Two evenings ago, the night before my giant 2.5 hour Arabic midterm, my friend Rabia and I went to have Iftar with our language partner Hiba’s family.
If I was going to write a memoir or a book giving people advice here is the most important thing I would have to say:
Always go to Iftar, always go to Iftar in a Muslim country, and then be patient because Iftar is going to take a while.
We took a bus to an area of Amman called Marka where Hiba lives, took our shoes off at the door and then the most awesome cultural immersion I’ve had so far on this trip began. I had to speak so much Arabic to explain to this Palestinian family who I was, why I was studying Arabic, and then the biggest challenge — trying to understand their colloquial, coupled with their accents, coupled with trying to talk about spices and cooking in their kitchen.
They made a dish for us called Oozee, which was definitely the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in Jordan so far. While we waited for their mom and oldest sister to cook the food, I sat with them in their little kitchen and talked to them about studying Arabic and later studying engineering (the oldest daughter Mayzah is currently studying civil engineering), watching them broil chicken and steam peas and carrots and cook rice with a whole pepper in the pot. It is ridiculous how simple and humble Arabic cooking is but with skill and spices, the final product is an absolutely delicious surprise.
During the wait between getting to their house around 6pm and the time of Iftar (that day it was 7:50pm) we talked to all of Hiba’s sisters, from 24 year old Mayzah, to 7 year old Raghdan, and read story books for Arab 1st and 2nd graders with 10 year old Rooah who read faster than me and Rabia combined and with perfect pronunciation, asking us “Is it clear?” after we finished every page. We also met and nannied the youngest member of Hiba’s family, her uncle’s 3 month old daughter Lema who never cried and happily sat on anyone’s lap who wanted to play with her.
Very cool cultural note:
A lot of Arabic families live in either the same neighborhood, all right next to one another, or in Hiba’s case, in the same house. The family owns one large building where there are one or two apartments per floor. Hiba’s father was one out of 10 sons, so the building is populated by her uncles and their wives and their families. What I also learned that evening is that it’s very common for two sisters from one family to marry two brothers from another family.
It was really clear to me after that evening that family was by far the most important thing in the Arab world, and having your family close to you is the best support network that the Arabs really treasure. And having a big family (considered 6 children and up) is a very popular thing here.
In Arabic style, the plates were set up over a piece of rolled out plastic on the floor of the living room, and Rabia and I sat down with the two oldest sisters and their mother. We broke their fast by each eating one date, and then the feast began.
The Oozee that I only saw as a pot of rice, a pan of steamed vegetables and broiled chicken, was now in a giant bowl two feet across in a pile of beautiful, colored rice with vegetables, peanuts, almonds, arranged around chicken covered in a layer of spices that was almost scarlet. There were also bowls of cucumber tomato and mint salad, bowls of yogurt, flavored rice steamed in grape leaves, another bowl of grape leaves and rice brought as a gift by one of the other family members in their building, and other things that I just can’t remember the names of, as well as bowls of soup for everyone.
My plate was loaded up to the brim with Oozee, salad and yogurt, and that night I accomplished an amazing feat. I finished each plate of food I was given as a guest at an Arab household. I probably gained back most of the water weight I lost from the past month that night. The meal was absolutely delicious, which is what you tell the cook after every new dish you try, assuring her that the meal she cooked was out of this world.
We went back and sat in their living room, talking about our classes in Amman, learning Arabic, and other topics while Rooah read story books and riddle books to Rabia, stopping for our questions to ask about new words (I wouldn’t pass the Arabic second grade, guys).
After conversation, we each picked a piece of chocolate out of a box of French candy, then had a round of tea, then had a second round of drinks, where I had a kind of juice that is made especially and only for Ramadan out of rose water, and then we all had slices of cake, and finally, at 11:00 pm, we ate different kinds of Katayef, fried pastries shaped like half moons, some filled with nuts and honey, and others filled with cottage cheese and sesame seeds.
Around 11:30pm, one of Hiba’s uncles agreed to drive us back to where we live in Amman, which was another amazing favor done to us by their family.