Guide to taxis in Jordan

Hospitality workers and taxi drivers have a heavy burden to carry. Not only are they professions where long hours equate with low pay, they also become the default cultural ambassadors of any country.

The intersection between taxi drivers, generally working class folk (though I’ve met drivers who are struggling grad students) and generally privileged travellers is a fascinating study in itself (some might contest ‘privileged’ but even if you’re a poor traveller, by virtue of being able to choose to be away from your western home country you are privileged imo).

Generally taxi drivers here have been pretty friendly and helpful, with my mishmash of Arabic we can figure out where to go. Things are bit more, shall we say, laissez faire here. Be prepared for lots of chain smoking (Mad Men prevalent here), talkback morning radio and the driver stopping for a roadside coffee pick up or even to say hi to a friend. The smoking carries on in cafes, restaurants and in most public spaces (which makes the incessant warnings not to smoke on the plane on my way to Amman finally make sense).

 

Catching taxis in Amman is a precarious business. Picture: Paul Keller, Flickr

Catching taxis in Amman is a precarious business. Picture: Paul Keller, Flickr.

The fastest way to get around is a taxi which is relatively affordable, safe and in plentiful supply (at least in non peak hour times). Knowing enough Arabic phrases to get around is a must. Street addresses won’t cut it here, so best to know a landmark around where you’re going.  Drivers are nothing if not resourceful and will stop locals or even call a friend to find a tricky destination with limited information.

Catching a taxi is a great way to practice street Arabic, understand local culture and get the best tips on restaurants (though there is no obligation to make conversation if you’re a female, or if you are uncomfortable with any personal questions). I’ve heard grumblings about economy and cost of living, and gained insights into social interactions.

Dealing with drivers is also the best way to do to your head in trying to control what I will delicately call the ‘the meter situation’.

The battle of the meter begins when you step in. You need to make sure it is set to 25 qirsh or a quarter of a dinar. A trip anywhere in Amman should cost no more than three to hour JD.

Every traveller and even locals have taxi war stories to tell. Some drivers won’t turn on the meter and will want to negotiate a price and then maybe ramp it up later. Some travellers ruefully admit to being charged up to 10 and even 20 JD.

After 11pm the fare will generally double and the meter will start from a higher base. Yellow taxis are your best bet. You can venture into the shared white taxis which are cheaper (you shouldn’t pay more than a dinar) but prepared to share with other passengers.

Now if I were poor taxi driver I would try to extort as much as I can too. But being on the other side of the driver’s seat (and if you’re a woman it’s culturally most appropriate to ride in the back) I’m here to provide practical tips to avoid being ripped off.

Besides refusing to ride into a non-metered taxi, there are some beautiful Arabic phrases to deal with tricky taxi or market negotiations. My favourite idiom “fi mish mish”  (which means something like “in the apricot/s”) translates delightfully to convey the ridiculousness of a proposition; an Arabic “when pigs fly” if you will. This is all part of the drama of bargaining in countries where respect derives from your ability to Apricot the situation.

The way you negotiate living in a city is I feel almost a microcosm of a society’s values. In western countries most commercial transactions are passive, fixed, cold. In others, everything is a negotiation, a dance, a play between two people where one’s knowledge and wits can be tested. This can be stressful when you’re used to the latter way of doing things, but once you understand how it works it can be enjoyable.

If all else fails just remember throw up your hands Arab style and shout,  “In the Apricots!”

 

 

Food adventures in Amman

 

 

Jordanian mezze. By Huda Aziz.

Jordanian mezze. Picture: Huda Aziz.

 

As many who know me can attest I’m a foodie. I can be at peace anywhere in the world if I have coffee, delicious food and wifi. I’d like to share some gems that I’ve discovered so far in my first few days in Amman (thanks to the recommendations of fellow intrepid travellers).

Hashem restaurant

The go-to place for locals and starving students wanting to eat on the cheap. Hashem is a no-nonsense vegetarian restaurant in downtown Amman where it’s all about the food. The décor is sparse and the food – simple, hearty unadorned bowls of bliss. We ordered fresh hommous, fuul, pita, salad and the most crunchy and sublimely soft melt-in-your mouth falafels, swallowed down with some sugary mint tea. You need to order in Arabic and quickly as this place is packed! The best part about Hashem is the price- the bill amounted to about 6JD for the four of us ($AUS9). Yep, that’s what I’m talking about.

Hommous, pita, falafel and fuul (bean dip), salad at Hashem restaurant.

Hommous, pita, falafel, fuul (bean dip) and salad at Hashem restaurant. Picture: Huda Aziz.

 

Jafra café

Also in downtown Amman, this funky restaurant features a library, paintings, antiques and quotes from famous Arab activists, writers and poets including Mahmoud Darwiche and Edward Said as well as a balcony view where you can people-watch. Be careful to go upstairs from the alley into Jafra not into a restaurant looking area on the ground floor which is ahem actually a men’s bath area.

