The Food of Gods: Mansaf

Mansaf is a famous traditional Jordanian dish that I had the pleasure of eating many times during my study abroad experience in Jordan.  Mansaf can be made of lamb or chicken, which is cooked in a yogurt sauce called “jameet” (which is fermented yougurt) with yellow rice.  Often pine nuts and some green herbs are laid upon the top.  This dish is primarily served in Jordan but can also be found in Palestine, Syria, as well as parts of Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.  Mansaf has a very unique and strong taste that often is not compatible with Western pallets.  However, mansaf became my favorite Jordanian dish.

Mansaf is a very important traditional dish that has roots to the Bedouin (desert nomad) culture.  The Bedouin culture is strongly tied to the Tribal culture of Jordan and Mansaf plays a key role in the society.  Mansaf is served on special occasions such as weddings, births, graduations, and/or when honoring a guest.  It is also served on major holidays such as Eid ul-Fitr, Eid ul-Adha (during Ramadaan), Christmas Day, Easter, and Jordan’s Independence Day.  Mansaf has been used as a diplomatic device between rival Tribal families.  Mansaf is of the utmost importance to the Jordanian culture.

Not only does Mansaf serve a special purpose, there is also a “proper” way to eat it.  Mansaf is cooked on a big platter which is placed on a plastic table mat by the wife of the house.  If you want eat serve Mansaf according to the guidelines of tradition there should be a lambs head in the middle of the dish, which is then either given as food to the servants of the house or the neighbors.  All of the guests sit around the big platter and wait for everyone to be seated.  Before eating, you say “bisma’ Allah” (which directly translates to “In the name of God”).  Mansaf is traditionally eaten by hands, however, recently younger generations have moved towards eating with a spoon.  Women have always used spoons because it is considered impolite for the women to use their hands.  Next I will explain exactly how to eat Mansaf with your hands:  First, make sure your hands are clean. Second, after the Lebna (yogurt sauce) is poured over your section of the big platter you will take your right hand and proceed to take a section of the food making it into a ball.  The lebna will help the rice and meat stick together in a ball shape.  Third, once the food is in the size of a small ball you then throw the ball in your mouth and eat.  Fourth, make sure to eat as much as you possibly can because it is considered rude in Jordanian culture to not finish your food when you are a guest. Fifth, enjoy the Mansaf.  Sixth, if you are a male you are obligated to smoke a cigarette or two with the male members of the household, after you have said “Il hamdu Allah.”

For many Mansaf is something they are told to stay away from but, ignore the critics.  Mansaf is an extremely rich and heavy dish that will keep you full for an entire day.  As I begin to use my hands to form the Mansaf into a ball, a feeling of joy jolts through my bloodstream releasing an animal-like instinct.  While eating Mansaf I morph into a primal being, with food as its only destiny.  Never has food changed me into an animal, but Mansaf is another story.

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This is a photo of my friends and I while we ate a traditional Mansaf meal at my language partner’s household in Irbid, Jordan.

***Interesting fact:  The husband in this family has two families one in Jordan and another in the United Arab Emirates where the husband has his job.  Since, the Jordanian economy is abysmal it is very common for men to work abroad in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, etc.  Also, both families are perfectly okay with the fact that their father has two families.  Talk about cultural differences!

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Taboo: Making Friendships with the Opposite Sex in Irbid

First, I will clear up some cultural misconceptions on the relationship between men and women in the Middle East.  For instance, it’s forbidden to hit a woman in any kind of manner according to the Islamic religion.  It is also forbidden by faith to kill.  However, according to Tribal Law until recently there have been rare cases when honor killings can be carried out in an attempt to “retain family honor.”  There is no doubt that women are not treated up to “our standards” in the West, however, I think it is important for people to consider that “our standards” are just the cultural norms in America and is not the same across the entire globe.  But, I believe that the sexual regression from strictly following the Islamic religion (and making it illegal to have sex before marriage) can influence this segregation of sexes.  Often I found young Jordanian men clueless on how to socialize with women because of the segregation.  I believe outlawing sex before marriage has severe psychological impacts on the population of Jordanian society.  Sex is a natural act of life, but in Jordan people aspire to become married and then have sex frequently.  Therefore, making honest friendships with people of the opposite sex in Jordan can be quite the challenge.  I should reiterate that I was living in a very conservative Muslim city.  The conclusions I make can only be acquainted with the city of Irbid.

