When Natalie Stewart boarded a plane to Amman, Jordan, following her graduation from Johns Hopkins University, she had no apartment lined up, no job prospects and did not know a soul, save for an employee at a nonprofit with whom she had corresponded online.
The scenario is enough to make most Jewish parents cringe.
But Stewart, who grew up in Fox Chapel and Squirrel Hill, said her family had become accustomed to her unconventional life choices.
“My family is used to me doing kooky things,” said Stewart, who returned to Pittsburgh last spring after living and working in Amman for three years. “I had lived in Arab countries before, and Amman is not a war zone.”
The plucky redhead was first introduced to the Middle East on “a very Jewish 16-year-old teenager trip to Israel with the UJF,” now the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
She then “studied abroad in Oman for a spell” while she was in college and returned to Israel when she was 19 on a “self-funded research trip.” She lived there for a time near the Gaza border.
Her fascination with the Middle East continued to grow, and while in college, she studied Arabic. Realizing that the only way she would ever truly learn the complicated language, Stewart decided she would just have to live in an Arab country for an extended period of time.
She applied to several certificate programs in countries such as Syria, Egypt and Jordan but was not accepted into any of them.
That did not deter Stewart, though.
“I’m a sort of stubborn person,” she said. “I decided I was just going.”
Stewart got busy researching various countries, looking at factors such as job markets, the ease of particular dialects and safety.
She settled on Jordan, bought a plane ticket and was on her way.
When she landed, she got in touch with the man whom she had met online, who was running a community building nonprofit and who found her a place to live with a family. For a time, Stewart volunteered at the nonprofit, then soon found a job teaching English.
After a few months, and having made some friends with other young people in the city, Stewart found her own apartment and landed a new job at a small multimedia company, where she worked as a communication officer doing public relations and fundraising.
While she learned a lot while in Amman and made some good friends, she ultimately decided to return home for the sake of her career as well as her social life. She wanted to pursue a career in urban development, and “those jobs don’t exist in Jordan now,” she said.
“I wasn’t going to be able to explore the fields I wanted to explore,” she said. “I wasn’t feeling challenged, and things were static. I am 25 years old, and Amman is a transient city. I had lost a couple of key friends, and it was getting tiring.”
Dating, she said, was “complicated.”
“Some societal conditions were starting to tire me,” she said, including expectations concerning public appearance. “I would always look like an outsider, so every time I’d meet someone, I’d have to answer the same questions. I loved my life in Jordan and all my friends, but I wanted more personal freedom.”
While there are no laws regarding clothing, she said, she felt her choices were limited by “what makes others comfortable” and “safety.”
“There is a repressed sexuality there,” Stewart said. “People would be curious. I never felt like I was in danger, but you would feel like, walking down the street, you had become Gisele Bündchen, with everyone staring. I stick out like a sore thumb.”
There is no Jewish life to speak of in Jordan. There are no synagogues, and the few Jews Stewart met while there were Americans.
“I did hold a Seder while I was there with another Jewish girl,” she said, “but it was like the Seders I had while in college. It was cross-denominational and more about showing food and community.”
Stewart felt no bigotry while in Amman, she said, but she was cautioned “not to reveal my religion to not complicate things.”
Since she has been back in Pittsburgh, Stewart has been job searching as well as reflecting and recounting her experiences in Amman to friends and family.
“When I came back, the question people ask is always, ‘Did you have to cover your hair?’ The Western fixation with women’s dress drives me insane,” she said.
She did not have to cover her hair, she explained, opining further that “women’s empowerment and rights have nothing to do with their dress.”
To Stewart, Jordan is “kind of like an ex-boyfriend,” she said.
“Some things about the country make me sad, but I love it. I hate for ignorance and misconception to guide our understanding.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.