An American finds a home in Middle East

April 23, 2006|By JUSTIN MARTIN

AMMAN, JORDAN -- For the last seven months, I've been living in Jordan, where, after a brief vacation to Budapest and Istanbul, I recently returned. As my ears popped and the midnight plane descended toward the lights of the Jordanian capital, I experienced the common, calming sentiment all travelers feel when they reach home. Somewhat weary from living out of suitcases, I was looking forward to putting down my bags and resting my feet in my apartment.

Jordan had become my home. Little-known by Westerners and many Europeans, Jordan is known throughout the Middle East for its unwavering hospitality, and this spirit of inclusion has allowed me to build a life here. Until leaving Jordan for a brief vacation in Eastern Europe, I didn't know just how at home the country made me feel.

While my migration to the Middle East has, at one time or another, stirred every stressful and anxious emotion, the welcoming spirit of the Jordanian people has helped calm feelings of expatriate unrest.

On a camping trip in northern Jordan near the Syrian border, for example, some American friends and I became lost and found ourselves on the farm of a Jordanian family of nine. Preparing to sit down to eat, our unflinching hosts immediately served us tea and demanded we stay for a while, and for dinner. To not invite new acquaintances into one's home is an affront in the Arab world, and Jordanians keep this rule unbendingly.

After a meal of chicken, lamb, hummus, baba ganoush, tabbouleh and other Middle Eastern staples, the family insisted we stay for desserts of fresh fruit - pomegranates, grapes, bananas, oranges and melons - that we picked from their orchards and fields.

Conversation in broken Arabic and English flowed into the night, along with dozens of cups of Arabic coffee and tea. We were invited to stay the night on their farm, which we did in their cool fields with our camping gear. In the morning, we were awakened to a home-cooked Middle Eastern breakfast.

It is Jordanian families such as this one - and they are legion - that make me feel less removed from my friends and family continents away.

In November, I felt worlds away from home when Islamic suicide bombers killed more than 60 people in three Amman hotels - one of them within walking distance of my apartment. But as my new city absorbed the blood of these attacks, Jordanians took to the streets by the tens of thousands, vilifying al-Qaida's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is Jordanian, and anyone siding with him.

At one such demonstration at Amman's University of Jordan, I was swept up in a crowd of young students who were frantically waving Jordanian flags and banners demanding peace. One young man took me by the hand, raising both his hand and mine, and encouraged me to recite with him "Al-Urdon Akbar min al-Irhabeen," Arabic for "Jordan is greater than the terrorists."

By grabbing my hand and asking me to shout for peace, this young man sent me a message: I won't tolerate violence in our country, and I want you to help me.

On my recent trip to Hungary and Turkey, I tried to iterate this degree of Jordanian inclusion to Western business travelers and tourists, who constantly asked me what it was like to be an American living in the Middle East. "You're a writer," they asked. "Don't Arabs dislike your political world view?"

Most often, the answer is yes. Sometimes Jordanians and I can barely agree on the time, much less precursors to current events. But my discussions, however charged and spirited, always end with a handshake and "Ma Salaama," Arabic for "go with peace."

After an argument about Iran's nuclear ambitions and Western reprisals, a Jordanian professor of Arabic told me, "We may never agree, but the most important thing is the discussion. We must have the discussion." I've received similar invitations to tolerance from taxi drivers and street merchants.

As my plane touched down in Amman, I was glad to be returning for more discussion. I was glad to be back in a country that has welcomed me as one of its own with no questions asked. I was glad to be back home.

Justin Martin, 25, is an American Fulbright scholar living in Jordan and a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His e-mail is martinjd@email.unc.edu.

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