Giving Amman a Second Chance

Had I known the Kievans would throw a violent protest four days before my return flight to the UK, I might have forked over that extra £80 and come home three days earlier on the two hour layover, instead of holding out for one last fling on that twelve hour layover that awaits me now.

The last stretch always seems like the longest. Only three nights remain, which is a damn sight closer than three weeks, and I have a bed for only two of those, as my 4am Saturday morning flight means that Andrew and I will be on stakeout at Queen Alia International Airport all night, catching sleep when and where we can. I’m still up and raring to get out and see Kiev during our ridiculous layover, protest or no protest, but it won’t be much fun on less than an hour’s sleep, and I’ll probably need my wits about me in the current climate. Especially when I speak about as much Russian as the hornet buzzing about my window. Still, that’s as much of an adventure as I could ask for, and the more I think about it, the better I feel for being so parsimonious with my flights back in May. Let’s just hope they let us out of Borispol first, or the whole thing will be dead in the water. 

But let’s not jump too far ahead! I’m still here in Amman. The breaking of the fellowship has come about at last, and a great deal more sincerely so than the last time I used that turn of phrase in Casablanca. We said farewell to Mac yesterday, after five days on the road together. Kate and Katie left for home in the early hours of this morning. Of the original Ali Baba team, there’s only three of us left. Andrew and I are practically the old guard. When first we arrived, it looked as though the end wouldn’t be ‘farewell’ so much as ‘until next year’, with all five of us set to return next summer; same people, same time, same place. Fortunately, life is a constantly fluctuating thing, and I’m bound for other lands next year. In truth it’s most likely that I won’t see the bulk of Team Jordan until we’re called back to Durham next October, now far in the distant future. So perhaps it really is farewell- until the next time.

It’s coming up to five o’clock in the afternoon, which means this post has taken me all of an hour and a half to write. The midday sun is just beginning to think about giving up the ghost, Andrew’s penning a couple of final postcards and the fan’s on at full blast, as it has to be if we aren’t to pass out in the fug. The hornet’s gone, thank heavens, and the orange vendor is back on the job, driving lazily up and down the streets with his pre-recorded pitch on a tinny repeat. We picked up our luggage yesterday and made a gesture at packing up, even though three whole days remain. It’s the thought that counts. Trying to fill up the final hours is a tedious affair, but on the plus side, downtown isn’t as frightening a beastie as it used to be. I guess that has a lot to do with living two minutes’ walk from the centre. Date bread and street pizzas from 25p a piece, slushies for half a dinar and plenty of cheaper eateries than the falafel mothership that is Hashem’s – and best of all, all of them within walking distance. So we come to it: it’s not the crush that bothered me so much as it is the needless expense on the taxi rides to and from wast al-balad. Diagnosed, at last. And that, I hope, is my last spark of angst off my chest.

For two months I’ve bombarded this blog with big city blues and saturated you all with my town mouse tantrums. I look back on all of that and laugh. It’s easy to do when I know I’ll be home in four nights’ time, of course, but it’s the final and most important part of the therapy. I’m not about to turn around and say that Amman is a great place to live – it’s not – but I’ll concede some ground to my detractors in that it’s not the Hell on Earth I made it out to be. It’s a question of willpower, living in a place like this, and I’ve learned a great deal about that here. Whether it’s a choice between holing up in your room with a book and braving a night on the town, or striking up a conversation with a local without a prompt, or even finding a functional solution to the ten-foot tall, sixty-foot long man-eating slug in the eleventh room on the left, one of the most important lessons you can learn in life is conviction. Being true to yourself. I thought I was pretty on it before I came here, but I see a lot of what I thought of as conviction now as my natural stubbornness, and there is a difference. You shouldn’t do things because you feel like you have to, just as you can’t be made to love a place you don’t like, but if you don’t make an effort on the inside to see the good in all things and stand by it, you’ll be on an island forever. Take it from the king of the castaways: man up. Some troubles in life are insurmountable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re unassailable.

