Rowling with my Witches

-2 (1)It’s fitting that J K Rowling would gain inspiration from a City known as the site of the last Witchcraft executions in England. Probably more a coincidence actually, but let’s stick with fitting. Otherwise what else would students have to tell their parents as they drag them eagerly down Gandy Street: “Look dad this is Diagon Alley!” On the way pointing out the Freemasons Provincial Grand Lodge, and possibly a subtle mention of the Phoenix theatre ( you know just to heighten the mystery and give fuel to the imagination).

Then into the Firehouse to gawp at the wooden tables and dripping candlesticks: “Mum I promise you this is what she based the Leaky Cauldron on.” Oh, hang on a second, wasn’t it the Black Horse? Come on let’s pop in for a mid-afternoon snakebite to soak up the magical ambience…

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In 1682 Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards and Mary Trembles were accused of causing death and sickness through the black arts and subsequently hanged for witchcraft. After being tried for their crimes at Rougement Castle, the women were hanged in Heavitree. Lest we forget what real witches look like, these poor women (known as ‘the Bideford Three’) have been immortalised in a mural behind Exeter library.

However, their plight continues in the form of a petition calling on the government to pardon the women for their ‘crime’.

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The keen-eyed will notice that the deadline for the petition has already expired. Although it does mention in passing an intriguing tale of how King James I believed his cousin had tried to assassinate him with witchcraft. Who knows, maybe Guy Fawkes was a wizard.

But the witches’ memory is alive and well, with an upcoming play about them at Exeter’s Barnfield Theatre. Stay tuned for a review.

 

 

 

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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”

Ha.

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.

When Amman needs a think


Too often Amman is the butt of other peoples’ jokes. The Milton Keynes of the Middle-East (because of its many roundabouts), is the main one doing the rounds right now.

But this ancient city of Roman ruins and Herculean temples is far more than the mind-numbingly dull cardboard box-shaped (and coloured) buildings that line its dirty, polluted streets. It is a city built on seven hills (what great city wasn’t), that now sprawls nineteen and deserves to be famous for more than just being near the Dead Sea. For instance it is also near a city whose name translates as ‘The Blue Town’, how fun is that!

Forget Petra and Wadi Rum. You are a modern, educated and thinking human being. You know that to really see a country you must mix with its people, get ripped off, have shouting matches with taxi drivers and lose your dignity in public. If only to have something entertaining to tell your friends over a celebratory craft beer on your return. You left home searching for something, an idea perhaps, or the ending to somebody else’s poem. You have a notebook and a camera but need somewhere for inspiration. And, more importantly, you need it to be public so other people can see how earnest you are. Or how nice your sandals are.

With this sort of traveler in mind, and with Jordan likely to remain popular as a ‘stable’ Middle-Eastern tourist destination, where best to go in downtown Amman when in need of a good think?

Street book stallsa place to buy thoughts

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Whether you are after an Arabic copy of Mein Kampf or a used Christmas card you can find these and much more at the various book vendors of downtown Amman. All at a low price, and not just the ones that are apparently held together by their own fading will power. All are generally sold by an old man who appears to be more book than person.

Shoman library –  a place to read thoughts

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The Iraqi Embassy, kind of puts the library to shame

A public library that looks like a bank. Probably because it is sponsored by one. Opposite the Iraqi Embassy (whose entrance is beautifully modeled on the gates of Babylon – although be prepared for an angry response from the guard when you try and take a photo. Why didn’t you just paint it beige then?). Outside the library is a small cabinet labelled as a street library, where you can swap a book for a book (surprisingly still full). Inside you’ll find free wifi, ample tables and a central island full of plants and palm trees stretching all the way up to a clear glass ceiling. Pure air mixed with the smell of a good book, nothing better when in need of refuge from the sun.

Darat al-Funun a place to sit and sip in thought

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Set on the steep, downtown-facing slopes of Jabal Luwebdeh, Darat al-Fanoon is the wandering traveler’s haven. Home to the Palestinian space agency, terrace cafe with views over the hills of central Amman (occasionally accompanied by a lute player), three art exhibitions, ancient ruins of a 6th century church, shade, greenery, a bubbling fountain, cats in various states of disrepair, and a cosy, upstairs library said to be where Lawrence of Arabic wrote some of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Perfect. What is more, entrance is free.

