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.

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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.

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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Top 10 things I miss about Jordan

It’s officially 2-months that we’ve been stateside now – hard to believe!  It’s good to be home and we’ve had such a good time reconnecting with people and places we missed so much while we were in Jordan.  Of course “home” is a concept forever changed for our family now.  Every few days our 3-year old says, “We stay here a littul while and then we go back to Jowdin?  Right?” 

My daughter’s desire to go back “home” to Jordan inspired me to post what I miss most about our adopted home:

10.  Dry heat – I was never a believer in dry heat being better than wet.  Until I came back to the humidity of America!  Dry heat is better.
9.  Chaotic merging – I’ve grown accustomed to people cutting me off and me being able to cut others off in traffic with impunity.  Not acceptable driving behavior here in America – how odd!
8.  Fireworks every weekend – One thing has to be said, Jordanians know how to celebrate!
7.  Arghile and Arabic Coffee – I don’t think this needs much explanation.
6.  35 cent Mint Tea – And super-hot paper-thin drink cups without legal warnings scrawled across them.
5.  Fresh baked Xubz (pita) – Mmmmmmm.  We had some pita the other day and our kids wrinkled their noses and said, “This isn’t good!”
4.  My Barber – I need a good 2 dinar haircut and shave with an hour or so of Arabic conversation.  I asked for a shave this summer and the guy had no idea what to do – he almost took my whole beard off!
3. A constant sense of History – Everywhere you turn in Jordan there is something that connects you to the ancient past, not just 100 years ago, but 500 or 1500 years ago too!  My son keeps asking if we’re going to ever find any ruins here.  Not like in Jordan, that’s for sure!
2.  Speaking in Arabic everyday – I didn’t think I would say this, but I really miss speaking in our new language.  The few times I used it this summer have felt so good.
1. Our Friends!  No matter where we travel, it’s the people that really make the place.  We dearly miss our firends in Jordan – both locals and ex-pats!

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.

Grateful Generosity: Thanksgiving and Eid al-Adha Remix

Note this post is my outsider’s reflection on observing the sacrifice of the the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival this year in Amman Jordan.  For my outsider’s summary on the broader details of Eid al-Adha, check out last year’s post here.  I’m not sure why but as of Nov 2009 it’s the most viewed page on the site (2600+ views).

Turkey, Stuffing, and Mashed Potatoes, yes - even here in Jordan

This year (2009) brought an interesting convergence of cultures and holidays as the American Thanksgiving celebration coincided with the beginning of the Islamic Eid al-Adha (Fesitval of the Sacrifice).  In American culture the last Thursday of November is always Thanksgiving Day and people typically spend it with family and friends.  It is usually a day of feasting featuring a huge meal with turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie.  Some also take the time to serve the less fortunate.  Churches and other organizations often put on Thanksgiving dinners or deliver Thanksgiving meals to those who can’t afford to celebrate on their own.  Here in Amman we were able to celebrate with a mixed group of Americans, Canadians, and Jordanians.

Haggling over the price of a sheep of Eid al-Adha in Amman, Jordan 2009

By way of contrast Eid al-Adha falls on a different day each year as Muslims follow a lunar calendar.  This year the Thursday of Thanksgiving corresponded with the preparation day before the actual beginning of the festival.  The 5-day government holiday begins on preparation  day.  The streets were crowded yesterday with people making their last minute purchases for the holiday.  I was caught in a couple of traffic jams.  The interesting contrast with Thanksgiving is that many Muslims fast on preparation day.  Feasting and Fasting.  Traditionally in America early Thanksgiving Days were accompanied by a day (or even days) of fasting as people expressed their gratitude to God for his blessings.  But it seems we Americans have lost that tradition over the years, preferring the feast to the fast

Best Buy got flak for wishing people a "Happy Eid al-Adha" in this Black Friday flyer.

Today (Friday), was the actual beginning of the Eid.  I awoke this morning at 5 AM with the extended call to prayer that is typical on the mornings of the Greater Eids.  Of course waking up early on the day after Thanksgiving is not unusual in the States, as many rise at the crack of dawn to line up at stores in anticipation of getting some of the best shopping deals of the year.  Black Friday has almost become a religious experience for some.  Actually, electronics retailer Best Buy got in trouble with some this year for mixing too much religion with Black Friday.  They printed an ad that advertised their Black Friday deals and wished Muslims a Happy Eid al-Adha.  From my perspective this seems like a culturally savvy move recognizing that the Eid actually fell on Black Friday.  Apparently 10 pages of complaints were lodged on the Best Buy website – how petty, culturally arrogant, and just plain backwards.  Have people forgotten that with freedom of religion comes recognition of other religions in the society as a whole.  Those who were offended shouldn’t worry –  it’ll take aproximately 33 years for Eid al-Adha to fall exactly on Black Friday again.

In Amman Jordan today, early risers weren’t off to the mall or the department stores to find the best bargain.  (Although curiously I found that at 6 AM plenty barbers and bakeries were open).  Rather, many people were up early to pray at the mosques.  The call to prayer sounded for a good couple of hours this morning and people went early to begin the festival with prayer and a sermon.