I’ve come close to breaking my golden rule and slipping into despair out here, but it’s that brush with the very worst emotion of all that’s given me the strength to go on. And Amman, for all its flaws, is built on a bedrock of warm, friendly people. Sure, you might have more adventurous encounters outside the city limits in provincial backwaters like Tafileh, but Amman itself is a very good place to start. Don’t make the same mistake I did and allow yourself to be freaked out by the size and speed of the place; beneath the rush are a host of charming characters who simply want to know how you’re getting on, if you’ll give them the time. The guy who runs this hostel, the Bdeiwi Hotel, told us last night that you often judge a language by your experiences with the people who speak it. He’s got a very good point, too. Sit on a step off the main road like a local and you’re bound to have somebody come over and strike up a conversation, in Arabic or in broken English. It’s heart-warming once you get used to it, just how much these people care. The sheer extent of the hospitality of the Arabs can seem so great as to be insincere to the untrained Western eye, as I once had to explain over a failed homestay offer in Morocco; we, a country so used to living off the hospitality of others. I think back to my trek across London with sixty-three kilos of luggage on my back, when I collapsed flat on my chest from exhaustion in the Underground and it took all of eight minutes for somebody to ask if I was alright; Amman is not as faceless as that, nor could it ever be.

Three nights remain. Twenty six dinars are left in my wallet. My city angst is exorcised, I’ve had a good two months’ run of it, and Andrew agrees with my final judgement. All is well with the world. BB x

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End of an Era

Racked up a grand total of five hours’ sleep last night. Not exactly great, but a lot better than it could have been, considering just how FRICKIN’ AWESOME yesterday was.

No more classes at Ali Baba, for a start. We’re finished. Khalass. Two months of study wrapped up and tossed aside, just like that. And doesn’t it feel like every day of it…! Nah, I’m just messing with you. In truth the last four weeks have flashed past in the blink of an eye. Wadi Rum feels like it was only a few days ago, and as for Dana and the others who were with us for first term… why, they could have been here yesterday (now somebody hit the cliché button and hit it fast). We’ve had a really good run of it and ended on a good high, with a certificate presentation, a few last rounds of Arabic language games and a talent show no less, which I won on votes with yet another dangerously one-man rendition of a song, this time the gypsy ballad Arrinconamela – chosen mostly because I’ve kind of done The Circle of Life to death out here and it’s not as fun without my Lights at hand. Hey, I got a double Snickers bar out of it, so I’m not complaining.

I digress. Ali Baba has been nothing short of brilliant in every way. I’ve learned so much out here and that has more to do with the intensity of my four-hour classes than anything else, so a great big shout-out to Wafiqa and the Ali Baba staff for a grand two months of Arabic teaching. I sure hope ALIF can match your level of commitment!

We scarcely had time to rush back to the apartment to start packing, Andrew and I, when I was whisked back to the internet range of Ali Baba’s fourth-floor cafe to book both of our hostels for the next week, in Aqaba and Amman. You see, unlike the homestay girls, whose hosts have graciously allowed them to stay on after their lease and then to take them as far as the airport, we’re being booted out on command and thus have to find – and pay for – somewhere else to stay for the next week. In fact, our cheery landlord wants us out of here by ten o’clock this morning. Worse, the chirpy chap even followed us to the main road yesterday asking over and over if we wanted to have left by eight instead. Words fail me; words did not fail Andrew. We’ve tidied up most of the place, but it’s still very much occupied for the time being. It’ll be a last minute rush down to the bus station when the clock strikes a quarter past ten, but it’ll be worth it to see the back of this little apartment. It’s been great having a pad so close to our school, as it were, and it’s been nothing short of the party nucleus for the last two months, both because of its proximity and because Andrew and I have been voluntarily phone-less, so the only way to contact us has been in person. A grand idea from the get-go.

That aside, I’m glad we’re leaving today; this place is simply not worth $1000 a month, even split between us. That’s double what I was paying in Durham, and that was for an entire house. Jeez. And for the gall of living in a city, no less! Ali Baba’s only flaw is the price it puts on student housing, whether they find you a flat or a homestay. Take my advice and find your own place, through AirB’n’B or from the friendly environment of a hostel. Because had I known how small a flat we’d be getting for $1000 – with a faulty kettle, nearly-headless tap and other inconsistencies too numerous to name – I’d never have been so quick to hand over the cash. Arabists, take heed!

