Clea Lutz Bunch: Surviving the Middle East

Historians in the News

[Clea Lutz Bunch is an assistant professor of Middle East history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.]

A doctor's receptionist looked at me, wide-eyed, and said with a Southern drawl, "You're going to the Middle East? You must be so brave! Aren't you afraid?" Such statements tend to make me smile; in fact, I often repeat them to amused Jordanians.

I have been in Amman, Jordan, for two weeks at this writing, and I seldom feel afraid. In this era of "random acts of violence," I must admit that traveling can be a little stressful, but fear does not affect me any more in Amman than it would in New York, Washington, D.C., or London. As a Middle East historian, I also have a profound sense of obligation (not shared by all who write about international relations) to pursue an in-depth understanding of the culture, language and people of the region.

Amman is a wonderful place for that kind of study. The capital city is festooned with beautiful rose gardens, bustling markets and stately mosques. At the University of Jordan, one can witness a dramatic parade of female style that displays the wide variety of interpretations of the term "Islamic dress." Some women waft by in delicately embroidered black chiffon from head to toe. Others wear tight, trendy clothes, sparkly head scarves and intense eye makeup. Still others don form-fitting, street-length coats with tattered jeans and Nikes peeking out of the bottom.

Most students, like college students everywhere, congregate in mixed-gender groups at a place called Snack Lebanon, which serves addictive Lebanese-inspired junk food, but others flock to the KFC and McDonald's nearby.

Politeness, hospitality and dedication to family form the essential components of this culture. Family values are truly internalized, and young people often talk about the importance of spending time with parents and siblings. ...

"I love the American movies," a young woman in full Islamic dress gushed enthusiastically, "Mel Gibson and George Clooney-very handsome!" Unfortunately, American citizens can no longer escape the stigma of our ineffective leadership. A candid Jordanian colleague confided: "Jordanians are very interested in world events and education. We always respected the American people, knowing that you are very educated. The government policies were something separate, something Americans could not always control. But when you re-elected President Bush in 2004 after his disastrous policies, we could not understand. It takes a long time for a country to gain respect, and now it is lost in such a short time." This statement bored into my already bruised conscience. Americans can still feel welcome in this part of the Middle East, but for how long?

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