Jordan A to Z: L is for … Love!

Why Love?  Because this weekend is the 12th wedding anniversary for my wife and I!

But what does love have to do with Jordan?  Well … there is a very important word you will start hearing quite often soon after you arrive in Jordan:

حبيبي

Habiibi (for saying to men)

Habiibti (for saying to women)

The phrase literally means “my loved one”  and I hear it several times a day.  Actually it is directed at me several times a day.  Are Jordanian’s flirtatious you may ask?  Not overly.  In fact it would be shocking to hear a woman (besides my wife) call me Habiibi.  You see, Jordan has a very high gender role separation.  Men and women generally fulfill traditional roles within the society (although this is changing), and this also means that men interact more in the public sphere with other men and women with other women.

So it is very common for men to greet there male friends as Habiibi.  Or stangers who are around your same age or younger.  The same is true for women greeting women.  If anyone here in Jordan is calling me their loved one it’s invariably another guy.  Which can take a little getting used to, but now it is quite normal for me.

However … a guy should never greet a woman who is not his wife (or daughter or perhaps little sister or other younger female relative) as Habiibti!  This would be shameful and embarrassing.  So I must say here in Jordan I have dozens of Habiibis, but only 3 Habiibtis.  (my wife and our 2 daughters!)

Guys don’t be surprised when you visit us here if I greet you on the cheek with a kiss and a hearty “my loved one!”  Please don’t punch me.

That said … there is only one true Habiibti for me … thanks for 12 wonderful years of marriage!

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A Thanksgiving Reflection on Hospitality in the Middle East

A very good friend of mine (David Swanson – click here for his blog) works as a pastor of a church in the Chicago area.  A couple of months ago he asked me to write an article to accompany a sermon series he was doing on hospitality.  The original article can be found on the church’s website (here), but I asked David if I could post it on my blog as well.  In light of the Thanksgiving holiday I thought that hospitality is a timely topic.  After all, during the holiday season we tend to invite people into our homes and practice this special form of love.  Here in Jordan hospitality is practiced everyday in ways that are different than we had experienced in the States.  This article reflects a little of what I have learned about hospitality while living here in the Middle  East.

The Fourth (Forgotten?) Love

I have enjoyed the privilege of living as a guest in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for the past few years. If you are not familiar with Jordan it is the small, but influential nation to the east of the Jordan river. It is rich in biblical history and I like to think of it as the “Other Holy Land.” The country is small, almost landlocked, and predominately covered in desert. The people are mostly Arab Muslim and many of them have strong cultural ties to their Bedouin roots. Hospitality is one of the chief defining characteristics of Jordanian culture. Jordan is known as the country of “ahlan wa sahlan.” This is Arabic for “welcome,” or more literally “welcome and welcome again in the future.”

You haven’t truly experienced hospitality until you have been received as a guest in a Jordanian shop or home. It is not unusual to be served hot tea or coffee or a cold soda or juice while you are perusing the wares in a small shop in the old city. As a somewhat cynical westerner I first saw these gestures as some sort of marketing ploy – a way to guilt me into buying something. After all if the shopkeeper ran down the street to buy drinks for my family or took the time to prepare tea how could I not buy something in return. However, over time, I have come to realize that guilt and innocence don’t play as large a role in Jordanian society as American. Rather shame and honor are much more powerful societal motivators. It is very important for Jordanians to honor their guests through hospitality and avoid the shame of giving a poor welcome.

When a guest arrives at a Jordanian home, it is considered poor manners to keep them waiting on the doorstep. You keep a stranger outside, but a guest you immediately welcome into your home. Greetings are exchanged and can be quite lengthy. These include wishes for peace and god’s blessings as well as inquiries about health and the extended family. Greetings often include a kiss, once on the right cheek and then several times on the left if you are particularly close or wish to honor the one so greeted. Kisses are almost exclusively given along gender lines as it would be shameful for a man to kiss a woman in public.

Guests are often received in a room separate from the living area in the home and a sink or bathroom is usually nearby for the guests’ use to refresh themselves. Drinks are always immediately served. This is usually juice or soda or tea or perhaps all three over the course of a visit. Water might be served, but never by itself. Glassware is preferred over plastic and in any event the very best table service the household has will be used. The host does not ask if a guest wants something, or even give a choice of beverage. The host honors his guest by offering the best refreshment he can offer and the guest reciprocates by gratefully drinking whatever is given. The host will continue refilling the guest’s cup without asking until a subtle shaking of the cup side-to-side indicates that the guest is satisfied.

A typical visit can last for hours. If a guest makes signs that they are leaving too soon, this will result in strong protests from the host. The host traditionally signals that the visit is drawing to a close by serving one last cup of Arabic coffee. If the guests is insistent on leaving earlier than this, the host will invariably quickly prepare the coffee all the while wondering what is so important that the guest has to leave early.

Never say you have to visit another person for in doing so you dishonor your host by saying that the next person to be visited is more important than your current host. Simply say you have a pre-existing appointment which universally seems to be honored as a reason for leaving early.

These modern conventions are deeply rooted in the Bedouin history of Jordan. The modern nation was only born a half century ago and before that the majority of the people were engaged in a semi-nomadic agrarian way of life. Society was organized along tribal lines and allegiance to family, clan, and tribe were of paramount importance. Today, modern Jordanians still know their tribal lineage and family remains a more important subset of society than the individual. In honor-shame based societies the
actions of individuals brings honor or dishonor upon the larger group to which they belong. Therefore welcoming guests and strangers with genuine hospitality brought honor for the tribe, whereas a meager welcome would bring shame.

