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Ms. Gracie Barrie, check her out on Instagram: @standbyflygirl
My memories of Jordan are steeped in pale sunlight and the smell of fresh mint, in salt crystals and shisha smoke escaping through windows. I was lucky enough to wake up one January morning and find myself in a sprawling city of sandy colored houses and minarets marking the seven hills that make up Amman, the capital city of Jordan. The stories you hear of Arab hospitality are not myth. Everywhere I went I was welcomed with open arms and a desire to share an ancient culture. I left with that same desire instilled in me, to share the culture of a people so often misunderstood in the west. These people are grouped together under one brusque stereotype, when in reality there are millions of nuanced beauties of Jordanian and Arab culture. I found myself in Jordan because it is the home of one of my good friends and former college roommate. Zara and I met when we were both bright-faced freshman in our dorm at Boston University. Ever since then, Zara has been urging me to come and visit her in Jordan. As an early graduation gift, another good friend, Caroline, and I took the 5,000 mile journey across the ocean to finally open our minds and hearts to the culture that we had heard so much about for the past 4 years.
For those who are surprised that I took a vacation to the Middle East, let me just say that I never felt unsafe in all my time in Jordan. Jordan is a country surrounded by conflict. Its neighbors to the west, Palestine and Israel, have been fighting for more than 60 years in a war that has no end in sight, a war that causes sorrow on both sides and for thousands around the world. To the east lies Iraq, another land that has not known the definition of peace for many years. Jordan’s northern neighbor is the most well-known in today’s news, Syria. Hundreds of Syrians stream across the border every day to seek the protection of Jordan’s sturdy bones, escaping a number of tragedies including relentless bombings by a corrupt government, impassioned recruitment from militant groups, and misguided foreign intervention. One would think the stability of Jordan would be rocked by its tumultuous neighbors, but there is a strength in the land and the people that impresses upon any visitor. I encourage everyone who has a passion for experiencing foreign cultures and exploring a new land to visit.
My non-stop flight from Chicago O’Hare on Royal Jordanian landed around 5 pm in Amman after 16 hours in the air. Upon our arrival, we set out with Zara to do what we would spend approximately 70% of our time in Jordan doing: eating. Amman is bursting with beautiful restaurants and delicious meals to be had. One of my favorites was on our first morning. We visited a falafel shop in the heart of downtown Amman, Falafel Hashem. It was filled with families with young children, teenagers probably playing hooky from school, and everyone in between. The falafel was unreal, the hummus and mint tea soothing to a weary traveler. It is a must-stop in Amman, a real local spot with extremely reasonable prices, a laid back atmosphere and outdoor seating. For dessert we went around the corner and got knafeh from Habiba sweets. Also located in the heart of downtown through a side alley, Habiba always has a line of hungry Jordanians snaking around the door, waiting to get their hands on the sugar-soaked cheese pastry. I fell madly in love with knafeh. I would eat it every day for the rest of my life if possible, but I know it will never taste as good as that first bite in an alley in Amman.
There is no shortage of things to do in Amman. The easiest way to get around is by car. Taxis are cheap and there is even a branch of Uber in the city, but it’s best to get a local to take you around or hire a car. The streets are narrow and winding up and over the hills but relatively easy to navigate on foot. One of the main tourist areas is Rainbow Street, which is also a favorite of locals. It’s filled with shops for anything from souvenirs to household goods. I popped into a random hardware store to find some Arabic coffee makers for a cheaper price than I would get at a tourist store. There’s a beautiful glassware shop that has some pretty good sales on small tea glasses, great souvenirs if you’re confident in your wrapping and packing ability. If the shopping tires you out stop in to Turtlegreen for some free WiFi and wide variety of tea blends (and some cute pet turtles!). Just off of Rainbow Street is one of my favorite places in Amman, Books@cafe. The downstairs area of this space is a bookstore selling both Arab and English books, new and used. Climb the stairs and you’re transported to a trendy cafe with tons of enticing menu choices that include Arab and Western specialties. Sit down with a book and enjoy shisha, coffee, tea, beer (Carakale is Jordan’s first micro brew) or wine. Plenty of young Jordanians are scattered around every corner of the lounge. In the summer there’s a great terrace with a sneaky view of the city.
