Wednesday, July 25, 2012


On Sunday, we were invited to the village of Rumman for iftar, the breaking of the fast.

We left Amman around 6:45, aiming to reach the village just after the call to prayer announced iftar. As we sped out of the city, climbing the many hills of Amman and relishing in the expanse of the valleys, the sun was setting, blood orange. I've never seen a sun set so violent and majestic and raw. It felt like the end of days, the final sun to disappear beneath the curve of the earth in a fiery haze of uncertainty. My heart stopped, my breath caught. Someone once told me that the reason birds go haywire during sunset is because their memories aren't strong enough to recall prior cycles of the sun, the way they have felt the sun set and rise many times. Each sun set terrifies them, as they think that perhaps they will never see light again. I wonder about the validity of this statement, but it certainly describes some of what I was feeling. I felt inter stellar chaos, and my human eyes were too caught in the brilliant colors to return to what was logical, and calm my beating heart.

Our favorite taxi driver (kind of our adopted uncle), Yusuf, was delighted by our reaction to the stunning view. He's been telling us about it for weeks, offering to take us to the top of the hill free of charge any evening we choose, to see the sun set. We've been putting it off, caught up with other things, but in the end I'm glad I experienced it with Yusuf in the driver's seat.

We sped down the road with few other drivers, most people having already made it home for their first meal of the day. Yusuf stopped at a road side convenience store once the sun had set to get water, but returned with chocolate bars and fruit juice for both of us. It felt like a real, honest to goodness road trip. The further we got away from the center of Amman, the clearer the air felt. Like ocean air. The smell of it hit me in the chest and left me spiraling into images of two lane highways dotted with modest homes, of expansive golden fields and perfect creeks, of barefoot wanderings on summer nights. My bones ached, not for the first time, for the sweetness of North Carolina, and it again managed to catch me by surprise.

The hills here are dotted with olive trees, date trees, shrubs and other unfamiliar vegetation. Some of it reminded me of the view from my bedroom at Yagmur and Ugur's house, and suddenly I longed for them too, for the strange comfort Istanbul had provided. The familiarity and warmth of older women was a happy discovery upon arriving at Om Nidal's. Sisterhood, even with strangers, always leaves me feeling as though I've come home.

Om Nidal had prepared a beautiful meal for us, a long table covered in salads, rice, chicken, fish, okra, beans, bread, hummus, and soup. I observed the spread with wonder. My recent, improvised, mediocre endeavors in the kitchen have left me with a new found appreciation for those who can handle dishes even as simple as rice- let alone feasts involving the handling of raw chicken, a feat which I find to be wholly impressive. Jasmine and I were seated and served carab juice in wonderfully elegant glasses. Carab, I learned, is a locally grown alternative to chocolate. The drink is thick and sweet in the warm way chocolate is, and I took to it at once. Something about it reminded me of Brunei, perhaps the texture or the unassuming sweetness present in so much of their food- and people. 

Om Nidal is one of Jasmine's many former students from her time spent at the Royal Botanic Gardens. While there, she worked in the village teaching block printing and fabric dyeing, some of the many skills the women learned and practiced in the workshop. Unfortunately, upon the end of Jasmine's time there, the project fell apart. I get the impression Om Nidal- indeed, all the women- made a valiant effort to rescue it, but the powers that be let things falter for a little too long, and it hasn't been the same since.  They spent time discussing the saga of the workshop, accompanied by Nausreen, Om Nidal's charming daughter-in-law (and soon to be mother!). However, as Jasmine pointed out early on, these are people who don't believe in gossip, and hold strictly to that. Earlier in the day, when advising me in how to dress, she told me to prepare for what basically amounts to church ladies. Upon her comment about gossip, all I could think of was the old stereotype, of southern "Bless her heart," church ladies, and had to laugh at the strange parallels and contradictions constantly melding and separating in my perception of the world.

As we continued our meal, more ladies from the workshop began to join us in Om Nidal's living room. Men were not present throughout the whole of the evening. I could hear them murmuring, sometimes, from the other side of the curtain in the hallway, but didn't lay eyes on one until we were headed to Yusuf's taxi in the dark. All of the women kept their abayas and hijabs on throughout the evening, which I thought was fascinating. They joked and smiled with Jasmine, eager to hear what she's been up to since leaving RBG, and to show her the work they did in her absence. Fadia, a striking woman in her late 20s, showed us exquisite ribbon embroidery that had done on pillowcases and the like on her blackberry, which she kept neatly tucked in a red drawstring bag. Om Nidal shared some of her cross-stitching work, and we marveled at the black, gold, and red creation she had made that was hanging on her wall.

