When I lived in Israel, I could often pass off as being native—most of the time native Israeli, but occasionally Palestinian (I can totally pass if off in a hijab). Whenever I was not in close proximity to other Americans, all of the Israelis would speak to me in Hebrew—which was fun until it came time to answer back, at which time I just smiled at them and tried to spit out some Biblical Hebrew.
However, I really don’t look like a native in Jordan. Maybe if my Arabic was better I could pass off as being Syrian, or as being a half-breed, with my father being Arab and my mother being something else. But mostly, I just don’t look Arab.
Apparently, however, I also don’t look American. Again, whenever I am not in close proximity to other Americans, people try to guess my nationality. Russia and France are the two top choices, although I usually choose Germany when they ask where I am from.
Before you judge me too harshly for telling a non-truth about my place of origin, let me suggest that I am sure I have German blood somewhere in me, and also it is much safer to be a woman from a country other than America—because not only do the taxi drivers want to practice their English, they also want a Green Card!
In Egypt, I told people all the time that I was from Germany. It was quite easy for them to believe it, and most of them did not speak much English. I found I was much less interesting and attractive as a German or Russian than an American.
I have two favorite stories about this from Egypt. The first was when myself and another girl (Gini, who also could look French) were walking down a street in Cairo. We were approaching the French Embassy, just talking with each other, when I saw the guards begin opening the gate for us. They weren’t even going to ask us if we were French! We didn’t even ask them to open the gate! This was when I knew I could pull off this nationality switch.
The second comes from a time when this same girl, myself, and another guy from the group went to a koshri restaurant in Cairo. We spoke to the waiters only in Arabic, and I didn’t think they knew much English (although when I was trying to explain that I wanted a “doggie bag” in Arabic, the guy finally understood and said, (in Arabic) “oh, you want a “boox” (that word in English—I guess you had to be there for it to be funny)). So when the waiter asked where we were from, I naturally told him that we were from Germany. He was shocked and said, “Wow! Wow!” Naturally I agreed with him, pretending that Germany was pretty much the most amazing country to have as my place of origin.
Gini heard, but apparently my friend Griffin didn’t, and the waiter went over to talk to him and told him, “You guys speak English really good!” Griffin was insulted and wondered if that was a reflection on his poor Arabic or something, but I elbowed him and told him not to blow our cover, since I had told the waiter we were from Germany. We laughed about that one for at least two weeks.
Here in Jordan, however, I only pull out the “Germany/Russia” card if I feel that my safety would be threatened by being from America—namely, when I am not in close proximity with other Americans. I am, after all, a female in an Arab country, and I feel justified in saying whatever I want to preserve my safety. (A note to fellow female travelers in Arab countries—it is always best to be engaged or married and from a country different than America—even if you are not. Especially if you don’t have a guy with you. Trust me on this one.)
However, I don’t even have to suggest it. People just assume that I am from these different countries. For example, the other day I walked into a copy shop, and one of the women in there said, “Are you from Germany?” As she was a woman, I told her that I was from America. (Side note—she was a doctor in Criminology and studied battered women in the Middle East. Very cool.) And then a couple of days ago, my taxi driver asked me if I was Russian. When I told him no, he asked if my father was Arab (although I am not quite sure how those two connect…).
However, I have found that I can get in trouble for pulling random countries out of the air whose language I do not speak and to which I have never even traveled, let alone lived. For example, the other day I was at a restaurant in downtown Amman with my American roommate. The guy asked where we were from, and I told him that I was from Germany, while she said that she was from Turkey (her fiancé is Turkish). He asked me where in Germany, and I randomly said Berlin. Turns out he had been to Germany six times, but never to Berlin, thankfully! And then as I was leaving, he almost introduced me to other patrons who were also from Germany!
Maybe I should try Iceland…