Iftars & Vineyards

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is now half-over, and I have loved being immersed in the strong community that binds everyone together during this time. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking anything (including water!) from sunrise to sunset, in order to cleanse their souls and remind themselves of how fortunate they are to have food to eat, when there are others in the world who are not so fortunate. It is also a time of being with family and giving to charity.

Amman slows down quite a bit during the day, when those who are fasting (mostly everyone) would rather stay inside and relax than go out into the Jordanian heat. Many shops and nearly all restaurants are closed during the day, when their owners are fasting and their customers are probably opting to stay in as well. The city comes alive around 7:45, when the call to prayer sounds from the mosques, meaning that it is time to break the fast. The meal held at this time, called “Iftar” usually begins with a large glug of water and dates. Restaurants are overflowing with people and the waiters move swiftly from table to table passing out dishes to the starving and impatient customers.

Last night I ate Iftar with a friend at Mat3am Hashem, a popular and inexpensive restaurant in the heart of downtown Amman. Some of the best meals I’ve had here in Amman have been the most simple–with freshly cut cucumbers and tomatoes, olives, hummus and foul, and pita bread, it’s hard to go wrong.

Hashem hummus

For many, Iftar is also a time to pull out all the stops when it comes to food. Sometimes people spend all day in the kitchen preparing Iftar. This was certainly the case with another Iftar I attended last weekend, at the home of the aunt of a student on my program. His mother was in town, and she just happens to be May Bsisu, author of The Arab Tale, a recipe narrative. They may also have the most beautiful house I’ve ever been blessed to eat dinner at. The spread was absolutely incredible; I did not have nearly enough room on my plate even to sample the entire offering.

beautiful Iftar setting

amazing Iftar

the Iftar spread

shawarma man

On a completely different note, I also went last weekend to the farm and vineyard of our program director. She is an American woman who married a Jordanian man, and they now own their own land near the city of As-Salt, where they grow their own grapes and bottle wine on a small scale. We were invited to visit the farm, pick grapes, and have a barbecue. I had never really been to a vineyard before (how is that possible? living in Portland? I have no clue), so this was an exciting experience for me.

friends cutting grapes off the vine

cutting grapes

bottling wine

We had a great time picking the grapes, bottling the wine and then partaking in the wine and delicious food for Iftar. The view from their farm was incredible, and I will never forget watching the sunset over the Jordanian hills, with Palestine not too far in the distance.

Jordanian hills

My first week in Amman

my view of Amman - near the Jordanian University

I arrived in Amman, Jordan about a week ago, and I have already had too many adventures to tell! The first three days here were spent doing a crash-course on orienting ourselves to Jordanian life, culture, and language. On the first day we were immersed with an orientation and a 2-hour session with Jordanian speaking partners. This session involved learning how to find our way back to our home for the next 2 months–that is, the American Center for Oriental Research in Amman. ACOR is an old institution and has played a significant role in archaeological work in the region, among other things. We learned directions such as; “turn left,” “turn right,” “turn around,” and “go straight.” We also learned the important words for bridge, tunnel, and roundabout, of which there are many. Amman is a city of “circles”–the main roundabouts labeled first through eighth.  Like in many other cities in the Middle East, streets in Amman are not based on a grid system at all and generally the streets do not have names, or at least the names are not used. I’m not even sure if the street I live on now has a name at all. Directions are given in terms of landmarks. After our first speaking session, two other students and I were pushed out of our comfy nest and had to get in a taxi (by ourselves) and direct our taxi driver in Arabic to a restaurant determined by our speaking partner. I guess you learn most quickly when you need to! Luckily, we made it to the restaurant, where we ate a delicious snack of kanafa – a Jordanian pastry dessert made with a lot of cheese, oil, butter and sugar. I have a feeling my figure may change while I’m here.

Kunafah pastry dessert

Amman street

The CLS program planned a few more adventures for us during our initial time here, including a trip a couple days ago to As-Salt, a historic city that used to be the capital of Jordan. There, we visited the Historic Old Salt Museum, located at the Abu Jaber house at the center of town. The museum was large and elaborate, with tons of information about the history of Salt. I was surprised at how extensive the museum was, as well as how nicely done the rooms and posters were put together. After the museum tour, our large group of 40 broke up into smaller groups to go off and explore the city on our own. Two others and I  decided to follow the “Salt Heritage Trail,” which was on a map given to us by the museum staff. This self-guided tour of important Salt buildings was a bit strange. The buildings on the map were not only historic, but they were also mostly occupied by residents! They are not museum buildings that you can tour inside, because they are still homes to Salti people. We quickly discovered this after knocking on a couple doors and meeting confused people wondering why we would possible want to go into their house. We walked all around the city, marveling at the beautiful sights.

a view of Salt, Jordan

After the first three days of orientation, our Arabic classes officially began. The CLS program in Amman works through the Qasid Institute, and every week day (Sunday through Thursday here) we have 2 hours of fusHa (modern standard/written Arabic), 1 hour of ‘amiyya (spoken, colloquial/dialect Arabic), and 1 hour of media Arabic. I was placed in one of the advanced sections, which is extremely difficult. At this level, we spend most of our time in fusHa and media Arabic reading news articles. This week we focused on a highly topical issue, al-intikhabat al-masriyya–the Egyptian elections (my reaction to the elections would be an entirely different post, so I won’t go into it). The teachers speak only in Arabic to us, and new vocabulary words are explained in Arabic. This was a bit shocking at first, and I’m still struggling a bit to understand the exact meaning of some words, but it is definitely an excellent way to really get the language into your head when it’s constantly in your ears. On the first day of class, we signed the infamous “Language Pledge,” which says that we will only speak in Arabic for the next two months.

Our latest adventure outside of class was a trip to wasat al-balad, or the downtown area of Amman. This area has tons of shops, restaurants, and also houses a large mosque and the old Roman theatre. The trip was required as a “language socialization” activity, which is a requirement of CLS that encourages us to go out into the city and speak to locals in Arabic about certain topics. We were given a list of possible places to visit–including the Hamoudeh DVD shop, sweets store, a bookstore, gold souq, vegetable market, and more. We only made it to a couple places, my favorite of which was the DVD/CD shop, where you can find any film on DVD that you could possible want, each for 1 Jordanian dinar (~$1.40). I bought the movie “City of Life,” made in Dubai, along with seven CDs of Arab singers, like Nancy Ajram, Amr Diab, Elissa, Tamer Hosny, etc. I can’t wait to listen to them all. The downtown area is exciting and a great place to be immersed in Arabic, because everyone around is Jordanian. I will definitely be going back, to visit the Roman threater and explore the shops and restaurants more.

Wasat al-balad - downtown Amman

Hamoudeh DVD - any film you want, you can find it here!

halwiyat - Arabic sweets