Stories from six months in Jordan.
The places one is in largely define one’s experience. Jordan is a strange place, and thus has given me a fair share of strange experiences. Please laugh, people.
Being chased by an Egyptian farmer with a stick because I wanted to go buy cigarettes
I was spending three weeks on a farm olive picking because I needed to get the hell out of Amman. I soon found I had just transferred from one monotonous existence to another- this time though, without being peer-pressured into spending any money. But there come times when one wants to participate in capitalism, if only as an excuse to get off the farm and see the nearby village; thus, one night after work, two girls and I made our way down to the shop to buy some cigarettes. Not very exciting. On our way, we saw Hamada, one of the Egyptian farm-hands. When we told him where we were going, he started laughing. When he realized we were serious, he started tusking. When we ignored him and kept walking, he grabbed a stick and started chasing us so we’d be too frightened to go. He beat us to the gate and locked it. We waited five minutes for him to leave, jumped the gate, and tip-toed our way to the cigarette shop, like 13 year old girls on their great night out. On our way back, a car followed us from the village—when the driver caught our eyesight, he pulled out his phone and said ‘Snapchat’. What the hell. If this was the danger Hamada wanted to protect us from, that’s a pretty sad and lame danger.
Giving crayons to children in Gaza camp
It turned out the farm I was working on was walking distance from the poorest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. Gaza camp, the place for Palestinian refugees without a national ID number, a camp without paved streets, with a population density of 1,300 per km2, where people’s houses are falling apart and filled with trash, which is utter need of a proper sewage system, health insurance, and basic recognition by the Jordanian government. And so it seemed natural to these certain American persons to start an NGO to bring the children of Gaza camp crayons. Yes, crayons. Which are sold in Jordan. The money used to buy return flights for the three American NGO workers who brought 300 pounds of crayons with them would have been more than enough to just buy those crayons here, and help the local economy. The crayons were distributed to the children in assembly, who started fighting and coming up to us to demand more. The kids were all given about 10 crayons each, and one sheet of paper. One mother came to me to ask for more paper, since she had none at home for her daughter to draw on. The crayons and (white, not recycled) paper were distributed in made-in-USA paper bags, which all just created more unnecessary trash in the camp. I could go on about how this made me angry. I had to suppress an angry rant when I got back to the farm and there was a new volunteer. ‘OMG, there’s a refugee camp nearby? I really want to go to a refugee camp to take pictures. I need to show the people in Canada.’
The free lunch and the Russian call girl
On boring days in Amman, I’d hail a cab and tell the driver to take me somewhere far away. One day, I told the driver to take me to Iraq al-Amir, where there was this Hellenistic palace in the middle of farmland and caves, which seemed like a nice place to sit by myself. One of the caves had some dripping water, so I just stood there until I got completely soaked in my see-through white t-shirt while staring at the tiny specs of men going to Friday prayer down in the valley. There’s nothing haram about being wet, I told myself. It was just quite pleasant in the 38o heat. Then I saw this old dude with some hot 20 year old blond chick approaching. Well, they won’t mind haram, I told myself. And, as it was, I was offered a free ride back to Amman and a lunch. The best free lunch I’ve ever had: endless meat, hummus, meat, muttabel, meat, halloumi, meat, olives, meat, meat, meat. And to top it off, some zaglul shisha that just got me totally high, so I was totally chilled out when the Russian chick told me about her life as a call girl. And so the wisdom goes, as in the words of the old dude who bought free lunch: “Flavoured shisha is oral sex. Zaglul is the real thing—no condoms, no foil between the argileh and the tobacco.” And that was the greatest quote I heard in Amman.
A lot of people are denied entry into Israel. Within Jordan, I got denied entry quite a bit. Denied into Petra, for trying to get into free with someone else’s residence card. Denied into the Hussein Memorial Mosque, because I thought they’d have a spare abaya there and my piece of cloth wasn’t long enough to cover both my haram shoulders and hair. ‘3la hadiqa, 3la hadiqa’ the guard shooed me away. Denied entry into a jazz night on Lwebdeh, as if they were like Berghein or something, because they don’t take men who look uncool. Should have shaved my moustache before going out. I also got denied entry into this one so-called ‘Rainbow House’, this place where a bunch of guys gathered on the rooftop to listen to bad American hip-hop and smoke ‘argileh, by becoming persona non grata. How I achieve this status so easily, I’m not so sure. Maybe I behave like Larry David too much.
