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Jordan A to Z: F is for …. Friday!

Friday!

Ahhhh … the weekend!  And by weekend, I mean the weekend proper not just the last day of the work-week and the beginning of the weekend.  Yup, that’s right here in Jordan, Friday is a bona fide day off.  It stems from the Islamic religion, with Friday being their preferred holy day as opposed to Saturday for the Jews and Sunday for the Christians.  So, all across the Middle East Friday is a day off from work for most people.  Of course, as in all nations, if you are in the service or hospitality industry you will most likely be working anyways.

For most working-class people Friday is their only day off.  A two-day weekend is really a modern convention in the Middle East.  Some countries (mainly in the gulf) opt for Thursday and Friday as the weekend.  However, here in Jordan, it is Friday and Saturday.  Unless you are a Christian … then you get Friday and Sunday off but have to work or go to school on Saturday.  Go figure.  Split weekends.  Not fun.

Some of you might be asking what do Jordanians do on Friday?  Well, here’s my outsider’s answer to that:

  • Sleep -Jordanians love to stay up late.  Especially on Thursday nights.  They stay up with their family chatting over small cups of strong coffee or tea talking into the wee hours of the morning.  As a result, Fridays are often a slow start for some.  Actually early Friday morning is a great time for grocery shopping as the aisles are mostly empty … but don’t wait until afternoon as any grocery store will likely be packed!
  • Go to the Mosque -Despite the well-known mandate to pray 5x per day, Muslims are not required to pray in the mosque each of those times (it is considered more beneficial to pray in the mosque, but not mandated).  However, mosque attendance spikes on Fridays – especially around midday – as this is when the Imam gives his speech or sermon.  Worshipers sit on the ground to listen to the sermon and then perform their prayers.  In the larger mosques it is not unusual to find the men lining up in rows outside the mosque in the courtyard, on the sidewalk, and eventually in the street.  This is because the mosques are full to overflowing on many Fridays
  • Visiting – Friday is a day for making a round of all of the relatives.
  • Outings – The malls and restaurants and supermarkets and cafes are packed on Fridays with Muslim families out and about enjoying the life in Amman.  But the most famous and well-loved Jordanian Friday outing is the:
  • Mishwar – On Fridays families like to get out of town, find a place along the road or perhaps in a park or other clear area, lay out some blankets and spend the day grilling food, drinking tea, and enjoying each others company.  Mishwar comes from the Arabic term for grilling meat.  It is not uncommon to see an extended family parked out under any random tree along the major highways, enjoying more each others company and the food than perhaps the setting itself.

I would like to think that restaurant chain TGI Fridays realized the master stroke of marketing genius in their name the first time they opened a branch here … however, I have a feel it was probably just a fortunate happenstance for them.  Either way, I stand with them and millions of people in the Middle East in thanking God that it’s Friday.

​Jordan A to Z: ​B is for …. ​Bedouin Heritage!

Dividing up the modern Middle East

Lines in the sand ... the map of Jordan

At first glance the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan seems to be a young nation.  Like its neighbors in the Middle East it is a relative newcomer on the global scene … gaining independence and “official” recognition as a nation on 25 May 1946.  When you look at a map of Jordan, with its straight lines running at strange angles in the middle of the desert, it is not hard to imagine the global powers-that-be arbitrarily drawing up the map of the Middle East in the time between the first two world wars.  However, what these strangely intersecting borders and the relatively recent “birthdate” of the nation fail to convey is the rich and long history of the peoples of this region.

People have settled this area for centuries before the modern borders were drawn.  Those familiar with the biblical lands of Ammon, Moab, and Edom should be reminded that they were located here.  Jordan contains some ruins of the oldest settlements in the world … Al-Beidha is a neolithic village dating from 7200 BC!  Archeological finds have demonstrated that the region covered by the modern day Kingdom of Jordan has been inhabited since those ancient days.  A Bedouin culture typified by the domestication of herd animals and the nomadic lifestyle that accompanied such activity seems to have risen in the Chalcolithic period (4500-3200 BC) and continues to this day.

