The Christian village of Hmoud seems deserted. My translator and I have been told not to expect much; residents of Smakieh, the next village over, have warned us that only a handful of people still live here, many of them elderly. Still, the emptiness of the streets is surprising. It is not abandonment; the tiny cinderblock houses are well kept and the roads are clean, but there is no one in sight.
This is particularly odd because the day is beautiful — it is surprisingly warm for early March, but not baking, and the sky is still scattered with a few puffy clouds, a last hint of the rainy season before the long, dry Jordanian summer begins.
Some villagers may still be in church — Friday morning Divine Liturgies in Jordan are often well attended, since it is the Muslim holiday, and most people have the day off from work — but there are only two cars in the street outside the Orthodox church, and almost none visible in town. Finally, we pass one yard where a family sits on plastic chairs, chatting and soaking in the sun. Finding no one else about, we stop and say hello. We explain that we’re reporters, doing a story about the area’s Christians, and soon we are sitting with them, enjoying the morning sun and learning about the lives of our hosts.
As it happens, this is the family of the local Orthodox priest, Father Sami Halasa: his wife Alice, his son Sameer and his daughter-in-law Fidaa, as well as his adult grandchildren, Lydia and Amer, who have driven in from Amman for this weekend lunch. Right now they’re all waiting for Father Sami to return from the church. As they do, they talk about the history of their family — from the arrival of the Halasa tribe from Egypt centuries before to their success today as doctors and lawyers, government ministers in Jordan and successful professionals who have spread to dozens of countries around the world.
In many ways, this is the story of Jordan’s Christians. We came to Smakieh and Hmoud, the last fully Christian villages in Jordan, expecting to find Bedouin Christians clinging desperately to the remnants of their old traditions and way of life. Instead, we found people whose outlook is particularly cosmopolitan, people who for generations have very explicitly embraced education, travel and commerce as the way to a better life. They hold fast to their Christian identity — not by clinging to the past, but by trying to improve themselves and the world.
At least, most of them do. After perhaps 20 minutes, the Divine Liturgy ends and Father Sami emerges — a solitary, black-clad figure walking slowly down the street from the church. He greets us briefly and steps inside to change. The family, we discern, is about to have lunch. As we begin to excuse ourselves, Father Sami suddenly re-emerges. Now in casual pants and a priest’s collared shirt, he settles into a deck chair and insists on being interviewed.
Advanced in years, Father Sami holds a distinctly traditional point of view. Life in the village was much better in the past, he announces — before all these machines and cars and tractors. The modern world is a corrupting influence, and people are moving away from the faith. Everyone now is obsessed with money and possessions, gradually losing respect for religion; even today, he says, gesturing toward the church, there were only three people at the Divine Liturgy. His family smiles, but there is some tension in the air; they do not all, perhaps, see eye-to-eye on this. Nor would we expect it; here, in this village, in this family, is a microcosm of one of the great struggles consuming faith communities today. Is the modernity of a globalized consumer society a blessing or a curse? How much of it should one embrace, and how far?
Father Sami’s speech ends abruptly. “I’m hungry,” he says. “You must come for lunch.” We try once more to excuse ourselves, but the Halasas won’t have it; we are guests and therefore must be fed — preferably until we cannot stand up.
As a very strict vegetarian, I have difficulties with Arab hospitality; there is little on offer that I can eat and people are often unfamiliar with vegetarian cooking. My visits usually end up being so difficult for everyone that I avoid them. But as we try to explain this problem, Fidaa Halasa smiles at me. It’s Lent, she reminds me, and in Lent, they cook without meat or cheese or eggs. There are no animal products in their Friday lunch. With pleasure, we accept and spend the next hour in their small, homey living room, being stuffed with delicious maqloobeh — a traditional Palestinian dish of rice, cauliflower and eggplant — plus salad, bread and softball-sized fresh oranges. After lunch, Father Sami produces a battered 1980’s vintage radio and sits hunched over it, listening to the news at immense volume while Lydia and Amer talk about their school and Fidaa talks about her family.
For a moment, all questions of modernity and the state of the faith are shelved. This is Arab hospitality, and it is one tradition of the desert and the nomadic life that has never been put aside. Guests must be welcomed, must be given food and water, and it is by this welcome that one is judged.
Some things never change.