There are a number of ways to experience a different culture, but few beat dining with a local family.
I was in Petra in the midst of a 10-day trip around Jordan when an invite came for dinner with the founder of A Piece Of Jordan, a community-based tourism project. Basically everyone who’s going to Jordan already knows to check out the Indiana Jones temple from The Last Crusade. I’m of course talking about The Treasury, an incredibly elaborate stone temple constructed by the ancient Nabatean Kingdom around the age of the Hellenistic and Roman Empires, which is why the carving looks partly designed by a Greek architect.
Hiking those ancient ruins went down as one of my personal favorite travel experiences, something I’ve already gone on about in a little travel narrative video I put together on the trip. But what solidified that visit to Petra as truly memorable was dinner with Steph Altwassi and her Jordanian family.
I met her in the hotel lobby, unsure of how much English she spoke. (My Arabic went as far as “hi,” “bye,” and “thank you.”) Then something surprising happened.
“Hello, nice to meet you,” she said extending her hand.
That’s a thick British accent, I thought. The kind Americans fall into whenever trying to speak like a Brit.
I didn’t want to be rude and start off with an interrogation, so I simply followed her to her brother-in-law’s pickup truck for the ride up the steep roads of Petra to her family’s abode. We exchanged pleasantries and shared initial impressions of Jordan as the evening prayer came over the radio.
The sun had set, so it was difficult to get a full read on the house. But as we walked along the side to a set of stairs that led to the upper floor, Steph pointed to a few different buildings, naming the family members who lived in each one. I got the sense that this was a family compound of sorts.
“It’s very common for everyone to live together or right next to each other in Jordan,” she offered. You hear about the importance of family and hospitality in Jordan, but I got to actually experience it with A Piece Of Jordan.
Steph led me to what a U.S. American would think of as a living room. Except this was no living room as someone Stateside might be accustomed to. Colorful cushioned seats lined the walls of the large open space where I was invited to sit cross-legged. Here I spent more time chatting with the brother-in-law about everything from life in Jordan to U.S. politics as the family’s kids chased each other around the room with the kind of pure joy that makes you think the world isn’t such a gloomy place after all. One of the kids, Steph’s own, had curly blonde locks and jumped back and forth between English and Arabic with an indifferent ease that I will remain eternally jealous of.
Before long it was time for the main event; dinner on the balcony where we again sat cross-legged and dove into a communal plate of seneyah, a Jordanian favorite with marinated chicken and vegetables cooked in the oven and a little yogurt for dipping. I had enjoyed Middle Eastern cuisine numerous times in my life, but never in the proper family setting with hands instead of utensils. Sitting there with this incredibly hospitable family, a pleasant evening breeze, the sparkling lights of Petra, and the general ambiance that permeates throughout Jordan, I decided that life is good and I’m a thoroughly lucky bastard.
Without too much prompting, I was able to find out that Steph is, indeed, British, hailing originally from Birmingham. She had been traveling through the Middle East when she met a man in Jordan who changed her life. They spent some time living in the United Kingdom before she opted to convert to Islam and moved to Jordan where the young family is happy to remain for the distant future. It was around then that another call to prayer began.
“It’s beautiful. You don’t get tired of it,” she said.
I agreed. Sure, I am to religion what Steven Seagal is to cinema, but Arabic sung with the echo of an open sky is an objectively beautiful, hypnotizing sound.
Our conversation hit some familiar themes.
“People told me not to go,” I shared.
“We’re safe and peaceful. We just have bad neighbors,” they responded.
“It must be annoying that you have to clarify that for foreigners,” I added.
This was all back in May of 2016, a time when the rise of a certain Cheetos-crusted Neanderthal in the United States led to calls of banning Muslims from the country. Steph had a personal stake in this with American family members who were actively supporting this anonymous YouTube comment brought to life.
“They’re essentially telling me that they don’t want me, my husband or my son in their country,” she said with frustration.
I regrettably had very little solace to offer, only promising that I’d happily act as a spokesman of traveling to Jordan to anyone who would listen. This is also partly why Steph launched A Piece Of Jordan. Petra has long been on the tourist trek, but visitors rarely interacted with Jordanians beyond haggling at the markets along the way. As anyone who has traveled outside their comfort zone knows, its people who destroy stereotypes and misconceptions. I can’t imagine anyone, even the most vile of Trump supporters, would be able to leave that dinner with their muddied preconceptions left intact.
Her son, thankfully, was easily able to lift all of our spirits with his continued unbridled euphoria, sprinting around every corner with a pointy, blue Sonic The Hedgehog hat on his head over a Spider-Man costume. He eventually calmed down enough to grab a small digital camera and started taking pictures. When we finally left, he called back as I started to head down the stairs.
“You can come back whenever you’d like!”
Yes, what a truly terrifying place to be, indeed.