It must be noted that the lines drawn in the sand by the power-that be cannot contain the ancient culture of the Bedouin peoples scattered throughout the region!

Bedouin heritage shaping culture in Jordan for millennia

It is impossible to underestimate how strongly Bedouin culture has shaped the culture of the modern day Kingdom of Jordan.  From 4000 years before the birth of Christ until a mere 75 years ago most of the inhabitants of this area were Bedouins in the true sense of the word.  They lived in tents or other temporary structures and much of their life revolved around the care of livestock.  The ebb and flow of life was dictated by the seasons and the needs of the animals that were the wealth and lifeblood of the Bedouin.  Even though 75-80% of the Jordanian population today lives in the urban centers, it was the exact opposite less than a century ago.  It is not uncommon to hear the most cosmopolitan, well-educated city dweller to speak of their grandparents Bedouin lifestyle.  Just like in America … you don’t have to go back too many generations to discover the family farm.

Some highlights of Bedouin culture

The coffee pot is always on near the Bedouin's tent

  • Hospitality: The practice of welcoming the stranger is by far the defining characteristic of Bedouin culture.  Today you will hear the phrase “ahlan wa sahlan” repeated constantly in Jordan (welcome and welcome again in the future).  When entering a Bedouin tent it is customary to remove ones shoes, and in ancient times water was provided for washing feet dirtied by travel.  A good host would always offer coffee immediately. Indeed a pot of coffee is often on, or not far from, the fire all day long.  The Bedouin host will continue to fill your tiny cup until you signify you are finished by shaking it slightly left-to-right between your fingers.  Even though your host will fill your cup all day it is good manners to stop at three.
  • Three days of welcome -Part of the importance of hospitality arose out of the perils of living in such close proximity and communion with the desert.  The desert was a a great equalizer for early man.  One cannot exist for long on one’s own in the desert and must rely on the hospitality of the community and sometimes strangers. In ancient times if someone arrived at a Bedouin’s tent it was customary to welcome them for 3 days, providing them with food, water, shelter, and protection for that time period …. without asking questions!  After three days questions would be asked and decisions made about on-going provision and care.
  • Protection – It is a matter of great personal honor for a Bedouin to protect anyone who is a guest in their dwelling.  They consider it their personal responsibility to do whatever necessary to protect a guest.  Even if someone was fleeing from trouble they could expect to be granted asylum from a Bedouin in his tent for at least 3 days.  It could be after that time that the Bedouin would decide to escort the asylum-seeker out of the area … in which case the Bedouin would often provide safe passage by means of an armed escort and perhaps even some provisions for the onward journey.
  • Honor & Shame -All of this comes out of a high sense of honor and shame within the culture.  Honor and Shame don’t just rest on the individual but it rests on the family, the clan, and the tribe.  Thus your actions as an individual bring honor or shame not only on your own head, but on your family and indeed the extended family.  In the west we view the individual as the most important unit of society … but for the Bedouins it was (and still is) the family and the tribe.  It was nonsensical to think of the individual as being completely self-sufficient in the natural environment of the ancient Middle East.  This belief has persisted till modern times and strengthens the fabric of Jordanian society.

Bedouin life today

This post has already gotten way too long (and is a day late!) so I will just treat this topic briefly.  True Bedouins that live in tents and temporary dwellings are still possible to find in Jordan.  You will begin to see their tents just on the outskirts of any major cities.  You will even see shepherds grazing their sheep on open patches of greenery in the middle metropolitan Amman!  Many modern Bedouins are more semi-nomadic or have settled in small villages.  It wasn’t long ago that in the south of Jordan you could find Bedouins living in places like Petra and Wadi Rum as they had for centuries.  However, as the tourist industry grew, the government sought to present a different image in such historic locations and built towns for some of the southern Bedouins to live in.  Many of these Bedouins make there living now as guides and salesmen in Petra and Wadi Rum

As I mentioned before, many Jordanians have Bedouin roots … so even city-dwellers are not far removed from that history.  The cultural values of preserving honor and avoiding shame are alive and well in Jordanian cities.  As is the value of hospitality!  Come visit Jordan and find out for yourself!

