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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mansaf, Sheikhs, and Camels

Here in the Badia, Loren, James, Cyrus, and I have maintained a diet of virtually nothing but flatbread and falafel since we arrived. So, when we received a phone call from Abu Ala late this afternoon inviting us over for dinner in his home, we were excited for a home cooked meal. Abu Ala is the president of the North Badia Development Cooperation Society, the NGO that oversees all of the various projects we help with. He, like everyone in this region, comes from Bedouin stock and adheres to traditional culture vehemently. You may find it strange that the invitation didn’t come until late in the afternoon, but spur-of-the-moment meetings and invitations are by far the norm in Arab culture, and it actually works quite well that way. Around 8:15, Abu Ala’s 19-year-old son came to pick us up from our apartment and drove us several miles East to the village of Zumla where the family lives. All the while, his cassette player cranked the exotic tunes of a mysteriously foreign pop sensation: Akon.

When we arrived, a group of men were sitting outside with Abu Ala, and, as is custom, they stood up to greet us with a barrage of Salaamu Aleekums, kisses, and handshakes. Knowing the proper responses to greetings and kisses is important, and it’s taking some practice to get mine right. Some of the men were dressed in traditional Thob robes and head shmocks, while others dressed in Western clothing- both are common out here and in the cities. We sat and talked for a while until all the guests had arrived. Afterwards, we removed our shoes and went inside the home to a large parlor with a cushioned bench outlining the entire room. Since we were the guests of honor, James, Cyrus, Loren, and I were ushered forward to the center of the bench. There we all conversed for another hour. It seemed that every time there was a lull in our conversation, our host would say over and over again “Ahalan Wisahalan” meaning hello and welcome. These kind people are hospitable to a fault. Sometime before dinner was served, all of the men laid out their prayer rugs and offered the evening prayer of Islam led by Abu Ala as we four Westerners observed in respectful silence.

Then came the Mansaf. Mansaf is a traditional Bedouin dish consisting of a mountain of rice, spices, and peanuts, topped with an equal dosage of boiled chicken. The chicken is boiled in a savory mixture of yoghurt and fat that is afterwards poured over the entire dish. This meal comes served on a pizza-sized saucer for all the guests to eat out of communal-style. We ate on the floor with crossed legs, and most ate with bare hands. You can only eat what is right in front of you on the plate, so pushing more food in front of the person next to you is a gesture of kindness that was extended to me several times last night. Sometimes, those around me would even break up my chicken by hand for me. I hear that feeding each other by hand is also not uncommon. I’m getting over my germ-o-phobe-ness very quickly here.

Following dinner, we sat in the parlor for another two hours making conversation about everything from US foreign policy to simpler stuff that I could more easily understand, like where I’m from and how old I am – ha! During our entire experience, I never saw a single woman; in this culture women remain behind the scenes when guests are in the home. At work, women are free to speak with men and do whatever tasks necessary. But in most other scenarios, separation is the rule. Bedouin women from the Badia do not enjoy many of the same rights that Western women do- perhaps a topic for another day.

It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that despite the intense cultural differences that exist between Arabs and Westerners, our fundamental aspirations remain the same. Another evening of fairly intimate interaction with the Bedu has taught me that these people want decent jobs, happy families, and dependable friends like most other human beings. They either have or wish they had “hope for a better world.”

I’ve had several traditional meals in other homes including the home of Sheikh Talal. Sheikh Talal is the leader of the influential Esau tribe based in the village of Defayyana. His brother, Bader al-Madi, is a former BYU student and in-country contact for my program. The Sheikh, like many of the tribal leaders in Jordan, meets regularly with King Abdullah II to coordinate policy. The picture is of the Sheikh and I.

One of our local friends owns a camel ranch. These things are huge, way taller than a horse. One of the bulls had an injury on his leg from a leash that was rubbing, so we had to wrassle him down to the ground and fix him up. Our friend also breaks horses and raises goats. Making friendships with these people not only opens many doors for us, but it is also very rewarding of itself. “A friend is not a means you use to get somewhere; friendship is an end.”


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Live from Salhiyya

Greetings and apologies to my faithful blog followers! I know all ten of you have been obsessively checking my blog every hour on the hour, hoping and waiting for news from the Eastern frontier. That’s probably not too difficult, though, since I’m sure my blog address occupies a prominent position on your browser’s favorites bar. Well, fret no longer, I found some time and got an Internet connection. My hopes are that you get a little taste of this largely indescribable experience I’m having in Jordan.

