Stories of the Middle East


Paul Weagle

اهلا وسهلا

Though most of my time studying Arabic was in Amman, a beautiful city in and of itself filled with art, culture, food, and some of the most hospitable people you can ever meet, my favorite city in
Jordan, and perhaps the whole Middle East (and the farthest south in Jordan we were allowed to go per Dil’s request ­ Dil was the program director and our resident Arabist and linguistic idol-
and probably BYU’s requirements) was Salt. I thought Salt was a very interesting name for a
city, but this is an Arab country, and there is so much more behind a simple name complete with hidden and alternate meanings.

When a typical English speaker hears the word “salt”, or hears of a city named “Salt”, they may
think that the city would have a history in the salt mining, selling, or exporting industry, (after all,
it is between the Dead Sea and Amman, so that might very well have been a depot for the salt
trade, especially with the Hijaz Railway close by) but the Arabic root (ط ل ص read from right to
left) has to do with reigning or having authority. That being said (or written to be more precise),
you may deduce that the city of Salt is the old Ottoman capital of the governorate, with majestic
vistas from the hilltops, picturesque winding streets, rich history, and the worst public restroom I
have ever been obliged to use in my entire life. (I’m serious. The. Worst. EVER. Ask my friends
who came with me. They can be my witness. But that’s a whole other story all together and
probably not appropriate for sharing with the general public. If you want me to type that story out
and send it to you, let me know. Requester beware; reader’s discretion strongly advised)
For all these reasons I listed above, (yes, even the public water closet ­ though that is an
overstatement as there was very little running water) Salt can stand alone in it’s own class as
one of the best (and by far the most underrated) small and perhaps forgotten cities the world
around. The one thing that I haven’t yet mentioned, and this is what really makes Salt one of the
most beloved of all the cities that I visited in the Middle East, is this little woman named Layla
that I met walking down the street.

A couple classmates and I went down for a visit one day and we were walking around one of the neighborhoods up on the hills. We had completed a visit to one of the oldest Christian churches in the country built in to a cave. I see this nice unassuming lady walking up the street, so I throw her the traditional Arabic greeting ­ Ahlan (اهلا). This basic everyday greeting is very common,
yet steeped in deep meaning. Literally translated it means that you are welcoming somebody as part of your family ­ the root ل ه dealing with family. The second part of the full greeting وسهلا اهلا
(ahlan wasahlan) comes from the root ل ه س. Equally beautiful, the second half of the greeting means that you are also greeting them as an equal, on the same level ­ no one better off or richer in any way. I didn’t really expect anything to come from this routine exchange, but this woman was floored (by that I mean that her jaw was basically on the ground) by the fact that somebody greeted her, even more impressed that we were students studying Arabic from America visiting Salt for the day. We started talking with her on the street, and the next thing we
know, she invited us to her apartment. I think we were as shocked at her invitation, as she was that we spoke Arabic relatively well (at least we thought so). I understood her question, but I didn’t really understand why she wanted to have us in her home. I had never to that point experienced that kind of hospitality to complete strangers in my life. We followed her to her modest apartment where she lived with her mechanic husband, Muhammad. He recently had a
bad work accident and had the the top of one of his fingers crushed off; he didn’t let that affect him negatively as he welcomed all of us into his home with a smile on his face as if he had done it for us a million times before. To him, we were not strangers; he took that common greeting to
heart and to him, we were his family. We were his equals. His kindness was genuine, and his
heart pure gold. His wife was so warm and open. She went in the backroom to change out of
her work clothes and she came out without her hijab (traditional headscarf), something that I
have never witnessed or experienced in my time there up to that point (One of my best friends had me over his house in Amman, and I didn’t even meet his mother. She prepared a whole feast for me and my best friend Ala’a, and I never once got to meet her in person or shake her hand. She was always closeted in the back room, or in the kitchen. Her food was delicious, but it would have been nice to at least meet the woman who took me in to her home and fed me).
We sat, for what seemed like hours, talking about whatever came up, drinking mint tea and
basking in the amazing cross­cultural experience that was unfolding before us. I feel that both the Americans and the Arab Jordanians in the room were just as shocked to find the common ground that we shared. If memory serves me right our humble hosts never had the opportunity to have children. This is something they wanted so bad, as they loved each other more than words in any language could express; children are a way to pass down that legacy of love that will last for generations. They would have made the most amazing parents; the neighborhood
children loved them and were welcome into their home anytime. She was a second mom to the kids of the neighborhood ­ always ready for a spot of mint tea or a modest meal at a moments notice. Their apartment seemed pretty standard; the furniture, while nice, had signs of wear and
tear ­ certainly from the countless times the neighbors would come over for tea, delicious snacks, a quick joke or a heartfelt cry.
I had forgotten their names until a friend recently reminded me, and their faces are sadly and slowly fading from memory, but the feelings that I felt in that small apartment will never fade,
feelings of pure love and compassion. This beautiful old couple taught me one of life’s most valuable lessons ­ to always welcome those you come in contact with as members of your family and always, always as equals. It doesn’t matter what language you speak (or how well you can effectively communicate with it), what ethnicity you are (or identify with), or your religion (or lack of religion), sexual preference (or lack of one), gender, hair color (or lack of hair), what size your television is (or even if you have a television), what kind of car you drive (if you even have a car), what sports team you support, or anything really; the only thing that matters is
following those two guidelines. Everything else is just fluff.

اهلا وسهلا