Chicken, Rice, and Everything Nice

Goodness gracious this rice is hot, I think to myself as I plunge my hand into the center of the heaping dish. The steaming chicken juice stings me, but the rice has a warm softness that’s surprisingly soothing, and I linger for a second, wishing that I’d had the chance to wash my hands. I pull my hand back out again holding a handful of moist rice, and I look across at my host, who’s done the same and is now working the rice it into a nice, neat ball. I try to mimic him, and then, when it comes time to plop the golf ball sized clump into my mouth, I fail miserably and make a mess on the floor. We both laugh, and then we head back to the plate in search of some chicken. This is mansaf, Jordanian cooking at its finest.

I first met my host last weekend in Amman. I was loitering outside a bustling mosque during Friday prayers, waiting to talk to the young men when they emerged to get a better sense of the political currents in the city. Stopping at a fruit stand, I met a man named Suhel selling grapes and tomatoes from his farm. He was about middle aged, he spoke far too fast for me to understand everything, and most importantly, he invited me to his village outside of Irbid to see his house and eat mansaf. Of course, this is an invitation that Jordanians love to give foreigners, but this time, I decided to take him up on it. He was nice, I was getting a bit tired of felafel, and I really wanted to see life in a small Jordanian village.

The village of Burma lies about twenty minutes down a curving road from the ancient city of Jerash, near Irbid. The village is set in the foothills of Northern Jordan, where views of pine groves and expansive forests offer a welcome respite from the sparse landscape near Amman and Irbid. There’s not much to the place other than a paved road, a few dirt roads, and a few dozen houses. Driving through, it’s hard to tell which of the concrete houses are completed and which are half finished; it’s only on arriving at Suhel’s house that I realize all of them are lived in. Suhel’s house sits where the dirt road abruptly terminates at a solid rock exposure, and there, nestled on a ledge on the steep hillside, is a concrete dwelling that is home to Suhel’s family and that of his brother. Surrounding the house are olive trees, fruit trees, ducks, chickens, goats, and a few young children. Disappointingly, the strange white man with broken Arabic scares the daylights out of the kids and the ducks alike.

Suhel and I sit for two hours in his living room, sparsely furnished like so many others in the region with foam floor cushions and a TV. We sit and talk about everything: our families, our work, our hopes for the future. He’s especially interested in getting a visa to America. Do I know how to get him an American visa? he wants to know. How about taking a second American wife to get citizenship? Are there any single girls in my language program here in Jordan? We discuss immigration, citizenship, cross cultural marriage, polygamy, and a whole host of other topics that they never taught us about in Arabic class, but we make it through okay. (I do my very best to make it clear that chasing American girls around Jordan is not a good route to getting a visa.) We have our laughs, I learn new vocab, and Suhel has a good time too. He talks to at least four people on the phone during my visit; I don’t catch all of what he’s saying, but he happily tells each one that he has an American at his house. I feel honored.

The mansaf, as described, is fantastic. In traditional fashion, his wife and daughters who cooked the meal stay in the kitchen the entire visit; but a few times I catch the young girls peeking their heads around the doorframe to get a peak at the foreigner. One of the hardest things for me to adjust to in the Middle East is eating meals at people’s homes and not being able to thank, or even meet the woman who labored to make the food, but that’s how it is here, so I ask Suhel to kindly thank “the cook” for me.

After the meal, we wander a bit more before leaving the village. Of course, it’s been a short time here, but I see a lot. Young guys playing soccer peacefully in a grove of olive trees, piles of appliances stacked up in people’s front yards, chickens walking through the house, satelline dishes on roofs, children walking home from school, and a massive cooking operation for a funeral for a prominent woman down the road. I don’t see many cars, I don’t see soap in the outhouse, and I don’t see kids in an internet cafe. I’m not trying to make a point with these observations.

Because this is a visit for learning. Learning about the fabric of Jordanian society at the most basic level. Despite the SUVs and high rises that grace the Amman city center, the rural village is still the basic unit of the Jordanian economy, and for me, this is the place where I can start understanding the country.

Suhel and I part with a warm handshake and smile. Come again when you’re hungry again. Mmm. Good deal. I’ll keep that in mind.

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