AMMAN, Jordan—It’s a shame I haven’t brought my appetite to this turbulent, desertous region of the world, because food here packs a flavor that’s pungent with history.
It makes sense, considering Jordan boasts a long history of occupation and inhabitation by countless civilizations, harkening back as far as 7250 BC.
And even now, nestled between nations trading gunfire, Jordan instead exchanges recipes: it has incorporated Lebanon’s vibrant vegetables, Syria’s flavorful falafels, Egypt’s crunchy kebabs, and Iraq’s mouth-watering spicemeats, all with delightful results.
In my brief jaunt through the desert kingdom, I saw lamb shank spinning on a spit, shiny with grease and spices. Pools of pale hummus heaped onto plates with shreds of shawarma swimming in them. And of course, everything is seasoned with a hearty helping of sumac, the pervasive spice of the region.
These divine culinary blends must help distract from the weather. It’s surprisingly cold, but repeatedly I am humbled by how the warmth of the Jordanian people more than compensates for it.
Who could have thought that a country wedged between warring realms could harbor such humanity?
Here I am, huddled against my seat on an empty bus, looking like a marionnette that’s lost her strings. The elderly driver enters the junker, reaches over, and warbles something in Arabic.
He looks as antiquated and fit for retirement as this creaking jalopy he captains, and he reminds me of my late Granddaddy but with a Middle Eastern spin.
My grandfather’s doppelgangar thrusts a plastic cup of steaming amber into my face. It smells like strawberry tea, with a sprig of cinnamon sprouting from its golden depths.
“For me?” I ask in wonderment, gesturing toward my heart. He answers in Arabic. I’m unsure of whether he wants me to keep it, but I haven’t drank anything since I left Doha, so I tip it against my lips and guzzle with gusto.
Tastes like strawberry tea, too.
“He likes you,” says a younger man in a thick Middle Eastern accent. He leans against the rickety seats at the front of the bus, watching the pair of us.
“Please tell him thank you for me,” I say.
I have no baggage for the driver to carry, but I still find myself wishing I had some local currency for a tip. Later, too much later, I will silently scold myself for not just giving him some American dollars. Surely he could have exchanged it?
So I say the only words I can remember how to say. “Salaam alaikum.”
He grins, gruffly. “Alaikum salaam.”
Peace be upon you.
At my accommodations for the night—spartan in their simplicity, but immaculate—the tall, slender, and nearly identical doormen greet me with a gentle reverence and perfect English. In another world, with different opportunities, their sculpted cheekbones and bright, brooding eyes would have landed them on the cover pages of magazines.
“We will have breakfast for you in the morning, madam,” one of them says.
And did they ever.
My eyes took in ground meat baked in tahini and bedecked with thinly sliced potatoes and pine nuts (Kofta t’bahini), baby lamb gorged with rice, nuts and raisins, crushed fava beans soaked in olive oil (foul maddamis), and flatbread dough layered in cheese (Sfiha). And then there was this casserole composed of steaming layers of rice, vegetables and meat. This is called Maqluba, which means “upside-down” and is named so because after cooking, you flip the pot over onto a plate.
“I can’t believe I can have any of this,” I say aloud, to, well, no one, really. It just seems overly generous of my accommodators.
The cook, ladling out more hummus into a serving plate, just smiles at me. I wish I could eat more.
I wish the boundaries of my stomach were infinite.
… Just to show them the boundlessness of my appreciation.
Unexpectedly, I have fallen for this region of the world. It was never my intention, but I have. This entire area is completely unlike what I could have ever anticipated. I want to return for more than just a day, if only just to return the favor of altruism shown to me there.
And next time, I’ll come hungry for more than just kindness.