Downtown poema place to stare in thought

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It reads:

Let us imagine
The rivers burning in the distance,
We hear the silence, then suddenly
The music comes towards us,
To kill us,
So that the dance returns stronger
Beneath the white sun

Inspired by the words of Moroccan poet, Mohammad Baz, and turned into street art by artist Abdullah Karroum on the side of a derelict multi-story car park as part of Darat al-Funun’s exhibition ‘Expressions on riverbanks and other activities’.

Jordanian website Aramram interviewed some people on the street about this poem. Most didn’t realise it was there. But now you will. How great is that. And you can discourse on its many nuances at length to those who couldn’t care less, and would you please buy this bottle of perfume.

This list would probably be complete with a nice restaurant or some such eatery, but Ramadan has its restrictions. Food for thought…

Amman in a taxi

This is my translation of a blog post by Osama Romoh (original post: http://osamaa.com/jordantaxi.php)

When you say “taxis of Jordan”, what comes to mind is the sheer extent of progress and prosperity in Jordan. Your imagination will soar until it reaches the outskirts of that philosopher’s ‘perfect city’. But then you put it into reverse and are suddenly back in a dried riverbed in Amman. Anyhow, let’s have a look at the different types of taxi drivers in Jordan:

The quiet taxi:

The driver of this taxi is not prepared to tire himself out talking to you. He’s chilled to the max and doesn’t want to disturb or distract you. No, come on, but he clearly looks like a tender fellow right? He doesn’t say a word the entire journey, not even Mr Bean managed that in his last film. Though he just might, in the middle of the road, break the silence with: “down here mate?” He says it in a way so frightening it chills you to the core. But that’s fine, you cope with it…Word of advice: it’s better you answer the question so he doesn’t throw you from the car.

The pimped up taxi:

No one else but this guy knows the ladies of Amman. He loves himself (and no one else), naturally he has done everything worth doing and, well, he is just the best. Don’t go thinking he will give you any space to talk, but be ready, for he will surely tell you all about Sally, Lena, Tamara and Christina. You may feel like you are in the middle of a soap opera. But then he will lean in close, take your hand and squeeze it (in a moral assurance kind of way). If he does this, don’t move or say a word, stay natural. But if he tightens his grip then open the door and get out. It’s better you don’t carry on.

The Doctor taxi:

Amman is full of this kind of taxi driver. He tends to have a B.A. or a PhD but didn’t find work, poor guy, and so went to work in a taxi (or so he will tell you of course). He may say that he used to be a company director in Dubai, but all he really knows is how to count pennies. Even looking at his face you won’t find any answers, this guy’s an enigma. Anyway, just tell him you need to arrive quickly and hope to God he’s not an author of a book nobody has heard of.

The badboy taxi:

Now we’ve come to the main man himself. The driver of this taxi does Karate, Taekwondo, Judo, pumps iron and plays chess. You can pick him out by his razor blade-scarred face and being the sort of guy who looks happiest when using his fists. Among his hobbies: handbrake turns and leaning-out-the-window driving, the sort that really draws attention (especially in a wedding procession). Important advice: try to not get in his taxi, and if you do, God forbid, then pretend to be an idiot. If he starts effing and blinding don’t try and put up resistance, just say: “ok sir”. But if he ups the swearing, then join in and start cursing yourself with all your God-given strength. Swear words hurt less than that fist.

 

 

 

Amman who danced

Hazaa Thunaibat, Jordan’s oldest serving traffic officer, and certainly only dancing one, has passed away at the age of 63.

Famous all over the Kingdom for his ability to transform a traffic jam into a joyful scene where the driver becomes an audience member in a pop up one-man acrobatic show.

Let his snake hips and walrus mustache introduce themselves: (the video is entitled “Jordanian Traffic Officer  vs Mexican Traffic Officer”. First up is the Mexican)

He was a familiar sight to morning commuters in Amman and brought a smile to many a stern-faced  Jordanian with a trigger-happy honking hand. No surprise then that his death was national news on the Jordanian TV channel Roya.

