Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Christmas in Amman

I write this to you utterly sated, sprawled in the comfy rattan chair of my favorite café, enveloped in swirling, ethereal clouds of sheesha smoke, the chatter of Arabic lingering around me. I am all alone in the family balcony upstairs, disturbed only the sussorous murmur of men’s voices below. Earlier tonight, I gorged myself at a sushi buffet in Le Meridien, a late Christmas present/early New Year’s gift to myself. My world here is so peaceful, so indurately mundane, I find it difficult to believe a war is waging only a few hours away, over the rolling hills of Palestine. 2000 years ago, shepherds harried their flocks through the fields at night, virgins found shelter in a lonely stable, wise men followed the promise of a star to where a sweet babe lay, in a manager. Now, only the flare of missiles illuminate the night, flickering over a land suffused in suffering, in chaos, in despair…Gaza, under fire. غزه, تحت النار

Amman, too, weeps, flooding the streets with a constant deluge of tears, touching the air with a chill of bitterness. The voices of protests ring in the streets, a melancholy dirge answered only by the echo of war. It is a strange, strange world in which I live. I am no longer alone in my café. A couple has seated themselves at the corner table, sipping cinnamon tea and talking softly in Arabic. Life goes on.

A week ago, it was Christmas. Tomorrow, the eve of the new year will befall us. A week ago, all was light and joy. Christmas carols mingled with Arabic pop on the radio. A week ago, I was planning a menu for Christmas dinner, wandering through the aisles of Safeway, accompanied by Nadia, Jess, and a horde of Arab men I have come to call my friends. We pondered the size of our Butterball turkey, lamented over the quantity of potatoes filling our cart, lingered over choice of brownie mix, argued about the colour of plastic utensils, and laughingly piled the bags into Ahmed’s car. The following morning I arose, languidly, and spent stolen hour in Starbucks, studying Arabic and sipping hot chocolate, waiting for Promod to open its doors.

By noon, the Americans relocated to the domain of the Danes (Nadia’s apartment), bringing with us good cheer, green bean casserole, and the arcane knowledge of the art of turkey preparation. I found myself massaging my first turkey, gently caressing the voluptuous breasts with butter in a somewhat obscene manner. With the turkey in the oven, Jess and I stole away to attend a play prepared by our Iraqi colleagues at work. Entitled the Date Palm and the Witch, it was a raucous affair, made somewhat uncomfortable by the fact that the play represented the American invasion of Iraq, with the witch (Evil American Infidels) destroying the peace of the village, splintering its citizens into warring factions. We left before the end.

On the cab ride back to Shemesani, Jess and I took silly pictures in the cab, amusing the cars around us and memorializing an utterly unconventional Christmas. In Nadia’s flat, we mashed the potatoes, chatted with the arriving guests, restricted the smokers to 6 tiles of the kitchen, and saw Santa Claus walk through the door. Nathan carved the turkey, I photographed the event, and we eventually sat down to a veritable feast. Surrounded by a motley collection of Romanians, Americans, Danes, Jordanians, and most likely a few other unidentified nationalities, I savored the flavor of my lovingly buttered turkey, excessive amounts of mashed potatoes, a toast of wine, and the warmth of friends.

On Christmas morn, I opened my eyes to bright beams of sunlight spreading across my Grecian bedspread, my photograph of the King Abdullah, my rocks from Saudi Arabia, my Egyptian wall hanging, my new sweater from Promod, and my Jessica Simpson perfume bottle. My world. I sauntered into Jess’ room with a “Ho ho ho,” startled her from a deep reverie, and tossed her stocking upon her bed. Bundled against the chill in her multiple layers of sleep attire, she rubbed the night from her enviably long eyelashes and said her first words as a 23 year old. “I was happily sleeping!”