The lonely dreadlocked masochist
Started seeing this drummer dude, who was also a masseuse, and a dreadlocker, and a business student. He offered a massage, I accepted. I then found out he wanted a lot of pain in return. Like, stepping on his throat with my full weight kind of pain. It was actually kind of impressive a human being could sustain that, since he was about half my weight. What was also impressive was the fact he never got bored from it, and could be stepped on all parts of his body for hours without end. I was kind of bored though. One day he left to Rome. I was like Larry David, with my palms up and mouth gaping open: “After I stepped all over your throat, don’t you even say goodbye?”
The sexist posters Ali Baba Language Institute has all over its walls
See this place: it looks like your average deadingly boring language school with your average dull people. Yet there is one twist.
Instead of putting up annoying motivational posters, the language school decided to have its students make their own posters. What did they do? They decked the walls with bullet-point differences between ‘typical men’ and ‘typical women’.
The bizarre treatment of Philippino maids
When sleeping on the roof of a hotel in Wadi Dana, I was delighted to find out I could order spaghetti with meatballs at 1 am. Gee whiz, 5 star treatment for 5 JD. Then my glee turned to horror when the Philipino maid was awoken and barked at by the hotel owner. I then remembered when I told a co-worker back in Amman to stop calling the Philipino maid about work when it was her day off. Her answer: “Well, it’s still my working hours, and it isn’t my fault she’s got less hours than me. She doesn’t pick up the phone anyway. If she picked up, I wouldn’t call.” The one day I managed to lure nice-looking dude to hang out with me, he went totally berserk when his maid called him to cancel on him. ‘AAAARGH. I HATE HER STUPID BITCH. SHE RUINED MY MOOD’. Her name on his phone was ‘Fatima Bitch Whore’. I still didn’t care, because I’m the superficial type, and don’t really mind if a pretty face comes with a crappy personality. Because everyone has a crappy personality, and only some of us have pretty faces. Unfortunately, he’s also that type, and didn’t call me back.
The Palestinian with a wig and hipster glasses pretending to be a Bedouin
Wadi Rum is the absolute last place to experience nature. Not only because it’s just sand, and in the words of Anakin Skywalker, sand is so annoying and just gets everywhere, but also because the people living there make your experience a living hell. There are men at the entrance who extort money for you to enter, there are men in the desert who will say you cannot walk without paying for a guide. But to top off all these was when all I wanted to do was camp with my own tent, without any form of bullshit mediation, but due to lack of public transportation, had to rely on a taxi to enter the place. The driver insisted the best Bedouin camp in Rum happened to belong to his friend, and he’d drive me there. ‘No. I want to camp. By myself. I want no Bedouin experience.’ He went on about the traditional tea, the traditional fire, the traditional food, and I told him I didn’t give a shit about tradition, I had no money. As was expected, he took me to this so-called Bedouin’s campsite: and there I saw what looked like a mad chemist lost in a souvenir shop. It was some white guy, obviously from Amman, wearing some kind of elaborate curly hair wig and tilted black broad-rimmed glasses. Gee whiz, I could pull off ‘Bedouin’ better than he could. Of course it was easy to get out of the enforced hospitality once I shouted ‘I have no money to give you! All I have is a tent!’
Most of my experiences in Jordan were utterly dull, as most of my time was spent at a dull place I will call by the name of ‘Cambridge, Amman’. It’s an enormous building where British researchers gather to study Arabs and make awkward attempts at socializing with one another. One junior researcher was traumatized by the general autism that it led to her decision to abandon academia. A friend from Cambridge came to visit and asked me ‘weren’t you dying to leave Cambridge? What the hell are you doing in Cambridge of the Middle East?’ Indeed, what the hell was I doing? Lentil soup every day. One day at a lentil soup lunch, shit got cray; one researcher talked about her reference system, and another thought it was utterly disorganized; the first said hearing people say her reference system was bad made her stressed. Somehow shit escalated and people had to apologize to each other. It makes me raise my hands in wonder.
And I will finish with my favorite objects in Cambridge, Amman: