The intrepid staff writer ventures to unfamiliar tea parties in Jordan. Check out Clare’s post on her trip to Lebanon, too.
Wadi Musa is a small town outside Petra, Jordan, filled with overpriced tourist shops and rectangular sand-colored houses packed tightly together. My study abroad program took us — 32 Arabic-studying Americans — to visit Petra, and we stayed in a hotel in Wadi Musa the night before we explored the ancient city. It was around 10pm that evening that I found myself crashing a Bedouin bachelor party.
Some of my friends and I were wandering the streets of the town, taking advantage of a temperature that (for once) was below 90 degrees. We passed by a courtyard from which we heard loud music and the cheers and chatter of a large group of people. There was a man standing close by, directing the arriving guests, and as we passed by, we said a customary hello. I suppose he was amused by the quizzical looks on our faces and our very obvious foreign-ness. Perhaps that was why he invited us in.
The courtyard was filled with seventy or eighty men — yes, all men. The older shaykhs were sitting on chairs wearing traditional Jordanian clothing, talking and observing the younger men, most of whom were dancing. Small children were running around and getting underfoot, trying to dance before being pulled away by older brothers and uncles. The moment we entered the courtyard the host offered us a place to sit and tea to drink, and it was then we found out his son was getting married the next day. (This “finding out” took a bit, since he spoke little English and we were all at varying levels of Arabic.) Not five minutes into our arrival, however, I found myself being pulled out of my chair and into the dabka — and boy, was it a dabka.
The dabka is a traditional Jordanian dance in which participants move in a six-step pattern in a very large circle, holding hands and linking arms. Having six American girls and four American guys dancing at a bachelor party was an absolute novelty for the men. Many of the younger guests (especially the preteen boys) had never interacted with non-familial women before, and our presence was cause for a remarkably large number of pictures and videos to be taken — I suppose we were something like the equivalent of strippers at an American bachelor party, though perhaps not quite that exciting.
Traditions of hospitality in Arab culture stretch back to pre-Islamic times. A guest visiting a tribe was offered three days of accommodation as a sign of good will. He would be provided with the best food and the company of tribal leaders and notables. The advent of Islam only strengthened this tradition; the new faith stressed the importance of welcoming and hosting others in an effort to keep personal connections strong. This tradition gave rise to the great Orientalist monolith of “Arab hospitality” so remarked upon by everyone from T. E. Lawrence to contemporary American politicians. The act of welcoming is one ingrained in the fabric of contemporary Jordanian culture, and the Bedouin bachelor party is a prime example.
Intimately related to the tradition of hospitality is the insider-outsider dichotomy, that is, the distinctions between people in terms of tribe, religion, nationality, or political allegiance. The guest is necessarily an outsider, but tradition and culture dictates that he be provided with the experience of an insider, at least for a time. He is welcomed as a family member or friend might be. This was my exactly my experience: I was as different from my hosts as I could possibly be — blond-haired, blue-eyed, female, American — and yet I had the opportunity to interact with them in a fairly open manner and take part in one of their celebrations. Yes, that was partly because these partygoers were interested in and thrilled by the chance to interact with American girls, but it was also because they were hospitable, welcoming, and open. The host extended to us the same hand he would extend to a family member or a village friend. Was I fulfilling some of their stereotypes? Yes. There I was, wearing shorts and a short-sleeve shirt, dancing with strange men, but I was still offered a place at the gathering. The men and I talked, laughed, danced, talked some more, danced even more, and talked again. I am not ignorant of the reason behind some of the interest in me (I received a couple of marriage proposals), but that does not mean that my experience with this group was any less legitimate, enlightening, or enjoyable.
What with the constant media and political hype about the Middle East, we tend to forget that American wars in the region and the supposed tensions between “us” and “them” are fought on a very political and ideological level, and do not necessarily have the same effect on the average person as did World Wars I and II. Most Jordanians can (and do) differentiate between the policies of the American government and the beliefs and individualities of American citizens. No matter what the media may insinuate or politicians may tell us, it is indeed possible to meet people and engage in genuine and meaningful relationships despite our very different backgrounds. There was not one bit of animosity on account of my American-ness at the Bedouin bachelor party, and I felt none whatsoever in any other part of my daily life in Jordan. The overarching political issues did not affect the hospitality offered to me, and I was able to interact in a powerful way with people whom American culture would have me believe harbor hostile feelings towards me.
We danced for three hours that night. Five cups of the best tea I’ve ever had, two marriage proposals, and a thousand pictures later, it was time to take our leave. I’m sure there are now multiple YouTube videos from that evening, and I look forward to the day my grandchildren find them and ask me what on earth I was doing at a Bedouin bachelor party.
Clare Duncan ’14 (cduncan@college) would like to make it clear that she is not, in fact, a stripper.