The Americans: a continuum of colonialism

“Traveling — it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
So quoth Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, who traveled tens of thousands of miles over 30 years of voyaging. My own sojourn to Jordan — and by extension, the wider world — was cut short last month, for a number of private reasons. But there is one story left to tell, and it’s a story about Americans.
The program I attended was, naturally, almost entirely Americans from American universities, and my two months among these new peers threw into stark contrast how we — often hailing ourselves as the morally upright progressives of our time — can actually unintentionally perpetuate the same colonial ideals that we decry in our seminars and essays. I saw white, wealthy, privileged American students use a belief in their own academic and moral superiority to shut down lessons, ignore real-life issues and create an unsafe environment for other students.
This colonial attitude was most perfectly crystalized to me when the question of whether or not India is a democracy reared its head in class.
That lesson was actually supposed to be focused on the domestic politics of Jordan itself, a country still ruled by the Hashemite royal family and in the midst of a slow and complex democratization process. Our instructor used India as an example of a regional democracy juxtaposed against the Jordanian government. However, this idea was countered by students who began arguing that India was not democratic because of the way the Hindu majority treats its large Muslim minority.
Our instructor did not argue that India had issues with protecting minorities, but held that the country had all the necessary elements of democracy — namely regular elections and a peaceful transition of power after those elections — and that the social issues the country faces are not tied to whether or not India is a democracy.
Yet every time the professor tried to refocus the discussion onto Jordan, students kept arguing back about India’s classification as a democracy. My peers ignored the fact that our professor was a sitting member of the Jordanian Senate and thus a fantastic resource for learning about Jordan’s political environment and attempts to create a functioning parliamentary system.
Instead, the students in that class imposed their values and beliefs about India at the slightest mention of the country and saw classroom discussions as a time to convince the professor that their American perspective was right, and his Jordanian perspective was wrong.
The colonial attitude popped up outside the classroom as well, in a more subtle way. Most Jordanian apartment buildings have a “haris” — a superintendent, manager or custodian who looks after the day-to-day operations. I had spoken with our haris on a couple occasions, mostly to chat about how I would go for runs and his time in the Egyptian Army.
One day, our haris — who spoke little to no English — needed to speak with a student who had no Arabic experience. The haris knocked on my door to ask for my help with translation, and with Google Translate I was able to squeak through the conversation.
Midway through the conversation, I noticed the beginner student’s roommate on the couch. That roommate was in his second Arabic-language program and was among the best Arabic students in our group. I was an Intermediate-level student, several paces behind this advanced student.
Yet when an opportunity to engage in a real-life conversation presented itself, this advanced student seemed to just ignore what was going on. His Arabic was good enough for the most difficult class in our program, but apparently too good to apply to a problem right in front of him.
In this case, this new colonialism expressed itself as an indifference to the very real issue the haris needed solved. Arabic was an important focus for the advanced student in the classroom, but not when those skills could have been deployed to help bridge a linguistic gap. Learning the language, it seemed, was part of diversifying a resume with marketable skills and not a genuine attempt at meaningful cross-cultural engagement.
The final case is the most personal, and is the only part of my departure I can really talk about. The students in the program were aggressively anti-men, in a way that made me — a man — very uncomfortable.
The sentiment I encountered was not a contextual hatred of men as abusers or assaulters or of toxic masculinity as a cultural norm, but at men in general. Playing a game of pickup soccer, one student proudly proclaimed they were on team “anti-men.” Another posted on social media about “hating men.” I later heard that the same student wanted to “crack” me because I was generally more stoic than other students and did my own thing.
I initially had no idea what it meant to be “cracked,” but both a friend of mine and an Allegheny staff member considered it to be a reference to that person wanting to build a romantic or sexual connection with me, even though I thought I had signaled pretty clearly that I was not in the market in any way.
I felt less comfortable as a man in that program than I ever did as a Muslim in post-9/11 America, a comparison that I do not make lightly.
What does this have to do with colonialism? It’s rooted in the same poorly-executed attempt at changing the world. Masculinity needs to be reformed, and men need to be held accountable, the same way that India’s democracy needs to protect minorities and people should expand their educational horizons — but smacking everyone around with those ideas can do more harm than good.
Writing about The Americans inevitably ends on a sour note, which is sadly not reflective of the wonderful time I had in Jordan. Living abroad was a fantastic experience, one that I hope every student who has the chance should take.
Yet I would be remiss if I did not attempt to grapple with the very real issues I saw among my peers, issues that show fundamental cracks in the way we export our values and culture to the detriment of others.