We were sure we had plenty of time to change terminals at O’Hare as we lollygagged to the international security gate until we rounded a corner and joined the horde of people bunched together in a white hallway packed with strollers, backpacks, drunken businessmen in khakis, wriggling toddlers, and frantic moms, all afraid to miss flights. Some of us surely would. Inching toward the security kiosk in fits and starts, passport in sweaty grip, the reflective walls reminiscent of Plato’s Cave drifted my mind to alternate realities.
We finally made it to the kiosk with minutes to spare and then my husband’s fake knee set off the alarm. His doctor’s note was tucked away in his backpack which was already on the belt. Inspection was required at a different scanner, which was not turned on yet. As I scrambled to gather our things out of various bins, I heard our names called over the loudspeaker. Our flight was boarded, twenty-five gates down the terminal. We slung our belongings over our shoulders and took off running on wobbly knees and arthritic feet. Made it to Gate 25 just in time and landed twelve hours later under a white sky in Amman, Jordan with swollen cankles and bad breath.
The man holding a card with my husband’s name on it averted his gaze when I waved and seemed relieved when I didn’t extend my hand but placed it on my chest with a nod and a thank you. Whatever. I didn’t want to touch him either and fully support no contact greetings. What I was unsure of before arriving was exactly how conservative Jordan was in terms of appropriate dress for women. Online forums generally err on the side of caution and recommend covering up and respectfulness, and rightly so. These articles and listicles seemed designed to help American tourists not be assholes in other countries, and I packed accordingly.
A helpful Jordanian American woman on our flight reassured me that no one cares too much about appropriate dress in Jordan, just cover up if you are going to a mosque. Women in Jordan mostly wear headscarves and traditional clothing, but not all of them. They drive cars, shop and dine out alone or with each other, attend university, have careers, carrying themselves with confidence and pride. I grew up in an infinitely more restrictive religious environment right here in the United States, an evangelical Pentecostal church.
After a restless night and the best hummus of my life for breakfast, we were driven to Hashemite University for the opening sessions of the Tourism Management and Heritage Conservation Conference. The main event of the morning was a visit from His Royal Highness Prince El-Hassan bin Talal, the king’s brother. Security was everywhere. Sniffing Belgian Malinois, uniformed police, hulking men in blue suits and serious expressions. The Prince arrived with great fanfare, a small elderly man with a booming laugh and the easy manner of a practiced politician. He spoke to the assembled crowd of students and academics on the importance of global connection through tourism while protecting cultural heritage. His breadth of knowledge of the subject matter surprised me as I was expecting a “welcome to Jordan” speech, but Prince El-Hassan is a serious scholar. He spoke of the importance of preserving cultural identity while remaining open to others. Mutual respect. Conversation, not conversion. An in-depth discussion, shifting fluently between Arabic and English.
And then he really got my attention. He told the story of a meeting with an American evangelical pastor, identified as Pastor Bob. Prince El-Hassan chuckled and said, “Forgive my American accent,” and then uttered “Paaaaster Baawb” in a perfect American Southern drawl. The Americans in the audience burst into laughter, myself included. Prince El-Hassan said Pastor Bob informed him that American evangelicals hate all Muslims and all things Muslim. “Hate,” he repeated emphatically.
The room went silent. I nodded and refrained from bursting into applause. I considered the reactions I received from friends and acquaintances prior to this trip, when I told them where we were going. “I wouldn’t go there… Do you have to wear a burqa? Ugh, I hate all that religious stuff.” The cognitive dissonance astonished me, although to be fair, I did not know what to expect, either. We live in Ohio, where women no longer have bodily autonomy. Where marital rape is technically legal. Where swastika-waving Nazis march the streets. Where covered-up Amish women ride in horse and carriage and no one minds. It occurred to me that most Americans, not just evangelicals, are well and truly trained to mistrust all things Muslim without introspection. I am not a political scientist but I imagine our manipulated mistrust feeds the military industrial complex.
I thought about the endless #exvangelical conversations on social media about deconstruction and religious trauma, the deeply researched books about the alliance between conservatism and Christian extremism, thousands of ex-evangelicals and escapees, myself included, all sounding the alarm about the theocratic push of American Christian Nationalism. All shouting to be heard above the din of news, pseudo-news, and general panic about vanishing democracy inside the United States. Never once had I considered that other countries were also watching and assessing the danger of American Christian Nationalism. Never once had I considered that the dangers of their zealotry have global consequences. I wasn’t seeing the big picture.
After Prince El-Hassan’s speech, the audience dispersed for lunch where I had kunafa for the first time and can die happy. Wandering through the lobby afterward, I found myself caught in a wave of the Prince’s blue-suited entourage, expanding in a vee across the open space. Horrified at being in the way, I backed up as quickly as I could, only to find that the biggest blue suit seemed to be tucking me inside the sweep on purpose. I looked up to meet the gaze of Prince El-Hassan standing before me with his hand extended, smiling. I swallowed my panic and shook his hand with a grin.
“Thank you for your very important words,” I stammered.
“These points have to be hammered home,” the Prince said, knowing exactly to what I referred.
“Yes, they do, thank you,” I agreed, and he swept on past.
American evangelicalism is a global threat. We have all been sorely misled by our own government to believe that extremism is a foreign object, when the reality is, every group has extremists and we are no exception. The difference is American money and influence has tentacles everywhere. The threat of American Christian Nationalism and white supremacy reaches far beyond our borders. I am new to the world of academia, and while I can find much to criticize within the hallowed halls, the reality is that exposure through education and travel, responsible tourism, and respect for other cultures is a road to world peace, perhaps the only road, and it starts at home.