Not until the last two months of my program in Irbid was I able to make female Jordanian friends.  One day my friends Nate, BJ, and I decided to teach many of our male Jordanian roommates at Yarmouk University how to play Frisbee.  The young men were very intrigued by this foreign game.  It was slightly difficult to explain how to throw the Frisbee exactly in Arabic therefore we acted it in a slow, dramatic fashion.  One day a group of female Jordanian students seemed very curious by this game.  My friend Fuad said to the girls “yella, ma fe mshkla” (meaning “let’s go, no problem”).  When these girls joined us to play Frisbee I realized just how amazing this was.  Guys and girls would never think of playing a sport together in Irbid and here are these young ladies who defy this cultural norm.  Defying cultural norms is not very common in Irbid.  The group of girls named Hadeel, Asaala, Aseel, and Sara began to play Frisbee with us every Thursday and Sunday.  After a few weeks I became close with this group of girls.  I began to see these girls about four times a week and would walk around campus with them, eat at restaurants, and receive extra help in Arabic as well.  Not only did these ladies become great friends it also was the main catalyst for my rapid improvement in Arabic because these women did not speak any English.  A casual relationship between a man and woman in Irbid is very difficult because of the cultural values and the laws.  I feel very honored to have made friends with these girls because of the harassment they and I dealt with when we were together in public.  I wasn’t sure if the other Jordanian students were jealous, immature, or etc. but we would constantly have to ignore verbal harassment from “shababs” (young guys) on campus.  I continue to stay in contact with these girls and hopefully will meet up with them in the future either in America or Jordan.Image

A Jordanian Connection


Leaving the bustling music scene of Denver, CO I was initially worried about being homesick. However, after the first week of immersing myself in the unique Jordanian culture it was easy to leave Denver behind. The only other culture shock I’ve experienced and can relate to is when I lived in a tent in the Rocky Mountain National Park for an entire summer. While living in the woods and living in Jordan are two very different settings I can relate the two by a principal I’ve always believed in. That is, being very open with people and making new friends. In my experiences I have made friends with very diverse people whether they are homeless or at the opposite end of the spectrum.

By the end of the first week I had met a local Jordanian named Fuad. He approached me and asked in Arabic, “Do you want to be friends?” Never have I been so lucky to make a friend like this because Fuad and I have become very close. At first we met in cafes and restaurants to get to know each other better. After a few weeks I went to his house for coffee and tea; the next day he invited me and a number of the people from my study abroad program (CET) to meet his entire family. We were all amazed with their beautiful house. I found the architecture with its ornamental arches and golden leaf chairs to be quite different than homes in the United States. My friends and I were also invited to Fuad’s house to have a traditional meal called “mansef.” This was the first time I had ever eaten with my hands, aside from chicken wings, and it was very delicious.

When I first arrived to Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan I realized my Arabic skills were sub-par to everyone else’s, however, after becoming friends with Fuad and consistently studying very hard I quickly gained ground.   After a few months I became acquainted with many of Fuad’s friends in Jordan.  By the second to last month of my program I began dreaming in Arabic, it was at this point I realized I was meeting my goal of reaching fluency.  Once I began dreaming in Arabic constantly I always thought in Arabic and felt as if I began improving every hour of the day.  When you reach the ability of constantly thinking, speaking, and dreaming in a new language you start having difficulty with your native language.  This is why I believe the key to having a successful language and cultural study abroad experience is making a close connection with local people. I believe I have marked the right impression on Fuad as a person and where I study because he is now in the process of applying to the University of Colorado at Denver. I am extremely thankful for making a connection like this because we will now always be friends.

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http://cetacademicprograms.com/programs/jordan/arabic-language-jordan/

This is a link to the exact study abroad program I attended, CET Irbid, Jordan Intensive Language and Cultural Immersion Program.