When tragedy strikes, even onlookers can suffer

Here is my latest in ABC’s The Drum “When tragedy strikes, even onlookers can suffer”. The impact of news overload on people’s stress levels was a big talking point, particularly on social media. So many people have messaged me to say the piece has touched on what they too had been thinking about or experiencing.

The piece reflects on my experience as a social media user and as a journalist covering tragic events. I talk more about the inspiration for the piece in this BBC world interview , check me out around the 12 minute mark.

After a week dominated by tragedy and death – and a 24-hour news and social media cycle broadcasting it to us – what impact could this have on our mental health? 

“I have no philosophy, nor piety, no art of reflection, no theory of compensation, to meet things so hideous, so cruel and so mad, they are just … horrible and irremediable to me and I stare at them with angry and almost blighted eyes.” – Henry James

Social media has been a great way to raise awareness and keep journalists accountable...but graphic pictures posted by some has disturbed some users. Picture: Flickr/Johann Larson.

Social media has been a great way to raise awareness and keep journalists accountable…but graphic pictures posted by some has disturbed some users. Picture: Flickr/Johann Larson.

It has been a crazy news week. The second Malaysian Airlines plane crash in five months – the first saw a plane just vanish off the face of the planet and the latter with 36 Aussies among 298 dead after MH17 was shot out of the sky – has seen two unprecedented once-in-a decade news events back-to-back.

You can add to that the alarming death toll in Gaza that has left hundreds dead, a third of them women and children.

The pictures of mangled bodies among plane wreckage and dead children in hospitals dancing on our screens has left many feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed.

The impact of these tragedies on innocent civilians has honed home the transience of life and stirred anger towards those refusing to take responsibility for the carnage.

What has compounded these crises, besides being in close proximity to each other, is our unprecedented 24-hour news and social media cycle.

There are many positives to our new media environment.

It means immediate and constant coverage and a stream of stories that keep us aware of what is happening in the world. It means new voices outside traditional media can make themselves heard.

Journalists and news organisations are now made more accountable as an increasingly savvy audience will call them up on blunders in brutally efficient social media campaigns. The most recent saw NBC journalist Ayman Mohyeldin swiftly reinstated after being withdrawn from Gaza.

But is there a downside to the 24-hour news and social media cycle?

It seems we are caught in a catch-22 situation; the greater appetite for coverage feeds the constant stream of output by media organisations struggling to milk the story of every angle.

But is the constant barrage of information and sometimes graphic content spilling over our screens and personal social media networks having an impact on mental health?

Studies show those exposed to more than six hours of daily coverage of a traumatic news event can suffer more stress than those directly affected.

Melbourne psychologist Monique Toohey says in seeing graphic images an unwanted and intrusive replaying can occur, particularly as people try to unwind and go to sleep.

What you see cannot be unseen. I use this statement with my clients who find themselves replaying horrific images and videos and stories in their mind, hours and days after they were exposed to them in their Facebook or Twitter feeds.

I’ve never seen so many sad people this week. Even hardened journalists looked at me with bleary eyes reporting news fatigue.

Whether it was on your phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, at work or in a social setting, the news was streaming in, often unbidden from all directions.

Most media outlets filter pictures, prefaced with warnings, carefully balancing the news imperatives of showing the gritty reality but also being respectful of the dead.

Some media outlets, including NY Times and the Sydney Morning Herald, featured graphic coverage that was much applauded. I think written accounts occupy a different sphere. It gives you the full impact of the scene without the physicality.

In this coverage it was the small details that gave poignancy and humanised the tragedy, in a way gory blood images could not. Also when a reader clicks on a written story, they have the option of continuing to read or not.

Images, however, cannot be erased. Twitter and most social media outlets expose users in their social spaces, who are not seeking that content. In the case of family members who have not been notified, the results of exposure can be especially tragic. While Facebook and Twitter guidelines implore users to act responsibly, it is largely a self-regulated sphere.

Many of my friends felt disturbed by the graphic pictures of dead Palestinian children in news feeds used as a kind of moral pornography in propaganda fashion – designed to shock and often featuring dated or wrong images that undermined their cause and disrespected the victims. These pictures accompanied by self-righteous ballasts, ironically made from the comfort of a first world living room just fed the often draining debates that have left people feeling more angry and dejected.

I don’t undermine the power of social media to provide solidarity, support and powerful emotional sustenance to those outside the tragedies to vent their anger, frustration and powerlessness and also organise to rally. But I know many people have become paralysed and switched off by the overkill.

Ms Toohey advises those who fear this exposure to protect their online spaces, moderate their activity and post responsibly.

