It takes another hour and a half to get to Jordan’s capital city of Amman. We finally escape the bus at 1:30 AM. Badr is greeted by his three cousins there to pick him up, who warmly embrace their Syrian counterpart. At Badr’s behest they unquestioningly agree to take me to the hotel I haven’t booked yet. I load my bags into Mohammed’s small car. They insist that I ride shotgun, while they squeeze three into the back.
Mohammed speaks the best English out of everyone and does most of the talking. He is a graphics designer with a penchant for film, and I am the first American he’s had the pleasure to spend any time with. Hopefully, in hip-hop terms, I’ll “represent .”
I am immediately struck by the visible signs of Westernization that have befallen Jordan; KFC, Mickey D’s, Pizza Hut, and the added poundage they bring to the population of Amman. My new friend Mohammed is one them, patting his small pot belly, while describing his affinity for McDonald’s cuisine, which he eats so regularly it landed in the hospital with persistent stomach troubles at the ripe age of 23.
My hosts pepper me with questions about my travels, about America, about how I find the Middle East, and I vice-versa, while we dine on a late night snack of Lebanese pizza.
It’s nearly 3 in the morning by the time we’re done, and all four of them are driving me around to help me find accommodations when they should be home in bed.
Honestly, if you are a guest in any Arab society, it is mandated by the culture that they treat you with respect, lay out their best wares for you, and go out of their way to helpful. It seems impossible to feel unwelcome in this society.
For a moment I forget all I just wrote about Arab hospitality, the Pavlovian response of anger races through me. Graffiti on a wall - in black letters is scrawled, “Osama.” It takes me a second to realize that this is a common name in the Arab world and merely a tagger seeking to meet his need for significance externally. “Osama is a bad word in the West,” I remark to my new friends.
At 3:30 AM we find a suitable hotel, at $50 a night it is by no means cheap for this region of the world, but it’s far too late to keep looking. My Arab friends have been kind enough as it is.
My room is HUGE, bigger than my two bedroom Los Angeles apartment. You could get lost in here. On the downside, electrical wires peak out of the walls in every direction, some with the copper directly exposed, the plastic covering stripped. It’s probably even money that I die in a fire tonight: Russian Roulette with worse odds. I book the bet, far too exhausted to move.
I wake up and marvel at my good fortune. From wrestling wild crocodiles in Ghana, to surviving the sloppy electrical wiring, it seems that the Grim Reaper seems to have no immediate plans for me.
Check out this quick video of Koran TV-- 24 hour satellite station, non-stop Koran (common through the Middle East)
My first order of business is to find Internet and grab some breakfast. Should be easy in a big city like this right?
WRONG: Today is Friday, and in Islamic tradition, everything is closed,.
The bank, the exchange, the laundry-mat, restaurants—All closed. For such a huge city this place is a ghost-town, no movement whatsoever. I walk around for an hour before deciding to take a taxi around to investigate if there is more to see.
There isn't: Amman is dirty, dusty, old, and ugly. The buildings are worn down, the ancient cars spout noxious fumes into the air, furthering the surrounding blanket of pollution that makes it all but impossible to breathe. Venturing to the Middle East with asthma would be suicide.
The Treasury in Petra
I have been invited to have dinner with Mohammed and his family at their house. I’m picked up in the late afternoon, and driven to the outskirts of town and their modest home.
Mohammed lives with his large extended family under the same roof along with his wife who is also his cousin. Both these scenarios are common amongst Arabs.
I am fed a small meal of chicken and grains, before we adjourn to the patio for a talk. I am eager to find out what Jordanians think politically. I ask. It’s not as taboo a question as it is in Syria where if you ask someone their opinion, they answer back is, “An opinion? What’s an opinion.”
As eager as they are to please me, they answer, but honestly, they "really don’t care about politics one way or the other, they just want to live a happy, peaceful existence."
The family is of Palestinian heritage. I ask Mohammed what he thinks of Israel. The unmistakable micro-expression of anger flashes across his face. He plays it off, again stating that he doesn’t really care about Israel he just wants to live his life. I back off the political, they invite me on a tour of Amman.
We drive to the main drag where twenty-somethings congregate, puffing away on their cigarettes amidst an ocean of storefronts selling sweets and drinks. You won’t find alcohol here, although underground clubs reserved for the wealthy do serve it elsewhere.
My friends are proud of Jordan’s modernity, at least as compared to the rest of Arabia. It’s still ultra-conservative compared to the West. To give your fiancée so much as a peck on the cheek in public would be considered quite risqué.
Amman’s shopping district seems to be additional source of pride for Jordanian’s, a confirmation of the relative progressive nature of their country, and the availability of quality goods that come with it. From my standpoint I just see another Western mall, with such names as Gucci and Tiffany- a tribute to mankind’s egoic nature and never ending need for validation.
I discuss this with Mohammed who tells me that he is infected with consumerism. “I see something advertised, I want it bad. I can’t not have it.”
“What does that mean?” I inquire.
“I am in debt,” Mohammed explains, “This car. Thousands of dollars in debt. My computer, I had to have it, another $1,200. I pay interest on this money too.”
“Well,” I answer, “Your car gets you around, you can move heavy items in it. You can communicate with the world using your computer, and you edited your short films on it. You invested money in things that increased your quality of life. If you are going into debt to purchase something, I don’t know any reason more sound.”
“But I see something, and then I just want it.”
“Again, if you go into debt $3,000 to purchase a Prada hand bag to be able to walk around with it and show it off, then that’s Madison Avenue manipulating the human ego at its worst. If you buy something of quality because it increases your productivity/ makes things easier, what’s wrong with that? The important thing is to understand the reasons behind the impulse. Having that Prada bag won’t change who you are, but for a split second your un-satiable ego might take a mollified breath and tell you that you “are” something: worthy/good/important, but that car will get you to work every day. Like right now, I’m going to buy you all ice-cream. Why, cause I’m having a lot of fun with you guys and I feel like it.”
“Oh, we cannot let you do that, we will buy you ice cream.”
Damn Arab hospitality. “No, this time I treat you.”
So we all enjoyed our sweet treat, on this warm night in the Middle East, under the lights of the Prada and Tiffany signs. Consumerism has invaded. I’m at peace with that. If I wasn’t, how could I enjoy this moment?