Despite months of planning and my seemingly confident disposition at the time, my heart was racing as my plane landed in Jordan this past fall. The uncertainty of what was to come was both invigorating and terrifying. Seeking a greater sense of calm, I found comfort in gratitude as I recognized that the opportunities I sought for so long were suddenly the moments I was living.
My life in the Shmeisani neighborhood of Amman stood in what felt like complete contrast to my home life. A different language, different food, different media, different traditions. The unfamiliarity of my surroundings complimented my curious nature and I was filled with questions. As my fascinations mounted, I became acutely aware of how brief my time in Amman would truly be. A semester in this country would in no way make every intricacy of the culture clear, and so I sought relationships and experiences that would extend beyond my limited time.
Jordanians are welcoming to a degree I have never experienced. It seemed as though every friend of my host family, shop owner, taxi driver, or stranger sitting across from me in the University cafeteria so quickly offered to host me for maqluba (a traditional dish that I never grew tired of). Invitations were sincere and always followed up on until I found myself at someone new’s dinner table, a new friend to endure my many questions. One friendship I am particularly grateful for is the one I made through the community engagement component of my program. After deciding to be an English language tutor for a student at the University of Jordan, I was partnered with Heba Fawwaz.
Heba lives in a neighborhood of Amman that is walking distance from the one I stayed in. She is twenty-one as well, the oldest of eight children, and responsible for everything I know about pop culture in Jordan. My community engagement activity was deeply reciprocal; I helped Heba with her English coursework and she corrected the countless Arabic grammar mistakes I would make in my explanations. The two of us hit it off and began finding time to meet outside of our scheduled two-hour lessons. I met Heba’s friends, we explored parts of the city I had yet to uncover, and she invited me into her home to meet her many siblings on a night she was tasked with babysitting. Each time we met I had endless new questions about her life in Amman, and she matched my curiosity with questions about America. Her main outlet into American culture prior to our friendship, I found, was watching the show Friends in secret (her father didn’t approve of its content).
Heba and I live quite different realities and hold different beliefs on a number of things. At the same time, we were both twenty-one-year-old girls living in the same city for this brief semester. The opportunity to build a friendship such as ours was rare and we worked to understand one another and revel in what made us different. We traded family recipes, favorite movies, and fashion advice. She would ask about the different braids I wore in my hair and I would ask about each new patterned fabric of her hijab. We often discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Heba’s family is ethnically Palestinian, and I got a deeper look into the complexity of the relgious and cultural implications of the situation. She asked me about Christianity, and I was able to explain what the Jesuit tradition has meant in my life.
My friendship with Heba is something that lasts beyond my semester abroad. I believe experiential learning should be cyclical and reciprocal: I approached our friendship knowing all I was taught in the Community Based Learning office, in Pax Christi meetings, and in Holy Cross courses. I, now, carry all that I experienced through my new friendship with me and am able to bring this experience back to Holy Cross. Heba’s and my shared love for hearing about the other’s lived experiences made our friendship so full and, in turn, we each have an entirely new understanding of what it means to be a twenty-one year old girl today.