Culture and Etiquette in Jordan
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Your experience of Jordanian people and is likely to be that they are, almost without exception, decent, honest, respectful and courteous. It seems only right that you should return some of that respect by showing a grasp of some basic aspects of Jordanian customs, Arab and Muslim culture.
If it’s possible to generalize, the three things that most annoy local people about foreign tourists in Jordan are immodest dress, public displays of affection and lack of social respect. In this section we try to explain why, and how to avoid causing upset.
As you travel through the country you will doubtless see dozens of tourists breaking these taboos (and others), sometimes unwittingly, sometimes deliberately. Nothing bad happens to them. Jordan is a relatively liberal society and there are no Saudi-style religious police marching around to throw offenders in jail. Jordanians would never be so rude as to tell visitors to their country that they are being crass and insensitive; instead, they’ll smile and say, “Welcome to Jordan!” – but still, the damage has been done. You might prefer to be different.
Incidentally, you may also see Jordanians acting and dressing less conservatively than we recommend here. That is, of course, their prerogative – to shape, influence or challenge their own culture from within, in whatever ways they choose. Tourists do not share the same rights over Jordanian culture – the onus is on visitors to fit in and to respect Jordanian etiquette and customs as much as possible.
Outward appearance is the one facet of interaction between locals and western tourists most open to misunderstandings on both sides. A lot of tourists, male and female, consistently flout simple dress codes, unaware of just how much it widens the cultural divide and demeans them in the eyes of local people. Clothes that are unremarkable at home can come across in Jordan as being embarrassing, disrespectful or offensive.
Jordanians and Palestinians place a much greater emphasis on personal grooming and style of dress than people tend to in the West: for most, consciously “dressing down” in torn or scruffy clothes is unthinkable. In addition, for reasons of modesty, many people expose as little skin as possible, with long sleeves and high necklines for both sexes.
Visiting tourists who wear shorts on the street give roughly the same impression that they would wandering around Bournemouth or Baltimore in their underpants. Long trousers are essential in the city, the country and the desert, whatever the weather – clean and respectable light cotton, denim or canvas ones in plain colours (not flimsy, brightly patterned beach-style trousers). If you must wear shorts, go for the loose-fitting knee-length variety rather than brief, shape-hugging athlete’s shorts. Any top that doesn’t cover your shoulders and upper arms counts as underwear. Wearing a T-shirt is acceptable, but a buttoned shirt tucked into trousers broadcasts a sounder message about the kind of value you place on cultural sensitivity. Jordanian men never, in any situation, walk around in public topless.
To interact as a western woman in Jordanian society with some degree of mutual respect, you’ll probably have to go to even greater lengths than men to adjust your normal style of dress, although it is possible to do so without compromising your freedom and individuality too much. Loose-fitting, opaque clothes that cover your legs, arms and chest are a major help in allowing you to relate normally with local men. On women, shorts appear flagrantly provocative and sexual, as do Lycra leggings. T-shirts are also generally best avoided. The nape of the neck is considered particularly erotic and so is best covered, either by a high collar or a thin cotton scarf.
Hair is another area where conservatism helps deter unwanted attention. Jordanian women who don’t wear a headscarf rarely let long hair hang below their shoulders; you might like to follow suit and clip long hair up. To some people, women with wet hair are advertising sexual availability, so you may prefer to dry your hair before going out. If your hair is blonde, you must unfortunately resign yourself to a bit more inquisitive attention – at least when walking in more conservative areas.
Social interaction in Jordan is replete with all kinds of seemingly impenetrable verbal and behavioural rituals, most of which can remain unaddressed by foreigners with impunity. A few things are worth knowing, however.
