’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.