"More than Mansaf" by Samantha Manno
Every Thursday, my hosts mom’s family gets together to share a huge meal. Thursday is the beginning of the weekend in Jordan, and it is quite the affair. Five of my host mom’s children and eight of her grandchildren attend, not to mention the other study abroad students who are staying with my host mom’s children. It is usually hosted at my homestay, though a few times we have gone to someone else’s house.
Thursday night dinners are one of my favorite times of the week. While a lot of people in our program plan on going out on the town, or shopping at the Friday Market (a huge outside market that sells everything from purses and bags to socks and scarves) my roommate and I always reply, “We can’t go, we have Thursday dinner!”
My host mom is an amazing cook. The food usually consists of a huge rice dish (my favorite) combined with meat, either chicken or beef. The sides always consist of a salad, and there is often fried cauliflower and a spinach dish. Sometimes, we’ll eat mansaf, the traditional dish of Jordan. Most of the time, the adults will sit at the table and eat. The children, including my roommate and me, sit in the front room.
After the meal, the whole family joins us in the front room smoking cigarettes and shisha, watching TV, and gossiping in Arabic. They genuinely enjoy each other’s company. While I usually just sit and listen, and my Arabic is not strong enough to join in the conversation, I do not feel weird or isolated. I feel like a part of the family, and I learn a lot in the process. Sometimes, someone will explain to me the joke that was just told or will help me decipher the Arabic sentences that pop up on the TV screen. They are content to teach me and I am eager to learn.
These dinners reflect to me a culture that is very different than that of the United States. The majority of my host mom’s family lives very close to her, all around Amman. She sees them nearly every day and of course every Thursday. My own family is scattered all around the continental United States. At the very best, I get to see them once a year. While I know this varies for American families, the sense of closeness felt at these family dinners in Amman is just something to which I’m not accustomed.
And the little cousins! They are bundles of endless energy. And they have so much FUN together. They can keep each other occupied for hours. It makes me think about how my childhood would have been different if I’d had my cousins so close to me, and I can’t help think how lucky these children are.
What’s the downside? While the focus on family is wonderful, there is less of an emphasis on privacy. Personally, I am someone who needs alone time to recharge and go on with my day. While my host family has been extremely respectful of me and my privacy and it hasn’t been a problem, I can tell that this concept is not emphasized as strongly in Jordanian culture. There is a much stronger sense of community then there is privacy, and it’s something I’ve been adjusting to. My host mom is extremely hospitable and loves entertaining people in her home. The family members stay for hours, and neighbors and friends come and go constantly. The neighborhood kids all play outside together. Jordanian hospitality is real and it is beautiful. I don’t think I would have enough energy to last through all of these interactions, but the friendships and relationships I have observed are kind and strong and it’s amazing to be part of it.