So, a lot of people are wondering what to do during Ramadan. It’s quiet, boring, slow, things shut down, our routines are disrupted and it seems like there is nothing to do! The other part of this is money, everything costs a lot of money to do… so here is my list of things to do during Ramadan, in Amman, for under 10 JD.

1- Go to Turtle Green for a coffee and manousheh, hang out on your own, or with friends with an internet connection and a chilled out atmosphere. Don’t forget to check out the original artwork on the wall downstairs- It is really cool.
Cost= -about JD 5

2- Walk down a side street at sunset and revel in the silence, enjoy it… Amman only becomes this quiet at this time during Ramadan. Alternatively,  take a walk in with Fast Walk – or do your own walk in one of the old neighborhoods of Amman and smell the fabulous jasmine bushes that waft round the corners. This is a whopping zero to do and lots of fun with the right persons.
Cost = ZERO

3- Experiment with your atayef – make them from from scratch or buy them ready made and just stuff them with different things. I’ve done cream and jam, dried fruits, nutella, labneh, pumpkin pie stuffing, bananas… try  anything you like, its fun to experiment.
Cost = about a dinar for a kilo of atayef  and the cost of stuffing. It really is cheap, fun and yummy.

4- Go to Citadel Nights- you can stroll around and have some evening fun in an amazing setting and cool night breezes. Cost= entrance is JD 5 and  if you see a Qalaa kid hanging around and can’t get in buy them a ticket and let them in (makes it an even 10JD).

5- Feed someone: check out Tkiyet Um Ali, smile in a box, under my olive tree, or just do your own thing…
Costs= the costs vary depending on what you do… and it is very rewarding a lot can be done for under 10 though.

6- Hang out with one of the kids in Jabal Al Qala and ask them if they can teach you to make a kite- they will love it and so will you.
Cost=  about 3 JD tops.

7- Goto one of the art galleries in Amman – there are many and learn about the Art. Jacaranda is happy to talk to you about the Jordanian Artists they exhibit and are open from 12 pm- 5pm.
Cost= ZERO

8- Check out one of the ramadan tents that have argileh, cards and other great things…
Costs= The costs vary depending on where you go, but I am sure you can manage to get a nice cup of tea for under 10 JD somewhere… just make sure there are no cover charges or minimum charges.

9- Downtown Amman is a must, before iftar go to the vegtable market and stock up, the closer it is to eid the more you want to check out the craziness that is Italian Street, great buys and lots of fun. After iftar you can have a ramadani juice at any of the juice stands, Creme caramel at al quds, S7our at Hashems, or buy yourself a DVD for a fun night in with your friends. You can also check out the new lights of King Faisal Street- I am told they are really cool.
Cost= anywhere from 1 JD for a DVD and upwards depending on what you do and what you buy. The walk around the hood is free and very energizing :)

10- At su7our, go out and talk to your local musa7arati- you know the guy with the drum (He’s like santa only comes out once a year and is hard to catch).

Feel free to add your favorite thing to do in Ramadan for under 10 JD… and watch for the Arabic version- It is coming soon.

Ramadan Kareem.

I’ve finally moved to Beirut. It took me nine months but it finally happened in August. What took so long, I mean I’ve been living in Beirut since December, right?  I have been thinking about that for the last two months and knowing how my mind works and knowing that I always try to understand the logic or emotion behind something I have come to many realizations. I will share a few here and others in conversations with friends later. But I will say it is finally the end of the beginning and it is time to move forward.

Like I said “what took so long?” is a question that I ask myself and I think I have some answers: Travel, Home, Amman, Relationships, Community, activities are among some the things that come to my mind. Let me start with the first. Travel, since I moved I have been constantly on the go with a maximum of 3 to 5 weeks at any one time in any one place. Though Beirut was my base, it was not home since I really didn’t have the time to settle in, paint walls, fully unpack, and get into my routines. I was shopping for my trips rather than for my home and doing laundry with the intent of packing a suitcase rather than putting away in closet. It is very difficult to be on the go if you are unsettled and it is very unsettling to be that unstable therefore it is nearly impossible to start moving in someplace when there is constant motion.

Another reason is Home. Home is such a strange concept I have learned. I am not sure where or how to start articulating what I want to say or how it impacted me. But it took me 9 months to close up my home and sell my belongings I slowly untangled myself from what I called home in Amman. It entailed giving away things, selling things, donating things and just compressing my life to one room.  It was so hard and so easy at the same time. It was a hard decision to come to and it was hard deciding what is to stay and what is to go but when decided it was done. It became easy to look at those books I had been accumulating for over 15 years and say well they are just books, my photography on my walls was just pictures in frames and other such detachments. Things that took on such huge significance at various times in my life are but mere memories in my mind and it took a bloody long time to get there.

