Desert Oasis

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Amman is a city that unfolds itself slowly. At first glance, it is little more than a launch pad from which to visit more coveted destinations like Petra or the Wadi Rum desert. But belying its modest facade—the streets congested with restless cab drivers, the shawarma often drab and slathered with mayo, the blaring calls to prayer that interrupt each night of sleep—is a dynamic metropolis with more complexity than any place I have encountered.

I lived in Amman for four months during my junior year in college, on a program in which I pledged to speak in Arabic, however choppily, at all times. The language became a critical point of entry into the local culture. It was prima facie proof of an effort to understand the country. Along with the rest of the Arab World, Jordan’s religion and history are deeply linked to its language.

It is through practicing the regional dialect that I came to know Sami, a kiosk attendant at a suburban mall. He took me to meet his sheikh, a cheery man of middle age with boundless energy. Over juice, we spoke about Islam, and Sami lamented the nuances of the religion missed in much of Western discourse. He practices Sufism, a mystical subset known for preaching against violence. We talked for hours, then Sami drove me home; the sheikh rode shotgun.

Sami’s warmth typifies Jordanian culture, which prizes hospitality. The trait is derived, people say, from the Bedouin who once occupied much of the land. As a result, Amman is a place where I was regularly asked by strangers to visit their homes for dinner. Such invitations were sincere, and I accepted on occasion.

It is in people’s homes, I came to realize, that the local cuisine assumes its most vibrant form. My favorite dishes included mansaf, a tangy stew of lamb cooked in yogurt, and maqluba, which translates to “upside down,” as the dish is presented by inverting a pot of rice to reveal a layer of eggplant and cauliflower, or other vegetables.

Yet even with such glimmering assets, Amman is a city of immense juxtaposition. The kindness shown to outsiders contrasted by the onslaught of catcalls many women face, the littered streets of downtown markets balanced by the immaculate floors of mosques and the cleanliness of worshippers who perform wudu before kneeling to pray.

The city evolves steadily, as many do. Gender equity and the broader recognition of gay rights remain ongoing projects. Politics are endlessly litigated in cafes over cups of tea and puffs of shisha. Jordan, a generally moderate and stable country, faces turbulence on each of its borders. Vigilance is a necessity.

Amman, in sum, is a city that does not seek to be known. After four months, it still felt like more of an acquaintance than a friend. And it is precisely that inscrutability that makes it so alluring.
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A boy on his way to school in Amman.

A Bedouin girl relaxes in a saddle bag on a camel in Petra.

Jordanian mansaf.