One thing that we Americans always can count on is our ability to take sides in the admittedly-petty battle of “Pepsi versus Coke.” With the exception of sponsor-bought restaurants and county fairs, we know that any store we go to will sell either one of the dark brown soft drinks and we can have our pick. It seems that no matter how old we get, everyone takes a side in this and most are quite proud to admit a clear favorite between the two. It tends to be a family thing. If you drink Coke, it’s because your father drinks Coke, and his father did too, and his grandfather drank Smith-Willington Fortified Bubbly Tonic Water (guaranteed to prevent diphtheria!) or something like that. The Heises have always been a Coke family.

But Coke is not common here in Jordan, even though the penetration of tiny 6×6 meter mini-markets into Amman, called “dukkans,” is incredibly high, at a rate of probably around 3 per city block. Without fail, 9 out of 10 of them will stock only Pepsi, their beloved “Beebsee.” I don’t know why they had to pick the one that has two instances of the letter that doesn’t even exist in Arabic. The Tulip family has heard me ponder this lack of Coke before, and gave me some possible theories.

Decades ago, back when all sorts of international trade deals to bring Western products to the Middle East were being signed, Israel and Coca-Cola became affiliated together, and Pepsi went to the Arab countries. Now, with Palestinian refugees and their descendants making up over half of the residents of Amman, old grudges die hard and Coke is still seen as a symbol of Israel. The industrious Palestinians are known as the merchants and importers of Jordan, and own a disproportionate percentage of the dukkans that provide soft drinks to the citizens. I’ve asked about the lack of Coke, point-blank, to some of my local dukkanjis, such as Marwan. Without fail, the response is always “The people don’t ask for Coke, they only want to drink Beebsee.” It’s a classic example of chicken-and-egg. When the markets only sell Pepsi, and the buyers are all either Palestinian or grew up around Palestinians, it’s easy to see how this one-sided market got started.

A picture of a can from last month's trip to Nazareth. And I thought the Arabic script of كوكا كولا was hard to read!

A Coke can with Hebrew writing, from last month's trip to Nazareth. And I thought the Arabic script of كوكا كولا was hard to read!

I’ve found myself craving Coca-Cola for the past few weeks. I think I can attribute it to my trip to Nazareth in northern Israel/Palestine in mid July, where I was surrounded by the usual unsubtle signage of the Middle East; massive billboards advertising for Coke that I hadn’t seen in months. I know one dukkan in my neighborhood that sells Coke, and I’ve been buying a two liter every few days. I have been watching his fridge stock and can tell that I’m the only one who’s buying the bottles so I know exactly when to clear my throat politely and remind him that he needs to buy new stock. I guess there’s one advantage to being the only Coke drinker in the neighborhood.

I was in the Shemeisani district yesterday afternoon, killing some of my copious summertime before the third choir practice of the season in the evening. Astute readers may remember that I wrote about the bustling business and banking region of the city in late 2008, because Entity Green had its first office in a tall building on its main thoroughfare. I had just finished eating a particularly salty kebab at the Damashqi Schwarma (Damascus) stand, and although they of course had Pepsi available, I decided that I needed a Coke. I wandered down the familiar main street of Shemeisani, looking in the dukkans I used to frequent for an elusive red-labeled bottle instead of the never-ending lines of blue.

Five minutes of walking through the sultry afternoon heat became fifteen as I re-circled the streets, trying to find more dukkans that had either sprung up like unruly dandelions in my absence or that I’d missed two years ago. My mind was now grimly set towards Coca-Cola, and I cast a baleful eye over the rows of 7-Up, Pepsi, and the Arab-made soft drink called “Shani,” which like most things here contains enough sugar to render a camel into diabetic shock. Three dukkans became four, and then six, and as I walked farther and farther up through the dusty blocks, finally eight dukkans. The owners, sweating in the heat and slumped in lawn chairs under dirty old fans, regarded me curiously as I gazed into their refrigerators. “Beebsee?” they queried me helpfully, and then politely apologized when I asked them if they had Coke hidden in some other cooler. “Beebsee is best!” a few reminded me with a friendly smile.

