Ahlan wa sahlan!
These past two days have been quite the blur of activity, exploring Amman and adjusting to a new culture, language and country.
This past weekend we had a homework assignment that basically consisted of exploring Amman and becoming more comfortable with the layout of the city. In groups of four we traipsed throughout the city to 4 different locations, shopping, eating and asking dumb tourist questions. I drank more than 1 (okay 5) lemon and mint (الليمون ونعناع) at various cafes, stuffed my face with falafel and humus and foul from Hashem, a restaurant where the King has eaten, smoked sheesha on a rooftop bar with sunset views of the city, and haggled successfully in the souk. Food is really cheap here, as it is subsidized substantially by the government and a delicious falafel sandwich with pickles, tomatoes, mint, hummus, leban (yogurt sauce with cucumbers) and chilies will only set you back .40 JD or around 60 cents.
The nightlife in Amman is interesting and present. While it has the reputation of a conservative country with not much to do past dark, there are plenty of cafes and “bars” where one can meet up with friends, smoke sheesha and have (usually non-alcoholic) drinks. Alcohol is highly expensive here so even though the drinking age is 18, most people aren’t spending their nights the same way as they do in the states. One of my favorite nights so far was meeting up with friends at VUs cafe on Rainbow Street, a major thoroughfare, watching the sunset on the rooftop, hearing the call to prayer echo across the city and listening to live Arabic music. Last night I stayed in with my roommate Kaitlin and played cards with our host mama, baba and sister. Although the learning curve was quite steep, I somehow managed to win by the end of the night with the games and the tea running late into the night!
Because Amman is a fairly western city, with globalization present on every corner in the form of McDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC, I haven’t had too much trouble adjusting to a different culture. however, the conservative nature of the gender roles is beginning to wear on me. In Amman, a woman must not make too much eye contact with men on the street, sit in the front seat of the taxi, or walk around alone, especially at night. While these rules can be, and have been, stretched, it is still a society that has limited freedom for women. Coming from college, where I had no curfew or limitations and rarely felt threatened because of my gender, a 10 pm curfew and modest dress is a bit of a change. I don’t quite mind the long skirts and pants and shirts that cover my shoulders. In fact, they are often the smartest decision in this sun-baked city. However, when I am in downtown Amman, roaming the souks and shopping, I felt immensely uncomfortable and stared at, partly because I’m a blonde giant, and partly because I was a woman with my head uncovered.
Where I live in Amman is the western and West part of the city and is much more liberal and wealthy. However, crossing through downtown and into East Amman is a huge cultural change into a much more conservative area where most women are covered head to toe in beautiful embroidered dresses and often quite colorful hijaabs. As an anthropologist, I feel that I need to remain neutral on many issues, especially culturally respective gender roles. However, it concerns me that I felt relatively unsafe and uncomfortable simply because my head was uncovered. This is definitely something that I need to get used to and hopefully I will soon.
As always, the food is good, the sun is hot and there is never enough water.