In Amman-er of Speaking

I have been to class, learnt more Arabic, eaten a lot of falafel and drunk the Dead Sea in coffee.

I am fortunate enough to live next to the aptly named University of Jordan, and this week have begun meeting up with a couple of students every morning or afternoon for a few of hours. An exchange of Arabic and English with literature students who are invariably studying Tchekhov, Hemingway, or would rather talk about Harry Potter.

Sitting by the university clock trying to explain to Ali why I don’t know what kvass is. (Turns out to be a Russian drink made from fermented rye bread). Then being reprimanded for asking about the fiancé of one of the shababs (lads). It’s not the done thing. Laughingly I pull out a pack of cards to show off my skills, but this act is met with gasps and hurried whispers to put them away. Worried looks around for any passing guards. Of course, cards are banned on the campus with severe consequences, I am informed by Ali as he takes another draw on his cigarette.

Special mention goes to the University photographer. A man with a mega-dollar camera to his name and nothing better to do than stroll the campus offering his services to anyone feeling particularly photogenic before lectures. 1 JD a shot, bargain. Who needs a smart phone with selfie-camera function.

Duncan at the uni book sale

For fear of turning this into monotonous drivel of weekly life, i will write instead about my good and dear friend Duncan. His life is as far from drivelling and monotonous as it is possible to get without ending up in Bristol. 

Duncan tells me that coming to grips with the local ahmiyya (dialect) is a combination of aloof attentiveness in front of the TV and hard graft in the classroom. As well as a worryingly forward approach to meeting strangers. Not to mention, Duncan reminds me, the difficulty of back-and-forth-ing between the rigid rules and structures of fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) and attempting to seamlessly slip into the dialect.

A note from Duncan: Modern Standard Arabic is the formal Arabic spoken on the news, and printed in newspapers, and is common between all Arab-speaking countries. Speaking it on the street has been likened to talking like Shakespeare. A fantastic way to blend in for any budding white-european / orientalist in the making.

At the moment Duncan is getting to grips with the many and varied set expressions and responses that are required in specific situations. Such as what you say when someone tells you their family name. What to say when someone tells you their age. When someone has done something for you. And when someone has washed, shaved or had a haircut.

Duncan found last week considerably demanding. He was required (amongst other things) to present to the class about his favourite international celebration (naturally he chose his very own birthday). So, come the weekend, it was off for a quick haircut then to the Turkish baths for a good old scrubbing by scantily dressed, hairy men. No better way to relax, says Duncan Shrubb.

Such was the plan. Poor Duncan hadn’t foreseen the glacial slowness of the Sobhi the barber. Or indeed, the all-too-readiness of his friend, James, me, in agreeing to some sort of steam/facial treatment, just for the sheer (I have no idea what this guy just said to me) thrill of it. Duncan sat freshly groomed, his post-shave set-phase perfectly placed and replied to, chatting away with barber number 2. All the while I remained, as Duncan would recount to me later, with my lathered face toward an upturned hoover, sprouting forth tobacco-fragranted hot steam. Every now and then being prodded and poked with an enormous tooth brush. To this day, Duncan maintains it was the most enjoyable two hours he has ever spend in a barbers.

IMG_1254photo 4

No hammam then. But Duncan didn’t despair for he knew of the coming football match. The venue: an empty school on the road to the airport. The line up: our team’ الطاووس’ (the Peacocks), represented by Britain, America, Jordan and Russia verses the Kazakhstan Embassy Team. After the anthems, we set about some serious soccer ball playing. True to form, Duncan stole the show and the Peacocks brought home the coveted Suburbs Cup.

That’s if we ignore the continued insistence of Team Kazakhstan (TK) to play an extra ten minutes so they could win. After a couple of these inspired encores, we were all sufficiently confused as to the result that TK weren’t bothered any more. Face saved I suppose. 


Bring on next week’s rematch.


Amman-agerie of Larks

This year abroad stuff has become a bit like camping…intense. Finding a balance between preparing vocab and drills for class, getting about to speak arabic and having mad, sick, anecdote-heavy fun. Frustration can build to a point until you hear the call to prayer, realise you are in Jordan (an arabic speaking country) and out of desperation go in search of a man café, shwarma (kebab) or argileh (levantine for shisha) joint. But inevitably end up in traditional establishments such as Quick Chicken, or Burger Makers. Both of which do what they say on the tin. Burger Makers especially so.

The week began with bed bugs. Sharing a room with Duncan, thankfully it was his bed that they found most appealing and then inevitably his skin. Poor Duncan spent many a restless night, before some intensive googling and a few experimental sleeps on the sofa without bites that confirmed what it was. Qasid (our arabic institute) were pretty swift at removing all our mattresses and fumigating our room, plus dry-cleaning all our clothes free of charge. Great, although the promise of getting our clothes cleaned and returned the same day turned out to be a classic Jordanian Insha’allah guarantee. They turned up after 3 days, by which time we had become accustomed to the crispness of our wafting outfits.

Duncan still recovering from the bed bugs

I am living in an apartment with Duncan (Newton Abbot), Muhammed (Singapore) and Syed (United States of New York). All students of Arabic, and as such we have adopted an ex-pat colloquial dialect = overly exaggerated american pronunciation of Arabic. It serves as a welcome change when you feel your vocal chords are about to snap after bursts of the proper stuff.

Our flat is half-an-hour walk from Qasid, near the Jordanian University and about a £2 taxi (distance is measured in money here) into ‘Downtown’ – the central happening quarters of Amman. After finally visiting the uni this week, it has turned out to be a top place to meet and be amongst Jordanian students. Seems obvious once you think about it. We were kindly buzzed in by the guard who clearly felt sorry for us as we stood dazed, trying to work out how to get through the entrance turnstiles without a card.


A vast and green (by Jordanian standards) campus, sprawling with groups of students chatting, lounging or studying. A nice change to the western-heavy Qasid. Eventually ended up at the foreign language institute in the hope of picking up flyers for events or arabic/english exchange partners. A book stall with free old textbooks, plays and translated literature turned out to be an excellent talking point. ‘I take it you are not Jordanian’ was a superbly pitched opener, and so we left with some useful contacts for language exchanges.

a shepherd just moving his flock through the city…

It’s easy to get the impression after just a few weeks in Amman that all taxi drivers are secretly waiting to pick up undercover script-writers. A brief run down of recent candidates: An ex-Norwegian fisherman, a short-story writer interested in the correlation between Danté’s The Divine Comedy and centuries old Arabic literature, a folk musician who plays piano on the weekends, and a diehard fan of German culture (‘they are the most civilised of peoples’).

For the TGI Friday entertainment we chose an evening of Arabic rap, at the El-Far3i album launch. Set in the leafy environs of the National Gallery of Fine Art in Jabal Weibdeh district it was an opportunity to listening to Syrain, Jordanian and Palestinian rap. Three of my favourite kinds. Albeit at breakneck speed, with tangible passion from the artists. My lack of understanding didn’t detract from the clear political and emotional nature of the music, drawing spontaneous roars from the crowd after a particular poignant rap-based remark. Key vocab from the evening included: ‘Ah, Ismaa, Ah ismaa’ – Yeh listen, Yeh listen (the equivalent to ‘huh, yeh, come on, uh’).


Further along, on the slopes of Jabal Weibdeh you will stumble upon Darat al Fanoon (House of Arts). Housing contemporary Palestinian art in a serene area surrounded by the excavated ruins of a 6th Century Byzantine church. One piece is simply a metal pulley hanging from the ceiling over tiled mosaic floor. It represents the original meaning of ‘Levant’ (the Eastern Mediterranean), which in latin was ‘to raise’. And here is supposed to imply an image that is uplifting yet set in tradition. The neighbourhood is from the 1920s, and in one of the houses TE Lawrence wrote part of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Pacing these streets with vague thoughts of a united Arab nation and the sour taste of age-old British influence. Then abruptly you come face to face with an Apollo 11 landing module emblazoned with ‘Palestinian Space Agency’. Created by Swiss Artist Gilles Fontolliet to symbolise the ever present Palestinian struggle for living space.