Just to fill you in: I spent my first two days in Amman, Jordan’s cosmopolitan capital of two million. I tried out my Arabic by asking for directions, buying food, and making very light conversation with cabbies. Pictures of King Abdullah II are in every shop and many buildings. The King enjoys overwhelming support from his people, and in my very light conversations I found that to be true indeed. Jordan is a country of six million of which about 50-75% are Palestinian in origin. Amman is heavily populated by Palestinians, and all groups seem to get along quite well on the surface. The call to prayer is faithfully sounded five times daily from the city’s numerous mosques.

After all eight of us BYU students arrived in Amman, three of us (Cyrus, James, and I) met up with Loren, the volunteer who’s laid the groundwork for us in the Badia. The four of us and our driver, a local Bedouin named Abu Faisal, made the hour long drive out to the Northeastern desert village of Salhiyya. This is my new home. It’s less than ten miles from the Syrian border and about fifteen minutes East of the nearest city, Mafraq. This is Bedouin country. Bedouin culture is not necessarily nomadic anymore, although many Bedouins still are. It is marked by very strong tribal and family associations, so much so that most men end up marrying their first cousins to keep wealth in the family. Many men have more than one wife and generally have many children. Women’s dress is very conservative here in keeping with strict Islam. Many people live in or at least own a bayt shar (a traditional tent).

The Badia is a world apart from Amman. Almost no one speaks English, and the Arabic they speak is Bedui, which has a different vocabulary and accent. When I try to speak, I say words and phrases that Egyptians and newscasters say, so I’m trying to learn some Bedui. We live in an apartment inside the building owned by the Non-Government Organization we work through. We have a hole in the bathroom floor, not a toilet. They aren’t modern, Western accommodations, but they work very well.

One of the several problems here in the Badia is that people do not know how to speak English and therefore are limited in the careers they can get into after completing school. An even bigger problem is that education in general is just not that important to the families out here. Many kids don’t pass the Tajihi (similar to a high school proficiency exam) and are therefore extremely limited in what jobs they can get. Unemployment is high, and productivity is low. I’ve started teaching English in one of the elementary schools operated by our NGO (the North Badia Development Cooperation Society) in the neighboring village of zumla. I’ve had a ton of fun with the little kids so far and hope to give them a good impression of English and English speakers. In a week, we plan to begin an English class for adults. The goal is not only to teach them English, but also to stress the importance of educating their children.

Although Loren has done a remarkable job of doing so already, us new guys have spent the first week forging relationships with the townspeople and organization leaders. That truly is the fundamental step in accomplishing anything in this culture. The people are extremely friendly and they love to see Americans learning their language and customs. It’s really a privilege for me to be here. One of the women in a nearby village established and operates a school for special needs children (there are many in the area because of the lack of genetic diversity). We met with her and will be helping her write proposals for more funding and resources. We may assist in getting dentists and doctors out to her center for a free health check-up day. Also, we’ll hopefully be helping another organization campaign for a female parliamentary candidate. She is the first woman from this district to run. Cyrus’ translation skills along with the proposal writing techniques James and I learned last semester will come in handy for all of this.

Well, now you’re at least filled in on what’s going on. We’ve done some fun things around here too. We go to the market at least once daily to buy food and we usually end up chatting with local friends for about an hour. Spending time with the locals helps me get a grasp of the culture better than anything else. James and I taught the village kids how to play Frisbee last night, and we’ve begun playing soccer with them in the vacant lot in front of the apartments. They love playing with us American guys despite how goofy we seem and how bad our Arabic is. As always, اللة يسلمكم.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Travel's Eve

Salaamu Alekum - greetings friends and family! Tomorrow, I'm off to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to begin a three-month International Development Internship through BYU's Kennedy Center. If you're anything like ma and pa, you may be asking what sparked this decision. When I'm not busy tying up loose ends before my flight, I'll get into a little more detail about my reasoning.
For now, suffice it to say that I'm a Middle East Studies/Arabic student minoring in International Development with a desire to be fully immersed in the fascinating culture of the region. I will be spending most of my time working on development projects in the northern city of Mafraq. Where I'll be in the Badia (the more rural, desert region of the country), traditional culture continues to flourish, but poverty is common, and development in public health, small business establishment, and English proficiency is needed. Opportunites to learn, experience, and help in a meaningful way will be abundant. In the process, my Arabic skill will increase, and I'll gain marketable experience in the world of work.
Development in this and any region of the world will increase quality of life and promote the peaceful coexistance of differing cultures. My goal is to play whatever small role I can in that effort for the rest of my life.

Some inspiring thoughts:

"O Mankind! We created you . . . and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other)" (Qur'an 49:13).

"My grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in . . . things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and perplexities of the nations, and the judgements which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms - that ye may be prepared in all things" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:78-80).