Last Thursday, in the middle of my already arduous Arabic class, my teacher introduced me to my language partner. It wasn’t a complete surprise; a well-known aspect of the CET curriculum is having a language partner, a local student instructed to only speak in Arabic to program participants. Still, as an absolute beginner in the language, I’d convinced myself that the language partner would come in later – perhaps after I finished learning the alphabet.
This was not the case. In the middle of our lesson and without warning, Emad, a jovial young engineering student from a nearby university, walked in and greeted me warmly. I returned his greeting with a mumbled marhaban, but that’s about as far as we got in spoken language. After a fun little game of charades, Emad departed, and I was left to wonder what the hell I was doing in Amman.
Feeling a little dead inside, I headed to my favorite café to work over Arabic vocabulary in hopes of achieving at least a shade of personal redemption.
After that didn’t work, I decided to look back through the assigned readings from a cross-cultural communications course I took freshman year. The class’s objective was to teach us how to surmount issues in intercultural dialogue, and many of the readings do just that, but at the time, I just wanted confirmation of what I thought I knew: that cross-societal exchange was near impossible, and that I was justified in feeling frustrated.
And I found it – kind of. In “The Clash of Civilizations?,” a 1993 Foreign Affairs article later expounded upon in a book by a similar name, the author Samuel P. Huntington posits that in the future, “the dominating source of conflict will be cultural” rather than ideological or economic. He defines eight major civilizations, among them Western and Arab, and claims their divisions, while often blurred, are “real” and “basic.” The rest of his case is born from these supposed divisions; in an increasingly globalized world, he theorizes, civilizational awareness of differences is heightened. Animosity, tribalism, and conflict ensue.
Surely, a theory that goes as far as prophesying conflict between civilizations could serve as justification for my frustration. Huntington even elaborates on the divisions between the Arab World and the West, citing authors “on both sides” to support his claims – as if there exist “sides”; as if individuals can speak for millions; as if the world is not complex.
But the world is complex. Amman is complex. Both mosques and churches line these streets. Some motorists exit their cars to observe the maghrib, while others respectfully continue on their way. In a span of 30 minutes, a visitor could see both the sleek, shiny Abdali Mall and the aged, elegant ruins of the Amman Citadel. Furthermore, at both sites the visitor would repeatedly be met with the greeting ahlan wah sahlan –“I welcome you”– a testament to indiscriminate Jordanian hospitality.
Certainly, if you focus on nativist responses to the refugee crisis in Europe and the United States, it’s easy to sympathize with Huntington’s perspective. But such nativists could benefit from cross-cultural engagement. No person or place can be placed in a box and defined from afar.
On Tuesday, Emad and I met again. Don’t get me wrong –charades still played a principal role– but having spent time working with my remarkably patient Arabic teacher on vocabulary and grammar, we crossed the cultural chasm that just a few days prior had seemed so broad. As we sipped mint tea, played FIFA, and shared laughs, I wondered if Huntington had ever bothered to visit the “civilizations” he so loved to label.