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My English Cousin

by Dr Jehad Al-Omari

When I arrived back in Jordan in 2004 it did not take one of my relatives too long to introduce me to new acquaintances and friends as “my English Cousin “. He often said it with a smile and initially it annoyed me. I was returning home after almost 35 years living abroad as an expatriate, of which 25 years were almost entirely in the United Kingdom. I did not realize then that such an introduction reflected how I came across to my relative and to Jordanian society at large: a highly-Anglicized person who is also undergoing ‘culture shock’.

I had considered myself quite immune from culture shock and treated my relative’s label as being both exaggerated and demeaning. To think that I lost my Arabness, partly or wholly, came across to me as a form of criticism and stereotypical. This is even though there is an Arabic saying that states “if you mix with other people for forty days you become one of them”. Throughout my stay in the UK and even though I considered myself well integrated, I believed myself to be an Arab and positively in touch with my roots. I didn’t sit to take stock of any traits I may have gained or lost depending on one’s point of view. Just as importantly, since my work in the last 18 years of my British sojourn centred around cross-cultural encounters, I believed that I was well prepared to recognize culture shock if it happened to me. Even worse, I did not think that it could happen to me of all people. That I demonstrated all the classic symptoms of culture shock was clear to all my new friends but not to me. Moreover, they saw me more of an English person than an Arab. Even taxi drivers in Amman recognized that my Jordanian accent had a foreign twang in it with some letters not coming out properly. As for me insisting on putting the seat belt on, no self-respecting Jordanian would have done so in those days. These taxi drivers also proceeded to try to take advantage of my presumed ignorance of the city of Amman. Their classic question would be: “What route do you prefer?”

With the image I was projecting of myself and unaware of it, it was almost a forgone conclusion that I would be invited to functions that hosted other English people or Westerners as a whole, so as to make me feel more “at home”. Whenever a friend of mine was hosting a Western journalist or researcher, I would be automatically invited; my English proficiency was an added advantage, to translate where needed. This position of the ‘Honourable Englishman’ lasted for approximately five of six years after my return to Jordan.

On top of that, from the moment I landed to now, the most frequently asked question that I hear from everyone is: “Why did you return?” The question is asked with so much bewilderment and curiosity, as if it is a sin that I have committed. To leave the developed, highly-prosperous, free and beautiful West to return to something that is considered as “less or much less” is considered as being suicidal or at least hides behind it a great secret. When I simply state that I was homesick after so many years abroad, I am not easily believed. Sometimes I tell them that I had been settled for too many years and that I needed to have an adventure; but this seems to be less convincing than the homesickness. The fact remains that after 18 years since deciding to return home I am still unconvinced that I have truly unearthed all the different reasons why I left the West. One thing is for sure: it was not an easy decision; it took almost two years of heartache and planning to return. Another thing is that I do not regret the decision as much as I miss certain aspects of living in the UK. I hope to be able to write more about it on a different occasion.

On being an Honourable Englishman in Jordan, the most prevalent aspect of my life is the fact that for many people I have become a point of reference, not only on Britain but on the West. The first category of people who come to pick my brains are those wishing to emigrate to a Western country or go to study there. I am usually their first stop whether they want to seek my advice on immigration aspects or which universities to consider. Another category of people is those wishing to send their children abroad to learn English or those wanting to improve their own English here in Jordan. The latter are the most annoying as they expect me to free myself daily to chat with them in English.

Then there is the ‘British expert’ hat that I am frequently forced to wear. What do I think of Brexit? What do I think of Boris Johnson? Is he really of Turkish extract? More recently, the death of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of King Charles III to the throne have been the subject of many conversations with friends who wanted to milk me for information that I am not qualified to answer. “Is it true that King Charles III converted to Islam secretly in Turkey many years ago?” has been the most frequent question asked. This is not to forget the so-many videos that I received about the British royal family and its intrigues, and especially about the death of Princess Diana. I can say with confidence that the late princess is as popular with Arabs as she was with the British and remains an idol of beauty and a martyr of betrayal.

A few years ago, when I became active on Facebook I began publishing articles under the banner “The London Papers”. I was very surprised when they quickly became very popular; I had quite a following. Even though I have not published anything under this title for some time, many of my virtual friends continue to ask me to publish more articles. These articles inadvertently served two purposes. First, they demonstrated the hunger for anything genuine and non-stereotypical about the West. Most of my readers often confess that they are fed up with the general and prevalent anti-Western writing and are looking for something that offers a different perspective. I neither glorify the West nor give a damning critique of living there but I try and reflect an honest narrative from my own life and trials. The second purpose that the London Papers satisfied is that they have been personally therapeutic. They helped me to come to terms with my experience living in the United Kingdom and made me realise how much I had learned and gained in the twenty-five-year journey there. It enriched me tremendously, despite all the pain and tribulations that went with it. Today I no longer resent my relative calling me “my English cousin“ but rather it is a source of pride. It sums up the bigger and most profound venture that I have taken in my life. I now recognize where I have become most Anglicized. These traits are now not only part of my personality but, I believe, what has distinguished me from others and held me in good standing throughout my eighteen years in Jordan and working in the Arab world.

Older British readers will be surprised to know that the British comedy “Mind Your Language“ is perhaps the most popular British comedy in the Arab world. Forget “Fawlty Towers” or “Only Fools and Horses” as the comedy in these is too subtle for Arab audiences. I am constantly bombarded with short video extracts of the comedy from friends. Rarely a week goes by without me receiving one. I think I now know every episode by heart.


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