We spent Christmas day/Jess’ birthday making popcorn, eating copious amount of chocolate, remembering past holidays, and laughing with our Peace Corps friend, Bryan, who had arrived from his village of Tefila. For a few hours we, too, enjoyed a white Christmas, albeit one induced by blanketing clouds of fog, not snow. Dinner was Indian takeout, and then the doorbell rang. “Merry Christmas!” Nathan, forever punctual, offered Christmas hugs amid the scurrying to prepare for the evening’s party. Jess and I snuck into her room to change into our own Christmas surprise, Mr. and Mrs. Claus costumes. I took the liberty of effeminating jolly old St. Nick with a white tank top under the red suit coat, a black skirt instead of red trousers, and high heels in place of boots. And my beard, I must confess, was discarded early into the night. In my defense, it was rather itchy. With each knock on the door, our apartment filled with more merry-goers until we realized that the guest number had (at least) doubled from its original 15 invited. But it was Christmas, and we are blessed with an amply spacious flat. Happy birthdays and Christmas carols were sung, camel-shaped sugar cookies were consumed, candles were wished upon, and much merriness was had by all. Even the neighbors joined our festivities. During a particularly loud moment of the party, we heard a knock on the door, cringed as we anticipated the veiled inhabitants of downstairs glowering behind it, but opened it to find the (unveiled and, in the words of our male friends, “really hot”) neighbours across the hall, merely curious and amenable to some birthday cake.

By midnight, we ushered the guests to further revelry elsewhere, and sighed in relief as we sank into our beds, dreams of sugar plums dancing in our heads…or the scent of electrical fires burning in the sockets...Bestirred by an unpleasant odor, we espied flames flickering in the electrical socket near Jess’ bed. Oh dear…Thankfully, the fire smoldered itself into mere noxious fumes, but not before cutting the electricity in the bedrooms. Time to call the landlord…Twas a cold night indeed, bundled beneath my warm, but not impermeable, Pooh blanket. The next day we cleaned the apartment, ordered more Indian food, and called the landlord (in actuality, one of his son’s, Selim). It being a Friday, I did not expect any action until the next day, at the earliest. However, we told him it was an emergency, and Selim soon arrived with an electrician in tow. Within an hour, he had replaced the switches in the circuit breaker and also repaired the burned socket.

The next morning, my cell phone awoke me at 9 am. “Laura, good morning. The men to fix the sink will be arriving soon…” And so, I rolled out of bed and greeted the sink repairmen, who spent all morning replacing the faucet and pipework. Perhaps I have not mentioned it, but the sink has been leaking water all over the floor for weeks. About a half hour after they left, a direly familiar “Zzzzzttt,” filled the apartment, and the power shut off completely. Sigh. My roommates abandoned the apartment for the gym, and I contacted Salim..again. The poor man. One of the main problems with the electricity in the apartment is simply age; it was not wired to handle three electric heaters. Furthermore, the apartment next door to ours, now occupied, shares the same connection, so, when ours shuts down, so does theirs. After much consultation, and adamancy on my part, a breaker switch in the basement was flicked, and, alhamdulilah, light and heat returned to our humble abode. Ma sha’allah! Thoroughly weary of the apartment, I abandoned it that evening for distraction of Jafra, the restaurant downtown, and the company of Nathan, who kindly commiserated with my complaints.

I have been out every night this week; either in cafes, studying and discovering new language partners, or at the mall, balking at the exorbitant prices of Forever 21. I really don’t care how cute the dress is; I refuse to pay 31 JD for something worth 25 dollars in America.

The rain has softened into a light mist as I leave the café, ‘masa’ al-kheer-ing’ (good-night-ing) the owner of the hamburger store next door. The men sitting in the café downstairs turn their heads as I stride past, but make no comment, merely puffing on their sheeshas and speaking gravely in low tones, many of them wearing the Palestinian kuffkiya (the black and white headscarf). I walk past two boys standing in front of the mosque, and they politely move from my path, allowing me to step on puddle-free pavement. I reach the apartment building and ascend the four flights of stairs, still breathless at the top. A sliver of light gleams from beneath the door, and all is silent, all is well…