Amman on a floor

Hello. It’s halfway through my final term in Jordan. The year abroad is coming to an end and I’m starting to wonder why I don’t have more photos of leaning towers of Pisa and sunny photos of smiling students lounging around in parks. That’s what Year Abroads are supposed to about, well, according to Facebook. Love that site.

oo look, what's that
oo look, what’s that

But don’t worry I have been absorbed in shisha smoke, developed a tendency to stare at the wrong side of books, eat shwarma kebab, walk everywhere in a daze of pollution and just generally stare at urban goats.

When it came to the end of March, I had been living for three months in a flat with sofa-dwelling sub-letter Mohammad Azizzi ( = the dear one), as well as a variety of other faces that numbered eight at the peak of over crowdedness. As I have already mentioned, this was at times beneficial, at others smelly.

Throughout March my long-suffering friend Ali had been sharing my bed, and contributing to the rent. But he pointed out, after an evening spent in our favourite roast chicken joint, that I am being ripped off.

Ali rang around to see who, from his friends, was interested in finding a new flat. About five gave very insincere ‘In Shah Allahs’, and we left it at that.

I told Mohammad, that, as we had agreed in January I would be moving out at the beginning of April. He gave me an incredulous look with his passive-aggressive puppy eyes. I explained in my best diplomatic Arabic that I was leaving so that he could spend more time with his deep pockets. When my vagueness wasn’t getting through, Ali jumped in to call ‘haraam’ (against Islam).

Of course this didn’t go down too well with dear Mohammad. A much heated discussion ensued in which we came to the agreement that, yes of course, he is a very hospitable and pious muslim, the economy is in a bad state, there’s not much money to go around, wars, influx of Syrians etc.

There was a pause for intake of breath before he declared that I would have at least to stay one more month to give him time to find someone else, otherwise I could pay him a months rent up front.

Ok no Mohammad I will move out today. Then ensued the awkwardness of packing my bag as quickly as possible. And in a twist of fate he offered to drop me off.

We sat in silence at traffic lights before Mohammad perked up with, “how about a leaving interview, what could I have done better? Tell me about your experience? Do you think I am a expensive?” I just held my tongue and smiled out the window.

The following day my parents arrived from England to stay for ten days. Having timed my homelessness to perfection, I subsequently moved into their hotel room and enjoyed a long  stretch of daily showers and expansive breakfasts.

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 14.58.27We spent the time floating in the Dead Sea, admiring rocks at Petra, and tracing the hills of downtown Amman, cafe-hopping all the way.


All the while, Ali and I found an unfurnished flat to move into, with his friend from the Jordan Valley, Naseem (which means “a breeze”).

We spent a morning going through the contract with the Egyptian porter, Khalid. I panicked when it came to signing my name, my English handwriting slightly out of practice, I went for an unconvincing right to left squiggle. Thus my Arabic signature was born.

I blew a sigh of relief, then realised Khalid wanted me to sign another sheet too. Luckily the first paper was still in sight, lying on the floor, so I threw a quick glance then drew an artists impression of my first attempt.

All done and the flat was ours. A small, camping-style gas stove for cooking, three thin mattresses for sleeping on and an endless diet of canned kidney beans, raw onion and fried tomatoes due to the lack of fridge.

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 14.37.40This simplicity of living was refreshing and enjoyable. But it did put a strain on the formal studying, which inevitably requires the internet. I realised one night, when trying to talk to Naseem about a short-story I was translating, that he was a bit of an idiot. Still at least I learnt some good swear words.

We would stay up late drinking sage tea and chatting, our words echoing loudly due to the absence of furniture. Then inevitably, Naseem would receive a phone call from his girlfriend, and proceed pour his heart out down the line as I attempted to drift off to sleep.

Wanting to make me feel more at home, Naseem named me Faisal, and in return I named him Edward. Life was ticking along fine, largely thanks to strong coffee and an inner belief that I was making the most of life. Until Naseem, the now not-so-gentle Breeze, announced his desire to leave and move in with his friend in the flat below (largely because he had a fridge and a TV).

Unfortunately this put me and Ali in a dilemma. Although the entire flat only cost 200 dinars a month, split three ways. It meant we would have to be parted.

I had the offer of moving in with Naseem, but chose instead a spare bed in Duncan’s flat (remember him? Yep, he’s still here). Naseem was an ok guy, but spent the majority of his time spitting out of windows, smoking, scratching himself and wolf whistling at anything remotely female.

So I found myself once again, walking along a road with my life slung over my shoulder, carrying a prized electric kettle in a plastic bag. Welling up with disappointment, and an inner fury that life just isn’t easy for a middle-class Englishman trying to be a Jordanian from the block.

As for class, I am still managing to feign an interest in politics during Media Arabic classes and learn about weddings and american english in the Jordanian Arabic dialect classes. We have also begun studying Arabic literature, through the medium of short stories and plays.

