Stop. Look. Listen.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” ~ Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It
I sat down on a bench in a park after returning to Amman from the Gaza camp late one night. It was a hot one that day, 95 degrees Fahrenheit. I was tired, and my body had that stale feeling of having had sweat constantly dripping down my back, legs, and neck for most of the day. It was a good tired though. I was waiting for a friend to meet me.
As I sat there waiting, I enjoyed the cool evening breeze. I was thankful that Amman is much like my hometown of Denver. However hot it is during the day, it will cool down to a pleasant temperature at night. As I waited, I looked around and took it all in. There were adolescent boys playing soccer. Shabab (young men), who were apparently artsy types, playing guitar with singing together. There were a few young ladies enjoying ice cream and two older men rubbing prayer beads in their hands.
A young mother sat down next to me with her 2-year-old son, the typical, adorable little Arab boy that I swoon over. Big brown eyes, olive skin, curly hair, and unbelievably long eyelashes. I just want to squeeze the crap out of all of them. She was unwrapping a lollipop that was about as big as her son’s head. He danced around her smiling until she handed it to him. He then ran into the middle of the park and smiled in delight while he started to consume his sticky treat. He spotted a couple with a dog -- somewhat uncommon to have dogs as pets in the Middle East, but gaining acceptance. He squealed with delight and ran toward the dog with the lolli waving in the air. He laughed and laughed and laughed.
I leaned over to the mother and said, “Mahdoom,” which means adorable or cute. She smiled back at me. This is one of my favorite things about the Middle East. They love to be outside and they love to be together. In Beirut, people flock to the corniche, a boardwalk lining the ocean that goes for a few kilometers. In the summer, you will see young, old, poor, rich, refugees and professionals, all enjoying the public space. People are eating ice cream, roasted corn, and fruit cocktails. Children are running up and down playing and people even rent bikes and bike the length of the boardwalk. It’s one of my favorite places in Beirut.
In Jordan, on a nice day, you can see people picnicking off the sides of road anywhere there is a tree or greenery. That’s how you know spring has arrived. And no one can put on a barbecue like Arabs -- kebabs, salads, fruit, and lots and lots of arguileh or as you know it, hookah. Finish it off with booza (ice cream). So much ice cream here, God bless them.
What I am learning is to slow down. Everything in Jordan is slow. The only way I can describe it is like running through molasses; you are exerting a great amount of energy and not really getting anywhere fast, but eventually you get things accomplished. It’s a slower society. You take the time to be with people and visit. Everything just takes longer here. Your evening dishes are washed by hand; dishwashers are for the elite who can afford them and the water and electricity it takes to run them. Washing machines are the European economic type, dryers are a luxury item as well.
Don’t get me started on traffic! While Jordan’s infrastructure is better than Lebanon’s, which is nonexistent, it’s a mess out there. Amman boasts a population of over 4 million people and they all seem to be on the road at the same time. Nothing rivals traffic in the Middle East. Nothing. And public transportation is also very time-consuming. You wait on the road to flag down a taxi -- this could be immediate or a 30 minute ordeal to find one willing to take you where you need to go. Again, Amman wins for better taxis than Beirut, but that isn't saying much, and for sure that doesn't mean taxis are enjoyable. More like a necessary evil. The bus system is something else as well -- no set times, and you have to wait for the bus to fill up with people before it leaves. This can take 5 minutes or hours, literally hours; one time I waited for 2 hours. Oh boy. Then you get to sit in traffic like everyone else.
What I am trying to say is life is not terribly efficient or convenient here. But, when I step back from my irritation or judgement about just how inefficient everything is, I start to notice things. I notice things about myself, such as efficiency and convenience being my top priorities, not necessarily the person in front of me. Is that an American thing? Is that a Suzann thing? Or is it a incredibly impatient combination of both?
I also become aware of what’s going on around me, always helpful in the Middle East. I slow down, notice people, and learn from them. Arabs are great teachers. Great teachers of patience. Ha! In reality, I have learned so much from them. Cooking, language, customs, hospitality, and a new appreciation of relationships. While my culture is a time-task focus, theirs is a people focus. You visit, you spend time together, you offer the best you have to your guests, you honor the person in front of you. It’s not terribly efficient or convenient and, trust me, very time consuming. But, now I’m not sure life was ever supposed to be efficient or convenient.
Maybe that’s the constant frustration with the modern world; it should just be easier. I think a lot about how much time I save in America and yet, I am so busy that I keep filling it with more stuff on my schedule. One hour coffee with someone after my one hour Pilates class before I fill the rest of my day with errands and then meet friends for a dinner that was planned a month ago. A typical day off. Sound familiar? All this time I have “saved,” I fill up with more tasks, more stuff to get accomplished.
What is so unusual about about the park bench in the story at the beginning is that, usually, if I have to wait for someone, I use the time to run an errand, or just get impatient (can you imagine that?) and frustrated about TIME being wasted. Instead, I am learning to lean into the culture of waiting and took the time to observe. That only took 13 years.
My friend arrived, and I told him about the cute little boy with the lolli. I walked away smiling, happy to be in Amman, and with a spring in my step. Connecting brings joy. I think about how lonely people are in my culture and wonder if it is the lack of connection with our neighbor. We can be so isolated with our technology and schedules. Especially in my state of Colorado, we are independent souls; we don’t need anyone to survive. We can do it all on our own. Yet, while this may be a strength, it also may be our greatest weakness. Because, the reality is we do need each other not just to survive but to thrive.
We need each other, and by “each other,” I mean everyone, including our global neighbors. Including those doing well, and those who are not. We need to give and we need to take. We need that dance. Which is what I love about the Middle East. I come to help but Arabs always end up receiving more from them than I give. It is sometimes hard to receive, especially when the generosity comes in refugee camps. But, once we receive from each other and give to each other, we are equals. No one is above and no one is below. We are friends. We are in that dance of relationship which brings us both dignity and joy.
If we could just slow down.