The Summer of 2015 was a time for many firsts within my life: my first time outside of the United States alone, my first time in the Middle East, and my first time atop a camel (and subsequently falling off said camel in the middle of Wadi Rum). Throughout my eight weeks in Jordan, I was always shocked at the sheer number of people, mostly strangers, that vehemently congratulated me—as a white American—for “accomplishing the unthinkable”: learning Modern Standard Arabic.
During my last night in the Hashemite Kingdom, the adhan echoed and reverberated throughout the white stone villas in Sha’riia Rainbow (Rainbow Street), one of Amman’s busiest social hubs. While celebrating the Eid al-fitr holiday, my host brother and I sat down to discuss my time in Amman and any hopes (or anxieties) about returning to the United States.
As we sat down with our drinks, he with his traditional hot Bedouin tea with copious amounts of sugar, I with my turkish coffee (both staples in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan), he noted that my cheeks—now darkened and blushed by the weeks in Jordan’s unforgivable sun—made him envious. My host brother noted that this “redness” under my skin was considered “the most beautiful in his culture.” At the time, I laughed off his comment as a simple politeness and never revisited the thought; however, this casual exchange would prove to be anything but as quiet reflections spurned stark realizations.
Where did that “difference”—instantly coded as cultural—emerge? What factors shaped this perspective? Until this past semester, the complexity and pervasiveness of these questions and their answer had remained unknown—and even unasked. Covert, elusive, and masked, these realizations proved to be an expansion upon my own understandings of race and its construction/employment throughout varying previous colonial projects, Jordan being no exception.
As Edward Said wrote, “The scientist, the scholar, the missionary, the trader, or the soldier was in, or thought about, the Orient because he could be there, or could think about it, with very little resistance on the Orient’s part.” As if I had only remembered them in part, my memories of Jordan and the subtle conversations there had gained a vividness about them that only demonstrated my ignorance to the complex (and hegemonic) discourses weaving themselves throughout their entirety. The assertion of this coded white characteristic/essentialization of “redness” as a marker for beauty—in my host brother’s view—told far more than what he though of my cheeks and their complexion.
Colonial legacies, exotification, domination, subjugation, exploitation, racial formation, and a sweeping array of complex and mechanistic factors began presenting themselves in full, emphasizing the covertness with which they moved. In my blindness, I failed to recognize the immense privilege bound within my very being in this “Orient”, a space I freely—and wholly—occupied with no resistance. I was met with no pushback. There was no confrontation or contest, harkening to the factors forming along the racial spectrum within these spaces.
The impacts of British colonialism, far reaching within Jordan, allowed me to move throughout the cityscape with little trouble. If I couldn’t remember the Arabic translation for something, I could usually enjoy the reality that someone would happily translate on my behalf. While riding the ornately adorned camels in Wadi Rum, I had no doubt that it was my appearance—both with my complexion, hair,and eye color—that would be complimented and noticed.
In each of these instances, I failed to recognize the pervasive and covert nature of race and its impacts upon my experience within the Hashemite Kingdom. As a genderqueer, gay person from rural Appalachia, I had never questioned my abilities to tell when something was really about race; however, what I considered to be really about race was only the overt ways through which it manifests, ignoring the covert mechanisms through which race imbues and masquerades. In addition to prevailing notions of race, the prevalent neoliberal paradigm governing much of the world also found root within Jordan.
Following the entrenchment of Palestinian refugees after the 1947 Israeli annexation of Palestine, Jordan and neighboring countries were forced to grapple with severe realties relating to a system that lacked care or concern for this vulnerable population. Now, with countless Syrian forced migrants swelling Jordan’s borders, the vulnerability of the Hashemite Kingdom and its ability to procure the basic social goods outlined in the 1951 refugee convention harkened to previous moments of colonization and exploitation that have left the nation fragile and broken within a global system predicating such factors.
Interventions in countless neighboring states (Iraq and Syria being two such examples) has only exacerbated many of the stresses placed upon the internal state. In my being there, ignorant to these factors, I, too, continued to perpetuate the racial projects and colonial endeavors begun by the similarly red-cheeked colonizers that came before. My host brother’s comment, while directed on my complexion, highlighted a far deeper divide between he and I.
My red cheeks harkened to the immense privilege associated with them, and my whiteness, in this space and a free movement and occupation of such. My ignorance and failure to recognize these subtle aggressions and privileges on my part have undoubtedly contributed to the continued perpetuation of the racial projects in play; that part is undeniable.
However, in the recognition and reconciliation of these covert and problematic aspects, opportunities emerge in tandem with my eventual return to Jordan in the Fall of 2016; however, the difference now lies in recognizing the reconstitutive aspects to these racial projects and ending their cycles of perpetuation.
These opportunities provide points to grapple with and denounce existing racial projects for what they are and how they operate. Though my first time in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan proved problematic, I find comfort in knowing that I am equipped with extensive tools and aids from my previous time in Jordan, only now being coupled with reflective behaviors and acknowledgement of my own privilege within this space.
Scholars like Said, with his theories relating to discursive power and productions of knowledge, Didier Fassin—noting the troubles associated with “humanitarian governments” and the presupposition of inequality in humanitarian encounters—and Eve Spangler’s masterful case study of race, religion, and racism in Israel/Palestine, provide crucial foundations that my work and existence in these spaces will draw upon.
In the coming months, I will return to Jordan—drastically changed and positioned in comparison to just one year earlier. During the fall semester of 2016, I will begin analyzing the legal concerns surrounding refugee and forced migration routes from Syria through the transitory state of Jordan; however, my return to this space is accompanied with a greater knowledge of the histories and lived realities shaping the space I will call home for nearly a year.
Though these realizations have revealed immediate changes within my previous experiences and the ways I understood them, it will most certainly have lasting impacts for any future research in the Hashemite Kingdom, the region, and the globe.