The translation and understanding can take time and much head scratching as each word has a deep, hidden and sometimes interpretive meaning. Of course this makes it all the more enjoyable to be berated the following day for not fully comprehending that the word ‘tree’ can also mean a rare paranoid state of self-contemplation (not a real example, but I wouldn’t be surprised).

Still, as the weather is heating up and I am starting to want to spend more and more time indoors, I console myself that at least I have a sunny picture of me by Petra to remember the year by.



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.

IMG_2700Ali’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.

20150320_141855Seven 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.

20150320_141724There 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.

20150321_063328 So there I was, again fitting in seamlessly, supervising a man more than twice my age gruntingly digging up the weeds. I sipped my tea sheepishly and looked on.

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.

get in
get in

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.

go on son
go on son

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.

IMG_2794It 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.

oh the many levels of selfies
oh the many levels of selfies

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.


I sensibly left myself a mere two days to find a flat before the start of term. So I hit the streets around the University and rang some numbers. Then I got hold of my friend Hassan who went so far as to fix a meeting with an estate agent and spend an afternoon driving me around looking at places (seven flats in all!). A healthy dose of vitamin Waw (Jordanian arabic for: connections).

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 16.09.30In the end I decided to take a cheap room in a flat with two professional Jordanian guys, Mohammad and Abdul Aziz. It’s close to the main gate of the Jordanian University and a 5-10 minute bus ride to Qasid (language institute). All sorted I moved in after the first day of classes.

Our welcome present was an impenetrable wall of vocab to learn by the following day. In response I spent a peaceful afternoon drinking coffee and staring at my favourite spot on the wall. There are more class hours than last term, as we are doing modern standard arabic, dialect classes and media arabic classes. from 9.30 – 2.30. Plus four hours of farsi classes spread over sunday and tuesday afternoons. Thankfully we were saved by snow and a subsequent five day weekend.

me room
my room

The first signs of the coming storm were the bakery queues and excited chattering about the prospect of a holiday. As well as the customary panic buying, Jordanians like to give unofficial names to their storms, so this one was called Huda (guidance).

It was a struggle for everyone to keep warm. The refugee camps in the north must have been horrific. I found it hard enough sleeping fully clothed under four blankets. But in the absence of a toaster I found my guidance in gas-hob-heated bread and peanut butter.

After the snow had settled then came the ice scare. A sort of suggested curfew was laid down by the government to prevent people using the roads past 5.30pm. For those without watches the air-raid siren would blast out to remind you of the icy danger. However, this only served to motivate the shebabs more to go out and watch people skid off the roads.

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My flatmates had already fled to their families to weather out the storm, I was alone and bed-bound for fear of leaving my duvet. On first hearing the siren I assumed IS had taken the opportunity to launch an attack over the border and I was going to have to confront them in my blanket, brandishing a broomstick.

It was a useful time though. How else would I have been able to learn the essential winter phrase: “keep yourself warm” (daafee halak mneeh), if it hadn’t been repeated so insistently.

On the first day back after the snow, I was powering down the street to catch a bus when I came across a man who seemed to be in a predicament. On closer inspection he was using two pieces of cardboard to shuffle glacially down the hill. As I sped past he said “deer baalak, a’shaaria zahhlag” (watch out the road’s slippery). “mashee” (ok) I replied and the promptly collapsed onto my arse.

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Main gate of the Jordanian University

Another recent highlight was accidentally flooding the flat. I put my clothes in the washing machine, turned it on and went out. Then returned just before the end of the cycle to a three centimetre deep pool of water spreading out from the bathroom. My heart sank as the wifi rooter bobbed by.

Mohammad had neglected to inform me of a key aspect of this washing machine. It requires putting the hose into the adjacent bath tub to drain the water. My negligence made for a long afternoons mopping and furious carpet squeezing.

Oh well at least now the snow has all gone, the flat is dry and term is in full swing. It has been a hectic few weeks with catch-up sessions on saturdays to make up on lost time, and mid-terms already looming.

A New Year – A(new)mman

New Year’s Eve in Tel-Aviv! First in my long list of places that rhyme with certain festivities. (including: Halloween in Aberdeen, my birthday in Holloway, um…)

The day began with Jessie and I returning to the the apartment block of the man who had picked us up the night before. For Jessie realised all too late that she had left two of her coats in his car boot.

Larkin in Ha-Yarkon
Larkin in Ha-Yarkon

We did our best not to look too suspicious as we prowled along a line of parked cars peering through the windows. Naturally it caught the attention of a man who wanted to know what the devil we were up to.

Jessie explained the situation, he became sympathetic and gave us his contact details, then translated a note Jessie had written into hebrew to stick on the reception notice board. Nothing came of it but was worth a try.

After spending the morning marvelling at the greeness and sheer loveliness of Ha-Yarkon park, we took a bus into town.

