Back in Europe or the US, we seem to prefer getting down to business. Coffee or lunch may be served but then contracts are quickly discussed and punctually signed. Not so in the Arab world.

We may drink Ahwa Turkia or Ahwa Arabia (Turkish or Arabic coffee) and spend several meetings on getting to know one another. Only if there is trust on a personal level can we do business and enter into a contract.

If I want to seal the deal, I need to build trust with my potential partner. I will ask them how they are, I may ask about their health and about their family. We may drink Ahwa Turkia or Ahwa Arabia (Turkish or Arabic coffee) and spend several meetings on getting to know one another. Only if there is trust on a personal level can we do business and enter into a contract.

8. The Usefulness of Language Skills

Living in Jordan gets easier when you can speak Arabic. But then you realise that Arabic is not one language. There are several dialects that can vary from country to country (and even from town to town). Having learned Fusha or Modern Standard Arabic I could now read and write articles. I could tell cab drivers that I wasn't a tourist they could rip off (Wallah Anna mish ajnabi. Askoon fil Urdun yeaa Sharshooh! Or in Arabic: والله أنا مش أجنبي. أسكون في الأردن ي شرشوح).
 

While I have yet to immerse myself in A'amiya or colloquial Arabic, my grounding in Fusha has allowed me to understand some colloquial words.

While I have yet to immerse myself in A'amiya or colloquial Arabic, my grounding in Fusha has allowed me to understand some colloquial words. Only once this happened did I start to get a feel for not only the Arab world but how one Arab region or state may view another. For example, there are specific...unflattering terms used by some states for others (that perhaps I can't repeat here!). If anything, this knowledge taught me that while there is such a thing as Arabism, each country has its own culture. Jordan is not Lebanon. Lebanon is not Kuwait or the UAE.

9. Trust

Speaking of building trust, the lack of work and other regulation does mean that navigating employment opportunities in the Middle East can be tricky. As with breaking your comfort zone, there are times when you learn to let go of your worries and let things be. You learn to trust colleagues in Jordan whom you've only Skyped with when they say Jordan is safe (and it is).

You learn to cross your fingers and hope for the best when told that the armed guards boarding your bus are conducting a routine check when you drive from Amman to Aqaba by the Red Sea (they were quick and found nothing unusual with our passenger list). But you also develop a gut feeling about projects, offers and other events.

you also develop a gut feeling about projects, offers and other events.

The bottom line is this: if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. And if a country or city is undergoing or has gone revolution, listen to your gut. In 2014, I was planning a 4 day trip to Libya. I had a contact who knew locals and even offered to meet me at the airport. I trust my contact to this day but something in my gut told me not to go. I cancelled my trip. On the day that I was meant to return to Amman from Tripoli, rival militias exchanged fire on the airport runway. The plane they hit could well have been mine.

10. Improvisation

Cab drivers who don't know addresses. A sudden chance to attend a conference on Higher Education at the Dead Sea. Police vans outside your favourite cafe. New friendships and family you will have forever. You never know what can happen when you navigate a culture, climate and country that isn't yours. Opportunities and obstacles can arise at any moment (as in any job).

You never know what can happen when you navigate a culture, climate and country that isn't yours.

But the difference between myself and my colleagues back home was that for them, these obstacles and opportunities presented themselves in a familiar cultural framework and in their native tongue. And so, you learn to improvise.

You switch to your best Arabic to make your new clients feel more comfortable. You put on your best smile when students are less interactive during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. And when you finally depart for the place you once called home, you take with you cherished memories, a newfound sense of family and the unmistakable feeling of growth, triumph and confidence that only living abroad can give you.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


© 2000 - 2019 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

You may also like