Amman in Salt

’Twas a foggy and rainy november day when three grown students went out to play. To Salt they went, to see the town. To change the air and smooth a frown. Aboard the bus that pottered along, beneath the rain which peppered on. 

Ahem…

Salt (السلط), ancient town and former capital of Jordan before Abdullah I changed his mind in favour of Amman in 1921. And in a bold move of marketing but for reasons unknown, this town, which dates back to the times of Alexander the Great has been twinned with Kuwait City. 

Gloominess, rain and it being Friday restricted our activities somewhat. Leaving much more to be discovered for a future visit. Although Victorian-looking street lamps brought a strange feeling of misplaced nostalgia.

We were suitably under-dressed for the wet weather so hurried up a stone stairway into the first cafe we came across. The two shabebs (lads) were more than a little surprised to see us, dozing behind the counter. But jumped to work, turning the lights and TV on. We whiled away the remainder of the afternoon’s greyness smoking strawberry nargeleh (shisha), drinking thick coffee and watching Bollywood films.

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At some point a gaggle of boys of indeterminate age appeared, armed to the teeth with cigarettes and pepsi then set about playing shud’day (cards) in the corner.

Somewhat dazed by an afternoon of smoke and still confused as to whether Bollywood is supposed to be that bad, we staggered out in search of somewhere to eat. Wondering through Salt’s narrow market streets passing entrances to packed and foggy coffee houses.

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just perusing

As we made our way up one of the steep hills, we rounded a bend and stumbled across an old church. The man who appeared to be just locking up the old wooden doors spotted us and with a smile changed his mind and threw them open exclaiming ‘Yalla foot tefuddl!’ (please come inside). 

We exchanged good evenings, saalam aleikums, and what-about-the-weather-today-hey?-s. “We are from Britain,” we said. To which this man, Malik, replied ‘ah the big boss!’ Before spluttering in the throes of a hearty, cigarette-inspired laugh. 

So we foot-ed just in time to see the finishing touches being made to the fake Christmas tree, shining proudly and glossily amidst the archaic architecture of the church. Far from any penguins or war (relatively speaking), it was quainter than any John Lewis or Sainsburys advert.

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Malik, me, Duncan and Jessie

Malik whisked us up a spiral stairway to the roof. And after scrambling under the two bells we emerged up onto a narrow gangway leading to the dome of the church with its dominating view over Salt.

IMG_1536On to another church just next door, dedicated to St.George of dragon fame. Built in 1682 over the site of a cave where George was supposed to have made a miraculous appearance.

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The interior was tiny, packed full of paintings of George slaying the dragon. Not to mention three small, glass-encased pieces of his wrist bone. A prize find for any budding relic hunters. But more importantly it seemed (for Malik that is) was a particularly old and timeworn stone in the back wall. It took a moment before I realised we I was supposed to be finding something fascinating about it. For like any fame-seeking piece of toast, or serendipitously church-going crisp it had assumed the facial features of Jesus Christ. Albeit if you squinted with imagination. 

can you see it?
can you see it?

As if Malik was worried that he hadn’t already been generous enough, he made sure we left the church with our arms full of Christmas CDs, prayer cards and a candles. Jessie was given the honour of lighting one and placing it below a canvas of the Saint. A beautiful painting despite the several missing bits, burnt black by too many candles.

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One of the CDs turned out to be a Christmas album by the Lebanese musical institution and national treasure that is Fairuz. Singing arabic versions of the classic festive songs. Ever wondered what Jingle Bells sounded like in Arabic? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqn_ryespBk

Caught up in the good fortune of this sudfey (chance encounter), Malik asked us where we were planning on sleeping that night. “Well back in Amman surely,” we replied. No buses on friday night my friends. “Oh.”

“But don’t worry I’ll take you ta’al ta’al” (come come). So us three, Malik and two of his friends bundled into the car, knees in each others faces. Reminiscent of any standard taxi journey in Morocco.

Akelto? (have you eaten?). btuhibu shwarma? (do you like kebab?). Silly question.

Food in hand, and seriously pushing the limit on how many times we can humbly say shukran kiteer (thanks a lot) he kindly drove us the half an hour back to Amman. All the while chatting about our shared passion for bad weather and the state of religious tolerance in Jordan.

“I’m a Christian you are Christians, he is a Muslim (referring to another passenger) but we are all friends. Jordan welcomes everyone”. Modest understatement seeing as Jordan’s population has skyrocketed recently. And continues to do so as refugees from Iraq and Syria flood in.

He made a short detour to pass by Prince Faisal’s residence (the King’s brother) before dropping us off outside the University of Jordan’s main gates, just a short distance from home.

