Amman: Observations of a Country Boy

It occurred to me a couple of days ago that most of my posts – discounting the rambling ones – are anecdotal more than informative. That’s only natural; you can’t spin a good story out of a constant streak of facts. And I tend to let my heart bleed all over my writing, so to speak, for good or ill. So I thought I might give you something factual for a change. It’s a little run-of-the-mill as topics go, but I can’t help but feel a few detailed observations on what life is like in Amman might not be such a bad idea. It’s the kind of thing I was trawling the internet for in the weeks leading up to my arrival here, now over a month and a half go. Obviously, we’re talking about a city, and a capital city at that; such places are very much what you make of them. If you’re prepared to go out and make a good time for yourself, you’ll probably find it. That’s as may be. At any rate, that takes a stronger will than mine.

Technically this kind of thing is best left until the end of one’s stay, but I’ll probably be out of internet range in my last week and having plenty of tale-worthy adventures whilst I’m at it. Besides, I think I’ve seen enough of this place over the last month and a half to have a fair idea of how it all works – at least, from my point of view. So without further ado, here’s my fifteen observations about Amman.

1. Amman is immense

I don’t have the figures, but you don’t exactly need them to know this. That you can stand at just about any point in the city and be completely unable to see an end to the seemingly infinite sweep of beige tower blocks has more to do with the fact that Amman is spread over several hills, making a full panorama nigh-on impossible unless you manage to climb one of the larger skyscrapers. Getting just about anywhere requires time, patience and, more often than not, a taxi. Some of the distances may look walkable, but in the heat of the midday sun, it’s just not worth it. Besides, a taxi ride means more Arabic. That’s good, right?

2. Grass does not exist

Looking for a shady green park to sit and study in? Think again. Amman has many things to offer, but grass is not one of them. The great belt of trees in the grounds of the Jordaninan University overshadows a bed of dust and pine needles, along with more plastic bags and bottles than the aftermath of a botellón. If you’re really after a green space, I’d suggest not coming here in summer for one, or else take a weekend sortie up to Ajloun in the north or Dana in the south.

3. Dust gets everywhere

This is one of the very first things you will notice. Wherever you go, there’s no escaping the dust. You can’t see it – at least, not unless you stand on a vantage point and look out over the city, where the brown haze over the skyline speaks for itself – but if you leave anything in the open air for a minute or more, you’ll find yourself brushing the dust from every available surface. Look on the bright side: when the occasional sandstorm sweeps its way up from the desert to the southeast, the wall of buildings act like a filter, so when it reaches Amman itself, it just looks like mist. Only, brown mist. Pretty novel when you first see it, I have to say.

4. Most of your Arabic practise will be in taxis

In a city that thrives on the back of its taxi service, it’s hardly surprising that the place you’re most likely to find yourself practising Arabic on a daily basis is in the front seat of a taxi. That’s not a bad thing per se, so long as you can put up with asking the same bloody questions day in, day out; how long have you been a taxi driver, are you from Jordan or Palestine, why is it so busy today etc etc. You won’t get lucky every time; there are a few singularly impossible cabbies who have wildly skewed ideas as to how much a ride downtown should cost, but for the most part they’re a chatty bunch. Life story, please!

5. Almost all taxi drivers are Palestinian

In seven weeks of living in Amman, I’ve met no more than three Jordanian cabbies. All the others have been Palestinian. And that’s assuming an average of six taxi rides a week. Most of them have plied various trades before becoming taxi drivers, up to and including military officers, teachers and engineers (all of which, thankfully, al-Kitaab One taught me). You can get a pretty good idea as to the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict after just a couple of taxi rides, in this way. Not a subject to bring up yourself, naturally, but if they have an opinion to share, it’s always interesting to hear. Did you know, for example, that Hollywood rarely, if ever, shows Palestinians in a good light? Food for thought.

6. Every bus has a different siren

Remember those BopIt! toys everybody had once upon a time? Try to picture triggering each of the annoying noises one after the other twice over and you have a fairly accurate idea of what a street in Amman sounds like. I’m not joshing you. From vuvuzelas to ambulance wails and car alarms to foghorns, no two sirens are the same. Fortunately, the majority of Amman’s drivers are constantly on hand to remind you what a regular car horn sounds like, every second of every minute of every hour of every day. These people will honk at everything that moves.

7. Stray cats are a thing; dogs really aren’t

This isn’t just a Jordanian thing either. I seem to remember Fes being similar, though I didn’t stay there long enough to see for myself. But there are no dogs in Amman. Cats, on the other hand, are everywhere, prowling the dustbins, skulking along the sidewalk or fighting beneath the window in the early hours of the morning. If you’re an animal lover like me, you’d better learn to accept the fact that the sleek and healthy cats of home are not to be found here. Amman is a fast-growing, modern city where you’ll need all of your wits to get about, and the cats that prowl the dusty roads reflect that, scabs, scruffy hair and all.

