Sunday, September 14, 2008

Food and Desert

I am writing this entry while sitting in my room, freshly showered, clean-clothed, and sweet smelling. A few hours ago, I was a bit disheveled. Camping in the desert does that to one. I have barely had time to breathe these last few days, let alone sleep or blog. School begins tomorrow morning. Nice and early at 9 am.

I have mentioned that I have not found much to eat in Amman. Well, this is only partly true, now that I have my apartment. I munch a lot, and I’ve enjoyed some scintillating meals with various Jordanians. Jess was the impetus for the first of such feasts. The two of us went downtown to do some shopping, and she was to meet the son of the family in front of the Melak Al-Hussein (King Hussein) mosque. She bought koonafa, a sweet Arab pastry dish, to give to her hostesses, and I waited until Youssef arrived to meet her. When he saw me there, however, he insisted I come along, to which I acquiesced, happily. I was warned (by Jess) that his family is very conservative, and I was wearing a mid-length sleeved shirt that showed part of you chest. Not my boobs! But some skin on my chest. I stopped and purchased a cheap scarf to attempt to cover myself, although occasionally it slipped out of place. We took a cab to his family’s house, in a middle class neighborhood of West Amman. Veiling is not a question in this area, but a necessity. Religion is not a choice, like to many Jordanians I’ve met, but a regime that dictates life. Most Muslims fast, but few go the mosque five times a day, like the father did, or pray religiously, like the mother did.

We were welcomed graciously into their house by the mother, Sehwayla, who kissed us on both cheeks. We sat in the ‘family room’, chatting lightly with her, Yousef, and Souhar, his sister. Yousef is fluent in the English; the other members of the family speak it in varying degrees of proficiency, so I used my Arabic more during those five hours than I have in years. Jess speaks Arabic, but Fusha only, which is the formal Arabic used only in classrooms/newsroom. I studied colloquial in Egypt, so we enjoyed many laughs over my ‘funny’ accent. It was a fascinating experience, and offered new insights into Arab culture. The direction of conversation was, perhaps, most intriguing, in that they ‘pried’ in subjects most Americans wouldn’t! For instance, Jess, whose father is Iranian, grew up with her mom and hasn’t seen him for many years, but they pressed her about this uncomfortable issue, wanting to know where he is and why she hasn’t seen him. I was told, by the father, to not wear such ‘scandalous’ clothing next time! Palestinians born in the West Bank, the family, and especially the father, are not open to the mention of Israel or compromise. He asked us where Palestine was, and we meekly responded, “West of Jordan.”

At the breaking of the fast at sundown, we sat on the floor of a room, settling into mattresses spread across the ground, and grabbed food with our hands, eating as much as we could stuff into our mouths. Considering the obscene quantities of food they cooked, I feel like me made a small dent in the, literally, small mountain of chicken and appetizers. When they learned I couldn’t eat bread, the instead plied me with obscene quantities of stuffed grape leaves and potatoes. I actually bit into a leg of chicken, but strongly suspected a wheat breading covered it. With the chicken stuffed in my mouth, I mumbled to Jess to ask about a coating, and they all shrieked when they realized it was, and had me spit out the mouthful into a napkin. They exuded true Arabic hospitality, graciously entertaining us for hours and making sure we did not want for anything. As owners of the entire apartment building, they proudly showed us the ‘empty’ flats upstairs, waiting to fill them with future family members. Souhar, the sister, was one of the sweetest women I’ve met, soft spoken, intelligent, and gentle. I hope she has the opportunity to experience life away from the veiled constraints of Amman; her family is tentatively considering sending her to America to live with her brother, Jess’ teacher, to improve her English.

