The first two days of Ramadan have been remarkably relaxing. In my previous entry, I was worrying about people being bad-tempered because of the restrictions entailed by refraining from smoking and fasting, called saawm. I left my home early on the morning on the 22nd to head to Whitman, and flagged the down the first empty taxi I saw. I climbed into the cab and magnanimously told the driver, “Salaamu Alayk, wa Ramadan kareem,” which means “Peace be upon you, and a generous Ramadan.” The driver, a middle-aged man wearing reflective orange shades, looked at me skeptically and said, “Ramadan Kareem? I’m a Christian, dude.” I did a double take and apologized to him; out of the thousands of yellow taxis buzzing through Amman, I happened to grab one of the 2% that was driven by a non-fasting Orthodox Arab Christian. As we chatted in the car, I learned that he had lived in America (Cincinnati, Ohio) and even had citizenship, thanks to his ex-wife. However, he told me, he had gotten tired of the constant struggle to get ahead in business in America and had returned to Jordan a few years ago.

After today’s work in the hot but deserted Ayn al Basha campus (all classes are finished now, but I was finishing up the Entity Green website and clearing out my classroom), I was almost starving when I returned home. Jeff, Aaron, Elly and myself had eaten a small lunch, lurking secretively in the dark and silent campus cafeteria, going slightly out of our way to conceal the fact that we were eating and drinking cold water when the recycling workers 30 meters away had been going without for the past 7 hours.

I had just eaten my customary fuul and schwarma a day ago, and wanted to have something out of the ordinary. I remembered eating at Amman’s most famous Chinese restaurant, known simply as “China” or even more simply by taking its owner’s name: “Abu Khalil’s.” However, because it was now the middle of Iftaar, the “breaking of the fast” for the evening, I was worried that like so many of Amman’s restaurants, it would be packed with Jordanian families going out for the evening. Wanting to call the restaurant to see if some takeaway food would be possible, I searched the internet for a phone number, finding not only that but also this article from the New York Times in 1981, describing what correspondent Christopher Wren (not the English architect) referred to as the best Chinese food in the world. With this glowing review in front of me, I quickly phoned the restaurant (06-463-8968, if you’re curious), found that takeaway was indeed available, and caught a cheap service taxi going in that direction, which was forced to slow to a crawl around each mosque we passed to make way for the dozens of worshipers heading into the building.

It's always easy to find Abu Khalil's, thanks to their decorations!

It's always easy to find Abu Khalil's, thanks to their decorations!

As always, the little restaurant on the edge of the slope of Jebel Amman was brightly lit with lanterns around the top in gold, white, green, and red. This month though, Abu Khalil’s blends in a little bit more than usual with the surrounding neighborhood – Muslims apartments and houses all over the world put up glowing “Ramadan Lights” in many colors (usually green though) all over their windows and especially twisted into the shape of the crescent moon.

The young Jordanian server recognized my voice from the phone call, and showed me that, in fact, almost all the tables in the restaurant were empty and ready to receive me. I changed my mind about the takeaway food and I was just about to be shown to my seat when a spry Asian man with silvery hair and a neatly-pressed slacks and shirt bustled out of the kitchen, directing a flock of young waiters to take care of cleaning up a large table in the back. He stopped as he passed me, shook my hand, and welcomed me to the restaurant. I tentatively asked him, “Are you – Abu Khalil?” He chuckled broadly and said, “Yes, that’s what they call me here!” I returned his smile and told him that I had just read an article about him from the New York Times. “Let me guess,” he responded, “it was from 1981 and looked like this one?” He nodded to a framed plaque behind him, and sure enough, it was a printed copy of the same article which I had read not half an hour before. “Yes!” I exclaimed, “It said you had the best Chinese food in the entire Middle East!” Abu Khalil ran a hand through his neatly-trimmed hair and grinned at me, “Oh, don’t believe a word of it – we do all right, but Wren is such a big talker!”

I decided to go with Wren’s 30-year-old advice on the hot dishes, and ordered the spicy Szechuan-style beef. I sat at my little table near the door and had a corn soup appetizer while reading The Great Gatsby which I’ve never read before, surprisingly – Mika loaned it to me from her collection before she left. The restaurant was cool and quiet except for the low melody of Chinese music in the background, and suddenly a small Chinese lady emerged from behind the huge cashier’s counter near me and trotted over to greet me with a friendly smile. She introduced herself as Margaret, to which I guessed (correctly) that she was Abu Khalil’s wife. She asked me how everything was, and after my main meal, asked me what I was doing in Jordan and where I was from. She listened carefully, then asked me if I had been a professor back in the Wisconsin university system. I told her my age, and she shook her head in amazement, “My grandson is only a little older than you; I can’t believe that I’m eighty years old now!” She pointed up at the picture of King Abdullah II above the door, hanging in its usual place in every place of business in the country. “I remember when I first met him; he was only four years old and came up to my knee!”

We spent the next hour talking about her life and her family’s flight from Shanghai 60 years ago when the Communists took over and threatened to kill her father, who had been a successful Chinese businessman who tried to help the poor and the Nationalist party. She sadly pointed that although many of the Chinese citizens viewed him as their own Robin Hood, the Chinese government continues to view him somewhat unfavorably. She fondly asked me about my interests, and told me that she’d like me to meet her grandson (an electrical engineer) when he comes to Amman next month. “I’m sure you’ll find you have much in common to talk about!” she proclaimed with a smile.

As I paid my bill to her as the evening drew to a close, she told me to come by any Sunday to talk about history and teach me some basic Chinese, an offer which I definitely hope to be able to accept. She handed me my change and shook my hand warmly, insisting that I refer to her as Aunt Margaret – “it is our way, after all, in China, that the young should look to the elders as their Aunts and Uncles! You are alone here in Jordan; just know you can come to us for anything and we shall take care of you like our own son!” I also bid farewell to Abu Khalil, and asked him whether he preferred his given name of Peter Kwai, or his Arabic title that was bestowed upon him by his grateful customers when he cemented his relationship with the Arab world by naming his firstborn son Khalil. He told me that I was welcome to call him whichever I liked, and that “the young people of Amman only know me as Abu Khalil, but the old ones always call me ‘the Colonel’ because they remember my old military rank when I was the attache to the Ambassador!”

Margaret quickly gestured to me to return to the cashier’s desk, and she whispered to me, “Please do call him Uncle; he would really like that and it would make him feel very comfortable!” I did as she asked as I left the restaurant, the last customer of the night, and the straight-backed old gentleman roared with happy laughter, clapping me on the back as his wife beamed at us from behind the counter.

Thanks to the wonderful night I’ve just had, I think I’ll make Sunday evenings at Abu Khalil’s a tradition to stick to – the kindness of that wonderful Chinese couple was simply amazing – Christopher Wren certainly was correct when he said that Abu Khalil’s is an unforgettable place to grab some deliciously authentic Chinese food, but everyone should go to meet Aunt and Uncle Kwai, too!