There are two Bedouin traditions from times past that still inform Jordanian hospitality today. The first is that of welcoming strangers for three days. The second is the offering of three cups of coffee to the guest.

Bedouins customarily welcomed strangers for three days without asking questions. This meant giving food, water, and shelter for all people and animals that were present. Only after three days was it polite for a host to inquire directly about the guests origins and business. Then the host would decide if he would extend the welcome or send the strangers politely (but perhaps firmly) on their way. This custom arose out of the great equalizing nature of life in the arid regions of the world. The desert humbles all men. It is impossible to survive long without provisions and provisions are only sustained over time by participation in a group. Travelers were always outside of their usual family and tribal support network and as such were often dependant on the hospitality of strangers for their survival. A generous welcome of someone would often ensure reciprocity if needed at a later date.

Once welcomed into the host’s tent the guest would often be served three cups of coffee. These were more than just liquid refreshment, but powerful symbols of the host’s intentions and the guest’s position. The first was the cup of peace, then the cup of friendship, and lastly the cup of protection. If you received all three cups the host had silently pledged that he would protect you as one of his own family members while you were a guest in his tent. Not a commitment made or taken lightly.

Today these customs can be observed in their original form in some of the desert tents of Jordanian Bedouins who live far from the bright lights of the big city. However, their essence, if not practice, still permeates the society in general. I have never witnessed people who are quicker to welcome strangers and provide for their needs. This is true both on the level of individuals and family, but also on the macro-level of society as a whole. Historically Jordan has freely welcomed waves of refugees into their small borders and provided for their needs (Circassians, Armenians, Palestinians, and Iraqis immediately come to mind).

I have been told that the moment the stranger crosses the threshold of the door and enters the house he or she becomes a guest. The words are not grammatically related in Arabic and carry very different meanings. If you have been received into the home and shared food and drink it is impossible for you to remain a stranger in the Jordanian psyche. Your customs and actions may be strange, but you have become an honored and protected guest. Some people I know view this even more broadly, saying that the moment I stepped on Jordanian soil I became a guest deserving of hospitality.

This welcoming of the stranger is also an important Biblical principle. We see it played out repeatedly in the stories of the Old Testaments, where the patriarchs of the three great monotheistic religions crisscross the desert offering and receiving hospitality in their tents not unlike Jordan’s modern Bedouins. In the New Testament, Jesus likens offering hospitality to strangers to offering hospitality to the Lord himself and goes even further in linking the lack of offering hospitality to being disowned on judgment day (Matthew 25:31-46).

This notion of welcoming strangers and offering hospitality is actually closely linked linguistically. Although time has shrouded the origins of the term in English, the Latin roots of the term “hospitality” are linked to the words for “guest” and “host.” The host in Latin was literally, “The Lord of strangers.” If we dig deeper and look at the Greek word used in such New Testament commands to “share with God’s people in need. Practice hospitality.” (Romans 12:13) and “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1st Peter 4:9), we find that the term is philaxenia. Think of the more familiar term philadelphia which is commonly translated “brotherly love.” Philaxenia on the other hand could be “strangerly love” or “love for the stranger.” We might be well advised to add this term to its three better known cousins (philadelphia, eros, & agape) in order to round out our understanding of the depth and importance of offering hospitality as an important aspect of love.

This is more than simply asking our brother who is always over if he wants a drink. It’s more than showing our Aunt Maddie who stopped in on her way to Florida where the bathroom is. It’s more than telling friends from church to “make themselves at home.” Think about it for a moment. Love for the stranger. Love for the stranger. Love for the stranger. Hospitality is an act of love; an act of love not for those who are like us, but for those who are unlike us.

Nothing could probably be farther from the modern American cultural psyche. From childhood we are taught to distrust strangers. Another Greek term might better sum up our attitude towards them: xenophobia. We usually keep strangers on the doorstep, talking to them from behind a chained door, if at all. If they cross that threshold no transformation takes place, they simply become strangers inside our house – invading our personal domain. Even with the best of friends and family we schedule visits days, or sometimes weeks in advance. We think that how we welcome a guest only reflects on us personally as individuals. Furthermore, in our modern society no one is really in need of provision and protection when they arrive on our doorstep, are they?

But perhaps we forget that we belong to a larger family … a tribe. A tribe whose head is Jesus, and our actions actually bring honor or shame to His name. Even if no one else sees how we welcome a guest in our home (or perhaps to think more broadly – our neighborhood, our city, our nation), He does and He has made it clear that welcoming the stranger is something that is very important to Him. This means getting over our fear of people who are different from us, those who might even on the face of it seem to be our enemies. I wonder if Jesus so highly values love for strangers because he realizes something vital, that perhaps we miss.

We are all strangers here.

Every last one of us, no matter nationality, race, tribe, or religion is a sojourner in this world. We are all just passing through.

And maybe, just like the occupants of the Bedouin tent deep in the desert, we are all in need of both giving and receiving hospitality when least expected and with no questions. After all, it is not only a matter of survival, but also of great honor.