When I think back over those nine months I think of all the trips I made to Amman and the trips Amman made over to me.  The idea that Amman is so close and easy to jump to and from meant that I was never fully in Beirut. I would default to Amman in many ways including my shopping, I even postponed buying pots and pans until I went to Amman and to this day I buy my bread in Amman.  I’m still on Ammani mailing lists that are constant reminders of things I am missing out on and with an inbox full of Amman and no time to get on the Beiruti lists it was difficult to get plugged in and despite a lot of efforts I still am not, but breakthroughs are being made and I am getting there-slowly but surely.

My relationships and my communities both in Beirut and in Amman are very different as is their various roles and mine within these relationships and communities. This was a major adjustment as in Amman I was not only fiercely independent I was usually in the middle of all the happenings and connected to so many things in so many ways. My relationships in Amman were also very diverse and spanned many many years. I’d gone through so many things with so many people and I did not have to explain myself, who I was or where I was coming from. I was surrounded by people I loved and people who love me. In Beirut I had to start from scratch, my oldest relationship goes back two years and is turbulent to say the least. I felt very vulnerable, dependent and always on the fringe, never really able to fine the entry point. I had such a hard time as a lot of what I would say or do would be interpreted as me being difficult, rude or unfriendly or vice versa. I mean to this day I can count on one hand the number of homes I have been invited into in Beirut, something so strange and weird coming from my particular Jordanian context where I was always turn down invitations and apologizing from social engagements and many homes were always open. The socialscape in Beirut is very different and building those relationships   My friends were always saying things take time and I know they do, but for someone who is used to being in the middle of a lot of social and cultural activities and life full of people the emptiness and isolation of moving to a new place is very intimidating and depressing. But I must give a shout out to the few lovely people who were really welcoming and inviting throughout and in no particular order I want to say thank you to: GA, SC, RB, MM, HA and whomever else went out of their way to be inclusive and welcoming.

On my last trip to Amman in July/ August there were many things that made it a final decision. I truly felt it was the end of era. I dismantled so much of my physical and material world. I sold my books, gave away my DVDs, and pretty much said good bye in a way that I knew I won’t be coming back for a long time. I have left what is there there and am now firmly in Beirut. Amman is home but in that way that it isn’t  your everyday home.  This is a turning point in my relationship to a city I grew up in, I loved and lost in, I fought and won in, a city I gained my independence in, a city that I grew a family in, a city I am happy and proud to have been a part of the fabric that made it special to me and all those around me.  That trip was the last line in the chapter I call Amman as I knew it.  I was in Amman this weekend, my first trip back to say good bye to a friend leaving on a long trip (I will write later about the first trip after the move). We are both on adventures in worlds far from those we know, and I said to her as I say to myself  “Just remember, when you put your foot down its always taking a step forward.”

Since I’ve moved to Beirut not a week goes by without someone telling me they hate Amman. It invariably happens when I first meet someone new and within seconds of them knowing I am from Jordan.  And I don’t know why they have to make that definitive statement. It is not endearing in any way, shape or form. I don’t want to know how bored you were in Amman, how hostile you found it, how bland you think the buildings are, how unsmiling the Jordanians are or how much you hate the food. That is your experience and if you hate it so much, just don’t go back. And if you hate it and are still there then leave. But what I really don’t want is a 15 minute tirade about how you found Amman to suck and why you think it is so.

There are many reasons I don’t like being put in this situation and one of them is I am not sure how to respond to these statements. Am I supposed to agree when I don’t? Am I supposed to offer advice and tips on enjoying the city, when clearly this person has made up their mind? Do I go into attack mode and tell them why they are wrong? Or do I tell them what I really think about Beirut and enumerate all the things I hate about it and make it a pissing contest? I’ve tried all the above strategies, and because of them I have been asked why I take it so personally, why am I so defensive. I guess the appropriate response is to smile, shrug and if possible walk away?

I’m really tired of hearing people crap on a city I love and miss and it gets more tiresome when you are trying really hard to integrate and live in a city you don’t.  I’ve been accused of romanticizing Amman and painting such a glowing picture of it. Well, guess what, yes I confess I love that city, and I loved my life there. I had numerous wonderful experiences and I was part of a movement that was involved and engaged in making that city and that life better. It’s not that I am blind to Amman’s shortcomings and its problems but rather I was able to do something about it, and that has made all the difference!

