Written by Tomas Gordo-Churchill (Northwestern University), Student Correspondent for CET Jordan, Spring 2023
If you’re going to study in Jordan during Ramadan, this is the blog for you. There are a lot of questions you might have as a prospective student, such as: can you eat in public? How will I get my morning coffee? How can I be respectful of the local culture? Well, as a CET Jordan student that experienced nearly the full month of Ramadan, I can assure you your questions will be answered, and you’ll get some tips on how to take full advantage of the unique cultural experience of living Ramadan in a Muslim-majority country.
If you aren’t Muslim, your conceptions of Ramadan might originate from Muslim friends or at least from your high school world religion class. You might know fast from dawn to dusk, and it’s a time of charitable giving and strengthening of faith. Nonetheless, those small glimpses into the holiest month of Islam, pale in comparison to the complete halt in daily activity that occurs in Jordan, or any other Muslim-majority country. Life turns over on its head. The bustling sounds of traffic and people rushing from place to place vanish as streets are emptied, and life slows down. The normal lunch clientele in your favorite restaurant is nowhere to be seen, and the constant flow of coffee and cigarettes that fuels Jordanian life dries up after the sun rises.
In this environment, you have three choices: follow the flow and fast with everyone else, eat alone at home, or a combination of each. In my experience, I first tried to fast from food, water, and coffee. By doing this, I understood how my Muslim friends felt, from the caffeine withdrawals to the sheer exhaustion. Still, within those struggles, I arrived at a sense of solidarity and commonality with the culture around me. As time went when on, however, I realized I wasn’t tied down to any religious obligation that would forbid me from drinking a cup of coffee in the morning. I reached my limits when my own teacher asked me why I was fasting when I’m not even Muslim after complaining to her about my aches and pains in an outburst of my own self-pity.
At that point, I decided to subvert my own wishes to better integrate with the local culture, so I began eating breakfast well after sunrise or even sneaking a cup of coffee into class. Luckily, there are many ways to do this in the CET center or in the comfort of your own apartment; however, doing so in any public space will warrant the attention of onlookers at the least and a public shaming at the worst. It is even considered a crime under Jordanian law, even if its enforcement has grown more lenient. As such, it is still important to understand your surroundings, respect the culture you’re inhabiting, and refrain from any public consumption of food, drink, or nicotine. Beyond just that basic rule, there are many ways you can make the most out of such a wildly different environment if you don’t practice Islam.
Firstly, do make an attempt at fasting, at least from food, especially if you have the opportunity do attend an iftar (literally breaking of the fast) with a family or friends. Not only will you appreciate that home-cooked meal even more, but you will have a better understanding of people’s perspectives during Ramadan. You start to understand why people are so crabby at the beginning of the month, and despite being hangry or tired, people will continue to make a living and be kind to you.
For example, surprised to find out that one of my teachers at CET still managed to give us our lesson after she told me she had only slept one hour the night before. That’s why fasting for a few days might help you empathize with some of the challenges that those around you try to overcome while helping give a sense of appreciation for the basic comforts we normally take for granted.
Sharing is Caring
Secondly, Ramadan is a month of giving. One of the purposes of fasting is to understand the position of those in poverty without the financial means to afford a meal every day. Because of that, you’ll be offered food by your Jordanian neighbors and people on the street. In my case, I was sitting in a taxi, and the driver invited me to join his family for iftar despite only knowing me for five minutes. Although I understood the words he was saying, I was ultimately left confused coming from my American background unaccustomed to such generosity.
Despite refusing such an opportunity, I still ended my night with a full stomach; however, just as it is generally good etiquette to accept one’s generosity, it is also a good idea to return the favor. Don’t forget to get your friends together, put your cooking skills to the test, and bring a plate of your own to share with your neighbors.
Go Downtown at Night and Eat Out
Just as the streets are empty and shops close during the day, the city bursts into life after the sun sets. After 10-11 PM, when most restaurants in America would normally close, in Amman, streets and sidewalks are buzzing with activity. Parents closely watch their kids running around, high off a treat-fueled sugar rush, well past their normal bedtime. Meanwhile, groups of friends, both young and old, fill Amman’s many café’s with hookah smoke, gossip, and stories of exaggerated proportions. And the most potent sensation of them all is the scent of kebab and flafel that seems to generate its own atmosphere throughout the city. To experience this yourself, you need to spend a night in the city center, and not just a quick meal. A Ramadan in downtown Amman is best enjoyed until two or three in the morning, laughing with friends just as a local would do.
As I mentioned before, every facet of daily life changes in Amman, so it’s important to take into consideration how your plans might be affected. Firstly, if you’re planning to eat out or order food, it’s good to do so at least an hour in advance because the closer it is to iftar, people will be rushing to their homes to eat with their families and any taxi or Uber will be more expensive and harder to come by.
Secondly, after iftar, most Muslims will attend the extended evening prayer (Tarawih). During this, many shops will still be closed until after an hour or so, depending on the location. If you don’t practice Islam, this means you might be waiting for friends or shop owners to return from the mosque before starting a night during Ramadan. Finally, most shops will be open until the early morning hours, so if you don’t get your errands done before, you can easily do so at two in the morning.