Jordan A to Z: F is for …. Friday!

Friday!

Ahhhh … the weekend!  And by weekend, I mean the weekend proper not just the last day of the work-week and the beginning of the weekend.  Yup, that’s right here in Jordan, Friday is a bona fide day off.  It stems from the Islamic religion, with Friday being their preferred holy day as opposed to Saturday for the Jews and Sunday for the Christians.  So, all across the Middle East Friday is a day off from work for most people.  Of course, as in all nations, if you are in the service or hospitality industry you will most likely be working anyways.

For most working-class people Friday is their only day off.  A two-day weekend is really a modern convention in the Middle East.  Some countries (mainly in the gulf) opt for Thursday and Friday as the weekend.  However, here in Jordan, it is Friday and Saturday.  Unless you are a Christian … then you get Friday and Sunday off but have to work or go to school on Saturday.  Go figure.  Split weekends.  Not fun.

Some of you might be asking what do Jordanians do on Friday?  Well, here’s my outsider’s answer to that:

  • Sleep -Jordanians love to stay up late.  Especially on Thursday nights.  They stay up with their family chatting over small cups of strong coffee or tea talking into the wee hours of the morning.  As a result, Fridays are often a slow start for some.  Actually early Friday morning is a great time for grocery shopping as the aisles are mostly empty … but don’t wait until afternoon as any grocery store will likely be packed!
  • Go to the Mosque -Despite the well-known mandate to pray 5x per day, Muslims are not required to pray in the mosque each of those times (it is considered more beneficial to pray in the mosque, but not mandated).  However, mosque attendance spikes on Fridays – especially around midday – as this is when the Imam gives his speech or sermon.  Worshipers sit on the ground to listen to the sermon and then perform their prayers.  In the larger mosques it is not unusual to find the men lining up in rows outside the mosque in the courtyard, on the sidewalk, and eventually in the street.  This is because the mosques are full to overflowing on many Fridays
  • Visiting – Friday is a day for making a round of all of the relatives.
  • Outings – The malls and restaurants and supermarkets and cafes are packed on Fridays with Muslim families out and about enjoying the life in Amman.  But the most famous and well-loved Jordanian Friday outing is the:
  • Mishwar – On Fridays families like to get out of town, find a place along the road or perhaps in a park or other clear area, lay out some blankets and spend the day grilling food, drinking tea, and enjoying each others company.  Mishwar comes from the Arabic term for grilling meat.  It is not uncommon to see an extended family parked out under any random tree along the major highways, enjoying more each others company and the food than perhaps the setting itself.

I would like to think that restaurant chain TGI Fridays realized the master stroke of marketing genius in their name the first time they opened a branch here … however, I have a feel it was probably just a fortunate happenstance for them.  Either way, I stand with them and millions of people in the Middle East in thanking God that it’s Friday.

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

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

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

The Basics

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

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

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

Who is expected to fast and special considerations

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

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

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

Ramadan isn’t just about fasting

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

Generous Ramadan! The typical Ramadan greeting.

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

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

Next up: Ramadan Origins

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

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

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

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition 

Eid Mubarak!

Beginfast or Commensfast Anyone?

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

Successful Ramadan Trip to the Saloon

Jordan Headlines #3

Looking for a Ramadan Special at the Local Saloon

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.



Amman Street Food #1, An Introduction

Well, summer’s half over, so I decided I needed to get cracking onmy summer series on Street Food in Amman.  Especially seeing as how Ramadan starts in the middle of August.  Of course that doesn’t rule out eating street food – it just shifts it to later at night. I actually went out for some “field research” tonight.  I guess you could call it a Shawerma Crawl!  I hit 5  places and tried 6 different samples of this quintessential street food. It wasa lot of fun!  But more on that in my second installment.

Why did I choose to do this series?  Well, for starters food is a topic everyone enjoys.  And is especially important for those who find themselves traveling in foreign lands.  I hope these entries will provide some interesting bits of info on Middle Eastern/Jordanian culture and food but also serve as a bit of a resource for travelers.  One thing I have noticed here is a lack of good online info re. eating in Amman – whether street food or 5-star cuisine.  Unlike in the States it’s had to find restaurants with websites and when they do they don’t often have e-menues.  Of course that is another discussion entirely b/c we’re supposed to be talking about Street Food and when was the last time you heard of a hotdog cart with a URL?