I think it is completely insensitive and rude to tell someone their home is ugly, boring, retarded…etc. especially to someone you barely know. And at this point I would like to remind everyone of the sage old advice handed down over generations “If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything.” Because really I didn’t ask you if you love or hate Amman, so spare me. We will not bond over Amman hate. And please don’t get me wrong, Amman is not an easy city to navigate as a stranger, it took me years to become a part of the city and understand it, and everyone has a right to their opinion and a right to hate the city.  This is their personal experience. But what I am saying is if you meet someone from a place you hate, and they don’t ask you, there is no need whatsoever to tell them their home sucks. It’s their home.

Last week I heard the unfortunate news of Abu Firas’ passing. He died of a heart attack in his sleep. I was saddened and  at the same time happy when I heard the news. You see Abu Firas was an amazing man who I trusted, loved and shared a lot of traffic time with. He was one of the few drivers I used constantly when in Amman. He had been integral to my social and professional lives. He was special and so even though I am sad he has left us, I am happy that he had a painless  quick and simple death. To go in your sleep is perhaps one of the best ways to go, and knowing that he worked hard for that good death is reassuring. He deserved it.

For those of you that don’t know him, Abu Firas was a man you could count on to be where you needed him, when you needed him. He was patient, driving for hours in the heat or the cold in his old beat up car and in the new one. When you needed him to wait outside for “10 minutes” he waited the half hour and the hour and never got annoyed. He was funny with his falafel, George Bush and Tony Blair, and donkey driving  jokes that many of us heard over and over again.  He was honest even when he over charged us. We knew he was over charging us and he knew it, but he also he knew when to give us a break and when we should give him a break. He was the lynchpin that connected so many of us , never forgot any of his customers, for he always asked, always, about old friends that have left and new that he just met. He was dependable and ran many errands for me and others alike picking up, dropping off and collecting all sorts of goods from all over the city. He had an amazing memory for places not just because he was a cab driver, but he cared and made it a point to know. We even had our own names for the neighborhoods and the streets because of all the errands we ran together. He was who you called in the middle of the night to pick you up even if you had no money because you could always pay him next time. His passing, to me, marks the end of an era. No longer will I be able to call him and ask for a ride when the sun is high and the traffic murderous. No longer will he wait patiently when the sky is dark and the streets empty and unwelcoming to take me safely home. No longer will he pick up my mail at the post office and bring it home to me when I visit Amman. No longer will he wave as he whizzes by me on the street and call out my name.

I got one last ride with Abu Firas and we chatted and looked after each along the way , each in our own way. I am glad I could say good bye to him, for I was at the airport, and airport farewells are somewhat more resonating than the quick thank you in the city.  Good bye dear man, you will be remembered. He was special.

Abu Firas

One Last Ride

I’m coming home! Next weekend I will be heading to Amman. I miss it much. I’ve been thinking a lot about my life here in Beirut and the differences between it and Amman and its like comparing apples to oranges. I came with high hopes and expectations and I quickly stumbled and tripped over myself in my fumblings around this new home of mine. I have learned a lot about myself and even though I knew I am a creature of habit I had not realized how much of my life was habitualized and ritualized; from my weekend “spontaneity” to my structured work days and weekly commitments. I miss it all.

Next weekend, I leave to go to Amman to relish in all that it is; to look out at the beautiful sunset, play scrabble with my scrabble partner, walk through its old windy street, play with the kids of Al Qalaa and meet the ones of Weibdeh, coffee with old friends, stich and bitch, and Tuesdays at Ivy’s and Wednesdays with Toastmasters. I go back to recharge my batteries that have been running on empty for a while now. I go back to get my Ammani fix.

But before I go I want to reflect a bit on my experience in Beirut. In the last few months, I not so quickly or easily learned that I needed to unlearn a lot of things and pick up new ways of relating and new ways of being. It is growing pains all over again, with social awkwardness, misfitting and feeling like the last one picked for the team, only I don’t know where the team is to start with. I feel unproductive, unaccomplished and with too much time on my hands and no interest in filling it, because I was not relating to where I am. Stating the obvious, Amman has been and still is a big part of my life. In the last few months I have over romanticized it, reminisced about it and continued to make it the yard stick that I measure Beirut against. And because I have done that I have set myself up to fail, fail miserably and be miserable while failing. If my life has taught me anything, it is that from my lowest points, my miserable and not so miserable failures, that I learn the most.

So enough about Amman; Amman will take care of itself. Beirut. Beirut is a big reason I am excited about going to Amman. I am excited to leave so that I can come back. I know it is strange, something has shifted and I no longer want to hide away indoors and block the world out. I am excited about this city, its people, and what it has to offer. I know this now because on my way back from the US, I had the same feelings I do when I return to Amman after any trip: the feelings of wanting to return and having arrived home. The next step is to define what that means.