At the adjacent café, (which is this weeks’ contender for best view spot in Amman) you can grab a tea for 1 JD, and with unlimited refills. Sit and admire the view of downtown with the Roman citadel to your left and the striped facade of the Abu Darweesh mosque to the front. If you are lucky there will be Oud accompaniment. If not then use the spoon you got with your tea and hit something.

The week has ended with the inevitable purchase of our very own Oud from the main man Raafat, a self-declared ‘big-deal’ in the Damascus Oud scene. Now working in a downtown store after fleeing Syria because of the civil war. He doesn’t think much of life here or the Jordanians and talks dreamily about the liveliness of old Damascus. But dam, he plays a mean Oud. Gonna get on the twang, bang out some slick tunes. Well, it would be r – Oud not to.

Amman, a Witch and a Wardrobe

The tunnel remains hidden.

The first two weeks of september coincided with the 15th Amman International Book Fair. Located in ‘Sports City’, a seemingly innocuous area that contains not only a gym, a football stadium and various swimming pools but also the suspiciously named Anti-Corruption Commission, the Ministry of the Interior and a building which is, in all appearances, a nuclear research facility.

the Amman Matrix for the Maintenance of Aeronautical Nuclei (AMMAN)
the Amman Matrix for the Maintenance of Aeronautical Nuclei (AMMAN)

The Fair consisted of a vast marquee covering stands from all over the arab world and their varying piles of books. Ranging from beautifully published arabic novels and religious texts to bilingual (arabic/english) versions of some Penguin Classics. Not forgetting an entire stall dedicated to the works of Agatha Christie translated into arabic. 


A strong presence by the Saudi Arabian cultural delegation meant the experience was a win-win for fans of monarchs called Abdullah. As well as a surprise appearance from the University of Damascus, a reminder of the strong cultural significance of that ancient city. After much deliberation over an arabic edition of Sherlock Holmes, I gave in and bought an arabic children’s book about the solar system, naturally. It has just the right ratio of pictures to words to be manageable. 

However, the majority of stands served up an array of text books and dictionaries.This makes sense in a culture where engineering or medicine are considered the holy grail of education. A degree in either is considered by some to be the sixth pillar of Islam.

It has been said by someone somewhere that Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads. The uncensored version of this was far less snappier and concluded ‘and Amman has many roundabouts’. But it should now be extended to recognise Amman’s effort in promoting literature through its many free cultural events.  

For example, at the same time as the Book Fair was the seventh Hakaya storytelling festival. An Amman based project to promote writing and the sharing of tales. The aim of Hakaya (meaning story in Jordanian arabic) is to bring together artists from Egypt, Palestine, Jordan (and more) to inspire literacy and inter-cultural understanding.

A footnote to that potently pretentious phrase above should include ‘and the Emirates award’. Since 2007, Abu Dhabi has been handing out the yearly Arab Booker prize for fiction. The 2014 winner was Ahmed Saadawi with his supernatural novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, set amongst the suicide bombings and turmoil of 2005. As much a statement about his country’s situation, the story follows a man who has created a living being from collected human remains. 

An exciting prospect for fans of fantasy and sci-fi although with no english translation currently available. Bloomsbury Qatar have just finished translating the 2010 winner She Throws Sparks by Abdo Khal. Better get on with that degree then.