So why Street Food?  I think it says a lot about a culture.  It’s what they eat when their on-the-go, in-a-hurry, getting from point-a to point-b.  It’s gotta be portable and convienient, but it has to be tasty enough to be worth the trouble to walk and eat.  I guess that’s how I see street food as different, or perhaps a subset of fast food.  With fast food, you expect a quick preparation and fast service.  But you’ll drive to a restaurant and sit down and eat it inside, on the premises, or drive home and eat it.  For me street food is like the Hot Dog vendor on the corner in Chicago, or the popcorn store, the ice cream shop, or the NY pizzeria that sells slices to-go.  It someplace that you can duck in and duck out of quickly to grab a snack or meal to eat on the run, or somewhere nearby while your sight-seeing or commuting.

There are no hotdog carts here, but street food is alive and well in Amman, Jordan.  The funny thing is they would never call it street food.  I’ve tried to get people to tell me what the Arab equivalent would be and I always get a blank stare.  Food of the street?  Food for the street?  Food for eating in the street?  None of it makes sense in the Arabic language or perhaps even the Arab mindset.  They don’t even have a word per se for “snack.”  The closest they come is “small meal.”

I think this is due to the fact that unlike in America where it’s perfectly acceptable to wolf down a Big Mac in the privacy of your SUV while barreling down the highway for an important meeting, here meals are in some ways sacred.  They are a a communal experience of hospitality and intimacy.  Lives are shared, alliances forged, and committments made in the context of meals.  It is one of the most important ways for people to share life together.  So even when they speak of a snack or fast food it is a small MEAL.

The communal nature of eating is evident here when men buy a sandwhich and stand around inside or within 10 feet of the shack that sold it too them.  Sharing their small meal in the company of strangers made family even if for the briefest moment because they are all noshing on goat brains rolled tightly in a pita.  Oh, with extra hot sauce, please!

Sharing is the other phenomenon that marks the communal nature of meals (even small ones) in this culture.  I can’t count the number of times a taxi driver (who is a complete stranger to me) will earnestly offer me a bite of his half-eaten falafil sandwhich!

Despite the interesting cultural spins (and lack of a satisfying, to me, moniker) street food is much a part of life here in Amman.  From Shawerma and Falafil, to brains on pita and eggs on rolls, and from bags of corn or fava beans to honey-drenched confections or ice cream cones theres a lot of vareity and interesting stuff to explore.

I’m working on my shawerma entry – look for it soon!

What to do when there’s a Tard at the Post Office

There was a Tard at the Post Office here in Amman this week.  Waiting for me.

No, I’m not using an insensitive 80s junior-highish pejorative – Tard is the Arabic word for package.

As in,”إجاني طَرْد, و نازِل لِآخْذُه” or “‘ijaani Tard, u naazil li’aaxdu”  or “A package has come to me and I’m going down to get it.” (The famous line from our Speaking Arabic Book 2.)

For you pronunciation-hounds please note that the ‘T’ in ‘Tard” is in fact a heavy ‘T’ which means your mouth is held more firm and you need to pharyngealize the sound a bit from the back of your throat.  (No, I’m not making that up.)  If you pronounce it correctly you will sound silly to yourself.  But if you pronounce it like a regular English ‘t’ you will sound silly to everyone else.  Take your pick.

After almost a year living in Amman I still haven’t figured out why some packages get held at the Post Office and some get sent through to the place where we collect our mail.  There doesn’t seems to be any rhyme or reason to it.  We used to think that Priority Mail envelopes would get sent through and anything larger would be held – but that just hasn’t been the case.  Sometimes small things get held and large things get sent through.  I’m sure there’s a reason, but we haven’t been able to figure it out.  In case you’re interested (or new to Amman and want to know) here’s the process for getting a package from the P.O. here in Amman.

