Over the last few months I have got to know a man called Doug. He is a being of peculiar habits and of most irregular comings and goings.
You will find him smoking shisha by the dead sea, reminiscing about the time he almost solved the Palestine-Israel conflict whilst fishing for giant tuna in the River Jordan. Something to do with the correct use of floats, weights and leverage.
A copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea can be seenpoking out of his back pocket. Translated into arabic of course, with footnotes in farsi and page numbers in hebrew.
He may be fictional, but at some level he is part of everyone. Especially to those who have ever found themselves thinking how god dam awesome life is.
If Doug was an arabic verb form he would be 10, the form of seeking something. Istdawaga.استدوغ if you will.
After spending 5 years travelling as part of an extended gap year in search of Ibn-Batutah’s lost diaries, he enrolled in the University of Jordan for a degree in Applied Orientalism. He would eventually graduate with a distinction in Diplomatic Immunity and a special mention for his work on the hidden verb forms. (20-25).
Now working as a water-colourist at the embassy of South-Carolina, Doug spends most of his time promoting the art of sustainable taxidermy in refugee camps. Otherwise you can find him standing in the Roman theatre gazing at the citadel with a vacant expression, glazed eyes and drool hanging precariously from his open mouth.
Like many students of arabic, Doug initially intended on becoming a UN representative at the Department of Solving Everything in the Middle East. But after a summer internship at Google Translate, the director (a Mr Hans Wehr) told him bluntly that the meaning is out there in the real world, and only Doug can find it .
Currently on sick-leave due to the emotional stress caused by caring too much about the worlds’ problems. Doug has been working free-lance against ISIS from his iPad in a slick café in downtown Amman.
For, as well as being the Good Will Ambassador to Gaza, he was recently appointed Comedy Attaché to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Some projects he did the corporate PR for:
Say what you like about ISIS, but you can’t fault their animal husbandry
ISIS even milk male goats
Doug will be available for comments at a live, vegan hair-braiding session later this month.
Sitting next to Ali at the university when his phone rings, it’s his dad. The barrage begins. Greeting after greeting with all the suitable responses and customary timely interjections of al-hamdu lillah. In a conversation that lasts for only a few minutes, the key information (what time are you getting the bus home son?) is only asked in the last ten seconds. Coming shortly before the oral equivalent of the full-stop: ‘yalla bye’ (lit. let’s go, bye).
So here are some ways of enquiring to the ‘alrightness’ of your mate in Jordan plus how to reply (note: if ever in doubt go for al-hamdu lillah – lit. ‘thanks be to God’).
Just keep in mind that bumping into someone you know or, God-forbid receiving a phone call from them, is never simply a case of “hi, you alright? yeh, fine thanks. So about that bed-bug infestation…”
Saying “Good morning”:
Sabaah el-kheer (morning of goodness)
Pick your reply from:
sabaah el-noor (morning of light)
sabaah el-warrd (morning of flowers)
sabaah el-fol (morning of jasmine)
sabaah + anything topical / in line of sight at the time
e.g. sabaah el-gahwey / el-ahwey (morning of coffee, to indicate to the person who dared speak to you at this hour that they should very well get you some caffeine to make up for it)
There is the formal and polite approach (usually said on entering a shop, greeting a stranger, or being a good citizen)
A-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you)
– wa alaykumu a-salam (and peace upon you)
And then the more general:
Merhaba (‘hi, hey, yo, avast!’)
– Reply with: merhabtayn (two hellos) or ahlayn (welcome)
“You alright pal?”:(note: ak becomes ik when talking to a woman)
The following events have been painstakingly pieced together. Largely thanks to the discovery of a briefcase, found floating in the dead sea containing hundreds of negatives and reels of film. Cryptic writing across the inner-lining read ‘it’s all a bit #IndianaJones to be honest’. This has yet to be deciphered. Harrison Ford has refused to comment.
Full-time Arabic student, amateur life coach and semi-professional inhabitant of Jordan, Duncan Shrubb always enjoyed his mid-week getaways. As soon as he heard tell of Dana bio-reserve, located somewhere south of Amman there was no stopping him.
Opinion divides at this stage. But when laid bare the facts are thus: Duncan was in possession of a recently acquired colloquial Arabic phrase book, which (it has been confirmed by the bus driver) he read intently en route to Dana. Sadly no copies remain. But something in the pages clearly affected him. From this point he insisted on taking his friends on a journey in search of the knowledge. One of the only salvageable films lasts for just three seconds and shows Duncan in his seat shaking uncontrollably as if in a trance, white knuckles visibly gripping the book to his chest.
The village of Dana, situated on the edge of a large wadi (valley) is home to beautiful views and impressively expensive food. A sanctuary for the wandering French, the touring Dutch, the round-the-world-cycling Turkish, the ageing Germans and the squeeze-every-penny-out-of-them Jordanians.
Ancient texts tell of a wise man who dwells in these hills. He makes his home in a cave, feeds on washed up turtles, and has a penchant for discussing socialism at the slightest provocation.
Before he knew it, Duncan and his friends had been loaded into a van, driven 40 minutes and dropped at the end of a dirt road overlooking an imposing canyon. Hand gestures were flourished as an indication of the direction to be taken, and a time for the pick up was vaguely agreed.
