Working in Jordan: Christmas time

27 December 2017

Being away from friends and family is difficult at any time, but special occassions can make us feel particularly far from home.  Mike, a doctor from the UK, is in Jordan, where MSF / Doctors Without Borders provides vital healthcare to Syrian refugees and vulnerable Jordanians. In this personal post, he blogs about his first Christmas with MSF...

Christmas has always seemed an odd time to me. The strong perceived requirement to be happy, to be positive, has seemed hard when I’ve in the past worked with poor families in the UK who have felt obliged to spend more than they could afford on presents, or when I worked with the charity Crisis at Christmas and realised that for many of the volunteers the decision to spend time over Christmas with homeless people was prompted by losses of their own in the past. So as Christmas suddenly approached I wondered how I would find it.

I’ve not seen any sign of a Jordanian postal system, nor seen post arrive at the office etc. So I’d agreed with family that I’d not send or be sent Christmas presents (though I did cheat at the last moment and send my wife some music that we’d talked about in the summer).

Christmas has always seemed an odd time to me. 

So, not one of my Christmas presents was a disappointment and none of them went discreetly to a charity shop carrying a bit of confused guilt with it. And I lost nothing, in my eyes, by only hearing my first Christmas muzak on 23.12 (Though possibly my avoidance of the shopping malls in Irbid may have had something to do with the failure to come across this earlier!)

So in some ways, except during Skype calls, I didn’t feel Christmas was coming until the 22nd. It is remarkably easy to write messages to lots of friends and many colleagues about what they or I are doing without really engaging that this was part of the normal Christmas card preparations.

image shows Mike's room, with the walls covered with photos of his family

Mike's room in Irbid, with the walls decorated with photos of his family. Photo: Mike Tomson

(It has been great getting into the various spin-off conversations that have come from writing to people… an interesting reminder to me that it really is worth spending time staying in contact with people just because you have shared things or time with them at some stage.)

Skype is a funny way to be in contact and though I can get visuals most of the time it is still very remote. I’ve had some great family calls over Christmas and having that contact has been really important and fulfilling. I think and hope that we have largely managed to all feel that we have not been arranging our days round the possibility of a call which seems to be extremely unhelpful. The contact though is only partial: more like a taster than a real meal!

Contact through skype is only partial: more like a taster than a real meal!

I’m naïve to the realities of solo Christmas and haven’t done it before in 30+ years of a stable relationship. I note that some of my MSF colleagues have been doing it for years and have learnt to adapt to it. One I have enormous respect for, having had to come back on 24.12 from a week with family to be back at work here and support his team. 

The  international staff working in the local MSF projects are a very mixed group of people, some do not have the stable but long distance relationship that I’m lucky to enjoy, and almost all my colleagues are younger, and many much younger than I am. So I’m an odd part of this community, one of the old ones, but not one of those who have practised being self-content through this emotionally confusing period through years of separated Christmases.

The actual days of Christmas have been very different from anything I’d have had at home (though ours has become fairly atypical anyway!).  It has been very important for me to avoid making comparisons (of better or worse). Looking back at it I notice I’ve been careful to avoid creating expectations of what I’d do, indeed I had no plans for who I’d see on Christmas day until it arrived, so as it has all happened it has been a positive surprise.

 I had no plans for who I’d see on Christmas day until it arrived, so as it has all happened it has been a positive surprise.

I started writing this blog post on Christmas day evening and felt very happy doing so, choosing to reflect on what has been a great day. 

A big part of the difference was that 24.12 was a totally normal working day, in my case with the added excitement of hearing that we had three days to get five months of referrals sent to a provider or we would miss the possibility of these being processed. So until 1730 things were normal, if a bit frantic work…

Like many in UK I’ve tended to celebrate most on 25.12. There are few others here in the communities I’m part of who have that tradition and so this year 24.12 evening was to be the focus of my celebrations. Luckily one of our fellow MSF projects had the energy and time to prepare for a party that evening. 

Possibly my lemon souffle would have been easier if I’d had a pair of scales and a lemon zester...

Going to a party normally needs some preparations like making some food and some drink to share when you get there. There were slightly more steps in this than normal. Though alcohol is brewed and distilled in Jordan and there are shops selling it, there are not off-licences (liquor stores) on every street. It is also a difficult topic for many Muslim colleagues so there is a need to ensure that if you are asking a colleague how to get to one of the shops you ask somebody who does not find this offensive. (On this occasion we were lucky and went with a colleague from another branch of MSF in Irbid who had access to a car.)

Cooking is always most easy when you know the kitchen well and its equipment is familiar and works well. At home I’m extremely spoilt. During the week here we have an evening meal cooked for us five out of seven days a week. It is good and varied. There can often be enough left over to eat this for the other two days as well. So like the rest of the (current) team I’ve done little cooking of anything beyond simple food. But I’d been asked for a pudding.

Christmas arrived and the first three hours or so were almost all spent dancing and chatting

For a while I’d thought that I should try to make a sort of Christmas pudding but the challenges of this and steaming etc. as well as lack of suitably shaped bowls encouraged me to reconsider. (Dangerous and difficult word that “should” one. Who said I should do a Christmas pudding? Me!!).

So, a lemon soufflé seemed easier…  possibly it would have been easier still if I’d had a pair of scales and a lemon zester. I could have bought these in Irbid… there is after all a choice of shopping malls that some of my colleagues know well and spend lots of time in … but I’d ( typically) left things too late, and going to a shopping mall is not my form of relaxation. I’m not sure if having small chips of lemon was a necessary addition … certainly there was a great lemon taste and the balance was about right, despite the lack of scales (and chocolate chips would be considered normal so why not lemon?!).

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Image shows a rocky path surrounded by bright blue skies and green trees

A shot from the Christmas Day walk. Photo: Mike Tomson / MSF

The party was a great opportunity to meet colleagues from branches of MSF working in the north of Jordan that I’d not met before. Wonderful food, lots of opportunities to get exercise dancing … (indeed rather a lot of encouragement to get on the dance floor from one of my colleagues who used to drive in that project and has moved to ours!) So Christmas arrived and the first three hours or so were almost all spent dancing and chatting.

The rest of Christmas day was spent walking in the amazing countryside outside Irbid with newly found friends from another project. It’d finished raining, but there were wonderful clouds, the light was clear with the dust washed away and it was beautiful. This is a different Christmas with different opportunities.


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