AJLOUN — Just before sunset one afternoon in late Ramadan, Mohammad Dweikat escorted his guests to his roof in his native village of Arjan, Ajloun Governorate, where he had prepared a place for them to share iftar with his family.

Greeted by the cool evening breeze and the mingled scents of pine trees and home-cooked food, the family and guests sat on mattresses and awaited the sunset call to prayer.

“This fantastic mountain view, especially from where my house is located, and the cool breeze in the evening make life’s burden bearable,” commented Mohammad as he looked out over the dense forests in the area to the west of Ajloun, 55km north of Amman and home to Jordan’s greenest and most precious forested areas.

As soon as the village mosque sounded the call to prayer, the Dweikats broke their fast as usual, first with three dates, then soup, and then a feast of maqloubeh (fried eggplant, rice and chicken), mujadarah (whole-seed lentils with rice and onions), salad, mutabbal (baked eggplant peeled and then beaten in a blender with sesame paste and lemon) and two other dishes, all prepared by Mohammad’s wife, Maisoun.

Mohammad’s brother, Issa, lit his first cigarette of the day.

“The noise and clatter in my kitchen start at five in the evening,” Maisoun said, adding jokingly that Mohammad only asks for his favourite dish and offers no help at all.

“I sure enjoy the outcome,” her husband replied.  

It was a typical family iftar for the Dweikats, but for the unusual feature of guests from outside the local community.

Mohammad’s guests that evening, a group of Jordanian and foreign chefs, had come to Arjan through a homestay programme launched by the municipality to give tourists the chance to stay overnight with local families.

Mohammad’s brother Issa, director of Arjan Municipality, said that for JD23 a night, visitors can stay in a fully furnished bedroom in the home of a local family, with a kitchenette and one meal included.

The homestay programme, Issa said while enjoying his first cigarette of the day, is one of several programmes the municipality has started to attract more tourists and bring more money to the local community, also including hikes and cycling trips led by local guides, and providing local food.

“Tourism is an opportunity to improve our society; using earnings from these programmes, we managed to buy a water filtering system for our village,” said Issa, adding that the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation covered 25 per cent of the project’s cost.

“Permitting strangers in our houses under a homestay programme was not easily accepted in our community at the beginning, but because the community is in need, we tend to look at being involved with tourism differently, as providing income and community support.”

Currently, he said, 40 houses in the area are equipped to welcome guests through the homestay programme.

Over iftar, Mohammad told The Jordan Times that after retiring from the military, he now works as a tour guide, showing visitors around Ajloun.

“In this part of the village, many people are either old or unemployed. The youth are in school. That leaves few of us to take care of the village and our relatives. Tourism provided a chance to have an income, not necessarily regular, but one that helps not only my small family but our community as well.”

As the Dweikats and their guests spent the rest of the evening chatting over mint tea, Mohammad Farraj, a chef from Amman, said the chance to join in a family gathering in the picturesque village was something special.

His friend Darren Alard, from Switzerland, agreed.

“The most interesting thing that has really amazed me during my so far one-and-a-half-year stay in Jordan is the tight relationship between family members,” he said. “I hope you realise how lucky you Jordanians are.”