A Real Feast – In More Ways Than One!

On Friday night we rented out a function room at Piccadilly Restaurant in Bristol and threw a party. But this was a party with a difference.. it was Bristol’s first ever Peace Feast!

A Peace Feast is a very simple concept. People from different communities in the city come together to share a meal and get to know each other. That’s it. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not going to solve all of the world’s problems – but it’s not a bad place to start! Bridges for Communities adopted the idea of Peace Feasts from Peace Catalyst in the United States, and the idea has really caught on in Cardiff this year. But we really didn’t know how it would go here in our new city. Would anyone catch the vision? Would anyone pay for a night out with people they’d never met before?

We needn’t have worried. 30 people showed up. People from the Muslim community – Saudis, Pakistanis, Syrians, and Brits – friends from Severn Vineyard church, and other individuals who had heard about the event and were just curious. We enjoyed a 3-course Indian meal together (including samosas that had us all reaching for water and wiping away the tears!), and Rizwan Ahmed from the Bristol Muslim Cultural Society gave a fantastic presentation about why the Hajj and Eid Al Adha are so significant to Muslims. But I think for me the highlight was simply looking around the room and listening to the buzz of conversation. I realised again that there are not many things I enjoy more than seeing people from different backgrounds and walks of life engaging for the first time, getting to know each other as people, and enjoying an environment that enables them to be real about both the things that they agree on and those that they see differently. One participant said afterwards, “I finally got to ask a Muslim all the questions that I’ve always wanted to ask!” Another said, “If I hadn’t come tonight I would have just kept living with the same misconceptions about Christians.” For me that makes it an evening well spent.

“But wait a minute,” I hear you say. “Is it really necessary to have a ‘Peace Feast’ in a city like Bristol? Last time I checked, there weren’t any wars going on there!” True, there may not be major problems between the different communities in the city, but that isn’t to say that all is well either. As Rick Love says, ‘Peace is not just the absence of conflict. It’s the presence of harmony’. In other words, we don’t really live at peace with one another until we actually have relationship, and that’s where there is still lots of work to be done. So here’s to many more Peace Feasts in the future. And next time we’ll make sure the samosas are not quite as hot!

To see more photos and feedback from those that attended, visit www.peacefeast.org.uk

To hear about future events or explore holding a Peace Feast in your area, join the facebook group: http://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/306287869422732/

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Reasons to Love England

Someone once told me a good way to adjust when you’ve moved to a new country is to look for all the positives about your new ‘home’. It doesn’t matter how small and mundane those things are, and it won’t stop you from missing where you came from, but the practice of gratefulness can really change our outlook on things. So, a little while ago I set out to share some of the reasons I was enjoying being back in England and began posting them on Facebook. Here’s my list of reasons I am grateful to be living here!

1: Green hills and dramatic skies – the Brits love complaining about the rain, but one of the positives of having so much moisture in the air is that it creates scenes like this one – the view from my in-laws house! After coming from the 4th driest country in the world the contrast couldn’t be more stark. 

2. Crumpets. Some of you may not know what these are and I’m not sure how to describe them! Round, bread-like creatures, best served hot with butter and Marmite!
3. Being close to family. If there’s one thing living in Jordan taught us it’s the value of family, and this was a major factor in us deciding to come back to England, so we are enjoying every day we get to spend with them!
4. The view down our road. Am really enjoying the fact that when we walk out the front door we can see Brunel’s engineering masterpiece, the Clifton suspension bridge (just visible in the distance!)
5. Match Of The Day. Ignoring the fact that Aston Villa are rubbish at the moment, there’s something great about the rhythm this program brings to life – just knowing that at 10.30 each Saturday you’ll be watching a quality round-up of the footy. Thoroughly enjoying it again!
6. Graffiti! There is so much amazing art splattered (often anonymously) all over the walls of Bristol that I’m hoping it awakens a creative part of me that’s been dormant for too long.
7. Efficiency! A while ago, I bought a football ticket online on a friday morning, from somewhere at the other end of the country. It arrived promptly on Saturday morning. This ability to post a letter to anywhere in the country and know it will arrive the next day amazes me! So does the fact that it only took half an hour for UK customs to clear our shipment from Jordan. I was expecting 2 weeks!

