At first it seemed like Jordan had become a quieter city in my absence. Less traffic, fewer weather-beaten looking pedestrians. However, that may have been because my arrival in the country was at 2:30 in the morning. I had been afraid that the visa price at the airport would have tripled (some of my friends had warned me of this possibility) but it had only doubled, to JD20. One thing that American visitors to Jordan never have to worry about is the exchange rate changing – the currency is still locked to the USD at 1.41USD = 1JD. Makes planning much easier.
My former director at the PTEE, Dick, picked me up from the airport. The tall man in the pressed wool jacket was easy to pick out from the crowd of shorter Jordanians around him. My seat from Frankfurt to Amman had been near the rear of the plane, making me one of the very last passengers to make it out of the security checks.
In all seriousness, it didn’t seem like much had changed at all as we sped through the quiet city. Airport road had been completely torn up, not for touristic remodeling as I had originally thought, but for the placement of water transport pipes below the road. It’s going to be interesting seeing that road in the daylight and all of the bypasses and switches on it. If I thought Jordanians were crazy drivers before… But the huge twin towers of the Jordan Gate buildings still sat derelict and unfinished, a sad reminder of poor financing protection in Jordan. It looked like some of the huge panes of glass had fallen off.
My old colleagues at PTEE and Whitman were happy to see me the next morning. Dick hadn’t told any of his colleagues, but his wife Robin had mentioned it to some of her teachers at Whitman, so various levels of surprise played across people’s faces. The last time I saw the new PTEE building, it had just been purchased and was basically little more than rubble – the inside was a total disaster area. Now, the second floor had been completely finished and everyone had moved in. The place looked extremely modern and western, with hidden upward-facing lighting on the ceiling, and in-wall cabling for power and networking – no trunks on the walls here, unlike everywhere else I’ve seen in Jordan!
I jokingly asked Muna, Whitman’s secretary, whether anything looked different about me since I’d last been there. The only difference (I hope) was the mustache I brought back as a souvenir from Costa Rica, and she pointed to it and said, “you have a schwarib now, I see!” I pretended to mishear her and said, “you mean, this schwarma on my upper lip? Yes, I’m saving that for later.” I’ll admit I’ve used that joke several times with my Arab friends in the past few days; no more than once per person though. I suppose it’s the vocabulary equivalent of saying that I have a mustard on my lip.
Speaking of schwarma, one of the moments I had been waiting for was biting into one of the amazing grilled schwarma from the little shop a couple blocks from Whitman, a place Silas had introduced me to years ago. Their prices hadn’t changed from 60 gersh per sandwich, and neither had the taste. I need to franchise some of these schwarma restaurants into the USA. I can’t go for twenty months without having one anymore!
I did a once-over Whitman to make sure that they hadn’t made any major changes I’d missed, like adding yet another floor onto the building like they did in the summer of 2009, but once satisfied, hung out in the teachers lounge and chatted with my former coworkers when their schedules allowed it. Several of them started to ask me computer-related questions, then stopped with slightly embarrassed looks on their faces. “It’s like you never left!” one commented.
As it turned out, one of my former high school classmates from Brodhead was also in Jordan, and I was able make excuses to myself to get more schwarma and then go to Hashem’s in the bellad with her. I hadn’t seen Rachel since graduation, almost 8 years ago, but we were both here for a vacation – me from America, and she from the Arab Gulf, where she currently works. She hadn’t yet tried the famous food at Schwarma Reem or at Hashem’s yet, so I met her near the battered old Reem stand (already being heavily trafficked even though it was only 6) and made our order. The manager of the shop recognized me right away through the crowd and immediately called out to the 3-4 men carving the meat and slicing the vegetables – “Zakky’s here – he’s come back to Jordan!” He reached over two or three shoulders and grabbed my hand in a hearty handshake. His employees, of course, were extremely busy, but I stopped by their window and they looked up, grinned, and waved. “Try not to wait two years before coming back again!” one of them called out to me. I didn’t have time to make my schwarma/schwarib joke to them before I was shoved aside by droll-faced Jordanians but it was probably for the best.
Rachel and I had fun comparing the differences and similarities between the Gulf and Jordan – things like heat, cleanliness of the street, and so on. I recalled that when I was still living here, we had exchanged a couple of messages about her interest in working in the Middle East, so it was great to see that she had brought her goal to fruition. As she only had a couple days left in Jordan, and I needed to do some souvenir shopping anyway, after a second snack of fuul at Hashem’s we combined forces to hunt for some deals, or at least shops that were willing to haggle with Americans.