I first came across his work in the 2012 Jordanian film ‘When Mona Liza smiled’. He features in a brief scene directing traffic with his usual a hop, skip and jump. Since then I had been searching, hoping to find him myself and film him at work, but to no avail. Then one day I happened to be traveling early in the morning near the Abduli area of Amman and I saw him. I didn’t have my camera with me but vowed to return the following day. I did, but alas, he wasn’t there, and eventually even the memory of his twirling blue helmet and balletic spinning began to fade.

And now this maestro of Jordanian traffic policing has spun his last pirouette.

In an interview on Dunia ya Dunia (what can only be described as the Jordanian version of “Loose Women”) in 2o11, when asked about his work, he said the biggest honour and source of pride for him is hearing a driver say “thank you,” or “good work Hazaa!”

But what about all those angry drivers, always honking their horns? “When they reach me their behavior becomes a lot better!”

He would turn to some such driver, do a 360 degree spin and say to them “Oh! how you have lightened up this road!” (no sarcasm intended).

And if he caught someone violating the traffic laws? “I stop him by the roadside, say a few words then let him go, it’s not important.”

“I just want there to be less traffic, not to annoy people.”

He even famously held up the Royal convoy escorting King Hussein (the current King’s father), so immersed was he in his role.

“The traffic officer is the mirror of the citizen, in his morals, his behaviour, his clean mouth and in his smartness”

He has done the same job for around forty years (interrupted by a period of retirement) and never charged anyone with a driving offense throughout his entire career.

Because of the way he would deal with bad drivers, they would generally (after receiving a telling off) apologize to him profusely, which much kissing.

And then the interviewer asks him for a demonstration of his traffic controlling prowess. He jumps at the chance. And, at times looking like an air-steward on speed, he goes through his routine. Directing cars from each side of the junction, not stopping (even when interrupted by the presenter) until the entire imaginary load of traffic has successfully passed by. The seriousness and professionalism with which he took the job is written all over his moustache. Ending with a firm salute and a stern expression of a job well done.

Go to minute 6.30 for Hazaa’s lively demonstration:

He was also invited to an event called New Think where he was honoured by the head of the Traffic Department. But not before giving a customary demonstration of his now infamous routine. In the video below (from minute 1.35) watch him earnestly direct imaginary cars (to the soundtrack of busy traffic), in front of a packed audience. A form of Jordanian interpretive dance, if you will. It’s even better when the jazz band kicks in while he is still beckoning an approaching, invisible bus.

 

People who truly love and live for their job tend to distinguish themselves in it, Hazaa said. He was a true Jordanian nashmi (legend). Long may he jive in peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amman and a Mishmish

What do you do when it’s blisteringly hot and you can’t quench your thirst? You go somewhere even hotter and sweat out your last remaining drops of moisture to get there.

After arriving back down in the Jordan Valley, we instantly ran for cover in Ali’s house turned on the ceiling fans and slept on the floor until about six in the evening.

The weather was more manageable in the evening but still noticeably uncomfortable. We had been invited to eat iftar (breaking the fast meal) with one of Ali’s cousins who had just returned from army service. It was a large gathering of men on a terrace overlooking the two sides of the valley, Jordan on one and Palestine on the other.

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It took a fair amount of time to shake everyone’s hand and kiss all their cheeks before taking my place at the back as everyone lined up to pray.

The sun completely gone, we passed round water, juice and dates and sipped and nibbled under the dusky sky. A hush of excitement suddenly fell over the men. I turned around to sea a procession of six men carrying large trays piled high with rice and meat. The mansaf was here.

The trays were placed on various stands and, in groups of four or five, the congregation huddled around a tray and dug in. Thrust with the right hand (the left behind the back) and using the thumb, index and middle fingers make bitesized balls out of the rice. That’s the idea anyway, but not long after I had started I had rice all over not just my hand but half way up my arm as well. I looked up to see if this was normal and, discretely as I could, licked my arm clean.

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Next we drank thimble-sized cups of coffee and tea whilst our stomachs decided on how best to tackle digesting all this food.

But, in demand as we were, we couldn’t hang around waiting for our stomachs to catch up, and were soon picked up by Osama (nickname Abu Soos – i.e. father of Licorice) and driven to his house for gatayif (sweet pastry filled with cheese, nuts and covered in syrup).

In the car between Ali’s house and Osama’s we passed an old man walking along the street:

‘Look it’s Abu Adal!’

‘Who’s Abu Adal?’

‘The father of Adal.’

‘Well yes, ok so who’s Adal?’

