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While Amman perhaps doesn’t offer the kind of exhilarating souk experience with an overwhelming array of spices, artisanal ware and relentless bargaining we often imagine of Arabic cities, it has a subtle charm of its own.
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I had heard a lot of criticism about Amman as a city — that it is boring with nothing to do or see. In no way is this true — the city has plenty to offer! It may just take some effort to discover.
I moved here as part of my BA Arabic degree, which meant spending the entire academic year in a country I had never visited before. Having never travelled in the Middle East, this was rather an exciting prospect and, having come not as a tourist, but to stay (if only for a limited period), I wanted to know what the city was like to live in.
Having spent three months here so far, I have built up a list of observations that I found surprising, coming from a European background, which any visitor will notice sooner or later.
While the assumption is that it is always hot in the Middle East, this is not entirely true. Admittedly, the heat in late August can be overwhelming — over 30 degrees and sunny all day long. But you get used to it very fast: soon 30 degrees feels like nothing. It gets to the point where you almost forget what a cloudy day looks like.
Come mid-September, everyone keenly awaits for the first signs of rain. “Look, clouds!” someone may shout, and everyone goes over to the window in eager anticipation. Jordan is 90% desert, and the climate is respectively a desert climate — scorching hot in the day, cold at night. Houses have little to no heating, and in November a common complaint is how cold it is — colder inside than out.
Amman is hilly, and there is a constant breeze — refreshing in summer, but in late Autumn, 18 degrees makes you think “winter is coming” (summer in Northern European terms!) There is a promise of ice and maybe even snow by January: sounds slippery considering the steepness of these hills.
The layout of the city (due to its fast growth) makes it very difficult to walk anywhere. Granted, there are a few areas where the pavements are decent enough to walk on, but for the most part, excursions on foot often mean dealing with cracked pavements that can be up to two feet high, and honking horns. Venturing from one area to another, the roads resemble motorways because of the amount of cars and lanes, and pedestrian crossings are virtually non-existent. Be prepared to walk a mile to encounter a bridge, or dare to run across the road fearing for your life.
The above point means that taking a taxi anywhere is a common means of transport. Buses exist, but they are rare, and no one really seems to know their timetables and routes. The joke is that the bus is so fast you cannot even see it. There are also white servees taxis: a kind of shared minibus. With no designated route, they leave as they fill up with customers. Outside, men shout destinations at passersby, and you get on a bus heading in your direction, telling the driver where to drop you off. Sounds daunting, but it is very cheap — 35 qirsh* for a ride. A taxi across the city will cost you about 2 dinars. That said, taxis might not be easy to get, depending on how busy it is. A driver may even refuse to take you, and foreigners run the risk of getting ripped off. Hence one must always check to make sure the meter is running, or to agree on a price before boarding.
Despite the preconceptions one might have about the Middle East, Jordan is not a cheap country to live in. The dinar is stronger than the pound, and the prices in supermarkets and Western-style malls are similar to those found in Europe. (This is why it is better to leave the malls for a special treat, and stick to local shops and produce.) Prices can vary significantly depending on where you are. A Turkish coffee from a corner shop could cost 35 qirsh, an American-style filter coffee, 2 dinars. In a nicer mall café, this could be 4 dinars including tax and service charge. That said, not all prices are fixed. A good rule of thumb is that if there is no price tag, the price is negotiable. This is particularly true for the souks, such as those in the older part of town. Traditionally, for Arabs, haggling is an art form, and agreeing to the price right away is somewhat disrespectful and makes you look like a fool.
When it comes to the kind of produce on offer, Amman has a lot of variety. In the bigger malls and supermarkets, one finds a lot of the same brands and products as in Europe. No big culture shock there. However, when it comes to more specialised things, such as organic produce, or foods aimed at vegans or people with allergies (tofu, gluten free…) the struggle is real. If these are available, they are rare and difficult to find.
“If you have specialist needs — like a particular brand of shampoo you like — bring a supply of it with you,” we were advised by our school. But with limited suitcase space, I think I am OK with my hair adjusting to something new, for now.
[*a qirsh is one hundredth of a dinar. 1 dinar is equivalent to £1.11 at time of publication].
Featured image © Anton Mukhametchin