It’s 5 pm and I am sitting in my living room being serenaded by the call of the mu’addin (Arabic) or muezzin (Turkish) (meaning crier or announcer) calling the faithful to prayer at a nearby mosque. It’s a sad sound – he always sounds like he is in mourning. In a moment, he will be joined by many other criers all over the city, all of whom sound equally depressed. I suppose it is the Arabic expression of reverence.
I’m not certain of the exact requirements, but Shari’a law requires one mosque for every certain number of people and/or a particular area. There are said to be 6,000 mosques in Jordan (all of which are being set up to run on solar power)! [1} So there are many mosques in Aqaba, and each one must maintain the call to prayer at each of the five designated hours: near dawn [fajr]; after midday has passed and the sun starts to tilt downwards / Noon [zuhr or ẓuhr]; in the afternoon [asr]; just after sunset [maghrib]; and around nightfall [Isha].
The calls are broadcast over loudspeakers attached to the tops of the minarets, and each is set to throw its sound a long way. For a long time, we were awakened each morning around 4:30 or 5 AM by the ‘wake up call’ followed a half hour later by the actual call to prayer. We’re finally getting to the point that we don’t hear it any more! Now if we can just get the local rooster to stop crowing….!
I kind of expected to see every male in town drop to his knees on his prayer mat when the calls sounded, but many men seem to ignore the calls. Perhaps they are Christians. I don’t see pedestrians carrying prayer mats around, either, although yesterday a friend saw a man pull his car over to the side of the road, take a prayer mat out of his trunk and kneel in prayer. About 15 minutes before the calls are expected, cars and pedestrians begin arriving at the mosques – it can create quite a traffic jam!
A few days ago, we stopped at the candy-nut-and-coffee-bean counter in the supermarket and had to wait about five minutes while the attendant knelt on his prayer mat behind the counter and said his prayers. His female assistant stood by watching – perhaps women are not expected to participate? I am still not very clear on that. I do know that there are only limited areas to which females are given access in a mosque, and when you drive by a mosque at prayer time, you will see ONLY men.
One day at a local restaurant, I noticed that our waiter had a black “ashy” looking mark on his forehead. Later I asked our cabbie if that was a religious mark – I was thinking of the way that, in some religions, the priest marks the forehead with ash on special occasions. The cabbie’s answer surprised me. He told me that men with that mark on their foreheads are particularly holy men – they pray so much and touch their foreheads to the ground so many times that they actually end up getting dirt and gravel embedded in their foreheads! Such men are greatly admired.
Jordan is notable in that there is religious freedom here, so there are a number of Christian churches of varying denominations in Aqaba. Some of the Christian population here is made up of people who have fled other Anti-Christian nations. It is very common that the Christians are descendants of families that have been Christian since the first or second century, and they are intensely proud of their heritage.
MEN: WHAT TO WEAR
Most of the men in town dress in western style – jeans, shorts, business suits, whatever. However, it is not at all uncommon to see a man in western dress also wearing an Arab headdress called a shemagh (the specifically Jordanian headdress) or a keffiyeh / kuffiyeh (the general name for these types of Arabic cloth headdresses) like the one in the photo below.
Men in shorts are NOT permitted in any government building. Both local and western men are expected to demonstrate respect when dealing with the government or a religious institution and should always wear more formal clothing at those times.
Many of the older local men still dress in traditional style, usually in a long white, gray, black or brown caftan that is spotlessly clean and starched and buttoned up tightly around the neck. They, too, usually wear the shemagh.
The older men usually wear a suit coat over their caftan. The kuffiyot most commonly seen are like the red one seen here (which is a Jordanian shemagh), or a white one with red trim, or a white one with black trim.
Wikipedia says: “In Jordan, the red-and-white keffiyeh [Aqabawis pronounce the word as kuffiyeh] is strongly associated with the country and its heritage, where it is known as the shemagh mhadab. The Jordanian keffiyeh has decorative cotton or wool tassels on the sides; the bigger these tassels, the greater the garment’s supposed value and the status of the person wearing it. It has long been worn by Bedouins and villagers and used as a symbol of honor and/or tribal identification. The tasseled red-and-white Jordanian shemagh is much thicker than the untasseled red-and-white shemagh seen in Persian Gulf countries.”
This gentleman’s black and white keffiyeh is seen less often in Aqaba, but we do see it once in a while. Wikipedia mentions that the black and white is usually identified with Palestinians, of whom there are quite a few in Aqaba.
