If there was any one word I would come to hear a thousand times in 10 days it was welcome. In fact, it is the word I think of first when I think of Jordan. I guess I remember it because other than being printed on doormats or hotel signs, welcome isn’t really a word we use much other than in the context of “You’re welcome, ” our semi-conscious auto-pilot response to “Thank you.”
While it was certainly explicit in conversations, it was also so apparent in people’s actions. It was everywhere, from the father and grandfather who offered to share tea with me during their child’s surgery, or the mother who brought gifts of prayer beads and the Koran as thanks for our help. It was the little girl who slipped her ring onto my finger while we played in the playroom, and the many compliments and “mashallah”s of of the mothers as they saw the pictures of my own children as we talked before their children’s surgeries. It was the in the “What can I do to help you?” and “Anything else you need?” I heard from dozens of volunteers each day. It was even evident in the waiter who brought me an extra half a kilo of ice cream (in addition to the 1 kilo I ordered—which was already an outrageous amount) just to be hospitable. Not to mention, the invitations for dinner from parents or the medical students who treated us to dinner and gave us a tour of Amman. The spirit of welcomeness seemed to saturate the week and a half; it also permeated our communal meals of endless courses and generous portions.
I think what makes the lesson even more interesting is that I knew these people could have looked at me—a tall, blond, American—and made lots of assumptions about me based on the atrocious and trashy examples of American women in Western media. Or judged me based on my appearance or evident religious differences. While quite modest by American standards, I would not be considered as modest by middle-Eastern standards, and I don’t wear a headscarf. Even women fully veiled did not treat me with any hint of disapproval. If they had any preconceptions or judgments about me there was no evidence of this. Instead, I was only greeted with many smiles, compliments, and gestures of kindness.
Every place I travel I look for lessons, to let myself be changed by the experience. I certainly learned something in Jordan. In an ever cynical and sarcastic world, it was refreshing to be somewhere more genuine. To embrace this concept of hospitality, something that is not such a big part of our culture. We tend to be reserved, we often just expect everyone to conform to our casualness, and we don’t often go out of our way to be welcoming, especially when people are different or unfamiliar.
Ten days later, as I presented my passport upon exit, a different man smiled back and most sincerely said, “You are always welcome in Jordan.” I stepped back on a plane to New York with the taste of fresh lemon(ade) with mint still in my mouth and the spirit of welcomeness in my heart.
Is American hospitality dead? What have you learned from the hospitality of others? What meaningful experiences with hospitality have you had? How do you create a culture of hospitality in your home?