The energy which Jordanians put into social relationships can bring shame to westerners used to keeping a distance. Total strangers greet each other like chums and chat happily about nothing special, passers-by ask each other’s advice or exchange opinions without a second thought, and old friends embark on volleys of salutations and cheek-kisses, joyful arm-squeezing or back-slapping, and earnest enquiries after health, family, business and news. Foreigners more used to avoiding strangers and doing business in shops quickly and impersonally can come across as cold, uninterested and even snooty. Smiling, learning one or two of the standard forms of greeting, acknowledging those who are welcoming you and taking the time to exchange pleasantries will bring you closer to people more quickly than anything else.
People shake hands in Jordan much more than in the West, and even the merest contact with a stranger is normally punctuated by at least one or two handshakes to indicate fraternity.
Personal space is treated rather differently in Arab cultures from in the West: for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist. Queuing is a foreign notion, and in many situations hanging back deferentially is an invitation for other people to move in front. Jordanians also relate to the natural environment rather differently from westerners. Sitting alone or with a friend in the most perfectly tranquil spot, you may find someone coming up to you blocking the sunset and eager for a chat. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to convey your desire to be alone.
It’s almost inevitable that during your time in Jordan you’ll be invited to drink tea with someone, either in their shop or their home. It’s quite likely too that at some point you’ll be invited for a full meal at someone’s house. Jordanians take hospitality very much to heart, and are honestly interested in talking to you and making you feel comfortable. However, offers tend to flow so thick and fast that it would be difficult to agree to everyone, yet people are often so eager it can also be difficult – and potentially rude – to refuse outright.
First and foremost, whether you’re interested or not, is to take the time to chat civilly; nothing is more offensive than walking on without a word or making an impatient gesture, even if they’re the twentieth person that day to stop you. If you’re invited and you don’t want to accept, a broad smile with your head lowered, your right hand over your heart and “shukran shukran” (“thank you, thank you”) is a clear, but socially acceptable, no. You may have to do this several times – it’s all part of the social ritual of polite insistence. Adding “marra okhra, insha’allah” (“another time, if God wills it”) softens the “no” still further, indicating that you won’t forget their kind offer.
Below, we’ve gone into detail about what to expect if you’ve been personally invited to a private gathering. However, if you’re attending a “bedouin dinner” as part of a tour-group itinerary, the event is commercial: you’re paying for the experience, so the same social norms and values don’t apply. In this situation, your bedouin hosts will be tourism professionals, probably with good English anyway.
If you’re invited to eat with someone at home and you choose to accept, the first thing to consider is how to repay your host’s hospitality. Attempting to offer money would be deeply offensive – what is appropriate is to bring some token of your appreciation. A kilo or two of sweet pastries handed to your host as you arrive will be immediately ferreted away out of sight and never referred to again; the gesture, however, will have been appreciated. Otherwise, presenting gifts directly will generally cause embarrassment, since complex social etiquette demands that such a gift be refused several times before acceptance. Instead, you can acknowledge your appreciation by giving gifts to the small children: pens, small toys, notebooks, football stickers, even picture postcards of your home country will endear you to your hosts much more than might appear from the monetary value of such things.
It’s worth pointing out that you should be much more sparing and – above all – general-zed in praising your host’s home and decor than is common in the West, since if you show noticeable interest in a particular piece, big or small, your host may feel obliged to give it to you. Minefields of complex verbal jockeyings to maintain dignity and family honour then open up if you refuse to accept the item in question. Many local people keep their reception rooms relatively bare for this reason.
If you’re a vegetarian, you would be quite within social etiquette to make your dietary preferences clear before you accept an invitation. Especially in touristy areas, vegetarianism is accepted as a western foible and there’ll be no embarrassment on either side. Elsewhere, it can help to clarify what seems an extraordinary and unfamiliar practice by claiming it to be a religious or medical obligation. All best efforts notwithstanding, though, veggies should prepare themselves to have to sit down in front of a steaming dish of fatty meat stew and tuck in heartily, while still looking like they’re enjoying it.
This section outlines some of the things which may happen once you sit down to eat with a family. It may all seem too daunting for words to try and remember everything here. The bottom line is, you don’t: you’d have to act truly outrageously to offend anyone deeply. Your host would never be so inhospitable as to make a big deal about some social blunder anyway.