‘Abu Adal’s son.’

‘Right, thanks.’

Cats are a familiar feature in Jordan. You generally find them bottoms up in a bin looking for leftovers or sitting on a wall staring at you out of a solitary, bloodshot eye. Osama’s was the first house I had found cats as pets. He introduced us to Um Rasheed (i.e. Mother of Rasheed) and her various kittens (including Rasheed).

After several plates of gatayif, we returned for a short lie down. But it was soon time for sahoor (meal before sunrise) back at the neighbour’s house. We dipped into a plate of fried tomatoes and ochre with more tea, watching a random film starring Tom Cruise as a motivational speaker for sexually intimidated men, something which seemed to have been graciously (probably purposely) ignored by the Arabic subtitle translators.

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gatayif

To finish off there was the customary 3am tray of apricots (mishmish) and their appearance inspired the following tongue-twister of a conversation:

‘Tafadalu mishmish!’ Announcing their arrival,

Hadol el-mishmish min mishmish-ku?’ (Are those from your apricots?)

‘la hadi el-mishmish mish min mishmish-na’ (No these are not from our apricots)

‘Tayb, fa iza mish mishmish-ku mishmish meen?’ (Ok, so if they are not from yours, who’s are they from?)

‘Mish Mishmish-ak?’ (Aren’t they your apricots?)

‘Mishmish-i? la mish mishmish-i, mishmish-um’ (Mine? No not mine, they’re their apricots)

la, mish mishmish-um, mishmish-um mish mistawi’ (no, not theirs, their apricots aren’t ripe)

‘Mishmish-um mish mistawi?’ (Their apricots aren’t ripe?)

‘Ah’ (yep)

‘Mashi, tayb fa iza mish mishmish-ku wa mish mishmish-i wala mish mishmish-um, mishmish meen?’ (Ok, so if they aren’t your apricots, nor mine nor theirs, who’s are they?)

‘Mish mushkila, hissa mishmish-na, yalla kol!’ (No worries, they’re our apricots now, dig in!’)

Oh how we laughed. Our chuckles were soon punctured by the dawn cockerel. He declared his presence by attempting to jump from the roof to a nearby tree but misjudged it and fell noisily upon us in a cloud of feathers and angry clucking. Obviously embarrassed by the whole affair he scuttled up into the tree, took his position and opened his beak to be instantly drowned out by the call to prayer ringing out from the nearby mosque. Thus signaling everyone’s departure to pray and mine to bed.

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If you didn’t get it, Ramadan is here and the msaherati is back pounding the streets at 3am, waking people up so they can scoff down that last gulp of rice and final sip of water before sunrise.

It was the registration day for my language course so I got dressed, thrust a few pens and a book into a bag and left to catch the bus. A few packed buses passed with naught but a mere honk of condolence from the driver. Finally one pulled up with a standing space only (Amman bus etiquette demands that whenever a woman gets on the bus and there are no seats, the nearest man stands up and proceeds to hold on to anything/anyone as the bus weaves in and out of traffic at break-neck speeds).

A few stops down the line a load of passengers got off enabling me to sit next to a woman carrying a baby. I began searching in my pocket for the correct change for the bus fare.

Suddenly:

‘James!’

I turned around, intrigued, to find I had sat beside one of my teachers from last year, Entesar.

‘Wow what a bloody coincidence’ I blurted out in astonishment. At Arabic saying goes that a chance meeting is better than a thousand fixed ones. And I certainly left the bus with a spring in my step as I headed towards the French Institute in Jabal el-Webdeh.

After registering, going through a placement test and sorting out my classes (my teacher’s name is Zaaki – Arabic for cute or delicious) I hung round to pinch a bit of the wifi before heading back home. I quietly stepped over a sleeping member of the night crew before falling onto my mattress and into a long nap.

When it got to about 5pm there was a general consensus that we should do something about food (Magreb, or sundown, would be here at around 7.30). Four of us trudged off to the local Carrefour and bought various chicken legs, spices and the odd vegetable.

Hamooda is the head chef, it seems. He has interesting methods. Such as the best way to cook chicken is to place the raw meat directly onto the flame of the gas hob. It definitely gives it a certain…taste.

‘I could tell yesterday that you had had enough of Religious talk, am I right?’