I knew that somewhere in the heart of Shemeisani there was a full grocery store and mall, but I’d never been in there before, and the large residential zone I was in now on the far edge of the district was utterly unfamiliar. I asked some lounging Egyptian construction workers crouching around a massive bowl of fu’ul whether they knew where the store was, and although they did, a passing young man offered to take the finicky foreigner straight to it. The man was a few years younger than me, in a stiff looking suit, and with a briefcase under one arm. He told me that he had just graduated from university, and I correctly guessed that he was touring the banks and looking for a job. We had only been a few blocks away from the Food City supermarket, and with his guidance, I was inside the blasts of the air conditioning within ten minutes.

I had been walking for almost fifty minutes now in this mad search for the fabled Coca-Cola of Jordan, and I rasped at the security desk. “SOFT DRINKS.” A tall man immediately leaped up and took me directly and proudly to a Pepsi product display located in the center of the store, making a Vanna White-esque gesture towards it. “The other brand,” I told him in Arabic. “I need Coca-Cola.” Startled, he led me to a second, smaller display in the back of the large supermarket with the familiar red highlights.

I picked up a two liter and cradled it lovingly. The man probably thought my brain had melted in the heat and he gently tried to put the bottle in a plastic bag for me right there in the aisle, which I equally gently prevented him from doing. I have searched for this bottle for almost an hour through eight dukkans, I told him. “But Beebsee is better!” he protested, then “…are you an American?” “Yes.” I replied. “My people need Coca-Cola to live.”

Feeling some sort of combination of proud and embarrassed, I made my way back to the other side of the district, clutching my bottle visibly in front of me like a trophy pheasant. I had drank a quarter of it by the time I made my way to the Umnia mobile telephone headquarters a few blocks from the Union Bank that hosts our biweekly practices. I had the Umnia “Double Turdo” Wimax device in my backpack, and now that my six months have expired since I wrote that blog post, I was returning the now-useless device to get my deposit back.

It wasn’t until I had walked back to the bank and settled down to wait the last hour before practice, that I discovered that my headphones were missing. With their unique spring-winding system that coils itself into a small drum when not in use, my brother gave them to me for Christmas in 2008 and I hated to lose them. I pulled myself out of the chair in our practice auditorium and started to retrace my steps back towards the Umnia office. I guessed what had happened; the carabineer clip on the headphones had suddenly gotten very loose over the past few days and I figured that it must have fallen off of my belt buckle somewhere in the past few minutes.

As I turned off of the side streets to rejoin the main highway, I saw two children playing in a parking lot that I had cut through on my earlier journey. I had seen them earlier, too, and the younger one was still on his tricycle. He couldn’t have been more than four years old. He was busily wrapping some black wires around his handlebars. I came closer to him, and sure enough, he had the headphone’s case in one hand and was tugging on the wires to try to get more of them out of their spring-case. A few more moments of his tugging and I probably would have been too late and I wouldn’t have bothered trying reclaimed useless twisted wires, but I crouched next to him and demonstrated how the plug fit into my iPod. The little boy looked up at me in quiet open-mouthed silence. The older boy came around the corner. He was probably about six or so, and he confirmed that this was his little brother Ala’a, and his own name was Ahmad. I explained to the boy how I had dropped my headphones, and showed him the iPod. Ahmad immediately crouched next to his brother and began to unwind the wires, and then handed me the completely undamaged headphones with a big smile. The two boys went back to their games and tricycling without a further glance back at me, and within seconds had pedaled and skipped away around the corner of the building and were out of sight.

It’s been an extremely hot summer, and the government has apparently been initiating mandatory power shutoffs to random neighbors to take pressure off of Jordan’s power plants. The Tulip family up the street had one a few nights ago, and my turn came last night as I was re-heating some spaghetti. I sat there in the dark with only the dim light of a cheap flashlight and the glow of the gas jets heating the water for the noodles. Thankfully it was only for an hour. The neighborhood kids, shouted with joy and there was applause up and down the street.

It’s going to be an interesting weekend. A friend on Facebook just posted this excerpt of an email from the American embassy here in Jordan.

On Saturday the Ministry of Education intends to release the results of the summer high-school exam. Families throughout Amman often celebrate when the results are announced, and for some the celebration is exuberant. Groups of young adults may drive around in cars blowing horns, and some individuals may shoot celebratory gunfire into the air. Please do not be surprised if you hear gunfire.

Ah, Jordan! I’m going to miss your gunfire-laden celebrations.