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

It’s a little after 4:30 AM on August 1st, 2011.  This date happens to coincide with Ramadan 1st, 1432.  Ramadan is the Islamic holy month of fasting and the name Ramadan is actually the name of a month on the Islamic calendar.  The official Islamic calendar is lunar (as opposed to the solar Gregorian calendar familiar in the West), and records years from the date that Muhammad made his emigration from Mecca to Medina.  Due to the differences between the calendars, the beginning of the month of Ramadan changes from year-to-year according to the Gregorian calendar.  It shifts about 11 days earlier each year.  This year Ramadan falls during the peak of the Middle Eastern summer.  Long hot days will surely make for a difficult fast.

This Ramadan, I will be blogging my knowledge, thoughts, and reflections on Ramadan.  This will obviously be from the perspective of an outsider as I am not Muslim.  However, I have been living in the Middle East for 3 years now and have visited a number of times before moving here.  So I think I have a unique perspective that many non-Muslims do not have.  Take my thoughts for what they are worth.  I welcome all questions and comments from both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Basics

Amman, Jordan between dawn and sunrise, 1-Ramadan 2011/1432

The fajr call to prayer just sounded 15 or 20 minutes ago here in Amman, Jordan.  This is the call to prayer that officially marks the beginning of dawn each day.  This is the moment that light breaks over the horizon (not officially sunrise) and during Ramadan marks the beginning of the daily fast.  Practicing Muslims rise early (or possibly stay up all night) to eat a pre-fast meal (called suhoor in Arabic) before the fajr prayers.  The fast during Ramadan is during daylight hours from dawn to sundown.  The fasting includes abstaining from all food and drink during those hours.  It also includes no smoking, no sex, no chewing gum, and for the most devout no swallowing of spit.  (You will see a lot of spitting in public during Ramadan!)  It has been blazing hot of late here in Jordan, so refraining from water will be particularly difficult.

The fast is broken with an iftar meal at the sounding of the maghrib (sunset) call to prayer.  Interestingly the word iftar is derived from the same root as the word for breakfast (fatoor), so it’s breakfast for dinner for Muslims throughout the month of Ramadan.  The fast is traditionally broken by eating dates and drinking juice followed by sometimes lavish meals.  During the month of Ramadan you can see street vendors here in Amman selling plastic bags of juice concentrate throughout the day to be used later at iftar.

Who is expected to fast and special considerations

King Abdullah I Mosque after fajr prayers 1-Ramadan 2011/1432. Amman, Jordan.

Every  healthy adult Muslim is expected to observe the fast.  Exemptions are made for the ill, pregnant and nursing mothers, travelers and young children.  It’s not clear to me when children are expected to begin fasting.  I have heard everything from age 7 to age 12.  The younger ones in that range are generally not expected to practice the full fast, but to begin preparing themselves to partake more fully in later years.  Non-Muslims (here in Jordan) are not expected to fast, but are forbidden by law to eat, drink, or smoke in public during the month of Ramadan.  Of course, this means in the street – but also most other public venues.  Restaurants, cafes  and food courts at the mall are all closed during daytime hours.  Only a few restaurants and cafes with “touristic” licenses can be found open.  Public consumption of food and drink outside of these places or private homes can be punishable with tickets or even imprisonment.  I have never heard of either of these things actually happening, but have heard of non-muslim friends being warned by the police!

The schedule of life can seem a bit topsy-turvy to the outsider.  Businesses tend to hold non-standard working hours during Ramadan.  Some close during the heat of midday.  Many open late and close early. This is especially true when Ramadan falls in fall/winter months and people need to make it home to prepare for the iftar meal.  Driving in Amman in the pre-iftar hours can be more maddening than usual – and trying to find a taxi can be nearly impossible.  And then for an hour or two the city is like a ghost-town as nearly everyone is somewhere breaking the fast.  The half-hour before and hour after maghrib prayer-time is sctually the best time to drive anywhere in the city during Ramadan – you’ll have the streets nearly to yourself.

Ramadan isn’t just about fasting

And then after everyone has broken the fast the city comes alive.  People are out and about visiting, shopping, even working.  Businesses are often open late into the night.  Cafes and restaurants that would normally close stay open well past midnight – some until just before dawn.  People often stay up all night eating and drinking as they would normally during the day.  Some Muslim friends have complained that they gain more weight during the month of fasting than during regular months!

Generous Ramadan! The typical Ramadan greeting.

The atmosphere of Ramadan is festive.   It’s not only a time for fasting, but also for visiting extended family and celebrating.  People hang strands of lights, some shaped like stars and crescent moons, and other decorations much like people would for Christmas in the West.  The standard greeting during the month is “Ramadan Kareem”  or “Generous Ramadan.”  The response is “Allahu Akram” or “God is more generous!”  Indeed, the month is marked by generosity.  At the end of Ramadan parents give gifts to their children, uncles give money and toys to their nieces and nephews, and brothers do the same for their sisters, particularly the unmarried ones.  People give cash gifts to the garbage men who work on their street, and many people buy extra food for the needy.  Businesses and wealthy patrons sponsor iftar meals for the poor.  In general it is accepted that charitable giving during Ramadan accrues a double blessing and many people make their annual zakat (alms) giving during this time.

If you have a Muslim friend, neighbor, or co-worker be sure to greet them for Ramadan (Ramadan Kareem!) and take the time to visit them.  This is not advised during daylight hours, but it is more polite to drop-by after the iftar meal is completed.  It may seem very late for a visit to a non-Muslim, but for fasting Muslims … the night is yet young!  A gift of high-quality dates is always appreciated and a Ramadan greeting card is a nice touch.  Your visit will certainly be appreciated and who knows, perhaps you will be invited back to share an iftar meal later in the month!

