I started this post back in, ohhh, I don’t know…. June? I kept getting different iterations of the same questions and rather than reply to everyone separately, the idea was to just answer all the questions at once. Whoops! So, even though I’ve already been here for over two months (wait, what?) and have hinted at, if not directly addressed a few of these things already, hopefully some of this will still help give you an idea of what life is like here on a day to day basis…
The food here is, in a word: incredible. Middle Eastern food has never necessarily been in my top 5 cusines – aside from the ever-present container of Sabre hummus and the occasional tabouli in my fridge, but you can rest assured I am going to return home a converted woman. In fact, I’ve already googled Middle Eastern food in NYC. While I’m sure there is a slightly different definition and flavor between countries, for my purposes I’ll use the term Middle Eastern and Arabic interchangeably.
So I’ll make a bit of a sweeping statement here and say that based on my travel in Jordan, the West Bank/Jerusalem/Tel Aviv, and Lebanon, the gist of the traditional dishes are iterations of the same things. Beyond the basics, each country has its own twists and specialties, but if you walk in for authentic Arabic food, you’ll find some combination of: hummous (so, so, so good here – I’m not sure I’ll be able to go back to Sabre brand), tabouli, baba ganoush, fatoosh salad, tahini salad on vegetables, falafel and labneh (a plain yougurty/sour creamy type spread that is used for everything from dipping pita to mayonnaise. I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not, but I’d like to think it is…). Chicken shawarma sandwiches are available at every corner, and my favorite is the chicken and lamb cubes grilled on skewers with tomatoes and onions. I thought at first that those cubes were shish kebabs, but the shish-style of cooking actually refers to ground chicken and lamb mixed with a variety of spices (that are a little too reminiscent of those used to season the goat meat we used to eat in Kenya, and just doesn’t do it for me. I learned that the hard way). Because this is the center of the olive universe, there is olive oil on everything. Good olive oil, too. Not just the cheap stuff. It actually tastes like olives.
Pita, is of course, ubiquitous, but there is a slight variation which I’m not sure has a name (or at least not one I was able to remember). It’s made on a big round stone or semi circle shaped cooking device, huge and flat, constantly being flipped over, not fluffy like a pancake, and thinner than a pita. I think it probably resembles how naan is made, and it certainly is reminiscent of how chapatti is made. There is a slight sweetness to it, which just complements the salads and dips so well, and it’s so lightweight that you don’t feel guilty eating a couple J Less popular (at least on my plate), but definitely available are rice stuffed grape leaves, spinach popover/turnover type pastries, and various combinations of hummous, tahini, yougurt and baba ganoush.
The food at Amman restaurants varies: I have had everything from pizza and burgers, to pasta and chicken fingers, to Chinese food and Greek salads. However given the choice, I am at a neighborhood restaurant that serves all of the foods described above. I could literally eat this food until I burst.
In addition to the traditional Middle Eastern fare, there are a few dishes unique to Jordan, and several Palestinian dishes that are staples at one of my favorite restaurants in Amman. Mansef (which, in full disclosure I haven’t yet tried) is sort of the unofficial (or potentially official) dish of Jordan. It consists of lamb cooked in fermented yogurt and served with rice. One of our favorite appetizers is called Gallayeh, and is basically just a soupy base of tomatoes, onions and garlic which we eat as-is, but which can also be served with minced meat, eggs, or both. My absolute favorite entrée at my favorite restaurant is Chicken Fatteh, which is served in a soup-sized bowl with high sides and consists of several layers (not unlike Rachel’s English Trifle). It is pure luck that I stumbled on the dish, as I had no idea what it meant and there was minimal description next to the dish on the menu. The bottom layer is a fried pita, like the crunchy pita in fatoosh salad. The next layer is shredded chicken, followed by white rice, a layer of plain yogurt and topped with pine nuts. My mouth is literally watering as I write this.
They exist. I just don’t really eat them. But they definitely exist, and they are definitely a big part of the meal. Walking into a bakery is worth it just to see how pretty everything looks on the huge metal trays, sticky with sugary syrup and topped with ground pistachios or jellied fruit.
I’m trying to talk my parents and sister into coming to Jordan for Christmas, and I’m pretty sure I can sell my mother on the food alone. So, mom, this post is for you.
I’ve never been a lover of the summer months, and once I had officially booked my flight, I immediately began to second-guess my decision to head to the Middle East, especially since I wouldn’t be able to get by in short shorts and lightweight sundresses in this culture. When I first arrived in early June, I was fresh off a miserably hot and humid week in NYC, compounded by the fact that I was shuttling between my storage unit and AC-less apartment, hauling boxes and packing. However, I was nothing but pleasantly surprised by the weather here in Amman. Though temperatures hover in the 80s everyday, and at places like the Dead Sea, they can reach the mid-90s, and possibly 100, it isn’t unbearable, because there is no humidity. After sharing this observation with people in Jordan, I was told by nearly everyone I spoke to, “just wait until July and August. Then you’ll be miserable.” However, I gotta say, July wasn’t so bad, and so far, August isn’t making me too unhappy either. Though today, August 13th, I can feel that it is significantly hotter out, but again, not unbearable. A coworker said he thought it was 40-45 degrees Celsius, which, according to Google, is 104-113 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot, yes, but not suffocating.
