Jaywalking in Jordan

This post could also be titled: “Refusing Marriage Proposals, Finding the Best Falafel, and Making a Perfect Omelette in Amman, Jordan”.

I’ll start with the last part first, and explain what I was doing in Jordan (and how I could afford it) as I go.

A little while ago I came across this website called Workaway, which connects volunteers and travellers with families, small businesses, and nonprofits who need general help or a specific service in exchange for free room and board. You pay a small fee for membership and an account (I believe it is £30 for two years) and you can find opportunities literally all over the world. The site is monitored and reputable, and both the hosts and the volunteers get reviewed by each other, so you can see where you might fit in and avoid places that don’t seem appealing. You do not get paid monetarily, which means that you can enter the country of your choice on a visitors’ visa and stay for as long as you are permitted on that visa (but remember to check specifics on embassy/consulate websites and see about visa extensions and restrictions if you want to stay longer).

Anyway, I was trying to figure out what to do in between the end of my Masters programme at Durham in September and graduation in January since I did not want to go back to the United States yet and recent changes to the laws in the UK meant I could not stay in England to work short-term. (Cheers for that, Theresa May.) Long story short…I found a hotel in Amman, Jordan, that was looking for volunteers. I’ve been dying to go back to the Middle East since I left in 2012, and had never been to Jordan before, so I jumped on it. Booked a flight, arranged to work and stay in the hotel for a month, and arrived on October 1st.

While I am going to keep the names of the hotel and the staff to myself, just for privacy reasons, I will say that hotel was nice and the regular staff was small (and all male) and all really welcoming and fun to be with. Two of them spoke great English, and I got to work on my very-rusty Arabic speaking skills with the rest of them. They were also very protective once they got to know me…when you are polite and Western and female, that apparently gives certain men the idea that you can be persuaded to go to their rooms and won’t take no for an answer until one of the staff comes and pulls you away from an increasingly uncomfortable interaction, while glaring at the guest in question.

The hotel has an enclosed rooftop terrace with a spectacular view of Al Balad (Downtown) Amman, and that was where I spent about 5-6 hours every morning for a month, working the breakfast shift with one other regular full-time hotel employee. I was a combination waitress, sous chef, dishwasher, prep cook, and cleaner…and this was where I learned to make a perfect omelette, in addition to really good pancakes and a number of other more traditional Arab breakfast and lunch dishes. I knew how to make omelettes and pancakes prior to arriving in Amman, of course, but when the food is for paying guests, it has to look as nice as it tastes, which was the initial challenge for me. In the past, it didn’t matter if my chocolate chip pancakes weren’t perfectly round; here, it did. There was a lot of laughter on the part of the regular employee and frustration on my end while I figured that out. That being said, I did get to eat a lot of imperfect-looking pancakes that still tasted good, so I couldn’t complain too much.

In my free afternoons, I explored Amman. The first rule of living in Amman is: learn how to jaywalk. There are no lanes (thankfully most streets are one-way), hardly any stoplights, and even fewer drivers who actually pay attention to them. The streets are so congested, though, especially in Downtown, that it is easy to just cross the street whenever you feel like it, weaving between stopped cars and overloaded lorries. Or you make a run for when there is a gap in the traffic (generally the drivers will stop, but it’s always a gamble). The cops just ignore you, because everyone else is doing it, and there is too much honking going on to have a conversation about traffic laws anyway. If you are ever in need of quick transport to hospital, don’t bother calling an ambulance, because even with their lights and sirens they can’t get through; better to just grab a cab, preferably one that has working brakes and seat belts and is willing to drive on the pavement.

The souqs (markets) are an interesting mix of fruit and veg venders, household goods, and cheap children’s toy stores. The shops in Al Balad are typically divided into sections depending on products – one street is full of women’s clothing, another with fabric, still more with mattresses, men’s clothing, shoes, and the inevitable cheesy made-in-China souvenir shops. (You can find authentic Jordanian-made stuff, you just have to look for it and be willing to pay more for it.) Once you know the main streets and a couple of basic landmarks, it is fun to get lost in the maze that is Downtown Amman. Honestly, you can avoid the newer parts of the city altogether — it’s all huge hotels and embassies and malls, although the area around Seventh Circle is fun to walk around.