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A visit to Azraq Wetland Reserve in the Kingdom of Jordan

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is typically thought of as a desert environment … if anyone takes the chance to consider the environmental classification of this small but strategically located country.  If you know anything about the geography and climatology of Jordan, then you will also know that it is one of the most water poor countries in the world, facing annual struggles to stay ahead of usage demands with meager supplies.So it may come as a surprise to you that Jordan is home to what was a vitally important, natural, regional wetland …. Azraq Oasis.

Azraq Wetland, copright 2011 Brian C

Azraq Wetland Preserve, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Azraq Oasis would have covered a large area of the Eastern Jordan

Please note that I said … “was.”  It’s not that Azraq Oasis doesn’t still exist, but it is only a shadow of its former self.  The Oasis used to be larger that the country of Lebanon, a gigantic blue jewel in the the otherwise barren brown-hued landscape of Northeastern Jordan.  The Oasis was a haven for both humans and animals, serving as a stop for trade caravans traveling West from Baghdad and north from The Arabian Peninsula and also as a North-South rest stop for migratory birds.

Unfortunately, today only a fraction of this amazing wetlands environment remains.  Why?  Overuse of the precious water resource by Jordan’s developing cities in the late 1980s and the 1990s virtually annihilated the oasis.   The spring that had fed the  area for centuries retreated several meters underground in the 1990s.  The only reason anything remains today is that the Ministry of Water pumps water back into the Oasis today in an attempt to repair the damage that was approved by a previous version of the Ministry back in the 80s when they deemed that a certain level of pumping would do no harm to the wetlands.  Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

20 years ago the water in this area would have been up to my son's neck

Despite its sad history, the Azraq Wetlands Reserve remains a jewel in the Jordanian landscape.  As you drive through the open desert along highway 40 from Amman it is hard to imagine the trade caravans and legions of soldiers from every time period of recorded human history trekking through this barren landscape.  Yet, this is exactly what they did.  When they came over the final rise and viewed the drop down into the green and blue of the Azraq Basin it must have been a very welcome sight.  It still is today … but back then it would have stretched as far as the eye could see.

Getting to Azraq from Amman

Gray Heron

It is quite simple to get to the Azraq Wetland Preserve from Amman and takes about 1.25 to 1.5 hours depending on traffic.  Thew quickest way to get there is to head south out of the city by way of Misdar Street (the road from the balad through east Amman and joins up with the airport road just south of the City).  You go past Wahedat, Middle East Square/Circle, the vehicle licensing facility and just past some plant nurseries find an exit for Highway 40.  I’m pretty sure that the # is not mentioned, but there are signs for Sahaab, Azraq, and Iraq.  This highway will take you north and east out of Amman.  You follow it for quite some time through the Eastern Desert and past a few of the Desert Castles, which are surely worth a stop if you have the time.  Eventually, Highway 40 meets with Highway 30 (the route from Zarqa  and points north of Amman), and a handful of kilometers later the road comes to a T-instersection in the town of Azraq.  There are two parts to Azraq – North (Shemaali or Druuzi(for the Druze who once settled here)) and South (Januubi).  North Azraq is to the left from the intersection and is where you will find the intriguing black basalt Azraq Castle.  South Azraq is to the right from the intersection and is where you will find the entrance to the Wetland Reserve.  Highway 5 connects the two parts of Azraq and runs from the Saudi border in the south up to Highway 10 that runs to the Iraqi Border in the north and east.

Error in Lonely Planet GuidebooksI have generally found the 2006 Lonely Planet  guide book to be an excellent resource for all things Jordan.  The 2009 version despite expanded info on Petra and Wadi Rum is a poor attempt at an update and has a lot of inaccuracies when it comes to prices and opening times.  I know this is to be expected over time, but right from the moment the new edition hit the shelves a lot of this info was wrong in the 2009 version.  Although now prices are off in both, I generally find the info in the 2006 guide to be more reliable.  However, both have got it wrong for the directions/maps to Azraq Castle and the Azraq Wetland Reserve.