8 . Trees. Seriously, they’re everywhere! The guy I played golf with recently thought it was hilarious that I kept commenting on them, but I guess that’s what living in a desert for a while does to you!
9. Tea! I’ve had this stuff in many countries, from the sweet milky chai of India to the minty black version in Jordan.. but no one does it quite like the English! Personal favourite… Yorkshire Tea.
10. Abundance & Opportunity. I know that no society is perfect, and England certainly has its share of challenges and faults. But the abundance of stuff and of services here is quite incredible. This was illustrated to us when we searched for a doctor in our area of Bristol and google came back to us with 125 options! Just in our one little area of the city. The kind of choice that most of the world can only dream of. Similarly, the opportunities we have here to vote in elections, and know that our vote is actually worth something, or to receive free healthcare or even financial support from the government because we have children – these are things we’re extremely fortunate to have and must never take for granted.

4 Things I Learned as an ‘Ajnabi’ in Jordan

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!

10 Things I Will Miss About Jordan

Tomorrow evening my family and I will board the Easyjet flight to London and move back to the UK after 7 long and happy years in Jordan.

Here are 10 things that I will miss about living here!

1. Over-the-top hospitality. Jordanians value hospitality incredibly highly and certainly know how to put on a feast. Go for a meal with any family in Jordan and you can be certain that the table will be filled with more dishes than you can count (my personal favourites were ‘maqlooba’ and ‘msakhan’), that your host will insist you eat more than you ever thought you were capable of, and that at the end of the meal there will still be enough food left over to feed an army. So here’s to the Rayyan family, the Muslehs, the Petros, the AlGhweiris, the Bilaals and so many others – thank you for showing us how hospitality should be done!

2. The driving. I know that some people might be surprised to see this on my list because it can be frustrating when someone pulls out in front of you without using their mirrors and forces you to screech to a halt behind them. But I will genuinely miss the element of chaos on the roads – the fact that you literally never know what is going to happen next makes driving in Jordan interesting, and driving in England seems incredibly mundane by comparison. I like to tell people here that they have much more freedom than people in the UK – for example, if they want to reverse back down a main road they can do that! Just yesterday I caught this driver reading his newspaper on the road winding down towards the Dead Sea. Actually holding it against his steering wheel and reading it. While doing 80kmph. Now that’s something you just don’t see on the M25!

3. Arriving late, only to discover that no one else is there yet either. Even 7 years has not been enough to completely remove my English value for punctuality, so the great sense of relief I feel when I arrive an hour late for something like a wedding, only to discover that they haven’t even started proceedings yet, is quite wonderful.

4. The beauty (and challenge!) of Arabic. As the second hardest language in the world, Arabic certainly provides its fair share of embarrassing moments to those who seek to learn it. But I love the beauty and logic of the language, and will especially miss the greetings and expressions like ‘Salaam alaykum’ (Peace be with you) and Allah maak (God be with you). Somehow the British equivalents ‘You alright?’ and ‘Cheerio’ just don’t have the same weight! I’ll also miss the voice of ‘Abu Haytham’, one of Jordan’s best known radio show hosts booming out in pretty much every taxi I rode in!

5. Freedom with sugar. Nobody bats an eyelid here when I ask for a spoonful of sugar in my tea – in fact they are often surprised that I only want one. In sharp contrast, when I make the same request in Britain it is apparently socially unacceptable, and I have had friends there literally scouring their cupboards for a trace of the evil stuff because it’s so long since they used any. Whether it’s in the tea or in a plate of delicious kenafe at Habiba, sugar is given freedom here to do what it does best, enriching the lives of those of us who have a sweet tooth!