One of the best neighborhoods to wander through is Weibdeh. If you’re traveling alone, it is safe to walk through without much precaution and has a burgeoning scene of cool shops and restaurants. It is the so-called Brooklyn of Amman. Start at Rakwet Arab cafe for a delicious breakfast of manakish, an Arab version of pizza often topped with fresh cheese or za’atar (or both!), and Arab coffee. The inside of this cafe is cozy and nostalgic with old photos from Lebanon and Jordan hanging on the walls and a number of crumpled magazines on shelves. After lazing through a meal, wander the streets and find yourself at Darat al-Funun Gallery. This inspiring gallery is located in an old, spacious house and hosts exhibits of numerous Arab artists. When we arrived, the gallery was mostly closed in preparation for an upcoming show, but we ran into a groundskeeper who proudly showed us around every nook and cranny of the space. He spoke only Arabic, but we were lucky enough to have Zara with us to translate. It is my sincere belief that even if it was just Caroline and I, two white Americans, the man would have shown us around and given us the same tour. His pride in the work done at Darat al Funun was evident even through a language barrier. He hailed from Nablus, Palestine and showed us the beautiful work he had done in decorating one of the rooms in traditional Nablus style. There is a ruined Byzantine church on the grounds and seemingly endless flow of beautiful gardens draping down the hill. A cafe located on one of the terraces overlooks the city, stop here for some freshly squeezed orange juice or a cup of rose water tea and wait for the call to prayer to echo through the hills from every mosque in the city. It is not hard to find peace in this place.
After a mindful respite from the bustle of the city, head back out for some shopping. Jobedu has a shop in Weibdeh selling shirts and knickknacks with references to Arab pop culture. Pick up an Um Kalthoum “Habibi” sweatshirt for your collection and support local artists in doing so. Hop in a cab and continue your shopping on the neighboring hill at Wild Jordan, the home of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. The newly renovated building has a cafe, an information center for planning nature excursions all over the country, and a shop promoting local artisans. It also has a great view of the city and the Citadel. The Amman Citadel is a collection of ruins on top of the central hill of Amman from numerous cultures that held power over the city throughout the years. There is also a great, yet tiny, museum on the top that holds archaeological relics from our oldest prehistoric ancestors all the way to the Umayyad’s. The Roman Amphitheater is also worth a visit, although if you are planning to make your way to Jerash (which you should) then you might be able to skip it. A few other places in Amman that are worth a visit include:
–Dar al-Anda – almost next door to Darat al Funun, this gallery also specializes in contemporary Arab artists.
–Nabad art gallery – another gallery space down the street from Wild Jordan. It’s peaceful courtyard provides a place to breathe away from the city, if only for a second.
–Shams el Balad – a beautiful cafe with amazing Turkish coffee and unique takes on traditional Arab food. Try the knafeh cheesecake cup!
–The Soap House – If you’re looking for high-quality, uniquely scented, Dead Sea products to bring home, this hidden spot is just the place. Down a hill off of Rainbow Street this special spot might be a bit of a hunt but it’s worth it. The salt scrubs make your skin softer than you’ve ever felt it before, and it’s not sky-high pricing.
–Bazar Alibaba Cave – if, like me, your favorite souvenirs are old antiques, then this minuscule shop is for you. The owner speaks a bit of English and is willing to bargain. His shop is a wonderland of old patches, stone and ceramic trinkets, and remnants from wars and Jordan’s history. This spot is located right downtown and if you’re not looking you’ll miss it. Look them up on Facebook for a rough address.
Any words I write here truly cannot do this place justice. My trip was blessed with good luck, a local friend, and beautiful people. But regardless of if you know someone in Jordan or not I believe that if you’re open and adventurous some of the people you meet there could become your last-minute guide and lifelong friends. It is a culture that longs to be shared with others, especially those who are unfamiliar with it. I left Jordan with an inspired mind and a full heart. I’m hoping that my stories have lit a fire that won’t be satisfied until you feel the Jordanian sun on your face. Yalla, let’s go.