Saturday, December 29, 2012

Souqs and Castles

Sorry for the long delay. Here is a post I drafted weeks ago that I finally had time to publish:

I am going to quickly post about my previous weekend exploring the famous Souq Aljum3a (or Friday Market), the modern holiday art market Souq Fann, and five fascinating castles in the desert of Eastern Jordan, while I continue drafting my post about my unforgettable four days in Deutschland. While I’m working on getting these weekend posts up, I am spending my last week in Jordan finishing up academic and professional commitments, saying good bye to all my amazing Jordanian friends, and preparing for my next weekend adventure which will cover the supposed end of the world in Istanbul, (if we all survive) a 48-hr stop in snowy Sweden, and finally (after a short layover in London) holiday celebrations with my family back in southern Maryland. After that I may continue this blog to track my reverse culture shock, though who knows how long that may last. However, inshallah, I will return to the region next summer and my Middle East meanderings can continue on this web space. ☺

Ok now it’s time to get down to business. Abdali is an old part of Amman that is best known for being the main bus terminal for the city and is now being rejuvenated as the city's new downtown. However, every Thursday night it is turned into haggling heaven as the whole strip of pavement that is usually a parking lot for the bus terminal is turned into an enormous market, where people bargain over hideous Christmas sweaters for 1JD or tatty leather boots for 5 JD as the adan, call to prayer, echoes from the mosque next door. As someone who loves to argue about the price I pay, it was like one huge party to me. I will now give you my step-by-step guide for bargaining.

Step 1: Set your goals
You need to know what you are looking for when you enter a market, or else you will get overwhelmed. This is also important since digging for the right item will likely be necessary.

Step 2: Browse the selection
Check out a few stalls and don’t be afraid to listen in on the prices locals are bargaining for. Once you have scoped out the territory you should be ready to start the hunt.

Step 3: Show interest
When you find an item you feel attached to, or fulfills your initial goal, observe it for a while until your careful consideration of the item captures the salesman’s eye. Say something in the way of “This is exactly what I was looking for,” loud enough so the salesman hears.

Step 4: Ask for an initial price
The salesman will usually give you an inflated price at these markets because he expects you to haggle (unless you are a tourist waiting to be ripped off – which YOU are NOT).

Step 5: Attack!
Respond with at least 30-50% the amount of the asking price. For example, when the salesman told me 12JD, I said 5JD. Now he is going to be adamant, and you stay on 5JD for a while and eventually go up to 6JD. Start mentioning that you have a budget and you don’t want to cross it.

Step 6: Retreat
This is part of the act, but timing is vital. First you need to make sure the salesman takes you seriously and you need to seem serious about the purchase. When he has gone down a bit on the asking price (like from 12JD to 10JD) but refuses to bulge, start walking away. If he doesn’t come after you either find something new or go back to raise your price. If he does come after you then congratulations, YOU WON!

I first went to the Friday Souq on Thursday night, and after successfully purchasing two sweaters and a pair of black boots for 10 JD in total, I finished off with warm DIY sandwich at Salah al-Din’s Bakery. This sandwich should also have a step-by-step guide! I mostly just imitated the man standing next to me.

Basically you walk in and order a piece of freshly baked sesame-coated bread, a packet of soft cheese, and a rather brown-looking egg. Then you move to one of the wooden counters on your left to assemble your sandwich, where you will also find plastic bowls full of zaatar, hot sauce, and various dirty metal knives. You wash the knife and then use it to cut the bread open, but don’t open it completely. Remove some of the soft insides of the bread as the steam emerges from the roll, still hot from the oven. Then smear on the soft cheese, sprinkle it with a nice fistful of zaatar, then bang the egg against the counter and peel off the shell. Once the shell is gone, cut up the egg with your knife and mash it into the cheese and zaatar smeared bread. Once this is done, pour some drops of hot sauce over it all to add some zing, close the sandwich and take a glorious bite. Dinner is served.

