On a recent spring day in Amman, my friend Coleman and I hopped in an Uber to head home following a long afternoon of studying in a café. As we crawled along, trapped in Amman’s characteristically brutal rush hour traffic, I spotted a decal depicting former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on a rear windshield about three or four cars ahead of us. This was not the first Saddam tribute I’d seen; in fact, similar decals aren’t rare in Jordan. It was one of the first things that stood out to me in January, and because of them, I decided to research Jordanian perceptions of global leaders as a project for one of my classes.
I had just turned six when American forces entered Iraq under President Bush’s pledge to “tear down the apparatus of terror” and “build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free,” and I recall sitting in my dad’s lap trying to decipher the newspaper headlines and articles about the war. Later, as an international relations student, I’d learn about the atrocities committed against the Kurds by his regime, as well as the almost routine executions he carried out in order to cling onto power. In summary, I’d come to the definitive conclusion that Saddam was not worth a shred of respect, and I presumed that just about everybody on earth agreed.
While I stand by the former, the latter, as I had come to discover in Amman, was not quite true. Back in the Uber and eager to collect another photo for my research, I unlocked my phone and opened its camera, but as I craned my neck to track the car, Coleman piped up from the backseat. “Lesh andack hada?” he asked our driver, gesturing to an object hanging from the rearview mirror. Why do you have that? I had to stifle laughter; while I had been struggling to photograph yet another Saddam decal, there was a glass ornament of the infamous dictator dangling inches from my face.
As it turned out, our driver, who I’ll call Reda, was not only a supporter of Saddam, but a fervent and entrepreneurial admirer. As a side gig, he produces and sells Saddam merchandise from his car and via a “Supporters of Saddam Hussein” Facebook page. After he finished a winding discourse that touched on the former Iraqi president, American foreign policy, and, much to Coleman and my confusion, Muslim women, I purchased one of the Saddam trinkets he kept stockpiled in his glovebox for my research, and he gifted one to Coleman for free.
So, how did Reda arrive at a conclusion so far from my own? The answer might be found in the work of the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, who defined culture as “the collective mental programming of the people in an environment.” In a 1983 article for the journal Organizational Dynamics, Hofstede describes an experiment he conducted on his class using the famous optical illusion of a young woman and an old lady. One half of the class is shown a version of the illusion that emphasizes the young woman, and the other is shown a version emphasizing the old lady. Afterwards, he shows the entire class the original illusion.
Rooted in their newfound biases, the students begin to argue over what they see. “Each group usually finds it very difficult to get its views across to the other one and sometimes there’s considerable irritation at how ‘stupid’ the other group is,” Hofstede observes. The point of this, he continues, is that if it only takes seconds to condition individuals into seeing something different than their counterparts, the perceptional difference between cultural groups conditioned by months, years, and decades of experiences must be chasmic.
For my research, I interviewed six University of Jordan students to gain a better understanding of Jordanian perceptions of global leaders with another friend, Ethan, kindly serving as an interpreter. Among other findings, and to put it succinctly, I concluded that the students value leaders who wield great power to protect and glorify the Arab world. By standing up to a hegemon with a long history of interfering in the region, Saddam checked that box.
None of this is novel –obviously, someone from X country is going to have a different viewpoint than a native of Y country– but it’s worth keeping in mind, especially when abroad and when dealing with subjects as sensitive as Saddam Hussein. I can imagine that to some Americans, seeing the former Iraqi dictator’s mug plastered on windshields across Amman would be alarming to say the least. At the same time, many Ammanis would surely be confused as to why anyone likes the man that ordered the catastrophic invasion of their neighbor.
I suppose that’s a benefit of studying abroad. After years of cultural and educational conditioning, the mind becomes so convinced of one reality that it might fail to see the other. Like the students in Hofstede’s classroom, the default reaction to an opposing perception might be anger, even violence. Fortunately, all it takes is a few conversations with the other side –or one long conversation with a chatty Uber driver– to see the other side of the optical illusion.