Posts Tagged ‘Jordan’

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Nut Cases in Jordan

April 30, 2014

In the Red Sea port of Aqaba, you can relive the romance of Lawrence of Arabia’s adventures on and off film. You’ll discover the CIA-esque intrigue of being able to see Israel/Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia from the same spot. Indeed, it is a grand opportunity to take in a vista of all of the Middle East mess at once. Then there is the pristine diving in the Red Sean and taking advantage of the luxury resort boom—or ordering the delectable local dunise and faridi fish eying you at Ali Baba Restaurant while the camels eye the tourists. All these are legitimate reasons to go to Aqaba, reasons that bring thousands of foreign visitors a year.

But when I ask Jordanians what excites them about Aqaba, they often tell me it’s the nuts. Nuts don’t have a double entendre in Arabic, so they don’t mean the opportunity to hangout with crazy people. That is unless you find it crazy to buy bags of nuts by the kilo on a beach vacation. But that’s what most Jordanians do when they go to Aqaba.    IMG_1447

All these fine nuts are purchased in the downtown shopping souq at the Al Shaab shop. Actually, the Al Shaab shops. There are eight branches to choose from in Aqaba, and conveniently six of them are on the same street selling the exact same nuts in the exact same heated cases and bins. Three of them are separated by only one other shop. It’s a business model that should defy logic, and yet every one of the stores is teaming at all times with customers, who eventually leave with kilos of the nuts, seeds and Turkish delights stuffed into the shops’ bright signature red and yellow plastic bags. The bags show up everywhere in Aqaba in their post nut-transporting duties as all-purpose totes.

The mom and pop nut shops that are scattered across the souqs and malls of the Middle East make you feel like a kid in a candy store– but with nuts and seeds instead. There are bins and bins of intrigue, each bin magically keeping the nuts toasty warm and freshly roasted. Almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and of course the king of nuts, the pistachios—in nearly countless flavored mixes and matches. There are pure pistachios or pistachios tossed with almonds and hazelnuts and cashews. Or in another combo, the cashew may reign supreme, with the hazelnut coming in second. The almond can be the leader of the pack, too. Sometimes the nuts are salted, sometimes raw, sometimes smoked.

Like everywhere else in the world, peanuts are price reducer. But the biggest way to cheapen the bag is the addition of pumpkin seeds. These are the big, salt crusted white seeds that Arabs seem to be able to crack open for the meat and still spit out the shell while doing just about anything, especially playing backgammon, drinking coffee, and smoking shisha in a café in Aqaba. The also popular watermelon seeds require even more crack and spit skills, which is why the uninitiated just chew on them, like me.   I blame my incompetence on the fact that I didn’t grow up with nuts serving the same purpose as my Arab relations.  They don’t say it, but nuts are a habit at a gathering of people, like coffee is, but they are also a way to pass the time–crack, spit, chew.  And in so much of the Arab world it feels like people are gathering to pass the time because there is nothing else to do with time.  And maybe nuts provide an entertaining diversion–yes, sometimes it’s a fun challenge yourself to see if the seed will actually come out of the shell.

Al Shaab Nuts

Al Shaab Nuts

The peanut is often in the mix, but it is actually a bean, and in Arabic fuol Sudani (Sudanese bean) is the word for peanuts. And it’s not the only bean in the shop. There is seemingly not enough you can do with a chickpea. Those craving sweets can enjoy the pink and blue sugared edomi, which are dry roasted chickpeas. I prefer them salted than sweet. Beyond the crunch, there is the comforting pasty quality. For more sweet, there is of course the sugar coated Jordan almonds, which do not have the descriptor “Jordan” in Jordan or the rest of the Middle East, where they are ubiquitous on silver platters at weddings and holidays. For an even bigger sweet tooth, raha, a range of rose and orange blossom flower infused Turkish delight-esque squares packed with pistachios and walnuts, is the big seller. I like them best when they are rolled up in dried apricot wrappers. But my favorite is semsemia, the squares of gooey or crunchy toasted sesame with sugar and honey.  Unlike nuts in a bag, semsemia is a comforting sugar rush that makes you want to go out and conquer the world.

Today, peanuts are also sold in candied form, which is not traditional. Peanuts are named for the Sudanese peddlers who once roamed the streets of the Levant and North Africa in more peaceful times selling hot peanuts. I’m less sure why pistachios are called fousto halabi (which means Aleppo nut), because they mostly come from Iran. But I can only imagine how much more confusing it would be for Asians to find a variety of coated peanuts and nacho-flavored crunchy balls, called Asian crackers or Japanese crackers or Chinese crackers, depending on the shop. And the American corn nut and wasabi peas are mainstays these days.

So the Jordan nut shop has globalized itself.  There are ever more ways to pass the time.  As I watched people get onto the bus as we were leaving Aqaba, their overnight suitcases sometimes seemed dwarfed by the kilos and kilos of Al Shaab nuts they were also toting. On the four-hour drive back to Amman as my Kindle bounced around on my lap, I heard people munching on Al Shaab nuts and seeds. No one else had a book. As I heard a kid get yelled at by his mom for trying to open a closed pistachio with his teeth, I thought about how if those eight Al Shaab stores were bookstores, they’d be empty. And thus the nuts win in the Middle East.

