Arabian Click & Clack
At first they reminded me of “Click and Clack,” the hilarious Magliozzi brothers who host “Car Talk,” a weekly NPR radio show diagnosing mechanical problems for their callers and dispensing all manner of advice, all the while engaging in patter worthy of Saturday Night Live.
But Ahmad and Tony, this Arab duo, are not blood brothers, nor car experts. They are in fact Jordanian body-builders – one Muslim, one Christian – who met in a gym in Amman in 1998. Since then they have become “brothers” in a common effort to break down stereotypes about Arab culture and religion both in their native country and in the U.S. Currently they are Scholars in Residence at the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay, invited to teach Arabic culture.
“We teach about Arab/ Muslim/ Christian Jordanian culture, and we preach peace among all the religions,” explains Tony, the more talkative and taller of the two friends.
Tony Michael Anquod, 27, a Christian, is an undefeated mixed martial arts fighter with black belts in kickboxing and jiu jitsu. Born in Beirut, he was a baby when his family returned to Jordan. His grandfather was originally from Jaffa, the port city in Israel, but he considers himself Jordanian.
Ahmad Kamal Azaban, 29, a Muslim Karate expert, bears a remarkable resemblance to Sylvester Stallone. “Except I’m much taller than he is, and make sure you include that when you write the story,” he emphasizes with a lopsided grin.
Born in Jordan, he lived with his mother and father and six siblings in the capital city of Amman where his father has been a chef at the Intercontinental Hotel for 25 years. Ahmad helped raise six younger siblings, three brothers and three sisters, because his father would leave every day at 7 a.m., often not returning until midnight. “I taught them to be naughty,” he jokes, quickly adding, “No – just kidding!”
The two young men met in high school. “We knew we had different religious backgrounds, and the second day after we met we talked about religion,” Tony recalled. They discussed the order of the Abrahamic religions and compared similar stories from the Koran and the Christian Bible. “People in our country talk about religion all of the time. The same tribe could have both Muslim and Christian members. Other tribes are strictly Muslim or strictly Christian,” Tony and Ahmad explained, completing one another’s sentences.
They enumerated the standard order of questions asked in their culture when meeting someone new: What is your family name? Where were you born? What is the name of your tribe? What is your religion?
Both were martial arts fighters when they met, but since they were involved in different disciplines with different rules, they never fought one another – probably a blessing in the long run, they agreed.
They became good friends immediately.
“I noticed Ahmad always had this interesting smell of olive oil when I was near him,” Tony bantered.
“Yes, of course, because it’s a good treatment for the hair,” Ahmad countered.
“But two bottles’ worth?” rebutted Tony.
Hearty laughter quickly followed from both. Thrust and parry, thrust, and then the inevitable ebullient laughter.
Tony studied in an all-Catholic school where the majority of the students were Muslim. He said he never experienced any religious discrimination. He visited mosques but never prayed there.
Ahmad attended a regular public school, made up primarily of Muslims. The one or two Christians in his class didn’t mingle much. “Since meeting Tony, I may have gone to church more than other Christians,” he joked, immediately acknowledging that he didn’t really know a Christian well until he and Tony became friends. Ahmad also admitted he had been exposed to many stereotypes about Christians in the general culture including, among others, that they drink a lot and that adultery is allowed in their religion.
Tony frowned. “People think that when you’re a religious person, you’re supposed to be perfect. But we’re all imperfect and sinners and we all make mistakes. It says in the bible, “Do not mock me, my enemy, because when I fall I am going to rise up again.”
“Even among Christians,” Tony underscored, “they pinpoint your sins and errors and then try to minimize your humanity. They say you’re supposed to be ‘religious,’ and I say in response, ‘No, I’m supposed to be Christian, and I am following in the footsteps of Jesus.’”
When he lived in Amman, Tony – like Ahmad – helped raise his siblings. By the time he was 16 he had his own house and, after his mother separated from his father, she moved into the house with his siblings.
Becoming Language Teachers
About 10 years ago, Tony’s father, a manager of human resources for a Jordanian NGO, encouraged Tony to work at a German company, teaching foreigners Arabic. American-born Dr. Tom Holtz, stationed in Amman, taught Tony the GPA (Growing Participator Approach) teaching method. Dr. Holtz became both mentor and friend. Later Tony trained numerous Arab workers in the same method so that they could teach Arabic to foreigners. In 2005 Tony invited Ahmad to join him and become a teacher.
“Foreigners would ask us the most unnerving questions about Arab culture,” Ahmad said. Pressed for specifics, Ahmad offered: “Why do Arabs lie so much? When you give an Arab a compliment about his watch, why does he offer it to you even when he doesn’t really intend to give it to you?”
And his answer?
An integral part of Arab culture is “The Compliment,” he explained. “We use the compliment on a daily basis and people in our culture know that it is a flowery way of communicating rather than the direct method you Americans use. But if someone offers you his watch three times, then you know he is serious. Take it!” Ahmad declares, smiling broadly.
As more and more cultural and language misunderstandings emerged from the foreigners they were teaching, the two best friends decided to write a book together, called Diwan Baladna – Arab Culture from an Arab’s Perspective (2010). “Diwan Baladna means our country’s meeting place.” The book delves into Jordanian Arab culture in a light and humorous way.
Originally the book was 450 pages long. They pared it down to 150 pages “to meet Western values,” Ahmed explained with a wink. They sold 6,000 copies in Jordan and published a sequel in 2013, this one subtitled The Unprecedented Spoken Arabic Dictionary. Since coming to the States, they have been invited to speak together about Jordanian Arab culture at universities and Rotary clubs in Arizona, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Illinois.
From time to time they also cater dinner at local homes, preparing Jordanian specialty dishes – which is what they were engaged in during the interview – answering questions and intermittently arguing in Arabic about how much pepper and salt to add to the malfoof (cabbage stuffed with meat and rice) or the kufta (meatballs placed on sliced potatoes and generously slathered with tahini sauce).
Seeing America with New Eyes
The two are working on a new book and admit to relishing the opportunity to get rid of their own stereotypes about Americans and about Jews.
“Most of what we know about Americans comes from the TV and Hollywood films, and the people we are meeting and befriending here now are not at all like the characters on the screen,” says Ahmad.
Tony adds, “I never dreamed I would meet so many Jews defending other cultures and religions and teaching ways to live together in peace.”