The women were all kind and good humored, each with distinctive, feisty personalities. Om Nidal is clearly the leader of them all, but they each seem to have their place in the group. The evening was full of stories, witty banter, and plenty of laughter. As our time winded down, Om Nidal invited us to the rooftop, pointing out her pomegranate trees on the way. She pointed to a much smaller structure behind the house, explaining that it was the house she had lived in when she first married her husband. She and her husband, she said, had built the whole complex with their bare hands, which is why her knees gave her so much trouble now. SHE BUILT A WHOLE FREAKING HOUSE.


Guys. I can't even manage a sand castle. Om Nidal is the ultimate badass.

We climbed the staircase to the roof, the women pointing towards the lights of Jerash with delight. The stars drifted and swayed above us. I felt as though I had raced the sun to greet my old friends, the stars.

Nausreen graciously showed us into her portion of the house, the second floor apartment she shares with her husband. It consists of a spacious bedroom, a beautiful balcony, a small but functional kitchen, and a sitting room. After marveling at the views from the balcony, we were seated in the sitting room and served Arabic coffee. Nausreen also broke out three photo albums; miscellaneous, engagement, and wedding.
We began with the wedding album, and I must say, some of the pictures were very surprising. The group shots were relatively predictable,showing the bride and groom surrounded by their jovial extended families, Nausreen shining among all of them- swathed in a white satin cloak and hood, like a winter queen.  The photos of her with Hassan, however, were something else altogether.

The cloak was shed to reveal a strapless, beaded princess gown, and her long dark hair was piled elaborately on her head. In many of the photographs she held a red rose, and Hassan was pretty much invariably staring at her in wonder, whilst she gazed straight into the lens. Ladies and gentlemen, Nausreen can smize unlike anyone I have ever seen. Smoldering, seductive, powerful, expressive eyes- and she knows it. While Hassan is reverently kissing her shoulder or her neck and holding her waist, she unabashedly stares down the viewer, owning her beauty and her power. They were very romantic, very posed, and very sweet. The engagement album was similar, Nausreen in a deep maroon strapless gown and a tiara, leaning against her fiancé and allowing him to look totally swept up in puppy love as she focused on her posing.

The final album was by far the greatest. It began with pictures of her and Hassan as children with their families. These were fascinating on their own, but the last 30 or so photos take the prize. While Nausreen was in college, she had taken some glamour shots of herself. Some were done at a studio, with the kitschiest, blown out, 1980s gradient backgrounds and superimposed beach themed borders- and some were down by herself (or maybe with a friend), in her bedroom. In them, she portrays a multitude of different personas. The most memorable and prominent included punk rock girl, Spanish dancer, and American Eagle girl. Punk rock girl wore mid-thigh green plaid dresses with industrial zippers and combat boots.  Spanish dancer was most often seen in a lace up, black lace corset/tank top with various brightly colored skirts, posing coyly on chairs, staring seductively through kohl lined eyes. American Eagle girl was fresh faced, wearing white linen shirts and denim shorts, and the trademark American smile. Jasmine and I were delighted to find a kindred spirit, someone else who believes in the power of photos as a form of self expression and amateur anthropology. "Pictures are the best thing, " Nausreen said, "because you can look back at yourself and remember." Later Jasmine and I discussed how aging doesn't scare people here, and how refreshing that is. The pressure to stay young in America is really very strange, and discredits all the amazing things that accompany physical changes as we grow old. I hope that I can age gracefully, without the bitterness I often see in amongst women in the states. I hope that I can look back on pictures of myself from this time in my life with fondness and gratitude, and without the slightest bit of jealousy.

We headed home soon thereafter. Om Nidal plucked small jasmine blossoms for each of us, as well as two pomegranates from her tree. We set off into the night with fruit, flowers, and hearts fuller than usual. I let myself be carried away by the lights in the valleys on the drive home, let my thoughts wander, as they often do, beyond words and into something closer to energy. I rolled down my window (fun fact: on the back windows of Yusuf's taxi, he has a decal of King Abdullah waving. It's hilarious.) and let the wind call me back from being too far inside my head, reminding me to smile and let myself move past contentment and into joy.

When we reached our duar (circle), we stopped back at the sweet shop. They remembered us from earlier, and made a small pass at Jasmine- "Please keep coming back! We make only sweet things here, including our customers."


Armed with a kilo of a little bit of everything they had to offer, we retired on the terrace and chowed down. I had never been drunk off of food until that night. We were both totally slap happy, giggling uncontrollably under the stars at two in the morning, feeling the sugar push through our blood and the world turn under us. 

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