In just a few days, I leave for Jordan. So starts my year abroad.
It’s kind of a big deal.
I study Arabic here in Exeter. It’s a degree I am forever trying to explain, in a slurry kind of way in a quiet corner of a club over a double mixer with vodka, to some new nonplussed acquaintance who is thinking about the bad life choices they have made to be stuck listening to me.
Yes, I study Arabic. Yet I have only been to one Arabic-speaking country, Morocco. Even there, the French-Spanish-North-African blend of Arabic spoken there is often scoffed at by most other Arabs. No true Arabic spoken here, you’ll hear them say, only this weird, chemical-compound carnival mix of language.
So, to put it ever-so-delicately, I am a Middle East novice. A Middle East nobody. You will hear no ‘Letters from Jordan’ penned by me for a good long time. Maybe in years to come I will be able to impart sage, carefully considered counsel about the region, but for now, I’ll have to settle for a quiet read-through of my Lonely Planet guidebook, keeping my ear to the ground for useful pieces of information and savvy titbits from the more seasoned travellers out there.
Already I’m learning a lot though, and nothing more keenly than the classic line: It’s not what you know, but whom. Nowhere have I thought this phrase more appropriate than in the Middle East. It seems that it may just be the only way for things to run that little bit smoother. And these contacts need not be bosom friends, nor wealthy (though the latter would surely help). My Dad was brought up on the wrong side of Hull, my Mum is a Manchester lass – there were no Arabian princes or princesses in those local state comprehensives. Not then, not now.
No, in my case, one relies on links that are, quite wonderfully, tenuous. For instance, I have made contact with a family in Amman, Jordan. The daughter in this family now lives in Ipswich. She has a work colleague from Berkshire. Her work colleague from Berkshire is married to a man with whom my parents were friends with at University. Let’s run by that again: Jordanian Family Ipswich Daughter Woman from Berkshire University Friend (Husband) Parents Me.
Now that’s a fairly tenuous link, and it goes against all my softly spoken British tendencies to take advantage of this. Except that this family want to help. I met their Ipswich relatives, once, two weeks ago. Their family in Jordan know only my name. And yet, I’m to turn up out of the blue one day, and they will welcome me into their home and sit me down and present to me a collection of succulent dishes. And I will eat them. This is what I am promised and this is what is expected.
Now I have no wish to sound ungrateful; this is, by any stretch of the imagination, pretty special. But is it uncommon? Not completely. Not as far as I’m aware. I’ll be living with fellow Arabic students from Exeter when I’m out there and we have all been desperately searching for a house. One of my housemates seems to have found one. It is owned by his father’s brother’s work colleague’s cousin’s wife’s friend. It’s rather cheap too. Mate’s rates. With a terrace. And they’re offering a tour of Amman. Anything for a pal, eh?
It’s ingrained in the culture – you help who you can, and you best start with the people you know. And to those people, you offer indiscriminate help. They seem to have a fairly loose definition of ‘people you know’, too. Just as tenuous are the links that connect people in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt to would-be ISIS victims from Syria. Perhaps an old business network remains in Damascus, or old classmates live in Aleppo. Yet still, incredible systems are being set up to aid refugees in crossing the border and escaping the brutality of the aspiring Islamic State.
Like anywhere, most people are keen to help where they can in the Middle East. But it is a rare thing to put yourself in so much danger to help others so deserving as the Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and still want to help the boy from a suburb, one hour from London, heart of democratic England, safe, controlled, isolated by sea. My privileged plight is less worthy of sympathy than a stubbed toe, and yet, for now, I will settle for all the help I can get, and I will be pathetically grateful for it.
Sam Jennings, Features Jordan Correspondent