AMMONNEWS - I had the pleasure of spending Friday night (which is the Muslim equivalent of Saturday night) on the town with three 28-year-old young men. Ala’a, my guide, and I met up with his friends, Abdullah, and Akram for dinner and a tour of the city.
Abdullah drove us from the hotel in this newly acquired Toyota Prius, of which he was very proud. It is a pre-owned car, imported from California, saving him $14,000. He and Ala’a met at university, where they were both in some kind of computer curriculum. Abdullah now works for a leading Middle East software company. He is developing API’s for an application that processes payments, similar to PayPal, used widely in the MidEast. Abdullah might be at home in silicon valley.
Akram works for a bank doing cyber security work, focusing on money laundering. The three met through a fourth friend, who was working with Akram.
They are twenty-somethings entertaining a geezer and it is entertaining to watch and observe. Ala’a’s English is very, very good. Abdullah’s a little less so, but he can communicate effectively. Akram struggles to speak, but he understands. For the most part, they stick to English.
They are largely what you expect from their age cohort, careening between earnest discussions about jobs and post-adolescent joking. Some things are different, though. They don’t drink, but they smoke incessantly. They are—and I think this is typical of Arabs—pretty low key in their discourse and interactions. I think Americans of their age would be louder, more disputatious, and more “macho.” My Arab friends are very polite. When the disagreed, it had an “old world” gravitas to it.
They would not let me pay for anything, even though I was the old-man-retiree-American, displaying his resources by employing a private guide and driver for my five-day tour. From the parking lot attendant to dinner to desert, they firmly gave my money back to me. “They won’t let you,” Ala’a responded when I protested to him. “It is Arab hospitality.”
Dinner was at a famous Falafel restaurant, probably the equivalent of Pepe’s Pizza or Louis’ lunch in New Haven. There were pictures all of the walls of the celebrities who are eaten there. The present king, Abdullah II, was pictured with his family (his teen age son was wearing a baggy, unfashionable tee shirt). So was his father, King Hussein. There were photos of prime ministers, princes, CEO’s, movie starts, etc.
The place itself was even humbler than Pepe’s or Louis’. Bare tables and bar walls, other than the photos. The menu was strictly limited to falafel, hummus and several other “mezze” spreads. They brought the food and we shared it, dipping with pita bread. It was delicious.
Afterwards we walked down the crowded street to a sweet shop that was similarly famous. About 100 or so people were lined up in a narrow lane, waiting patiently for kunafa, described in one guide book at Arabian Cheese Danish. Not quite. It’s a flavorful, mild cheese on the bottom, with an almond-flavored semolina crust with sugar syrup on top. I liked it, but maybe not as much as they, who pretty much inhaled it.
One thing that was surprising about the experience was the behavior of the line. No pushing, no jockeying for place. No sighs and looks of anguish at its slow pace. It moved reasonably quickly, with everyone maintaining good will and composure. I don’t think the same thing would be true at Pepe’s if they weren’t taking names, and I KNOW it wouldn’t happen in Italy. My experience of the Arabs is that they value calm and order in their day-to-day interactions.
The restaurant and sweet shop were in an old part of town lined with old-fashioned looking stores and coffee shops. There were no chain stores that I noticed. (Not even a Starbucks). One thing lacking were bars. There were one or two liquor stores, but no drinking, either in bars or restaurants. Drinking did not seem part of my friends’ social experience.
After cruising this part of town, we decamped to the 21st century in the form of a huge, modern mall that could be in Miami or Atlanta. It was futuristic, with Nike and Addidas and other Western bands. It was busy, but not nearly as crowded as our dinner locale. Ala’a explained. “Before the recent wars in the Mideast and the economic downturn, we had three classes in Jordan, the rich, the middle class, and the poor. Now, we have only two, the rich and the poor.” The mall is the scene for the “ten percenters.”
One thing that would surprise almost all Americans is the comparative lack of police and soldiers. Compared with Israel, or even post 9/11 New York, the police presence is minimal. There are metal scanners as you enter the fancy hotels and malls, but they are somewhat perfunctory. (Everybody admits that there is profiling. We don’t look like terrorists. I don’t know how younger, scruffier people were treated.) People ask if it’s safe to travel to Jordan. My experience is that it is. True, there has been violence in the recent past, but right now, it’s all pretty mellow
As our night of camaraderie was winding down, I screwed up the nerve to ask about politics after one of them made a crack about Trump. “What do you think about America,” I asked. Ala’a started off by saying that he was told in his guide’s course never to talk about three things: “religion, politics, or—with the British—football.”
In the end, they went through the recent American presidents. They don’t like “W”. They liked Clinton. They’re positive, but a little skeptical of Obama, and they hate Trump. The like the fact that American supports Jordan. They don’t like our support for Israel.
They’re ambivalent. “The ambition of every Jordanian is to live in America,” the web-developer Abdullah joked. They give us, as individuals, a free pass from our government’s policies because they admire American culture and envy our life style. On the other hand, when Akram returned from a bathroom break and they asked him his opinion in Arabic, he responded with a one-word Arabic word, provoking laughter. The translation, “It sucks.” Later, as we talked about the American flag, Ala’a said a common Jordanian joke is that it should have 51 stars—one for Israel.
The evening ended early. Ala’a was picking me up early the next day for a tour of the Roman city of Jarash. Abdullah was going to spend his Sunday day off studying a Java manual. (The computer programming language, not the country). The three are earnest young men trying to forge careers, reminding me of my youth, and I was very happy for the opportunity to spend the evening with them.