Next up: Ramadan Origins

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

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

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

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

Check out the Festival of Alternative Arts!

Special Note: Tonight (Tuesday, January 25th) there is a debate on life in Gaza being held as part of the Festival.  It will be held from 5 PM to 7 PM at the Al-Balad Theater on the route down from Rainbow street in  Jabal Amman to the balad.  More info here. Unfortunately I can’t make it because of work.  Hopefully someone else can!
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I recently had the privilege of attending a film screening of Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff’s “Aisheen: Still Alive in Gaza“.  The documentary observes several slices of life in Gaza after the devastating January 2009 Israeli offensive that left 13 Israelis and over 1300 Palestinians dead.  The film provided little commentary on the events, but simply showed people in their everyday contexts trying to put their lives back together after a month of bombardment and destruction.  I am preparing another post on my thought on the film, but wanted to point out that it is part of a larger event now being held here in Jordan.

From December 2010 through February 2011, the Swedish Embassy in conjunction with many local partners (including the Royal Film Commission who sponsored the film screening) is hosting the “Festival of Alternative Arts” here in Jordan.  The purpose of the festival is,

to showcase and discuss graffiti and other urban alternative art expressions. It aims at contributing to broadening the concept of art as a diverse form of expression, but also hopes to attract and stimulate an interest in urban art – in its different representations – among the large young population in Jordan.

Don't sit at home - attend a festival event!

The centerpiece of the festival is the photo exhibit “Gaza Grafitti” opening at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts on January 26th (tomorrow) and running through February 15th, 2011.  The exhibit is the work of Swedish photographer Mia Grondahl and is comprised of 60 photographs of grafitti art in Gaza over of seven year period (2002-2009).  I am personally very interested in seeing this exhibit as I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 in Gaza.  At that time I was also fascinated by all of the graffiti I saw.  Some of it obviously slogans of one sort or another, but also actual artwork.  The art that I saw in the late 90s took the form of paintings of scenes in some cases, but also amazing Arabic calligraphy.    As in parts of the West Bank where Palestinian artists have used the “security” wall as a canvas, graffiti has served as both an artistic and political release valve for an oppressed people.  I am interested to see what Grondahl observed and recorded during her times in Gaza.

I will probably go see the exhibit sometime in February.  If you are here and Jordan and want to go together drop me a line.

The Festival of Alternative Arts includes a number of other events in addition to the “Gaza Graffiti” exhibit.  A complete list can be found on their Facebook events page.

Some of the ones I found most intriguing are:

Dream Hiding Places at The Children’s Museum until January 31, 2011.  20 Palestinian children will be participating in a graffiti art workshop facilitated by a local graffiti artist.  The artwork produced will be on display at the museum.

Images/Suwar in Zarqa until January 30th.  28 Iraqi youths, refugees living in Jordan, tell their stories through use of the performing and media arts.  The location in Zarqa is not clear from the FB page.  Anyone have any idea?

Refugee Camp Graffiti Art Project on display at Nabad Gallery from February 27th to March 1st.  Workshops will be held with youth in three Palestinian refugee camps here in Jordan.  They will be given cameras to photograph the graffiti they see every day.  Then they will develop their own art.  The results will be displayed in Baqa’a camp and the Nabad Gallery.

If you happen to be in Jordan reading this, I hope you take a moment to attend one of these or other events associated with the festival.  If you’re not in Jordan – just see what you’re missing!  I’ll  try to post on anything I get to attend.

PS – I found out about this event through my new favorite resource – Jordan Events on Facebook.  For those of you who are Facebook users in Jordan it’s a great way to find out what’s going on around the Kingdom!

(inter)National Novel Writing Month in the Middle East

Click for the NaNoWriMo Website

If you know me well, then you know that since 2005 I have been involved with National Novel Writing Month.  What’s that?  Basically it’s a creative outlet for people who love to write that started out as a crazy dare among a few friends to write a novel in a month and in less than 12 years has turned into a world-wide phenomenon.  Last over 165,000 people participated – this year, just over 200,000! Can you imagine any event going from 8 to 200,000 participants in just over a decade?  In my opinion NaNoWriMo (as it is abbreviated) is such an important example of how the right combination of technology, human interaction, and creativity can start a self-sustaining movement.

So how does it all work? It’s simple, really.  The challenge is to write 50,000 words in a month.  This is the equivalent of a 175 page novel, or perhaps more accurately – a novella (think Fahrenheit 451).  Each participant signs up on the NaNoWriMo website and waits for November 1st to roll around and then starts typing.  Along the way writers update their word count on the website (on the honor system).  The site keeps track of word count for each person.  As I am writing this post I am at 28,000 words or so – about 3,000 words behind if I want to finish the challenge.  Here’s my current word count:

Click for my NaNo profile

At the end of the month writers can upload their novel for official validation.  Their file is promptly deleted and no one ever reads it.   If they have passed the 50,000 word mark they get a spiffy winner’s certificate.

That’s it.

It’s basically a solitary challenge to pound out a rough draft (of perhaps questionable quality) of a book in a month.

So why has the challenge become so wildly popular that even here in the Middle East there are almost 400 writers who have signed up and some of  whom are furiously writing the month of November away (already typing over 2,000,000 words, BTW)?