Or the Beach

Or the Beach

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Ketching Up With Freedom

September 14, 2013

Freedom is the gotcha word of the Middle East decade—it’s the reason everyone is claiming to be helping—i.e. bombing, maiming, spying on and killing–everyone else.  The definition of freedom (and its purpose) is a little vague under the circumstances.  But I was set straight this past summer.

ketchup

Ketchup in Jordan

I was on an airplane and sitting next to me was a 10-year old boy, born and raised in Houston, but his parents were born in Jordan.  It was a 10-hour flight and he had already seen all the inflight movies as he explained to me at length with a synopsis of each.  Thus, any time he could find a way to get me to play a video game with him or talk, he jumped at the chance.  My freedom was gone.

Generally speaking, I allow myself to lose very quickly at video games, mostly so I can stop playing them.  But at one point I was doing well despite myself.  So to break the game I started asking him questions.  This kid had answers for everything and so I was out of the game and into discussion.

After he told me he visits Jordan every other summer to see cousins, aunts and uncles, I asked him if he liked Jordan or Texas better.

“Texas for sure,” he said without hesitation.

I asked him why and he replied,  “It’s fun seeing family because we don’t have many relatives in Houston.  But there is a lot more freedom in the US.”

Apparently we moved from Temple Run to a discussion about how relatives in Jordan butt into your business all day or a socio political discussion.  “How is there more freedom in the US?” I ventured.

He shrugged like it was obvious.  “In Jordan at the McDonald’s you have to pay for the extra ketchup,” he said.  “In Houston you can have as much ketchup as you want and it is free.”

“At McDonald’s you mean?” I said.

“It’s free everywhere in America,” he said.  “Don’t you know that?”

I actually didn’t.  But now I do.  Or maybe I just never thought about ketchup beyond my French fries.  Forget heavily loaded uses of freedom, like Freedom Fries, which free ketchup services.  This boy made freedom simple—unless you want to ask yourself what gives McDonald’s the right to charge people in one country for ketchup and not in another.

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Jordan: “Yes, I don’t know”

July 12, 2011

“Where can I get a Blackberry battery?” I asked in the Nokia shop.  The two men working in the shop both pointed and said, “That way.”  They were both pointing in different directions.   It didn’t result in a “jinx” moment where they both looked at each other, laughed and then agreed on a direction.  Nope, they just both

Jordan: "Yes, I don't know."

continued to point in opposite directions as if they were both giving me a legitimate answer. Which, perhaps on higher philosophical plane, would be correct—after all isn’t life of a circle we all spin around?

Alas, there was nothing metaphorical in their response, at least not intentionally.  And really who wants philosophy when its hot and dusty and you need directions?  But Amman can feel very much feel like a vicious circle when you ask questions—and take the answers seriously.  That’s because no one seems to be able to say the simple phrase, “I don’t know.”

Even “Do you have green tea?” got me the response at a café.  “Yes, no.”  It took me several more questions to figure out whether the yes was more correct than the no. The truth was he didn’t know if they had tea at all, which I gathered from the various other “yes, no” responses.

Never saying “I don’t know” seems to be a phenomenon among the 20-somethings of Jordan.  There are questions in Jordan for which they have no answers but these are matters strangers don’t discuss in public—“Is it likely I’ll get a job?” “How will I pay for heating this winter?” “Which one of our neighbors –Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria—will be the most unpredictable this week?”   Big questions for which people are afraid of the answers.

But people want to be able to answer something. So maybe that’s why a less earth shattering question like “Do you sell Jason Shampoo?” gets answered “yes” by the cashier and “no” by the clerk in a shop the size of a big living room.  The real answer was no, but that didn’t make the yes man feel bad.  He just shrugged, like he had a 50-50 chance at being right.  “I don’t know” just doesn’t have that definitive power of taking a 50 50 chance of being right, which are about the same odds for a long lasting marriage, all Jordanians take that risk.

After more than an hour and a half of elaborate directions from about 10 people who “yes,” knew where to get a Blackberry battery and then finally running into the Blackberry store by complete accident, you just want to throw some one for a spin by asking, “What do you think are the advantages of the Blackberry over the iPhone?”   If no one knows the answers to the little questions, then dare to ask the big questions.

