AMMAN–As the sun sank closer to the horizon, the hostess emerged from the kitchen hoisting a circular platter about one meter in diameter and heaped with mensaf, the national dish of Jordan. Mensaf is one of my favorite dishes—ever—but that evening something else caught and held my attention.
That evening, Jordanian friends had invited me to join them for iftar, the breaking of the fast during Ramadan*, with their extended family. “That’s a TON of mensaf,” I thought, wondering privately how we were going to eat it all.
But I had thought too soon—the hostess disappeared into her kitchen and reemerged with tray number two, and as the rest of the family arrived, the amount of food started to make more sense. I counted no less than 27 people that night, from a month-old baby to the elderly grandmother.
For mensaf, meat, usually lamb, is simmered in yogurt and spices, spread over a mountain of rice, and then sprinkled with toasted pine nuts or sliced almonds, which give a nice crunch to every other mouthful. Part of mensaf’s thrill is that it is traditionally eaten by hand (make a ball of meat-encased-rice doused with yogurt sauce, and pop it in your mouth), with the meter-wide platter serving as a communal dish. Many families, especially in Amman, however, serve mensaf on individual plates to be eaten with spoons, as we did that night.
But the real highlight of the evening turned out to be home videos of birthday parties from the nineties that someone had dug up. Many of the same aunts, uncles and cousins present for iftar that night were also in the videos, which thus became true time capsules.
In the videos, most of the adult women did not cover their hair. But that evening, the majority of those same women, from the teenaged cousins to the grandmother, did wear the hijab. Later, the family that brought me said they believed Jordan had grown more conservative in recent decades. Others I’ve spoken with since then have said the same, although everyone seems to have different ideas over what has caused this shift.
Usually, defining certain aspects of culture and cultural change in concrete terms is a struggle. Yet watching 20-year-old home videos with the very people featured in those videos provided an unusually clear, even if purely anecdotal, comparison of then versus now. And while the videos are not absolute proof that Jordan is more conservative than it was twenty years ago, at the very least they offered some unexpected cultural insight.
*During Ramadan, Amman seems to take a step back from its hectic norm and breathe a bit. Official work hours are reduced to 10 to 3, and the slower pace is visible from closed storefronts and (slightly) less daytime traffic. Fasting in Jordan means waking up before dawn for a meal (suhoor), then fasting (abstaining from food, drink, cigarettes, sex and cursing) until sunset.