ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Lessons Over Coffee

Jordan’s Bedouin Christian community strives to maintain its rich faith and heritage.

The Jordanian village of Smakieh comes to life at sunrise. Shepherds open their pens and lead their sheep to the fields while women bake bread in clay ovens. Soft sunlight bathes the hills and the only sounds are the bleating of sheep, the crowing of roosters and the braying of a donkey. It is a serene prelude to a long day’s work for the 2,000 people of Smakieh.

“We are all Christians in this village,” a man announces, adding with a sweep of his hand, “all of us.” His name is Rafa’el; he extends the first of many such invitations:

“Come to my home and have coffee.”

The people of Smakieh are not only Christians but also bedouin, nomads who for centuries have survived and flourished in what is today the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. After coffee with Rafa’el, two villagers, Murad Hijazine and his mother, Jamileh, insist that I join them in the shade of their vegetable garden for a breakfast of tea and freshly baked bread. Hospitality is ingrained in Bedouin culture.

Smakieh is one of a handful of villages near the town of Kerak in southern Jordan where tribes of Christian Bedouin have settled, ending their nomadic way of life. The Hijazine, a Latin (Roman) Catholic tribe, set up camp here in 1880; they were later joined by the Akasheh, a Greek Melkite Catholic tribe. A Latin Catholic church was built on the encampment in 1909 and the village of Smakieh grew around it.

“We live on one side of Smakieh, and the Akasheh live on the other,” Murad informs me. “But we all get along.” In the heart of the village, a Greek Melkite Catholic church faces the Latin Catholic church. Their pastors, Fathers Boulos Baqa’in and Imad Twal, are close friends.

“If I’m out of town,” says Father Boulos, “my people go to the Latin church. If Father Imad is gone, his people come here.”

Tribal identity is often linked with church affiliation. For example, the nearby village of Hmoud developed around a Greek Orthodox church. Built in 1890, the church was created to serve the Halaseh tribe. The pastor, Father Sami Thawaher, claims that the first church had been built to resemble a house; the Halaseh did not have permission from the Ottoman authorities to build a church.

Relationships among the three churches are good, and the priests of the area often meet with each other. One day I joined Father Imad on a visit to an Adir family who had recently experienced the death of two family members. On the way he stopped in Hmoud to pick up Father Sami so together they could express their condolences to the family.

The Christians of this Middle Eastern kingdom celebrate Christmas and Easter together, following the Latin calendar for Christmas and the Eastern calendar for Easter. Sharing celebrations is especially important for bedouin Christians; it is customary to visit one another.

“If you visit 10 homes,” I was told, “you will drink coffee 10 times and everyone will invite you to stay for lunch.”

Sure enough, Raba’s Greek Orthodox pastor, Father Fadi Halaseh, said to me only half in jest, “You must have lunch at my house or you cannot come at all.” I accepted his invitation.

As his last name indicates, Father Fadi is a member of the Halaseh tribe. His wife, Lana, is from the Zuregat tribe, which makes up most of Raha’s Christians. Joining us for lunch was Musa Zuregat, the mukhtar(head) of the Zuregat tribe. Known familiarly as Abu George (the father of George, his eldest son), he had served as a major in the Jordanian police.

Lunch was preceded by locally made arak (an anise-flavored liqueur) and roasted nuts. Abu George helped with the final preparation of the mansaf: a large platter of lamb and rice sprinkled with roasted nuts, drenched in a rich sauce and covered with the lamb’s skull. The sauce was prepared from the distinctive bedouin dried yogurt made from the milk of a white goat. Bedouin custom calls for eating mansaf with one’s right hand, plucking a bit of meat from the bone and rolling it into a hall of rice that can be popped into one’s mouth. Everyone eats from one large platter, which is a sign of sharing. As the guest, I was given the tongue and brains of the lamb, which are considered delicacies. Strong coffee capped the meal.

There are about 400 Bedouin Christians in Raba. Most of them are Orthodox, with a few Latin and Greek Melkite Catholic Families. Modern Raba evolved in the 7th century as a Bedouin encampment among the ruins of Areopolis, a major city and archdiocesan see during the Byzantine era. The see had long been dormant, allowing Pope Pius XI to name a member of the Holy See’s diplomatic corps, Angelo Roncalli, as titular Archbishop of Areopolis in 1925. He would later become bishop of Rome as Pope John XXIII.

Byzantine Areopolis and Bedouin Raba represent two layers of Christianity in Jordan, whose Arab Christians trace their faith back to the earliest days of Christianity. There were visitors from Arabia in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:11), and Paul tells us that he spent time in Arabia after his conversion (Gal. 1:17). Luke does not chronicle in Acts how the early church spread eastward from Jerusalem, but it clearly did, for church councils list bishops in attendance from what is now Jordan. Excavations have uncovered many impressive Byzantine churches, testimony to a flourishing Christian life, in cities such as Areopolis, Petra and Philadelphia (present-day Amman).

The bedouin did not dwell in cities but in wilderness areas. How did the Gospel penetrate the desert? The earliest accounts describe bedouin coming into contact with desert fathers, or early monks who entered the wilderness in search of God.

A particularly vivid account of a bedouin tribe’s conversion to Christianity can be found in Lives of the Monks of Palestine by Cyril of Scythopolis, who knew leaders of the tribe. A bedouin named Aspebetus was “chieftain of the Saracens in Arabia who were in alliance with Rome.” Aspebetus’s son was partially paralyzed; in a dream he saw a monk who told him, “I am Euthymius, who resides in the eastern desert 12 miles from Jerusalem. If you wish to be healed, come to me without delay and God will cure you.” Aspebetus brought his son to Euthymius; the boy was healed while the monk prayed over him. Aspebetus and his family then asked for instruction in the baptism and faith of Christianity.