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typical past time of Israeli men

And had a good old gander around the happening districts of Rotschild Boulevard and Allenby street. Both either tree-lined or filled with trendy cafes and book shops. We followed our whims down through Carmel market (not camel), before ending up at the mediterranean just in time for sunset.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 14.16.53In a fit of excitement I even ate some fish and chips.

We all regrouped back at the flat before going out again for New Year’s Eve festivities. We bundled into separate taxis, but unfortunately there was a misunderstanding of the meeting point. So when we finally found each other it was just in time to celebrate British New Year (2 hours later).
Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 14.17.50
The atmosphere was a strange mixture of orthodox jews raving on van roofs, their curls flying all over the place, and pop-up jazz trios rocking away under the trees.

After eventually making it back, we managed a few hours sleep before leaving bright and early to get to the Sheikh Hussein border crossing.

There are three border crossings between Jordan and Israel. One down south, one in the middle near Jerusalem (King Hussein Bridge) and the Sheikh Hussein bridge in the North.

Although the King Hussein Bridge was much closer, they have no facilities for granting visas so that meant we would have to travel back up north, passed Nazareth to Sheikh Hussein.

Several bus changes after leaving Tel-Aviv we arrived in Beit Shean 7km from the northern border. Now we had to wait for the infamously rare no.16 bus to the border. Luckily we arrived in time for the 12.45. The next one would’ve been at 6.30pm. The only other option is paying through the roof for a taxi.

At the border we were fortunate enough to meet Sarah, an American travelling in the footsteps of the traveller Richard Halliburton. (Her blog:

One of my favourite features of this entire trip from Jordan to Egypt, to Palestine, Israel and back has been the exit fees. So I was more than delighted to cough up my 100 shekels (around £17) for the privilege of leaving Israel.

The Israeli officer who handled my passport was nice and asked if i want an Israeli stamp in or out of my passport (but this was not the case for Sarah). I turned to leave and said, “toda” (thanks in hebrew).

“Where did you learn hebrew James?” She snapped back, seemingly suspicious.

“I know two words, shalom (hi/bye) and toda,” I replied. She laughed and waved me through.

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The next stage involves boarding a bus (five shekles) for a short three minute ride over the bridge and voila you are in Jordan. Where all that remains is to purchase your visa, a mere 40JD (£37) and then work out how to get to Amman.

Jessie and I shared a taxi with Sarah back to Amman for less than the price of a Jordanian visa. Huge expanses of agricultural fields full of Syrian workers stretch out on either side of the road before it climbs up over the mountainous region that leads, through Salt, all the way back to Amman.

My conversation with the driver can be summarised thus:

“Ever been to Iraq?’
“Want to go? I go there every month, only last time I had to pay ISIS 300 dollars and hide a shia guy in the boot.”
“Oh right, that’s um, nice.”

It had been an exaggerated loop of a journey but we were back in Amman. Standing by a familiar traffic jam in the freezing cold, chewing on a falafel sandwhich whilst contemplating a fiery red sunset. Despite my bag still being locked up at Qasid and having nowhere to live, I was excited for the new year.

How to Lose Amman

The buses from Nazareth to Tel-Aviv are sly dogs. Depending on who you ask there are either: no buses, only one bus a day (that had already left at 5.30am) or a complete denial of the existence of Tel-Aviv and buses in general.

We inquired at a bus ticket office, even asked a bus driver himself. And were met with universal ignorance. That was until we came across a tourist information office. Within less than a minute we had a map, a location and a bus number. The bus stop was 200 metres away and departs every 30 minutes.

So we got to Tel-Aviv two and a half hours later in the early afternoon of 30th December. We had sorted out staying at an air bnb flat in a Tel-Aviv suburb next to a large park. The flat listing on the website was notable for the absence of any phone number or house number. All we had was a street name and had told Duncan (who had left earlier in the morning) to put a towel over the gate.

At first we attempted to acquire a taxi but were put off by the fee. Couldn’t find any place to get a map so with nothing better to do we hopped on a bus to take us to the park. My hebrew wasn’t up to scratch so a kind lady tried to help us, but we ended up more confused as she proceeded to deny the existence of this park (Ha-Yarkon park – the biggest in Tel-Aviv).

So we trundled along to the terminus where we met a man with an iPhone who kindly showed us that we were about 3/4km from our destination at the wrong end of the park.

But being the adventurous types, Jessie and i decided to walk. Along the main road and then we cut across the park and got lost again.

Jessie had a brainwave and emptied her entire bag in the middle of a car park to look for a map which turned out not to be there.

After nearly three hours we ambushed a man and his son who were just coming out of their apartment block and asked for help. He told us we were still quite far away so offered to drive us.

“So do you have a house number or telephone or anything?” he asked.
“No just the street name.”
“That’s an interesting way to travel,” he replied.

He dropped us off and, pointing to one end of the street said, “I suggest you start down there, good luck.”