We were immensely humbled by Malik’s generosity, selflessness, and general optimism in demeanour that left us feeling incredibly positive and chipper as we trudged off through the puddles back to reality.

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Amman Amongst Men

I forwent my usual friday morning lie-in for a trip to al-Wehdat district of Amman. Breakfast involved a road-side picnic of hummus, bread and exhaust fumes before hopping on the first bus heading down town (cost: 30p). Not actually being from Amman but from a small village somewhere in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, the Jordanian lads were as much tourists as my classmate Yacine and I.

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After a second bus (also 30p) we arrived in one of the poorest and most underdeveloped areas of Jordan’s capital.

Originally a Palestinian refugee camp known as Amman New Camp, it was one of the first four of such places set up in 1948 as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

http://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/jordan/camp-profiles?field=13

Now home to the second largest population of Palestinians in Jordan (the first being in Zarqa city, adjacent to Amman), it has evolved into an overcrowded district with houses, kiosks, market stalls and stray cats all vying for space.

It is also the location of the almighty al-Wehdat football club who, along with their fierce rivals al-Faisaly, make up all there is to know about Jordanian football. Though when asked about their preference, most Jordanians I’ve met will tut deprecatingly and say Chelsea or Barcelona.

The UN presence is subtle but visible with the familiar blue symbol emblazoned above the entrance to a large girls school slap bang in the middle of the market.

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Typical smells of a fruit and veg market were infused with the pungent odours of cat pee and jurassic-age clothes. Now and again came the fragrant mix of freshly butchered meat alongside the wafting tones of coffee and mint tea. 

I have been meaning to buy a cheap coat for a while. Just to cope with the lack of insulation and heating in our flat, and a general chill in the wintery Amman air. So we made our way through the second hand (or third or fourth) clothes heaped on tables. The usual odd sights like an old American army tunic, a Blockbusters polo-shirt and a Co-Op jumper.

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Yacine showing of his cultural immersion

After dropping Ali and the others off at the mosque for Friday prayers, Yacine and I went for an exploratory wonder down the side streets. Colourful walls addorned with pro-Palestinian graffiti mostly of a Gaza-related nature. 

At one point Yacine approached an old man seemingly stranded in his wheel chair on a central reservation, but his charitable efforts were unceremoniously waved away.

So we returned to the market centre and sat in the shade of a tailors shop drinking sweat mint tea (consisting of 3 sad looking leaves) opposite a man and his boy stuffing cushions, covered head to toe in wool.

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I eventually found a jacket with suitably deep pockets for some serious hand thrusting (essential for that purposeful yet pensive look whilst walking). 

We parted ways in down-town. Yacine and I headed for a late lunch at a pokey little place adjacent to the self-proclaimed ‘Oldest Bar in Jordan est. 1945’. a big dish of meats, roasted onions and tomatoes served with charcoaled bread and hummus.

On the late-afternoon walk home we passed through Abdali. A massive open space which, until recently was the location of a popular clothes market. But has been forcibly moved to an area half the size in order to make way for a car-park. Unfortunate for those of us who loved perusing its extensive stalls for hours on end, but even worse for the stall-owners (most of whom are from al-Wehdat). There have been demonstrations, molotov cocktails even, but as yet to no avail.

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We came across a large gathering complete with tents, chairs and police. On further inquiry we had become the unwitting attendees of the ceremony marking the anniversary of the late King Hussein’s birthday, sponsored by Coca Cola. 

The pipers were piping and the horses were parading as we passed through on our way back to the beloved dullness of West Amman. 

Something of Amman-agement Crisis

Since my last post the air and world has become slightly cooler due to a peculiar mix of global warming, winter and grammar.

I have also grown one year older too, well done me. And here’s some edible proof:

James سنة حلوة يا = have a good year mate
James سنة حلوة يا = have a good year mate

Some recent topics we have covered in class include: grammar, Arab women’s rights, grammar, key figures in Arab literature, nitty-gritty grammar, The Thousand and One Nights and some level 5 extra special blood-curdling grammar.

So far my routine has been as follows: it begins on a thursday afternoon when we receive the schedule for the following week with all the required homework drills. The race then begins to tick off as many as possible before the beginning of the week (sunday). This gives me just enough time to learn the endless pages of vocab and come to terms with how much I don’t understand this week’s grammar point.

