For this week’s Motherhood Around The World interview, we talked to Kelly, who lives in Northern Jordan with her husband, Jeremy, and their two sons, Caleb, 5, and Evan, 3. She is a part-time nurse practitioner who is homeschooling her children, and Jeremy is a family doctor. Here, she talks about falafel for breakfast, grown-up slumber parties, and a lovely way to soothe babies…
Kelly’s background: We moved from Colorado to Jordan five years ago, when Jeremy was offered a job here. Our first son was born a few months after we arrived. We live in a pretty traditional Bedouin town, which is more conservative than other cities in Jordan, and many people on the outskirts still live in tent homes.
On first impressions: As we drove into our new town, I remember straining my eyes to take everything in. I was struck by how everything seemed like it was the color of sand — it truly is a desert environment. Our feet got dusty and dirty so quickly. I was surprised to see so many trucks driving around with camels or sheep in the back. You find children running in the streets, pick-up soccer games, salons and little shops. In the center of the souq (the downtown area), you’ll find the big vegetable market. A cacophony of voices shouting products and prices always fills the air.
On their town: We used to live in the middle of the city, but we recently moved out to a small farm surrounded by olive orchards and fruit trees. We hear sheep and roosters in the morning, and our sons get a kick out of walking our neighbors’ goats out to feed. Our landlords are excellent farmers, and I love when they tell us about how they grew up doing things like making soap outside in a pot over a fire or making sheep’s milk cheese. They’re like grandparents to our boys and often invite them over for afternoon tea.
On making friends: When we first arrived, I was nervous about being lonely. But Jordanians are unbelievably welcoming, and the tradition of hospitality is so embedded in the culture. Inviting someone into your home — even a stranger — is basically the same as saying “hi” here. Almost every day, I would walk through the market with Caleb in his baby carrier, and we would buy things we needed and get to know shop owners. Often, women would approach us, love on my little guy and invite us to their homes. Plenty of times, I would take them up on it and we’d sit, drink tea and chat. I have made such lovely friends this way, and it has made our time here so special. I’d only had a bit of formal Arabic training, so I basically learned the language through the kindness of strangers.
On soothing babies: If Caleb got fussy, the women would calm him by sitting on the ground with their legs straight out in front of them, laying him on their legs (head toward their feet) and then gently rocking him. I do this sometimes now with babies — it really does relax them!
On coffee and tea: Offering a warm drink is a gesture of friendship, and your hosts will be touched if you accept it. The classic type of coffee is “qahwa sada,” which is a basic coffee flavored with cardamom. The host will serve about two sips to you in a small cup. You gently shake the cup to show that you’re done. Tea is generally black tea made with lots of sugar. My kids love tea, and our friends have a way of pouring it back and forth between cups to cool it for them. It’s so cute to see the boys sipping from their little tea cups.
On religious sayings: One of the first things I learned when I moved here were all the prescribed responses. After a death, one might say “God comfort you.” After buying something, you usually say “God give you health.” A common blessing when someone meets or hears about your children is “God keep them for you,” which I think is so sweet.
A lot of these sayings have to do with God. Religion is so woven into the culture, even the language. You can hear the call to prayer across the city five times a day. The first is at sunrise, which can be early as 3:30 a.m. One of the things they say is: “Come to prayer, prayer is better than sleep.” If I’m at a Muslim friend’s house (there is also a large Christian community here) when it is time to pray, she will take out her rug, put something over her head, and go to the corner and do it quickly. Sometimes I will see a man jump out of his car at a stop sign, lay down a mat and do a quick prayer right there.
On the jealous eye: When noticing that a person has something nice — like a pretty couch or even a beautiful child — you must say “Masha’Allah.” It translates to “God has willed it,” but really means “You have that nice thing and God willed that, so there is no jealousy.” I have learned the hard way that, if I compliment something that someone has in their home without adding “Masha’Allah,” they are compelled to give it to me. I accidentally got some pretty earrings this way.
On having lots of kids: Of course it varies (some of our friends have two children, some have ten), but most people in our town seem very open to large families. The expectation here is that children follow shortly after marriage, so people often have their first child soon after getting married. As a result, lingerie shops will sometimes also sell baby clothes. A few days after I had our second son, my friend brought some cute clothes for the baby — and a sparkly gold lingerie set for me! It all goes together here.
An aerial view of the refugee camp.
