I returned last night from my Christmas vacation in America with my family and friends, and was instantly struck by how at home I felt in this little country on the other side of the world. It’s completely true that I missed my friends and family back at home very much, and certainly wished that I had more time to see them, but while I was away from Amman I missed my friends here, too. More than that, I really missed Jordan itself, the culture and the landscape and my work. With the exception of delicious Noodles and Company (I’d do anything for their Penne Rosa, really) I really didn’t miss America. I guess when you’re marinated in it for a couple dozen years, it takes a lot longer than 4 months to actually separate yourself from it enough to miss it.

Nancy drove me to the airport on the night of the 23rd. Her little Chevy Spark (a model that never saw an American release) was positively tiny next to the massive tanks and machine gunner trucks that surrounded the roads on the way into the airport. I’ve gotten used to seeing tanks and missile carriers parked next to important buildings and roads here, and the army guard leaned over, glanced at me and my passport, and Nancy’s blonde hair, and waved us in without a second look; they didn’t even bother to ask for hers. It’s sad that in their own country, Arabs are almost like second class citizens. I first started to see this when I hear Palestinians describe how hard it can be to get official clearance to leave Amman, and when I was at Mecca Mall with Haitham. Outside the mall, there was a crowd of young Arab men, milling about, trying to get into the Mall, but being blocked by five huge bouncers who literally grabbed them by their collars and tossed them aside if they tried to enter. Haitham maneuvered me in front of him, and then he spoke quickly to one of the guards in Arabic while gesturing at me. We were immediately let into the mall; I tried not to make eye contact with the dozens of men who had fallen silent, watching this. “I just told him that you were an American teacher, looking for computer parts for your class,” Haitham explained. “The problem is that this is a family mall, and these boys are only here to look at women and not buy anything. So they only let in families, really…or Westerners.” I felt very awkward about this, a racist form of wusta working in my benefit, and from that point forward I tried to avoid putting myself in situations in which I would be given preferential treatment because of my skin color.

The flight home was uneventful. My seatmate, a friendly Palestinian businessman named Rami who was returning to his second home in California talked business with me until my eyes crossed, and since I lost 8 hours on the flight home, it felt like a very short ride. The brief layover in New York was interesting. Many of my Arab flightmates were transferring to other parts of the country, like me, and as they scanned all of us entering from another country, I saw a small booth off to the side that people were being directed to. I started towards it, then the guard tapped me on the shoulder and said “you can go through there, dawg, you’re clear.” I did as he directed, but stayed watching for a minute. The racial profiling was obvious…all of the other “white people” were let through like I was (they eyed me curiously as they hurried past me and into the terminal), but every Arab that I watched was directed to this booth, where they were stood at attention, spread-eagled, and then scanned with metal-seeking paddles. Meanwhile, their carryon luggage was opened and sorted through. None of the agents even made an attempt at mitigating the obvious “oh hey, we’re racially profiling Arabs as dangerous” look to their work. They just briskly and efficiently processed the robed men and the covered women. It was rather nauseating to watch.

My next two weeks at home were a blur of Christmas parties, reuniting with old friends, and being horribly jetlagged. My first few nights, I recall, I fell asleep promptly at 5PM, which is 1AM in Jordan, even as my parents and relatives were asking to see all my photographs (I took about 1,800 over the last four months). I split my time between my family in the country, and my friends in Madison. I saw a lot of people, but didn’t see a lot of people too; the unfortunate fact is that during winter break, a lot of them were home with their own families and I missed out on visiting them. The short winter days of Wisconsin were even shorter with my slowly-receding jet lag, and I found myself astonished by simple things like water pressure in showers and toilets, the comfort of my old bed, and even electrical plugs that didn’t shock me when I touched them.

Everyone wanted to know, “So, do you like it over there?” I thought of my friends at the school, the morning sun rising through the mist over Jebel Amman from my balcony, the mountains of Wadi Rum, my students shaking my hand vigorously, argeelah, fuul and falafel, and I truthfully answered that I like it a lot. “You could stay here in America now though, if you wanted?” some of them asked. It was true, I admitted; I am technically a volunteer and I’m not held to any irrevocable contracts. I could stay there in America if I had really wanted. But I couldn’t have hurt my friends and colleagues like that, even if I wanted to leave Jordan after only four months.

All to soon, it was January 7th, and time to leave. The last time I drove out of Madison to return to my parents’ home, I looked at the snowy streets and buildings of my city with sadness. It hit me then that I wouldn’t see any of these places, or these people, again for almost 11 months. I wouldn’t see summer in America until 2010. On the bus to O’Hare Airport, I stared out the window at the snowy fields of southern Wisconsin and thought about sledding and snowball fights. Thinking of dates and lengths of time made me feel quite nostalgic for the simpler days of college when all I cared about was work, friends, parties, and school. But I knew that now travel is in me, and that at this stage in my young life I can’t be happy in one place anymore.

In Chicago, I wore my red and white checked keffiyeh to the airport, remembering the racial profiling in O’Hare. It was so different then sitting in JFK four months earlier. This time, I found myself listening to conversations in Arabic by habit, automatically (if crudely) translating them in my head. People talking about their kids, what kind of food was in the restaurants, which way was Mecca from the airport. A few Arabs curiously looked at the keffiyeh around my throat, and a couple people asked me where I was from. In the breezeway into the plane, I excused myself past an older woman in Arabic, who answered absently, “ehfuddl,” without turning, then her eyes grew wide when she saw me. However, Arab custom and propriety are known to me now, and I wasn’t surprised when another older woman gave me a worried, sideways look as she took the seat next to me. Her son, a stubbled guy who looked like he was in his mid-20’s, muttered something about haraam, forbidden, and sat down on her other side. In the Arabic world, for a foreign man to be seated next to an Arab woman is considered quite inappropriate, regardless of age difference. It only took a couple minutes before the two of them got up and moved farther into the back of the huge plane, leaving me alone with the empty seats. I shrugged, them stretched out with my book, enjoying the extra space. Hey, whatever works for all parties, right?

My last bits of remaining jet lag worked to my advantage, as the 12 hour plane ride and +8 hour time change were passed with sleep, ending with the steward gently poking me in the leg and asking me if I wanted breakfast. The dinner the night before had been quite tasty, so I agreed (I’ve always enjoyed airplane food), but processed eggs from a box have never been appealing to me so I tried to avoid those. In another hour, the shores of Israel and the city of Tel Aviv appeared through our portholes. The entire airplane suddenly grew deathly quiet. I discretely looked around. Everyone was staring out their windows at the country below. Some had blank, unreadable faces, others were frowning and shaking their heads. I heard quiet “tsks” rise from the angered passengers. Of course, everyone knew about the attacks and massive slaughter in Gaza from a few weeks ago. The plane was almost entirely silent for about 7 minutes as we flew over Israeli soil. I compared it to the West Bank, which we flew over minutes later. The Israeli land was covered in lush green farmland and crops, freshly fed from the Jordan River. The West Bank land looked much the way Jordan from the air does: brown sand and desert. Israel’s lust for water is literally choking their neighbors to death.

We landed soon after that. I gently fended off the circling taxi drivers insistently offering to take me into Amman for 20 dinars, looking for the bus that I knew was there from Ahmad’s directions. Between the bus to Seventh Circle and the taxi that took me from Seventh to my home, I spent 5 dinars; I was quite proud of myself. As I stepped out of the taxi into my familiar neighborhood, suitcases in hand, I was surprised by how much at home I felt. My vacation was over, and Wisconsin was 6,500 miles away again – but I was happy to be back.