Lessons Over Coffee

The faith of Jordan’s Christian bedouin sustains the unique identity of these former nomads.

by George Martin

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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.

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Tags: Jordan Christianity Cultural Identity Village life Bedouin