With all of our hostels booked, Andreas and his language partner Abu Ahmad took us out into the country for a barbecue, and I might use this as an excuse to debunk a few myths that I started. It turns out that there are trees near Amman, and not the artificially-grown ones in the university grounds. If you can get as far as the neighbouring town of As-Salt, the countryside surrounding it is stunning, even in the last few days of August when it’s had the full force of the Arabian summer sun shining down on its back for three months and more. We cooked more meat than Andrew and I have had in our whole two months of egg-based existence and were stuffed to the gills within minutes. That we managed to gather our senses and box some for today’s journey stands testament to some last-minute quick-thinking, or else they’d have thrown the last home-made kebabs away. Ach, just thinking of it is making me hungry.

But seriously though: As-Salt. If you ever get tired of the noise of Amman, get yourself on one of the many buses bound for As-Salt (they pronounce it ‘salt’) and take a hike into the country. It’s so green, so quiet, and such a world away from the hustle-bustle of city living. There were wild birds there too: I saw a couple of jays, homely-sounding blackbirds and even an Arabian Babbler to top it off. If only we’d stumbled upon it sooner… No matter. We’ve had fun. More importantly this was also our last night with Andreas, who’s been such a rock in our time out here, both for Arabic queries and for good humour, not to mention strength of character. We’re all going to miss you, Andreas, our only and favourite Swede. Good luck in Cairo (you lucky thing) and I hope we meet again someday!

Our heartfelt farewells to Andreas were cut short because we needed to be back in Amman for seven to catch a taxi down to a place called The Dome, a party venue halfway between our pad and the airport – so quite a way out of town. Believe it or not, we had a stroke of luck in that – for once – the second taxi we asked was willing to take us there. Only, he had absolutely no idea where there was. So he got to driving south and rang up the venue for us, amongst other contacts, to divine the location, and in the end he not only got us there for eight o’clock but offered to pick us up in turn. What a charmer!

I should explain. We were bound for The Dome because the biggest name in the Arabic music world at the moment, Saad Lamjarred (the mu3allem guy), is in Amman and there was talk of a great big party on the grapevine. We had it from another taxi driver, as it happens, who let us in on the secret. He even called up his friend to get us tickets. At thirty dinar a head it wasn’t cheap, but any misgivings I had about the price were obliterated in the first hour – and Saad Lamjarred didn’t even show up until about twenty minutes past ten. No, our thanks go to none other than DJ Khaled.

Charged up on unholy slushie (I don’t even want to know what was in the stuff) and Kinder Bueno ice-cream (these Arabs have such great ideas when it comes to sweets) we – that is, Andrew, Eloise, Mackenzie and I – couldn’t help getting itchy feet every time a good song came on. About every five minutes, that is. And so what if nobody else was dancing? We were having fun. Sure, we must have looked a little crazy, just dancing alone as the four of us for about an hour, but when Khaled’s C’est la Vie came on and we realised that we knew it, we went wild. And before we knew it, there was a crowd gathered around us in a circle to watch us move. Andrew, Mack and I were milking it for all it was worth; Eloise had the sense to hang back a bit (and film it for last shaming opportunities). In the end it wasn’t just spectator sport either, as some of the men felt the vibe too and joined in, which is when the party really started. We met so many people our own age who had been waiting, it seemed, for somebody to bite the bullet in order to let loose. As for me, I haven’t danced so hard in months. Between the four of us, we got things going in the back row, and because of that it’s going down as one of the best nights of the whole shebang, if not of my life so far.

