I grew up in a rather collectivist family where hospitality, love and a welcoming spirit play an essential role in how we treat others. Though this is true, I have never experienced the kind of love and inclusivity that I feel with my family, with other families let alone with strangers. Not only did I experience the warmth and hospitality of the Arab culture and families in a dinner at a traditional Arab home, I experienced such things with strangers. My experiences with them took my ideas of hospitality, care and love on another level.
Last week, my friend Noor and his family invited me and two other students, Ashley and Jack, into their home for dinner. I, along with the two other students and Noor’s girlfriend, headed over to Noor’s home. Noor’s family is from Iraq and they moved to Jordan in 2004. They brought us into their home with open hearts and much generosity. The women welcomed me into their home with kisses, the men by laying their hand on their hearts. We brought kanafeh with us as a gift to our host and to thank them for bringing us into their home. Though there was definitely a language barrier as none of us guests can speak Arabic well, our mutual love and openness united us all. And, Leah and Noor also served as translators throughout our visit.
After we were welcomed into the small apartment building, we were escorted into the parlor room. The women quickly brought in pillow and mats for us to sit down upon, laid down newspapers and brought out huge platters of food. The meal was extravagant and I could tell they were feeding their guests with the best they had to offer.
I could not express my gratitude enough since I know that the women probably worked for hours in the kitchen to prepare the meal for us. They made us a traditional Iraqi meal. One large pan of rice mixed with noodles, nuts and seasoning and topped with chicken. Another dish and my personal favorite, was a large pan of tomato and rice stuffed veggies including stuffed mini zucchini, grape leaves, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and other veggies as well.
It was absolutely incredible. It was definitely the best food I have eaten since coming to Jordan. During the dinner, they kept insisting on feeding us more, so by the end I was completely stuffed with food. There was still an access of food remaining after the meal, which I know in the Arab culture is a sign of generosity. I loved how beautiful and communal the meal was, all eating with our hands from the same large pan.
After our dinner, we headed outside and sat outside their apartment in a patio area. They brought out mint tea, watermelon andthe kanafeh. While outside, we looked at stars, the sisters and I gave each other massages, I held Noor’s younger sister’s baby, and Alawai’s parents showed us some of their wedding pictures. It was strange for me to sit with and converse with Noor’s family, knowing how hard their life was.
His mother was born in Palestine, along with her four other siblings. They moved to Jordan but their parents returned to Palestine in order to bring other family members back home and they both were killed in the process. Noor’s mother and her siblings were then separated, two of her siblings were sent to relatives in France and she lost all contact with them. Noor’s mother and two of her other siblings were then sent to Iraq to live with her aunt. At 17, she was then married to her current husband. Their marriage was arranged. Though they were very successful in Iraq, they lost everything during the Gulf War and then moved to Jordan. Today, they live in a poor area of Amman and the large family lives in a small apartment building. The area they live is filled with many Iraqi and Palestinian refugees and during the afternoon there are lots of children running all about barefoot and playing in the streets.
While sitting on the patio and sipping the mint tea, I noticed a small group of young men gathering in the street, singing, dancing, honking car horns and playing drums. When I looked outside the gate area of the apartment building, I saw that they were dancing around a young man in graduation garb. The young men were clearly celebrating their friends graduation. And, as I observed, the celebration soon became a community event for the men. Noor and Jack went out to join the fun. Us women and the children stood on the sidelines watching. I for a second, understood what it would feel like to be a women here. It seemed as though the fun was for the men and it was not appropriate or socially acceptable for the women to dance around in the streets. When I asked Alawi, “What do you do when women graduate from college?” He answered simply, “We sleep.”
My opinion on this is not important but this experience reminded me of the reality that is life for many women in the Middle East and in the world. A women’s role is in the home, she cooks, she cleans, she hosts and she cares for her children. Being in the Middle East and experiencing this has helped me understand this reality.
One can argue for hours whether it’s cultural, religious or other influences that perpetuate these sort of gender roles, but I wish all could agree that women should be empowered and that keeping women at home and on the sidelines is really not taking advantage of their gifts and their abilities.
After our time outside, we returned inside and talked for a bit longer. The women then invited me to come learn how they make their Arabic coffee. I loved getting to enter the kitchen with the women and see that part of their world. They taught me how to make the coffee and we then all enjoyed the coffee together in the parlor.
It was a wonderful end to such a great night. After much thanks and a warm goodbye, we then took a taxi back to our program home. It was a beautiful night and one of my favorite and most authentic experiences during my time in Jordan.
Stay true, live justly and always travel on.
Peace and love