A meandering rocky path, giant centipedes, mysterious nesting grounds, menacing boulders and devious water pools. He had been warned of these treacherous conditions. So like any good boy scout, he came fully prepared with an iPhone and a bottle of water.
No trace was ever found of the group, whispers were heard. There was talk of mutiny. The last possible sighting was of a man of European origin harassing tourists from atop a large goat. But sadly the trace went cold three months ago. For when the tourists were asked they couldn’t remember any details but kept repeating a single phrase ‘the turtle is coming’ over and over. Before passing into a succession of unwakeable comas.
Four weeks of classes completed and now a welcome week break for the Islamic Eid al-Adha celebrations. A national holiday to mark the end of Hajj, the pilgrimage of millions of muslims to Mecca each year.
A travel tip for sheep: If you are planning to come to Jordan, avoid Eid al-Adha. You are likely to end up bleeding profusely from the neck on a street corner. Adha meaning sacrifice.
I only went and explored some of Jabal Ashfiyyah this week didn’t I. Amman, a city of barber shops and pharmacies originally founded on seven hills. Ashfiyyah is the one that’s always in the corner of your eye wherever you are in downtown. An imposing hill topped with the world’s first bar-code-inspired mosque (masjid), Abu Darweesh.
In stark contrast to west Amman (where my flat and Qasid language institute are located), east Amman is visibly less well-off. No industrial sized Starbucks or Macdonalds here. Tourists wandering around below are perhaps put off by the incline (you can of course get a taxi, but where’s the fun in that). Home to many of Palestinian refugee descent, and stocked full of factories owned by west Ammanis.
I got my morning oomph from a sludgy cup of coffee with Ahmed opposite the Roman Nymphaeum. He is my age and studies a subject (didn’t understand what) at Zarqa university so, naturally we hit it off. These stands are permanent pop-up cafés all over the city, consisting of a gas cylinder, fire, water and coffee. And are invariably located in the entrance to someones’ block of flats.
Up we go, passed old men with their prayer beads grinning toothlessly and gangs of boys with their BB guns. All watching me becoming progressively drenched in my own sweat as the mid-day sun approached. Assalamu alaikums were exchanged and photos were taken.
A short walk from the top is Abu Darweesh Mosque. Claimed by some to be the highest point in Amman (but hotly refuted by others). It’s not low, you can be sure of that. Built in 1961 by Palestinians in a district that was devoid of much and had no mosque, it stands with yet another view over Amman.
I sat in the adjacent public square falafel in hand, pestering little kids at my side prodding me for daring not to take photos of them. Rescue came in the voice of Ali ‘these kids are bad, do you want to come for tea?’.
I was fortunate to be invited into Ali’s family home and meet his brother, sisters and parents. They emerged from side rooms and gathered round the sofa plying me with tea and ma3moul (3 represents an arabic letter, the one that causes the most cases of throat cancer in foreigners). Ma3moul is a shortbread style dessert stuffed with dates or nuts, traditionally eaten during Eid al-Adha. And dam they are zaakee kiteer (Jordanian Arabic for well delicious innit).
First things first though, as soon as I had greeted everyone, wished them a merry Eid and all that, Ali rushed off to show me his pump action shotgun. I cradled it carefully, furiously trying to come up with different ways of expressing my appreciation and delight of its deadly beauty. As soon as the women had left, out came the shisha. We then proceeded to bubble the afternoon away watching people go by, shaking hands and wishing them good will for Eid. The customary kul am wa antum bikhair.
The Jordanian male is a peculiar species. One of his habits is introductory cheek kissing that puts the French to shame. One on the right, then about five or so on the left. Their heads slapping off each other as with each kiss another variation of ‘how are you?’ is proffered (the arabic language is about 75% greetings). According to Ali, the number of left-cheek kisses are directly related to how much you like the guy. There are cases of reunited best-friends who died of dehydration before completing their embrace.
As the night began to fall, I mentioned to Ali I would love to go inside the Mosque and have a gander. We could hear the Maghrib (fourth prayer of the day) being called from the minaret so off we went. I was a bit anxious but Ali told me to follow him and to what he does. We removed our shoes, did our ablutions and lined up with others in the front row as the mosque filled up from the back. We went through the three repetitions of prostrations, semi-prostrations and mumbled words. Me fitting in sublimely by inadvertently kicking the man behind me in the head whenever I stood up.
No one gave me a second glance, questioned my presence or dragged me out by the collar. But perhaps there is my misconception of the mosque. As soon as you enter each individual focusses on their personal connection, the group worship serves only to intensify this. I turned to Ali and told him how relaxing and meditative I found it, he smiled and said it’s a shame more muslims in the area don’t go.
Coming out of the mosque, the square was now filled with hoards of boys no more than 15 years old, smoking, smashing glass bottles and picking fights. We hurried by back to Ali’s house to chow down on bread and leben (sour yoghurt) with yet more tea.
I eventually left late in the evening, armed with a bag of ma3moul and a warm glow from such amazing, unrequited hospitality. Back down the hill to Ahmed’s café for a catch up. I garbled about my day over a coffee, he politely nodded and replied occasionally. Finally feeling that my arabia mkesra (broken arabic) is getting somewhere. We almost fell out when it came to paying, so i left the money and some ma3moul on the counter and ran. All the way home to boring old west Amman.