On the corner of our street is a shop that sells chai (tea, pronounced SHY) and coffee. It also sells gasoline (petrol) from gas cans rather than from a pump. Very often, groups of men just like this will be seen outside the shop, chatting, smoking, drinking chai and enjoying their day. Similar scenes appear all over the city, during the day and especially at night, the favorite time for not only for socializing but also for conducting business. The gentleman on the far right is dressed in the striking white costume often seen on the streets. Under more formal circumstances, his collar would be carefully buttoned.
Aqabawi girls are truly gorgeous! I have yet to see a homely Arabic girl in this town! However, they seem to age rather quickly, so that by their thirties they are often much chubbier and look pretty worn and tired. I think they must work pretty hard. Most of the women do not have outside jobs, but are housewives and mothers. I have only seen very young women working in jobs, and in my limited experience, those positions have been limited to the banks, grocery stores, the hospital, and a few offices. We also met a lovely young girl who is now at college – paid for by the government – studying to be a gynecologist. The small shops are almost exclusively tended by men.
The ladies of Aqaba come in a huge variety of dress styles. No doubt each style signals something meaningful to other locals, but I have not yet figured out the signals – I suspect they are related to the women’s religion and ‘denomination.’
They seem to have no trouble socializing together despite their clothing differences. Very often I will see several women walking together, and in the group one lady might be in completely western dress and full makeup; another in western dress (maybe even skinny jeans and heels) but nevertheless wearing a hijab (headscarf); with yet another lady in a modified burka (called a chador) with her face exposed; and one in full burka, completely covered.
In the group above shown at the Red Sea, the style of dress ranges from full burka (even in the water!), to a caftan and hijab (with face exposed), to a lady in full western dress – but they are all friends and are at the beach together.
In the photo above, one lady is dressed in the local modest coat and a hijab, but she is also wearing western jeans, while the other lady is dressed more traditionally. Behind them is another group of ladies, including one in full burka while the others are wearing coats and hijabs. Although they all looked ‘bundled up’ for cold weather, this photo could just as easily have been taken in the hottest part of the summer – women’s clothing requirements stay pretty much the same no matter the temperature.
The long coats, chadors and burkas are slipped on before a lady leaves her home. Beneath the burkas and long coats worn in public are usually western jeans and other western style clothing, but some of the ladies are true traditionalists and wear Arabic gowns at home, too.
Black is by far the most common color, but colorful caftans, coats and hijabs are also seen all the time. The working girls dress very elegantly with carefully coordinated outfits embellished with jewelry.
Most of the Muslim ladies wear a headdress of some type, usually a hijab, which tends to be two or more pretty scarves color-coordinated to their outfit, arranged ‘just so,’ and framing the face in a very attractive manner. No hair whatever is allowed to show.
I recently learned that head coverings are NOT required by the Qu’ran – they began being adopted in the 1970’s when Iraq became radicalized. Although many Muslim women welcome the various types of religious dress (including full chador/burka) as a way of demonstrating their faith, many other Muslim women see these coverings as unnecessary, uncomfortable and even offensive to womanhood, and still refuse to wear them if local law allows them that freedom.
WOMEN – WHAT TO WEAR
Western ladies need to be careful of the message they send with their appearance, or they risk harassment.
- Spaghetti straps and shorts look like underwear to Jordanians and are perceived as an open invitation to sex.
- Arms should be modestly covered at least to the mid-upper arm and preferably to the mid-lower arm or even to the wrist.
- Jeans and slacks are quite acceptable, but skinny jeans are also perceived as flirtatious, particularly when paired with heels.
- Skirts should come at least below the knee or lower. (Most of the ladies in our community wear ankle-length skirts or slacks.)
- Makeup is common among Jordanian women, but is applied modestly. Bright red lips paired with heavy eye makeup and rouge sends an unsavory message.
- Local women always keep their hair covered, but they are accustomed to seeing western women with their hair exposed and don’t seem to think badly of us. However, we have been told that when traveling in the remoter areas, it is a good idea for western women to keep their hair covered.
- Local women do not wear their hair down except at home – loose hair is seen as a ‘bedroom’ thing. I have long hair and wear it down, but so far no one has made any comment or objection. I hope to figure out a way to wear it ‘up’ – it would be much more comfortable that way during the hot summer months!
- Ultimately, it’s helpful to remember that it’s all a matter of perspective!
MALE AND FEMALE MADE HE THEM
In public, it’s considered rude and ‘forward’ for a woman to speak to a strange man for anything other than business purposes. A Christian Arab will shake hands with a woman when he greets her or completes business with her, but a Muslim man will not do so. He may modestly offer his (covered) wrist for the woman to grasp if needed, but nothing more than that.
