In this desert town, no traveler goes hungry, even in Ramadan

Taylor Luck

When Amman resident Walid Abdullah spotted a group of young hitchhikers trying to flag him down on the main highway to the port of Aqaba, he drove past without giving much notice.

When a second group of young men 100 yards later waved their arms wildly in the air, he began to wonder if he had a flat tire. Then a man stepped out in front of his car, forcing him to stop.

“They told me I had to come with them,” Mr. Abdullah said. “I was their guest, and a meal was waiting for me.”

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It was no kidnapping; it was Ramadan in Maan.

Known as the gateway to the Hejaz, the Jordanian town of Maan, 60 miles west of the Saudi border, has stood for centuries as the last oasis for travelers and pilgrims heading east to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

From the beginning of the Umayyad era in the eighth century, residents in this geographically strategic town linking the Levant with the Arab Gulf would offer travelers As Sabeel – rest and refuge in the name of God.

It wasn’t just hospitality, but a religious duty. And for good reason: Between Maan and Medina lay 500 miles of scorching desert where temperatures can exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit and which until recently had few settlements.

For caravan traders and pilgrims heading to Mecca, Maan marked the last chance for days to stock up on clean water, supplies, food, medical help, and a good night’s sleep.

Even today, the first rest stop after Maan on the pilgrimage route is Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, 150 miles away. By car, the trip to Medina takes 10 hours, and more than 14 hours nonstop to Mecca.

The town, which straddles the road to Mecca, would bustle during the hajj season, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca Muslims are required to make once in their lifetime.

THE RAMADAN SEASON

But a second peak season would come during Ramadan. The holy month is a preferred time for Muslims across the world to make the non-compulsory Umrah pilgrimage out of the belief that praying at the Kaaba in Mecca while fasting elevates their prayers and rewards from God. So Maan residents would make it a mission during Ramadan to feed visiting pilgrims their fast-breaking iftar meal at sunset.

In 2002, the town of 50,000 decided to pull its efforts together into one organized campaign, “As Sabeel Maan.”

“Throughout the generations for over 1,000 years, families continued the tradition of hosting and feeding travelers and pilgrims, it is part of their heritage,” says Abdullah Al Hussan, Maan historian and cultural writer. “Today, As Sabeel is an organized continuation of that tradition.”

On a donated two-acre plot of land on the main road to Saudi Arabia near the town center, volunteers in a tent and a simple concrete kitchen are busy preparing hundreds of iftar meals to pass out and serve at sunset.

Here, students, retirees, and men who take unpaid leave from work carry on 24-hour shifts to receive donations, cook, clean, deliver meals, and flag down and serve iftar guests.

“As Sabeel is Maan residents performing good deeds for God and their fellow man and woman, no matter who they are,” says Abu Hareth Al Qureishi, As Sabeel Maan organizer, as young men shovel vats of rice onto platters.

He oversees 50 men who feed an average of 600 impoverished families in the area and more than 600 travelers each day.

It is a grueling schedule.

After a night of cleaning and following dawn prayers, the volunteers start cutting and prepping 700 chickens and 800 pounds of rice. Soon, 14 giant pots four feet in diameter would be bubbling with aromatic spices, rice, and chicken or other meat. 

Everything at As Sabeel Maan comes by way of donations from the local community, organized a month ahead of time.

Contributions can be as large as a shepherd donating a ton of lamb or camel meat, or as small as a bag of rice. Some Maan residents living abroad in the Gulf wire back home as much as $3,500, which pays for an entire day’s meals. The town raises an estimated $140,000 in donations and food for the month.

“We take all donations big or small. Blessings are not based on the size of the good deed, but the intention in your heart,” Mr. Al Qureishi says as residents drive up with cartons of water and dates from their homes two hours before sunset.

ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE

While volunteers passing out bags of dates and water to drivers shortly before dusk is a common sight in much of the Muslim world during Ramadan, Maan takes it to a completely different level.

Abu Jaber and a group of his friends and neighbors formed their own informal As Sabeel, stationing themselves each afternoon on the Desert Highway running from Amman to Aqaba, two miles from the outskirts of Maan.

The young men flag down trucks, buses, traffic cops, and passenger cars at a speed bump 50 yards ahead of the turnoff for Maan.

If they cannot convince the drivers to head to As Sabeel Maan for their iftar meal, they hand out bags of fruit, yogurt, dates, and water for all – no exceptions.

“We make sure everyone on this road is fed by sunset – tourists, the police, construction workers, families,” says Mr. Jaber as his volunteer crew stops a tourist bus. They motion the driver to roll down his window and pass through a dozen bags of fruit and yogurt to the eager Jordanian driver and bewildered tourists.

“This is not just for Muslims, this generosity is for all travelers and for all of God’s creations.”

ONE NIGHT’S GATHERING

In Maan, with sunset approaching, the As Sabeel tent is still empty, and volunteers roam the main street, looking for foreign license plates and unfamiliar faces to flag down.

In the kitchen, volunteers prepare 40 giant platters of rice and chicken kabseh.

As soon as they take out the trays to the tent, some 300 people appear like a sudden desert mirage.

At tonight’s meal are Jordanians driving to Aqaba for the weekend, truck drivers, Saudi tourists, Umrah pilgrims, Egyptian farmhands, Syrian refugees, and Jordanian students at the local university who were unable to travel home for the weekend.

“They pulled us aside and said we had no choice in the matter: We were their guests,” Mohammed, a Saudi national heading to Amman with his family, says with a laugh. “Maan has become famous among Muslims for hospitality.”

Fifteen minutes later, as the guests finished dining, Maan residents, who had yet to break the fast themselves, were just beginning work on the next day’s meal.

“Who needs food?” says Mohammed Saleh, who has volunteered for 16 straight years. “We in Maan have something greater: faith.”

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