 

Spiral dial phone and other funky antiques at Jafra cafe.

Spiral dial phone and other funky antiques at Jafra cafe.

Books and quotes at Jafra cafe.

Books and quotes at Jafra cafe.

You can smoke an arghileh here or munch on some delicious Arab or western style food. We ate a sublime selection of hommous, fattoush salad, shish kebab, fresh pita and meatballs in tomato sauce. It’s popular with foreigners and the waiters speak English. It’s not as cheap as Hashem, but the beautifully furnished spacious interior is a great place for large groups and with our bill totalling  13 JD for two ($AUS20), it’s not too much of a hit on the wallet.

Fattoush, hommous, shish kebab at Jafra resturant, Amman.

Fattoush, hommous, shish kebab at Jafra resturant, Amman.

Habiba

Down the road from Hashem’s is Habiba which sells Amman-famous kanafa (layered cheese and semolina drenched in sugar syrup). It’s sweet and savoury with the salty cheese a soft counterpart to the sweet semolina top. I’m not much of a dessert person but I’m told by connoisseurs the kanafa here is of a pretty high standard. There’s also an upstairs section open to families where large groups can sit.

Kanafa from Habibah. Picture: Huda Aziz.

Kanafa from Habiba. Picture: Huda Aziz.

 

Al-Quds

A bustling two-storey establishment next door to Habiba where you can ask for an English menu and sample the traditional Jordanian dish- Mansaf, made of lamb cooked in fermented dried yogurt sauce and served with yellow rice (and the yoghurt sauce). We also try some lamb neck which just melts off the bone. They also serve dessert here including a $1 JD rice pudding topped with pistachio. The entire menu doesn’t have anything for more than $7 JD ($AUS10). Across the road you can climb the stairs to check out Darut Al-Funun, an art gallery that regularly features lectures and exhibitions from artists in residence and a second storey library  (arts in Amman deserves it’s own post).

Lamb neck, mansaf, salad and olives at Al-Quds.

Lamb neck, Mansaf, salad and olives at Al-Quds.

Markets

After you’ve finished gorging on the amazing food at these restaurants which are within walking distance of each other – don’t forget to check out the nearby downtown markets next to the Grand Husseini mosque (which has a female prayer space).  There’s gold, clothing and food souks lit up beautifully at night with low hanging lightbulbs. The food souk is filled with piles of glorious fresh fruit, dates, cheeses and olives. Wandering through the souks in the open air with the shouts of vendors and the intermittent sounds of the Adhan piercing the air is so much more of a joyful experience than passively buying groceries at Carrefour (the local chain). Best thing is you can practice your Arabic conversing with the vendors.

 

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Books at café

Books at café is located in the hipster central expat district on Rainbow street a short uphill walk from  central downtown Amman or Jabal Amman (mountain Amman). It’s filled with cafe, eateries, art-house cinema and galleries. At Books at cafe you’ll be greeted with the sultry tunes of Billie Holiday, spectacular second story views of Amman and can even buy a western-style weekend brunch which will take you back around 10 JD (AUS $15). Although this place is more expensive, it’s a safe place to chill for the day, find out about art exhibitions around town, catch up with people, or get your work done while sipping a refreshing mint-lemon drink. It’s a little expat-y and feels a tad formulaic but worth grabbing a coffee, checking the scenery and taking advantage of wifi.

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Anyway I’m hardly a expert, I’ve been here less than a week. So look forward to updating this section!

 

Merhaba Amman

So I’m in Jordan! My favourite part of being here is munching on pomegranate seeds as dusk approaches with lyrical strains of the Quran drifting  from the local mosques where multiple adhans jostle for supremacy causing a chiming echo across the horizon.

It’s been a surreal few days figuring out taxis (this deserves it’s own post), food (as does this), money and orientating myself to the sights and sounds of this new city.  

The other Arabic language students here seem to fit into three categories – the young Arabic language undergrads on exchange or developing their skills and wanting careers in international relations, development or anything that pays and allows travel. The second group is non-Arab Muslims seeking religious knowledge and the third is older students in their late 20’s and thirties. These are the ones who might have quit their jobs or at a crossroads and want to do something completely different and see where it takes them.  I’ve met everyone from Fulbright scholars, corporate lawyers who’ve quit their jobs, UN workers, wide-eyed college grads, spiritual seekers and Muslim converts.  

I can see why Amman is attractive to travellers. It’s relatively safe and there’s a host of hipster cafes (this also deserves it’s own post) in the expat areas downtown in the aptly named Rainbow Street (maybe a play on the colourful range of travellers passing through).

