Living in the heart of Islam

Amman, Jordan – March 2015

It wasn’t my first time at it. I still feel the sticky humidity of a Baghdad summer spent living with local guides. The piercing adhan from the nearby mosque didn’t care if you were trying to sleep, eat, or conduct a briefing. You stopped what you were doing and stayed quiet until the prayers were done, lest you incur the wrath of our Salafist friends living with us. It was a bit odd at first but after a couple days it became a reflex as routine as throwing salt over your shoulder when you sneeze.

anti-ISIS protest at the al-Husayn Mosque

This time was different. Better, but more interruptive. The al-Husayn Mosque was 300 meters down the road, the second largest mosque in Amman and apparently the most important. This is where Amman’s protests and celebrations take place.  The adhan was quite loud if you were outside, but I lived in the basement and often worked in a room without a window facing that street so I learned to tune it out pretty quickly. Is it taped or is it live? I still don’t know, seeing how butthurt people get when you ask that.

With this came the prayers. Most rooms (each hotel room, the kitchen, the laundry room, the gym) had a plaque or poster on the wall pointing towards Mecca with the shahada(There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet) written in Arabic.

Sign pointing to Mecca, written on the wall in the gym’s changing room

On cue, the workers would grab their prayer mats, wash their feet in the sink, and repeat their prayers under their breath as they kneeled facing Mecca. It seemed very similar to Catholics kneeling and repeating the scripted prayers while crossing themselves, but some things shouldn’t be said in public. Good luck if you needed to get anywhere during this time, as you would have to step over or awkwardly behind someone in an already crowded room.

The biggest difference between my Jordanian and Iraqi experiences with Islam was during mealtime. Since we destroyed much of the Iraqi infrastructure and commerce brought freedom, our meals sometimes consisted of squishy vegetables, cooked over a grill made of rebar that was pulled up after a tank drove over sidewalk. Truth be told, it didn’t taste as good as it sounds. But you eat when someone spends their meager resources to make you a local dish. In contrast, most everything served in Jordan was really good, especially the meat pie with onions and tomatoes on top. The only catch was that you didn’t throw bread away. Ever. Stale, ripped in half, leftover crust, all of it was saved to be given to the needy or stray animals. Pretty awesome. Apparently, throwing out grapes and raisins is off limits as well. This was explained to me as a sign of respect for Jesus’ last supper, as it would be sinful to throw away what represents His blood and flesh.

Unfortunately, one of my coworkers didn’t get the message and repeatedly threw bread out after breakfast. I was told a couple times by a Salafist coworker not to throw the bread away in the tone of voice you would talk to a dog with (Jimmy, no! No bread!), but I didn’t speak Arabic and he didn’t speak English so I couldn’t explain that it wasn’t me. After maybe the 10th round of this over the course of two weeks we got into a yelling match, with him yelling in Arabic about the bread and me yelling every obscene thing I could in English, neither of us understanding a word. Someone else fessed up to throwing out the bread later and we hugged it out and apologized to each other. He was genuinely sorry and I felt bad for saying what I did, even if he didn’t understand a word of it. We then went back to calling each other Ali Baba and everything was cool again.

I arranged my schedule to have a Saturday-Sunday weekend, thinking that I could go out Friday after work for a early start. Everything was closed in the mornings. Most everything was closed in the afternoons and evenings. I’d never seen anything like it before. I know that Friday is considered their holy day, but I still expected that in a city as big as Amman that there would be quite a bit going on during a weekend night.

And finally, the hospitality. You didn’t think that I could write an article on Islam without mentioning the hospitality, did you? We all pitched in and did our share of the cleaning after meals, but on anything that was considered a gift or special occasion, I wasn’t allowed to move a muscle. Free things were thrown at me from people who had less money than me, even after the customary practice of politely declining three times. A trusted Sheikh even knew that I was a friend of the other workers and offered me a free place to stay and a free tour of Petra (lodging would be roughly $50, with the park entrance fee being $75), but I declined due to him weirding me out pretty intensely.

Unfortunately, there were a couple negatives as well.

First was the missionary efforts. wpid-20150208_221225.jpgMy boss politely gave me a pamphlet titled The Merits of Islam and my coworkers explained many of the finer points of Islam to me whenever I asked, which was great. imageThen came the man on the street who wouldn’t let me walk away without embracing Islam and simply couldn’t understand that I can be both monotheistic and not a Muslim, similar to how Milo was convinced that, deep down inside, we’re all cats. Then there was this man who came into the lobby to preach Islam and wouldn’t stop until kicked out or tricked into leaving. Finally, this sticker referring to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which made me feel like maybe I shouldn’t have written  I on a restaurant wall prior to seeing it.

Second, I’m not a clubhound but live music, socially-accepted mixing of the genders in public, and dancing wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world.

Last, homophobia.


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