A Jew Alone In Jordan

On December 14 of last year, I did the objectively wrong thing for any Jew to do, and I went to Amman, Jordan, after Trump’s Jerusalem announcement. Partly this was out of necessity, as a new 3-month Israeli tourist visa was needed for me to be able to do an Onward Israel internship program, and partly this was out of interest. I had never been in an Arab country before, and this seemed like a cheap way to fulfill practical needs while continuing to explore the world.

So I took a shuttle from Nazareth at 8:30 a.m. to one of three border crossings between Israel and Jordan. Interrogated by Israeli security as I was leaving about why I had been in Israel, how I knew it was okay for me to volunteer at a hostel, and what the names of my parents and grandparents were, a short ride later I was in Jordanian territory. Suddenly entering a 1970’s movie about Morocco, with dust everywhere and letters on signs falling off or long gone, Jordanian passport control was stressful only in that there was a long line and I didn’t know how they would react to my American passport. Thankfully everything went smoothly, and after paying the fee for a visa, the shuttle continued to Amman.

Waking up from a nap just as we arrived in Amman, I grabbed my two bags in time to notice the swarm of taxi drivers directing these silly tourists and their money. One driver tried to move me to his car, and being still half asleep and irritated at this forceful buzzing all around me, I told him that I’ll walk instead. I quickly realized that Amman has almost no decent infrastructure for pedestrians, as I acted like a local and half-walked in highways with drivers that made Israelis look completely sane. The occasional taxi driver would notice my bags, slow down, and honk loudly a few times in my ear. One tried to yell at me, so I yelled back in Russian using words my parents would be ashamed to hear in my vocabulary. My number one rule, “just walk around like you own the place,” proved fruitful as the honks subsided and any fear of being in this strange new place on my own was offset by the taste of new adventure and a familiar stop in McDonald’s to use the restroom.

After walking almost 8 1/2 miles (it might have only been 6, but I was dehydrated, tired, and needing to go to the bathroom, so excuse me for rounding up in a fit of dramatic effect), I finally arrived at the Sydney Hotel in downtown Amman. While called a hotel, it was also a cheap hostel, and that’s where I stayed for four days before returning to Israel. Over the course of the four days, I had the most delicious hummus that exists (sorry Israel) and felt continuously exhausted from my 8 ½-mile hike. This led to a pattern of sleeping most of the day and going out at night with some new friends who were also travelers at the hostel.

One of the most interesting exchanges was the first night we went out to explore the Roman theater in downtown Amman. On the way back to the hostel we decided to stop for a beer and were confused for a moment about whether or not we were allowed to drink openly on the street. One of the guys, who was volunteering at the Sydney Hotel, asked the shopkeeper, and we were rewarded with a hefty shaking head and black bags to hide the alcohol in.

I was already enjoying the experience of surprise at there being liquor stores in a Muslim country (this seemed to be opposite what I would think reality to be), let alone right down the road from two large mosques. But then, walking on the streets, came the jokes that we were doing something dangerous by drinking publicly. To this, I responded: “I’m a Jew in Jordan after the Trump Jerusalem announcement. I’m already doing dangerous,” and the guy volunteering stopped to look at me and tell me that I’m right because he’s heard what people around Amman will do to a Jew if they see one. Earlier that day was a protest against Israel and the Jerusalem announcement outside the King Hussein Mosque, and after talking about it for a few seconds we decided as a group that I shouldn’t tell anyone I’m a Jew.

I felt alone and completely isolated. I hadn’t told my parents what I was doing because the Jewish ear-wringing would erase 24 hours of my life, and here I was after Israel, in a country with no Jewish life, a totally homogenous Arab population as far as I could see, and an atmosphere that Amman could care less where I disappeared to. Knowing the political situation and the protests across the world regarding Jerusalem, I wasn’t myself anymore as a proud Jew. I became just another body walking around a city that wasn’t mine at all.

On my last night in Amman, I went out again with friends from the Hostel, but this time to an English-speaking cultural exchange involving university students, both Jordanian and international. After only experiencing shopkeepers on the streets, sitting and laughing with Jordanians was relaxing and felt much better than the loneliness I had before. But even here, I made jokes about Russians but never said I was a Jew. As I introduced myself to people, some said “I’m Jordanian” while others said “I’m Palestinian”. While learning about the overabundance of engineers in Jordan, in the back of my head was a little voice that kept saying “I’m Jewish, why can’t I say I’m a Jew, I know if I do it’ll change everything, but why can’t I.” One of the Jordanians asked me what I thought of the Jerusalem decision over dinner, and my heart skipped a beat. All I said was that I didn’t think Trump should decide anything, and he agreed with me. But why can’t I say I’m a Jew? They get to say they’re Palestinian. Why can’t I say I’m a Jew?

The next morning I took an Uber, with my Palestinian driver, to the border crossing into the West Bank and onwards to Jerusalem. Being back in Israel, seeing and hearing Hebrew and Jews and Russian accents and Russian…it felt like heaven. I wasn’t alone anymore, and I didn’t need to make myself disappear as a Jew.

But I later realized that Amman was special. Arabic is a language charged in America and Israel as automatically associated with “them”, “terrorists”, “danger”, “other”. After ordering fried chicken and fries around families laughing in Arabic, there is a lot less to fear. Was I alone in Amman? Yes. Do I prefer to be around Jews? Yes. But we are all still human, at the end of the day. And losing fear of that kind of “other” only serves to make me a better person.

I keep a Jordanian Dinar in my wallet to remind me of all this, the complicated world I live and travel in. And strangely enough, part of me misses the beauty of a skyline resonating with the Muslim call to prayer on all sides. Maybe it isn’t so bad, at least for a little bit, to be a Jew in Jordan.