So I’ve realized that I haven’t written in a long time and I have made the decision to try and put up something no matter how big or small and get back into the habit of writing. So here is a shot at something from my new life.

Over the last few months I have been trying to acclimate in this new city I have adopted as a home for the time being. But it is a difficult place to acclimate to and I am going to be very honest and say that I have been in a funk (aka depression). I have also been very uninspired. I seem to find Beirut an uninspiring city. I know a lot of people who would disagree with me, and to the Ammani’s of them I say, try living here instead of just playing here on the weekends. To the Beirutis of them I say, please show me otherwise. To the rest of y’all tell me what you find inspiring about this city? I have been unable to write, pick up a camera or even doodle!

A blogger/ writer I know watched Lord of the Rings with subtitles on to try and unblock his writing freeze. I don’t know if it has worked for him, but I am more than willing to try something, anything, to get me back to a new state of inspiration from within this new city I call home.

Last month I was asked to do an iReport for CNN about Breast Cancer Awareness. And as I was thinking about what to say it was clear to me that I also had to write and tell my story in a little bit more than 60 seconds! Breast cancer and cancer in general is not a new or strange concept in our worlds. However if you are anything like me, its something that is in the darkest corner of my mind. I know its there I just pretend not to hear its voice saying “Shalabieh, you need to get checked, for your sake just make sure everything is OK and you are healthy.” I ignore the voice because I feel great, I feel fine but cancer doesn’t work like that.

Jordan Breast Cancer Program

Jordan Breast Cancer Program

Last year the voice got out of my head and when into the real world. I first heard about it on the radio, in a cab heading to the office. Then I saw a massive billboard, and flyers everywhere. It was a national campaign in full force: The Jordan Breast Cancer Program was launched. And it was only a matter of time before I responded to all those ads. I called the support line and learned about free breast exams, subsidized mammograms and where I can get them and how much they were and who the participating doctors are and where their clinics are located. I talked to my colleagues about it and my friends. We all knew the importance of getting checked, but we all managed to somehow put it off.

Our breasts, no matter how prominent they are, are often ignored- especially when it comes to their health. But after ignoring the health of my breasts for a long while (20 years of carrying these babies around), I FINALLY went to my gynecologist and asked her to teach me how to do a self breast exam. It was awkward and strange having my doctor play with my boobs, coz that’s what it felt like. But buy the end of those 10 minutes I was cleared and I had gotten a tutorial! I can now do the exams myself and I get an excuse to play with boobs (not that one needs an excuse)! But on a more serious note I got some very good advice which included:
• The self breast exam should be done monthly
• The best time to do it is after a period
• It is best to do the exam standing up in front of a mirror. But If you have large breasts then you may want to do it lying down
• If you have a fast paced life and no time then you can check your breasts when you are in shower and soaping up
I won’t go into how to do the actual exam as I am not qualified to do so, but I will say this: it’s easy, it’s fast and it can save your life.

My aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and she is a survivor, she was lucky she caught it early and is recovering nicely. You can be lucky too, but you will never know unless you go that first time and learn about this disease, and learn how to catch it in its tracks. Don’t ignore your breasts, go play with your boobs and if you need advice then check the The Jordan Breast Cancer Program’s Website for more information. Be healthy, be safe and spread the word you may save someone else’s life too.

I love this city and I love all it has to offer. I don’t believe I need to spend excessive amounts of money to enjoy myself here. And since I am always asked what should one do in the city – well here are 10 ideas that cost less than 10 JD to enjoy. Some of them even cost less!

1- Take any one of tens of stairs leading downtown from the surrounding Jabals- the ones in Jabal Amman are especially charming.
Cost: Zero

2- Enjoy a meal at any one of these restaurants- they have all been around for ages and are considered institutions amongst Ammannis:
• Hashem, downtown- 24 hour service in the heart of the city
• Al Quds restaurant, downtown- great traditional foods- must try the molokhia, & the crème caramel
• The Orient Bar aka Abu Ahmad, downtown- amazing grilled meats – must try the 3arayes
• Habiba, Downtown- Knafeh, knafeh, knafeh
• Tamriet Omar, Second Circle- Tamrieh and other traditional sweets
• Falafel Al Quds, Rainbow Street- Falafel sandwiches
• Shawerma Reem, Second Circle- Meat Shawerma (I’m not a fan but it’s a must to have had at least one if you live in Amman or are visiting)
Cost: Anywhere between 0.300 JD – 8 JD

