The Conspiracy

From East of the Bank: Meat, Basar, Lahem

A resturant in Amman where a vegetarian can get a delicious falafel or fool (fave beans) sandwhich for less than $0.70.

I have found that I lack the necessary Arabic words to adequately describe the concept of “keeping kosher.” While the notion of vegetarianism may be generally accepted in Amman, for my home-stay mother, Madame Basma, such a lifestyle remains as foreign… as the American Jew living in her house.

I had barely walked through the door of the family’s apartment for the first time when Madam Basma asked whether I was hungry. I had eaten merely two hours earlier, but said yes, as I knew that I could not refuse her hospitality. A Christian woman from the city of Madaba, Madam Basma had once been a teacher, but now remains at home with her three sons and one daughter, while her husband works long hours as a Pharmacist. Her English, like my Arabic, is limited, but her lively gestures and expressions help to facilitate conversation.

On that first afternoon, Madam Basma immediately asked me what I wanted to eat. Not knowing what to respond, I opted for the regional staple of Mango Juice. The juice soon arrived, along with some fried fish and potato wedges. I was instantly pleased, taking the fish as a sign that keeping Kosher (by eating as a vegetarian) in a Jordanian household would not be too hard.

Yet if the fish was a sign, I certainly read its signal wrong. Later that first night, I went to the nearby Mecca Mall with Madam Basma and her daughter, Aseel. At around eight thirty, early for dinner by Jordanian standards, we went to the Mall’s food court. We sat down at a table and suddenly, before me, Madam Basma placed a KFC chicken sandwich.

I hesitated.

“Eat it, it’s good,” she urged amid the whirl of the boisterous food court.

“Shukran, lakina ana la akulu degag wa lahem.” I haltingly tried to explain to her that I did not eat chicken or meat, a fact of which I had thought she had already been informed by the program.

“No, eat it.” Her large hands gestured towards the now victimized sandwich. “Zeaki,” she said. “It’s tasty.”

I repeated again my vegetarian mantra.

“Eat, eat,” she said, growing frustrated. “Like in America.”

As I sat there in the Mecca Mall food court surrounded by Arab families eating from KFC and Sbarro, I fell silent for a moment. I wanted to explain to Madam Basma that I was not simply being a picky eater, but that I have ethical, environmental, and religious considerations that limit my meat intake. I hoped for her to understand that I follow my family’s tradition of not eating non-kosher meats, or of mixing milk and meat products among other restrictions. I needed, here in Jordan, to retain this aspect of my lifestyle, intrinsic to my cultural identification.

Yet, in that moment I too again questioned the necessity of such a stance. I wondered whether the dietary rules remained necessary in the modern age of medicine and regulation. I imagined the potential if I began to eat Halal meat, found ubiquitously in this country, while I reevaluated my reasoning for following this religious ruling and knowingly disregarding others.

Only Aseel ended the night satisfied, having been allowed to consume two chicken sandwiches.

Since that first night I have tried three more times to explain to Madam Basma that as a Jew I don’t eat certain meat like the Muslims only eat Halal. You live in my house, she responded jokingly to me once, so you’re a Christian now. Each time Madam Basma introduces me to others, her introduction follows a predictable pattern; I am an American student, she says, and my Dad is a doctor and my Mom a journalist. Then she laughs, and tells them that I refuse to eat chicken and meat.

Yet for her good humor she still daily points to a meat product in the fridge and in her commanding way urges me to eat, appearing surprisingly offended by my refusal each time. I know that she means no harm, that in this country of the kabob it is cultural friction and not an attack on my religious beliefs. Each time, however, that I once again politely refuse her chicken, I sense a growing separation and quickly ask for more humus.

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2 Older Responses to “From East of the Bank: Meat, Basar, Lahem”

  1. Takwa
    July 1, 2009 at 8:35 am #

    I love the post and I rally appreciate your patience. Jordanians feed their guests as a sign of hospitality , love and care. It is not very common for us to run through a vegetarian for they are very few around our country, this is why your your refusal puzzles your host who does not know what else to be served if not meat. I deeply respect how you respect your belief and you should not consider what you believe in, me as a muslim going to restaurants consumes a lot of asking about the meat but still I do it. Its very nice to hear that young people around the world hold such respect to their beliefs 🙂

    if u study in JU contact me ,,, wish you all the best

  2. Samantha Thomas
    May 9, 2010 at 6:24 am #

    I am also a vegetarian and my body has never been in a very good shape. Being a vegan can really make you much heathier..,:

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