‘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.