For dessert, we had ice cream. Yousef was very sweet (no pun intended)-he bought everyone else ice cream cones, but bought me a chocolate bar because he realized the cones contained wheat. I did not realize how guarded I was until we left, around 10:30 in the evening. One of Yousef’s friends drove us to a local cafĂ©; as I got in the car, I sagged against the seat, relieved that I did not need to watch my behavior or language anymore. Yousef, too, relaxed away from the influence of his family, more the immature college student than the devote Muslim, texting furiously on his phone. We joined Kathy for a bit at Books@Cafe then cabbed it home, managing to argue with the cab driver who refused to turn on the meter. My Cairo instincts kicked in, and I finally told my friends to pay the man and walk away, regardless of his protests. Apparently, he followed the guy who shared the cab (and lives across the street) down the block! Oops….

The next evening, we again celebrated iftaar, but this time in our apartment. To sakhin al-bayt, or warm the house, we invited about 15 friends over for a BBQ on the terrace. Isn’t that fun to say? On the terrace…If I dare say so myself, it was a smashing success. Hani brought the BBQ, Fadi, Kathy’s boyfriend, cooked us a Bedouin dish, and everyone else brought something to share. Unfortunately, my room was a consummate disaster area, with the sheets stripped off the bed, a suitcase half emptied on the floor, and a pile of stuff dumped in the corner. At least I now have clean sheets and a tidy wardrobe. Which is more than I can say for some people J

That night, around 4 am, we decided a trek into the desert would be palatable. So, after about 4-5 hours of sleep, Jess poked her head into my room and told me to get ready. Sleepily stupefied, I showered, threw some things into a bag, and piled into the backseat of Hashim’s SUV. Hashim being Fadi’s friend, the shortest Arab I’ve ever seen at 4’11, but one who can drink people much larger than him under the table ;) Crammed into the backseat, we-two Jesses (one of whom is sleeping on our couch until she finds an apartment), me and Kathy-became very cozy in the 2.5 hour drive down to Petra. The cramped quarters were worth the discomfort when we stumbled from the car, returning circulation to cut-off limbs, and gazed over the valley of Petra, the tan mountains tinged with red, the white sand, the small villages, and the occasional ruin. Although “Petra” is protected by the government, many smaller tombs and ruins exist outside the boundaries of the park, inhabited by the itinerant goat herder or pack of wild dogs. After the bathroom break, I can now say I’ve peed in Petra. Which is an essential qualification for any traveler.

It being Ramadan, we needed to eat and drink (and smoke, not I, but the others) discreetly, disguising our current round of religious disrespect as we passed through the village of Little Petra. Pausing to climb some rocks, eat watermelon seeds, and spit them at each other, we continued onto Wadi Mousa, the gateway to Petra, and harassed tourists as we drove by, pumping our American rap and being generally obnoxious. Fadi and Hashim are both from Wadi Mousa, so we stopped at both of their houses, met Hashim’s family (they fed us fresh figs!), and loaded the back with blankets, mattresses, and other camping supplies. Finally, after numerous stops for food, we rolled out into the desert, setting up camp on a hillside overlooking the distant cluster of humanity that comprises Little Petra.

Far removed from the influence of Amman, or even the dusty countenance of Little Petra, we relaxed, sprawling on mattresses spread across the ground, lazily brushing the flies away, and watching the sun crawl across the sky. As the light softened in the sky, we suddenly realized we should watch the sun set, so we scrambled to the top of a nearby mountain and watched the distant orb burn vermillion, then dip gracefully beneath the horizon, offering just enough light to scrabble down the suddenly sheer (how did I ever get up those?) sides (both Fadi and Hashim, to their credit, were very helpful as I descended) and move the camp into the lee of the mountain. Some of their friends drove out to hang for a little while, but, at some point, we all burrowed under blankets and fell asleep, awaking to Jess’ song (that’s what Tariq called her snoring. Oh so cute!) and a too bright sun. After a languid breakfast, we drove back into town, laughing at the goats that trotted across the road, yelling at the donkeys that stood in it, and pointing out the camels to Jess, who’s never seen them before. From Wadi Mousa, we took a bus back to Amman, overcrowding the back seat of the bus because there were not enough seats available. Now, perhaps, you understand my opening statements a little better. Here are some pics from the first week. I’ll have apartments ones up soon!

No comments: