On a personal note, I moved to Madaba (right outside the capital of Amman) in 2009, where I started boarding school in King's Academy. King's is a school founded by the King of Jordan, King Abdullah II, who himself had attended a boarding school named Deerfield Academy in the US as a teenager. There was no similar school in Jordan at the time, and so he created this (absolutely wonderful and delightful school) which opened it's doors in 2008, and where his children the royal Prince and Princess' have also attended. To help you follow my journey, here's a little reminder: I was in Saudi Arabia from birth-11 years old, then I moved to Thorpe (England; right outside of London) for one year, followed by Milan for one year, then back to Saudi Arabia for two years, and then I landed myself in Jordan! As this was my first time ever being apart from my parents, I found myself very "homesick" not really for my "home" (which is ever-changing for me), but for my parents. They moved back to England a few months after I started school in Jordan, and by the end of the year I had decided to transfer back to TASIS The American School in England in order to be closer to my family. While I don't regret this, as I think it was the best decision for me personally at the time, I definitely feel like there was so much more for me to explore and learn in Jordan, and I hope that I can have the chance to go back one day!
Getting back on track, here are some experiences I've had or noticed that I've found to be unique to Jordan and/or Jordanian culture, but mostly here is a list of things that surprised me about Jordan (which will probably tell me more about me and my 15-year-old psyche than anything else!).
1. Not everyone looks "Arab".
Jordanians do not look like the stereotypical "Arab". For those who know me personally or have read my previous posts, I've lived in Saudi Arabia for 13 years, and even I was surprised at how "non-Arab" Jordanians look. During my first week of classes at King's Academy, I remember asking a girl if she was Portuguese, as I knew someone else from there who looked just like her. She giggled and in her broken English and Arab accent told me she is from Amman (capital city of Jordan). From then on, I was less surprised when 2/3 of Jordanians I met didn't look "Arab" to me but rather white; the only thing giving away their true identity were their accents and ability to speak Arabic in the way only a native speaker could. Not only that, but many of them had "western" names, which again made it harder to know who was Jordanian and who was, well, "white".
The best way to describe it is to think of Shakira. Though she is only half Lebanese, you might not even realize she was Lebanese at all unless someone told you. A lot of Jordanians are basically the same, as in they do not look like the stereotypical image that comes into mind when one thinks "Arab".
What this taught me (keep in mind, I was much younger! I was just 15 at the time, with a whole lot more to learn) was I wasn't as open minded as I believed myself to be, as I too had fallen into the trap of stereotypes. I thought I wouldn't - having moved quite a bit by then, and having experienced countless cultures, but if I'm honest, then yes, it did surprise me. I had a couple of Jordanian friends, but when I met naturally-blond Arabs I was extremely surprised.
2. More religious diversity and acceptance than I imagined
Before Jordan, I had traveled to many different Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia Bahrain, and Dubai (all part of the gulf), where there was a lot of diversity in terms of nationality and races. In particular, there were many natives, along with South Asians, Filipinos, Sudanese, and "Westerners" (Europeans, Americans). Based off the different races and nationalities present in those countries, one can expect there was a lot of religious diversity as well.
In Jordan, though, while there isn't nearly as much diversity in terms of nationality and race, there was more religious diversity within the locals than I had previously realized. Prior to Jordan, I knew there were Arab-Christians, but I had only met one Arab-Christian family in my entire life. At Jordan, I met a countless number of Arab Christians and even a few native, Arab-Jewish folk. While Jordan has only a 6% Christian minority, there were still many more (openly) Arab-Christians in Jordan than in the other Middle Eastern countries I'd visited.
Again, this plays into stereotypes and my lack of knowledge on diversity from when I was 15. I too had fallen into the trap of stereotypes, this time with religion. At Jordan, I learned that Arab does not equal Muslim, by any means what-so-ever.
3. Love for the Royal Family
No other nation loves their royal family more than Jordanians. While this might be something I'm overly simplifying, it did surprise me when I was in Jordan, and even after I left. King Abdullah is referred to His Highness and the royal family is not only adored, but absolutely respected.
I think the difference between the Jordanian Royal family and other royal families lies here - in the respect individuals have for them. For example, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are also absolutely adored and respected, but it's clear to see instances in which they're clearly disrespected (take the paparazzi taking extremely inappropriate shots of Kate for example - not cool. And the fact that I just referred to her as Kate? That's exactly my point - you'll never hear anyone referring to Queen Rania as simply "Rania"). Also, you'll never read an article about King Abdullah's teeth, but it's very likely you'll stumble across a Buzzfeed article of William's, for example. That's where the difference lies. There is the utmost respect for the royal family, and they are seen as true royalty rather than celebrity-royals that perhaps the British monarchy is seen as. One could argue that neither is better than the other, they're just different.
Just a disclaimer, I'm not by any means justifying that the British royal monarchy doesn't deserve respect - of course they do! - or saying they aren't respected, but rather, simply stating differences I've seen in the way they are seen in the public eye.
4. Diversity in Islamic Practice
While the majority of Jordanians are Muslim, I would say that (especially in Amman) there is diversity in the practice of Islam, which is absolutely beautiful. There are secular Muslims, outwardly-religious Muslims (for lack of a better term?), and ultra-orthodox Muslims, all living together in harmony.
The best example I can provide of this is the way women choose to dress in Jordan. You can see three Jordanian women walking next to each other on the street: one in a full on, black burkha, the other wearing western-clothing paired with a hijab, and the other in a sundress. None of them judging the other, all living harmoniously together. Obviously, I am over-simplifying this (there are people in Jordan who think the burkha is overkill, and also those who think that shorts are absolutely blasphemous), but really it's easy to see the various attitudes towards how Islam should be outwardly practiced within the natives in Jordan than, say, Saudi Arabia. There is more mutual respect, regardless of differences in religious practice. Again, I'm not arguing which way is better, just stating something unique that I noticed.
Another great example of this is the Jordanian royal family themselves. Queen Rania, in particular (since we are on the subject of women and their choice of dress) has a lovely fashion choice, very different than the image that may come to some people's minds of a stereotypical Arab Muslim woman.
Prior to actually moving to Jordan, I would have never, ever considered Jordan as a "vacation spot". There are a few reasons for this: I thought it would be very similar to the Gulf-countries I'd already seen (and as you can tell, I was very wrong about that!), as well as I didn't think there was anything to do and/or see in Jordan. I was obviously yet again extremely wrong - there's so much to see and do! With my parents, I explored Jordan's vast historical sights where the Roman Empire thrived and where religious figures like Moses walked. Later in the year, with my friends, I traveled to the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on earth and called the Dead Sea because it is so salty, nothing can live in it. It was beautiful. I hope to return to Jordan one day and explore all the places I didn't get to, such as Aqaba.
Living in Jordan was an eye-opener to me. I really took my past experiences for granted before Jordan. I didn't realize how privileged I truly was, and at the same time how much more there was for me to learn. I had no idea how different Jordanian culture was to Gulf culture (and even there - culture varies so drastically by city to city, let alone "Jordan" to "Gulf"!), and this honestly just helped me grow into who I am today, as well as changed the way I view the world.
No longer do I see the seven continents, but I see each country for it's own, each city for it's own, and each person for it's own. Similar, but different all the same. My experiences in Jordan made me realize that stereotypes are meaningless; a smart way for our mind to keep things organized but rather stupid when played out in everyday situations. I realized that even though I had lived in London and Milan, there was a whole world for me to explore, and to go with an open heart and mind.