Those who think Arabia and Sci-Fi have no connection, look no farther then King Abdullah II of Jordan and his cheeky cameo on a Star Trek episode – Not to mention his plans to build a Star Trek theme park in Aqaba (due to open this year…apparently). And a strong tradition of arabic story telling once again producing works of speculative fiction that hark back to the classic One Thousand and One Nights (dude, magic carpets).

And يتخيلون (the League of Arab Scifiers), whose aim is to stimulate the writing and reading of science fiction in the arabic language. Whether or not this will inspire the next wave of arab scientists and reignite the Golden Age of Arab Science – advancements made in the 8th to 13th centuries (from trigonometry and medicine to astrology and algebra). Or create a generation of dreamers with ideas for the future either to implement in real life or weave into more tales for the next batch. Check out


light of your life
Illuminate your life

Visit the Royal Film Commission to witness the amount of money being poured into promoting Jordanian cinema. A room full of comfortable booths, each with their own Apple Mac computer and a library stocked full of Middle-Eastern, North-African and other films (most have subtitles).

Introducing: Mohammad, Ammans resident expert on Stanley Kubrick films. Make sure to mention your appreciation of Dr. Strangelove and the expertise of Peter Sellers (‘he played three parts you know!). Pick a film, or let Mohammad recommend one and submerge. You might even learn some new dialectal vocab too. What fun. 

Jordanian films Transit Cities and When Monaliza Smiled are beautiful and give a glimpse at current issues facing Jordanians. Giving character to a city written off by many as a cross between materialist America and conservative Saudi Arabia.

Coming soon: The Jordanian/British film Theeb (wolf) which is currently sweeping up awards on the film festival circuit. Described as a ‘bedouin western’, it is set in the Wadi Rum desert during WW1. Complete with a native bedouin cast, well, apart from Jack Fox who is the epitomé of englishness (cousin of Emilia to Silent Witness fans).


Behind the Film Commission is a strong candidate for a place on the top 5 best spots to sit and stare in contemplation. What’s the point of it all? Are there really more cats here than humans? And oh there goes another military cargo plane. Weekly film nights are held at the open air cinema, screening everything from Arab and Venezuelan to Laurel and Hardy. During the day its free to come and perch, but you need to pay a few dollar for the screenings (unless you are a member).

These cultural drives in fields like film and literature have been declared by the government as tools to protect young people from falling into extremism. Like learning fact through fiction.

here be pigeons - Fact


This idea is definitely being pushed around Amman, although mainly centred around the hip, western districts like Rainbow Street. Whereas the lads I spoke to in neighbouring Zarqa complained of the lack of affordable literature and ignorance of any home-grown film production. I sincerely hope this years budget goes more towards the Jordan-wide advertising of films and literature, rather than on updated Apple products. No matter how chic these might be, Jordanian creativity has a lot to offer the world.

The best source of information on life here has been A website I found whilst looking up tips on how to be more masculine. But instead it consistently provides info on events, restaurants, cafes and concerts, with articles and photos that wet an appetite ready to explore more of what this city’s 19 hills have to offer.

A Man in Amman

‘Welcome to Jordan!’ is the phrase learnt by all budding Jordanians on their first day at school. Successful graduates can be found on every street corner, behind the wheel of taxis and even reclining on the Roman ruins atop the citadel. But lectures about British history in the Middle East by Palestinian cab drivers are not overly enjoyable. So it’s fun coming up with dramatic changes of topic.

‘So, how big is the flag really?’. Flag tourism is currently going through something of a revival, with reviews and articles all over the place. So I will be brief as to avoid repetition. Amman is home to the fifth tallest flagpole in the world. Mind boggingly, the flag itself is larger than an olympic swimming pool (60m by 30m).

Make your own mind up as to whether it is an essential top 5 list to be seen on. Number 1 is in Tajikistan (160m), 2 is in Azerbaijan (162m), 3 is in North Korea (160m) and 4 is in Turkmenistan (133m). To be fair, as status symbols go flagpoles are far cheaper to construct than skyscrapers. Say what you like about these countries governments (or rather, don’t). I (and I’m sure every other inhabitant of Amman) have found it very useful to be able to approximate windspeed with a simple glance at the enormous flag and then dress accordingly. Not to mention it being a great conversational gambit for all occasions. Always thinking ahead, I am already working on back-ups such as ‘so, what about that bermuda triangle then’.


