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Check out the Festival of Alternative Arts!

Special Note: Tonight (Tuesday, January 25th) there is a debate on life in Gaza being held as part of the Festival.  It will be held from 5 PM to 7 PM at the Al-Balad Theater on the route down from Rainbow street in  Jabal Amman to the balad.  More info here. Unfortunately I can’t make it because of work.  Hopefully someone else can!
******

I recently had the privilege of attending a film screening of Swiss filmmaker Nicolas Wadimoff’s “Aisheen: Still Alive in Gaza“.  The documentary observes several slices of life in Gaza after the devastating January 2009 Israeli offensive that left 13 Israelis and over 1300 Palestinians dead.  The film provided little commentary on the events, but simply showed people in their everyday contexts trying to put their lives back together after a month of bombardment and destruction.  I am preparing another post on my thought on the film, but wanted to point out that it is part of a larger event now being held here in Jordan.

From December 2010 through February 2011, the Swedish Embassy in conjunction with many local partners (including the Royal Film Commission who sponsored the film screening) is hosting the “Festival of Alternative Arts” here in Jordan.  The purpose of the festival is,

to showcase and discuss graffiti and other urban alternative art expressions. It aims at contributing to broadening the concept of art as a diverse form of expression, but also hopes to attract and stimulate an interest in urban art – in its different representations – among the large young population in Jordan.

Don't sit at home - attend a festival event!

The centerpiece of the festival is the photo exhibit “Gaza Grafitti” opening at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts on January 26th (tomorrow) and running through February 15th, 2011.  The exhibit is the work of Swedish photographer Mia Grondahl and is comprised of 60 photographs of grafitti art in Gaza over of seven year period (2002-2009).  I am personally very interested in seeing this exhibit as I spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 in Gaza.  At that time I was also fascinated by all of the graffiti I saw.  Some of it obviously slogans of one sort or another, but also actual artwork.  The art that I saw in the late 90s took the form of paintings of scenes in some cases, but also amazing Arabic calligraphy.    As in parts of the West Bank where Palestinian artists have used the “security” wall as a canvas, graffiti has served as both an artistic and political release valve for an oppressed people.  I am interested to see what Grondahl observed and recorded during her times in Gaza.

I will probably go see the exhibit sometime in February.  If you are here and Jordan and want to go together drop me a line.

The Festival of Alternative Arts includes a number of other events in addition to the “Gaza Graffiti” exhibit.  A complete list can be found on their Facebook events page.

Some of the ones I found most intriguing are:

Dream Hiding Places at The Children’s Museum until January 31, 2011.  20 Palestinian children will be participating in a graffiti art workshop facilitated by a local graffiti artist.  The artwork produced will be on display at the museum.

Images/Suwar in Zarqa until January 30th.  28 Iraqi youths, refugees living in Jordan, tell their stories through use of the performing and media arts.  The location in Zarqa is not clear from the FB page.  Anyone have any idea?

Refugee Camp Graffiti Art Project on display at Nabad Gallery from February 27th to March 1st.  Workshops will be held with youth in three Palestinian refugee camps here in Jordan.  They will be given cameras to photograph the graffiti they see every day.  Then they will develop their own art.  The results will be displayed in Baqa’a camp and the Nabad Gallery.

If you happen to be in Jordan reading this, I hope you take a moment to attend one of these or other events associated with the festival.  If you’re not in Jordan – just see what you’re missing!  I’ll  try to post on anything I get to attend.

PS – I found out about this event through my new favorite resource – Jordan Events on Facebook.  For those of you who are Facebook users in Jordan it’s a great way to find out what’s going on around the Kingdom!

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.

Springtime in Jordan

Springtime is gorgeous in Jordan.  By and large the rains have stopped, the temperature is moderate, the hills and valleys are alive with color, and droves of city-folk flock to the countryside for picnics (or riHleh or mushwar as they are called here).

But, as they say a picture is worth 1,000 words . . . so here goes . . .

(This is a test of the new wordpress slideshow feature – hopefully it works.)

Of course this is less about testing the slideshow and more about showing people a bit of Jordan.  I realized awhile back that we are the only ex-pats in our circle of friends that haven’t had visitors from back home since arriving here in Jordan.  Most have averaged 3 or 4 in the last couple of years.