Getting A Package Slip

1st we recieve a package slip with our regular mail.  This slip looks very official and alerts us that there is a package waiting for us.  This is always cause for excitement in our household!  One peice of info that I wish was included on the slip was the size or weight of the package – which as you will see could be useful information.  It is very important not to lose this slip – I never have (ok – I misplaced one for a long time – but it wasn’t ever really lost) but can only imagine the headache it would be to try to get the package without it.

Getting to the Post Office

Next we have to find a suitable time and way to get to the Post Office.  The Main Post office is located in the balad (downtown) on Prince Muhammed street.  Or in local parlance – just beyond Hashim’s restaurant near all the DVD shops.  If you get in a taxi and say, “3al-bariid ir-ra’iis fi-lbalad, law samaat” your driver should take you right there.  However, if like me, you often find yourself in Jabal Amman near 3rd Circle or Rainbow Street you can always jump in a service (pronounced ‘serveese’). This is a shared taxi and only costs 1/4 dinar as opposed to whatever the taxi fare would be (probably more).

There are a couple of Jabal Amman services but the correct one starts near Akilah Hospital just below 3rd Circle and runs along the top portion of Mango Street, cuts across by Bishop’s School to Rainbow Street and then descends into the balad.  Just ride it down until you get to the end of the line.  You’ll know you’re there because you get to a place where two streets merge and the driver will stop and everyone else will get out while wishing God to give the driver strength in Arabic.  Actually before this happens the driver may back a little down the hill on the street that merges in and then stop.  Don’t panic this is completely normal.

When you get out, head down the hill (to the left compared to the direction you just came from).  This is a steep street with crazy sidewalks – it’s safer to walk in the street.  Welcome to Jordan!  As you go down the hill another street comes in from the left – continue down and to the left on this street.  It will run into Prince Muhammad street and you will see the Post Office ahead of you across this busy thoroughfare (yes, near all the DVD shops).

Getting your Package out of the Post Office

When you go into the main entrance of the Post Office, take an immediate left and go through a set of open glass doors.  You will be in a stairwell – go up to the next level.  Here’s where it get’s interesting.

  1. Take your package slip (we’ll call this Paper #1) to the counter.  There are usually 3 or 4 men sitting behind the counter.  Depending on the time of day or how busy it is they may or may not acknowledge your presence.  They will probably never smile at you.  Don’t worry – it’s not personal and they do know you are there.  Hand Paper #1 to one of the men.  It will invariably be the wrong man.  Don’t worry he will tell you which of the other men to hand it to.
  2. Counter Man #1 will give you Paper #2 and mumble instructions to you in Arabic.
  3. He’s telling you to head back towards the stairs and turn left down the hallway right before them.  Take Paper #2 to the  2nd (or maybe 3rd I can’t remember) door on the right.  The room will be obvious because there are two desks, 3 post office employees, a large rack, and a large set of windows looking into the Package Holding Area.
  4. Give Paper #2 to the man at Package Room Desk #1.  He will ask to see your passport. This is very important – no passport, no package.
  5. This man will hand paper #2 to a man in the Package Holding Area who will search for your package. This step may take some time.
  6. Once you have your package, take it and Paper #2 to Package Room Desk #2.
  7. There are usually 2 P.O. employees here.  One will say something to you in Arabic.  He wants you to open the package with the box cutter tied to the desk.
  8. Show the contents of the package to these P.O. employees.  They will list out the contents of the package on Paper #3 and stamp it with official looking stamps.
  9. You then need to leave your package on the rack and take Paper #3 to the office of semi-important official who will look at it once, ask your name, stamp Paper #3 and tell you to see the  director.
  10. The director will give Paper #3 a once over and diret you to go back to the counter.  Counter Man #2 will look at Paper #3, give you Paper #4 and tell you to take them both to Counter Man #1.
  11. Counter Man #1 will look it all over, do some calculations, and ask you to pay a nominal amount for your package.
  12. Counter Man #1 will stamp Paper #4 and tell you to return to the room where you left your Package.
  13. Show Paper #3 and #4 to the man sitting at Package Room Desk #1
  14. He’ll keep paper #3 and give you Paper #4 (basically a receipt) and will allow you to take the package with you.

