Date: 25 January 2015
Location: Brick Lane restaurant, Amman, Jordan. They're playing this weird but not unpleasant mix of 10cc, Sinatra and songs I learned from my Grade 1 Recorder music book and haven't heard since.
“We were taking bets on which one you'd be!” Razil is holding a sign bearing my name and relieving me of my bags at Jordan's sole international airport.
“Welcome to Jordan! I said you'd be a cute young lady but Nadir said you were certain to be one of the old limpy ones, didn't you Nadir? See, I was right!” Here, he nods to a husky bearded Jordandian nearby who nods in return, mutely. “Nadir'll be your driver for the next few days, worst driver in Jordan! Sorry!” Razil chuckles and it's clear that he's joking. I say hello to Nadir but get nothing.
“Do you speak Arabic?” Razil continues. “No? Ah, a shame. Nadir here he speaks no English. None.”
No response from me seems necessary. Lucky, because I've got nothing. No…English?
“We'll get you to your hotel now.” Nadir silently loads the car with my (Everest-style) pile of luggage and off we go to brave the mental roads of Amman, Razil flirting shamelessly and Nadir driving on in silence.
“We're going to need to give you an Arabic name, like we have English ones. Nadir here is Nick, and you can call me Ray. You…” He twists in the passenger seat to regard me. “Alia, I think. Yes, welcome Alia! Alia was the third Queen. She died in a plane crash. So we named the airport after her — did you notice? Queen Alia airport?” He chortles.
Again, I'm struck mute. I think that, given the Queen's fate, an airport seems an odd choice for a tribute and then recall that poor drowned Harold Holt has a swimming pool named after him in Melbourne — and decide that people are just jerks.
“Alia suits you well! One of my daughters is Alia. She was born in Michigan you know. My – “
“Alright Ray. My turn now.”
I jump and spill water all down my front. Nadir grins at me in the rear view mirror. It's him who's just spoke in a clipped, gravelly American accent. The devil!
“Ray wanted to chat to you first,” Nadir explains as we pull off the highway and stop in front of a little coffee stall. He winks. “He told me I was not allowed to talk to you if you were pretty! My apologies for Ray. My apologetic treat: tea or coffee?”
Razil turns too, grinning remorselessly, and shrugs. “He learned English fast!”
I pause, then dissolve into giggles. Between gasps of laughter I opt for coffee. Nadir gets out and asks if I take sugar.
Razil is quick with a retort: “Can't you see? She is sweet enough already, man!”
Nadir trudges off to buy coffees, but not before telling me that there's a big stick under the seat and they I should hit Razil on his big bald head if he tries to flirt with me. Razil keeps me in fits of giggles until his partner returns with 3 cups of viscous Turkish coffees the colour of rosewood, containing what looks like cardamom pods. After twenty hours of travel, it smells like tarry heaven.
We get back onto the highway. Nadir starts to tell me about Jordan. He explains that Razil is from the north, where they like goats — like like goats, he jokes. Razil is quick to reply that Nadir is from the south, where they prefer camels.
They continue like this for the whole drive. They're like J.D. & Turk, Troy & Abed, B1 & B2, Tina & Amy.
I learn that the northerners are largely of Saudi decent, farmers and known for their gentle nature. Nadir labels them 'white-hearts'. Razil glows. He himself is from the south, Nadir explains, and descended from more agressive Bedouin ancestors. 'Black-hearts!' Razil labels them and Nadir does not disagree.
I learn about Jordan's radically attractive royal family, and about its relations with Israel, Palestine and Syria. It's a shame, Nadir says, that Syria is closed — otherwise I could pop over there for lunch tomorrow as he knows the best little falafel house I should try. He describes standing at the only Jordanian port of Aqaba on the Red Sea and looking out at Egypt and Israel to your right and Saudi just to the left, their borders all crammed together in this little corner of bloodied water.
By the time they drop me off at my hotel my head is spinning and my jaw aches from grinning. It's 11am but feels like 3am so I'm playing a little game of conquer the jet lag by eating a very Jordanian meal of a chicken burger and fries and learning a little Arabic from the waiters every time they drop something off at my table. So far I've mastered hello, thank you and the all important 'sada' — strong Turkish coffee without sugar. Sada and I shall beat jetlag.