The correct locations for attractions around Azraq

  • Azraq Castle is located off Highway 5 in North Azraq (after turning left/north at the T-Instersection of Highways 30 and 5).  Just keep going through town … you can’t miss it on the left hand side.  And despite the guide saying it is free, they will charge you a couple JD to get in. (.250 JD for residents)
  • The entrance to The Azraq Wetland Reserve is located just east of the main road that runs through South Azraq (after turning right/south at the T-Intersection).  Just follow the brown RSCN signs with the red arrows.
  • Also note that the entrance fee info for the Reserve is incorrect in the guide, which states it as 2 JD.  It is actually as follows:  2 JD for Jordanian Citizens, 5 JD for foreigners with Jordanian residency, 10 JD for Foreign tourists.  It is worth it to help the local economy and the conservation efforts of the RSCN.  But it is a bit of a sticker shock if you arrive at the reserve looking to pay 2 JD.
  • The Shaumari Wildlife Reserve that is listed as a double entry on a ticket from Azraq is closed indefinitely.  The RSCN employee at Azraq could not give me a time frame for when it would be open (as of December 2011).

Kudos to the RSCN

Killifish (or pupfish) species that is only found in Azraq .... almost died out, but was saved by RSCN efforts

The RSCN (Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature) has done a good job with their initial conservation efforts at Azraq.  They should be applauded for saving a rare species of killifish, only found in Azraq, from extinction.  They have also contributed to the survival of a herd of water buffalo – some of the only remaining large animals that once populated the oasis.  Without their efforts in advocacy, the entire basin would probably now be desert, so their work should be greatly appreciated.  Unfortunately the visitors center is small, as is the trail through the wetland.  It only covers a fraction of the Reserve.  Of course there is a delicate balance between preserving the natural environment and promoting eco-tourism, which in turn pays for the ongoing preservation efforts.  My sense is tourism through this out-of-the-way part of Jordan is a bit on the light side.  Perhaps there are a lot of school trips when the weather is nicer.

Well, that’s enough from me.   I should just let the pictures do the rest of the talking.  It should be noted that these pics are from the beginning of the winter season here in Jordan … I am going to go back in the Spring when I am sure the area will be much more green and vibrant!

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Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Goals in Muslim Words (part 3)

Previous post in series: Ramadan Origins

Personalizing Ramadan

This Ramadan I have made a point of asking many of my Muslim friends and acquaintances one particular question: “What is the main goal of fasting during Ramadan for you?”

It has been a fascinating month of conversations.  For many, it seems to be a bit of an odd question.  Perhaps something is lost in translation or perhaps its a different perspective of devotional practices.  When faced with this question many of my Muslim friends hesitate and ask for clarification.  Perhaps, it’s the idea of a “personal” goal.  Ramadan has such a community feel to it.  But they also get hung up a bit on the notion of “goal” or “aim” or “objective.”  These words seem to make more sense for them in a different setting – perhaps they are seen more fitting into a business or education or military milieu than a religious one.

Nonetheless everyone (whether immediately or after some clarification) has shed additional light on the Fast for me and I have deeply appreciated each conversation.  I wish that all of you could have been present at each one.  It would be impossible for me to quote everything here, but I will give you a summary of what has been shared with me.

Obedience and Righteousness

First of all, many people pointed to two things: (1) the necessity of the fast, and (2) the process of becoming more righteous in God’s eyes.

Both of these concepts (obedience & righteousness) have grown increasingly foreign in Western thought and culture.  In the West we are taught to question authority (especially religious authority) from a very young age.  Obedience may be important for children, but even then it is cast as respect.  However, for many of my Muslim friends it is important to them to obey what they see as a command of God.  For most I would not categorize this as a “blind” or unthinking obedience, but rather a choice of the will to do what they believe to be right.

