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.


5 thoughts on “In Amman-er of Speaking

  1. Another winner! Very amusing


  2. Tres amusing! I love the fact that you’ve had a facial before I, your sister, have!! Silky smooth skin?!


  3. so interesting James we love reading your missives
    love Jane & Bill


  4. Duncan clearly has forgotten the memory of Newton Abbot “Alley Barber” – how appropriate. Must have been prophetic of Duncans future life. (Dave (the Alley Barber) used to give out lolli -pops though. Im sure Duncan word agree this topes the Amman experience!!


  5. Hello! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new iphone 3gs!
    Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all
    your posts! Keep up the superb work!


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