‘Well, I suppose so, yes. Religion doesn’t come into my daily life much,’ was the best diplomatic answer I could muster.

‘You know, if you ever want to change to change the subject just tell me and we will, it’s nice just chatting’

‘Ok, thanks’

Then as if taking this for some sort of cue, he began to discourse excitedly for the next half an hour on the might and glory of God.

While food was in the oven we sat on the sofa watching, you guessed it, Top Gear. The sun set, the Magreb call to prayer rang out from the mosque and so we celebrated with a solitary date and a glass of cold water.

When the gang had all come back from praying we laid out the big tray on a spread of newspapers on the floor and sat down to eat. Chicken covered in onions, fried potatoes, roasted peanuts and a host of spices. With a side-salad of course.

We reclined post-breaking the fast with cups of lemonade to watch the Jordanian comedy hour on TV,  but this quickly got changed to a Van Diesel film with Arabic subtitles. Then after evening prayer we had some tea and people went their various ways. Ali and some others to another mosque to listen to a famous Sheikh, the rest went out on the prowl.

I went to loiter outside the mosque with a group of guys whose names I have forgotten but whose nationalities I haven’t. A Sudani, a Syrian, a Jordanian and a Palestinian. Not one to pass up an opportunity to have a proper good time, I nodded enthusiastically at the suggestion of going for a spin in the Jordanian’s Toyota Prius hybrid. We drove for about five minutes through the side streets, gasping audibly at the inaudible car, before calling it a day.

The Syrian and The Palestinian went off to study Chinese together, I ventured into the pitch black mosque searching for Ali. I found him asleep under a table.

‘Are you ok?’

‘Huh? yes just dozing and listening to the Sheikh.

I looked up and through the gloom and could make out the figure of a man standing in the far corner wearing a long black robe reciting the Quran from memory. It was mesmerizingly beautiful and so I grabbed a glass of water and pillow and settled down under the table with Ali.

I woke up a while later, drooling blasphemously onto the mosque’s carpeted floor. The Sheikh was long gone so I took one look at the sleeping Ali, nicked his key and went up to bed.

Amman in a Pool

‘Let’s go swimming!’ Screamed Ali like a ten year old who has just found out he is going to Disneyland.

The lads from the local mosque had rented out a school swimming pool for two hours (sixty dinars), split between twenty or so of us.

It is an interesting sight to see men of early to mid-twenties turn into little children by the mere mention of swimming. Understandable perhaps with the heat and general lack of water. But with the fact that the majority can’t actually swim, a bit unnerving.

We crammed about ten guys into a medium sized car, all screams and giggles, phones in hand snap-chatting our progress whilst urging the driver to go faster in the hope we would take off from one of the hills.

My first impression of a Jordanian swimming pool was that they had somehow managed to find a way of using sweat instead of chlorine to clean the water.

Ali was one of the non-swimmers and so he was laden down with various flotation devices and would occasionally bob over to me, asking for tips.

‘Try kicking your legs and moving your arms in this motion,’ I’d say before giving a small demonstration. But on my return I’d inevitably find him floundering somewhere in the depths trying to chase a ball someone had thrown at him.

The lifeguard worked overtime, blowing his whistle to stop people running, throwing in the odd buoyancy ring and even giving a gentle push with his stick to anyone who had mistakingly drifted into open water.

An Iraqi guy, Hakeem, regaled me with tales of swimming in the Euphrates river. It sounds wonderful, I replied. At least the current washes away the sweat.

We spent the two hours racing widths, having breath-holding competitions, and taking group diving photos. Waterproof cameras I hear you ask. Don’t be so soft, just dry your hand with a towel and tread water with your iPhone.

Due to the heat and an interesting diet so far I have been a bit bunged up, so hit the hay for the remainder of the afternoon, only surfacing at around 10pm with Ali imploring me to go out on the town. I wasn’t really feeling up to it. I could do with a bit of me time, I said. Which involved a few treasured hours getting more acquainted with my iPod and my pillow.

Later on Hamooda and I chilled on the sofa, eating falafel sandwiches and watching a Spanish cartoon about a boy and his dog, Sebastian and Bill, dubbed into classical Arabic. We passed several joyous hours pointing out various flaws in the plot, over a plate of farfaheen (spinachy like dish), which we devoured with a very salty glass of laban (something I still haven’t gotten used to).