We paced the length of the street several times to no avail. No hanging towels or nothing.

“it’s all getting a bit Love Actually, we might have to start carol singing,” I mentioned in a moment of post-festive gaiety.

In desperation Jessie went into a small grocery store to find someone with a smartphone. The owner instantly downed his tools and ran out of the now unattended store gesturing for me to run after him.  He told me he had met two British guys staying here the week before. He knew the address and it was close by.

I went and rang the doorbell but no reply. Motivated by weary fed-up-ness, Jessie crept up the side stairs and knocked on the top-floor door hesitantly.

The door opened and it was Duncan.

Amman among the Nazarene

A short drive from Tiberias, Nazareth is renowned all over the world for being a city in the north of Israel. It is thought to have been the childhood town of Jesus, Him of Christianity fame. And is considered to be the arab capital of Israel, and claimed by some to be the founding place of Kenafa (sweet and cheesy desert), but hotly refuted by others.

As a continuation of the months’ theme, I was totally out of my depth christianity-wise. Yes the Basillica of the Annunciation is big and beautiful, but I can’t bring myself to type it into wikipedia.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 12.04.09But I do recall a whispy voice appearing in my ear whilst looking in incomprehension at a nativity scene, “….” it announced mysteriously. I took it to be a message from on high of an incoming pregnant pause in my life.

Still, it’s the number one place to see brown-robed monks waving their crucifixes for photo opportunities.

Not to mention  a bizarre billboard poster aimed at christian pilgrims slap bang in front of the church.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 11.52.39We lodged at Abu Saeed Hostel, tucked in the narrow streets of the old town. The owner, Abu ’call me Ramzi’ Saeed, was (and still is) a small ex-policeman who can be found at all times sporting a long black cloak and watching cheap films on his computer.

We had arrived in the evening and so, after a short rest and copious thimble-full cups of complimentary coffee from Ramzi, we went off in search of nosh.

Shwarma restaurants, falafel stalls and shisha cafes line the streets. It’s like coming home, we thought as we tucked into a greasily delicious kebab sandwich and side-plate of disco-veg  (illogically fluorescent pickled vegetables that are common in Palestine and Jordan).

the only way to truly walk in Jesus' footsteps
the only way to truly walk in Jesus’ footsteps

Bellies full, I spied what looked like from the outside, a shebab (lads) and sebiyya (ladettes) -friendly cafe. So up the stairs we trod and opened the door. A heavy fog of shisha rushed out as if fleeing a crime scene of flavoursome proportions.

Once the smoke had cleared we could see the whites of the eyes. The curiously suspicious and confused eyes of arab man when confronted with three foreigners (one of whom is a comely blonde) in their prized establishment of coffee, smoke and football.

There was a pause, you could call it pregnant (…epiphany…). The saloon doors swung on their creaky hinges, the piano player stopped and tumble weed rolled past the way it does.

“Ahla wa sahla! Merhaba tfuddl,” said a great big grin from a waiter, greeting us like old friends. Seats were found and our bums were placed on them.

Then came a small commotion from round the corner, hushed and hurried discussion before a finger was pointed at a well-to-do looking man sitting by himself. A member of the first group went and whispered something in his ear. The well-to-do man looked up at us and surveyed the scene before walking over with a smile,

“Hello my friends, what is you wanting, hubbly bubbly?”

To which we replied in arabic.

“Ha! you speak arabic sorry! Welcome to Nazareth”

We shared a smirk with the guys beside us who had been part of the initial meeting to find an english speaker for the poor, lost foreigners. It made for a nice atmosphere and we passed the evening in a fog of our own, drinking warm and delicious qilfy (cinammon and walnut drink).

The following morning I went looking for a bakery. The only directions Ramzi had given me was the classic ‘follow your nose’. And he wasn’t wrong. Wedged inbetween two houses, a small entrance opens up into an aromatic drive-through bakery.

That is, the bakery is made up of a factory floor covered in flour and whatnot, as well as enormous conveyor belt oven. You give your order to the till, whether it’s pizza, or just bread and it comes rolling out piping hot from the oven within several minutes. Ideal.

nom nom nom
nom nom nom

Whilst out looking for things to do, Duncan pointed to a derelict church on top an opposite grassy hill. So there we went. We reached it after some fence hopping and barbed wire avoiding, which told us there might be a reason for it being derelict.

Birds of prey circling above us, green slopes, blue skies, red and yellow flowers and the odd preying mantis made for a perfect afternoon.

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That evening it was back to the same cafe, but this time with less of a reaction.

Just as we were getting into the swing of the shisha the door opens and in walks a huge group of spanish tourists. We shared looks of ‘here we go again’ and watched the confusion unravel once more. By that point we were on Facebook terms with mohammad the waiter, so he turned to us for help.

