Enough from Amman

Ramadan is over, and so am I. It has been an interesting time. In the first week I ripped a large hole in my trousers (destroyed my second pair a few days ago), and in celebration I then sat on, and broke, my glasses.

I studied for four weeks with a local poet called Mohammad Zaki. Or Zaki for short, which in Arabic means either cute or tasty although I can’t vouch for either.

Zaki’s work has been described by one critic as “a complicated form of pornography with a somewhat intriguing use of pronouns.” Knowing this, I would often resort to my get-out-jail-free card when asked for an interpretation, “well, I can see a sexual theme to this …”.

He introduced me to the work of his late friend Mohammad Tomaliah (regarded as Jordan’s pivotal satirical newspaper columnist, and author of a book on his writer friends entitled ‘the Enthusiastic Bastards’ – “of which I am one,” said Zaki with a wide grin).

Zaki, keen to show me how the Jordanian satirical mind works, explained how Mohammad would get fed up of people mis-pronouncing his surname:

“Mohammad Talyama, Mohammad Talmaliah, Mohammad Tamliya, they just couldn’t get it right, so he said enough, and decided to go and change his name.”

“Oh right, so what did he change it to?”

“Mahmoud Tomaliah”


We would meet up in the French Institute in Jabal Luwebdeh. Home to Amman’s most cultured set of security guards, known to all as shilat el-ons (which translates to something like ‘the good time crew’). Nasir (chief of security) would reluctantly put down his Diwan of Rumi’s poetry to search my bag every day.

‘Someone else lives after you’, ‘When he sleeps’, ‘Absentmindedness’, ‘…’, ‘In the fall the sun is destroyed’, ‘A moment…and the words are broken’.

Just a few titles of Zaki’s poems, compiled into a diwan called: ‘patched on a blind piece of paper’. Me neither. But when should ignorance ever be a barrier. “I wrote it and I don’t understand it,” Zaki would say in an attempt to console me as I sat knee deep in paper, sweat and torn-out hair. “The important thing is to try and understand what it means to you, not what I intended it to mean.” At this point I would usually start crying .

Besides my introduction to Zaki’s form of mystical Sufi atheism, I have learned some other things too. The Freemasons rule the world (where did you find that out? where’s your proof? do you know who the Freemasons are or where the name comes from?). But where’s your proof they don’t? (ah very clever, I see what you did there).

Also that the use of the English word ‘mosque’ is very offensive to a particular sheikh from a small town in the Jordan Valley. We should be saying the Arabic word masjid. Why? Because the use of ‘mosque’ is insulting to Islam (said by a man who can’t speak a word of English). I asked him where he got this information from. This provoked an hour of incessant googling before eventually admitting that another sheikh had told him, probably.

After ten seconds of googling I found this link: https://muslimspeak.wordpress.com/2009/01/15/the-meaning-and-evolution-of-the-word-mosque/

It references a book entitled ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam’ and a particular passage which states: “The English term mosque is derived from the Spanish word for mosquito.”

It then embarks on a (in my opinion) pretty convincing linguistic exposition of why this is complete rubbish. In short the English word ‘mosque’ comes from ‘masjid’ but had to jump over many linguistic hurdles to get there.

After gently reminding some people to put themselves in my position, my impression of life in the insufferably hilly, Ammani neighbourhood of Tila’ al-Ali has been one of tolerance and acceptance. For example, I enjoyed nothing better than a bit of gentle ribbing by Sheikh Mahmoud whenever I wore short shorts (strictly for domestic purposes of course). And even a knowing smile and wink when he asked how the weekend away with my girlfriend was. There’s an understanding of differences, which is smoothed over with a bit of light banter than you move on and talk about V8 engines or something.

My experience living in a two bedroom flat with eight young men was, well, cosy. Evenings would be a race for the two beds and the one fan. If you lost out then it was the floor, a mattress and a face very much directed towards the window. A gust of wind would occasionally blow in and linger on your face, which was nice.

My mind has slowly deteriorated. A combination of general disillusionment and background existentialism, mixed with the occasionally blaring anger and frustration that however much Arabic you think you know there is always a day (or a week, or a month) where you have no clue what anyone is saying. Still that’s the fun of learning a language.

I am looking forward to a cup of milky tea, a bath and a story or two about oriental zombie death falafel robots. I may even write one myself.


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