Opinion | Jordanian Journals: A clueless Iowan navigates an Arabian City

A DI columnist reflects on the lessons he learned in his first 10 days abroad.


Shahab Khan


Shahab Khan, Opinions Columnist

Swiss Valley in Dubuque, Iowa, is one of the few spaces in the state where wildlife can live with minimal interference from humankind.

A small creek cuts through a dense, hilly forest in which the leaves of oak trees shade hikers from the sun. In the winter, snow turns the normally lush green preserve into a winter wonderland where temperatures can sometimes reach below zero.

The valley is one of the most beautiful that the state has to offer.  It is also the site where my dad and I went on our last winter hike before I left for the desert of Jordan — a country about 6,000 miles away from Iowa.

For an entire semester, I had anxiously awaited moving abroad and studying a region that has fascinated me since I was a boy.

At the same time, it was during this hike when I realized that it would be the first time in my life where my parents wouldn’t be an hour-and-a-half car ride away from me. Naturally, I confided this observation to my dad.

He responded by giving me a nugget of wisdom that has stuck in my head since I have arrived in Jordan.

“Shahab, this is an opportunity for you to widen your horizons as an individual and grow from being a boy to a man,” he said in his caring voice.

What my dad said to me that day illuminates what I hope to share with readers as I spend the next four months abroad.

First, I intend to explore the complex political, sociological, and economic dynamics between the countries of the Middle East and the U.S. and attempt to map out why the region matters.

At the same time, I hope to communicate my own personal journey and the lessons that I hope to learn.

A no good, very chaotic initial 24 hours

Flying, one of the most overlooked parts of any journey, is important — seeing that I needed to get to Jordan before I could go on my adventure. There is only one rule for flying internationally: expect chaos.

Whether it be caused by incompetent airlines, over-zealous TSA officers, or catastrophic pandemics, prepare for someone or something to derail your plans. First, I had booked a surprisingly cheap flight through United Airlines — a flight that was quickly canceled because of the variant of COVID-19.

As a resourceful traveler, I was able to quickly find a new flight through Turkish Airlines, Europe’s No. 1 airline with a reputation of getting travelers to their destination no matter what.

On the morning of Jan. 24, when I had planned to begin my journey into the unknown and finally become a man, I woke up to a beautiful snowfall and an email from Turkish Airlines.

“Dear Mr. Shahab Khan, unfortunately we had to cancel your flight due to unforeseen weather circumstances,” the email read.

Fortunately for me, I had my mother, the most level-headed person I know, to bring things back to earth.

“Son, you need to calm down, everything is going to be alright,” she said. “Call your dad, and he will help book you a new flight.”

After collecting myself, I called my father, and he guided me in buying a ticket so that I would be able to arrive in Jordan just in time for my program to start.

From there, my travel was smooth sailing as TSA did not give me a full body pat down and I didn’t have to book a fourth flight (I guess the third time really is the charm).

As I sat in my seat 30,000 feet in the air, I reflected on the first big lesson of my adventure.

Being an independent adult doesn’t mean doing things on your own or turning into a computer who knows exactly what to do in any situation. It means taking the advice of your parents seriously.

Chances are that your mom and dad have confronted situations like this and know what they are doing when something goes seemingly wrong.

At the same time, you must take initiative and climb yourself out of those situations. You can’t just panic and twiddle your thumbs and wait for a divine act of chance to save you.

Getting lost in the city

Amman, the capital city of Jordan and my new home for the next few months, is quite similar to an American city.

The city is home to neighborhoods such as Abdali district areas dominated by towering glass skyscrapers, five-star hotels, and malls where Jordanians can shop at designer stores and eat at American restaurants. Jordanians that work in the financial and technology hubs that make up this district trade in their thawabs and shawarma for suits and cheeseburgers.

Like in Chicago and New York, not one of the over four million people living in Amman knows how to drive.

Road warriors regularly ram their cars into things, whether it be people, buildings, or other cars. The concept of a turn signal is foreign to the average Amman driver, as cars regularly smash into each other trying to change lanes.

Any traveler in Amman must be wary of the Taxi and Uber drivers that are looking to scam foreigners or are crazy enough to ask American women for their hand in marriage so that they can move stateside.

While Amman has some of the features of cities back home, it also is a uniquely Arab city. The city is divided into two sections, East and West Amman.

East Amman is sometimes referred to as the old city because it was where modern Amman was built during the 1920s and 30s.

After the Arab Israeli War of 1948, the victorious Israelis expelled millions of Palestinian citizens from their homes, and many Palestinians moved into Jordan and settled in East Amman in search of refuge.

The section of the city still carries the scars of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, as many Palestinians living in the camps keep the keys to their old houses in the West Bank — houses that have been long destroyed to make way for Israeli settlements that have been decried as illegal by the international community.

On the other hand, West Amman has also kept in touch with its Arab roots as bazaars (Souks in Arabic) where people can find anything from spices to jewelry are important to the city’s commerce industry.

While touring West Amman, I ended up learning my second and third lessons: Speak up, and it is okay to get lost.

On one of my first days in the city, a few of my classmates and I strolled into a cab looking for a way to get to a café named Sabeel Al-Horiyat, located in a bazaar in West Amman about 10 to 15 minutes from our college.

The driver was a courteous enough gentleman to not turn on the meter and ended up charging us 5 Jordanian Dinar for a ride that was only supposed to cost 1. To put the cherry on top, he also dropped us off about two kilometers from Sabeel Al-Horiyat.

At that point, I realized that I should have stopped and gotten out of the taxi. I had noticed beforehand that the driver hadn’t turned on his meter. Rather than speaking up, I kept silent and let him commit highway robbery.

Had I reacted differently to the situation, my group probably would not have had to walk an additional 30 minutes to find the café.

My friends and I had every right to be infuriated for being scammed. But rather than being upset by the situation, we were able to explore Amman and absorb the city’s rich history.

Later, when we went on a guided tour of Amman, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that our group had already explored these sites when we were hunting for Sabeel Al-Horiyat, indicating that getting scammed by a taxi isn’t the worst thing in the world after all.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.