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.

The Rye Playland Head Scarf Incident: A Sad Day for America

If you keep up on news in the Muslim-American community the you probably now about the Rye Playland incident from the end of August during Eid al-Fitr. If not it was basically a situation that got way out of hand between police ans Muslim amusement park goers over the issue of head coverings. It ended up with several arrests and both sides pointing fingers. It was a hot news item for aproximately 5-days and then completely fizzled out. I even started a post on it and never finished it. I don’t really have the time to go back and clean it up for publication … so here is my original draft on the topic from Sept. 3rd. Sorry for any typos or dead links – this is my draft copy.

***Original draft post from September3rd begins here ***

For those of you who regularly follow this blog, you know I have been writing on my outsider’s perspective of the observance of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan here in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  The month is now over and Muslims here are celebrating Eid al-Fitr one of most important religious holidays on the Islamic calender.  The same was true of around 3,000 Muslims at Rye Playland in suburban Westchester County just outside of New York City on Tuesday.  This outing was organized by the Muslim American Society of New York and unfortunately what started as a family-oriented outing ended with allegations of religious discrimination, willful inciting of riots, police brutality and 15 arrests.

I have one more entry in my Ramadan series, but had to take a moment to address this sad news from America.  Actually, I have struggled all day with what to write.   As an American who has been living as a guest in Muslim nation for the past few years I read the news reports and blog entries on the incident with a heavy heart.  From my perspective the incident was completely avoidable and indicative of the cross-cultural shortsightedness plaguing America today.

If you are not familiar with the details of the incident, the following links might be helpful:

Lower Hudson Valley News Report

ABC Local report with video

My Summary of What Happened

Accounts vary on what actually took place and I am not a reliable reporter as I am a few thousand miles and a few days removed from what occurred.  However, after reading a bunch of articles on the matter this is what I’ve pieced together.  The special event was organized in advance between the Muslims American Society (MAS) of NY and Rye Playland.  News outlets have obtained e-mails exchanged between the two organizations that included information given on Playland’s safety policy re. “head gear” on certain rides.  For safety reasons the park bans all “head gear” on certain rides.  The MAS representative indicated that “there is going to be a lot of commotion about this” but the park administration indicated that they were firm on the policy and that it could not be changed.

It appears that the overwhelming majority of Muslim attendees were informed about the policy and had no trouble.  However, a few seem to have been uninformed.  One 17-year old Muslim woman appears to have been one of those who didn’t know about the policy and took umbrage at the fact that she was being denied access to a particular ride after refusing to remove her hijab, or head scarf.  She argued with the ride attendant and then complained whop management who would not change the policy.  This young lady then reports that she told other Muslim women in attendance who also were surprised by the restriction.  An argument between Muslim attendees then ensued.  Some said that the women should just take off their scarves.  Others declared that this amounted to religious discrimination.

Security personnel apparently stepped in to break up this argument between the Muslim attendees and that’s when things began to escalate.  Eyewitness reports vary but all seem to indicate that police who responded to the scene eventually forcibly grabbed a woman, pushed her to the ground and handcuffed her.  Others who saw this tried to intervene on her behalf and a large scuffle broke out including multiple police and around 30-40 Muslims.  Police were apparently caught on video using batons to subdue belligerents. One young man visibly bruised from the encounter reported to the news media that he was being hit by police even though he was not resisting arrest.  Others stated that in the chaos police were grabbing bystanders observing the scuffle and arresting them in the confusion.

100 officers and 60 units from 9 different departments responded to the scene.  The I-95 exit to the park was closed and the park itself was shut down for 2 hours in the aftermath of the incident.  Police officials state that only necessary force was used to keep the situation from getting more out-of-hand, but Muslim attendees claim that it was this use of force that escalated the situation in the first place.

My  Thoughts and Observations

As an outsider in a predominately Muslim society I experience Islamic culture in a way that most Americans do not.  I count many Muslims among my friends and have had almost 100% positive interactions while here.  It is through this lens that I view Muslims in general and this impacts the way I filter news about Muslims.  Below are some of my reactions to this sad incident.

The number of people involved

I’ve been caught up in two riots in and have observed a handful of mass demonstrations in my day.  These can be scary situations and the psychological dynamics of crowds are dicey at best.  To say that rational decision making goes out the window quickly is an understatement.  With reports of fights breaking out at a public facility in suburban New York with 3,000 Muslims in attendance I am sure that law enforcement personnel reporting to the scene were envisioning worst-case scenarios.  That said, it must be stated that only 30-40 park patrons were eventually involved in the altercation.  That is only around 1% of the Muslims in attendance and only 1/2% of all of those at the park that day.  This number seems important to me.  99% of the Muslims were not involved and apparently peacefully complied with park regulations and the orders of law enforcement personnel.

How it all started

An interview of the 17-year old woman who “started the whole thing” can be found here.  She was apparently told by the ride attendant to remove her “head gear” and she responded, ““This has nothing to do with headgear,this is my religion.”  From my perspective this is where it all could have been avoided.  This interchange is indicative of cultural misunderstanding and short-sightedness on both sides.  The park attendant was simply quoting park policy:

Hats must be secured, and jackets/sweaters must be worn properly and not around the waist while on a ride. Some rides do not allow backpacks, purses or head gear of any kind.

The park doesn’t “ban head scarfs” in particular as some sensational headlines make it seem, but rather bans all head gear on some rides.  The use of the term “head gear” seems to be an intentional catch all phrase to cover any and all items that might be worn on a persons head.  However, to a person of faith who wears a head scarf for religious and cultural purposes I can see how the term could come across as flippant, insensitive, or even disrespectful.  Head gear sound like something you wear at a hockey match or use to straighten your teeth.

*** end of original draft post ***

Now here are my final questions and comments to all parties involved:

1. To event organizers: knowing that this was going to be a hot-button issue with some of your constituents did you really do everything in your power to let people know about Playland’s policy? Really?

2. To the 17-year old girl who got so upset: I respect your wishes to cover your head as part of your religious and cultural practice. However, I seriously question your need to get upset about being denied access to an amusement park ride because of a safety rule in place for your own  protection (as well as the safety of others). The park is duty bound to protect its guests – if they are prohibiting all forms of head coverings on certain rides you cannot claim religious discrimination. Besides, sometimes God calls us to do certain things according to a different moral standard and this causes us to act differently than non-religious people. It seems to me that God calling you to wear a head covering is more important than being free to ride a roller coaster. In other words to be obedient to God’s commands sometimes we have to limit our own freedoms.

3. To Rye Playland Management and Staff: Do you uniformly enforce your no head gear policy? The young girl seems to indicate that you do not. If that is the case then you do open yourself up to charges of religious discrimination. Also knowing that this was going to be a hot-button issue did you do everything in your power to train your staff to handle the issue with sensitivity? Do employees need to call religious coverings “head gear?” Did you do everything you could to inform riders even before they bought tickets of you policies? By all accounts the Muslim group was 1/2 your ticket sales that day. I would say going the extra mile to ensure that size group is educated and satisfied is just common sense and good business. If it were me I would have made sure every person saw the policy at or before the ticket counter.

4. To security and law enforcement: it seems there are ways to de-escalate tense situations without throwing people on the ground, using batons, and handcuffing people. Given the small percentage of overall park goers actually involved in the incident it seems your response may have been disproportionate.  Not to mention it was their holiday.  Do you get that to them this would be like a Jewish cop throwing a Catholic girl on the ground and handcuffing her on Christmas? Perhaps more restraint was called for … but not of that kind.

5.  To all the conservative bloggers and fear mongers out there trying to turn this incident into something menacing:  knock it off.  At the core of this story is a 17-year old girl who (IMO) is a little bit immature and decided to take the wrong stand for her religion.  She has confused something that is a necessary inconvenience (giving up a roller coaster ride for the sake of her religious values) with religious discrimination. In the end, she’s just a teenager responding to things as teenagers do.  Stop trying to find some hidden Muslim agenda against America in every incident relating to Muslims.

I think this completely avoidable incident is indicative of the climate of fear and misunderstanding that still obscures the way most Americans view their Muslim American neighbors. A sad day indeed.

Jordanians Rally for Egypt

[Note: The bulk of this post was written earlier today before Mubarak stepped down.  It just goes to show you how quickly things can change on the world political stage.]

Tonight Jordanians and Egyptians in Jordan took to the street to celebrate the fall of Hosni Mubarak.  Cars jammed the streets and there was jubilant beeping and shouting as if a giant wedding procession were taking place.  Fireworks went off  in various neighborhoods.  Hours earlier Jordanians were rallying to demonstrate against Mubarak and in support of the Egyptian people.

Jordanians took to the streets in subdued numbers the day after Hosni Mubarak made his confusing pronouncement of relinquishing power but remaining President of Egypt.  After Friday prayers, protesters marched from al-Husseini mosque in downtown Amman.  The demonstration was peaceful and the mood of onlookers was curious and hopeful.  Friday shopping went on as usual as the rally progressed several blocks through downtown.

Young and old alike join the anti-Mubarak rally in Amman Jordan on February 11th, 2011.

Despite grave predictions about Jordan being the next Middle Eastern country to face widespread unrest, chanted slogans mostly focused on the situation in Egypt.  “The whole world are Egyptians!”  “Last night will be the last night!”  “No more Mubarak!”

However, some chants did call for the ouster of the newly appointed Jordanian Prime Minister.  They recalled his stint as ambassador to Israel and called the question if he might even be a double agent.  But as one local bystander remarked, “They don’t know what they are saying, they just want to say something in the streets.”  Security personnel walked interspersed with protesters.  Police cars blocked off traffic at key points along the route and followed the crowd down the street.  Candy apple vendors and an old man selling rice crispy treats gave the whole thing a bit of a feel of a parade rather than a political protest.

Now that it is official that Mubarak has stepped down there will be a moment of celebration.  The hopes and prayers of many are for a change for the better.  However, one can be certain that the road ahead will be a bumpy one for Egypt.  Will the inter-faith goodwill displayed between Copts and the Muslim Brotherhood persist?  Will the military prove to be a just and fair intermediary until a more stable government is formed?  Only time will tell.  But tonight the people celebrate.  In Egypt, and in Amman, and perhaps around the world.   And perhaps some take comfort in the ancient wisdom that, “By justice a king gives a country stability, but those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.”  Let us pray that justice will prevail where greed has previously been at work and that the new government of Egypt will truly work for the people.

As for Jordan’s small rally today, here are a few pics:

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Oh . . . and here is a video I took of part of the rally.

Eid Al-Adha 2010, Amman Jordan

Today is Eid Al-Adha in Amman, Jordan.  (And most of the rest of the Muslim world for that matter).  On this Eid (festival/holiday/ holy day) Muslims around the world sacrifice a goat or sheep (or if truly wealthy, maybe even a cow or camel) and have a feast with their family.  They also give 1/3 of the meat from the sacrifice to their extended family and 1/3 of the meat to the poor.  Early in the morning people go to the mosque for prayers and a sermon.  After this they go to one of several places of sacrifice scattered around the city.  Here the young and the old, the men and the women gather to perform this annual tradition and collect the fresh meat for eating later that day. Throughout the day there will be many visits made to both close and distant relatives and gifts of clothes and money will be given.

If they are able, parents typically give children new clothes on this Eid as well as Eid al-Fitr.  People are always dressed in their best around the time of the Eids.  Uncles are particularly generous in giving money to their neices and nephews at this time of year and it is expected that brothers (especially older ones) will give money to their sisters.  Adult nephews also give monetary gifts to their older aunts, especially if they are widowed.    At some point in the day the family comes together for a meal centering on the meat that was sacrificed in the morning.  In many ways it is a time of connecting with family and remembering God, not unlike the American observance of Thanksgiving.

Of course, the origins of this festival are in the story of Abraham ascending the mountain to sacrifice his son.   At the last minute God provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice instead.  Muslims remember this story, shared by all three monotheistic faiths,  as they celebrate the festival of Eid al-Adha.

This morning I went out early and snapped a few pics, particularly for those who might be reading from the States and never have the opportunity to witness something like this.  Hover your mouse over the bottom of the slideshow window for controls to pause the show or move forwards or back.

(Please note: if the sight of animals being butchered is offensive or difficult for you then you may not want to watch the show.  I have tried my best to make sure there is nothing terribly bloody or shocking, but I know everyone has different tolerance levels for these sort of things).

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Faces of Jordanian Politics

Today (Tuesday, November 9th) was election day in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.  Like in America, the fall has been “election season” and politics have been in the air.  Quite literally, actually.  As it turns out Jordanian elections are preceded by weeks of banners being strung up across every major thoroughfare and on every light pole, palm tree, and street sign.

Political banners have lined the streets in Amman for weeks

Who would you vote for?

For weeks the pictures of these politicians have been our constant driving companions.  Back and forth to work and school we have spent time with them every day.  As outsiders we really have no idea about any of the candidates or their positions.  Our opinions have been 100% formed by our impressions of the candidates based on their posters.  It’s probably a good thing that we are not voting.  Many candidates proudly put their job title on their  posters.  The Lawyer, The Professor, The Engineer, The Doctor.  My favorite for awhile was The Gardner – I thought he was a man of the people.  But I found out “The Gardner” was his last name.  Oh well.  And, as it turned out the old adage that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover is true.  Two of our favorite candidates (based on their congenial smiles and general good looks) turned out to be duds.  One is apparently very wealthy and corrupt and the other is ….. drum roll please . . . . . the father of the classroom bully at my son’s school.

This saddened us as many of the other candidates seemed as though they were badly in need of style consultants.

We often found ourselves saying, “Your staff really told you that was the best picture they had of you!?!?”  Over the weeks we developed some slogans for the candidates based on their looks:

“What?  I am smiling!”
“Vote for me, I look like your Uncle Lenny”
“Vote for me, I’m not as dumb as I look”
“Vote for me, or I will break your neck”
“Hey baby, call me, I’m still rich even though I wasted money on all these posters”
“What?  Oh, yes – trust me.  No really, trust me.”

These slogans were probably much more amusing in the moment of driving past myriads of posters.  Forgive me for not posting the exact pics with the exact slogans – even though election day is all but over I wouldn’t want any unnecessary flack, if you know what I mean.

Along the way we did learn a little bit about Jordanian politics.  Elections are held for the lower house of parliament.  To my understanding these are the only elected officials in the national government. (The upper house and all government ministers are appointed by the King).  There are 110 “deputies” in the lower house representing 10 or 12 electoral districts.  9 or 10 seats are apparently reserved for Christians and a few for Circassians and a handful for women.  There are a number of political parties, but I never was able to sort out any of their major positions.  As it turns out Jordanians tend to be a bit cynical about their elected officials.  The word on the street seemed to be that everyone in the election was either wealthy or crooked, or both.  Sounds a lot like back home, right?

Inside a candidate's HQ/rally tent

During election season candidates put up huge tents that serve as their election HQs.  They hold rallies in these tents, hand out literature, and if you bring your car you can have it outfitted with posters of the candidate.  The one thing that ties all of these HQs together is the presence of at least one if not two or three or four GIANT pictures of the King.  One candidate used an entire hillside to erect huge signs honoring the King and the royal family.

Buses for a candidate, ready to transport voters, parked under a giant poster of HM King Abdullah II.

On election day the candidates send out fleets of buses to pick up voters and take them to the polls.  Rumors are that some (if not many) of the candidates actually pay voters to ride on the buses.  I was unable to confirm this, but it seemed to be a widely held belief.  Apparently one of the Christian candidates lost in the last parliamentary election because he refused to “buy” votes in this manner.  The polls tend to be at schools – and actually may exclusively be at schools.  Today as we were driving around people lined the streets leading up to schools handing out posters and business cards of the candidates.  Giant posters of candidates were plastered all over the walls of the schools.  Apparently fine-tuned laws forbidding campaigning within a certain distance of polling places doesn’t exist.

We received a warning from the US Embassy about possible election related violence today and we kind of laughed about it.  Election violence, in Jordan?  But as it turns out there was a fair amount of low scale rough-and-tumble shenanigans between supporters of certain candidates and in some cases even candidates themselves.  In Karak the governor apparently exiled an entire tribe due to election day troubles.  I’m not even sure what that means.  A prominent Jordanian blogger gives the blow-by-blow on some of these goings on over at Black Iris, http://www.black-iris.com/2010/11/09/live-updates-of-jordans-2010-parliament-elections/

Jordan Times also has a report here: http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/41VgXx/jordantimes.com/?news=31704/r:f

Truth be told we saw and heard none of this and there is a polling place right across the street from us – so please no e-mails inquiring as to our health and safety during the raucous 2010 Jordanian parliamentary elections!

I know this is a fairly low-brow look at the elections, but, honestly, I’m a bit burnt out on politics and haven’t had the time or energy to invest in understanding the system here.  I guess I’ve reserved my right to remain an outsider and make off-hand comments with my son about political posters as we drive to school each day.  So I will leave you with this slideshow, “Faces of Jordanian Politics”

Note: If you hover over the bottom of the slide show box you should get controls to go forward or back or stop the pictures.  Enjoy!

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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.