The craziness of it all is that the first, second and third class tickets counted for nothing, in the end. We’d gone for the cheapest option at thirty, the most sensible route by far, as next to nobody was in the £50 second class row, and the £70 first class row was a seated affair. That’s no fun! But it gets better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). The bouncers, some naturally built like gorillas, others just oddly proportioned with arms nearly three times the size of their legs, proved susceptible to the whims of Eloise and Mack and their charm and/or sheer determination to get ahead, because bit by bit, we found ourselves jumping from third class to second, and eventually even into first, right to the edge of the stage. How’s that for white guilt? It got to me just before the end and I hung back whilst the others rushed into first class, until I felt like a first-class muppet myself when it was just me, an old woman and a mother and child left in second-class towards the end of the night. As for the man of the hour, Master Saad Lamjarred himself, his show was nothing less than blitz-worthy; I mean that in a good way. He only really had four songs of his own, plus a few great covers, but he sure knew how to get the party going – and all the while with a great big grin on his face that was infectious at the sight. We had quite a rave at the back with our new friends.

I’d better leave it there. It was quite a night, and because of it we’re both knackered, Andrew and I. He was awake when I started writing this; he’s fast asleep now. We’ve got another long day ahead of us, but on the bright side, in a couple of hours we’ll be done with this apartment for good, and bound on a four-hour bus for Aqaba, where we can really let our hair down and chill. We’ve earned it. BB x

Tick Tock

Blimey, we’re on our fifty-fifth day already. Another two weeks and it’ll be almost time to head for home. In some ways it’s felt like every day of fifty-five, in others it’s flown by. I think it’s safe to say that we’re all ready to pack up and head for home, though. It’s been fun, but it’s been hard work too, and factoring in all of those post-exam rehearsals, I haven’t really had a decent respite since… Well, come to think of it, since the Christmas holidays. Ouch!

We had a lot of fun in class this morning acting out two or three of Nasreddin’s tales. You might also know him as Juha (جحا او نصر الدين). Plenty of opportunities to lark about. For counterpoint, we spent the second hour discussing the wonderfully British tradition of the stiff upper lip; that is, suffering in silence rather than causing anybody problems. Quite a world apart from the very hands-on Arab approach! Even though I’m not planning on returning to the Middle East in the near future, the 3amia classes (the local Arabic dialect) have been useful, if just for learning all the expressions and idioms which I adore. Here’s to the vain hope that some carry across into the Moroccan darija dialect, or even Egyptian.

Proof that I’ve been here too long is that I found myself slipping in and out of Arabic whilst trying to talk to my mum in Spanish over FaceTime. I’ve never had that problem before, not even with French. That’s probably a good thing for my Arabic, which has definitely improved since being here, but it’s doing no wonders for my mental state vis-a-vis my Spanish. Now that I’ve booked my flight it all feels a lot closer, a month and more away though it may yet be. A couple of days with my mega-drawing and it’ll all be over in an instant. I don’t know whether I’ll ever catch up at this rate; I’m already two years in arrears, so to speak. I’m going to have bite my lip pretty damn hard to stop myself from taking it out with me. But a promise is a promise: I’ll give it unti Christmas to get a feel for my new home in Villafranca de los Barros, wherever that may be, before I lug the monster out to Spain with me.

No, I haven’t started house-hunting yet. I’m kind of hoping to do that on foot when I get there. At the very least, I’m not making the same mistake I made out here in settling for a ridiculously expensive option for speed and safety’s sake. And no, I haven’t given up on my dreams of running into Lady Luck with flowing dark hair when I get there either. Or should that be Señora Suerte? Whatever. Miracles can happen. I’m not banking on it, knowing my luck, but it’d sure be a deal sweetener.

Ach, would you look at that, I’m setting myself up for a fall already! I’ve been rambling for a little longer than I intended to. I’ll love you and leave you for now. I need my afternoon nap as much as anybody. Andrew, in his wisdom, went straight home after class to take his. I think it’s time I followed suit. BB x

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

A Sex-Tape is a Step Too Far

I think the title needs a little explanation.

In addition to the mid-term exam, our Arabic teacher set us the task of coming up with a five to seven minute presentation on a topic of our choosing. It took me until the morning to come up with something I could realistically rattle on about for that amount of time (no, seriously), but after stumbling over my words as usual, I ended up putting Andrew up to a bet whereby he had to talk about Kanye West. Naturally, Andrew tried to make his presentation somewhat relevant to what we’d studied so that he could activate the vocabulary, or whatever buzzword you want to use. The result was an exploration of the modern wedding through the Kimye phenomenon, complete with all the gory details, ego, sex tape and all. Highly entertaining, of course, but our teacher took umbrage at the subject, claiming that it was ‘hardly suitable’ for class, and debarred us from asking any questions so as to bring the topic to a decided halt. Still, the man did a good job, and he held his ground in spite of all the criticism, so I held up my end of the bargain and rustled up a pretty neat lentil and vegetable stew for him and Andreas, as promised.

