07 October 2006

Come for the NGO, stay for the Chicken!

This week at the NGO we met with a representative from a labor organization. He spent a lot of time laying out how utterly fucked labor is here. Those are my words, not his. The fellow in charge of this project wanted to deal with labor issues on-site. In other words, he wanted to deal with specific concerns as they pertain to specific locations. Both myself and the other primary person on this project were interested in at least tipping our hats to the social costs of migrant labor. But, this would inevitably bog us down in “migrant issues” more than “labor issues.” Before we went in to talk with the rep, our head said “no” to the social angle on this.

The rep was really interested in our project, but very politely told us that we couldn’t escape the corruption and politics that make unions run here, nor could we escape the social baggage. I was interested in the social costs of migrant labor (as Kearney has dealt with it in the Mexico-California route) as that type of economic extraction that might exist here. But, the rep had a more broad recommendation: he said that we should not bother recruiting members for Jordan’s unions, but rather we should focus on enforcement of what few laws exist here. For example, the state will recognize a verbal contract, but most day-laborers don’t know this. If they are shafted at the end of the day and don’t get a promised per-diem, they have a right to pursue juridical action. In a way, I walked out with the impression that he envisioned organizing labor DESPITE unions. They are really powerless here. Any union in Jordan must be sanctioned by the state. Further, they have the power to dissolve or reorganize any union at any time. This is a good state strategy, they disallow unions for teachers in public schools, and they put all sorts of unrelated profession together under one union. The rep thought that this latter issue was a real problem, but as a teacher who belongs to the United Auto Workers, I’m not sure I feel that my union is weak, and certainly not because it’s diverse.

Interesting food for thought. Just in case you though labor rights are not actually a threat to a nation-state...

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Last night I was invited to Iftar at A’s aunt’s house in Jebel Hussein. The meal proceeded very much as tour books on Jordan describe. They stuffed me with food despite my pleas that I could not eat more. I remember last January a few British citizens were kidnapped for a few days in Gaza. Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent in Gaza, had a great piece on From Our Own Correspondent about this. He said that though it had never happened to him [yet], and he certainly hoped it never would [but it did], the mostly likely threat to come from a Palestinian is being fed to death. He’s on to something.

I was fed so much food that I really thought my esophagus was going to explode to make room for my stomach. I really can’t eat that much these days. When it’s time to break fast, I just want juice because I’m thirsty, but I really can’t eat that much even though I feel really hungry. We arrived at her house just as the call to prayer sounded (meaning we could eat). She brought us into her living room, which doubles as a dining room. There was a small table that was covered in food. She made maglooba, which is rice, eggplant, tomatoes, and chicken. I ate chicken for the first time in 18 years. (K said that Jordan is a good place to eat chicken.) She shoveled food onto my plate. She put two big pieces of chicken on the rice. I started picking the meat off the bone with my fork, and she motioned for me to lean back. She moved in and picked up the meat and pulled it off the bone, and tore it into little pieces, and put it back on my plate. She wouldn’t eat. She kept “dressing” my meal. Every time I made some progress, she picked up more chicken and put it on my plate. She sat there smoking and watching me eat; A went to the mosque to pray before he would eat, so there I was with a Palestinian woman who has to be pushing 80 years old, and who speaks as much English as I do Arabic, eating this amazing food in her small apartment. I actually ate most of the chicken before A returned. He bought some hummus for me (even though “this is for breakfast!”) because he remembered that I love hummus, but I had not yet had any as his aunt kept pointing to the rice and chicken and saying “Yella.” He said, “you haven’t have any hummus, you have to eat!” I protested that I’d had 6 kilos of chicken while he was away. This is apparently no excuse in Jordan.

At one point A noticed that I was eating my maglooba with a fork. “Don’t you have a spoon?” Did I mention that I’d started with a bowl of soup and two glasses of orange juice? I used to spoon for the soup, and then switched to the fork for the main. They both started laughing hysterically. Who knew you eat maglooba with a big-ass spoon? I was eating hummus, salad, and maglooba. I finally stopped eating, and she protested that I had not had enough. She told A to tell me that if I stopped eating the hummus with bread then I would have more room for maglooba.

She offered me tea. Once made, she set it down in front of me. Then she pulled it away, and said that I needed to eat more, and then I could have tea. I ate more. After another several heaping spoons full of rice and chicken, I refused to eat more. I really couldn’t eat any more. Seriously. So, then there was dessert. I had a peach and a pear. They were so sweet. Then she brought out a wonderful custard-ey dessert that tasted like roses.

It was amazing. I felt so awkward there.  I realized as this woman took so much time to feed me that Americans have not been socialized to accept such hospitality.   I suppose this is because we don’t extend it ever.  She has no idea who I am, but she welcomed me into her home and almost fed me to death. (I didn’t have breakfast this morning. It’s now 2 in the afternoon and I’m still not hungry.)   It was an amazing evening.   I’ve been invited back for Iftar on Wednesday.  I think I should not eat until then.

4 Comments:

Blogger Steven Kesler said...

That's funny. Last night G and I went to her bosses house for "coffee." He and his wife are from Germany. When we arrived he said "sit" and started bringing platters of muffins, cobblers, cakes, ice cream, and yogurt. After two cups of coffee and a mountain of cobbler he said "let's have a bbq" and brought out half a cow to cook. He was unsure if they had enough meat for us. I let him know he probably had enough to feed the four of us. He said, "I know you Americans eat huge portions of food." I said, "oh." He then proceeded to cook three huge steaks, a pallet of chicken legs, and an entire string of sausages. Even after G and I ate two steaks and a sausage each there was still an entire pile of meat left untouched. He said, "Funny, I was sure all this would be eaten." We then retired back inside for some tea. At this point G's boss brought out all the rest of the cakes, cobbler, and muffins we did not eat during our "coffee." I wasn't even all that hungry when we went there!

9:41 PM  
Blogger Miss Carousel said...

that sounds like a dinner at my grandma's house! seriously, for italians, if you don't eat the "right" amount of food offered (i.e., into your belly is so distended it's disgusting) then you have offended your cook (usually your elder).

I remember one time, the night before easter (and hence, still lent), my grandmother made a huge thing of meat lasagna. kevin (not yours) had given up meat for lent so didn't want to eat any lasagna. my grandmother was so enraged, despite the fact that i explained to her (as a "good" catholic, both her and him) that he had given up meat for lent and it was not an insult to her food, that she threw her utensils, stormed out of the dining area and refused to come back to sit down. that's an extreme example, but in my dad's family, if you don't eat an enormous amount of food, you probably won't be asked back and/or considered insolent.

so, i think this inability to accept courtesy is definitely a middle-america cracker phenomenon!!

4:18 AM  
Blogger Weeping Sore said...

the way you were fed, it occurs to me that if you were hosting this woman, and put food on the table, and expected the guest to take what they wanted, she might conclude that you were rude not to have offered her more, more, more. And based on Steve's and Miss Carousel's comments, it seems "food is love" holds true everywhere.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Herman said...

Wow. Okay, I want the recipe for maglooba. If you ate it chicken and all it has to be fabulous.

1:57 AM  

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