Personal censorship is required and each individual should tune in to their emotions and know when to turn the TV off, scroll quickly past photos before they load and, rather, engage in helpful coping strategies.

By switching off occasionally and having time to reflect it can empower people to help in practical ways.

In covering major news events, what I was always reminded of but could rarely report was people’s grace and courage under the most unspeakable circumstances. Whether it was a murder victims’ family using the death to become activists against drink driving or a community rebuilding after being shattered by bushfire.

The capacity of humans to endure, hope and dream despite it all is what should give us hope. The stories of survival and resilience should inspire us to support those who have the courage to bear what we find difficult to even witness.

Checkpoints and clashes: life in the West Bank

Here’s my latest for ABC’s The Drum on my recent trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank cities of Hebron and Bethlehem. UPDATE: In the latest coverage the death toll in Gaza has climbed to over 100. No Israelis have been killed.

The benefit of a blog is that I can add extended coverage including my own photos and video interviews from locals on the ground.

Little girl at Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem.

Little girl at Deheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem.

It’s easy to feel removed from the continuous coverage of instability and violence in the Middle East.

The never-ending conflict between Israel and Palestine has a depressing predictability that seems to blur into erupting cycles of deadly violence, acrimonious rhetoric and scenes of weeping mothers on both sides, paying the price in this seemingly intractable dispute.

In the latest escalation, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers found near Hebron in the West Bank last week sparked widespread calls for revenge, with protestors in Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs”. A few days later, a Palestinian teen was burned alive in what is believed to be a revenge attack.

Since the June 12 kidnapping Israel has meted out collective punishment on the occupied territories, raiding hundreds of homes and demolishing those of suspected kidnappers, launching airstrikes on Gaza and road-blocking Hebron, as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to avenge the deaths.

UPDATE: In the latest coverage the death toll in Gaza has climbed to over 100. No Israelis have been killed.

Much of the media coverage focuses on covering bursts of conflict in a vacuum, with little context or historical analysis. Rarely do you get a picture of daily life on the ground in the territories and the impact of Israeli military presence and settlements in the region.

Hebron market vendor speaks about harassment from settlers who live above Hebron market.

Two months ago I was in Jerusalem and from there visited the two largest Palestinian cities in the West Bank – Hebron and Bethlehem. My entry into the most contested piece of real estate in the world was met with a six-hour detention, where I was questioned and interrogated along with dozens of westerners attempting to enter Israel. We watched two young Palestinian-American men, turned back and banned for five years. One of the boys, a medical student intending to volunteer at a Jerusalem hospital was told he didn’t have required embassy permits to volunteer.

Settlement in Hebron.

Settlement in Hebron.

During my stay, I have never seen more machine guns waved in my face or had my passport checked more often in my life. Young IDF soldiers with machine guns casually slung around their shoulders control access to holy sites, including the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site for Muslims.

Soldiers at Al-Aqsa entry gate at Friday prayer, Jerusalem.

Soldiers at Al-Aqsa entry gate at Friday prayer, Jerusalem.

Checkpoints to enter are dotted around the mosque. Along with many Palestinians, I got used to daily questioning as I entered. Sometimes I had to recite Quranic verses to prove I was Muslim, other times I had to show my passport. On Friday, the checkpoints are packed with soldiers and clashes are common as young men are arbitrarily turned away for juma prayer.

In Hebron, where among 160,000 Palestinians, about 700 Jewish settlers live, protected by hundreds of IDF soldiers, a steel mesh dotted with garbage covers an open air Hebron market.

Wire mesh covering Hebron market.

Wire mesh covering Hebron market.

When I asked what it was for, the Arab vendors told me the the mesh protects them from urine, faeces and rubbish thrown down by settlers living above the market.

Rubbish in wire mesh covering Hebron market.

Rubbish in wire mesh covering Hebron market.

The feeling of being contained continues in Bethlehem as we weaved our way through a confusing array of zones and checkpoints to visit the Separation wall. The massive eight-metre high concrete block, covered in protest graffiti snakes its way through huge sections of Palestinian territory, along with Israeli-only roads and checkpoints that bar Palestinians from Jerusalem.

Separation wall, Bethlehem

Separation wall, Bethlehem

In the nearby Deheishe refugee camp, an air of hopelessness pervades the cramped buildings, as aimless children kick soccer balls through the streets in front of walls scrawled with Arabic political graffiti. One mural includes lines from Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish that reads: “The war has taken everything from me. All I have left is my dreams.”