It’s warm in the day and then cold at night. Everywhere is hilly and mountainous and historic with the city’s white and cream stone buildings providing panaromic views at vantage points around the city.

One of the best places for epic views is the Citadel featuring Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman period Islamic architecture as well as ancient ruins predating Islam including the hand of Hercules and a bird’s eye view of a nearby Roman colosseum.  Traipsing around the ruined splendour makes you feel a bit redundant and also awed at humans and their futile but valiant fight against inevitable decay. We’re just a transient speck in the scheme of things. These great civilisations, these visions of splendor, all reaching for immortality, or just wanting us to know- hey we were here!  You have to admire the attempt- a rebellion against, but at the same time a testament to transience.  

Panaromic views at the Citadel in Amman, Jordan including bird's eye view of the colosseum.

Panaromic views at the Citadel in Amman, Jordan including bird’s eye view of the colosseum.

Later that night we roam streets lined with posters of King Abdullah and his bespectacled young son, Crown Prince Hussein who apparently went to Georgetown with one of my fellow language students.

 Strangely enough twice on the first day people thought I was Arab, and started speaking to me in Arabic. Australian doesn’t cut it as an explanation for my brown-ness, but Pakistani elicits smiles, which it never does in the west so that’s a pleasant change. I get asked where my father is from, which I’m assuming is how identity is determined - patrilineal in the Middle East – where in most places a mother cannot pass on her citizenship if she marries out.

Our next stop – a day trip to Al-Ajlun castle  is like stepping into a medieval novel. It’s at the border of Syria and Palestine, built by the nephew of Salahuddin, the dreamy Muslim general who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders. 

Al-Ajlun castle, Amman.

Al-Ajlun castle on the border of Jordan, Syria and Palestine.

There’s a moat, a former drawbridge, turrets, tunnels, towers and shafts where poisonous arrows and vats of boiling water were dropped on enemy troops.

Small windows in Ajlun castle.

Small windows in Al-Ajlun castle.

There’s even a barred prison area where enemy soldiers were captured. Apparently the old citadels are not totally redundant- I’m told in Syria most of them are actually being used in the conflict.

 

Prison at Al-Ajlun castle.

Prison at Al-Ajlun castle.

There was even some entertainment on top of the castle where you can literally see the horizon (and any invading hordes) for miles.

That’s all for now. Ma’salama!

Female journalists threatened on the job: report

If you’re a woman, you’ve worried about being stranded or stuck somewhere where your safety is at risk. What if it was your job to venture into the world’s most dangerous areas?

Check out my interview with International News Safety Institute (INSI) director Hannah Storm on new research on abuse and harassment female media workers experience at work across the world.

Report raises concerns for safety of female media workers

Members of Assam Photojournalists Association stage a silent protest in front of Guwahati Press Club. Credit: TwoCircles.Net via Flickr.

Members of India’s Assam Photojournalists Association stage a silent protest in front of Guwahati Press Club on Saturday after the gang-rape of a female photojournalist in Mumbai. Credit: TwoCircles via Flickr.

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Talking diversity, beauty and media

Check out my interview with ABC Radio Australia/News Radio evening host Prue Bentley. We discuss my piece on ABC’s The Drum exploring the controversy around the crowning of the first desi Miss America Nina Davuluri.

Is more diversity a form of progress even if it is within an outdated pageant framework? What about questions Davuluri would be too dark to be a beauty queen in India? Within this framework does her win indicate some kind of social evolution albeit in a limited form?

Check out my interview here:

What do you think?

Fear of a brown beauty

Check out my latest piece in ABC’s The Drum on the controversy around the first desi Miss America Nina Davuluri. Pageantry has always revolved around stringent feminine ideals and patriotic representation. So what happens when the winners start to challenge national stereotypes?

Rules of the pageant: a challenge to the stereotype

I have to make a confession. As a little girl I loved watching beauty pageants.

I remember in year five my school friends and I used to record Miss Universe competitions and swap videotapes at school. We’d marvel at the sparkly costumes and glamorous-looking women in heavy make-up.

Like little girls playing dress-ups, the accoutrements of femininity the Miss Universe pageant women possessed seemed mysterious and enticing to us. Heels, make-up, curves, desirability, all promising a passport into adulthood.

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The Citadel

The topic of sex seems to always draw a crowd. Sex, Islam and the Arab world seems to magnetize one. The western obsession with Arab and Muslim sexuality seems fixated on harems and hijabs with a sometimes prurient and salacious gaze that fetishizes the exotic other.

Former Al-Jazeera presenter Shereen El-Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel is thankfully not part of the ‘harems and hijabs’ brigade. But her book does delve into the bedrooms of men and women in Egypt and across the region to look at the ways in which sexuality intersect with religion and tradition and is linked to politics and the greater fight for democracy in the region.

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