6. The sun. This goes without saying. Goodbye dear sunshine, see you in a different lifetime perhaps. While it is 40 degrees in Amman today my friends in Bristol tell me it has rained there every day for the last ten days. Enough said.

7. One-drum parties. In Jordan, where there is a tabla (a drum) there is a party! Nothing else is needed: no money, no planning, and definitely no alcohol. I’ll miss people’s ability here to sing and have fun with minimal resources!

8.  The desert. Wadi Rum is my favourite place in Jordan because of the colours of the landscape, the towering cliffs that surround it, and the humbling effect that the sheer vastness of the place has on you. Cheddar Gorge just isn’t going to have the same effect, and neither is swimming in Clevedon going to compare with the sensation of floating in the Dead Sea! 

Photo by Josh Anderson

9. Saturday night ‘Open House’. We stumbled into this habit of opening our home to all of our friends once a week, and it quickly became one of the highlights of living here. The simple formula of food, friendship and fun created a safe place to talk about even the most sensitive of topics. We have learned a tremendous amount about the value of community and of sharing life together with people of different backgrounds and faiths in the process.

10. The people

I’ve deliberately left the most important one until last. Every country has good and bad people in it, but Jordan seemed to get more than its fair share of the former! Jordanian friendliness, hospitality, respect for family and for others has constantly surprised us. And more than all of the things mentioned above combined, we will miss our friends! We have been blessed to have many wonderful people in our lives and there is certainly not enough space to list them all here. Suffice it to say that each one will be missed, and each one would be more than welcome at our home in the UK. As they say here: ‘Baytna baytkum’ (our home is your home).

Thank you Jordan for good times and for memories that will live on. We’ll be back one day – inshallah!

Brothers, Cousins & Strangers – the Power of Tribe

The other day an incident occurred at Mutah University in Jordan which highlighted something in Arab society that we from the West often find difficult to grasp – the power of tribe. The Jordan Times reported that more than 50 students were involved in a large-scale brawl, throwing rocks, hitting each other with sticks and destroying university property, which resulted in the evacuation of the university and the suspension of classes. The fight occurred after a small provocation between students of two particular tribes – I don’t know yet exactly what happened, but the interesting thing to me is that those involved then contacted their relatives, who came back the next day and took the violence to a new level.

This isn’t the first incident of its kind while I’ve lived in Jordan. I witnessed several smaller fights between tribes while I was teaching at the University of Jordan, and about a year ago there was violence in the city of Salt after a student was killed there. The original incidents that sparked these conflicts were allegedly small – a dispute over a chair, an inappropriate conversation with a girl etc. But I also had my first taste of tear gas when members of a tribe attacked police after one of their family had been killed during a raid on his house (see photo below from a local paper). So how, and why, do these seemingly small or individual incidents result in major violence between large groups of people? And do we in the West have anything similair to compare it with?

There is an Arabic proverb which says انا على أخوي وأنا وأخوي على ابن عمي وأنا وابن عمي على الغريب  which means “Me against my brother. Me and my brother against my cousin. Me and my cousin against a stranger”. In other words, when things get rough I will lay aside differences with those closest to me and stand with them against an external threat. When push comes to shove, its ‘us’, against ‘them’.

Here in Jordan tribes play a major role in society. These tribes, groups of related families who claim descent from a founding ancestor, go a long way back in nomadic Bedouin life and are each associated with certain geographical regions they used to live in. The map below is from 1900 – as well as the names of cities and areas, it shows the names of the tribes and where they each lived at that time. Tribes such as Bani Hassan, Bani Sakhr, and Howeitat today contain several hundred thousand members each, and so carry a lot of power. When a member of one of these tribes is offended or injured, it is the duty of his or her tribe to come to their defence as described by the proverb above. The strong sense of family honour is what gives this mix the potential for incidents like that at the university this week.