Displaying Jordanian pride at the sheep/goat pens

After some time at the mosque many go to one of areas in the city reserved for the selling and sacrifice of animals for the festival.  For many days now people have been buying animals for this purpose.  Many purchase a lamb or goat (around 150-200 dinars), but some purchase cows or even camels (5000 dinar).  As an outsider it’s somewhat surprising and amusing to see ordinary looking people struggling to put a live sheep or goat in the trunk of their ordinary looking car.  I even saw one family putting theirs into the trunk of a taxi.  This made me laugh out loud, but perhaps it was the taxi driver and his family.  Those who buy and take their sheep may be planning to do the sacrifice at their home, or have another butcher do the deed

Jordanians gather for the sacrifice after attending morning prayers at the mosque

However, many show up at the sheep pens early on Friday morning to have their animal sacrificed, skinned, and butchered while they wait.  And, it’s a real family outing.  I saw men, women, and tons of kids all watching this fascinating ritual take place.  No one seemed to bat an eye at the animals being sacrificed right in front of them – the women, the little kids, even the girls in pink coats and cute winter hats took it all in stride.  I was really struck by the family nature of the event.  I kinda figured I would just see a bunch of men at the place of sacrifice but that was definitely not the case.

The whole experience was fascinating and if you are ever in a Muslim country during Eid al-Adha you should find out where the sacrifices will be taking place and go check it out.  However, be warned: it’s not for those with a weak stomach, don’t like the sight of blood, or have trouble seeing animals killed.  I didn’t understand everything that was going on this morning, but heres a thumbnail sketch.

The first thing that struck me this morning was the smell.  My son and I had stopped by to take a look at the animal pens earlier in the week and in his own charming way he had summed up the smell at that time, “Ewwww, it smells like sheep poop.  Or maybe camel poop!”  Anyone who has grown up near a farm knows the smell.  This morning was different.  It was distinctly the smell of freshly butchered lamb.  The air was permeated with it.  You might not recognize the smell if you live back in the States, but after a year of walking past sides of lamb hanging in the open air in the market you begin to identify the odor.

Basically the area was divided up into a bunch of different pens for the different sellers.  People would come and buy an animal, or often bring a slip showing that they had previously bought an animal.  Some of the animals had numbers spray painted on them – I imagine this is something like a customer number, but I could be wrong.  Most of the pens had their own sacrifice/butchering area as well.  The animals would be led to the place of sacrifice – sometimes led backwards by one leg.  I guess this is to help shield them from what is about to happen.  Then the animal is sacrificed by one stroke of a sharp knife across its neck.  This is done over a sort of makeshift trough or drain that runs to a large metal barrel or tank that has been sunken below ground for the purpose of collecting blood.  The dead sheep are lined up in a row on the ground so the blood will drain out.  On the other end of this line there is a man who skins and disembowels the sheep.  The carcass is then hung on a meat hook.  A butcher chops it into sections on the hook and then takes it to a nearby block for further breaking down.  One butcher I saw was using a  large tree stump as his block.  The pieces of meat are then given to the customer who is usually holding some sort of heavy duty plastic bag waiting to receive the fresh meat.

It was chilly this morning and the sides of lamb steamed as they hung in the cool air.  I overheard one guy commenting positively on how the air was like a refrigerator.  I couldn’t imagine the whole process taking place in the hot summer months!

Each family then takes the meat and distributes it according to Islamic tradition.  The combination I’ve heard most often is some for the immediate family, some for the poor, and some for the extended family.  Over the next few days there will be big family get-togethers and feasts not unlike Thanksgiving.  (Ok, the menu is dramatically different.)  The most important part, however, is giving to the poor.  Like folks back home who help the poor on Thanksgiving, acting on behalf of the less fortunate is a major part of observing Eid al-Adha.  Even if a family isn’t going to have an animal sacrificed they can donate  money so food will be given to the poor.

The differences and similarities between the two celebrations have been swirling around in my mind this morning.  Setting aside a day to be thankful, or be obedient to God, or to help the poor are good things.  But there’s this tension for me because, really, we should be doing those things everyday.  Our gratitude to God shouldn’t just be relegated to one day out of many, nor should our obedience or generosity.  However,there’s something in human nature, that despite our best intentions we wander and stray from time to time.  Perhaps the level of gratitude or obedience or generosity that we observe and practice on special days like Thanksgiving or Eid al-Adha isn’t humanly sustainable every day of the year.  But in a way shouldn’t our lives over-pour in generosity due to the gratitude we have for the blessings that have come our way.  Shouldn’t these special holiday observances should be powerful reminders to bring our lifestyles more in line with the desires of God and live each day with grateful hearts, obedient wills, and generous spirits?

Ok, time to get off the soap box.  Wherever you are and whatever holiday you are observing I wish you the very best. Happy Thanksgiving!  Eid Mubarak!  Peace to all!

Note: Even though I left out the most graphic ones,some of the pictures below are a bit bloody – if the sight of animals being sacrificed or butchered bothers you – don’t look.  If you are interested remember that clicking on a thumbnail below will bring up a full-sized pic.