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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.”

-REB

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