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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.

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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