Saturday, November 21, 2009

Touring Amman: A Different Kind of Goat Head

Posted By on Sat, Nov 21, 2009 at 1:23 PM

Day 1 (cont.): After a late lunch in the hotel, we were finally able to venture out into Amman—Jordan’s capital city. Our first stop was the Citadel—an extraordinary site that exemplifies Jordan’s many layers of history and the various cultures that have ruled the land that is today known as Jordan. Ruins from the early Islamic period sit next to—or sometimes on top of—Byzantine ruins, which are built upon ruins from the Roman Empire. Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Hellenistic pottery have also been found on the site. Throughout the ruins, and this is the case all over Jordan, you see builders of a certain age repurposing the stones and columns from earlier structures, such that the historical layering becomes evident to even the casual observer.

In the Archaeology Museum, there was an incredible collection of antiquities, including some stone statues that are roughly 8,000 years old, rare Iron Age sarcophagi, and Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, which drew the biggest crowds.

As we strolled the grounds of the Citadel site, we heard the distinctive and hauntingly beautiful sounds of the Muslim call to prayer (adhan), echoing out from loudspeakers of the various mosques’ minarets in the area. Fadi explained that for a person of faith, there are exceptions to the prayer ritual, such as when one is traveling in a plane or car. I asked if there were other circumstances that would excuse someone from the five prayer rituals per day and it seemed as if he might not know, which struck me as odd.

In a country that is 95 percent Muslim, I made assumptions about Fadi’s faith. As Fadi confided less than an hour later to a group of us standing outside the Archaeology Museum, he actually belongs to the Greek Catholic Church, which apparently answers to the Vatican but follows the traditions of Byzantine Christianity. Who knew?

After the Citadel, we paid a quick visit to the Roman Theater, mostly still intact, just down the hill from the Citadel. The theater is still used for concerts today. From there, we set off to explore the bustling, traffic clogged streets of downtown Amman.

Sensory overload is the only way to describe our walk through the streets. From the goat heads on display at the butcher to the clothing stores to the gigantic bins of nuts and spices, it seemed like every store front was worthy of a picture. One of our colleagues was fitted for a keffiyeh, the Arab headdress worn by males that’s all too often associated with Yasser Arafat and that became a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. We had been told earlier that the red keffiyeh is worn by those who identify as Jordanian; the black is worn by those who identify as Palestinian.

Next, Dan led us down a back alley to one of his favorite sweet shops where they serve k’naffy, a rich Palestinian delicacy consisting of baked goat cheese, topped with a flour based crust, chopped pistachios, and a sweet syrup. Served hot, the treat hit the spot.

There was someone also standing outside who was served his plate of k’naffy before us. When he saw us standing there (and it surely must have been obvious that we weren’t “from around these parts”), he offered us his plate. We politely declined as we knew ours was coming out momentarily but noted the unusual gesture of hospitality.

Shortly thereafter, we gathered across the street from one of the nearby mosques, which would be our meeting spot. We were on our own for about 45 minutes to do our own shopping. I explored this busy commercial drag, popping in and out of stores and trying to get a sense for prices, despite the language barrier (I can only say hello, thank you, and my name is Brian in Arabic). Thankfully, all the shopkeepers knew some English. I bought some frankincense tea (because it sounded exotic), a mix CD of regional music, a beautiful inlaid wooden box, and a keffiyeh.

As I was hurrying to get back our meeting spot, one of the shopkeepers whom I’d purchased something from earlier jumped in front of me and thrust a camera into my face. I quickly realized it was my camera. I hadn’t even noticed that it was missing and would likely not have remembered that I’d left it in his store some 15 minutes earlier. He had been waiting on the street for me to return. Though I’d felt remarkably safe and comfortable in my stroll through downtown—despite not knowing the city, the culture, or the language—the kindness and integrity shown by this shopkeeper had proven to me that Jordanian hospitality wasn’t just a hollow tourism slogan.

And I thought about whether such kindness would be likely in a city of 2 million people in the U.S.

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