I have made a habit of asking people I encounter here where they are from. I enjoy learning their stories. Are they Jordanian? Palestinian? Iraqi?
With a population of over 50% Palestinians and other various immigrants, I figure there is a good chance they might not be from Jordan. If they happen to be, their response is often, “I am Jordanian, Jordanian!”
Why the enthusiasm I wonder to myself? Coming from the West where individual success and achievement are praised, I may never be able to fully understand how deeply this culture values family ties. Being “Jordanian, Jordanian” is something to be proud of. It means that you are of the original inhabitants of this land whom we call “Bedouins.” There is even an Arabic word they use to describe themselves, Kouh.
In Middle Eastern culture a name is valuable. Children will learn, even memorize, their family lineage going back generations and generations. Coming from a certain tribe can offer you endless benefits if you work the system well. When it comes time to enter college or find a job, having a well positioned family member can open doors for your future.
Recently I was traveling and got to know my neighbor a little; a middle-aged banana farmer who lives just north of the Dead Sea. While he spends most of his time in the States – New Jersey to be specific – he was returning to check in on the family business.
As we discussed how well his banana enterprise was going and how they successfully purified the salty water that came from their well located just off the shore of the Dead Sea, I came to learn his name. Immediately I knew I recognized his tribe, “I have a good friend who lives in Amman. Her family name is Al-Sukkar,” a family name from within his tribe.
“Oh, they live in Khalda (a neighborhood in Amman).”
“Yes,” I exclaimed, a little surprised he knew that specific information, “that is exactly where my friend lives.”
Although he comes from a small town near the Dead Sea he knows families in Amman because tribal ties are essential to life here. They provide protection, connections and community.
Pockets of families tend to live together in the same area for generations. Much like you might find in a small town in the Southern United States, my Jordanian friend lives in the house her grandfather used to own. He planted the fruit trees in her garden. Across the street lives her uncle and next to him another uncle.
Often times a family will build onto their house so that their son’s family can live in the same building. Traditionally, when a son marries he lives with or near his immediate family. A daughter would live with her husband’s family.
Even as a foreigner, I have found the value in local connections. Delighted that I knew someone from his tribe, my new friend the banana farmer invited me to visit his plantation anytime. I may take him up on the offer.