Three weeks have passed since my family and I moved back to the UK. We lived in Jordan for 7 years so the change is huge and I suspect it will be months before I can really articulate all that I’ve learned on this journey. But here are some of the things I can already say that I learned from living as an ‘ajnabi’ – a foreigner – in Jordan!
1) Relax: everything will work out in the end.
Living in the Middle East has a wonderful habit of putting you in situations where you’re not in control. Simple tasks like getting a visa stamp in your passport often require several trips to several different buildings, and almost always involve some unforeseen circumstances. Things rarely go according to plan. But over time I gradually began to learn that with a little bit of patience and with a sense of humour, things almost always worked out in the end. And just occasionally something good would even come out of the process – a new friendship made, a new part of town discovered etc – things that wouldn’t have happened if everything had gone the way I expected.
My Muslim friends taught me the saying ‘La takrahu shayan wa huwa khairun lakum’, which means ‘Don’t dislike something when it is good for you’ – a reminder of God’s ability to bring good things from hardship and in unexpected places. Sometimes it is good for us from the West, where everything is super-efficient and we are so in control of our lives, to have that control shaken and to see the good that comes our way as a result.
2) Don’t question the mansaf.
Every culture has certain untouchable passions, and in Jordan it was mansaf – a rice dish, served with meat and a yoghurty sauce. I got bored of talking about food with my English classes because when it was time to discuss their favourite dish there was only one answer – mansaf. I found that the only thing I could do was to work with the assumption that everyone loved mansaf and then discuss what kind of mansaf was best! Similarly with music, I don’t think I ever met a person who didn’t love the legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz. My few attempts to question these things did not go very well and were greeted with bemused expressions – probably similair to those I’d receive if I were to question strawberries and cream in England or Bob Marley in Jamaica. Perhaps when us foreigners discover these untouchable passions the best thing we can do is just embrace them and learn to love them too!
3) We’re more similair than we think. And more different.
As soon as I arrived in the Middle East I began to discover that ‘these Arab Muslims’ were more similair to ‘us’ than I thought. Like us, they laughed, and cried, and watched football and loved their families! Over time, and as relationships deepened, I was often surprised just how much we had in common in our beliefs too. Sometimes I would sit with friends and look at the Bible and the Quran together – reading the stories of prophets like Adam, Abraham and Jesus, and discovering that many of the stories were the same, and that we shared a common desire to know and follow God.
That is not to say that everything is the same, of course, but perhaps it takes us understanding what we have in common to discover the real differences between us, not the ones we imagined there were. On a cultural level, while it is true that we share many values because we are all human, it is also true that we have radically different views of the world around us. Similarly, there are important and perhaps irreconcilable differences in our beliefs about God, and we mustn’t pretend that these don’t exist. But when we first understand and acknowledge what we share in common we can have relationships that are able to hold the weight of those differences and real conversations about them, and I found those conversations incredibly helpful and rewarding.
4) Helping people is complicated.
At various times in Jordan we tried to do simple things to help people in need, just as we would if we were living in England. Working alongside our Jordanian friends, we gave food to the poor, visited children with special needs, painted walls in refugee camps, and distributed simple supplies to refugees fleeing the turmoil in Syria.
The reason I mention this is that, while there were some occasions where it was fulfilling and we had great fun, there were also plenty of times when it didn’t go very well at all! We were surprised when people weren’t as grateful as we thought they’d be. We felt upset by those who took more than their fair share or who played the system. We were disappointed when we learned that the children’s home we’d been volunteering at had been covering up physical abuse of the children.
Sometimes things went badly because we got it all wrong – failing to understand the social undercurrents of what we were doing, and actually dishonouring or hurting people’s dignity by giving handouts. Sometimes we unintentionally reinforced the power-gap between us and those we wanted to help.
Perhaps it also just reflects a reality – helping people is complicated. Messy. Frustrating. Maybe having this awareness and expectation might help us be more effective in the future, thinking more carefully about how to help in ways that are sustainable, and being less upset when things don’t go the way we planned. But these challenges don’t affect the responsibility we all have to help those in need and mustn’t stop us doing it. So Rawan, Zaid, Luay, Sue and other friends who serve in so many ways… keep doing what you do. You are an example to me and to others!