[This post was written by Clea Machold and Valentina Ruiz Leotaud]
It’s hard to believe that it’s our last day in Jordan.
After celebrating World Mental Health Day (usually Oct. 10, however, delayed this year) at a five star hotel in the heart of Amman’s business district, walking some of our favourite streets seemed like a good idea.
Little did we know that the apartment-downtown route we were so proud of figuring out, actually amounted to it taking three times as long as it should to walk downtown.
The combination of speaking only a few words of Arabic, our most polished of which is shukraan (plain thank you), and the fact that the locals don’t use street names at all, makes getting directions challenging to say the least. To further complicate things, shmal, Arabic for north, is used by Jordanians to mean left no matter where you are.
Today, after letting the route itself decide our way, we discovered that once you get to Rainbow St., which is a left, a right, a left and another right away from our apartment, Amman’s downtown core is only a left, a right and another left from there.
Ironically, this epiphany only occurred to us after almost a month of it taking half an hour to walk downtown. Not only did we walk this in 40-degree heat, we also braved it in the pouring rain. The worst part? We kept forgetting specific turns, so we usually had to retrace our steps and make sure we didn’t miss the landmarks we had decided were important for us: Africano pet shop, staircase with trash, Housing Bank, cute coffee shop, umbrella alley.
Despite our well-developed system, we still had to ask for directions every time. "You know Hashem Restaurant?" was the ‘answer’ we usually got as intended to reach any spot on the crowded Prince Mohammad St. As it turns out, we had actually passed by that place several times without realizing it. It also just so happens that it’s one of the best places to have falafel in Amman -just saying.
Our enroute anecdotes could go on for many, many lines. We bumped into a guy who took us to a tourist-trap cafe, we had a spices shop owner laugh at us because we were only buying 10 gr. of cinnamon (in the end, he just gave it to us for free), we posed for a photo with local kids at the Roman Amphitheatre who found us 'interesting'...
We’re definitely going to miss you Amman. We are going to miss your people and their teachings -with actions rather than words- about hospitality, generosity and looking at the bright side of things.
But, we’ll be back… There are still many stories waiting to be told, and others that require follow-up from us.
On top of that, we still have to find a place where they assure us that their falafel only contains chickpeas with zero flour, so Clea can have it, and we still have to find someone who invites us to try some homemade mansaf, so Valentina can taste it one more time to make sure she really likes it, since even some Jordanians don’t.
So, see you soon Amman!
C and V
Our reporting trip to Jordan is the first time I’ve ever covered stories in a language I don’t speak or understand. Pretty much all our interactions are in Arabic.
I am getting really good at reading peoples’ facial expressions and interpreting their verbal queues so that I can react appropriately, but it’s more challenging than it sounds. Despite the fact that Hala is fluent in Arabic and English and translating on the spot whenever she can, misunderstandings often occur due to cultural differences.
One of the stories we’re reporting on is about mental health. Covering it with the depth and detail we’re striving for involves asking sensitive questions and responding compassionately. Sometimes our characters, the ‘sensitive souls’, laugh at times I might expect them to cry based on the English translation of the question Hala is asking in Arabic. Sometimes an answer that I think will be a few words ends up being half an hour long.
Although Valentina and I understand more now than a month ago, there is still something missing. This is partly because of an unnatural delay; it’s harder to connect with your characters when you don’t understand most of what they’re saying in the moment.
I’m listening to the voices I’m hearing carefully, concentrating on how people are speaking, not just what they are saying. I’m listening to the rhythm of their speech, focusing on how the pitch of their voices rises and falls. I’m listening to the music they make.
In journalism school, I remember one of our professors telling us that radio is the most intimate medium. Now, I understand why.
We have been invited to several special occasions in and around Amman.
The first was a bus trip to Ajloun Castle, also known as Qa’lat ar-Rabad, a 12th-century Muslim castle in northwestern Jordan. On the way, we stopped in Jerash, the capital and largest city of Jerash Governorate, 48 kilometres north of Amman, towards Syria.
This journey is one I won’t forget. Here, people are generous and sincere.
So far, the only nuisance is that I’m celiac. This means I can’t eat gluten, and I’m quickly learning that breads and pastries are staples in the Arabic diet.
Another integral part of the traditional culture here just happens to be offering your guests food, and it’s considered rude when it is refused. It’s for this reason that Hala continually finds herself trying to explain why I basically can’t eat anything I’m offered.
The last stop on our way home from Ajloun was a homemade, picnic dinner. Cucumbers were the only dish where I could say, “Ne’am min fadlik,” followed by, “Shukran”. Forty kilometres outside of Amman, a cup of yogurt spilled, completely drenching my left-pant leg.
After two interviews, three cab rides and several phone calls the next day, we were looking forward to a traditional, Arabic wedding in the afternoon.
Since our hostess was running late, she decided to take a shortcut that I wasn’t aware of. Suddenly, we were in the left lane of the highway driving against the clearly painted, pristine white arrows on the pavement.
“Hala, we’re driving the wrong way,” I said. “I know, we’re taking a shortcut,” she said calmly, as if driving the wrong way on the highway was a completely normal occurrence.
Another thing about driving here is the honking. Certain common patterns exist, including double, triple and ultra long beeps, although I haven’t decoded their meaning just yet, other than to signal grievances about someone else’s driving. These honks are usually followed by forceful hand gestures.
We eventually made it to the wedding, recording equipment intact, and ready to celebrate. Valentina and I had never been to an Arabic wedding before.
Then, a huge slice of gluten-rich, strawberry, sponge cake appeared. A short while later, its chocolate counterpart arrived.
It is 1:50 a.m. at the Queen Alia International Airport in the arrivals hall.
Ahmed, a dark-skinned, middle-aged, stalky man of average height is wearing jeans and a collared shirt. He speaks only a few words of English and is waiting for me with a smile on his face and a large, white sign that reads, ‘Clea Machold’ in black, block capitals.
As we walked to the parking lot, Ahmed started pressing his car remote key anxiously. He forgot where he parked. He laughed as he kept pressing the remote to find the car, which lit up when he pressed the buttons. “Don’t worry, I will find,” he said.
There were cars everywhere, but Ahmed wove his way to the exit and onto the highway in no time. With the windows down, a pleasant breeze swept through his four-door, white sedan. Despite not signaling and driving between lanes, there were no accidents, not even any close calls in fact.
When we arrived at the apartment, Hala and Valentina greeted me excitedly despite being jetlagged and exhausted, having only arrived a few days earlier. Our hugs were viciously interrupted by the screams of two cats in heat that appeared at our front door.
We spent Wednesday exploring the hilly, narrow streets of Amman. Colourful, intricately embroidered, long dresses were on sale in many shops. Honking horns, the imam’s call to prayer and voices speaking Arabic filled the air.
Then, we found our way to a local bookstore. The owner recognized Hala from their last meeting 10 years ago when she lived here. His contagious laughter shook the bookshelves and our spirits. He served us Iraqi tea to celebrate the reunion.
Using Suhad’s (Hala’s mom) hand-drawn map, our next stop was the Al-Husseiny Mosque.
Then, we took a taxi to Bünn Izhaiman, a 122-year-old local coffee shop. On the way, the driver pulled over and ordered a coffee to go. Turns out that coffee's flavour can be enhanced with coal as Hala translated his words in real-time.
As evening approached, the three of us girls crammed into the back seat of the third taxi that day with five full shopping bags. The ride home was chilly as the sun set over the city. A flashing, red light emanated from the spot where the car beside us was missing its gas cap.