So here is a little bit of what you’re missing, and a not so subtle hint for you to start planning for next year’s Spring Break here in Jordan.  Of course, we would be happy to receive you and show you around this country we love at any time of the year.  Mushwar weather permitting of course! (There are around 20 pics in the slideshow and they cycle through in a minute or so)

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Who Answers Prayers for Rain?

In some place the standing water seem like a small lake - paddle anyone?

It’s been raining for the last 3 days here in Amman.  It is winter, which, for Amman, means rain. But three days in a row is a bit unusual, especially with another day of the wet stuff forecasted for tomorrow.  Usually it’s just a few hour of rain every couple of weeks during the winter here. Or maybe a full day, but this weekend has been particularly wet. Which means that streets have turned into streams, stairways into waterfalls, and pedestrians have the extra task of dodging spray from cars besides just the actual vehicles themselves.

Notice the foam from chemicals and polluted runoff

Amman’s drain/sewer system was apparently not  designed for rain, so scenes such a the following are common when it rains, even just a little bit.

(Please note: these three pics were snapped back in Oct of last year.  Believe it or not I didn’t seem to have my camera on me at all over the last 3 days.  Strange.  But really, whenever it rains hard in Amman it usually looks like this.)

Pedestrians beware!

The last few days it has not only been rainy, but cold and windy and completely overcast – the exact opposite of stereotypical Middle Eastern weather.  Just the kind of weather that would get us complaining back in the States.  But you know, what?  I have never heard a Jordanian complain about the rain.  Ever.

Even people who you would think should complain just a little bit.  Case in point: our Egg McAmmani guy.  He is one of dozens (probably hundreds) of pushcart sandwich vendors around the city.  They typically have fantastic sesame-seed breads which they fill with your preference of roasted eggs, tomatoes, zataar, salt, hot sauce, cheese, and/or falafil.  We go for eggs, tomatoe, zataar and salt (with hot sauce if I’m not sharing with my wife).  We’ve never been able to get a straight answer on what it’s called in Arabic – people usually look at us funny when we ask and say, “It’s a sandweesh!”  Or if pressed further that might say it is a “ka3ak” the name of the sesame seed bread the sandwich is made on.  We call it an Egg McAmmani and it is one of our favorite breakfast treats at roughly 75 cents.

The "sandweesh" guy is on the left, while a cabby makes his own on the right. The cigarette ash no doubt adds a little something.

Anyways this guy should not be happy about a 3-day, cold, driving rain.  It’s gotta be bad for the sandweesh business.  Not to mention shivering in the cold under a drippy tree all day.  But this morning He greeted me with his usual smile and and said he  would work come sun or rain.  He did have an umbrella over his cart (which ironically, in arabic has a name derived from the word for sun as that is it’s more typical protective function), but despite the smile he looked cold.  When I asked him about the rain he said it was from Allah and gave thanks for it. This is normal here.  Everyone – Muslim and Christian alike thank God for the rain.  What is often seen as an annoyance or “ruiner of plans” in the parts of America that I have lived in, is seen here as a blessing and source of life.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus mentions by way of proverb that “God sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.”  I think there is a tendency back home for people to take that to mean that bad things (like rain) happen to both good people and bad people.  It’s much clearer after living in the Middle East that the true message of this ancient desert proverb is that God gives life to everyone, both good or bad.

Growing up, I can’t remember how many times I’d hear people pray/hope against rain because of some special event.  Here it is the exact opposite.  People of both Muslim and Christian background pray for rain.  If there is very little rain during the winter months Muslim Imam’s will even call special prayer meetings to beseech Allah for rain.  Christian churches will do the same. Last winter was one of those years.  There was all sorts of news about the drought and how reservoirs were far below their normal capacities.  Prayers were offered and eventually the rain came.

This winter has been different – the rain has been plentiful.  No special prayer meetings have been called (to my knowledge) but people are genuinely thankful that it’s been a wet winter.

However, the whole topic raises a question for me.  When both Muslims and Christians pray for rain and it does rain – whose prayers are being answered?  Some would say that both Christians and Muslims pray to the same God so, obviously, both are being answered.  Others would disagree with this and see believers in both camps as praying to different god’s and that it is likely that it is one group’s prayers over and against the other’s that is being answered.  Still other people would disparage the whole idea of any deity answering prayers for rain.  What do you think?

When Cars Collide in Amman Jordan

We’ve only had our car for four months but I kinda expected this to happen sooner.  I was in a fender bender yesterday.  Don’t worry – the only thing that was hurt was my pride.  And a couple of bumpers and a radiator.  Unfortunately it was my radiator.