Given that I only have 7 cousins (a pathetically low number compared to many of my students who come from large families and may have over 50!), it’s fair to say that I wouldn’t stand much chance in a Jordanian tribal conflict! That’s one very good reason to try and stay out of trouble here, and the truth is that this tribal family nature is a dynamic that we in the West can find hard to relate to.

‘Tribalism’ is not completely absent from our own society though. I’d suggest that all of us have a desire to ‘belong’, to be part of a group that is bigger than ourselves, and since our wider families don’t really offer us this in the West we may look for it in other places. Perhaps part of the appeal of football in Britain is that it gives us the sense of ‘us’ against ‘them, the feeling of being joined with thousands of others by a common passion – and at times a common grievance when things don’t go our way.  Weren’t the riots across the country last year also a kind of tribal angst, carrying along many people who had no history of vandalism or crime? Isn’t there something tribal about concerts, in that powerful sense of togetherness that comes from singing with people (even those we don’t know)?

There have been times when I have even thought I felt something tribal at church gatherings. Could the power of ‘us’ gathering together, with common beliefs and views, actually lead us into dangerous territory where we begin to inadvertently ‘other’ those on the outside? And yet our faith teaches us to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. In other words, we seek to treat the stranger, my cousin, my brother all exactly the same way – ‘doing unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

Now if we could all start trying to do that, whether we live in the East or the West, perhaps there’d be less ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the world, and Mutah University could resume its classes without the fear of rocks coming through the window!

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Update: Since this blog was posted there has been a new article in the Jordan Times about the escalation of violence at the university: see http://jordantimes.com/mutah-university-brawl-gets-ugly-guns-and-knives-used

One tall decaf reconciliation latte and a regular comfort tea

I’ve never been much of a businessman, but recently I was listening to a friend talk about the role that coffee plays in Arabic culture and I had an idea: how about selling tea and coffee not by the names of their flavours, but by the functions they perform in society?

I’ve realised that in the three cultures that I’ve lived in these two incredible drinks play so many important roles that you wonder how life would work without them!

One of my favourite memories of growing up in India is the 3-day train journeys we took from the south, where we lived, up to cities in the north like Calcutta and Delhi. I loved watching the world go by, getting off at stations to buy meals, and above all, hearing the constant cries of ‘chai, chai, garam, chai’… ‘coooffee-offee-offee’ from the tea and coffee sellers all day and night. These cheap, hot, sweet liquids seemed to be the social glue that brought India’s diverse people together and offered a level playing field for all who drank them. Perhaps, then, Indians would buy some ‘unity tea’ or ‘chit-chat coffee’?

When I moved back to the UK I noticed that you could barely get through the doorway of a British home before they had offered you a cup of tea. The Brits are well known for their tea-time routine, of course, but I also noticed that they turned to their tea for help in times of difficulty: ‘You’ve had a hard day, have you? Can I get you a cup of tea?’. I even remember hearing once, ‘Oh your friend passed away? I’m so sorry, here’s a cup of tea my dear.’ The power of tea to offer comfort is well understood by my fellow countrymen! So maybe there’s a market for ‘welcome tea’ or ‘comfort tea’ in the households of Britain?

Here in the Middle East it is ‘Qahwe’ (coffee) that performs the major functions in society, and it does so in a more formal way than tea in India or Britain, which quietly gets on with it’s job, often without people realising. Here, coffee communicates loud and clear and everyone understands what is being said!

The most straight-forward of these roles is to welcome guests. The Bedouin were well known for offering ‘finjain aldaif’ (the cup of the guest) to their visitors in the harsh terrain of the desert, and even today when you enter an Arab home they will often offer you a small unsweetened cup of ‘Qahwe Saada’. If you would like another cup you simply hand the cup back to your host and he will refill it, but if you don’t want another then you need to jiggle your cup from side to side to show that you’ve had enough! It is also traditional here that your host will serve turkish coffee (a larger cup, often sweetened) at the end of a visit, and this can provide a subtle but important social cue that the visit is coming to an end.

