Last weekend, my roommate invited me along to visit her Jordanian friend’s family in a village in the northwest region of Jordan near Irbid.
Our host, Hassan, picked us up in front of our apartment after class on Thursday. After a quick introduction, we piled our things into the trunk and began the two-hour drive North.
Hassan speaks Modern Standard Arabic, so thankfully communication was relatively straight-forward, although my roommate Rikki certainly understands more of his particular vocabulary than I do. When we finally made it out of the chaos of Amman, I rolled down the window and steeped in the silence of the countryside. The hills in the summer are golden, like where I come from.
The conversation turned to religion, and Hassan asked me if I was Christian like Rikki. I thought for a moment about how to respond. My mother’s background is Shinto Buddhist and my father is technically Jewish, although this is purely by descent and he doesn’t practice or particularly identify with the religion. Hassan is an open-minded person, however, this is my first time in the region and I don’t yet have a good sense as to how this kind of information is tolerated and where boundaries stand with different people. I thought it would be best to avoid an uncomfortable situation if I could, so I told him that my mother is Shinto Buddhist and that my father doesn’t have a religious background. I explained to him that I grew up with no particular religious influence, which is the truth.
However, this was also the “wrong” answer, because saying that one doesn’t believe in god can also be offensive. Although Hassan was understanding, he asked me not to say this in front of his family; if the question came up (which it inevitably did), we decided I would say that I’m Christian. This felt very bizarre to me, as I’ve only ever observed the power of religious identity from a distance. Most of my friends identify with a religion, however it has never caused any kind of trouble or even discomfort between us. But of course, the reality of religious identity here is very different, and the effects are felt much more palpably.
It grew dark as we neared the village where Hassan’s family lives. We found a quiet street and pulled over so Rikki and I could put on our hijabs. I didn’t consider previously that wrapping a scarf around one’s head would require some amount of skill, and Hassan laughed at my clumsy attempts before helping me do it properly. The scarf that I borrowed from my sister worked well, but Hassan didn’t approve of Rikki’s hijab because it was black and not à la mode. We went to a store where he bought her a new scarf (he insisted on paying for everything, as is the custom here). Rikki and I also got some perfume as a gift for Hassan’s mother.
Hassan’s house is beautiful; alabaster white, with a garden and veranda strung with lights. His wife greeted us in the doorway along with their two children, Saiwar and Mahmoud. We set up a table on the veranda and Om Mahmoud (Hassan’s wife, this literally means “Mahmoud’s mother” and is the polite form of address) brought out roasted chicken and potatoes, tabouleh, yogurt, and fruit juices. After dinner, she served us mint tea. Rikki and I were ready to go to bed at this point, however this was when the rest of the family began trickling in with multiplying numbers of small children. Just as we thought the night would come to a close, someone else would show up and trigger another round of chocolates, or fruits, or cakes, to be served. Hassan’s mother sat next to me, she is very friendly and reminds me a bit of my Japanese grandmother.
Finally around two in the morning, coffee was served, after which family members began to depart. However, Hassan’s mother was not ready to end the party and suggested we take a drive to the top of a hill and look over the border to Israel and the West Bank. It was refreshingly quiet at the top of the hill, with a cool breeze and the lights of Nablus glowing silently.
The next day, we woke up late and had coffee sitting by the open window. Then Hassan asked us to make an “American” lunch before we made our outing for the day. He pulled some suspicious-looking packages from the freezer; french fries, fried chicken, and chicken hamburgers. Om Mahmoud put a container of sunflower oil on the kitchen counter then left us to do the cooking. I don’t think I have ever fried anything in my life, and I maybe eat fries and fried chicken once or twice a year. At the least, they are foods that are familiar to me, but chicken hamburgers??
Rikki and I decided to forgo the chicken hamburgers because, to be honest, they just looked plain nasty. We managed to cook the french fries somewhat decently, but ended up burning the chicken. Hassan looked confused; “I thought you guys knew how to cook this?”
After our “American” lunch, we headed out for the day with Hassan, Om Mahmoud, and Mahmoud. Mahmoud hadn’t yet said a word to us, but when I asked him how he was doing he finally answered shyly “Alhamdullillah” (fine thanks). Throughout the day, he warmed up to us.
We drove through the countryside, stopping in areas where we could see the Golan Heights and Syria. Midday, we took a short rest at a park, a verdant and cool oasis with people gathered under the trees smoking shisha and kids swimming in pools. Mahmoud eagerly joined them, mucking around in the water with a grin on his face.
Towards evening, we sat by the Jordan River where we drank coffee and ate fruit. Mahmoud again went off to play with other kids in the water, and I showed Om Mahmoud photos of California and my family. She was very happy, and asked jokingly if she could go back to America with us.
The next day, before heading back to Amman, we had lunch at Hassan’s friend Musa’s house. Musa’s wife had made Mansaf, a traditional Jordanian dish. We all sat on the floor around the gigantic plate, Hassan insisting I eat with my hands in the traditional way (I didn’t hesitate). It was one of the best dishes I have ever had.
As we drove back to Amman, we stopped by a part of the highway overlooking the city. Tables were set up under strung lights and people were gathered smoking shisha, enjoying the sunset. It was beautiful and I wish I could have stayed there longer, but Rikki and I had assignments to do, and a long week to prepare for.