This is, of course, the part where knowing the size and weight of the package beforehand would come in handy as you now have to figure out how you will carry the open box with all of its goodies through the balad and find a taxi/service/bus to take you home.  I like all the goodies in big packages, but love small packages that I can put in my backpack – it makes the long  hot wait/walk in the balad so much easier.

The whole process could take 10 or 15 minutes or the better part of an hour depending on a number of variables (how busy they are, how hot it is that day, how grumpy or happy the PO workers are, how much strange stuff your family has sent you that needs to be explained to the guys inspecting the package, etc.). BTW – generally you can’t pick up packages after 2 pm- so plan accordingly!

If you have time and the package isn’t so big you should stop by Hashims for some falafil and hummus!

So in summary, to get your package you will need to exchange at least 4 different papers, speak to 6 or 7 different men and get 3 or 4 diffrent stamps on the paperwork!  The first time anyone does this it’s pretty confusing, but don’t worry it gets better with time – oh and they will definitely tell you where to go if you seem lost. (I mean that in the best possible way!)

Yeah it’s a bit of a rigamarole (I don’t think I have ever typed that word before), but it is well worth it  to recieve a box of goodies from home.  (This is true for all cultures I think – I saw a guy who I took to be Pakistani or Indian in line in front of me opening (for the PO employees) a package full of crackers and dried noodles.  The guy going through the stuff gave him a quizzical look and the Indian and or Pakistani man picked up a package of crackers and said, ‘you can’t get these here!”  I smiled – and was tempted to ask him if I could try one – but did not.)

I guess I’ve characterized the postal workers here as kinda grumpy.  Which is kinda true.  (Oh – there is one guy at the counter who sometimes smiles – must be the new guy).  But I’m usually there around quitting time which probably doesn’t help matters.  It has to be a fairly thankless job.  I’ve seen a fair amount of impatient, argumentative, and ungrateful package recievers too.  As in all cross-cultural situations it pays for foreigners to be friendly (but not too friendly ladies – in other words don’t smile or make too much eye contact) and use some Arabic.

This last time I exchanged greetings with the package inspector and we had the following conversation after the greetings and while he was looking through my box (I in Arabic, he in English):

Him:  Mr. Brian?

Me: Yes?

Him: Are you British?

Me: No, I’m American,

Him:  Really?

Me:  Certainly.

Him: Because Brian is a British name.

Me:  Actually it’s Irish.

Him:  Really?

Me: Yes, a long time ago there was a King of Ireland and his name was Brian.

Him (laughing):  Ok, Mr. Malik!  (Mr.  King) Or like Bryan Adams, right.

Me (laughing): Sure, why not?

Him:  Ok, Mr. Malik, take this paper to the mudiir (director).

Me:  Thank-you.  Peace on Your hands.

Him (now in Arabic): And also on yours.  God give you peace.

Me:  And May God strengthen you.

Him: And may he strengthen you as well.

Just another day picking up a Tard at the Post Office in Jordan.

Power Distance in Jordanian Culture

I have two other posts brewing – one on the Pope’s visit and another on the local zoo, but while those are percolating a little here’s a thought on . . .

Power distance in Jordanian Culture

In grad school we learned about “Power Distance” and the role it plays in culture.  Anyone who has had any significant cross-cultural experiences outside of the United States has probably noticed the effect power distance has on relationships and especially expected social responses.  I don’t have a text book definition for you but basically it is a way of classifying how power is distributed, expressed, and accepted (or not) within the society.  Countries are often classified as “High” or “Low” power distance, but most fall somewhere along a continuum.

In high power distance cultures there is a definite stratification of society.   The roles that social classes play in society are well defined, even if not clearly articulated.  Those in lower strata show deference to those in higher strata in various ways.  There is little chance to break out of one’s social strata.  Social strata are not merely determined by economic standing, but often also by “tribal” and family status.  In truly high power distance countries this is accepted as the norm of life, even by the “have-nots.”  In high power distance countries the roles of “patron” and “servant” are important, and people seem to intuitively know who is above and below them in the pecking order of life.  Often it is expected that people help the less fortunate while also serving those in better standing, in part knowing that someday a “patron” may come through for them in a sticky moment.

In a high power distance culture the king was meant to be a king and the pauper a pauper.  They will always remain that way and treat each other accordingly.  For the most part they are ok with that.

In low power distance cultures the stratification of society is less distinct.  The stratification that does exist is often upon economic lines.  There is an inherent belief in the culture that every person is (or can be) of equal standing.  There is an informality in the culture that allows people of different social classes to interact casually.  People on either end of the social-strata tend to obscure their true social standing, prefering to blend into the middle of society.  Titles and family lineage mean less than they do in high power distance countries.  Any sort of “patronage” system is often seen as wrong as one should accomplish thing’s on one’s own merits not based on who they know.  Even the lower strata of society should be treated with respect and equality.

In the low power distance culture the pauper may someday become king and the king a pauper.  The king may treat the pauper with respect even though the pauper thumbs his nose at the king.

All this to share with you one small vignette from our graduation ceremony from last night.  After songs were sung, speeches made and diplomas handed out the couple of hundred folks who were gathered were to share a meal together.   The director of the school made a few comments about the food service and said, “And of course let . . .”

How would you finish the sentence?

Let the graduates and their families go first?  The elderly?  Special guests?  Families with small children?

I think how you finish that sentence says alot about the power distance in the culture.

I can’t say verbatim, but it went something like, “And of course let our special guests, teachers, board members, graduates, and community leaders get in line  first.”

Several of us with small children were sitting near each other and just kind of laughed.  I’m so used to stateside people letting parents with small children go first when it comes to getting food.  One of the community leaders in attendance was an American friend of ours she came over and talked to us.  We asked why she wasn’t in line with the other VIPs and she said it made her feel weird because she wasn’t any different than anyone else.

Although I was slightly annoyed when we finally got through the line and the only thing left for our kids was rice full of nuts, onions, peas and carrots and roasted chicken with arab spices (not kid friendly – at least for our kids), I was also slightly amused by this obvious display of power distance being played out.  One culture seeing that people fall in different categories in society and that people with special status should be served first.  The other culture seeing that all people are equal and those with special needs should be served first.  Neither are inherently wrong or right, just very different.  Thoughts?  Comments?

Eid Al-Adha, the Hajj, and life in Amman

(Note on Dec 15th 2009: I wrote this post a year ago and it includes my outsider’s summary of what Eid al-Adha is all about and a few personal reflections on life here in Amman last year during the Eid.  For my 2009 account of visiting the place of sacrifice on Eid al-Adha with a gallery of pics, click here.)

Today is Sunday in Jordan.  But not just any Sunday – it’s the Sunday after the long break for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.  As Sunday is the first day of the work week here many people were back to their jobs and schools after some time off.  We had a break as well and I had plans all week to write something here about the Eid.   Oh well, better late than never!

For those who don’t know – here’s a thumbnail sketch of Eid al-Adha.  This is the second major holiday on the Islamic calendar.  (or maybe first – somebody can correct me if they know for sure)  The first is Eid al-Fitr which is the major feast at the end of Ramadan (the month of fasting).  Eid al-Adha also happens during a very important time on the Islamic calendar – al-Hajj.  This is the time of the pilgrimage to Mecca which many understand to be a commemoration of Muhammad’s flight (or emigration) from Mecca to Medina.

Pilgrims throng the Great Mosque in the Islamic holy city of Mecca during the Hajj

Pilgrims throng the Great Mosque in the Islamic holy city of Mecca during the Hajj

Although the entire hajj is important, one of the most important parts is the vigil held on the plains and mount of Arafat.  It is on this mountain that Muslims believe that Muhammad gave his farewell speech.  It is required for pilgrims to pray prayers of repentance in this spot on the Day of Arafat which is always 70 days following the start of the month of Ramadan and the 9th day of the month of the Hajj (note that the Islamic calenar follows a lunar year so the dates of these observances change each year on the Gregorian calendar).

Muslim pilgrims at the Mount/Plain of Arafat

Muslim pilgrims at the Mount/Plain of Arafat

It is said that failure to appear at the plain of Arafat invalidates a pilgrims Hajj.  It is also said that the erstwhile prayers offered hear can earn a faithful Muslims a clean slate from their sins.  Many pilgrims will maintain the vigil not only during the day but throughout the night until the following day.

Muslim pilgrims holding a nighttime vigil on the Mountain of Arafat

Muslim pilgrims holding a nighttime vigil on the Mountain of Arafat

The next day pilgrims make their way to the nearby city of Mina where they commemorate the other important aspect of the Hajj – remembering the life of the prophet Abraham.  Muslims believe that it is near this location that Abraham almost sacrificed his son.  Just like the story from the Torah, Allah provides a goat/sheep at the last moment, redeeming the life of Abraham’s son.  For Muslims who do not travel to Saudia Arabia this story is the centerpiece of Eid al-Adha – the holiday/holy days associated with the Hajj.

Here in Amman (just like the rest of the Islamic world) this means sacrificing a sheep/goat.  In the days leading up to Eid al-Adha I overheard a number of conversations about the best place to buy sheep, and engaged in a number of conversastions about the yearly sacrifice.

Sheep awaiting their important role in Eid al-Adha celebrations

Sheep awaiting their important role in Eid al-Adha celebrations

Families who can afford to purchase a sheep at 200 Dinars ($284) or so, will use a portion of the sheep for a celebration with their family.  A portion is then reserved to give to the poor and perhaps a portion reserved to give to the extended family.  If a family is wealthy enough they will purchase one sheep for each category (immediate family, the poor, extended family).  I did speak to a lot of people who said they could not afford to make a sacrifice themselves this year, but Eid al-Adha is also an important time to visit family, and many expected to celebrate with those in their family who could afford to make the sacrifice.

Apparently some people make the sacrifice at their homes, but most take the sheep to a special place reserved for the sacrifice and have a trained individual perform the sacrifice and butchering of the sheep for distribution.  The sacrifice itself can be made anytime after the vigil of Arafat or after the morning prayers are made on the particular day.

Here in Amman I awoke to the extended version of the morning call to prayer, which included about 45 minutes to an hour of chanting “Allahu Akbaar, Akbaar Allah!  Akbaar Allah” (God is the Greatest!)  After that I wondered up the hill to check out the neighborhood mosque.  It was standing room only and took nearly 10 minutes for the place to empty out after the sermon.

In Saudia Arabia pilgrims make the sacrifice on the day following the Vigil at Arafat.  But first they must take part in the ritual stoning of the Jararat or three stone pillars representing Satan.

One of the original stone pillars representing Satan near Mina

One of the original stone pillars representing Satan near Mina

As you can see the pillars were quite small and it took a long time for millions of pilgrims to throw 7 stones each at 3 pillars.  There are stories of pilgrims being trampled, seriously injured,and sometimes passing away due to the press of the crowd.  A couple of years ago the Saudia government decided to replace the original pillars with large walls that would facilitate the flow of pilgrims through this stage of the hajj.

New walls representing Satan and awaiting stoning by pilgrims on Hajj near Mina

New walls representing Satan and awaiting stoning by pilgrims on Hajj near Mina

This may seem like an odd ritual, but it is important to the Islamic version of the story of Abraham sacrificing his son.  Muslims believe that it was Satan, rather than God, who asked Abraham to sacrifice his son.  According to some interpretations of the Qur’an, Satan used a dream to trick Abraham into believing that God wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son.  Allah intervened at the last minute and provides an alternative sacrfice, which the Quran calls a great ransom or redemption.

I found that this was a great time of year to learn more about local beliefs and customs as many were very happy to respond to questions about the Eid and the sacrifice.  I hope next year to actually get over to the place of sacrifice.  And maybe I’ll understand more of the morning sermon next year too.  For now it is back to work and school for most (myself included).  Of course Eid celebrations this year have flowed into Christmas celebrations.  Christians are hanging lights and putting up trees.  And students are looking forward to their next break from school. Someone told me 2 days for Christian students and 1 for Muslim.  I’ll have to check and see if that’s true.