 

Click for the Word Count Scoreboard

  • First, I think for some people it taps into a deep creative well.  Some people have always dreamed of writing a novel.  For those, this is that chance.
  • Second, people love audacious challenges.  Writing a novel in a month just sounds ridiculous.  So ridiculous, in fact, that a lot of people think, “Yeah!  Why not?”
  • Third, NaNoWriMo as an organization has made smart use of technology.  The year they started the website their participation numbers exploded and have steadily grown since.  The website is a treasure trove of forums where writers from all over the world exchange a wealth of ideas.  There are forum threads committed to specific genres, particular topics, age groupings, geographic areas, and of course just plain goofing off.  It is here on the forums that many people make connections and feel like their participation in the challenge is part of something so much bigger than just themselves.
  • Fourth, NaNoWriMo turns out to be a great way to meet people.  Everyone who signs up has the opportunity to join a local Region.  Back in 2005 I joined the USA::Illinois::Naperville region.  Even though it had Naperville in the title it served as the region for the western suburbs of Chicago.  In those days we might have had just over 100 writers involved, now that region boasts over 1000 participants.  On the local level volunteer leaders called “Municipal Liaisons” organize, advertise, encourage, and advise the local WriMos (as the writers are called).  This includes setting up Write-Ins where people come together – not to discuss writing or critique each others writing, but to write furiously in the same room with other aspiring authors who are trying to reach the same 50,000 word goal.

NaNoWriMo and the Middle East

Click to see the Elsewhere::Middle East regional forum

When I first moved to Jordan there was no local chapter here.  There was something in Egypt and Israel, but nothing in Jordan or anywhere else in the Middle East.  I had to join a region entitled “Elsewhere.”  This was the catch all for places in the world that had no local volunteers to organize thing.  Then last year an “Elsewhere::Middle East” region popped up under the leadership of an American ex-pat in Bahrain.  She returned to the States and somehow the mantle of leadership moved on to me.  I actually had the honor of being featured on the NaNoWriMo blog recently on Municipal Liaison (ML) Appreciation Day – you can read the interview here.  So now I have the pleasure of interacting with nearly 400 writers in over 15 different countries.  (Truth be told 400 are signed up and affiliated with our region but only around 175 are actually writingbut still – that’s pretty good).

I think something like NaNoWriMo is exactly what the Middle East in general and Jordan in particular needs.  As I’ve interacted with people in our NaNoWriMo region,  I’ve noticed a good mix of ex-pats and locals.  Maybe more ex-pats than locals right now, but I see that changing in the future.  Of course, here, like everywhere else in the world, NaNoWriMo attracts very intelligent and creative people.  People with a talent to write and tell stories, but also to think outside of the box.  This, in my outsider’s perspective, is something that seems rare in this part of the world where cultural values say that tradition and sameness are important.  But actually I am beginning to wonder if creative people are rare, or they just seem rare because there haven’t been many outlets for them to express their creativity.

At a recent Write-In one of the Jordanian WriMos said. “Actually, this is a new kind of thing for Jordan.  A new way of thinking.”  We had been talking about family and friend’s reactions to people participating in the event.  Most were perplexed.  “You’re writing a novel?  Why?  Will it be published?  It’s just for your OWN enjoyment?”  In this collectivist culture, where tribal affiliation still means so much, an individualized competition with little public accolade is hard to understand.  Of course, although people didn’t seem to think it  a very worthwhile endeavor,  apparently they all had their opinions about what should be written into the book.  Another clue to me that there is some creative energy boiling just under the surface.

So what do you think?  Is writing 50,000 words in a month as a means of creative expression cool or crazy?  Middle Easterners, what do you think about it?  Is this a counter-cultural idea or just one that needs some more exploration?

Eye Exams, Customer Service, and Paris Hilton

“Of course, the eye exam is free if you purchase a pair of glasses.”  The optometrist seemed somewhat puzzled by my question.

“Of course.” I replied in Arabic, “But how much is it for just the eye exam?” His selection of frames looked expensive.  Besides, I like to keep my options open.

“The eye exam by itself?”  Another puzzled look, “Just 2 dinars.”

$2.82 for an eye exam.  It was in that moment that I realized that all of my assumptions about the price of eye care in Jordan were probably incorrect.  “Ok, great.  So how much for a pair of glasses?”

“For frames and lenses?”

“Yes, for everything, the exam, the frames, the lenses . . . ”

“Well it depends on the frames, of course.  But these ones here are around 25 dinars, and these here maybe 30 or 35 dinars.  Like this.”

Different definitions of expensive

I couldn’t believe my ears – I had always heard from Joe our building super that glasses were expensive in Jordan.  I automatically assumed it would be like so many other things here – the US dollar price simply changed to JDs.   So a $149.99 pair of eyeglasses would be labeled 150 JD, which would come out to just over $200.  Based on this thinking I hadn’t darkened the doorstep of an optometry shop since arriving.  However, the problem was that I hadn’t factored economy of scale into my assumptions.  You see, for Joe, a industrious member of Jordan’s working poor, 25 JD was like $200 to me – probably even more.

It was actually because of Joe that I was at the optometrist that night.  His daughter’s glasses had been broken for a week or so and I had asked him if he could take them to an optometrist to have them fixed.  Because of the expense that did not seem to be an option to him.  So I took the glasses and set out to find a place to have them fixed.  As it turns out, replacing a few screws and straightening a bent frame for a stranger who walks into your shop 15 minutes after closing time is free here in Jordan.

