Downtown Amman is a surprise. ‘Downtown’ to me means a commercial and retail hub with modern buildings and boutique stores. I soon discover that when a local mentions “Downtown Amman” or just “Downtown”, they’re referring to the Old Town.
We base ourselves Downtown for our first couple of days in Amman. A view of the Roman Amphitheatre across the road from our first-floor hotel room, more than makes up for the noise from the busy street below.
We wake early to walk the streets before breakfast. At a hole in the wall coffee shop, a small group of men mill around, spilling into the street, drinking their pre-work coffee. Given the choice of “Turkish, Arabic or Espresso”, we choose the local aromatic Arabic coffee. It’s laced with cardamom pods and served from a large embossed silver samovar.
Down the street is a small bakery where we buy deliciously fresh flatbread sprinkled with za’atar, drizzled with olive oil and a hint of lemon salt.
I’ve booked a couple of walking tours before we join Intrepid for their tour of Jordan. A food tour in provides the perfect introduction to Jordanian cuisine and orientates us to our surroundings. The following day a street art tour offers an insight into a different side to Amman.
Things Fall Apart
The morning we are to change accommodation and meet our tour group, I wake up feeling dreadful. A positive RAT confirms the worst. Intrepid (and Jordanian) rules require anyone testing positive to isolate for five days. Instead of joining the tour tomorrow, I’ll be confined to a hotel room for five days.
Some question why I don’t just ‘soldier on’. Two reasons. Just one look at me and anyone would know that I am unwell. And I really don’t want to be responsible for infecting a tour group.
Isolating in Amman
In many ways we are fortunate. Our allocated hotel room has a separate lounge area and a king bed which we quickly separate into two singles. Through the large windows I can look across a narrow valley to flat roofed beige buildings which cling like set of building blocks to the hillside. Unlike many modern hotels, the windows open providing much wanted fresh air.
BK leaves each morning to get his coffee fix. The man with the silver samovar starts to recognise him, preparing his aromatic coffee on his approach. He ‘forages’ for tempting treats and fruit at the Souq Al-Sukar and finds a Carrefour for other necessities. He searches for an English book to keep me entertained. “The Giver”, a dystopian young adult book, by Lois Lowry isn’t one I’d normally choose to read, but I finish it in one day. Unfortunately, the TV is all Arabic.
We soon realise that there’s no point in joining our tour when my isolation ends. Instead of the story I hoped to write, perhaps I’ll write something like “I went to Jordan, and didn’t see Petra.”
Scenes from my Window
During the day, I watch as a bar of sunlight moves across the carpeted floor. Occasionally I stand in its path relishing the warmth on my skin. When I have the energy, I stand for long periods of time at the large window watching life in the street below and across the valley.
In the evenings, flocks of pigeons take flight, wheeling around and around, enjoying their freedom. The birds swoop over the rooftops on the other side of the valley. They fly in large circles silhouetted against the early evening sky. As they turn the light catches the varied plumage underneath their flapping wings. One drops down from the group. Then another. Flying in ever tightening circles they eventually all return to their rooftop home.
Pigeons, Kites and the Call to Prayer
For want of something to do, I reach for my phone and enter “Pigeons in Jordan” and “Pigeons in Amman” into the search engine. Pigeon-keeping is apparently “a thing” in Jordan. The hobby has a name – qshash hamam. I read about Zaid Al Moghrabi, who feels that without his pigeons he would have become depressed during Amman’s Covid lockdown. I discover that there’s a pigeon market near Al-Hashemi street and close to the Roman Nymphaeum, not far from the Roman Amphitheatre.
Kite-flying is another evening pursuit. I watch as a man flies his kite from a flat rooftop of a building on the hill opposite our hotel. The hexagonal kite looks like an angel fish with thin diaphanous tails fluttering in the breeze. He rhythmically pulls and relaxes the string, his kite responding by climbing incrementally higher before doing a loopy dive. I hold my breath as the kite dips suddenly. It lands on the roof of another building. What happens now?
From my window, I count the minarets of one or two mosques. At night bright green neon lights encircle the minarets and a green light illuminates the tower wall. A call to prayer punctuates my day. The chorus of rich male voices praying in Arabic is strangely calming. Except for one call. It seems to always be late, and out of tune.
