UBER IN AMMAN - Jacob Ratliff
From the moment I stepped foot off of the plane at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, my senses were overwhelmed. I took everything in: the customs officer smoking a cigarette as he muttered under his breath in Arabic and stamped my passport; the bright city lights and neon signs in a language that I didn’t understand. In my first half hour there, I was keenly aware of the fact that I was an American traveler on a study abroad program in an Arabic-speaking country––and I knew not one word of Arabic.
Prior to my arrival, I had obsessively scoured travel blogs, searching for any advice one might have about being in Amman––particularly about navigating the language barrier. It seemed that on every single site I visited, the same pieces of advice surfaced. Beware of taxi drivers in Amman. Make sure they’re using their mileage meter. Never pay more than 2 JD for a cab ride. Never agree to an up front price. All of this advice was pretty helpful, but how was I supposed to adhere to any of it if I couldn’t communicate with the driver in the first place?
So I, an introverted millennial, figured that I had the perfect solution that would completely circumvent the need to even step foot in a taxi: Uber. Even though I quickly learned that most Jordanians speak at least a little English, I was committed to sticking with my plan of using Uber to avoid any unnecessary stress. Over those few weeks, I became one of Uber’s most loyal customers, and my solution seemed to work with a few exceptions:
One: Part of the beauty of Uber is that you input your destination on the app, and you don’t have to explain where you’re going, or worse, how to get there. Except it seemed that almost every time I got into a car, the driver would still ask me for detailed instructions on how to get there.
Two: Because my name is Jacob, many drivers would assume when they saw my name on their screen that I could speak Arabic. So as soon as I climbed into the car, many drivers would launch into full-scale (one-sided) conversations in Arabic. It would usually take three or four minutes before I could open my mouth to say something. And as soon as I did, they knew I was American. Which wasn’t a bad thing because I quickly learned that Jordanians love to talk to Americans about America.
Three: Uber is actually illegal in Jordan. It’s not blatantly outlawed, but it’s unregulated, placing it in some legal grey area that’s apparently severe enough to warrant Uber drivers insisting upon dropping me off in certain areas where they are sure that they won’t be seen by police.
On the whole, though, these seemed like fairly reasonable sacrifices to make in the interest of avoiding haggling with taxi drivers and facing the possibility of being conned out of my money.
So I stuck with it for the first two weeks, my roommate Chase and I dealing with the small inconveniences and awkward interactions. Toward the end of week two, he and I went downstairs like we always did to order the Uber and stand out in the scorching heat until the driver arrived. We ordered the car and the app said that Omar driving a red Hyundai was five minutes away. After ten minutes, we tried calling the driver––we needed to get to class, after all. No answer. At the fifteen minute mark, we decided to give up and cancel the Uber so that we could order another one. This one was obviously not going to show up anytime soon.
Chase ordered another car, and we waited for a driver to accept our ride request. A few seconds went by as usual, and finally a driver accepted our request. Lo and behold, Omar in a red Hyundai would be arriving in five minutes. It was in the middle of the day and the temperature was roughly 115 degrees and we were standing out directly under the unrelenting sun. We had little faith in Omar, but we sat and waited while Chase fumed none too quietly about how “everything here is so complicated and why can’t something like getting to class on time be as simple as it sounds?”
Ten minutes later, and there was no Omar. Still, for some reason, we didn’t even consider flagging down a traditional taxi so that we could maybe be only marginally late to class. I could look up and see neighbors peering out of their windows, no doubt wondering who the strange white men were sitting on the curb outside. Then, a silver Prius turned the corner and slowed to a halt in front of us. The driver rolled down the window and said “Uber?”
“Omar?” Chase asked.
“No,” the driver said.
Against my better judgment, and somehow completely forgetting all of the warnings people like to make based on Uber horror stories that may or may not be true, Chase and I got in the car. Chase got in the front and slammed the car door, apparently not trying to hide his intense frustration. In response to Chase taking out his anger on the car door, the driver turned toward him and let out something that sounded like a cat’s hiss. I knew this was going to be interesting, but all I could think about was the look that would be on Dr. Rifai’s face when we slipped into class half an hour late.
And then, I noticed something that had completely flown over my head when I first got into the car––our driver was dressed in an androgynous manner and had a somewhat feminine facial structure. Here’s the thing: All taxi and Uber drivers in Jordan, all of them are men who are often in their mid-twenties or thirties. Women are certainly allowed to drive in Jordan, but it would be considered culturally inappropriate for a woman to drive a taxi. What had missed my radar, though, was that the driver’s gender wasn’t obviously discernible. I like to think of myself as a fairly progressive American, so I didn’t think much of it until I remembered that we were in a country where that’s not only rare and unheard of but also flat out not a thing that is shown in public.
The ride––about a thirty minute one––went by very quietly for about fifteen minutes while Chase slowly eased up his less than savory attitude. As conversation began to occur, we all three lightened up, and the driver asked us if we’d been out clubbing at any bars, and the conversation took an unexpected turn, for given that Jordan is a predominately Muslim country, drinking is very uncommon, and speaking openly about it is even less common. Chase told them that yes, we’d gone out to a couple of bars but not a whole lot.
Then, the driver told us about Roof, a bar downtown that was a really good spot that they frequented to meet girls. Given that I wasn’t exactly looking to meet the woman of my dreams anytime soon, I was less focused on the idea of going out clubbing and more focused on the gravity of what the driver had just said. By sharing that, the driver hinted at their queerness. Queer people exist everywhere, of course, but this driver was the only openly queer person I had encountered in Amman, and I was in awe to be in the presence of someone who was openly and authentically themself in a society in which I thought that impossible. And suddenly, it felt as though my most important learning was taking place in that silver Prius rather than in the classroom.
Yes, I entered with a set of expectations––that everything that would be complicated because of the language barrier and that I wouldn’t encounter another openly queer person (along with many other expectations)––but my time in Amman taught me to embrace my experiences and the anxiety around them and to keep my eyes open for the possibility of meaningful, truly beautiful moments even - perhaps especially - conversations with Uber drivers.
Jacob Ratliff is a writer, blogger, and editor in Asheville, NC who focuses primarily on social justice, interfaith engagement, and the arts. Jacob’s blog can be found at www.mileaminutemind.com.