We had an orientation on our second day to get us acquainted with certain customs in Jordan that may differ to our home country. One important differentiation was taxi etiquette. Aside from honking at females, taxi drivers absolutely love asking personal questions – or questions that appear quite personal to North Americans, without any reservation.
“For women, they will ask you if you are married, and for men they like to ask if you are Muslim. It doesn’t matter if my wife, who wears the hijab, is sitting in the back and I am sporting a topi (a prayer cap). They ask the question regardless.” explained Anik our orientation leader.
In North America and in other Western countries it would be odd and uncomfortable to ask a stranger about their religion. We tend to have a ‘don’t ask don’t tell policy’. In Amman, boundaries between professional and personal questions are oftentimes blurred. And in the case of taxi drivers – non-existent.
As we boarded a cab to head to the restaurant, Anik sat at the front and began talking to me and my two other female classmates in English. During a lull in the conversation, the taxi driver interjects and begins to address Anik. It is important here to set the context. There is Anik, our orientation leader, and then us three girls, all piled into a taxi.
“Are you teaching them English?” our driver asks. Anik replies no.
“Well are they teaching you English?” again Anik answers no. Confused by the dynamics, the driver ventures with one more question, “Are you Muslim?” Anik nods his head and retorts, “Are you?”
Surprised the driver hastily responds, “Well of course!” offended that his religious status would be questioned. Nevertheless, I imagine we left him quite confused. Perhaps he was wondering what loophole in the shari’a (Islamic law) would allow a man to be with three young foreign women while maintaining his religion, and what luck Anik possessed to stumble across it.
In the evening time, we venture off to Darat al Funun. An art gallery and event space that is one of the many places home to Amman’s bustling art scene. Out of sheer luck, we had come across an open-air concert taking place at the archaeological site situated at the art gallery. This made me think that Amman is a land of juxtapositions and dualities. What you see on the surface is not what it actually appears if you look closely.
Amman is built on hills. The roads go up and down, they go through wide streets and narrow back alleys. The taxi drove through a back road filled with dusty off-white stone buildings and a lot of construction. It looked like any dusty Arab city, with large apartment blocks and shops that lined the bottom. However, beyond the surface, beautiful murals stood proudly against the building of an old apartment, a cozy coffee shop is tucked in the corner, and places like Darat al Funun exist.
On the front, there appears to be just an archway as an entrance. As I walked through I was delighted to see to my left the columns of a now non-existent Roman amphitheater where the concert would take place, and directly in front of me, stairs that led to the different levels of the art gallery. Darat al Funun is situated on a series of terraces that are lined with small shrubberies and beautiful baby blue flowers. You get an amazing view of the city below you.
The noises of Amman are equally as paradoxical. Sounds of car horns, music from a nearby home, the adthan (call to prayer) ringing from the mosque, the adthan blaring through the phones of not one but three uncles in the same vicinity, as well as the wonderful melodies of the band. Everything is like a synchronized cacophony that works well together. Not only the sounds but people as well. A crowd of young families, couples, friends, foreign and local students as well as elders from around the areas all waited in anticipation of the concert. The common bridge between us was a desire to hear the band play.
We ended the evening at a café nearby. During the night, the streets are filled with youth hanging out near café and sheesha lounges, or even just driving around aimlessly in their cars.
There is no better way to end the night than to sit calmly and drink an iced latte. Unlike back home where coffee shops close at 6:00 p.m., the cafes in Amman stay open well until midnight, providing the perfect alternative to bars and pubs. I am surprised to see that smoking is permitted inside restaurants as I watch the two Jordanian girls next to me puff away at their cigarettes. Despite the apprehensions of my classmates and their assumptions of an ultra-conservative environment in Jordan, I’m happy to see that our evening thus far dispels all their concerns.
Even though I do not condone smoking, I am content to see these two girls owning their independence, carrying it in a stylish manner. Admiring the outfit of the girl next to me I glance at her, admiring how she ties her hijab, and the colour of her outfit when I catch a glimpse of something. Upon closer inspection, I realize that just above her ankle is a small feather tattoo.
I smile. Despite considering myself well-traveled, I am constantly reminded that not everything you see or assume should be taken as the truth. Sometimes you need a closer inspection.