Humidity has been the bane of me and my wavy/frizzy haired existence since I can remember, and I’m already the victim of self-diagnosed Hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating disorder), so I am doubly miserable in NYC in the summer [While I want to live there for the foreseeable future, I’ve said on multiple occasions that if I can devise a way to leave the city every summer, I’d be a happy girl]. I didn’t realize how much I hated humidity, rather than just hot temperatures, until I got here, where there is none. I still get hot, don’t get me wrong, and there are days when I wish I didn’t have to wear pants/long skirts and cardigans to work, but it is made infinitely better by the dryness of the air.
We have air conditioning in our apartment, but I have yet to turn it on, and while I have a fan pointed at my bed every night, I am often chilly, as the evenings turn cool here, and the breeze through the windows is enough to keep me comfortable. Most apartments have big corrugated metal doors that can be pulled down to seal their windows (not unlike the gates pulled down over shops at night in the city), which I’ve been told serve multiple purposes, one of which is to keep the sun out. Our apartment is on the first floor, and doesn’t have direct sun exposure, so I’m sure that contributes to the coolness. It can sometimes feel dark like a cave inside, but it’s better than sun-drenched, in this case.
Though, as I sit here thinking about it more, I think there is also something to be said about the daily routine most Jordanians (and consequently, myself) have adopted here during the summer months, especially during Ramadan when people are already rather weak and dehydrated. Most people shuttle from their cool apartments to their air-conditioned cars, to their air conditioned offices, and back. Most activities take place in the evenings, and I rarely see people exercising outside. On the few occasions that I have found myself outside in the middle of the day, it can get pretty hot, especially when there is no shade. I would not choose to sit out in the sun to eat lunch, and I avoid anything even mildly strenuous until after 4 or 5pm. So, I guess while it’s hot here, it’s easy to avoid the heat most of the time.
From what I understand, Jordan gets cooler in the fall, and even cold by the winter. I packed a fleece and a couple heavier sweaters, but am worried I may be underprepared, come December! Apparently apartments are hard to heat, so I’ve been told to expect to wear sweats to keep warm at night. More to come on that in a couple of months!
There is apparently, a bustling nightlife in Amman. I, however, have yet to experience it. As I mentioned in more detail in the prior post about Ramadan, Amman is a café culture; Arabic coffee and sheesha (hookah) abound. Alcohol, while not banned, is notably absent from most restaurants and social settings. I’m fairly certain drinking is not allowed in Islam, and since the majority of the country is Muslim, alcohol is incredibly expensive, with a hefty tax on top of it. A small bottle of wine can easily run $20-$30, too expensive for a casual bottle a week. At the UN receptions I attended when I first arrived, wine was flowing freely, but I don’t commonly see it outside of hotels or restaurants that cater to expats.
It’s actually been pretty nice to take a break from alcohol since in New York, everything from catching up with friends, to brunch, to happy hour, revolves around it. Even someone who doesn’t consider themselves a drinker can find they’re having some sort of alcohol 5-7 nights a week. The lack of alcohol in my diet, coupled with my Ramadan fast have contributed to all of my clothes fitting a little loosely, which I can’t complain about…
There are, apparently some night clubs around the city that rival New York City, but from what I’ve heard, there are dress codes, and cover charges, and lines, and bottle service. There seems to be an upper class of really, really cool Jordanians; clearly, they are too cool for me, as I have yet to meet any. These are the ones that wear the clothes in the shops that I have seen on nobody around town – short, tight skirts, sky-high stilettos and skimpy tank tops. I learned from a girl from the states who has lived here for a couple of years that people will either change when they get where they’re going (ie take off the flats and leggings under their dress, and replace with heels and bare legs), or if they are driving their own car as opposed to taking a taxi, they can just go from door to door dressed like this. I’ve also been told that women wear these clothes under their long dresses, and at female-only parties, they can let loose and wear the latest fashions. I really know very little about this small but obviously elite and trendy social class. I’ve never been much for clubs and cover charges and DJs, so I will likely not experience much of this side of Amman before leaving, though if I can scrounge something up among the office and fieldwork clothing I brought, I may tag along one of these nights.
Personally, I’m perfectly happy getting dinner somewhere and heading home afterwards. I wasn’t against sheesha when I first got here, but after learning that it can be the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes, I’ve steered clear except for one or two occasions. I don’t like it enough to be worth doing that to my lungs!