Which brings us to the second notion: righteousness. This word seems to have gained a negative connotation in the West; perhaps taking on a bit of the notion of arrogance or religious one-upmanship.  The term itself (in English) has to do with “the state of being right” or “performing right actions” and popularly may include the idea of trying to curry favor with God or people.  But in the basic understanding of the term, “righteousness” is doing the right thing simply for the sake of honesty and integrity.  For my Muslim friends there is no question that they want act correctly before Allah.  And the Fast during Ramadan is one of these actions.

The Qur’an specifically states that fasting during the holy month is an act of righteousness.  But let’s divest the term of some of it’s religious and cultural baggage and simply say that “you can’t go wrong with fasting during Ramadan.  It’s pleasing to God.”  Or, “Fasting … it’s the right thing to do.”  Pleasing God – being obedient and right before the creator –  is a huge personal goal for most Muslims during the Fast.  However, I can’t emphasize enough how this was not seen as something negative and onerous, or something simply done unthinkingly with no meaning.

Meaningful, Rather than Rote Obedience

Perhaps the following will bring some nuance to the notion of of obeying God through the Fast (the following are my paraphrased translations of particular things than have stuck out to me as unique in some of the conversations I have had this month):

  • Fasting brings me strength.  I can work harder and longer when I fast.  It makes me stronger, not weaker.  Strength in my body, but also in my mind and my spirit.
  • Fasting brings health to the body.  It is a time of renewal.  12 months you do with your body as you like, but for one month you give it to God and do what he wants.
  • Fasting during Ramadan is like cleaning out a filter.  Your stomach is like a filter and it gets dirty.  Everyday we put whatever we want into it.  During Ramadan we give God a chance to clean out our stomachs.  But not only our stomachs, also our minds.
  • Fasting is not just about not eating and not drinking.  These things are important but they are not the only things.  It is about not lying and not thinking bad thoughts,  and not looking at women in a bad way, and not treating people poorly.  If I do all of these things while I am fasting why would God care?
  • Fasting helps me to think about other people, like the poor people.  During Ramadan I cannot just do what I want all day.  I have to think less about myself so this gives me more time to think about others.  And maybe the people who do not have enough money or food.  So I can help them because I am not thinking just about myself and what I want.
  • God does not want our food and our drink.  These are small things to him.  He wants us to control our bodies and our spirits during the month of Ramadan.  To do the right thing in all of our days.
  • Fasting during the month of Ramadan teaches me self-control.
  • It is not enough just to do the right thing in Ramadan.  Of course, God wants us to do the right thing all of the time.  We cannot make sins all year and then make no sins in the month of Ramadan and think that this is ok with God.  We must obey God in all of the year.  Ramadan helps us to remember this important fact.
  • Fasting helps me to become closer to God.  The Quran teaches that he is near to us.  And I hope to become near to him by fasting.
  • Fasting is all about loving God.  It is a way for me to show God that I love him because I do what he says to do.  This is a small thing for me to do.  Some people think that it is very difficult.  But if I love God it will be an easy thing for me to do.

I hope by reading these statements you catch a little bit of the devotional depth that Ramadan holds for many Muslims.  It is not simply something “I have to do”  it is something that is seen as integral to their relationship with God and others.  As I heard some of these things from my Muslim friends these past few weeks it reminded me of some things written in the previous holy books.

Fasting is not just about abstaining from food (God wants you to have self-control):

12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.  (1st Corinthians 6:12-13) باللغة العربية

Fasting is about our relationship with God:

    16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  (Jesus in Matthew 6:16-18) باللغة العربية

Fasting is about how we treat others (especially the poor and oppressed):

2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: “Here am I.”   If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.  11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.  (Isaiah 58:2-11)  باللغة العربية

I think this last passage speaks for itself and is a powerful template for fasting in general for all of the monotheistic religions.

Next Post: A Tale of Two Iftars

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Basics (part 1)

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Origins (part 2)

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition 

Eid Mubarak!

Beginfast or Commensfast Anyone?

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

Successful Ramadan Trip to the Saloon

Jordan Headlines #3

Looking for a Ramadan Special at the Local Saloon