Arabic graffiti at Deheishe refugee camp, near Bethlehem. Lines from Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish which read, “The war has taken everything from me, All I have left is my dreams

Arabic graffiti at Deheishe refugee camp, near Bethlehem. Lines from Arab poet Mahmoud Darwish which read, “The war has taken everything from me, All I have left is my dreams

Water tanks dot the rooftop landscape to deal with fluctuating supply, as Palestinians are forced to buy back water diverted by Israeli pipes at inflated prices.

The collective fear and paralysis, the brutality of continued occupation breeds among a hopeless Palestinian population, and an increasingly militarised Israel is ultimately crushing to both sides. Continuous settlement and dispossession not only hurts Palestinians but must also create scars on those forced to implement it

I saw this in the scared faces of some the very young IDF soldiers conscripted for mandatory service and the aimless children in the refugee camp bound to grow up as angry teens. As the rhetoric of dehumanisation continues, it’s clear no one feels safe as innocents continue to suffer.

Jordan reflections

Friends of mine have been curious to know what the people are like here and the political issues (besides the amazing food and stunning natural beauty).  I’ve been wary because  I don’t want to make generalisations. So disclaimer- here are some observations based on my limited experience and interactions here.

Money /The Government/Wasta

There’s a huge divide here between those with means (who live in West Amman) and those that don’t (generally East Amman). It came to a head when the Mercedes- driving son of a minister went on a tirade on facebook about his argument with a Kia driver, raging against the ‘backward xxxxs’ in Jordan. A local I met recently, Ali*, told me this was particularly galling because most people in Amman drive cheap Kia cars. Everything is expensive here, due to import taxes. I was flabbergasted to see a toaster with a tag of 25 JD ($AUS37) at the local shopping centre. I’m told the minimum wage with tips will get you around 250 JD a month, which is roughly half the weekly rent for a roomy apartment in central Amman. High employment combined with the rising cost of living and the perception of widespread nepotism and corruption has created a powder keg of discontent.

For young middle-class educated Jordanians, the aspiration seems to be to go abroad. Ali, a languages student who speaks Russian and Spanish, wants to work as a diplomat but says nepotism means plum postings are generally reserved for the connected elite. There’s even a term for it ‘wasda‘.

Rabia*, a young teaching student at Jordan university, says it’s so bad you’ll have guys who will not turn up to class all semester, but will show up at the end to  be ‘passed’. I asked how that works for professions where you could actually kill someone, and she said in med school you have some professors who will tell the class straight up, there’s no ‘wasda’ here, so don’t even try.

While Jordanians I spoke to are not entirely happy with the status quo, they are grateful for stability and safety in a region where Jordan seems to be the only safe harbour. They are wary of the unrest revolution in nearby countries has created. One of my teachers said that whilst we’re not entirely happy, we don’t know what the alternative would be. Ali says Jordanians don’t want a revolution but they want change. Any discussion of the ruling Royal family is done in hushed tones and in private.

Palestine

In a country where most people are of Palestinian background, the conflict with Israel is central. It’s the recurring issue in personal stories and in the news. Pretty much everyone has a story of being denied entry into Israel (especially young men), of a grandparent losing everything and migrating but dreaming of being able to visit again. Many won’t recognize Israel as a country and say Palestine instead. There’s a perception that US is not an unbiased mediator. It’s the cause of a lot of anger and disbelief and there is pessimism there will ever be a real solution to the conflict.

Refugees

Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler

Syrian refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: UNHCR/ Jared Kohler, Flickr

A lot of NGO workers I’ve met here are working on building camp infrastructure for the thousands of Syrian refugees flooding in over the border. A conversation between two Jordanians I met reminded me of the debate around asylum seekers in Australia.

A: It’s costing us a lot of money.

M: The UN is paying for everything. I’m really worried about the camps. I heard people are dying there.

A: The problem is people coming here without passports and papers. You can’t have open borders.

A: I feel sorry for them. They’re fleeing for their lives, they might not all have papers.

M: Also Syrians are willing to work for less than Jordanians creating problems for locals.

A: They contribute. I feel sorry for them.

M: So do I. I hate the situation not the people.

The difference of course is that M has loads of Syrian friends and a great deal of sympathy for the plight of those fleeing, generally reflected in the public mood towards refugees with numerous fundraisers and events dedicated to Syria (in Australia, the right-wing view features mostly hatred, hysteria and racism). I think the fact that Syrians, like Jordanians, are Arab Muslims, probably makes a big difference.

