Sunday, April 30, 2006

A word about Arabs

It's never a good idea to generalize, but sometimes you can't help it. I'm going to generalize now and say that Arabs absolutely adore little kids.

We live in Jordan with three small kids, a 7 year old girl, a 2-and-a-half year old girl and a 7 month old boy. Anytime we go out, we end up running into people who tease, joke with, talk and generally fall over themselves entertaining our kids. A couple of weeks ago in Jerash, a site of old Roman ruins about 45 minutes outside of Amman, a group of five or six young women, all conservatively dressed, went crazy over the little baby, eventually asking us to take their cameras and take pictures of them, each one holding the baby.

Yesterday, at Umm Qays, another site of Roman ruins in the north of Jordan, on the border of Syria and Israel, one of the tourist police was so taken by the 2-and-half year old's insistance that a horse a boy uses to give tourists rides was HER horse, that he in turn insisted on taking her to the horse, which was about 150 yards away, down a steep set of stairs and dirt path, to ride the horse again. My daughter, Mai, was reluctant at first. We've given her and theothers a healthy dose of skepticism about the intentions of strangers, but i said, "It's okay Mai, uncle's a a good guy, he's a friend, it's ok," and so she happily relented. He also insisted that I stay and enjoy my lunch, so i watched from the steps as he carefully led her down the steps and over to the horse. Within 15 minutes she was surrounded by a group of about 10 kids, like 10-12 years old, who were talking with her, joking with her, asking her questions and generally just having a great time.

This is something I've never seen happen in the US or most other countries I visited, yet it happens here almost daily. Anytime we go to a restaurant or store, the waiters, custumers or store owners end up having conversations with the kids, sometimes taking them to their friends who then also engage the kids in the most beautiful way. In the US I don't think I would let some waiter take my kid out of my sight for one second, but here it is totally normal.

If you haven't experienced this it must seem absolutely crazy. I mean who lets a stranger walk off with their kid, even for a minute? The first time I really saw this happen was back in 1993. I was travelling overland from Turkey to Egypt, and was waiting in Amman for a bus to Aqaba. Most of the others waiting were Egyptians, and it didn't take long to strike up a converstain with a young guy who was there waiting too. He was also talking and joking with an Egyptian couple with a little baby, and after a while he said something to them I didn't understand, took the baby on his shoulders and walked away. I mean pretty far away too. While he was gone I asked the father of the small child if the young man was a relative. He shook his head no. I was floored. This guy let a complete stranger walk off with his kid. How could he do that?!? But sure enough the guy came back in a few moments with the happiest little girl riding on his shoulders.

I've seen and experienced this kind of thing a hundred times in the Arab world. Maybe we're made paranoid in the US by news stories of murderers and pedofiles. Or maybe extended families are still a lot closer here than in the US or other Western countries so people are more comfortable dealing with others across generations. In the US I think sometimes people are afraid to talk to kids for fear of giving the wrong impression. But here it seems generations just interact in a much more healthy and natural way.

Either way, someone plays with the kids I always keep one eye on them, at least. I'm still a parent and I'm not naive about what could happen. But it's nice to have a feeling that the kids don't have to grow up completely fearful of every stranger they see.


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