Once you arrive for a meal, you may be handed a thimbleful of bitter Arabic coffee as a welcoming gesture; down it rapidly, since everyone present must drink before sociabilities can continue. Hand the cup back while jiggling your wrist: this indicates you don’t want any more (if you just hand it straight back, you’ll get a refill). The meal – often a mansaf – may well be served on the floor if you’re in a tent, generally with the head of the household, his adult sons and any male friends squatting on one knee or sitting cross-legged around a large communal platter; western women count as males for social purposes and will be included in the circle. As guest of honour, you may be invited to sit beside the head of the household. Even if wives and daughters are present, they almost certainly won’t eat with you, and you may find that they all stay out of sight in another part of the tent or house for the duration of your visit. If they do, it would be grossly impertinent to enquire after them.
Once the food appears (generally served by the women), and the host has wished you “sahtayn!” (“[May you eat] with two appetites!”), you should confine yourself to eating – strictly with your right hand only – from that part of the platter directly in front of you. Reaching across is not done. Your host may toss over into your sector choice bits of meat – probably just ordinary bits, but perhaps the tongue, brains or, as an outside possibility, the eyes – which, if they land in front of you, it would be inexplicable to refuse. It’s possible that everyone present will share a single glass of water, so if the only glass visible is put in front of you, it’s not a cue for you to down it.
While eating, locals will be careful not to lick their fingers, instead rolling their rice and meat into a little ball one-handed and popping it in from a short distance; however, it takes ages to learn how to do this without throwing food all over yourself, and you’ll have enough social leeway to subtly cram in a fistful as best you can. It’s no embarrassment – in fact, it’s almost obligatory – to make a horrible greasy mess of your hands and face. People do not linger over eating, and rarely pause to chat: you may find that everyone chomps away more or less in silence.
Pause (or slow down) before you’re full, partly because as soon as you stop you’ll be tossed more food, and partly because no one will continue eating after you – the guest of honour – have fully stopped (so if you sit back too soon you’ll be cutting the meal short). Never finish all the food in front of you, since not only does this tag you as greedy, it’s also an insult to your host, who is obliged to keep your plate well stocked. Bear in mind, too, that dinner for the women and children consists of whatever the men (and you) leave behind.
When you’ve finished, your right hand over your heart and the words al-hamdulillah (“thank God”) make clear your satisfaction.
Everyone will get up and walk away to wash hands and face with soap, before adjourning to lounge on cushions, perhaps around the fire. Coffee will be served in tiny handleless cups; take three before returning the cup with a jiggle of your wrist. Then there’ll be endless glasses of sweet, black tea, along with bonhomie, conversation and possibly an argileh. It’s your host’s unspoken duty to keep the tea flowing whatever happens, so after you’ve had enough – or if you don’t want any at all – stem the tide by saying “da’iman” (“may it always be thus”) and then simply ignore your full glass.
People will be genuinely (and innocently) interested in you as visitors, and their questions may flow thick and fast. Aside from “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?”, you’re likely to be asked about how many children you’ve got, what their names are, why you don’t have more, and so on. If you have none, lissa (“later”) or masha’allah (“according to God’s will”) are two respectful, comprehensible ways to say so. Other useful phrases are given in the Glossary. Having a few photos or digital images to show of children, parents, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces can break the ice, should any ice need breaking. However, note that men in Jordan never enquire after another man’s wife – not even her name; the conversation should stay strictly on work and children.
If you’re travelling as an unmarried couple, saying “We’re just good friends” means little and merely highlights the cultural divide. Being able to show a wedding/engagement ring (a cheap fake will do), even if you have no nuptials planned, makes things instantly clear and understandable. The Language section at the end of this Guide explains how to say “We’re getting married next year” in Arabic, along with other handy phrases. For a woman travelling alone, a ring – indicating an absent husband – is a powerful signifier of respectability.