Yup, my radiator . . .   I rear-ended a taxi.

I was coming up to an intersection and the guy in front of me was going to go through it but then changed his mind at the last minute and slammed on his brakes.  His tires screeched on pavement and his car rocked forward and back.  I stomped on my brakes, but to no avail.  Our bumpers kissed.  But it was a rather forceful kiss.

We both jumped out of our cars to inspect the damage, and I expect it’s a good thing that only one of us was Arab.  He was angry and yelling and waving his arms.  One appropriate cultural response would have been  for me to return in kind.  I’ve seen this scene repeated before – fender benders are quite common in this city of steep hills, hairpin curves, traffic circles and a culture of offensive (rather than defensive) driving.  Typically both parties yell and gesticulate wildly as their faces get red and fisticuffs seem imminent.  Then bystanders pull the angry parties apart, face is saved, the police can be called ,insurance companies contacted. By the end the two parties usually are invoking the peace of God upon each other and making invitations to coffee.  (No joke – I know a family who’s son was hit by a car and put in the hospital.  The driver responsible is now a dear family friend of the victim).

I decided not to put my cultural observations to work and instead opted to be silent, look gravely at the damage to my car, and fiddle with my cell phone.  The yelling and flapping of arms in my peripheral vision subsided and the man took out his cell phone too.  He looked grumpy as he punched in some numbers.  From his appearance he may have actually been Circassian rather than Arab.  I hoped that he was calling the police or his insurance company instead of his cousins.

A motorcycle cop drove off the set of CHiPs and pulled up along our mess.  He instructed us to pull around the corner and to the side of the road.  The anxious looking Philippina  in the back of the cab used this as a good time to beat a hasty retreat.  I hoped I hadn’t cost the guy his fare up to that point.  The Officer surveyed the damage and asked me to pop the hood.  He looked at the radiator as it leaked hot liquid on the pavement like a dog that hadn’t found a hydrant in time.

“Do you want a police report?”  The guy had sunglasses like Frank Poncharello.

Without looking at each other or missing a beat both me and the cabbie said, “Yes.”

[note: all the exchanges here happened in Arabic – I didn’t bother to play my “I foreigner me no speak arabee” card, not sure if that was good or bad]

For inquiring minds – in Arabic a police report is called a “croaka.”  It’s easy to remember because they give you the green part of the quadruplicate form.  Green – frogs – ribbit – croaka!  But don’t confuse it with “Kurkaw” which sounds similar and can also be green (a turtle).

Ponch left and a few people began to congregate.  Two teenagers wanted to know where I was from and what my job was and if I wanted their brother to fix the damage to my car.  I made small talk with them to avoid talking to the cabbie who was on his phone talking angrily with someone.  I was still hoping it wasn’t his cousins.  The two guys asked, “Don’t you know how to stop quickly?”  I stopped talking to them.

An affable pair of middle aged gentlemen walked up. They seemed to be friends.  They asked if the police were on their way.  We indicated that one had been and left, Lord willing to fetch another to make out the police report.  They asked what happened.  I told them that I thought the cabbie was going through the intersection but he stopped quickly and I hit him.  They chuckled and said, “This is simple – it happens all the time in Amman.  Do you both have insurance?  Then. No problem.  Besides he should have kept going.  He shouldn’t have stopped.”  The cabbie glowered at the two men and I nodded and fiddled with my cell phone.

As it turns out these two had also had a fender bender on the other side of the intersection and were also waiting for the police to return to make out a police report.  They had apparently dispensed with all the posturing and grumpiness and decided to be friendly with each other.  Can’t say the same for me and the cabbie.

The officer finally showed up to make the report.  He wished peace upon us and praised God for our health.  He snapped some digital pictures and looked under the hood of my car.   As he asked us what happened he warned us not to lie as there was a camera at the intersection.  I retold my simple story, the cabbie said that of course he was stopping for a red light and I should have known that.  The officer beckoned us towards his van.  The middle row of seats had been taken out and in it’s place was a small table.  He quietly and efficiently wrote up his report, complete with a nicely drawn diagram of the scene of the accident.  He asked for phone numbers and addresses.  We both simply told the name of our neighborhoods and that sufficed.  He asked for 5 JD from me to cover the cost of the report, gave us both our green copies and once more praised God for our health.

