A friday morning visit to the toilet revealed a continuation of this weeks’ theme: still no running water in the flat. So wanting to escape and get some fresh air I phoned Ali, put a bag together and then jumped on a bus heading down into the Jordan Valley. Passing, along the way, a sign declaring our brave descent below sea level, onwards towards one of the lowest place on earth. I was to spend a few nights with Ali and his family at their farm on the banks of the river Jordan.
Ali’s house is nestled in the midst of a vast expanse of farm land, vegetables, goats and the odd cow. As soon as I arrived I was whisked off to a funeral. This involved sitting in a traffic jam of cars escorting the dead body and family to the burial site. On arrival we briefly poked our heads over the wall to see two burly men digging a hole, said our condolences and then returned home.
After the long introductions, greeting the family and extended family members, and instantly forgetting names, it was time for mansaf. The Jordanian national dish, which should be feared by every foreign guest. The word itself comes from the arabic verb ‘to engorge yourself,’ and that is the end of it really.
Seven men knelt around a platter heaped with rice, nuts and chunks of lamb all above a base layer of bread. Ali’s dad poured the mansaf sauce (jameed) over the rice then all eyes turned to the guest, me, to take the first fistful.
In went the right hand, hopelessly squeezing together a clump of the stuff before clumsily stuffing it into my mouth. You eat until you faint or until it’s all gone, whichever comes first. Usually it’s the fainting.
It took me a few handfuls to get the technique sorted out, then I realised that everyone was subtly pushing most of the rice and strips of meat into my area. So that before long, the mountain of food had distributed itself before me. Lest the guest go hungry.
There was no danger of that and it would eventually take about ten times of my insisting ‘shba’an alhumdulilah’, indicating that I was about to blow up, before Ali’s father conceded and stopped imploring me to ‘kol, kol’ (eat, eat).
I had eaten mansaf before, but in a tamer environment and with tamer equipment (a spoon). Keen mansaf punters will notice the absence of a lamb’s head, I consider myself lucky in this regard, as it is said the guest is usually given the honour of eating the tongue. Therefore I will humbly place my mansaf experience in level 2 of the three levels of mansaf.
After an obligatory lie down in aid of digestion, we gathered the shebabs (lads) together and went off to the inauguration party for a local football club. There we listened to speeches by various important local sheikhs, including the local MP and even Muath al-Kasasbeh’s brother, who gave a very heartfelt and rousing tribute to his brother (who had lived in the area for a time) before we stood to the Jordanian national anthem.
The speeches were sealed with a demonstration of martial arts by some guys from the football club. This took the form of a group of teenagers playfighting and shouting in mock aggression before waiting for sporadic applause from the crowd. What ever raises the spirits I suppose, infinitely more entertaining than cheerleading though.
Then followed a football match to the tune of a pitch-side commentator armed with a loudspeaker, unshamedly slagging off the away team and biasedly praising the home team. He soon shut up after the home team conceded a few early goals. We stayed for the first half before the shebabs decided there were other places they had to be seen in that night.
Thus began an evening of popping in to numerous houses for tea and self-marvelling at my inability to understand what any one was saying in the local dialect. Apart from a newly acquired word for ‘thing-a-me-jig” – makhooth , which helped me out no end.
Still I was able to fall back on the good old Standard Arabic. That trusted friend of every arabic student that enables you to stand out as much as possible in any situation. I was the white guy in the corner speaking like Shakespeare. Full immersion was coming on nicely.
Saturday morning we were out in the fields by 6.30 tending to a lusciously green crop of beens. The task was a morning of weeding. I had initially motioned to lift a finger but this caused much huffing from Ali’s father, and out of nowhere appeared a chair along with a steaming cup of sweat, sage-flavoured tea.
At one point I spied a free shovel and joined in the work, an argument almost broke out when I refused to go back and sit down. More tea was brought out to calm me down. I had managed to get away with weeding two rows of the field, so a small inner victory.
Ali’s father gave me a tour of the estate, and reminisced of his time in the army at the famous Battle of Karameh in which the Jordanian army prevailed against Israel in 1968. It was march 21st, the battle’s anniversary so there was much proud eye-glaring at the not-so-distant hills that signal the border with Israel/Palestine.
After washing the mud off we once again joined the shebabs and headed to the local school for some football. I very much enjoyed hearing whispers of ‘meen al sheger?’ (who’s the white guy?), so I made sure I showed them who I was by tripping over my feet and missing the ball whenever I got the chance.
We even managed to squeeze in a cheeky round of badminton outside the local mosque before getting back home for lunch. I faired a bit better in this. The white guy was back on form.
A quick turn around then we all squeezed into Ali’s brothers car, laden with bbq, coal, chicken, bread and kebab meat, and set out northward up the mountains, passed the roman ruins of Pella until we reached a derelict villa perched at the side of a wadi (valley), overlooking the entire Jordan Valley.
It was windy, cold and rainy but that didn’t stop the shebabs from indulging in the Jordanians favourite past time: taking selfies. We ate the barbecued meat more as an afterthought or as sustenance between posing for endless photos.
It was definitely wadaa’ zenon (a totes awesome time). As the evening drew to a close back at the farm, Ali, in preparation for an English exam the following day diligently took out is books, placed them by his feet before instantly checking Facebook on his phone. In case there was another selfie to like I suppose. In response I taught him every students buzzword: momattley (procrastination).
We studied together for a bit, but I quickly fell asleep, waking up the following morning just after the dawn prayer at 5am for breakfast.
I said my sincere thank yous before climbing on the bus back to Amman. Travelling sleepily up over the mountains on the winding road, racing the rising sun. And as if it had all been a dream, when walking into the flat my ears pricked up at the sound of a flushing toilet….that meant only one thing… Water.