Although you can talk about most political issues freely, locals will not want to embarrass you, or potentially raise hackles, by embarking on political conversation in anything but the broadest terms. You can, though, feel free to ask questions of your own; once you do, you’ll find most people aren’t backward about speaking their mind on issues surrounding Israel, Arab affairs, domestic reform or the wider world. Let them make the running: if they wish, for instance, to criticize the king or royal family – which can be a criminal offence – be sure not to follow suit. The same goes for religion: people are generally free to practise their religion unhindered, but since it is illegal to proselytize or encourage anyone to convert to any religion other than Islam, it is prudent to avoid initiating debate on religious issues.
Here’s a quote from a Jordanian involved in rural tourism development: “People underestimate how much of an invasion of privacy taking pictures of women is.” He was talking about bedouin women in the desert – but the rule applies pretty much across the board, in towns and cities nationwide too. Always ask permission before you photograph women in any context, even in the street – and, if you’re in or near a family house or tent, ask permission of the men too. Some people don’t mind, others do. Any refusal will be given graciously and smilingly, but perhaps a little diffidently – ask twice if necessary to be sure you don’t mistake a no for a yes.
Elsewhere, the obvious caveats apply around military installations and international borders, but otherwise there are few issues.
Couples: displaying affection
Couples travelling together need to be aware of Jordanian social norms. Put simply, public displays of affection between men and women are not acceptable. Even if you’re married, walking arm-around-waist or arm-over-shoulder, touching each other’s face or body or kissing each other are likely to be viewed as deeply distasteful – as if you were bringing the intimacy of the bedroom into the public sphere. It is possible occasionally to see husbands and wives walking hand-in-hand, but it’s rare.
Homosexual conduct in private between consenting adults is legal in Jordan, but social disapproval of an overtly gay lifestyle is strong: dalliances between young, unmarried men are sometimes understood as “letting off steam”, but they are accepted – if at all – only as a precursor to the standard social model of marriage and plenty of children. Although women form strong bonds of friendship with each other to the exclusion of men, public perception of lesbianism is almost nonexistent. Amman has a small underground scene that is mostly invisible to outsiders. My Kali (mykalimag.com) is an online LGBTQ magazine that frequently pushes boundaries.
A by-product of the social divisions between men and women, though, is that visiting LGBTQ couples can feel much freer about limited public displays of affection than straight couples: cheek-kissing, eye-gazing and hand-holding between same-sex friends in public is normal and completely socially acceptable.
Sexual harassment of women travellers in Jordan is rare. Most harassment never goes beyond the verbal – perhaps including hissing or making kissy noises – and unless you’re sufficiently well versed in Arabic swearwords to respond in kind (worth it for the startled looks and the apologies), there’s unfortunately not much that can be done about it.
A tiny fraction of incidents involve physical touching. If you take the fight to your harasser, by pointing at him directly, shouting angrily and slapping away his hand, you’re likely to shame him to his roots in front of his neighbours. Accusing him of bringing himself and his country into public disrepute – aayib! is Arabic for “shame!” – is about the most effective dissuasive action you could take. Onlookers are likely to be embarrassed and apologetic for you having suffered harassment. Unmarried or unrelated men and women do not touch each other in public (apart from possibly to shake hands in a formal setting), and any man who touches you, even on the elbow to guide you, has overstepped the mark and knows it.
More serious incidents – blocking your path or refusing to leave you alone – are even less likely, and violence is extremely rare. In Jordan, strangers are much more likely to help a foreigner in distress than might be the case at home, and in an emergency you shouldn’t hesitate to appeal directly for help to shopkeepers or passers-by, or to bang on the nearest front door.
“It’s easy for women to travel alone in Jordan. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, as I was, by people’s reactions – the best preparation is just to head out with self-confidence, curiosity and a sense of humour. People are extremely willing to help, and almost everyone invited me for tea – a boy selling tablecloths, taxi-drivers, even the guardian in the museum.
