30 Sept-3 Oct 2015. We arrive in Amman late afternoon on September 30th. It is an easy entry. We are met at the airport prior to passport control to ensure our free visas that come with being part of a tour. An agent of the tour company takes us quickly through passport control and baggage claim and out to the taxi that takes us to our hotel. On the drive from the airport I’m struck by the uniformity of the buildings. Unlike most cities where there is a variety of styles and colours, in Amman they are all the same. I learn later that there is a municipal law requiring all buildings to be faced with the same creamy coloured local stone.
For almost two full days we hardly leave the hotel room. After being on the move in Turkey for five weeks we need a day off. Our hotel is not in a busy part of Amman. It seems like it’s in the middle of nowhere really. For dinner the first night we eat at the nearby Pizza Hut because of convenience, and because we can’t really find anything else, and because we don’t have the energy to look too far afield. It’s not very good. The hotel provides breakfast and we take enough from the buffet to make lunch in our room. Finally mid afternoon on the third day we get a taxi to Rainbow Street.
Named for the trendy Rainbow Theatre, Rainbow Street is a nucleus of cafés and restaurants, but not for us. It is Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, so almost everything is closed and the street is quiet.
The hotel has no English-language maps of the city. Amman is not that user friendly for tourists. On Rainbow Street we find a tourist police booth and ask for a map. The only map he has in English is a large glossy poster-style map that clearly had once been stuck up on the wall. The streets are hidden under small illustrations of landmarks, and there is not nearly enough detail of the main downtown area. It is however better than nothing. With the dubious help of the map, and through asking, and winding our way down unmarked staircases, we arrive at the Al Husseini Mosque right in the centre of downtown. It is busy. Amman is happening here even though many of the smaller side streets of the souq across from the mosque are closed. We hang out in the square in front of the mosque as the men come out from prayer. Many of them are immediately attracted to a large pile of cell phone covers for sale.
I go inside the mosque. I am gestured upstairs to the women’s prayer room above. It overlooks the main area of the mosque where the men are. There are a couple of women in the room. They are welcoming and friendly. I feel a warmth with them. And they are fine with me taking photos through the windows that look down on the courtyard and interior below.
I don’t mind the separation, though I don’t understand it. What saddens me is that in every mosque I enter in Turkey and Jordan I see that the space for women is ‘second-class’. No space for women that I see has the same glorious beauty, grandeur, or importance as the space for the men. Why is that? Meanwhile downstairs, Don has a conversation with an English speaking man who would like to convert him to Islam.
It’s busy in the square in front of the mosque. Hawkers are shouting their wares, crowds coming and going, a man sells juice from an elaborate metal urn strapped to his back, a jewellery stand is ready for business.
We explore the souq across the hectic main road from the mosque. We are in the bustling hustling centre of the old city. Here is the hubbub of Jordanian life. At the sidewalk stands and down numerous alleys there is everything for sale that you could imagine – everything from belly dance outfits to jewellery, clothing, hijabs, fruit and vegetables, antiques, a pipe, and a plastic hippopotamus.
We have the most fun in a small alley that I immediately dub ‘Sewing Street’, though perhaps a better name would be ‘Tailor Street’. The alley is filled on either side with rows and rows of jackets and shirts hanging above and many men at their sewing machines making new clothes.
We have fun and funny interactions with the tailors, taking photos, establishing that we are Canadian, and that one of the men we ‘talked’ with was from Cairo. There is much laughter, smiling, and communication despite their lack of English and our lack of Arabic. It reminds me very much of our visit to the wholesale spice market in Delhi.
The country that is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has been inhabited since the Paleolithic period. By the end of the Bronze Age three kingdoms emerged: Ammon (from which Amman gets its name), Moab and Edom. These lands later became part of the Nabatean Kingdom, the Roman Empire, and then the Ottoman Empire. In the aftermath of WW I, as part of the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, the British, with the help of the Hashemites, forced the Ottomans out and established, in 1921, the Emirate of Transjordan as a British protectorate. Jordan became an independent sovereign state in 1946. In 1948 the name was changed to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and the monarchy continues to rule to this day.
Jordan is a small, almost landlocked, remarkably hospitable country. Surrounded by conflict it has welcomed millions of refugees: Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis. The country is one of two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel. Although there is a strong middle-class in the city, Amman has surprised us. We expected a wealthy country, and maybe there are wealthy people here but not in the part of city we’ve seen. It feels more like a third-world country – the sidewalks are uneven and crumbling, or nonexistent, there is garbage everywhere, and on the climb up to the Citadel we see that people are living in very simple dwellings built into the side of the hill. The western side of town is wealthier, but Jordan does not have the oil wealth that one generally associates with this part of the world.
