Letters to Home: A Kindness Undeserved
December 2, 2015
by Tim Plummer
At least once a week since I first arrived in Amman, I’ve been enthusiastically welcomed to the country. Sometimes it’s by my taxi driver, and sometimes it’s just some random man walking down the street. I’m sure my subpar Arabic helps to identify me as a foreigner in need of welcoming, but truly, I have never experienced anything on the level of Jordanian hospitality. Some days, I have to alter my route home to avoid Tareeq’s shop. If I pass in front of it, I can expect to be offered a cup of tea and a 30-minute conversation, and I don’t always have the time. Long before the current conflict began, Tareeq emigrated from Yemen, though eventually he hopes to go elsewhere, hopefully Singapore. He follows the millions who have gone before him in the pursuit of temporary safety here, though the vast majority have stayed in Jordan.
If courage is, as Hemingway once quipped, grace under pressure, then this country is nothing if not courageous. Jordan not only hosts millions of refugees dating back to 1948 (Syrian refugees are merely the latest iteration in a long history), but it is also one of most water-poor countries in the world. It lacks an industrial base, which of course is not helped by the dearth of natural resources. The country’s scarcity in combination with its recent population increases are best symbolized by Amman’s traffic jams or azma: a word that literally translates to “crisis.”
Outside of taxi drivers yelling or honking at anything that moves during traffic, complaints about Jordan's policy of accepting refugees, while they exist, remain relatively minimal. There seems to be a consensus that helping refugees is simply something that must be done, regardless of the very real security risk that Jordan accepts by allowing them in.
This past week, my host dad and I had a conversation about the 2005 bombings in Amman that struck three hotels and killed 60 innocent individuals. Incidentally, one of the hotels that was bombed can be seen from the roof of my house. He watched as the dozens of bodies were taken to ambulances. Discussing it, his eyes looked off into that long gaze of vivid remembrance. He laughs a bit when discussing his combat experience, but this memory haunts him.
Today, the bombings primarily live on in the form of enhanced security checks. The hotel near my house still checks every single car for explosives, while a different hotel built a separate building solely for security screening. Security in general is more visible here than in the United States — important government buildings and embassies frequently have armored cars with mounted weapons in front of them. Typically, these blend into the background, just another aspect of a country in a rough neighborhood. In the last several weeks, they’ve seemed more prominent, no doubt a result of recent events in Beirut, Paris, and elsewhere. While this necessarily adds to the tension that I have felt since I arrived, it has in no way minimized the compassion that is so characteristic of Jordan.
About two months ago, a friend and I were staying with a Bedouin family in the Jordanian badia, a rural region that looks eerily similar to much of the American Southwest. In a café late at night while watching my host brother and his cousins deeply immersed in a game of cards, my friend went to order another drink. Never have I seen men so focused on their game so quickly jump out of their chairs, all just to yell at him from across the café to prevent him from paying. The idea that a guest could pay for his own drink, even in an area renowned for its poverty, is simply untenable. The culture of hospitality, of welcome, cuts deep.
I remain floored by the kindness this country has shown to all who come. This country and its people have frequently paid a heavy price for others’ decisions, even though Jordan is not necessarily capable of paying that price. This has been felt in some way at every level of society. Even with pressure from nearly every side (physically as well as politically), an extraordinary generosity remains and even thrives.
The people of this country have so many reasons to be bitter, and yet when I walk out of my house tomorrow, I’ll probably be eagerly welcomed to Jordan once again. If I’m lucky, I’ll be offered tea. If I’m unlucky, I’ll be offered food and be expected to eat my daily caloric intake for a snack. Such is life in this beautiful country.