When a young man wants to get married, he traditionally takes members of his family to visit the woman’s family. The woman’s family offer a cup of coffee, at which point the man asks the woman’s father if he would give his daughter in marriage. The coffee remains untouched on the table until the woman’s family either accept or reject the proposal – if they accept then the man drinks the coffee and the deal is done. But if they reject the proposal, he leaves the coffee and they go their separate ways.

Similarly, when one family has wronged another – say in the case of a murder or a car accident – a delegation from the family in the wrong will visit the family of the victim and go through a process of ‘atwa’ (truce) and ‘sulha’ (settlement/reconciliation). This process is recognised by Jordan’s government as an acceptable tradition of Bedouin tribes, and happens in parallel with the normal government court rulings. Again, it is the drinking of coffee together at the end of the visit that powerfully symbolises that these two families are reconciled.

So perhaps the Middle East is ready for some ‘welcomeproposal, reconciliation and farewell coffees‘?

I doubt that my idea has much potential for making money but it can be helpful to recognise the roles that these drinks perform in our lives, and as my family and I leave Jordan in 2 weeks time and return to the UK I do know what drink I’m going to be needing: a good cup of English Comfort tea!

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Please add a comment if you can think of other roles that tea and coffee play in society, or have any experiences related to this article!

I’ll finish with a photo of Mary, my mother-in-law, making some good English tea for a group of Jordanians that recently visited the UK:

Photos by Alex Potter & Tareq Neiroukh

May I borrow your Birkenstocks?

Jack Handey once said “Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away.. and they have no shoes!”

He had a good sense of humour, did Jack, but I think he was on to something with this idea of walking in someone’s shoes before you criticise or judge them. In fact, as we’ve just come to the end of the East West Youth Forum here in Jordan I want to write about the tremendous power of this act, because I have just seen it in action.

For the last five days sixty young people from Jordan, the USA, Britain, Canada and Russia travelled around the country and did the following: visited historic sites, ate way too much food, painted walls, played with kids at a refugee camp, camped in a nature reserve and sang ‘Rolling in the Deep’ at the top of their lungs.

Nothing complicated. No big speakers, no agenda, no structured dialogue and debate. No rocket science involved at all. And yet when it was time for them to give feedback on this experience, they used words like ‘life-changing experience’, ‘I will never be the same again’ and ‘thank you for changing the way I see the world’.

So what is it that can impact a person so deeply through cultural exchange programs, which are often seen as nothing more than an excuse for an expensive holiday abroad? I believe it is the opportunity to encounter ‘the other’, to briefly see the world from the perspective of someone born into a different culture and faith, and to have the priviledge of walking in their shoes.

For me this power was most evident as we sat at Um Qais in 40 degree heat and looked out over Israel-Palestine and the Golan Heights in Syria. For a few brief moments we got to hear about life through the eyes of our friend Mohammed, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin. The sheer proximity of the land he considers home but is unable to visit weighed heavy on us all, especially those of us from the West who have no ‘equivalent’ experience, and it was an experience that could certainly have never come from reading a book about the issue. It had to be through a person. Through a friend.

The life-changing power of ‘story’ was evident again as the students sat in groups and shared their life stories with the sun going down near Madaba, and on several other occasions throughout the five days. It’s in these moments that I sense the real beauty and value of ‘cultural exchange’ programs and take great satisfaction from being involved in this work.

I’m trying my best to live my life by the principle of what Jesus called the Greatest Commandment – to love God and love your neighbour. As with any expression of love, it’s impossible to love my neighbour without first understanding them, understanding the way they see the world, hearing their story. I’m coming to see that in today’s globalised world where literally everyone is my neighbour, perhaps it’s the ‘walking in their shoes’ that holds the key to doing this effectively.

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What about you? Have you had similair ‘walking in someone’s shoes’ experiences? How has that changed you? I’d love to hear your stories.