I wished for God’s strength to be given to the Optometrist, he wished the same to me, and we stated that if it was the will of Allah we would see each other again. We exchanged words of peace and I stepped into the cool Amman night air, knowing I would return.

Fashion Sense vs. UV Protection

It took me a few months to actually find a time to go back for my free eye exam and “expensive” glasses.  I walked in to the shop without an appointment and exchanged the customary greetings with the optometrist.  He remembered me from the errand of mercy a few months before and welcomed me warmly into the eye exam room.  We started off communicating in Arabic, but I soon realized that his skill in my first language was probably greater than mine at his, and for the sake of my eyesight and new prescription we switched over to English.  I probably didn’t need to be worried – the exam was much like it is in the States, “Which is better?  View #1 or 2?  View # 1 or 2?”  I never know. I’m always nervous I’m going to give the wrong answer.  I have a sneaky suspicion that I’ve consistently failed these dichotomizing T/F type portions of the eye exam over the years and that has led to the consistent degradation of my eyesight.  Maybe I should study more before I go in for the exam next time.

Paris might fit in ok here in Jordan, long sleeves, head covered, and most importantly - BIG sunglasses!

Anyways, as it turned out I needed new lenses.  I was in the market for a pair of sunglasses (I had lost my old one within a few months of moving to Jordan 2 summers ago), and a pair of titanium based metal frames.  For some reason I have an allergy to the metal that is in most eyeglass frames (and metal watches for that matter) and have to wear titanium or plastic or I get a rash. To my surprise he had titanium, albeit a limited selection.  Then came the sunglasses.  This is where I got into a bit of a culture clash.  He pulled out the biggest pair of frames you can imagine.  Something straight out of the Paris Hilton fashion manual.

Laughing I tried them on for a few seconds and asked him for something smaller.  He protested and handed me another huge frame.  I asked my son what he thought as I sported the next ginormous pair.  He screwed up his face in horror like I was some sort of alien about to abduct him.  Big sunglasses are IN among Jordanians these days – for both men and women.  Seriously, a guy friend of mine bought a pair of stylish sunglasses a while ago and I all I could think of was Paris Hilton when I saw him.

I explained to the optometrist that I was heading back home to the States for the summer and that my culture had a different opinion of the size of sunglasses for men.  He protested that his selections weren’t about fashion, but for the protection of my eyes from harmful UV rays. Riiiighht! We had an amusing few minutes of him extolling the virtues of large framed sunglasses and me trying to convince him that all the same I would like a smaller frame.  Like most Middle Eastern negotiation sessions, we ended up somewhere in the middle.  I’m not sure either of us were 100% happy, but we pretended we were.

A more pleasant surprise was his willingness to cut new lenses for my old glasses.  I didn’t even ask him about it, he offered.  I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this in the states, but if you go into a shop and ask about this idea there is always an excuse why it can’t be done.  “You didn’t get those frames here.”  “Those frames have been discontinued.”  “Ha-ha, new lenses in old frames, no we can’t do that.”  Everything is so much more complicated in the States.  The big optometry companies advertise special deals to get you in the door, but then after the eye exam (which is $30 if you don’t buy glasses) you often find out that the special deal only applied to the 1950s coke-bottle glasses no one wants to wear anymore.  Then everything has a special price – the frames, the lenses,the special material lenses, the thin lenses, the special coatings, the blah, blah, blah.  I alway feel like I’m being taken to the cleaners.  BUt here was this guy offering to make lenses for my old glasses as if it were a matter of routine. The cost?  15 JD.  I asked how long it would take.  “When you come back for your other glasses I will make them in 10-minutes while you wait.”  And when would the other glasses be ready? “Tomorrow, of course. American style!”  In the end the damage for a pair of new glasses, new sunglasses, and a new set of lenses was going to be right around $100 US.  Not bad for 3 pairs of eyewear.  $33.33 each. Expensive to Joe, but cheap to me. Kinda like the deals you hear advertised back in the States – but with absolutely no catch.

The Jordanian Approach to Customer Service

Truth be told, returning to pick up the glasses the next day was anything but American-style; a true reminder of one of the thing I love so much about Jordan.

I arrived an hour before closing time.  The optometrist and the pharmacist from next door were sitting in chairs on the sidewalk between their shops playing chess and sharing a hookah.  The optometrist stood up when I arrived and welcomed me into his shop.  I glanced at the board and saw that white was sure to win soon.   I encouraged him to finish the game.  After a couple of protests he sat back down.  The pharmacist pulled up a stool for me and I watched their friendly contest as the first stars were appearing in the night sky.  The optometrist had better pieces on the board, but the pharmacist had a better defensive position and made his opponent work hard for the win.  About 15 minutes into the endgame I realized that I had crossed an important cultural threshold at some point in the last year.  I had exchanged my western style transactional customer service script for an eastern relational one.  I mean, really, how many Americans would calmly wait while the guy from Lenscrafters finished off his game of chess with the guy from Walgreens while waiting to pick up his new glasses before getting irritated?  10 minutes? 5 minutes?  2?

