The Only Way is Amman
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.
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.
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.