Soon Aspebetus’s tribe and “a multitude of Saracen barbarians” became Christians. Since these converts were “extremely numerous and spread out,” Euthymius asked the patriarch of Jerusalem to ordain Aspebetus as their bishop, which he did, and gave him the name Peter. Bishop Peter attended the Council of Ephesus in 431, where he played a significant role in an important church council that defined the role of the Virgin Mary.

Bedouin Christianity has endured, but in an environment that has seen change. The first change came with the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Masses of Christian bedouin did not at first embrace Islam. Indeed, Muslim authorities granted privileges to the Azizat, a Christian tribe, who were later joined by other Christian tribes living in the desert. Nevertheless, economic and social pressures encouraged the bedouin to embrace Islam, which many did after the 10th century.

Today most Jordanian Bedouin are Muslim, yet there are tribes who have maintained their Christian faith through the centuries.

The very name of the Hijazine indicates the antiquity of its Christianity: it is a tribe originally from the Hijaz, the area around the Islamic holy city of Mecca. It is inconceivable that a tribe living in the heartland of Islam could have converted from Islam to Christianity. It can be deduced, therefore, that the Hijazine were Christian before the time of Muhammad. Over time they migrated northward, first to the ancient city of Petra and then to the area around Kerak.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, and the subsequent creation of modem nation states in the Middle East, have also changed the bedouin way of life. Bedouin lived in wilderness regions that could sustain herds of sheep and goats but were too dry for crops. They were not perpetual nomads, but instead adapted to the wilderness and migrated seasonally between grazing areas.

Today the wilderness has been carved up among countries and invaded by the trappings of modem life. Deprived of their grazing areas, the bedouin have steadily moved into permanent settlements for the advantages they offer: electricity, running water, schooling and medical services.

The settling of Christian bedouin tribes in villages has been, in part, the result of church efforts.

After the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was reestablished in 1847 after a lapse of more than 500 years, missionary priests were sent to serve bedouin tribes. At first they traveled with the bedouin, celebrating liturgy in tents. One priest wrote in a letter in 1876 of his sitting on a rock in the corner of a tent, hearing confession, while a flock of chickens roosted overhead. “It is also like this saying Mass and giving Communion,” he added.

Eventually tents were replaced by more permanent places of worship, forming the nuclei around which villages developed. Today the Christian bedouin of Jordan are what Father Fadi calls “bedouin in houses.” They use tents only for special occasions, such as weddings and wakes. They may still tend sheep and goats, but they also raise wheat and other crops.

Can bedouin still be bedouin now that they are no longer nomadic? Settling in villages has undoubtedly changed some facets of their lives, but their culture remains truly bedouin. The bedouin’s appreciation and respect for family keep the culture alive; the basic social unit remains the extended family and the tribe.

Hospitality is a deeply rooted tradition expressed in distinctive customs. Sharing a cup of coffee, for example, often means sharing a cup. Rich, bitter coffee is poured into small handless cups that can be emptied in two sips. If one returns the cup to the server, it is refilled. The signal that one does not want another cup is to waggle one’s hand when returning the cup. Then it is refilled and offered to the next person.

Subtle variations in coffee etiquette carry meaning. If one does not drink the cup of coffee but sets it down, that is a signal that one comes seeking a favor from the host. If the host says, “Drink up!” that indicates that the favor will be granted.

Coffee is shared to mark the resolution of conflicts: “We solve our problems with a cup of coffee,” one man told me.

While traditional culture is preserved, modern society nevertheless has an increasing impact on bedouin life. The younger generation completes high school; many strive for college. But after graduation, job opportunities in villages like Smakieh and Hmoud are severely limited. Consequently, there is pressure to move to Amman, Jordan’s political and economic center, in order to find employment. Many Christian bedouin have made the move, but at the cost of leaving behind their families and culture.

The leadership of the Christian community is making an effort to stabilize village life by providing jobs. CNEWA’s Amman office has supported programs in Smakieh that employed workers to restore the Greek Melkite Catholic church, install a playground in the Latin Catholic school, and improve the village’s water distribution system. An experimental farm was set up in 1995 to develop new crops and an improved breed of sheep. Nonetheless, the pressure to migrate for jobs remains, resulting in the pastoral challenge of caring for those adapting to city life.

There is no secular identity in Jordan: one is either a Muslim or a Christian. When the Christian bedouin moves from his native Christian village to Amman, he confronts Islamic society. His Christian faith, which is tribal and cultural, is challenged. Consequently, the village churches are working to deepen the faith and knowledge of their members through education and youth programs.

Bishop Selim Sayegh, Jordan’s Latin Patriarchal Vicar, is proud that more than 8,000 youths are active in groups and programs sponsored by the vicariate. To encourage such activities, Bishop Selim’s dream is to build a multipurpose center for retreats, conferences, youth camps and ecumenical assemblies. Bishop Selim is also proud that most of the seminarians studying in the Latin Patriarchal seminary in Beit Jala near Jerusalem are from Jordan and were involved in the youth programs.

Bedouin figure prominently in the roster of priests and religious serving in the Holy Land. The Hijazine tribe, some 6,000 strong, has contributed 13 men to the priesthood and some 20 women to religious life. Another 20 women religious are members of the Azizat tribe, as are 10 priests.

One morning in Smakieh I caught a glimpse of a few men stopping at an outdoor shrine to the Virgin Mary before going to the fields. As a sign of respect, they removed the agal, or cord, from their kaffiyehs (head scarves) before praying.

As I watched them pray I thought of their bedouin ancestor, Bishop Peter, who proclaimed Mary as the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus. Bedouin devotion to the Virgin Mary, in fact bedouin Christianity, extends back for centuries.

George Martin, a frequent traveler to the Holy Land, filed this story from Jordan.

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