I went to bed with eyes still red from swimming, a mouth green from spinach and a suspiciously yellow glean on my skin, presumably from the sweat-treated pool.

 

Amman and a Goat

Ah Friday, the Islamic day of rest.

‘Get your stuff together we are going down to al-ghor’ (Jordan Valley) said a very grumpy-looking Ali.

‘What’s up?’

‘We are going to burn down there, it’s boiling’

‘Why are we going then?’

‘I have no money and, um, I want to see my parents’

‘Oh lovely,’ I said, seeing through his logic, ‘I better bring a hat.’

We arrived in time for Friday prayers, I stayed indoors watching football on TV (Jordan vs UAE). On Ali’s return we went along to a friend, Mohammad’s (nickname – Hamooda) house for lunch and to continue watching the match.

I had met most of these people last year but am terrible with names so was on my guard to be embraced by any apparent stranger. Luckily I was ready for the ever-strange Jordanian male greeting of a kiss on one cheek then a succession of rapid kisses on the second cheek interspersed with many meaningless ‘how are you’s?’.

Re-introductions complete we sat down on mattresses surrounding the walls and were promptly brought a tray piled with an interesting assortment of objects.

‘Ever tried Kawara, or Atraf?’ said Hamooda with a wink.

‘No, but I think I can guess what it is’ I replied with a gulp.

The first thing that caught my eye were hundreds of tiny vine leaf packages stuffed with rice, so I started with these and they were delicious. As the vine layer began to diminish, I began to notice a hoof poking out through the leaves. Then finally appeared an empty eye socket, staring forlornly into nowhere.

Kawara is, on the face of it, a bit like haggis: goat’s intestine stuffed with rice and herbs. Nice but a bit chewy. Atraf (Arabic for ‘ends’) was, as its name suggests, basically the legs and hoofs of a goat. The whole platter was crowned with a goats head in the middle.

I sheepishly (goatishly?) picked at scraps of meat with my bread, but somewhere in the depths of my stomach I couldn’t really warm to the notion of eating feet.

Then came the fun part. Hamooda took the goat’s skull in hand, now stripped of any meat, and began to smash it on the floor. He gave me another smile and wink as he finally, and with much effort, prized the skull open with an all mighty crack. Out dropped a shriveled brain.

‘Here you go,’ he said handing me half of it.

I goatishly wrapped it between two bits of bread and focussed my thoughts of any thing else apart from brain sandwich.

‘What’s the brain like?’

‘It tastes of goat dreams’ I replied.

With full stomachs we sipped on some sweet, sage tea to take the edge off the taste of boiled goat leg, and then stretched out for a nap.

About three hours later, refreshed but still sweltering from the afternoon heat, Ali suddenly decided that we would be going back to Amman that evening.

Sheikh Mahmoud kindly picked us up from Sweileh and dropped us home. Then after evening prayers we went on the tosh (out and about with the lads). I have made my entire circle of friends from the local mosque, and so an evening hanging out tends to involve many lectures on the benefits of Islam, why I should embrace the ‘true path’ and finally the inevitable Quranic recitals which tend to mark the end point of the soiree.

On this particular evening we went to an area near the expensive Abdoun district to visit a friend of the Sheikh’s who had just come back from the Umrah (small pilgrimage to Mecca). We were supplied with coffee, dates, and biscuits and there was general chatter about what I, as a British man, thought of life, the Universe and Islam.

The Quranic recitals began about 2 hours later. Each taking it in turns to recite (beautifully) a random chapter from the Quran, before exchanging tips on their specific choice of inflection on a particular letter. This was all done with much Quranic banter to which all I could do was muster a fixed, ignorantly noncommittal smile.

‘I can see when you speak that you have a nice voice Abu Steve, sing something for us in English’

Oh dear. Panic. What is it…Land of Hope and Glory, dum dum dum dumidy dum.

‘No, you must have me mistaken for someone else, this Abu Steve doesn’t sing’

Luckily they didn’t push it and we soon left to go and find some falafel sandwiches for supper.

‘I think Abu Steve has had enough religious talk these last few days’ remarked Sheikh Mahmoud, I gave a small nod, but this didn’t stop him:

‘By the way, did you know that in Islam we have a prayer for whenever we drive a car?’