From the souq we make our way by accident to the Nymphaeum, one of the many Roman antiquities to be found in Amman. There’s a tiny illustration of the Nymphaeum on the map so we once again have some idea of where we are, but the illustration covers some of the streets. By feel, and by asking, we continue optimistically in the direction of the Citadel, hoping to reach it for sunset. By this point we are ready for a break and a cup of coffee but don’t see a suitable place. We round a corner in what we hope is the right direction. Suddenly a man speaks to us in English, encouraging us to come to his place for coffee, and yes he will show us the way to the Citadel when we are done. He ushers us into the funky lounge and bar of a hotel, a place we would not have thought to enter on our own even if we’d noticed it. It is lovely: tea for Don, coffee for me, and wonderful cake. When we are finished we are pointed in the direction of the Citadel with a small map printed from a drawing. It feels as if the Universe had sent us an angel to guide us to both the break we need and the way to the Citadel. Our serendipity mojo seems to be working again.
The map is not the territory, but it is enough for us to find our way.
When we arrive the Citadel is closing so we can’t go inside, but the sunset makes it worth the climb.
We are aware of a couple asking one of the guards how they are to get back to town. We tell them that we know the way. So we walk back down the hill with Ross from Australia and Tanya from Russia.
We had been told at the hotel where we’d had our break that they had a rooftop restaurant and that the chef was really good, and that he used to be a chef at the palace, so we decide to go there for dinner and invite Ross and Tanya to join us.
Up we go to the rooftop and enter into a completely surreal experience: it is shabby and dark, there are several rabbits and chickens running around, and there are three hawks and an owl in a cage in one corner.
We sit at a table by the wall of the terrace looking out at a fabulous view of Amman and the Roman Theatre.
We order from the menu. Sorry, there are no stuffed vine leaves available; there are also no vegetables available for chicken stir-fry. So we all reorder. Don and I share Greek salad, hummus, and a half chicken and chips. The other two share a whole chicken and chips, a bottle of wine and some falafel. We wait and wait and wait. Eventually it all comes. The hummus is as it should be. The Greek salad is just okay. There are only five falafel balls when there should be six. The chips are cold and soggy and the chicken is overdone. Seriously overdone. But whatever. We all have a fine time, and don’t leave hungry. It is an enormous amount of food.
Don’s Tripadvisor review:
My wife and I were headed for the Citadel in Amman when we were approached on the street by a young man who asked us if we’d care to step inside the nearby Amman Pasha Hotel for some food or a drink. We were ready for a break so we headed into a very pleasant pub-like room where we enjoyed a tea and a coffee and a piece of cake. The young man encouraged us to come back later for supper in the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, so after walking up to the Citadel we walked back to the hotel where we were welcomed like old friends and escorted via a lift to the 5th floor restaurant. As we entered the patio the first thing we noticed were three rabbits hopping around, and then we saw a couple of chickens wandering loose. After we were seated we could see a cage containing two small hawks and a medium-sized owl. What kind menagerie had we come to, we asked ourselves? The waiter arrived with menus and a big smile. We decided to try the chicken stir-fry with vegetables and an order of stuffed vine leaves. “Sorry but we’re all out of vegetables and vine leaves” was the immediate reply. This puzzled us, it being only 7:00 pm, but we were flexible and ordered the half roast chicken with chips and ketchup, plus some hummus and a Greek salad. A long time later the meal arrived: overcooked chicken, soggy chips and no ketchup. The salad and hummus were okay. The rabbits and chickens came looking for a handout and I wondered about the likelihood of getting psittacosis. The overall appearance of the restaurant was very shabby and the bathroom was filthy. All in all a very strange experience.
On the drive home in the taxi I am aware of how vulnerable we are, how our lives are once again in the hands of a stranger. We have no clue where we are going. The taxi driver could pretend to get lost, and then charge us a lot extra to get us back to our hotel, he could drive us to a remote place and assault, rob, abandon, or kill us, he could drive recklessly and be in an accident. But none of this happens. He has the meter running, and he drives us safely and directly to our hotel for the grand sum of about $2. I am so grateful, so deeply grateful. I feel like tipping him $10 simply because our wellbeing has depended on him and he has done the right thing. So often when travelling our fate appears to be in the hands of others and there is nothing we can do but surrender to the vulnerability.
The next night we find a lovely restaurant about ten or fifteen minutes walk from the hotel. The menu is limited since it is predominantly an arghila, or hookah, bar. We eat delicious hummus and salad and pita bread and watch the hipsters of Amman smoking flavoured tobacco through water pipes. Apparently nearly half the population smokes. Also the government tried to ban smoking in public places back in 2014, but there was such an outcry that I guess it didn’t take.
Next post: The Roman ruins of Jerash, Kerak Castle, and floating in the Dead Sea.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.