This blog was originally posted on the Hubert Humphrey Fellows’ blog at the University of Maryland.
When I was a teenager, I remember seeing men with beards and long hair wearing hats and riding horse buggies in old Hollywood movies. Women wearing traditional clothing and covering their heads with scarves was a common scene. Before coming to the U.S., I never imagined that such people would still exist in this economically and technologically advanced country.
In November, I visited Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, a two hours distance from Washington D.C., along with two dozens of Humphrey Fellows from University of Maryland and American University. To my surprise, I saw the old-fashioned Amish people who reminded me of all those movies I saw in my childhood.
Amish are people who despite living in the middle of the U.S., have maintained their centuries old culture and traditions by rejecting all the technologies of the modern world. They live by a set of rules that govern all aspects of their lives.
Taking photos or filming the Amish people is strictly banned. When our Amish guide was briefing us on their culture in the bus, he stopped because someone used a camera flash at the back of the bus. He did not resume until he was assured that no photographs would be taken. Visitors can take photos of themselves in the country, but not of the residents.
The Amish strongly believe in the church, family, tradition and community. Some 300 years back, the Amish forefathers, German and Swiss devout Christians, escaped from religious persecution in Europe and settled in Lancaster.
Amish country is a world frozen in time. Without use of electricity, internet, TV, radio and mobile phones, Amish live a simple life. For lighting and freezing food they use gas-run lamps and fridges. They only use the telephone for communicating within their community and the outside world. However, they keep the phone set in a booth outside the house in order to avoid any disturbance.
For the Amish, buggies and horses are the main sources of transportation. Interestingly, like any other modern vehicles, buggies have signals in front and back to avoid accidents on the road. These buggies are painted with a grey shade, a color which has been approved by the leaders of the community.
Children and adults also use scooters. They don’t use bikes because of their paddles, which they think disconnect their physical connection with the earth. The fields and soils are plowed with horses instead of tractors.
For decades, agriculture has always been the major industry among the Amish. However with the growing population, nowadays 30 percent of Amish are dependent on farmlands. The rest of the Amish are employed in hotel and construction industries outside their community. This exposure to the outside world is seen by some as a threat to their culture and tradition.
The average family used to be 10 people when Amish were predominantly farmers, but now an average family has four to six children due to financial constraints. Still some of the Amish see having a big family as a blessing of God and family planning as a sin.
Amish men and women wear plain clothes depending on their age group and marital status. The men sport beards and long hair wearing a traditional hat on their heads, whereas women also cover their body and head.
In the Amish country, one can see clothes hanging on clotheslines in the courtyard, a very unusual sight in America where drier and washing machines are essential parts of every day life.
Usually the Amish enter into intra-community marriages and discourage people marrying non-Amish. Responsibilities are divided between the wife and husband. The wife takes care of the housekeeping and the husband is responsible for financially supporting the family.
They start involving their children from a very small age in their day to day chores. Usually the father is supported by his sons and mother by daughters in daily work. This is the reason why Amish children stop their formal education after passing grade eight.
The older Amish speak a German dialect called “Pennsylvania German.” However with outsiders they speak English. Young generations who learn English at school tend to speak it in their houses.
Church plays an important role in setting and maintaining the rules. Service takes place bi-weekly with each family in the district hosting others for worship. At the end of the service the host family serves food to the male and female members of the church. The men and women sitting across each other in a room listen to the recitation of the Bible by the priest and sing a song together.
The boys and girls are baptized at the age of 16 according to their will. Everybody who goes against the rules are ex-communicated or shunned from the church and those individuals are deprived of the collective benefits.
This visit to the Amish country reminded me of the people from my tribe in Pakistan called “Maidanwall.” Named after the town “Maidan” in the scenic Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency bordering Eastern Afghanistan, they also worked hard to preserve their culture and tradition like the Amish. In my next blog post, I will talk about Maidanwall and compare the two communities.