The next day I ended up returning to the souq! After spending the morning using the speedy internet at Zodiac, the Jordanian lawyer I met at Vivid the other night drove me to explore the parts of Amman I hadn’t checked out yet, which is mainly Jabal al-Weibdeh. However, everything in al-Weibdeh was closed except for the Chocoholic Café. So my new friend and I grabbed some delicious hot chocolate (but I warn you – the chili chocolate is spicy!) and headed down to Abdali. The lawyer had lived in Amman almost his entire life, and yet had never been to the Friday Market! It proved to be a valuable experience for him. He walked around, speechless, and emerged saying how much more grateful he is for his socioeconomic background. He had never understood how close he was to poverty, where the only way people can afford new clothes is if the clothes cost 1 JD. In West Amman, with it’s American fast food restaurants and fancy cars, it is easy to forget that some people live on minimum wage in other areas of the city.

After that it was time for the next market – Souq Fann! This was a drastic switch from the old and conservative to the modern and creative. This special market showcasing the works of local artists is sponsored by Art Medium and is only held once or twice a year. This time it was holiday themed and I was very successful in finding some unique Christmas gifts for my family. I even had a chance to meet the famous Jordanian cartoonist, Abu Mahjoub, and see his most recent cartoons depicting the Jordanian people’s response to the recent rise in gas prices. In Mlabbas I found a shirt I had long been looking for: a man dressed in a suit and a kuffiyeh, dancing gangnam style, with “Abu Ghannam Style” written in English and Arabic in the corner. This will be the one souvenir I purchase for myself from Jordan.

After the arts market I had a delicious meal of Mansaf with some Jordanian friends at Jabri by 5th circle, followed by shisha, tea, and watching Jordan’s favorite show, The Voice, at the cozy lounge Cushions. The Voice is shown all over the Arab world and contestants can come from any country. One of the contestants sang a very old Arabic song and the whole café started singing along, including my friend’s 10-year old daughter. I love how every generation here is connected to the songs of their heritage.

The next day I woke up early to join four girls and one guy from my CIEE program to explore different desert castles as part of Farah Hotel’s Eastern Desert Tour. For a mere 16 JD we were driven around in a private mini bus to various castles in Eastern Jordan, starting with Qasr al-Harrana. This castle, solitarily situated in the middle of sweeping desert next to a foreboding prison, was probably one of the first inns of the Islamic period. The 8th century building looks small at first in comparison with the wide expanse of flat desert, but when you get inside you enter a large square courtyard and its tremendous fun to explore the two levels surrounding the courtyard and find various hidden chambers, charred fireplaces, and Mesopotamian stucco discs.

Our next stop was Qasr Umra, a world heritage site that used to be a hunting lodge for the Ummayad rulers. This building, also 8th century, looks even less impressive from the outside and is certainly smaller in size than Qasr Harrana, which adds even more to your surprise when you enter to see the entire interior surface covered in the most magnificent murals, the brilliant colors beautifully intact. The images of voluptuous half-naked women, animals playing, and colorful swirls brought alive a world when the surrounding landscape wasn’t desert but rather a popular hunting ground for the powerful Umayyad Caliphate.

After that we continued on a road that dramatically splits off in the directions of either Iraq or Saudi Arabia, where we find Azraq Castle. This castle has been geostrategically valuable for a number of armed forces, most recently the Arab revolt led by Lawrence of Arabia during WWI. The castle is huge yet in ruins, and the museum space in one of the lower chambers is very poorly lit.

Finally we were on our way to our last castle, Qaser Al Halabat, which we happened to have all to ourselves. As dramatic grey storm clouds rolled in over the sand-swept desert, we climbed staircases leading to nowhere, pretended to be Umayyad statues, and treaded on thousand-year old mosaic floors.

After that we finally returned to Amman, where we stopped to have another egg and cheese sandwich at Salah Al-Din – a welcome alternative to the over-consumed falafel sandwich.

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