Travelling for a time with a male friend felt a little unreal. Suddenly, people stopped talking to me and paid attention only to him. This was probably due more to respect for me than condescension, but I couldn’t help feeling a little upset – though it put me in a great position to just observe events.
It is vital to be able to take things lightly. For instance, I was followed by a bunch of teenage boys for at least an hour through the whole of Salt. They had a great time, running around and making jokes. My mistake was to try and get away. I should have stayed and talked to them, lived up to my role and – best of all – taken a picture. They’d have loved that.”
Anna Hohler, journalist
“One day in Karak, I was doing some exercises in my hotel room. The door was locked, the shades were down. I happened to glance up. Above the closet there was a small set of windows (hadn’t noticed them before), with a man’s face, quickly disappearing.
The following morning, when I saw Mr Peeper in the lobby, he stared right at me without an ounce of shame. Being spied on is no surprise in any culture, but his lack of shame was a cultural lesson for me – not about relations between men and women in Jordan (because I think Jordanian women command a great deal of respect), but rather because I was assumed not to question his rights over my body.
You can regulate the respect you receive according to the way you dress. Complying with the standards of the place you’re visiting relieves you from harassment. It also signals your intention to understand. The assumptions about Western women are so image-based that changing your image will change your reception. It’s as simple as that.”
Karinne Keithley, dancer
“Living and working in Jordan was rewarding and very comfortable. Modifying my dress and behaviour to match social norms helped immensely. Just wearing loose clothes and long-sleeved shirts made me feel more confident and relaxed, especially in more traditional areas, and allowed local people to take me seriously. Being friendly with men I didn’t know inevitably got me in trouble, since they interpreted it as flirting: I tried never to smile at men on the street and to keep my interactions with waiters and shopkeepers on a reserved and businesslike footing. This doesn’t mean I didn’t get stared at – I did. But I came to accept that in some places, as a foreigner, I was an exotic sight to be seen, as much as Jordanian people are exotic to visitors.
The flipside of avoiding men’s stares was that I could smile and look freely at women. Since most women adopt a serious, frozen expression on the street it was a great surprise, smiling tentatively at a woman passer-by or exchanging a few words of greeting, to see her face light up with a broad smile in response. I had an immediate, spontaneous connection which surpassed words and cultural differences.”
Michelle Woodward, photographer
There’s a whole range of gestures used in Arab culture which will either be new to you or which carry different meanings from the same gesture in your home country. Rather than nodding, yes is indicated by inclining your head forwards and closing your eyes. No is raising your eyebrows and tilting your head up and back, often accompanied by a little “tsk” noise (which doesn’t indicate impatience or displeasure). Shaking your head from side to side means I don’t understand. A very useful gesture, which can be used a hundred times a day in all kinds of situations, is putting your right hand over your heart: this indicates genuineness or sincerity, and can soften a “no thanks” to a street-seller or a “sorry” to a beggar, or reinforce a “thank you very much” to someone who’s helped you. Many people in the south of Jordan will instinctively touch their right hand to their heart after shaking hands.
One hand held out with the palm upturned and all five fingertips pressed means wait. A side-to-side wrist-pivot of one hand at chest level, palm up with the fingers curled, means what do you want? If someone holds their flat palm out to you and draws a line across it with the index finger of the other hand, they’re asking you for whatever document seems relevant at the time – usually a passport. You can make the same gesture to ask for the bill (check) in a restaurant.
Pointing at someone or something directly with your index finger, as you might do at home, in Jordan casts the evil eye; instead you should gesture imprecisely with two fingers, or just flap your whole hand in the direction you mean. Beckoning with your palm up has cutesy and overtly sexual connotations; instead you should beckon with your palm facing the ground and all four fingers together making broom-sweeping motions towards yourself.
In all Arab cultures, knowingly showing the soles of your feet or shoes to someone is a direct insult. Foreigners have some leeway to err, but you should be aware of it when crossing your legs while sitting: crossing ankle-on-knee means your sole is showing to the person sitting next to you. Copying the Jordanian style of sitting on a chair – always keeping both feet on the floor – is safest. Sitting on the floor requires some foot-tucking to ensure no one is in your line of fire. Putting your feet up on chairs or tables is not done.