The main historic tourist attractions are the Citadel and the Roman Theatre. The Citadel sits on a hill and was built by the Romans and then taken over by the Umayyads, then the Abbasids, then the Ottomans, etc. (there is also archaeological evidence of the natives who were there before the Romans, of course). It is mostly comprised of a crumbling Roman temple and the sketchy remains of a fort, and the beautifully preserved Umayyad Mosque. You don’t really need any of the guides who meet you inside and try to sell you a “tour” for 30 JD (which gets progressively cheaper as you keep refusing, surprise, surprise). The view is the best thing about the Citadel, with nearly a 365-degree look at the sprawling city. The Roman Theatre is in Al Balad, a two-minute walk the hotel I was working/staying at. It’s a half-circle of concrete steps and benches that ascends up three levels. It is in good condition now, but since it wasn’t preserved with authentic or completely native materials, you can definitely tell which parts of it are original and which had to be rebuilt or added. Still, it is fun to climb all the way up to the top and just sit and people-watch. The climb down is much harder, because the steps are all so steep and uneven. When I was there the first time, they were working on putting up a huge banner that said “Samsung” (for a marathon that was happening in the city the next day) and to be honest, it ruined the atmosphere a little.

Other tourist attractions (also frequented by locals) are Rainbow Street (basically a really long street with lots of different shisha cafes, rooftop bars, and restaurants); the Jordanian Museum (home of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was really cool); and the two best places to get Jordanian food. The first is Hashem, a locally-famous, mostly-outdoor, not-much-to-look-at restaurant that serves a set menu of bread, hummus, veggies, fries, spicy babaganoush, and the best falafel in Amman…all for about 3 JD. The second is just down the street and is a tiny little bakery called Habibah Sweets. The best thing they sell is the traditional Jordanian dessert called “kunafa”, which is a sweet cheese covered in melted sugar sort of pastry thing. It’s hard to describe, and is so sweet that you really can only eat like three bites, but it’s so good you end up eating the whole giant slice. Every night the queue extends down the block and out into the larger street and it is totally worth the wait.

Now, on to marriage proposals. Without going into too much personal detail – and in order to avoid for the moment the mess that is sexism and gender roles in the Middle East and wider world – I was put into the awkward position of having to refuse two different offers of marriage during the one month I was in Jordan. One was more straight-forward; in Petra, after learning that I was American (a mistake I made when answering the inevitable “Where are you from?” question) a random male shopkeeper decided to follow me and my two new Canadian friends around for about 15 minutes asking if I would have a cup of coffee with him and if I would like to marry him so he could go to the U.S. I shot him down (nicely, but with growing frustration since I just wanted to explore Petra in peace) and eventually he gave up. I started wearing a ring on my left hand after that, since apparently physical evidence of me being “taken” was needed to forestall questions like that.

The second proposal came from the employee at the hotel that I worked with the most and was much more genuine…and therefore a much more sensitive issue to deal with. About 10 days before I was due to move on from Jordan, he came to me while I was eating dinner and asked if we could talk. He proceeded to tell me that he had never met another woman like me, and that he was “really in love” with me. He earnestly went on to say that he would marry me tomorrow if I accepted, and that he thought we were destined to be together, and that it didn’t matter to him if I wasn’t Muslim. (He assumed I was Christian, which I am not, but it seemed pointless to correct him at the point.) The hilarious irony of this whole thing was that he had told me all about his wife and his three daughters, who lived in Egypt; previously we had also had multiple conversations about his family values, about cultural differences relating to dating/marriage, and about how Islam prohibited multiple marriages for a man unless he can provide completely equally for both/all of the wives.

I was, of course, completely taken aback, and all I could think of to say was, “Thank you”. He let me think about it for a few minutes (I think he could tell that I was in shock) and then asked for my opinion on the matter. I obviously told him that I was very flattered, but that I did not feel the same way. His response was to say that maybe I needed to think about it some more. To get out of this increasingly awkward situation, I said yes. So he backed off and we went about our respective evenings…mine included frantic messages to my three best friends asking for advice on how to handle it when it came up next and ranting about how I shouldn’t need a reason to refuse a man, since “no thanks” should be enough. But again, that is a whole other subject for another post another time. A couple days later, I was armed and ready with more excuses…erm, I mean, reasons?..on why we could not get married and why I did not feel the same way as he so passionately did. When he asked for my feelings on the matter again, I used a combination of “I talked to my father and he was not happy about it” (while feeling disgusted that I needed to resort to that); ”I did not come here to get married”, (truthful and convenient); and “I see you as a brother and I am in love with someone else” (also true). That last one seemed to (thankfully) drive the point home, and he was very gracious about being rejected so thoroughly. We never spoke about it again, and I certainly didn’t mention it to anyone else at the hotel.

….Until the staff and I were exchanging goodbyes the night before I was due to leave (I wouldn’t be working that morning) and he kissed my cheeks far too many times than was probably socially acceptable, tried to give me a very nice ring (that I refused to take), and told me that, “He knew we would be together in this life or the next”.

Needless to say, I was very glad to have the excuse to go pack. Thanks for reading, and look later for insider tips on visiting Petra and the Dead Sea.


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