I was kind of waiting for the point when he was going to issue me a traffic citation, but it never came.  I inquired about locating a tow truck (winch as they are called here) and he directed me to inquire at the police station a couple of hundred meters away.  Rather dubious I approached the guy out front with the sub-machine gun and the riot helmet and told him of my inquiry.  He praised God for my health and directed me to an office inside the building.  The policeman inside called a tow truck for me and instructed the officer outside with the big gun to direct the the tow truck guy when he arrived.

About 10 minutes later the winch arrived.  It was a bright yellow truck.  It had a big Mercedes cab with a flat-bed that sloped down a bit at the back.  The tow arm was big and red with a rather large industrial-strength fish hook hanging on a sturdy cable. The driver’s name was “Jimmy”.  Not really – but close enough.

We were at the police station about 200 meters from my car.  Jimmy asked if it was still operable.  In Arabic the idiom is actually, “Does it walk?”  I replied that in fact it did still walk, but water was falling from the radiator onto the ground.  “No matter,” came Jimmy’s reply, “Bring it here.”

I drove the car up to Jimmy’s rather formidable flat bed.  It was definitely designed to handle vehicles larger than mine.  I started to get out but he motioned me to stay.  He flipped a few levers that released some legs and jacked up the front end of his truck to stabilize it.  He pulled down some ramps and aligned them with my car tires.  He motioned to me and told me to drive up the ramps.  Now, I’ve driven my cars in pretty stupid places in my day, but as I slowly edged my already damaged car up the metal ramps onto the flat bed I thought for sure this was going to end poorly.

It did not.  Maybe I have a future in towing or repo if English teaching dries up.

I was going to get out again but Jimmy told me to stay in.  He attached some chains and told me to do something I didn’t understand,  but guessed that he wanted me to put it in neutral.  This seemed to work as he nudged my car farther up onto the flat bed and told me to turn off the car and put on the parking brake.

I got into the cab not sure what to expect. My experiences in tow trucks have always been . . . well . . . interesting.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure you know what I mean.  My most memorable ride was sandwiched between a tow truck driver and my pregnant wife on a 80-mile tow in the middle of the night in the dead of winter in the middle of nowhere on the way home for Christmas one year.  But that’s another story.  Jimmy’s cab was actually pretty clean for a tow truck.  The green and gold brocade fringe was first thing to catch my attention.  Green along the bottom of the dash board hanging by our knees.  Gold up above hanging down from an instrument panel above the window.  It sort of obstructed the view of the road, but only if you were tall.  Arabic dance music blared from a micro-DVD player and screen mounted on the dash.  There was a woman shaking her hips and singing as only Arab divas can.

The ride to the service center was uneventful.  I found out that Jimmy had started doing this as a second job 3-years ago.  In his day job he works for an insurance company.  I found that  rather amusing but didn’t say so.  He was married with 5 kids and really in need of the extra income.

The sun was dipping below the horizon as we dropped the car at the service center in an industrial district on the outskirts of town.  It was after hours on Friday.  Nothing around was open and no taxis in sight.  The nearest main road would be a 20-minute walk so on a whim I asked Jimmy where he was heading.  He asked where I lived and I told him the neighborhood but that I just wanted to go somewhere I could find a taxi.

Jimmy:  Do you have money for a taxi?

Me: Yes?

Jimmy:  Really?  I didn’t just take all your money?  [for the tow charge of 30 JD]

Me: No, I still have money in my pocket.

Jimmy: Ok, but if you don’t have money I will take you to your house.  It’s on my head.

Me:  Thank you – you’re a very good man, but I just take me to a place I can find a taxi.

A little way down the road Jimmy pulled over and offered to buy me something to drink – a pepsi or a juice.  We drank our orange juice and bantered about our kids as we drove back towards Amman.  About half-way to my neighborhood I told Jimmy I didn’t want to trouble him and that he could drop me off anywhere.  He said he would take me to Jabal Amman where he lives (and closer to my neighborhood) and find me a taxi there.  If not he would take me to the main road running into my neighborhood.  It was on his head.  I thanked him very much and he invited me to his house for coffee.  I declined the coffee which resulted in him giving me his card and telling me to call him to come for coffee at his house anytime.

In the end Jimmy the tow truck driver got out of his truck and waved down a cab for me on one of Jabal Amman’s busiest circles.  I could have done this myself, but he felt it was his responsibility.

I’m not too happy that I was in a fender bender, but I’m sure glad I met Jimmy.

Christmas Lights and Nativity Scene near Amman Jordan (Fuheis)

Merry Christmas!  Or as they say here in Jordan:

كل عام و انت بالخير

Kul 3aam uw inta bilxayr!

An exact translation is a bit tricky (like most sociolinquistically significant phrases), but the the basic gist is: goodness/wellness to you all year.  This is a standard greeting for almost any holiday – Muslim or Christian.   It is used at Christmas and New Years and for the Muslim Eids.  A Muslim friend of mine actually called me today, just to greet me b/c he knew I was celebrating Christmas.  This is the phrase he used.   There doesn’t seem to be a direct equivalent of Merry/Happy Christmas in Arabic.  Actually, many Arabs just say Merry Christmas in English, especially if they know you are a  foreigner.

(In case you are wondering Christmas in Arabis is “Eid Al-Miilaad” which not surprisingly means “festival/feast of the birth.” The use of the definite article differentiates this from Eid Miilaad which means birthday.  Basically, Jesus’ birthday is THE birthday, and rightfully so.)

Many westerners would be surprised by the outward signs of Christmas that can be glimpsed here in Amman.  Christians hang Christmas lights and put up trees.  There are Christmas stores where you can buy decorations.  The stationary guy down the street from us who mostly sells dafaatir (Notebooks) and pens totally transforms his shop into Christmas central for 2 months out of the year.  He happens to be Christian, but Muslim run shops and businesses get into the Christmas spirit as well.  It is not unusual to see many stationary and book stores selling Christmas decorations.  Others decorate their stores with a tree or ornaments  or lights.  Even the mall has some trees and some stores play Christmas music.

From an outsiders perspective it seems like the Muslim majority here is more than happy to let the Christian minority (maybe 5% of the population) have their celebration.  And as in America – the commercial aspect of Christmas is very appealing to retailers – even Muslim ones.  I think the government schools get one day off for Christmas – which isn’t much, but at least it’s something.  Private schools can have a more generous holiday and those of more Christian or at least Westen persuasion seem to have a few days t a week off.  (Side question: I wonder if Muslims enjoy the same cultural leeway in America?  I mean what if retailers started hanging up Eid decorations and playing Islamic music?  Or if the American gov’t decided to give all schools a day off for Eid al-Fitr?  Freedom is a funny thing. . . especially when it comes to the practice of religion – isn’t it?)

But I digress . . .

A couple of days ago we had the pleasure of looking at Christmas lights in a little town called Fuheis (pronounced Foo-highs <but with an s sound, not z>).  It’s located just north of Amman and it’s claim to fame is having the largest Christmas tree and Nativity scene in the Middle East.  It is one of two predominately Christian towns in Jordan (the other being Madaba).  According to Wikipedia the population of Fuheis is 60% Greek Orthodox and the remainder is divided between Muslim and Catholic.

Every year the residents of Fuheis put on a Christmas festival featuring a variety of activities, but everyone knows the main attractions are the lights, tree, and nativity.  It was nice to drive through the town the other day and look at houses and streets decked out in Christmas lights.  It almost, almost, felt a bit like home.  I must add that it was a comparatively modest and perhaps reasonable amount of Christmas lights compared to what Americans would typically be accustomed too.  I doubt you could spot Fuheis’ lights from orbit like you could some American subdivision’s.

One interesting side-note: The nativity scene was sponsored in part by USAID.  Yup – that’s right US gov’t $$ being spent on a Nativity Scene at Christmastime!  I laughed out loud and took a picture of the sign.  Could you imagine the uproar if federal money was used to sponsor a Nativity Scene on American soil?

Actually that’s one of the refreshing things I noticed about Christmas here in Jordan.  It’s actually Christmas.  You don’t have to wish people a Happy Holiday.  Christmas is what it is here – the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth.  Maybe it’s because Christianity is in the majority back home so everyone has to walk on eggshells and make sure no one is offended.  Here it seems much more pragmatic.  If you’re Christian you celebrate Christmas and that’s what everyone calls it because that’s what it is

There’s probably a lot more I could write about this – but it’s Christmas Eve, and even though I have all my shopping and wrapping done, there’s still a couple of things that need to get done before I go to sleep.  So without further ado – here’s a gallery of our pics of the Christmas Lights and Nativity Scene in Fuheis.



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.