When we first arrived in Jordan their different approach to customer service was shockingly obvious to us.  Like a blue Slurpee to the face.  You see, at that point of our cross-cultural experience we thought that Jordanians had no sense of customer service.  As it turns out – they do, it’s just different from ours.  Speed and efficiency tend not to be priorities.  And don’t expect that lines will work the same way that they do back home.  There isn’t necessarily a first come, first served policy either.  Things are more fluid, and social standing, family relationships, and keeping and maintaining honor have a tremendous effect on customer service interactions here in Jordan.  As does the classic Arab practice of hospitality.  Which has nothing to do with actually selling you the thing you came to buy, but a lot to do with making you feel welcome and walking around town with you if they don’t carry the item in question.   But I digress.

So after 20-25 minutes of watching my optometrist put the pharmacist in checkmate we got around to my new glasses.  The lenses were great and, well . . . I’ll get used to the frames =).  When it came to making the new lenses for my old frames my new optometrist friend invited me into the back to see how he did it.  I won’t go into detail here, but it was a fascinating process.   It really did take only 10 minutes.  He laughed at the British system, where apparently they still make you wait a week or two for your new glasses to give the appearance that it’s a very complicated process.  We had a rambling conversation in English and Arabic that started with lens-cutting, but detoured into language learning, sport fishing, country music, and an invitation to stay for coffee.

After the optometrist made me some arabic coffee (he had a hotplate in the lab), and knocked on the wall signaling the pharmacist that his was ready too, we spent another 1/2 hour or so easily chatting about family, life, work, American movies and those supposedly taboo subjects of politics and religion.  The pharmacist had shut down his shop and come over.  Apparently they carpool. I began the customary process of leave taking  and realized I had forgotten to pay my new friend the remainder of what I owed for the glasses.  I don’t think he would have ever asked about it.  We wished peace upon each other and asked for Allah’s presence to be with each other and hoped that Allah would allow us to see each other again sometime.  I smiled and stepped into the night air as he closed down his shop an hour later than usual.

Like many things here in Amman, buying a new pair of eyeglasses is not just about the frames and lenses.

When Cars Collide in Amman Jordan

We’ve only had our car for four months but I kinda expected this to happen sooner.  I was in a fender bender yesterday.  Don’t worry – the only thing that was hurt was my pride.  And a couple of bumpers and a radiator.  Unfortunately it was my radiator.

Yup, my radiator . . .   I rear-ended a taxi.

I was coming up to an intersection and the guy in front of me was going to go through it but then changed his mind at the last minute and slammed on his brakes.  His tires screeched on pavement and his car rocked forward and back.  I stomped on my brakes, but to no avail.  Our bumpers kissed.  But it was a rather forceful kiss.

We both jumped out of our cars to inspect the damage, and I expect it’s a good thing that only one of us was Arab.  He was angry and yelling and waving his arms.  One appropriate cultural response would have been  for me to return in kind.  I’ve seen this scene repeated before – fender benders are quite common in this city of steep hills, hairpin curves, traffic circles and a culture of offensive (rather than defensive) driving.  Typically both parties yell and gesticulate wildly as their faces get red and fisticuffs seem imminent.  Then bystanders pull the angry parties apart, face is saved, the police can be called ,insurance companies contacted. By the end the two parties usually are invoking the peace of God upon each other and making invitations to coffee.  (No joke – I know a family who’s son was hit by a car and put in the hospital.  The driver responsible is now a dear family friend of the victim).

I decided not to put my cultural observations to work and instead opted to be silent, look gravely at the damage to my car, and fiddle with my cell phone.  The yelling and flapping of arms in my peripheral vision subsided and the man took out his cell phone too.  He looked grumpy as he punched in some numbers.  From his appearance he may have actually been Circassian rather than Arab.  I hoped that he was calling the police or his insurance company instead of his cousins.

A motorcycle cop drove off the set of CHiPs and pulled up along our mess.  He instructed us to pull around the corner and to the side of the road.  The anxious looking Philippina  in the back of the cab used this as a good time to beat a hasty retreat.  I hoped I hadn’t cost the guy his fare up to that point.  The Officer surveyed the damage and asked me to pop the hood.  He looked at the radiator as it leaked hot liquid on the pavement like a dog that hadn’t found a hydrant in time.

“Do you want a police report?”  The guy had sunglasses like Frank Poncharello.

Without looking at each other or missing a beat both me and the cabbie said, “Yes.”

[note: all the exchanges here happened in Arabic – I didn’t bother to play my “I foreigner me no speak arabee” card, not sure if that was good or bad]

For inquiring minds – in Arabic a police report is called a “croaka.”  It’s easy to remember because they give you the green part of the quadruplicate form.  Green – frogs – ribbit – croaka!  But don’t confuse it with “Kurkaw” which sounds similar and can also be green (a turtle).

Ponch left and a few people began to congregate.  Two teenagers wanted to know where I was from and what my job was and if I wanted their brother to fix the damage to my car.  I made small talk with them to avoid talking to the cabbie who was on his phone talking angrily with someone.  I was still hoping it wasn’t his cousins.  The two guys asked, “Don’t you know how to stop quickly?”  I stopped talking to them.

An affable pair of middle aged gentlemen walked up. They seemed to be friends.  They asked if the police were on their way.  We indicated that one had been and left, Lord willing to fetch another to make out the police report.  They asked what happened.  I told them that I thought the cabbie was going through the intersection but he stopped quickly and I hit him.  They chuckled and said, “This is simple – it happens all the time in Amman.  Do you both have insurance?  Then. No problem.  Besides he should have kept going.  He shouldn’t have stopped.”  The cabbie glowered at the two men and I nodded and fiddled with my cell phone.

