"What's Greater Than God?": Notes on Religion in Jordan

Friday, December 16, 2005 | Amman, Jordan (map)

A modernist mosque in downtown Amman.
Here in Jordan, just beside the Holy Land, religion is everywhere. Islam and spirituality pervade daily life. Discussing and reflecting on this theme has been particularly interesting while living with a Christian family in an almost entirely Muslim country. Living under the roof of a prominent Melkite Catholic priest who runs a center dedicated to promoting interfaith coexistence makes it even more interesting.

Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, provoked lots of conversations on faith. Despite not being Muslim or living with a Muslim family, I decided to fast for the full month, as I had done on my own last year at Georgetown.

The fasting was made more difficult by the Haddads' bewilderment at my decision. "But, wait... you're not Muslim. Why would you do that to yourself?" was my host siblings' reaction. I explained that, no, I was indeed not Muslim, but that I enjoyed the challenge of the experience, and the feeling of solidarity with everyone around me. (Well, everyone except of course for the small
Christian minority to which my host family belongs.)

In the long conversations that inevitably followed, I was surprised to learn how little my host siblings knew about Islam, even living in a country that is 98 percent Muslim. (For example, until I told him, my host brother Laith didn't know that Muslims face toward Mecca when they pray.) I've heard similarly shocking things in other conversations outside the house, like when an Afghan-American fellow student here told me that her host family says in full seriousness that Shias are "fire worshippers".

My host father, Fr. Nabil Haddad, and his coexistence center have their work cut out for them.

* * *

In other ways, people who grow up in a society so much more steeped in religion than our own have a certain religious sense that perhaps we have lost back in America.

"What's great than God, more evil than the devil, and if you eat it you'll die?" This is the famous riddle that circulates among MENSA types, internet chat room aficionados, and other nerds—the famous riddle so difficult that almost no adults can answer it correctly, but most children can.

Go figure, it doesn't translate.

In my never-ending quest to hone my Arabic by engaging my host siblings in conversation on any topic whatsoever, a few weeks ago I turned to jokes and riddles. But when I posed this one to my host brothers, Deeb and Laith, they responded immediately, "Nothing", then looked at me in puzzlement. "What's the joke?"

Rules of the Road: Jordan's highway department posts official signs informing motorists that "There is no God but God" and instructing them to "Praise God, Hallelujah!"
* * *

Two weeks ago, I came home to find my first Christmas lights in Jordan. The Haddads had put up a few on the house while we were at school.

I have to admit: I was very excited. Normally I can't stand the tacky excesses of the holiday season back in America, but something about being here in the Middle East makes that raw American commercialism, so distorted but so reminiscent of home, somehow appealing.

Coming home to Christmas lights was a much better surprise than the one I had a few days later. It was a Saturday, so I woke late. While Laith, Deeb, and my fellow American homestay student Hayden were still sleeping, I tiptoed from our rooms in the basement upstairs to the kitchen.

A sheep's head was sitting on the counter. The whole kitchen smelled of butchered meat.

Out the window I saw Sarah, the family's Indonesian maid, out in the driveway wiping at a wide pool of blood on the white tiles of the driveway.

Through her typical mixture of pidgin Arabic and hand gestures, Sarah explained to me that Father Nabil had bought a new Mercedes that morning. This, I was told, necessitated the sacrifice of a sheep, whose blood was wiped on the car's hood as a blessing.

"I must be dreaming," I muttered to myself. No longer hungry, I turned back downstairs toward my bed, wondering how a family that puts star- and candy-cane-shaped lights on the front of their house, in the most normal of Christmas season gestures, could also believe it sensible to sacrifice a sheep to bring godly blessings upon a car? Well, it's not like we don't have our share of contradictions back home.

Ye holy blood that doth blessed ye holy Mercedes.
* * *

Although it has taken some getting used to, living with the Haddads these last few months has been very rewarding.

One of my most important, and surprising, realizations from the experience is that even Christian families here in Jordan are supremely conservative. Even well into their 20s, Deeb and Laith live at home and don't look to be leaving anytime soon, never smoke in front of their father ("It would be an insult to him"), and still ask (and are occasionally denied) his permission to go out at night. Their sisters, Deena and Iman, wouldn't even dream of smoking or going out alone. And while I've tried hard to bond with my host brothers, I'm afraid to get too close to the sisters, which would mean certain death!

The Haddads' traditional outlook has gotten me wondering whether much of the conservatism that we attribute to Islam is not rooted in Arab culture more so than in the religion. Why else would a Christian family here be so old school? These are just some of the questions I have been pondering through my daily encounters with religion here in Jordan. As it draws to a close, I feel like I will be leaving with more questions than answers!

Shortly before Christmas, one family in my neighborhood has posted a Muslim star and crescent. Now I'm really confused.

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