I am secretly hoping that when my language course begins I will have more to occupy me than daily lectures on Islam. But with Ramadan looming, I don’t think this will be the case.

 

Amman fed up of Chicken

Another lazy morning interrupted by the usual breakfast of KFC and hummus. But today with the addition of matabil – a dip made with aubergines that have been roasted on an open fire (in this case the gas hob) and mixed with lemon, thyme, olive oil and mint.

Ali announced our plan for the day: let’s go hang out at the Uni and drink nescafe. Well I’m game, I reply, with as much enthusiasm as a man laden down with a stomach full of second-hand, greasy chicken wings can muster at 10am.

The Uni was closed so we wound our way back through side streets. I waved my fist triumphantly at two of the flats I had lived in last year, my old porter recognised me and gave me a hearty greeting. Next Ali decided to give me an impromptu lecture on Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Then for a bit of light relief we went to the Mosque and sat down with another Sheikh for an hour or so. Turns out he has visited Exeter and wanted to make sure I knew how much he loved Aldi supermarket. He apologized for last night (it was him who accused me for all the problems in the Middle East) and then proceeded to do it again with renewed gusto.

I needed a bit of a lie down so trudged up the steep hill to our flat and threw myself on my mattress. I had just stretched out my legs and closed my eyes when in burst Ali telling me to get ready for football. Oh great, I grunted excitedly, football. So I obediently changed into a pair of running shorts, put on my trainers and went back down to the mosque. The Sheikh took one look at my bare thighs, smiled and jokingly called me haram.

There were three teams of five, playing for ten minute slots at a time, and whoever wins stays on. Our team was pretty good, not that I had anything to do about it. Over the years I learned that to get by in football I just have to stand in the way and stick out the odd foot at any passing attackers. For that reason, Ali put me at the back and told me to run at the opposition waving an imaginary spear in the air whilst shouting at the top of my voice: ‘I come from the British Empire, we invented Israel, we destroyed your region and now I have been sent to destroy you at football’. Well, something like that anyway.

In between games I tried to claw back some street-cred by making it clear to anyone who would listen that I am more of a rugby player. This always involves elaborate explanations and mimes of how rugby is different from American football.

‘Who do you support?’ The usual question, to which I usually answer:

‘Noone’

But for some reason, this time I felt bolder:

‘West Ham’

‘What? They are terrible!’

‘That’s your opinion. You obviously don’t like bubbles’

No reply.

Afterwards there was a mass exodus to the mosque, leaving the token non-muslim chained up outside to be patted on the head by sympathetic passers by.

Quick shower and change of clothes then we were off again to find food. The Sheikh’s car stuffed full (including one smiley man who persists on calling me John) we went to pick up some more roasted chicken (a bucket this time), two watermelons and some kenafe (sweet, cheesy pastry).

After we had cleared up the mess of bones and batter we reclined to take the mick out of Omar. It turns out his nickname is ‘Cream’ due to his obsession with personal hygiene. He was obviously distressed due to the lack of soap and tissues in our flat which provoked much boyish giggling.

A guy called Mohammad suddenly cut the conversation by saying: ‘Ok now time to teach us English Abu Steve.’ Yay, my favourite time of day. I went to my go-to lesson (which for reference comes from Book 1 of ‘English through the Wurzels’):

Where be that blackbird to? I know where ‘e be, ‘e be up that blackbird tree an’ I be ‘after ‘e. ‘E sees I, I sees ‘e, bugger if I don’t get ‘im. Wiv a gurt big stick I’ll knock ‘im down blackbird I’ll ‘av ‘e…

Discuss the possible fates of the blackbird with reference to the stick. And in the context of a Post-Combine harvester moral world can we really be sure who the protagonist is in this situation?

This had the desired affect. Eyes rolled over and smartphones came out. So I compromised with recording a message of advice for English learners for Mohammad’s ‘English Learning’ WhatsApp group. This would be the first in a series of intriguing episodes.

We stayed up late, with the evening eventually turning towards Quranic recitals. At which point I made my excuses: ‘I don’t speak Arabic after 2am’, and meandered off to bed. My belly grumbling angrily at me for all the greasy chicken.

Just as I was drifting off, in burst my three room mates, settle down on their mattresses and put on the Quran at full volume. I was prepared this time, headphones already in.