I have been in Amman for a week and successfully remained a gullible tourist. Of course if you buy a DVD for one dinar, with a heavily pixellated front cover from an overly keen (but happy to speak arabic) vendor, then it will not work. That’s not the point though. Language immersion is about being silly in stupid situations you would rightfully never put yourself in normally. Well, at least that’s how you console afterwards.

If you stand outside the glass doors of a building in which you know is your arab institute, yet are persuaded by a smiling valet that the entrance is in fact in the basement car park, then you shouldn’t be allowed to go out in public. Or at least you deserve an ASBO. Nothing whatsoever should convince you to go down a second time for verification, especially when you are confronted with an angry man and his family who appear to live down there. Lucky that didn’t happen then.

Orientation day for our arabic institute was held in a fancy hotel ballroom. We all sat adorned with name badges listening to inspiring presentations. This year will be about much more than learning arabic, it will be a journey of self-discovery. But we must all be prudent in coping with the inevitable six week slump in our motivation. Not to worry, my spa treatment is all booked. This was followed by an impenetrable placement exam and oral interview to determine our current level. I left fresh in the knowledge that arabic is officially classed as a ‘super hard language’ (in the US of course), and that I should have paid more attention to the verb form tables.

Some places that will no doubt become frequent haunts include: Hashems, the 24 hour, dirt-cheap falafel restaurant. And the adjacent second-hand book shop, selling (amongst other gems) an arabic/english collection of Abba’s greatest hits. Sadly I was refused an arabic rendition of ‘Mama Mia’ by the shopkeeper.

Souk Jara, the friday flea market just off Rainbow Street, where you can listen to live music and peruse the stalls in a chilled atmosphere. But don’t worry, yes it’s still all within view of the flag and the citadel atop the opposite hill. Amongst pamphlets on how best to improve my midwifery skills, I picked up my first arabic sci-fi paperback. Emblazoned with flying saucers to make it obvious, the book is enticingly entitled ‘the bermuda triangle’. After less than a week I have successfully translated the first paragraph. No sweat.


Plus my adopted coffee seller in the downtown market to whom I literally followed my nose. The cardamon spiced coffee overpowering even the pungent smell of the souk. It’s possible to mix all manner of coffee beans, have them freshly grounded and pay next to nothing for the privilege. It only remains for you to realise this isn’t the kind of coffee you can drain to the last. Coughing and spluttering as you set about scooping grainy sludge from your clogged, brown mouth.

I have sat in stunned, appreciative incomprehension at an array of arabic poetry, told by the poets themselves in the little outdoor Roman theatre. Only slightly interrupted by the constant drone of military cargo planes using the theatre as their turning point. But the poets kept going regardless of the noise. A neat sign of the times. Jordan is surrounded by war yet life goes on, with a smile and a poem or two.


A group visit to nearby Ajlun Castle has wet my appetite for crusader castles and vague dreams of following in the footsteps of T.E.Lawrence. I might have to bookmark my advance on Damascus by camelback for a few years though. The castle, surrounded by a dry moat, stands proudly atop a hill with impressive views that stretch, on a clear day, as far as the Golan Heights. And has played host to many an inhospitable invader: Saladin, the Mongols, the Mamluks and American tourists.


Amman is all over the place, confoundingly hilly, and strewn with cardboard box style houses that are on the far side of beautiful. But I have heard tell of a secret tunnel dating back to Roman times when Amman was called Philadelphia. Cheesy as notions of Indiana Jones are in Jordan, I will be out searching. Alas, no whip or cowboy hat, just a trusty dictionary and my sense of pointless adventure.