Amman’s gotta do what Amman’s gotta do

Jordan’s capital is teeming with stories.

By ELDAD BRIN
August 13, 2010 15:58
THE HISTORIC Hejaz Railway car with which the late Emir Abdullah (who later became King Abdullah I)

Amman 311. (photo credit: Eldad Brin)

 
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‘You are clearly not Jordanian. Where are you from?’ I had just boarded a bus in Irbid, heading south toward Amman. I was hot and tired and the ordeal of getting to Amman was not yet over. Moreover, as a Jewish Israeli traveling solo, answering such a simple question was anything but making small talk, especially after recent events (flotillas, rockets etc.).

In a perfect world, or, failing that, a perfect Middle East, the ride from Jerusalem to Amman would take, say, no more than an hour, including a toilet break. As it were, the only break relevant to the ride I took was a possible nervous breakdown.

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The reason is simple: Holders of Israeli passports are not allowed to use the shortest route across the Allenby Bridge, the alternative to which is a nightmare in a furnace.

One bus took me from my Jerusalem flat to the Central Bus Station; a second to Beit She’an in the Jordan Valley. From there I was lucky to hitch two rides to the border. Upon crossing the border, a two-hour affair, a greedy taxi operator would not let me share a private taxi to Amman (“You need special bermit from tourist bolice [sic]”; utter nonsense), forcing me to take a private taxi to a nearby backwater, from where I took the third bus of the day to the major city of Irbid. A fourth bus, which I never would have found if it wasn’t for a kind stranger, took me across the sprawling, baking city, to where, sweating profusely and chewing on a 20-cent felafel sandwich, I boarded a bus to – I couldn’t believe it – Amman itself.

And here it was, not yet settled comfortably in my seat, that I was asked by my friendly traveling companion where I was from. Curious other passengers lent their ears. It was a delicate situation.

“Canada,” I lied.

“I also am not Jordanian,” said the young man, “I am a Palestinian, from Jerusalem. Have you been there?” I looked out the window at the semi-arid hills of northern Jordan, strewn haphazardly with oh-so-familiar houses, olive trees and trash. “I have been there,” I answered, “once. I would very much like to come back.”



A depressing pessimistic monologue ensued as we traveled south, concerning the chances for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Upon arriving at Amman’s northern bus depot, the young man told me I was very welcome to contact him during my next visit to Jerusalem and that he would gladly help me with any questions or problems I might encounter. He gave me his card. He seemed sincere. I felt terrible, and it wasn’t the felafel.

We said our good-byes. A friendly Jordanian directed me to a service taxi which took me downtown and even paid for my fare. I crashed on my hotel bed nine and a half hours after leaving home. If I were to climb to one of the top floors of the Jordan Gate business center on the capital’s western outskirts, I could easily make out the Jerusalem skyline, which was, as the crow flies, not even 100 kilometers away.

THIS WAS not my first time in Jordan’s sprawling capital.

The previous, all-too-short visit prompted me to return for a few days, to the utter bemusement of even the Jordanian border officials.

Proud as they were of their country and its capital, they just couldn’t get their heads around a sane person intending to spend four nights in Amman alone, and during an extreme heat wave at that.

Hearing I was a tour guide and suspecting I was there for illegally guiding people in Jordan without the compulsory Jordanian guide to accompany me, they were reluctant to let me in.

Just try us, they repeatedly warned me, you’ll never be allowed into Jordan again.

But here I was, soaked in sweat and raw excitement, and I set out to reacquaint myself with this metropolis. Amman was, like the rest of the world that day, gearing up for the World Cup final. Spain was playing Holland and every coffee shop and restaurant deserving of the name had a giant screen out and a crowd of nargilasmoking and beer-drinking patrons. The semipedestrianized and upgraded Rainbow Street in the upscale Jabbal Amman district was throbbing with human traffic. Young men and women, dressed in purple, were selling tickets for the Amman Arts Festival at the renovated citadel overlooking the city.

The sun had set by now, its very last rays casting a softer light. A slight breeze toyed with the enormous Jordanian flag, hoisted on the world’s tallest freestanding flagpole. The sheer size of the flag made it seem to flap in slow motion. All around, crowded neighborhoods covered the hills and valleys on which the city is built (originally seven, today more than 17) like a brown and gray blanket: a truly magnificent sight.

