Monday, November 18, 2013

"Don't worry, you're American."

The simple fact about having an American passport in Jordan is that it's essentially like having a superpower when it comes to dealing with agents of the Jordanian government. Jordanians are going to treat you like a guest, but also gonna treat you like an American. The Hashemite government is going to treat you with kid gloves.

When I arrived at the Jordanian customs checkpoint inside the airport, I didn't know what hotel CIEE was staying in, the name of the person I was meeting, or anything about my host family. Nevertheless, the conversation with the officer at the checkpoint went something like this:
"Why are you coming to Jordan?"
"To study."
"Where are you staying?"
"Um... with a family..."
"Where?"
"I don't know".
"Okay" *stamp*
I could have been carrying or doing just about anything in Jordan, but instead I paid 20 JDs and was issued a visa at the border. I didn't have to do anything ahead of time or send anything to the Jordanian embassy in America. I know at least one CIEE student has an African nationality (even though she studies at US university and lives in New Jersey) and she's faced serious challenges in maintaining a valid visa in Jordan.

Many of my Jordanian friends here face huge hurdles when it comes to getting a US visa. The ones who have successfully visited America have mostly done so using the J1 work and travel program for students, which allows a student to work for three months in America (usually doing some menial labor) and then travel around for a month. Non-student Jordanians, however, have a tougher time. Applying for a US visa costs hundreds of dollars, requires an in-person interview, and a load of paperwork from the embassy. The average Jordanian probably can't afford to pay ~300 JDs for a visa they may not even get.

The reason for this is because the US government is concerned that some Jordanians who visit may simply overstay their visa and illegally immigrate to the US. The concern is not totally unfounded. One Jordanian told me rather bluntly:
"They think if they let me into the US I would throw away my passport and stay. And they're right! I would."
"Why?"
"Because it's the land of opportunity."
Even inside Jordan, having a US passport means the police here usually won't even look at you twice. I'e ridden the bus to and from Aqaba in the past, which is usually stopped by the police here at least once each direction. When the police got on the bus, they began collecting ID cards from everyone. When they saw the passports of my American friends and I, they didn't take them. In fact, they didn't even look at them to see the identity page or if my visa was valid. Every Jordanian citizen, on the other hand, had their ID's taken and presumably recorded. A number of Syrian refugees on board were taken off and questioned.

Last weekend, some soldiers actually talked to me a little bit, which was a change. I was driving with an American friend and Jordanian friend in the vicinity of the Dead Sea (which is close to the Israeli border) when we ended up going through a Jordanian army checkpoint. The soldiers ordered my friend to pull his car to the side of the road after seeing his ID. We handed over our University of Jordan ID cards, then the soldier demanded to see our passports, which only I had (in the back of the car). My Jordanian friend told me to give it to him.

I stepped around to the back of the car and got my passport, then handed it to the solider. I'm fairly certain he didn't speak any English, so the following conversation took place entirely in Arabic.
"Do you speak Arabic?", he asked me.
"A little"
"You're a student at the University of Jordan?"
"Yes".
And then he was done. Still, the incident stood out to me as the only time any member of the security services took an interest in me beyond the cover of my passport.

I suspect the reason for this is at least partly the Jordanian economy's dependence on tourism for capital. A tourist who had an unpleasant time with the police is unlikely to come back to Jordan and spend more money. Nonetheless, it's a little strange to be treated like a supercitizen in someone else's country.

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