making the neighborly rounds (or, an evening of tea and many cookies)

It was a Monday evening, and I had a pile of Arabic homework to complete. Yet I somehow found myself eating cookies and chatting with an elderly Jordanian woman named Martha, the same name as my grandmother.

Let’s wind the clock back a week. It started off with a simple idea within my apartment: Let’s have a small get-together to celebrate our roommate’s birthday. We will invite a handful of people from our program, and share a big ice cream cake. Easy.

A few days before the party, I suddenly remembered that we live in a building with three Arab families. Maybe, I thought to myself, we should let them know that a group of foreigners will be coming over on a Tuesday night. This logic may not seem obvious to some. Why bother telling your neighbors you’re having a small birthday party?

There are a few different reasons: We don’t live with expats. Our neighbors may not necessarily be accustomed to young men and women casually gathering at someone’s home. And, a reason that perhaps applies to any 20-something year olds living amongst families, regardless of culture: Kids have school in the morning, and their parents would like assurances that the noise will be contained.

So, on Monday evening, the night before the birthday gathering at our apartment, I went to each of our neighbors with a plate of cookies in my hands and an explanation on my lips. Tired from a full day of school and yearning for some alone time, I reminded myself that I would be back in my apartment doing homework shortly. I put on my brightest smile and started knocking on doors.

I hardly had to muster up any courage to speak with the first neighbors. I feel very comfortable with them. They comprise a large Syrian family with eight kids, ranging from the ages of toddler to young adult. They live across from us, so we often run into each other as we come and go throughout the day. The younger kids often emerge from the apartment and give us big hugs when they hear us in the hallway. This family is the closest thing I have to a family here. They have helped us navigate some of the more unfamiliar aspects of living in Amman, like calling the water delivery guy, dealing with a leaky gas container, and finding the right treatment for stomach sickness. Their generosity of time and loving spirit is abundant.

When my roommate and I showed up with a plate of cookies that Monday evening, we ended up sitting with our neighbors for over an hour. One of the girls made us little cups of coffee and another brought us freshly squeezed mint lemonade. We sat surrounded by these phenomenal girls and young women and their little brother and littler sister. We passed the time chatting aimlessly, looking over English homework, sharing future ambitions, and calling out the girl’s favorite Bollywood stars.

We eventually brought up next evening’s gathering, which they had no problem. We returned home with jars of homemade olives and pickled carrots. I felt energized from the coffee, refreshed by the light conversation, and ready to face the neighbors downstairs.

These neighbors are a bit more unfamiliar to us. One apartment has a Jordanian-Palestinian family with a few kids who are eager to improve their English, and often practice their greetings on us when we approach their apartment. The other apartment is home to a middle aged woman and her elderly mother. I often see them sitting on the outdoor patio sipping tea together, a poster of the Virgin Mary serenely watching over them from their window.

Two plates of cookies in hand, alone, I descended the stairs and knocked on the first door. I spoke with the big sister, and she nodded attentively as I informed her of our gathering the next day. She responded to my Arabic with a firm English “yes.” Her little sister came to the door, they accepted the cookies, and we bid each other farewell. I promised to come over another day for tea, since it was a bit late and the girls were getting ready for bed.

I then found myself facing the last door— the older Christian women. I knocked, but they did not respond. I went outside to check if they were on their porch, and found them sitting in their living room with the window ajar. I waved and passed them the plate of cookies. The middle-aged woman, the daughter of the elderly woman, accepted the cookies with an apology and an invitation in Arabic: “it is us who should be bringing you cookies! You are new here, not us. Please forgive us. Would you like to come inside for tea?”

A little voice in my head told me I should go back home and complete my assignments for the next day. But another voice, my more openhearted voice, reminded me that there was enough time to sit with these women and finish my work.

“Sure, I would love to sit with you.” I replied.

“Wonderful. My mom will be happy to have a guest over, too.”

Of course, this being an Arabic conversation, there were also pleasantries thrown back and forth, such as “bless your hands” and “may yours be blessed, too.”

She introduced me to her mother as she prepared glasses of juice and arranged my cookies on the living room table. Her mother is hard of hearing, nearly 80 years old, yet youthful in her earnest spirit. The elderly woman asked me my name, and she told me hers: Martha. I laughed, covering my mouth in excitement, and then I told her:

“My grandmother’s name was Martha, too! She was named after the first president’s wife, Martha Washington. Her parents were from Lebanon, and they were so proud to have their first daughter in the United States. Martha Washington Haidar. Can you believe that?”

“What?!”

Her confusion was due to her poor hearing, not the content of the story. I explained again, slowing down my Arabic, increasing my volume. Her eyes lit up when she understood. She smiled warmly and held my hand and we ate cookies, and for just forty-five minutes, I was returned to the tender feeling that is sitting with a grandmother.

I am glad I listened to my openhearted self that evening and accepted the invitations to sit with my neighbors. I allowed myself to truly enjoy their company and moved past my limited goal of relaying information to them. And don’t worry; I finished my homework, too.

[Originally published on Andrea in Amman blog, October 2016]

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