I did my fellow Boy Scouts proud by becoming the groups translator, conveying their order of drinks and shisha to Mohammad. But whilst talking in english to the groups’ apparent spokesman he suddenly cut me off, looked at me with a furrowed brow and said,

“I sorry but are you sure english is first language?”

“Totes bruv,” I replied and carried on, berating myself for not reading the Oxford English Dictionary as often as I should.

Such was our brief stay in Nazareth. Next stop was back to the Middle-East’s very own hipster factory, Tel-Aviv.

Tiberias Shore

Widely considered to have been a bad move, Boxing day fell on a friday last year (2014). I awoke with sleepy eyes and yawned away all that post-Christmas grogginess you get from too much bread, lettuce and stinky cheese. Then stumbled out into the morning light with the others to a surprising breakfast of bread, lettuce and cheese.

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Being accustomed to Jordanian Islamic fridays we assumed our best time to leave would be after midday prayers. It took a great leap of common sense to remember we were actually in a Jewish state with the looming deadline that is Shabaat.

With this new realisation that everything would shut down, buses, shops and whatnot by 4pm we hastily got our proverbial together, hugged and thanked our delightful hosts then legged it by taxi and bus to Jerusalem.

After some intermediary panicking due to taxi drivers who insisted that we had missed the last bus and so would have to pay them million dollar instead, we successfully boarded the second to last bus to Tiberias.

Arriving late in the evening, I realised I hadn’t noted down the name of the hostel. Another bold, Boxing day move of common sense. I felt a bit of a square.

Fortunately an Israeli policeman who had been on the bus with us came to the rescue with his smartphone and bag of sweets.

The following day we awoke to a mesmerising view over the Sea of Galilee and set about exploring.

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On a top 12 list of cool things to do in Tiberias, number 10 notes “one of the most beloved topics of conversation is the water level of the Sea of Galilee.”

With this handy tip in mind off we went promenading along the Galilee waterfront, ice creams in hand and eager for water-level based conversation.

We gave up very quickly and took instead to staring pensively at the water in a kind of ‘he fed that many with just five loaves and fish, really?’ way.

I noticed an old lady had snuck up beside me and was now leaning nonchalantly against the wall overlooking the lake. I assumed she was thinking along the same lines of us, “Jesus really walked on this ?”

But then she suddenly said:

“The water level’s not what it once was, it’s going down, such a shame,” my heart skipped a beat and my lungs did the hop-scotch.

“Tell me more,” I replied and then instantly regretted any original interest in topical water level discussions.

A short 20 minutes later after prying ourselves from her grasp we had a group huddle and agreed to collectively move on from this slip of judgement by going to climb a nearby mountain.
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Up we trudged over barbed wire fences and through rocky grass, up, up to the Tomb of Rachel and the ancient ruins that overlook the lake. Then proceeded to spend the afternoon pointing out to each other how breathtaking the view is.

Another thing that makes it on to the list of top 12 cool things to do here is a trip to the local hot springs, right on the shores of the Galilee. Wary of our past adherence to this list but tempted by the good value and promise of a boiling hot bath, we gave in.

It didn’t disappoint, the water level was as constant as the steaming temperature of the indoor and outdoor pools. I felt I was getting into the swing of it so I went and sweated in the sauna, but then I got cocky and stepped into the steam room. One breath was enough to tell me I could get the same effect by being water-boarded under a stream of boiling water.

Around three hours later, sufficiently prune-skinned and subdued we hopped on the bus to Nazareth.

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As the bus wound it’s way up over the hills that surround the Galilee I began to drift off into a sleepy haze.  I was just conscious enough to witness the driver of the car in front poke his head out the window and projectile vomit whilst simultaneously steering round a sharp bend. I remember thinking ‘respect’, before succumbing to my eyelids.

Away in Amman-ger (part 2): This Time it’s Biblical

Who said blog posts had to be on time. It snowed. I was cold and accidentally flooded my flat. I even ran out of coffee at one point. More on that another time.

It was Christmas Eve and the three of us were sat atop a dirty beast heading for Bethlehem. I wish there was something I could compare it to. Ok, the dirty beast was a bus, but I did see a donkey in a distant field (I think, possibly), and also had some of my wisest thoughts of the year whilst staring out the window.

Qalandia checkpoint, just outside Jerusalem is famous for being a pain. But surprisingly we passed through in 5-10 minutes (changing buses on the way). At the actual point of checking a plain-clothed Israeli soldier sauntered on board, adorned with ray bans and a sculpted beard. He swung his rifle absent-mindedly, occasionally poking a passing shoulder or face. As he wandered lazily up and down the aisle, iPhone in one hand and gesturing with the other for Palestinians to present their passes. It was a delight to behold.

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In Israel you can’t move for teenagers on their national service. They tend to congregate at bus stations. It becomes natural to see a bushy-blond with pink finger nails strutting down a Tel-Aviv street in green military clothes and a larger-than-life rifle slung over her shoulder. This is only to balance the even-more-larger-than-life handbag hanging off her other shoulder.

