Jordan · media · travel

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, see video by my very talented friend The Graphical Baker ^).  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/Wasda

There’s a huge divide here between those who have 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.

Amman · Jordan · travel

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!”