Amman, Jordan — Ever since our family returned from the US, I have been repeatedly asked to compare life in America to life in the Middle East. For the 2007-’08 academic year I served as a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and a lecturer at the Near East department.
With our older children working or at college, my wife, Salam, and our nine year old, Dina, returned to Amman with mixed feelings. I was happy to be back working as I commuted between my community radio station in Amman and working as the executive producer in Ramallah of a new season of shara’a simsim, the Palestinian version of Sesame street.
It was half way into the holy month of Ramadan that I was able to internalize the answer to the persistent question about the difference between the two cultures. We were having an iftar (breaking the fast) dinner at Rima al Bawadi, an authentic restaurant in the outskirts of Amman. The clear and unique collective spirit that I noticed led me to conclude that collective versus individual is the answer I have been searching for.
I have been thinking about personal versus collective ever since my youngest daughter wanted to have her own Hotmail e-mail account. With a few clicks on the keyboard my daughter was able to have her own user name and her private password. Neither me, my family, nor my wife or her family has ever had our own private mail box. Entire extended families often have a single mailbox with the patriarch of the family having the key and collecting mail for the entire family.
The collective spirit, in both its positive (social networking and protection) and its negative (absence of uniqueness and individual freedom), is much bigger than individual email accounts versus family controlled mailboxes. It applies to issues from the family’s role in deciding your education, your profession and even your spouse.
The four course dinner (without alcohol and with hubbly bubbly) was for nearly 30 people that included staff and volunteers working in Radio al Balad, our community radio station, that is slowly creating a new agenda for independent electronic media in the Arab world.
Muslim faithful are expected to adhere to this one of the five pillars of Islam. The other four are prayer, testifying (to the one God and that Mohammad is his prophet), haj (pilgrimage), and zakat (tying). When the moon appears marking the beginning of the month of Ramadan, the faithful are expected to abstain from food, drink and sexual activities during all daytime hours.
Throughout this month families, small and large, as well as NGOs and companies, hold iftar jami, a collective dinner timed exactly as the sunsets. Ironically Muslim and Christians, faithful and seculars participate in this unique collective habit. Even foreigners have picked up the habit. In one day I got two invitations from foreign diplomats (one from the US ambassador) inviting me to attend the collective dinner.
Ramadan is full of other cultural events. People are seen walking city or village streets till the late hours of the night. Families and restaurants compete in cooking their fanciest meals. Food is so big that it is causing many to say that instead of thinking of the poor and saving money and waistlines, many are spending more and feasting rather than fasting. For me the favorite sweet is qatif–a pancake-like dough that is stuffed with nuts or cheese and dipped in syrup. Most bakeries prepare this sweet only during the month of Ramadan.
Naturally, the all day fasting shortens working hours and dramatically reduces national production leading some to call this the lazy month.
Since families and groups are gathered together at sunset, television producers are quick to take advantage of this captive audience. Nearly 80% of new productions in the Arab world are produced specifically to be aired on Ramadan. This year, the highlight has been a series about the famous Arab singer Asmahan. Another romantic soap named "Noor" came from Turkey and was dubbed to colloquial Arabic, capturing phenomenal ratings. TV stations parade their best looking and least dressed women to give away cell phones, plane tickets and even cars to the many viewers and callers. The viewership of Arab television has been so high that an Islamic clerk in Saudi Arabia condemned the owners of Arab satellite stations to death. "Those calling for fitna [Arabic for civil strife, or temptation]… it is permissible to kill them," chairman of the Saudi Arabian Supreme Judiciary Council, Sheikh Salih A-Lahidan, said during a radio show, when asked about channels broadcasting "immoral programs" during the holy month of Ramadan. The statement was later watered down.
Islamic law and tradition provide a waiver to the young and the sick as well as those traveling. Instead they are expected to make a contribution to a needy family. This year the futra meal to be given to a poor family should not be less than 2.5 Jordanian dinars (US $4). This collectiveness and social networking might be one of the major differences between the individual culture in the West and the collective culture of the East.