On the streets, women try not to make eye contact with men, and drop their eyes quickly when eye contact is inadvertently made. Although it is not so common here in ‘sophisticated’ Aqaba, I am told that in more traditional areas, a woman will always walk a few feet behind her menfolk.
I have also regularly noticed that the men here expect women to do all the carrying. The other day I watched a father and his young daughter (between 10 and 12 years old) leaving the grocery store with quite a few bags. Father carefully loaded all the bags on the arms of his little girl and then strode off while she tried to keep up! (Thankfully we can be pretty sure that the girl was his daughter. Girls under the age of 15 cannot legally be married in Jordan. )
Manners are of the utmost importance here because personal honor is highly valued. People are careful in their behavior and in the way they phrase their statements, so that they will not convey the wrong message or inadvertently insult their listener.
For example, an American friend of ours purchased a computer that was sold as new, but which, upon being set up, appeared to have been previously used, since some programs had been installed that would normally (in America) only have been installed by a private user. Our friend wasn’t sure how to resolve her dilemma, because Arab stores do not generally accept returns or give refunds – they perceive even the REQUEST for such an action as a terrible insult, which from their perspective implies that they have been guilty of some sort of dishonesty.
Our friend wisely called an Arab friend and together they visited the store. Just as wisely, she allowed her Arab friend to take the lead. He was able to convey the situation in a such polite way that it cast no aspersions of guilt on the store. That allowed the store owner the freedom to make his own investigation. It turned out that the store had been honest and had sold a new, but modified, computer. It had been modified because, here in Aqaba, many people will not purchase a computer unless certain programs have already been installed, so it is the local custom for each store to install these programs before they offer the new computer for sale. Dilemma resolved: our friend was reassured of the value of her purchase, and the store was given the opportunity to demonstrate (to its great honor) that it had gone to great lengths to serve its customers well. 🙂 All parties were happy and no insult taken.
IN THE HOME
Manners are very important when visiting in homes, as well. The host and hostess will always offer their guests all sorts of ‘royal treatment.’ When a valued visitor arrives, the host will first serve a round of juice. When that is finished, a round of chai will be served – made from fresh herbs, if available, and the herbs will still be in the cup. (Last night we were served some fresh herb tea made by our Arab host, and it was absolutely delicious!) After the tea, the host will serve a round of coffee – usually Turkish coffee flavored with cardamom. (If the tea and coffee are served by Bedouin folks or by folks with an eye for tradition, the beverages will be extremely sweet.)
There are signals to let the host know if you would like more of a beverage: if you shake your cup, he/she knows that you don’t want any more, but if you hold the cup out, then he/she will refill it until the pot is empty and then go make another pot!
If they really like you or if you have a lot of wasta (social influence), they will also serve cookies or pastries, usually the sesame-pistachio cookies pictured here. Everything is served formally using beautiful trays and cups. The visitor’s part is to graciously accept all that is offered – one cup of each beverage and one cookie is sufficient to satisfy the requirements of courtesy.
The worst thing you can do as a guest or a host is to make the soles of your feet visible to the rest of the party! This is an insult of the highest degree. (As you can imagine, recliners are few and far between in Aqaba!!) It’s hard to believe that President Obama, a person who was raised in the Middle East, didn’t understand the gravity of what he was doing when he was photographed speaking to Netanyahu with his feet up on his desk. In the States, people objected to the historic desk “Resolute” being treated so cavalierly, but in the Middle East, a clear message was received regarding the President’s attitude toward Netanyahu: “I have nothing but disdain for you.”
Jordanians put Americans to shame when it comes to kindness and hospitality. They will always go far out of their way to assist even a complete stranger. They see it as a matter of honor.
If you go into a shop and conduct any business, you may be offered chai or coffee or both. If they like you, they may offer cookies, too. Be sure to accept, as a mark of courtesy.
When you visit in a Jordanian home, your hosts will make you feel like visiting royalty and may even announce that you are henceforth and forever their friend (or family!) and always welcome in their home. This is a huge compliment (not often offered), and they MEAN it!
Be careful not to admire anything in particular on their person or in their home, or they will insist on giving it to you. You can say, “Oh, what a lovely home you have,” but don’t admire the vase on the table or you may end up taking it home with you!
If you’re lost and ask directions, a Jordanian will often drop whatever they’re doing and personally lead you to your destination. Friends report that they have had Jordanians – complete strangers – hire a cab for them and pay the fare in the attempt to help them!
If you make any attempt to speak Arabic, they will be thrilled and will do everything in their power to please and help you.