Without a car, it’s pretty difficult to get around on your own here. Fortunately, taxis are one of the few inexpensive amenities in Amman, so it’s relatively affordable to get around in metered cabs (no more than $3 to get to the far side of town). There are public busses, and while I haven’t tried to figure them out, they are apparently not super easy to navigate, especially as a non-Arabic speaking woman. Plus, until recently, there were 3 or 4 of us to a cab, so it cost practically the same as a bus would. My roommate Nina, a fellow Columbia student who will taking a year off from school and staying in Amman for the next eight months or so and I have joked about buying a used car here. We even have our eyes on a beat up, orange truck with a For Sale sign that is always parked in the neighborhood. I’ll have to take a picture next time I pass by!
Driving here, while aggressive, is not especially fast or dangerous, and people obey most traffic signals and signs. The biggest thing we had to learn was how to properly use the horn. In general, a short tap on the horn at oncoming traffic essentially means, “I’m not slowing down, so you better not get in my way,” though sometimes it means, “go ahead.” So, who knows. Road rage doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue as it can be in some places, and I don’t hear the same horror stories about overcrowded busses and daily high speed accidents that I used to in Nairobi. Most cars are new and in good shape, so the ride tends to be comfortable and not white-knuckle inducing (except I’m pretty sure it’s an actual requirement for taxis to cut out their seatbelts in order to get licensed. Without fail, there are never seatbelts in the back seat, despite the fact that many of them are in otherwise mint condition). The biggest issue I have is the lack of car seats and car seat laws in this country. Babies, toddlers and children of all ages can be seen sitting on the dashboard, center console, in the laps of parents, sticking out sunroofs or peering out the back window. Driving is safe, but not safe enough that I would feel comfortable with my infant child just chillin’ on the back seat, not strapped in.
One of the biggest annoyances by far in Jordan is the ubiquitous nature of cigarettes. Almost everyone I have seen here smokes like a chimney (the people at the health department in UNRWA seem to be an exception to that, thankfully), and there are no restrictions on smoking indoors. Restaurants, malls, bodegas, fast food restaurants and taxi cabs are thick with smoke. Every time I leave the house for somewhere other than work, I feel as if I need to shower and wash the clothing I’m wearing. As a child of the ban on public smoking generation (I think they banned it in CT when I was 16, it was banned in New York state by the time I started college, and certainly the ban had been in place in MA by the time I moved there after college. It was banned in Ireland when I studied abroad, and there are pretty strict regulations, though not a total ban, in Kenya), it’s a unique experience for me to be in a restaurant with so much cigarette smoke. People pay no heed to a passive aggressive wave of the hand, or pointed cough into a scarf covering your face.. you just kind of have to deal with it. I hate to be so stuck up about this, but after a year in public health school and growing up in a non-smoking family, it’s very hard for me to stomach the damage that even six months worth of second hand smoke is doing to my body. The worst was during Ramadan, when we would take cabs home, nearly every driver would be chain smoking, making up for not being able to smoke between sunrise and sunset.
The worst part is that people smoke around their children. Literally, baby in lap, cigarette in hand, smoke swirling around the child’s face. I’ve seen children who have likely not hit puberty yet, casually taking drags on cigarette after cigarette. I don’t know what the public messages regarding smoking and secondhand smoke are, but I remember commenting on it as an aside while on a home visit in the West Bank, and the woman from the clinic said that people didn’t believe cigarette smoke was bad for infants. WHAT?! Shut the front door. The other day, I was reading a local magazine, and there was a full page ad/letter of appeal from the Queen of Jordan demanding stricter smoking laws, and regulations on second hand smoke, but that’s pretty much the extent I’ve seen around town.
As opposed to other cities that I’ve traveled to, where stray dogs are a ubiquitous sight, this city is full of cats. Islam prohibits keeping dogs, as they are considered unclean, hence, there are few dogs around. However, almost everyone I know has cats; they are everywhere on the street, in dumpsters, and slinking around buildings. At night, you can hear their mews, ear-splitting screeches during catfights, and the distinctive noises of cats in heat. There is one cat in particular that seems to have taken up residence on one of the chairs on our terrace, though at any given time in the evening, 4 or 5 cats can be seen lounging in the garden or on the porch steps. Though, I must say, I prefer relatively harmless cats to a potentially dangerous pack of wild dogs. Just this afternoon I passed a tiny, brand new kitty in the garden of an apartment complex and wanted to badly to just pick her up and take her home! Though, I’m fairly certain that’s a bad idea, for several reasons! You can also tell I’m not an animal person, because while I am happy for these cats to chill outside my home, I’m not running out to buy cat food or bringing them to the vet. That’s why I like cats – they do their thing, you do your thing. No one gets mad or feels neglected if you don’t come home for a few days or forget to feed them (clearly, I’m not a child person, either, haha).
For the most part, those are the major questions I’ve been asked about what it’s like here. Hopefully it gives a more complete picture of what it’s like on a daily basis. If I missed any “FAQs,” let me know!! I’m also aware that I am miserably behind on actually explaining what it is I am doing here in Jordan for six months, and part of the blame rests on my roommates for facilitating my Friday Night Lights addiction, and the other is on Orange is the New Black for essentially rendering me useless from the hours after returning home from work until heading to bed.