Before I left for Jordan I spent a lot of time reading through websites, volunteer blogs, and of course, my invitation packet, which looked like this:
and I remember one day coming across this sentence: “Visiting is the national pastime of Jordan.”
Kind of a bold statement. Especially if you don’t really know what “visiting” is supposed to mean. But now that I’ve lived here for 5 (close to 6!) months, I get it. Because most Jordanians really do seem to spend the bulk of their free time visiting, hosting visitors, or preparing for visits (i.e., making food) for their family members and neighbors. In Al Manshiya, my training village, that meant that every afternoon and evening would find me on the farshas of someone’s living room, drinking tea and smiling at several people I’d never met before and couldn’t understand. Here in Ramtha I’m on a pretty solid visiting-every-other-day kind of schedule, which is a little more healthy for my personal space. Visiting can last anywhere from 45 minutes to 6 hours to several days, and there’s actually a pretty dependable procedure that’s followed. Here’s the breakdown:
Arrive at someone’s door, pretty much always unannounced. Ring the doorbell, which will unfailingly make a screeching sound like birds mating/fighting.
Kiss the child or woman who answers the door in whatever way your region recognizes as appropriate. In Ramtha it’s your right cheek to their right for one kiss, then three to their left.
Awkwardly remove your shoes on their doorstep while they watch you. Never wear boots unless there’s a side-zipper. (Thank god for the side-zipper.)
Follow your host to whatever room has the soba. Everyone in the room will stand up when you come in, and then you’ll do kisses with all of the women (children are optional but I always kiss them too because it’s the cutest), and mutter all of the appropriate greetings at each other as fast as you can without listening to their responses or providing your own. You’ll talk later, right now you have 5 other women and 3 toddlers to get through. If there are men in the room (which is unlikely because they tend to hide from foreign female visitors), you’ll each put your right hands over your hearts, bow your heads a little at each other, and say “peace be upon you.” But probably there aren’t any men.
Then everyone gets to sit down again on the farshas and you’ll awkwardly arrange yourself so that your feet aren’t exposed to anyone (it’s an insult!) and your legs are together. Probably you’ll sit with your legs tucked to the side with your feet underneath you, and when you start to get crampy and try to switch sides your hosts will notice and a kindly old woman will bring you a blanket to drape over your feet.
Whoever answered the door will probably leave to make tea, so you’ll feel a little abandoned and exposed. But don’t worry, she’ll return with a plastic tray bearing the teapot, several tiny glass cups, and some kind of slogan in English like, “Tea is for everyday!” or “Crazy for Cafe!” They’ll pour and distribute the tiny cups and it’ll be way to hot to drink or probably to hold, so you’ll put it in front of you on the floor and guard it from roving children.
It’s black tea, kind of weak, with at least 2 cups of sugar for an 18 oz teapot. If it’s not 2 full cups of sugar people will comment. Usually sage goes in the tea, but sometimes they do mint or cinnamon bark (which is the best).
If there are enough people present, conversation will flow naturally about illnesses, meals people have made recently, and things that happened to people you don’t know. You’ll smile benignly and drink. If there are kids you can play with them. If there aren’t that many people around then conversation will be more centered on you, which is harder if you’re like me and not that great at Arabic yet. But after you go on enough visits, you’ll have memorized the questions:
“Where do you live?”
“You live alone??!!!”
“Oh thank God you have a landlady. What food does she make for you?”
“Are you married?”
“No??! Why not??”
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?”
“Only one brother??!!! Why.”
“How old is he and what does he do and where does he live?”
“Are your parents here with you?”
“No??!! Where do they live? How often do you talk to them? When are you going to see them again?”
“What are you doing in Jordan?”
“Which is better, the United States or Jordan?”
The fun part is that if you make it through this battery with one family member, she will provide all of the answers to the next person who asks you (and there will be others). A new family member will walk in halfway through the visit and start in with the first question and your compatriot will put a hand on your shoulder as if to say “You can tap out, I got this,” and then race through all your answers for you as you drink tea and try to overlook the fact that she just said you’re working as a nurse and that you don’t have kids because you’re waiting to find a husband in Jordan (God willing).
It’s all part of the process.
After the tea, there will be a snack- usually dates but sometimes sweets or baklava (or once, Turkish delights! Like in The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe), followed by Turkish coffee (again, the sugar ratio applies).
By this time you’ll probably be ready to go (you’ve been dropping hints about how dark it’s getting and how worried your landlady will be for the past hour), but just as your getting up someone will come out with giant bowls of fruit and several knives, and you will be required to sit back down again. Everyone will eat at least three pieces of fruit. They will peel everything for you, especially after you jump into the apple American-style without cutting it. They will tell you that’s how Tom eats apples on Tom and Jerry.
After three pieces of fruit and probably a glass of juice or Pepsi (pronounced “Bebsi”), you can maybe go home. They will be upset. They will command you to stay and eat more with them and spend the night. You will firmly refuse, because otherwise you will end up moving in with them.
You kiss everyone in the room again, promise to visit again soon, put on your shoes in the doorway while the kids watch and giggle, and you’re on your way.
As you stumble home you realize that both of your legs have fallen asleep from sitting on the ground so long, your stomach is making crazy noises from the inopportune combination of food and carbonation and sugar, and you’re completely wired from all the caffeine. But you’re smiling- because you’re a Jordanian now, and this is your national pastime.