3- A walk through Jabal Alweibdeh and its galleries. These include: The National Gallery for Arts, Makan, Darat Al Funun, Dar Al Anda, Darat Al Tasweer, and Mo7taref Al Rimal.
Cost: JD 3 entrance to the National Gallery

4- Making a kite in Jabal Al Qala’a- Befriend one of the kids and have them teach you.
Cost: 2- 3 JD

5- Walk through the Jabal Amman neighborhoods around the first and second circles in the cool summer night and smell the amazing jasmine bushes.
Cost: Zero

6- Sit out on a street café on Rainbow street. I highly recommend Duninde Café for the quiet cozy atmosphere and the hustle and bustle is a lot less on that end of the road.
Cost: A cup of coffee is about 3 JD

7- Sit on the hillside of Jabal Alweibdeh (the side facing Jabal Amman and the road leading downtown) and listen to the call to prayer vibrate and resonate through the valleys. Its so beautiful.
Cost: Zero

8- Find a good look out spot to East Amman in Jabal Amman and watch the day end and sunset reflected on the opposite hills. The colors are magnificent.
Cost: 0 – 5 JD depending on your choice of spot and beverage selection.

9- For an explosion of colors, sounds, smells and tastes walk through the vegetable markets of downtown. There are two a covered one and an outdoor one. Both are fun, noisy loud places.
Cost: Zero if you can resist buying the fresh produce!

10- Joining the Fast Walk on a Sunday or Wednesday evening for a power walk with over 100 people! The walks explore the city with 8 different routes leading you through the back streets of Amman on foot.
Cost: Zero

Feel free to share or start your own lists. I’d love to hear how you enjoy this city. Especially if you can do it for under 10 JD ;)

So after the lull of work in Ramadan and the Eid holiday, October has come and with a vengeance. There is so much going on that I am afraid to loose track! Here are some of the things happening in October and I will try to be on top of things and write more often about these happenings and more.

October is…

• All month long: Breast Cancer Awareness Month

• Oct 2: Hamzet Wasel kite making activity and the Walk for Right to Play

• Oct 9: Municipality of Amman’s Centennial Parade

• Oct 8-21: Follow the Women bike ride for peace

• Oct 15: Blog Action Day 2009: Climate Change

• Oct 17: The Amman International Marathon

• Oct 24: 350.org Action day (Hamzet Wasel will be conducting an action too)

I am sure I’ve missed many important things in October so feel free to add to the list.

Yesterday I was walking downtown running various errands with a friend of mine. Throughout our walk we passed by the site of the fire, that burned in the souq, a few weeks back. I took out a camera and started to take pictures. I was impressed with the speed with which the souq had been fixed up and the work that was done.

It was obvious that there was a meeting with the shop owners going on so we quietly tip toed around them. We tried to find evidence of the fire and what had happened, but everything was white washed and new. Even the tiles on the floor were replaced. As we were taking pictures I heard a man asking “what newspaper are they with?” We ignored him as we were not addressed directly and as I was taking the last picture a gentleman in a suit asked “What newspaper are you with and did you ask for permission to take pictures?”

I was appalled by the question and enraged by the attitude and the tone. This was a public space, a souq I had frequented often. It was not a closed construction zone. And so I responded I am a concerned citizen taking pictures. He insisted I had to have permission to do so. Why? Why do I need permission to pictures of something so public and open? Was it a military zone I had stumbled upon? A matter of national security? Or better yet a foreign embassy? And who was he to ask permission from?

Too long have we been submissive when there is no need. I was not breaking any law, I was not doing anything unethical or strange. I merely brought out a camera and clicked away. But this mentality, that we have to ask permission, submit to someone of a higher authority at every turn and at every step is ridiculous. The idea that you have to represent a newspaper or an official body to take a picture of some public works was preposterous.

I stood my ground and in fact told the man, that I was exercising my constitutional right to express myself peacefully. He still insisted that I ask permission, he wanted to know who I represented. I told him I was taking a picture of the column, does he own the column? He said he did, “as do I, as a citizen of this country, as a resident of this city, it is my column too!” He wanted to know who I represented.“I represent myself. I represent my blog. I represent the citizens of this city. I am a Ammani.”

The exchange left a very bitter taste in my mouth after I was exalted about the efforts and the work done to restore this piece of downtown history. I got my pictures and I stood my ground. But why does everything have to be a power struggle? Why does such a simple thing have to become so contentious? This blog post was supposed to be about the history of the souq, and the efforts to bring it back to life after it was burned down. Instead it is now about a man from the municipality who thinks he owns this city!

Here are a couple of the contentious pictures from the restored souq downtown follow:

Downtown Banner at souq

A renewed store

A renewed store

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