‘I feel safe here’: understanding fear and safety in Jordan

‘OK – one last question. What did your family say when you said you were coming to Jordan to study Arabic? Did they think it was safe?!’ – we all laughed, ‘They thought I was signing my death wish, I was going to become a Jihadi bride’, Ruby joked.’

As the camera was put down, we were thanked for our time and told we were going to change a lot of lives, twelve graders they have no idea about the Middle East. This film, shot in one of my Arabic classes, was going to be shown across schools in America.

‘Is it safe there?’ ‘Do you feel safe?’ ‘What do your parents think of you being in Jordan?’  

For the past 6 months I’ve been conducting interviews in Jordan – asking people about walking and homestays as part of my PhD research. Yet always conversations gravitate towards questions of safety. Jordanians ask me what my family think about me being here, ajanib (foreigners) tell me how worried their families were at the thought of them being here. People both abroad and Jordanian seem fascinated by safety and what safety means – I feel myself consequently constantly needing to assure people I feel safe, I am safe.

Throughout my time in Jordan, global catastrophe has consumed my news feed; Baghdad, Istanbul, Medina, Nice, Berlin, Munich, and most recently an attack in Jordan itself near Karak. I met two tourists one weekend doing a tour of the region; they commented to me that: ‘our trip has been shaped by the conflict here. Jordan actually seemed the safest place to be. Originally we wanted travel independently but it soon became clear that it would be safest to join a tour organization. But it’s been great – we’ve stayed in a Bedouin camp, we’re here at this cooking class – we have met wonderful people.’

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Hiking in Wadi Rum

Jordan is what Dorina Maria Buda[1] describes as ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’: relatively untouched by terrorism and the political turmoil of the region. And it feels it. Yet Jordan still remains unfortunately placed in ‘The Middle East’: a place of homogenised fear. Rachel Pain[2] in 2009 used the term ‘globalised fear’ to give name to post 9/11 events in which metanarratives of fear shape the politics and patterns of fear. Writing that the ‘terrorist attacks in the west’ and the ‘war on/of terror’ had sparked new interest in the politics and patterns of fear. Eight years on and this can be said even more assuredly and it is this globalised fear that makes Jordan feel unsafe. Sitting back in my living room in Glasgow reading of a terror attack in Jordan in the international media – I’m confused, should I feel fearful? I notice how hard it is to separate my feelings of safety there with a fear constantly pushed on to me.

Yet how do we feel safe in relation to fear? The words ‘safety’ – ‘safety concerns’, ‘safety issues’ – litter our newspapers these days in response to this globalised fear. In Jordan safety concerns are a huge issue for Jordanian tourism, Dorina Maria Buda’s recent piece on tourism in Jordan argues that understandings of the ways fear, safety, and conflict relate to one another are important to understanding the politics of tourism practices. While Debbie Lisle’s[3] recent book ‘Holidays in the Danger Zone’ argues that ‘even the most benign and well meaning tourist experience is structured by antagonistic geopolitical forces’ drawing on Michael Shapiro’s[4] work exploring how geopolitical productions of domestic, interior, homelands are contrasted with distant, foreign, outsides. In this sense it is geopolitical imaginaries of place which shape tourism practices particularly in the case of Jordan the relationship between here (safe) and there (danger). Safety plays an important role in shaping our movements as tourists; either through restricting mass tourism (as seen in the decline recently in Egyptian and Jordanian tourism) or through promoting war/conflict/dark tourism as people travel to seek danger.

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A recent article in the Guardian newspaper[5] on Jordanian tourism repeatedly emphasises the word ‘safe’. The author Amelia Gentlemen writes:

‘The cafe owner appeared bemused by the reluctance of tourists to come. “It’s safe here; we have no Isil. But people have stopped coming,” he told us.’

But the quote that really strikes with me is a jewellery seller noting:

‘A bomb goes off in Turkey and people think ‘We shouldn’t visit Jordan.’’

It’s this quote that complicates the entangled meanings of fear/safety: safety should be our biggest concern and Jordan is safe but when fear comes into play understandings of safety change. The global mixes with the local. It particularly interests me what makes people feel safe. For Rachel Pain what is often missing from understandings of fear are the ways that fear is felt, patterned and practiced in everyday life. For me what is often missing from all these headlines on safety is how people themselves actually feel safe.

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A photo from a recent event in Sinai promoting the region as safe

I remember all the conversations I have had laughing in Jordan about how unbelievably safe we feel there. For me in Jordan, ‘safety’ means something entirely differently than the ‘safety concerns’ the newspapers describe. My daily ‘safety’ concerns in Jordan revolve around negotiating the crazy driving in Amman, avoiding street harassment, and not walking alone at night. Safety concerns that are universal to any capital city. One of my friends even commented:

‘I feel safer hiking in Jordan than I do anywhere in America.’

This comment signifies the individual and multiple ways in which fear and safety entangle and are felt. How globalised fear mixes with local safety. I am sure this statement for others would be reversed emphasising how personal and individual safety is. Before we can start deeming anywhere ‘unsafe’ then we have to ask what does safety mean not just in the context of globalised fear but at a day to day, everyday life scale. That’s real safety. And if that’s real safety then Jordan is definitely safe

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A camel near Petra 

[1] Buda, D.M. (2016) Tourism in Conflict Areas: Complex Entanglements in Jordan. Journal of Travel Research: 55 (7): 835-846.

[1] Buda, D.M. (2016) Tourism in Conflict Areas: Complex Entanglements in Jordan. Journal of Travel Research: 55 (7): 835-846.

[2] Pain, R. (2009) Globalized fear? Towards an emotional geopolitics. Progress in Human Geography: 33: 466-486.

[3] Lisle, D. (2016) Holidays in the Danger Zone: Entanglements of War and Tourism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[4] Shapiro, M. (1997) Violent Cartographies: Mapping cultures of war. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2016/nov/26/jordan-petra-amman-holiday-jerash-dead-sea

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