Jordan ignited an insatiable craving in me for the Middle East. When I visited earlier this year in the “Lost City" of Petra—a UNESCO World Heritage site with ruins dating back to 400 B.C. which included towering buildings carved directly into pink sandstone cliff faces—relit my anthropological curiosity. Jordan is in the epicenter of where civilization began.
On the summit of Jordan's tallest peak, the 1,832-meter Jebel Um Adami, I gawked at Saudi Arabia's strikingly rugged mountains, and in the vast Wadi Rum—a reserve with rolling crimson-orange dunes and behemoth sandstone towers where I trekked by countless free-roaming camels. Such moments of awakening remind me of our planet's incomprehensible geologic timeline, biodiversity, and how we humans are conditioned to our immediate environments. Beneath the brilliant stars in the backcountry, I relished each bite of Zarb, a traditional meat dish that's cooked underground in an earth oven, while connecting with my Bedouin hosts, who graciously offered their hospitality.
The Near East, as Jordan is known, imprinted magic on me. Though, the most common questions when I returned stateside always circled back to my safety as a traveler and woman in the Middle East.
Photo credit: Morgan Tilton
I can understand why travelers who have never been introduced to this region feel skeptic. Unrest recently and historically oscillates in each country that surrounds Jordan: Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt. Due to the conflict in neighboring countries, Jordan suffers a safety misperception despite being stable according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association.
To help dissolve negative stereotypes, Jordan hosted the Middle East's first-ever adventure tourism conference in 2017—called Adventure Connect. This conference brings together the travel industry's international stakeholders so that they can connect and exchange ideas so their business ecosystem can flourish. With a progressive vision, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan recognized the benefits of the inaugural event and committed to hosting the conference for three consecutive years including the forthcoming Adventure Connect, in 2019.
According to Lina Annab, minister of Tourism and Antiquities, to date, forty new Jordanian adventure travel itineraries launched and tourism arrivals increased by 15 percent in the first quarter alone, compared to 2017.
Next year, local suppliers such as tour operators and accommodations are anticipating a revenue spike of another 13 percent.
Jordan Tourist Guide and Morgan Tilton; PC: Morgan Tilton
Jordan's tourism growth is supported by a surge of travelers from our fifty states. The number of U.S. citizens entering the country increased by 4% from 2013 to 2016, according to the World Tourism Organization and Intrepid Travel spotlighted the Middle East as the top-growing travel region in the world.
In my perspective, the flourishing and consistent health of Jordan's adventure tourism sector is an indication of social, economic, and political security. Of course, as visitors to another country and culture, it's essential for us to maintain a lens of safety precautions and etiquette for the cultural norms. Aside from my personal experience in Jordan, it's an ongoing mission of mine as a journalist to share other's views. Here, I speak with Jordanian Salam Shaqdeeh, operations manager for Abercrombie & Kent Jordan. She's worked for the luxury travel company for close to five years. Sharing Shaqdeeh's viewpoint helps to broaden our understanding of Jordan's local culture and demystify a few common misconceptions or misinformation regarding the female identity in Jordan.
Morgan Tilton: What is the common stereotype about how women need to dress in Jordan versus what is the reality?
Salam Shaqdeeh: The stereotype is that women are all covered, like in long sleeves and so on, but this is not the case. If you visit Amman, you will notice that this is a modern city where women walk freely, go to work, drive cars, go to nightclubs—they do everything. Of course, we have the conservative part of our culture, such as people who are veiled [author's note: the veil is also called a hijab], but we have the contrary as well.
MT: What do you recommend travelers wear?
SS: For my clients and all of our guests, I always recommend layered clothing, especially in places like Petra, because the people of Petra are of the Bedouin tribe.
That's it—you don't need to cover up. Jordan is not a conservative country.
In this context, layered clothing does not mean covering your hair, but like having a jacket and shorts on, because the weather changes. In the morning hours, it's a bit chilly. At noon, it's a bit hot, so you can take the jacket off. At night, you need a jacket, because it gets chilly again.
MT: Tell us more about the history behind the hijab.
SS: My personal opinion—not societal opinion—is that the hijab stems from religion. It is not only for Islam but is also for Christianity: [we] see nuns who are covered up.
Some people here in Jordan also think of the hijab as a traditional practice. If you're a girl and reach puberty, around 13 or 14 years old, you cover your head. In that case, it's not something accustomed by the religion.
MT: Is the hijab also a functional or aesthetic wardrobe piece for men? I met a handful of male tour guides who wear the scarves, and they said that it protects against the sun and sand.
SS: Yes, and some Jordanians do wear the hijab as a tradition, to show our traditional outfit and to show that they are a true Jordanian.
MT: What is your response to the negative stereotypes regarding safety as a traveler in Jordan?
SS: Jordan is centralized, unfortunately, in a crazy neighborhood. People see Jordan as a scary destination where you have to be careful, and you don't go out unless you are accompanied by someone of the local culture.
I always receive the same question whenever I have guests staying in Amman; they ask me, 'What's the best place to go out for cafés or souvenirs?' I recommend areas where locals are present and scattered so that travelers can do a walk safely and it's okay to walk by themselves. I personally spend most of my time walking in late hours and at night and no one touches me or harasses me.
Jordan is safe to walk around, even in places like Petra or Wadi Rum, because you are in the hospitality of Bedouins, and with the local people. They do not attack visitors. They would see it as really shameful if you were harassed or if someone was annoying you. They perceive you as a guest, and they need to protect you. They protect everyone.
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.