Jordan A to Z: M is for … Mansaf or Msakhan!

MMMmmmmmm . . . It is only fitting that ‘M’ is for two of the most delicious meals offered in Jordan!  While it is true that there are many delicious Arabic dishes that start with the letter M (check out Jim’s delicious post on Maqluube), these two are often at the top of the list as favorites.

Mansaf, the Jordanian national dish

A platter of mansaf.

Anyone who has traveled to Jordan, or even has read about traveling to Jordan has probably heard of Mansaf.  A guidbeook section on Jordanian cuisine cannot be complete without mentioning this tasty meal.  Even government websites extol the virtues of Mansaf.  So (for the uninformed), what is Mansaf? It is lamb  cooked till falling off the bone perfection, served over a bed of rice, topped with warm jameed (yoghurt sauce), sprinkled with pine nuts and/or almonds, and often accompanied by large pieces of shraak (Bedouin style flat bread).

An individual portion of mansaf.

At a restaurant, or I suppose in someone’s house, you might be served an individual serving on an individual plate.  However, mansaf is traditionally served on a huge round serving dish, and is consumed as a communal meal straight from the platter.  Traditionally, the platter is set on the floor and 10 or so people would sit around it and eat everything with their hands.  This takes some getting used to for the uninitiated or cutlery-dependent, but really is not so bad once you get the hang of it.  (The trick is rolling the rice into a ball around a core piece of chicken.  Also, remember this has to be done only with the right hand as the left is considered unclean.)

Of course some Jordanians will offer you a plate and spoon or fork if you are visiting. But not all.  And if you are able to try your best at eating with your hands without batting an eye … your status definitely goes up in the sight of your host.  Once when I visited a bedouin village, I ate mansaf with my hands without hesitation.    Later when I was walking around meeting people in the village my host told everyone, “he eats like us …. with his hands!”

Eating mansaf Bedouin-style!

You say Musakhan, I say Msakhan

A typical platter of Msakhan.

Another delicious dish starts with ‘m’ but after that there everyone seems to disagree how to spell the word in English.  There are a handful of variants … but they all spell one thing in my  book … delicious!  Now I must say from the outset that msakhan, although very popular in Jordan, is actually of Palestinian origin.  But seeing as how 40-60% of the population are Palestinian or of Palestinian background, msakhan  remains a crowd pleaser here in Jordan.

A smaller plate of Msakhan to be shared with 2-3 people.

And really, what’s not to like?  Msakhan consists of carmelized onions, warm bread, and chicken cooked to perfection.  First a ton of onions are cooked in olive oil with a citrusy but purple spice known as sumac.  Then a layer of flatbread is arranged on a platter.  Some of the onion mixture is ladled over the bread, then the chicken is placed down, and often more onion mix and more bread.  The whole thing is cooked in an oven and the result is … soooo very good!

The chicken and the bread are often both crispy on the outside and moist and delicious on the inside.  The onion mixture bakes onto the bread creating a on-of -a-kind crust that is really hard to stop eating.  As with Mansaf pine nuts or almonds are usually sprinkled over the finished product.  It too is often served on a large communal platter and of the two dishes is by far the easier to eat sans utensils.

An award-winning platter of Msakhan in Palestine in 2010.

In Conclusion

Both meals are quite heavy and not for the faint of heart.  You will probably not be doing your cholesterol any favors, especially with msakhan.  But if you have an opportunity to experience either one … you must! Beyond tasting great,  both of these dishes hold a special place in Jordanian and Palestinian culture. One is a source of national pride and hearkens back to the country’s Bedouin roots.  The other is like Middle Eastern soul food that reminds many of grandma’s kitchen and table.

So the real question is … which do you prefer?  Answer the poll below and let us know!

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.

Intercultural Note #1

Just a quick post to share a couple of the many intercultural lessons we have been learning. I will continue to do so over the next several months.  Some will be gleaned from real-life experience, others from what people tell us/teach us.  It seems as though there is no end of opinion about the differences between Jordanian culture and American-type cultures.  We have received a lot of anecdotal advice from anyone who has been in country over 2 months, but also some really good teaching from people in the country for decades.

Hear are a couple of things gleaned recently from a lecture given by one of the latter. He was reflecting on the influences of bedouin culture on people who may not be living as bedouins today, but still retain certain cultural practices even though they may not know why.

  • Place of Honor – The most important guest should be seated in the chair (or preferably couch) farthest from the door.  A few people have told us this.  This seems to indicate prominence.  But it also seems to have something to do with you as host giving that person some comfort and security.  In bedouin times this seat would be farthest from the flap of the tent and the elements and intruders perhaps.
  • Standing to Greet Guests – It is customary for all people seated in the room to stand and greet a new guest who has arrived whether you know them or not.  This is apparently true when visiting in people’s homes, but I have also witnessed the phenomenon in the mobile shop and the carpet store.  I always thought this was just another marker of the politeness connected to social gatherings in this culture; however, there is deeper significance.  This custom also makes it easier for the seating of guests to be reshuffled in case a more important guest arrives and should be in the place of honor.  The relative importance of seats (and people) flows away from the place of honor.  Doesn’t this cultural fact give so much richness to the following saying of Jesus:

When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.”      – Jesus in Luke 14:8-10

  • Giving Stuff to Those Who Admire It: I have often heard it said not to admire anything of your host’s because they will give it to you.  Or, if someone admires something of yours that you should give it to them. This is a funny one, because I have heard this many, many times but have never seen it in action.  It is a very common piece of cross-cultural training for anyone going to the Middle East.  But, truly, I’ve never witnessed it take place.  But the origin of this is interesting – the lecturer said that for a Bedouin the only thing they truly possess is their honor.  They typically have very little stuff, and what they do have is fleeting.   But honor is lasting and is passed down from generation to generation.  Someone from a bedouin background can deal with something happening to their stuff – but never their honor.

Does honor play a role in American culture back in the States?  Certainly not to this extent.  Or maybe it’s just different.  Maybe we honor our guests by letting them sit wherever they want and drink whatever they want (Serving food and beverage is a whole other post).  Being free to choose is so important to Americans, but seems less so here.  Honor and status play such a very important part here in our new culture.  The tricky part is learning what brings honor and what doesn’t as such different cultural values are in play!

As always I would love your thoughts, questions, and feedback, esp. as it relates to the place honor/shame play in your own culture.  And please, if any Jordanians are reading – give your feedback on the cultural points above. Are they accurate?