To anyone who has experienced life in a school Combined Cadet Force (CCF), that’s you. Now go off to war.

We arrived in Bethlehem to an ambush of bustling taxi drivers. After painstakingly playing them all of against each other we agreed a rate and headed off to nearby Beit Sahour (where the Angel is supposed to have appeared to the Shepherds).

One of the possible Shepherds’ Fields

A Palestinian family of Jehovahs Witnesses would be our host for the next few days. And so we collectively patted ourselves on the back for having found a christian family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas.

As the sun was setting we went a wandering down through the valley. Eventually coming across a small bunch of houses from which we were beckoned by a gaggle of children.

It turned out to be the dwelling of a family of shepherds and we had arrived just in time for the evening milking. Tea was offered and subsequently proffered. The girls were engulfed by a circle of their fans, wide-eyed in deep admiration. Whilst Duncan and I were herded into the barn to engage in serious man conversation on topics varying from ‘those bloody Israelis’ to ‘ha! What are sheep like! Who’d have ‘em’.

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…no sign of the baby jeeeeesus

At one point a lump of pungent cheese arrived on a plate. We proceeded to politely scratch and nibble at it.

There we were standing in a hilltop stable talking to shepherds about the goddam injustice of it all on Christmas Eve. It was almost too biblical, I had to take several deep breaths and go for a sit down outside. Although that could have been more to do with the awful smell of the sheep and cheese.

Not wanting to miss the celebrations amongst hundreds of pilgrims in Bethlehem, we parted company from this optimistic yet oppressed family on top of their idyllic valley, and set out for the Church of the Nativity.  (dropping the plate of cheese back at the our house first, they wouldn’t let us leave it, they just wouldn’t).

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Star Street

The night was eerily quiet, save for the odd screaming convey of police as we trudged our way up the aptly named ‘Star Street’ all the way up to Manger Square, Bethlehem.

Watching Christmas Eve midnight mass on a big screen outside the Church of the Nativity, beside an enormously fake tree and amongst crowds of Santa Claus hat-wearing Palestinians and foreigners, was, well, different. In retrospect I wish I had brushed up on my biblical latin and sense of religious sentimentality.

The square was full of reminders of the Palestinian struggle. With slogans like ‘all I want for Christmas is Justice’ and a tree packed full of grenades, dangling like apples. I certainly wished I was back sitting with the shepherds drinking tea, and picking at cheese, despite the smell.

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yay Christmas

At one point, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turned up, was hurried inside to a front seat and promptly fell asleep. He then left towards the end in another flurry of shiny cars, muscly suits, dark glasses and secret ear pieces.

It was on passing by ‘Starbucks Bethelhem’ that it hit me: I don’t feel very festive and this ceremony is all a bit odd. It was a stark realisation of what Christmas actually means to me: barbecued turkey and bad jokes. Sorry Jesus and your Nazarene.

The previous few days had been freezing and so it was a pleasant surprise to wake up on Christmas day to bright sunshine and blue skies. Accompanied with a freshly made Palestinian-style breakfast. Consisting of fire-baked bread, salads, cheese, olive oil and zartar.

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there are mince pies somewhere here i know it…under the lettuce maybe

For want of Chicken Runs, Great Escapes, Queens speeches, crackers and board games, we spent a relaxing fake-summers day basking in the sun alternating between reading, stroking cats and skyping our families all over the globe.

All the while remaining blissfully unaware of the lack of mulled wine and mince pies or decoratively flammable cakes.

We had our Christmas meal of course. You guessed it! Pasta and tomato sauce with the festering sheep cheese for desert.

And wound up the day wrapped in swaddling cloth-…blankets playing cards and listening to Christmas songs as the night faded away.

Away in Amman-ger (part 1)

“Where do you plan on going in Israel?” asked the passport control lady at Tel Aviv airport.
“Um, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nazar-”
“Ramallah, why?” she interrupted with an icy cold stare.
“‘It’s on the way to Bethlehem,” I said with doubt and the icy stare increased and lingered for a few seconds.
“Have a nice stay,” she said with all the emotion of lump of rock and returned our passports and entry permits.

poignant palestinian flag-polery
poignant palestinian flag-polery

Because of the late hour we had to spend a night at a hostel in Tel Aviv. But made a quick get away the next morning to rid ourselves of the try-hard trendiness of the place that hits you smack in the face with the full force of a waxed moustache and plastic-lens glasses.

We boarded the regular bus service for Jerusalem before catching a connecting bus to Ramallah. Ten miles north of Jerusalem it is the de-facto capital of the State of Palestine. Home to feminist movements (women-only cafe, Quaker girls schools, various diplomatic missions, larger-than-life kebabs and a familiar sounding ‘Stars and Bucks’ cafe. Not to mention a handful of 24 hour bakeries that bang out fresh pizzas and pastries at all hours.

well, they were bloody huge in real life
well, they were bloody huge in the flesh

Whilst waiting for the bus in Jerusalem I caught the eye of a man carrying a dangerously full box of vegetables and a bulging plastic bag. Jessie and Duncan had gone on ahead to save seats and I was on bag stowing duty. This man (Mahmoud) and I helped each other with our things and then went and sat next to each other.