Walking back to the downtown area, I stepped into a grocer’s and bought another bottle of chilled mineral water. “Where you are from?” asked the proprietor upon hearing my non-American and non-European accent when speaking Arabic. A few young men were standing there, also expecting my answer. I judged the situation but then thought, aw, to hell with it. “Min Kuds al-Gharbiya,” I said, from west Jerusalem. A wide smile appeared on the shop owner’s face. “You are welcome in Jordan,” he said.

The shop owner’s reaction might have been little more than common courtesy. Over the next few days, when confronted with the same question and having said I was an Israeli, the common reaction would be different.

My partner would at once wipe off his smile, become correct and businesslike, and awkwardly look away. The small talk would come to an abrupt, unnatural end.

This saddened me, but that’s all it came to. I never once experienced aggression, verbal or otherwise. Here was a clash of two titanic forces: Arab resentment toward Israel on the one hand, and Arab hospitality on the other. When made to clash, they seemed to do little more than cancel one another.

When people I came across – whether Jordanians, Palestinians or Iraqis – were left in the dark as to my nationality, the abundance of niceties and smiles bordered on the ridiculous. Arab culture is known for its excessive emphasis on kind words and gestures. I thought about why this is so. This was – and to some extent, still is – a desert society. In the desert’s extreme environment, one would need to rely on the kindness of strangers supplying water, food or even ample shade to save one’s life. The lesson learned was simple: What goes around comes around. As a tribal, clan-affiliated society adhering to a strict code of honor, one misplaced word could be taken as a serious affront and get you in serious trouble. Another lesson learned: Be extra forthcoming, just in case. Little wonder Arabs make great, high-ranking diplomats, heading major NGOs and engaging in international mediation efforts.

IT WAS ALREADY late as I walked the grungy, sweltering streets of downtown Amman. Even at 11 at night, the air was warm and still. I bought a bag of peeled prickly pears and hung around. The streets were nearly deserted.

Everywhere people were glued to the screens. The signs of three adjacent bottom-end hotels caught my eye: the Cairo, the Damascus and the Beirut. Yet the people on the sidewalk out front, scruffy and long-faced, were more likely from Baghdad. They were Iraqi refugees, sitting amid piles of curious knickknacks, mostly of Saddam Hussein memorabilia and quaint brass lamps.

According to a statistic I came across, Iraqi refugees made up no less than 20 percent of greater Amman’s 2.5 million population. What began as a trickle following the 1991 Gulf War became an unstoppable influx after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, the toppling of Saddam and the ensuing anarchy. The better-off refugees came first, causing prices in Amman to soar. They were followed by the poorer Iraqi refugees, who now sell Saddam key rings and struggle to survive. Think about the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem times God-knows-howmuch, and you get a pretty good image of what Amman is like. From the swankiest condos in upscale north Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood to the trendiest hangouts around Salah ed-Din Street to the worst sidestreets of the Shuafat refugee camp, east Jerusalem is probably what Amman used to look like a few decades back, and Amman might be what the east Jerusalem- Ramallah-A-Ram-El Bireh conurbation will look like in a few decades: a confusing, enticing mixture of poverty and urbane sophistication, ancient monuments and shiny, ultramodern towers, goat paths and flyovers.

As a modern city it’s barely a century old, but lying at a pivotal crossroads, between Damascus and Mecca, the West Bank and Baghdad, and hosting scores of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, meant a fast, almost unchecked growth. In the early 1920s it was a hamlet; today it’s bigger than greater Tel Aviv.

Elias, a Jordanian friend, took me for ice cream in the chic district of Abdoun, just off the fourth circle (one of nine huge roundabouts, or circles, all on the same main road, along which the bulk of Amman is concentrated, from Jabbal Amman to the furthermost western outskirts).

It was past midnight, yet throngs of people were about: driving fancy cars, pulling stunts on bikes and roller blades, packing the outdoor cafes. This is what Amman is all about, indeed – what every good city is all about: vibrant street life, human activity everywhere, the glorious buzz and bustle.

AFTER A morning spent sightseeing (truth be told, as conventional sightseeing goes, a half day in Amman is really all you need), I stopped for cheap mint tea, sweet and delicious, served in a disposable plastic cup by a tousled hawker. I sat myself down on the sidewalk by the southern end of Al-Kuraish Street, probably the capital’s liveliest, crudest and most down-to-earth setting, nestled among Iraqi refugees hawking their cluttered, well, everything, bursting with rough vitality and poverty and despair. I was transfixed by these people, who came to Jordan with nothing, straddled on the dirty pavement, selling useless, worthless junk in the lowest and poorest part of their haven city.

