The Middle East @ Work

Hunger is a new part of their life

Alisa Roth Mar 4, 2008


Scott Jagow: Here’s a familiar sound from this part of the world:.

[Sound of a saz]

That’s a Saz, an instrument in Middle East music. Music often connects families in this region. Like the Iraqi family we’re spending the week with. Ayssir, Maher and their three children moved to Jordan to escape the war in Iraq. Music is a necessity in their home, even as they struggle to put food on the table. Alisa Roth continues their story.

Alisa Roth: Maher’s cooking French fries for dinner. The family has French fries for dinner most nights. Because potatoes (along with hummus and felafel) are one of the few things the family can afford.

Maher’s wife and three kids are teasing him while he cooks. By singing a song from Arab pop star Amal Hijazi that makes him sad. Because it reminds him of the lonely time when he was in Amman, ad his family was stuck in Baghdad.

Ayssir’s laughing because they can’t drink the water that comes out of their sink. Maher’s frying potatoes on a hot plate, because they don’t have a stove. And the ancient brown refrigerator in the corner has its doors propped open to keep away the mold.

Ayssir: It’s empty. It’s like a cupboard, we don’t operate it almost, because we don’t have food to fill it.

Or to fill their bellies. The family’s not exactly starving — Ayssir, if anything, is a little plump — but being hungry is just part of their life in Amman. Like having to wear used clothes, or walking everywhere because taxis are too expensive.

Listen to what Ayssir says about the kids’ school day:

Ayssir: The school starts from 8 in the morning til 1:30. And they come back. If there’s food they will eat it. If they don’t, they go to sleep.

If there’s food, she says.

Even when there is food, it’s not always what the kids want to eat. The girls’ favorites are hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza. Abdelilah won’t eat any meat. So like parents everywhere, Ayssir has to get creative.

Like she does with the cheap Jordanian treat, bread with zataar-a mix of thyme and other herbs.

I never tasted — I don’t like it — but come and taste it, look how it is hot and smell it, it’s delicious.

Sometimes her kids believe her. Sometimes, she even believes herself.

Ayssir: God is great. When we don’t have food, we have bread or something. The neighbors bring us something, food. Take, just like that.

It was never like this in Baghdad. Flipping through a photo album one morning, the oldest child, Weesnaa, finds a picture of her extended family eating together.

Weesnaa: This is my uncle, my aunt, my aunt, my cousin, my uncle.

For now, they’re content to be together, eating french fries and felafel for dinner and teasing their father.

In the song, the heroine’s lover has gone away and she wonders whether he’ll ever come back. Here, the family sings the song to remind Maher that he doesn’t need to worry, because they’re all in the same place again.

In Amman, I’m Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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