By David L. Clemmons
On 15 August 2011, I was invited by the Imams of a local mosque in Amman to join them for iftar.
In an effort to absorb more of the cultural nuances of Jordan, I decided to participate in the fasting aspect of Ramadan. This entails no food or drink from dawn to dusk. I made this decision relatively early in my time here, knowing that I would be in country during what is the socio-cultural/religious highlight of the year here. In the evening, when practicing Muslims break their fast, it is called iftar—the meal to break the fast. And, in the mornings, early, early, early, there is what is called sahour—basically a small meal to prepare the body to be food and beverage free for roughly 14 hours.
This being said, one of my colleagues here at the office—Mahmoud Al Arab—was speaking with the imams of one of the mosques near his home in East Amman. He mentioned what he was doing in regards to VolunTourism Jordan and, as you might have guessed, my name came into the conversation. He then proceeded to mention that I was fasting during Ramadan and this piqued the interest of the Imams. So, to shorten the story, the Imams invited me to the mosque to partake in the iftar following the sunset prayer.
It was my first time in a mosque. Although I did not understand the Arabic, although I picked up the word Allah on more than one occasion, nor have a been versed in the movements of the Islamic prayers, I was touched by the sincerity of those who greeted me and “welcomed” me in what may have been the only English word they knew. Just prior to prayer, we sat cross-legged before a long white strip of plastic that featured a plate filled with dates spread every fifth person or so and a set of two cups—one filled with water, the other with buttermilk. Dates are viewed as one of the traditional means of breaking the fast prior to the sunset prayer, followed by the iftar.
So it was that some 50 – 75 lads and gentlemen sat down before these two cups, proceeded to drink each while consuming 3, 5, or 7 dates apiece. The two long strips of plastic, the cups, and plates of dates were then quickly removed and the prayer began.
By this time, nearly 100 lads and gentlemen were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, feet-to-feet uttering the name of Allah and going through their movements on the way to completing three rotations and finishing the prayer. It took roughly ten minutes.
As an observer of these happenings, I can but only offer that the energy in the space changed. Accustomed to being in sacred places the world over, I have come to appreciate each one, particularly when those present make a sincere effort to practice their practice, whatever that may be. Evidently, the members of this mosque were making the effort as there was a definite change in the feeling and the quieting of restlessness that accompanied their movements. I was not the least bit uncomfortable in my position as observer and it felt as though the members of the mosque were equally satisfied with my presence.
After the prayer, we moved to an outdoor patio area where mansaf was served. This is a traditional Jordanian dish and features white rice, roasted almonds, and quartered chicken served over very thin bread, almost the same thickness as a crepe. Over this is poured warm yogurt.
As a vegetarian, myself, I was allowed to bring my own “meal” – cashews, almonds, and pineapple juice for my iftar. As you might imagine, after fasting for 14 hours, the food is consumed rather quickly. In a matter of fifteen minutes, most of the members had eaten and were on their way to their respective homes.
However, a cadre of 10 or so, began to gather round to pry the Amriki (that’s me) with a number of questions. Would you like to know what they asked?
Mahmoud served as interpreter, and here is what he offered.
What do you think of Jordan?
Answer: I think it is a beautiful place with a rich history and magnificent landscapes.
What do you think of Jordanians?
Answer: I think they are an amazing people. Everything runs smoothly, however, until they are confronted with an obstacle. These is when they do one of three things—deny it exists, find the quickest way around it, or become incensed because it will not go away. (Not that this is unlike other cultures, of course, but this has been my observation. For example, a stop sign, in most neighborhoods, is approached at nearly full speed and the horn is honked two or three times as the driver passes through the stop sign. The only way to slow down this process is if an actual car is in the intersection blocking the path.
Were you afraid to come here tonight?
Answer: No, I was not afraid, not in the least.
Are you sure? You didn’t have any hesitations
Answer: Yes. I had no hesitations.
What do you think of Islam?
Answer: It is a living practice. (i.e. its value in one’s life is limited or manifested simply by the degree to which it is practiced throughout one’s life—much as any faith practice is)
Why do the Western media portray Islam in such a negative way?
Answer: Ignorance. I think they do not know any better. No one has taught them about Islam, nor do they seek to find out more. They simply write about it from the limited-to-no understanding that they have of the subject. (Obviously, Western media is in the business of selling fear, at least this is my perspective, and what sells, therefore, is what people are most afraid of and, of course, this means, at present anyway, Islam and Muslims.
What food do you eat as a vegetarian?
Answer: I make some of my own dishes including one of my favorite dishes—bananas, chickpeas, apples, tahini, and honey.
Have you ever made a dish you could not eat?
Answer: No, never.
What things do you practice that are similar to Islam?
Answer: I fast. I support charitable efforts. I hold that there is a single Infinite Power. These are the things I believe are in keeping with Islam
What do Americans think of Muslims?
Answer: I do not know. I can only speak to what I think. For me, my only barrier is the language.
This is not the entire list of questions, but I think you get the idea. They shared much with me. One gentleman, a black-belt in karate, no less, shared the reasoning behind some of the movements of the prayer they were practicing earlier in the evening—how it aligns the spine, opens the lungs to receive oxygen, and strengthens the heart.
The sincerity of the group was patent; so patent, in fact, that I have been invited to return. Wonder of Wonders!
Mahmoud and I went for a walk in his neighborhood after the engagement. He took me by his school and shared some stories of his childhood, what it was like growing up there—how the wall where he and some of the other boys used to sit became a place for staring and whistling at girls and so it was torn down. How the girls and boys are separated at a very young age to go to school in completely separate facilities. Although one can read about these things, having it expressed and shared through the vision of a Jordanian carries with it so much more than a Wikipedia page ever could.
It is premature to suggest that any ‘voluntourist’ could have the experience I am having here in Jordan. Living here, as I am, likely I am privy to things that a voluntourist would not be, unless such was incorporated into the experience somehow.
As it is, this is a good snapshot of my life at present. Ramadan is a difficult time for the physical form – very demanding on many levels. My mind works until noon, from my 3am starting time that is, and then loses its grip on cognitive processing until I take an afternoon siesta for an hour or two. Running is also a challenge, but I have been able to keep it up a couple of times a week. I have found that it is easier to run just prior to breaking the fast in the evening, rather than trying to wake up at 1am to get in a run before ‘sahour’.
I am hopeful that each of you may one day find your way to a place that is rooted in traditions that are truly ancient insofar as human history is concerned. Putting your hands on an olive tree that is 2500 years old; eating dates of so many types and varieties you cannot imagine such is possible; speaking with members of tribal communities who can trace their family trees back millennia ago. Whether it be here in Jordan or elsewhere, the experience is indescribable in its subtlety, albeit it can also have moments that are far from subtle.
Sitting with those Imams and members of the mosque, I felt as though I was communicating with time itself.
I will likely never fully apprehend what happened last evening. To be invited into a mosque, to break fast with members of that mosque during Ramadan, to be asked such questions, sincerely no less, and to be hosted in such a manner. I would venture to guess that no other Amriki has ever been treated in such a manner, at least in that neighborhood mosque. To suggest that the door was opened through VolunTourism, well, it might be a stretch; but it certainly didn’t hurt. And, I guess this is my philosophy: If you put service as the uppermost intention in the context of your travel engagement with the world around you, what unfolds cannot be imagined or expected. It can only be experienced.
David L. Clemmons is the founder, VolunTourism.org. Presently he is in Amman working the Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association.
Please Note: I am currently living in Amman. I may be unreachable by email for days at a time, so please keep this in mind if you are on a deadline for a project or article.by