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Conflict Resolution and Coffee - The Jordanian Way

Local Conflict Transformation Practices

In this blog series we explore local conflict transformation practices in Jordan. Those might be traditional or fresh unconventional initiatives. We start with a very old Bedouin practice. Jana Abdo talks about the special role of coffee in the tribal conflict resolution ritual.

three cups with coffee
© Helena Speidel

It is remarkable how living in Jordan can give you a mixture of contradictory feelings. The country portrays a beautiful picture of social multiculturism and modernity, while at the same time continuing to cherish its Bedouin roots and upholding (sometimes admittingly discriminatory) tribal traditions.

Walking around the streets of Jordan stimulates your taste and smell buds with the aroma of the cardamom spiced Arabica. Coffee here is taken very seriously and is considered one of the unspoken languages of Jordanians. How a cup is poured and how its accepted can reveal a lot about how people feel and can even answer a marriage proposal, end a dispute, or insult someone without using any words. For instance, if a person has a request to make, he approaches the other party and when served coffee, he puts his cup in front of him as an indication that he has something to ask from the host. On the other hand, serving your guest a cup of coffee with your left hand can be considered a serious insult.

The ritual of preparing and serving coffee started when Jordanian’s Bedouin antecedents used to live in the desert. Being in this harsh environment have ingrained a concept of not turning any guest away, as friendly relationships were necessary for survival. Coffee back then – and today - serves as a symbol of their hospitality. Traditionally, Bedouins would boil the Arabica and add spices to the mixture while it is being prepared, so passing guests could smell the aroma and know that they are welcome to join.

When a guest arrives, he/she is usually offered three cups: Al Heif (for the guest’s arrival), Al Seif (literally meaning the sword and celebrates the bravery of the Bedouin men), and Al Keif (for a good mood). Unless you don’t want to be served another cup, make sure to shake your cup. This way you deliver a message saying you are satisfied with the amount of coffee you had. Thus, coffee was and is a way of communication and bonding with others.

© Helena Speidel

But is there any potential as to how the language of coffee can aid us in our job in building peace and resolving conflicts? As it turns out, there might be, if we properly understand its application and culture.

Despite being hospitable and generous, living in the harshness of the desert have forced Bedouins to be tough and to constantly be on survival mode. This meant that conflicts often lead to violence or in some cases can even be life threatening. The high connectedness between the members of a tribe and their high dependency on each other for survival have resulted in an extreme form of collectivism. If an offence is given to one tribe member, it is automatically taken by the whole tribe. Taken into consideration this system, tribal law established an effective way in resolving tribal disputes and preventing reprisal actions, represented by the processes of Atwa (truce) and Sulha (reconciliation). In these processes, a third party of each tribe is selected to lead the dialogue to restore order between litigants, emphasizing reconciliation and forgiveness rather than retribution. Therefore, Atwa and Sulha aided in transforming the conflicts into durable tribal relationships and respectful human interactions.

To differentiate between the two processes:  Atwa is the process of having a truce to avoid any violent act between two conflicted tribes. Sulha, On the other hand, is the process of accepting the truce and rehabilitating the relationships between the conflicted parties and is usually performed when the tribal leaders (Sheikhs) shake their hands and drink a cup of Arabica together.

Bedouin Conflict Resolution: Atwa and Sulha

Belonging to a Jordanian tribe means that you should strive for social acceptance and maintain your social image. Tribe members have a set of shared cultural values that predominantly revolve around respect and pride, guiding their emotions and actions. When a conflict happens between two members of different tribes, the family of the offender will fear that their reputation might be affected, which means that they will lose the respect of the other tribe. It also puts the party of the offender under an immense pressure that the conflict might build antagonism with the opposite party and might therefore start some violent actions to retaliate.

Right after the conflict, the family of the offender requests a delegation of trusted people- who are in good terms with both parties in conflict - to mediate a conversation with the other tribe to end the dispute and to reconciliate their relationships. By the end of their conversation, mediators ask the aggrieved party to accept a visit from the offenders for a tribal conflict resolution ceremony – the Sulha.

Once they agree to meet, both families deputise their Sheikhs – the most honourable and trusted persons in their tribes - to steer the conversation, while the other attendants listen respectfully to the negotiation.

When the guests arrive, the host serves Al Heif – the first cup of coffee- to the two Sheikhs. The Sheikh from the offenders’ tribe does not drink his cup directly but places it on the table in front of him to indicate that he has a reconciliation request to make to the host. Afterwards he starts a florid speech using poetic Bedouin language as a sign of respect and magnanimity, and he starts by emphasizing how much his tribe respects and honours the other party. He then ends with admitting the wrong doing that happened from their side and asks for forgiveness by offering some kind of reparation. Only when the aggrieved party formally accepts the request and forgives the offender, will the guest be invited to then drink the first cup, Al Heif, together with the other party.

The ceremony is built around coffee, because it is engraved in Bedouin identity and it symbolizes their hospitality and their seeking for meaningful relationships. For us as peace workers, it shows how such a simple and humble tool, available in every household regardless of its social status, can have a such a powerful impact in peace building processes. It reminds us that in the end, staying open minded and welcoming, listening to the other party for the sake of every ones’ wellbeing and forgiveness is one of the most effective ways for conflict transformation. In our dialogue approaches, we should remember one of the most important principles of Bedouin people: “No guest is turned away”

disclaimer:

While there are many positive aspects to learn from the conflict resolution processes in Jordanian Bedouin tribes, we are also aware that they are itself exclusionary, as for example women are not permitted to participate. This in particular means that mediation for divorces, infidelity or similar topics are held without the presence of the affected women, hence lacking a female perspective. The conflict resolution process as it is practiced also today, prohibits adequate access to justice for female members of the tribe. For more in depth information, we recommend a paper by Johnstone from 2015. It is published by the wana institute.

Written by Jana Abdo with support of Helena Speidel

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