Another major no-no is picking your teeth with your fingers; you’d break fewer social taboos if you were to snort, spit into a plastic bag, jiggle a finger in your ear and pick your nose in public. Most diners and restaurants offer toothpicks, which should be used surreptitiously behind your palm.
In tribal bedouin culture, where the mark of a man is how he treats his guests, and where what is unsaid has as much (or more) resonance than what is said, coffee plays a hugely significant symbolic role.
In some areas, merely starting to make coffee is a signal to families in neighbouring tents that something is afoot: by pounding freshly roasted beans in a mihbash – a form of pestle and mortar, sometimes wood, sometimes metal – using a distinctive rattling or jangling sound, a man (it’s always a man) can send out a wordless invitation from his tent for all within earshot to gather round. He brews the coffee with cardamom in a dalleh, a long-spouted pot set in the embers, and then serves it to everyone present in tiny thimble-sized cups, always beginning with the guest of honour and proceeding clockwise around the circle. The first cup is known as l’thayf (“for the guest”), to indicate hospitality. The second is l’kayf (“for the mood”), to indicate a relaxed atmosphere. The third is l’sayf (“for the sword”) to show that any animosity has evaporated. Then, and only then, can the social interaction or discussion begin.
However, if the guest of honour places their first cup in front of them without drinking, this is a signal that they have a request to make of the host – or that there is some underlying problem between them. Only when the request has been met, or the problem solved, will the guest drink. For a guest to leave without drinking even the first cup is a serious snub – such a dispute may require independent arbitration.
A guest could, if they wish, spark a feud by commenting gahwahtak saydeh (“your coffee is hunted” – that is, tainted or bad). If, in the opinion of those present, the beans are indeed off, there is no problem. If, however, the coffee is good, the guest is then deemed to be deliberately insulting the host. The consequences could be serious.
Coffee, too, can serve as a symbol of revenge. A man could gather his neighbours and declare one cup of coffee to be a “blood cup”, meaning whoever drinks it accepts the task of cleansing family honour by taking revenge on a named enemy. But then if the person who drinks fails to exact revenge, they themselves face dishonour and exile. Coffee, in this instance, is life or death.
There are many more such traditions – and they aren’t limited to tent-dwelling bedouin. Even in modern homes, where the beans might be pre-roasted and the coffee machine-made, the rituals and meanings remain unchanged. Coffee is more than just a drink: it’s an integral part of Jordanian culture.
Ahlan wa sahlan is the phrase you’ll hear most often in Jordan. It’s most commonly rendered as “welcome”, but translates directly as “family and ease”, and so might come out better in English along the lines of “Relax and make yourself at home [in my house/shop/city/country]”. With hospitality a fundamental part of Arab culture, there’s no warmer or more open-hearted phrase in the language. Everybody uses it, in all situations of meeting and greeting, often repeated like a mantra in long strings.
As a visitor, you needn’t ever say ahlan wa sahlan yourself, but you’ll have to field torrents of them from the locals. The proper response – even if you’re walking past without stopping – is ahlan beek (beeki if you’re talking to a woman). Alternatively you can acknowledge the welcome with a smile and shukran (“thank you”) or an informal ahlayn! (“double ahlan back to you!”).
The catch-all word used to invite someone – whether welcoming an old friend into your home or inviting a stranger to share your lunch (surprisingly common) – is itfuddal, often said together with ahlan wa sahlan. Translations of itfuddal (itfuddalee to a woman, itfuddaloo to more than one person) can vary, depending on circumstance, from “Come in” to “Go ahead” to “Can I help you?” to “Here you are”, and many more. A respectful response, whether or not you want to take up the offer, is to smile and say shukran (“thank you”).
Top image: Food from the Middle East: a feast in Jordan © Picia Neri/Shutterstock