As it turns out these two had also had a fender bender on the other side of the intersection and were also waiting for the police to return to make out a police report.  They had apparently dispensed with all the posturing and grumpiness and decided to be friendly with each other.  Can’t say the same for me and the cabbie.

The officer finally showed up to make the report.  He wished peace upon us and praised God for our health.  He snapped some digital pictures and looked under the hood of my car.   As he asked us what happened he warned us not to lie as there was a camera at the intersection.  I retold my simple story, the cabbie said that of course he was stopping for a red light and I should have known that.  The officer beckoned us towards his van.  The middle row of seats had been taken out and in it’s place was a small table.  He quietly and efficiently wrote up his report, complete with a nicely drawn diagram of the scene of the accident.  He asked for phone numbers and addresses.  We both simply told the name of our neighborhoods and that sufficed.  He asked for 5 JD from me to cover the cost of the report, gave us both our green copies and once more praised God for our health.

I was kind of waiting for the point when he was going to issue me a traffic citation, but it never came.  I inquired about locating a tow truck (winch as they are called here) and he directed me to inquire at the police station a couple of hundred meters away.  Rather dubious I approached the guy out front with the sub-machine gun and the riot helmet and told him of my inquiry.  He praised God for my health and directed me to an office inside the building.  The policeman inside called a tow truck for me and instructed the officer outside with the big gun to direct the the tow truck guy when he arrived.

About 10 minutes later the winch arrived.  It was a bright yellow truck.  It had a big Mercedes cab with a flat-bed that sloped down a bit at the back.  The tow arm was big and red with a rather large industrial-strength fish hook hanging on a sturdy cable. The driver’s name was “Jimmy”.  Not really – but close enough.

We were at the police station about 200 meters from my car.  Jimmy asked if it was still operable.  In Arabic the idiom is actually, “Does it walk?”  I replied that in fact it did still walk, but water was falling from the radiator onto the ground.  “No matter,” came Jimmy’s reply, “Bring it here.”

I drove the car up to Jimmy’s rather formidable flat bed.  It was definitely designed to handle vehicles larger than mine.  I started to get out but he motioned me to stay.  He flipped a few levers that released some legs and jacked up the front end of his truck to stabilize it.  He pulled down some ramps and aligned them with my car tires.  He motioned to me and told me to drive up the ramps.  Now, I’ve driven my cars in pretty stupid places in my day, but as I slowly edged my already damaged car up the metal ramps onto the flat bed I thought for sure this was going to end poorly.

It did not.  Maybe I have a future in towing or repo if English teaching dries up.

I was going to get out again but Jimmy told me to stay in.  He attached some chains and told me to do something I didn’t understand,  but guessed that he wanted me to put it in neutral.  This seemed to work as he nudged my car farther up onto the flat bed and told me to turn off the car and put on the parking brake.

I got into the cab not sure what to expect. My experiences in tow trucks have always been . . . well . . . interesting.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure you know what I mean.  My most memorable ride was sandwiched between a tow truck driver and my pregnant wife on a 80-mile tow in the middle of the night in the dead of winter in the middle of nowhere on the way home for Christmas one year.  But that’s another story.  Jimmy’s cab was actually pretty clean for a tow truck.  The green and gold brocade fringe was first thing to catch my attention.  Green along the bottom of the dash board hanging by our knees.  Gold up above hanging down from an instrument panel above the window.  It sort of obstructed the view of the road, but only if you were tall.  Arabic dance music blared from a micro-DVD player and screen mounted on the dash.  There was a woman shaking her hips and singing as only Arab divas can.

The ride to the service center was uneventful.  I found out that Jimmy had started doing this as a second job 3-years ago.  In his day job he works for an insurance company.  I found that  rather amusing but didn’t say so.  He was married with 5 kids and really in need of the extra income.

The sun was dipping below the horizon as we dropped the car at the service center in an industrial district on the outskirts of town.  It was after hours on Friday.  Nothing around was open and no taxis in sight.  The nearest main road would be a 20-minute walk so on a whim I asked Jimmy where he was heading.  He asked where I lived and I told him the neighborhood but that I just wanted to go somewhere I could find a taxi.

Jimmy:  Do you have money for a taxi?

Me: Yes?

Jimmy:  Really?  I didn’t just take all your money?  [for the tow charge of 30 JD]

Me: No, I still have money in my pocket.

Jimmy: Ok, but if you don’t have money I will take you to your house.  It’s on my head.

Me:  Thank you – you’re a very good man, but I just take me to a place I can find a taxi.

A little way down the road Jimmy pulled over and offered to buy me something to drink – a pepsi or a juice.  We drank our orange juice and bantered about our kids as we drove back towards Amman.  About half-way to my neighborhood I told Jimmy I didn’t want to trouble him and that he could drop me off anywhere.  He said he would take me to Jabal Amman where he lives (and closer to my neighborhood) and find me a taxi there.  If not he would take me to the main road running into my neighborhood.  It was on his head.  I thanked him very much and he invited me to his house for coffee.  I declined the coffee which resulted in him giving me his card and telling me to call him to come for coffee at his house anytime.

In the end Jimmy the tow truck driver got out of his truck and waved down a cab for me on one of Jabal Amman’s busiest circles.  I could have done this myself, but he felt it was his responsibility.

I’m not too happy that I was in a fender bender, but I’m sure glad I met Jimmy.