To kill some time in the post-class hours, Andreas took us to an underground church in West Amman to help him to teach English to a group of Iraqi refugees. Just a couple of hours in a church not too dissimilar in style from a Worth Abbey chapel, which made me smile almost as soon as I set foot in the place. John 3:16 was up on the wall behind the lectern in golden lettering; it was pretty clear from the first four words, even in Arabic. Beautiful stuff. The Iraqis themselves, Christians from Basra, were just about the nicest bunch of people I’ve met here in Jordan yet. Andreas and his teaching partner Jason assigned Andrew and I four to teach, and we discussed hospital related vocab to get the ball rolling. Whilst we worked, the children of our students scampered about the church at full pitch. I haven’t seen such unfettered happiness in a while. One of our group was a lot quicker on the draw than the others when it came to learning all the new words and expressions, but Raja’, the oldest of the group at seventy-one years old, was an utter delight to teach, especially when she came out with a flawless sentence at the end of the session, primarily because she was so shy. It kind of reminded me of how I must have been earlier down the line. Boy, but it was good to be teaching again, though. Getting back into practice for my assistantship in two months’ time. Better still, Iraqi Arabic is the closest to fusHa out there and a joy to listen to. Basra sounds like a beautiful place, as if Iraq needs anything more to make it more appealing. Land of the Abbasids! Home of Abu Nuwas! Man, why can’t I spend my Year Abroad in Iraq?

Wait, on second thoughts, don’t answer that one.

There’s a lot to be said for this religion malarkey. With any luck, one day the moment will come and I will believe. Warm fuzzy aside, I’ve got to say that those two hours were a godsend, no pun intended. All of my frustration and anger from the past week simply disappeared. I have Faras and his friends to thank for that, for being so friendly and eager to learn; and of course Andreas, for giving me the chance to get in on the project. All is well with my heart once again. I’m still going to fight for the chance to go back to Morocco next year, but I know now that I can and will survive another month out here. I can do this.

Hold the phone, according the beeb there’s a storm coming. Rain. You have no idea how happy this makes me. That it’s going to be 41 degrees at the peak of the storm is beside the point. Bring on the rain, I say. Bring it. BB x

  

Cracks at the Seams

The slump returns with greater force. Amman has clawed me back from that wonderful week of traveling and spewed me back up into the noise.

Andrew’s using my laptop. I don’t even know why; frankly, I’m past caring. He went out for an ice cream with a couple of the girls when we got back from downtown and took the keys with him, so I guess I must have been waiting outside the apartment door for half an hour or so, by his watch. I wasn’t counting. I might have done had I known, but I’d chosen this particular sortie to leave my iPad at home for once. Mistake.

Much against my better judgement I was led away from preparing for tomorrow’s exam and press-ganged into checking out a cafe in Abdali this evening; Amman’s posh district, with open-top restaurants sitting high atop the glass monoliths that shadow the soulless five-star hotels below. We ended up in just such a place: one of those £3.45-for-a-lemon-and-mint establishments. You’ve got to agree with me, that’s bonkers, right? And that’s without factoring in the 15% VAT and the standard fare compulsory bottle of water that you have to pay for wherever you go. For a country with a chronic water shortage, they don’t half throw the stuff around like it’s worthless. But that’s besides the point. Who pays that kind of money for a drink? Do I look like I’m made of money?

Breathe, Ben. Breathe. I admit that I’m none too good around classy venues. It brings out the spikey anarchist in me and he’s not much fun to be around, trust me. When people start flashing their wallets and eyeing up resort hotels and all that I get all jittery and feel the need to rave about how nobody needs to spend when it’s so much more fun to rough it. I guess I get so into it that I put people off; heck, I wouldn’t want to be around me in that kind of situation. It’s just awkward. Thus, we return to that class on personalities and how much we all love our own, right? <ugh> Of course right. You just keep telling yourself that.