He ascertained with his first view questions that I was studying arabic and I that he was studying for a phD with mine. He proceeded to upturn his plastic bag on my lap which, it turned out, was full of a days photocopying at the library. Copies of historical works on the crusades in french, english and italian. So he was off home, he told me through a gleaming smile, to translate them all into arabic.

This from a man with more degrees than teeth. Then out of nowhere, the man in front turned round and blurted out in a south London accent: “I lived in Tooting for 14 years mate”, and went on to reel off the entirety of his former address including post code and phone number. I congratulated him on his memory and he resumed staring out of the window, reminiscing, I suppose, of all the good times at the lido.

This all seemed a bit strange, I thought, but then the great imposing West Bank Wall (in arabic it’s ‘the wall of the apartheid’, in hebrew it’s ‘the separation barrier’) came into view and thoughts of strangeness morphed into incredulity.

We stayed at Area D hostel, located in the centre and home to volunteers, backpackers, wandering diplomats and the odd French journalist who can be heard tapping away long into the night swearing under their breath.

IMG_1988A day of exploring Ramallah took us through the tinsel-lined streets, passed the enormous central christmas tree and the odd child dressed as santa ringing a bell at passers by. We ended up at the town museum where we met the director, he had just come back from a curator training course at the British Museum and was apologetic for the minimalist nature of the place. But took great pride in showing us the ‘history of light’ exhibition. From stick-on-fire, right the way up to electric bulb, it surely was an illuminating experience.

IMG_2035In the centre of the old town is the aptly named Old Town Cafe, frequented by hot-blooded shabab and veteran shabab alike for some serious coffee sipping and card playing. We got out our worn, and dog-eaten deck of cards and began shuffling for a game of hand (a game similar to rummy that is played all over Jordan and Palestine).

The owner took one look at our cards and refused to let us continue playing until we had accepted his offer of a fresh new pack. ‘I wouldn’t even let a dog play with those,’ he laughed disgustedly.

Whilst playing I noticed a young guy stood staring over my shoulder. I said hi, he said hi, I asked if he played cards, he played cards, i asked if he played well, he played very well, I asked if he wanted to join, he walked away. Such was our conversation.

Before leaving Ramallah we felt it necessary to pay a cursory visit to the tomb of Yasser Arafat. Guarded 24/7 it was the most immaculately clean place in Ramallah. Every detail about the tomb has its own symbolic meaning. Whether it is its distance from the gate (75m – Arafat died at age 75), or the size of the Mausoleum (11m by 11m – he died on November 11th).

That done, and with Christmas nearing it’s yearly outing we boarded the bus to Bethlehem.

Cairo: the capital city of Egypt that has a river running through it and many old buildings (with some in disrepair and others that have been more carefully preserved)

We had a week to spend in Egypt. We chose Cairo because that’s where the bus stopped and so it seemed the obvious choice. For accommodation we stayed in the top floor of an old and wooden downtown hostel, a stones throw from Tahrir Square. Complete with complimentary doorless lift, rubble strewn rooftops, mosquito swarms and a dishevelled christmas tree. Downtown Cairo is also known as the car mechanic district for reasons that become obvious when you begin tripping over spanners and tyres whilst looking for a cafe.
IMG_1727Of such cafes they are numerous and gloriously cheap. Whether reclining by the Nile or beneath thick, green trees beside a mechanics workshop you will find great spots to pass time. One such venue was the Townhouse Gallery, a place to watch the artsy fartsy youth of Cairo come and go. Set to the backdrop of a massive and derelict, colonial-style townhouse is this cafe come gallery come bookshop. We forwent an exhibition on Post-Internet Imagery of the Desert (?), and instead delighted in finding a table strewn with fresh and colourful Egyptian comics to accompany fresh juice and shisha.

Just like in Amman, there are endless bookstalls lining the main roads with the usual copies of Mein Kampf on show. Not to mention translations of Orwell’s 1984 taking a satirical pride of place amongst Egyptian novels and other works. And this only a month after a student was arrested at Cairo University for carrying a copy. It makes for a tasty and believable story but is debated:

IMG_0352My first impression was a city of traffic jams, dirty streets and a wide, rubbish-lined river. What is to be expected then. But in terms of the people, we were collectively shocked to see so many young couples holding hands, sitting by the Nile whispering sweet nothings and kissing openly in parks. No doubt there are more conservative areas but you would be hard pushed to see the same behaviour anywhere in Amman, no matter how much you scoured the shadowy side-streets.

