Amman, the white pigeon

Date: 26 January 2015. Happy Australia Day, and happy India’s Republic Day! I celebrated with falafel and humus and sweet tea. I’m a crazy girl.

Location: It’s 5.30pm and the sun has set and I’m snuggled up in bed at Amman West hotel.

No danger of sleep just yet though, as I’m high on Arabian coffee. And not precisely by choice…

See, I’d been forced to be devastatingly ruthless with my packing. Once you pack for London — 5 work outfits, gym clothes, casual clothes, winter woollies, boots x 2, flats, heels and Cons — and for Jordan — throw in a scarf or two and some long skirts — you’re not left with much luggage space. I didn’t pack a single piece of summer clothing (yeah, yeah London summer jokes etc) and I was still well and truly over my allotted 30kg of luggage. So, at the airport I repacked, shedding a gorgeous Kikki K ‘Important Documents’ folder I’d splurged on just for London, brand new expensive Kevin Murphy shampoo and conditioner my sister had bought for me, extra socks, the daypack that attached so neatly to my hiking backpack and a Canadian Roots leather pouch I always keep my adapters in when I travel. What I failed to realise until my iPhone died was that I’d neglected to take out my iPhone/iPad/iPod (yes, I still have an iPod) chargers before discarding. Fail.

In a foreign country with a dead iPhone and iPad on my hands I felt severely bereft. Gossip Girl without her keyboard. Harry without his wand. I could not email, blog, read my e-novel, see a map or read my e-Lonley Planet Guide to Jordan. I begged a borrowed charger from the manager of the hotel for a few hours and then preciously guarded my battery life. This morning I set out on a mission to find a new iPhone charger. And to, you know, see the great city of Amman, the white city said to resemble a pigeon from the air.

I taxied downtown to the Citadel or, as the cool kids (and the try-hard tourists like this one) call it, al Qal’a’s. It’s a mountaintop Roman-turned-Islamic settlement continuously inhabited since the Neolithic ages, with the ruins and relics to prove it.

The photos I snapped are nice but they completely fail to capture what I saw and felt up there. The ruins were almost deserted. They sit upon one of Amman’s many steep hills and look out upon the terraced limestones boxes in which the Ammani live and work. From up high you can’t even see the narrow roads that wend between blocks. As I explored, the mournful call to prayer filled the air from a thousand speakers above the city’s mosques.

From there I wandered down the steep hill about a kilometre to the Roman theatre and forum which, a bit like Fed Square in Melbourne, is a public transport link, tourism hub and symbolic centre of downtown. There I had to fend off a few serious weirdos who wanted to hold my hand and show me ‘great views’ from above the theatre.

The main streets of old Amman felt very much like those of Istanbul: limestone facades, crowded and chaotic, street vendors selling oranges and keffiyehs, gold and silver, the thick rosy smell of sweet shisha in the air.

I stumbled upon an electronics store. Look, it was no JB Hi Fi, more a dark and narrow little place, it’s windows boasting dusty hair curling sets and a terrifying device that promised to make you more of ‘a woman’ (and looked like a battery-operated push up bra). But I went in. Inside, I showed the proprietor my iPad and asked if he had a charger. He tutted and waved me into a chair,

‘Tea or coffee?’

‘Oh, I really just…’ But I trailed off. Travelling in Turkey with my dad had taught me that this wasn’t a sales tactic, just a common courtesy to which I should acquiesce. Besides, I really love Arabian coffee and shooing away the freaks had taken it out of me. The man dialled a number on his phone, muttered a few words in guttural Arabic and we waited. Eventually I learned that he couldn’t locate a charger, but not until I’d finished my coffee and learned about Proprietor No. 1’s Palestinian roots.

A few stores down I tried again. Proprietor No. 2 handed my iPad to his son and shooed him out of the store, assuring me that I would see it again. In response to my pained expression, he offed me coffee. Proprietor No. 2 was Kuawaiti. We spoke in French, which he spoke perfectly. We drank our coffee and spoke about his family. He told me he had found me a charger, with his cousin, across the street.

I was ushered into a third shop. Proprietor No. 3 sat me down in a plastic chair and dissappeared out for sada, Arabian coffee served without sugar. At last, high as a kite on the most potent coffee on earth, I was handed a brand new charger, charged 9JD and allowed to walk free. An added bonus: I had simple directions to Hashem, the most famous restaurant in all of Amman.

Hashem is not fancy. It’s an open courtyard with plastic chairs, a tiny kitchen and staff everywhere. There’s no menu and you’re greeted with ‘what you eat’, to which the only correct answers are ‘hummus, falafel and French fries’. For the first time in my life I understood why people actually like falafel. The hot crisp balls put in front of me were about as far from what I get at the Church St souvlaki shop (…at 3am) as fresh-baked New York cronuts are from Dunkin’ Donuts.

At one point, crunching into falafel ball number fifty, I crossed my legs, sending my ankle-length skirt up and flashing a knee, The response was instantaneous. Waiters fell upon me pointing and shouting. I flushed red and smoothed down the skirt. The crises promptly ended with nothing worse than my severe embarrassment. From this sort of faux pas, as well as from cab drivers, waiters and electronics shop proprietors, I learned a lot about Jordan today.

  • Jordan is super expensive. The locals whine about it and fair enough. The country’s revenue chiefly comes from phosphate mines, potash from the dwindling Dead Sea and tourism (happy to help). It has zero oil. Like the rest of us, the country has weathered the financial crises. Not only that, but it has taken in millions of Palestinian refugees and, much more recently, Syrian refugees. It’s population has skyrocketed from 3.5 to 9 million in the last two decades, bolstered by these Arabian refugees.
  • Amman was originally named Philadelphia. I wish any ignorant anti-Islamist in Philly could be told that.
  • The country is progressive – it is tolerant of all religions and, since the nineties and the work of American born Queen Noor (born Lisa, and sounds like a bit of a legend) along with that of Hilary Clinton, has ensured women enjoy equal rights. However, the new king re-introduced the death penalty at the end of 2014 (executing 11 people at 1am on the day of introduction) and is sartorially more conservative than I’d expected. Every woman is in hijab. While I’m sure it’s sufficient that I cover up from ankle to elbow to neck, I think I’ll cover my head from now on for respect and for my own comfort. Which, of course, begs the question about whether this is empowering or means I’m cowing to religious pressure. (Side note: for a brutally interesting discussion of the Islamic headscarf and women’s rights, I reccomend Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel Prize winning novel, Snow. It’s a slog, but worth it.)

Now, to watch Masterchef Australia dubbed in Arabic. Matt Preston’s voice is hilarious.

Love

Alex

Breakfast (course 1 of.... I prefer not to say.)

Amman from the Citadel. See the Roman theatre?

That flagpole is the tallest in the world and that flag is 60m long. It flies at half mast in mourning for the recently deceased Saudi king.

The first other tourists I've found (Temple of Hercules).

Amman is set on 28 hills and, my god, my thighs feel it.

Roller skating at the forum. As you do.

Lunch at Hashem. Honestly, no words or images can do it justice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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