Then, quite by chance, and not a block away, I was invited for strong Arab coffee on the veranda in the “Duke’s Diwan,” Amman’s oldest house, wedged in but standing proud between the stately Arab Bank and a gray office block. The high-ceilinged, arched-windowed town house was turned into an impromptu, eclectic museum, displaying nothing in particular but a motley assortment of sketches, old black-and-whites and news clips pertaining to old Amman. I sat with the old caretaker, sipping the coffee, surveying the commotion on the street below. Upon leaving, I scribbled in the guest book, “If this area be the heart of Amman, this house be its soul.”

Two hours later, a tantalizingly beautiful young woman welcomed me to the cutting-edge Wild Jordan eco-tourism center in Jabbal Amman. I told her about the ordeal of getting to Amman from Jerusalem. She reminded me that, technical difficulties notwithstanding, I was still free to visit her country, but she has no chance of coming to mine, if only because the Israelis would never give her a visa.

Walking back toward downtown from a visit to the landmark King Abdullah Mosque, I passed taxi and bus agencies with touts beckoning to me (“Beirut? Damascus? Cheap!”), and lunched on kufta – skewered lamb drenched in tehina sauce and covered in roasted tomatoes and thin slices of potato. I tried to concentrate on my copy of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but in the din and oppressive heat of downtown Amman it was hopeless. I quenched my thirst with freshly squeezed sugarcane juice at one of numerous fruit stalls. Amman may be short on world-class attractions, but it is a pure culinary delight.

While trying to read an ad pasted to the window of the Baptist Center and formulated in the sophisticated fusha – literary Arabic – an old Christian lady passing by came up to me and gave me a fiery, impromptu scolding for not believing in Jesus. A lame, crooked-tooth man stood to listen and then intervened in my favor, but the old woman drove him off. “Some people cannot see others minding their business without pushing their nose in,” she grumbled, rather ironically, as she herself was doing just that.

Curiously, a local bookshop had a biography of poet Haim Nahman Bialik on display. The walls of another dimly lit shop belonging to an old, sad-looking Armenian were filled with black-and-whites, from T.E. Lawrence’s collection, of the late Emir Abdullah, great-grandfather of current king Abdullah II, surveying his troops on the hills which later became Amman’s choked downtown.

This reminded me of something. I hopped into a taxi and sped off east toward the old, historical train station of the Hejaz Railway. Still Amman’s only station, an antiquated locomotive just pulled in, hauling four wood-paneled cars taken straight out of a Hollywood western.

The rails were laid by the Germans, who designed the landmark railway for the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid at the very beginning of the 20th century.

A rail yard employee forbade me from taking any pictures but was reluctantly willing to take me close to the historic cars. Seeing my enthusiasm, he relaxed a bit and even offered me a bunch of sour-sweet grapes straight off the vine that shaded the stationmaster’s office. Later he also let me take pictures, and was even offering to rotate the huge, heavy, turntable used to revolve the locomotives for me.

In its heyday, the train took the multitudes of Muslim worshipers south to Mecca, with offshoots of the line calling at different stations in Eretz Yisrael/Palestine. One could travel by rail from Mecca to Damascus to Istanbul and the whole European continent. And then came Lawrence, the famed British officer who masterminded the Arab Revolt, and one romantic legend seriously damaged another. Under him, the line was blown up in several points, rendering it defunct. Extremely slow and untrustworthy, hardly anyone today uses what is left of this once historic feat of rail engineering.

On my last evening I was sitting with Elias and Leila, another acquaintance I made during my visit, smoking a lemon-mint nargila at a busy downtown cafe, listening to the oud player singing in the corner. On the walls were photos of the Lebanese singing legend Fairuz. Leila told me that listening to her is what every Arab does first thing in the morning. Every Arab, from Morocco to the Gulf, every morning, no exception.

Surely, another case of Arab amplification, I thought. “You’re exaggerating,” I said, slowly releasing sweet smoke simultaneously from my mouth and nostrils.

“I’m not.”

“She’s not,” said Elias. “That’s true.”

A sudden chill ran down my spine. I was practically home, not 100 kilometers from my house, a Bratislavan in Vienna if you like, but I might as well have been on the moon. I was overcome by the confused thrill of belonging and not-belonging at the same time. From outside came the call of the muezzin for the late-evening prayer. The oud player stopped his playing for the duration of this age-old chant. Less than 24 hours later I was home, half a world away.

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