I first stopped by the open-air keffiyeh shop run by two guys around my age. One of them recognized me, and smiled broadly. I told them I was back for more keffiyehs – they’ve always given me good prices for high-quality keffiyehs, made by the “Basaam al-Owsli” factory (Basaam the Original) that Arabs have told me is a good buy. I picked two up, and extended a ten-dinar bill in my hand for them. They wouldn’t take it, telling me – “we know you will come back again, please take these ones for free and tell your friends about us!” I thought I’d seen everything in Jordan, but I never could have imagine street vendors in the tourist-heavy bellad area giving away their product not just at a discount, but belaash – for free. So, ahem, everyone who happens to find themselves in the bellad and in the market for keffiyehs, check out the little shop inside the “Souq al Bisharat” – and you can contact Ziad, the man I spoke to, at 079-688-7899. Tell ’em that Zach the ajnubee taweel sent you and he’ll give you a great deal (although probably not quite as good as the one he gave me; you’ll have to go there at least a half dozen times to get that!)
We wandered the streets for about an hour. Of course, every vendor attempted to woo Rachel, and most of them assumed that she and I were married and playfully demanded to know where the babies were. Sometimes I swear there’s a script that these guys all read for their lascivious yet friendly behavior. Of course, these generic vendors haven’t been the only ones – some of my own friends and colleagues have coyly requested details and information about relationships. I suppose this is the Christian Conservative way, though – get married, have kids, then travel around the world spreading Christianity and aid. Or at least two out of three.
Staying with my former employers meant it was easy to attend a business meeting at PTEE the next day. I remembered that when I was a regular employee, the weekly meetings often had friends of PTEE sit in and take part in the fellowship, and now it was my turn to be a Friend. Do-it-yourself falafel sandwich ingredients were brought up, with thick French bread, hummous, vegetables, and of course scalding hot falafel. We all drank tea and Nescafe around the big meeting table as Dick and the others shared perspectives on PTEE’s activities. My friend Robert Miner (who had graciously invited me to stay with his son when I was in Innsbruck in 2010) took me aside with another gift – a buffet dinner ticket to a “carbo loading pasta party” for the Amman to Dead Sea Ultramarathon. He couldn’t attend and he didn’t want the ticket to go to waste, so he told me that if I could be sure to use it in his stead (and “eat enough for three” as the others had asked to hear about how my skinniness had contributed to my collapsed lung) that I should take it off his hands. Before I departed, Ramzi, who had replaced me as PTEE’s I.T. specialist, proudly led me around the office floor, showing the networking system he’d put in place and his plans for future wireless additions, and I played the role of outside consultant for a bit to talk about future expansions to networking, server, and licensing.
I had been invited to join my old choir, Dozan wa Awtar, at one of their weekly rehearsals that evening, but after my shopping spree the previous night, I was down to a few measly half-dinar coins, barely enough for a taxi ride the 3rd circle. Just like the old days, Jennifer offered to give me a ride, and I was excited because as one of my old neighbors, it was an excuse to go into my old haunts again. After the taxi dropped me off, I politely hailed two elderly gentlemen outside a minimarket around the busy circle, and asked them where the closest money changer might be. One of the men pursed his lips, and pointed in the opposite direction from where I needed to get to. The other man, looking dignified in a dusty old brown suit jacket and tie, looked from him to me, and narrowed his eyes incredulously. He said, you’ve lived here for two years and you don’t know there’s one just up the street from your house? You remember me, I asked him with surprise, to which he replied with a snort, of course, you live in the big glass house only a few blocks from here! I guess the tall white guy was more memorable than I figured, even for people that I didn’t directly interact with!
It was great to Jen, Mark, and their family again. Their youngest son, who had always been referred to by his big brothers as “little Zach, because you’re big Zach,” when I came by, was now talking and for the first time, I really felt like almost two years had gone by. As Jen and I got ready to go to practice, he overcame his shyness, hugged me, and squealed “you’re big Zach, and I’m little Zach!” happily. Of course my heart melted into a big soggy mess.
Coming to Dozan meant, of course, meant more embraces and exclamations of happiness. I definitely need to come back to Jordan every few years just to experience the incredible hospitality and exuberance of my friends. I settled down in the practice room to see what the new choir sounded like, and was pleasantly surprised to see that the percentage of Arabs to foreigners had increased to almost 85%. Although of course I knew that all of the foreigners that had been there during my days had departed, same as I, it was a little sad to not know many people. Jennifer and I agreed that it was better that the unofficial Jordanian national choir should be made almost totally of Jordanians, instead of the 60% Arabs the choir used to have. And the amount of Arab to Western music has apparently also increased along with the singers – for example, while I was there, the group was practicing for “Dozan: the Musical, from Broadway to Weibde,” with a healthy split between well-known American songs and both classical and modern Arab songs. Check out the Facebook event in the link there – if you’re in Jordan later this month, you should check it out!
I would have loved to gone out for drinks with my choir friends afterward, but it was already 9:30 when we got out, so we’re shooting for tomorrow instead. It will be cutting it close to make it from the Royal Automobile Club, where the Ultramarathon carb-loading party is, to wherever we choose to rendezvous, but hopefully I’ll be able to waddle out without too much of a problem. Maybe I’ll find a fancy royal auto to borrow.