Gender/Religion

Jordan is generally a conservative country but I think liberal by standards in the region. A local tour I went on (where we were the only foreigners) and a group of artsy liberal Jordanian students I met recently seemed like hanging out with a group of 20-somethings back in Australia, down to justifying my abstention from alcohol (which is freely available). The men love to dance, openly hug and kiss each other and seem really to know how to have a good time (that was just on the tour bus). Most women wear hijabs with fashionable western clothing but many don’t. You can walk around safely pretty much anytime of the day or night, and will not be bothered except for the occasional hooligan, though I have heard of foreign looking women being hassled. Like Pakistan it feels like you have a divide between two groups -those who are liberal and irreligious, mix freely and party and those who are religious and conservative. But I think there is hope for that rare breed- the religious liberal – bucking tradition but staying true to their Islamic roots. One of my teachers is a single hijabi and practicing Muslim who works, lives out of home and travels abroad despite societal and family disapproval.  It will be interesting to see if it is people like this, who can successfully reconcile tradition and modernity within themselves, can pave a navigation of those forces within society.

*Names have been changed.

 

Review: Coming of Age- Growing up Muslim in Australia

Check out my latest review in Sultana’s Dream of  Coming of age: Growing up Muslim in Australia. If you haven’t already make sure you have a read, there’s something here to relate to regardless of whether you’re Muslim or not. The anthology features awesome Australian writers including Randa Abdel Fattah, Tasneem Chopra and Amal Awad whose personal stories will make you think and reminisce about your own awkward adolescence.

Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia is published by Allen and Unwin.

Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia is published by Allen and Unwin.

Gloria Steinem once said that “every social justice movement that I know of started with people telling their life stories.”

The same could be said for understanding the reality of multicultural Australia; those stories that are rarely reflected in the whitewashed beaches of soapie suburbia.

Growing up not-white and Muslim in Australia means becoming inured to a media and popular culture reflecting back faces and worlds which bear little resemblance to an everyday reality punctuated with ritual, some kind of after-school class, parental expectations and confusion.

In this context, Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia is a welcome balm, like looking in too-close to a mirror, familiar but also unnerving. The anthology features 12 Muslim writers sharing stories of migration and dislocation, navigating two worlds and cultures and grappling with familiar adolescent pangs around sexuality, love, body image, faith and identity.

The vignettes in Coming of Age chronicle the experiences of this first generation children of migrants, navigating a place within Australian culture as the culture itself navigates how to accommodate a fusion at once deeply familiar and different. Hybrids sporting ocker credentials like Indian-Kenyan activist Tasneem Chopra; growing up in country Victoria amid bush dancing and yabby-catching while going home to practice Indian-dance, later showcased wearing glittering bangles at YMCA halls.

The anthology features familiar names including children’s author Randa Abdel-Fattah, footballer Hazem El Masri and his wife Arwa El Masri, lawyer Irfan Yusuf and writer Amal Awad, but also dispersed are valuable contributions reflecting the diversity and complexity of Muslim communities. From self-confessed ‘mish-mash’ Muslim and former Miss World Sabrina Houssami to devout, agnostic and atheist voices from a rich diversity of sectarian and cultural backgrounds, the book is a learning experience even for those from within the tradition.

Pakistani woman Alyena Mohummadally shares the trauma of coming out to her Muslim family and reconciling faith with her sexuality. There are moments of unconscious levity in even the most gut-wrenching scenes. Mohummadally’s mother confronts her, not after previous less-than-subtle intimations about her sexuality from her daughter but only when Mohummadally brings home the women’s cricket team for a sleepover: ‘I have always attributed my mother’s question to her being aware of the stereotype that women cricketers and the queer world go together,’ she recounts.

Racial-slurs and schoolyard taunts are explored in the same breath as cringing teen crushes and moments of parental embarrassment. Headshots of the writers as gangly adolescents bring back memories of adolescence as life’s universal awkward hour, but exacerbated by the self-consciousness of ethnic difference.

Psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed remembers being inundated with kilos of pungent seafood in the car after his triumphant father spends an afternoon bargaining with vendors at Sydney’s Flemington markets. Yusuf recounts ‘the phone call day’ every desi kid dreads. The day HSC marks are released and the phone rings off the hook as ‘Aunties’ interrogate parents on the life plans and marks of their progeny.

Former Bulldogs legend El-Masri and academic Michael Mohammad Ahmad, both of Lebanese background reflect on the burden on Muslim men post-September 11, as the description of ‘Middle eastern appearance’ becomes an epithet of suspicion. There are lessons from their own youth dodging the temptations of drugs and violence as they minister to troubled youth.

In an age still full of caricatures and shrieking headlines, this anthology is a long-overdue offering. Stories of young people, now well-known adults who by sharing funny, human stories of their youthful frailties, relationships and loneliness are in turn changing our cultural landscape and what it means to grow up Muslim in today’s Australia.

Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia is published by Allen and Unwin.

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 four 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!