The trouble is that we’ve hit the four week stage of this venture. Make that five, as we weren’t exactly studying during Eid al-Fitr. That’s about the point when things usually get rocky, and you only need a cursory glance to notice that. My city angst must be getting on everybody else’s nerves just as much as it gets on my own. More and more I find myself wanting to retreat to the flat and work on the novel, which would be no bad thing, but everyone else is opening up and wanting to explore. I guess I just don’t work like that. Different strokes for different folks. ‘But you just have to force yourself to try these things’, they say. I disagree. I’ve been forcing myself to try city-living for a month now and I can tell you in no uncertain words that it and I are not made for each other. But you know that already. It’s not like I’ve been talking about much else for the last few weeks and, like Morocco, I’ve been trying to keep a lid on it. Shame, then; if I’d kept my mouth shut earlier, I might have been able to talk about this situation tomorrow, but I’ve already done two presentations on what I think about this place, so I guess I’ll have to move on to pastures new.

The good news is that a dear friend with a heart of gold will be visiting this weekend. That’s a ray of sunshine through the gathering clouds if ever there was one. It’s not all doom, gloom and majnuun here, of course, but it is Amman. Oh Durham, hear me if you can; please let me try somewhere else next year. Two months here is trying enough. Another two months next year and all the expense that will entail just seems ridiculous, especially when I get less and less keen to go out there and practice my Arabic with each passing day. Isn’t that the point of a Year Abroad? Quite apart from being ‘the best year of your life’… Morocco, please. Or even Egypt. How about Yemen? Anywhere but here. October just can’t come fast enough. BB x

  

Bureaucracy is a Terrible Beastie

Go to the Police Station over in Sweileh, they said. It’ll be a simple procedure, they said. Simple my arse. This is more old-school bureaucracy than an entire flotilla of ICPCs.

If I didn’t appreciate the orderly British queueing system before, I certainly do now. Arabs, it must be said, don’t do queues. It’s a total free-for-all here in the visa extension office of the Sweileh Police Station. Behind the crush for the three front desks, of which only one is currently manned, a Syrian woman is snoozing in one of the chairs whilst two of her excitable children race around the pram of a third. That Sudanese guy who keeps pushing in front is wandering about with a cheeky grin on his face. Half of the staff behind the glass look as if they’re somewhere far away – Fiji, perhaps – and Andrew is at breaking point, cussing and swearing at every wrong turn. What with the amount of wrong directions, backtracking and blue-stamping we’ve had to go through to get here, I don’t blame him. No, you need the blue stamp, right corridor, last door on the left. Yes, we need to renew our visas, not buy exit ones. No, you don’t need to wait. ‘You just have to keep asking,’ says Samir, an electrical engineer turned maths teacher with flawless English. He, like almost everyone else in this room, is waving a passport that is most certainly not Jordanian; in his case, it’s Kenyan, though I’ve seen examples of Thai, Philippine and Tanzanian as well. Immigrant labour, I don’t doubt; I’m told that cheap household workers are often brought here to pitiful salaries. What a world…

Yalla yalla yalla. At least the guy in the back of the room is actually looking at our passports now, albeit with just about the same interest a five-year old might show to an issue of The Economist.

Gah! Just as it looked like we were done here, our visa guy just dropped the passports face-down on the desk behind the glass and sauntered back to his desk. Very helpful of you, bud. Samir has left us, leaving us to face this sulky crowd of office workers and timid maidservants-to-be on our own. Come to think of it, we really are alone; everyone else seems to have concluded their affairs. The last African woman left the room a minute ago. It can’t take more than five minutes or so to sign a form or two, right? Especially when we’ve already filled out half of it… What the hell is taking our guy so long?

My bad. Our passports have been ready to collect for the last ten minutes. Turns out all we had to do was ask – just like Samir said. No papers, no waiting, not even any additional stamps required – just plain human interaction. Oh, bureaucracy. BB x