On the other hand, they love to practice their English. Whenever I nod and greet a Jordanian lady at the grocery store or on the street, almost always she will smile shyly and respond in English. Many have stopped to chat and have been very welcoming and friendly. (Ex-pats you meet in the stores are always happy to chat, too.) Of course the mothers love it when we ooh and ahh over their children – which is easy to do, because they are so cute!
In other words, Jordanian people are very generous, kind and considerate people in almost every way! I say ‘almost’ only because there are cultural differences. From their perspective they are ALWAYS kind and considerate, but from ours they might miss out on one or two finer points of American-style courtesy.
The Arab World Runs on WASTA
“Wasta” is social influence. Here’s how it works.
Let’s say that Uncle Mohammed is a mechanic at a garage. His nephew Said (sah-EED) is in an accident and needs his car repaired. Normally it might take a couple weeks to get the parts from Amman and have the car fully repaired, but Said has wasta with Uncle Mohammed. Uncle Mohammed makes sure that Said’s car gets fixed first, even using parts that were originally ordered for another customer. (Said will pay for the parts – the other customer without wasta will just have to wait for them to be re-ordered.) Uncle Mohammed’s boss is fine with this, so long as the other customer doesn’t have MORE wasta than Said.
See how it works?
Of course, as believers, we DO have incredible wasta, because we know Abba. That’s why He keeps putting us in contact with just the right people at just the right time. Praise Him!
We live just around the corner from a wedding supply company. They specialize in renting the metal frameworks used to create outdoor party rooms. The framework is stuck into the bare dusty ground in front of the groom’s home or in a vacant lot. It will be hung with flashing colored lights and colored sheets of plastic stretched over the framework in decorative patterns (unless the room is meant to accommodate a funeral, in which case all the lights and decorations will be in white). This is the area where all the men will gather to celebrate, while the women gather in the house for their own party.
The Muslim holy day is Friday, so weddings are generally (but not always) held on Thursdays. At the wedding, a menu determined by local custom will be served, usually consisting of finger foods. Wealthier families will offer full meals for several days in a row! There will be live music, of course, and the men will dance. At some point, fire works will be shot off!! (We get to see fireworks almost every week here!) And, if the groom doesn’t keep a close eye on his guests, one or two of them may illegally shoot off a few celebratory rounds from their rifles. If their shenanigans get reported to the police, the GROOM will go to jail on his wedding night!
Apparently the white wedding gown of the West has become the garment of choice for Aqabawi brides, but they still observe the Middle Eastern custom of decorating their hands, arms and feet with henna designs.
The designs range from very simple and small to very elaborate and large.
A local friend gave me some interesting information about marriage in Jordan. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but he seemed quite sure of himself. He says that the divorce rate in Jordan is the highest in the world! Why? Because, he says, the girls are impossible to keep happy – “they want everything” and they want it now! According to him, they nag the men ceaselessly.
He explained that getting married is an expensive and shaky proposition. Basically the young man must provide a pretty big bride price (it is paid to the bride), and then he pays for the wedding as well. Marriages are arranged and are based on education and wealth rather than on love. The couple usually do not know each other well except that they may have known each other as very young children. (Once they reach about 8-10 years of age, boys and girls are generally kept carefully apart.)
He says that more and more Aqabawi girls are refusing to marry, preferring to work and provide for themselves. As I thought about it from the girls’ perspective, it seemed pretty easy to understand why they might prefer to avoid marriage, or if they DO marry, why they might be demanding of material things from their husbands. These girls clearly understand that they are being sold to the highest bidders. Once married, they have essentially no rights under Shari’a law. They quite literally live to serve and bear children. They are the property of their husbands. A natural response would be to want payment for services rendered – thus the emphasis on material goods.
An intelligent girl who stays single and provides for herself can, under Shariah law, have certain rights and privileges that are otherwise unavailable to her. She will face discrimination for being single and will be suspected of being ‘impure’ and ‘loose’, but apparently many girls are willing to accept that discrimination – at least for a while.
Our friend has been married and divorced. He is adamant that if he ever marries again, it will NOT be to an Arab girl and it WILL be for love! Lesson learned!
This isn’t America!!!! The secret to happiness here is understanding and accepting that Jordanians do things THEIR way, not the American way. Sometimes their way seems really strange to us, but sometimes their way is much better!! Our approach is to accept their ways and pray through each experience, asking Abba to give us the wisdom and discernment to bring from each experience the blessing that He intends for each party involved.
We love it here and are enjoying every minute!
 Article: All 6,000 Mosques in Jordan to Run on Solar Energy
© Sue Wyatt and The Lamb’s Servant Blog, 2016. Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Lamb’s Servant Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Wyatt and The Lamb’s Servant Blog, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.