Birthday Celebrations and Road Rage
There’s a restaurant opposite the hotel. I watch the staff set tables and hear them testing a sound system. Smartly dressed men and women arrive in dribs and drabs. A group of hijab-wearing women sit around a table, their arms raised above their heads, hands clapping, as they dance in their seats. Much later, I’m woken by guests singing “Happy Birthday” in Arabic.
During peak hour I watch the traffic bank up on the road winding up the opposite hill. One by one, the cars feed into another busy road.
Hearing a commotion in the street below my window, I look out to see a long line of stationary traffic, the drivers blasting their horns. A group of men are gathered in the street shouting and gesticulating. Some are holding back a taxi driver who tries to throw a punch at the driver of a car blocking his path, hazard lights flashing. I’d heard a bump but couldn’t see any damage.
The passenger in the taxi gets out and grabs the offending driver, putting his face right up to the other man’s face. Men crowd around the offender who is wedged between his open car door and the car. Eventually they return to their cars and drive off. A flashy black Ute, whose driver had been making the most noise, screams off in a show of squealing tires.
The Car Park Valet
Wearing a faded black puffer vest with the word valet embroidered in white capital letters, the restaurant’s car parking valet paces up and down. Smoking as he walks, he chats to passers-by.
When he discovers mulberries on a branch hanging over a low wall, he amuses himself by searching out the few ripe ones. A man from the hotel joins him for a while. For lunch he gets himself a bowl of what looks like chicken and vegetable soup from the restaurant. He tears pieces off some flatbread and dips them into the soup. After eating about half the bowl, he tips the remaining soup against a wall for the stray cats. I’m obviously bored.
Out of Isolation
After five days, my isolation is over, but BK is now ill and feeling awful. I’m still very tired, but need to get out. My mission: to find the Amman pigeon market. Without an exact address, I set off. At the Roman Nymphaeum, I turn left towards the Amphitheatre. The market is somewhere here, but remains elusive.
Finding the Pigeon Market
Back in the hotel, I return to scrolling the internet and eventually find a photograph of a building housing the pigeon market. I’ve seen those pointy arches before and the next day set out again to find the pigeon market. There it is! Above the pointy arches which line a walkway in the front of a three-storey building, is a faded blue and white sign with a picture of a pigeon on a faded blue and white sign.
Behind wire mesh stretched across the first-floor windows I can make out pigeons looking out to the parking lot below. A group of men sitting outside on plastic stools smoke and chat. They look up at me, but don’t speak English. They point to an open door.
Inside the Pigeon Market
Inside, there’s a large room lined with big floor to ceiling bird cages. The sounds of hundreds of cooing pigeons fill the room. In each cage pigeons ranging in colour from pure white, white with black or brown, blue/grey to a midnight black are perched one above the other on small wooden ledges attached to vertical wooden ‘beams.’
A thin man pushes a broad, long handled squeegee along the drenched floor. Behind him, the smooth tiled floor is damp and clean, in front of the squeegee, green and white muck from the cages moves in waves towards me.
Watching my feet, I step carefully towards him. He stops what he is doing to tell me in broken English a little about the birds. The birds in one cage only arrived from Syria “yesterday”. He has already sold 40 of them.
In another smaller cage, there’s a bird (a breeder) that he’ll sell for 1000 Jordanian Dinar (over AU$2000). In contrast a bigger (and to my inexperienced eye, more expensive looking bird) will sell for only 50JD (Around AU$100). This hobby is big business.
Leaving the birds, I walk past Amman’s Roman Amphitheatre where a young teenager is trying to fly his handmade red plastic kite. He has the technique down pat, but needs some wind to get it airborne.
It Gets Too Much
It’s not much fun exploring Amman on my own. And I’m still tired. I seem to take one step forward and two steps back. After Jordan we have a tour booked in Georgia. I don’t know how we’ll manage. Dealing with the unknown isn’t fun. Feeling low, I have a cry. I want to go home. BK says we’ll make a decision tomorrow.
I’ve been told that the ‘real’ Jordan is outside of Amman. When we leave Amman, I look sadly through the taxi window, thinking of what I have missed. It’s too soon to think about coming back.
Home now, after a wonderful time in Georgia, two months have passed. In reading my notes and reviewing my photographs for this story, I think that perhaps I am ready. If the opportunity arose, yes, I would return to discover the ‘real’ Jordan and to finish what I never really started.