8. Cafés and restaurants give you water

This one caught me by surprise. Apparently it’s a Jordanian custom to give water to guests, water having always been something of a scarce commodity in this part of the world. That’s all well and good, but when you notice for the first time that it’s included in the bill, it’s a bit galling. And there’s no escaping it, either; it’s just something you have to accept. Take my advice and find one of the smaller establishments, where you might just get off the hook. Doors might look inviting, but behind all the bells and whistles, it’s essentially the Starbucks of Amman. If you’re looking for a local, look elsewhere.

9. Bins are optional

Rubbish bins aren’t as rare as they might seem at first. Most streets will have one or two skips where the locals deposit their trash, and these are emptied at least once a week, much to the cats’ chagrin. But the way the people of Amman drop litter, you’d think they’d never heard of a bin. Bottles, cups and crisp packets, once used, are simply thrown over the shoulder, discarded underfoot or lobbed at the nearest wall. Little wonder, then, that stinking, wind-borne piles of trash tend to gather in street corners.

10. Rainbow Street is where all the ExPats go

If you miss an old-fashioned British tea or coffee, you’d better get yourself down to Rainbow Street. It’s a creature-comfort lover’s paradise, with milkshakes, bookshops and ice cream parlours galore. But if you’re after an authentic Jordanian experience, you’d be better off looking elsewhere. Not only is Rainbow Street quite pricey by Jordan standards, it’s also crawling with Americans, Brits and other foreign students, with the result that many shopkeepers will address you in English and not in Arabic. It’s popular with Amman’s younger generation, too, so it’s not all rainclouds, but try exploring downtown and its offshoots first. Hashems and al-Quds, though popular, are more of an Arabic experience than Books@Café.

11. Falafels are the way to go

Jordan may be expensive to get to, but once you’re here, eating out can be as cheap as chips. And if you decide to forgo potatoes for falafels, it’s even cheaper. A falafel wrap, stuffed with salad, harira and hummus, shouldn’t set you back any more than forty piastres. That’s about 38p. It’s a great snack, and it makes for a good lunch or dinner, too. Hashems is supposed to have the monopoly on all the falafel joints in town, being a favourite of the King of Jordan himself, but most places will do a good line in the falafel wraps. It’s not the most varied of diets, but it’s cheap, and it beats McDonalds any day.

12. Piracy is the norm

Don’t let the DVD stores spook you: just because there’s not a legitimate DVD case in sight, it doesn’t mean you’re breaking the law. If you’ve travelled to Asia or Africa before, you’ll already know the drill. Shops where you can buy as many as fifteen suspiciously homemade films for seven pounds’ worth are the norm. They’re also the lifeblood of the Jordanian student: especially if you’re up in out-of-the-way Tla’ al-Ali near the Ali Baba International Centre, you’ll be relying on these establishments to liven up the evenings when you’re out of pocket – or energy – to go to downtown and back.

13. Habibah is a dangerous place

Baklava. Kunafeh. Mille-feuille. Pistachio-coated trifles. Honey-glazed cakes. Triple-scoop ice creams. All of this in giant air-conditioned building so vast that it might well be the Arabian equivalent of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. It’s a good thing that this heavenly establishment is as out of the way as it is, or we’d all be doomed.

14. Vegetables are cheaper downtown

This is a given wherever you go in the world, but it’s worth repeating all the same: for fruit and veg, never go anywhere other than the main market next to the mosque in the city centre. For reasons beyond my understanding, the price seems to double outside the market walls, but especially up in Tla’ al-Ali, the environs of the Ali Baba school. Sure, it’s cheap by UK standards, but if you’re paying UK prices when the locals are getting their produce for half the price, you’re being ripped off. Downtown, ten dinars can give you enough greens to last you a fortnight, if you’re careful, and that’s including a taxi ride into downtown, provided you split it with a friend. It’s barmy logic, but it works.

15. Crossing roads is like playing Frogger

Feeling lucky, punk? Then give the mean streets of Amman a try, if you dare. Traffic lights are like the last egg in an Easter Egg hunt; you’ll do a little fist-pump for joy when you see one. In most places, you just have to brave it and step out into the fury. The rule of the road is one of might is right, but most cars will stop for pedestrians. The only thing to remember is not to hesitate under any circumstances. As the guidebooks will tell you, the drivers will base their actions on what they expect you to do. If you make the first move, carry it through. You’ll pick it up eventually. And it’ll be just as much of a thrill to the last.

That’s it for the time being. It’s probably important to note that this is very much my own opinion, and one coming from somebody used to living in a town of no more than a few hundred people, so Amman hit me harder than it probably should have done. As I’ve said before, once you get outside Amman it’s a very different story and I’ve met some of the most wonderful people on my travels around Jordan. It’s just that Amman itself and I were never made for each other. Insha’allah, Fes will show me the light.

I’ll be away in the south of Jordan for a couple of days to catch the Perseid meteor shower in Wadi Rum, via Petra, so expect some more adventure stories when I get back on Saturday night! Until the next time. BB x

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