IMG_0341We had only a short time to soak up the cairene smog, and so spent most of it walking between koshari restaurants and shisha cafes, playing cards amongst the click-clack of domino games and attempting to be understood by anyone who would listen. If we happened to stumble across a museum, park or an example of religious architecture of historical and cultural significance then so be it.

A brief run down of our stumblings then. At al-Azhar mosque (more than 1000 years old) I was given a spontaneous tour by Hassan, a student at the university who had just finished for the day and saw an opportunity to talk to me about football, Islam and Christianity. Unfortunately he picked the wrong person to converse with on matters of Man United and religion, but I blagged my way as we pushed through the streets of the immense Khan al-Khilli market. Eventually I perked up when he told me, in a hushed voice his pride of being in Tahrir square in 2011. “the revolution is still happening, we must all be patient.” he said.
IMG_0339We perused the antiquities museum. The interior is strewn with statues still standing on the crates they were presumably transported in. The spread is very much to the tune of ‘if it doesn’t fit then just shove it a corner’, apart from Tutankhamun whose golden headress is a surprise to those who had assumed that all the shiny bits were already in the British Museum. I particularly enjoyed the small room dedicated to mummified animals. A preserved Nile trout was a personal favourite resplendent with that timeless, vacant expression specific to long-dead fish.
IMG_0267On another day we completely failed to find the Coptic area of Cairo despite the insistence of a handful of taxi drivers that if we just followed such and such a street and payed them double the normal fair then we would get there. We did find some churches, however, and saw the gaggle of pilgrims lining up to ritually shackle themselves in irons and pray on behalf of st.George.

On a nearby street stood a particularly savvy Egyptian cafe owner. He had realised that following tourists up and down streets whilst blurting the menu at them in something nearing English was both time and energy insufficient. Instead he stood holding a piece of cardboard emblazoned simply with the word ‘beer’ and smiled confidently.
IMG_1697Whilst crossing a bridge Duncan and I were warned of an ongoing protest and were instead steered expertly to a nearby papyrus shop. What proceeded was what I can only describe as many cups of tea and friendly conversation culminating in the personal loss of a fair chunk of money. Still, I had a bundle of personalised roles of papyrus to show for it, the recipients had better appreciate them.

Yes I was pre-warned of the swarms of ‘government certified’ papyrus sellers in Cairo, but being the ripping-off type I have learned to embrace my fate. I thought I had mastered it in Morocco then was ripped off in Jordan. I finally felt confident in Amman but then I came to Cairo.

And of course we visited the Pyramids in Giza. An experience I only enjoyed in retrospect whilst looking at my photos later that evening. We arrived by taxi, were whisked onto horses and then taken to some camels who would be our transport for the afternoon. Our guide, Samir had only two things going for him: he knew how to ride a camel, and was located at Giza.
IMG_1769Aside from that he was useless with information (apart from the heights and the names of the pyramids, which he took great pride in repeating). I was fortunate enough to sit in prime position on camel number one squeezed in worryingly behind Samir. We bumbled along on our camels who seemed to be fuelled by squelching farts and an intense hatred for each other and their riders. It came to mind that Camels have far too many knees to be considered a comfortable ride.

We stopped for the occasional photo like the hilariously artistic ‘try and put your elbow on the pyramid tip’ shot. At one such stop off some Malaysian tourists passed a bulging spliff to Samir. He took a long drag of what smelled like fairly potent hasish and almost fell off the camel. His next move was to take us on a lolloping gallop towards a cemetery. We felt it symbolic but clung on anyway.


Our two hour tour came to an abrupt halt when it materialised that the second hour was to be an accompanied visit to the adjacent museum. We summoned up the shallow depths of our arabic and told him to jog on. He didn’t like this and demanded a tip. The obvious solution would have been to walk away, but an infuriated (and high) Egyptian does not go gently into that good night.

We huddled and came up with 50 Egyptian pounds (about 5 British pounds) and presented it in determined hands. He subsequently refused and stated confidently that each photo he had taken was worth at least 40 Egyptian pounds. So there was only one thing for it (after many heartfelt raised voices on all sides), the plant and run, to cries of (shorta! shorta! – police! police!). We called his bluff and went to sit in a collective huff by the Sphinx, feeling as if our own noses and just been punched off.
IMG_1951We ended our trip mostly looking forward to escaping the craziness of Cairo, a place where its said that even superheros struggle to live. ( Of course living outside the centre would have presented a different view of life here. Like spending a week in the West End of London might leave you with the impression that all of London is obsessed with miserable French people.

I hope to come back and spend more time exploring this city, as despite the annoying encounters with the usual tourist traps, I was beginning to feel the beauty of Cairo. With the recent turbulent past and uncertain future for the Egyptian people that appears to be following a 1984 plot line, hopefully the vibrancy that we (however briefly) saw continues to inspire and revolutionise. Anyhow, onwards to Israel and Palestine for some serious festive and biblical tourism.