On talking about the Syrian War with children: We are 10 miles from the Syrian border — so close that sometimes you can hear the fighting. Our home is a 10-minute drive from a refugee camp that has an estimated population of almost 80,000. It has been frightening watching the conflict unfold, but we try to stay hopeful. We encourage our boys to talk about what they’re feeling, and it helps to do constructive things like visit a refugee family or choose toys to share with kids who need them. A German friend does art therapy with refugee children and their families, and we go with her. The refugee kids are missing so much about their homes, their gardens, their communities, their houses — and they are so wonderful at creating art and processing their experiences.
On women’s fashion: Most women, including myself, wear a head scarf. There is a trend to wear a fluffy silk flower in your hair under the scarf to give it a pretty lift. Clothing is a personal choice, and it varies from town to town, but most women here choose to be covered up. Some wear jeans with long-sleeved shirts. Some wear a tunic that goes to your feet, and some wear an abaya (a long, black robe often pulled over relaxed clothes). Some women wear the niqab (a black veil that just shows your eyes) in public, including one of my closest friends here. She is a Bedouin woman with seven children — a friend introduced us because she thought we would get along and she was right! She told me that she feels most comfortable in the niqab and chose to wear it herself. I think every woman gets used to what she chooses and has her own set of reasons for it.
On date nights: In our town, men and women tend to do things as a family rather than go on date nights. Since our town is conservative, men and women don’t usually go to cafés together. My husband and I have found little ways to do it anyway — maybe the upstairs of a bakery or a little hike outside of town — and we’ve also gotten creative. Jeremy and I switched off planning something to do at home after the boys went to bed on Friday nights. We went through the alphabet as a guide for what to plan. One of my favorites was when Jeremy surprised me with a campfire on the roof (no fire codes for us in the concrete houses!) and had made gourmet hot chocolate (the letter was “C”). For “D” we practiced the “dabkeh,” a local dance that everyone does at weddings. We thought if we practiced at home, we could bust out our moves at the next wedding, but we ended up mostly laughing.
On female friendships: In Muslim culture, genders are often separated in social settings. I think staying with the same gender socially is so that everyone can relax and hang out without having to be covered or keep to a certain social code. Women don’t generally have male friends, but they have lots of male family around, and of course their kids. It took some getting used to for me — I would miss being with my husband when we would go out. (Still, at some visits we do all stay together — it depends on the family.) But since women spend so much time together, they have mastered the art of the slumber party, even into adulthood! They drink coffee and eat sweets, turn on music and have a dance party, draw on each other with henna and do a lot of laughing. When I go to Jordanian weddings, men and women are separate, so that always ends up being the most fun girls’ night. I sometimes go to a salon to get a taste of this, too — salons are everywhere and not too expensive. Because there are no men, the women relax and don’t wear head scarves. We watch music videos and chat while someone gets their hair done.
On celebrating with friends: During the whole month of Ramadan, life completely changes as every one is fasting (no food, water or smoking) during the daylight hours. As a result, the neighborhoods come alive after sunset. Families will break fast together every night starting with dates, yogurt and a special meal. Even after midnight, you’ll find families in the streets having barbecues and picnics. Because families are often so big, kids are trained to drop and nap almost anywhere if they are tired, so some children are running around and others are asleep. People still have this ability sometimes as adults — you will see a man lying under a tree fast asleep because he can sleep anywhere. We don’t fast (and eat our meals indoors during the day out of respect), but we love to break celebrate with friends and let our kids stay up late.
On food culture: We have become pita snobs — you can get it for pennies, fresh from the oven, at any corner bakery. Breakfast is often pita, falafel, hummus or moutabel (an eggplant and tahini dip), served with hot sweet tea. Our kids love zait and za’atar, pita bread dipped in olive oil and a thyme herb mix. Dinner is usually chicken or lamb with rice and vegetables. Another thing I love is the liberal use of herbs. A whole bunch of mint or parsley will take a front seat in a salad. Cooking is a big part of our family’s life here.
On treats for kids: People don’t tend to discipline their kids in public. There are always exceptions, but generally parents will give their kids candy or chocolate if there is a meltdown. People also love giving treats to kids in general. One time I was walking down the street with my son and passed two women I didn’t know. They didn’t stop or greet me, but after we passed them, I realized they had stuffed cake into my son’s mouth! They just had to feed him! We really love it here. The people are so kind. We had planned to live in Jordan for only two years, but I’m so glad we’ve been able to stay longer.
Thank you so much, Kelly!
P.S. Our full Motherhood Around the World series, including Northern Ireland, Turkey and Japan.
(Photos courtesy of Kelly. Interview by Megan Cahn.)