Wast Al-balad; what a wondrous place. I strolled through the narrow, overstuffed streets and alleyways, keeping an eye out for pickpockets, and soaking in the sights, smells, and sounds of my new home for the next four months. It was my first week in Jordan. Any confidence I once had in my ability to speak and understand Arabic had already been shattered by the Jordanian who stamped my passport in the airport. Now I just resigned myself to the fact that I had no idea what was going on and attempted to act as if I knew exactly what was going on. “Just be cool and act like you belong” I thought to myself, “just blend in; you got this.” This calm assurance did not really help my nerves, but it seemed like right thing to do was convince myself that I had everything under control.
I was in downtown Jordan. I mean downtown downtown. The heart of the city in the country’s largest market which surrounds the nation’s central mosque, masjid Malik Hussein (King Hussein’s Mosque). My task: to find someone to talk to…for two hours…in Arabic. Needless to say, this was a little intimidating, partially because we focused our studies on Modern Standard Arabic, which is the formal Arabic largely used in written or presentation form only, and the Egyptian dialect, which is quite different from Jordanian, and partially because that was to become part of my daily homework for the semester. Two hours a day of conversing in Arabic with whoever I could find. Essentially, I was required to find friends. This was my purpose in coming to Wast Al-balad, to find somebody that would not mind chatting with an American who spoke very broken Arabic.
“I need a watch” I thought, “I will start there.” I found a makeshift table with a young man named Alaa’ sitting behind it. As I browsed the selection, I made small talk with him. He was genuinely impressed that I spoke ANY Arabic and soon invited me to sit with him behind the table so we could chat. I ended up staying for several hours; he bought me a Pepsi and endeavored to teach me the Jordanian dialect. He eagerly introduced me to all of his friends and associates as soon as they came near. He promised that the next time I came, he would give me the watch of my choice and that is precisely what happened. Every time I returned, I would have to practically fight him to let me buy HIM a soda or snack. He always insisted that I was HIS guest and he would treat me as such. This was the routine for our weekly visit.
This same type of experience repeated itself many times over. I cannot count the number of times I tried to pay for a good or service and was rejected saying that it was a gift. No amount of insisting would change their minds. I cannot count the number of invitations I received to enter friend’s homes for a full-fledged meal or for a simple snack and a bit of conversation. I was a guest in their country and they were going to be hospitable. End of story.
The moral of the story: In my experience in Jordan, friendship is often more important than turning a profit. They value friendship and they demonstrate that the relationship comes before anything else. I admit that this quality does not always manifest itself in my life back home, and I hope that is one thing I can change. Of course, some of the invitations are only offered to be polite and are not intended to be accepted, the vast majority of the invitations I have received have been very sincere. Frankly speaking, Jordanians are great hosts.