The Only Way is Amman
I arrived in Jordan on August 17th 2014 for a year of shenanigans in the sun. Exactly ten months later and I am reflecting on what has been more a year of tense tomfoolery.
The final term at Qasid Institute was much a continuation of the previous two terms albeit with less time for sleep and even more panic. But thankfully, Qasid ended without ceremony. Well, I did hear there was a party at a fancy hotel, with food, gay abandon and numerous “didn’t you do well”, and “aren’t we a great institute” speeches. Sadly I didn’t attend, I was nursing my stress-induced corns.
Anyhow with the formal studying and all exams done we could actually get out and use the language. Down to Wadi Rum, desert of champions and Bedouins. We met our host Atayek at the turning off from the highway, with his elegantly sleek and hawkish features standing by a traditional 4×4.
We spent two nights at his camp, sleeping on dunes pointing out shooting stars and constellations to each other. By day Atayek or his nephew Majid would take us out over the sand in the jeep to walk through canyons, climb dunes, admire mushroom shaped rocks, martian red landscapes and Lawrence of Arabia film sets.
They all spoke a very clear Arabic with one of the most ancient dialects around. Atayek was pleasantly surprised to hear my attempt at a hastily memorised Bedouin poem. Before giving it his own recantation, the ancient tones resonating off the rocks. Reminding me to keep practicing.
Full of sand and expansive memories Atayek dropped us off back at the highway, wished us luck getting a ride home then was gone in a cloud of dust back into the desert. We loitered for around 45 minutes near a roadside fruit stand before a lorry pulled up. The small, moustached driver waved us aboard with his recently purchased watermelon. Delirious with the heat and feeling safety in numbers we clambered up the ladder and squeezed into the cab. Two on the passenger seat, and three wedged behind the front seats on a narrow bed.
Mustafa, the driver, had been smoking shisha but quickly shoved the pipe behind his seat, gave his red eyes a rub and then off we went. We chatted, listened to him singing to his Syrian music tapes, and clapped along jiggling the odd arm to the beat.
After five hours we arrived in the southern outskirts of Amman. Mustafa refused payment, but we thrust some money at him and after a brief scuffle he accepted.
I celebrated my return from the desert heat by getting a bus the following day down to one of the lowest points on the Earth, el-Ghor (the Jordan Valley). Back to stay with Ali for four days. As the bus descended into the valley a fellow passenger on the crammed and sweaty bus declared “ahla wa sahla ila al-jehenem” (welcome to hell). There was a collective nod, but then that could have been a speed bump.
It was the same old routine. During the day we mostly slept because of the heat, only venturing out to have breakfast next door with Ali’s brother and watch pink panther cartoons with his baby son. If we felt brave enough maybe a hitchhike to the local town to buy bread.
In the afternoons we would sit in Ali’s family run corner shop in full blast of a fan handing out ice cream to wide-eyed children. After around six when the sun began to set over the distant hills of occupied Palestine, the boys came out to play. el-Tosh,(meaning going out on the town) was the word.
For us this involved a game of football at the local school before embarking on a circuit of Ali’s friends and relatives houses. Inevitably being gestured by grasping hands to come and be fed and watered. Tafuddloo Tafuddloo (come in!) and from somewhere a chair would be found for my weak European legs, ogaod (sit down!).
One particular meal has been etched in my memory. A circular dish full of mashed up spinach marinated in a spicy oily substance. As it was placed in front of us some pointy objects began to bob to the surface. Chicken feet. We proceeded to nibble their toes and shins for all their skin and flesh. I eventually called it a day when I imagined clipping a chickens toe nails, with my teeth. I announced alhumdulilah (meaning I have thanked God for the food but am stuffed) and retired to the sofa vowing never to bite my own nails ever again.
Whilst on one of these rounds we were beckoned over by a neighbour to help him lug bails of hay into the loft. A crowd of boys gathered for the operation. Old football shirts were ceremoniously handed out, lest the lads on Tosh dirty their outfits.
I was a red Coca Cola number 12. The lugging began well, a bail on each shoulder trudging up the stairs. Until my status as a guest came to the attention of the neighbour. That called for only one thing: a chair and a firm cup of strongly sugared mint tea.
I cheered the rest of the hay bail luggers on from behind my miniature cup. At one point a poorly placed bail teetered on edge of the loft window then fell straight onto my head. A cloud of dust, and my surprised and slightly crunched expression brought the house down. If only I was here all week.
The accent and dialect down in the valley ranges from the incomprehensible to the downright puzzling. Like anywhere this has to do with factors such as the amount of teeth and differing pronunciation of some key Arabic letters. For example the every day word/insult kalb (dog) becomes chalb. Plus simply saying kayfak (how are you), had become chayfich. By the end I was ch-ch-ing all over the place.
One fine day after a long post-breakfast qaylulay (nap), I went with Ali to talk to the local sheikh inquiring as to whether, in all my humbleness, I could acquire a Quran for the purpose of studying its language. He presented me a translated version and with a condescending eyebrow told me that it is unacceptable for any non-muslim to read an original copy of the Quran.
I declined his gesture and in full glare of his eyebrow told him not to worry as I know plenty of muslims in Amman wiling to share an original Quran, without fear of ending up in hell.
Leaving the Jordan Valley was a relief, and I couldn’t help thinking if only I had made friends who lived somewhere with a gentle breeze. Thank god I don’t have to go back there again, I said to myself whilst rummaging through my bag and noticing the absence of my glasses.
So an unexpected return bus down to pick up my glasses lying on the chair where I had left them in the living room, arriving back in Amman in a fresh pool of sweat just in time for sunset on the evening before Ramadan.
A day to sort out the remnants of my life in Jordan and soak up some of the Ramadan night atmosphere (largely involves boys setting off fireworks in the middle of the street). As well as the 3 am drum man.
That is, the man whose job it is to parade the streets or residential areas in the early hours waking people up to eat their sohor (meal before beginning of the day’s fast). He is known as the Musaharati. A slightly less efficient method than the loud speakers of the Mosque, but a tradition is a tradition I suppose.
It has been an interesting year. I have learnt Arabic, made friends in the lowest places possible, eaten enough falafel and hummus for a lifetime, walked my flip-flops into remission, destroyed my lungs with lemon and mint flavoured shisha, torn my hair out at points, grown it at others.
Amman is leaving the Jordan shore and returning to the white cliffs of Somerset once more.