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Alternative Tourism in Jordan

December 15, 2009

A couple of my friends from Abu Dhabi, all Americans, went to Jordan this week, and because I am in Jordan so often, they wanted my opinion of what to

Tourism Alternatives in Jordan

do—especially with their first two days in Amman.  My best advice for tourists stuck in Amman is to leave, as it is the only part of Jordan that has almost nothing to offer Western tourists on a short stay. My suggestions have been rolling off my tongue for years, pretty much in this order:

1.    Petra:  Now one of the Great Wonders of the World
2.    The Dead Sea:  Take a mud bath at the lowest point on Earth.
3.    Aqaba:  Swim and sun at the Red Sea.
4.    Jebel Musa: Where Moses saw the Promised Land for the first time, and near the old but still bustling town of Madaba, with its historic church.
5.    Jesus Baptism Site:  I often wonder what Jesus would think about  people look up from the water to find themselves starring at an armed Israel solider standing guard just on the other side of the narrow Jordan River.
6.    Jerash:  The old Roman amphitheatre is especially fun if it’s the Jerash festival, and especially if you eat kebab at Abu Yahya’s overlooking the valley.
7.    Wadi Rum:  Live out your Lawrence of Arabia fantasies in a group tour.
8.    Karak:  Fascinating ruins near the mountaintop city of Salt.
9.    Pella:  Yes, more ruins and another chance to see more of Jordan’s otherworldy landscape.
10.    Downtown Amman (if you must and only if you’ve never seen any other Middle Eastern downtown):  The gold souk, the dirt and crowds, the mom and pop shops, and Hashem, the popular falafel and hummos spot that takes up both sides of an alley.

All the above things are things I rarely do, unless I have tourists in tow with me—seen one of the great wonders of the world five or ten times, and it’s like you’ve seen it a hundred.  But for people who are going to stay longer, I’m going to start mentioning these things, too.

1.    Ajloun: The best views and weather in Jordan. At Saladin’s old fort, you can look out and see Jerusalem on a clear day, just as Moses did at Jebel Musa.
2.    Dana Reserve:  Where the deer and the antelope play.
3.    Ma’een: A natural hot springs deep in a gorge, and now with a luxury hotel.
4.    The Houses of West Amman:  This “I can build a bigger mansion than you can” neighborhood actually offers spectacular views.  Park at the Abdoun Mall and head for the hills from there.
5.    Wikalat Street: A pedestrian-only street of stores and cafes anchoring the Suweifeh neighborhood, which amongst its many divergent streets offers up shops that  specialize in honey, chocolate, spices, or cheese, and selling everything from evening gowns to screwdrivers.
6.    Jabri Restaurant: Mansaf is the national dish of Jordan, and Jabri’s mansaf, although it has been served at royal and state gatherings for decades, is for everybody.
7.    The Palestinian Refugee Camps:  A painful reminder that all is not well in the world.
8.    Palestine:  The border is half an hour a way, and the Palestinians in Jerusalem and elsewhere on the West Bank need the boost of tourism.

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Fatima’s Fig Tree

October 1, 2009

One of the last things I did before leaving Jordan this week was to go into the backyard of my family’s home to see if another fig was ready for the picking.

Fatima's Fig Tree

Fatima's Fig Tree

It’s also the first thing I’d done when I arrived there, upon my mother’s insistence. We’re a family that gets pretty excited about blooming fruit.

While I certainly also embraced the apples on their tree and the grapes on their vines,  there’s something magical about the fig, perhaps because it’s so hard to find in its green and pink perfection of sweetness, unless you literally have a tree in your back yard.  I had never been in Jordan at this time of year, and so the last time I had had this privilege was years ago when I had lived in Athens and Beirut, where peddlers used to walk by with carts teeming with freshly picked figs.  I understood better then Fatima’s obsession with the fig tree in “The Night Counter” than I had before.  So while the fig was Fatima’s eureka moment, I had mine picking a fig off a tree in Jordan—I learned that it is possible for a writer to understand her characters even more after she’s literally closed the book on them.

When my uncle came over later that day, he went off on another book, talking about how the figs leaf outfits and numerous other references to figs shared by the “people of the book” or Old Testament, as it is better known in the US.*  Not so fascinating when you consider that those stores were pretty much set right where we were sitting.   But, if we were just talking figs, those stories could have also been set in California, the U.S.’s fig supplier.  But because figs are so delicate, it’s hard to even get them to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market in tact, let alone deliver them to the rest of the country.  The difficulty of transporting them is why it was possible for me have a conversation with my Florida-born nephew once in which he said, “I know raisins come from grapes, but what do figs come from?”  “Figs,” I answered.  “But before they were figs, what were they?”  Even if I could have torn him away from his Xbox to get a fresh-ish fig one at the finest grocery stores in town, it wouldn’t have been juicy and bright pink.  It’d have been a little tired and a lot happier if it had been allowed to dry up and go into his Cliff Bar.

There are scores of recipes for fresh figs, but really that seems wasteful.  Your time could be better spent than trying to improve on perfection. But if you do insist on jazzing them up a bit, a side of white cheese is really all you need.
Fatima's Fig Tree

* In case you were doubting there was anything beyond the fig leaf threads, here is one of many other examples, and a quote that often find well explains the power and comfort of faith to those who have nothing (and even those who do):

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
a God, the Lord, is my strength;
He makes my feet like the deer’s;
He makes me tread on my high places.