Friday is then the opportunity for a lie in, being the first day of the weekend here. Not being a particularly pious man you will find me in bed, whilst all my flatmates (2 muslims and a mormon) are at their respective places of worship. If the mood grabs me, I will venture out to the local mosque in time for the end of Friday Prayers to buy vegetables before the crowds flood out. I might look at some grammar explanations to take the edge of the afternoon, sometimes I even read and understand them. Arabic superman comics certainly help to consolidate my knowledge. The pictures mostly.

superman - سوبرمان
superman – سوبرمان

Saturday: must…tick…off…every…drill…. says my inner-monologue as it gets to about 4 pm. I always know when its time to go and have a lie down. It tends to be after a particularly gruelling listening/reading exercise when I find myself googling ‘the history and workings of google translate’. Something to do with levers and switches in the UN’s deep sea language vaults. I shake my fist at language teachers worldwide and go and get a kebab.

Sunday: get a bus to meet my classmate Helena before getting a joint taxi to the Jordan Language Academy for a 2 hours of Farsi (from 8-10). It’s just us two and our teacher, the leather-jacketed dr. Ayman a historian and former Jordanian embassy official in Tehran. A man after my own heart, he despises the teaching of grammar, preferring to pace up and down in front of the white board asking us our views on anything from the Magna Carta to Hyde Park. 

Taxi back to Qasid Arabic Institute, quick falafel sandwhich and then straight into Arabic tuition with our teachers Basma (which means smiley, and she is) and Intesar (which means Victoria, and she isn’t). This lasts from 11-2.30 with 30-45 minutes break for lunch (typically another falafel sandwhich).

Class is finished by 2.30. Bus up the road passed the university of Jordan for a 2 hour ahmiyaa (spoken Arabic) class from 4-6, by which time i have normally had enough of the world and want nothing more than a cheap and delicious Yemeni dish from the place across the street with plastic bags for table cloths. 

Then it’s pretty much the same deal for the rest of the week (Farsi just on sundays and tuesday mornings). I would currently liken myself to a shisha-smelling falafel dipped in coffee rolling on a floor covered with pages of Arabic laughing like a maniac.

At some moments, on the brink of madness at my sheer love of studying I will go for a run with Duncan (remember him? he’s great!). Amman is about as pedestrian friendly as the moon, despite the obvious similarities in colour and dustiness. Pavements are constructed more for the comfort of the trees sprouting through them than for humans. We are frequently honked at by cars or more recently heckled by female students, but that was probably due to Duncan’s insistence on wearing a fluorescent running vest, shin-pads, sweat-bands, scrum-cap and a captains armband.

To the matter of the trials and tribulations of language. Some days go by perfectly, understanding teachers, taxi drivers, falafel salesmen, friends and whatnot. Others it feels as though I have just woken up in China without remembering how I got there.

The trouble with Arabic is the difference between the standard/written language and the spoken dialects. We will spend several hours discussing varied topics in class, using expressions and stringing ideas together. But then you step from the classroom to the outside world, a harsh place with different phrases, words and pronunciation. Frustrating to say the least.

Arabic is a famously varied language. If you were ever daring enough to open a dictionary you would see why another meaning for qamoos (dictionary) is ocean. The main point being that it is not structured alphabetically by meaning, rather by a vast and specific ‘root’ based system. 

It has been said that by someone, somewhere that every Arabic word means itself, its opposite or a camel. 

Learning the spoken language is something that must be done on the mean streets. Outside of class the main method I employ is ‘shebabbing’ (shebab is Arabic for lads/young men). Shebabbing isn’t merely a state of being, rather it’s a way of life. A way of life, that is, which mainly involves smoking shisha. In the advanced circles of shebbabing the blood actually becomes four parts coal one part lemon-and-mint flavoured tobacco. And if you have the right wossta (connections) you can even go shebabbing on tour. 

shebabbing by the dead sea because yolo
shebabbing by the dead sea because YOLO

That said, my preferred, personal method of shebabbing consists of eating kanafa (delicious sweet and cheesy dessert) with a friend, Ali. I desist from telling other shebabs this, for I fear it may not actually be considered within the true smoke-filled boundaries of shebabbing. (shebabs don’t read blogs, it’s impossible through the haze). 

shebabbing by the roman theatre
shebabbing by the roman theatre

Shebabbing aside, I have recently been a privileged audience to a taxi driver quoting thousand-year old poetry as a distraction from the afternoon traffic jams. Nodding along in blissful ignorance at the supposed beauty of metaphor and verse. One day maybe. But then in another i mis-pronounced the word for ‘uni-fresher’ (senafor), so that I apparently had been been enthusiastically and repeatedly telling the driver that I am a really, really small man. I was laughed out of the cab. 

At the time of my last entry we had just got through the mid-term exams and presentations (i did mine on Tim Mackintosh-Smith who lives and writes near an ancient donkey-market in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, something of a hero). Now I am in the last few weeks of my first term at Qasid, with 2 more chapters until we complete the text book, exams to prepare for and the final presentation to panic over.